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Scara plopped down onto the sofa the moment he reached the apartment, shooting a deadly glare at the vase adorned with rainbows and unicorns that Yae had given to him as a birthday gift the previous year, claiming that she chose it because it would ‘help him relieve the stresses and grievances of life’. 

 

No, it fucking didn’t. 

 

“Looking at your grumpy face everytime you come home makes my lifespan deplete my five years,” Ei’s voice rang out, as she emerged from her room with an unamused expression on her face. “One of these days I’ll drop dead the moment I make eye contact with you, and you’ll have to pay for my funeral.”

 

“And?” he said, exasperated. 

 

“Go cook dinner, you little shit,” she hissed. “I’m starving.” 

 

“Starve for approximately an hour more, then,” he said unflinchingly. “I need to fulfill my daily ritual of glaring at this vase until it fucking dies.”

 

“It’s not a living thing.”

 

“And you won’t be, either, soon, so shut up and go away.”

 

Ei rolled her eyes. “Might I remind you that I’m the one paying the rent?”

 

“Might I also, most delightfully, remind you that I’m the one feeding your stupid ass?” he said, smiling humorlessly. “You can’t pay rent if you die of hunger.”

 

“God, I hate breathing the same air as you.”

 

“It’s mutual.”

 

“I’m going out to buy more plants to put in our apartment soon so they deprive you of oxygen.”

 

“Plants photosynthesise, dumbass. They give out oxygen, so I’d be thriving even more.”

 

Ei narrowed her eyes at him. “Fine… then I’ll buy pets .”

 

Scara gaped in horror at her. 

 

“Not those filthy creatures.”

 

“Oh, yes, I will. I’ll consider not doing it if you get up and cook me dinner. Right now .”

 

She wore a smug expression on her face, knowing she’d won the fight, as he gave her a scathing look and groaned. “Fine, bitch. Noodles or rice?”

 

“Noodles, please,” she said pleasantly, a bright smile on her face that disgusted Scara down to his core. “Preferably hot soba noodles with miso soup. Oh, and exactly three pieces of Karaage chicken, instead of five. I’m on a semi-diet.”

 

“Demanding asshole,” he muttered under his breath, dragging himself out of the sofa and walking to the kitchen reluctantly.

 

Ei was already sitting at the table when he served the food, smiling even more than usual, which creeped him the fuck out. 

 

What ?” he hissed.

 

“Oh, Scara… it’s the first of February.”

 

“Okay. And?”

 

“You’re twenty-two this year. I can’t believe I forgot about this.”

 

Scara looked at her, offended. “Did you really just forget my age--”

 

“You’re going to find out who your soulmate is in two hours!” she announced happily, beaming at him. 

 

He gave her a blank look, which she responded with a snicker.

 

You forgot about it, too?”

 

“Obviously,” he said, unamused. “It’s a stupid thing to care about, anyway.”

 

“You’ll be taking your words back tomorrow,” she disagreed, her smile forming into something slightly more menacing. “I can’t wait to see you deform into a mushy, lovesick mess.”

 

“Is that so?” He placed the plates of food harder than usual onto the table. “My 'soulmate' can go fuck themselves; I’m never going to look for them. This entire soulmate thing is just bullshit, anyway.” 

 

“That’s what everyone says,” Ei said in a sing-song voice. 

 

He sneered at her. “Just seeing you and Yae already make me want to puke.”

 

“Oh, whatever. I know you’re just jealous and pathetic and lonely.”

 

“I may or may not have slipped some poison into your food,” he said, already walking away. “It’s for you to find out.”

 

“Thanks for the food!” Ei called out after him in that same stupidly giddy voice she had whenever she talked about Yae. It made him want to hurl.

 

After eating two slices of white bread for dinner, having zapped all his energy cooking a meal for his stupid sister, he went up to his room and collapsed onto the bed, staring defiantly up at the ceiling. 

 

He didn’t care about soulmates. Love wasn’t real, and he’d never pursued it in his life. The occurrence of swapping bodies with their soulmate on February 2nd the year people turned 22 was just some sick event the Gods had conjured to amuse themselves, and consequently led the people to feed upon the pretense of love and destiny. Even the fucking date, 2/2, corresponding with their age of 22 just served as even more proof that the Gods were, essentially, bored. 

 

He didn’t want to fall asleep, he couldn’t , not when his entire body was as rigid as a statue as he waited for the inevitable moment to come when the clock struck twelve. But he ended up letting out a yawn just a little half past eleven, and he allowed himself to be dragged into slumber, telling himself that he shouldn’t care that much about the events that would conspire once he woke up.



When Scara opened his eyes, the first thing he registered was the incessant throbbing in his head like he’d just been struck by a sledgehammer, and that there was as much pressure in his sinuses as there was at the bottom of the damn ocean. He tried breathing, but barely any gas travelled into his nose; his mouth gasped open for air, his voice coming out deeper than he’d expected. 

 

Then he remembered the date, groaned, and shocked himself again with how different his voice sounded. 

 

He raised his hands to inspect them, analysing where they’d gotten calluses. Whoever this person was -- he refused to think of them as a soulmate -- probably did a lot of manual work at his job. His palms were so rough and dry it made him cringe just running his fingers along them. 

 

Then he looked down at his legs -- he wished he hadn’t -- and did a double-take. This person was a fucking giant , even the space of his bed was insufficient, his feet hanging over the edge, much to his discomfort and chagrin. 

 

“The fuck?” he murmured to himself in a foreign voice. His throat was so clogged with phlegm, and he ended up sounding grossly choked up. He found a tissue box conveniently placed on the bedside table, surrounded by a bunch of used tissues ( disgusting , Scara thought, even though it was technically his mucus), and took one to blow his nose. It was momentarily relieving, but his nose got blocked again just seconds later. 

 

Great. So he had to spend the rest of the day in bed, blowing his nose like a pathetic idiot. 

 

He stood up, refusing to accept the fact that he was too sick to function, and walked out the room, only to realise with horror that there were voices coming towards him, which meant there were others living in the same apartment.

No , he thought, his revulsion at this person growing with every second, it’s not an apartment

 

It was a goddamn bungalow , and he lived on the top floor. 

 

He was stupid. He should have known from how lavish his bedroom was, with a fancy headboard and a bedding that made Scara feel like he slept on sandpaper in comparison, not to mention the expensive-looking ivory rug that likely cost his entire year’s worth of salary. 

 

“Brother!”

 

He froze. 

 

It was a child. And not just one -- three others were clambering up the stairs to him, with concerned looks on their faces. His first thought was that they were his -- no, the person’s -- children, then he remembered what one of them had said. Thank God they were just his siblings. 

 

Scara didn’t even want to think about what would happen if he’d swapped bodies with a married person. 

 

“You’re awake,” a girl said, looking the most mature compared to the other two boys with her. Then she seemed like she’d just remembered something, and the colour drained from her face. 

 

“Anthon,” she said quietly, “what’s the date today?”

 

Scara’s stomach dropped.

 

“February 2nd,” the older boy out of the two quipped cheerily. 

 

“Ah… okay. Okay,” she said, pointedly avoiding his gaze. “You guys should go down and eat breakfast first. I’ll talk to Brother for a moment.”

“What?” the youngest boy whined. “No fair, Tonia!”

 

She flicked his forehead. “We’ll be back soon, Teucer, don’t worry. It’ll be quick.” She raised an eyebrow at Anthon, who nodded and practically dragged Teucer down the stairs, who looked at Scara so pitifully that it made him feel bad for him. 

 

Once the two were gone, Tonia turned round and gave him an odd look. 

 

“Aj -- Childe is sick,” she said coldly. “You shouldn’t be moving around in his body, or he won’t be able to recover.”

 

He suppressed a laugh. “What a stupid name this guy has.”

“Come on,” she urged, grabbing his shoulders and pushing him back to the room. Scara tried fighting back, but she was way too strong, and, anyway, the idiot’s body was so sluggish he couldn’t muster any strength if he wanted. She shoved him onto the bed and forcefully tucked him in, her lips curling in disdain at the sneer on his face. 

 

“Are you always this rough with your brother?” he spat. 

 

“I don’t like you,” she said plainly. 

 

“It’s mutual.” He paused. “Wait, but why? You don’t even know me.”

 

She huffed. “Whatever. I’m not letting you find out anything about my brother.”

 

“Well, not like I’m about to complain. Do you hate the idea that your brother’s tied to someone else besides you guys now?”

 

She gave him an appraising look, crossing her arms. “I can’t trust outsiders, especially when it’s someone who doesn’t care about my brother’s wellbeing.”

 

He rolled his eyes. “Why would I care? It’s not like I want to be his soulmate. Don’t worry, I won’t even attempt to find him once I’m back in my own body.” 

 

“You better not,” she said coolly. She roughly placed a bottle of pills on the bedside table. “Take your medicine so Childe can get better. He needs to go for work tomorrow; if I find you anywhere outside the room, I’m locking you back in immediately,” she threatened.

 

“Aw. What a caring sister he has.” 

 

Then he sneezed, and her scathing look mellowed down as she passed him a piece of tissue. 

 

She sighed tiredly. “Just… stay in bed.” 

 

He couldn’t shoot a sharp comment back while he was busy blowing his nose, and she, wisely, chose that time to leave the room, slamming the door shut behind her. 

 

What a feisty little sister Childe had. 

 

He suspected there was something wrong, though, because Tonia had definitely sounded like she was about to call him by a different name. Either way, ‘Childe’ seemed fitting for this bumbling idiot who couldn’t even take care of himself properly. 

 

He checked the time on the clock. 

 

What the fuck. It was only seven in the morning?

 

He dry-swallowed a pill, half-expecting it to get stuck in his throat, but it seemed Childe was pretty accustomed to not taking his pills with liquids because it slid down with terrifying ease. 

 

Then the door suddenly opened again, making him choke on his own phlegm. 

 

Tonia stood at the door in some sort of school uniform, looking slightly abashed. “Uh… do you happen to know how to tie braids, by any chance?” she asked meekly, a stark contrast to her cold demeanour from before. “Aj--” there it was again, the random “Aj” syllable that slipped from her mouth before she cut herself off , “--Childe usually ties my hair for me, and I don’t really want my hair to be different today…”

 

“Pfft. Of course I know how to.” Her head snapped up, not even bothering to hide her shocked expression. He rolled his eyes and beckoned, “Just get here. Don’t ask how I know this.” Tonia hesitantly walked over and sat with crossed legs in front of the bed, as Scara got into a sitting position.

 

Ei had asked him to tie her hair into a braid literally every single day she’d gone to school, so doing it had basically become second nature to him. Even though it’d been years since he’d tied a braid for Ei, his hands still moved of their own accord, skillfully parting Tonia’s hair into three sections and weaving them between one another, then taking the hair tie on her wrist to secure the braid at the end. 

 

He was pretty satisfied with his work. He grinned smugly at her as she turned around to feel her hair, wearing a pleased look on her face. 

 

“It’s even neater than when -- uh, I mean, thanks,” she said, averting her eyes and getting to her feet. “I’m going to school now.” She gave him a sharp look, acting like how she’d behaved towards him when they first met. “Remember, no stepping out of the room.”

 

“Yes, Mom. Bye.”

 

Her face darkened at that comment. “On second thought, I’m just going to lock the room from the outside. Have a good rest.”

 

He didn’t really care, but then he heard the sound of a key turning in the lock once she left. He hadn’t expected her to actually lock it. 

 

He lay down on the bed again, relishing the feeling of the heavenly soft bed beneath him. The pillow smelt really nice, too. Rich people really did live differently. 

 

He spotted a phone -- his phone -- lying on the bed just a distance away from him. He picked it up, then remembered what Tonia had said about not finding anything out about Childe, and quickly put it back down. Right, he didn’t care. 

 

But a burning curiosity overtook him and he switched the phone on, anyway, because he was snoopy and wanted to find out the weaknesses of the one he was supposedly meant to be with, for future reference.

 

His lock screen was just one of the default wallpapers of a picture of the globe. Scara laughed. How embarrassing

 

Then the prompt to type the password popped up, and he found, to his pleasure, that his fingers typed the numbers instinctively, Childe’s psyche firing off an automated response. It wasn’t even a hard combination, just six repeated zeros. 

 

Why the hell was he ‘meant to be’ with a dumbass like him?

 

Childe’s home screen was a picture of his siblings. That was pretty cute; so this man did know how to set his own wallpapers.

 

Come to think of it, he had no idea how he -- Childe -- looked like.

 

He ran his hands through his hair. Pretty soft, he probably washed it the previous night. He noticed a built-in bathroom at the corner of the room and was so curious to see his reflection in the mirror that he nearly slipped on the marble floor.

 

He stared at himself. Something bubbled up in Scara’s throat the moment his eyes drifted to his hair.

 

It was disgust, because his soulmate was a fucking ginger

 

Putting that horrible realisation aside, he took a few moments to check how the rest of him looked. Scara hated to admit that Childe had a face that was nice to look at. His lean build just amplified his attractiveness even more, not to mention how his waist was insanely small, as well. 

 

Though he’d probably look way hotter if both his nostrils weren’t dripping with shiny mucus.

 

He blew his nose and exited the toilet, not sure what to do with the discovery he’d made. Sure, Childe was good-looking, but that didn’t change the fact that Scara didn’t buy into any of this soulmate bullshit. 

 

He decided to just forget about Childe’s appearance and went back to snooping around his phone.

 

He scrolled through some of his apps. Scara chose not to look at the chatting platforms, because even though he may be a dick, looking at Childe’s private conversations with others was too much even for him. So he chose to look at the next best thing, instead. 

 

His Twitter.

 

His account had five followers, seventy following, with almost all of them being meme accounts, and -- his eyes widened -- eleven thousand tweets. 

 

Either Childe had too much time on his hands, or he documented every single damn thought he had onto the app. And it was seeming like the latter the more Scara scrolled down. “god i miss them”, “im miserable. they didn’t wave at me today”, “they’re smiling at another person.. feeling very stabby rn”, “only clocking in so i can see them”, so on and so forth. His five followers liked most of his tweets, but barely ever replied. Scara presumed they were probably used to his incessant tweeting about whoever he was currently infatuated with. 

 

It didn’t bother Scara much to find out that Childe liked another person, but he was bothered at how awkward it must be for the guy to be in the body of someone whom he wasn’t expecting to be his soulmate at all. These kinds of situations happened way too often, and it made Scara hate the Gods for setting this up even more. 

 

He became less and less interested in reading tweets of Childe thirsting for this mysterious person, and before he knew it, the words stopped registering in his head as his eyes closed shut and he drifted off into sleep. 

 

He jerked awake to Tonia roughly shaking his shoulders, and he froze, momentarily forgetting that he was in Childe’s body.

 

“Your nightly medicine,” she said, pointing at a different bottle of pills she’d placed on the table. Then she narrowed her eyes and pried Childe’s phone away from his hands. “And what’s this I see?” she questioned, glaring at him.

 

“Relax,” he said groggily. “I don’t even know his password. I saw nothing.”

 

She looked convinced, and tucked the phone in her pocket. “Goodbye, then, whoever you are,” she said, the ghost of a shrewd smile on her lips. “Childe will be back in fifteen minutes.”

 

Already ? He checked the clock and balked when it, indeed, showed the time to be eleven forty-five. He’d slept for over sixteen hours. 

 

Wait. That was good . Scara sighed in relief. He’d be back in his own body in no time. Thank God that pill he’d taken in the morning knocked him out for so long.

 

Come to think of it, people usually left messages for their soulmates on this day, didn’t they? 

 

It took him nearly five minutes just to find a piece of paper in Childe’s messy-as-hell room, and then another five to find a pen that was just barely running out of ink. Whatever, Scara could work with that. 

 

He began crafting a message. 

 

Come find me in Inazuma if you really care about any of this stupidass shit. Actually, don’t. I don’t give a fuck about this, so neither should you. Also, you’re pathetic. It’s 2021, who even gets a cold anymore? You made me go through all that shit when I’d basically never fallen sick since I was seven. I hope swapping bodies doesn’t somehow transmit the virus from your body to mine. I’d fucking hate you forever if it did. 

 

Just a side note, Childe’s a pretty stupid name. Did your sister come up with that alias for you? Aj-- whatever the rest of the letters of your real name are.               

 

Just as he dropped the pen, stars appeared in his vision and he felt a tug at his navel. He blacked out for a few seconds, and when he opened his eyes again, he immediately ran his hands over his face and body, and realised with delight that he was back in his original body. Though he had to admit, he missed the luxuriously soft bedsheet under him.

 

A handwritten note laid on his bedside table and he instantly took it, dread swirling in his stomach at what Childe had done in his body. 

 

Hi, Scaramoosh. Or was it Scaramoush? I don’t really know, no one told me how to spell it.

 

Anyway, I had a pretty fun time in your body today. A lot of people seemed to be scared of you at work, so when I was nice to them they all looked even more terrified, but then they realised what day it was and immediately wanted to talk to me. They were really interested in finding things out about me, particularly this pink-haired Yae lady. She clung to me all day and asked pretty personal questions, but it’s alright, I didn’t really mind. I was also horrible at making coffee, but she helped me all the way, and kept pinching my cheeks whenever I did something correctly. I guess she really likes you. 

 

So, uh, since I’m assuming you and Yae have something going on, I’ll also go ahead to admit it: You’re pretty cute when I looked at myself -- you -- in the mirror, but I really like someone right now, so I’ll have to pass. Hopefully you don’t care too much about this soulmate thing? 

 

I wish you all the best in your future endeavours! :)

 

P.S. Sorry, I was really fucking sick the previous night, so you probably went through a pretty bad time today. Hopefully Tonia took good care of you, though, haha. Now that I think about it, I’m guessing she went to school without her hair in a braid, so she may have been a little snappy. Sorry about that, too, but she doesn’t mean any harm. She’s a sweet girl.

 

P.P.S. And don’t worry, I didn’t take a shower. Your sister gave me some perfume, instead. It’s fine if you took a shower in my body, though. I wouldn’t exactly be mad. It’s just kinda embarrassing, you know?

 

P.P.P.S. Also didn’t go through your phone, or anything at all, if you’re worried about that. The Yae lady and your sister kept their eye on me, so you can ask them if you don’t believe me.

 

Scara was fuming, and utterly grossed out at how he’d thought Yae had a thing for him. First of all, he was right, Childe really was a fucking idiot. Second of all, what the fuck? He’d severely underestimated how much audacity the guy had, for him to just brush him off with a “so I’ll have to pass”. He couldn’t have phrased it better? Without having made Scara sound like he was some fucking product on display ? On a side note, he was somewhat relieved that Childe didn’t go through his possessions, however hypocritical he may be for feeling that.

 

In the end, he crumpled the note and tossed it into the bin. He wished he’d memorised Childe’s phone number so he could curse at him through a message. 

 

The door slowly opened, and Ei peeked in, smiling devilishly at Scara. 

 

“It’s you, isn’t it?” she said, practically vibrating with excitement. 

 

“Yes, it is. The fuck do you want?”

 

“Your soulmate was such a gentleman!” she exclaimed, pushing his legs aside to sit on his bed. “He made breakfast for me without me having to fucking pester him about it, and he even did the housework before he left for work. Yae told me that he was polite at work, too, and was friendly to all his coworkers and customers, and despite it being his first day as a barista, he was really open to learning the craft and eagerly sought help from others without being a total bitch about it. He came back home and voluntarily made dinner for me, too, and even did a deep cleaning of the bathroom--”

 

“Oh, fuck me,” he said, groaning. “Yeah, I get it, he’s way more likeable than me. Is that all you came here to say?”

 

She leaned in and stared at him with an odd look in her eyes. 

 

“I want him as my brother-in-law.”

 

He grimaced. “Fuck no.”

 

“Please?” she said, cupping her hands together in a begging motion. “He’s such a gem; he’d do all the housework for me, do all the cooking for me--”

 

“You do know I’m the one that’s marrying him, right? Not you?”

 

It took only a millisecond for him to realise that he’d fucked up the structure of that sentence.

 

“So you agree?” she said, grinning. “You’re going to marry him?”

 

“Yeah, in your fucking dreams ,” he hissed. “Leave me alone, I want to sleep.”

 

“Wait, tell me about it,” she whined, snatching his pillow from under his head. He glared at her. “Tell me what being in his body was like.”

 

“Give my pillow back,” he said coldly, reaching out to grab it, but Ei was quicker and moved away in a flash. 

 

“I will once you speak,” she said, batting her eyelashes innocently at him. 

 

Fuck this. He was too tired to even get out of bed. His time spent in Childe’s sick body must have worn off on his psyche somehow. 

 

“Fine.”

 

Ei’s face lit up.

 

“Is he hot?”

 

Scara groaned. “ That’s the first thing you ask?”

 

“It’s essential information,” she insisted, staring at him intently. “Well? Is he?”

 

Scara decided he’d just have to entertain her for a bit.

 

“Uh… he’s okay, I guess. His face is nice.”

 

She gaped. “I knew it. Someone as nice as him is definitely hot.”

 

He scowled. “Thanks.”

 

“I mean… you’re nice, too. When you shut the fuck up. So you're only hot when you don’t say anything.”

 

“Haha. Fucking hilarious.”

 

Ei waved a hand in dismissal of the subject. “Okay, enough of this. Can’t you elaborate more on what you just spent a whole entire day doing? Do you not feel like getting it out of your system?”

 

“Not really, no. My day was shit; he had a fucking cold, like some sort of baby . His sister was a complete bitch to me the entire time, knowing it wasn’t her brother who was in his body. Then I slept until eleven forty-five, wrote a letter to him complaining about how my day was shit, told him not to find me, and now I’m here.”

 

She gasped, her hands flying to her mouth, looking, for some reason, even more excited than before. 

 

“Right, the letter!” she said. “What did he write in it?”

 

“Did you just ignore my fucking rant--”

 

“Well? What did he write?” she said, a little louder.

 

Scara suppressed another groan and pointed at the bin. “Go fish it out from the trash.”

 

She gave him a horrified look. “You scum , how could you throw it away like that? You’re soulmates--”

 

“Shut the fuck up and just read it.”

 

She seemed to like the idea and did as she was told, finding the paper in the bin and spreading it out on the floor to iron out its crumples. 

 

After a few moments, she gave him a blank look, her reaction completely the opposite of what Scara had been expecting. 

 

“He likes someone else,” she said, her voice devoid of emotion but quivering a little. “He likes someone else,” she repeated, anger seeping into her eyes, crumpling her face and forming her lips into a sneer. “He likes someone else ?” she cried out furiously, stomping on the paper and crumpling it back into a ball, roughly throwing it back into the bin. 

 

Scara blinked. “Uh.”

 

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she muttered under her breath, pacing angrily around the room. “What a little shit. He made it so convincing that he was going to become my brother-in-law, and then he goes ahead and says this ? Fucking asshole. Giving me so much false hope and for what ? So I can end up hurt and depressed and miserable? I’ll never forgive that fucker, never ever--”

 

“You make it sound like he broke up with you,” Scara pointed out, amused. 

 

“Fuck you,” she snapped. “Hot men are always like this. Lying through their teeth and pasting on sweet, sugary smiles just to trick kind, innocent women like me.”

 

Scara laughed. He actually laughed , so hard that he wrapped his arms around his stomach to keep him from doubling over because of how fucking stupid this situation had become. 

 

Ei whirled around. “Oh, you take pleasure in my pain, don’t you?” she sneered. 

 

“Yeah,” he breathed, wiping tears from his eyes as he grinned at her. “Yeah, I really do.”

 

“Well, whatever you do, make sure to get him back.”

 

He stared at her, the grin wiped clean off his face.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Look, I don’t care what dirty methods you use to get rid of this other person,” she said, the gears in her mind evidently racing at full speed, “I just want them gone . Sorry, but I’m too emotionally attached to Childe to just let him go like that. You have to do this.”

 

So she actually knew his name. And not his real name; it was the same one Tonia had shared with him. Which meant that, for some weird reason, Childe didn’t want people to know his real name.

 

But he quickly brushed the thought away, because he didn’t care about Childe.

 

“Uh, no, I don’t.”

 

“Yes, you do,” she hissed. “I better see him for Thanksgiving this year, got it? You’re soulmates , for God’s sake, just go find him and he’ll fall in love with you soon enough.”

 

Scara rolled his eyes. “Okay, now you’re just spouting a fuckload of nonsense. It’s your cue to sleep.”

 

“Scara--”

 

He got up, snatched the pillow away from her, and laid down on his bed with his head lying on it, sighing comfortably. 

 

“Scara, you bitch--”

 

He began to snore comically loudly as he flipped her off. He heard her mutter a string of profanities as she left, slamming the door so hard that his entire bed rattled. 

 

Seriously, what was with sisters and slamming doors harder than they should?

Chapter Text

“Scara, your birthday’s in an hour!” Ei declared, grinning from ear to ear.

 

He glanced up from the rainbows-and-unicorns vase and gave her a bored look. 

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“You know what that means, don’t you?” she said eagerly. 

 

“Well, that you have a present for me, I hope,” he said, smiling fakely at her.

 

“Oh, not that,” she said, ignoring Scara’s offended look, “it means he’ll be back.”

 

“Sorry, who?”

 

She pursed her lips. “ Childe , you fucking bitch. My brother-in-law.”

 

Scara had, in truth, completely forgotten about that. That, and the fact that his birthday was tomorrow, as well. But Ei didn’t need to know that.

 

“Well, have fun tomorrow, I guess,” he said, his gaze shifting back to the vase, where he resumed glaring daggers at it. “Don’t go saying anything weird about us marrying or some shit. It’s embarrassing enough to be your brother.”

 

“Aw, are you shy about it?” she teased. 

 

“You know that’s not what I fucking meant.”

 

“Well, if you’re too shy to even think of the idea, I have some other indirect methods to get him to--”

 

“No,” he cut her off, getting to his feet and brushing past her to head to his room. 

 

“He doesn’t deserve to be soulmates with a menace like you!” Ei called out after him. She paused. “Just kidding… but it’s true!”

 

“And you and Yae are fucking disgusting!” he yelled back.

 

He laid his head on the pillow angrily. He did not look forward to waking up in Childe’s body.

 

He should have known better than to lie down, because he fell asleep so fucking easily that he blacked out just seconds later. 

 


 

“Renji. Renji, look at me.”  

 

His mother looked at him with a warm smile. A sharp contrast to the blood on her face and her trembling hands that held onto his small shoulders.

 

“He got your dad,” she said weakly. “He doesn’t know we’re here yet. My legs are weak, so I won’t be able to follow you. Run now. Run before he--”

 

There was a loud crash downstairs, and then thunderous footsteps clambered up the stairs. His mother’s smile faded, replaced by a look of terror.

 

“Renji, go,” she said, raising her voice.

 

He didn’t budge, silently crying as he tried to heave her onto his back. She pushed him away from her and he fell, hissing in pain as his knees made contact with the floor. 

 

The intruder’s footsteps neared, closer and closer.

 

“Renji, you brat,” his mother said, glaring at him. “You’ve never listened to me, so now’s the time to do so before we both die, got it?”

 

He sobbed and hugged onto her legs, but she shoved him away again. 

 

“GO!”

 

The door slammed open. He would never forget the look on that man’s face; that look of utter delight and glee when his crazed eyes landed on them. 

 

“DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HIM!” his mother screamed, holding her arms out to shield him. “YOU FUCKING--”

 

He didn’t dare to look. He listened to his mother and turned on his heel, jumping out the window and dropping a few metres onto the ground, his right ankle making an obscene cracking sound, tears streaming down his cheeks as he ran away from the house. 

 

They lived in a secluded area, and it’d taken him ten minutes of alternating between running and limping just to find another house. He asked for help, knowing that it was too late. When the police finally arrived at his house, it was to the lifeless, mutilated, naked body of his mother. 

 

That same body rose to speak to him now, anger contorting her face. 

 

“Renji, you didn’t save me.”

 

He stared at her in fear and horror. 

 

“Why didn’t you save me? Why did you run away?”

 

She reached out and wrapped her hands around his throat. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. 

 

Her face transformed into a pile of melted flesh and bones as she screamed, “WHY DIDN’T YOU SAVE ME?”

 

He jerked awake in a cold sweat, breathing heavily. 

 

It was that same, wretched dream. It’d gone away for so many years, and it just had to resurface now, huh.

 

Then he remembered that it was his birthday, and that he wasn’t on his bed right now. 

 

Even worse--

 

--there was someone else with him. 

 

And that they were both very much naked. 

 

Scara silently thanked God that the bedsheets covered them both.

 

He stared at the man beside him, who had been watching him intently. He was a dashing one, with facial features that looked like they were sculpted by God herself. Scara got the weird, impulsive urge to trace a finger along the other man’s jawline.

 

“Nightmare?” the man murmured, his voice so deep that Scara felt the soundwaves rattle within his chest. Then he realised that this was Childe’s lover, and Childe’s psyche was responsible for making him this way, and he was instantly snapped out of his trance. 

 

He wanted to get the fuck out of there. 

 

He said nothing in response and just slowly laid back down, hoping that the man wouldn’t question him any further. Naturally, that didn’t work out so well.

 

He felt the man’s gaze boring into him, so he relented and faced him. 

 

“It was nothing,” Scara said. 

 

The man looked at him thoughtfully, his amber eyes piercing into his. 

 

“What’s my name?” he questioned, and Scara knew it was a lost cause to pretend any further. 

 

He let out a soft groan. “No fucking idea.”

 

The man chuckled, and Scara hated to admit that he found it mildly attractive. 

 

“Nice to meet you, Childe’s soulmate,” he said. “I must say, what an interesting situation you’ve ended up in. I guess he must have forgotten to ask around for your birthday in February, to make preparations around it in advance.”

 

“Yeah. I want to get the fuck away from here.”

 

The man grinned. “Just twenty-three more hours to go. It’s one in the morning.”

 

“Fuck.” He ran a palm over his face. “If only I was born a day later.”

 

The man looked even more amused. 

 

“You’d probably still end up here with me,” he said, and laughed at Scara’s -- Childe’s -- deadpan expression. 

 

“I’ve never seen Childe give me that look before. Thanks for showing it to me,” he said, weirdly sincerely.

 

“Whatever. Just don’t make any moves on me. I’m not Childe, so I’m not into you,” he warned, inching away from him.

 

The man nodded in understanding. “Of course.”

 

An awkward silence enveloped them after that. Scara shifted uncomfortably, extremely put off at the fact that he was naked in Childe’s body. Childe must be having a great time in his body back at Inazuma, sleeping peacefully in his bed. 

 

That fucker.

 

“How does it feel?” the man suddenly asked. 

 

“Uh. What?”

 

“Knowing that your soulmate’s with another person,” he finished. 

 

He fixed Scara with a careful gaze.

 

Scara shrugged. “Don’t really care. I never really believed this whole soulmate shit, anyway.” He paused. “I take it you don’t believe in any of it, either, right? I mean, you’re with Childe even though he’s not your soulmate.”

 

“Well… I’d say there is some truth in soulmates,” he finally answered, after several moments of deliberation, wistfulness laced in his tone. “It’s completely different when you’re with them. You’ll only understand what I mean once you meet up with Childe, but it genuinely feels like they complete you.”

 

“Huh.” Scara raised an eyebrow. “You sound awfully attached to your soulmate, so why are you hanging around this little shit of a ginger?”

 

The man’s lips twitched, but his eyes clouded with something melancholic. 

 

“It’s unfortunate, but my soulmate passed on a few years ago.”

 

Scara fell silent. Crap. He fucked up.

 

“Oh.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man. “Shit. Uh… sorry.”

 

“It’s completely fine,” he said, and he looked like he really did mean it, a soft smile hovering on his lips. Then, he exhaled softly. “I loved her with all of my being. Once we met, I couldn’t go a day without talking to her. We were, wholly and truly, meant to be together.” 

 

Scara listened to him intently, something squeezing his chest tightly. Was that jealousy Childe’s psyche was feeling?

 

“Then disaster struck, and she went into a coma with no signs of ever waking back up. Her family and I waited for several years, but we eventually decided to pull the plug, to let her rest in peace.”

 

Scara cleared his throat lightly, shaken by what he’d said but also not quite sure on what an appropriate response would be. So, because he was socially inept, and slightly influenced by Childe’s possessiveness of the man stirring in his chest, he ended up saying, “Do you love him as much as you loved her?”

The man thought about it for a moment, then lightly shrugged. 

 

“Probably not.”

 

Scara was shocked by the sheer amount of anger and hurt that coursed through his veins when he heard that. Damn, Childe was seriously upset.

 

“Then, why?” he said, a tremor in his voice that he couldn’t control. “Why are you still with him?”

 

The man smiled humorlessly. 

 

“I’m sure you must be feeling like giving me a good punch in the face right now,” he said. “Childe’s psyche is yours now, so it’s understandable. But… do listen to what I have to say first, before you actually do anything.”

 

Scara waited, his jaw clenching tightly of its own accord, even though he didn’t give two shits about his relationship with Childe.

 

“The love I felt for her and the love I feel for Childe are fundamentally different, but it’s an undeniable fact that I loved Guizhong more than I could ever love anyone else,” he said, an unreadable emotion clouding in his eyes. Then, he continued grimly, “At first, I only got together with Childe because I was desperate for human connection, but I started to fall in love with him, too. However, I’m afraid it can’t go on for any longer.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I’m robbing him of the experience he should get to have with his soulmate,” he said, fixing him with an intense stare. “Frankly, I regret ever having accepted Childe’s confession. I’ve fed him so many lies over the course of our relationship -- that soulmates didn’t matter, that we could be together even if we weren’t ‘meant to be’... All of that isn’t true. The Gods were cruel to have made two people destined for each other; it renders all other relationships almost meaningless in comparison. But it is a fact in this world, and humanity has to live with it.”

 

Scara sneered. “You’re gonna break up just like that? Because it’s not what the Gods wanted?”

 

The man looked at him coolly. 

 

“It’s how the universe works. We can’t fight it.”

 

“Blah, blah, blah. Destiny, fate, soulmates -- what a bunch of fucking bullshit,” he drawled. “Believe whatever you want, I guess. I almost feel bad for the guy, knowing that you’re going to break up with him because of something as stupid as this. His entire being is telling me to sucker punch you in the guts right now, and truth be told, it does seem like an awfully attractive idea right now, but whatever. I’ll let him do it once he’s back in control of the body.”

 

The man listened to him, unfazed, and somehow even cracked a smile at that. Scara looked at him, dumbfounded.

 

“You’re a pretty unexpected person to have as a soulmate for Childe,” he said. “I can’t even begin to imagine how you guys would work out in the end.”

 

“‘In the end’ implies that we’ll even get into a relationship at all,” Scara bit back, rolling his eyes. “And, in case you didn’t know, I’m not planning to. Not one bit.”

 

“Then I wish you all the best in your future endeavours,” he said warmly.

 

And then Scara really wanted to punch him, independent of Childe’s already-fuming psyche, because he realised that that was the exact same thing Childe wrote in his letter to him three months ago. 

 

“Shut up,” he hissed, turning around. “I’m going to sleep now, and hope that twenty-three hours are up by the time I wake up.”

 

“Goodbye, then. Scaramouche.”

 

He stilled, his blood running cold. 

 

He faced him with a poisonous glare. “The fuck?” 

 

“He told me about you,” the man said, a twinkle in his eye. “That you’re a barista, and that you have an older sister who likes to tease you and an extreme penchant for violence despite your delicate line of work--”

“Okay, that’s it,” he said, turning back around and kicking away the man’s leg, hard, under the sheets. “Don’t open your disgusting mouth again.”

 

To his horror and revulsion, the man laughed.

 

“Say… how hard is the headboard?” Scara asked, sitting up. 

 

The man blinked, taken aback by the turn in conversation. “Pretty hard. I feel a little dizzy every time I accidentally knock against it in my sleep.”

 

“Oh. That’s nice.”

 

Then he faced him with an innocent smile, and fear flashed across the man’s eyes. 

 

“Why did you--”

 

Before he could finish his sentence, Scara reeled back and rammed his head into the headboard with the force of an extremely furious bull charging right at a red flag that had been obnoxiously waving at it while it was rendered immobile for the past five minutes.

 

That was to say, pretty fucking hard. 

 

He conked out instantly. 



When he awoke again, it was to the worried faces of Childe’s three siblings huddled around his bed. 

 

“Brother!” Teucer beamed. “You’re awake--”

 

“That’s not Brother,” Tonia hissed, casting Scara a deadly glare. 

 

Teucer fell silent, then turned back to Scara, confused. 

 

“Then who are you?” he said quietly. Anthon, panic flitting over his face, lightly pulled Teucer away, and they exited the room, leaving him alone with Tonia. And that man from

 

before, Scara only then realised, who was nodding off to sleep on a chair in the corner of the room.  

 

“I knew you couldn’t be trusted,” Tonia said, her fists clenched angrily. “You harmed Childe.”

 

Scara sighed. “I thought you said you couldn’t trust outsiders?” He pointed at the man, who was blinking slowly at them, the bleary look on his face showing that he’d only just woken up. “Then how are you not pinning the blame on him?”

 

Tonia gave him a disgusted look. “Zhongli’s not an outsider. Don’t you even try talking bad about him like that.”

 

“Okay. Whatever. What time is it now?”

 

She looked at the clock, and relief was spelt all over her face. 

 

“You’ll be gone in two minutes.”

 

“Oh,” Scara said, relieved, as well. “Good.”

Zhongli appeared at the bedside, a neutral expression on his face, though Scara had caught a flash of displeasure across his eyes when he came over. 

 

“Scaramouche,” he said calmly, “Childe’s birthday is on the twentieth of July.” (“What kind of name is that?” Tonia said. Scara shot back, “Like ‘Childe’ is any better?”)

 

He nodded at Zhongli. “Thanks for telling me, I guess.”

 

“I hope to be acquainted with you in the future,” he said in a professional tone. “Preferably in your own body.”

 

Tonia looked at him, aghast. “But he--”

 

“Well, I hope not, but sure,” Scara said.

 

Zhongli smiled, and Childe’s heart did a flip. 

 

Scara wanted to get the fuck away from here. 

 

And away he did get, because just a second later, he felt that same tug on his navel he’d experienced a few months back, and he found himself back in his body. 

 

Ei, as expected, popped into his room eagerly. 

 

“How was it?” she said, looking extremely pleased, for a reason Scara didn’t want to fathom. 

 

“Fucking awful.”

 

He reiterated the events of the past day -- though he spent most of it unconscious, much like the last time -- and dreaded Ei’s reaction. 

 

Instead, she beamed at him. 

 

“So, Zhongli’s going to break up with him?” she said happily, somehow completely bypassing the fact that Scara had fucking woken up after Zhongli and Childe had sex

 

“Yeah, at least I think so,” he said. “And no , I’m still not going to look for him,” he added scathingly. “Not after that awkward as fuck incident.”

 

“Well, he did seem a bit skittish, today,” Ei mused. “He was probably thinking about it all day.”

 

“I wouldn’t doubt it. It was probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve experienced in my life.”

 

“I guess him being embarrassed about me constantly asking him to marry you was just him not knowing how to politely reject it,” she said with a sigh. “But, whatever. We’re making progress. You did it, Scara. You got rid of the person he was with.” She patted him on the back.

 

He slapped her hand away. “I did nothing, idiot. Zhongli had already been planning to break up with him a while ago.”

 

“Well, at least you made the process faster.” She beamed.

 

He groaned. “Sure.”

 

“Oh, Scara.” She pointed at the bedside table. “He left you a note.”

 

“Oh.” He took the paper on the table. “I forgot to write him one.”

 

“You’re awful,” she said in disbelief. “Absolutely horrendous .”

 

“Shut the fuck up,” he snapped. “Try living the day in my shoes, and you’d let it completely slip your mind, too.”

 

“Well, tell me what’s in that letter tomorrow,” she said, yawning. “I’m actually kinda tired now. Bye.”

 

“Bye.”

 

Once he was sure she left the room and wasn’t hovering at his doorway anymore, he opened the note and read. 

 

Hi again, Scaramouche. (Yae taught me how to spell it!)

 

I had a fun day, much like the last time. I’m starting to really consider being a barista back at Snezhnaya. Just kidding. But the job is genuinely enjoyable. The people there are nice, too. I’m confused as to why you hate working here -- at least, that’s what Yoimiya had told me. Maybe she’s wrong. Anyway, the birthday party they threw for me -- I mean, you -- was really nice. You received a lot of gifts. I wouldn’t say it was shocking, but more like it was unexpected, given everyone’s impression of you being scary and intimidating. Don’t worry, I didn’t open any of them. I gave them all to your sister for safekeeping so you can have the pleasure of opening them yourself.

 

Anyway, I want to apologise. I should have asked for your birthday back in February so this situation could have been avoided. It must have been painful for you to be in my body today, and I don’t blame you. It’s completely my fault. 

 

And, uh, yeah. That’s pretty much all I have to say. Once again (help me apologise to your sister on my behalf), I’m not looking for a relationship with anyone besides Zhongli. He really means the world to me. I know you don’t really care about us being soulmates, either, but I just have to put it out there again. I’m sorry to disappoint your sister. 

 

P.S. I realised Yae does not like you in that way. At all. She burst out laughing when I asked her about it, and it led me to make the surprising discovery that she was, in fact, soulmates with your sister. They’d definitely look good together, even though I’ve never seen them interact while I was in your body. It makes a lot of sense to me. 

 

P.P.S. In relation to your previous letter, I also feel inclined to point out that Scaramouche isn’t your real name, either. I won’t pry, I just feel that it was pretty hypocritical of you to comment on my alias when yours doesn’t sound any better. No hard feelings, though. 

 

P.P.P.S. Tonia seems to really hate you. I’m not accusing you of anything, but I hope you didn’t offend her while you were in my body. She merely said something along the lines of how you couldn’t be trusted, and that I shouldn’t get too close to you. Well, I took her words with a pinch of salt, though I guess it’s a good thing for her that we both don’t care about this soulmate thing, huh?

 

P.P.P.P.S. Also, for some reason, I think our psyches were confused when we first swapped bodies, because I was dreaming something with the younger version of you in it for a few seconds, before it suddenly cut off. I didn’t catch much, but you were crying. Um… if it helps, I tried giving a hug to your younger self. :)

 

Goddamn, were all those “P.S”es even necessary? When he arrived at the last “P.P.P.P.S.”, he sucked in a breath and cursed, but then relaxed again when he saw that Childe hadn’t seen much of the dream. 

 

That was good. No one else knew what’d truly happened before he was adopted into Ei’s family, and he planned to keep it that way. 

 

Overall, Scara felt that it was pretty much a complete waste of his time to have read through the note, so he crumpled it and tossed it into the bin. Again. 

Chapter Text

"Oh. I was about to call you Childe, but you're back again, aren't you?" Yae said, an odd smile on her face as Scara set his belongings down in the locker room. 

 

"I don't know, maybe he's still in here somewhere," he said, his voice dripping in sarcasm. He put on a white apron and stared at her when she stayed at the doorway, refusing to budge. 

 

"What do you want?" he said tiredly. It took all his willpower not to add "the fuck" in front of the ‘what’, knowing how strict Yae was with her no-swearing policy at work. When he'd accidentally cursed a few times before, she made him work the night shift in addition to his morning shift, and he'd come out of work both mentally and almost physically dead. He was pretty sure it was a violation of employee rights and had complained to her about it, but Ei budged in and said she’d testify for Yae if he reported it to the court, so he just shut up after that.

 

"I want to know about your experience, of course," she said. "We're not opening up until nine, so you have twenty minutes to tell me everything about it."

 

"God, you're just like Ei," he murmured under his breath. 

 

"I'm sorry?"

 

"Nothing. It was a horrible birthday," he said drily. "I woke up in bed with another person, had this weird as fu-- weird as heck conversation, then knocked myself out on the headboard of the bed so that I could go the rest of the day without being perceived by anyone. Not to mention his sister is still a bi-- uh… not to mention she still hates me."

 

"Aw," she said, looking every bit as unsympathetic as Ei had been, though the difference was that she actually paid attention to what he'd said. "Are you going to do anything to get Childe back?" 

 

"'Back'?" he echoed. "We never had anything to do with each other in the first place, so of course not." 

 

"'Never had anything to do with each other', huh…" She gave him a blank look. "You're soulmates."

 

"Sure. Doesn't make any difference."

 

"So you really don't care about the man he's with right now?" 

 

"Obviously not-- wait… 'man'?" He narrowed his eyes. "I never said anything about the person's gender." 

 

She covered her mouth with a hand, though her smirk was still pretty clear. 

 

"Oops."

 

He rolled his eyes. "What's the point of asking if Ei already told you everything, anyway?" 

 

"Oh, no. She didn't tell me."

 

Scara was confused for a moment, but then his stomach dropped when he realised the only other possibility. 

 

" He fucking told you?" he snapped. 

 

"Night shift today," Yae said coolly, a steely eyebrow raised. Fuck . "And yes, he did tell me. Well, technically I asked him about it." 

 

That stupid fox.

 

Since Scara was already going to take over the night shift today, he decided there wasn't any point in holding back his profanity. 

 

"You creepy ass…"

 

"Come on," she said, smiling innocently. "I just wanted to find out more about him. When he talked about Zhongli, he seemed like he genuinely loved him." 

 

"Okay. What's your point?" 

 

She tapped her chin with her finger. 

 

"The thing is, I know him. Zhongli, I mean."

 

Scara choked on air for a second. 

 

"The fuck? How ?" 

 

"Oh, I have my connections," she said vaguely. "I knew his soulmate, too. Before it happened."

 

Scara attempted to calm himself down. He didn't get why that worked him up, anyway. The thought of Yae interacting with someone like Zhongli was just too much for his mind to wrap around.  

 

"I still don't get why you feel the need for me to know this information."

 

"Oh, Scara. You absolute idiot," she said, mirth dancing in her eyes. 

 

He stared at her. 

 

"I'm saying," she walked over, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder, "that I can find Childe anytime I want. Whether you like it or not."

 

"And what the fuck do you have to gain from it, anyway?" he said, glaring at her and pushing her hand off his shoulder.

 

She gave him a patronizing smile. "I'm doing this to help my soulmate's brother, of course."

 

"Well, your soulmate's brother doesn't want any of this bullshit."

 

Her smile suddenly faded away, and Scara would be lying if he said that he didn't feel absolutely intimidated by her right then. 

 

"Scara," she said in an abruptly solemn tone, "Childe told me about the dream. He saw a lot more than he let on to you, I'm guessing, because you don't seem perturbed at all today." 

 

Scara looked at her in horrified silence. 

 

"He said he saw a corpse rise and scream at your younger self. Asking why you didn't save her."

 

Oh, fuck. No, no, no.

 

Yae continued, watching him carefully. "He guessed that she was your mother. Then he asked me about you. About what your past was like." 

 

"Well?" he said, trying his best to plaster on a stoic expression. "What did you tell him?" 

 

It wasn't like Yae knew what had really happened, anyway -- only the abridged inaccurate version of ‘my parents died in a car accident and i was adopted into the Raiden family’ that he repeated to everyone who had asked.  He didn't have anything to be afraid of; he was mostly furious at Childe for having lied to him about what he'd actually seen. 

 

If he'd seen the part where his dead mother was yelling at him, did that mean he'd also seen the rest of what happened in the dream? 

 

Scara was going to fucking kill him if he had. 

 

“Nothing much,” she said. “I just told him to ask you yourself.” Then, the motherfucker giggled . “He apologised and said he’d asked me because he thought I liked you and knew you well.”

 

Scara groaned, though he was internally relieved that Yae hadn’t revealed anything about him, even if what she’d have told Childe would be wrong. “What a fucking idiot.”

 

“Anyway, the next time you swap bodies, try to stay awake at midnight,” Yae said seriously. “In case he gets a peek into your dreams again, and you don’t want that, do you?” 

 

Scara made a ‘tsk’ sound. “Thanks for warning me, I guess.”

 

The people working the morning shift had started entering the cafe, voices from outside slipping into the locker room. Yae waved at him, and exited the locker room. 

 

Kazuha, Yoimiya and Ayaka entered right after Yae left, and they all looked at Scara with varying degrees of emotion. Kazuha, with plain neutrality; Yoimiya, with a bright smile, which slowly dimmed once she realised that he wasn’t Childe; Ayaka, with an uncomfortable expression, while giving him a perfunctory nod. 

 

“It’s you ,” Yoimiya said, disappointed. 

 

Scara rolled his eyes. “Good morning to you, too.”

 

“The feeling of seeing you back is a little akin to a whiplash,” Kazuha pointed out unnecessarily.

 

“Sure.” He paused, remembering what Childe had told him. “Uh… I haven’t looked at the presents yet, but thanks.”

 

Yoimiya’s face blanched in horror. “Did a piece of Childe’s soul stay with you, or something?”

 

Scara clicked his tongue. “I’m just being decent, okay? I thank people.”

 

“Still… It's suspicious.”

 

Ayaka smiled at Scara. “You’re very welcome.” At least there was someone normal. 

 

Yoimiya clapped a hand over Ayaka’s mouth, looking at Scara warily. “He must be an impostor. He hasn’t cursed a single time since we arrived, and Yae’s not even here.” 

 

“Relax, Yoimiya,” Ayaka said, her voice a little muffled by the hand over her mouth. Scara narrowed his eyes at her. Was she blushing ? Yoimiya turned to look at her, and her face started reddening, as well.

 

“Okay,” Scara said, exchanging an ‘are they being serious right now’ look with Kazuha. “I’m out of here.”

 

He knew the moment they turned 22, that Ayaka and Yoimiya would find out that they were each other’s soulmates. There was no doubt about it; they’d been attached to the hip since they were children, according to Yae.

 

Wait… since when did he even see people like that, categorising them as potential soulmates for each other when the concept of soulmates itself had always been a farce?

 

He groaned internally. 

 

Fucking Ei and Yae had rubbed off on him.

 

While the first customers started flowing into the shop, Scara thought back to the previous day as he made coffee, replaying Zhongli’s words in his head.

 

He wondered if Zhongli had broken up with Childe today, and if Childe now hated Scara for it. 

 

Well , Scara thought, he can hate me all he wants . Doesn’t really make a difference.

 


 

When he went home after an entire day of working, he realised with barely open eyes that the vase Yae had given him was no longer empty.

Were those flowers ?

 

“Oh,” Ei said, looking at him as she got ready to head out for work, “you finally noticed them.”

 

“Did you put them in there?” he said, too groggy to make his tone sharp. 

 

Ei grinned. “Not me. It was Childe. He said the vase was too pretty to go unused, so he took it upon himself to buy flowers for it so it’d look better. He said he withdrew money from his bank account, so you don’t have to worry about him having used your money without permission.”

 

“Typical rich assholes,” Scara said, his words slurring a little. “Buying unnecessary things for something as vague and arbitrary a concept as aesthetics .”

 

“He’s rich ? You didn’t tell me that before.”

 

“He lives in a fucking bungalow with three other children. Of course he’s rich.”

 

Ei gave him a horrified look. "Children?"

 

"Siblings," Scara quickly corrected, exasperated, "I fucking meant siblings."

 

Ei had that awful gleam in her eye again. 

 

“Okay, I wasn’t completely sure about it before, but now you definitely have to marry him. A bungalow itself is worth, what, fifteen years of our rent?”

 

Scara glared at her -- at least he tried to, but he was too tired to even turn his head to face her. He ended up flopping onto the sofa with a mumbled ‘fuck off to work already’.

 

The next day, he rose at three in the afternoon, and the first thing his eyes registered were those stupid goddamn hydrangeas in that stupid goddamn vase. Didn’t they cost an average of sixty dollars per stem?

 

Actual insanity. 

 

Scara would never admit it to anyone but himself, but he did quite like the addition of the hydrangeas. There was just something pleasing to the eye with the combination of the flowers and the vase, and it drove him to carefully water the flowers, to ensure the continuity of the sight. 

 

Perhaps, just a tiny, microscopic bit, he enjoyed the aesthetic.

 




The twentieth of July arrived faster than he’d expected. 

 

Remembering Yae’s words, Scara forced himself to stay awake, though he was forced to find a different pastime besides glaring at the vase, since it actually looked nice now. He and Ei started playing a game of Uno, with Ei excitedly saying “I can’t wait for him to be back!” every two minutes and Scara snapping at her to keep her mouth shut. 

 

The clock struck twelve, and Scara floated in nothingness for a second. There was no invisible tug at his navel to drag him to Childe’s body, but he knew he couldn’t be in his own body, either. 

 

He looked around in the darkness. Then he saw someone.

 

A bigger version of Childe was lying on a bed. Coughs rang out every few seconds from the man, droplets of blood splattering onto Scara’s face. Childe’s siblings materialised into thin air, all huddled around the bed and weeping with varying degrees of intensity, like Scara was invisible to them. Tonia had silent tears streaking her cheeks; Anthon had his face buried in his hands as his shoulders racked with sobs; and Teucer was all-out wailing, clasping onto their father’s hands and kneeling on the ground.

 

Scara didn’t see any sign of Childe, until he heard a voice from behind him.

 

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

 

His mind went numb. Had the other man sensed his consciousness with him? How the fuck did he even do that?

 

Then, a blinding white light flashed in front of his eyes, the dream world around him dissolving, until the whiteness faded away and he found himself back in Childe’s room, wide-eyed and gasping for air, feeling like he’d just gotten off a speedy ass merry-go-round.

 

What the fuck was that?

 

He slowly sat up, a buzz building at the back of his head. Scara frowned at the note on his bedside table and picked it up.

 

Hi, Scaramouche.

 

Zhongli and I have broken up for a month already, but I just wanted to get this out, because I’d feel pretty uneasy, otherwise.

 

Not gonna lie, I really fucking hated you. Even though Zhongli told me it was completely his decision, and that you had nothing to do with it, I still channeled all my misery and anger onto you. I knew about Guizhong and comforted him while we were friends, but in hindsight, I was also taking advantage of his vulnerability after the incident to, well, come onto him. I’m a pretty horrible person. 

 

Though I would say I’ve definitely calmed down now, I still bear some lingering resentment towards you. Can’t really help it. So, yeah, sorry about that. I won’t harm your body, or anything. I’m just telling you this because we’re supposed to be soulmates. Oh, and Tonia hates you even more now. She wholeheartedly believes that you’re the reason Zhongli and I aren’t together anymore. But she’s more bark than bite, so you don’t have to worry too much. She’ll get over it eventually. Just try to limit any interaction with her as much as possible today. Haha.

 

Anyway, today’s the last time we’ll swap bodies again. You must be relieved. It’s a little bittersweet for me, because I’ll definitely miss all your nice coworkers, and even your sister, too. Though I guess this is for the best. I’m sure you’re a nice person even if everyone is scared of you, and we could probably become friends, but I don’t think we could be anything more than that. Frankly, after all this shit I’m just even more confused as to what being ‘soulmates’ even means. It’s definitely different for everyone; I mean, my parents weren’t soulmates, but they still loved each other to death; and I know two people who are soulmates, but chose to remain friends despite that.

 

Now that I think about it, it’s kind of crazy how this is probably the last time we'll ever interact, since I doubt either of us are going to look for each other. Clearly our type of ‘soulmates’ is completely different from everyone else’s. But it’s not a bad thing to be different, I guess, haha :)

 

I’ll leave my address and workplace, in case you ever change your mind and want to come visit. 

 

P.S. I hope you like the hydrangeas. I certainly do. It’d be nice if you actually chose to keep them. I guess I’m finding that out today. 

 

Scara’s mouth curled in disdain, zeroing in on the second last sentence. That fucker left his address and workplace, saying he did it in case he ever changed his mind and wanted to come visit?

 

In his fucking dreams. He immediately started crumpling the paper, but he didn’t know why he stopped just before he threw it into the trash, didn’t know what possessed him to scan the two addresses with keen eyes. 

 

He looked incredulously at his work address.

 

Childe worked at a Snezhnayan toy factory? There was no way toy makers made enough money to afford a bungalow, much less three other people's worth of education fees. Either the toy factories were built different there, or he was lying through his teeth about it. 

 

But whatever. Scara was more horrified at himself actually bothering to look at the addresses he'd provided.

 

Even worse, he didn’t understand why he didn’t just stop there. He found Childe’s phone on the ground a few metres away from the bed, and tried unlocking it, only to find that it was no longer six consecutive zeros in a row. Childe’s fingers refused to automatically type in the password for him, which meant that he’d only recently changed it and hadn’t gotten used to the password yet. 

 

Well, since Childe was an idiot… 

 

Scara typed in six consecutive eights instead, the number closest to the home button on the keypad, and the phone unlocked with a click.

 

He grinned triumphantly. Absolute dumbassery.  

 

He added his number to Childe’s contact list, and sent a message to himself as he typed out the two addresses Childe had written out on the paper. 

 

No way in hell did he expect a response two seconds later. 

 

scara: hi 

 

What the fuck. He knew his password, too?

 

childe: you told me you didn’t snoop around my phone 

 

childe: was that a fucking lie

 

scara: this is eiiiiii~~~~~ 

 

Scara breathed a sigh of relief.

 

childe: oh ok then. fuck off

 

scara: nope

 

scara: im gonna call you now 

 

scara: i want to see his face <333

 

childe: no fucking way am i accepting it

 

scara: it’s ok. i know you will, anyway <333

 

An obnoxious, shrill alarm bell ringtone blasted out from his phone and he nearly knocked his head against the headboard from how unexpected that was. Close call . He would have gone the next twenty-three hours unconscious, otherwise.

 

Sighing as he shifted a safe distance away from the headboard, he picked the call up.

 

And proceeded to have the strangest fucking experience of his life.

 

His face appeared on the screen -- his original face -- followed by Childe’s face appearing in the smaller pop-up at the corner. Then Ei squeezed into the frame, and her entire face lit up the moment she saw him -- well, saw  Childe

 

“Holy shit!” she squealed. “You’re so handsome!”

 

Scara groaned in Childe’s voice. “Can I end the call now?”

 

“Absolutely not,” she said sternly. He heard the sounds of buttons frantically clicking.

 

“Motherfu-- are you taking screenshots ?” he hissed.

 

Childe, in Scara’s body, scratched his neck and laughed awkwardly, and Scara wanted to puke at the expression Childe had on his face.

 

“This feels like an outer-body experience, but tenfold in magnitude,” Childe said. He wished he could punch him through the screen. He had no right making Scara’s voice sound so fucking gentle

 

“Stop making me look like that ,” Scara snapped. “It’s disgusting. At least be a little more dignified.”

 

Ei laughed like he’d just told the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “You see why I like it when Childe’s in your body more?” she said, and reached out to fucking pat his head . “He’s so docile, and doesn’t hiss at me like some sort of rabid dog.”

 

“You just want a fucking pet, don’t you?” Scara said, rolling his eyes. 

 

“Wow,” Childe said, Scara again feeling momentarily dissociated because of the disjointed voices, “you make my voice sound so different.”

 

“Shut the fuck up, so I don’t have to hear myself,” Scara snapped. “This was a horrible idea, Ei. I’m going to end the call if you don’t have anything else to say, or I think I may just throw up.”

 

“Oh, stop being so dramatic,” Ei said. “Now that I know what Childe looks like, I can start planning for the wedding.”

 

“Fucking hell--”

 

“Um, Ei--”

 

Ei beamed at Childe. “Yes?”

 

That god awful smile was clearly meant to get him to shut up, but Childe was a complete and utter dumbass, because he started to say, “I don’t think--”

 

“Okay, Childe, you little shit, just shut up,” Scara said, before he could continue and bear the wrath of his psycho sister. “Treat everything Ei says as a joke in really poor taste. You don’t have to take her seriously.”

 

“Excuse you,” Ei huffed. Scara silently thanked God that she hadn’t thought much about what Childe was going to say. “I’m extremely serious in everything I--”

 

“No,” Scara said drily, “you’re not. It’s bedtime for you now. Bye.”

 

“Hey!” 

 

Ei looked at Childe, and suddenly seemed to think of an idea, her eyes glinting.

 

“You know what,” she said in mock fatigue, pressing a palm to her forehead, “you’re right. That Uno game was physically and mentally taxing. I’ll go to bed now. Bye.”

 

That fucker . She knew exactly what she was doing.

 

She was leaving the two of them alone.

 

Once Ei left the living room, Childe cleared his throat, looking visibly uncomfortable. Scara's blood boiled.

 

“Um, this is the first time we’ve actually interacted outside of handwritten notes, though I’d prefer it with us being in our own bodies,” Childe said, avoiding looking into the camera. “It feels… weird.”

 

“No shit.”

 

Childe looked around until his eyes rested on something. “You kept the hydrangeas,” he continued, and gave him a small smile.

 

Oh, God. Scara looked horrible with a smile like that.

 

“Yeah, well, they were really fucking expensive,” Scara shot back, not really sure why he was trying to justify it. “I’m not an idiot. There’s no way I’d just throw them away.”

 

“That’s… uh, nice.” 

 

Childe’s eyes -- technically Scara’s eyes -- darted around. Scara could practically see him desperately searching for another conversation topic, one that wasn’t about what he’d written in the letter.

 

Or about what had happened just before they swapped bodies.

 

“I saw it,” Scara said, deciding to just go ahead and say it if Childe was too much of a pussy to. “I saw that dream you had. You were dreaming when the time came to swap bodies, so our psyches got messed up and I got teleported into your dream, too. Same thing that happened the last time.”

 

Childe looked very, very uncomfortable, his mouth pressed into a thin line. At least it was a look that suited Scara more.

 

“Sorry,” he eventually said. “My first instinct was to be mad at you when I found you there, but then I realised that was stupid. You had as much control in what happened as I did when I saw your dream.”

 

Scara scoffed. “Obviously.”

 

“Do you have… uh, questions? I can answer them. I haven’t had that dream in a pretty long time, but I’m already over it now. Father’s death, I mean.”

 

Scara thought for a moment. “I have a question. But it’s not related to your dream.”

 

“Oh. Um, sure, I can answer it, too.”

 

“Did you hear it in my dream?” he said, watching him with a hawk-like gaze. “My real name.”

 

Childe blinked, looking genuinely taken aback that he’d asked that question. 

 

“No,” he said, simply and honestly. The only reason Scara could tell he wasn’t lying was because it was his own face he was looking at; he knew all the facial cues that he’d show if he had intentionally told a lie. 

 

“Okay. Another question."

 

"I'm listening."

 

"Why did you lie about what you saw in my dream? Yae told me that you saw a lot more than just 'my younger self' crying," he sneered.

 

Something akin to shame and remorse flickered over his face.

 

"Yeah, I shouldn't have done that. I was kinda scared to ask you about it, and I was curious, so I asked her, instead. Sorry."

 

Scara pursed his lips. "Dick move. But it's whatever. If you really want to know, my parents died in a car crash."

 

"Oh." Childe gave him a sympathetic look. "I'm sorry."

 

"Sure," he said dully. "Anyway, I've asked all my questions."

 

“Really?”

 

“I don’t care that much about you, you know. You don’t have to tell me anything.” It came out slightly harsher than he intended, but that was the point he was trying to make, after all. 

 

Childe seemed relieved. “Okay, yeah. That’s fine.”

 

Scara chose to pretend like the issue with Zhongli had never happened. It was probably better for both of them that way. 

 

An extremely uncomfortable silence settled upon them after that. Scara didn’t feel like prolonging it any more than it should and was about to end the call with a crude ‘bye’, but Childe suddenly spoke up.

 

“So, why’d you text me? I mean, why’d you text yourself? With my phone…” horror seeped into his eyes, “... that you knew the password to ?” 

 

Oops. He hoped he wouldn’t ask, but he was busted now.

 

“Remember the first time we swapped bodies?” Scara said, a satisfied smirk on his face. “I found your phone and didn’t mean to snoop -- okay, maybe I did -- and your fingers just instinctively typed the password. I couldn’t stop it.”

 

Childe looked extremely pissed now. That was also a look that suited Scara more. 

 

“And you’ve been using my phone all this time to do what ?” he hissed. 

 

“Oh, I only used it once, don’t worry,” Scara said, deriving way too much pleasure from Childe’s anger than he should. “I just clicked onto Twitter and scrolled through some of your tweets. It was nothing too incriminating.”

 

Surprisingly, Childe seemed to mellow down. “If it’s just Twitter, that’s fine," he said, relaxing.

 

He was way too relieved for Scara’s liking.

 

“Now you’re making me want to see what else is on your phone,” Scara said, a devilish grin on his face. 

 

Childe just gave him an amused look. 

 

“You probably won’t.”

 

Scara suppressed a laugh. “And what makes you say that ?”

 

“Some people told me a bit about what you're like,” Childe said, making Scara’s face look grossly thoughtful, “and along with my own inferences, I don’t think you’re that kind of person.”

 

Scara narrowed his eyes. “Oh, yeah? I’m going to end this call right now and unearth all your little secrets, you bitch.”

 

To his utter disgust, Childe just laughed. 

 

“Sure, Scara.”

 

“Don’t you dare call me that, fucker--”

 

“Scara, scara, scara, scara--”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

He ended the call, burying his face in his pillow in frustration. Then he raised it up again when he felt a vibration from the phone. 

 

scara: ohhh so that’s what you texted me for 

 

scara: i guess you think you may change your mind in the future, huh?

 

scara: anyw i’m tired and i’m going to sleep. i’m a decent person, so i won’t even attempt looking through your phone. not even through your twitter :)

 

scara: goodnight scara 

 

childe: fuck you

 

childe: and happy birthday i guess 

 

He didn’t reply after that, and Scara took it as a cue for him to sleep, as well.

 

Except he couldn’t. He kept tossing and turning, feeling on edge for some reason. Like there was something constantly eating away at his nerves, but he didn’t know what was making him so anxious, afraid, even. 

 

(He refused to even consider the possibility that he was nervous talking to Childe).

 

He switched Childe's phone on, but a gross feeling of guilt ate at him at just the thought of looking through it.

 

Whatever. Scara could be a decent person if he wanted to, too. 

 

So he put the phone away and tried his best to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Wake up,” someone hissed. 

 

Scara slowly blinked awake, narrowing his eyes when Tonia came into view. 

 

“No happy birthday wish to say to me?” Scara taunted. 

 

Tonia clicked her tongue. “There’d be no point in doing so,” she said simply. “But Teucer doesn’t know that you’re not our brother, so there’s a cake waiting for you downstairs.”

 

“Why, thank you,” he said in a mockingly sweet tone. “Am I supposed to pretend to be Childe in front of him, or something?”

 

“Yes,” she said, surprisingly straightforward about it, and looking extremely uncomfortable at the idea. 

 

“Uh… any tips, then?”

 

She pondered. 

 

“Just spoil him a lot. Give him a gift even though it’s your -- Childe’s birthday. And, gentle reminder that he’s seven , so you absolutely can’t curse in front of him.”

 

“Alright. I’ll think about that second part.”

 

When Tonia shot him a deadly glare, he rolled his eyes.

 

“I’m joking , damn.”

 

“This is why I don’t get why you’re soulmates with my brother,” she said, peeved. “You have nothing likeable to your personality at all.”

 

“Geez. That hurt.” 

 

Her jaw clenched. 

 

“Anyway, the birthday party will be at night, and we’ll be going to school now. You have one full day to prepare Teucer’s present.”

 

She looked like she was about to continue, but held herself back from saying anything else. Then her fingers subconsciously twirled a lock of her hair, and Scara immediately understood.

 

He stifled a laugh, grinning at her. “Want help braiding your hair?”

 

She grit her teeth, avoiding his eyes.

 

“...Yes, please.”

 

“Come here, then.”

 

She sat on the floor beside the bed, and like the last time, Scara skilfully braided her hair, this time separating her hair into two pigtails and making a French braid for both sides. She raised a hand mirror to look at herself, and Scara caught the corners of her lips twitching up. 

 

“Thanks,” she said curtly. 

 

“Before you go, could I ask you something?”

 

She stared at him, waiting.

 

“Do I not have to go to work today?” 

 

He watched as she faltered a little, something very similar to fear flashing over her eyes. Huh. Giving that kind of reaction when he was only asking something perfectly reasonable about Childe’s work?

 

“You -- I mean, he took the day off today,” she said, extremely unconvincingly, and she probably knew it, too. “He takes the day off whenever you swap bodies with him. Er, except for your birthday, but that day was a Sunday, so he didn’t have to go to work, anyway. His work is pretty complicated, and it’d mean trouble for him if you messed up in his place,” she quickly supplied.

 

Nice save , but there was no way she was telling the complete truth. 

 

“I see,” Scara said, noticing how every single sign of her body language pointed to her wanting to get out of the room. “I think I’d be fine with making toys, though. It’s just some manual labour, right? I’m familiar with that kind of thing.”

 

She looked alarmed. “Making toys? Did he tell you that?”

 

“Yes.”

 

They held each other’s stare for a moment, confusion and anxiety written all over Tonia’s face. 

 

“Well… he’s not just a toy maker,” she said, the tremor in her voice not going unnoticed by Scara. “He designs them, too. I don’t think you have any experience in that , do you?”

 

“Hm. Perhaps not.”

 

He paused. 

 

“You’re lying to me,” he started. She froze, looking like a deer caught in headlights. “But I won’t pry,” he continued. “Your brother told me his work and house address, but they may both be fake, for all I know. At least, the work one is more likely to be false out of the two.”

 

“Don’t,” she said quietly. 

 

He frowned. “What?”

 

“Don’t go to his workplace,” she said. “At least not when you’re in this body. It won’t be any good for you.” 

 

“So you’re saying the address he gave me was actually correct?” 

 

There was something ominous in Tonia’s tone. 

 

“Yeah. He wants you to go there, in your own body. Don’t mess it up for him by ruining his reputation at work.”

 

There was definitely something she was hiding. Her eyes were dark, and she looked almost… 

 

“I’ll consider,” he said.

 

“I’m serious !” Tonia suddenly snapped, anger flashing in her eyes, “You’re his soulmate, you should know better. Don’t do anything rash while you’re in my brother’s body. If you do, I’ll…”

 

She turned away, her back facing him.

 

“... I’ll make you pay,” she said softly. 

 

Once she left, Scara finally let a shiver run down his spine. 

 

Tonia had looked almost… 

 

sinister .

 

After that whole puzzling exchange they had, there was no way Scara could keep himself from not heading to Childe’s workplace. 

 

No ordinary toy maker, designer, whatever, would be able to afford a bungalow, after all. 

 




There was a shrill beeping coming from somewhere in the room. 

 

Childe jerked awake, then remembered where he’d hidden his burner phone in Scaramouche’s room. Before he picked the call up, he pressed an ear to the door. The sound of footsteps was absent; the Raiden girl must have gone out, already. 

 

He reached under the bed and pulled it out, then picked it up.

 

“Yes?” he said, alert.

 

“I think he wants to go there.”

 

“That was quick. I thought for sure he’d just knock himself out in my body the whole day.”

 

“What are you planning to do?”

 

He fell silent.

 

“I’ll go there, too, then.”

 

“How are you supposed to get to Snezhnaya before he reaches the place?”

“Don’t worry. I have some countermeasures in place.”

 

There was a sigh from the other end.

 

“Okay, then.”

 

“Have a good day at school.”

 

“Mm.”

 

“Gosh, you’re so cold.”

 

“Bye.”

 

Tonia hung up. 

 

Childe stepped out of the room, then stopped in his tracks when Ei was standing still in the living room, her eyes directly on him. Thank God he’d kept the phone in his pocket before going out. 

 

“Childe,” she said, something very different in her tone from how she’d usually talk to him. Her face betrayed no emotion. “Were you talking to someone? I heard your voice.”

 

He smiled at her. Shit. “Yeah. My little sister gave me a call to wish me a happy birthday. I added her contact to Scara’s phone; I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”

 

Ei suddenly smiled widely back. “Aw, you call him Scara already?” she said happily.

 

Weirdass. “Well, he hates it, but whatever,” he said, shrugging.

 

“That’s sweet.”

She was still staring at him. He shifted uncomfortably. 

 

“Uh… what’s the matter, Ei?” he said, hoping his tone was gentle enough to snap her out of whatever this was. “Don’t you need to get to work soon?”

 

She stretched her arms out, her lips curving into a grin. “Give me a goodbye hug first.”

 

“Um…” What the hell. She never did this before.  

 

“What’s the matter, Childe?” she echoed his previous words, something in her expression darkening. 

 

“I don’t really like hugs,” he said, trying to sound as abashed as possible. “I’ve never been great with physical touch, so…” And there was a high chance she’d find the burner phone in his back pocket if she roamed her hands around. He had no idea what her motive was, but there was no way he could take the risk of jumping right into her arms.

 

“Childe, I don’t like it.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Her face was as hard as stone now. “I don’t like it when someone’s hiding something from me. Why don’t you tell me what you’re so scared of me finding out?” She raised an eyebrow. “Is something in your pockets? You look awfully stiff.”

 

He looked at her coolly. “I really am just put off by the notion of touch. I hope you can respect my boundaries, Ei.”

 

She smiled humorlessly. “‘Respect your boundaries’? Sure, only if you don’t mind telling me where the hell you wandered off to last night.”

 

What a perceptive asshole. He thought he’d covered up his tracks perfectly, but Ei must have lied about sleeping last night if she’d caught him. 

 

“Look, I don’t want you messing around in my brother’s body,” she warned, her eyes flashing. “If you injure him anywhere, I’ll find your real body and give you twice that pain, you hear me?”

 

“What gave you the idea that I was putting Scara’s body in danger?” he said, staring stoically at her. “I merely had a very important meeting that I forgot to call off.”

 

“At two in the morning ?”

 

“My work requires me to do so. I don’t have much choice in it.”

 

Ei stepped forward. 

 

“Childe -- or should I say, Ajax ?”

 

His eyes widened in alarm. She merely smiled.

 

“I know what your job requires you to do,” she continued. “I’m not letting you hurt Scara.”

 

Childe grinned at her, dropping all pretenses. She didn’t seem fazed. 

 

“Sure,” he said, “and what kind of sister doesn’t even know her brother’s name?”

 

She wasn’t shaken by that at all.

 

“I don’t care what you Fatui do,” she spat, “but you absolutely do not get to go anywhere close to Scara.”

 

“Of course I’ll have to get close to him,” Childe said, relaxed, “we’re soulmates. Don’t you want me to marry him?”

 

She pulled behind with her fist, but he was faster, and caught it before it collided with his nose. 

 

You fucking …”

 

Childe gave her a bored look. 

 

“Head on to work now,” he taunted. “I know what your job requires you to do, too. And I know the secret behind Guuji Yae’s lovely coffee shop -- how it was born out of lies. All of it.”

 

Ei glared at him and slowly pulled her hand away.

 

“Yae’s keeping an eye on you,” she said quietly. “Don’t bother trying anything.”

 

“Oh, I won’t,” he said insincerely, then gave a little wave that went ignored as Ei packed her bag and stormed out the house. She looked like she was in one hell of a rush.

 

It was sad, really, how his own sister had been lying to him all this time. 

 

Childe glanced at the hydrangeas, and a small smirk tugged at his lips. He left shortly after Ei, discarding the burner phone into a bin beside the nearby bus stop. 

 

He had to make a trip back to Snezhnaya now. 

 




Scara checked the address on the note again.

 

Block Three, Fifth Avenue, Morepesok.

 

He’d looked Morepesok up on the internet and found that it was a seaside village. He looked for a toy factory there, but no results came up. What was even stranger was when he typed in the address Childe had left him, and it showed that Fifth Avenue wasn’t a street that even existed in Snezhnaya.

 

He wrinkled his nose. What was the point of calling his workplace a toy factory, then? Scara wasn’t stupid; it was clearly a lie meant to hide his more sinister line of work.

 

Childe’s phone rang. Scara picked it up, confused. 

 

“Who’s this?”

 

“Scara.”

 

Why the fuck was Ei calling?

 

“Aren’t you at work?” he said, though something told him that she’d called him for an important reason, keeping him from snapping at her. 

 

“Where are you now?” 

 

“In his house.”

 

“Okay. Stay there the entire day, alright?”

 

“Just tell me why you called.”

 

“I can’t say anything right now. I’m using a burner phone.”

 

“What’s the point? Someone could just as easily track his phone instead of yours.”

 

“I doubt the one you’re using right now is actually trackable.”

 

“Uh…”

 

“Anyway, just don’t leave, okay?”

 

“Alright, I guess,” he lied.

 

“Promise?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Good.”

 

The call ended. 

 

It wasn’t like Scara didn’t know what Ei’s line of work actually was. He’d always known she was working for the secret Inazuman society known as the Tenshukaku, founded by the Raiden family, who’d eliminate those that threatened the safety and longevity of the country. Ei wasn’t a field agent, she was more responsible for the gathering of intel. It was in that organisation where she’d met Yae, too. 

 

But Ei didn’t know that Scara had known this for quite some time; he’d done his own digging around and eventually, after some questioning, he’d managed to extract the truth out of Kujou Sara, a field agent of Tenshukaku and also a childhood friend of Ei’s. Sara rarely came to visit Ei anymore, and Scara had his suspicions about why that was the case, but that was a whole other can of worms to open. Her fondness of Ei had been extremely apparent -- Scara had seen them interact plenty when they were younger -- and only someone as dense as Ei could have completely missed it. Once Ei turned twenty-two and her soulmate was revealed, it was then that Sara had started pulling away from them, to the point where he hadn’t seen her in years. 

 

He shook his head. This was why soulmates were nothing but a load of bull. It caused unnecessary hurt to those who had genuinely loved someone, but couldn’t go on to do so any longer because someone else was supposedly deemed more ‘worthy’ to be with them.

 

That was right. Him and Childe weren’t anything more than strangers. Just like Childe had mentioned before, their type of ‘soulmates’ was different from everyone else’s.

 

Scara tucked Childe’s phone into his pocket. He was going to get to the bottom of this, only because Ei’s warning had piqued his interest. Ei knew something about Childe’s line of work, as well, and she’d apparently only just realised it, since she had still been acting like her usual matchmaker self last night.

 

It only struck him then that something might have happened earlier this morning if Ei had gotten all shaken up like that. Childe, in Scara’s body, must have done something to have triggered it. 

 

Just then, the door opened, and Scara unintentionally jumped. 

 

Anthon was standing in the doorway.

 

“Um… Scaramouche?”

 

He blinked. Tonia had probably told him his name. “Yes?”

 

“I’m feeling a little sick, so I’m not going to school today,” he said. “But, uh… could we go out to get presents for Tonia and Teucer?”

 

Scara took a closer look at him. His skin did look a little too pale. 

 

“Sure. Childe gets gifts for you guys whenever it’s his birthday, right?”

 

Anthon flushed. “Well, yeah. We do give him gifts back, though,” he felt the need to point out. 

 

Scara was fine with it, but had Childe really not prepared gifts for his siblings beforehand, knowing that he wouldn’t be around to do it on the day itself? It seemed a little strange, but Anthon’s expression was open and relaxed, in stark contrast to Tonia’s previous tension and uptightness, so Scara doubted he had any ulterior motives. 

 

Either that, or he was a way better actor than his older sister.

 

“Okay. Let’s go out, then,” he agreed, because he decided there wasn’t much for him to lose. Anthon’s face lit up. 

 

It’d probably take only an hour, anyway. There was still lots of time before twelve midnight for Scara to pay a visit to Block Three of Fifth Avenue. 

 




Scara got into a change of clothes, trying his absolute best not to stare at his own body while doing so. He then grabbed a thick black coat and a red scarf, Anthon saying that they were what Childe usually wore whenever he went out for things other than work. Scara had to descend way too many stairs on the way down -- goddamn rich asshole -- and pass through a gigantic, lavish living room and dining area before finally reaching the wrought iron door, and even then they had to walk through a whole ass garden just to leave the bungalow. It had been an undeniably physically and mentally taxing journey for him. 

 

Not to mention the violent, coldass gust of wind that slapped him on the face the moment they were outside. He raised the scarf up to his nose to fight the chill.

 

The mall was just a short walk away, and Scara found that Anthon was just the right amount of talkative, knowing when to fill the gaps of silence with some stories of him and his friends at school, and when to fall silent once Scara’s short attention span couldn’t hold out any longer. 

 

Some people seemed to recognise him. A few teenage girls waved excitedly to him, and when he looked at them but didn’t do anything to acknowledge their presence, they looked like he’d knocked their entire world off-kilter and quickly brushed past him. 

 

“Brother usually greets them with a smile,” Anthon quietly nudged. 

 

“Whatever. I don’t know them. I doubt they knew your brother that well, anyway, since they didn’t say happy birthday. No point in waving to people like them.”

 

Anthon looked amused. “I guess so.”

 

It really was a breath of fresh air hanging out with a different sibling of Childe. Tonia had been nothing but snarky and unbearable since he’d first seen her, but the way Anthon behaved towards him, like he was some sort of family-friend, made him and Tonia look like they were raised by completely different families.

 

“Say, why does your sister hate me so much?” he decided to ask, as he and Anthon were scanning the toy store to buy something for Teucer.

 

Anthon’s brows furrowed. “I don’t think she hates you.”

 

“Then you’ve probably never seen how she interacts with me.” Scara laughed. “It’s like she’s some kind of permanently furious grandmother.”

 

Anthon hummed. “Well… she’s just overprotective of Brother. She always has been. I doubt she only acts that way towards you; now that I think about it, she was really snappy towards Brother’s first girlfriend, too. But she mellowed down after a while.”

 

“Oh,” Scara said, willing himself not to show any external signs of bewilderment. “Didn’t know he ever had one.”

 

“I remember they didn’t work out very well,” Anthon said, while inspecting a snow globe depicting Snezhnayan’s winter landscape. “She was pretty… uh, how do I put it… feral? She was really bold and would speak her mind at any given chance, so she could be really blunt at times, and Brother would often get offended. She didn’t say any bad words in front of us, but I could often hear her being vulgar when they were alone.”

 

Scara scoffed. Maybe it was because Anthon’s description of her was exactly like the way Scara behaved on a daily basis, hence he felt the need to probe defensively, “And, what? Just because of that, they didn’t work out?”

 

“Well, something else happened. I don’t remember what it was, though. I was only six when they stopped seeing each other.” 

 

Anthon stopped short, his eyes catching something outside the mall. Scara turned to see what he was looking at. 

 

A golden-haired girl with a red muffler was walking outside, scrolling through something on her phone. 

 

“That’s her,” Anthon said, beaming. “Lumine.”

 

Crazy coincidence, huh. “You look happy,” Scara pointed out.

 

“Lumine’s nice to us,” he responded. “She still waves to us whenever she sees us. Not really for Brother, though.”

 

To Scara’s surprise, Anthon practically sprinted out of the shop and called out, “Lumine!”

 

The girl nearly dropped her phone in surprise, but her face melted into a smile once she saw Anthon. “Oh, hi!” she said excitedly, running up to him and pulling him into a hug. 

 

Then she turned and saw Scara, and her smile was instantly wiped off her face. 

 

“Um, Lumine,” Anthon said nervously, “this isn’t Brother. His soulmate is here.”

 

The animosity from her expression faded a little, but she still gave him a cold stare. “Hello, I guess. I forgot it was your -- his birthday.” 

 

Scara shrugged. “Hello back at you.”

 

He didn’t really see the point in prolonging the conversation, but Lumine somehow wanted to continue talking to him. “Anthon,” she said, giving him a small smile, “mind leaving us alone for a short while? I want to tell him a few things. You can just hang around the store for the time being.”

 

“Okay,” he agreed readily, and headed back into the store, giving Scara a thumbs-up.

 

“Let’s go grab a drink,” Lumine said. It wasn’t an offer, it was a statement. Scara just decided going along with it would be easier than putting up a fight.

 

They walked a pretty long distance -- Scara even considered turning back and ditching her for a moment -- before they finally entered a small, dim cafe. They were the first customers of the day, it seemed. Lumine chose to sit at the darkest corner, like she was going to sell him fucking crack, or something. Scara, with a resigned sigh, sat opposite her, and bit back a curse at how cold the metal chair was, his ass having nearly frozen off the moment it made contact with it. 

 

"Didn't you say we'd only be gone for a 'short while'?" he said, irritated. "That was the longest fucking walk of my life."

 

"Anthon will be fine," Lumine said dismissively. "He's an independent boy. I just like this cafe a lot, so deal with it."

 

Scara clicked his tongue impatiently. "Hurry up and say whatever you want to say."

 

“Sure,” she said. “Where are you from?” 

 

He couldn’t discern any sinister intentions from her, so he easily answered, “Inazuma. And you?”

 

“Oh, I’m not from Teyvat. I flew in from Decreto. My home country was called Eunegoth.” Well, she did look like she wasn't from this continent. Eunegoth was probably somewhere in the North.

 

“Okay. No idea where that is.”

 

“Wouldn’t expect you to. Anyway, that was a filler question. I need to ask at least one question that has no relevance to the main point I’m going to make before I get to it.”

 

“Sure.” He looked around, but there was no menu anywhere on the table. "Are we not going to order anything?"

 

"Obviously I didn't actually want a drink," she scoffed, looking at him like he was the dumbest bitch in the world. 

 

Scara glared at her. "I'm thirsty, but sure."

 

She pretended she didn't hear him. “Have you heard of the Fatui?”

 

Scara wrinkled his nose. “Sounds like some Snezhnayan cult. But no.”

 

“Well, you’re more or less right. They’re a Snezhnayan assassination organisation. At least that’s what people think, but in reality they’re much, much more than that.”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “And the next thing you’re going to tell me is that Childe’s a member.”

 

“Yeah. You’re correct.” She paused, frowning. “Wait, you even know his alias?”

 

“That’s the only name he’s given me,” he corrected. 

 

“Huh. So you don’t know his real name,” she said thoughtfully. “Didn’t know he publicly went by that now.”

 

She cleared her throat. “Anyway, soulmate or not, you need to stay the fuck away from him,” she said firmly. “Hanging around him will only get you into trouble. You’re dead meat if the Fatui sets their sights on you.”

 

“I’ve been trying ,” Scara said, annoyed. “It’s not my fault we have to fucking swap bodies. I don’t intend to look for him at all after this ends.”

 

She looked surprised. “That’s good. I guess you didn’t need the warning, then. But do you know if he tried to do anything shady while he was in your body?”

 

“Everyone’s been telling me that he’s way nicer than me. I doubt it.”

 

“You sure? Absolutely nothing at all?”

 

“Well, I don’t know if he did anything today .” Scara frowned. “He probably did.”

 

“What? Why do you say that?” Lumine said, alarmed. “Is your family in danger?”

 

“Nah, they’re fine. They didn’t tell me anything, but I’m pretty sure he had to have done something weird.”

 

“You know, you’re awfully calm for someone to have found out their soulmate is someone who kills people for living,” Lumine said warily. “Don’t tell me you…”

 

He rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t have anything to do with assassins, or the like. It’s just sort of expected, I guess. He has been acting pretty shady.”

 

It explained how he could buy the bungalow, for one. But he still didn’t understand why Childe had left behind his work and home address. 

 

I’ll leave my address and workplace, in case you ever change your mind and want to come visit. 

 

In case he ever changed his mind and wanted to come visit… 

 

Scara’s face blanched in horror. 

 

Childe had been trying to lure him there. For whatever reason, the Fatui probably had Scara as one of their targets. 

 

And for whatever reason, Scara was stupid enough to have actually fucking considered going to his ‘workplace’, just like Childe thought he would.

 

And for whatever reason, Lumine was smiling at him now. It wasn’t the same smile she had given Anthon. 

 

It was a baleful one, filled with malicious intent, and matched with an equally menacing gaze. 

 

“Welcome to Block Three of Fifth Avenue,” was the last thing he heard Lumine say, before something struck the back of his head and he promptly passed out. 

Chapter Text

"You came to work," Yae said, a smile on her face as he crossed paths with her in the locker room.

 

Childe stared back at her emotionlessly. "Of course.”

 

She nodded. "It's good that you're willing to do Scara’s work." 

 

Childe slammed Scara's bag down onto the floor. She didn't even flinch. "Look, quit acting like you don't know."

 

Yae glanced at him, her shoulders relaxed, eyes only showing a casual curiosity. 

 

"Like I don't know what?" she questioned.

 

People like her, people who enjoy toying around with others, were ones he absolutely fucking loathed

 

"Ei confronted me about it," he said through gritted teeth. "You're both from Tenshukaku, so you must have known already. Perhaps even way before Ei realised, because--" he glared at her, "--you knew Zhongli. And you knew her."

 

Yae merely shrugged.

 

"Sure, I know about what you're really doing. But I don't have a problem with it. Unless you want me to have one?"

 

"Why? Why doesn't it bother you?" 

 

She tilted her head. 

 

"Maybe because I know Scara wouldn't be brought over so easily," she said calmly. 

 

Childe laughed. "Too late. My colleagues just contacted me. They already got him. The moment the clock strikes twelve, it's over for that guy."

 

She gave him a crude smile. "How cruel. Ending the life of your own soulmate just because someone else told you to." 

 

He shot her a withering look, but her smile didn't falter, not even once. 

 

"I'm not doing it 'just because someone else told me to'," he said. Voices rang out from the entrance; the others had arrived. The others who'd all been lied to by the woman in front of him, as well. "I'm doing it because I'm loyal, not because I'm blindly devoted to the one giving the orders."

 

"Oh? I think 'blindly devoted' suits you better, though," she said, her grin gradually losing its false sincerity, and dissolving into a condescending one, one that was more in alignment with her true nature. “You Fatui are all scum who don’t know how to think for themselves. You’re awfully lucky to have been soulmates with a longtime target of your master, huh? Does your master show more appreciation for you, now that you’ve proved yourself useful to her? Is that what you’re seeking from this? Validation?”

 

Childe laughed and lowered his voice. “Whatever I want is completely up to you. Just don’t get in my way, and I’ll consider not tearing down this shop.”

 

“Hey, guys,” Yoimiya said, entering the shop with Kazuha, Ayaka and someone else he didn’t recognise. A girl with pink flowing hair and blue streaks at its tips strolled in behind them, looking like she popped right out of a fantasy comic book. She nodded to Yae and Childe.

 

“Kokomi, since it’s your first day I’ll teach you how to go about front-of-the-house activities first,” Ayaka said warmly. “Come follow me.”

 

Kokomi smiled at her. “Thank you, Ayaka.”

 

Childe was, quite frankly, confused. According to the intel the Fatui gathered, Yae didn’t  recruit new workers. The coffee shop was never open for hiring, even when others tried to apply, because the same few people did rotating shifts all the time. She’d deliberately handpicked the selection of people, too, so why was there someone new today? Was she related to Yae? Or was she somehow tied to the Tenshukaku, and was sent to work here for a deeper reason, like reporting to Yae immediately after work? Another possibility was that Kokomi really was just a regular outsider who wanted a job at this coffee shop, but Childe wouldn’t accept that as a reason, because Yae was watching him intently right now, her lips curving.

 

She’d recruited someone new for the first time in years, and it wasn’t for any simple reason.

 

“Think, Childe,” Yae said in a sing-song voice. “Think about all the intel you’ve gathered. Why is someone new here?”

 

She sauntered out of the room, but not before giving him a light pat on the head. It made him want to empty his guts.

 

Her and Ei really were meant to be soulmates.

 

He checked the clock irritatedly. His shift would end in six hours. 

 

Everything would be ready by then. 

 


 

"Where the fuck are you taking me?" Scara spat. 

 

He found himself seated at the back of a car, with an opaque partition between the passenger's seat and the driver's seat. He couldn't believe he'd fallen into a trap, entirely from his own doing, too. How could he have just listened to Anthon's long-winded story about Lumine, and then subsequently not have found anything wrong with following said girl -- whom he didn't know a single damn thing about -- to a random deserted cafe? 

 

This was possibly the most stupid he'd ever been in a decade. 

 

Silence greeted him. Either the partition was soundproof or the driver was ignoring him. 

 

His feet and hands had been bound together by rope, so he relied on his forehead to make the noise. He was still in Childe's body, anyway, so he didn't give two shits if he accidentally gave the guy a concussion while banging his head against the partition. 

 

There was no response again. Scara groaned and leaned back against the seat, defeated, deciding to at least make the best of the ride by taking a quick break. The car was windowless, so he couldn't tell where they were. He doubted they were anywhere near that mall. Judging by how often the vehicle jerked around, the road they were on was really fucking rocky. Were they going up a mountain? 

 

“Hey,” he tried again, fruitlessly. “I need to pee.”

 

Of course the driver didn’t care. He took the time to assess his situation. His back pocket was empty, which meant that they'd taken Childe's phone while he was knocked out. No one would be able to track him, not even Ei. A dull throb started to build at the front of his head after all that forehead knocking, and he internally cursed. Why did he have to get caught up in all this Snezhnayan cult business? If he hadn’t been that fucking idiot’s soulmate, would he still have ended up in this situation? Or had they been looking for him all this time? Maybe the fact that Childe was tied to him was just complete and utter luck, and it led them to capture him faster.

 

Either way, this was all Childe’s fault. It was apparent that if he hadn’t swapped bodies with him, he’d definitely be working peacefully in the coffee shop right now. Fuck this, he’d even work both the day and night shifts just to get out of here.

 

Scara raised his tied feet and kicked at the partition, and it wasn’t until he’d kicked it about twenty times when an odorless gas started seeping into the passenger seat area. Fuck. And he passed out. Again.

 




“Renji, look.”

 

A baby bird sat in his mother’s palms, its wings chipped and bent, though they still fluttered to no avail. He watched curiously when it looked like it was actually going to take off and fly, but it hovered in the air for a few seconds before falling back in her hands.

 

“Poor thing,” she said, with genuine sadness in her eyes. “Let’s go patch it up. Bring my first-aid kit for me, won’t you?”

 

“Okay!”

 

He dragged the heavy box across the floor to the front porch and set it beside her, sighing tiredly. His mother smiled. 

 

“Thank you.”

 

She cut out a strip of bandaging tape. He gently lifted the bird, folding its broken wing against the side of its body, like how the bird would keep its wing naturally if it could move it. His mother wrapped the tape around the bird’s body to hold the wing in place, then brought the tape under the unbroken wing and in front of its feet.

 

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s see if it can walk.”

 

He watched nervously as the bird stumbled off his mother’s hands and onto the ground, walking and lightly flitting its unbroken wing. It whimpered a little.

 

“It still can’t fly,” he said sadly.

 

She patted his head. “Renji, don’t be silly. It needs to rest for a while more before it can move its broken wing. We have to feed the bird for a few weeks until it’s ready to fly.”

 

“Oh.” He beamed. “So we can still save it.”

 

“Of course. I am a vet, you know.”

 

They both laughed, but something dimmed in his mother’s eyes after saying that. She watched the bird quietly. 

 

“Renji,” she said, so softly that he initially thought he’d hallucinated her voice. 

 

“Mom?”

 

“If I suddenly disappear one day, you know which foods to feed the pets, right?”

 

She gave him a warm smile that sharply contrasted the darkness in her tone. He reached out and patted her head. She looked at him, surprised.

 

“Mom, don’t be silly,” he said. “You’ll never disappear. I’ll make sure you’re always here with me.”

 

She laughed a little, but he caught the glassiness in her eyes when she turned back to watch the bird. 

 

“I want to always be here with you, too.”

 

A huge force struck the side of his head. 

 

His eyes snapped open, and his first instinct was to land a punch back at whoever had just done that, but all four of his limbs were strapped down to a metal table. He winced at the sharp migraine that tore his skull apart the moment he looked up directly into a glaring overhead light. Then he realised that there were wires extending out from his scalp, and that there were probably a dozen electrodes pasted all over a cap on his head. Why did they need to put on a fucking EEG cap on his head? This wasn’t even his own damn body. 

 

“What the fuck,” he snapped. He tested how hard the restraints were by pulling against them with all his might. Pretty fucking hard

 

He then surveyed his surroundings. He was the only person in this quarantine room of sorts, with a wide mirror on the wall facing him that was definitely a two-way for the fuckers on the other side. 

 

He glanced to the side. There wasn't anybody there, so what the hell had hit him just now?

 

“You’ve woken up, Scaramouche,” a female voice blared over the speakers somewhere in the room. Fucking Lumine. “You’re in Childe’s body right now, but fret not. Once he’s back, it’ll be you and wholly you under our captivity.”

 

He didn’t know why he asked, “Where’s Anthon?”

 

Lumine laughed. “Anthon? Don’t tell me you’re actually worried about him, when he’s the one who led you here, in the first place?”

 

Excuse me?” 

 

“What an idiot,” she sighed. “Anthon led you to me. He wasn’t actually sick; he could have very well gone to school today, but Childe needed his help to capture you.”

 

Of course. Childe and his fucking siblings again. Scara was beginning to think something about Snezhnaya had led him to reach absurdly gullible levels, especially when it was with that ginger family. Fuckers, all of them. He doubted he’d ever be able to trust a child again. And to think he’d actually thought Anthon was nicer than Tonia. 

 

He really was a way better actor than his older sister.

 

“And that whole story he made up,” Scara said, laughing humorlessly, “it was all just a sick joke, wasn’t it? I remember thinking it was some crazy fucking coincidence that you somehow showed up right when he was talking about you, and lo and behold, coincidences don’t fucking exist .”

 

“Of course he made it up,” Lumine giggled, “he had to give you some kind of introduction to me, after all, or you wouldn’t have followed me if you completely didn’t know who I was. Anyway, there’s no fucking way I’d ever date Childe. Thank you for being his soulmate, though, you’ve really made everything way easier. You have no idea how long we’ve been looking for you.”

 

“Why not just capture me the first time me and that asshole swapped bodies?”

 

“Well, first of all, no one would have predicted you would be his soulmate. And when that disgusting pig finally realised your identity, it was already twenty hours too late,” she hissed. “And he somehow forgot to ask for your birthday, so we couldn’t make plans to capture you the second time, either. The only useful things he did were giving us your address and placing an audio bug in your house.

 

“An audio bug?” he said, pissed. “The fuck?” What was the point of that, anyway? All he and Ei ever talked about was food.

 

“Wow, you really haven’t found it out yet,” she said happily. “So he can be a little useful.”

 

“Fuck you, Fatui piece of shit.”

 

“Wow, how hurtful,” she drawled. “Weren’t you having a pretty nice dream just now? What made you spiral into such a bad mood?”

 

Scara stilled. “Dream?”

 

“I don’t know, Scaramouche, what do you think I just said?”

 

No, there was no way she actually saw it, or she would have taunted him by calling him by his real name. Scara was pretty sure all they could really see were his brainwaves.

 

He grinned. “Just die.”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

The same invisible force from before hit the side of his head again, and he cursed in pain. Where the hell–

 

“Is it really alright to treat your own member like this?” he hissed. “His body would be injured once he gets it back.”

 

She ignored him. “I’ll start laying out a few things we’ll get from you once you’re back in your own body,” Lumine said. “First, urine samples. Then blood samples, hair strands, seminal fluid samples, teeth samples–”

 

Teeth? I’m not a skeleton, the fuck–”

 

She went on. “--we’ll also conduct a bone marrow aspiration, a skin test and a serological test. Huh. That’s all he wanted. There’s usually way more.”

 

“What are assassins doing picking out my body like mad fucking scientists?” he snapped. 

 

“I never said we were only assassins,” Lumine pointed out, a smile evident in her voice. “I said we were much, much more than that.”

 

“Well, fuck. Might as well just kill me.”

 

“I’d love to, but my other colleagues have… a personal interest in keeping you alive,” she sighed. “It’s what the Boss wants, as well. You’re lucky they’re protesting against the death sentence I would have given you without hesitation.”

 

“What are you trying to do with me, anyway?” he said, glaring directly at the mirror. “I’m just a goddamn barista. I literally do nothing else.”

 

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Lumine said. “You don’t even know what you did yourself. It’s a pretty big problem, if you ask me.”

 

Tell me what I did, then.”

 

“It’s not for me to say, Scaramouche. You’ll find out soon enough.” She paused. “I’d love it if we captured your sister along with you, too, but… Childe’s too incompetent for that.”

 

“Don’t you dare touch her, you fucker – SHIT!” Something excruciatingly painful zapped across his scalp, temporarily numbing his mind. 

 

“Oh, look at you,” Lumine cooed. “You’re so cute when you know when to shut up. I should do that more often.”

 

Asshole …” His voice was weak, and he felt like all his limbs were momentarily paralysed. He could hear Lumine’s laughter over the speaker.

 

All Scara knew was that Childe was going to have one hell of a time once he got this body back. Speaking of which, maybe he should injure it a bit more. Except something in that zap had temporarily disabled all his motor functions, so he couldn’t say anything to anger Lumine more even though he very much wanted to.

 

“What a pathetic sight,” Lumine said. “Suits Childe, actually, but I can’t wait to do the same to you in your own body.”

 

Then, she whispered, “Is your mommy in heaven proud of you right now?

 

He wanted to break that fucking mirror and smash her head against the wall, but his body wasn’t cooperating. He wanted to fuck this entire place up, right now.

 

Lumine laughed. “Your brainwaves are getting intense. How sad. She’s probably embarrassed of you right now, because not even a child would have willingly followed a stranger somewhere. It’s your own fault that you ended up like this.”

 

Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shutthefuckup.

 

But deep down, Scara knew that she was right. Ei told him to stay in that goddamn house, and he just didn’t listen.

 

“Renji, you brat,” his mother said, glaring at him. “You’ve never listened to me, so now’s the time to do so before we both die, got it?”

 

That’s right. He’d never listened. 

 

And that was why he wasn’t going to start listening to any Fatui, either, and was going to get the fuck out of here once the clock struck twelve.

 


 

Childe was on edge. He didn’t want to admit it, but he felt like he was treading on eggshells everywhere. There was Yae, who, just like Ei had said, was watching him with a hawk-like gaze the entire time he moved around the coffee shop; and there was Kokomi, who was so airy and unbelievably dumb that she broke six cups an hour into the shift. None of the customers were really angry, though, and Childe suspected it was because of her child-like appearance that naturally made them adore her. 

 

He, on the other hand, found her annoying as fuck. Her voice was disgustingly high-pitched, and her eyes looked vacant all the time, almost as if her brain was just filled with nothing but space. 

 

He shook his head, willing himself to calm down. It was probably Scaramouche’s psyche that was making him intensely dislike Kokomi. He’d never felt annoyance of this sky-high level before. 

 

He checked the clock again. It was ten-thirty in the evening; only an hour of their shift was left, and Kokomi was still unapologetically spilling coffee everywhere and giggling, not even bothering to be ashamed about it. Ayaka had a naturally patient personality, and was probably the only one out of them who could semi-tolerate her clumsiness. Kazuha and Yoimiya were too tired to go out of their way to criticise Kokomi about it, while Yae just kept smiling to herself like some kind of creep. 

 

He hated this place so fucking much. He should have just not shown up for work and gone straight to Snezhnaya, instead, but unfortunately things wouldn’t have worked out so easily that way.

 

The door jingled. Kokomi’s face instantly brightened when a girl with dark shoulder-length hair strided in, dressed like she’d just gotten off an office job. Her hard expression melted once she saw Kokomi.

 

“Hey, Koko,” she said. “I came to visit you.”

Childe stared at her, trying to figure out what it was about her that majorly put him off. Looking at her ticked off a sense of vague familiarity in his mind. Perhaps she’s someone Scara knows? She noticed him and quirked an eyebrow. 

 

“Hey!” Kokomi said, pouting at him. “Don’t check out my girlfriend, that’s mean.”

 

He rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t doing that.”

 

Yoimiya nudged him. “But she’s kinda hot, isn’t she?” she whispered.

 

“Um. She’s whatever.” He spotted Ayaka’s glum expression, and suspected that she must have heard what Yoimiya had just told him. 

 

Yoimiya tutted. “Damn, you’ve got no taste.” She was about to leave, but she faced him again. “Also, you’ve been acting so much like Scara for the past five hours. Are you sure you’re Childe?”

 

He frowned. “Acting like him, how?”

 

“Oh, just the overall vibe you’re giving,” she said thoughtfully. “Constantly annoyed at your environment, always on edge, looking like you want to leave this place… that sort of thing. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

 

All of the above was very, very true, but he wasn’t about to go ahead and admit that. He grinned. “I guess some remnants of his soul are still here, or something.”

 

“Pssh. Lame.”

 

She walked away and asked Yae something while looking at him. Yae just shrugged. Yoimiya narrowed her eyes, then continued working around the shop. 

 

He sighed inwardly as he swept the floor. He was one of the Harbingers, for God’s sake, he should be out there fighting, but of course Signora insisted that he act the part of the barista first. Now he had to wait for the other Fatui members to get here and bail him out in Scaramouche’s body like some kind of damsel in distress. 


Not to mention how he still didn’t get why Yae had called Kokomi here. She’d told him to think about it, and he did, but the reason that was looking more and more likely was that she was just some stupid outsider who wanted to work here despite her overwhelming incompetency at the job. She could be another spy, sure, but it was too late at this point.

 

The people here weren’t ever going to see Scaramouche again, and they couldn’t do anything about it. 

 

“So,” Yae said, coming up from behind him, “would you like to be a barista back at Snezhnaya, too?”

 

He sneered at her. “I’d consider, if the coffee shop had decent people.”

 

She smiled plainly. “You really are acting more and more like Scara. His subconscious dislike for me, perhaps?”

 

“Sure. And my extremely conscious dislike for you, too.”

 

She hummed. “Interesting.” Her eyes flitted to the clock, and her smile widened. “How the time flies. I guess I have to start preparing.”

 

He didn’t get to ask what she meant by ‘preparing’, because he was suddenly aware of the fact that everyone in the shop had disappeared, besides Yae, Kokomi and the other girl who’d just walked in as a customer. 

 

And when the hell did the blinds on the windows close, too?

 

“I must say, I seriously detest doing favours for Yae,” the customer said dully, “but I have no choice in the matter, unfortunately.”

 

His eyes widened as she took a gun out from the waistband of her jeans and aimed the barrel between his eyes. Where the fuck had she hidden it just now?

 

Something poked at his side, and he realised that Kokomi had taken out the exact same gun, pressing the barrel to his waist. A small, mirthless smile tugged at her lips, her previous airiness all but faded away.

 

He laughed. “Cornering me in a coffee shop? Honestly, such ruffians.”

 

“The only ruffian here is you,” the dark-haired lady said calmly. “Get on your knees.”

 

Childe said coolly, “I’d rather not.” He reached into his pocket to press the call button on his pager, but–

 

–it was empty. 

 

“Poor thing,” Yae cooed, holding out the pager that was supposed to be in his damn pocket. “Looks like I got to it before you.”

 

What?” 

 

She gave him a deploring look. “You’re done for, Ajax. You’re not getting out of here with Scara’s body. You failed the mission.”

 

He grinned menacingly. “Oh, I’m sure.”

 

At that moment, there was a resounding crash as the splintering of glass rang out all around them, and the power went out in a blink. Childe shoved Kokomi away and tackled her gun away from her in the darkness, and just barely dodged a bullet that the other lady had aimed at his foot. She had scarily good vision in the dark.

 

He sprang into movement and jumped out the broken window, only to find himself getting tackled by someone else outside. 

 

“Fuck, what–”

 

Kazuha pinned down his knees and held a blade to his neck. Childe abruptly stilled. 

 

Yoimiya and Ayaka were beside him, keeping watch for any backup Childe had with blades in their hands, as well. This coffee shop was seriously full of a bunch of psychos.

 

“Sara,” Kazuha said, when the dark-haired lady stepped out of the shop, “he’s not going anywhere.”

 

Sara fixed Childe with a hard stare. “I’m sure he won’t. Not when we’ve already neutralised his reinforcements.”

 

They did what

 

“Come on, Ajax,” Yae said, crouching and smiling at him, “don’t look so upset. You pulled off quite the commendable feat back there. I’d have recruited someone like you into Tenshukaku without any hesitation.”

 

“Fuck off,” he hissed. The tip of the blade Kazuha held at his neck sank a little, drawing blood and making him wince. 

 

“I don’t want to hurt Scara’s body any more than I have to,” she said, her voice dangerously soft, “so just kindly get up now and surrender. You’ll be back in your own body soon. We can both pretend this never happened, and we’ll never bother each other again.”

 

Of course that won’t work. “You Tenshukaku,” he grimaced as the blade dug in deeper, “always ruin everything. I’ll never forget what you did to her.

 

“‘Her’?” 

 

Yae gave him a nasty smile. 

 

You mean your mother?”

 

Yae turned to Kokomi, who had just exited the shop. "Kokomi," she said, as Childe trembled in fury, "why don't you tell him what happened to his mother?"

 

"Oh." Kokomi looked down at him, her face blank. "I killed her."

Chapter Text

A few hours before 

Ei watched the monitor, tapping her footimpatiently. The green blip was frozen, and hadn’t moved for the past hour. According to their forces based at Snezhnaya, there were a few suspect vehicles that were nearby the location when Childe’s phone was still with Scara, and did not move until after ten minutes had passed. Their forces were split to trail each one, and Ei had a nagging suspicion that the vehicle heading to the Khamar-Daban mountains was the one with Scara. 

“Requesting backup to the UNSUB driving S056EX,” she spoke into her headset. “It’s travelling at an unusually slow pace, and is headed out of Morepesok. Amongst the windowless vehicles out of the six we’re currently trailing, there’s a higher likelihood that Scaramouche is being held captive in this one.”

“Request approved,” Ayato responded.

She glanced nervously at the digital clock on her desk. It was half past four, which meant Yae still had plenty of time before the Fatui would attack the Narukami coffee shop, but it didn’t keep her from being anxious. Yae had always been the more laid-back of the two, laying out plans by the seat of her pants, her confident stature naturally attracting others to instil unwavering trust in her. This time wasn’t any different, with Yae telling her calmly what Childe was plotting to do with Scara, and what she planned to do to stop him. Ei was surprised when she mentioned that she was enlisting the help of Kokomi and Sara (Sara, whom she hadn’t seen in years despite being in the same organisation), but when Ei remembered the case with Inessa a few years back, it all started to make sense to her. 

Yae was vicious, no doubt about it. Getting Kokomi of all people to stop Childe… She definitely knew what she was doing.

Ei stared at the screenshots she took the previous night of Scara in Childe’s body, looking absolutely pissed with the Scara-like expression he always had on, instantly recognisable even if it wasn’t on his own face. She’d managed to get Childe’s IP address after that call with a little basic manoeuvring, so if all else proved unsuccessful, at least they knew where Childe lived. It was a pretty big asset, just like Scara said; a classy bungalow and a side garden, as conspicuous as it could possibly be. It just didn’t make much sense for a Fatui Harbinger to live in a place as public as that, but then again, it was Childe. Childe who had single-handedly murdered dozens of Tenshukaku and Qixing members before. If he had any enemies looking for him, he’d end them in an instant. That, and the fact that the house had numerous bodyguards and caretakers to look after his younger siblings. 

Ei began chastising herself again for not having realised Childe’s identity sooner. Tenshukaku hadn’t known anything about the Harbingers using aliases; only when Yae had asked Childe some personal questions the second time he and Scara swapped bodies did she finally come to the conclusion that he was the same person as Tartaglia, the eleventh of the Fatui Harbingers, also known as Ajax, and even then she’d only told Ei a week later once she was completely sure of it. What was possibly even more scandalous was Morax having been a thing with Childe; Morax, the ex-director of the Liyue Qixing, and Childe, a Fatui Harbinger. It was a mystery how they'd even met. Besides, Ei hadn’t even known that Morax was going by the name Zhongli, and Yae had told her that he'd made the rash and impulsive decision to retire and start living life as someone cut off from the complicated network of secret societies, saying that he ‘needed a break from it for the rest of his life’.

She kept a watchful eye on Childe when he swapped over last night, and planted a tracker on Scara’s clothes beforehand to watch where he ended up sneaking off to in the middle of the night. Turns out, he went back to Narukami after the night shift ended (he had probably found out the timings of the different shifts from someone working there) and hung around there for half an hour before slinking back to the house, pretending nothing had happened. She informed Yae immediately, but she just brushed it off, saying that whatever he did wouldn't help his case any further. Ei hoped she was right.

Thinking back to this morning, she hadn’t expected him to sneak a burner phone into Scara’s room the second time they swapped bodies. She'd seen him throw it in the bin after she pretended to have left, and she quickly fished it out once he was gone, ignoring the odd looks from passers-by, only to find out that he'd already wiped everything clean off this phone. 

Childe had clearly been planning this for a while now, and Ei was embarrassed to say she was from Tenshukaku, having had practically no doubts about him at all when they interacted.

A voice crackled into her headset, breaking her out of her thoughts, “Miss Raiden, S056EX has stopped. Sending our location now. Permission to engage.”

“Permission granted,” she said coldly. 

Yae may be stopping Childe from leaving with Scaramouche’s body, but the real job lay with her.

Gunshots rang out in her headset. She winced. Did Itto forget to turn off his intercom?

“Miss Raiden,” he said shakily, “there are three UNSUBS.”

Three? Just to transport one measly Scara?

“What’s the situation?” she questioned.

“Currently surrounded by multiple Fatui soldiers,” he said between breaths, “and the UNSUBs from the vehicle have gone missing. Scaramouche was sighted unconscious with them. They’ve gone inside the mountain opening. Evidence suggests that the Fatui base is underground, ma’am.”

Shit. They’d lost the three UNSUBs and were being ambushed by Fatui reinforcements, which meant that they’d found out they were being trailed a while ago.

“Ma’am,” Itto’s voice crackled, more gunshots piercing her ears, “we’re being severely outnumbered.”

Ei grimaced. “Knock out one of the soldiers and bring them back along with you. Retreat, now.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her headset went quiet. She breathed out a frustrated sigh, anger boiling at the pit of her stomach. They’d followed them all the way there, and despite her having sent backup, all they’d gotten out of it was the location of the Fatui base. They didn’t even know if that was their main headquarters.

Scara was alone without help now, and it was all her fault. 

“Relax, Ei,” she could practically hear Yae say, as the pink-haired lady gave her a smile. “It isn’t over yet. We’ll win this, just like we always do.”

Win, huh. Yae treated everything like a game, but this wasn’t something she could take lightly at all. Still, the words of comfort she’d imagined Yae giving her helped, no matter how infinitesimally small the reassurance she’d felt was.

Ei took off her headset and, though she tried really hard not to, her eyes still ended up drifting to the purple stuffed rabbit on her desk, tattered and worn.

“Promise me, Ei.”

Makoto smiled weakly at her.

“Promise that you’ll forget about me.”

“Of course not!” she yelled, angry tears glistening in her eyes. “I’ll never… I’ll never forgive them…”

“Don’t do that to yourself,” Makoto said quietly, cupping her cheek gently. “It’s your tenth birthday next week. Be happy then, okay?”

“I don’t care,” she protested. “I can’t be happy… I can’t…”

Makoto’s eyes saddened. “Ei… ”

She took Ei into her arms. Ei’s hands, upon wrapping around her stomach, came off bloody from her wound, and it made her want to end the entire world. 

“I left a present for you,” Makoto whispered, her breaths becoming lighter and lighter. “You’re my precious little bunny, Ei.”

“No,” Ei weeped, burying her face into her sister’s shoulder. “No…”

“You’re Renji’s older sister now. Take good care of him. I’ll always be watching over the both of you.”

Ei continued sobbing, incoherently muttering ‘don’t go’ over and over again, until Makoto’s chest stopped moving and the light had faded out of her eyes. 

Ei decided, then, that she’d dedicate the rest of her life to making them pay. She'd end every last one of them. 

Those fucking Fatui Harbingers.

“Ei? Spacing out at that bunny again?”

Ayato walked over to her desk, exhaustion etched all over his face, but he still managed to smile at her.

“You’ve really got to mend it,” he said. “One of its eyes is about to pop out of its socket any time now.”

Ei rolled her eyes, but her spirits had been lifted a little. 

“That was a complete failure,” she said, referring to the mission.

Ayato shrugged. “We tried. At least we gained something out of it. Learning the whereabouts of their base is crucial to us, and we managed to do it.”

“But he’s alone,” she said miserably. “Who knows what they’re doing to him right now?”

“You shouldn’t pin the blame all on yourself,” he retorted. “It was a team effort. We all failed. Hell, I was the main Operator. It wasn’t you.”

“I know, but–”

“No ‘but’s,” he cut her off. “Now we have to wait for Yae to do her thing.”

Ei pursed her lips. “I’m worried about that, too.”

Ayato made a face. “Unnecessary. That shrewd fox will definitely pull through.”

“Is that so,” she said pessimistically.

“Just go eat something. You’re hungry, and it’s making you overthink a lot more.”

Ei sighed. “I guess you’re right.”

He smiled good-naturedly. “Of course I am.”

“You just wanted someone to go take a snack break with you, didn’t you?”

“Hilarious. Of course not.”

“You did.”

“Did not.”

Ei smiled. “Fine, whatever.”

 


 

Kokomi stared at him unflinchingly as he struggled to get out of Kazuha’s hold, murderous intent filling him up to the brim.

“I didn’t have a grudge against Inessa,” she continued, looking almost… bored. “It was just my job.”

Don’t say her fucking name–”

Kazuha swung his fist back and punched his nose with a sickening crack. 

“Stay down,” he warned, pinning him down with a lot more force than before. Childe winced, but he continued struggling, the adrenaline in his veins muting out all the pain he was supposed to be feeling.

“Now, now,” Yae said, clearly finding this very amusing, “calm down, Kazuha. This is still Scara’s body, after all, we can’t harm his pretty face too badly.”

“Sorry, but you saw what he was trying to do.”

“Yeah, I did. But it’s alright.” She held up her watch, turning the face of the clock directly for Childe to see. “Do you see this, Ajax? It’s eleven-thirty. Even if you escaped now, you wouldn’t make it back to Snezhnaya in time. You and Scara will go back to your own bodies in half an hour. Haven’t I already told you?” She smiled. “Your mission failed. It’s over.”

He glared up at her defiantly. “It doesn’t matter,” he said quietly. “I’ll come back, and I’ll be taking Scaramouche’s life from right under your noses.”

“Such big ambitions,” Yae mused. “You’re a Harbinger, indeed, for you to have declared something like killing your soulmate without batting an eye.”

Just then, something crashed from inside the shop. Yae didn’t show any visible signs of shock on her face, but Childe caught her muscles tensing. Sara cursed and dashed back in, Kokomi following along on her heels. 

Yae kept her eyes on Childe, her expression absolutely bone-chilling.

“Don’t even think about moving,” she hissed, then turned to the two girls standing guard. “Yoimiya, Ayaka. Watch over him.”

“Got it,” Yoimoya said, shooting him a glare. Ayaka nodded and avoided looking at Childe as she moved closer.

Yae whisked into the shop. 

However, just seconds later, they’d all find out too late that the noise inside the shop wasn’t the only surprise. The whirring of helicopter choppers was distant at first, but gradually became louder and louder, until the familiar black hull of Pantalone’s helicopter came into view. 

A shot rang out from behind him.

“AGH!”

Red bloomed in Kazuha’s shoulder like a spiderweb, his eyes wide in agony. The moment his grip on Childe weakened, he snatched his blade from him and shoved him away. Yoimiya was on him in an instant, but he was quicker, twisting her arm behind her back with a sickening crack and landing a sharp kick in her guts, sending her flying to the ground as she shrieked in pain.

He whirled around to do the same to Ayaka, but she’d already been knocked out onto the ground. 

Signora was beside her still body, looking absolutely unimpressed at him. 

A ladder dropped down from the helicopter, Pantalone’s head sticking out.

“Get the fuck up.”

He didn’t have to tell him twice. Childe winced at the slight throbbing in his neck, the feeling of pain finally kicking back in, but he pushed on and climbed up the ladder, heaving himself up into the helicopter with a groan. Signora followed nimbly after him, wiping her bloodied fingertips on his shirt with a disgusted face. 

He slapped her hand away. “Were you the one in the shop?” 

The helicopter turned and soared into the air.

“That was Arlecchino,” she said, still continuing to use his shirt as a cloth. “Poor him. He got beat up twice; he had to pretend like he’d given up the first time, then he had to resurface from the dead to make that ruckus so we could take you away. You're lucky we decided to stay to help you. If it were any of the other Harbingers, they'd have ditched you in an instant.”

He ignored her last statement. "How's Arlecchino gonna get back?”

“Who knows. Public transport, I guess.”

Childe fell silent, waiting for her insult. It took a while, but it finally came.

“You do know you’re absolutely useless, right,” she deadpanned. “Your pager was taken from you. And you pulled that wholeass stunt only for that pink lady to have seen right through you.”

“Give me a break,” he said, exasperated. “I know, I would’ve been absolutely demolished if you hadn’t come to help me.”

She smiled fakely. “Good that you know that, then.”

“What time is it?”

“Uh…” Signora frowned at her watch. “Eleven forty-five.”

“Relax,” Pantalone said. “We’re already on our way to Snezhnaya. Even if the body swapping happens, there’s no place for him to run. His fate’s set.”

Childe grunted in acknowledgement. There was nothing satisfying about this ending, though he’d at least managed to accomplish this much. 

He was about to wrap his wounds with gauze, but then remembered that it wasn’t his own body and abandoned the first-aid kit, instead choosing to lie back down on the cold metal floor, his eyes fluttering shut. Yae’s deploring smile and Kokomi’s blank eyes flashed in his mind, making him suppress a shiver.

One day, he was going to make them regret they’d ever spoken down to him like that.

“Get up,” Signora said, a sneer on her face as she held out a circular loop of rope. “For when your soulmate comes later.”

“Ugh. Fuck, okay.” 

He reluctantly sat up as she bound his hands and feet together, the rope digging into his skin painfully, though he was pretty used to the feeling, so it was at least possible for him to bear it for the rest of the fifteen minutes. 

Cold wind bit at their faces as the helicopter crossed the border into Snezhnaya. Scaramouche’s body was extremely vulnerable to the cold, shivering at just a light breeze, and he pinched himself so he wouldn’t show it, in case Signora got the wrong idea and thought he secretly couldn’t stand the cold, or something. But then he stopped pinching him, because it felt wrong for some reason, and didn’t know what possessed him to start patching his wounds up, too. 

Signora smiled mirthlessly. “How considerate.”

“Shut up. It just hurts.”

The moment he was done, the world blackened and there was a familiar tug at his navel as he was dragged back to his body.

 


 

Scara’s eyes snapped open. The first thing he registered was that he couldn’t move, again, and the next was that holy shit it was so fucking cold, and was he on a helicopter?

“Can someone close the window?” he snapped. 

The woman next to him sized him up and down, then cracked a sinister smile. “Hello, Scaramouche.”

He glared at her. “I’m freezing. Close the window, wherever it’s at, or I’m going to throw myself out and you guys can do nothing about it.”

“Good try, but you physically can’t throw yourself out, unfortunately,” she said. “So I’ll have to ignore your request.”

“Bitch.”

He laid onto the floor, and was suddenly hit with a myriad of pain sensations, all coursing through him with varying degrees of intensity. “Ow, ow, ow, fuck–”

She looked at him curiously. “So… you’re just going to lay down there? Not going to even try fighting back?”

His eyes were tearing up from the pain involuntarily, and he quickly blinked them away, hating the amused look on the woman’s face. It reminded him so much of Yae that it made him want to puke.

“What’s the point?” he said. “It’s just as you said; I can’t throw myself out even if I wanted to. And it’s also cold. I’d rather not fight with a freezing ass.”

“You seem awfully indifferent to the fact that you’re here,” the pilot commented. “Almost as if you don’t care about what we’re going to do to you.”

Scara scoffed. “Right… I’m only indifferent because I just went through a whole day of brain zaps and invisible punches to the head. Translation, I’m fucking exhausted.”

“I see,” the woman said, blatantly unsympathetic. “You can look forward to reaching our base, then. We’ll have a room reserved just for you.”

Scara blinked. “Excuse me?”

“A room,” she repeated. “For you.”

“What about all those tests that snake said I had to do?”

“Those come after you get some rest. Obviously.”

“Okay. What the fuck comes after, then?”

She eyed him for a moment, then the bitch started laughing.

“Lumine really didn’t tell you?”

He waited for her to calm down, then she stretched a hand out with a smile.

Scara gave it a disgusted look. 

“Welcome, Scaramouche. Starting tomorrow, you’re going to serve the Tsaritsa and become the new Sixth of the Fatui Harbingers." 

 

Chapter Text

Scara laughed.

Her hand remained outstretched, her gaze unwavering. Not a hint of humour was written anywhere on her face. 

The colour slowly drained from his face. "No," he said. "Fuck no."

She raised an eyebrow. "If only you had a choice."

"Of course I have a choice." He scowled. "This is against the fucking law."

She snickered. "The law ? You still think we care about it, after everything we've already done to you?"

Fair point. 

"Anyway," she continued, taking her hand back to her side once she realised he was hellbent on ignoring it, "you're not in a position to have any say in this. I'm surprised you haven't realised that by now."

"Fuck off. You people wouldn't even have found me if I weren't soulmates with your Harbinger colleague."

She gave him a dubious look. "We would have found you, either way. Don't flatter yourself."

"Why me, then? Wouldn't picking some other person off the street suffice? I have no relation to this cult, organisation, whatever, so why the fuck are you guys on my ass?" He thought back to the brief introduction to the Fatui that Lumine had given him while she was torturing him in Childe's body. "And aren't Harbingers the more high-ranking ones? Why am I instantly promoted to the sixth Harbinger ? Just so you know, I'm fucking awful at working under pressure, so this isn't going to work out for anyone."

It was the pilot who laughed this time. 

"No relation… now that's just funny."

"Is 'elaboration' a word that's not in your vocabulary?"

He gave another cryptic laugh, and didn't say anything afterwards, making Scara's blood absolutely boil.

"You're both fucked up," Scara muttered under his breath. 

"I'm sure you'll understand once you meet the Boss," the woman beside him said commiseratingly, though the ingenuine smile on her face said otherwise. "You'll try to resist now, but I doubt you'll want to go back once you find out all the lies that your life has been built upon."

Scara wanted to punch that stupid smile off her face, but the rope digging into his skin was way too much for him to handle, so he bared his teeth and focused all his attention on tolerating the pain until they reached their destination.

He hated how helpless he was, even though he'd been set on fighting back since the moment he was knocked out cold in front of Lumine. He had to fight back, he had to, or he'd risk never going back to that goddamned insufferable coffee shop ever again. 

His stomach dropped.

He'd miss it. He'd miss everyone there, everyone whom he'd so closely associated with as his own family, even though he never admitted it to them. Stupid Kazuha and his random ass haikus, disgusting hyperactive Yoimiya, frustrating Ayaka who could never voice her own opinions, even condescending Yae, who always looked at him with a smug smile like she knew every fucking thing that crossed his mind--

Most of all, he'd miss Ei. His stupidass sister who always ordered him around like she owned him, who couldn't cook instant noodles for herself, who was so idiotic and stubborn that she would never admit that she was at fault, even when she was blatantly wrong.

His chest tightened. What the fuck. Was he seriously just going to let the Fatui take him away like that? 

Of course not. 

But before he could do anything, the woman broke into a disturbing grin beside him, like she could tell what he was thinking.

"You're really dead set on getting away from us, it's written all over your face." She cocked her head. "I'll go ahead and do what Pantalone didn't, then, and briefly elaborate on what relations you have to us."

His head rose instinctively. Fuck. He had meant to ignore her, because he seriously didn't care about anything related to the Fatui, but now he'd gone ahead and revealed that he was semi-interested in what she had to say.

"Well, for starters…" 

She tapped a finger to her chin.

"... your father was a part of the Fatui."

Scara froze. Then he replayed her words over and over again, turning them inside out and wringing them dry, until he was sure he hadn't misheard her.

"Excuse me?" he said quietly. 

"He was the previous Sixth Harbinger," she went on coolly. 

"Signora," Pantalone said warningly, "don't get too carried away."

"Of course."

Scara didn't get it. He just didn't. He barely remembered what his father was like, but the thought of him being in the Fatui repulsed him to no end. He'd rarely ever seen his father when he was younger, sure, him coming back home to visit him and his mother being an occurrence that was far and few between, but him being a part of the Fatui? It was inconceivable. 

There was no way his mother would have accepted that. She was kind, warm, compassionate, selfless-- everything that was the total opposite of every Fatui member he'd come across so far. Her choosing to be with someone from this god-awful organisation, and even having a kid with him… there was just no way.

He thought back to the day where his parents had gotten murdered. He hadn't gotten a good look at the intruder's face, but he swore the silhouette had been that of a man's. What sort of motive did that guy have? Was it because his father had done something unforgivable as the Sixth Harbinger? Then why kill his mother, too? Come to think of it, the man hadn't really made the effort to chase him when he ran away. He was just a kid, and compared to someone way bigger than him, he'd definitely have gotten caught in no time. 

Had the man let Scara live on purpose ?

Before he knew it, the helicopter was descending, and there was a sharp bump as it landed on a helicopter pad atop… 

… A mountain ?

The helicopter door slid open.

Signora roughly pulled him up to his feet, and he stumbled a little, because why wouldn't he when his feet were fucking tied together, he thought as she scoffed at him . He shuffled little by little off the helicopter and onto the rocky ground, surveying his surroundings. 

He felt like it'd been decades since he'd been under the expanse of a sky. His eyes drifted to the right, where surrounding mountains rose from the ground, their jagged peaks slicing the clouds in the dusky sky. They were dressed in evergreens right up to their crowns of silver-white, standing sentry to the bluest of lake waters below that reflected the moon, the whole scenery looking otherworldly and mystical. 

Then he turned back to the part of the range they were on, and his mood instantly soured. 

There were numerous Fatui soldiers standing guard at a mountain opening, though it was so narrow that he doubted two people could even pass through it at the same time. All soldiers in the vicinity immediately bowed once Signora and Pantalone came into view.

"Welcome back to Zapolyarny, Harbinger Signora and Harbinger Pantalone," they greeted in unison. It creeped Scara out.

Said Harbinger didn't do anything to acknowledge them. Signora just pushed Scara towards the opening, him just barely saving himself from falling flat onto his face countless times. Just as he'd thought, only one person could pass through at a single time, and the three of them entered in single file, only for Scara to stop once he realised that there was no more ground beyond. 

A deep, seemingly bottomless pit was in front of them. He could just barely make out noises from the bottom, and as time passed he realised they were sounding more and more like metal clanging against metal, until, finally, two chains appeared and a lift emerged from the black depths. It slowed to a halt. Its metal doors slid open, its interior looking the opposite of inviting. 

He was shoved inside, the lift floor shaking under his feet as he struggled to find his balance. The floor sank as the two Harbingers entered behind him.

Once they were inside and the doors closed behind them with an excessively loud clang, ceiling lights suddenly blinked into life in the lift, and a rectangular display of buttons lit up with a red hue. Scara's eyes widened as his eyes swept over them. 

There were twenty-three floors, and all of them were labelled with a "B-" in front of them. They were all subterranean.  

Signora clicked on B-23 . An automated voice blared over the speakers that were built into the lift.

"Iris verification required." 

There was a rectangular display above the floor buttons. Signora lowered herself a little until her right eye hovered exactly within the circle shown on the display that prompted her to match her iris. A beep sounded, and the B-23 button lit up in blue. 

"Iris verification completed. Access to B-23 granted. Welcome, Harbinger Signora."

The lift jerked, then started moving. But it wasn't descending. 

It was moving to the right. 

"What the--" Scara said in alarm, pressing his back against the lift wall as it surged to the right at a scarily quick speed, and accidentally knocking his head against the cold metal as he did so. Stars broke out in his vision, and it was only when he looked down at the floor to steady himself when he realised there was a bandage wrapped around his neck.

No wonder he'd been feeling weak since he woke up in the helicopter. Fucking Childe had gotten beat up in his body, and had even gotten his neck sliced. Scara felt marginally better now that he found out what had been blogging him down, but it still sickened him to even be here.

Pantalone snickered, not even breaking a sweat as the lift continued moving. Signora idly checked her nails. They both somehow stood stably on their feet, like they were rooted to the fucking ground. 

"I love watching when people take this lift for the first time," Pantalone said gleefully. "It never gets boring."

"What does the fucking B stand for in all those buttons, then?" Scara hissed. "We're clearly not going down."

Pantalone shrugged. "Not everything has to have a meaning."

"Fucking hell."

Then, just as quickly as it started moving, with no warning at all the lift abruptly screeched to a halt, and Scara nearly barrelled right into Pantalone.

The automated voice rang out again.

"Area B-23."

The door didn't open immediately, for some reason. During the time when they were just standing around, Signora cast him a dark smile. 

"We're going straight to meet the Boss. I hope you're excited." 

Scara was not. In fact, he hadn't felt an impending sense of doom this strongly before in his entire life. 

A different voice crackled through the speakers, then. A cold and high voice, sounding like it was from an extremely haughty woman.

"Signora, Pantalone, you may take your leave. The Boss would like to meet our guest alone."

Signora hummed. "Sure." She waved at Scara. "I hope you have a fruitful time."

Before he could shoot a nasty remark at her, the metal doors slid open. What lay beyond was basically pitch darkness, and, after getting out of the lift, he wasn't sure how he was going to move in there at all.

As the doors closed behind him, a figure emerged from the dark, to reveal a lady dressed in a grey overcoat and black jeans, like any typical outfit you'd wear to an office job. She eyed him for a moment, then, much to his surprise, she began to untie the ropes binding his feet, though she still left those on his hands. 

"I'm Chief Secretary of the Fatui," she introduced, "and everyone just calls me Mila. Welcome, Scaramouche."

He nodded mutely at her, admittedly kind of intrigued at this place. She was holding something that looked like a remote control in her hand, and she pressed a button. The entire area immediately lit up, a light humming sounding through the place as electricity coursed through the circuits. He now found that they were standing in a hallway, with multiple closed doors lining the walls on either side of them, all the way until the end, where a singular oak door stood. 

He could guess who that door led to.

"We're at Area B-23, where the main administrative affairs of the Fatui takes place," she explained, as she led him across the hallway. He followed behind her and inspected the doors as they passed them. They were numbered one through eleven, one to five being on his right and six to eleven being on his left. Officers for each of the Harbingers, perhaps? But that didn't seem right, because Mila was here, and she wasn't a Harbinger. "You won't be coming down here very often when you're a Harbinger, but the Boss may request meetings every once in a while."

His eye twitched. "Look, I'm not going to be a Harbinger."

Mila stopped in front of the oak door, and so did he. She turned to him with an indecipherable expression. "I look forward to working with you," she eventually said, completely ignoring his statement. He resisted the urge to roundhouse kick her in the face. 

"Boss," she said to the one behind the door, "Scaramouche is ready to meet you." 

A few seconds later, a small click sounded as the door unlocked itself. Mila nodded to Scara, then turned and left. 

"Wait, what? " he called out after her, but she had already disappeared into one of the doors. His hands were still bound together, so how the fuck was he supposed to open the door? He didn't exactly know why he had his reservations about using his free foot to kick open the door, instead of using his hands, but he ended up doing just that, anyway. He could have probably used his shoulders to nudge the door ajar, but that made him look extremely pathetic when he imagined himself doing it. 

The room, surprisingly, was already brightly lit, unlike all the other areas he'd been to in the compound so far. 

"Kicking open the door like that, just who do you think you are?"

Wait. That voice was familiar. Extremely fucking familiar, even though he'd never heard it come out from someone that wasn't himself. 

Childe was standing a short distance away, an unpleasant and repulsed look on his face. Scara would beat the living daylights out of him right there and then, after everything he'd made him go through, but unfortunately his hands were still bound together, so he had to settle for giving him a withering glare.

"If only I injured you more," he snarled. 

Childe eyed the bandages on his neck. "You're lucky I'm gracious enough to have even bothered to patch you up. In hindsight, I should have just left the wound open." 

"Fuck off, you piece of fucking--"

Someone in the room cleared their throat. Loudly.

Scara didn't know why, but he wasn't expecting the Boss of the Fatui to be a girl. And such a youthful-looking one, at that, with her hair in a light brown bob that accentuated her fair face. 

She was sitting behind a large desk in front of an even larger monitor that she shifted to the side. Two more monitors were on each of her sides. Scara couldn't tell what was showing on any of their displays; they'd probably been privacy-screen protected.

Scara would have almost mistaken her for a young innocent schoolgirl, if not for her disturbingly emotionless eyes. 

"Tartaglia, you may leave," she said, her voice also much deeper than Scara had expected, carrying with it the weight of superiority and charisma. Was Tartaglia his actual name? Probably not. Scara guessed that it was his Fatui title (since Tonia had consistently been calling him "Aj-"), and that Childe was the fake name he gave everyone else. 

Childe bowed. "Yes, Boss." 

He left the room immediately. The door closed behind them with a loud click. 

The girl tilted her head. "I'm glad to see you, Scaramouche. It comes with much surprise that you didn't put up much of a fight when you came here with Signora and Pantalone." 

He gave her a frosty look. "Of course I didn't. I was rendered practically immobile the entire time, especially when Tartaglia had gotten all beat up in my body before that."

She nodded, unfazed. "Understandable." She gestured at a black leather seat placed beside what seemed to be a coffee table, of sorts. "Have a seat." 

He begrudgingly sat down. She stood from her desk and sat opposite him on the other leather seat. 

"First of all, a very good evening to you," she said serenely, crossing her legs. "I'll allow you to ask exactly three burning questions that you have right now." 

He glared at her. He already hated everything about this girl, especially the way she carried herself, looking at him like he was beneath her, but… he did have burning questions.

"My father… Why was my father a part of the Fatui?" 

She deliberated for a few seconds, her green eyes giving away nothing. 

"He had been a part of the Fatui ranks since he was a teenager," she said calmly. "I believe his family had been murdered in front of him," she continued unflinchingly, "and he had no place to go. He was poor, and began to rob other people to survive, even going so far as to kill them if they put up a fight. One of my Fatui soldiers witnessed his acts, and recruited him. He accepted it. Within just five years, he'd risen in power at a rapid pace and achieved the position of Sixth Harbinger. He was the second youngest person to have become a Harbinger, in fact, at the mere age of twenty-one." 

She stopped her answer there and watched him. Scara tried to process the information, but it was too much for him, because the telltale feeling of bile had started rising up at the back of his throat. 

"If you're feeling unwell, I can choose not to answer any more questions--"

"No," he said quickly, digging his nails into his knees. "Second question. Why was my father murdered?" 

The girl still didn't show any outward signs of… anything, actually. She was like a blank fucking slate. "Your father had the misfortune of failing to carry out one of his most important missions." She paused for some weird reason, her eyes scanning over him. Then, he understood why she'd done that, because of what she said moments later.  

"He failed to kill your mother."

Hearing that, his entire world was instantly knocked off-kilter. 

She continued. "Your mother was the daughter of the now ex-director of Tenshukaku. Your father had a mission to kill her, but he hadn't realised your mother's true identity until it was too late. At that point, he even tried covering her up from us, but we did our own digging and found out his betrayal. To punish him for that, I sent someone to kill them both."

Scara's vision turned red, his hands desperately trying to come out of their binds. " You–”

She sighed. "It's still beyond me to this day, how your mother had kept her identity from your father for so long. How it'd taken him six whole years to figure out that she'd been lying to him."

"Why?" he demanded. "Why are you making me the Sixth Harbinger now? Why had you not just ordered your Fatui hitman to kill me along with them?" 

She gave him an appraising look. "That's your last question. And, to answer that…"

He stared at her in horror as a mirthless smile creeped up her lips. 

"Your mother tried shielding you," she said, amused. "Knowing she would be killed, she sent you to her brother's family, so they'd protect you. That's the real reason behind why you got adopted into the Raiden family. You're pretty much a Raiden yourself, anyway. Once we found out where you went, I sent orders to have Raiden Makoto killed, so the Raiden family would get intimidated and they'd hand you over to us. They didn't, however. The current director of Tenshukaku, your uncle, went MIA, for some reason, and Raiden Ei took that time to move to a better place to hide you, presumably with the Kujou Clan's help.

Years passed with no sign of you anywhere. Then February 2nd came along, and Tartaglia found you. Naturally, we had to get you back. Death was too light of a punishment to give your father, after all. We had to make sure his child would pay for his sins, too." 

She held his furious stare for a long while, then said, "Now, you're going to carry on your father's legacy as the Sixth Harbinger. You'll serve the Fatui whole-heartedly, and you'll never see your Tenshukaku friends again. Well, there's another thing that I'm sure you'd be very interested in, that would seal your deal with us without question."

“Let’s fucking hear it, then." 

Her eyes glinted. 

"What if I told you that your mother was still alive?"

His mind went numb. "Excuse me? You literally just said that you had her killed."

"Yeah. I ordered to have her killed, but the person failed." The girl shrugged. "She killed him, instead, and faked her own death by conspiring with the police to release the information that she died. Her whereabouts are currently unknown." 

Scara felt a wave of betrayal wash over him. His mother was alive, and didn't even bother looking for him all this time? There was a chance that the girl was lying to him, but…

"We're currently trying to find her," she said. "We suspect that she may have something to do with the disappearance of the current director of Tenshukaku, as well. And, hopefully, this has also made you realise something."

She gauged his reaction, her eyes piercing into his.

"Your Tenshukaku friends likely know where your mother is, and they chose not to tell you all this time." 

She, suddenly and abruptly, laughed.

"Your lovely sister didn't even tell you herself that she was from Tenshukaku, did she? You found it out from someone else. She wasn't planning to tell you anything, not before, not now, not ever. "

"What a fucking blatant lie," he said, though it wasn't with much convinction. She was right; Ei had never told him anything.

Fuck.

The girl rested her cheek on her palm. "So, Renji, do you understand why you can't trust them now?" 

He gritted his teeth. "Don't call me that, bitch."

She grinned maliciously. "I'll make you regret that later, but for now, I hope you understand why your loyalties should lie with us." 

She stood and walked back to her desk, not even facing him as she said, "You have no choice but to be a part of the Fatui, because you won't be able to find your mother otherwise."


A few minutes before 

Fuck.

Yae watched as the helicopter flew away into the night, a wave of violent, cold fury rising inside her.

"Crap," Sara said. 

"Sorry, Yae," Kazuha breathed, holding his shoulder and wincing. "It came without any warning." 

Yae's mouth tightened in anger. "It wasn't your fault," she said, though there was some lingering frustration at their incompetency. "I shouldn't have assumed that they wouldn't pull something like this." 

Kokomi exited the shop and gently lifted Yoimiya up, careful not to aggravate her twisted shoulder. Sara did the same with Kazuha and Ayaka. 

Yae roughly slammed the door to the coffee shop shut, and headed over to a knocked out Arlecchino on the floor, coldly assessing him. 

"What should we do with this Harbinger?" Kokomi asked, as she busied herself with patching Yoimiya up. 

Yae landed a kick on his side, admittedly needing some sort of avenue to vent out her frustration. He rolled over onto his back like a ragdoll. 

"We'll take him in for questioning," she said coldly. "We need to find out exactly how much they know about Raiden Hikari."

"And what about Scaramouche?" Sara said. 

"Forget about him," she said sharply. Sara stiffened a little. "It's too late to get him back now. We had the opportunity, and it slipped through our fingers. The only thing we can do is hope that he'll somehow escape, but I doubt he'll do that, now that he's already in their clutches."

Sara didn't question it, though she was visibly put off by the idea. "How do we report what happened to her , then?" 

"We'll tell her the truth. She'll likely accept it." She paused. "I don't think she ever loved her son that much, anyway."

"And Ei?" 

Yae's face darkened. 

"We'll find some way to tell her, too. I'll have to make sure she doesn't do anything rash once she finds out."


The moment he was dragged back to his own body, Lumine was unstrapping him from the metal table they used to torture and interrogate people, and he scowled at her.

"Why the fuck did you do that to him when you knew this was my body?" he hissed. 

She merely smiled. "Why would I not? It's your body. It was pretty fun, seeing the expressions he made as you when he was here."

"Crazy asshole." 

He barely got out of the metal table on his own, embarrassingly needing Lumine's help to get his trembling feet on the floor. 

"The Boss wants to meet you after this," she said. "You're probably going to get fucked. Just a little hunch." 

"Ha. Thanks." 

"Deserved, honestly."

"Shut up." 

"Wow, not even a thanks for helping you capture him?" she snarled. 

He gave her an insincere smile. "Thank you so very much." 

"Fucker." 

She shoved him out of the room and slammed the door behind him. 

He, very honestly, felt like puking his guts out on the floor. His head throbbed with the pain of a thousand sledgehammers repeatedly striking it over and over again. He almost wished he was back in Scaramouche's body; the injuries he sustained there were nowhere near as bad as whatever the fuck had happened to his original one.

He made his way for the lift, despondent and exhausted. At one moment, unbridled fury would strike him whenever he thought back to what happened at Narukami, but it passed as quickly as it came, and he was left feeling like an empty, hollow shell as he remembered his mother from a time when all was fine with the world. 

"Malysh," she said softly. "It'll be alright. Katya is in a better place now." 

Ajax sat in front of the stone plaque, silently weeping. There were two paw prints carved onto it, with a message below it: If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever. 

"I want to see her again," he said through sobs, "I want to pet Katya again." 

His mother hugged him. He buried his face in her shoulder. 

"She'll visit you in your dreams," she said kindly. "She'll always be watching over you." 

"But I want her to be here with me." 

"It's impossible for her," she said, hugging him tighter. "She wants to see you again, too, but the world has decided that she needs to take her leave." 

"But…  but…" 

"Malysh." She pulled away, cupping his cheeks in her hands, looking at him with a soft smile. "She lived a happy life with you. The good memories you've made are all that matters." 

She wiped his tears away. "She wouldn't want you to be sad forever. Be happy for Katya, okay?" 

He sniffed. "I can't be happy without her…"

His mother ruffled his hair. "Yes, you can. Why don't we go cook something?"


He dragged himself to the lift lobby and pressed the call button.


The death of his dog, Katya, was the first time he'd ever experienced loss in his life. He slowly came to terms with it, and soon after, he'd witnessed something so beautiful and amazing that the intense pain of losing Katya seemed like a distant dream. 

His younger sister, Tonia, had been born into the world. He was with her nearly all the time; whenever his parents were busy with work, he changed her diapers, helped her learn how to crawl, and was even the first person to have heard her first words. 

"Uh-oh," Tonia had suddenly said, and Ajax burst into laughter at the bright smile on her face. "Uh-oh. Uh-oh," she repeated, excitedly giggling. "Uh-oh!"


The lift arrived. Childe stepped in.


"Tonia really likes you," his mother said, and with good reason, too. Tonia had clung to him all day when they went out to the market today. She smiled. "She likes you even more than me."

He laughed. "Probably."

"I know you took care of her a lot when she was younger," she said, looking a little sad now. "I wish I wasn't so busy with work."

"It's okay, Mamoolya. I'll continue taking care of her whenever you're busy. I like doing it." 

She patted his head. "Don't worry, I'll definitely be around more often for your next sibling."

He stopped. Her jaw fell open, like she wasn't supposed to reveal that information.

"Mamoolya, I'm getting another sibling?" he said excitedly. 

She laughed, abashed. "Your Papoolya and I were going to tell you guys next week… oh, well. Yes, we are. You and Tonia are going to have a baby brother."

He beamed, then immediately dragged her out of the house to do more baby shopping, in which she readily agreed.


Operating on autopilot, he pressed B-23 and matched his iris to the scanner.

"Iris verification confirmed. Access to B-23 granted. Welcome, Harbinger Tartaglia."


Like his mother had promised, she took care of Anthon more, and this time, she was the first person to have heard his first words. 

But as Ajax, Tonia and Anthon grew up, their mother was slowly getting consumed back into her heavy workload again, because of their father's sudden illness. Their mother was the sole breadwinner of the family, and Ajax felt horrible not being able to support her much. When she came home for dinner every night, there was this… manic energy about her, like she wouldn't allow herself to rest, even going so far as to detest the time when she wasn't working, and her eyes became more and more distant. Soon, she barely even engaged in conversation with any of them anymore, not even Ajax. 

Then, their father mysteriously got better, and things were better for a short period of time. Their mother started smiling, and she grew closer to them again. Soon, their parents had their third child, and everyone was happy. Teucer being born into the world seemed to signify something good, seemed to thank them all for having held out for so long. 

His mother told Ajax the truth once Teucer hit the age of one.

"I'm working for an organisation called the Fatui," she told him, after everyone had slept following the end of Teucer's first birthday celebration. "I have been, even since before I met your father. My boss has given me a mission that requires me to travel to Inazuma, so I won't be back for a few months."

He stared at her, not daring to say anything. She grimly continued. 

"Your father's slowly falling back ill again. You're all grown up now, so I hope you can take care of Tonia, Anthon and Teucer while I'm gone." 

"What mission?" he said, worry gripping his chest like a vice. "Is it dangerous? Mama, have you been putting yourself in danger all this time?" 

She suddenly looked very, very tired. 

"It's my job," she said. "I'm doing everything I can for all of you." 

"Can't you quit?" he said, but he already knew the answer. 

She cracked a resigned smile. "Don't worry," she said,  though the corners of her eyes were tight. "You're going to be twenty-two in a few years, after all. I'll be there to see who your soulmate is." 

She left without a word the next day. Ajax could only tell his other siblings that she'd gone for a business trip. Even worse, his father was hospitalised again. 

Since then, Ajax spiralled into a dark, dark abyss of self-loathing and helplessness. He couldn't do anything to help, but he was afraid. Afraid of what his mother had been sent to do in Inazuma, afraid of his father's worsening condition, afraid of his siblings losing the light in their eyes and going through the same things he did--

Then it all crashed down the day someone he didn't recognize knocked on the door, and said in a grim voice, "Inessa Mikhailovna has passed on in her line of duty. Am I speaking to Ajax Nikolaevich?" 

"Yes," he said, his face blank, while his heart felt like it'd completely stopped.

"Follow me," the person said. "We would like to have a few words with you."


The lift moved at breakneck speed. Childe remained in place, staring at the opposite wall vacantly.


"Your mother has died an honourable death." 

"'An honourable death'?" he echoed, smiling humorlessly. "She would never see Teucer grow up. She tried her hardest to pay off Papa's bills, but she ended up dead , because of some stupid mission you gave her that she had no choice but to accept. What honourable death?" 

Anya Solovyova looked at him curiously. "I don't think you helped her much, either. If anything, all of you were dragging her down. I recall her being a much better assassin when she wasn't tied to anyone."

He glared at her, and intended to hiss a scathing remark back, but he stopped. Because she was right. Taking care of them and working for the Fatui at the same time had driven her into a corner, where she had no choice but to choose to accept a potentially dangerous mission that she knew would probably end her life.

His mother had chosen death, instead of a life with them.

"Ajax," Anya Solovyova said, "your family's at a loss now. No one is making money for you anymore. How are you going to sustain yourselves from now on?"

At that moment, rage like he'd never felt before cut through him like a hot knife. 

"You want me to work for you," he said, his eyes blazing. "You're not even trying to hide it."

She raised an eyebrow. "You're right, I wasn't. I think this would benefit all of us, wouldn't it?"

"You sent my mother to her death." 

"No," she said simply, "you did."


The lift slowly came to a halt. The doors slid open as he stepped out into the same hallway he'd walked through that fateful day when he first met Anya Solovyova, the Overseer of the Fatui.


"Ajax." 

His father lay on the hospital bed, his chest rising and falling, every breath he took looking like it may be his last. 

"Father," he said, swallowing the lump forming in his throat. 

"How are you doing?" 

"Fine." A lie. 

"Are Tonia, Anthon and Teucer alright?"

"They're fine, too." Another lie.

"And your mother? How is she?" 

He took a deep breath. Just lie again , he told himself, it's not that hard . "She's busy with work, but other than that, she's alright."  

His father cracked a small smile. "Is that so…"

He'd probably known what happened to his mother, but Ajax shoved the thought aside.

Ajax barely had any time to visit his father in the hospital after he was recruited into the Fatui. He spent nearly all of his waking hours ruthlessly training, not sparing even a second of rest. He came back home for dinner, meditated in his room for a while, then slept an hour after midnight, and roused at the ass crack of dawn to make breakfast for his siblings, then left to train at the Fatui headquarters. Such was his routine every single day.

Until the day came when his father, too, had left this world, just like his mother, just like Katya, and Ajax felt himself succumbing to a deep, dark hole of darkness, misery and anger. 

He climbed viciously up the ranks, until he became the eleventh Harbinger at the age of nineteen, also the youngest Harbinger in history. It was then that he couldn't take the overwhelming pressure anymore, and told Tonia and Anthon the truth of his work, as well as the truth of how their mother had died. That night, the three siblings hugged, and they  both swore to protect and help him, refusing to let what happened to his mother happen to him, as well.


He reached the oak door, and spoke.

"I'm here, Boss."

The door clicked open. 

Anya Solovyova smiled at him. 

"Welcome back, Tartaglia," she said. "You've accomplished your mission in bringing Scaramouche to us. The promised pay will be sent to your bank account tomorrow."

Childe nodded. "Thank you." 

She didn't say anything else. He cleared his throat. "Lumine told me that you wished to speak to me…"

"Oh, it was nothing much," she said, unusually cheerily. "I just wanted to congratulate you for doing something not many would have been able to do."

"And that was… what?" 

She looked amused. "It's like you don't even care about him being your soulmate."

Childe said in understanding, "Ah. I didn't think too much of it. If anything, the body swapping was nothing but inconvenient to me, though it did help us get to this point."

She nodded. "Of course."

Then, Mila's voice rang out from behind the door.

"Boss, Scaramouche is ready to meet you." 

That was quick.  

Anya Solovyova pressed a button on her desk to unlock the door. Was she not going to get him to leave first?  

"Wait, what? " Scaramouche said from the other side of the door. Probably because Mila had just left him without a word. 

Then, to Childe's abhor, Scaramouche kicked the door open, like some sort of uncivilised gangster. 

"Kicking the door open like that, just who do you think you are?" 

He watched as Scaramouche slowly registered his presence in the room, a scowl forming on his face. He looked like he was about to cross the distance between them and beat him up, and he mustered all the violent actions he couldn't do into one seething glare. 

"If only I injured you more." 

Childe looked down at the bandage on his neck, now deeply regretting his action. "You're lucky I'm gracious enough to have even bothered to patch you up. In hindsight, I should have just left the wound open." 

He was way too tired to engage in any sort of argument, so he just watched boredly as Scaramouche's face contorted in anger.

"Fuck off, you piece of fucking -- "

Anya Solovyova cleared her throat. 

"Tartaglia, you may leave."

Finally. 

He bowed, relief rushing through him. "Yes, Boss." 

He quickly left the room. He just didn't get how he and Scaramouche were supposed to be soulmates. He was supposed to 'understand why' when he met him, according to everyone else who had been with their soulmates, but it wasn't like he suddenly felt a mysterious sense of connection to him. In fact, it was more a mysterious sense of repulsion.

A huge spike of pain sliced through his head again, and he hissed in pain. 

God, he really wanted to get back to his room and sleep.

Chapter Text

“You may leave now, Renji. From today onwards, you’re going to be a Fatui Harbinger, so you’ll be allocated your own room in the Harbingers’ residential area of Zapolyarny. For now. Once you earn more money from completing missions, you’ll be given the freedom to buy your own house, and we’ll provide the necessary security measures, of course.”

That damn bitch was talking like she hadn’t just dropped an entire bomb on him earlier. 

He desperately wanted to make a break for it and get the hell out of this mountain, but that meant that, first, he’d have to find some way past those iris scanners in order to use the lifts, because there was no way his irises would have been registered, not when he'd just arrived here; second, he’d have to get past those Fatui guards at the entrance; third, he’d have to somehow find a way back to Inazuma. All of the above being, realistically, downright impossible. And there was the issue of Ei and Yae not telling him about his mother’s faked death—he wasn’t sure of the reliability of that story. All he really understood was that he didn’t know much about Tenshukaku, either, so he honestly couldn’t rely much on them, even if they were full of people he’d known for years. (Something twisted in his heart at that—Ei had been the person he trusted the most ever since he’d dropped the name of Renji, and to think she’d been hiding something of this magnitude from him… he didn’t really know what to make of it. Denial of everything he’d just been told was something he was inclined towards, but he knew that was just an escape, a pathetic defense mechanism.)

The girl was right, he’d have to stay with the Fatui for now if he wanted to figure anything out.

At this point, he’d been so caught up in his own thoughts that he realised he’d missed a good portion of what the girl was rambling on about. 

“... Mila will be showing you the ropes of what you’ll expect to be doing at the Fatui,” she was saying, once Scara had tuned back into her words. “She’ll guide you like how she usually does with new Fatui recruits, and once she decides that you’ve progressed enough, you’ll go on to accomplish real Harbinger duties. However long it takes you to reach that point, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll still be regarded as a Harbinger by others, either way.”

Scara wrinkled his nose. “Isn’t that girl a secretary , or something? How is she supposed to guide me?”

The girl fixed him with a demeaning stare. “No one is just a secretary when they’re part of the Fatui. It just so happens that she’s good at being one, too.”

“And then, what? You’ll just expect me to assassinate others for you like some mindless machine?” He was not having it. “Look, I need to find out the truth about my mother, sure, but don’t think I’ll just become a pawn for you.”

“Renji.” She smiled disconcertingly. “Don’t fret. Your true nature will be revealed soon enough.”

“Don’t talk to me like you know me,” he hissed vehemently. 

She ignored him and pressed a button on her desk. There was a click behind him as the door unlocked. 

“And you shouldn’t talk to me so disrespectfully like that.” For a fleeting moment, there was a threatening gleam in her eyes, then she sighed. “ Honestly , all of you start out like this.”

“‘All of you’?”

There was a knock on the door. 

“You called, Boss?” Mila’s voice sounded out. 

“Yes, Mila,” the girl said. 

Mila opened the door and bowed before entering, then faced Scara. “I’ll be leading you to your personal quarters now.”

The girl waved at him expressionlessly. “Goodbye, Scaramouche. Do direct any complaints you may have of your room to Mila. We’ll do your best to suit your needs.”

“Fuck you,” he spat. She smiled, raising an eyebrow. Mila, on the other hand, looked absolutely revolted, a thunderous look clouding her features. 

“The next time you address Boss like that, I’ll be ripping your tongue off,” she said darkly. Scara stared at her pointedly, feeling not the slightest bit remorseful.

“Now, now, Mila, no need to go to that extreme,” the girl said in an admonishing tone, though she was clearly entertained. “He’ll learn his lesson soon enough. Besides, he’ll be your superior in the future, anyway, so you’ll just have to let it slide.”

Mila looked like she wanted to protest, but settled for an indignant click of her tongue at him, instead. 

“Yes, Boss,” she said reluctantly.

“Thank you, Mila. Go along, now.”

She bowed. “Yes, Boss.”

Scara didn’t even want to look at the Boss girl. Mila tilted her head at him, gesturing for him to head out first. The door closed behind them once they exited.

God, he despised walking in front of people. He was always hyper-aware of the pair of eyes boring into his back, and he couldn’t go one second without getting the urge to look back. 

When the lift Mila called arrived, she walked in and pressed B-22 . Right above this area, huh. Or, more accurately, to the left of it. To his surprise, she looked at him when the automated voice asked for an iris verification.

“I’m not cleared to access the Harbingers’ residential area on my own,” she explained. “Your irises have been registered to it, though. However, it’s the only area you have access to right now,” she felt the need to remind him.

“Since when were my irises registered—wait, of course. Fucking Childe .”

Mila’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to have to fix this vulgar problem of yours if you wish to command any sort of respect from other members of the Fatui.”

He scoffed. “Like I give a damn. You guys can hate me all you want. It’s not like I want to be here, anyway.”

“No Harbinger talks like that,” she said through gritted teeth. “Your father was much…” The colour slowly drained from her face. “You know what, nevermind.”

He stared at her. “My father, what?”

“It’s getting late. Please scan your irises now.” 

She dodged the question, but Scara wasn’t going to let up that easily. 

“What kind of person was my father like?” he asked, refusing to tear his gaze away from her.

They stood in silence for a while, her eyebrows furrowed as she made it a point not to meet his eyes. Then she eventually realised that it was futile to ignore him, considering how insistent Scara was, and answered resignedly.

“He was… nice.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or if you really just have nothing to say about him.”

She sighed. “Your father was practically made to be a Harbinger—he was bloodthirsty and dangerous to enemies, but well-mannered and respectful to his allies, whether they were equals or not. Every Fatui recruit wished to work under him, because he’d never once treated his subordinates badly. He’d always been dutiful to Boss, too.” A flicker of pain and grief came over her eyes, her face crumpling for a moment, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had come.

“And what happened when he, you know… betrayed you guys?”

Mila stiffened—her eyes widened a little. But apathy gradually seeped into her expression, setting her mouth back into a firm line. “It was unforgivable,” she said blandly. “Everyone’s faith in him crumbled in an instant.”

Scara watched her carefully. “Do you think he deserved to die?”

She shrugged with a single shoulder. “Boss gave that order. Of course I support it.”

Scara didn’t buy that, but it was impossible for him to question her any further now. She seemed to realise she’d said too much—her jaw tightened and she shot him a glare. “Hurry up and scan your irises.”

He rolled his eyes and matched his irises to the scanner.

“Iris verification confirmed. Access to B-22 granted. Welcome, Harbinger Scaramouche.”

Hearing himself being addressed like that was fucking gross.

The lift moved to the left and this time, Scara was prepared. He planted his feet firmly onto the floor, staring hardly at it so he’d direct all his attention on not falling over. He heard an amused snicker from Mila and frowned.

“Shut up, I’m trying to get used to this stupid thing.”

“Of course.”

The lift came to a halt. 

“Area B-22.”

The doors slid open. He was half-expecting the area beyond to be dark, but, like that room beyond the oak door, it was lit, though it was slightly dim. 

The hallway was not dissimilar to the one in B-23, the doors numbered one to five being on the right and those numbered six to eleven being on the left. Predictably, Mila led him to the door numbered six. 

“This is your room,” Mila said. “Tomorrow morning, you’ll have to get up early for your body checkup at seven.”

“Body checkup?” Scara realised what she was referring to with a jolt. “Oh. Those tests Lumine said I had to do.”

“Indeed. I’ll come find you at six-fifty sharp.”

“How? I thought you said you didn’t have access to this area.”

She looked at him like he was the dumbest bitch in the world. “With another Harbinger, obviously.”

“Gross. Don’t tell me it’s gonna be with—”

“I’ll be with Lord Tartaglia beforehand because of some affairs that require settling.”

Just the mention of that name sparked a flint of anger inside him. He grimaced. “What’s with that ‘lord’ in front of his name? Are all Harbingers addressed as Lords?”

“Yes,” Mila said. Her nose scrunched up. “Though I’m tempted to make an exception for you, once you’ve earned that status in the future.”

“Sure,” he said dismissively. “The whole concept is disgusting to me. I’d like it if you wouldn’t, too.”

She didn’t give any sort of indication that she’d acknowledged his statement. “After the checkup, I’ll be meeting you again, and we’ll begin your training as a Fatui member from then.”

“Uh. Sure.”

“And, some advice that would be in your best interest to heed,” she said, in a lowered, solemn tone, “is not to antagonise any of the Harbingers.”

He smiled fakely. “Even my soulmate, Lord Tartaglia?”

Mila hesitated a little, but nodded, anyway. “The entire concept of soulmates is, frankly, repulsive,” she said, surprisingly blunt and direct. “It’d do no good for anyone to believe strongly in it.”

“Oh, hey. Something we both agree on.”

“Either way,” she said, “try to have as minimal interaction with any of them as possible. At least not when you haven’t fully earned the status of a Harbinger yet.”

“Why are you telling me this? Aren’t you supposed to be pro-Fatui and anti-Scaramouche?” he said in a mocking tone.

“I’m following Boss’s orders in ensuring that you become a Harbinger, without anything disrupting the plan,” she deadpanned. “I don’t particularly care if something bad happens to you, but you should know that every Harbinger has their own agenda. Not all of them are completely dutiful to Boss—those that aren’t are the ones you should watch out for.”

Scara gestured to the other rooms. “And you’re saying this in a hallway where every single one of them could be listening in behind closed doors?”

She looked strangely relaxed.

“None of them are here. Lord Tartaglia is the only one who lives in his own home, and the other Harbingers are all out, either on missions or doing…whatever they do when they don’t have Harbinger duties to fulfill,” she said distastefully. Then something in her expression faltered. “Come to think of it, Lord Arlecchino hasn’t checked back into the compound yet,” she said through gritted teeth. “And of course the other Harbingers haven’t reported anything about it…”

“Arle who now?”

She looked at him sharply. “Only Lady Signora and Lord Pantalone were with you, correct?”

“Yeah.”

She muttered something under her breath—probably a curse in a foreign language—and quickly waved him into the room. “Get to bed now,” she urged, as she undid the ropes binding his hands. “Remember the time you have to wake up. I’m leaving.”

“Alright, bye, I guess.”

He hovered at the doorway. He could try sneaking up from behind her and knocking her out, but he had a feeling she’d be prepared for that, since she decided to remove his restraints. She didn’t even watch to see if he’d gone into his room, before turning on her heel and going straight to the lift. Within seconds, she’d departed from Area B-22.

According to her, no one else was in any of the rooms. Scara conflicted with himself for a few moments, then failed to suppress his nosy nature and ended up turning the doorknob to the door to the left of his, the one numbered seven. It didn’t budge. None of them did, in fact. So there were precautionary measures set in place, after all.

Scara opened his door without a hitch, though. If there were safety measures for all the other doors, why did he have to do nothing to get inside his room? Did they leave his room unprotected on purpose? He inspected the doorknob, and found that there were exactly five, barely noticeable dents on it. Dents that he’d placed his fingers on to grip the doorknob, which unlocked following that action.

So apparently the Fatui had his fingerprint information, too. Great.

The moment he stepped into the room, an electric shock of wonder shot through him. His room was huge—it was probably the size of his living room and kitchen combined in the apartment he and Ei lived in. Placed at the centre was a lush white bed, the covers neatly tucked in and an even thicker white quilt splayed on top—all terribly inviting, especially with how cold he’d been on that helicopter before. Adding to the lavish image even more was the burgundy Kashan design rug below the bed that he’d only ever seen in magazines, as well as an orange floor lamp standing beside a quality hardwood desk beside the bed, the entire set up looking like it’d cost him his monthly rent. 

The mahogany floor under his feet chilled him a little, evidently not having been heated up prior to his arrival at all. He found an electric heater on the opposite end of the room and quickly switched it on. Then he turned back to gaze fondly at the bed, and noticed something else.

Oh, wow. There was a bathroom built into the room, too. Fucking unbelievable. 

There was no way he’d move out to another house if he already had this. The only downside of this room would be that it didn’t have a single window—but wait , it made sense because the entire compound was underground. He laughed at himself. Right, he’d forgotten about that.

Then, a stack of clothes below the desk caught his attention. He walked closer to check and he promptly balked.

That was literally his entire closet from his apartment, somehow having been brought all the way here. Had the Fatui fucking hijacked it? And what the fuck was Ei doing right now, if they had?

He pulled out the stack of clothes from under the desk and proceeded to check every single one of them. Yeah, they were all his. Then something hard fell out of the stack and dropped onto the floor with a thud. At first, Scara winced when he realised that it was his phone, but then he blinked and realised— it was his phone.  

He switched it on, hope filling him to the brim against his better judgement. It all abruptly washed away when the phone showed that there was no signal, and that it’d just been recently factory resetted, too, because all the data stored inside was completely wiped out. None of his contacts were there, except for one number that he didn’t recognise.

He frowned. Someone had fucked with his phone, clearly, but why add a random number when he didn’t even have the phone signal to call it?

“Weird,” he muttered, placing the phone onto the desk and continuing his checking of the clothes. One set he didn’t ever recall owning stuck out like a sore thumb. He unfolded them to see what exactly they were, then resisted the urge to throw up.

A black shirt lay on top of a matching pair of black track pants. Another matching black vest caught his eye, that he’d initially mistaken for the casual jacket he usually wore to work. Wow, they were really pushing the agenda of being an assassin on him, huh. They were probably the clothes that he was supposed to wear as a Fatui member from now on. He chucked them to one side and grabbed a new fresh set of his home clothes, then headed into the bathroom with a skip in his step.

The first thing he saw was the mirror, and my God, did he look completely beat up. Eerily, he spotted a first-aid kit beside the sink, like they knew he would need to patch himself up. He opened the kit, anyway, and got to work on disinfecting his wound, then rolling out a gauze roll to wrap around his neck. He looked kind of pathetic, but it’d have to do for now. He was lucky he had experience in treating wounds. Specifically wounds that Ei suffered, because she was a clumsy ass bitch.

His heart sank again. 

He couldn’t get out of here right now, but once he did, he was heading straight to Ei and sitting her the fuck down so she could tell him everything. He couldn’t bring himself to distrust her—not one bit, so he seriously hoped that the ‘Boss’ girl was lying. At that, her stupid knowing smile appeared in his face again, and he was extremely tempted to hit his head against the wall and knock himself out.

His frustration slipped away the next second, though, because he turned and was met face-to-face with the biggest fucking bathtub he’d ever seen in his life. Well—it was the first fucking bathtub he’d ever seen in his life. 

After stripping out of his clothes, he gleefully stepped in and turned the shower tap on. The water, he realised delightedly, was warm . Warm, warm, warm. Extremely unlike the fluctuating temperatures between freezing-cold and boiling-hot of the shower water at his apartment. He was taking the best shower of his goddamned life. 

But since he was in a bathtub, he might as well take a bath instead of a shower. So he did just that. Once the tub filled to the brim with the most comfortable temperature of water he’d ever felt in his life, he leaned his head against the wall and sighed, all the tension from the previous day slowly leaving his body.

He could seriously get used to this.

But no. He couldn’t. Bitterness stung the back of his throat again once he recalled what the Boss girl had said. His father being a part of the Fatui, his mother’s faked death, everyone at Tenshukaku lying to him—what the fuck was next?

And Childe.

Another rush of anger surged through Scara. The moment he saw him again, he was going to fucking end that ginger piece of shit.

However, the warm temperature in the room began clouding his mind, exhaustion setting into his limbs the more he lay in the tub as he thought angrily about the day’s events. The frustration inside him eventually simmered down, his eyelids drooping more and more, until darkness crept into his vision and he slipped into slumber.


“Renji.”

His mother looked at him with varying degrees of shock and outrage.

“I told you not to come into my room after nine,” she said icily, grabbing his arm and shoving him back out into the hallway harshly. “You can’t disturb Mom, alright?”

Indignant tears glistened in his eyes. “But, I had a nightmare…”

He’d never seen his mother be this affronted by him before. 

“Mom will come to you later, okay?” Her eyebrows drew together. “I’m doing something important.”

His voice trembled with fear. “Are you treating an animal, or something?” 

She laughed. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes at all—it looked like the act of talking to him was putting her in pain.

“No, Renji,” she said, her tone slightly softening. “Vets don’t work at night. Go back to your room now.”

“I’m scared…”

She fixed him with a hard stare. It was a look he’d never associated with his mother. 

Then she sighed and took his hand. “I’ll follow you back, but I can’t stay for very long.”

He clasped onto her hand tightly, comfort finally settling in him, but still slightly unnerved by her outburst. The walk back to his room was full of tension, as he waited for her to snap at him at any time—he’d never been this afraid of her before.

But she never did. She led him inside his room and tucked him into bed, an indecipherable emotion swirling in her eyes.

She began singing softly, singing the same lullaby that she sang every night, the one that never failed to lull him to sleep. Already fatigue had begun setting into his limbs, and his eyes were closing, closing, closing…

But he wasn’t fully asleep. His mother didn’t know, however, and had already gotten up and left. The door closed with a soft thud.

He’d been afraid of the nightmare he had before, but now—fear engulfed him at the thought of his mother.

She’d never really explained what she always did alone after nine. At times he would try to listen for any sounds behind the door of her room, but it was dead silent every time. Like she wasn’t even there.

Of course he didn’t dare check if she was in the room, or question her about it, what with how she’d reacted the last time he went inside for a completely innocuous reason. He’d witnessed a new side of his mother that he wasn’t sure he’d ever wanted to see.

Whenever her eyes looked oddly distant, he never bothered her about it, when he would have instantly asked her what was wrong in the past. Whenever she looked on edge, he pretended not to have noticed, and convinced himself that she was just worrying about one of her animals at work. Whenever her eyes flashed with anger at something he’d done wrong, he immediately apologised even though he knew that she’d deliberately quiet her fury without him having to say sorry. 

He’d never noticed all these things about his mother before, but after that day, he’d become hypersensitive to all the changes in her microexpressions and behaviour. He still loved her, but it was undeniable—something fundamental had shifted in their relationship. 

He didn’t dare say anything about it. She was still kind, still continued saving hurt animals, and still took good care of him. He was the one who had changed—he’d become afraid.


“Are you fucking alive?” 

Scara thought someone in his dreams was saying that to him at first, but then there was something touching his neck and his eyes flew open. Was something in the fucking water with him—?

Childe was staring at him in a mix of disbelief, annoyance and relief. His fingers were pressed against the pulse on his neck.

And Scara was still, very unfortunately, very naked. In the tub. Oh, my god—he’d fallen asleep in the tub.

Scara slapped his fingers away. “How the fuck did you get in?”

“Mila had been knocking at your door for five minutes, but there was no response from you,” he explained. “Naturally, we thought you escaped, somehow. Either that or you…” he grimaced, “... drowned yourself in the bathtub. So I knocked the door down.”

Scara scoffed. “Wouldn’t everyone like it more if I had actually drowned myself?”

Childe’s eyes shifted to the side, looking weirdly troubled. “That’s besides the point. Were you sleeping in here the entire night? Have you gone insane?”

“I didn’t mean to. The bath was just really fucking comfortable, okay?”

He sighed heavily. “Mila’s waiting for you, so hurry up and get ready. And you have to change into the clothes that were given to you by the Fatui.”

“I will once you get the fuck out.”

Childe turned, a frown on his face. “I was already going to.” 

He left the bathroom after that.

The water in the tub was slightly chilly now, after the many hours he’d spent laying asleep as his body boiled in it. He slowly left the tub, and was suddenly aware of just how wet his face was. He brushed his fingers against his cheeks, then, fearfully, licked them. To his horror, the liquid on his face wasn’t bathwater. 

He’d been fucking crying in his sleep. And Childe had seen it. 

Mortified, he quickly wiped himself dry with a towel, double-checking in the mirror to ensure that there weren’t any water droplets lingering at the tips of his eyelashes. Then he went back into his room, took the disgusting clothes that he was meant to wear from now on, changed into them into the bathroom because there was a gaping hole where the door was meant to be, then finally exited his room.

Mila was the only one waiting for him outside. She folded her arms, exasperated.

“I heard what happened from Lord Tartaglia. At least you didn’t actually…”

Her face darkened. “Anyway, we have to leave for your check-up,” she said. Scara could guess what she’d meant to say before she stopped herself. “We’re a whopping ten minutes late. Lord Dottore and Lady Lumine won’t be too pleased.”

“Is Lumine a Harbinger, too?” Scara asked, as they walked to the lift.

“No, but she works closely with them. She might as well become one, if you ask me.” Mila gave him the side-eye. “She’d be much more fitting to be a Harbinger than you.”

Scara smiled, one with lots of teeth. “Thank you.” 

The lift arrived, and this time they were headed to B-19. 

“Good luck,” Mila suddenly said, when the doors slid open.

Then she pushed him out into the hallway and retreated back into the lift. The doors shut before he could say anything, and all he could do was watch, his mouth agape in disbelief, as the lift left. 

Had Mila been afraid of stepping into this area herself?

“Scaramouche,” a silky voice said. Disgust broiled in his stomach as he turned and faced a smirking Lumine, dressed in a white lab coat.

“I see you’re already one of us,” she said, eyeing his clothing. “I was planning to be nicer today, but you’re ten minutes late. I can’t help but be…” there was a malicious glint in her eyes, “... annoyed by it.”  

“Hurry up and get on with the tests, you fucking psycho,” he snarled.

She cocked her head. “ Someone’s excited.”

Out of the blue, two huge Fatui soldiers emerged from one of the rooms on his right and flanked him on either side. Lumine nodded at them. 

“Lead him inside.”

He absolutely despised being sandwiched between people, and it was even worse when he was being sandwiched between Fatui soldiers. But he gritted his teeth and tolerated it as they walked him into a room labelled “6-F”, and didn’t even fight back when he found that he was back in the same room where Lumine had held him when he was in Childe’s body. He was obedient as his limbs were strapped to the metal table—he was disgusted by himself so intensely that bile rose up the back of his throat.

“You’re awfully docile today,” the familiar speaker-amplified voice of Lumine blared into the room. “What’s gotten into you? Are you actually planning to become the Sixth Harbinger?” Revulsion laced her tone. “Things aren’t going to work out that smoothly, you know.”

“Shut up,” he hissed. The Fatui soldiers cast fierce glares in his direction.

Lumine laughed. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Leo, Pavel—you can knock him out now.”

He knew she’d do something fucked up like that, instead of injecting him with a sedative like any normal qualified practitioner would. His eyes snapped shut as he braced himself. A large force struck him on the side of his head, eerily similar to the invisible ones he’d been struck with all throughout yesterday in Childe’s body. He instantly passed out.


“Uh…”

Yae laced her fingers together and rested her chin on top of them, staring hardly at the dazed-looking man across from her.

“I’m Yae Miko,” she introduced. 

“Ah,” Arlecchino said, his green eyes slightly coming into focus, “you’re that Raiden bootlicker.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That’s interesting. I didn’t know that was what you Fatui thought of me.”

“Of course that’s not what everyone thinks. It’s just a personal sentiment.”

“I acknowledge your skewed judgement,” she said. He remained in place, not betraying any emotion whatsoever. This Harbinger was clearly more experienced in diplomatic interaction than Ajax. “However, we’re not here to discuss mundane things like that. I want to have answers.”

“Answers? To what?”

“How much you know about the Raiden family.”

He barked out a laugh. “You really are their personal bootlicker.”

“Do answer the question. Neither of us are running with much time on our hands.”

Arlecchino grinned. “Oh, I have plenty of time. Question me all you want—you’re getting nothing. Even torturing me won’t make me budge, but I’m sure you Tenshukaku scum know that, already.”

Yae sighed. “I hoped it wouldn’t have to come to this.”

“Wow. Are you about to reveal a trick up your sleeve?” he drawled.

She pulled out a printed photograph. His grin faltered.

“Why the fuck do you have that?”

“We know that your little sister and grandmother are currently being protected by the Fatui in this terrace house," she said coolly, watching as his face slowly crumpled in rage. "We've already sent our Tenshukaku agents there. If you don't tell me everything the Fatui knows about the Raiden family, I will give them the order to have your family eradicated." 

"You can't possibly get past the bodyguards," he said, evidently struggling to keep his cool. "They're trained—I hand picked them myself. You sent your agents out to die."

Yae smiled. "It just so happens that I hand picked my agents out, as well. Taking your guards out will be nothing more than a stroll in the park for them."

"You asshole —"

“If you don’t believe me, my agents have already taken out your guards,” she said calmly, “and are posing as them in your family’s house now. Your little sister and grandmother don’t suspect a thing.”

She took out another picture—a graphic shot of the corpses of three Fatui soldiers in rigor mortis, half-buried in a forest. His face blanched in horror.

"Well?" she said, her voice dropping. "You're still not going to talk, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence I've given you that you have nothing in your favour?”

He gripped the arms of the chair tightly, a scraping sound ringing out as his nails dug into the metal. 

"Your agents…"

"Hm?"

Shame, worry and terror clouded his eyes. 

"Tell your agents not to lay a finger on them.” 

Yae bit back a triumphant smile and nodded. "Of course."

She'd won. 

Arlecchino took no time at all to relay to her what the Fatui had found out about the Raiden family thus far. She listened intently, watching out for any cues that showed that he was lying, but there were none. He was, likely, telling the truth the whole time. 

"Thank you for your help, Arlecchino," she said, shooting him a pleasant smile that he didn't return. "In return, we'll let you return to the Fatui unharmed. Unfortunately, there is one other condition that you have to fulfil in order for us not to hurt your family."

Yae told him the condition. 

"No," he said immediately, dumbfounded. "No."

"I'm afraid you don't have much choice in the matter."

"It’s impossible,” he snapped. “Haven’t I done everything you’ve asked of me? I’ve already betrayed the Fatui—I told you every fucking thing, so stop bothering me.”

“I’m sure your Boss is magnanimous enough to accept you back in, despite this,” she said. “We know that you’re a very valuable asset to her as a Harbinger—you won’t lose your job even if she finds out.” What he’d done wasn’t as bad as what Arata had done with Hikari, anyway. “Since that’s the case, then you might as well agree to the extremely good deal I’ve offered…that you’ve declined, much to my perplexion.”

“‘Good deal’? How are you so sure that the Boss won’t find out even if I agree to it? If she does, everything will go down the fucking drain, and I will be suffering the brunt of the consequences.”

“We’ll give you protection, of course.” Yae tilted her head. “The moment you fail to conceal what you’re doing and she decides to have you banished from the Fatui, you’re always welcome to join Tenshukaku. We’ll protect your family, as well.”

Arlecchino sneered at her. “You guys seriously have no fucking sense of morals. I’ve killed countless of your agents, and you’ve killed countless of mine, so how is anyone just going to accept me in like that?”

“You’ll be under heavy scrutiny when you first join, that’s without a doubt,” Yae said. “But other than that, we don’t hold grudges against our enemies. It’s just our job—we don’t hate any of you.”

He appraised her for a moment. 

“No,” he finally said, his mouth set into a firm line. “I’m not ever joining the likes of you.”

“Of course, that is entirely up to you,” she said, “we won’t force you to join us if you think you can protect yourself and your family just fine. Though the fact remains that you still haven’t answered my previous question—are you going to accept the condition, or not?” 

She tapped on the photograph her agents had taken of the terrace house and lowered her voice, shooting him a frosty smile. “The fate of your family depends on this choice.”

He clicked his tongue. 

“Fine. I’ll fucking do it, okay?”

Yae nodded, satisfied. “A wise decision. To contact me, go to any payphone in Snezhnaya and call this number.” She slid a piece of paper with her contact on it. “It’s your responsibility not to get caught, so you’d best start formulating a strategy on how you can sneak out and relay what you’ve found to me every night. You’re a Harbinger—I’m sure you’ve done way sneakier stuff before.”

He took the paper. 

“This will last for approximately two weeks, until I give you more information on what you should do next.”

He frowned, something clearly troubling him, but he didn’t bring anything else up.

“Okay.”

“I’m glad this went smoothly. You may take your leave now.”

“Uh, just like that?”

The door to the interrogation room slid open. She raised an eyebrow.

“Just like that.”

He glared at her. “Sure, but how am I going all the way back to Snezhnaya with handcuffs on?”

“I’ve already called for a driver. He’ll take you to your base, and will take your handcuffs off once you’ve reached.”

He spluttered, “You know where it is?”

“Not the main one. Your colleagues brought Scaramouche to a decoy base the previous day, but I suspect that they left after our forces retreated, and they headed to your main headquarters after that.”

He scowled. “No way am I telling your driver where our headquarters is.”

She shrugged. “Sure, he can just drop you off somewhere nearby, leaving you to walk for the rest of the route. Either way, we’ll be able to find it if I just send some agents to follow you after you get off—which I certainly will, by the way. But truth be told, we don’t particularly care about where you’re based—it’s not like we’re not going to launch an attack there. We’re agents, not rabid killers like you guys are.”

He snickered. “Didn’t you just say that you held no grudges against us?”

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” she said, giving him a deploring look, “it isn’t a personal sentiment. It’s just a fact of what you Fatui are.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yada, yada, yada. I get it—I’m just riding around in the palm of your hand right now. I’m going to leave, because I’ll go insane if I see your fucking face for another second.”

Yae laughed. “Before you do that…”

She got up from her chair and walked over to him. He gave her a disgusted look when she took out a black blindfold. 

“Don’t even think for a second that I’m going to engage in bondage with you.”

She ignored him and tied the blindfold around his eyes, then pulled him out of the chair and shoved him towards the waiting agents at the door. 

Ow, fuck—”

“Bring him to the car,” she told the agents. “If he tries anything, incapacitate him. I don’t want to see him killed.” She gazed at the pictures on the table. “For now.”

“You’ll be the first person I kill once our deal is done,” the blind-folded Arlecchino hissed. “Yae Miko.”

One of the agents pressed the barrel of his gun into Arlecchino’s back.

“Shut up and walk now.”

Yae smiled. “I’ll look forward to it, Arlecchino.”

Once he left, Yae headed to the observation room, where Sara, Kokomi and Ayato were.

“That went well,” Kokomi said, giving her a thumbs-up.

She nodded. “At first I thought he’d be more challenging, but get down to the root of what they fear the most and it’s pretty easy to break them down from there.”

Sara took out her earpieces that were connected to the microphone recording Yae and Arlecchino’s exchange. 

“We have a problem, though,” she said grimly. “It turns out they knew more about the Raiden family than we expected.”

Ayato closed the reports on Arlecchino on the desk, turning to face them. 

“That’s not the only thing.” His expression was solemn. “We have to deal with Ei, as well.”

Yae’s jaw tightened, saying nothing. Ayato raised an eyebrow at her.

“She’s your soulmate,” he said pointedly. “You have to be the one to break her out of it. I don’t know what she’s planning, but she’s dead set on getting her brother out of there.”

“I know,” Yae said tiredly. 

Sara shot her an annoyed look. “Then do something about it. She trusted you with keeping him safe, in the first place—it is your fault that they managed to get him.”

“Perhaps.”

Kokomi blinked. “She doesn’t know anything about her aunt and father, either, right?”

Yae averted her eyes. “Of course she doesn’t—she can’t know.”

Sara smiled humorlessly. “Some soulmate you are.”

Ayato sighed. “Either way, we’ve got to keep an eye on her. It doesn’t help that she just recently found the audio bug Childe had placed in their apartment, and the fact that the Fatui had hijacked it while Ei was here.”

Yae looked at him, alarmed. “I thought I told them to keep an eye on the apartment.”

“Yeah, well, those agents got knocked out and just reported to us a few minutes ago. The Fatui soldiers they sent were unusually strong.”

Yae folded her arms. “They hijacked it, for what, exactly?” 

“Beats me. The agents didn’t wake up until after they left. You’ll have to ask Ei—she just returned home.”

“Okay, so basically, Yae has to deal with the Ei problem,” Sara said curtly. “Now what do we do about the Fatui knowing way too much about the Raiden family?”

“We’ll keep it from her first,” Yae said, earning troubled looks from the three. She stared right back at them. “We still have no idea how and where the Fatui had gotten their intel from. You heard Arlecchino—he said it was just what the Boss had told him. If we don’t have fundamental information like that, how are we supposed to report it to her?”

Ayato grumbled, “Fair point.”

“Once we get enough information from Arlecchino over the next two weeks—both about Scaramouche and the general affairs of the Fatui—we’ll immediately get to searching for the Fatui’s source of intel. In the meantime, I’ll get some agents to scout the security measures around their headquarters.”

“Pfft. Didn’t you tell him that we didn’t care about where they’re based?” Sara said.

“I just thought it would be fun to lie about that.” Yae smiled. “But what I said after that is true—we’re not going to launch an attack there. We’re merely going to infiltrate it, once the time is ripe.”

“Are we going to do anything about Scaramouche?” Ayato asked. 

Her smile faded. His eyes immediately darted away as he cleared his throat.

“Why should we?" Yae said plainly. "He’s taking his father’s place. They won’t let him go that easily. We don’t have anything to gain from bringing him back, anyway. From now on, he’s an enemy.”


Ei stared at Scara’s empty closet, her chest hollow and empty, but at the same time tight and filled to the brim with anger. She stomped and dug her heel into the audio bug that Childe had snuck into the hydrangeas he’d placed in Scara’s vase, until it was ground to nothing but gritty black dust. She wouldn’t allow it—she wouldn’t allow another one of her siblings to be taken by the Fatui. She’d sworn it would never happen again, but it had. She was an absolute failure of a sister, a failure, a failure, a failure.

Her phone that she reserved for Tenshukaku affairs rang. She glared at it, then sighed and picked it up.

“Yes?”

“Ei.”

Ei stilled. “Yae.”

“What did they take from the apartment?”

A sour feeling rose at the back of her throat. “His clothes. His phone. They didn’t sneak any other audio bugs inside, though I did find the one Childe placed. I just finished destroying it.”

“I see. They wouldn’t have gotten much information from the bug, anyway, since you don’t talk about Tenshukaku with Scara.”

“How are things going on your side?”

“I just finished interrogating Arlecchino. He said he doesn’t know anything about why they took Scara, and was only following their Boss’s orders. I’ve made a deal with him, and he’ll start relaying information about the Fatui to us every night from now on.”

“That’s good.”

There was a short pause. “How are you holding up?”

Ei let out a bitter laugh. 

“Ei?” Yae sounded worried. And a little fearful. Who would’ve thought— she was making Yae afraid.

“Sorry, but I don’t think I can wait for another one of your plans,” she said quietly. “They’ve already taken Scara, for God’s sake—I won’t ever be able to forgive myself if I just sat around and twiddled my thumbs.”

Yae fell silent for a moment. Ei bit her lip, the hand holding her phone trembling. She didn’t want to speculate anything, but…

“Ei, don’t do anything reckless,” she said in a warning tone. “We have to figure out the inner workings of the Fatui before we do anything, and we have little to no information to work with here.”

Of course.

Ei laughed again. “No, Yae. You’re obviously working with a different agenda. I doubt you guys are even trying to get him back.”

There was an intake of breath from the other end.

She knew it—Yae was hiding something.

“Yet it remains a fact that you know practically nothing about the Fatui’s upper echelon,” Yae said. So she isn’t denying it. “Scara is one of them, now. You’re not going to be able to bypass all those soldiers and Harbingers.”

Ei saw red. 

“Yae,” she said hardly, “I don’t give a fuck. Try to stop me however you want, but it’s not going to work.”

“Ei, be rational, won’t you? If you go on with this mindset, you’re just going to get yourself—”

“Get myself… killed?”

Her grip on her phone tightened.

“Sure. I’m fine with that, if it means Scara can get out of that wretched organisation.”

Ei,” Yae hissed. “Don’t be fucking ridiculous. You’re only doing this because of Makoto, aren’t you?”

Ei fell silent.

“What…” 

Her words cut through Ei like a burning hot knife, digging at her heart, deeper and deeper, as Yae continued.

“You’re so set on protecting Scara, because that’s what she told you to do. It was the last thing she told you before she died. The last thing she wanted. And you’ve always protected him—you’ve never told him anything about Tenshukaku, or anything about the truth behind Makoto’s death. You’ve never told him about your father’s disappearance, or why it’s always only been the two of you even though he’d seen Makoto and your father before as a child. You hoped he’d never ask, and he never did. But then this happened. And now you’re panicking, not because you’re worried for Scara, or that you genuinely care about him—”

Ei’s eyes widened, tears blurring her vision. No, no, no.

“You're panicking because you failed to do the one thing the most important person in your life wanted you to do. You believe that you’re ruining her memory if you don’t try to get him back. You’re not doing this for Scara—you’re doing this for her.

Her eyes stung. “Yae…you don’t know anything. ” 

“On the contrary,” Yae bit back. “I know you too well, Ei. You never cared about Scara. So don’t be silly, doing things like trying to get him back from the Fatui. Makoto wouldn’t blame you—he was always meant to go back there. You took care of him while you could. There’s no point getting angry and lying to yourself that he matters to you—”

“Shut the fuck up." 

Resentment swept through her, overwhelming her senses and kicking her mind into overdrive, for the one person she’d never imagined would be the receiver of it. 

“Don’t you dare tell me what you think I think, Yae. Scara’s my brother. I’m doing this because I love him, not because of what Makoto had said. I don’t care what you say—I’m getting him out of there. And…” She took in a deep, shaky breath. “...I’m never forgiving you for bringing Makoto into this. My feelings are not for you to fucking dictate.”

“Ei, don’t—”

“Fuck off.”

She gritted her teeth.

“Honestly, Yae, I never understood why we were soulmates.”

She hung up. 

The phone slid from her fingers and fell onto the floor with a pathetic thud. 

Ei staggered into the bathroom, lost, shaken, and violently sick. She could feel herself falling away from the world now, falling and running, the floor swaying under her feet as she lost her balance. She seemed to hit the ground slowly, taking forever to feel the floor rush up to hit her in the face. She thought she was fading away from the world, disintegrating into ash and dust and smoke, until saliva built up in her mouth and she threw up all over the floor.

She sobbed. She didn’t know how long for—all she registered was the soiled bathroom floor in front of her, her trembling hands, and the harsh reality that she’d now, completely and thoroughly, lost everyone she loved. 

Chapter Text

Yae slowly placed the phone down. She stared at the black screen for a few moments, numb and hollow, a cork twisting in her stomach, twisting and twisting and twisting, as she replayed the horrible words she’d spoken to Ei over and over again like a broken record, each time she did worsening her nauseous feeling. 

But Yae was right. Scara wouldn’t ever mean as much to Ei as Makoto had—Makoto was her other half, and they’d been inseparable for as long as she’d known them. The bond she'd shared with Makoto was inherently different. Ei knew that. And Yae knew the real reason why Ei was so obsessed with protecting Scara. 

He was her only family. If Scara left her, Ei would be alone. Ei had always been afraid of loneliness—of empty rooms, empty promises and even emptier memories. She’d proven that time and time again, after they found each other on February 2nd five years ago.

Knowing all that didn’t make Yae feel any less worse. Ei was right—she shouldn’t have brought Makoto into this. Manipulation had been ingrained into her nature since childhood, and she despised how the impact it had left on her still remained after so many years, now moving on to torment her loved ones. She hated lying to Ei, she loathed every second of it. She wouldn’t if she had a choice, but Hikari had made sure Yae wouldn’t ever tell Ei the truth. (And Yae had never challenged orders from Raidens. Perhaps, just as Arlecchino said, she really was just their personal bootlicker.)

Yae held her forearm over her eyes. She’d lost the ability to shed tears, but with how terrible she was feeling right now, she wouldn’t be surprised if it had suddenly decided to come back to her.

“Honestly, Yae, I never understood why we were soulmates.”

Yae swallowed. She buried her face into her pillow and twisted her fingers into the sheets, biting on her lip hard enough to draw blood. She rubbed circles into the back of her hand with her thumb to distract herself. Distract herself from the images of the burning house that flashed across her mind.


Twenty-two years ago

“Miko, you’re going to have to listen to me very, very carefully.”

She looked up at her mother with wide eyes. Her mother pointed towards the intimidating violet-haired man, whom she recognised to be the father of the two violet-haired sisters. The three of them were playing at the playground with wide, happy grins on all their faces, a stark contrast to the apprehensive look on the faces of Miko and her mother. 

“You’re five now, so you’re old enough to hear this,” her mother said in a hushed tone, lowering her finger. “I’ve been working for the Raiden family ever since I was your age. We owe our lives to them. Our family has served theirs for centuries, because they decided to take us under their wing when we faced the threat of extermination by their rival clan. Your time to serve the Raidens will come soon, as well. You’ll have to follow all their orders without question, and do whatever you can to help them, even if it requires putting your life on the line.”

Miko didn’t particularly understand all the convoluted vocabulary her mother was using, but she understood that her mother was saying that the Raiden family was very important to them.

“Can I be friends with them?” she asked hopefully.

Her mother smiled mirthlessly. “You’re their servant. Treating them as equals isn't something you can do.”

“But they look…nice.”

“Miko,” she started, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to rebuke her. Her mother let out a soft sigh. “You’ll understand why you can’t be friends with them soon enough.”

Just then, the two sisters ran over and waved to Miko. The taller one stretched out a hand. 

“Hi,” she said, a friendly smile on her face. “I’m Makoto. My dad told me that you’re called Miko!”

Miko chanced a look at her mother, and was confused at how white her face had gotten. Then she looked behind the girls, and saw the violet-haired man walking over. Miko couldn’t read the expression on his face, but he looked weirdly stiff and serious, unlike the way he was acting with his daughters just now.

“Yae,” he greeted. “You came with your daughter.”

“Yes,” her mother said, her head bowed. “Good afternoon, Sir Raiden.”

“Hi, Yae!” Makoto said cheerily. 

Her mother lifted her head and smiled warmly. “Hello, Lady Makoto.” She added, “And you, too, Lady Ei,”, when the shorter sister pouted.

Her mother glanced at Miko sharply, and Miko took it as a cue to bow her head, too. “Good afternoon, Sir Raiden,” she said hesitantly. She’d only ever seen her mother interact with them before, and had never spoken to them up until now. It was a little scary. “And Lady Makoto, and Lady Ei.”

Makoto looked at her oddly, the friendliness from before abruptly vanishing. It made Miko even more afraid. She managed to find comfort, however, in Ei’s curious gaze at her. 

“Miko will be working with us from next week onwards,” the man said, patting his daughters’ heads. “You’re going to have to say goodbye to Yae.”

“What?” Ei whined. “But I don’t want Yae to go…”

Miko blinked in surprise. She’d thought that she was going to be working for this family together with her mother, but her mother had to leave?

“Goodbye, Yae,” Makoto said softly. “We’ll miss you.”

Her mother smiled at them, though there was a hint of sorrow in her eyes. Miko didn’t understand why her mother had to leave. She didn’t want her mother to leave. 

Miko tugged on her mother’s hand, suddenly feeling like getting away from the violet-haired family. “Mom, I’m feeling sleepy,” she said, blinking her eyes slowly to feign fatigue.

“Okay,” her mother said, understanding flashing across her eyes as she ruffled her hair. Then she bowed again to the three Raidens. “Goodbye, Sir Raiden, Lady Makoto, Lady Ei.”

“Take care on your way home,” the man said. There was a rather unhappy look on his face that Miko didn’t feel like looking into.

When they reached home, all the tension from her mother’s muscles instantly melted away, just like it always did whenever she returned home from a long day of working with the Raidens. Her mother’s knees buckled as she collapsed onto the sofa.

“Miko,” her mother said grimly, “do you understand why you can’t be friends with them now?”

Miko nodded meekly. “They’re very scary.”

Her mother sighed, covering her eyes with her forearm. “I’m sorry for having to leave you with them. I wish I didn’t have to, but that’s how it’s always worked. When you’ve finished serving a generation of Raidens, you’ll have to leave when the time comes for the next generation of Raidens to be served.”

“I don’t want you to go,” Miko said, climbing onto the sofa and placing her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Can’t you stay?”

“I can’t,” her mother said, her voice suddenly becoming choked up. Miko looked at her worriedly, but her mother wouldn’t even face her. “I’ll have to leave for a long time, Miko.”

A spike of terror rushed through her. “A long time?” she repeated fearfully. “But…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll come find you in the future.” Her mother finally looked at her, though her eyes were glassy now. She stroked Miko’s hair. Miko felt herself tearing up, too. She still didn’t understand anything that was happening. 

“Where will you go?”

Her mother bit her lip.

“I’ll go on a vacation to Liyue,” she said, smiling at her. “I’ve always wanted to go there, but I’ve never had the time.”

Miko glared at her. “You’re so mean, Mom,” she said, her lower lip quivering as tears fell down her cheeks. “You’re leaving me all alone while you’re going on vacation…how could you…”

Her mother laughed. It wasn’t a happy one. “It’s okay, Miko. Once you’ve gotten used to the Raiden family, you’ll forget all about me.”

“I don’t want to!” Miko clutched onto her mother tighter. “I don’t want to be with them. I don’t understand why we have to be their servants—”

Her mother abruptly stood up, glaring harshly at Miko. She fell silent and squeezed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the hit that always came. It didn’t, this time. 

“Miko, you have no choice,” she snapped. “Shit—I have no choice, either. We have to do whatever they want. There’s no point crying about it.” Her mother grabbed onto her shoulders and crouched in front of her, her eyes hard. “I have to tell you something important. Will you listen to me?”

Miko choked back a sob and nodded, wiping away her tears and snot.

“Whatever you do, don’t make Sir Raiden and Lady Raiden angry at you,” she warned. She shook Miko’s shoulders a little. “Do you hear me?”

“Y-yes,” Miko said, not daring to look away from her.

“Lady Raiden is Makoto and Ei’s aunt,” her mother continued, her nails digging into Miko’s flesh. Miko winced and cried out a little, but her mother ignored her. “You can’t make her angry. Never ever. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“What do you do again? Repeat it to me.”

“N-never make Sir Raiden… and Lady Raiden… angry,” Miko breathed, her mother’s face blurring in front of her.

“Good. And you can only achieve that by always obeying their orders and protecting Makoto and Ei. Repeat what I just said.”

“I can only achieve that… by always obeying their orders and… protecting Makoto and Ei.” Miko’s entire face felt numb.

“Don’t ask questions.”

“Don’t… ask questions.”

“Always bow to them.”

“Always bow to them.”

“Don’t show them any weaknesses that you have. Never cry.”

“Don’t show them any weakness that I have. Never cry,” Miko repeated blankly. Then her mother’s hands dropped to her arms, and she flinched when her hold grew even tighter than before.

“Don’t meddle in their family. If Sir Raiden gets angry at his children, you can’t shield them from him.”

“Don’t meddle in their family. If Sir Raiden gets angry at his children, I can’t shield them from him.”

Miko sensed something was horribly, horribly wrong with what her mother was saying, but she couldn’t contest any of it. Not when her mother looked like she was two seconds away from an outburst—but to be fair, Miko could never predict when those were coming.

“They’ll start calling you Yae after a few days,” her mother said, slowly calming down and loosening her grip on her. “Because they’ve never referred to any of us by our own names before. To rid us of self-identity as much as possible.”

“I won’t be called Miko anymore?” she asked shakily, then immediately regretted it when her mother pinched and twisted her skin. She shrieked in pain, her tears falling onto the reddened spot on her arm.

“You forgot that you couldn’t ask questions,” her mother said darkly. “Whatever they want you to do, you do it. Whatever they do to you, you accept it.”

Miko wept silently, nodding furiously. She wanted this to end. She wanted her mother to just be happy with her again. (But was she ever, really?)

“It’s better to make mistakes now than later, when you’re with them.” Her mother got to her feet, looking at Miko apathetically. “I’ve told you everything you needed to know. You need to be prepared for next week. I won’t be there to help you anymore.”

Her mother went into the bathroom, then came out with a damp towel and gently wiped the tears off of Yae’s cheeks, then rubbed away the bloodied nail marks she’d made on her arms.

“I love you, Miko.” Her mother’s gaze was fixed on the crimson-dotted towel. 

Miko couldn’t say it back. Her lower lip quivered. 

“Mom…”

She flung her arms around her mother’s neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

Her mother buried her face in her neck. Miko felt her shirt dampen.

“I’ll miss you, too.”

Miko’s eyes slowly opened. Her mother had slipped out of the bed and was walking to the door now. 

“Mom,” she said in a panic. “It’s not morning yet. Where are you going?”

She knew today was the day—where she’d move into the Raiden estate and leave her mother. But her mother had told her she would leave in the morning, not in the middle of the night.

Her mother didn’t even look back at her.

“I’m leaving now,” she said. 

“But—”

“Goodbye, Miko.”

She turned the doorknob and left the room, slamming the door shut. Horrified, Miko leapt out of bed to chase after her, but she stilled when she heard the telltale click of the door being locked from the outside. 

Her mother just locked her in.

She turned the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge. 

“Mom,” she called out, pounding on the door with her fists. Her eyes stung as she tasted salt in her mouth. “Mom, you can’t leave me here! Mom… come back!

There was no answer. Miko stopped and listened. The front door shut with a loud bang.

Panic engulfed her now. Her mother had left. She’d left Miko all alone. She started kicking at the door, screaming out for her mother, a fluttering of wings ringing out as she scared away the nearby crows and owls, but she was met only with suffocating silence.

Her eyes darted to the window. She ran over to it—ignoring the very real fact that her room was two stories above the ground—and tried to get it open. Her mother had locked that, too. Miko ended up pulling on the handle so furiously that it broke off of its hinges, and the momentum of her pulling action sent her stumbling backwards. She lost her balance and brutally fell onto her back, the harsh impact temporarily immobilising her as her spine shrieked in pain. 

She lay unmoving for a moment, coughing vigorously, her throat feeling like she was struggling to swallow down a still-beating heart. 

A few moments passed. Miko curled into a fetal position. She’d moved past weeping, past sobbing, to just silently staring at the wall, the muscles in her cheeks sore and achy. She dug her nails into the flesh on her arms, biting onto her lip so hard that a metallic tang spread across her tongue. 

"Don’t show them any weaknesses that you have. Never cry.”

It wasn’t until the first rays of light slipped into the room when the door finally opened.

A lady with violet hair smiled down at her. Miko stared blankly into her eyes, still in the same fetal position as before.

“Always bow to them.”

She didn’t want to. 

“You’re Yae’s daughter, right?” the lady said, seemingly oblivious to the stricken state Miko was in.

Her jaw refused to open. 

The lady extended a hand.

“Good morning, Yae,” she said warmly. As warm as a spoiled electric heater could be. “I’m Raiden Hikari. We look forward to having you with us.”

Miko’s mouth was moving. She couldn’t hear her own words, but she thought she was just mouthing ‘Mom’ over and over again.

Hikari’s hand remained outstretched. 

“You’ll be continuing her legacy by coming with me,” she said. “You don’t want your mother’s work to all go to waste, do you? And look how bloodied up you are…” She frowned. “...Did you do that to yourself?”

Miko glanced down at her arms. The same nail marks that her mother had always left on her were littered all over them, though they were significantly less red. Her mother always had so much more force—it was impossible to emulate it.

“Stand up now.” Something changed in Hikari’s eyes. “I have a lot to do. Don’t keep me waiting.”

Miko recognized that tone. It was the same one her mother used seconds before she lashed out at her. Her blood instantly ran cold. She slowly got to her feet, though making it a point to leave Hikari's hand untouched. The lady assessed her for a moment, her eyes slightly narrowed, then brought her hand back to her side. 

"Follow me," Hikari said. "I'll lead you to the Raiden estate."

The first people Miko saw in the estate were Makoto and Ei. She inwardly sighed in relief when there was no sign of Sir Raiden. 

Ei's lips dropped in disappointment when she saw her. Makoto gave her a perfunctory smile. 

"Hello, Yae," Makoto greeted. 

Miko bowed her head. "Good morning, Lady Makoto, Lady Ei."

Hikari patted Miko on the shoulder---her hand lingered there, much to her distaste. She wanted to rip it off. 

"Yae will be helping you guys with whatever you need," she said. "Don't be afraid to ask her anything."

Ei frowned. "I miss the older Yae."

Miko glared at her, but stopped when Makoto gave her a hard look, settling for a wry smile, instead.

"Sorry, Lady Ei. My mother isn't here anymore." 

Ei crossed her arms. "I don't care. I want her back. Aunt Hikari," she said, facing the lady with bright, pleading eyes, "can't we have Yae back?" 

"Ei, what Yae told you is true," Hikari said, "the previous Yae has left to settle her own matters."

Ei's eyes dimmed. "But…"

Miko hated being here. She wanted to scream that her mother wouldn't come back, not when she'd left her own daughter, but she knew she couldn't. Makoto was staring warily at her, and Hikari was standing right beside her. 

Makoto tugged on Ei's hand. "It'll be okay, Ei," she said softly. "What's important is that Yae remains in our memories."

Was Ei… crying? Those were tears dripping down her cheeks, alright. Miko gritted her teeth, hiding it behind pressed lips, and suppressed the urge to land a good punch right square in her face. 

She was her mother. These people didn't have the right to cry over her like that. Not when all they were using her for was to have an obedient servant. 

"I'll show you to your room now, Yae," Hikari said, pressing a hand to the small of her back and leading her into the hallway, leaving the sisters behind. She led her inside the first room on the right. 

Miko stood in stunned silence. There were traces of her mother everywhere—the way she'd always made the bed with the sheets never fully tucked in, the paintings of flora and fauna on the walls, and, worst of all, a small photograph on a frame placed on the bedside table, showing Miko being piggybacked by her mother at the amusement park. It didn't help that it was a recent picture. 

Miko ran to the photograph and picked it up. Her mother's face was just as she'd remembered it. She was afraid, she was afraid of forgetting her. Of forgetting all the time they'd spent together before she left. She hated her mother, but she loved her all the same. She hated the memories they shared, but she cherished them all the same. 

"Your mother used to live here before she had you," Hikari said, the corners of her lips turning up. It looked like a genuine smile, brimming with reminiscence, but Miko couldn't bring herself to find any sort of solace in it. "And she continued living here sometimes even after you came. Remember how she had to hire a babysitter for you occasionally?"

She hugged the photograph to her chest, refusing to meet Hikari's eyes. 

The other woman just laughed.

"I'll come pick you up tomorrow," she said. "You've got a lot of training to do." 

Then she closed the door. 

Miko spent the entire day smiling and crying and laughing and sobbing as she thought of her mother, her cheeks feeling like it could melt by the time the sky darkened. 

She didn't expect the knocking on the door. 

She quickly wiped her tears away on her shirt and hid the wet stains on it with her arms, pretty unsubtly. She used one arm to open the door.

Makoto stood outside, her eyebrows furrowed. The look on her face softened when their gazes met. She'd probably caught on to the fact that Miko had cried, despite how hard she tried to hide it. 

"Let me in," she mouthed. Miko decided against it, initially, standing stubbornly behind an ajar door, but Makoto's expression morphed into one of urgency, and Miko eventually relented. 

"What do you want?" Miko said, sitting on her bed with a frown. Makoto sat down beside her. Her entire demeanour seemed different compared to when they'd been with Sir Raiden and Hikari—she was a lot more relaxed, but there was also an aura of anxiety about her, like she expected to be reprimanded by someone any second.

"Sorry for the way I treated you, Miko," she said. "You're only five—you don't deserve any of this. I wish this stupid tradition would stop, but…" She sighed. "...It's impossible to go against Father and Aunt."

Miko hugged her pillow to her chest. "I don't want to be a servant for any of you," she said firmly. 

"I know. I don't want you to be one, either." 

Makoto gazed at her, a warm smile on her face. Miko didn't want to believe that the person in front of her had good intentions, but she had a desperate yearning for anyone who could be an adult figure—even if Makoto was barely one—and she eventually gave in. A small smile bloomed on Miko's face, as well. 

"Miko, I'll find a way to resist Father and Aunt in the future." Her eyes blazed. "For now, all you have to do is trust me. I'll protect you from them—I know how horrid they can be. They were…" She blinked rapidly, fighting away tears. "They were awful to your mother. And I couldn't do anything about it."

"...did they do…"

"What?"

"What did they do to my mother?" Miko asked fearfully.

Makoto squeezed her eyes shut. "I… I don't know much, but I think they made your mother leave." 

Miko stiffened. 

"Why?"

"They scheduled an execution for her." 

Miko blinked, confused. "Exsa...kusion?" 

"Right. You're five, sorry." 

Makoto took in a shaky breath.

"Basically, we're never going to see your mother again. Because they made her leave this world." 

"Then let's go find her in another world," Miko protested angrily. "Why are we still staying here?"

Sorrow crumpled Makoto's face. 

"We can't," she said quietly. "Humans can only stay in one world at a time." 

"But my mother's human, too."

Makoto grabbed onto Miko's shoulders. She froze, the phantom feeling of nails digging into her skin returning, and immediately lowered her head and apologised. Makoto quickly removed her hands. 

"Sorry, that must have startled you," Makoto said. "I'm so, so sorry."

Miko peeked up at her, slightly afraid. The other girl folded her hands over her lap. 

"I was going to say that… Your mother is an exception." Makoto pursed her lips. "She's very special, and she was very kind, so my family took advantage of her and sent her away. Only very kind people are able to travel to other worlds."

"So we can't because we're not kind people?" Miko asked sadly.

A soft laugh bubbled from Makoto's lips. "Only… old, kind people can travel to other worlds," she corrected herself.

"Oh."

Her lower lip trembled.

"But then that means I'll only be able to see her when I grow up to be old, too."

"Yeah."

Tears sprang into her eyes. "That's so long."

"Oh, Miko." 

Makoto stretched her arms out, but she hesitated. Then she asked meekly, "Are you okay with me hugging you?" 

Miko sniffed and nodded. Makoto smiled and took her into her arms. 

"It'll be okay, Miko. I'll protect you."

Miko still hated being in the Raiden estate, though seeing Makoto did bring some degree of comfort to her. Every day, Hikari came to pick Miko up and sent her to lessons taught by other personnel who worked for the Raiden family, where she learnt how to cook and housekeep. They all treated Miko with surprising… kindness. Though, strangely, she had to attend archery lessons, which seemed completely out of place for what a servant should do. After every lesson, she learnt how to fulfil the needs of Sir Raiden and his children more and more—she found herself knowing how to cook more meals and memorising the most effective way to clean each room. The other servants in the house were giving Miko more and more autonomy, too, at first doing all the cumbersome tasks for her, then eventually even going so far as to let her clean the entire bathroom on her own. Makoto secretly helped her sometimes, giving her a cheeky grin whenever she helped dust off a dirty shelf or wash the dishes behind her father's back. Miko secretly hung out with her at night, where they mostly talked about their day and read funny stories together. If they weren't doing that, then Makoto was teaching Miko what she would be learning in school if she was enrolled in one. 

Miko didn't talk much to Sir Raiden, who always looked deeply dissatisfied and brooding whenever his daughters weren't around him. Miko pointed it out to Makoto one night, but Makoto just brushed it off with a vague remark on how they shouldn't care too much about adult matters. Miko was just relieved that he hasn't displayed any hostile behaviour to her, like Makoto said he'd done with her mother.

Miko didn't talk much to Ei, either. The other girl always hid from her whenever she saw her in the estate, either scurrying off to her room or calling out for her sister, if she wasn't at school. Miko didn't understand why, but she didn't care too much. She was getting pretty used to life in the Raiden estate, but she refused to let herself get attached to it, not when the mystery behind her mother's departure remained like an itch at the back of her mind.

Then, years later, the day came when the itch was finally scratched. 

It would have been a pretty normal day, if it weren't for Sir Raiden's oddly stormy mood. The three Raidens sat at the dinner table, Makoto and Ei treading on eggshells throughout the entire conversation. He barely even smiled, when he'd usually have cracked two or three bright ones around his daughters by now. Miko didn't feel well—it brought back unpleasant memories of her mother that she'd tucked into the back of her mind. 

She was so antsy worrying about his behaviour that, when taking their empty plates from the table, one of them slipped from her fingers and, as if it was in slow-motion, slowly fell and fell and fell, then crashed onto the floor and splintered into a thousand ceramic pieces.

Miko froze. This had never happened before. Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic, just slowly move to pick it up, avoid eye contact, don't show any signs of fear on your face, just move, move, move—

"You can't even hold a plate properly?" he said darkly. 

Makoto stiffened, panic flitting over her face. Ei looked utterly petrified. 

"Sorry, Sir," she said quickly, crouching down and hastily picking up the broken pieces of the plate on the floor. "I'm so sorry, Sir, this won't happen again."

He gave her an empty smile. "You're just as useless as your mother was." 

"Father," Makoto said, but her voice died down mid-way, presumably because he'd just shot her an extremely dangerous glare. 

No one uttered a word as Miko continued gathering the pieces. She could feel their gazes piercing holes into her back. She felt like melting down into a hole and never coming back up. 

Once she was finally done, she stood up with a soft huff and was about to make her way back to the kitchen, when she realized Sir Raiden was still staring at her. 

"I'm sorry, Sir," she repeated, shrinking into herself. 

He raised an eyebrow. "Geez, what's with all these timidass Yae girls? I thought it'd be different with you, from what Hikari told me, but clearly you're still like all your ancestors. No backbone at all." 

Miko was trembling—out of fear or rage, she wasn't particularly sure. 

"I'm sorry, Sir." 

He waved his hand. "Sure. We'll see if you're capable of learning from your mistakes, unlike your whore of a mother—"

"Father!" Makoto yelled, her chair pushed back as she stood up. "Don't insult Yae like that—"

"Makoto," he said calmly, a malignant glint in his eyes, "where did you get the waywardness to talk to me like that?" 

She faltered a little, but her eyes hardened again. "Miko's still recovering from her mother, you can't just say things like that. It's not right." 

He laughed. Ei looked like she was about to burst into tears. Miko held the shattered pieces of ceramic in her hands, trembling so violently that they cut into her palms with little red gashes. 

"You guys have no idea what you're talking about. I have zero respect for her, not after the dirty things she'd done behind our backs." 

"Father, Miko's still there—"

"And when did you start calling her 'Miko'?" he murmured. Miko froze. Makoto stopped short, her body going entirely still. 

He stood from the chair, his gaze shifting to Miko.

"You guys have been meeting, haven't you?" 

"Father, she was lonely and I just thought she could have someone to talk to—"

Something smashed against the table. Miko watched in muted horror as his fist collided with the glass, shattering the entire surface. Ei screamed, scrambling out of her chair and pressing her back against the wall, taking in ragged breaths. Miko dug her palms into the splintered ceramic pieces, her heart nearly stopping. 

He glared at Makoto, who stared defiantly back, even after he'd done something as terrifying as that. 

"This is exactly what happened to your fucking mother," he said, controlling his voice now, though Miko knew it wouldn't be for long until he dropped the act. "Your dear Miko's mother gained her trust, and they both plotted to kill me and Hikari, without us suspecting a single damn thing. What if they'd succeeded? What if we hadn't decided to have them executed, and they were still lurking around, plotting to harm you and Ei? Or, worse, what should I do if history repeats itself and my own fucking family decides to just fucking stab me because of another sneaky Yae bitch? Tell me, Makoto, what should I do, then?" 

Makoto didn't seem fazed at all. Like she'd already known all of this. 

"There's a reason why they decided to do so in the first place," she said coldly. "You and Aunt Hikari were nothing but terrible to Yae. To the point where her and our mother—your own wife—decided that they'd had enough. There's something fucking wrong with the both of you."

He threw his head back, laughing so impossibly hard that it shook Miko to the core. 

"You think you know everything, Makoto," he sneered. "Try juggling the different jobs of ensuring Inazuma's safety and maintaining diplomatic relationships with the Liyue Qixing and Mondstadt's Favonius, all while still having to fight back those fucking Fatui pieces of shit who, by the way, also want me and Hikari killed. Everything has always been working against us—of course we had to be strict on Yae. That family was always meant to serve ours, anyway." 

"That doesn't give you the right to treat them like they're not even human beings," Makoto retorted. "Hell, you don't even treat me and Ei like human beings sometimes—"

"I've always protected you ungrateful kids," he hissed, raising his bloodied fist again and, this time, bringing it down and smashing a vase into pieces atop a nearby shelf. Ei flinched violently. Miko stood protectively in front of her, though she was shaking as much as she was.

"Look at yourself!" Makoto shrieked, her face beet-red. "You're breaking every fucking thing around you, how could you possibly say that you're protecting us?"

"Don't be like your mother, Makoto," he bellowed. "Always rushing to criticise, but never actually doing things for yourself—"

" Shut the fuck up.

Angry tears spilled out of her eyes. She looked like she was going to yell at him more, but she turned and walked over to Miko and Ei, taking the broken pieces of the plate from Miko and throwing them into the bin. 

"Let's go," she said softly. Miko quickly placed the remaining unbroken plates into the sink and scurried after Makoto and Ei, who were walking back to their rooms. 

Makoto waved them inside her room and quickly locked the door. 

The older Raiden sibling leaned against the wall, looking like she was going to faint at any second. Miko quickly took her hand and led her to sit on the bed. Ei sat on her other side, her cheeks streaked with tears. 

"Makoto," Ei squeaked, "I'm scared."

"Bunny, don't be," Makoto said, squeezing her hand. "I'm here for you." 

"I never knew Father could be this scary." Her eyes swimmed with tears again. "What if he… attacks us?"

"No, Ei," Makoto quickly said, though it wasn't with much certainty. "He wouldn't hurt us intentionally."

Miko hugged her knees to her chest. "He may," she said softly. Makoto winced a little. Ei looked at her, terrified.

"He may?" 

"It's okay, though." Miko smiled. "I'll protect you guys."

Ei blinked, then her gaze drifted down to her bloodied hands and she shrieked. 

"Your hands…"

Miko observed them, and her face instantly morphed into one of absolute horror. They were littered with a thousand tiny slashes, like her hands had just gone through an extremely spiky meat grinder. 

Makoto grimaced. "Miko, you shouldn't have held onto that plate so tightly," she gently chided. Miko was amazed at how she wasn't at all put off by the gruesome sight. Like she'd had her fair share of run-ins with situations like this before. 

"Don't worry." Makoto smiled. "I can handle this." 

She walked to her desk, where she unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out a first-aid kit. Miko followed her into the attached bathroom, where she brought her hands under the running tap and bit down hard on her lip to stifle a scream, feeling like her hands were being shredded even worse than when it'd been cut by the plate. 

"It's okay, Miko," Makoto murmured, over and over again, as she took disinfectant wipes and cleaned her palms. Miko shook and cried and cried even harder. Ei rubbed her back comfortingly as Makoto whispered, "It'll be over soon. It'll be over soon." 

Once she was finally done and there was a fresh set of bandages wrapped around her palms, Miko leaned into Makoto, resting her head against her shoulder as her eyes fluttered shut. 

"Everything will be over soon," she caught Makoto mumbling, right before she fell asleep in her arms. 


Makoto, Ei and Miko grew closer after that incident. The three of them regularly gathered in Makoto's room to enjoy one another's company, and Miko felt herself getting more and more attached to the siblings. Thankfully, Sir Raiden barely came home anymore to make a scene at them meeting behind his back, Makoto saying that he was getting more and more busy with something called Tenshukaku, though Miko didn't understand much, and Makoto didn't bother to elaborate. 

Soon, it was Makoto's turn to be seen in the estate less and less frequently, until it had practically become a norm for her not to have gone home for days in a row. Ei insisted that Makoto's work was extremely important, because she had to help their father with the Tenshukaku thing, too. Ei probably knew about whatever Tenshukaku was, then. It seemed like Miko was the only one who was left in the dark. 

Until, one day, Miko’s cooking, housekeeping, and even archery lessons were no more. Hikari had asked her the day before not to carry anything heavy or undertake any strenuous exercise at all the day before, so the personnel in the Raiden estate took over Miko’s duties for the time being. When Hikari picked her up unusually early the next day, she turned the car onto an unfamiliar road, and followed it until they reached the base of Mount Yogou. Miko didn't dare ask where they were going, or why they were heading to a different place today, when the route had never so much as wavered for the past five years. She watched apprehensively as the car pulled into the driveway of a dilapidated house, weeds squeezing their way through the cracks in the gravel.

Hikari cocked her head at Miko. “Forgive me for the sudden change in location—there’s something important that you’ll learn later.” Her eyes crinkled in a closed-lip smile. “Something that concerns my nieces that you adore so much.”

Miko perked up, looking at her with rapt attention. Hikari stepped out of the car. Miko struggled to get the door open, but she managed to swing it just ajar, then shoved with all her might to push it fully open. She dropped onto the ground, stumbling a little, then exerted the same amount of force to get the door shut again. Strong, chilly wind instantly swept across her skin, sparking a wave of goosebumps across her arms and shins and whipping her hair violently across her face. Some of her hair strands got caught in between her lips, and she quickly pulled them away irritatedly. 

Hikari, who’d been watching this entire spectacle unfold, cracked an amused smile. Miko glared at her, but her face softened when the woman draped a black coat over her, pulling it over her head and tugging the long sleeves down so it fully covered her arms. This was so terribly uncharacteristic that Miko couldn’t help questioning if it was really Raiden Hikari in front of her. 

“What?” Hikari said, noticing the wary look she was casting her. “Am I not allowed to make sure you don’t catch a cold?”

Miko grumbled a soft ‘thanks, Lady Raiden’. Hikari broke into a soft smile, which was even more unsettling.

“Well, I guess it is a little weird of me to have a coat that’s your size,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “I just realised you don’t know this, but… I actually have a child.”

Miko nearly choked on her own spit. She whirled around to face her, bewildered. “Lady Raiden…you have a child?”

“Yes.” Hikari crossed her arms. “And I’ll have you know I’ve been taking extremely good care of him.”

“Did you just, um, give birth to him… or—”

“He turned five a few days ago. I’ve been going on shopping sprees lately to get him bigger-sized clothes, for when he grows up to fit into them.”

Miko’s hands flew over her mouth, shell-shocked. “He’s…pretty old…”

“I would hardly call a five-year-old kid old.”

“But, still…” 

Miko bit her lip nervously. She wasn’t really used to having a conversation that lasted this long with Hikari—especially not when it was a conversation about a secret child that Hikari had been hiding from them. She couldn’t deny that she was worried about whether Hikari had truly been taking care of him well, what with how Hikari had treated Miko herself, ever since she was a child. Like she was a pebble in her shoe.

“Can I see him soon?” she pleaded. 

Hikari shrugged nonchalantly. “I don’t see why not. Maybe I’ll invite you guys over for his fourth birthday next year.”

That was a pretty long wait—Miko just had to hope that Hikari’s child was alright for now.

“Okay,” she pouted.

“I didn’t know you had a liking for kids.”

Miko scratched her face shyly. “I just… find them cute,” she lied.

“I see.” Hikari turned to the house. “We should head inside now. It’s getting colder.” She paused. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet, correct?”

“I haven’t,” she confirmed. Hikari nodded mutely, like she’d wanted that. Miko frowned, but brushed the thought away.

The worn-down house stood in a composed way, as if it had chosen solitude for itself, as if residents were a luxury it could forgo. The brightly painted door was half off its hinges, its still shiny knocker dangling with gravity. The path leading up to the front door was perfect brickwork, the mortar holding back the weeds that had overtaken the neighbouring gravel with ease. Someone was clearly taking care of the house, despite the abandoned image it portrayed at first glance—the strange contradiction made the atmosphere ten times more eerie, and suddenly Miko wasn’t so curious about what Hikari had brought her here for anymore.

Hikari knocked on the door with two slow thuds of her fist, followed by three rapid taps of the knocker. Miko positioned herself so that she’d be completely obscured by Hikari’s body when the person on the other side answered the door.

A few seconds went by. The door creaked open. Miko despised how she was seeking protection from Hikari, but she couldn’t help clutching onto the hem of the lady’s jacket tightly.

“Welcome, Hikari,” a smooth voice chimed. 

“Morning, Yui.” 

Miko slowly peeked at the other person from behind Hikari. A lady with ash-brown hair and muted grey eyes gave her a little wave, a small smile dancing on her lips.

“And hello to you, there,” Yui said. “I’m Kujou Yui, and you’re…Yae Aika’s daughter, right? Is it Miko?”

Miko nodded meekly. Hikari grabbed her arm and pulled her to stand beside her. 

“Hello, Lady Kujou,” she said, bowing her head. Yui laughed—it was pleasant and tinkling, sending a warm and fuzzy feeling sparking in Miko’s chest, so very unlike Hikari’s frequent dry and humorless ones.

“Oh, please…you can just call me Yui.”

Miko shook her head. She was deathly afraid of antagonising adults. “It’s okay, Lady Kujou.”

Her lips turned down. “Well… if you say so.” She nodded to Hikari. “Let’s head inside.”

Yui opened the door wider and waited for the two of them to enter, before gently closing the door and plunging them into semi-darkness in the house’s living room. The floor was cold and gritty even through Miko’s shoes, and she let out a string of sneezes as they headed to a dark stairwell. Hikari did another shocking thing—she removed her scarf and wrapped it around Miko’s neck, even going so far as to pull it up to cover her probably reddened nose.

“Thanks, Lady Raiden,” she said softly. Hikari nodded mutely, almost seeming shy about it.

Yui observed them with a smile. “Having a kid really does change people.”

“I’ve always been kind,” Hikari scoffed.

Yui covered her snicker with her hand. “Yeah, sure.”

“I could say the same about you, with your lovely Sara.”

“Of course,” Yui agreed with a nod. “If I hadn’t adopted her, I would have remained the same old, gross me for the rest of time.”

“Where is she now?”

“Fast asleep in her room.”

Miko didn’t understand how anyone could stand living in a place like this, much less another child. Yui saw the confusion on her face and smiled.

“Don’t worry, we don’t actually live here,” she told her. “It’s really dirty, isn’t it? Our real house is a distance behind this one. The one we’re in right now is merely a decoy for any people with bad intentions.”

“Oh,” Miko said. “Does ‘decoy’ mean a distraction?”

“Yup. You’re a smart one, aren’t you?” 

Miko puffed out her chest. “Thank you, Lady Kujou.”

Hikari snorted. “Don’t inflate her ego too much.”

Yui patted Miko’s head, who leaned into the touch. “Knowing you, Hikari, I bet you haven’t spoken a word of actual praise to her this entire time,” she gently admonished.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“She’s served your family for the past five years—give the poor girl some credit.”

“More like Yomo’s family.”

Hikari’s gaze lingered on Miko for a long moment, as if she was actually contemplating Yui’s words, but she turned away with a huff.

“Impossible. She reminds me too much of her mother.”

At that, Yui went silent and shot Miko an apologetic look. Miko shrugged lightly, though a sour taste lingered at the back of her tongue. This was why she hated Raiden Hikari, she thought bitterly. She ignored the fact that she’d actually been willing to make amends with the lady a few moments ago, when Hikari had been nice to her, merely because of how much she craved a motherly figure.

They moved on to descend the stairwell, Miko gripping the railings tightly as her gaze gravitated on the dark landing below. If this was just a decoy address, then what were they still doing here?

They stopped in front of a steel door. Yui pulled out a key and turned it in the lock. The door gave way with a sharp click. 

“Miko, you should go in first.”

The two ladies stared at Miko with vastly different undertones—Yui with a kind, inviting gaze, contrasting with Hikari’s sharp look and pursed lips. Miko knew what to do, either way. She bowed her head and entered the room.

What lay on the other side stopped Miko in her tracks entirely. 

It wasn’t just a room…it was a whole underground facility. And they weren’t even on the ground floor—Miko found herself on a metal walkway so high above ground that she couldn’t even see the lowest level from here. Her hands turned cold and clammy when faced with the discovery that she could tip and fall over the railings at any moment, and plummet down to her death. Her eyes swept over the place, her jaw dropping so wide that the scarf fell off her face. The metal walkway extended to a platform tens of metres away on the other side of the facility, where an elevator in a transparent glass tube waited for them. 

“Well?” Hikari said, clapping her on the back and startling her.

Miko struggled not to let her immense fear show on her face. Her hands shook. “Um…Lady Raiden…we’re really high up…” 

“Welcome,” she ignored her, “to Tenshukaku’s underground base.”

Tenshukaku, there the word was again. Miko didn’t get it, she didn’t get any of this. She felt a squeeze of her hand—Yui was holding it with an encouraging smile.

“Miko, don’t be scared later,” she said. “There will be a lot of things you’ll initially be afraid of, but Hikari and I will be with you.”

“Lady Kujou…what’s Tenshukaku?”

Her brows furrowed. “Hikari, don’t tell me you haven’t even given her an introduction?”

Hikari looked boredly at them. “What introduction? She won’t get it, not until she sees it with her own two eyes.” 

“But—”

“Let’s just go,” she said dismissively, with a hint of annoyance in her tone. “We don’t have much time.”

Hikari’s footsteps clanged against the metal as she walked towards the elevator. Yui sighed, murmuring, “I can never get that woman. One minute she acts like your own mother, and the next she treats you like a pebble in her shoe. I can’t tell if she’s actually changed, or if everything she does is part of some sort of sorry excuse of a farce.” 

She stared intently at Miko, like she was trying to figure out her thoughts without actually asking her about them. Miko blinked up at her blankly.

Yui shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s go, Miko.”

They followed Hikari, hand-in-hand, into the elevator. Hikari jabbed at a button. Miko squinted and saw that it read F-20.

The elevator smoothly descended, gingerly leaving the floor they were on at first, then increasing in speed, and finally slowing to a halt, where the doors opened to reveal a…laboratory? Upon seeing them—or, more like upon seeing Hikari—the people in lab coats milling around the desks immediately stopped whatever they were doing and bowed.

“Good morning,” Hikari said rather lazily. “Yae Miko’s here for her preliminary check-up.”

A man with sky-blue hair stepped forward. His eyes landed on Miko. 

“Yes, Miss Raiden,” he said. “Follow me, Miko.”

Miko found it rather stuffy now, and handed Hikari her scarf back. She shrugged out of the coat and gave it back to her, as well. Hikari took them wordlessly, something akin to disappointment flashing across her eyes.

Yui gave Miko a wave, and she watched in confusion and slight fear as the two women headed back to the elevator and left. 

Miko turned back and panicked a little when the man from before had disappeared, but she found the mop of blue hair in front of a metal door just a short distance away. She walked briskly to catch up with him, and just barely made it out of the laboratory before the door closed.

The man looked back at her to check if she was still behind him, presumably, then nodded and resumed walking. She quickened her pace to keep up with his long strides as they made their way down a curved corridor. They passed by many closed metal doors on their left, most of them marked with a label reading ‘AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY’. Then he stopped in front of one just before the corridor straightened. He slotted a black keycard into a slit above the door handle. There was a loud beep, that probably meant that the door had unlocked. He nodded at Miko again as he opened the door and went in.

There was a table-looking bed in the room that looked like it belonged in a hospital. Beside it was an electric monitor that had a bunch of coloured flat lines on it, which sparked suspicion in Miko immediately. Makoto had told her about rooms like this before—Makoto had been in one herself when she got into an accident when she was younger. She said that she had lots of needles stuck into her. Miko refused to go any further and stayed at the doorway.

“I don’t want to have a needle poked inside me,” she said firmly, planting her feet into the ground. 

The man gave her an inquisitive look. “Have you been to the hospital before?”

“My friend told me she had to get a lot of needles poked inside her when she went to one.”

“Well, this isn’t a hospital. You’re not injured, so you have nothing to be afraid of.”

“But you’re going to stick needles in me, aren’t you?” she protested.

“We do it so we can have a better idea of your condition.”

She gasped. “I have a condition?”

He sighed, somewhat exasperatedly. “No, but it’s imperative that we do a health check on you before you—you know what, whatever. You don’t even know what ‘imperative’ means.”

“It means important,” she quipped immediately. 

He blinked. “Huh.” 

“I don’t want to do a health check.”

“You’ll get candy if you do it.”

She shook her head. 

He seemed like he was at a loss for words. He pinched the bridge of his nose and made a call on his phone.

“Miss Raiden, I think you’ve underestimated the girl’s stubbornness—”

Miko blanched. “Wait! Don’t call Lady Raiden, I—”

He raised an eyebrow. 

She said pathetically, “Fine. I’ll do the check-up.” God, she hated how afraid she was of Hikari.

“Okay.” He put his phone away and gestured towards the bed. “Lie down first.”

She obediently climbed onto the bed and settled herself on it, getting into a comfortable position as her heart skipped wildly in her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting a needle to be pierced into her at any second. 

It was, in fact, a long while before the check-up started, though she still had her eyes shut the entire time as she waited. The man had left the room for quite some time, then came back with a few other people, judging from the increased number of footsteps.

“Oh,” a high-pitched voice cooed, once the door shut. “She’s like a mini-version of Aika.”

Shh, ” a brusque voice shushed her. “Don’t mention her name, idiot.”

The person ignored the warning. “I miss Aika so much.”

“You’re definitely getting executed by Raiden next.”

“Okay,” the man from before said, instantly shutting them both up, “start preparing for the venipuncture now.”

Miko’s heart rate skyrocketed. Whatever venipuncture was, it most likely involved them inserting a needle into her skin. She bit on her lip, hard. Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared. 

“Relax,” the high-pitched voice said, a lot closer now. “It’ll be over soon.” 

Miko slowly opened her eyes. The woman pushed her sleeve up to expose an arm, then pulled out a thick blue band and showed it to her.

“This is called a tourniquet,” she said kindly. “It helps your veins back up with blood so it’ll be easier to do the blood test.”

She tied the tourniquet around her arm such that it stayed just above her elbow. She examined her arm for a second, seemed to find what she was looking for and nodded to herself. She took out an alcohol wipe and cleaned the area on her arm she was focusing on, then replaced the tourniquet and, to Miko’s horror, the woman proceeded to remove a needle from its package.

Her eyes flew shut. The area where the woman had just cleaned her arm now burned and stang, then, abruptly, grew numb. So strangely numb that she opened her eyes again. This time, the man was in front of her, and was in the middle of inserting another needle into her arm. She quickly closed her eyes again. There was a slight pressure in the same spot just seconds later, and Miko bit on her lip even harder. Then the feeling went away, and she opened her eyes to find that a cotton-wool dressing had been taped over the spot in her arm where she’d felt the prick. The man was now holding a syringe filled with a red liquid—her blood. She blinked. That wasn’t too bad.

“You didn’t eat breakfast before this, right?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good. The test results will be more accurate, then.”

Oh. That was why Hikari had asked her about it—she wasn’t trying to be mean to Miko by ensuring she didn’t eat breakfast. Miko felt a little stupid now.

The man handed the syringe to the other woman, and she left the room. He and the woman who’d stuck the first needle in Miko remained at the other corner of the room beside a potted faux palm tree, sitting in chairs and talking in hushed tones. It felt like an eternity before they finally broke apart. Miko suspected more than an hour had already passed. Then the woman walked over to Miko, who tensed at her sudden arrival. 

“So, Miko,” she said. “How has it been with the Raiden family?”

“Ichika,” the man warned.

“Come on, Mister Kamisato. It’s just a harmless question.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

Ichika turned back to Miko, her eyes gleaming with curiosity. Miko, still slightly dizzy after the veniwhatever, blinked slowly at her.

“It’s been okay,” she said.

The woman looked disappointed at the short answer. 

“Are the Raidens treating you well?”

Miko nodded.

“You can tell the truth, you know.”

“Ichika. You know very well this is none of our business,” the man snapped.

Ichika didn’t tear her gaze away from her, clearly expecting a response. Miko felt like she was being backed into a corner.

“I was friends with your mother,” Ichika said. “She was like an angel. I bet you’re just like her, aren’t you?”

Miko said nothing. The man looked like he’d given up on asking her to stop, and began examining something on the clipboard he was holding. 

“Miko,” Ichika urged. “Don’t you care about your own well-being? Are they forcing you to keep silent?”

“I—I like them. I like Lady Makoto, Lady Ei, Sir Raiden, and Lady Raiden. I like them all.”

Ichika’s nose scrunched. “Okay, I guess you’re not going to tell me anything.”

Her gaze remained on Miko, for some odd reason. Miko averted her eyes, shifting uncomfortably in the bed.

Then Ichika sighed. “I can’t believe you’re already joining Tenshukaku. They’re really making you take the exact same route as your mother. It may be tradition or whatever, but it’s never sat right with me.”

Miko looked up at her. “What is Tenshukaku, exactly?”

Ichika perked up, looking delighted to be able to indulge her curiosity. “It’s an organisation that keeps Inazuma safe. We eliminate anything that may threaten the longevity of the country. Oh, sorry, I used really hard words. What I meant was—”

“I understand,” Miko cut her off. “So, my mother was in this organisation, too?”

Ichika blinked, then recomposed herself and nodded. “Yeah. And so are we. And so is the entire Raiden family, save Raiden Ei. They founded Tenshukaku long, long ago. And your family has always joined them in Tenshukaku, too, to serve under them. Most of the time, a Yae is second-in-command.”

“Oh…”

She frowned.

“Am I going to be second-in-command?”

“Well, when you grow up, yeah. At least that’s how it’s always been.”

“Then what will I do now?”

Ichika wrinkled her nose. “Whatever the Raidens want you to do. I wouldn’t know, I’m only a nurse. And a researcher, I guess.”

Miko tilted her head. “Researching what?”

“Hm. There are many different things that different sectors of research do in Tenshukaku. Like coming up with newer weapon technologies, finding different ways to augment human abilities—”

“Ichika, that’s enough,” Kamisato hissed. 

The woman rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine. I’m kind of lazy to drone on about our work, anyway.”

“Then, what did you take my blood for?” Miko asked.

Ichika looked pleadingly at Kamisato. “At least let me tell her this.”

Kamisato sighed. “We’ll tell her later, anyway, but fine.”

Ichika’s face lit up, then she cleared her throat, her expression morphing into a serious one. Well, as serious as someone like her could manage. 

“There’s this thing called the RHM factor,” she began. “It’s a measure for the amount of RHM cells in the body of a living being. We coined it RHM because the cells are in the shape of a half-moon—so RHM means red half-moon. The average healthy human has an RHM factor of about 100 to 200, while an enhanced human has an RHM factor of about 1000 to 8000. Human embryos get enhanced through modifications in the gene that stimulates the growth of RHM cells, with permission from the parent, and the enhancements get carried down from generation to generation. 

Your RHM factor can also increase naturally—RHM cells flow through specialised RHM vessels, and you can increase the growth of these vessels through repeated injury and regeneration. Basically, getting hurt a lot, then having those wounds recover. So whenever you get injured, an extremely high RHM factor will enable your wound to recover almost instantaneously. The highest known RHM factor is 8891, and,” Ichika wiggled her eyebrows, “guess who it is?” 

Miko gave her a blank look. She was still processing what she’d meant by ‘repeated injury and regeneration’. Ichika scowled.

“You’re boring. Anyway, it’s Raiden Hikari. That woman’s an absolute monster.”

Miko looked at the dressing on her arm. “But what does being enhanced even mean?”

“Well, it manifests itself in different ways,” Ichika explained. “There’s mental enhancements, which improves things like your associative memory, hand-eye coordination, spatial visualisation, perceptual speed, word fluency, number facility—”

“Ichika,” Kamisato groaned, “she’s ten.”

“Right. Anyway, it just makes you smarter. Yup. Smarter. Then there’s the physical enhancements. Those improve your flexibility, coordination, balance, stamina, and strength. There are many different types of strengths, like dynamic strength, static strength, trunk strength, explosive strength…ah, sorry. Got ahead of myself again. Physical enhancements essentially make you stronger. Either way, if you’re enhanced it just means you’re superior to others both physically and mentally.”

Miko nodded, admittedly having tuned out halfway through the explanation. “So… are you checking my RHM factor with my blood?”

“Yes, yes. Smart girl. Your mother had been enhanced, so you should be, too.”

“Is it good if it’s high?”

Ichika deliberated for a moment. “Well…not necessarily. In some cases, when a person’s RHM factor is too high, the RHM cells in a person’s body will suddenly go whack and continue to multiply at an alarming rate, then start consuming other cells. 

At stage one of RHM cell over-secretion disease—or ROSD in short—the patient will experience digestive issues, skin problems, joint pain or a recurring fever. Or all of the above. They’ll constantly feel tired, as well. At stage two of ROSD, the patient loses their mind, and will start exhibiting extremely erratic behaviour. In severe cases, their memory may even be altered, and they'll lose the ability to feel any physical pain. By that point, the patient is beyond saving, which is why we get the enhanced Tenshukaku agents to get monthly check-ups, so we can spot the signs of ROSD early. 

We then help ROSD patients decrease their RHM factor with some doses of an RHM suppressant. It helps them temporarily, but we haven’t devised an actual cure for it yet. Though there have been a few cases before where the patients miraculously get better. We have no clue why that happens. We haven’t really figured out the causes of ROSD, either. No one knows if it’s a hereditary disease or an acquired disease.”

“So you’ll help me do that if mine is too high?”

“We have to see how your other cells are coping with the RHM cells first. If they can’t adapt to the presence of the RHM cells, then we’ll have to decrease your RHM factor. If your other cells are working just fine, then we don’t have to do anything.”

As if on cue, the door opened and the woman who’d taken the syringe that was filled with her blood came in with a clipboard matching Kamisato’s.

“She has an RHM factor of 2483,” she said, looking uncomfortable. “Unnaturally high for an enhanced ten-year-old, but the proportion of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets are normal. Her levels of haemoglobin and hematocrit are normal, as well. It is recommended for her to have weekly checkups, however, just in case her RHM cells suddenly spiral out of control.”

Ichika’s jaw dropped. “2483…No wonder you could keep up with what I was saying just now.”

“Am I okay?” Miko asked, worried.

Kamisato looked very tense. “No ten-year-old should have an RHM factor of that level.”

Realisation dawned upon Ichika’s eyes as she faced Miko. 

“Miko…have the Raidens been hurting you?”

Kamisato and the other woman turned to look at her as well. They all looked equally shaken and worried.

Miko blinked. “Hurting?”

“Do any of them physically harm you?” Ichika asked. 

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. They don’t beat me at all.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Kamisato murmured. 

Ichika looked more and more apprehensive by the second. “Well…how about your mother?”

The other woman’s head whirled around as she gave Ichika a dark stare. “Why in the world would Aika have—”

Miko hugged her arms to her chest. The woman sucked in a sharp breath. 

“Um…she didn’t mean to,” Miko said, feeling like a hydraulic press was squeezing down on her chest. “But she sometimes…well, she was stressed, and—”

“She hit you,” Ichika finished, eyes wide.

“It wasn’t her fault!” Miko shouted, her eyes swimming with tears. “Mom didn’t do anything wrong, I swear, she didn’t mean to hurt me. She really didn’t mean to…”

Words abandoned her. The others were all facing her with sceptical and pitiful looks. Her heart stuttered—none of them believed her. Her mouth dried.

“I can’t believe Aika did that,” Ichika said softly.

“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” Kamisato cut in. “What we really have to monitor now are the changes in her RHM factor.”

Strangely, Ichika listened to him for once and nodded. The other woman still looked concerned, but didn’t do anything else to pursue the matter.

“We’re done with the blood test,” Kamisato said. “Miko, make sure you refrain from taking part in vigorous exercise. Rest your arm as much as possible for the next twenty-four hours. If you feel any throbbing or intense pain in your arm, or your hand suddenly feels numb or changes colour, inform Miss Raiden immediately so that she can bring you back here.” He removed the dressing from her arm. A small bruise was visible at the insertion site of the needle.

“You did well today,” he added, giving her a tight smile.

Miko bowed her head. “Thank you, Mister Kamisato, Miss Ichika and Miss…”

“Yuuko,” the other woman finished for her.

“Miss Yuuko. Thank you.”

“You’re too polite,” Yuuko said. “You’re going to be our superior in the future, anyway. No need for the formalities.”

Miko stared pointedly at her. “It’s okay, Miss Yuuko.”

To her surprise, she laughed. Ichika and Kamisato smiled. 

“That’s a new look on your face,” Yuuko said cheekily.

Miko smiled abashedly. “Sorry.”

“No, no. It’s alright. I should get used to it earlier, since that’s how you’re going to look at us in a few years.”

As they laughed again, there was a knock on the door. Whoever the person who had knocked was clearly didn’t mean to wait for a response, because they opened the door immediately, anyway.

Hikari entered the room and gave a perfunctory smile to Kamisato, Ichika and Yuuko, who immediately bowed their heads.

“Well?” she said. “What’s Yae’s RHM factor?”

“2483, Miss Raiden,” Yuuko reported, lifting her head back up.

If Hikari was shocked at all, she didn’t show it. She quirked an eyebrow, instead. “That’s pretty high.”

“Yes, Miss Raiden.”

“Interesting.” Hikari looked at Miko for a moment, then clicked her tongue. “Well, it was to be expected. Your mother wasn’t exactly a saint. And you have the tendency to dig your nails into your arms at every minor inconvenience.”

Miko froze.

“Yes, I’ve noticed that nervous tic of hers, as well, along with biting her lip so hard that it bleeds,” Kamisato agreed. “It seems like she actively tries to suppress any semblance of negative emotion that she has by resorting to physical pain. That could be one of many reasons for why her RHM factor is so high.”

Ichika and Yuuko cast concerned and mildly shocked glances at Miko, who shrank into herself with everyone's increasing scrutiny.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly.

Hikari laughed like she'd just told a joke. "You didn't commit a crime, relax. All that injury that was inflicted upon you made you stronger—it's something to be proud of, if anything. An RHM factor of over 2000 is something even some enhanced adults could only hope to achieve." 

It seemed Hikari really thought it was nothing bad. Miko relaxed again. 

"Anyway, thanks, guys," Hikari said. "She needs to come back for weekly checkups, I presume?"

Kamisato nodded. "Yes, Miss Raiden."

"Okay, sure. We'll take our leave now." 

Hikari cocked her head towards the door. "I'll bring you somewhere else, Yae." 

"Yes, Lady Raiden."

Miko followed her out of the room. 

They walked back down the curved corridor to a different elevator tube. Hikari pressed the button to call the elevator. The glances she sneaked at Miko every few seconds didn't go unnoticed by her.

"Is there something wrong, Lady Raiden?"

Hikari frowned. "I'll give you some adhesive bandages to put around your nails later."

"I'm fine, Lady Raiden, you don't have to inconvenience yourself. I'll stop digging my nails into my skin---"

"You won't," she cut her off. "You've been doing it for years. You won't stop just because I'm telling you to. So I'm trying to help." 

Miko bit her lip. Hikari grimaced.

"Stop biting your lip." 

Miko stopped, but she started again just a second later. 

"I think I have to shove a ball in your mouth, or something," Hikari said, irritated. "This is why your lips are always so sore and red." 

"Sorry, Lady—"

"Don't apologise," she hissed.

Miko recoiled. Hikari looked a little apologetic at how harshly she'd said it, and, surprisingly, took her hand into hers, rubbing small circles into the back of her hand. 

"If I do this," she said, keeping her gaze on the ground, "does it help?"

Miko was stunned speechless for a moment. When words came back to her, she clumsily said, "Um…" She'd stopped biting her lip momentarily. "I guess. Thanks, Lady Raiden." 

"Sure." 

The elevator arrived. The two of them stepped in. Hikari still didn't let go. It made Miko feel strangely warm. Hikari's small action really did bring her comfort. 

She pressed the F-20 button. The elevator descended and stopped within seconds, and the doors slid open. They walked out. Miko's hand was still in Hikari's.

This floor was deserted. Hikari led her to a room on the right, which Miko quickly discovered to actually be a bedroom. 

"This is where I used to stay, before I settled down elsewhere with my current family," Hikari told Miko, closing the door behind them, but still holding onto her hand. "Well, before my father died." 

Miko looked at her, shocked that she'd revealed something that personal all of a sudden, but Hikari just shrugged.

"Nothing much I could do about it. Stupid man got assassinated. We weren't that attached to him, anyway. Yomo and I, I mean."

"Assassinated means he got killed by someone else who was paid to do that job, right?"

"Yeah. It was the Fatui. As always." 

Miko tested the word out on her tongue. "Fa...tooie?"

"They're an assassination organisation from a country called Snezhnaya. We still don't really get why they had our father killed. Snezhnaya and Inazuma had been on good terms up until a few years ago. Maybe they have a sudden desire to see Inazuma collapse and burn. How they gain anything from it, I've got no clue. More trade, perhaps, but it's too shallow of a reason." Hikari looked at her intently. "I'm assuming you've probably asked someone what Tenshukaku is by now, right?" 

Miko nodded.

"Great. Well, you already know that you'll be joining it, too, then. Apart from the director—Yomo, and the co-director—me, Tenshukaku agents have many different jobs: there are the spies, who gather intel on dangerous individuals; the operators, who organise spy missions and kill missions; the assassins, who do the killing of the dangerous individuals; and then there are the doctors, nurses and researchers, who help improve our weapon technology, conduct research on RHM cells, find new ways to enhance and augment human abilities so our assassins and spies can be more efficient...things like that. 

Most Yaes are second-in-command, and they're usually referred to as Chief Operator. That'll be your position when you grow older."

Milo blanched. "But operators organise kill missions...I have to tell people how to kill others?"

"Those people that we have to kill pose a threat to Inazuma. We're just protecting our nation."

"But…"

"You'll get used to it soon," she said unfeelingly. "It'll be fine." 

Milo's eyes widened, as she realised something.

"Was my mother also second-in-command before?"

"Yes. She was."

Her mother had killed people. Miko hadn't wanted to make that discovery, but… 

"She left quite a few missions unfinished," Hikari said blandly. "It'll be up to you to see them through." 

And Hikari had killed her mother. Miko suppressed the resentment that swept through her, but it manifested in her face as a glare, regardless. 

"Lady Raiden…I have to kill people."

"That's the gist of it, yes." 

Her hand shook in Hikari’s. She swallowed hard. “I don’t want to—”

“Your mother’s will,” Hikari cut her off, “stated that I would be your testamentary guardian. And, to protect yourself, I’m telling you that your best option would be to stay in Tenshukaku. You’re an ally of the Raiden family, and we have lots of enemies. They could target you at any time, Yae.”

Her mother had wanted her to be in custody of a woman like Hikari. Miko couldn’t wrap her mind around it. What had her mother been thinking?

Then she laid another hand on top of Miko’s, and…smiled. Tightly. But it was a genuine one. “I’m sorry. I wish there were a different way, but this is the only option we have to ensure your safety. Yomo and I won’t assign you missions yet—you’ll begin combat training and strategy exercises as part of your preparation, until we decide that you’re ready to begin your actual job of being a Tenshukaku member.”

Miko lowered her head. She refused to kill anyone. There was no way she could just end a person’s life like that. Makoto was in this organisation, too…did that mean that she killed people, as well? She could never see her as a killer, but if she was in Tenshukaku, then that basically guaranteed it. 

Still, she’d be able to find some semblance of comfort if Makoto was with her.

“I want to train with Makoto, then,” she said in a small voice. She had no other choice but to give up fighting against being a Tenshukaku member. She could see where Hikari was coming from, but Miko would definitely have no one killed.

Hikari agreed, surprisingly readily. “Sure.”

“Thank you, Lady Raiden.”

Hikari stood up, removing her hand from hers. Miko’s hand immediately chilled, and the itch at the back of her brain that she could only satisfy by biting down on her lip returned.

“You should take a rest now,” she told Miko, not unkindly. “The blood test must have been scary. Sorry I didn’t tell you about it beforehand—I didn’t want you to get too nervous about it. But I should have still given you some sort of warning.”

Miko smiled. “It’s okay, Lady Raiden.”

Hikari blinked. “Oh. You smiled at me, for once.”

Miko’s face instantly heated up. Hikari’s lips curved up cheekily.

“You’re pretty cute when you smile.”

Miko flushed even more, which she hadn’t thought possible. Getting complimented by Hikari was a situation she’d never have envisioned herself in. 

“I’ll take you to meet my son someday,” she suddenly said, the smile still on her face. “I’m sure he’d appreciate the company.”

Before she realised what she was saying, Miko blurted out, “Do you love him?”

Hikari tensed a little, giving her an odd look. Miko quickly regretted it.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

Hikari didn’t say anything for a while. Then—

“He’s the most important person in my life.”

Miko looked up at her. An indecipherable emotion was swirling in Hikari’s eyes—a mix of sadness, remorse, and something so impossibly fond, something that Miko had never thought Hikari capable of feeling.

“Sometimes,” Hikari said, turning away, “I regret nearly all the decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Because it ended up making Renji's one so much harder.”

Then she left. The door closed.

Many questions were left circling in Miko’s head. She couldn’t figure out Raiden Hikari—not one bit. 

Chapter Text

Miko stayed at Hikari’s room in the base for a while, drifting in and out of sleep, then decided to wake up when she couldn't tolerate having nothing to do anymore. 

She looked around the room. Hikari had already cleared out all her belongings---there weren't any signs that indicated that another person had lived here before. Then something caught her eye in her peripheral vision. 

A photo frame lay on the bedside table. Miko picked it up for closer inspection. 

A younger-looking Hikari was peace-signing in the picture, grinning from ear to ear with an extremely uncharacteristic glimmer in her eyes, her arm around a foreign-lookung brunette man who smiled equally as bright as her, his eyes not on the camera, but directing a loving gaze onto her instead. 

Miko's eyes were drawn to Hikari. It was strange, to see her so youthful-looking and...radiant. Hikari was already an attractive person, but in this picture, she looked a thousand times more captivating. The man she had taken the photo with was probably her husband. 

But why would she have left a photo of them here, if she'd cleared out all her other possessions? Weren't people supposed to treasure photographs that they'd taken with their loved ones?

Three rapid knocks on the door abruptly rang out. Miko nearly dropped the photo frame. She quickly put it back in its original place. 

"Uh...come in," she said. 

Yui opened the door and stepped into the room.   

“Hi, Miko.”

Miko relaxed, just a little. “Lady Kujou.”

The woman smiled. “I came here to give you some news—you won’t have to return to the Raiden estate for a while, as per Hikari’s orders.”

“Will I be staying here, then?”

“Yes. She wants you to focus on training as much as possible.”

Miko’s heart sank. “Then who will serve the Raiden family in my place?”

“The other helpers in the estate will take over your duties until you return.”

“Oh,” Miko said bitterly.

“Thinking of Makoto and Ei?”

She bit her lip and nodded.

“They’ll be fine,” Yui said reassuringly. “Makoto will be training with you, so you’ll still get to see her.”

Miko’s spirits lifted right away. She forgot that she’d made that request. “Yeah.”

Yui chuckled. “Eager now, huh? Let’s get going, then.”

From that day on, Miko's entire life turned on its head. She spent countless hours relentlessly training with several different weapons, going through numerous training simulations where they put her through different scenarios, taking strategy and tactic classes, doing mental and physical exercises whenever she was back in her room at the base… It was draining. She was so exhausted after every day that she promptly fell asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. The training wasn’t too tough for her—Ichika attributing that to her oddly high RHM factor the next time she went for a checkup, and the archery lessons that she’d taken before had made her more adept in sniping—it was just the daily repetition of the routine that made it so tiring.

She didn't even get to see Makoto much—the only time where Miko could meet her was the training simulation session in the mornings, and even then they could barely interact, because Makoto was the one administering the simulation and monitoring her, only giving her feedback at the end with a cold and clinical tone, since they could be watched by Hikari without them knowing at anytime. Their lunch breaks didn't coincide, either. Asking Hikari if she could train with Makoto proved worthless, after all.

Then there was Yui, who was pretty much Miko's mentor the entire time. Yui was terrifyingly good at everything—she'd mastered a frightening number of weapons, and was excellent in formulating strategies, as well. She was the ideal Tenshukaku agent everyone strived to be, including Miko. 

Miko didn't particularly miss the Raiden estate while she was in the base. She was mostly relieved that she hadn't seen Sir Raiden here despite him being the director, and, frankly, didn't ever want to go back now that she'd experienced life without constantly anticipating his next outburst in fear. Though she was still worried about Ei, who was his next victim if he were ever to suddenly snap like the last time again.

Quite a few months passed before she finally interacted with Makoto again in a non-training setting. The Raiden came looking for her after her day of training had ended.

“Miko,” she called, walking towards her in the cafeteria. Miko almost thought she was a trick that her eyes were playing on her. “Wanna go home with me?”

“Oh, um, I don’t think I can,” Miko said apologetically. “I want to, but Lady Raiden says I have to focus on training right now.”

“But you’ve done so much of that already,” Makoto protested, tugging on her arm. “Let’s just go back and visit Ei, okay? You can come back here tomorrow morning. Ei misses you a lot, you know.”

“Lady Raiden—”

Makoto pouted, which admittedly made Miko’s resolve soften. “You want to come back, right?”

Miko hesitated, then nodded.

“Then let’s just go. It’ll only be for one night. And you can make dango dumplings for Ei again.”

“Well…”

Makoto batted her eyes at her. “Please? It’ll be super quick. I’ll bring you back here in time for your training tomorrow—I have my own training to do, too, anyway.”

“Um…”

Just then, Miko spotted another flash of violet hair out of the corner of her eye, and, sure enough, Hikari had walked over to them. Miko bristled—she hadn’t even known that she was here.

“Are you guys thinking of going home?” she asked, her expression open and relaxed.

“Yeah,” Makoto said. “Miko hasn’t seen Ei in a while, and I thought she could use a break right now to go back and visit her.”

Hikari shrugged. “Don’t have a problem with it. You know, Renji’s actually in your house right now.” Renji…her son?

Makoto beamed. “Oh! Did you bring him there?”

“I had Yui fetch him from my house to bring him over,” Hikari said, a grin tugging on her lips. “Did you forget? It’s Labor Thanksgiving day, Makoto. I was planning to ask you guys to go home, actually.”

Makoto’s mouth fell open. “I completely forgot.”

“What’s Labor Thanksgiving?”

Hikari and Makoto both gave Miko incredulous looks, which slowly melted into sympathetic ones. Miko stared, confused.

“It’s an annual reunion dinner,” Makoto explained. “It was formerly a harvest festival, and now it’s used to commemorate labor and production.”

Hikari nodded. “Companies congratulate workers for their dedication. Similarly, we’ve sent cards to all the people who work in Tenshukaku to congratulate them for their hard work. You should receive yours tomorrow, Yae.”

“Oh.” Miko smiled. “Thank you, Lady Raiden and Ma—Lady Makoto, for your hard work, too.”

Makoto laughed and ruffled her hair. “You’re cute.”

Hikari’s lips quirked up. “Yeah.”

Miko felt like she might combust from the unexpected praise, and just shyly bowed her head.

“Well,” Hikari said, “let’s go to the Raiden estate, then. The Kujous are waiting for us, too.”

They made their way back up to the dilapidated house where Miko and Hikari had initially entered the base months ago.

“Does everyone exit this place through here?” Miko asked.

“There are many other exits,” Makoto answered. “People just choose to leave through the exit that’s closest to where they live. They’re all similar abandoned-looking houses, with an assigned guard holding the key to the entrance in the basement. You have to knock in the specific way of two slow knocks with your fist, then three quick ones with the knocker, so the guard knows you’re from Tenshukaku. You don’t need a key to lock the door when you’re exiting, though, because the door automatically locks itself.”

“Oh.”

Hikari’s car was parked in the driveway. They rode back to the Raiden estate in semi-comfortable silence. Miko did find this group combination a little strange, but she didn’t let it bother her. 

When they reached the house, Ei, Yui and another girl with a darker shade of purple hair were standing at the front porch.

“Who’s that girl?” Miko asked.

“It’s Yui’s adopted daughter, Sara,” Hikari said. 

Ei bounded to them the moment she saw the car and leapt into Makoto’s arms. Then she saw Miko and pulled her into a group hug, too.

“I haven’t seen you guys in so long,” she whined. “Especially you, Miko. It’s not fair that both of you get to do stuff while I get schooled at home.”

Makoto laughed brightly, looking ten times more cheerful than she had before. “I hope you’ve been paying attention, bunny.”

Ei scowled. “Don’t call me ‘bunny’.”

“Bunny,” Makoto said in a sing-song manner. “Bunny, bunny, bunny—”

Ei clamped her hand over Makoto’s mouth, but then was tackled onto the ground by the older, getting relentlessly tickled. “Okay,” Ei gasped, immediately bursting into a fit of giggles. “Okay, okay, okay.”

Miko turned her attention to Sara, who was quietly standing at her mother’s side and looking at the sisters curiously. 

“Hi, Sara,” she said. The other stood still, then gave a timid wave. Yui lightly nudged the girl.

“Come on. Say hi to Miko.”

Sara clung onto her mother’s arm. “Hi, Miko.”

Hikari walked up to them. “So…” She faced Yui. “...did Arata come?”

Yui smiled cheekily. “Look inside.”

Shock flitted over Hikari’s face, and she practically sprinted in. Miko followed her curiously, and saw the same man that she’d seen in the picture with her, talking to Sir Raiden in the living room with a neutral expression, which quickly morphed into one of fondness when he saw Hikari. 

Hikari looked between her brother and her husband, disbelief evident on her face. “Um…you aren’t fighting for once?”

Sir Raiden shrugged. Arata mirrored his action. Hikari covered her snicker with a cough.

“Where’s Renji?”

“The kids were playing with some toy that ended up pricking his finger,” Arata said, grimacing, “and I helped him wash it up, but he’s still in the bathroom right now.”

“Oh, that’s not good.” Hikari faced Miko. “Could you help him, Yae? I need to talk to the other helpers now.”

Miko nodded. She felt Arata eyeing her, for some reason, as she walked to the bathroom to look for Hikari’s son. She didn’t know what kind of parents they were, and was a little nervous about the mental state of the child they’d raised.

The bathroom door was slightly ajar, with the sound of running tap water. Miko pushed it open a little, and found a smaller male version of Hikari, who had his finger under the open tap, biting the inside of his cheek. 

“Hi,” she said. He looked up, startled.

“Hi,” he said with wide eyes. Miko thought he was extremely cute. His indigo eyes were so huge and pure, and his matching indigo hair looked soft to the touch. And, woah, his skin was so unbelievably fair. 

“Hi,” she said again, blinking to snap herself out of her daze. “You’re Renji, right?”

“Mmhmm.”

“I heard you pricked your finger. Can I take a look?”

He closed the tap and obediently held out his forefinger. A small, red blotch was oozing out of a cut, despite having been washed by the water. The blood formed into a small sphere, first, then it melted into a thin stream that flowed down his palm. 

“Has it been bleeding non-stop?” she asked worriedly.

“Yeah,” he said, his finger slightly trembling. “I don’t know why…”

“It’s okay, I’ll bring you a—”

She stopped. Right before her eyes, the cut had miraculously closed up. Blood stopped oozing out. She brought his finger back under the tap and turned it back on. His hand, upon the water washing away all the blood that had flowed out from the cut previously, was now clean. Like he hadn’t had a cut in the first place.

He was looking at her with a bright smile on his face. “I didn’t know you could heal cuts, that’s amazing!”

Miko blanched as she stared at his finger again. The cut really wasn’t there anymore. 

Ichika’s words played in her head. 

“Your RHM factor can also increase naturally—RHM cells flow through specialised RHM vessels, and you can increase the growth of these vessels through repeated injury and regeneration. Basically, getting hurt a lot, then having those wounds recover. So whenever you get injured, an extremely high RHM factor will enable your wound to recover almost instantaneously.”

“Renji,” Miko said shakily, “your cut healed by itself. I didn’t do anything.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “So I’m the one with healing powers?”

“Have you been harmed by anyone?”

“Huh?”

“Like, you get hit a lot.”

“No, I never get hit.”

Miko fixed him with a hard stare. “Are you sure?”

He recoiled. “You’re scaring me…”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I really never get hit,” he said quietly.

“You don’t harm yourself, either?”

He shook his head. Miko frowned.

“I don’t get it—”

“Everything okay?”

Miko spun around. Hikari was standing outside the bathroom, concerned. 

“Mom.” Renji hugged her. She patted his head with a smile.

“How’s your finger?” she asked gently. 

He held it out. “It healed. And the pink girl’s asking me weird questions because of that.”

Hikari looked at Miko grimly. 

“It healed instantly, right?”

“Yeah,” Miko said softly.

Hikari sighed. “I’ll tell you about it later. Right now, we have to eat dinner.”

Renji pulled away from his mother, then spotted someone and waved. 

“Renji!” It was Ei.

Ei hurriedly made her way over and checked his finger, frowning. “Oh…the cut’s gone?”

“I think I have healing powers,” Renji said proudly. 

Ei rolled her eyes. “That’s impossible. Are you stupid?”

Renji glowered at her, looking eerily similar to his mother. “No, you’re stupid. You’re the one who handed the temari to me without knowing that a needle had gotten stuck in it.”

“But it was your fault for not having seen it.’'

“It was so small!”

“Yeah, which is why I didn’t see it,” Ei hissed.

“So it’s your fault.”

“It’s not.”

“It is.”

“It’s not.”

“It is.”

The two bickered all the way back to the dinner table, which temporarily took Miko’s mind off of how Renji’s cut had healed almost instantaneously.

The kids sat at a separate table from the adults as they ate, who all looked strangely serious about something. What was even stranger was how Makoto was sitting with them, when Miko hadn’t even realised that she’d already become an adult. She wondered if being an adult drastically changed how you behaved. 

“Miko, catch this!” 

She let out a yelp as she caught the sweet that Ei had suddenly tossed at her, who was holding a basket full of them. Renji’s eye gleamed and he lunged at her, eliciting a scream from the older as they fought over the basket. 

“Let go!”

“No, I had it first!”

“You’re just going to hog all of them—”

“That’s what you’re trying to do now!”

Sara watched all this tiredly, like she was used to this kind of spectacle unfolding. 

“Do you guys usually hang out?” Miko asked her.

“Yeah,” Sara said, “during the weekends. Those two fight all the time, it’s honestly not even funny anymore.”

Miko blinked. “You guys have regular playdates?”

“Mm, yeah.”

The conversation died on the spot. Miko felt a sharp tug in her chest. She’d never hung out with people her age before, besides Makoto and Ei, and she likely would never get the chance. She felt like she was in a very distant world, drifting further and further away from what her life should actually be like. 

Miko stared at the sweet in her hand. She’d never even eaten any sort of candy in years.

She suddenly became choked up, her throat tightening to the point where she could only take in soft, ragged breaths. She’d lost her entire childhood…but what for? What was she training so hard for? What was she in Tenshukaku for? What was she serving the Raiden family for?

In her entire life, anything she’d ever done was to serve the interests of others. To make people like her, so they would continue staying by her side, continue talking to her, and not abandon her like what her mother had done—

“Miko? Everything okay?”

Makoto was gazing down at Miko, who was kneeling on the floor and was staring hardly at the sweet just seconds ago. 

“Ah, um—” she quickly blinked back tears, “—yeah. I’m fine.”

Makoto had left the dinner table, but the other adults were still there. Makoto waved Ei and Renji over, who were still quarrelling over the sweets basket.

“I got Father’s permission to bring you guys to the Nagano Ebisuko Fireworks Festival,” Makoto said, puffing up her chest.

Sara brightened. Ei gasped. “Oh, oh!” 

Renji gave Makoto a questioning look. 

“It’s a fireworks festival that’s held at the banks of Saigawa river in Nagano,” Makoto explained. “It’ll be awesome.”

“Oh.” Renji nodded. “Let’s go, then.”

Makoto looked expectantly at Miko. “Miko?”

She’d never gone to a fireworks festival, either, much less even seen any in her life. She pushed aside the bitter thought and nodded. “Okay.”

“Great. Get in the car, guys, we’re going to Saigawa river.”

Ei and Renji cheered. They pulled Sara and Miko along with them as they followed Makoto out the door.

The drive to Saigawa river was a rowdy one. Ei and Renji had somehow found another thing to squabble over—this time it was over which the better window seat was, since they were both seated at either window—and they even pushed past Sara and Miko, who were unfortunately seated in between them, just to swap their seats, then swapped back again to their original ones when they realised they hated their new positions.

Miko was too busy being surprised at how well Makoto could drive. If she remembered correctly, Makoto had turned eighteen this year, and eighteen was the age you could get your driver’s license in Inazuma. She guessed Makoto had a pretty high RHM factor herself, to have learnt how to drive so skilfully this quickly. 

The car pulled to a stop at the riverbank. Makoto got out from the front seat first, then opened the door for them to step out. Ei and Renji shoved their way out excitedly, and ran hand-in-hand to the railings dividing the river and the pavement. 

Makoto giggled. “They’re awfully close, huh?”

“Yeah.” Sara groaned. “They’re so annoying.”

“Thanks for taking care of them,” Makoto said sincerely, making Sara’s cheeks flush a little.

“I don’t do much,” she mumbled. “I don’t care if they get into trouble.”

Miko felt herself pulling further and further away from the present, her mind closing in on itself. She didn’t belong here. She should be back at the base to train. She wasn’t a part of the Raiden family. She didn’t even have anyone she could call family—Hikari being her testamentary guardian barely counted as anything, not when she had her own son to take care of. She didn’t have siblings, or parents, or aunts or uncles or cousins or—

Footsteps approached them. Miko’s head instantly turned in the direction of the sound. A tall, well-built and foreign-looking man raised a hand and nodded to them.

“Hello,” he said, his voice a deep baritone, “may I know if this is Saigawa river?”

Makoto didn’t say anything. Confused, Miko looked up at her, and saw that the girl’s face had gone completely white.

Miko couldn’t sense any malice in the man’s expression, so she wasn’t sure what Makoto was balking at. But to be fair, there wasn’t much of anything on his face, save a relaxed, thin smile.

“Yes,” Miko decided to answer for her. “We’re at Saigawa’s riverbank.”

“Right.” He nodded. “Thanks for your help, kid.”

She watched as he walked past them along the riverbank, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. Once he was out of sight, Miko turned back to Makoto, who didn’t look any less sickly than she had before.

“Makoto?” Miko said with a frown. “What’s wrong?”

Sara inched closer to Makoto, looking just as confused as Miko was. The Raiden breathed slowly, shakily, then spoke.

“That man…” Makoto swallowed. “He’s a Fatui Harbinger.”

“Fatui…” Hikari had mentioned that name to her before. They were an assassination organisation from…Snezhnaya. But it was so far from Inazuma—what was he doing here? Miko thought about it for a moment, then gasped softly, trepidation coiling in her chest. 

Sir Raiden had mentioned that the Fatui wanted him and Hikari dead; and Hikari had told Miko that the Fatui had assassinated their father…

That man was here because he was looking for a sign of the Raidens. But why would he expose himself to Makoto like that? 

At that moment, there was a loud pop in the sky. Miko looked up—rainbows of starlight in various different shapes and forms arced across the clouds and illuminated the night sky. People were shouting in awe all around her, gazing at the lights and pointing in delight. But she couldn’t find it in herself to be amazed by them, because Makoto was now scrambling for her phone and making a call, her shoulders tense and eyes darting around in anxiety.

“Father,” she said quietly and urgently. “We just saw Pierro at Saigawa river.”

There was a short pause.

“He didn’t attack any of us,” she continued. “He just walked away. But he came and asked whether this was Saigawa river. I don’t know why he approached me. He must know who I am.”

Another pause, this time slightly longer.

“We don’t know where he is now,” she said. “I can’t find him.” She quickly walked over to Ei and Renji, who were busy staring at the fireworks, and pulled them by their arms back to the car, ignoring their noises of protest as she tucked her phone under her ear and atop her shoulder.

“Okay, we’re heading back now,” Makoto said, shooing them into the passenger seat. Her voice faded out for a moment as she closed the door, then flowed back in once she got into the front seat and revved the engine. 

“What’s Aunt Hikari’s address?” 

She waited. They all waited, Renji and Ei softly grumbling to themselves, but clearly having sensed that they were in some sort of predicament.

“Okay,” she said. The car leapt forward. “Okay. Mm. Got it. We’re on our way now. Will you guys remain there?”

A pause. “Okay. Okay. Stay safe, Father.”

There was a soft beep as the call ended.

“What now?” Miko asked fearfully.

“Father told us to go to Aunt Hikari’s house,” Makoto said. “Aunt Hikari and Uncle Arata will be meeting us there. He said to watch if our car is being tailed.”

Miko quickly looked at the road behind them. There were a few cars going in the same directions, but they all turned at an intersection. There wasn’t any car behind them now.

“We’re not right now,” Miko said. 

“Okay. Listen carefully, now, you guys.”

Everyone listened. Ei grasped onto Miko’s hand. Miko squeezed it reassuringly.

“Renji,” he perked up, “you and Ei will be hiding in the closet of your bedroom once we reach the house. Sara and Miko, you’ll be hiding in the bathroom. Lock the doors of the rooms you’re at. Don’t make a sound once you’re in hiding. I’ll be in the living room.”

“You’re not going to hide, too?” Ei said. 

“Of course not.” Miko saw Makoto’s jaw tighten in the rear-view mirror. “Someone has to protect you guys while we wait for Aunt Hikari and Uncle Arata to come.”

“Why aren’t we going back to our own house?” Ei protested.

“We don’t want the bad guys to find out where we live,” Makoto said plainly. “They’ll be deterred if we head to a different location. Besides, Aunt Hikari and Uncle Arata are strong. They’ll definitely defeat the bad guys.”

Was Arata in Tenshukaku, too? Miko frowned. That didn’t seem right—he didn’t look like he was from Inazuma, and it didn’t make sense for foreigners to be in an organisation that existed for the sole purpose of protecting a nation that wasn’t their own. 

“Was that the bad guy just now?” Renji asked shakily. “The man who asked you a question?”

Makoto sighed. “Yes.”

The atmosphere buzzed with so much tension, to the point where Miko felt it was almost stifling to just breathe, like there was something depriving her of oxygen. She dug her nails into her palms, then remembered it was harmful to do that and instead did what Hikari had done to soothe her—rubbing circles with her thumb into the back of her hand.

“But who was he?” Ei asked, after a while of suffocating silence. 

Makoto turned into a dark road with cornfields on either side. Miko looked out the window and thought that she saw red gleaming eyes staring at her between the crops.

“He’s a Fatui Harbinger. Someone whose sole job is to assassinate extremely challenging targets. Targets who are determined by the Boss of their organisation.”

Ei looked like she didn’t catch much of that, but was still visibly anxious, all the same. “Stay safe, Makoto,” she said, her eyes suddenly turning glassy. Miko panicked a little and took Ei’s hands into hers, giving her a smile as warm as she could manage. Ei looked down, staring at her feet.

“I’ll be alright, bunny,” Makoto said. Miko saw her pained smile in the mirror. “Trust me, okay?”

Ei let out a choked noise. “But…”

On Ei’s other side, Renji leaned against her, in a silent reassurance that it’d be fine. Ei leaned against him, as well, Miko’s hand forgotten in hers. Miko and Sara exchanged looks as Ei and Renji started softly snoring just moments later. How they could fall asleep so easily in a crisis like this was completely beyond Miko.

“They fell asleep, huh?” Makoto said. 

“I don’t know how,” Miko murmured. It got a laugh out of Makoto.

“But what Ei said is true,” Miko said, staring at Makoto in the rear-view mirror. “You have to stay safe.”

“Yes, Mom.”

Miko frowned at Makoto’s cheeky smile. “Lady Makoto.”

“Aw, not the ‘Lady’,” Makoto said, wrinkling her nose. “Okay, I promise I’ll be fine. Genuinely. With all my heart.”

Miko narrowed her eyes. Then she said, “I want to fight, too.”

Makoto instantly sobered. “No, Miko.”

“But I’ve trained. I can fight.”

“You’re also only ten.”

“But I have an RHM factor of—”

“Don’t talk about that goddamned RHM factor,” Makoto snapped. “It makes you think you can do anything. You’re still only a child.”

“I…”

“Miko. I’m telling you no,” she said flatly. “Whatever you say, I’m not letting you step out of the bathroom.”

Miko’s expression soured. “I trained so that I can protect you guys. I serve the Raiden family, it’s my duty to—”

“Miko, please,” Makoto said coldly, “shut up. You’re ten—you’re supposed to be having fun in school and playing tag with your friends, for god’s sake. Don’t traumatise yourself any more than what we’ve already done to you.”

Miko fell silent, bitterness broiling in her chest. Makoto didn’t say a word after that. 

Soon, the car pulled into a driveway, the gates to the house having opened upon recognising Hikari’s car. The gates closed back behind them, and Miko quickly exited the car to check if anyone was outside. 

There wasn’t any sign of a single living soul in the area besides them. Hikari’s house was in an extremely secluded place, so much so that even the sound of buzzing insects sounded distant.

Miko went back to the car to shake Ei and Renji awake. They woke up surprisingly fast, and quickly entered the house. Renji stopped when he opened the front door. With only five words, everything had instantly taken a turn for the worse.

“It’s supposed to be locked.”

Makoto quickly shoved everyone aside, Renji looking at her back in fear. She pointed to the backyard. 

“Go hide there,” she whispered harshly. “And don’t move.”

The four kids quickly made their way round the house to the backyard. Renji led them to a cluster of evergreen bushes, which they ducked behind. Everyone was breathing heavily. Miko felt herself digging her nails into the skin of her shins, digging and digging and digging, her thoughts racing out of control. 

Someone had entered the house while no one was around. The gate was locked, but not the front door. They had intentionally lured them in. The only thing they didn’t know was whether the intruder was still in the house.

Miko watched the windows, her eyes darting around between them. There was no movement in any of them. 

For the first time in her life, Miko found herself wishing for Hikari to come. 

Then, light. Blinding, overwhelming, all-encompassing white light.

And nothing.

Miko’s ears rang. It was silent for a moment. She felt like she was floating in deep space, looking up at the stars as she drifted further and further from—

She landed. Hard. Grit stung her skin. She bit down on her tongue, and a metallic tang exploded in her mouth. She tasted blood and dirt and pavement. Her lungs burned. The silence went away, and someone was crying. Someone else was yelling. She blinked slowly. Her knees felt hot. She looked down. Blood. She looked at her hands. Also blood. She touched her face, then looked at her fingers. Blood again. 

She looked at the house. Flames engulfed it, consuming the walls, the windows, now spreading to the grass and creeping towards the bushes. She hazily got to her feet, stumbled a bit, and felt like she was swimming through a dense fog of air as she walked to Sara’s still body. Miko tucked her hands under her back and tried lifting her up. Her knees gave way and she fell back onto the ground, her hands splayed out in front of her to prevent herself from face-planting into the grass. The fire was slowly about to surround them. A dull edge of urgency prodded at her, but she felt like she was drugged out. 

Her head spun. It registered three things.

Move, Miko. Renji and Ei weren’t here. Move, Miko. Makoto had gone inside the house before the explosion. Move, Miko. Sara and Miko were both about to get burnt alive.

Move, Miko. Move, Miko. Move, Miko, move, MikomoveMikopleasejustmove.

She let out a scream. At least she thought she did. Her mouth was open, but all she managed to do was inhale a load of smoke, which sent her into a string of painful coughs.

Then she heard something. Something…someone. A voice. 

“Miko.”

Miko looked up. Her mother was there, a hazy visage amidst the embers of the burning house, smiling serenely at her, like nothing was happening at all.

“You don’t have much time.”

“Mom,” she croaked.

“You need to get moving now.”

“I…can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Look.” Her mother pointed at her wounds. Miko brushed her fingers over them. They’d healed. “Your injuries are recovering. Now get out of here.”

“Mom…” 

Miko choked on a sob.

“I miss you.”

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “I’m already dead. Now you have to focus on not dying with me, too.”

“Mom—”

“Move, Miko.” She smiled tightly at her. “Before you lose everyone.”

And her mother was right. Miko gritted her teeth and went back to Sara, fighting through the cloudiness of her mind, then mustered all her strength and lifted up the unconscious girl. 

“Good job, Miko.”

Her mother faded away. Miko carried Sara, limping past the fire, heat beating at her back and side, willing herself not to look into the house, not to look for Makoto, not to look for Renji or Ei. Carry Sara out. Save her. You have to at least save her.

Tears clumped in Miko’s eyes. The gate came into view. Just a few more steps. She started counting.

One… She nearly collapsed onto the ground again. With sheer willpower, she continued moving forward. Two… she accidentally inhaled again, and coughed violently, faltering a little. She lifted her shirt above her nose, the bare skin she exposed from the action feeling like it was going to be melted in seconds, and lifted Sara’s shirt up to cover her nose, too. Three… she looked up, and saw that the car from before had gotten completely destroyed, the alarms from the vehicle blaring in her ears. Four…

“Miko!”

She squinted. Yui was running up to her. She took Sara from Miko and got behind the wheel after laying the unconscious girl down in the passenger seat, then waved Miko in. Miko stopped just before she got in. 

No. She couldn’t.

“Lady Kujou,” she said weakly. “Bring Sara out of here.”

Yui turned behind and looked at her in horror. “Miko, I’m not leaving you.”

“You have to.” She coughed again. “I have to go…I have to save them. Makoto…and Ei…and Renji…”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Yui screamed. “Get in the car now, Yae Miko.”

“I have to save them—”

“They’re already fucking dead!” 

Yui’s eyes were wide, nearly bulging out of their sockets. Sweat dripped down the woman’s face. She’d clearly spent a lot of effort just getting here. She was definitely tired and worried and afraid.

Miko smiled. “Lady Kujou…I’m a Yae. I have to protect the Raiden family, no matter what.”

Then she slammed the door with a force she didn’t know she’d ever possessed. And she ran. 

The front door had already been blasted right through. She jumped over the flames and squeezed her way around the fallen pillars and furniture. Her ears burst and popped. Her throat burned. She looked everywhere in the living room, where everything had morphed into one flaming orange blur. She couldn’t see any bodies. Her body thrummed with energy, with will, as the wounds she’d suffered from the impact of the explosion closed up, then opened upon contact with the heat, then closed up again. 

Then she heard something amidst the crackling of the flames. A voice. No, two voices. Miko immediately headed in their direction, squeezing the cloth of her shirt against her nose. Her heart felt like it was going to melt inside her chest.

“Promise me, Ei. Promise that you’ll forget about me.”

“Of course not! I’ll never… I’ll never forgive them…”

Miko found them. They weren’t in the house at all—they were in the place where the kitchen used to be.

“Don’t do that to yourself.” 

Makoto was lying on the ground, blood smearing her entire face, one of her limbs having gotten ripped right off. She was smiling. 

“It’s your tenth birthday next week. Be happy then, okay?”

“I don’t care.” Ei was holding onto her, her head bowed. “I can’t be happy… I can’t…”

“Ei… ”

Miko’s feet were stubbornly rooted to the ground. No, no, no… this wasn’t real, this wasn’t real— 

Makoto took Ei into her arms. Her words were unintelligible to Miko now, but all Miko registered was that oh my god a piece of shrapnel had lodged itself in Makoto’s stomach. 

“No,” Ei weeped, burying her face into her sister’s shoulder. “No…”

Ei continued sobbing. Makoto’s body went still.

Miko snapped out of her stupor and screamed. 

Ei!

Ei didn’t even look at her. Miko ran up to her and tore her away from Makoto, but Ei resisted.

“I’ll kill them!” Ei’s eyes were crazed. “I’ll kill them, every last one—”

Miko dragged Ei away, her eyes burning. She didn’t care anymore. All she had to do was get the hell out of here, and this nightmare would end. Makoto would wake up in their estate the next day, and she would read Miko a bedtime story, and nothing would have happened at all.

Ei continued screaming. “Let me go! Let me go, Miko! ” Then she started coughing, and Ei abruptly went still in Miko’s arms, definitely because of all that smoke she’d inhaled. 

When Miko finally made it out of the house, she caught a glimpse of Yui’s car, the sight relieving her so much that she nearly let go of Ei. She sped up and made it to the passenger seat, where Sara was still lying down. Miko slowly lifted Sara up, resting her head against the window, and laid Ei down beside her. 

Yui wasn’t in the car. Miko closed the door again and steeled herself, looking back at the house. She had to make a trip back there again. 

But, the next second, Yui was limping out of the house with an unconscious person in her arms. She looked like she’d just seen a ghost, too. 

“Lady Kujou!”

Miko ran over to her and was about to offer to take over the carrying, thinking it was Renji, but it wasn’t him. It wasn’t Makoto, either.

It was the barely conscious body of Hikari. 

“Where’s Renji?” Miko asked in terror.

Yui couldn’t lift her eyes to look at her.

“Is he—”

“He’s fine,” Yui said, a little too quickly. 

Miko blinked. 

“Then where…”

A figure emerged from the burning house just as she’d said that. 

Renji, carrying a kitchen knife with dried blood, that definitely didn’t look like his. Miko was about to run over to him, but stopped when she noticed another thing.

He was completely unscathed. Not a single burn or cut. He wasn’t even coughing, either. 

Miko’s mouth went dry. Hikari looked weakly at her. Her face was all scratched up and bloodied—not burnt, despite having been in a literal burning house. People with high RHM factors were monstrous. 

But Hikari had still somehow gotten injured, though they weren’t from burns—Miko realised in fear that this pointed to the fact that some sort of scuffle, unrelated to the explosion, had taken place.

“Is the intruder still here?” Miko asked, her eyes darting around the place.

“No,” Hikari breathed. “We arrived here shortly after you guys. Makoto was still alive, then. The bastard…he left a grenade in the kitchen. When we followed in after Makoto, he detonated it. I didn’t get severely injured, and neither did Yomo or Arata, and we tried going after him, but he was too quick.”

Miko’s heart stopped. Her eyes flickered to Renji, who had kicked the knife he was holding under a bush. He was walking over to the car now, gaze fixated on the ground. “Where’s Sir Raiden and your husband, then?” she asked shakily. 

Hikari waited for Renji to get in the car, before speaking. 

“Yomo went berserk after finding out that Makoto was basically done for. He took a knife, and then he…”

Miko’s eyes went impossibly wide.

“He stabbed Arata. Then he bashed him in with a hammer. A burning pillar fell onto my legs and crushed them, so I couldn’t get up to break those two idiots apart.”

“But why…”

“Yeah,” Hikari said blankly. “It wasn’t Arata’s fault. Yomo thought it was a trap he set, but Arata genuinely knew nothing.”

“Why would he think it was a trap?”

“Okay,” Yui said firmly, the wounds on her face slowly closing up, “you can talk about it later.”

Miko looked at Renji again, who had his face buried in his hands in the car. “Then why does Renji look so…”

“He killed him.”

Hikari’s face was dead serious. 

“Killed…Sir Raiden?”

“Yes.”

“But he’s just a kid—”

“Let’s just get in the fucking car,” Yui snapped. “Hikari, tell Miko about it later, for fuck’s sake. Everyone’s injured, we don’t have the time for this.”

Hikari and Miko obediently went silent. Miko suppressed a shudder at the sight of Renji, and willed herself not to look at him as she entered the car. Yui laid Hikari down on the seat beside her, then got into the driver’s seat herself and made a call as she drove the car away from the burning house.

“This is Kujou Yui speaking.” A pause. “A fire broke out at…” 

Miko’s head drooped further and further down. She dug her nails into her palms to prevent herself from nodding off. Yui was saying out the address of Hikari’s house to the fire department now. But then, oddly, she handed the phone to Hikari.

“Raiden Hikari speaking. You can report the corpses in the news, but don’t dig into their injuries,” Hikari said weakly. “Help us get the corpses out, but don’t analyse them. It was just a fire. And another thing—report that I died along with everyone else.”

Makoto’s nearly-burnt body flashed in front of her face. The shrapnel lodged deeply into her stomach, her bloodied face, the words she’d spoken to Ei—

Miko slapped her cheeks with her hands. She didn’t want to think about any of it. She didn’t want to think about Makoto.

But she cried, anyway. She cried softly, sporadically, blanking out for a period of time, then abruptly weeping again, her head shaking against the window as the car travelled over road bumps. 

She could feel Renji looking at her. She glanced at him—he wasn’t even crying. Unbridled resentment for the boy swept through her, though she didn’t know what for. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t do anything…

Miko resented herself. If she'd gone inside instead of Makoto… She wanted to break herself apart and shatter everything inside her, so she’d never have the ability to feel, or to do anything at all, ever again. She rubbed circles into the back of her hand. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Don’t dig your nails—

She ended up doing it, anyway. Tears and blood dripped down her calves as she hung her head in agony. Renji didn’t say anything. Hikari didn’t say anything. Not Yui, either. The car was deathly silent. 

Miko resented herself. And she resented everyone.


Makoto and Sir Raiden’s joint funeral was a silent one. 

Ei and Yui’s eulogies were tearless ones. No one was particularly moved, either. Renji, Sara, Yui, Miko, and a handful of other Tenshukaku members were the only other attendants. Hikari had mysteriously disappeared after the events of that day, after telling whoever it was on the other side of the phone to report that she’d died. 

The place was deathly silent after the eulogies, apart from a few murmured words of condolences to Hikari and Ei. Miko didn’t spend a single second in the funeral not wanting to get out of there.

She hadn’t fully registered Makoto’s death yet. Miko was still cooking Makoto’s favourite meals at the estate, cleaning her room, opening storybooks at night for Makoto to read to her, only stopping mid-way to her room when she realised she wasn’t there…It was like she was still somewhere here. And maybe Miko believed that. Just like how she’d seen her mother at the burning house, she hoped that Makoto would appear in front of her one day, and speak to her like nothing had ever happened. Like she had never gone in the first place. 

After the funeral, Miko was prepared to head back to the estate on her own, but Yui held her wrist with a pleading gaze. Miko looked behind her and saw Ei, Renji and Sara sleeping in the backseat of Yui’s car. 

“Miko.”

Miko gave her a bored look. “Just call me Yae.”

Yui shifted uncomfortably. “Miko—”

“Yae.”

She sighed. “Yae…just go with us, okay? It won’t hurt being in the same car.”

She couldn’t stand being in the presence of another Raiden. “No.”

Yui pressed a palm to her forehead, looking like she was exerting all her willpower not to yell at her. “Look, your Lady Raiden wants to speak to you at the base later,” she said tiredly. “So just co-operate and get in the goddamned car.”

“And where will the others go?”

“They’ll be temporarily staying at my house, but we’ll move elsewhere soon,” she said. 

Miko made a non-committal hum of acknowledgement.

“I have to bring Renji to the base, too, anyway,” Yui added. “He has to go for a blood test.”

Miko glared at her for a moment, then relented, though not softening her glare in the slightest. She got into the backseat and ensured to keep her distance from the three others throughout the entire ride.

When they reached the dilapidated house, Yui used her fist to give two slow knocks, then switched to the knocker to give three rapid taps.

The door creaked open. Miko shouldn’t have been as surprised as she was to see Hikari behind the door. 

They entered the house, then split apart into two groups. Ei and Sara with Yui, and Miko and Renji with Hikari.

Hikari didn’t even acknowledge her own niece. She barely looked at her son, either. The only one she actually faced was Miko, and even then her mouth was pressed into a thin line, like she didn’t want to see her there. Hikari didn’t look like she’d suffered any significant mental impact from the three deaths of her family members. She behaved just the same as she had before.

Right, Miko thought. Hikari has always been like this. Mercilessly sending people off to executions, and not even flinching when the people she’s supposed to love end up dying right before her eyes. 

At that moment, Miko had never felt more hatred for Raiden Hikari than ever before. An overwhelming amount of loathing and detestment piled up in her chest, so much so that she nearly felt unable to breathe. 

She clenched her jaw as they entered the Tenshukaku base. Renji was visibly frightened by the unfamiliar environment, but Miko didn’t make any move to soothe him. He was a murderer, too, anyway.

They made their way down to the laboratory floor and stopped outside the same room where she’d taken her first blood test, that felt like eons ago.

The door opened, and Kamisato bowed.

“Miss Raiden.”

“Do a test for him,” Hikari said curtly, and without even looking at Renji, pulled Miko away back to the lift, where they travelled down to her room.

Hikari faced Miko stoically. “I’m dead to the world right now, except for Tenshukaku, Ei, Renji, Sara and you. But it won’t be like that anymore. Soon I’ll be dead to the world to everyone except you and Yui.”

Miko froze. “What?”

“It’s exactly like it sounds. Everyone will think I’m dead, and only you and Yui will know the truth.”

“Why?”

Hikari smiled humorlessly. “So I can make the Fatui think that they got what they wanted, obviously. And the only way they’ll believe it is when even all of Tenshukaku thinks I’m dead.”

“But Sir Rai—your brother is dead, too,” she spat. “Who will be the director, then?”

“You.”

Miko tried to spot anything that indicated she was lying. She found with horror that Hikari was, wholly and completely, serious. 

“But I’m ten.”

Hikari laughed. “Of course you’re not going to become the director now. Give it a handful of years, let Tenshukaku experience what it’s like without a director. Then you’ll come swooping in, and they’ll cling onto you for dear life, even if you’re not an adult yet. Just boast your RHM factor and you’ll instantly become a god.”

“Why not Lady Kujou?”

“She has way too much on her plate already,” she said, sympathy flashing across her eyes. “I don’t want to give her a monstrous task like this.”

And it was okay giving it to Miko, huh.

“Then what would you be doing?”

“I’ll be guiding you,” Hikari said. “It’s going to be a tough ride, so I’ll definitely help you along the way. You’ll report to me how Tenshukaku is holding up, of course, so I can guide you better. Aside from that,” her face darkened, “I’ll be trying to figure out what the fuck the Fatui are trying to do.”

“Are they planning something?”

“They’ve kicked Barbatos off their chess board, too.”

Miko frowned. “Who?”

Hikari shook her head. “The director of Mondstadt’s Favonius. The equivalent of Inazuma’s Tenshukaku, and Liyue’s Qixing. They killed him—well, supposedly. I doubt he’d have died that easily, so I’m going to try to find him now.”

“And…what about Renji?”

Hikari looked up at her blankly. “What about him?”

Miko’s chest flared. “Your son. Will he think you’re dead, too?”

“Did you not hear me?” Hikari drawled. “Everyone will think I’m dead, aside from you and Yui. Of course he’s not an exception.”

“But you’re his mother.”

“You think I don’t know that?” She gave Miko a poisonous glare. “If I don’t want another death on my hands, I have to make sure everyone believes I’m dead. Including him. And did you not see him at the house that day?” Hikari carded her fingers through her hair, squeezing her eyes shut. “He killed Yomo. Just like that. His RHM cells went insane, clearly, because no kid would kill an adult with so much strength and ease. He has ROSD. He’s dangerous. Fuck—my son is dangerous, okay?” 

Miko didn’t say anything, just stared at her in terror. 

Hikari took a shaky breath. “I’m planning to alter his memories, so he forgets he ever did that. No child should live with the fact that they’d murdered someone.”

“Alter his memories?” Miko said incredulously. “You can do that?”

“If you inject an excess of RHM cells into a person’s body, they’ll momentarily forget every memory they’ve had for the past month, or so,” Hikari said, in a cold and detached tone, despite the sheer horror of what she was talking about. “At that moment, you can implant false memories into their brain, remake the month they’d just lived through. Right now, Renji’s brain is extremely unstable, because he’s already suffering from ROSD. It won’t be too hard to do it. I’ll alter his memory of me in the house while I’m at it, so he thinks I died. Then I’ll get Kamisato to reduce his RHM factor, so his ROSD can be suppressed for now.”

“You’re being completely serious,” Miko said.

Hikari held her head in her hands. “Yes. Yes, Yae, I am. I’m being completely serious.”

“And you’re…okay with it?”

“It has to be done.”

“You’re just going to do it? Without considering his feelings?”

“ROSD is a terrifying disease, Yae,” Hikari said sharply, “and we still know frighteningly little about it. I don’t want Renji to suffer in the future.”

Miko narrowed her eyes. “Are you really doing this for him, Lady Raiden? Or are you only doing it to make life easier for yourself? So you don’t have to carry the burden of having a diseased child, by doing something as drastic as implanting false memories into him—”

“Don’t pretend like you know me,” she said, dangerously soft, removing her head from her hands. “You know absolutely fucking nothing.”

“What else will he forget?” she said coolly. “Will he forget Ei, too? Makoto? Me?”

“I’ll make it so that he forgets he ever saw all of you, yes. The only people he’ll remember before Labour Thanksgiving are me and his father.”

“You’re…” You’re a terrible mother.

Hikari smiled wryly, like she knew what Miko was going to say. “He’ll be living with Ei, Sara and Yui now. He’ll think that his parents were murdered by an unknown intruder, and that he subsequently got adopted into the Raiden family. And he’ll remember that his name was Renji, but he’ll adopt a new one—his father’s previous alias, Scaramouche. His life will remain relatively peaceful this way.”

“He’ll never see you again.”

“I know.”

Miko pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay. You really don’t care. I have a question, though—he got ROSD because he has a high RHM factor, right? How did he even get one so high, in the first place?”

Hikari’s expression turned grim. “He got into a car accident when he was younger, and he fell into a coma for a few months. I asked Kamisato, and he said that his RHM factor drastically increased during the coma, though he didn’t really know why.” Unexpectedly, her gaze turned a thousand times more piercing. “Your mother was the driver.”

Miko stilled. She tried to say something, but her mouth flopped open and closed wordlessly.

A mirthless smile curled Hikari’s lips. “She did it intentionally, you know. She tried to kill my newborn to get back at me, for whatever I’d done to her. I, personally, don’t think it should have evoked such a harsh response from her.”

She didn’t believe her. Miko didn’t believe a single word. Her mother—kill a newborn? That was absurd.

“You don’t believe me. That’s fine. The truth doesn’t particularly matter now. Anyway, I did the same thing to him back then—I altered his memory. Trauma can stay in newborns for quite some time, you know. I didn’t want his development to have been affected.”

“You’re insane.”

Hikari remained silent. 

Miko shook her head and sighed, then changed the topic to distract herself from what she’d just said about her mother. “What about your husband? I still don’t get why your brother killed him.”

“Arata’s a Fatui Harbinger, you see.”

Miko blanched. “I’m sorry?”

Hikari was actually showing some semblance of emotion now. She hugged her arms to her chest. “I meant to keep it from Yomo, but he found out eventually. He didn’t trust Arata at all, even though Arata never meant any harm. I thought that Yomo had started trusting him more, but…apparently not.” Hikari sighed. It sounded like an exhausted one, instead of a pained one. “I knew he was a Harbinger way before he found out that I was in Tenshukaku, and I…I used to wish he’d never find out. Because the Fatui wants him to murder me. But when he found out, he didn’t. And the Fatui paid him back for it with Pierro throwing that grenade.”

“So your husband really had nothing to do with it?”

Hikari’s brows furrowed. “No. He definitely didn’t,” she said firmly. 

Miko felt a little sorry, but she quickly suppressed any lingering sympathy for the woman.

“One last question,” she said tiredly. “How will you make Tenshukaku believe that you’re dead?”

“I’ll fake a suicide,” she said, terrifyingly simply. “It’s not that hard for people to believe that I’d off myself, don’t you think?”

She looked at Miko. Miko looked back.

“Yeah.”

There was a knock on the door. Hikari pulled it open.

Kamisato stood outside with his clipboard. “His RHM count…”

Miko balked. 

“...is 7224.”

Even Hikari looked put off at that moment, but the woman recomposed herself with terrifying ease.

“We’ll go through with the memory implanting,” she said coldly. “I’ll give you more instructions in the operating theatre. Let’s head there now.”

“Yes, Miss Raiden.”

Hikari raised an eyebrow at Miko. “Come along, too, Yae. You can wait outside—it’ll be done in an hour, or so.”

Kamisato was visibly surprised at Miko’s presence, then went back into doctor mode. “How about you, Miko? Are you holding up fine? Any nausea, dizziness, fatigue—”

“I’m fine,” she cut him off. “And call me Yae, please.”

He blinked. “Sure…Yae.”

Hikari gave her an unreadable look, but said nothing.


When Renji came out of the operating theatre, he was unconscious and being piggybacked by Hikari. Miko couldn’t read her face at all. 

“Let’s go back up and hand him over to Yui,” she told Miko. 

It was only in the house, when Yui carried Renji away, that Hikari’s face crumpled. Her knees buckled—Miko watched in disbelief as she collapsed at the bottom of the stairwell, her back against the wall, burying her face in her hands, and sobbing with the force of a person vomiting on all fours. 

Chapter Text

Yae didn’t see Ei, Sara or Renji in an extremely long time. She knew Ei and Sara had begun training in Tenshukaku, as per what Yui told her, but she didn’t plan on ever approaching them. She spent the next few years doing nothing but training, Yui being the acting director of Tenshukaku for quite some time, before Yae took over and became the actual director. It was really as Hikari said—when they learnt of Yae’s absurdly high RHM factor, everyone immediately turned to her. The transition between directors went smoothly, and Yae, with Hikari’s help behind-the-scenes, learnt how to manage different operations at the same time, all while maintaining stable diplomatic relationships with Favonius and Qixing. The three organisations co-operated to gather more information on the Fatui’s goals and affairs, but they still couldn’t find out much. Pierro had practically gone off the grid, the Fatui Boss’s identity remained elusive, and the other Harbingers were all operating extremely secretively. 

Hikari, on her own investigations, couldn't find much either. She didn't bother asking Yae how her family was doing, either---not Renji or Ei. It was like she'd made herself completely forget about them. (She just didn't love her son.) 

Even worse, they lost more people to the Fatui—Kamisato Souta, some people from the Kujou clan, Kaedehara Akihiro, Sangonomiya Yuuko and Naganohara Ryuunosuke. And besides Tenshukaku, there was Guizhong and Varka. 

All these deaths made Yae done. Completely and utterly done. 

“Yui, could you be the acting director again?”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of opening a coffee shop.”

Yui stared at her like she’d grown another head. “You can’t just resign like that.”

“Oh, I’m not resigning,” Yae said calmly. “We’ll just think of this coffee shop as…another one of the entrances to the base.”

“Okay. Why a coffee shop?”

“I like coffee,” Yae said plainly.

Yui rolled her eyes. “Wrong question. What exactly are you going to do with it?”

“I’ll get the family members of the deceased Tenshukaku agents to work there.”

“What for? So they can be sheltered?”

“Essentially, yes. And so they can still have the experience of living a normal life, even if it’s already been plagued by their families’ deaths.”

“And then what? You’ll abandon your post as director to manage that shop?”

“Not exactly. They’ll join Tenshukaku when they’re older, and I’ll train them so they’ll be able to protect themselves in the meantime. There’s no way I’ll make minors work in Tenshukaku,” she said bitterly. “Anyway, I still want to manage operations in Tenshukaku, only in a more discreet manner. I’ll just happen to be a coffee shop manager on the sidelines.”

Yui frowned. “This is all pretty sudden. You sure Tenshukaku can handle their director suddenly going MIA?”

Yae scoffed. “I’ll still be here. I just won’t be ordering them around directly. If they can’t handle something as meagre as this, then this organisation is full of weaklings.”

“Sure…whatever you want.”

“Thank you, Yui.”

“You know I don’t have much of a choice in this. I’m just doing your bidding. I’m guessing Hikari approved of this, as well?”

“She didn’t really care about it, so I’m taking it as a green light. Even if she rejected the idea, I’d go through with it regardless.”

Yui sighed. “I’m not looking forward to being the acting director again.”

Yae had handpicked the employees of the Narukami coffee shop—Kamisato Ayaka, Kaedehara Kazuha and Naganohara Yoimiya. It was all going splendidly, and everyone was slowly adjusting to this new addition, until the last person she wanted to see had walked in.

Well, the last people.

The bell tinkled as Ei and Renji entered the shop. Ei, with a dreamy smile on her face, and Renji, with that signature Hikari-like scowl. Yae half-expected him to have succumbed to ROSD by now, but he was somehow still alive and kicking. It wasn’t possible for him to have gone for check-ups, because only Tenshukaku could do RHM factor tests. No public hospital offered that sort of thing—the RHM technology was privy only to them. And Ei wasn’t supposed to know about his condition, so she couldn’t have helped him there, either. Had Renji just miraculously gotten better, like Ichika had said some people could do?

“This is the perfect place for you to work at!” Ei said excitedly, loudly. Ayaka, Kazuha and Yoimiya all looked at Yae with varying degrees of confusion on their faces.

“Go serve them first,” Yae mouthed, then shifted her attention to watch the siblings in disdain.

“Look, I’m not becoming a fucking barista, alright?” he snapped. “This place is so stuffy, anyway. I can’t breathe at all.”

“Stop being dramatic,” Ei retorted. “It’s not that bad. Can you smell that? The coffee is amazing, and they haven’t even poured it out yet.”

“You’re having olfactory hallucinations, clearly.”

“Fuck off. You’re just being grouchy because I made you get out of bed and do something with your life, for once.”

“And what about it, bitch?”

“You little—”

“Welcome to Narukami!” Yoimiya greeted, a radiant smile on her face. Thank God. “How may I help you guys today?”

Renji mumbled something like ‘you can help me by strangling the shit out of Ei’, which earned him a hard smack on the back of his head.

“Be nice to service workers,” Ei lectured. Then she beamed at Yoimiya. “Hi, may we have two black coffees?”

Yae suppressed a snicker. Who comes to a coffee shop just to get black coffee?

“Sure.” Yoimiya didn’t move immediately, though, instead looking at the both of them in thinly veiled awe. “Uh, you guys are, um, very pretty.”

Ayaka glowered at Yoimiya. Kazuha nearly choked. Yae frowned and took a closer look at them.

She hated to admit that Yoimiya was right. Ei had grown up extremely well—her braid fell down her back like a thin violet rope, and she had a devastatingly small face and milky-white skin, matched with stunning violet eyes and a pair of pretty, cherry-red lips. (Her heart nearly stopped for a moment, because she now looked just like Yae’s last memory of Makoto, before the burning house.) Renji looked no worse than her. His hair had grown past his shoulders and he’d pulled it up into a high ponytail, the resemblance to Hikari honestly extremely uncanny. His facial structure had developed to be really well-defined, too. 

Yae groaned inwardly. Curse Raidens and their unfairly good genes. 

Ei gave Yoimiya a pleasant smile, while Renji averted his eyes awkwardly. “Thanks, you look really pretty yourself, too,” she said.

Then— oh, my god, no —her gaze shifted, and landed right on Yae.

They held each other’s stare for a long moment, Ei looking like she’d just seen a ghost. 

“Nice to see you, Ei.” She reigned her tone in to be as clinical as it could be.

“Miko—”

“It’s Yae.” 

Ei recoiled a little. “...Yae.” She regained her senses after and scrunched her nose. “I thought you were—why are you here? In a coffee shop?” 

“It’s my job,” she said simply. “I make coffee.”

“It is? No, it’s not. Wait, what—”

“You look awfully familiar,” Renji said, staring intently at her. 

Yae froze. No way…did he remember?

Ei seemed like she was about to say something, but thank God for Kazuha’s quick coffee-brewing, because he handed them their coffees right after, cutting in before Ei could speak.

“Two black coffees,” he said pointedly. Renji bristled a little. Ei took their cups, and nodded to Kazuha.

“Thank you,” she said.

Then she looked at Yae, her inner turmoil written all over her face. 

Yae just gave her a frosty smile. 

“Come again, soon,” she said dully. 

Hurt flickered over Ei’s eyes. She turned away, grabbed Renji’s arm and led him out of the coffee shop without another word. 

“Who was that?” Kazuha asked Yae.

She smiled bitterly. “People I wish I’d never met.”


Yae thought she’d never meet Ei or Renji again. Then February 2nd came. And Yae just had to be in Ei’s body.

It was far from a pleasant experience. And even that was a fucking understatement. Every time she looked at herself, the burning house flashed before her mind, images of Makoto’s burnt body and Ei sobbing over her, of Sara’s unconscious body, of Renji’s bloodied knife—

She hurled into the toilet bowl. Fuck, she couldn’t take it. How the hell did Ei live without breaking down whenever she looked in the mirror?

Then there was a kick at the door. A really violent one, that scared Yae so much she nearly slipped on her knees and fell flat on the bathroom floor. 

“Bitch, are you nearly—oh, I forgot. You’re not Ei. Anyway, whoever you are, hurry the fuck up. I need to reach school in ten minutes.”

Yae quickly washed herself up. Then she repeated the mistake of looking in the mirror again, and gagged.

“Uh…hello?” His tone grew increasingly frustrated. 

Yae swung open the door. Renji stood outside, glowering at her.

“Took you long enough.”

Yae nodded mutely and moved aside to let him into the bathroom. He stopped and eyed her warily.

“Not even going to introduce yourself?” 

Yae’s eye twitched. “I’m Yae.”

“Oh…you’re that girl at the coffee shop. What a coincidence.” His tone was full of nothing but disinterest. He’s not Hikari, Yae, relax. Don’t get worked up.

“Did Ei tell you anything about me?” 

“Uh. No.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why? Should I know something?”

“No,” she said curtly, though inwardly relieved. “You should hurry and get ready for school now.”

“Tsk.”

He went inside and slammed the door. Yae pinched the bridge of her nose. What the hell was with her and associating Raidens with their other family members? It was genuinely so hard for Yae to see Renji as anyone but his mother. 

Mood soured, she headed back to Ei’s room, ate two sleeping pills, and after an hour of tossing and turning and reliving horrible, horrible events, she finally fell asleep.

When her eyes next opened, she was thankfully back in her own body. Then she spotted something she was clutching in her hand.

A handwritten note.

Hi, Miko. Yae. I don’t know. I spent the entire day sleeping in your body, haha.

Anyway, I haven’t seen you in…twelve years? Yeah. Pretty long time. It’s weird, because you’re literally the director of Tenshukaku. It’s almost like you’ve been avoiding me. Well, scratch the ‘almost’, you definitely have been avoiding me. 

It’s a really generic question to ask after twelve years of not seeing you, but, how have you been? Becoming the director at seventeen must have taken a huge fucking toll on you. My dad was a full grown adult, and even he was really stressed about it. I honestly don’t know how you can cope. I would cave under the pressure in an instant.

I don’t really know why you decided to open a coffee shop, but hopefully it’s lessening the burden of being the director you have to carry? I wanted Scara to find a job, and I would have told him to apply to your coffee shop, but you looked really, uh, upset at having seen us, so I decided against it.

I remember everything, you know. Everything that happened at the house, and everything before that. Renji doesn’t seem to remember a thing, though, and he kept insisting that he’d never seen me before that day. Apparently his memories of that day were altered? That’s what Yui told me. Well, whoever had done it mustn't have wanted him to be emotionally affected by it. So I decided not to tell him anything about Tenshukaku, either. I myself don’t remember much after Makoto, so I don’t know what actually happened. You probably do, don’t you?

I don’t mean to pry, but I at least want to know what happened to Father and Aunt Hikari. Did the both of them really die in the fire? 

Sorry for bringing all that up. I know you must still be heavily scarred by it. You’ve had it really tough all these years. 

I miss you a lot. 

Yae felt just slightly bad that she hadn’t written a note herself, but it didn’t bother her too much.

Until it did. She couldn’t go an hour without thinking of Ei’s note, and the words she’d said at the end. 

I miss you a lot.

Had she, really?


The next time they swapped bodies, Yae wrote back.

Hi, Ei.

I’d like to be called Yae. And I slept the entire day in your body, as well. I’ll continue to do so the next two times we swap bodies.

I’m flattered that you’re worried about my mental state, but I’m doing fine. Anyway, you’re right—I have been avoiding you. I’ll elaborate when we meet in real life, whenever I’m ready to talk to you. I’ll tell you why I opened the coffee shop, too.

I wasn’t upset at you or Scaramouche. I was just shocked, I suppose. Unpleasantly shocked. But if he wants to work here, I’m completely open to it. 

And…sorry. I can’t tell you what happened at the house. 

Yae breathed shakily as she wrote the next sentence.

I missed you a lot, too. 

No matter how much she tried to deny it to herself, it was the whole and complete truth. 

Yae looked for a letter once she was back in her original body, but there wasn’t any sign of one.


It was the last time they swapped bodies, and with it was the last letter Yae wrote to Ei.

Come to the coffee shop. I’m ready to talk now.


The bell jingled. As she expected, Ei walked in with Scara. Yae inhaled deeply, then smiled, albeit a little weakly. 

"Welcome to Narukami."

Ei stared at her, her cheeks dusted a light shade of pink. Yae detested how she thought that it was cute. 

"Yoimiya, could you take over?" Yae called out. "I have to talk to a friend." 

"Sure, sure," Yoimiya said, looking between Ei and Yae with a knowing smile on her face. Then she waved to Scara, who gave her a blank look in return. "You're the new guy, right?" 

"Huh?" 

Ei looked at him with a shit-eating grin, as the five stages of grief flashed across Scara's face. 

"No fucking way...did you apply for the job without telling me?" 

Ei whistled, looking elsewhere. He shot her a scathing look, then turned to Yoimiya, exasperated. 

"Okay, whatever," he grumbled. "I'll just be a fucking barista."

Yoimiya beamed and immediately led him inside. Ei and Yae were alone now. 

The awkwardness of not having had a proper conversation with the other in half their lifetime was palpable in the air. Ei broke the tension first. 

"We should sit down." 

"Okay." 

The two made their way to a quiet corner in the shop. Ei drummed her fingers against the table, looking like she was drinking the sight of Yae in. It made Yae squirm a little, slightly discomforted, but the gaze of the violet-haired girl weakened in intensity over time. 

The drumming of Ei's fingers stopped after some time, presumably after Ei had enough of staring silently at Yae.

"Hi," Ei finally said. 

"Hi."

"This is awkward. Makoto was always with us, wasn't she?"

Yae swallowed. She envied the way she could talk about Makoto so easily. "Yeah."

Ei sighed. "But we're soulmates now, so we have to solve that problem, right? If something as stupid as awkwardness gets in the way of us having a conversation, then there's no way we could be soulmates. The gods would have had made a mistake with us."

Yae couldn't believe Ei had addressed the elephant in the room so...casually. Soulmates. The word felt so foreign on her tongue. Yae hadn't even known of February 2nd until Yui told her about it last year. The entire concept was so utterly daunting. 

"But I don't think the gods made a mistake," Ei said, with a relaxed smile. "I was telling the truth when I said that I missed you a lot, Yae." 

The directness of Ei's words left Yae no other choice but to flush. Ei giggled.

"You're still the same," she said fondly. "You blush really easily, just like last time."

Yae kept her eyes away from Ei. "It's not my fault you're so straightforward."

Ei hummed. "Well, did you miss me, Yae?"

"Um…"

Ei looked at her so intensely that it made Yae want to melt right into the floor. 

"Yeah," Yae said quietly. "I wrote it in the letter already, idiot."

"But I want to hear you say it." 

"No."

Ei batted her eyes at her. "Please?" 

"What for? Does saying it make it more sincere somehow?"

"I just want to hear you say those words in your voice. You have a pretty voice, you know."

Yae frowned. Ei had become such an irritatingly huge flirt. 

And obviously she ended up giving in.

"I missed you a lot, too," she said softly, quickly. 

"Really?"

Yae glared at her. "Just take it already."

Ei laughed. "Fine, fine. I'm happy you actually said it, either way."

"You're annoying." 

"Mm, yeah." 

Yae was starting to hate being here. She thought she'd changed after being the director of Tenshukaku, but she still always got so put off when it came to the Raidens. 

"You said you were ready to talk," Ei said. 

Right. Yae had said that.

And so she did. It was hard enough telling Ei to her face that she'd avoided her and Sara for so long because she didn't want to remember the burning house. Then she recapped everything Tenshukaku had done to protect Inazuma from the threats the Fatui posed to them these past couple of years, and even harder to omit the parts where Hikari had come in, but she made it through to the end soon enough. 

"You did all that on your own," Ei remarked, once Yae was done. 

"Yeah. It's what a Tenshukaku director should do." She did have help from Hikari in some situations, but Ei didn't need to know that. 

"Well...what do we do about the Fatui? They have the upper hand, right now, and I would love for that to stop."

Bitterness was evident in Ei's voice. So she was still hung up over Makoto.

"I'll figure something out," Yae said firmly. "We have to focus on gathering as much intel as possible before we make any moves. We still know next to nothing about the Fatui's Boss, after all, or her motivations for basically declaring war on the other nations' secret societies."

"Okay. I'll help you with that." 

"Thanks, Ei." She didn't really need it, but the offer was appreciated. 

Then Yae remembered Renji. "How's Re—Scara doing?" 

"He's fine. No diseases, or anything. What, are you worried about the kid?" She scoffed. "He's tough as a brick. Even when he accidentally cuts himself on the kitchen knife as he's chopping food, the cut somehow heals itself straight away."

Yae stiffened. "Straight away?”

"Well, I kinda exaggerated there. Maybe, like, thirty seconds, give or take?"

" What? Okay, hold on---do you know what an RHM factor is?"

"Uh, yeah. Yui told me about it."

"Do you know Scara's?" 

Ei blinked. "Oh. I don't."

Yae stared at her, dumbfounded. "And all these years you just never bothered to check?"

"He's been doing fine, though. I know there's this ROSD thing, but he's completely normal. So I thought that nothing was amiss."

"Even as his cuts were healing at a terrifying rate?"

"I thought I was just seeing things."

Yae sighed in irritation. " Ei. "

"Okay, okay...what now, then?"

"We should check what his RHM factor is." 

Ei looked alarmed. "But how? He doesn't know about...it. Tenshukaku."

"Find some way to sedate him. Then bring his unconscious body to the base."

"That's awfully extreme."

Yae shrugged. "Not like we have many options to work with." 

"Great. Fine."

"We should do it as soon as possible." 

Ei frowned. "You're terribly concerned about him, aren't you?" 

Yae stared at her. He may go berserk and kill you at any time, just like what he'd done to your father. But she couldn't say that. Ei couldn't know. 

"People who have cuts that heal extremely quickly have high RHM factors. I'm just being cautious."

Ei didn't look convinced, but didn't push the matter any further. "Sure."


Scara's RHM factor was surprisingly low—1130. Yae didn't get it...how did his cuts heal so fast, then? 

But she couldn't exactly ask him about it, either, since he was as clueless as she was. Sometimes when he was working, she'd take his finger and swipe it over a sharp edge, then ignore his noises of protest as she watched it close cleanly up just half a minute later. Even Yae's cuts didn't heal so scarily quickly.


Yae found Ei surprisingly easy to talk to after they met at the coffee shop. The 'friendly outings' they started having made Yae remember just how different Ei and Makoto were, despite them looking almost exactly the same. Ei was brash, hot-tempered, impatient, and weirdly gullible. Makoto wasn't any of that. 

It took a few more dates for Yae to finally start seeing Ei and Makoto as different people. She no longer felt nauseous whenever she saw Ei, and she didn't get reminded of Makoto as much every time she looked into her eyes. 

It took Yae even more time for her to start reciprocating Ei's affection. It was hard at first, but she gradually eased into it, to the point where holding hands didn't make her entire body flush. Honestly, Yae was so laughably touch-starved that she started clinging to Ei every chance she got. It was embarrassing, but Ei always called it cute, so Yae didn't bother attempting to hold herself back. 

Her mind went astray a few times, as she wondered whether she and Ei were truly meant to be soulmates. Yui had told Yae before February 2nd that she'd feel an instant connection if she met her soulmate before the body-swapping, but Yae didn't feel anything positive at all when she saw Ei as a child, or when she saw Ei walk into the coffee shop twelve years later. 

But Ei didn't seem bothered by it. So Yae tried not to let it bother her, as well. 

"I'd be really sad if you suddenly went away again," Ei told her one night.

Yae tore her gaze away from the sky to look at her. "Why would I do that?" 

"I don't know. You're Tenshukaku's director, you'll probably have a lot of places to go in the future. Without me," Ei said bitterly. 

"I won't forget you even if I had to leave for some time."

Ei abruptly clasped onto her hands. "Don't," she said immediately. "Don't leave."

She looked at their hands in confusion. "Why are you suddenly worrying about this?"

"Because you've left me for twelve years before," Ei muttered. "And you may do it again."  

Yae gave her a pained smile. "But I told you why I did it before. I don't have any reason to just leave you now. I don't want to, even if I had a reason." 

Ei's hair fell over her eyes, curtaining any expression she had. "Then do you promise that you'll never do something like that again?" 

"Of course."

They stood like that for a while, their hands in each other's, until Ei closed the distance between them and pressed a featherlight kiss to her cheek. 

Yae frowned, reaching a finger up to caress the spot she'd just kissed. "That wasn't even a real kiss."

Ei gave her a cheeky smile. "Do you want one?" 

Yae shot her a glare. "Now I don't."

"Aw…too bad I don't care." 

Ei cupped Yae's cheeks gently. Oh. She was actually doing it. Yae squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation, feeling Ei's warm breath fanning over her face—

Then something brushed against her lips. But it wasn't Ei's own lips…it was her fingers.

Yae tore her mouth away. "You're awful."

Ei grinned. "Just kidding."

"Ei…"

"Oh. Okay, now I'll actually kiss you. For real, this time. Because what you just did was pretty cute." 

And Ei actually kissed her. For real, this time.


Ei’s your soulmate?”

Hikari looked like she wanted to laugh.

“Isn’t that just funny,” she said humorlessly. “Well, just make sure she doesn’t find out anything about what happened twelve years ago. I think the Fatui already found out that I faked my death.”

“How?” Yae said, alarmed.

“Either you or Yui are lying to me,” she said in a bone-chilling tone, “or the Fatui has insiders in Tenshukaku.”

“Those are the only two possibilities?” Yae said dubiously.

Hikari shrugged. “I’ve been really careful. I barely show myself in public, and even when I did, it was with a disguise. I don’t use any of my possessions that I had from twelve years ago. I regularly forge identity documents. I don’t have a phone or car for myself. What could have gone wrong?”

But she looked just a little bit uncomfortable. 

“I met Morax and Barbatos a few days ago,” she began. 

“Mmhmm.”

“Morax has been behaving pretty suspiciously lately.”

Yae looked at her, bewildered. “The Fatui killed Guizhong—why would he side with them?”

“He was pretty passive when we discussed our Fatui countermeasure plans. He barely gave any input at all.”

“Maybe he was just too traumatised from the death of a loved one,” Yae said pointedly. She hadn’t meant to target Hikari, but it sounded somewhat like it. The Raiden sneered at her.

“As if. He’s an old man in a profession where people die young. He’s seen plenty of his loved ones die.”

“But Guizhong was his soulmate.

Hikari gave her a bored look. “Soulmates don’t mean jackshit. Your whole world doesn’t come crashing down even if they die. It wouldn’t be any different from the death of literally anyone else who is close to you.”

Soulmate don’t mean jackshit? On the contrary, Yae felt like her whole world would come crashing down if Ei died.

“Is there anything else that points to him being accomplices with the Fatui?” Yae reluctantly asked. 

“It’s mostly a hunch. That’s why I want you to do something for me now—talk to Morax.”

“About what?”

“Observe him when you meet the Qixing in a few days. Ask him how he’s doing afterwards. Be like a friend.”

Yae scoffed. “Like he’ll tell me anything.”

“You’re pretty reliable. He may let something slip to you.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Doesn’t matter. Just send some of our agents to spy on him.”

“How do you know you’re not just wasting our time?”

Hikari smiled. “Yae…my hunches have never been wrong.”


Morax looked at her, his expression open and relaxed. Too relaxed, after the meeting they’d just had on sharing the intel everyone had gathered on the Fatui. 

“How have you been holding up?” she asked, as they walked out of the meeting room.

His brows furrowed. “It’s still been extremely hard for me to process what happened with Guizhong, but I’m slowly getting over it.”

“I understand. Grief is a terrible thing to experience.”

He nodded. The conversation died on the spot. 

Damn Hikari and her vague ass instructions. Yae had to improvise now, as always.

“You seem pretty out of it,” she said. “You can come talk to me anytime.”

His mouth was pressed into a thin line. “I suppose.”

“There’s something you’ve found out about the Fatui that you aren’t willing to share.”

Their eyes met. The corners of Zhongli’s eyes tightened. Yae held his stare unwaveringly.

“Something I’m not willing to share, huh?” He smiled blandly. “You’re just as paranoid as Baal.”

Yae had never gotten used to that codename of Hikari’s. No one called her that in Tenshukaku, anyway, so what was the point?

“I don’t think it’s paranoia,” she said calmly. “On the contrary, actually. My agents happened to have witnessed what you were doing yesterday.”

His eyes betrayed no emotion. “Oh?”

“You stepped out of your residence at 11.48 in the evening, and you made your way to an alley behind Yujing Terrace. There, you met the Fatui Harbinger whom we’ve identified to be Tartaglia.”

He looked at her, challenging. “Go on.”

“You exchanged documents. You shook hands. Then you returned to your residence at 12.12 in the morning.”

“You can’t prosecute me if you don’t know what the document entails.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re right, I can’t. But I have photographs of you and Tartaglia meeting. If I show them to the rest of the Qixing, it’ll be the end of your time as the director.”

“I wouldn’t particularly mind that,” he said coolly.

Yae was starting to get annoyed. “Morax, what the fuck did you discuss with Tartaglia?”

“Trust me, Yae, when I say that it doesn’t concern you, in the least.”

“You’re in cahoots with the Fatui. It concerns all of Liyue.”

“Perhaps.”

Yae wanted to kill him.

“You told the Fatui that Hikari was still alive.”

Morax nodded. “Correct.”

Why?

“It’s just as you said.” He smiled. “I’m ending my time as Qixing’s director soon. Should an old man like me not get tired, throughout the countless years I’ve invested into the protection of Liyue?” He didn’t wait for Yae to respond. “I’ll be giving the Qixing a little test, is all. If they can handle it, I’ll retire. If they can’t, I’ll regretfully have to stay on.”

“And why drag Hikari into this?”

He shrugged. “The Fatui wanted to know. Since I’m in cahoots with them, I thought I might as well tell them the truth.”


Hikari scoffed. 

“What an ass.”

Yae agreed with her.

“Well, since we’ve found out who exposed me, it makes things somewhat easier,” Hikari went on. “Get some of our agents to intercept him and demand that he tell us what the Fatui had shared with him about their plans.”

“We’ve tried that,” Yae said. “But he’s constantly with Harbinger Tartaglia out in public. Neither of them are even trying to hide their affiliations with each other now. It seems the Fatui are trying to go back to being diplomatic with Liyue.”

Hikari looked thoughtful. “You said Morax mentioned that he was giving the Qixing a test.”

“Yes.”

“Something bad will probably happen to Liyue, if that’s the case,” Hikari said nonchalantly. “We won’t have to bother offering them help, when the time comes. There's another secret society in Liyue called the Adepti. I’m guessing Morax wants the Qixing and the Adepti to work together, so Liyue can get protection without their secret societies conflicting like idiots.”

“I figured that, as well, too.”

“Nothing we can do now, then. The Fatui knows I’m alive—so be it.”

Yae frowned. “And if they come looking for you?”

Hikari smiled darkly. 

“I’ll just kill them.”

The Fatui couldn’t find Hikari. Yae expected it. Hikari was constantly moving from place to place. It was the same with Ei and Renji years ago—they moved all the time, and with the protection of the Kujou plan, they managed to settle down at a permanent apartment unscathed.

Morax had retired and Ningguang had taken over his position of director. As Hikari had predicted, the Adepti and the Qixing had begun working together now. The meetings Yae had with the Qixing now expanded with several unfamiliar faces. 

Everything seemed fine afterwards. Hikari was safe. Ei and Renji were safe. Ei and Yae had a nice relationship. Yae even approached Sara and made up with her as best as she could. It was awkward, because Sara had apparently severed ties with Ei, for some reason Sara refused to tell her. But she did tell Yae that she had found her own soulmate, and Yae learned with surprise that it was Sangonomiya Yuuko’s daughter, Sangonomiya Kokomi.

Tenshukaku was also gathering more and more useful intel on the Fatui, having learnt much more about the Harbingers. 

Everything seemed fine.

Until February 2nd came five years later.

And Tartaglia—Childe—ruined everything.


Present time

Yae bowed her head as low as she could.

“I’m sorry.”

There was a moment’s pause. An extremely long moment.

“They took him,” Hikari said, “didn’t they?”

Yae raised her head. Hikari didn’t look perturbed in the slightest. She didn’t sense any ire or hatred from the other, either. 

“Yes.”

“They’re going to make him the Sixth Harbinger.”

Yae nodded.

“It’s the sole spot they’re missing,” Hikari said thoughtfully. “And he’s already inherited his father’s alias, anyway. It makes things easier for them.”

Yae didn’t say anything.

And just as she’d guessed, Hikari said, “Don’t bother getting him back. It’ll be futile.” She really had stopped caring about her own son. 

Hikari looked at Yae carefully. “Anything else you’ve found out?”

Yae couldn’t tell her. She couldn’t tell her that they somehow knew about Renji killing Raiden Yomo. The only people who knew of the whole truth were Hikari, Yui and Yae. Yae had subsequently told Sara, Kokomi and Ayato a brief version, when she needed their help to subdue Childe in Scara’s body, but she would have known if they’d told anyone else. 

Had Pierro been there, all those years ago? Had he watched the entire scene unfold? If so, where was he at now? None of the agents had reported sightings on the first Harbinger, not ever since that day twelve years ago, at Saigawa river. 

If Yae told Hikari that they knew of Renji’s past ROSD, she’d definitely do something rash, and Yae wouldn’t be able to stop her. The last thing she needed was another Raiden gone rogue.

“Nothing else.”

Hikari bit the inside of her cheek. “So, Arlecchino’s going to share the Fatui’s intel with us from now on. That’s good.”

Unexpectedly, she said, “They may know about Renji’s ROSD.”

Yae faltered. Hikari wasn’t looking at her.

“Isn’t enhancement through RHM cells a technology that’s only made known to Tenshukaku?”

Hikari laughed. “Who told you that?”

What the fuck. “Huh?”

“Tenshukaku didn’t invent it. The Fatui did. And it made a few people there immortal.”

Immortal?

“Some of the Harbingers, and the Fatui’s Boss. They have RHM factors even higher than mine.”

“Why are you only saying this now?

Hikari raised an eyebrow. 

“Maybe because I expected your plan to actually work. But now that they have Renji, they’re going to try tinkering with him, too. Arata had an RHM factor of 8402, and 8891 for me. Parents with high RHM factors usually end up giving birth to defective babies, but he turned out fine, until that fucking car accident. And if the Fatui finds out that Renji had killed Yomo because of his ROSD, they’re definitely going to take advantage of it. They’ll inject excess RHM cells in him and make him relapse back into his stage two ROSD, go insane, then kill all those people they want to see killed.”

“They don’t know yet, though.”

Hikari gritted her teeth. “According to what you said, Dottore’s this mad scientist personality, right? He’ll definitely check Renji’s RHM factor. It’s only a matter of time before they make him into a killing machine.”

“Do you want to change your mind and get him back, then?”

“No.” Hikari carded her fingers through her hair. “I can’t alter his memories again. Kamisato told me that doing it more than twice would severely affect someone’s mental state. Once he gets ROSD again, it’s over. He’ll possibly remember everything at the house, too—even the fact that I’d altered his memories.” She paused. “And it’s too late to get him back now. They definitely have him in their laboratory already.”

Yae frowned. “What’s your point?” 

“He’ll be an enemy once he gets ROSD,” she said emotionlessly, “to everyone except the Fatui.”

“So, we should eliminate him?” 

Hikari drummed her fingers against the desk.

“It’s your call, Yae. You’re the director.”

She looked at Hikari incredulously, but she just stared firmly back. 

“Do as you see fit.”

Chapter Text

Lumine twirled a stray lock of golden hair around her finger.

“Pierro—didn’t show up for the test, as usual; Colombina—8933; Dottore—7001; Sandrone—7138; Pulcinella—9330,” she read out, “Capitano—8786; Signora—9035; Pantalone—7997; Arlecchino—8208; and Tartaglia—8591.”

Mila’s eyebrows rose. 

“Lord Tartaglia’s has risen by quite a lot.”

Lumine hummed. “The bastard's trained plenty this month.”

“Minimal change in the others, I see. Though…”

Mila’s eyes narrowed. 

“...Lady Lumine, I believe you’ve missed out on one of the Harbingers.”

Said girl scratched her cheek, looking uncharacteristically perturbed. 

“Perhaps.”

“Has something gone wrong with the test?”

“No, nothing of the sort.” Lumine crossed her arms. “The results we got were pretty…”

“Surprising?”

“Just a little unnerving.”

Mila watched the girl carefully, saying nothing.

Lumine sighed. “You know about the ROSD he contracted in the past, right?”

“Yes.”

“The intel we’ve gathered from before states that his RHM factor was 1200 a few years back.”

“Has it increased?” 

“By an alarming amount, though he hasn’t been injured much recently.”

“Maybe because of the fiasco that occurred when Lord Tartaglia was in his body?”

Lumine frowned. “No, that wouldn’t nearly have been enough to spur this much RHM cell growth.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Lady Lumine, but what I’m gathering from this is that the cause of the increase is unknown.” 

“You’re…right,” she said begrudgingly. In a lower tone, she muttered, “I hate not fucking knowing things.”

“Are his other cells working fine?”

“Yes. Completely. But they shouldn’t be.”

Mila nodded. “You can take the time to figure it out, then, Lady Lumine.”

“Try not to injure him during training, or whatever. Monitor him as much as possible.”

“Yes, Lady Lumine.”

"I'll be trying my best to get Dottore off his back while I can," she said, eyes closed and rubbing her temple. "The fucker's already observing the guy like he's one of his experiment subjects. Anyway, you know the warning signs of ROSD, don't you? Bring Scaramouche here immediately, even when you've only spotted the mildest of symptoms."

“Yes, Lady Lumine.”

“Okay. Well, the report’s done. And I’m going to have to trouble you again to try getting Pierro to come back for a test—for fuck’s sake, it’s not like it’ll kill him.”

“I will, Lady Lumine.”

Mila was about to take her leave, but then faltered.

“You haven’t told me Scaramouche’s exact RHM factor.”

Lumine shifted uncomfortably in her seat, pushing up the glasses she always wore in the lab.

“8972.”

Mila nearly let the shock seep into her expression. Nearly. 

“That’s…higher than some of the Lord Harbingers,” she said, in a measured tone. It's even higher than his father's, when he was still around.

Lumine shrugged. “Yeah. I told you I’ve got no fucking clue about any of this.”


A throb broke through Scara's skull like he'd slammed right into a brick wall. It hurt so fucking much that the sedative that was coursing through him wasn't enough to put him under. 

He blinked slowly, the overhead lights burning into his eyes. The procedure table was cold, penetrating his bones with a sickly chill. His limbs were, fortunately, not strapped to the table like before. Lumine was actually treating him like a human being, for once.

Right then, her voice sounded through the speakers.

"You woke up faster than I expected."

Was Scara tripping, or was there a hint of discomfort in her voice? 

"We've done all the tests we needed to do," she continued. "You're free to go. Thanks for your time."

His speech was slurred. "Why the fuck are you so civil now?" 

"Fucking leave, before I decide to not to be anymore." 

The sedative hadn't fully worn off yet, how was he even supposed to place one foot ahead of the other? 

Grumbling, he gingerly stepped down from the table and onto the ground, slipping into a new pair of shoes that someone had placed beside the table leg. 

When he walked, he realised with surprise that he wasn't doing it drunkardly like he thought he would. He was moving like he hadn't just been completely drugged out a few seconds ago. 

"Yeah," Lumine said, "you're walking normally. Fuck, that's creepy. This is why I hate you Harbingers."

And the speaker switched off with a beep. Scara blinked, bewildered. Hadn't she been completely adamant on him not becoming the sixth Harbinger, like, a few hours ago?

When he exited the room, Mila was waiting for him outside. 

She nodded to him. "How was the test?" 

"Splendid. I was unconscious and didn't have a single thought." 

Mila's lips quivered. So she was capable of smiling. Sort of.

"That's nice." 

"And what am I doing now?" 

"Training."

Bile burbled up the back of his throat. "Training to kill?"

"You'd have to learn how to actually fight, first. Which is what we're doing."

"Will you be teaching me?"

“Yes.”

Scara gnawed at the inside of his cheek. “I’m not going to kill anyone, you know.”

Mila looked levelly at him. “It’s inevitable. I know it seems unthinkable at first, but it’ll become second nature soon enough.”

“It won’t. I’m not fucking killing for you guys.”

Mila blew out a slow breath, and started walking towards the lift. 

“You can tell me all about that when that time actually comes.”

“And what would you do, then?”

Mila gave him a challenging look, reaching for the call button as she did so.

“It’s not up to me. Whatever Boss wants me to do, I’ll execute it without question.”

Scara frowned. What was with the Fatui and their die-hard loyalty to the Boss girl? She just seemed like a shrewd little bitch.

It was like she read his mind; she gave him a sidelong glance.

“For your information, back in my day, if anyone suspected you of having negative thoughts about Boss, it’d warrant three full days in the torture chambers.”

Scara smiled dryly. “I’m sure.”

Mila eyed him in disdain, her lips curved down, but said nothing afterwards. 

The lift arrived, and brought them two areas to the left, where they got off and entered a pretty dimly-lit area that looked like it served as the compound’s training grounds. The walls rose up exceedingly high, and there were rooms that led to various indoor shooting ranges. The area they were at right now had whole spaces dedicated to hand-to-hand combat training, with hard black mats splayed out. 

What didn’t sit right with Scara was that the place was completely deserted.

“Why’s no one here?”

“The recruits and established soldiers have separate training grounds,” Mila explained. “This is reserved specially for Harbingers.”

“Oh. I guess this entire area isn’t really used, then.”

“That’s somewhat true. Lord Tartaglia and Lord Capitano come here to train when they’re not on missions. The other Harbingers, not so much.”

Mila led him to the shooting range, then handed him an air rifle suit, goggles and headphones. He read the list of firearm etiquette rules pasted on the wall in a noticeboard, and half-heartedly listened to Mila drone on about them as he slipped into the suit and geared himself accordingly.

“Try ten rounds of dry firing. Then you can do ten rounds of actual firing.”

Scara hauled the air rifle up, and didn’t expect it to weigh like a feather. He cursed as he nearly dropped it, because of how he'd mentally prepared for its weight prior to picking it up. 

“It’s so fucking light,” he said, looking at Mila questioningly. 

She crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing. Like she was in deep thought about something. Scara clicked his tongue. Okay, so she was useless.

He closed an eye and focused on the target at the wall, about ten metres away from him. He practised using different parts of his trigger finger to find the best position and strength for carrying out the action of pulling the trigger, while keeping sight on the target. He got the hang of it after six rounds, then didn’t waver much the remaining four rounds. 

Mila placed a coin on the top of the rifle, near the front sight. 

“Don’t do actual firing yet. Continue another ten rounds of dry firing, and make sure the coin stays on all the time.”

Scara grunted. The coin nearly slipped the first few times, but it barely even budged the rest of the time. 

“Okay,” she said, sounding disconcerted. She slid ten air rifle pellets into the clip of the firearm. “Start firing now.”

The first time he shot, the recoil it sent to his shoulder was strong, but not too unbearable. He gradually got used to the feeling after emptying the rest of the clip, minimising his movement whenever he pressed the trigger so that the pellet’s course wouldn’t waver from the target.

As the shooting target slid to them, Mila snatched it from him before he could get a look at it.

His eye twitched. “You’re awfully excited.” 

He peered over her shoulder at it. The holes made from the pellets were all concentrated around the nines and tens. A smug smile tugged at his lips, though Mila seemed unimpressed.

“Makarov pistol next. Then the P-96 pistol, SR-1 Vektor, PSS silent pistol, Viyatz-SN, KS-23, AK-47M, Dragunov sniper rifle…”

He tuned out her words, spacing out at the coin that was still balanced on the rifle. 

“...dry firing for 100 rounds, actual firing for 100 rounds, everyday for six months, for all the weapons I’ve assigned to you. We’ll move on to bladed weapons next, then hand-to-hand combat—”

“Wait.” His eyes narrowed. “200 rounds for every weapon everyday ? For six months? Does my sleep not factor into this lovely schedule you’ve made for me?”

She had the audacity to shrug her shoulders.

“Those with RHM factors as high as yours have long surpassed the need for sleep.”

“I’m sorry,” he deadpanned, “RHM? Routine Health Maintenance? Registered Housing Manager?

Mila blinked. “Ah. Well… pretend you heard nothing.”

He stared her down. “Excuse me?”

“Continue training. Time is of the essence.” 

Her expression had long shuttered, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to get anything out of her now. People just fucking loved keeping things from him.

“What the fuck.”


Whatever Mila had said about people with high RHM factors not needing sleep, it only became apparent to him after going three days with only three hours of sleep in total (yes, one hour of sleep per fucking day), and he didn’t even feel much fatigue setting in. His eyes barely felt like closing.

Had they done some sort of twisted experiment on him, while they were administering all those so-called tests? Scara started feeling unsettled, then tried to calm himself down by convincing himself that the reason he was anxious was because the lack of sleep was making him lose his grip on reality and his emotions. But he became disturbed all over again when he was buzzing with everything but fatigue when he tried to sleep on the fourth night. 

Could he be suffering from insomnia? He cursed and sat back up on his bed. He never imagined that not physically being able to sleep would be so horrible. It wasn’t like he could ask Mila about it, either; whenever he approached her to ask about something related to the ‘RHM factor’, she turned her head away and refused to talk. Fucking hell. 

He went to the bathroom and splashed water onto his face. Wait—he shouldn’t have done that, now he felt more awake. Fuck, whatever. He splashed even more water and slapped his cheeks while he was at it. He was so terribly, awfully awake. He might as well change the bandages on his neck while he was at it. 

So he did, and his eyes went wide when he saw that there wasn’t a single trace of the wound. At all. There wasn’t even a scar, just fair skin over where the wound had been, like he hadn’t gotten it at all. He’d understand if it were just minor cuts that healed at a terrifyingly quick pace, but a wound as deep as that, being completely gone in just four days?

He couldn’t stand not having normal bodily functions anymore without knowing the reason behind it. Fucking Lumine must have done something to him. He tossed the bandages into the bin and wiped his face dry, then walked out of the room, to…he didn’t exactly know where he wanted to go. This and the training grounds were the only areas in the compound he had access to, so he came out here for nothing. 

A click sounded. Scara whirled around when footsteps sounded from down the hallway. 

Childe was eyeing him warily, his hair tousled. Though his eyes were sharp and clear in contrast, and he didn’t look at all like he’d just woken up. 

“What are you doing here?”

Scara scowled. “I just needed a breather. What, are you about to lock me up for breaking some unspoken rule that I’m not supposed to leave my room without permission?”

“Your room is plenty big for a breather,” Childe said plainly. 

“Ha. Relax, I can’t leave this area even if I wanted to,” he said, turning back to fix his gaze on the wall. “You got worked up over nothing.”

“I’m not worked up.”

Scara crossed his arms. “Right. Go back to sleep now. I’m not doing anything.”

Childe stood stubbornly outside his door. “I don’t usually sleep.”

Oh. Sleep. Scara faced him. “You know, I can’t sleep at all. Like, I’m physically unable to. And this has never happened before. Did you fuckers do something to me?”

Childe made a face. “ Do something? You’re the one getting worked up over nothing. All they mainly did was an RHM factor test.”

“For the love of God, what the fuck does RHM stand for?” 

Childe looked taken aback at that question, then understanding flashed across his face.

“They kept it from you.”

“And if you’re about to do that, too—”

Childe held his hands up. “You asked what RHM stood for, right? It’s ‘red half-moon’. There’s your answer. I didn’t keep it from you.”

“And apparently the whole lot of you harbour some allergic reaction to actually elaborating on your statements.”

“Sorry,” he said, looking wholly unapologetic, “but I really can’t elaborate, either.”

Scara was about to cross the distance between them and strangle this fucker to death, but it took all his willpower to hold himself back. (He’d save the beating up for a later date, when he would destroy this entire organisation from the inside out.) He drew in a slow, steady breath, and channeled all his rage into one deathly glare, revelling in the flinch he got out from the other.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Scara said calmly. “Don’t you have a home to go back to?”

Childe looked a little disconcerted at the contrast between his tone and expression, but answered, anyway. “I had a mission, and I was too tired to go all the way back.”

“Doesn’t it scare you, not being able to protect your siblings?”

His eyes hardened. “Thanks, but I have full confidence in the bodyguards at our home.”

Scara smiled bitterly. “How nice. Still having your own lovely home, while tearing others apart without any qualms.”

“I carry out the Boss’s orders. If you’re bitter about it, just bring the problem up to her, and we’ll see how she settles it.”

“‘The Boss’s orders’,” Scara echoed dully. “Why are you worshipping her every word like it came straight from the Bible? Are all of you incapable of thinking for yourselves?”

Childe’s expression darkened. “You’re awfully talkative, aren’t you?”

“And now you’re dodging the issue.” Scara threw his hands up. “Fuck this. I’ll just continue not being able to get a wink of sleep, I guess.”

He was about to go back to his room, when—

“Wait.”

Childe was giving him an odd look. “How much have you slept the past few days?”

“Three hours in total. One hour per day,” he said wryly, watching the other go still. 

Childe whispered to himself, “It’s that high?” 

“My RHM factor? Apparently. Now, tell me what an RHM factor is.”

“No.” Childe paused. “But, before you go back to your room…”

The other man went back into his room to retrieve something, then came back out with a bottle of something that looked like sleeping pills.

Scara frowned. “Nice try, but pills don’t work for me, either.”

“These will,” Childe said firmly, thrusting it into his palm. “Just take one. You’ll knock out pretty quick.”

“Do these combat against whatever RHM is?”

“Basically.”

Scara inspected the pills in the bottle. They didn’t differ much from normal ones. “Is RHM a depressant drug?”

“No.”

“A stimulant drug?”

“No.” 

“Some sort of psychoactive substance?”

“No.” Childe shot him a look. “Quit asking, you’re not getting anything out of me.”

“Ugh. Fuck you.”

He went back into the room and shut the door in Childe’s face. 

Scara filled a cup with water, popped a pill into his mouth, and drank it down with a mouthful of water.

‘You’ll knock out pretty quick’ was a severe understatement. Already, Scara’s vision morphed into a blur, a great weight pressing down on his eyes, and it took all he had just to get back to his bed while he was conscious so he could at least sleep on a comfortable surface.


Childe had many bottles of those pills, so he handed five of them to Scara the next morning, when they’d somehow woken up at the same time. He probably took a pill after Scara had left last night, as well.

“It was pretty effective, right?”

Scara grunted. “Too effective. I was supposed to wake up two hours ago. Mila’s going to have my head for this.”

“I doubt she will,” Childe said. “Every Harbinger went through this before. She’s used to it.”

Okay, he was definitely going to get answers out of Childe today . Scara probed, “So everyone has high RHM factors?”

Childe faltered, facing him warily. “Yeah.”

“Did my neck wound heal weirdly fast because of that?”

Childe’s eyes dropped down to his neck, and they widened. “Oh, fuck. It’s completely gone.”

“Yes,” Scara said dully, “it is.”

“Then your factor’s higher than I thought it’d be.”

Scara pondered for a moment. “So, having a high RHM factor means that wounds heal quicker, practically no fatigue can be felt, and physical strength and learning ability both improve by a great amount.”

Childe frowned. “Where did you get that last one from?”

“The weapons I carry during training barely feel like they weigh anything,” Scara said, “which doesn’t make sense. And I’ve literally never shot a single arrow, or dart, or gun before, and somehow my aim is perfect nearly every time I fire a weapon, after just a few tries of getting used to it.”

“Oh.” Childe shrugged. “Yeah, high factors make you better at everything.”

Scara gave him a sidelong glance. “I thought it was something bad at first, but it boosts your abilities. It even dulls your sense of fatigue, so that you can go on doing something for days on end without stopping. And every Harbinger has a high RHM factor, which means it must be something manufactured by the Fatui to enhance the strength of its members.”

Childe looked vaguely uncomfortable now. “Uh-huh.”

“I’m guessing with a high enough RHM factor, your wounds would heal so quickly to the point where you basically become invincible,” Scara thought aloud, “maybe even immortal, if their enhancing capabilities run all the way down to the biological processes. I thought the Boss girl looked weirdly young to be in charge of an organisation like the Fatui, but I guess it makes sense now.”

Childe stubbornly avoided his gaze. 

“So, for some reason,” Scara said, raising his voice a little, “I have a high RHM factor. Whether the Fatui made it higher, or it somehow became higher naturally, I don’t know. And I also don’t have a clue how something like that would even scientifically work.” He smiled vacantly. “The only thing you have left to tell me is what the fuck ‘red half-moon’ refers to.”

“No.”

“I practically know nearly everything about it,” Scara pressed on, “and you’re still going to hide that from me?”

Childe glared at him. “How do you know everything you just said is even correct?” 

Scara raised a steely eyebrow. “Having a high RHM factor doesn’t make you a better liar, clearly.”

The other let out a soft groan. 

Scara smiled triumphantly. “Everything I just said is completely right.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Childe said grumpily. “I’m not going to finish the story for you. Figure out the last pieces of the puzzle yourself.”

Scara sneered. “You’re just a fucking delight, aren’t you.”

Childe sighed. “If you keep bugging me about it, I’m taking back those pills from you.” He speed walked to the lift, but Scara quickly caught up.

“So, who else is immortal?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Childe looked like he wasn’t going to open his mouth, but he indulged Scara in the end.

“Some of the Harbingers, too,” he said vaguely. 

“Are you?”

Childe’s face scrunched. “Of course not.”

“Why?”

He paused, staring hardly at the lift button. 

“Well, they did give me a choice,” he said, scratching his ear. “But being immortal sounds too bothersome.”

“Right, ‘bothersome’,” he said doubtfully. “More like it just wouldn’t feel right to live on after your family’s already gone.”

“Hm,” Childe said, his expression shuttering. 

The lift arrived. When Childe pressed the button once they were inside, Scara realised with great displeasure that they were going to the same training place. They rode in awkward silence for a while.

“Oh, before I forget,” Childe piped up, before the lift stopped, “there’ll be a mission soon. A pretty big one.”

“What about it?”

“You’ll have to start training even more. I heard Boss is going to hold a meeting with the Harbingers next month.”

Scara blinked. “But Mila clearly said I had to train for six months. Am I even allowed to be a part of this mission?”

“Your factor’s high enough,” Childe said, “I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to get the hang of everything in a month.”

“That’s fucking nonsense—”

“By the way,” Childe talked over him, “you’re going to have to get along with the other Harbingers, during that mission. The others aren't as nice as I am.”

“Name me one time where you’ve been nice to me.” He paused. “Aside from the pills, I guess. Thanks for that.”

Childe looked at him weirdly. “Hearing ‘thanks’ from you is pretty disturbing.”

“Fuck off. I have basic manners.”

Childe shook his head as the doors opened. “Now you’re just deluding yourself.”

“Asshole.”

Childe smiled wryly, then walked away and slipped into one of the rooms. Scara found Mila outside of the room with the shooting range they always trained at, a harsh scowl on her face. 

“You’re despicably late,” she said, though genuine anger was absent in her voice.

Scara shrugged. “Blame my RHM factor.”

Mila narrowed her eyes. “Lord Tartaglia didn’t tell you anything, did he?”

“No,” Scara said, “he’s still a stupid loyal dog of the Fatui. Don’t worry.”

Mila watched him for a moment, as if to discern if he was telling the truth. “Soldiers like Lord Tartaglia are rare to find these days,” she said finally.

“Isn’t that just great.”


The subsequent weeks of training were extremely gruelling, despite him not being fatigued much. Childe was right about him being able to get the hang of everything in under a month; Scara had pretty much mastered nearly every weapon Mila had told him to train with, and was more than decent at hand-to-hand combat. What was really gruelling about the training was that it was just the same, boring routine every single day, and it wore down on his mental state more and more as time passed, until the only thing keeping him going were the meals he could enjoy after training. He didn’t even have time to think about all the other things that were a million times more important than food, like getting the fuck out of this place. On that note, he couldn’t believe that he actually started missing being under the fucking sun. He’d always hated sunny weather his entire life, found it revolting, really, but now he yearned for it more than anything. 

One day, exactly a month later, Mila came right to his doorstep, instead of waiting at the training grounds. 

“Boss wants to have a meeting with the Lord Harbingers in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” Scara said, stepping out of the room. Thank God he hadn’t taken the pill last night. “Is this about a mission?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know anything about it?”

“Even if I did, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you about it before Boss does,” Mila said pointedly.

Scara rolled his eyes. “Great. Okay. I have a question, though: why’s he the one bringing you here again?” 

He glared at Childe. Childe looked blankly back.

“Mila and I are pretty close, you know.”

Mila cleared her throat. “Let’s get going now.”

“Why don’t I just have access to that area so I can go on my own?” Scara grumbled, as they entered the lift. “Am I still not cleared of suspicion after working my ass off for a month now?”

Mila faced him. “You’re a Raiden descendant, you know. It’s hard to let our guard down.”

“Yeah, I’m a Raiden descendant, but none of them have ever told me anything, ever,” he bit back. “What’s with all this unwarranted suspicion?”

“Once this mission is over,” Mila said, “we’ll gladly trust you a lot more.”

“If you don’t die halfway through,” Scara caught Childe mumbling. 

“Wouldn’t that just be fantastic,” he spat.

The lift shuddered to a halt at B-23, where they stopped outside the first room on their right. Mila nodded at them. 

“I’ll take my leave now.”

Childe smiled. “Thank you, Mila.”

Mila gave Childe a small smile before she left. Scara got strangely annoyed at how she didn’t even spare him a glance.

Childe opened the door. A gust of cold wind blew, and Scara nearly thought that they were outside, but it was just the freezing temperature of the room. He hated Snezhnayans. Now he was going to have to hide how he was shivering the entire time.

Nearly every Harbinger besides them was already seated in the room around an oval oak desk. Scara recognised Signora and Pantalone, who were sitting beside each other. Childe sat two seats away from Pantalone, leaving a gap between them. 

Scara realised, then, that he had no idea what the fuck anyone’s positions were. He knew he was the Sixth, but what then? There was another empty seat between a bulkily built man and a slinkier one. He wagered that was the seat for the Sixth Harbinger, and sat there, keeping his expression as closed off as everyone else’s were. 

There were only three empty seats left, one clearly belonging to that of the Boss girl, because it rose up just a little higher than the rest. 

Another man entered the room, half frowning. Scara caught the man across from him narrowing his eyes at the newcomer. Judging from how the seats were arranged according to their positions, that man who narrowed his eyes must be the second Harbinger.

“Where have you been, Arlecchino?” he said, malevolence apparent in his tone. “We’ve been trying to establish contact with you for the past week, but all we got from you was radio silence.”

Arlecchino sat down between Pantalone and Childe, and gazed at the second Harbinger levelly. “I’ve already reported the complications that have surfaced to the Boss. Rest assured, it’s not something the likes of you would need to care about.”

The man laughed dryly. “I wouldn’t spare a thought about someone fraternising with the enemy, that’s for sure.”

In Scara’s peripheral vision, Arlecchino stiffened a little. 

“What the fuck are you saying?” he said in a low voice.

“Don’t act dumb. You—”

They both quietened when someone else arrived. 

A man in a black trench coat swept into the room, the atmosphere made a hundred times more tense, as only the scraping sound of his chair being pulled back rang out in the room. No one sounded like they were even breathing. 

“You came to a meeting, Pierro,” a man with a half-mask said, a lazy grin on his face. “For the first time in seventeen years, I believe.”

Pierro looked far more self-assured than everyone in the room, his mouth lilted into an empty smile, and that was saying something, when literally everyone looked stuck-up to no end. And there was something else about the man that just sat so awfully wrong with Scara. 

“Good to see everyone again, as well,” he said in faux pleasantness.

The man beside Scara scoffed. “Clearly this mission is something else, if even you came.”

“I’m afraid so,” Pierro agreed. “The Boss was adamant on me showing up today.”

Then his eyes fell on Scara, and if he could define murderous intent as a person, it’d definitely be him at that moment. His eyes were slanted in malignance, blazing and sharp and digging right into him, the tendrils of his bloodlust reaching across the table and wrapping around him, rendering him immobile. Scara didn’t even dare to take a single breath.

“Congratulations, Scaramouche,” he said levelly, “on becoming the Sixth Harbinger.”

Now everyone’s eyes were on him, and he felt like he was a pile of fresh meat being surrounded by starving vultures.

“Thank you,” Scara said plainly. 

Perhaps Pierro was one of the immortal Harbingers. He definitely seemed like the type to readily accept something like eternal life. But he couldn’t analyse anyone else to gauge his impression of them, because everyone was staring at him. It felt almost forbidden to tear his eyes away from Pierro. 

“You know,” Pierro said, a smug smile growing on his lips, a tumor of a thing, “Boss gave me orders to keep you alive that day. I would have killed you in an instant, back then, and I’d do it again now.”

Scara’s blood ran cold, as the realisation settled upon him. 

Pierro was the one who murdered his parents. Except the Boss girl had told him that his mother was still alive, and that she’d killed the intruder, back then. But, if the intruder was really dead, then why the fuck was Pierro in front of him now?

“I could have killed all of you that day, at Saigawa river.” 

Saigawa? His eyes narrowed. “ What river? The fuck are you talking about?”

The half-mask man laughed. “Pierro, the boy got his memories wiped. He doesn’t remember anything.”

Pierro’s lip curled. “A shame. And your mother didn’t even bother reaching out to you after that.”

Got his memories wiped? His mother not bothering to reach out to him? 

Scara’s head hurt. Everyone in the Fatui was just completely incapable of elaboration.

He settled for a sneer, to cover up how much he wanted to turn tail and run out of this room. “You’re one to talk, when you failed to kill my mother.”

Pierro’s smile was quickly wiped from his face. The man beside Scara gave a quick shake of the head, his eyes flashing in warning, screaming ‘shut the fuck up, this man will end you in two seconds flat’. 

Scara ignored him, and continued staring Pierro down. “If it bothers you so much,” he said, “you can try killing me instead, as a placeholder of my mother. We’re not the same people, but hopefully it gives you some sense of validation.”

The man beside Scara let out an almost inaudible, resigned sigh. Pierro’s lips stretched into a tight, threatening smile. 

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said darkly, “I’ll end your entire bloodline while I’m at it.”

Scara hummed. “Whatever floats your boat, I guess.”

“I’ll be sure to fulfill your death wish after the cruise.”

That statement drew together several other pairs of eyebrows.

“Cruise?”

The door opened again, and this time, the Boss girl stepped in. She hovered at the doorway as they immediately stood up and bowed to her, Scara just a beat later than everyone else, attracting a few dirty looks.

“Glad to see everyone here today,” she said tonelessly, taking her seat at the largest chair. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail. “I’ll be cutting to the chase, then. Our mission this time round is pretty out-of-the-ordinary; it requires the involvement of every single one of you.” Her gaze lingered on Pierro, who smiled calmly. "Not only that, but this job's purpose isn't to kill anyone."

Everyone looked bewildered to varying degrees. 

"We have to protect our client this time." 

Like bodyguards, then. 

"For generations," she continued, "the Astor family has worked hard to manage Snezhnaya's underworld in an orderly fashion, founding the organisation of Hexenzirkel. Recently, the head of the family was killed in an internal dispute. The last surviving members of the Astor family are Alice Astor and her young daughter. She's being kept at a safe house for now, but the man who took over their organisation is desperately trying to find her. Rumor has it that he's put such an enormous bounty on her head that every hit man in and out of the country is on the hunt.

The best option for her now is to seek refuge in a foreign country. She will be fleeing by sea. To evade detection by the coast guard, she'll travel to international waters on a normal passenger cruise, the Irminsul , and then rendezvous with another ship at the port, where the cruise will disembark.

Your job is to protect Alice Astor while she is on the Irminsul.  The trip will last for three days and two nights."

"So, we're supposed to protect a mob family from other assassins?" the man beside Scara asked. 

"Ideally, the transfer will take place with everyone being none the wiser," the girl said. "You guys are the backup plan on the off-chance that something goes wrong." She paused, looking a little wistful. "I owe a personal debt to the former boss of Hexenzirkel. If all of you can pull this off, you'll definitely get huge pay-checks from it." 

Some perked up in interest; others still looked dubious.

"These other assassins we're fighting won't involve Favonius, Qixing or Tenshukaku, correct?" the second Harbinger questioned. 

"I'm inclined to agree, since they're their own nations' paramilitary organisations, and have no business poking their noses into international affairs such as this," she said, "but it'd be best to be on the lookout for them, as well."

She looked around. "Any other questions before I move on?" 

No one spoke. 

“You’ll be split up on the cruise,” she went on. “There are twelve decks for the three classes: first, second, and third. First-class will span decks nine to twelve; second-class will span decks five to eight; third-class will span decks one to four. The Astors will be in a suite in one of the first-class decks, but if their suite gets discovered, their travel associate will make the necessary adjustments to shift them to another location. Which is why we need a handful of you to be on the cruise, to ensure that their relocation goes smoothly when the time comes for it. 

So, the split will go like this. Third-class: Arlecchino. Second-class: Pantalone and Signora. First-class: Scaramouche and Tartaglia. The rest of you will be keeping watch at the resort island at Fontaine the cruise will disembark at, to ensure that the rendezvous the Astors have with the next ship goes without a hitch.”

Putting him right at the forefront, huh. Scara’s eyes narrowed. He trained for barely a month, and now he was going to be this important client’s personal bodyguard? 

Scara was sure everyone was questioning her orders internally, but no one actually spoke out. 

"Scaramouche," the girl said, her sharp green eyes landing on him, "you'll be with the Astors and their travel associate, who's boarding the cruise with them to ensure their safety. Tartaglia, you'll be in another suite on the same deck, and be sure to stake out the passengers while Scaramouche is with the Astors. The rest of you on the other decks, watch out for any suspicious characters."

Still, no one objected to her orders, despite it being preposterous that Scaramouche was at the forefront of the mission. The amount of reverence the other Harbingers held for her was, frankly, off the fucking charts.

"If you fail to protect the Astors," she said, sounding like she was speaking directly to Scara, even though she wasn't facing him, "there will be dire consequences."

Then, she cracked a small smile. "But I know all of you can handle it. That's all I have to say for this mission briefing. You're dismissed." 

"Yes, Boss."

They started filing out of the room, Scaramouche choosing to linger and waiting for the room to empty. The girl looked at him curiously. 

"Yes, Scaramouche?" she said.

He decided to get straight to the point. 

"What's an RHM factor?"

She didn't look very surprised at the question. "Something you have a large quantity of." 

He glowered at her. "At least give me some sort of definition."

"Sure. It's a measure of the amount of RHM cells in your body. RHM stands for 'red half-moon', because the cells are shaped like them. The higher your factor, the more enhanced your abilities will be. But I think you already know about that part."

"Yes."

"Humans start off enhanced when a gene in an embryo is modified to stimulate the growth of RHM cells. There are specialised RHM vessels in the body that, with injury and regeneration, will start growing and spreading through the body, which in turn increases your RHM cell count."

"The more you get hurt and recover, the higher your RHM factor is," he concluded.

The girl nodded.

"But I barely got hurt," he said. "So what caused mine to be so high?"

She tapped her finger on her chin. "There are a variety of other reasons, but I'm afraid you're better off not worrying about them in your current state. The reasons don't matter that much."

"My current state?" he repeated. "What current state?"

"You're pretty unstable right now," she said, sounding sympathetic when he knew she was everything but. "Your RHM factor may surge at any moment. One thing you should know, Scaramouche, is that your RHM cells can and will get the better of you, in time to come."

"And what happens, then?" 

She smiled. "The same thing that happened seventeen years ago." 

He tensed. "That's another question I have, actually. You said my father's murderer was killed by my mother, but that Pierro guy is clearly still alive. So what the fuck really happened?"

"You're in the Fatui," she said, "to find out the truth about yourself, and this world. You'll know what really happened when you finally come to terms with the fact that I'm not the only one who has lied to you. Perhaps you'll come out a completely different person after the cruise, Scaramouche."

With another cryptic smile, she got up and left the room, leaving him confused, frustrated, and just a little bit fearful, as he shivered in the subzero room temperature.


"Irminsul?  The luxury cruise from the Teyvat Cruise line?"

"Yes," Arlecchino spoke into the phone. "Our job is to safely transfer Alice Astor to the next ship. I will be at the third-class decks; Signora and Pantalone will be at the second-class; and Scaramouche and Tartaglia will be at the first-class. The other Harbingers will be keeping watch at the Fontaine resort island the cruise will disembark at."

"And when will this cruise depart?" 

"In two days." 

There was a pause from the other line. "I see. Thank you for sharing this with us. How's Scaramouche doing?" 

Arlecchino picked at his nail. "I took a peek at the RHM factors of all the Harbingers. His is 8972."

"Hm. But his ROSD hasn't resurfaced, has it?"

"It hasn't. He's been normal thus far."

"Honestly, I can't fathom what your Boss is thinking. He's clearly unstable, yet she's dispatching him on an important mission like this. He could kill your client at any time."

"Boss gave the rest of us orders to keep an eye on him."

"Keeping an eye on him wouldn't be enough. He killed the director of Tenshukaku when he was five."

He suppressed a shudder down his spine. "If worse comes to worse, we'll give him RHM suppressants."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, then. Anyway, I'll be sending some of my agents aboard the cruise to gather intel on your other Harbinger teammates, and some other VIPs aboard the cruise. Don't worry, we'll be completely out of your way in the mission. I'll have to ask you to turn a blind eye if you spot any of them disguised as passengers."

"Sure."

"Have fun on the cruise."

The call ended with a beep. 

Arlecchino placed the phone back.

"Are you done holding me at gunpoint now?" he said flatly. 

The culprit behind him pressed the barrel of the gun harder into the back of his head. 

"Tell me what Yae just told you," she commanded. 

"She asked about the cruise's departure date, and about Scaramouche," he said calmly. "She's sending agents aboard the cruise to spy on the other Harbingers, but they won't interfere in the mission. At least that's what she says."

"Irminsul,  right?" 

"Yes."

A pause.

"You will not speak of this to her," the woman threatened in a low voice. "Get out of the phone booth now. If any of my agents see you sneaking back here to make another call, they will kill you without hesitation." 

Arlecchino snickered. "I see Tenshukaku's split into two factions now." 

"Get the fuck out."

He slowly turned around. A girl with striking violet hair was practically slicing razors into his eyes from her harsh glare, the corners of her lips turned down firmly. 

"Oh," he said, "you're Raiden Ei." 

She pressed the barrel into the skin between his eyes. 

"Not a word of this to your Boss, either."

He smiled. "Of course, I'm not that stupid." 

She looked a lot like Scaramouche when she shot him a seething look. "That's lovely. Now go back home." 

He slowly stepped out of the phone booth, the gun no longer pointing between his eyes, and instead harshly stabbing into his back. He acutely felt the presence of three other people nearby watching them; those agents she was talking about.

"I'm leaving now," he announced. "Goodbye." 

He swiftly walked away. He knew that if he even so much as looked back, he'd be shot without question. 

Honestly, he was so sick of being threatened by Inazumans. 


That night, Scara flipped through the files on their mission that Mila had handed him, squinting at the tiny ass words.

Hexenzilker has been involved in drug trafficking, counterfeiting, bribery, auto theft, assault, arson…

Scara scowled. Whoever had killed the head of the Astor family and taken over the organisation must have been one crazy nuthead. Not to mention how he was now gunning after the sole daughter of the Astor family and her six-month-old child, even though he'd already purged all the other family members. 

He checked the profile of Alice Astor. 

Alice Astor, only daughter of the Astor family, sole survivor of the Astor family purge that took place a week ago. Alice used to be wild and wayward, but is now slightly more mild-mannered and easygoing. Her six-month-old daughter, Klee Astor, is a gentle baby. Use of firearms around the Astors is strictly not allowed, even when defending them against those with harmful intentions. No harm should come to either of them, and loud sounds may potentially scar the baby for life. 

He looked at a picture of the two remaining Astor family members. A blonde-haired girl who barely looked like she hit the age of twenty-five was smiling brightly at the camera, her ruby-red eyes twinkling, holding a sleepy baby whose head was buried into the crook of her mother's neck. 

Alice was going to be disguised when she boarded the Irminsul.  Scara was pretty sure he'd be able to recognise her at first glance. Anyone with an aura like hers would stand out, even with a disguise. She'd probably have to take on a whole different personality to make her disguise actually convincing, to anyone who knew her.

On the next page was a layout of the entire cruise, followed by a layout of the suite the Astors were going to be staying in: 12H, together with its various entry and escape routes. He committed them all to memory the best that he could. 

The next day, he trained so intensely that he didn’t even stop to have a single meal or snack. Just relentless effort all throughout the morning, afternoon, and night, and was about to head back to his room at one a.m., when the half-mask man from before—the third Harbinger—intercepted him in the hallway.

“Good morning,” he said, his blood-red eyes gleaming at him. “Prepared for tomorrow?”

“Yes. Now let me sleep.”

“Hold on, boy.”

Scara eyed him distastefully. The man pulled out a bottle of pills that looked similar to the ones Childe had given him, though he wasn’t too quick to trust that they served the same purpose.

“In the cruise,” he said, “if you ever feel like there’s an itch building up at the back of your eyes, take one of these.”

“An itch?”

The visible half of his face tightened, as the corner of his lips rose. He was grinning. “It happens to the best of us.”

Scara took the bottle and inspected the pills warily. “People with high RHM factors feel an itch building at the back of their eyes?”

“A most unfortunate by-product, but nevertheless rings true.”

“Well…Thanks, I guess.”

The man tipped an imaginary hat to him, and walked off into his room. Scara’s grip on the bottle tightened. 

He hated it, but it was a fact that Childe was at least a hundred times more trustworthy than individuals like Pierro, and this man.


The Harbingers arrived at the port in separate modes of transport, and at different timings, before the seven o’ clock departure of the Irminsul . Scara was told to dress in a butler suit, since he was acting as the Astor’s personal butler for their suite on the cruise. The outfit felt all kinds of uncomfortable, jabbing into his skin unevenly and irritating his neck, so it took all he could not to give up and start scratching his sore spots until they bled. While waiting for the Astors to show up in the 12H suite, he decided to tie his hair into a ponytail because goddammit the suit was so fucking stuffy.

Moments later, a bunch of people walked into the suite. There were two people who were dressed like businessmen, following a man with an eyepatch. Shortly after was a man with wavy blonde hair, who walked into the room with a woman cradling a child in her arms—Alice and Klee Astor. 

Alice was dressed in a beige sleeveless coat, her arms covered in soft cashmere, her hair now a curtain of jet black. But she was still undeniably Alice, with the characteristic glimmer in her eyes, the same as in the picture, despite everything that had happened to her family. Klee was practically in the same position as she was in the picture, too; her eyes half-lidded, head leaning against her mother’s shoulder.

Everyone in the suite was supposed to know Scara’s true purpose for being here, the Boss girl telling him beforehand that a man wearing an eyepatch would guide him accordingly, because he was an associate of the Fatui, apparently. Though Scara had no idea who the two random businessmen were. 

The eyepatch man stretched a hand out to the blonde one. 

“Allow me to make the introductions,” his voice rang out, velvety-smooth and deep. “As you know, I’m Kaeya Alberich, director of policy at Lint City Hall. This is Monty and Tai, from our business development team.”

Lint City Hall? 

The blonde man, the Astors’ travel associate, nodded and shook his hand. “Hello. I’m Albedo Grey, from the store development group at Arhaus Department Stores. This is my wife, Manon.”

Alice nodded at Kaeya. Scara thought he understood what was going on now; they were making fake introductions of their backgrounds in front of the two bureaucrats, who didn’t know the true identity of the Astors. 

“Please excuse us for bringing our child along,” Albedo said.

Either Monty or Tai said, “Oh, not at all. Please, enjoy the trip with your family aboard the Irminsul.

Kaeya now gestured to Scara. “If your wife needs any assistance,” he told Albedo, “Mr. Damian would be happy to help.”

Mr. Damian. Scara nearly choked. What a corny fucking name. 

Scara nodded to Albedo, plastering on a small smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Albedo smiled tightly back. “Likewise.”

Kaeya, Monty, Tai, and Albedo left the suite. Alice moved to sit on the bed with a sigh. Scara started helping her unpack her baggage, but not before inspecting all the entry and escape routes of the suite that he’d memorised from the files.

“So you really are one of them.”

Scara finished his inspection and faced her. “One of—?”

“The Fatui Harbingers.”

He nodded, still slightly grossed out at the idea. “Yeah. You’re Alice, right?”

“I am.” Alice smiled. “Though I’ll ask you not to say my name here on the ship.”

“Ah, right. Sorry.”

Klee broke into a soft cry. Scara blanched. Had he woken her up? 

Alice started gently rocking her, fondly looking at her. 

“Mama,” Klee said, reaching her hands out and hugging her. 

Alice’s smile turned a little rough around the edges. “Isn’t it strange? My face looks different, but she still recognises me as her mother. Is it my voice? My smell? I suppose her vision hasn’t fully developed yet. I’m a little sad that no one will tell me how much we look alike. But I guess I have bigger concerns now.” She sighed. “Besides, she looks a little more like her father than me.”

“Her father?” The Albedo guy. “Oh, right. He was pretty handsome.” Wait, no. Wasn’t he the travel associate? 

Alice laughed. “You mean the man with me earlier? He’s just our travel associate, playing the part of my husband. He’s a good person.” Then her face slowly sobered. “My husband was killed, along with the rest of my family. Now Klee’s all I have left.”

Scara looked down. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s okay. Such is the life of a mob family.” Alice let out a breathy laugh. “But…I’m honestly a bit tired of that now. Power or money don’t mean much to me. All I want now is to live a quiet life.”

Klee’s soft cry suddenly increased in volume, until she was outright bawling. Alice rocked her again, gently shushing her, but her tears persisted. 

“Hey, Mr. Damian—”

“You can call me anything but that,” he said, a little harsher than he intended to, regret swirling in his belly.

Alice smiled a little. “Okay, guard boy. As I was saying, they’ve had us locked away ever since my family was taken out. I want to stretch my wings a little and give Klee some fresh air.”

Scara frowned. “But without Kaeya’s permission…”

Alice’s eyes dimmed. “Please. Just for a moment. The people looking for me don’t know what I look like right now. We don’t even know if they’re on the ship at all. And besides,” she cupped the back of Klee’s head and lightly patted her back, the baby crying over her shoulder, “if anything happens, you’ll be there to protect us.”

Scara felt a little bad about their situation. A baby should be regularly exposed outside, instead of being cooped up indoors, after all. His orders were to protect the Astors to the best of his ability, but a little sunshine wouldn’t hurt anyone.

He deliberated for a moment, then gave in.

“Okay. But just for a little while.”

Alice beamed. “Thank you. Wait, before we leave.”

She fished out some clothes from the closet. “I’ll let you borrow these, so your butler look won’t attract attention.”

Scara blinked. “Do I look bad in it, or something?”

“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. You're really attractive, you don’t have to worry about that.” Scara’s cheeks heated up. Alice grinned. “It’s just that it'll be made obvious that I’m some sort of VIP, if you came with me in the butler outfit. We should steer away from that image as best as we can.”

“Right. Okay.”

“Get dressed, then.”

Scara stepped into the attached bathroom and changed into a black shirt and khaki shorts. Now he looked like he was some bratty wine uncle. 

Alice handed him a white bucket hat and sunglasses. Even worse.

“Lighten up, guard boy,” she said cheekily, “we totally just look like rich friends now.”

Scara let out a soft groan. “Let’s just go get that fresh air and come back, alright? Ten minutes max.”


“This is such a good breeze.”

Klee’s face visibly brightened once they were out on the deck, reaching her chubby hands out like she wanted to pull the clouds down from the sky.

“This outfit feels so much more uncomfortable compared to the previous one,” he grumbled, flapping the shirt against his skin. 

“Your other colleagues are aboard this ship, as well, right?”

“Um, yeah.”

Alice nodded smugly. “Now because of the outfit, even they wouldn’t be able to recognise you.”

Scara scratched his neck. “Good point.” That loyal dog, Childe, would probably get pissed if he found out that he’d brought the Astors out of their suite for leisure reasons. 

He looked out at the sea, the breeze lightly caressing his face, the smell of salt wafting to his nose. “We can’t even see the mainland anymore,” he pointed out.

“You’re right.” 

The more her eyes lingered on the sea, the gloomier her expression became. 

“So many things I’ve left behind forever,” she said quietly. 

They lay down on the tanning chairs for a moment, soaking in the sun in silence. Scara didn’t want to, but his thoughts drifted back to Ei, and his mother. Were they alright? Had Ei given up on looking for him, by now? Had she known that this was going to happen, all along?

He sneaked a glance at Alice and Klee, who looked so unbelievably peaceful, daughter resting against her mother, despite the dire situation they were in. He couldn’t help but feel…sad. Just raw, fresh sadness, cutting into him and bleeding him out mercilessly. He couldn’t let yet another family get torn apart by assassins. 

So he decided then, that he was going to protect them with his life.

Then Klee let out a sneeze. Alice’s face crumpled in worry. “Oh, no. She’s getting cold. We should go back now.”

As they got to their feet, Alice asked, “Wanna hold Klee while we head back?”

Scara panicked a little. “Oh, uh…” Refusing her would be pretty fucking rude. “If you don’t mind.”

Alice brightened. “Of course I don’t. Here.”

She handed Klee to him. He gently carried her into his arms. She blinked up at him with her huge, doe-like red eyes, then started playing with the stray strands of his hair that had escaped his ponytail and fell over his face. 

She pulled on one particularly harshly, and he bit back a yelp of pain. Alice chuckled beside them. 

“She likes you.”

Klee tugged on another strand. This time he let a soft hiss escape, and Klee seemed to get the memo, faltering a little, then started crying. 

“No, she doesn’t, Al—Manon,” he said tiredly. 

Alice took a crying Klee back into her arms, smiling. “She just has a little penchant for violence, doesn’t she?”

“Haha,” Scara deadpanned. 

Alice laughed. 

“I’m glad I have such a funny bodyguard.”


“The show starts at five, dummy.”

“Where’s the toilet?”

“Daddy, daddy!”

“The shopping here is amazing.”

“Oh, this tastes so good.”

“Can I get some champagne?”

“Hey. Go buy that girl a drink.”

“Isn’t it pretty cold out here?”

Heizou listened; his eyes shut, his mind clear, filtering through all the voices of the passengers on Irminsul,   the speakers covering nearly every inch of the room. 

“Hey! Don’t wander off like that!”

“Yeah, the food tastes incredible.”

“Oh, my god. Snezhnayan waters are on a whole different level of cold.”

“So, what I’d like to talk about today is…”

“Wanna hold Klee while we head back?”

Heizou zoned in on the voice. He lowered the volumes of all the other speakers.

“Oh, uh…if…mind.”

“Of…I…Here.”

“She likes you.”

“No, she doesn’t, Al—Manon.”

There it was. Jackpot. 

“Manon…” Heizou muttered. “Manon…”

His eyes raked through the list of passengers aboard the cruise. Manon Auclair, cabin 6A… Manon Blanchet, cabin 4D…

And Manon Grey, suite 12H. The suite where the listening bug had been placed. 

He found Alice Astor. 

Chapter Text

Scara accompanied the Astors, along with Albedo and Kaeya, down for dinner with Monty and Tai. Kaeya mainly engaged in conversation with Monty and Tai about diplomatic affairs in Fontaine, while Alice fed Klee with a trembling hand, staying silent the entire time. Scara noticed Albedo doing an inspection of every spoonful of food he picked up, eyeing it from every angle warily, comically afraid of being poisoned. 

He kicked Albedo under the table, whose head snapped up, muscles tensed.

“Chill,” Scara said in a low voice. “The food’s already been checked by Kaeya. Besides, the people we’re dealing with are smart enough not to attack in public, right?”

Albedo took a tiny, tentative sip of his drink. It stirred Scara’s frustration even more.

“Just eat normally. You being nervous like this makes it even more obvious that the Astors are with us.”

“You can never be too cautious,” Albedo murmured.

“The line between being cautious and being just plain stupid is a really thin one.”

Albedo’s lips pinched. Alice looked over nervously, probably having sensed the weird atmosphere. Scara shot her a small smile, and her red eyes softened a little. 

“Why don’t you just relax and talk to Tonty and Mai, or whoever they are?” Scara said, faux tenderness leaking into his smile as he faced Albedo again. “You’re their travel associate, it’s pathetic if you don’t know enough about Fontaine to converse with them.”

“I know plenty about Fontaine,” Albedo said indignantly, under his breath, and Scara relaxed once the other man joined in the conversation, albeit a little shakily at first.

Thank God he was posing as a butler, so he didn’t have to put on pleasantries and engage in stupid talk about other countries. Anyway, the food was too divine to put down. 

Once everyone had cleaned up their plates, Monty and Tai asked Kaeya and Albedo to accompany them to hit the bar on the lower deck, finally giving Alice a reason to twist her lips into a neutral smile and excuse herself. 

“Make sure no one tails you on the way back to the suite,” Kaeya said in a low tone, as he passed Scara to leave for the bar with the other bureaucrats. 

“Right.”

The moment they returned to the suite, Scara immediately did a once-over of every corner of the area. Nothing had been misplaced, and the pencil lead that he’d placed in the door hinge was still in one piece. 

“I doubt anyone got in here while we were away,” he said.

Alice wiped the sweat off her forehead, cradling Klee to her chest. “That dinner was nerve-racking to the max. Everytime I ate something I half-expected to drop dead.”

“You and Albedo both,” he said, shaking his head. “It’ll be fine, Kaeya always checks the food. It’s a shame you have to keep going out for these dinners just to paint the image of Manon Grey.”

Alice expelled a puff of air, stroking Klee’s hair. “Well, I’ll just do whatever I can to make sure Klee is safe.” 

Scara hated to be a killjoy. “We can’t get sloppy yet, though. We still have no idea whether the enemy is on board, and there’s forty more hours until the rendezvous with the other ship.” He paused. “If I were trying to kill you—” Alice shivered, “—I’d wait until the last possible moment to strike. It’d be stupid to cause a commotion when I’ll be stuck on the ship with nowhere to escape. Unless I had some sort of escape plan, but I’m a power hungry and prideful assassin. Escaping would just be pathetic and a waste of effort. I’d finish off the target with maximum efficiency, so I can get all that money without putting in too much hard work.”

“You know,” Alice said, smiling tightly, “it’s kind of scary when you profile the enemy, thinking of yourself as them.”

Scara straightened. He hadn’t even realised that he’d done that. “Oh…sorry. I guess I was trying too hard to get into their head.”

Alice waved a hand. “It’s fine. You’re just trying to protect us.”

Scara sighed, his lips stretching into a smile. “I hope you two will be able to live peacefully as soon as this is over.” 

Her red eyes trained on him. He blinked. 

“You know...you don't seem like the underworld type at all.”

Scara blanched. Was that another bad thing? “Uh…I’ll try harder, then.”

She laughed. “No, no, it’s just…strange, I guess. I don’t doubt your capabilities at all, guard boy.” Her fingers paused as they glided over Klee’s hair. “If we manage to escape safely, what will you all do next?”

“If there’s no other sign of enemy activity, we’ll await further orders,” he replied. “The two business guys don’t know what’s going on, and they’ll just be told that the Greys want to spend their third day on the resort island as a family.”

“I meant, you.”

“Me?”

“Will you be taking a break at the resort island with your colleagues, maybe?”

A bitter taste flooded his mouth. “Of course not.” He wouldn’t want to even if he could.

At Alice’s bemused expression, he realised he’d said that out loud. 

“You don’t get along with the other Harbingers?”

Scara's lips stretched into an openmouthed half-smile, a perverted cousin of a wry sigh. “Get along…what a joke.”

Alice raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t?”

“We all usually operate solo, anyway. This is the only time we’ve all been called on one common mission.”

“Huh.” Alice bowed her head down, thoughtful. “Back at Hexenzirkel, I heard many stories from my husband, and everyone could work well with one another, so this sort of comes as a surprise. No offence, of course. Every organisation functions differently, after all.”

“That’s fortunate.”

She caught his eyes, and he spotted a strange glimmer, preluding a turn in conversation. And turn the conversation had done.

“Anyway, have you gone through your twenty-second February 2nd yet?”

Scara avoided her eyes, pretending to be enraptured by the sea view through the window. “A few months ago, yeah.”

“How’s it going with your soulmate?”

“I don’t acknowledge them as one," he said drily.

“Why not?”

Scara watched the water lapping at the ship’s hull. “It’s a pretty long story. To summarise, I don’t have much respect for the person.”

“Have you two actually talked about the fact that you’re soulmates?”

He wrinkled his nose at the mere prospect. “No. Of course not." 

“It seems like it’d be part and parcel of fostering a healthy relationship with them, no?”

He just barely swallowed down an incredulous laugh. “I’d rather completely avoid any sort of interaction with them. ‘Fostering a healthy relationship’ is pointless, after everything they’d already done.”

“Well...do you see them a lot?”

“Unfortunately.”

“So, they’re a Fatui colleague of yours.”

Scara hadn’t meant to reveal that information, but oh well. He didn’t particularly care. “Yeah.”

“Well…I know you probably don’t want advice, but I’m just going to say something, anyway,” she said kindly. Scara stared pointedly at the foamy waves, saying nothing. “Soulmates are a beautiful thing to have. Once you actually start to get to know your soulmate, it’ll get harder and harder for you to tolerate being away from them. And, trust me, you won’t regret having formed that kind of connection.”

His eyebrow twitched. “Sure.”

“I hope you have a proper talk with them soon.”

That’s never going to happen, but—"Thanks, anyway.”

Klee let out a small yawn, finally bringing the conversation to a close. Scara turned back to Alice, who smiled warmly at him.

“We should be getting ready for bed now. Thanks for keeping us safe today, guard boy. Goodnight.”

He nodded. “Goodnight.”

He flipped the light switch, plunging the bedroom into darkness, then walked across the living area to the front door, where he drew a chair in front and settled on it. The blade in his pocket felt ten times heavier than before. It was at times like these that he was grateful for being unable to feel any sort of fatigue, because it meant he could stay awake the entire night to properly guard the place.

The itch behind his eyes started building up around a quarter past midnight. It started off as just a barely-there ache, and he’d brushed it off as having stared at the peephole of the door from a distance for too long, to catch the shadows moving past it outside. Then it developed into a somewhat intolerable buzz, poking needles at the back of his retinas. He closed his eyes, but the relentless irritation in the sockets didn’t cease. Then the needles distorted into razor blades, skewing his eyeballs, which deformed into a million dull knives that sliced through the upper half of his face, and the pain became so unbearable that he toppled out of his chair and keeled over onto the floor, grinding his fists into his sockets, but nothing he did made the stinging go away. 

Right. Those pills the half-mask man had given him. He fumbled in his pockets, too frazzled by the pain in his eyes to notice that his fingers had carved through the blade inside, and he pulled out the now stained-red bottle of pills. His hand quivered as he tore off the cap with so much force that it broke in half, and he dry-swallowed a pill. How many had the man said he had to take, again? Was it just one? He’d taken one, but the itch was still fucking there, and was growing in intensity with every second, like the skin on his entire face was about to split apart until nothing but the bones remained. So he gulped another two, three, down, scratching at the skin around his eyes until his nails were caked with flakes of blood. 

“Go away,” he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut and punching down on his sockets. “Fuck—go away, go away, go away.”

Then, for a freakish, wonderful, miraculous moment, all feeling in his face went away, and there were no dull knives, no razor blades, no needles, not even a buzz. He blew out a long breath, collapsing onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

“Sweet fucking Jesus.”

What he’d just experienced filled him with an immense, newfound appreciation of all the other times in his life when he didn’t have knives digging into his eyes. His pulse had gone eerily slow, though, like someone had wrapped a hand around his heart and forced it to stop beating. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, until it fell and… and stayed there. It didn't rise back up. He jerked upright with a start, taking in a deep breath, but his windpipes had been stuffed full of cotton and his heart wasn’t beating anymore and oh my god, had he fucking died?

He tried standing, but his legs wobbled, like he was a puppet cut from its strings. The next second, he fell onto his knees, and everything crashed into him like a massive tidal wave, so powerful and colossal that the wind got knocked out of his lungs, when he wasn't aware there were still remnants of air inside. 

He remembered.

The explosion. The burning house. His mother, legs crushed under a burning pillar. His father, a gunk of red goo and fluid leaking out of his bashed-in scalp. His uncle, eyes deranged after murdering his father in a frightening outburst of rage. And him, consumed by flames of fury, spurred by an invisible power, knives digging into his entire face and making him subject to their will. He grabbed the same weapon his uncle had used to kill his father with, bringing the hammer down against his temple. He couldn't control himself. His body wasn't his. His uncle tried fighting back, but the adrenaline in him must have worn off, because his five-year-old self easily overpowered him and tackled him to the blazing floor, flames charring his uncle’s face black while he brought the hammer down on his head, again and again and again and again—

Then he took a burnt kitchen knife, and jabbed it inside his uncle’s chest, digging it in until the other's limbs went lax, and then did it a hundred times over, crimson speckling the skin on his face, blood encrusting his lashes, until he literally saw red and only red.

And he remembered everything after that. Sara’s mother carrying his crippled mother out, him exiting the house without a scratch, ditching the knife in a bush, and walking into the car, mind numb. And once he was finally seated beside Ei and Sara, who were—thank god—both safe and relatively uninjured, he let himself break down. He sobbed into his sullied hands, the knives leaving his face, the leftovers of the pure, inexplicable murderous intent—the knives, it was the knives who made him snap—circling in his head, while he was engulfed by the feeling of just wanting the world to stop.

And that wasn't all. He remembered the operating theatre—

—the last time he saw his mother.

“Mom.”

Her lips curled into an empty smile. She reached out and stroked his hair, her fingertips stiff and cold.

“Mom,” his voice shook, “I’m scared.”

She didn’t say a word.

“Mom,” he said, more desperately, heart threatening to meet the roof of his tongue, “there’s something wrong with me, right? I’m scared, I’m really scared—”

Another voice in the room boomed, frightening Scara out of his wits, "Miss Raiden, we’ll start when you give us the word.”

She held his gaze, her violet eyes shimmering. 

“Mom,” he pleaded, voice cracking, “don’t leave me.”

She leaned down and pressed a light kiss to his forehead. Then her entire face turned stony, and her hand left his hair, leaving him cold and shivering on the procedure table. 

“Don’t go.” The knives returned to his eyes again. He wanted to scratch them away, but he knew his mother would get disgusted by him if he did. “Don’t go.”

She turned away. 

He would never forget the last cold words she'd spoken.

“Start with the procedure."

He rose out of the memory with a heave, coppery bile tainting his tongue. His nails had looked exactly like this, bloodied and chipped, on that day seventeen years ago. The knives returned, this time with full, brutal force, slamming into his eyeballs with such great pressure that he thought they were going to be shoved out of their sockets. A singular thought formed in his mind, the same murderous intent planted in him, growing, ever-consuming, like a tumor in his chest dissolving and spreading out and digging under his skin:

Kill Alice Astor. 

No, he thought. No, no, no. 

Kill Alice Astor. 

“Stop,” he said aloud, clutching his head in his hands. “Stop, fuck, stop.”

Kill Alice Astor.

His fingers wrapped around the handle of the blade in his pocket, and, against his will, he pulled it out and got to his feet, slowly shuffling to the bedroom. Stop, stop, stop. What the fuck are you doing? 

He tried to stop himself, to cease his footsteps, but the knives dug harsher into him and stars burst in his vision and he tasted metal and blood and metal and blood and—oh fuck he was in so much pain—and he could only oblige, putting one foot in front of the other, edging closer and closer to where the Astors were peacefully sleeping.

Fuck. His cheeks were wet, a mix of blood and tears. 

On the way to the bedroom, he remembered everything else.

He remembered his parents. He remembered Ei, and Makoto, and Sara, and Miko, and—his heart lurched—Saigawa river. Where he turned away from the fireworks and caught a glimpse of the man in the trench coat, who swept away from a trembling Makoto down the river bank. Who caused the explosion, who caused the house to burn. Who caused everything to turn on its head. 

Kill Alice Astor.

Today was going to be a repeat of what happened seventeen years ago. He couldn’t stop himself. The knives had won him over, had colonised him like he was a host and they were a parasite, making him brainless and subject to their every will, except he wasn't completely brainless because he was vaguely aware of everything he was doing and how it was wrong, wrong, wrong, stop, Scara, for fuck's sake, please just fucking stop. 

But his body wasn't his anymore. He was drawing nearer to the closed bedroom door, nearer and nearer, until he was barely a metre away from it. His hand reached out to close around the doorknob. 

Instead, he broke free of the knives for a phenomenal moment, ears ringing, and his hand pulled out the pager in his pocket, instead. 

He had to do it. Quickly, quickly, fuck, quickly, before the knives came back and made him pay hell for this. 

He pressed the button, and typed out a message, his fingers shaking violently. 

Help. 

And he did another thing. 

He stabbed his knee, digging his blade deep, until it brushed against white, wet bone. He pulled the weapon out, and trepidation overcame him when the wound closed up just seconds later, like he hadn’t just driven metal through his flesh. He barely felt any pain that could hinder him. He stabbed the same spot, again and again and again, but he wasn't affected in the slightest. Blood barely had the chance to spill out before the skin patched itself up. His knee could still move. His whole body shook. 

It was hopeless.

He was going to kill Alice.

He turned on his heel and dashed away, to put as much distance between him and the bedroom as possible, but it was too late. He barely reached the front door before the knives made a resurgence, this time with a vengeance, and tormented him for what he’d done, slicing fervently through the water, jelly, and protein of his eyeballs, driving through the skin around his eyes, and pulling him like a puppet on strings, pulling his legs back to their right positions, and leading him back on track to the bedroom. 

Fuck, fuck, fuck. He couldn’t fight it. He was crossing the living area now, blade in hand, eyes fixed on the door. This was it. 

A huge force crashed into his back the next moment, nearly snapping his spine into two, and he was thrown onto the floor. Thank fucking God. 

But his body wasn't his. Before the culprit could pin him down, his instincts compelled him back onto his feet in a flash, and he swung the blade toward their chest. The knives were in full control now, and their target had switched. 

Kill Childe.

Childe grabbed his wrist, changing the blade’s trajectory, which now merely carved a shallow gash into the side of his neck. 

Kill Childe. Every atom of his being vibrated with that sole purpose, until even he was getting coaxed into believing that that was what he’d come here to do all along, that that was what he’d taken the blade out for. 

Kill Childe. He kicked Childe’s legs out from under him and, as he lost his balance, Scara wrapped his hand around his warm, pulsing throat, lifting him and pressing his back against the wall. With just one squeeze, he would crush Childe's windpipes and kill him. 

Then he faltered. For one terrible, agonising, but relieving moment, he faltered.

And Scara knew that moment was all Childe needed. 

Childe crushed his forearm and tore his hand away from his throat. Scara couldn’t feel anything, despite the bones in his arm having clearly been shattered, and how they were desperately trying to form themselves back together, the broken pieces peeking out from his skin. 

The knives had gotten the better of him again, so Scara brought the blade back with his other hand to plunge into the other's temple. But Childe saw through that action, too, and pulled back his fist to punch him in the gut, one swift motion that Scara was too slow to block. He lurched backwards, his head colliding with the opposite wall. He hazily realised that the front door was open, and Childe had flung him all the way into the corridor. 

Scara got back up on his feet again, his shoes crunching on the carpet. But for some reason, some goddamn reason that he was eternally grateful for, the knives had slowly begun retreating, no longer poking at the back of his retinas, until they reduced to a dull, angry, but harmless throb. His head went light, and he was so out of it that he swore he tasted stars and saw blood. His knees buckled, back sliding against the wall, until he landed onto his butt, his legs stretching out in front of him like putty.

Childe warily edged closer, blue eyes narrowed, knocking the blade out of Scara’s grip and crouching down to bring it against his neck. Childe's face was blurring in and out of his vision, but the other instantly came into focus when he pulled out a pill that smelt so reminiscent of turpentine, rotten onions, and sewage. Scara failed to hold back his gag.

“That was a nice fight. Now, eat this,” Childe said flatly, eyes raking over his face.

Scara made a small noise of protest. Relief settled into Childe's muscles at his passive response, and he slowly tucked the blade away into the waistband of his pants.

“I’ve had enough of pills,” Scara said weakly. 

“You have to eat this so it'll completely go away," Childe insisted, holding the pill out in his palm.

Scara blearily shook his head, lips pinched. Childe shot him a scathing look.

“You almost killed her, and now you’re risking all that happening again because you don’t want to swallow a pill?

“The last time someone else gave me a pill, that happened.”

Childe faltered, his brows drawing together. “Who?”

“Half-mask man.”

He gritted his teeth. “Fucking Dottore.”

“I’m not eating it.”

“Look, this pill will work. I swear it’ll actually help.”

Scara shook his head with more force. “It smells disgusting.”

“Well, I don’t care. It doesn’t smell like anything to me, anyway.” Childe brought the pill closer, hovering inches away from his lips, but Scara jerked away. The rotten smell grew so strong that it travelled to his bones and flesh, making him feel nasty and icky everywhere, like he’d decay into a pile of slime if he let that thing into his system. Childe tried forcefully prying his lips open, but Scara just bit onto his fingers instead, extracting a sharp hiss from the other man. 

“What the fuck.”

Voices from down the corridor drifted to them the next second. Every cell in Scara’s body turned to ice. Childe tensed. 

“So, what are you planning to do once you head back to your room?” A lady, possibly somewhere in her fifties.

“Hm…continue reading, probably. Watch the ocean from the window. The view is simply magnificent.” Another lady, about the same age. 

Both Childe and Scara were unscathed, and didn’t look at all like they’d just come out from a fight, but the ladies would get their suspicions raised if they saw what room they’d come from, and realised that it wasn’t where they actually belonged. Even worse—they might question guest services about it tomorrow, and risk more trouble for Alice and Klee, for having to show their faces in public more than they needed to. They needed some sort of distraction, to get the ladies' attention away from them. Scara racked his brain, but to no avail.

The look Childe bore on his face right now was weirdly intense. Then it melted into one of resolution as he popped the pill into his mouth. Scara stared at him, perplexed, because how the fuck did he manage to tolerate that sickening thing sitting on his tongue?

But his thoughts stopped in their tracks when he cupped the back of Scara’s head, tangling his fingers into his hair. Childe inched closer, his head tipping to the side, and his face was weirdly close to his, their eyelashes practically brushing, like he was about to…about to…but why

Childe's lips collided with his. 

Scara froze, open-eyed, as the other man's tongue slipped into his mouth, and he felt the repulsive pill travel onto his tongue. Fuck, of course that was what he was aiming to do. He tried sending it back into Childe’s mouth and breaking away from him, but the knives weren’t in control of him anymore and his strength had faded, and his teeth accidentally clanked with Childe's, instead, drawing out an irritated noise from the other man. He could barely resist when Childe held the back of his head firmly in place, to get the pill properly onto his tongue, then tipped Scara's head back a little so that it was leaning against the wall. With one flick of a tongue, Childe sent the pill down his throat. Scara’s eyes fluttered shut, hands fisting into Childe's shirt, as he instinctively swallowed and felt the pill go down his gullet, making him sick to the stomach.

“Oh, my…”

Oh. At that moment, Scara understood why Childe had made him eat the pill in that horrid way.

“People these days are getting more and more brazen,” Scara heard one of the ladies say in a flustered and mildly horrified tone. “Making out in a public corridor…where practically anyone can see you...back in my day, we’d get completely shunned from our social circles if we did something as—as vile as that.”

“If I found out my child was doing something like this, I’d…”

Their voices faded down the corridor.

Scara opened his eyes tentatively, neck aflame. Childe pulled away from him, his brows furrowed. 

“Did I seriously have to do all that just to get you to swallow a pill?” he said, annoyance lacing his tone, undercut by relief, relief that the ladies who passed by hadn't noticed anything suspicious, probably. 

He couldn't bring himself to look at Childe, too focused on the queasiness of his belly—definitely because of the weird pill, and thankfully, whatever that pill was had started to kick in. His limbs had lost all feeling, darkness slowly closing in on his vision. His head came to rest against Childe’s shoulder, and he felt himself being lifted into warm arms as he passed out.


"Wow, you really know your way around a dartboard.”

Kaeya’s lips curled into a smirk, as he shot yet another bullseye. “They should have the dartboards move to make it more challenging.”

Monty laughed. “It’s like you were professionally trained, or something.”

Someone lurched up from their seat in the far edge of his vision. Kaeya’s eyes darted to them. He’d been keeping a tab on the movements of every person in the bar since half an hour ago, and that same person who’d just left their seat had been the only one sitting the entire time without a drink, staring at a spot on their table and brooding. The man now had his phone pulled out, his eyes raking over the screen, and stuffed it back into his pocket, turning to leave the bar. 

“Oh, damn,” Kaeya excused himself, flashing Monty and Tai an abashed smile as his fingers crimped the insides of his jean pockets, “I think I left something back at the restaurant.”

“Go fetch it, then," Tai said between hiccups. "You can catch up with us later."

Albedo shot him a look. Kaeya subtly motioned with his hand for Albedo to stay where he was and keep Monty and Tai company for just a while longer.

Kaeya’s eyes dived back to the individual. The platinum-haired man was now half out the door. He quickly strided across the bar while blending himself into the crowd, bowing his head to greet others, and finally making it out of the bar. He walked the opposite way of where the man was heading towards, straight down a corridor and taking a right, following the layout of the cruise that he’d memorised, and found the man behind a corner, peeking his head left and right, not bothering to look behind him. 

Naturally, Kaeya went in for the kill. He twisted the man’s arm and shoved his face to the wall, clamping a hand over his mouth to muffle his scream. A glint of a blade peeked through from his breast pocket, and Kaeya just barely suppressed a laugh at how ridiculously thin his defense was.

“Answer each question with a nod or a shake of the head."

The man struggled in his grasp, but of course he couldn’t break away.

“Are you a hitman working for Barca Lawrence?” he questioned sharply.

The man continued to resist, saying nothing.

“Well, since you want it so badly,” Kaeya said darkly.

He pulled the man’s finger back, until it folded against the back of his hand with a sickening crack. The man let out a muffled yell.

“I’m a busy man,” Kaeya said, in a deep drawl. “You have two seconds to answer each question. I’ll repeat my previous question: are you a hitman for Barca Lawrence?”

A frantic nod.

“Are there other hitmen besides you on the cruise?”

Another nod.

“Does everyone operate independently?”

A nod.

Kaeya slowly removed the hand clamping the man’s mouth, cringing and wiping the slickiness of his palm against his pants.

“Explain what you were about to do before I caught you.”

The man breathed in short gasps. “It’s a race to see who’s first. An informant gave me a lead, that it’s Manon Grey, in suite 12H.” Then his lips twisted into a sick grin at Kaeya’s grim expression. “I guess the intel was right, huh?”

Kaeya slipped the blade out of the man’s breastpocket and slid it across his throat in one graceful motion. He took off his black coat and wrapped it around the body’s neck, and carried it up to the deck, where he disposed of it into the sea, as well as the blade.

He quickened his pace as he made his way back to the bar, where he grabbed Albedo’s hand and shot Monty and Tai an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, boys, Mr. Grey called me to say he was about to soil himself, so I’m afraid we’ll have to end the night here. You two rest up for tomorrow, okay?” he said, not even bothering to check their reactions as he dragged Albedo back up to the suite.

“Uh, Mr. Alberich?” 

Kaeya spoke hurriedly, “They know her suite number and her fake identity. We planned this in total secrecy, so there’s no way it could have been leaked.” He paused. “Can you think of anything? Any contact with anyone while you were sequestered?”

“No, nothing.”

Kaeya scanned Albedo’s face. He was likely telling the truth.

“There are two possibilities, then. Either one of the Fatui leaked the mission,” he said contemptuously, “or the Astors have accidentally compromised themselves.”

“Ali—Manon’s been following your every order since we arrived at the cruise, Mr. Alberich,” Albedo said, his eyes hardening. 

“I don’t doubt it, either.”

They exchanged steely looks. 

“The Fatui must have done it,” Albedo said quietly. 

Kaeya let himself sigh in frustration for a split second as they arrived at the lift, then rearranged his features back into a neutral expression.

He didn’t have time to trace the enemy’s footsteps. ‘A race to see who’s first’, huh? To think that he’d believed they would wait two days to strike…how foolish he’d been. 

They never had any intention of doing that.


Scara woke up with a start, on a bed that he recognised to be in the guest room of the Astors’ suite. The phantom feeling of knives lingered at the skin around his eyes, and he twisted his fingers into the sheets as he drew in a deep breath.

Then he remembered everything that had happened before he passed out, and ice settled into his veins. The deck was still dark when he walked across the room to take a peek outside the window, so he clearly hadn’t been out for too long. 

He looked down at himself—he’d been changed into a fresh set of clothes. His ponytail had been undone, too. His butler suit from before was nowhere to be seen—he vaguely recalled having torn it multiple times while he was busy stabbing himself. Then he remembered who the only other person who could have changed his clothes could be, and dread swirled in his stomach.

He quietly padded to the front door, where Childe was sitting on a chair, his cheek idly resting on his palm. Scara must not have been as quiet as he thought, because Childe tensed and turned back.

“Hi,” Childe said.

Scara’s jaw clenched. He wished he didn’t remember what had happened. “Hi.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Yeah.”

“See, I told you the pill would help,” he said, the corner of his lips turning up.

Scara avoided his eyes. What the fuck…why was he avoiding his eyes? “Had Alice noticed anything happening just now?”

“She told me she heard some noises and thought that you were fighting off intruders, which wasn’t technically wrong, I guess,” he replied. The fucker was pretending nothing happened, too. “I came up with something on the spot, and said that you were just having an asthma attack. You called me for help, but by the time I arrived, you’d already passed out on the floor.”

Scara covered his laugh with a cough. “That’s a good one.”

Childe nodded proudly. “Of course. I was so convincing that she just went right back to sleep.”

“Wow.” Then he paused, jaw tightening. “So, if she went back to sleep, that means you changed my clothes.”

“Uh…” Childe scratched his neck, finally showing some modicum of awkwardness. “I thought the suit was too tight for you to properly rest, and you were burning up, too, so I borrowed some clothes from Alice, and…yeah…I helped you change.” He held his hands up when Scara shot him a seething look. “But I covered my eyes with a towel while I was doing it, so I didn’t see anything, I promise.”

“How am I supposed to trust that when I have nothing but your word?” Scara bit back.

Childe raised an eyebrow. “That pill I gave you actually helped you feel better, right? There you have it, I didn’t lie to you.”

“The pill you gave me?” Scara crossed his arms. Fuck it, he was going to bulldoze the goddamn elephant in the room. “You just shoved it onto my tongue, with yours, without giving me any fucking warning."

Childe looked mildly apologetic now, blue eyes cringing at the corners. 

“Sorry about that. There were people coming towards us, and I didn’t want them to get suspicious when they saw us. Plus, you were refusing to eat the pill, and I was afraid you may go on a rampage again, so I, uh…yeah. Sorry.”

Scara was about to snipe back at him, but three knocks against the door rang out. They both froze. Scara reached into his pocket for the blade, but he remembered that it was with Childe right now, cursing internally. 

Another three knocks. Childe slowly stood up, and looked through the peephole.

He faced Scara. “It’s room service.”

The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees. 

Scara swallowed. “But no one ordered anything.”

It was too late, by then.

Before the door was riddled with bullets, Childe stepped back and grabbed Scara’s hand, then pulled him beside the other to duck behind a table. A bullet nearly penetrated the wood, its tip hovering inches away from Scara’s temple. 

“I thought our wounds could heal pretty fast,” Scara said. “Why take cover?”

Childe’s eyes narrowed. Scara was vaguely aware of how his hand was still in his. “Bullet wounds aren’t the same. It’s precisely because of the fact that they heal too fast that it poses a problem. Once the wound closes up, the bullet fragment will remain inside your body, and it may lead to lead poisoning, which is a risk you definitely don’t want to take. Our RHM factors may make us pretty invincible, but you can’t be immune to poisoning.”

Scara felt dumb. “Oh.” 

Childe slowly got back up to his feet. He placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down when Scara tried to do the same. 

“You’re unarmed, dumbass,” he said with a frown. “And you just recovered from an ROSD episode. Don’t just go killing yourself like that.”

Scara grumbled under his breath, “But I feel fine.” He’d ask Childe what the fuck ROSD was, later. He didn’t want to think about all those memories that had found their way back to him a few hours prior. 

“I don’t care. Stay down.”

He glared at Childe, who had already started making his way to the front door. But because he was a little shit, he stood and followed him. Childe probably knew, but must have given up trying to convince him to do otherwise.

Childe slowly opened the door, blade in hand, only to freeze in place. Scara trod up to him and peered at the corridor outside.

A dart had squarely pierced the center of the perpetrator’s palm, blood and a foreign black liquid leaking out from it. Poison? Scara turned and saw Kaeya a distance away, calmly holding a bunch of darts in his hand, beside a slightly shaken Albedo. The perpetrator, posing as a room service personnel, was lying on his back on the ground, eyes glazed over. 

But he wasn’t knocked out, like he’d, quite impressively, tricked everyone into thinking. His hand twitched the next second and held out the gun, aiming the barrel right between Scara’s eyes. But Childe's RHM cells reigned supreme, as he stepped in between them and twisted the man’s wrist before his finger could pull the trigger. He brought the barrel down onto the man’s leg, instead, and crushed the bones in it with several nauseating cracks, drawing out a pained scream from him that was muffled by Childe's hand clamping over his mouth.

“I’ll ask you to refrain from using firearms when there’s a baby present,” Childe said, eyes flashing.

It registered in Scara, then, that the man had aimed the gun at him. Scara blinked down at the man, who looked up at him derisively. 

“You were after me,” Scara said, giving him a curious look. “Do I know you?”

Childe removed his hand. The man smiled, all pointy teeth. 

“I was after the girl, but then I realised you were here, too, and thought I might as well take a shot. Just a silly little revenge dream, because of all those things your mother had done to us.”

Scara's pulse skipped. His mother, who didn't bother saying her last goodbye. His mother, who had altered his memories. His mother, who was alive and hadn't bothered looking for him all these years. "What exactly did she do?"

He sneered. Childe dug the barrel into his leg harder, making him flinch.

“'What exactly did she do?' Ha…”

The man started laughing hysterically, grin wide, cheeks flushed. Scara grimaced. 

“I think that’s enough,” Kaeya said. And he stuck another poisoned dart right into the man’s chest. He spasmed for a second, every muscle in his body tensing up, then he went lax, his eyes rolling to the back of his head. 

Kaeya picked the corpse up in a princess carry, blowing out an exhausted sigh. “Yet another one to get rid of.”

Childe raised an eyebrow. “There were others?”

“Just one. There are multiple enemies on board already,” Kaeya said, walking into the room. Ice washed over Scara as they all headed back in. “They’re all operating independently, but they know about this suite, and her fake identity. We should get the Astors to move out immediately.” He paused, shooting Scara and Childe a dark look. “And do either of you happen to know that one of your colleagues has leaked the details of the plan to someone else?”

Scara’s gut surged. “Huh?”

Childe looked equally as confused. “Who?”

Kaeya appraised them for a moment, then shrugged. “No idea. But it must have been one of your other Harbinger friends, because it’s impossible for the plan to have been exposed otherwise.”

So now they had a betrayal amongst their ranks to work with, too? 

“Either way,” Kaeya continued, “there are several vacant cabins in the second-class decks.” He handed Scara a keycard. “Leave here immediately, and take the Astors to this cabin.”

“And you?” Scara said, taking the keycard.

“I’ll meet up with you guys once I’ve disposed of the body, and settled some other matters. And, remember, if you can’t hide the body, it’s best to avoid a fight entirely."

“Okay.”

Scara headed back to the bedroom, and found that Alice and Klee had already woken up. Alice was visibly tense, holding a dozing Klee in her arms.

“There was actual fighting this time, right?” she said tremulously.

“Yeah, sorry. We have to relocate to another cabin now.”

“I suspected as much.” Alice took her luggage and nodded at him. “I packed our things last night.”

“Oh.” Scara smiled. “Nice.”

“Of course.”

They quickly headed out of the suite, but before they went down the corridor—

“Manon,” Scara said, “head down a few metres away first. And cover—" what was Klee's fake name again? "—the child's ears.”

Alice blinked, hesitant, but quickly walked away, keeping a distance between them with Klee in her arms. Scara pulled back his fist.

And he punched a gaping hole through the door, where the bullet holes were. 

Albedo gaped at him. “Um…”

Scara shook the broken pieces of wood off his knuckles, picking out the splinters. If Albedo noticed how the splinter cuts closed up almost immediately, he didn’t say a thing. “Now the bullet holes aren’t visible, so no one would suspect that a fight had actually gone down here.” The man had used a gun suppressor when shooting, so Scara was hinging on the hope that no one aside from them had noticed anything.

“Well, I was planning to tell guest services that we were changing rooms because of a lover’s spat, but now it just seems completely unbelievable,” Albedo said plainly, eyeing the nearly metre-wide hole in the door. 

Scara shrugged. “Just say you broke the door.”

“Yeah, except it wouldn't have been just a spat anymore,” Childe said, lips quivering. 

Albedo rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I broke the door, it is, then.” He made a call on his phone, as they joined Alice and Klee and resumed their walk to the lift. “Hello, this is suite 12H,” Albedo said coolly. “I have to apologise—my wife and I had a little spat, and I’m afraid I broke the door. Yes, we’d like to request for a new cabin.” His completely straight face made Childe and Scara sneak amused glances.


“I’ve lost all contact with the knocker. That proves that Manon Grey in suite 12H is our target,” Heizou spoke into the phone, picking at his hangnail until it bled. “There’s a husband listed in the ship’s manifest, too. And that man I heard her talking to, which makes a group of at least three—not counting the baby. They seem to be changing rooms now,” he continued, as he listened to the guest services call that he’d just tuned into. “But I’m sure this new cabin is just a decoy.”

At the other end of the line, the man hummed. “And because someone got impatient, we’ve now lost the element of surprise. If Astor’s guards really are from the Fatui, this isn’t going to be easy.”

He spoke to the other hitmen in the room now. “We need to work together. That means no infighting. We split the bounty evenly. And we all share information. Several VIPs are aboard the Irminsul; if you want to get paid, don’t draw unnecessary attention. And I trust that you, ops man,” he addressed Heizou directly, “will be sharing everything you hear, no matter how trivial?”

Heizou smiled wryly. “I share information equally. Good luck getting ahead of everyone,” he said in a sing-song. 

He ended the call. 

An unfamiliar voice picked up in the 12H speaker just as he did.


Ei stared in disbelief at the nearly metre-wide hole in the door of suite 12H, where a few guest service personnel were gathered around it, working to replace the door. One of them turned to look at her curiously. 

“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked.

She swallowed. “Who stayed at this suite, before…before this happened?” 

He pondered for a moment. “The Grey Family, I believe.”

Grey? Was that the name of the client that the Fatui was supposed to protect on this cruise? “Are they okay? Do you happen to know which cabin they’re in right now?” she asked tremulously. 

The man smiled politely at her. “The Grey Family is unhurt. And, sorry, ma’am, but due to privacy reasons, I’m not at liberty to disclose the information of their current cabin.”

Of course he isn’t. Ei ground her molars and continued staring at the door. The man looked slightly wary of her now.

“Ma’am?”

“Was anyone else with the Grey Family?” she probed.

He scratched the back of his neck. “Um…the family has a butler.”

Ei's pulse quickened. “What did he look like?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I’ve never actually gotten a look at most of the passengers on this ship.”

Her mood instantly soured, but she kept a perfunctory smile on her face. “Thank you.” She walked down the corridor, away from suite 12H, where she’d placed all her hopes on finding her brother. Now she just felt like a sack of shit.

The call from the unknown number arrived just before she stepped into the lift. Her eyes narrowed, but she picked it up, anyway, after typing a quick message to Itto and Gorou about the current situation.

“Who’s this?” she said in a monotone.

“Are you looking for the Grey Family’s butler?” a voice asked buoyantly. 

Her hand squirreled into her suit pocket. “Who’s this?” she repeated sharply.

“Someone who’s willing to help.”

Her lips turned down. “You placed a listening bug outside that suite, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“Fine. Just tell me what you know,” she said, bitter.

“They’ve moved down to the second-class decks. I’ll need some more time to comb through the listening bugs I’ve placed there; while you wait for me to pinpoint the exact cabin they’re in, you’re free to search as many cabins in those decks as you want.”

“Seriously? I can't believe I actually thought you'd be helpful."

The man chuckled lowly. "It'll take barely any time at all for me to find their cabin. Relax." 

"It better." 

She ended the call and stepped into the lift, huffing with frustration as she scratched her wig's netting. She'd spent so long in this disgusting disguise to troop around the cruise searching for Scara, and this random piece of shit had already done so much in just a matter of seconds: tapped into her conversation with the guest service personnel, and traced her phone number by looking at the ship's manifest, because there was no other way he could have done it so quickly. He must have found out the alias she'd used when she booked a trip on the cruise, too. 

She let out a soft groan. Not to mention how she had to sidestep all those Tenshukaku agents while she was on this ship, too. 

The lift doors slid open on the eighth deck. She stepped out, fixing the cuffs of her suit, and quickly recomposed her facial features, reminding herself not to act like a walking bag of depressed hormones. 

Itto and Gorou were already waiting at the corridor for her in their, frankly, extremely convincing disguises of old businessmen. When they walked together, the three of them just looked like they were all from the same company; or, alternatively, a family who liked dressing professionally, a daughter with her two fathers, who both had one foot in their graves.

“There’s a masquerade ball happening on this deck, ma’am,” Itto told her.

“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’.” Dammit, that caller probably planted listening bugs somewhere around here, too, and he was going to find out their true identities now. 

“Sorry, ma’am.”

Ei gave up. Whatever, let him find out. He told her that he’d offer his help, anyway. “What about the ball?”

“It’s impossible to access the cabin area without passing by the ballroom,” Gorou answered. 

“Huh.” Ei rubbed her forehead. “So, the family will go there, no matter what."

“Yeah. It's possible that we'll find them there.”

“Okay. Let’s get dressed up, then.”

Gorou blinked. “You brought costumes for all of us?”

“Of course." Ei huffed. “I read the itinerary before coming here, you know. I’m well-prepared. Now hurry, we need to catch them before they get to their next cabin.”

At that moment, what Arlecchino had told Yae played in her head again. Scara's RHM factor was monstrously high—Arlecchino said that he was fine, but Ei didn't trust that he would be for much longer. Any person with a factor that high would, more likely than not, succumb to the hell that was ROSD. But what the fuck had made it increase so much in such a short span of time? She hadn't injured him in any way all these years, so that only left one extremely plausible explanation, that she was almost completely certain of: the Fatui. The Fatui had tortured him to an inhumane extent over the past month, while she was busy racking her stupid, small brain, trying to figure out a way to infiltrate their base like a fucking idiot, when she knew that was near impossible.

Ei curled her hand into a fist. She couldn't waste any more time. She had to find Scara on this cruise. She wasn’t about to let another one of her family members be a victim to the Fatui again.

Chapter Text

Childe frowned. “A masquerade ball?”

Alice led them into a deserted corridor on the eighth deck. She unzipped her luggage and took out various different types of masks, costumes, and jewellery, ranging from slightly flamboyant designs to outright gaudy ones. There were clearly way too many articles of clothing for just four people to wear, like she couldn't make up her mind on which ones to pick out, and settled on dumping them all into the luggage.

“It was in the itinerary,” Scara said. He fetched the image of the cruise’s layout back into his mind. “We have to pass through the ballroom, then cut across the shopping promenade to get to the cabin.”

“So…we’ll have to change into costumes to blend in,” Albedo said neutrally, though his eyebrow twitched when Alice handed him a white full-face mask. 

Alice’s lips twisted into a thin smile. “I prepared for every event on the itinerary, so you better make use of my resources. They probably know what we look like in our current disguises, anyway.”

“Yeah, I think this would be better, too,” Scara agreed, taking a golden eye mask from her, adorned with a jewelled butterfly at the side. He faced Albedo. “And we should split up. They may already recognise me, so I shouldn’t be with Manon.” He looked at Childe. “You should stay with her while we go to the cabin.” He couldn’t risk addressing them directly—he suspected that they’d somehow planted listening bugs somewhere, because how else would they have found their original suite so quickly? He didn’t know when he’d accidentally let Alice’s name slip from his mouth, and he absolutely detested himself for that.

Alice beckoned Scara to her luggage, and took out a long black-haired wig. “You can pose as me,” she whispered. 

Scara hesitated. “You think I can pull it off?”

“Of course. We can wear exactly the same things. It’ll slow them down that way.”

“Well, sure.” It made sense, for the most part. 

“Go on.” She shooed them away once she’d given everyone their respective costumes. “We’ll meet here once everyone’s changed.” 

After changing, Scara felt slightly uncomfortable in a navy satin dress that wasn’t nearly as long as he’d like it to be. But it’d make fighting just a tad bit easier if they encountered any enemies, so he wasn’t too bothered by it.

The wig, on the other hand, redefined uncomfortable. It felt like wearing a regular hat at first, but something in the wig’s material kept irritating his skin and gave him the phantom feeling of having pins and needles poking and prodding all over his scalp. Not to mention the eye mask, that conjured the experience of those knives digging into his face all over again. He splashed water onto his face, taking in rapid breaths, and letting his beating head fall into his hands. The knives are gone. The knives are fucking gone. 

“Um…are you okay?” Albedo asked behind him. He’d walked out of the cubicle, brows furrowed in concern. 

Albedo, frankly, looked exactly the same, only difference being a tuxedo and an extra mask over his face that’d probably buy him a few extra seconds for anyone trying to recognise him. It was the same for Childe, too, who’d exited his cubicle moments after. 

“I’m fine,” Scara said, evening out the tremors in his voice. Unwanted memories surfaced in his mind, and he wanted nothing more than to crack his skull against the sink. 

“Is the costume making you uncomfortable?” Childe asked, surprisingly perceptive.

Scara gnawed at the inside of his cheek. He had to protect Alice and Klee. Which meant that he couldn’t let minor things like a stupid costume get in the way. “No.” He quickly dried his face with a paper napkin. “Let’s hurry and meet them.”

Neither of them probed any further. 

Alice was dressed in exactly the same way as Scara, the only difference between them now being their eye colour, and that she was holding Klee in her arms, who had a baby pink sleep mask stretching over her eyes. Scara didn’t have much confidence in the same-disguise plan, because Alice was clearly holding a baby, and it’d be obvious who the real one was if anyone spotted the two of them. But he told himself that they’d at least be able to buy some time. 

“Let’s head to the ballroom now,” he said, jaw clenching, desperately trying to ignore the mask pressing down into the skin around his eyes. 

They split up into two groups afterwards: Childe and Alice taking the longer route to the ballroom, while Scara and Albedo went by the shorter way, so that they’d be spotted first. Scara tried to keep his breaths steady, to focus on putting one feet in front of the other, but his mind kept travelling back to that goddamn burning house and fuck, he wasn’t supposed to think about that right now.

All his senses were overwhelmed, every muscle turning rigid as stone. He could barely walk, and something was rising up his throat, moisture appearing in his eyes out of nowhere, and he felt like he was five again, red-cheeked and mushy—

He abruptly straightened, his back prickling. A stare was burning a hole into his spine. 

They were being followed.

Scara looked at Albedo, who didn’t seem like he was reacting to anything at all, as usual, a blank expression plastered on his face. Scara quickly steadied himself; focus on the fucking mission now, please. Then he squeezed Albedo’s arm, nails digging into his skin. 

“Don’t look behind,” he said quietly, “but we’re being followed.”

Albedo stiffened a little.

“We should lose him before they figure out our destination,” Scara continued, lips barely moving. “We’ll blend into the crowd at the ballroom and cause a disturbance. Splash a drink on someone, maybe. Or topple a few tables. I could do it quickly enough.”

“Okay.”

The moment they walked through the open grand doors of the ballroom, Scara steeled himself again. Crystal chandeliers spiralled down from the arching ceiling, illuminating the glittering golden walls, and a floor so polished it looked like an iced-over lake. It was a majestic place, if anything. Clearly this entire cruise was full of VIPs. He combed the crowd whilst squeezing his way between people. Plenty of well-coiffed strangers, clinking glasses and laughing, and he thought he caught a glimpse of navy hair with a tinge of purple that stirred a whirlpool of memories, that he quickly shoved back into the recesses of his mind—wait, navy hair with a tingle of purple

He stopped, freezing Albedo along with him. 

Kujou Sara was a few feet away from him, swirling ice around the well of her drink, a black feathery eye mask stretching over the top half of her face. Her eyes were trained on something else in the distance—no, some one else. His eyes followed hers, and landed on a woman clad in a floor-skimming violet dress, strawberry-blonde hair tumbling down her back.

Scara’s breath hitched in his throat.

No matter how convincing her disguise was, he saw right through it. He saw her stupid violet eyes behind her mask, scanning the room for something. His pulse nearly stopped.

Ei. 

The person he was a month ago would have immediately approached her, and ditched the entire mission in favour of going back home. 

But his feet were rooted to the ground. Things were completely different now; he remembered everything she intentionally hadn’t told him about, and how could he just go back like nothing happened, like he hadn’t fucking murdered her own father, like he hadn’t just found out the truth behind all those lies she’d been feeding him all these years ? On top of that, he had a mission right now, which he had to complete by any fucking means. 

Scara felt sick. 

Albedo clutched onto his arm. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

His mouth refused to open. 

Fuck, fuck, fuck. What were they even doing here, anyway? What did Tenshukaku want to achieve on this cruise? (They couldn’t possibly be looking for him. He’d murdered the head Raiden seventeen years ago. They must have been bottling up their hatred for him this entire time.

Unless they were looking for him, to kill him.)

He turned, but it was too late. Sara’s eyes had locked onto him, her eyes flashing, and, yeah, he was screwed. The time when he and Sara could hold a friendly conversation had long passed.

He tried calmly moving away with Albedo, interlocking their arms, but he caught a flash of movement from Sara’s direction, and immediately broke into a hasty walk. Like all the assassins on their tail right now weren’t already enough. 

“Why are we—”

“Shut up,” Scara said, failing to hide the tremor in his voice. His arm slowly slipped away from his. “Help me find Childe and Manon in the crowd.”

“But what would you do?”

He smiled, but it turned out more like a grimace. “I’ll stir something up.”

There were two people on his tail now. He had to find some way to shoo them off. He broke away from Albedo, and sliced through the crowd, hearing the clacking of heels behind him, and, wow, she really wasn’t going to let him walk, huh. His pace quickened even more, pulling on people’s elbows that were jutting out and blocking his way, making them lose their balance, and causing several commotions (“Hey, you made me spill my drink!” “Get back here and apologise, fucker.”) that would hopefully get Sara and the other assassin off his trail. 

“Crap, crap, crap,” he muttered under his breath, intentionally knocking more drinks out of people’s hands and stepping on shoes, hard. He couldn’t hear Sara behind him anymore, but he knew she was still following him from a distance. 

Something whizzed past him and landed right beside his foot.

Someone just shot a fucking tranquiliser dart in a crowded-ass ballroom. Terrifying aim, but also, how in the world did that even work?

Before he could register whatever that was, another man lumbered towards him, a hand just barely grazing his neck, presumably to wrap around his throat, glazed eyes two shiny grapes about to pop from his skull. What the fuck, that was so unsubtle. He was about to give him a sharp uppercut to the chin, but he couldn’t draw attention to himself any more than he already had. 

He intertwined his fingers with the man in lathery sweetness, stunning the other for a little. 

“Sure, I’m up for a dance,” he said darkly, taking the opportunity to swing him around wildly, his superior strength guiding him with ease as he used the man as a meat shield, in case more tranquiliser darts were shot at him. He made his way through the crowd with the man in tow, who had his face crumpled in pain at how tightly Scara was holding his fingers. The exit door came into view.

He smiled wide, clasping both his hands in his. “Thanks for taking this dance with me.”

And he snapped all his fingers in one squeeze, bending them in a variety of grotesque angles. The man couldn’t even yell; it happened so quickly that only a pathetic wheeze came out. Scara shoved the man into a spare chair with so much force that the entire thing nearly toppled along with him. Before he left, however, he spotted a walkie-talkie on the man’s waistband and snagged it. 

“Andre?” a voice crackled from the other side. 

But before he could do anything with it, a cold hand landed on his bare shoulder.

He whirled around. It wasn’t Sara that was staring at him, however; a girl with curled jet-black hair smiled. 

“May I take this dance, too?” she said, her voice feather-light. 

His jaw tightened. He scanned the crowd to look for Albedo, Childe, and Alice, but of course they weren’t anywhere in sight. He could only hope that they’d made it out.

“Sorry, but I—”

She seized his chin in her hand. Scara froze.

Her smile turned icy. “You don’t have red eyes.”

Fuck.  

He tore away his chin from her grip and swung the walkie-talkie towards her. But before it made contact with her temple, she snatched it from his grip, and he watched in muted horror as she crushed it to dust, the grey particles flowing through the gaps between her fingers and onto the floor, where it piled up into an ash-like mound. What kind of fucking monster—

“If you don’t want that to happen to your bones next, follow me,” she said, sending needles prickling up his spine, “Scaramouche.”

His throat tightened. He had no idea who she was, but he knew one thing for sure: she wasn’t an assassin who was after Alice Astor.  

“You’re from Tenshukaku.”

She tilted her head, her eyebrow lifting. “And what could have possibly led you to that conclusion?”

“You didn’t try to kill me.”

The girl hummed. “I don’t know about that. I could right now, though. No one gave me orders not to.”

Scara set his jaw. “What do you want?”

“You’re a Harbinger,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s only natural that we have to keep an eye on you. And, anyway,” her smile became tight, “we want Alice Astor dead.”

Scara cursed internally. He initially thought the hitmen coming to kill Alice Astor weren’t tied to any organisation, and were doing it purely because of the bounty, or that they were being ordered to by the current head of Hexenzirkel, but he wouldn’t put it past organisations like Tenshukaku to have a vested interest in ending the Astor bloodline. Which meant it was possible that the current head of Hexenzirkel was working with Tenshukaku.

“So, you were trying to kill me. To kill Alice,” he said stiffly. Thank God Alice made them wear similar disguises. If he hadn’t been the one to be targeted…

The girl shrugged. “I was just going to slice your throat. My plan would have been perfect, too, because I was going to do that once—”

The power blinked out. The ballroom was plunged into darkness.

“—the lights went out.”

…oh.

Scara tore away from her, but bodies were pressing all around him, and everyone was screaming, and he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t see and, fuck, he nearly tripped on someone’s shoe (karma’s a bitch), but he knew the exit was there, it was right there, as he pictured the route to the door in his mind—

His hands grazed against metal, and, victory surging inside him, he shoved the door wide open, spilling rays of light into the ballroom, where the people inside clambered towards the now solely illuminated corner of the entire room. 

He scanned his surroundings. He’d come out into the shopping promenade, where he had to cut across it to get to the Astors’ new cabin. 

Several others had squeezed out along with him, people filing out the area like a pack of sweaty sardines. Scara wrinkled his nose and quickly walked along the corridor, wiping sweat from the nape of his neck. 

That power outage was so fucking creepy. Had the girl’s target been him all along? Was she lying about them wanting to kill Alice so she could lull him into a false sense of security? 

So many questions plagued his mind, but he couldn’t make sense of any of them. 

An arm reached out and grabbed onto his, and he was being pulled into a souvenir shop, but the adrenaline had withdrawn from his veins and he was too tired to resist, too tired to fight back, the energy draining out of him—

“Guard boy, you’re safe.”

His eyes refocused as he looked up. Childe, Alice, Klee, and Albedo were in front of him, looking the opposite of what he probably was right now: dishevelled and fucked up.

He blew out a heavy sigh.

“Thank fucking God,” he said. 

“What happened there?” Childe asked, handing him a handkerchief that he’d fished out of fucking nowhere. Scara took it, though, and wiped his face, his hands still slightly shaking.

“Nothing much.” He wrenched his breathing back in order. “Just barely survived multiple murder attempts.” At the horrified expressions from Alice and Albedo, he smiled tiredly. “It’s fine, though. At least they bought into my disguise.”

Remorse flooded Alice’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I put you in more danger than necessary.”

“Actually, it was completely necessary,” he refuted, thinking back to the Tenshukaku girl. “But enough of that. Let’s split up again and start moving. If I don’t reach the cabin in two minutes, just forget me and go inside. I’ll catch up eventually.” Before that girl finds him. Before Sara finds him. And, most importantly, before Ei finds him. He turned to Childe. “If I desperately need help, I’ll call you.” 

Childe nodded. He and Alice left the shop first. Scara took in a deep breath again, and smiled grimly at Albedo, who looked more concerned than afraid. He interlocked arms with the man once again, pretending to take a look at the various articles of clothing in the shop while waiting one, long, agonising minute, then immediately leaving the shop after the appropriate amount of time had passed.

The promenade had become several times more crowded in that short span of time, crammed with people in masquerade costumes, who sought to escape the ballroom. Scara clutched onto Albedo as they shifted their way through the horde. Turn a left…turn a left… Once they turned left, they’d reach the cabin area, and they’d meet Alice and Childe a short distance away. It was just there, just five steps away. Just walk, just walk, just walk a little more…

Something struck the back of his head. Stars popped and burst in his eyes, and with all the strength he could muster, he shoved Albedo into the left corridor and yelled, “Go!”

He spun around just in time to block another swing of a baton. Scara was just vaguely aware of how the crowd had thinned around them, to the point where everyone stayed clear of them within a five-metre radius. The screaming from around him rang in his ears, fuzzy.

His eyes zeroed in on the person who’d struck him. A burly man grinned back at him. 

“You die today, woman,” he said in a deep rasp. “I’m surprised you can even fight at all.”

Scara was completely unarmed, dizzy, in a fight against a crazy-looking man with a sharp as hell baton that nearly compressed his scalp when he was beaten down with it. 

But this fight wouldn’t be too hard. Mila had told him on several occasions during training: non-enhanced humans had nothing against enhanced ones. Scara saw through all his movements; taking a big right swing with his fist first, then striking the baton up on a course for his chin from under him. He dodged both motions, then hooked an arm under the man’s chin, clasped his hands together and crushed his neck with his forearm. Not fatally, however, because they were still out in the open. The man clawed and scratched at his arm like a panicked dog, raking scratches into his own neck. 

“You’re not…” the man croaked, “...her…”

He let the man drop facefirst to the floor, body limp.

“I’m confiscating this,” he said, as he pried the baton from his hands. 

Claps resounded all around him. Scara turned in confusion.

“Talk about a first-rate cruise!”

The fuck?

“Nice performance, young lady!”

“Not too clear on what the premise was, but nevertheless a splendid show!”

Did people actually think they’d just put on a fucking circus performance? Scara swallowed down a hysterical laugh. These VIPs were on another level of idiotic. The number of brain cells one had really was inversely proportional to their wealth.

Scara took the opportunity while he could, and lifted the man up by his collar, then bowed to the crowd, tilting the man’s limp head down with him. More clapping.

Then he dropped the man onto the floor again, who was slowly starting to stir, and, finally, turned into the left corridor, which was thankfully deprived of people. 

Their new cabin was 8A, so it should be right around—

“Um…excuse me…”

He wanted to fucking collapse . But he turned, anyway.

Only to face that strawberry-blonde girl—Ei in her stupidass disguise. He quickly averted his eyes, sweeping all emotion from his face. Blood rose in his throat, acid-bright.

“May I ask if you’ve come across a man with indigo hair anywhere on this cruise? With a permanent scowl on his face?”

Ah, fuck. She'd been actively looking for him on the ship. 

“Yeah,” he said, as blankly as he could. “I think I saw someone like that at the sixth deck.”

“With a woman and a child?”

He felt her scrutinising him. “Mm, yes. A pretty small baby.”

“Okay. Thanks for your help.”

She finally turned away. Scara let out a soft sigh of relief, and turned away, as well. 

“You fucking dumbass.”

She clobbered him over the head. Scara hissed in pain. The exact spot where that baton man had struck him. 

He smiled blandly. Exposed. “Ha…”

When Scara faced her again, her entire expression crumpled. And she pulled him into a hug.

“You fucking dumbass,” she repeated, squeezing him tighter. He stood stiffly. “It’s been so long, and you still tried to hide from me? I’m never forgiving you. Never. Never ever ever—”

“Ei.” He tried pulling away, but she stubbornly clung onto him, her tears dampening his shoulder.

“Don’t you dare, Scara,” she said, without much venom. “They tortured you, didn’t they? They made you one of them against your will and—”

“Ei.”

“—they increased your RHM factor, like you’re a fucking experiment, or something—”

Ei.

“—and now they’ve brainwashed you into doing missions for them, and you’re trying to get away—”

He grit his teeth and pushed her away. She staggered back, wide-eyed.

“Ei,” he said, pointedly avoiding her eyes, “I can’t go back.”

She stared at him, a humorless smile spreading across her lips. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“I can’t go back,” he repeated harshly. “I’m in the middle of a fucking mission, where someone and their child could die at any moment. I’m not going to risk that happening.”

Ei lifted a cold eyebrow. “Give it up. The Astors were always meant to die.”

He froze. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“They’ve already disrupted the balance of so many countries in Teyvat,” she went on icily, “and that Alice woman isn’t as innocent as you think she is. She may have played a small role in Hexenzirkel, but she still bore witness to all those atrocities her other family members committed.”

“Look,” Scara said, blood draining from his face, “do you have any idea what you’re saying right now?”

“I’m saying your mission doesn’t fucking matter.”

"No." He shook his head. "You’re telling me to let Alice be killed,” he said, anger rippling up his chest, “and let the child become an orphan?

Ei’s eyes narrowed. “She’s a dangerous individual, Scara. She just hasn’t shown her true colours yet.”

He barked out a laugh. “‘True colours’. That’s funny. You know why? Because you didn't tell me a single fucking thing about what happened in that house all those years ago.” He watched as she stiffened. “Or about Tenshukaku, or about anything, really.”

Ei recomposed herself, her jaw setting. “I did it to protect you—”

“Shut the fuck up,” he snapped, nails digging half-moons into his palm. “I didn’t know how Makoto died—” Ei flinched, “—or my parents, or your father—”

She shook her head. “Scara, stop.

He couldn’t. “My memories were all made up, Ei. And you probably knew it, too, but you didn’t say a fucking word. I just had to live with all those lies, and you and Yae and Sara, all of you, never bothered to do anything about it.”

Ei’s brows furrowed. “‘Made up’? What—”

Scara shot her a single, scathing look. A look to kill. An old bitterness swelled up in his chest, and all of a sudden, he saw shades of Yae, of his mother, of the Boss girl, of poisonous people he hated. “Don’t even fucking try lying to me again.” He drew in a slow breath. Their eyes locked. “I can’t go back. I can’t go back to the life we had before.”

“Are you fucking stupid?” she protested, grabbing his arm before he could turn away. “Don’t let yourself be tricked by the Fatui again—”

“It’s sad,” Scara said wryly, “but I trust them infinitely more than you and Yae right now. Did you know that one of your Tenshukaku agents tried to kill me just minutes ago?”

“Scara—”

He wrenched his arm out of her grip. “That’s not even my real fucking name.”

And, without sparing her another glance, he fled down the corridor. What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck, he breathed, turning multiple corners until he found cabin 8A and knocked furiously on the door. He turned to look if anyone had followed him. Ei wasn’t there.

He wanted to be relieved, but fuck, shock over the horrible words he’d spoken to her spilled over him like acid, followed by an overwhelming wave of regret and sadness. His eyes felt like cinders. 

The door opened. Childe dragged him inside and shut the door. 

“Another murder attempt?” he asked. 

Inside the cabin, Alice and Albedo looked at him in concern. He didn’t say a word; just brushed past Childe and headed to the bathroom, after grabbing a fresh set of clothes Alice had left out for him on the sofa.

He quickly tore off the eye mask and dress, ripped off the wig, and sank into the tub after filling it up, then dunked his head inside, blowing bubbles out through his nose. The tension didn’t fully leave his muscles. 

He missed the stupid coffee shop. He missed when the most he had to worry about in his life was a bitchy-ass customer. He missed his apartment. 

He missed Ei.

After what felt like an eternity of keeping his mind painfully blank so he wouldn't have a mental breakdown, he finally got out of the bath and entered the living area again. It was smaller than the first-class suite by a sizable amount, but was still large enough to accommodate their group of five. 

Everyone was gathered at the dining table, munching on sandwiches. Scara took the seat beside Childe, keeping his expression carefully blank.

“What happened?” Albedo asked, his eyes flicking to Scara's hesitantly.

“I fought this guy in front of everyone, and people thought we were putting on a circus performance,” Scara said blandly. “I don’t think anyone can get any dumber than that.”

“But something else happened, too, didn’t it?” Alice said, eyes raking over him. 

His fake smile was as painful and protective as a corset of armour. “Well, yeah. Someone I know is on this ship, too. And it wasn’t pleasant trying to shoo them away.”

Childe looked at him sharply. “Someone you know?”

Scara shrugged. Alice and Albedo both seemed more sympathetic than curious, but it still wasn’t a conversation they should have with non-Fatui in front of them. He didn’t want to make them any more panicked than they already were.

“A family-friend,” he lied through his teeth. “Wondered why I was cross-dressing, and then asked me to have dinner with them.”

Alice stifled a laugh into her hand. She’s a dangerous individual, Scara. She just hasn’t shown her true colours yet, Ei’s words replayed in his head. He stuffed them away. He didn’t give a fuck, she had a kid, for god’s sake. And Alice clearly cared about Klee. Unlike his own mother—

He slapped himself internally. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think don’t think don’t think.

He went on to describe his experience in the ballroom, getting chuckles from Alice and Albedo when he talked about dragging one of the hitmen to a dance, and then shoving the disoriented man into a chair after breaking all of his fingers. Then the three non-Fatui became sleepy even though it was still morning, and Alice, Klee, and Albedo went into their bedrooms. 

“So,” Childe said, once the others were gone, “what’s this about meeting someone you know?”

Scara swallowed the last of his sandwich. “There are Tenshukaku agents here. And they want the Astors dead.”

Childe frowned. “That means we have to deal with those people, and other assassins.”

“Pretty much.”

Childe whipped out his pager. Scara watched as he typed out a message to Signora. “I’ll tell Signora and Pantalone to keep an eye out for them.”

“Okay.”

“But which Tenshukaku agent did you meet?”

“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure she was disguised, her hair looked...unnatural? And after that fight with the baton man, I met Ei.”

Childe’s fingers stopped gliding over the keyboard. “They dispatched her on this ship?”

“Probably.”

He felt Childe’s gaze burning a hole into him. He kept his eyes on the table. “I’m surprised you didn’t ditch the mission. You and Ei are pretty close, right?”

Scara ground his molars, saying nothing. Childe typed out the remainder of his message and sent it. Then he turned back to face him.

“You’ve been out of it ever since we arrived on this deck.”

Of course he'd been 'out of it'. All Scara could see was the fucking house. He closed his eyes. Bad decision; now the image was even clearer. His eyes quickly snapped open again.

“Do you know?” he asked, looking at him.

“Huh?”

“About how my father and my uncle died.”

Childe’s eyes sharpened. “Oh. Your ROSD when you were a child.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask: what’s that?”

“It happens to some when their RHM factors are too high. The RHM cells multiply and eat other cells. Then you lose your mind.” Childe paused. “There’s no cure for it yet, so I gave you an RHM suppressant in the form of a pill to temporarily calm you down.”

Scara stilled, ice prickling up his arms. “So I may go insane again?”

“It’s possible. You’ll just have to keep ingesting RHM suppressants. But not too many, or your factor would dip too low. Just do it whenever you feel like you’re going to suffer a relapse again.”

He swallowed. “Is there ever a case where they don’t work?”

“No. They’ve always worked.”

“Okay, then.”

Scara was, frankly, fucking terrified of himself. And what could he do when he couldn’t even trust his own sibling? He blinked back the moisture in his eyes, willing his heart to slow the fuck down. Don’t break down, don’t break down, don’t break down—

A series of rapid taps on the door resonated throughout the cabin. Scara was thankful for the momentary distraction; anything but thinking about seventeen years ago.

It wasn’t a hitman outside. Kaeya wiggled his fingers in a small wave, then entered the cabin, placing down bags of packet food.

“Everyone safe?” 

“Yeah,” Scara said. 

“Didn’t kill anyone out in the open, did you?”

The word ‘kill’ already left him slightly nauseous. “No.”

“Good. I’ll patrol this deck and whittle down the enemy’s numbers for the rest of the day,” he said. “Have you guys alerted the other Harbingers on the second-class decks?”

“Yeah.”

“Right. We need as many pairs of eyes peeled as we can. In the meantime, you two guard this cabin. If necessary, I’ll signal you with footsteps outside the door. And," he stared pointedly at Scara, "don't forget about the knocking pattern again. It's five quick knocks, followed by two slow ones. Always five quick and two slow." He was probably referring to how they'd checked the peephole when the room service personnel had arrived in front of their door, despite having knocked in a different fashion from Kaeya. Yeah, that was stupid of him. He should have told Childe to back away. But in his defence, he had gone insane moments prior to that.

Kaeya walked back out of the cabin and down the corridor, eyes slanted in attentiveness. Childe closed the door, and turned back to Scara.

“You should probably sleep,” he told him. “RHM suppressants make you a lot more tired. It’s pretty amazing that you didn’t collapse from exhaustion while we were on our way here.”

Scara frowned. “I can stay awake.”

“You look really tired, though.”

He rubbed his eyes stubbornly. “But I’m not.”

Childe sighed. “You did enough already, you know.”

Scara’s feet were planted firmly on the ground. “I’m not sleeping.”

The other man paused, then narrowed his eyes. “Boss said your memories would surface the moment you suffered a relapse. Is that the reason why you didn’t leave with Ei?”

“I don’t know.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t know any fucking thing.” Sourness invaded his open mouth. “No one’s told me anything my entire life, and I spent the past seventeen years thinking that my parents were both dead, but I just found out that, no, my mother’s still alive, and that she altered my memories and just fucking ditched me, and everyone I know had been keeping that from me. Like, what the fuck? And Ei hadn’t even told me anything about Tenshukaku herself; I had to extract the truth from Sara a few years ago, and even then she was unwilling to tell me anything. And now they’re both on this ship, and Ei wanted to bring me back, back to I don't know where, but at the same time another Tenshukaku agent almost killed me in the ballroom, so I don’t know any fucking thing,” he babbled, each word hot and loose and bitter-tinged. “Everyone just wants to fucking…Ugh. Fuck this. And I joined the Fatui against my will, but now I’m starting to think that it’s a better option than going back and living that fucking lie of a life in that stupid fucking coffee shop with liars all around me.”

Childe stared at him, eyes ballooning wide. “So you really remember everything now?” 

“Yes,” he spat. “And I don’t want to sleep, because I know I’ll just have nightmares about that house and—” He groaned, grinding his fists into his sockets. “I just don’t want to think about it. About how I’m a murderer, and how literally everyone played me like a fucking fiddle after that. And when we were relocating here, I actually thought of killing those hitmen. It seemed so weirdly natural. And I probably would have killed that baton guy if we weren’t surrounded by a fucking crowd.” A chill ran up his body, from the soles of his feet on the plush-carpeted ground, to the damp roots of his hair. “What the fuck. I don’t even know…”

Childe looked at him, thoughtful. “Do you want a distraction?”

Scara slowly looked at him. He exhaled. “Yeah.”

“Sure.” He waved him over, dragging out another chair and placing it beside his, then sat on one of them and faced the front door. 

Scara took a seat beside Childe. 

The other man proceeded to launch into stories about his siblings, describing how he didn’t know how to properly take care of Tonia after his mother’s passing (which he didn’t elaborate on), because a girl’s hair had to be taken care of really differently from a boy’s, then talked about how he punched another boy in the nose for dumping Tonia over text when she was in middle school, and proceeded to get scolded by Tonia’s teacher, though the boy’s parents had frantically apologised to him. (“As they should,” Childe triumphantly quipped.) And he talked about Anthon, about how he was bright and attentive and the perfect student, and how he’d still take the time to do the housework with Tonia whenever Childe wasn’t around. And he recounted the experience of raising Teucer, saying that it was probably the hardest out of all his siblings, because he was the youngest when both their parents died, and he had to raise a toddler with his two other siblings who weren’t as grown up as he was. But his eyes twinkled when talking about how Teucer had grown up to be curious and optimistic, and now always looked at the world in a bright light, which was extremely refreshing to him, especially after he’d been recruited into the Fatui. 

Childe’s talking, surprisingly, did wonders to distract Scara from the horrible monster that was his own mind, and he found himself hanging on to his every word, listening intently to all the ups and downs of Childe’s relationships with his siblings. Scara tried not to bitterly think back to Ei, but he ended up doing so, anyway. 

“It’ll be fine,” Childe suddenly said, looking intently at him. “Your sister truly cares about you, though it isn’t in a way that you understand right now. She didn’t try to bring you back by force; she let you go. She doesn’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to.”

Scara blinked slowly, guilt and misery burgeoning his chest. “It’s different now. It's completely different from all those harmless arguments we had in the past. I don’t think things will ever be the same between us.”

“Nah. Once the Boss achieves her goal, everything will be fine again.”

He frowned. “What goal?”

Childe cocked his head. “She didn’t tell you?”

“No? Isn’t the Fatui just an assassination organisation?"

Chide hummed. “Well…She’ll tell you herself, soon.”

“Tell me now.”

“I can’t. She has to do it.”

Scara wanted to fucking clock him in the face. “Is she going to achieve that goal soon, at least?”

“I think we’re getting closer to it.”

“What makes you say that?”

Childe narrowed his eyes, staring at the floor. “Barbatos and Morax are gone. Soon, it’ll be Baal next. Your mother.”

Scara stiffened. “Gone, as in, killed?

“No. I don’t think Boss wants to kill them. She’s too nice to do that. She just wants them out of action.”

Too nice to do that. Scara nearly scoffed. “Who are Barbaytoes and More Racks, even?”

“The heads of their respective national secret societies. Boss is planning to do the same to the other three nations, too.”

“Basically, destroying Teyvat?” he deadpanned.

Childe shook his head. “The opposite. Teyvat's been trapped in a lie, much like you were. But the other nations don’t want to learn the truth. You ever heard of Plato’s allegory of the cave?”

“The prisoners don’t want to leave the cave,” Scara said, almost on auto-pilot. “They saw that the prisoner who was freed had their eyes blinded by the light of the sun—the truth—and they believed that the outside world is harmful, that the truth isn't worth seeking.”

“Yeah. The rest of Teyvat is still chained up in their comfortable little cave, believing in their own flimsy ideals, watching the distorted shadows flit across the walls. But Boss has already left, and soon it’ll be our turn, too.”

Scara rubbed the bridge of his nose. “The prisoners in this case are pretty violent, though, aren’t they? They don’t want anyone to leave the cave.” He had no doubt that these so-called national secret societies had murdered countless Fatui members, including Tenshukaku. 

Childe shrugged. “That’s why we have so much work to do. The Harbingers quell the prisoners, so that we can all eventually leave.”

“And what happens afterward?”

Childe’s finger tapped on the skin below Scara’s lower eyelid. “We get blinded.” 

The skin warmed a little even after Childe’s finger had left. Scara’s fingers brushed over the same spot, now feeling a sudden migraine building up in his head. 

“Anyway,” Scara said, brushing the feeling off, an amused smirk playing on his lips, “I didn't think you’d know something like Plato’s cave. Are you a secret philosophy nerd?”

Childe arched a brow. “I wasn’t really educated, you know. Tonia tells me about what she learns in school all the time, so…yeah.”

That made sense. Childe was young, and to have climbed up to the rank of a Harbinger all by himself… Scara suppressed a shiver. He must have been recruited at a horribly young age. “Huh," he said, hiding the horror that he was feeling. "I didn’t know they offered philosophy classes in high school.”

“Tonia’s school is one of the better ones,” he explained. 

“Ah.”

“And you? Did you go to college?”

A pang of remorse hit Scara’s gut again, thinking back to how he’d treated Ei with so much disdain and venom. Ei, who kept his own identity a secret from him; but also, Ei, who didn’t stop supporting him throughout his childhood, adolescence, and even through his first years into adulthood. His shoulders slumped. 

“Fuck no,” he said, sombre. “College tuition’s way too exorbitant of a price to pay. And besides, Ei had already…” His chest tightened. “She’d already funded my school fees throughout elementary, middle and high school. I didn’t want her to fork out any more money than she already had, so I just decided to go straight to work.”

“Oh. That’s nice of you.” 

Then Childe got up from the chair. “Want to eat the food that Kaeya brought?”

“Sure,” Scara replied indifferently. He didn’t even know if he needed any form of sustenance, not when he was… this, already. More monster than human. More mad than sane. More dead than alive. 

He fiddled with a wooden splinter that was poking out of his finger, after brushing against a particularly rough patch of the chair. He wondered if he should have gone back with Ei. He quickly shook the thought away. No, he'd made his decision. He couldn’t abandon Alice and Klee, not when the rendezvous with the other ship was in a mere thirty hours. 

Childe handed him a food packet. Scara opened it, finding cold soba noodles and an additional packet of dipping sauce in it. 

“Oh,” he said, pleasantly surprised. “Kaeya got Inazuman food.”

“I’ve tried those before,” Childe said, between mouthfuls of food he was already scarfing down. Scara peered into the other packet; it didn’t look like anything Snezhnayan, it was just spicy-looking ramen. “I prefer hot soba noodles.”

“Hm.” He eyed Childe. “I didn’t think you could eat anything spicy.”

“I travel a lot,” he said, waving a hand. “I eat pretty much anything.”

“Have you been to Liyue, then?” Scara had a suspicion that was probably where he’d built up his spice tolerance, because of Liyue’s famously spicy cuisine.

Childe nodded. “I stayed there for pretty long because of one particular mission. I couldn’t handle the spice at first, but I got used to it.”

One particular mission? Scara’s mind, unhelpfully, reeled back to that time he woke up in a Liyuean’s bed while he was in Childe’s body. What the fuck, brain? That was uncalled for. But...what was his name again? It ended with a li. 

“Is that where you met him?”

Childe stiffened. “Uh…you’re talking about Zhongli, right?”

Right. “Yeah, him.”

“Well, yes. We did…uh…meet there.” And Childe actually elaborated. “It was part of my mission to wreak some havoc in Liyue, spice things up a little. I ended up befriending him because of the frequent correspondence we had to engage in. After I stirred up some trouble there, I found out that everything was orchestrated. Like, I was used.” His face molded into one of disgust. “By Signora and him both. So the mission ended up successful because I was a perfect, unsuspecting pawn. Anyway, whatever. I don't feel like going into details. I hate thinking about it.”

“You still remained friends with him, though,” Scara pointed out.

“Yeah. Of course I did.” Childe threw his hands up. “I was whipped for him, how could I not?”

An entertained smile quirked Scara’s lips. “That’s kind of pathetic.”

“Ugh. Yeah. I even got him to meet my siblings and everything.” Childe made a face. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t really feel much of anything towards him at all now.”

“Did he do something to offend you?” he asked, genuinely curious. A few months had passed since the whole body swapping thing, and for Childe’s view of Zhongli to have changed so radically was kind of shocking.

“Well…no,” Childe grumbled. “He’s still a pretty nice person. But, oh my fucking God, he drained so much money out of me while we were a thing—I swear he genuinely believed I was his personal ATM. He didn’t have any ill will, but, fuck, I seriously regret all those dollars I threw away. I could have used them to buy Tonia so many more dresses and jewellery, or more books for Anthon, or a gazillion more toys for Teucer…what the fuck.”

Scara bit back a laugh. “Post-simp clarity.”

Childe sighed. “Ha.” He didn’t deny it.

“But why’d you have to interact with him for the mission?”

Childe's eyes dived back to his food, while answering: “He’s Morax.” 

Scara blinked. “Oh.” For a Fatui Harbinger to be in a relationship with Morax…wasn’t that, like, scandalous? They were supposed to be enemies, right? Then his eyes narrowed when another realisation formed in his head. “That means he probably knew my mother. And he probably knew who I was that day, too.”

“Mm, yeah.” Childe slurped up the remainder of his noodles, already done with his meal. “He’s already stepped down from his position, though, so he’s completely uninvolved with the underworld right now. I doubt he’s seen your mother any time recently.”

Scara’s appetite faded. He placed the chopsticks away and closed the packet. Childe gave him a questioning look.

“You know what,” he said, “I think I’ll go to sleep.”

Childe lit up, like he was waiting for him to announce that all this time. “Sure, sure. Rest well.”

Scara headed to the sofa and laid down on it, head propped up against the armrest, body sinking into the plush leather. His eyes flitted instinctively to the table, to the spot where that vase Yae had given him would be there, if he was back in his apartment. 

Thinking about his previous life made him sick again, so he quickly shut his eyes. 

Just thirty more hours, and Alice and Klee would be safe. Just twenty more hours, and he can get the answers he wanted from the Boss girl. 

Just thirty more hours, and he’d allow himself to completely break down.


“Give it up, Ei.”

Ei snapped out of her stupor and whirled around, only to find the barrel of a gun trained between her eyes. On the other end, was the last person she expected to see—Sara.

“We’ve already apprehended Gorou and Itto,” Sara said emotionlessly. “You’ve achieved your goal, haven’t you? You found your brother.”

The first time she’d seen the girl in years, and it just had to be with her on the other end of the gun. Ei sneered. “What, are you going to kidnap me now? I’m not giving up, by the way. I’m going to get Scara back before this cruise disembarks.”

A cruel grin tugged at Sara’s lips. “You can try. It’s clear he doesn’t want anything to do with you anymore. He got his memories back.”

“I don’t get that part, either,” she said, in a low rasp. “What’s this about his memories being ‘made up’?”

“That’s for your soulmate to tell you,” Sara replied, her eyes giving away nothing. “Either way, you’re coming with us.”

Ei crossed her arms, staring right into the barrel. “Kill me right now if you want. I’m not following you.”

Sara cocked her head. “You’re awfully bold, aren’t you?”

Something that felt like a sledgehammer struck the back of Ei’s head. And her world turned to black.


Kokomi tugged off the troublesome curled jet-black wig, casting it away onto the floor.

She turned back to the three rogue Tenshukaku agents they’d caught, all tied up in chairs, all glaring at her with equal intensity. 

“Good morning,” she said, faux sweetness bleeding through her voice. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to be in this position any longer. A boat for Inazuma will reach here in a few hours, and you’ll all be sent back, where you’ll deeply reflect on your actions today.”

Ei bared her teeth. “Sangonomiya, you crafty witch.”

“Now, now.” She smiled. “I’m just following orders. And you’ll regret calling me that, because I did just protect your dear brother in the ballroom.”

“Huh?”

“He was disguised in the exact same manner as Alice Astor. The hitmen gunning for her are operating in a group now,” she explained calmly. “So I killed one of them and took on their appearance. Then I approached Scaramouche. Naturally, the other hitmen thought I was about to kill him myself, so they didn't attempt to assassinate the boy. But of course, I didn’t. I even made the power go out so he could escape.” She splayed her hands out. “I think I deserve some gratitude, at least.”

Ei leered at her. “And you just let him go back to the fucking Fatui. I knew it, none of you actually care about bringing him back.”

Kokomi’s head tipped to the side. “He’s the enemy now, Ei. It’ll do no good hanging on to past memories.”

“Yet you protected him. What do you actually want?” Ei paused, her face darkening. “What does Yae actually want?”

“I told you, I’m just following orders. I don’t know her ulterior motives, if she has any.”

“You’re fucking brainless.”

Kokomi’s lips stretched into a thin smile. Brainless. She'd had her fair share of people spitting that in her face in the past. “Whatever you say. Enjoy your stay here while waiting for the boat. In the meantime, we’ll be continuing with the mission.”

“Are you going to kill her?” Ei asked. “Alice Astor?”

“Of course,” Kokomi replied. Ei looked strangely shameful. “Does that bother you?”

“No,” she quickly snapped. “Fuck off.”

She really was every bit as crude as her brother. Kokomi felt a slight pang of…pity. Pity that the two siblings had landed in a circumstance as horrible as theirs. She could understand Ei’s feelings, but she wasn’t about to empathise with the girl. Empathising would take too much out of her, and it’d ruin her concentration on the task at hand. 

The task at hand, she repeated to herself, forcing memories of her own sibling back down to the depths of her mind. Focus on the task at hand.

The phone in Kokomi’s pocket buzzed. She clasped her hands together. “I’ll be leaving now, then. Bye, bye.”

She turned and left the room, heading to the place where she agreed to meet Sara and Ayato, just two rooms down the corridor. There were plenty of dingy areas in the third-class decks, away from people’s prying eyes.

“How are they?” Sara asked casually, like they hadn’t just locked three captives in an empty storage room. 

“They’re all looking extremely sunny,” Kokomi replied coolly. 

Ayato snickered. “Your straight face is pretty funny.” Kokomi blinked at him, who then broke out into soft laughter. Sara sighed.

“Focus, guys,” she said. “We have to strike up a deal with that man next.”

Ayato straightened. Kokomi nodded. “Barca Lawrence’s right-hand man, right?” she asked.

“Yes. Though we shouldn’t approach him directly.” Sara gazed down at a scrap of paper, her brows furrowed in deep thought. “Barca’s daughter, Eula Lawrence, is on this ship, too. But she’s not an assassin; presumably, she’s here on vacation. It's a fact that she doesn’t know her father’s true motives, though. Our sources say that she doesn’t have an inkling of Hexenzirkel’s existence."

“Do we approach her, then?”

“We’ll get into her good books, then reveal what her father’s been doing behind her back with Hexenzirkel and the Astors,” Sara said. “Once she decides to confront his right hand man about it, we’ll meet him with her, and then reveal what we want.”

Ayato’s eyebrow twitched. “That’s a tad too convoluted, isn’t it?”

“He might think we’re enemies, if we just directly approach him,” Sara said disdainfully. “We don’t want any more fighting than necessary. Our agents are already spread pretty thin across the ship. On the other hand, he may have a whole horde of assassins at his disposal.”

Kokomi raised a hand. “I can befriend Eula,” she said enthusiastically.

Sara looked like she wanted to protest, but the woman ended up sighing in resignation. “Sure. I think you’ll have the best chance of getting close to another person out of the three of us, anyway. But, remember, we only have thirty hours left,” she added sharply. “Hang out with her for half a day at most, then choose an appropriate time to break it to her.”

“Uh,” Ayato said, clearly not on board with the plan. “You can’t just befriend someone in a few hours.

“It’s different for this girl,” Sara said. “Eula doesn’t have many friends. I’m sure she’d latch onto any sort of company in an instant.”

Kokomi winced. “I feel kinda bad.”

Sara shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s for the mission. Hikari really wants Alice dead.”

“Wasn’t she friends with Alice before?” Ayato said.

“Friends?” Kokomi echoed. That was new to her.

Sara rubbed her forehead. “Don’t really care. I just don’t want Hikari to rage at all of us again, especially after what happened before with the whole Inessa thing.”

Kokomi nodded fervently. “Yeah. I second that.” When they’d failed to kill Inessa the first time, Hikari had grilled Yae to the bone, and Yae had taken out that same anger on all of them, as well, no matter how much she tried to disguise it as mere dissatisfaction.

“Sure,” Ayato said dully. “I just wanted to get some juicy backstory gossip, but whatever.”

Sara ignored him, and faced Kokomi. “Go find Eula now. She’s up on the tenth deck, and according to her routine that our other agents have recorded down, she should be playing pool right now. In the meantime, we’ll continue getting rid of all those listening bugs that were planted around the ship.”

“Alrighty.” She hugged Sara goodbye, the other girl stiffening in her grasp like she always did, then left the room, Ayato making a gagging noise behind her. 

In her pocket, the phone buzzed again. It’d been buzzing all throughout the time she was in the room, too. Kokomi slid it out and answered the call from the unknown number. She wasn’t aware that Ei had another ally. And such an enthusiastic one, at that.

“I found the Grey Family’s new cabin,” a man spoke cheerfully. “I told you it’d take no time at all, didn’t I? It’s 8A.”

Kokomi twirled a lock of her hair around her finger. Ei's in cahoots with someone who isn't from Tenshukaku, she thought derisively. A mirthless smile creeped up her lips. “Thank you, kind sir.”

She could practically see the gears turning in the man’s head when he fell silent. Before he could say anything else, she ended the call. 

She didn’t have to put much effort into finding the Astors, after all. The only thing she had left to do was to befriend Eula, then strike up that deal with Barca’s right-hand man—made easier with the information she now had in her possession—and Tenshukaku would easily achieve their objective on the Irminsul.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know what to do.”

 

Sara grasped tightly onto Ei’s hand, eyes clouded over. They sat still on the porch swing, the first rays of sunshine peeking through the gloomy clouds, flooding into the gaps of darkness between them. Ei squeezed her hand, then kicked a pebble down onto the road. 

 

“I don’t know what to do,” she repeated. “Our family’s basically gone now. Even Miko isn’t here anymore.”

 

A lone car sped past them. Ei kicked another pebble.

 

“I’m supposed to be a big sister to Renji now,” she said, voice quivering, “but he doesn’t seem to remember anything. He even asked me to call him by a different name. It’s so weird, isn’t it? Aunt Yui said he’s suffering from something called dissociative amnesia, and that I shouldn’t try bringing up what happened to him at all. But, that’s just…that’s just so sad and cruel.” Ei bowed her head, violet hair falling over her face. “He’ll never know what happened to his mother.”

 

“I don’t think Aunt Hikari is dead,” Sara interjected quietly. Ei flinched at the word. Dead. For the life of her, she didn’t understand how Sara could grasp the concept of death so easily. “I thought I heard her voice in the car, when Mom drove us away.”

 

“I don’t want to think Makoto or my father are, either,” Ei said, with a little tinge of venom, “but here we are.”

 

Sara winced, her hand retracting from Ei’s, who immediately regretted the tone with which she’d replied.

 

“Sorry,” Ei whispered, curling her hands into fists and resting them against the wooden panels of the swing, “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s fine.” Sara shook her head. “I know how it feels.”

 

Ei’s bottom lip caught in between her teeth. Sara’s biological parents had passed away, after all—she was being insensitive. “Still…sorry.”

 

Sara smiled gently. “And still…it’s fine.”

 

“I just…I don’t know what to do now.” She looked back at the house. “I’m glad we moved out of our original estate. I would feel so much sadder all the time if we continued staying there. But, I…” Ei’s eyes burned. “I wish none of this had happened. Maybe if we hadn’t gone to the festival, that man wouldn’t have spotted us there, and everyone would still be here.”

 

“No, Ei,” Sara said, eyes hardening, “that day at dinner, I heard Mom say that the man had been tailing your family for a long time now. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. You should blame that man, instead.”

 

Ei breathed out a long sigh. “I don't know. It’s my birthday tomorrow, and Makoto told me to be happy. So I’ll hold out for one more day. After that, after tomorrow…” Ei swallowed, anger like a poison seeping into her veins. “I’m going to hunt those Fatui down.”

 

Sara looked at her for a moment, then wrapped her in a tight hug.

 

“I’ll join you,” she replied, unwavering.

 

Ei smiled, and hugged her back.  

 

“Um…”

 

They broke out of the hug. Renji was a short distance away from the swing, blinking up at them with shimmering eyes. 

 

“I had a bad dream,” he said softly. “I’m scared.”

 

Ei got off the swing and lifted him up, where he buried his face into the crook of her neck as she carried him back into the house. 

 

“It’ll be fine,” she murmured, tucking him into bed and bringing the blanket up to his chin. She lightly stroked his hair. “It’ll be fine.”

 

His eyes remained open. His hands were shaking beneath the blanket. Ei frowned.

 

“Scara?” she said, the name weird on her tongue.

 

“I’m scared.”

 

His entire face turned ghastly white. Footsteps sounded as Sara entered the room. He flinched violently when he saw Sara, who hesitantly stepped back.

 

“I’m scared,” he repeated, his fingers twisting into the blanket. 

 

“Uh…should I leave the room?” Sara said.

 

“No, I think the dream he had was a really scary one.” Ei patted his head. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. “Sara and I are here.”

 

Renji shivered, his eyes wide with terror, like he was still in the dream. 

 

“Help…” His voice dropped to a whisper. 

 

Ei sighed, then crawled under the blankets with him. It was what Makoto had always done whenever she had a nightmare. She faced him.

 

“I’ll be with you, okay?”

 

Her fingers glided over his hair as his breaths slowly evened out. Finally, his eyes fluttered shut, his sleeping body turned towards her. Ei pressed a light kiss to his forehead. 

 

Soon, she started getting drowsy, too. She turned to Sara, who had now sat on the other bed, the girl’s head lightly nodding off, as well. 

 

The door opened. Yui, still dressed in her work attire, walked over to Sara and tucked her into bed. She turned to Ei and smiled.

 

“I came back home after work, just to find you sleeping in the morning instead of at night?” she said, a playful edge to her voice.

 

Ei yawned. Yui chuckled. 

 

The lights went out in a blink, the door shutting. 


Years passed, and Scara hadn’t stopped having nightmares—it happened almost every other night. Ei would, without fail, leave a glass of warm milk on the table before she went to sleep. More often than not, the glass had been emptied and washed by morning. They never said a word to each other about it. Ei was fine knowing that she’d helped him, no matter how small the part she played was. 

 

Because deep inside, she was afraid. She was afraid of not being able to be there for him, the same way Makoto had taken care of her all those years. She was afraid of hiding the truth, because she knew a day would come where he’d remember. She was afraid of being detested by the only family she had left.

 

But she couldn’t possibly tell him what happened. The incident must have been so scarring, so utterly traumatising, that his mind had chosen to completely suppress the memory. She’d be a terrible fucking person to scar him all over again. (But, still, she knew she’d hate it if her own family had kept something of this magnitude from her. She didn’t have a choice, though. If she told him, if she told him everything, he’d insist on knowing who the murderer was. And he’d inevitably get himself wrapped up in Tenshukaku, which was something that, for the love of fucking God, Ei did not want to ever come to pass.)

 

It wasn’t like Ei knew much of what happened, anyway. Yae was still keeping the truth from her. To make things worse, Sara had faded out of her life when Ei met Yae again, like forging a connection with a loved one again was only possible by forsaking another. She suspected Sara likely knew more things than her now. 

 

She didn’t know why she was being kept in the dark. Yae was her soulmate, but she still refused to tell her a multitude of things. Yui was her parental figure, but she never told Ei much about what she was doing in Tenshukaku. Now that she thought about it, even Makoto had never told her about…much of anything, really.

 

Ei didn’t get it. Was she that undeserving of the truth? 


No one at Tenshukaku cared about getting Scara back. Ei was the only one who had some semblance of humanity left in her, that much was apparent. She didn’t know if she hated Yae for blatantly stating that there was no point in bringing him back. She didn’t know if she could call the feelings that she had for Yae, love, anymore. All she knew was that she’d never forgive the girl. Not in her entire lifetime. 

 

She gathered her own group of agents. They scoured Snezhnaya for him. Until she came across a Harbinger in a payphone, telling the Fatui's plans to Yae. It’d always been Yae, it'd always been Yae who constantly remained one fucking step ahead of her. 

 

Not this time. She had to bring Scara back, no matter what. The Irminsul was the only chance she’d be able to get in a long time. She wanted to explain everything to him. She wanted them to be back to what they were before. 

 

She just hoped the Fatui hadn’t dealt irreversible damage to him.


The moment Ei saw him again, fighting that burly guy in a dress, she nearly burst into tears. She told herself to wait until the last day of the cruise trip, to find him and get him back, but she couldn’t help it. 

 

Ei ran after him. And, this time, she reached him.

 

But what she’d been most afraid of all these years had finally come to pass, right in front of her eyes, as he looked at her with so much hurt and loathing, spoke words with so much hurt and loathing, that she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to get back up.

 

But she could. She could get back up right now. If Tenshukaku thought she was just a weak Raiden, she’d put them in their fucking place. Unbridled strength flowed through her veins. She had fucking enough of everything. 

 

She tore out of the ropes that bound her to the chair, red welts forming on her arms.

 

“Ma’am?”

 

Ei freed Gorou and Itto from their chairs, hands trembling in fury.

 

“Are we going after your brother?” Gorou asked.

 

Ei didn’t answer him. She kicked the door open, as it fell from its hinges and onto the floor with a loud crash. As she expected, a door two rooms down the corridor opened, and Sara stared at her in incredulity.

 

She moved quickly. Ei crossed the distance between them and tackled Sara to the floor before the other could even react. Ei dug her knees into her back, holding the other’s head down with one palm, Sara's cheek pressing against the floor . She surveyed the room. It seemed Ayato had gone out. 

 

“Tell me everything,” she demanded coldly, pressing Sara’s face to the floor, hard. 

 

"No,” Sara bit back.

 

“Tell me everything,” she repeated. 

 

“No.”

 

Ei dug her elbow into the nape of her neck. Sara let out a choked scream.

 

“Tell me everything.”

 

“No,” Sara croaked. 

 

“Is Aunt Hikari alive?”

 

Sara stilled. Ei smiled.

 

“She’s alive,” Ei said. “She’s alive, and you’re all working under her. Yae’s just been a proxy director, hasn’t she? She’s the second-in-command to Aunt Hikari, like how it'd always been. A Raiden as the director, a Yae as second-in-command.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“Don’t fucking lie. It’s always been questionable that a Yae became the director,” she said darkly. “A Raiden has always been in charge. And if it isn’t me, then who else could it be? Not my father, for sure. He’s too prideful to choose not to show his face, to choose not to show the Fatui that he’d come out of the house alive. So my father’s definitely dead.”

 

Sara shook her head. “You’re jumping to conclusions, Ei.”

 

Ei barked out a laugh. “Of course. No one’s told me anything, so I had to rely on inferences, all this while. I’m inclined to say that my conclusions are rather logical.”

 

“What would you even gain from this?” Sara said, cold and cruel. “The truth won’t help you. You’ll still be in Tenshukaku, and Scara will still be with the Fatui.”

 

“I want to see Aunt Hikari,” Ei said. 

 

“You can’t. Yae and my mother have been the only ones in Tenshukaku who’ve seen her in person since seventeen years ago.”

 

“And I’ll see her in person, as well.”

 

“You can’t.”

 

Anger stirred in Ei’s chest. “How do you contact Yae while on the cruise? Give me the phone, and I’ll tell her to let me see Aunt Hikari right now.”

 

“You know you can’t do that.”

 

“Does it look like I give a fuck?” Ei growled, digging her elbow harder. A pained cry. “Give me the phone, Sara.”

 

The girl was silent under her. 

 

Ei sighed. “There’s something seriously wrong with you.”

 

She twisted Sara's arm behind her back, then concentrated all her force into the other girl's elbow, breaking it with a resounding crack. An agonising scream. Gorou and Itto rushed to close the door. 

 

“You’re not Ei,” Sara said, her voice wet. She laughed. “Ei would never hurt others for her own gains.”

 

“Sorry,” Ei said unapologetically. “I’ve had enough of people treating me like a fly on the wall. And I’m angry at all of Tenshukaku. So I’m sorry for not being Ei right now.” 

 

“You sick fuck,” Sara hissed. 

 

“Do I need to repeat myself? Give me the phone.”

 

“Over my dead fucking body.”

 

Ei’s eyes flashed, a wave of rage sweeping over her. Over her dead fucking body, huh?

 

“Ma’am,” Itto said, placing a hand on her shoulder. Ei tensed. “Don’t do anything you’d regret.”

 

Ei gritted her teeth. So she did something she wouldn’t regret, and snapped Sara’s other elbow, instead.

 

“Fuck,” Sara said. “You really want to kill me, huh?”

 

“Give me the phone.”

 

Ei removed her hand from the back of Sara’s head. Wordlessly, the other girl lifted her head and tipped it to the side, towards the table, where a burner phone sat. 

 

“Before you call her,” Sara said through bared teeth, “you’ll have to first text her the number 2706. Hers is the only number on the phone. You can try extracting information from her, but I doubt she’ll tell you anything right now.”

 

“We’ll see,” Ei said tersely. She typed 2706 and sent it to the sole number on the phone. The message was read almost immediately. 

 

She dialed the number and brought the phone to her ear.

 

The call was answered in two rings. 

 

“Yes, Sara?” Yae said. “I don’t have much time, so ask me whatever it is you want to know quickly.”

 

“Yae.”

 

A sharp intake of breath, then: “Ei.”

 

“I want to see Aunt Hikari.”

 

Yae paused. “Did Sara tell you?”

 

“I figured it out myself. I pressured her into letting me call you.” Ei paused. Sara looked like she was trying to slip out of Ei’s grasp. She pressed her knees into her back firmly; Sara let out a painful wheeze. “So, tell me. How do I meet Aunt Hikari?”

 

A cold, frosty, distant: “You can’t.”

 

Ei laughed. “Please, fuck off. Would it really hurt that much for me to see the only other live Raiden?”

 

“Ei, this is an issue that’s bigger than you or me. You can’t meet her, and that’s final.”

 

“Yae,” Ei said, losing her patience, “don’t. Don’t drag this out anymore than necessary. I know you’re just scared of defying her orders.”

 

“Excuse me?” Yae snapped. But her voice shook, betraying the truth in Ei’s statement.

 

Ei was about to continue, but there was a strange shuffle from the other line. Then, a different voice chimed in.

 

Ei's entire world stopped.

 

“How’s my lovely niece doing?”

 

She didn’t know. She didn’t know if what she was feeling was anger. It was her…it was seriously her. She was fucking alive.

 

Her voice trembled. 

 

“Aunt Hikari.”

 

Sara’s head snapped up. 

 

“Ei,” Hikari said, sounding like she was smiling. “Here I am. Are you happy to hear my voice? I’m alive, just as you thought.”

 

Ei breathed deeply. “You…where have you been?” 

 

“In hiding,” Hikari replied calmly. “Though it seems it's been in vain, since many others besides you have similarly realised that I’m not dead.”

 

“Why would you?”

 

“I had to, for the Fatui to get off your backs. Do you hate me for it, Ei?”

 

Ei glared at the floor. “You know what you did. You left him. You left Renji all alone.”

 

"I had to.”

 

“He’s with the Fatui now.”

 

“Yes, he is.”

 

Her chest tightened. “They tortured him.”

 

Hikari hummed. “I doubt it. His RHM levels are already pretty unstable. The Fatui aren’t that stupid.”

 

That’s not the fucking point. Ei willed herself to calm down, an action that took a lot more effort than she realised. 

 

“Why don’t you care about bringing him back?” she demanded.

 

“He’s safer with the Fatui, for now, Ei. It’s hard to accept, I know.”

 

“Will you ever show your face to him?”

 

“No,” Hikari replied simply. “I don’t mind if he finds out that I’m alive, but I’m not going to meet him.”

 

“Why?”

 

“It’s too dangerous. The Fatui still wants to kill me. And if they discover that he’s met me, they’ll use him to try and find me. I don’t want him to suffer through that.”

 

Ei smiled humorlessly. “You’re awfully kind. Why did you hide from me, then? All this while, I thought I was the only living Raiden, yet you’re here, and I don’t know what to fucking think. No one told me what really happened at the house, Aunt." She took a shaky breath. "Can't you tell me?”

 

A sigh. “You really want to know?”

 

“I think I deserve it,” she said through gritted teeth.

 

Hikari paused for a few moments, like she was readying herself for it, too.

 

“You remember Uncle Arata?"

 

"Yes."

 

"He was a Fatui Harbinger."

 

It took longer for Ei to piece things together. "He led us into a trap?"

 

"No, he didn't know anything," Hikari said immediately, like she'd expected her reply. "Pierro came and threw a grenade at us all. The Fatui wanted Arata dead, too. We survived, but your father had the same thought as you, and he ended up killing Arata.”

 

Ei’s eyes widened. Hikari went on.

 

“This is news to you, but Renji has ROSD. He had an episode at that house—right after he found Arata dead, he killed your father. To this day, I still don't know how his five-year-old self could have possibly done that, enhanced or not.”

 

Ei clutched the phone tightly. “This isn’t a good joke.” He couldn't have possibly…

 

Hikari laughed. She laughed. “You said you wanted to know. I’m telling you the truth now.”

 

She swallowed. What the fuck. Throughout that entire conversation, Hikari sounded like she was merely narrating a fucking story.

 

Ei shook her head. Right, her aunt had always been fucked up. She'd nearly forgotten.

 

“That means he may relapse at any time," Ei concluded.

 

“Yes, he may.”

 

“Which means he may kill someone else.”

 

Hikari's fingers tapped against something. A table. “Do you get it now, Ei?”

 

Ei shivered. She didn’t want to get it. But…

 

“I kept all this from you because I didn’t want you to be afraid of him. I just wanted you to continue being a good older sister. And you did your job. I'm grateful for that.”

 

Fuck. It made sense in an extremely twisted way. Ei didn't know if she could trust her words, but all she really wanted right now was...

 

“Either way, I’m trying to figure out what exactly it is that the Fatui want,” Hikari said solemnly. “They have a goal in mind that no one knows about. And," there was a pause and a sip, as she drank something from a cup, "you’re free to help me, Ei.”

 

“Help you, how?”

 

“Join Sara, Ayato and Kokomi.”

 

She blanched.

 

“The first thing you can do is to help me kill Alice Astor.”

 

“Join them? But—”

 

“Before you kill her,” Hikari said, cutting her off, “ask her where the Astors’ safe is. They kept a lot of prized documents in there. I doubt even the current head of Hexenzirkel knows of its existence.”

 

“And then, what?”

 

“I’ll make a trip there myself. They've been colluding with the Fatui all these years, and I'm willing to bet that the answers I want are all somewhere in there."

 

Ei ground her molars. She felt Gorou and Itto staring at her inquisitively, fearfully. "For you to make a bold offer like that, Aunt...I must be getting something out of it. There's no way I'd work with them, otherwise, and you know it."

 

Hikari chuckled. "I know all you really want is revenge against the Fatui. I'm confident that you'll be able to get it if you follow along."

 

"And once I'm done with that, I'll get Scara back."

 

"Are you sure he wants to be back, though?"

 

"He's clearly been influenced by them. He's not thinking straight right now."

 

"So he did tell you that he doesn't want to be back."

 

Ei rubbed her forehead. "It doesn't matter. Once I help you with whatever the hell you're doing, I'll take him back, anyway." The way you're not worried about your own child in the slightest...

 

Hikari ignored her statement. "Thank you for agreeing to help, Ei. Once you're off the Irminsul, come find me at Provins in Fontaine. I'll be waiting at a pub called L'essentiel."

 

"Okay."

 

Hikari hung up. Ei slid the phone into Sara's palm, who looked at her with so much disgust that it almost made her jump.

 

"You're helping us?" she said, sneering.

 

"I don't want to, either." Ei stood up, expecting Sara to attack her the moment she let her go, but the other girl only stood up with her, stretching her arms out as she did so. Her broken elbows had already healed. "Do you guys know where Alice's new cabin is at?" She fumbled in her pockets, and cursed under her breath. "My phone's with her."

 

"Kokomi?" Sara said, suddenly adopting an unsettling neutral expression. "She just left, so that we can strike a deal with Barca Lawrence's right-hand man." She went on to explain what the deal entailed in a monotone.

 

Ei watched Sara carefully. The other girl's expression was closed off, but not tense in the slightest. Like she'd just accepted the fact that they were working together in a blink of an eye. That's a good thing, I guess. Though she was never going to get used to sudden transitions in atmosphere like this. "And how are you going to strike that deal?"

 

Gorou and Itto hovered behind Ei as Sara explained the plan. Once Sara left to continue removing the listening bugs that the weird, cheerful man who'd called Ei had presumably planted, Ei immediately made a beeline for the lift.

 

"Are we on the same side as them now, ma'am?" Itto asked, confused.

 

"For now," Ei said, jaw tightening. "I'm going to get my phone back from Kokomi, so I can make a call. You guys should help Sara remove those listening bugs, too." There was something odd about the man who had called her while she was on the twelfth deck. She couldn't risk her suspicions being right.

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"You can drop the 'ma'am', really."

 

"Uh...ma'am...uh..."

 

"You know what? Whatever."


"Hi."

 

The blue-haired girl turned, an icy gaze directed at her as she straightened. "You interrupted my pool game."

 

Kokomi smiled. "May I play with you?"

 

Eula appraised her, an eyebrow arched. "Look, if you're only talking to me so you can make connections with my dad, you should leave. I don't waste my time with people like you."

 

"Um..." Kokomi feigned intrigue. "What's so special about your dad?"

 

"Ha. As if I'd fall for that." Eula faltered when Kokomi continued staring at her. "What's up with you?"

 

"I really just want to play pool. I mean, I approached you, because, uh..." She kicked her toe into the ground repeatedly, averting her gaze. This specific set of actions had always worked before, anyway. Her voice shrank. "Um...I think you're pretty. And I'd like to get to know you."

 

Eula's cheeks flushed a rosy pink. Had she never been complimented like this before? Kokomi scanned her. She was seriously pretty for it to have never happened to her.

 

"Thanks," she said, clearing her throat. "But I don't think you're telling the truth. Find someone else to play pool with."

 

"But..." Kokomi looked around the room, forming just the right mixture of disgust and apprehension on her face, her nose wrinkled. "Everyone else in this room are musty old men. I like you better."

 

Eula smiled a little, but quickly slipped back into a wary expression. "Do you really want your parents to know my dad that badly?"

 

Kokomi frowned, hoping that she looked frustrated in a cute enough way. It seemed to work, because Eula's eyes widened just a fraction, her muscles tensing just a little. "I told you, I don't know who your dad is."

 

Eula bit her lip. "You're so persistent."

 

"Is that a 'yes'?" Kokomi said, beaming.

 

The other sighed, crossing her arms. "Fine, fine. But no personal questions allowed while we're playing."

 

She clapped her hands together. Great. "Deal."

 

That rule Eula set turned out to be redundant, because not even two minutes in and the girl was already rambling on about how she hated the fact that everyone only approached her because of her background, and how her background was the same thing that drove people away, as well. She barely waited for Kokomi to give an input at all, and just continued maundering on about her suspicion of her dad's activities, and how she wasn't truly enjoying herself on this cruise because her dad's right-hand man only let her have access to the pool room and the bowling alley. ("What kind of vacation even is this?" she said angrily, knocking the white cue ball so harshly into the other billiard balls that some rolled out of the table and dropped onto the floor with resounding successive thuds, attracting curious looks from the other players in the room. Kokomi picked them up and placed them back on the table, lips pinched.) Eula continued complaining, but this time it was about her other counterparts in Favonius (Kokomi hadn't even been aware that she was part of that organisation, and, anyway, Eula wasn't supposed to reveal that kind of information about herself, but the girl seemed to be oblivious to it), and how all of them needed to pay for offending her in one way or another. Kokomi soon began drowning out her voice, focusing purely on the pool game, until Eula started speaking of something different.

 

"Honestly, I feel bad for the Astors."

 

Kokomi's cue stick froze. "The Astors?"

 

"They used to live in Mondstadt," Eula said, watching her cue stick with a raised eyebrow. Kokomi broke out of her stupor and knocked a striped-ball into the hole at the top-left corner. "They contributed a lot to Favonius, but they were driven out of Mondstadt a few decades back because my family hated their guts, and wanted control over Favonius. Despite that, my family couldn't win over Favonius, in the end, and we started to be discriminated against not just by Favonius, but by the residents of Mondstadt, too. I don't know what my stupid father was thinking. I kind of digressed, but, anyway, I hope the Astors are doing okay right now."

 

If the Lawrences weren't exiled from Mondstadt like the Astors, then what the hell did Barca want by taking over Hexenzirkel? And how was he okay with Eula being in Favonius? "I...hope they're doing okay, too," Kokomi said, brows furrowed in concentration at both the game and Eula's words. Another striped ball made it into the top-left hole.

 

"Anyway, I talked enough about myself," Eula said. At that moment, she was finally coming back to her senses, and realised just how much personal information she'd unwittingly shared, the colour draining from her face. "Uh...what about—what about you?" 

 

"My name's Mimi," Kokomi said pleasantly. This time, the ball just barely made it in, and knocked the nearby 8-ball into the hole, instead. She smiled sheepishly. "Oops." The game had to end soon, anyway.

 

"Are you from Inazuma?"

 

"Yeah. My father's a lawyer, and my mother's a doctor." Neither of her statements were lies. They used to be the truth, anyway.

 

Eula nodded. "Makes sense that you can afford being up here, then. Did they pay for your cruise trip?"

 

"Mmhmm. I'm pursuing a degree in marine biology, and I'm on break for a few weeks. They said I needed to get some rest, so they sent me out here." Kokomi lost count of the number of times she'd let herself dream about an alternate future like that.

 

"That's pretty cool. How's the trip been like for you so far?" Eula said, suddenly pretty courteous.

 

"Well...so-so. I've really just been spending most of my time doing work."

 

"That's a wasted vacation, then," she said bluntly.

 

Kokomi shrugged. "I don't have much of a choice."

 

"Yes, you do." Eula placed her stick down. "This cruise is going to disembark soon, you know. Let's go somewhere."

 

Kokomi blinked. "I thought you were only allowed in this room and the bowling alley."

 

"Uh, yeah, but, whatever." Eula grinned. "If that stupid old man has a problem with it, I'll just pummel him to the ground."

 

The girl was more aggressive than she'd expected. Kokomi covered her smile with a hand. "Sure."

 

The two girls made their way down to the eighth deck, where Eula dragged her to the shopping promenade spent a whole lifetime choosing between outfits, shoes, and earrings. Kokomi mostly helped her with the decision-making, instead of trying on clothes herself. It felt...foreign, to be spending her time doing something that wasn't for the purpose of fulfilling Hikari's orders. Kokomi hated the feeling. Perhaps she really was brainless—she much rather enjoyed carrying out things she was told to do, instead of doing whatever this was.

 

"Mimi, you aren't just watching me, are you?" Eula said, frowning at her after having tried on a different dress. "I mean, I used to be like you, too, but I had a friend who told me it was better to just do whatever makes you happy in the moment. No point always dwelling on your marine biology work."

 

Kokomi scratched her cheek. "I don't know..."

 

"Come on, I'll find something for you to change into," Eula beckoned. Kokomi followed her deeper into the shop, until Eula stopped at a top and a skirt that she thrusted into her arms belatedly. "I think this would suit you pretty well. Your hair, especially."

 

What was she doing?

 

"...Okay."

 

She stared at herself in the fitting room, where her expression blanked, as usual. Her gaze flitted to the clothes that Eula had picked out for her, which she hesitantly raised in front of her body. It seemed nice enough. To appease Eula, she changed into the clothes, then stepped out of the room, where the other girl beamed and smoothed out her shirt, then grabbed her arm and brought her to face the full-body mirror.

 

"You look great, Mimi," Eula said, a sincere smile on her face.

 

Kokomi smiled weakly back at her, straightening out the creases in her skirt, feeling miles away from where she was right now. "Thanks, Eula."

 

Eula's smile slowly slipped off her face. Kokomi's body turned to ice.

 

"Huh. I don't remember introducing myself," she said, her eyes locking onto Kokomi's. "Maybe my name slipped out by accident."

 

"You did," Kokomi quickly interjected, her throat tightening. "When you were talking about your dad just now."

 

"Did I?"

 

Eula's grip on her arm tightened.

 

Ah, fuck. This is where it ends.

 

"You should buy these clothes," she said, an edge to her voice. "They really do suit you."

 

"Yeah," Kokomi said. Eula's expression was eerily vacant. "I think I will. Thanks for helping me pick them out."

 

"No problem."

 

Eula had lost interest in the dozens of outfits she'd tried on, and followed after Kokomi as she bought the clothes at the counter, Eula's gaze never once leaving her. Kokomi took the bag with her clothes, willing her hands to steady themselves.

 

"Mimi," Eula said, stopping her outside the shop.

 

She looked at Eula, remaining as relaxed as she could be. "Yeah?"

 

"You can tell the truth now."

 

"I'm sorry?"

 

Eula smiled poisonously. "The real reason why you're talking to me."

 

Kokomi watched her carefully. The other girl's composure seemed shaky, like she was going to fall apart at the seams at any moment. She was feeling hurt, not wary. Eula probably only saw her as just another person who had wanted to approach her because of her dad. Not anything else, anything like her suspecting she was a Tenshukaku agent. Kokomi sighed in mild relief, a wry smile on her face.

 

"I'll tell you, then," she said. Eula looked like she was about to cry. Kokomi wanted to shift her gaze elsewhere, actually feeling somewhat bad, but she had to do this while looking her in the eyes. "Your dad's Barca Lawrence."

 

"Yes," Eula said, now appearing more furious than sad.

 

She could finally get back on track now. The task at hand. "He ordered the assassination of the Astors. The sole survivors of their family are Alice and her baby, who are on this cruise right now."

 

Eula stared at her, shell-shocked. "He, what?"

 

"Your dad's put out a bounty for the assassination of Alice. There are dozens of assassins on this cruise, and they're going to find the Astors at any moment."

 

"Hold on." Eula stretched a palm out. "How do you know all this?"

 

"If I tell you, that would just waste even more time," Kokomi said coolly. "You want to save them, don't you? Your dad's right-hand man is the one commanding all those assassins—you have to stop him."

 

"And why did you wait until now to tell me?"

 

"You wouldn't have believed a word I said if I told you everything in the pool room."

 

Eula eyed her warily. "I don't even know if everything you just said is a bunch of bull."

 

"Which is why you should confront him yourself. You'll find out the truth soon enough."

 

She watched Kokomi for a while longer, then cursed. "You're following me, then," she said coldly. Don't try anything funny."

 

"I wouldn't dare."

 

They headed back up to the twelfth deck in breakneck speed, where Eula knocked roughly on the door of suite 12B. It didn't take long before someone answered the door.

 

"Miss Eula," a well-coiffed man with dark eyes greeted. "I'm afraid Mister Luca isn't available at the moment."

 

Eula snorted. "Yes, he is. Let me in."

 

"Miss Eula, what I said was the truth. He's not in the suite right now—"

 

"Okay, and you're definitely not hiding something from me," she challenged, standing her ground. "I'm not leaving until he either 'comes back', or you let me in to see him."

 

"Miss Eula..." The man's voice trailed off when his eyes landed on Kokomi. "Is this your friend, Miss Eula?"

 

Eula scoffed. "Right. Friend. Let's just say she is."

 

Kokomi smiled at him. "Good evening, Tobias Meyer." She hoped she'd said his name right, from the files the other spies had made on Luca's butlers.

 

The man blinked. "You...oh." He seemed to get the hint that this was a matter that he shouldn't be involved in, because he quickly stepped aside, opening the door wide for them to enter. "Mister Luca is in the second room to the right. I'm letting you in, but you best not disturb him—"

 

Eula stormed off to the room and pounded on the door.

 

A tired-looking man peered out from a gap in the door. "Eula, how many times have I told you not to bother me past nine p.m.—oh." His eyes cleared when he saw Kokomi, and he straightened, sliding out of his room and closing the door before she could catch anything inside. "And you are?"

 

"I'm Mimi," she said, spotting Eula narrowing her eyes at her, "and I come as a friend of Eula's."

 

"Oh?" Luca looked like he wanted to laugh. "A friend?"

 

Eula cut straight to the point. "What's this about Father assassinating the Astors?"

 

Luca's growing grin was wiped clean off. His eyes snapped to Kokomi, who continued smiling serenely at him.

 

His moustache quivered, face darkening. "Who are you?"

 

"Answer the damn question, Luca," Eula snapped.

 

"You shouldn't have come here," Luca said, a deep frown etched on his face, something dangerous brewing behind his displeased expression. "Eula, I've severely overestimated your intelligence."

 

Eula crossed her arms. "Insult me all you want, but that's not going to make me leave. Tell me the truth."

 

Kokomi watched Luca carefully. His beady, olive eyes were darting around, like he was calling for backup, but no one was there to answer his calls. Kokomi had made sure of it, anyway—during the masquerade ball, she'd poisoned every single one of his butlers and bodyguards, save the most inexperienced one, the butler who'd opened the door for them.

 

"I see," he finally said, laughing defeatedly. "I see now. Okay, you'll get the answers you want, Eula."

 

He proceeded to explain how Barca had taken over Hexenzirkel, and how it was true that he'd put out a bounty for Alice Astor. Luca didn't elaborate any more than that, only added that he was on this cruise to get the bounty money, and had brought a group of originally independent assassins together for the sole purpose of killing Alice. Eula looked increasingly horrified with every word that came out of the man's mouth, the veins in her arms bulging out from how tightly she was clenching her fists.

 

"I see, now, too," she said quietly. "This family's full of a bunch of fucking psychos."

 

Luca splayed his hands out, in a 'what-can-you-do' gesture. "Your father gives me orders, and I follow them. I'm only more motivated this time because of the money."

 

Eula gritted her teeth. "Asshole..."

 

Luca turned his attention to Kokomi, his eyes narrowing. "And you're the one who told Eula all this. I'll ask again: who are you?"

 

"I'm from Tenshukaku."

 

Luca tensed a little.

 

"We would like to strike a deal with you," Kokomi said. Beside her, Eula's head whirled around as she stared at her, perplexed. "We'll help you kill Alice, but we won't take the money." (Eula froze. "What the fuck? You tricked me?") "You can have all of it. The only thing we want from you is a visit to Hexenzirkel's headquarters. More specifically, we'd like to arrange a meeting with Barca Lawrence."

 

Ire was radiating off of Eula in waves. Kokomi ignored her and fixed her gaze on Luca, who looked extremely doubtful.

 

"We won't take any money," Kokomi repeated, "or any credit. You'll take all of it. I'm not kidding, you know. You'll take everything. It'll be like you killed Alice yourself. This way, you'll be able to get his recognition, and be respected by your Hexenzirkel colleagues for the rest of your life. I think it's a pretty good deal. All you have to do is tell him that you came across some people from Tenshukaku who'd very much like to see him. And the decision to accept us visiting is also completely up to him. If he rejects it, there's nothing we can do about it."

 

Luca fiddled with the ring on his finger. A married man, huh. Irony at its finest.

 

"I...accept your deal," he finally said. "The only problem is that we don't know where Alice's new cabin is."

 

"That's where you're wrong. I know exactly where it is."

 

Eula grabbed her arm, nails digging into her skin. "You're not going anywhere," she snarled.

 

Kokomi smiled. "Thanks for today, Eula. It was fun."

 

And she did somewhat mean it.

 

"I'm from Favonius," Eula said, grinning shakily. "I'll get them all to stop you."

 

"We're in the middle of the ocean," Kokomi said calmly. "You're all alone, Eula. You'll have to stop us by yourself, but that's not a very wise thing to do."

 

"I'll protect them from all of you. And after that, I'll kill you all myself—"

 

"Eula," Luca said, exasperated. "Don't go saying nonsense like this. You can't go against your father, and you know it."

 

Eula leered at him. "Don't talk to me when you're not even doing your own assassin job properly."

 

Luca's eyes darkened. "Would you like me to?"

 

At that moment, Eula was caught off-guard, and something akin to terror flashed over her eyes. Kokomi used the opportunity to tackle her to the ground, where she twisted her arms behind her back. She then knocked a harsh fist into the back of her head, rendering Eula unconscious instantly.

 

Luca whistled. "Wow, that was some blow."

 

Kokomi lifted her body into her arms. "Tell your assassins that Alice is in 8A, thought I doubt she's still there. Who's the one providing you intel?"

 

"This man who calls himself Heizou," Luca answered. "He plants listening bugs all around the cruise."

 

"Listening bugs..." Kokomi blinked. The man who'd dialled Ei's phone. "Ah. Well, he's useless, now. My teammates are removing them right now. I'm willing to bet that almost all of them aren't functioning anymore."

 

"What? Why?"

 

"We didn't know he was the one behind those. It could have been the Fatui. We were just taking precautionary measures."

 

Luca cursed. "Pretty bold of you to say you can help us when you're destroying all the work we've already done."

 

Kokomi shrugged. "I'm sure your intel guy can come up with some other way to find the Astors."

 

"Ha. I don't have high expectations for him. In fact, once this assassination is done and dusted, I'm thinking of paying a visit to him and recovering every cent that he got." Luca led Kokomi to Eula's suite, where she tucked her into bed and left.

 

"I'll be meeting the others now," he said. "Go do whatever you Tenshukaku are planning now."

 

Luca left and walked down the corridor. When she turned, she found Ei a distance away, panting heavily.

 

"My phone," she said between breaths. "Give it."

 

Kokomi frowned. "You got out."

 

"I'm working with you now," she said bitterly, wiping the sweat off her face. "Aunt Hikari told me to do so. You can ask Sara if you don't believe me."

 

"I believe you, but what do you need your phone for?"

 

Ei blinked at her statement, then smiled dryly. "Of course you believe me. You're brainless, as usual."

 

Kokomi suppressed the instinctive anger, and held out Ei's phone mutely, giving up on repeating her question. The other girl snatched it from her and scrolled through something, her frown deepening.

 

"He called," Ei said.

 

"The guy? Yeah. He told me where Alice was. Her new cabin's 8A."

 

"And you're not finding him suspicious, or anything?"

 

"He's helping with the mission, isn't he?"

 

Ei laughed. "Yeah. Yeah, of course. But I don't trust him one bit."

 

"And what are you going to do about it?"

 

"I'll try tracing this number to wherever he's at right now."

 

"So, we're the ones left with the job of finding Alice?" Kokomi said sourly.

 

"Yes."

 

"What about your brother?"

 

Ei paused, her face turning blank.

 

"I'll get him back. Just not now."

 

The Raiden left in a hurry, her heels clacking against the floor, still in that weird ballroom gown disguise.

 

Kokomi was somehow more unsettled with the current version of Ei.


"Time to move out again."

 

Kaeya waved them a curt goodbye as they filed out of the cabin in the wee hours of the morning, clad in fresh, new disguises. Scara stayed close to Alice's side this time, while Childe and Albedo kept their distance at the back.

 

"Did you have a good rest?" he asked.

 

"It was as good as it could get, honestly," Alice said. "Meaning not that great, but enough to get me through the rest of the day."

 

Scara smiled weakly. "Same."

 

"You've been through a lot." Alice sighed. "I'm sorry."

 

"It's my job. You don't have to apologise."

 

She shook her head. "I've dragged so many people into this. I just...you know what, it's fine."

 

"Yeah. It's fine."

 

Alice chuckled. "I can't wait to live a quiet life after this."

 

Scara hummed in agreement.

 

"I have a question, though." She looked at him as they came to a stop in front of the lift. "You mentioned that your soulmate—" Scara tensed, "—is a Fatui colleague, right?"

 

"Uh...yeah."

 

Alice looked past him, smiling. Childe and Albedo hadn't arrived yet. "Is it him?"

 

Scara frowned at the ground. He had no idea why it was so hard for him to lie to Alice. "Unfortunately."

 

"I see."

 

She didn't say anything more. Scara shot her an inquisitive look, to which she raised an eyebrow.

 

All she had to say after that was: "He's pretty cute."

 

Scara just barely swallowed down a groan, staring pointedly at the closed lift doors. Footsteps sounded beside them; the other two had reached.

 

They had to make their way down to the third deck, where a fireworks show was taking place on the last night. Kaeya had told them that time was their best opportunity to have the Astors sneak off onto the rendezvous boat. After they'd left, that was it. They'd have successfully completed their mission.

 

And that was it for Scara, too. That was when he'd find out everything the Boss girl had been keeping from him.

 

The five of them made it safely to cabin 3T. Alice, Albedo, and Klee had the rare opportunity to sleep again, while Childe and Scara took turns keeping watch. Scara became increasingly paranoid about any sort of minor headache he had, biting down hard on his fist whenever he felt like he was about to descend into that bout of madness again, but every time he did it turned out to be a false alarm. He never ceased to feel relieved, but—did he seriously have to live like this for the rest of his fucking life?

 

"Fuck," he muttered. His knuckles had been bitten all red and bloody, his healing rate evidently slower than before, though still pretty quick. The RHM suppressant must still be in his system.

 

"Are you scared?"

 

Childe's voice suddenly behind him made him nearly fall out of his chair.

 

"I don't know," Scara said, calming down. That was stupid. "I just want to get rid of this stupid disease."

 

"A cure will come soon."

 

"That's just wishful thinking. When did people find out about this RHM thing, anyway?"

 

"Uh...good question. I don't really know the history."

 

Scara looked at him, unimpressed. "You can't be serious."

 

Childe shrugged. "I really don't know. But I do know that humans only discovered how to enhance themselves around Boss's generation."

 

"How old is she?"

 

"Another thing I don't know."

 

"Dumbass."

 

"But if I had to guess, maybe...over five hundred years?"

 

Scara nearly choked. "Excuse me?" He'd expected a big number, but not something of that fucking magnitude.

 

"Her name's not in history books, but she's one of the people who created the RHM-stimulating technology, together with a few others. Some chose not to seek immortality, but others like Boss did."

 

"Actually," Scara said, "I just realised I don't know her name at all."

 

"Anya Solovyova."

 

"Yeah, no bells are ringing."

 

"That's normal."

 

Scara glanced back at his knuckles, which were now fully healed.

 

"You know, Boss said it's okay for us to take a break at the resort island," Childe said. He was sitting beside Scara on the floor now, his hair slightly mussed from laying down on the sofa, eyes still blinking blearily.

 

"Uh-huh."

 

"Are you going to?"

 

"Of course not. There's no time. I have to ask her some questions after we get off. Well, a lot of questions."

 

Childe faced him, searching for something behind his eyes. "You really don't need a break?"

 

"What's the point?" Scara said dully. "It's just an island. I'd rather go back to my own room if I wanted a break."

 

"That's boring."

 

Scara eyed him. "Are you going?"

 

"Definitely. I'm getting my siblings gifts from the souvenir shops."

 

Childe continued looking at him. It disturbed Scara to no end.

 

"With how you're not looking away," he said, "I'd almost think you wanted me to accompany you."

 

"I mean, why not?"

 

"What's there to do, even?"

 

"I checked before getting on the cruise," Childe said proudly. "There's a zipline, scuba diving, rock-climbing, a high elements course—"

 

"You just like borderline-suicidal activities."

 

"But they're fun," he protested. At Scara's unamused expression, he sighed and grumbled, "There's also milder things. A beach, I guess. And horseback riding. And ice caves."

 

Scara's attention was grabbed. "Ice caves?"

 

"Uh...let me think. Yeah, but—oh, no. They're closed for restoration. It was such a warm spring that a lot of the ice already melted, on account of the heat and the forest canopy not being grown in. So, the ice caves are closed. That's out."

 

Scara rolled his eyes. "It was the only interesting thing you've mentioned. Now I'm definitely not going."

 

"I'll buy you anything you want if you follow me, I promise," Childe insisted, hands clasped together.

 

"Uh, can you buy me a house, then? I could do with staying in a place where there's actual sunlight."

 

Childe shot him a look. Scara snickered.

 

"Kidding," he said. "But why do you want me to follow you so badly?"

 

Childe grinned wickedly, like he'd been waiting for him to ask that question.

 

"Well...there's another thing they have on the island."

 

"Which is?"

 

"We could go see Mikki."

 

"Who?"

 

"Mikki," he repeated. "She's a weird character, a town legend. She lives just about a fifteen-minute walk from the coast, in the woods. Some say she's immortal, that she's been living on the island for a few hundred years. There's been rumours that she goes out into the forest and eats bats for dinner. Raw."

 

"Aaaand that's yet another borderline-suicidal activity."

 

"How? Eating bats for dinner doesn't mean anything."

 

"Tell me why you want to see a potentially homicidal woman, then."

 

"My sources say she used to live in this place called Khaenri'ah."

 

"Uh, what?"

 

"It's this nation that was sort of wiped off the map of Teyvat. No one knows how, or why. Its land just went 'poof' overnight, together with all its citizens. And the thing is, Khaenri'ahns were the ones who made a breakthrough with the RHM-stimulant technology together with Boss."

 

"So..."

 

"So..." His eyebrows raised. "It's worth a shot, to ask her some questions about whatever you want to know. Everyone online says she's really reliable, and that she even has...clairvoyance, but that one's just a bit too far-fetched. If you ask me, you'd save more time asking Mikki questions than by approaching Boss."

 

Scara frowned. "People on the internet are stupid. What if Mikki doesn't even exist?"

 

"No harm giving it a shot, right?"

 

"Hmm."

 

Childe watched him eagerly.

 

"I'd hate to burst your bubble—" he didn't, "—but the entire thing just seems way too sketchy. If I'm asking her the questions, what would you be doing, then?"

 

"Listening to her answers." He shrugged. "Maybe I'll get a fortune telling from her, too."

 

"You literally called her having clairvoyance being far-fetched."

 

"The chances are slim, but they're never zero," Childe said, nodding wisely.

 

Scara deliberated. Then he exhaled. "Fuck it, whatever. I'll just go with you." If Mikki was just some myth, at least he'd get to sleep well at night knowing he tried looking for her, no matter how insane that was. Childe was right, anyway, Boss girl would probably just speak in riddles the entire time he asked her something. Either that, or she'd just straight up lie to him like before.

 

Childe lit up, blue eyes sparkling like crushed ice when he smiled.

 

"Finally," he exclaimed. "You're so hard to convince."

 

Scara kept his eyes far away from Childe. "I just don't want to waste my time."

 

"Everyone needs a break, though. And you haven't taken one in a month."

 

"Doesn't matter."

 

"Yeah, it does. You'll just shrivel up and die, in the end."

 

Scara smiled blankly. "What's so wrong about that?"

 

"It's stupid, to just head to your death like that." Childe's frown faded. "Anyway," he said, running a hand through the strands of Scara's hair that had escaped down his shoulder, "your hair's getting pretty long. Don't you want a haircut?"

 

Scara shrugged, tying his hair up into a high ponytail, and being surprised at how the ends of his tied hair brushed against his neck. "Yeah," he agreed. "It's long. I'll find a barber at the island, or something."

 

"You look nice, though."

 

He raised an eyebrow. "Don't I always?"

 

Childe rolled his eyes. "You look nicer."

 

"Uh...okay. Thanks."

 

"You get shy when Alice compliments you, but not when it's me?"

 

Scara hated the way this conversation was going. "What am I even supposed to do? Giggle?"

 

"Whatever. I've decided you don't look nice anymore."

 

"Okay."

 

"You're stupid."

 

"Right back at you." 

 

Silence settled upon them. Scara found that passing the time was slightly more bearable with Childe beside him, because he actually had something else to focus on besides the telltale buzzing at the back of his head.


"I'm sure your intel guy can come up with some other way to find the Astors."

 

"Ha. I don't have high expectations for him. In fact, once this assassination is done and dusted, I'm thinking of paying a visit to him and recovering every cent that he got."

 

Heizou popped his knuckles one by one, a grin on his face. He'd pegged Luca as a dim bulb from the start, so his murder declaration didn't shock him too much. He fiddled with the watch on his wrist.

 

He'd best start preparing for it now.

Chapter Text

The road winded and twisted, snake-like, with tall, yellowed-out grasses flanking the vehicle on either side, bearing the full brunt of the blinding sun. Blistering rays of heat poured through the windshield, beating down onto her face mercilessly, relentlessly. It toasted the leather seats, and it streaked through the dust motes in the car that swirled in sunbeams. She would switch on the air conditioner, but it’d mysteriously broken down earlier this week, so they were left to boil in the scorching afternoon. The wheels kicked up pieces of gravel which drummed themselves against the undercarriage of Hikari’s car in muted clinks, the only noise in the vehicle after she switched off the crackling radio music that had dipped out of range a few minutes earlier, besides the constant whirring of Yae’s mini-fan. A half-hour had passed between them, and she and Yae had not exchanged a single word.

Long, towering shadows of trees loomed over the car, blocking out some of the sunlight. Yae let out a soft huff of relief. Hikari’s hands clenched tighter onto the wheel.

They were nearing the forest. Just the thought alone surfaced overwhelming, horrible memories in Hikari’s mind, stabbing into the corners of her skull and bringing about an excruciating, all-encompassing ache at the front of her head.

Finally the fork appeared. They hung a left down a narrow gravel road that rumbled sharp and jagged against the car’s tyres, a soft thud from beside her as the back of Yae’s head crashed into the headrest with way too much force. Hikari caught her wincing in pain in her peripheral vision.

“You okay?”

Yae took a moment to respond. “Give me some warning next time." It was surprisingly absent of bite. Hikari frowned slightly. It must be because of what she'd told Yae before the ride.

“Will do.”

The house that appeared in the distance was a run-down cabin eaten by vines. Gnomelike cartoon characters with evil-looking faces dotted the garden, alongside posters reading, I ENTERED CHINJU FOREST AND ALL I CAME HOME WITH WAS MY LIFE. Hikari clenched her jaw. That woman hadn’t removed those posters after all these years—she must be sick in the head. She’d always been insane, anyway.

She halted at the tip of the driveway and killed the engine. Yae’s passenger side door popped open beside her.

Hikari followed suit. The fresh air felt sweet against her face, like one of the first breaths she’d taken in a long time, completely foreign from the stifling city smog. She wiggled her right wrist as she got her watch to a more comfortable position, then tapped on the miniature flashlight icon. The screen flickered to a blinding white.

“No one seems to have been here in a long time,” Yae pointed out, flapping the collar of her shirt as beads of sweat dripped down her neck. “Are you certain it's this place?”

Hikari didn't answer her, too focused on the thudding of her heart, despite having sworn to herself that she wouldn't be afraid. Not of this place, and not of the person inside. They approached the door. Hikari experimentally brushed against the damp wood of the door with a knuckle. It felt exactly the same as it had all those years ago. She whipped her hand away, as if burnt.

“This is the place,” Hikari affirmed. If her voice was uncharacteristically small, Yae chose not to comment on it.

The door was open just an inch. A whiff of the potent combination of dirt and musk pushed through the crack, and when she opened it wide, plumes of rot enveloped them. Yae started coughing. Inside, it was a Gothic haven. Moody piano music burst from speakers hidden in the walls. Hikari would have thought the room was a still life painting, a study of darkness, sinisterness, if not for a slice of the picture quivering. A commanding figure wrapped in a black silk robe-dress was leaning back into a chair in the far corner of the room, olive-black eyes watching the remaining embers of the fireplace flicker for the last time, then blink out to nothing.

Ever so slowly, the figure placed a hand on her cheek, turning to them and shaking her head in faux admiration.

“To what do I owe this honour?” Her mouth curled into a broad yet off-kilter smile.

A stark contrast to outside, the air in the house was so thick and stifling that Hikari barely felt like she was breathing.

“Rhinedottir,” Hikari said. “It’s good to see you again.”

The woman’s long, matte black fingernails scraped the velvet seat. “Yes, darling. Would you two like to sit?” She motioned at two tufted chairs across from the chaise lounge sofa.

“No, we’re okay. I’ve only come to ask a few brief questions.”

Rhinedottir’s eyes flickered over her in mild curiosity. “Oh?”

“This is where the orphanage used to be.”

She nodded, very clearly disinterested now. “Yes, yes. Going on a trip down memory lane today, are you?”

“Of course not,” Hikari said flatly. “I’d just like to know what happened to all your other experiments, after you were done with the orphanage.”

Rhinedottir’s eyes snapped to her, lips curled in slight menace. “Surely you’re smarter than that, Hikari. If they’re not here, where else could they be?” She drew a line across her throat. Yae shifted uncomfortably. “They didn’t end up fulfilling their purpose. You’re the only successful one, and you know this very, very well. I’m quite appalled at how you’re only choosing now to feel sorry for the rest of them.”

“I’m not expressing any sort of sympathy,” Hikari said, patience thinning. “You and I both know that someone else managed to escape that day.”

Rhinedottir’s eyes turned to slits. “Alice is done for. She may have survived the first time, but she’s not going to now, with nearly all of Teyvat’s assassins on her tail.”

“What I don’t understand is why you let her go in the first place. I didn’t even know she was still alive until a few days ago.”

Rhinedottir sighed, chuckling drily. “That girl had so much potential. I couldn’t bear to see her getting killed. In a different timeline, I’m sure she would have been the one to surpass you, to take the position of the Raiden sister. Just a little tweaking of her face and a dying of her hair, and she’d easily have passed as one of the family.”

“And now look at her,” Hikari replied, razor-sharp. “She’s caused so much trouble ever since. Now that lunatic’s got the Fatui on her side, too. It’s getting out of hand.”

“The girl just wants to travel beyond Teyvat, doesn’t she? I don’t see any reason in stopping her. It makes sense for her to ally with the Fatui, too, since they share the same goals.”

“I’m sure those goals you speak of are completely innocuous.”

Rhinedottir arched a brow. “I think their motivations are pretty simple. Alice and Anya, those two, all they really want is to venture out of this godforsaken continent. Anya, in particular—she’s always loathed the idea of being trapped.”

“Did you forget?” Hikari said, voice trembling in barely-contained fury. It’d always been her, always been Rhinedottir, the only person who could make her lose every shred of composure within mere seconds. “Did you forget what Anya did? She nearly had her Harbinger wipe Liyue off the fucking map. She’s a threat to Teyvat, it doesn’t matter if her motivations are ‘simple’. And she’s set her sights on the other nations now. ”

Rhinedottir waved a hand in dismissal. “But Liyue didn’t get harmed in the end, did it? The only reason why she’s wary of you all is because she knows you’d stop her in a heartbeat if she tried getting you on her side. It seems Morax is the only sensible one out of you seven.”

“She killed hundreds of people while working on the RHM-stimulant technology. Her experiment subjects were all tossed out when they were deemed unfit. She’s a monster. Almost as much of one as you. And besides, it’s not worth it to anger Celestia. None of you can understand that.” 

Rhinedottir remained silent. Unreadable.

You worked with her, too. You’re one of the two Khaenri’ahns who did. Who helped her murder all those people.”

“Please,” she said in a bored tone, “don’t associate me with that nation. Next thing you know, those Celestia goons will come for my head, too.”

At Hikari’s enraged expression, Rhinedottir got up from her seat and laid a chilly hand on her shoulder. “You’ve always been very bright, Hikari. Use this time to figure out what you really have to do. Maybe try sympathising with others a little.” Malice seeped into her voice. “You becoming a Raiden would all have been for nothing, otherwise. I raised you in the hopes that you’d be able to bring about change, not help Teyvat remain in the sorry state of stasis it’s been in for the past few centuries. I daresay Celestia’s gotten a tad bit ahead of themselves, what with no one showing even an iota of resistance, and you’ve done enough to contribute to that.” She patted her shoulder a couple more times. “If you show Alice and Anya that you’re willing to work together, this conflict would be brought to an end almost laughably easily. Just like what Morax did, no? And—” she tilted her head, “—you’ll be able to get your child back.”

Hikari smiled wryly. Of course she went there. “Get him back?”

“I know you very well, Hikari,” Rhinedottir said, finally removing her hand from her shoulder. “Distancing yourself from him won’t magically remove the peril he’s in. You know…” An icy thumb brushed across Hikari’s cheekbone. “You haven’t changed a bit—you’re still terribly afraid of the world.” Her eyes flitted over to Yae. “And this one…ah, Yae Miko.” She smiled, saying nothing.

“May I ask something?” Yae said.

“Go ahead.”

“Why did you stop helping Anya?”

Rhinedottir deliberated a little, crossing her arms and walking back to her seat by the fireplace. She lit a cigarette and took a long drag from it, eyes hooded.

“It’s just not worth it.” Dark hair draped over her face, and she suddenly looked centuries older, sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks more pronounced than before. She blew out a ring of smoke, where it fizzed out into the air after a few seconds. “I find that I’m adequately satisfied with sitting on the backlines. With watching people struggle to find out the truth, even though I’m none the wiser. It’s exhilarating. Addicting. To hang onto progress despite not contributing anything myself. And it also spells much less agony for me.”

“Essentially, you’re just going to sit and watch Teyvat burn,” Hikari said, before Yae could quip anything else.

“Perhaps.”

Hikari’s jaw ticked. She wasn’t going to be of any use to them, after all. But: “One last thing.”

Rhinedottir tilted her head in question.

“Who’s the other Khaenri’ahn who worked with you?”

Rhinedottir’s eyes gleamed. “You could have just asked me that from the get-go, my dear.”

Hikari said nothing. Rhinedottir sighed and scrawled something on a slip of paper in hasty, cursive handwriting, then handed it to her.

“This is where I believe she’s residing.” Rhinedottir took a careful look at Hikari. “Though I’m unsure of the extent of her hostility currently, having gone so long without interacting with her. You best be careful.”

Hikari eyed the address she wrote. “There’s something else you want to achieve. You, this girl, Anya, and Alice. It’s not just about rebelling against Celestia and escaping Teyvat.”

Rhinedottir’s lips stretched into a smile of faux tenderness. “You know I’ve long since abandoned that goal, ever since I decided to open the orphanage.”

Hikari crushed the paper in her fist. “If only I could kill you.”

Rhinedottir’s grin widened. “It’s good that you know you can’t. You’re bright. Very bright, indeed.”

Hikari turned. The immense pressure of her stare made Yae instantly realise that it was time for them to leave, the other girl flinching and turning away as she made for the door.

They were just about to walk out, when a gust of wind blew past their skin. A gust of wind, in an airtight room. Goosebumps colonised every inch of Hikari’s arms.

Rhinedottir’s voice travelled to her ear.

“I’d be very, very sad if you died, Hikari.”

It felt like the woman’s mouth was right beside her ear. Hikari jumped and whirled around to face the woman.

The house was dead still. Silent. The chair was empty. The spot beside the fireplace—deserted.

Rhinedottir wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The scent of rot and decay grew even stronger, cold penetrating her bones. Outside, Yae stood in the afternoon sunlight, head tilted in confusion.

Hikari quickly stepped out and slammed the door shut, fingertips bloodless, prickling, numb. She inhaled, and it felt like one of her last breaths. She didn’t realise how heavily she was breathing until a warm hand was placed on her wrist. She looked up and met Yae’s concerned gaze.

“Lady Raiden,” she said, “it’s time to go.”

Hikari stared back again, at the ominous wooden door. She slowly removed her hand from its surface and clenched it into a fist, letting the surrounding heat seep into her skin, waiting for it to conquer the coldness that had all her organs in a vice grip.

“Lady Raiden.”

Hikari nodded, slowly. “Yes,” she breathed. “Yes. It’s time to go.”

“I could drive us back.”

“Yes. That would be good.”

Even in the blistering heat of the afternoon, Hikari couldn’t shake away the chill that had taken root in her body, slowly creeping, inching, spreading, all the way up to her throat. The air froze. She couldn’t breathe.

“Lady Raiden?” Yae’s sharp eyes cut to her in the rearview mirror.

Hikari stretched her fingers. One by one, spreading them out from a fist, pulling the muscles taut, and then relaxing them again.

“I’m fine,” she said.

Yae was silent.

A short while later: “You should get some rest. It’s a long way back.”

Hikari didn’t know when she’d found Yae’s presence even remotely comforting. She listened to her, nonetheless, slowly shutting her eyes and leaning back into the warm leather.

Rhinedottir’s olive-black eyes terrorised her dreams.


“There’s a what on the ship?”

“A bomb, ma’am,” the guard replied shakily. “We’re in the process of defusing it, and we’re diligently searching for the culprit.”

“No, no, no. You missed the fucking point,” Signora snarled, a sharp knife of anger slicing through her. “Why aren’t you alerting the passengers?”

“It—It would cause an uproar, ma’am. We’re doing our best to contain the damage as much as possible—”

“Do any of you even know how to defuse a bomb?”

“Uh, yes, yes,” the guard said, wringing his hands together profusely. “We have someone who was previously from the navy working on it.”

“Someone from your ranks?”

The guard swallowed. “No, ma’am. This VIP passenger…he claimed to…claimed that he used to be a bomb-defusing technician in the marines—”

Signora scoffed, shoving him aside. And your fucking dumbass trusted him? she wanted to snap back, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

She opened the door of the bilge. Sure enough, there was a timed detonator, with no bomb-defusing tehnician anywhere in sight. Signora scrutinised the bomb. MCB-32. The model favoured by Inazuman extremists. Could the culprit be an Inazuman VIP? But what the hell could their motive possibly be?

Maybe one of Alice’s assassins? Signora frowned. That would just be plain stupid.

Unless they had an escape plan ready from the very beginning.

“You can defuse that, right?” Pantalone asked from behind her.

Signora gave him a curt nod.

“I’ll be checking the camera footage, then.”

“Tell Tartaglia and Scaramouche immediately,” she said. “They need to get the Astors out of here.”

Pantalone left in a haste. The guard from before slowly walked up to her.

“Is…is there anything you can do, ma’am?”

Signora flagged a hand in the air. “Yes, of course. Now leave. I may just detonate the bomb if I even so much as sense you within one foot from me.”

The guard tensed and cleared his throat. “Yes. Yes, uh, yes, ma’am.” He quickly left her alone after that.

Signora suppressed a groan. Honestly, she just wanted a fucking drink.


“Kaeya got the all-ready from the ship at the rendezvous.” Scara placed the phone back down. “We’re only to meet three hours from now, but we need to get ready. The enemy has the deck under tight surveillance, so we’ll have to use another route that doesn’t bypass it.”

Alice nodded stiffly, bringing Klee into the bedroom and shutting the door to get the both of them changed into different disguises. Albedo had already gotten ready in a new disguise, having woken up earlier than the Astors. So had Scara and Childe.

“It’s the last few hours you have on the ship,” Childe said, breaking the tense silence. His eyes were on Albedo. “Feeling sad?”

Albedo’s brows knit. “Quite the opposite.”

“How did you get to know those two, anyway? You’re not an Astor, and I don’t think I’ve seen any records of you in Hexenzirkel.”

“Alice wants me to think of myself as an Astor,” Albedo said.

Childe’s eyes rounded comically. “You mean you’re…”

Albedo’s face turned a shade whiter the moment the words left his lips. “No. No, no, no. No, ” he said quickly. “I’m not romantically involved with her. At all. She thinks of me as a…as a son.” Albedo looked like it physically pained him to say that, though Scara got the feeling that he probably didn’t mean it in an offensive way. It was more—awkward. Hesitant.

“Oh,” Childe said, calming down. Scara shot him a seriously look, to which he replied with a plain shrug. He turned back to Albedo. “That’s sweet. Still don’t get how you knew her, though.”

“I got to know Alice through my master,” Albedo went on. “We met in Mondstadt a few years back, after my master said she'd finished teaching me everything I had to know. Alice insisted that I follow her to Snezhnaya, and wherever else she had to go after that. She can be rather destructive, but she’s overall quite pleasant when she’s doing normal…activities.”

“Sorry, you said ‘master’?”

Scara wanted to tell Childe off for being intrusive, but it seemed Albedo didn’t mind the questioning, as he calmly nodded. “She’s taught me plenty of things in the past. My earliest memories were all of her. And the underground.”

Childe seemed to be finding the master topic dull, and dropped it absurdly quickly. It looked like he understood something, at that moment. “So…you’re from Mondstadt?”

Albedo opened his mouth, but his eyes went blank. He blinked, and said, “I…no, I am not.”

“Oh. Where, then?” Scara was wary of the weird lilt in Childe’s voice. “Maybe Fontaine? You could pass off as one of their citizens, actually. Blonde hair, fair skin, teal eyes.”

Albedo looked like he was contemplating his sentence. “No. No, not Fontaine.”

Childe’s eyes turned sharp. “Not Inazuma, surely?”

Scara smacked the back of Childe’s head. The other man winced in pain. Albedo looked at Scara curiously.

“Sorry,” Scara said, “he’s pretty thick-headed.”

Albedo shrugged. “A personality trait I’m not unfamiliar with. But he’s technically not wrong.”

And because he was a hypocrite and nosy by nature, Scara said, “What?”

“I met my master in Inazuma.”

Scara stopped. Childe’s head snapped up.

“You’re not fooling anyone. You’re definitely not Inazuman,” Scara said pointedly.

“You’re right. I am not one.”

“Uh…” Didn’t that just bring them back to the same question of where the fuck he was from?

Alice and Klee returned to the living area, killing the conversation. She looked between the three of them, eyebrows raised. “Heated discussion?” she said.

“A friendly one,” Childe replied, with too much verve.

Scara decided to forget that weirdass interaction ever happened. “We’re all ready now. Hold on.” He took a peek outside, then nodded to the other four. “No one’s outside. Let’s get going.”

A voice crackled through the ship’s intercom as they walked down to the third deck.

“Our fireworks show is about to begin! We hope everyone joins us as we light up the sky and sea! Let’s make this cruise’s last night one to remember!”

Scara frowned, recalling Kaeya’s words, turning them over in his head as a layout of the cruise sprawled out in his mind.

First, head to storage area 3, where the inflatable boats are kept. I’ll be waiting there. The three will escape via the emergency exit on the fore of Deck 2, where the rendezvous ship will pick them up. Ideally, I’d like you to do all this during the fireworks show. If a fight occurs, it’d be easier for you to use your full strength with the passengers being distracted. 

Scara stopped them before they turned a corner, and did a quick scan of the next corridor. Two men were chatting heartily, occasionally bellowing in laughter, but Scara was no stranger to clumsy, unintelligent disguises. The atmosphere was off—they were clearly anticipating something. Scara suspected the thing they were anticipating in question was their arrival.

He turned back to the group and waved them down a different corridor. When they arrived at the balcony of the lounge, however, even more assassins were roaming around below, feigning the reading of newspapers and tranquil drinking of tea. He cursed internally. The assassins were clearly guarding all the passages to the ship’s bow. He considered fighting his way through them, but that’d just alert reinforcements to their location. In this situation, was he what people would call royally fucked? 

Childe, sensing his inner turmoil, took the lead. “Let’s head up to the deck for now.”

“Is it safe?” Albedo said in a low voice.

“Kaeya gave us a key that unlocks the crew corridors. We can move along rooftops that aren’t open to the public that way,” Childe assured.

While the others were behind him making their way up the staircase to the deck, Scara cautiously opened the door, palm clammy.

Beyond the stairwell, the coast was clear.

“Let’s move. Quietly, now.”

Just as they emerged onto the deck, several successive explosions rang out in the air, and despite himself, Scara flinched violently. A wail cut through the air—Klee.

He half-expected to see a corpse near him— burnt and bloodied and lifeless and dead, dead, dead— but no one was hurt at all. Their heads were turned up to the sky. Scara followed their gazes.

Coils of every colour lit up the sky in a flourish, arcs of light scattering across the clouds, dazzling, shimmering, blazing, mingling with the starlight, illuminating several large looming rainclouds. As if on cue, thunder rumbled softly in the distance, barely audible over the booming fireworks.

(He was transported, then, back to that river, Saigawa river, where he held Ei’s hand in his, admiring the fireworks display that night, completely oblivious to the man who had brushed past them. The man who had changed the trajectory of their lives forever. And he was reminded, too, of a similar sounding explosion, one that was too close for comfort, one that nearly blew off the shell of his right ear, one that destroyed everything around him and set the world in flames.)

“That was…surprising.”

Alice’s voice brought him back to earth. She was staring up at the sky, lips apart, stunned. Klee’s cries grew softer and softer, presumably unnerved by how she was the only one crying from the fireworks, until, she, too, was looking up with curious, twinkling eyes.

Scara shoved the unwelcome memories away, head throbbing. “Quickly,” he urged, “while everyone’s distracted.”

They climbed up a ladder to a rooftop that was supposedly only accessible to the crew members of the ship. His eyes scanned over the various storage areas, until he pinpointed the one they had to go to. He led the way, cutting across the rooftop, muscles tense.

He felt a presence, then. Childe apparently did, too, as he stopped in his tracks completely.

Another round of fireworks erupted.

No one could afford to look up this time. At that exact moment, something else rang out—the faint shot of a gun. He’d have missed it if his hearing wasn’t as enhanced as it was then. Scara quickly shielded Alice and Klee, bringing them behind a wall.

The bullet just barely grazed his shoulder blade.

A man pounced out from the shadows, launching himself at Alice. Scara was quicker and he landed a sharp kick in his gut, throwing a dagger at the man and pinning his neck to the wall where he bled out, frothing red at the mouth. Alice was crouching down, hiding Klee in her bosom, eyes screwed shut. Klee didn’t make a sound. She hadn’t seen anything, then.

Scara didn’t have time to be relieved. The next moment, a whole group of men and women alike emerged from the darkness, various weapons in hand, eyes gleaming with menace. What the fuck—how had he not sensed any of them? 

And Childe was suddenly gone. Almost as if he vanished into thin air.  What the fuck. Albedo stood in front of Alice and Klee, eyes hardened. Scara's eyes dropped to the knife Albedo had in his grip. From the way he was holding it, clumsy and loose and trembling, it was clear he had little to no experience in an actual fight.

Great. Now Scara was all alone against a whole legion of assassins.

Several shots rang out in the air. At first Scara thought it may have been more fireworks, but a few bodies dropped limply in front of him, gaping holes between their eyes.

Someone on their side had shot at the assassins from a distance away. Kaeya? Or maybe Childe, though he wasn’t sure where he’d have gotten a sniper rifle from. It gave him a brief respite, where he turned to the Astors and said, “Okay, run to the hatch in the floor, now. Lock the cover once you’re inside. And don’t come out until I find you.”

A hatch cover sat atop the ground a short distance away, though the Astors running to it meant they’d have to place themselves out in the open. He couldn’t just let them do that. Scara bit his lip and steadied himself.

Then he charged towards the assassins at lightning speed, pinning more necks to the walls with daggers that he’d stuffed into his coat beforehand, and immobilising others by dislocating limbs. It was all fast, too fast for him to process himself, but all he knew was that the killer instinct in him was way too refined, way too sharpened, way too consuming for him to comprehend when he’d even begun to harbour it in the first place. He almost stopped himself from finishing someone off a few times, but he saw their hungry eyes lock onto a running Alice and immediately ditched the idea, casting their lifeless bodies on the ground with a swipe of his blade across their throats.

“I’m awfully sorry.”

Scara whipped around. A man stood behind the hatch, a gun pointed out, locking on right onto Alice’s head.

Fuck. There’d been one in his blind spot, and he hadn’t even realised.

Before he could move, three shots rang out.

They all collided into Albedo, sending him slamming back into the open hatch cover like a rag doll. Scara hadn’t even caught him moving in front of Alice to shield her; he was that quick. Alice and Klee had now finished climbing down the hatch, thanks to the few seconds of time Albedo had bought, but Albedo—Albedo—

The cover closed with a bang after Albedo’s limp body was pulled down inside. Alice locked it below with a loud click. That was it, no one could target the Astors anymore.

What the fuck. Scara stared at the hatch cover. What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck.

The horror gradually left Scara’s body when he remembered that he’d made everyone wear bulletproof vests before they left the room.

Oh, thank fucking God. Albedo wasn’t dead. How stupid could he possibly get to forget something like that? Though Albedo probably still suffered a few broken ribs, from how close of a range he’d taken the bullets… Scara just had to hope those broken ribs hadn’t punctured his lungs in the process.

Ah, fuck. He didn’t give a shit. At least Albedo wasn’t dead. 

Something clanked onto the hatch cover and rolled a few times, before resting on its side. Scara’s eyes widened.

It was a fucking grenade.

Thankfully driven on by his monstrous instincts, he kicked it far, far away, sending it crashing right square into an assassin’s nose and blowing his head right off. Several other assassins swarmed Scara the next instant, but he saw through all their movements, weaving through their attacks and crushing their ribs with horrendously powerful punches. One of them flew so high into the air after the impact that they soared over the deck and dropped into the sea.

As he was cleaning through the remaining mob, attackers he didn’t have time to evade dropped like flies next to his feet, courtesy of the sniper that he was now sure was Kaeya. The rest of the assassins weren’t nearly a match for him anymore. He felt himself slowly cascading, slowly becoming more and more unaware of everything besides the slicing of his blade against skin, besides the impact his fist made with someone else’s chest, besides the rapid pace of his breathing.

“And now for the grand finale of the fireworks show!” The announcer’s voice boomed through the speakers, loud enough to be heard on the rooftop.

Step 1, spot enemy. Step 2, watch their weapon. Step 3, evade all attacks. Step 4, fucking kill them.

He wasn’t sure if he was actually attacking anyone anymore. He felt more than saw incoming strikes, felt more than saw himself brutally attacking back. He felt nothing. He felt everything. His mind was numb. His mind was eating itself alive. He was dead. He was alive.

More eruptions. His eyes snapped up. Fireworks. Even more of them. Too many of them. Too many, too many, too many.

Then a cold hand clasped around his neck. The next second he was hurled to the ground and he landed on his back, rough, his spine snapping and popping as his bones desperately mended themselves together. His eyes were closed. Why were they closed? He felt around for another dagger. Where was it? Where was it where was it wherewasit

A shot. A thud. His attacker collapsed to the ground in a lifeless heap.

Scara slowly got to his feet. He looked around. For a moment he panicked, because fuck there’s no one, was he seriously incapable of seeing anything now, until he realised that there really was no one. The floor was a perfect reflection of the sky—where fireworks arced across the night, blood lined and splattered across the rooftop, the rainbows of light a perfect imitation of the grotesquely bent, still bodies of the assassins.

“Scaramouche.”

Scara blinked. Kaeya was in front of him. He’d barely even sensed him approaching.

“Good work,” he said. “Though I wish you’d been a little more sparing with the blood splatters. It’ll take a lot of work to clean this up so the crew won't suspect anything.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words formed. He stared at the scene, feeling miles away. His ears popped and rang.

“Oh, my,” a foreign voice sounded from behind him.

Scara turned. A man with dark, angular eyes scanned the place, mouth pressed into a thin line.

“I’ll be cleaning up now,” Kaeya said lightly. “Go handle him, won’t you?”

Scara looked at the man.

“You’ve killed every last one of them,” the man said, eyes locking onto his. “You are one heartless man.”

“When you try killing someone,” Scara said dully, “you don’t get to complain when they defend themselves.”

The man grinned. “You take your Fatui work seriously, that’s for sure. Though I suppose all these deaths do let me have a larger share of the bounty.”

“You’re really not going to walk away from this?” he said tiredly.

“That’d be out of the question,” he replied, calm. “I’ve already been paid a hefty sum for accepting this job at all. Besides, we’re on a cruise. Where could I possibly ‘walk away’ to?” His eyes snapped to Kaeya’s, who, despite his earlier words, remained unmoving beside Scara, eyes ablaze. “And,” the man said, “I doubt this gentleman here has any intention of letting me live.”

“People who see killing as just another way to make money,” Kaeya said darkly, “are better off being dead themselves.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” the man retorted, smiling wider. “Money can make all the difference in the world. It puts food on your table. It saves lives. It makes you giddy with happiness. It makes your life that much more fulfilling.”

“I’d expect more foresight from Barca’s right-hand man.” Kaeya raised a handgun. “Take some time to reflect on yourself before I pull the trigger.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I will.”

Something cut the air. The motion was so quick that its lingering sound only rang out a split second later.

A dagger, just inches away from the helix of Scara’s ear, whizzed past him and lodged into the wall behind him with a thunk. It would have dug into his forehead had he reacted a microsecond later.

Before Kaeya could find where the new attacker was, he emerged out of nowhere and landed a lightning-quick kick in Kaeya's chest, packed with so much power that it sent him barrelling into the opposite wall. His back met tough concrete with a harsh thud. Scara didn’t have to approach Kaeya to know that he’d been knocked right out, eyes shut and blood dribbling down his mouth, staining the white of his dress shirt.

Scara barely had the energy to move, the momentum he had from earlier all but dissipated, though he didn’t exactly have a choice but to make himself spring into action. He ducked out of the way of another close attack, and was about to strike him with a fist when another blade the man pulled out sliced an arc in the air in a blur—

—and carved right into the flesh of his stomach.

The slice was way too painful for it to have been an ordinary dagger. Scara leapt away with the remaining power he had left in him and kept a distance, clutching tightly onto his bleeding midriff— why the fuck wasn’t it healing —, the strength waning from him with every passing second.

The attacker’s face was cruelly passive. “The blade’s lined with liquid RHM suppressant,” he said coolly, stepping closer and closer to Scara until he was backed up against the wall, blade tucked beneath his chin. If he even so much as breathed, the tip would cut right into his throat. “You should be feeling too weak to stand in just a few moments. You enhanced people think you’re superhuman, but one slice like that and you’re already nothing. Just a useless hunk of meat.”

Dark spots swam in his vision. His knees buckled and he dropped to the ground. He felt like his head had been shoved underwater. The attacker hummed. “It’s pretty sad, seeing you like this. Didn’t you kill the rest of the group just moments ago?”

Scara agreed. It was pretty sad. He’d lost all feeling in his limbs and really was just a useless hunk of meat right now. But it didn't matter, did it? He’d done everything he possibly could. He doubted the two men had any more grenades in their possession. No one could kill, or even so much as touch the Astors anymore.

The fireworks ended. Silence filled his ears.

Yeah. This is a good place to stop.

“You really can’t fight back,” the man said, his voice growing softer and softer, like it was coming from the other end of a long, long tunnel. “Surprisingly effective. I guess I’ll just kill you now.”

For a fleeting moment, his mother’s face flashed across his eyes. Her mouth was open, lips apart, moving quickly, urgently. She was saying something.

He struggled to listen. Silence filled his ears.

She was saying something, something, something.

Renji. Renji. Go. Run now. Go.

Her face twisted and turned until it morphed into Ei, who was saying something, too, with soft eyes that belonged to her a lifetime ago. He blinked slowly.

It’ll be fine. I’ll be with you, okay?

Now Makoto filled his view, her face blurry at the edges thanks to his hazy memories of her, but smiling all the same.

The fireworks are pretty tonight, aren’t they?

Scara looked up. Yeah, the fireworks were pretty. Enchanting.  Why were there fireworks again?

Then silence filled his ears and they weren’t there anymore.

It happened all too suddenly.

A beat, and then darkness.

He was killed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least, he thought he was. It certainly felt like it. He could picture the moment in his mind, throat sliced open by the man’s blade, eyes drained of life. Head drooping down. Or maybe he’d been stabbed in the chest, where he was left to bleed out, hands limp and withered, insects scrabbling and squeezing into every orifice in his body. He could envision Alice and Albedo’s horrified expressions when they’d come out of the hatch. Would they cry? Probably not. It didn’t matter, anyway. All they had to do was survive and get off the ship so his death wouldn’t have been for nothing. Maybe Kaeya would miraculously regain consciousness and kill the remaining two men. Maybe the rendezvous boat would miraculously arrive earlier. Scara knew that was something that would realistically never happen.

Would anyone miss him at all? Mourn his death? Probably Ei. Coppery bile tainted the back of his tongue. (Something he’d only be able to feel if he was alive. He didn’t, couldn’t, register that, not yet.) His last words to her were far from pleasant, and that in itself was a severe fucking understatement. She’d definitely blame herself for everything. He didn't want that. He hated thinking about it. He hated burdening Ei even more than he already had.

He decided to turn his thoughts to others. Maybe his mother would cry for him, wherever she was. It felt nice, triumphant, thinking about her mourning him. It also felt painful. Horrible. Gut-wrenching, to know that the last memory he had of her was one where she'd willingly made him forget everything in his life.

Either way, he believed that her mourning him was the least he deserved.

How about Childe? Scara gave it some thought, and concluded that no, he wouldn’t feel a thing. Maybe pity, for him having died so soon, but he doubted any tears would be shed. Tonia, however—she'd definitely rejoice. 

And Yae wouldn’t give two shits. After regaining his memories of her as a child and the little time they'd spent together when they were younger, her overall personality had become much clearer to him. She was too fucked up to care about him dying. Sara likely wouldn’t be too bothered by it, either. She was somewhat on the same plane as Yae was—too occupied with issues on her own end to take time out to feel sad over him. Who else was there? Right, Sara's mother. He honestly had no idea what she'd think. She barely ever interacted with him while he and Ei stayed with her. He had several memories of her subtly avoiding him in the house, slyly slipping out of conversations when he was involved, and conveying messages to him like 'wash the dishes' and 'do the laundry' through Sara or Ei, even though she could very well approach him herself. She always had this guilty look in her eyes, like he was never meant to be there. Like she didn't want him to be there at all. Had his mother forced the matter of taking care of him onto her? Perhaps. He felt bad for her. And also a little indignant for having been treated that way, because he hadn't ever done anything to personally offend her. It dawned on him, then, how the adults who used to be in his life were all different levels of messed up.

While all these thoughts were flitting through his head, that particular feeling surfaced again. The one that made him feel like he’d just been killed. It was oddly familiar—something he’d experienced before, when he was still living, breathing. Alive. He couldn’t possibly be dead if he could feel it. He was alive. He had to be alive.

He struggled to remember. To think back to when he’d last felt something like this, to when he’d last felt his heart clenching so hard that all the blood nearly stopped circulating throughout his body.

It didn't take long for him to recall when that had last happened.

The same clamping hand from days before now wrapped itself fully around his heart. His breathing slowed and slowed and slowed, until he stopped inhaling altogether. His vision started clearing. His blood buzzed. It was starting.

The knives in his eyes had returned.