No Light In Your Bright Blue Eyes - PancakeBeast - 原神 (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Day 6: The silence in between what I thought and what I said Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 2: Day 7: The Boy with the Thorn in His Side Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 3: Day 8: Away With Obsessions and Falsehood Chapter Text Chapter 4: Day 8: On My Mind Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 5: Day 9: Thoma takes in a stray Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: Day 10: Calm Me Down Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 7: Day 11: 集中できてないな まだ体が迷っているんだ Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 8: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 1) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 2) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 3) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11: Day 13: Emerging from the gentle grip... Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 12: Day 13: ...of night's unfolding arms Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 1) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 2) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 3) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 16: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 4) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 5) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 18: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 6) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 7) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20: Day 15: Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: Day 15: The sun is out, the day is new Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 22: Day 15: Everybody's waitin', waitin' on you Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: Day 15: Childe in an adulte store, what will he buy? Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24: Day 15: Тише едешь – Дальше будешь Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 25: Day 15: I fear no thing as long as you're with me Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 26: Some time ago: The Fond Farewell Summary: Notes: Chapter Text [in the future] Notes: Chapter 27: Day 16: Not Afraid To Fall Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28: Day 16: Rockin' With Fire Notes: Chapter Text Notes:

Chapter 1: Day 6: The silence in between what I thought and what I said

Notes:

(last edited on 2024-04-18)

Chapter Text

"I'll let the Gnosis run for a while longer. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before you discover its whereabouts. When that time comes, Traveler, what will you choose to do? And where is your final destination?"Why do you ask?Aether stares at Childe's back. The last few days in the Mystic Onmyou Chamber didn't leave his clothes unmarred like before. His tailored jacket has been scuffed, almost torn in a few places. There are only two actual rips: a small slice across his left tricep and a smaller puncture near his right shoulderblade. Aether had been surreptitiously noting each and every sign of damage since he, Paimon, and Xinyan got back in. The monsters here didn't bleed and neither did Shiki Taishou, so the blood could only be Childe's own. No one could fight for six days straight without slipping up even once, so it was neither surprising nor cause for worry. Still... Aether hated leaving anyone stranded alone in a place like this, and that's what had happened the first time. He'd been helpless to do anything about it. He didn't let the others know how much that bothered him.Why are you interested in where I'm going and what I'm going to do?At least the second time Childe wasn't alone. He and Shiki really did seem to have forged a bond of mutual respect, maybe even friendship. Yet, Aether noticed that he hung back at the doorway when they all reached Harunosuke's room, and that he was silent the whole time while Shiki sorted out his past and future. And when all was said and done and Aether looked back, he was disappointed to see no sign of Childe.Hearing Childe's voice and stride again was as uplifting as a trio of anemograna. All it took to bring him back into the room was Paimon yelling for him. Aether wouldn't have thought to try that...and that's reason #1,380 he can't get anything done without Paimon.Presently, Aether is saying nothing. His gaze rises to scrutinize the quarter of Childe's face that's turned toward him. Not turned far enough to actually look back at him. He can stare all he wants and it won't make a difference.Childe sighs. "I wish I could stay here a while longer. The more time you spend somewhere, the more joy it brings you when you return."I heard somewhere else that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Is that why...?"You're like the stars in the night sky, comrade."Those words arrest Aether's breath in his throat and leave him reeling. The comparison is not only flattering, it's uncannily accurate, but it's not the accuracy that gets him.Though...does he know about whatever Scaramouche discovered? About the 'false sky'?Childe begins to walk away. "You never cease to surprise me," he muses, almost to himself, certain he won't get a reply."Wait," Aether forces himself to say. If nothing else, he has a Realm Dispatch for Childe and he's not going to pass up the opportunity to give it to him. There hadn't been time for it in Liyue. No, there was time, it was just that Aether missed every chance like an idiot. Paimon would normally be insurance against that kind of thing, but she didn't know he had anything important he needed to say to Childe.Childe stops, turns around. His eyebrows are guilelessly raised. "Hm?""I have something for you.""Oh? Is it that rematch I've been wishing for?" Childe grins, sliding into a cheery, casual attitude.Aether catches up to him and keeps going, beckoning for Childe to continue into the hallway with him. When they're out of earshot of the others, Aether reaches into a concealed pocket in his voluminous trousers and pulls out the little engraved wooden tile by its jade-ornamented silk fob cord. "This is called a Realm Dispatch. It's an adeptal art. It'll let you visit my...teapot." He never calls it home. Nowhere feels like home without his sister.The absolutely baffled smile the word 'teapot' gets from Childe is priceless, and Aether decides he's glad he stumbled into saying it that way. "Your...teapot?"Aether almost smiles back. "It's a house. Kind of. It's...bigger on the inside. And it doesn't look like a teapot on the inside. Actually it's more like a portal to a realm. An adeptus made it for me.""As a reward for your heroism in Liyue, I suppose?" There's a current of humor in Childe's comment, but not sarcasm. If he's mocking anyone, he's mocking himself, reminded of how he was played by Signora and Zhongli. And no one gave him a magic teapot house for his villainy."Something like that. That adeptus..." Aether is on the verge of telling Childe what a kindly and grandmotherly person Madame Ping is, but, looking back, he admits to himself that he can't imagine being given such a gift by her if he was a normal person who didn't do anything special for Liyue. "Never mind. May I have your hand?""Should I be giving you my hand just like that?" Childe holds his hand up out of reach for a second before extending it to the Traveler. "Ha, just kidding. I trust you."Aether notes that Childe's gloves have been dirtied and one of them has a fraying seam, but they aren't as filthy as he'd expect from six days of fighting. He guesses Childe took them off and washed them when possible. There's plenty of water in the Mystic Onmyou Chamber, stored in urns and in hay-cushioned crates of jars. Aether has seen a few rice bags lying around too, which, combined with the water and a carefully contained fire, could've provided meals for Childe during lulls. In any case, he grabs his hand and turns it palm-up. Being normal about holding this hand and not thinking about who it belongs to is harder than he expected. In fact, the more he tries not to think about it, the more distracted he becomes."What's the matter? Do you do palmistry? See something ominous?" Another joke from Childe, one that startles Aether out of his freeze-up. Embarrassed, Aether hastily taps the Harbinger's palm with the Dispatch and all but shoves his hand away. He failed to notice the subtle note of something soft in Childe's tone, and the faintly bemused way he was smiling; he fails to notice how his hasty retreat banishes that smile."That's all that needed to be done." Looking down at the Dispatch held tightly in both of his own hands and thanking his own gloves for hiding the color of his knuckles, Aether shakes his head. "And no, I was just...thinking. About the question you asked. What I'm going to do when I find Scaramouche." That's not even close to what he wants to talk about. "The truth is, I don't know. I don't fully understand the situation yet. I won't know right up until the moment comes to decide. That's how it usually goes." I probably shouldn't be telling him that."Not one for elaborate plans? That's a relief." Childe looks at the palm that was tapped, then uses it to rub his neck self-consciously, thrown off by how strange it was to touch—be touched by—the Traveler outside of a fight. It sure seems as if the Traveler didn't like having to do it, but Childe is left with a peculiar little feeling of loss. "Plotting and scheming annoys me. It's why I don't get along with the other Harbingers."The opening to ask Childe what he really wanted to ask him stands there like a door in front of Aether. He stares up at him for a long moment, saying nothing.Childe shifts on his feet and folds his arms, meeting the Traveler's studious gaze with nonchalant curiosity. Underneath that facade, his curiosity is intense. The Traveler just invited him to his home...and now he's doing that thing where he looks at him as if he can see right through to his soul.The past six days don't compare to his time in the Abyss, but the adrenaline is fading and Childe is tired. It's a joy to feel like this after months of not having any challenges, but he's not sure he can process what's going on right now.Aether doesn't mean for his voice to come out as quiet as it does when he breaks the silence. "Did you mean what you said about quitting your job to join me?"Childe's eyebrows shoot up. He tilts his whole torso, looking down at the Traveler who has again surprised him. Shocked him, even. "Comrade, of course I meant it." As naturally as those words come out of his mouth and as much as he means them, he sees now in hindsight how unlikely the offer must have seemed. Did the Traveler think he was joking all this time? Is that why he never heard back from him?"I joined the Fatui to get more experience in combat," he clarifies. "That's all, really. When I met the Tsaritsa, the day I was promoted to the Harbingers, I saw a true warrior worth my admiration and fealty. There was a cold strength in her gaze. You and her aren't entirely unalike, you know? When you look at me, I feel that same conviction again. But the Tsaritsa is Snezhnaya's polestar, and you... You're the light of all the stars put together, blinding against the dark backdrop of mediocrity. I know I'd get much farther at your side than as one of her Harbingers. ...If you'll have me, eheh." Childe's gushing ends on an almost apologetic note as he realizes he might've gotten ahead of himself a little. He doesn't like to keep his feelings secret or hold back his enthusiasm, but he's suddenly aware of how obsessed he sounds. And sure, maybe he is obsessed, but ruining his chances of fighting alongside the Traveler by scaring him off is not how he would like this to end.Aether isn't sure what to think about what he's being told. Is it good news or bad? Finding out that Childe meant what he said in his letter is wonderful. But is bloodsoaked ambition all there is to it? He hasn't forgotten that the Harbinger already considers him a friend, but there was no mention of that just now. Regardless of whether his other friends would understand or approve of such a friendship if they knew what Childe has done, he would like to call him a friend in turn. He suspects, though, that he often inadvertently left Childe with the impression that he only tolerates him.In fact, after these past several months in which his mind has wandered to Childe more often than it had any right to (what with all the other, more important things on his mind), he can't deny that he's kind of enamored with— The Eleventh f*cking Harbinger of the Fatui. Why does it have to be him? I barely even know him... The facts of the matter have done nothing to cure Aether.All he can do is give Childe his overdue answer: "I would be happy to have you along." There, it's said. Finally. And he can applaud himself for making it sound like this is all simple. He draws a deep, calming breath and perks up his posture, glancing down the hallway at Xinyan and Shiki. "I guess you're not a fan of goodbyes?""Who says it's goodbye? I'll be coming back," Childe laughs, feeling a flush of victory and relief over the Traveler's agreement."Not a fan of saying something to your new friends when you're leaving for a time, then."Literally waving that off and then rolling his sore shoulders, Childe replies, "Shiki Taishou will understand. He has a lot to do, and I...well, to be honest, I need to get some rest. Or I won't be in top form for our adventures.""Do you want to rest in my teapot? It'd be the fastest way out of here. Just so you know, if you go from here, you'll be returned here when you leave. Though... When both places are basically adeptal realms, maybe it's different?..." Aether rubs his hairless chin. Long, long ago, he'd recomposed his human form to get rid of the hassle of face-shaving. It had been as effortless as a thought, or at least that's how he remembers it in comparison to his predicament in this world. It made his face look more trustworthy, too, which went some way toward bridging the gap caused by his ironclad introversion."I'm overdue to make contact with the local Fatui detachment." Childe lets a beat pass before he snickers. "But they can keep waiting. Perhaps forever! So, now, I only have to put my mind to visiting you? How do I do that when you're right here?"One corner of Aether's mouth turns upward. He prepares an image of the teapot realm in his mind and takes two steps backward. With a very slight flourish, he bows, and then, adding his will to the image, he vanishes. From his perspective the world appears to ripple, and then, all at once, he finds himself standing in front of his Liyue-style mansion. Each time he has gone from the gloomy Onmyou Chamber to daytime in Inazuma, he had to squint against the sunshine until his eyes adjusted. The artificial sun in the teapot has him squinting too, but only for a second before he steps into the shade of the porch to greet Tubby and wait.Childe shakes his head lightly to clear out the surprise from the Traveler's smiling and playful exit. He supposes his impression of the Traveler as someone who is always serious and stoic is more about who he is and not who the Traveler is. That makes it all the more amazing that he's been invited to his home. Seeing what kind of place the Traveler would live in is an exciting prospect. He can't wait! But he can see Shiki, Xinyan, and Paimon still having their own conversation, one punctuated from time to time by chords and riffs, and that gives him pause. "...He forgot to say goodbye," he murmurs, amused at the Traveler's little hypocrisy. It's odd, too, because every time he's met the Traveler before, he seemed diligent about taking care of loose ends. Even when they clashed in the Golden House, he couldn't say he had the Traveler's full and complete attention to the exclusion of other people.Alright then, Childe thinks, I'll be the polite one and then I can heckle him about it! He strides back and greets the other three labyrinth warriors with a sheepish smile. "It seems the Traveler has retired to get some rest. I'm sure he meant to say farewell, so I'm saying it for him. Shiki, I'll be back before long, so I'll only say 'until next time' for myself. It was a privilege to fight at your side."Shiki bends his head in a single nod, his expression inked in stern lines of resolve. "You're a true seeker of ultimate attainment, my friend. This Chamber will be in much better shape when you return.""Bye for now, bro!" Xinyan says cheerfully to Childe. "I better see you again too—at my next concert! I'm staging one here in Inazuma real soon."Childe chuckles. "I love a good performance. I'll be there." A promise he'll now have to keep come hell or high water (both of which he can bring to bear against anything that gets in his way).Paimon has had her chin in her hand and a puzzled look on her face ever since Childe returned without Aether. Now she erases that look with a bright smile and clasps her hands behind her back as she turns from Childe to the others. "We'll show Shiki Koshou lots of cool things! You'll get to see it all when we come back to visit, right?""Yes, I can reabsorb it and give you another one. Thank you once again.""You're welcome, hehe! Okay, Paimon is going to go catch up with the Traveler. Byyye!" Paimon flies past Childe close enough to make sure he sees her beckon to him. Much like the Traveler himself did earlier, she leads him to the opposite end of the corridor. Twirling around to face him as she stops, she plants her hands on her hips and scowls at him. "Did you do something to him? Where is he really?"Childe holds up his hands. "He went to his teapot! He invited me to come along and er, he's probably wondering if I did it wrong and got lost in some unknown realm." It wouldn't be the first time~"Oh. Well...okay! Let's go! Paimon is sorry for suspecting you." One fleeting moment of bashfulness and then she bounces back to her typical pep."Ahh it's fine! You were right to suspect me." The smile residing comfortably on Childe's face widens to a grin that couldn't look menacing if he tried. (And he has tried. By the time he met the Traveler, he'd concluded it just wouldn't work. Treasure Hoarders stared at him unperturbed and asked him what was so funny. What was funny was how fast they all died.)"Mmm don't push it." Paimon disappears in a puff of stardust.Childe takes a deep breath and closes his eyes to picture the Traveler as vividly as he can. It's easy. He memorized his every move when they fought and, by extension, every inch of his appearance. To be fair, there weren't many inches there to memorize: the Traveler is a short man, at least compared to Childe. That reminds him that he doesn't actually know the Traveler's age. It's something he's never thought to ask about—not that he's had an abundance of opportunities to ask—because the Traveler has always struck him as someone who is older than him, somehow. And besides, he's far from the shortest man he's ever met.His mind's eye is drawn to the Traveler's sharp, golden gaze. The breath he'd taken leaves him slowly as he shivers at the memory of that gaze. To think he can just wish he were being pinned by it, like those insects on the board in Dottore's other lab——and be there, standing right next to him, falling— Oh, he's falling. He's falling onto the Traveler. He's perfectly capable of catching himself gracefully, but at that particular moment his brain has stopped working and his reflexes fail him. He flops down across the seated Traveler's lap, bonking his head against something hard that looked white and blue in his peripheral vision and sounds like ceramic. A muscle he pulled in his side yesterday protests. The thing his head hit wobbles away and he hears an oversized chirp of alarm. Was that a bird? He rubs his head as he scoots backward and sits up. Actually, that didn't hurt at all...and his mask is missing."That's new," Aether observes, utterly deadpan. He looks no worse for having a tall, elbowy man literally fall into his lap. He doesn't even look startled, despite his remark. That makes Childe suspicious, but a glance around at Paimon and, yes, the giant songbird in the floating teapot confirms that those two at least have truly never seen this happen before.Aether is in shock. He feels personally attacked by whatever quirk of magic made Childe arrive like that. Could it be my fault somehow?"Whoa... Are you okay?" Paimon is the first to ask.Childe doesn't answer directly. He's reflexively grinning at Aether, though the expression is strained by embarrassment. "Sorry comrade. It doesn't work that way normally? Maybe I did it wrong.""I didn't think there was a wrong way to do it," Aether replies, "but I guess you found the wrong way. Are you okay?""Ah, yes, I'm fine. You uh, softened my landing.""You're welcome."Childe comes up empty on smooth rejoinders just then, so it's convenient that that's when he spots his mask. It's lying in two pieces on the grass at the foot of the stairs. He leans down and retrieves it. "So did this," he sighs.Paimon is squinting at Childe and the general area around him as if assessing a crime scene. "Paimon thinks you must have come in right on the edge of that step...""Mm," Aether agrees. "That's the angle he fell from." He stands up. "Come on. There's a guest room. Are you hungry?"Having eaten only rice and unseasoned beans for six days, Childe becomes abruptly aware of how good a real meal sounds to his stomach. A steaming bowl of octopus borscht fills his imagination for a second. "Now that you mention it, I am. Do you have a kitchen I can cook in?" The chance to impress the Traveler banishes any acknowledgment of his fatigue."I have a kitchen I can cook in." Aether opens the door and waves Childe in.While Paimon stays behind to chat with the bird, Childe quickly rises to his feet and follows the Traveler, cursing himself for not getting the door first. Even this small thing tempts his competitive streak when the Traveler is involved. He opens his mouth to offer to help with the cooking and he's beaten to that too: "You can help, if you must." Drat!Childe gets little more than a glimpse of the main room as the Traveler marches into a smaller one off the right-hand hallway. He walks like a leader, he opines. Used to being followed but doesn't have to make a big deal out of it.The kitchen is unassuming but well-stocked. It has a simple tile floor for easy cleanups. Not a single thing in it is unnecessary, at first glance, yet cooking utensils soaking with the dishes in a basin prove it sees regular use and hasn't just been furnished and forgotten.Figuring he's identified his first order of business, Childe takes off his gloves, pockets his rings, and rolls his sleeves up higher. Washing the dishes and cleaning remind him of home; that's why he does it wherever he goes. When he was a kid dreaming of adventure, he never could have imagined that he would miss those things. The most mundane parts of his old life took on a rosy shine of nostalgia at some point.Aether hangs his cape on the doorknob but doesn't bother with an apron. In truth, he keeps forgetting to buy one. He sets about gathering some ingredients from the shelves and some from the Cryo box (which is actually a work of adeptal magic rather than a captive slime, courtesy of Tubby): beets, potatoes, onion, cabbage, tomatoes, salted fish, seasonings, and basics. He selects the reddest beets he has, although there's not much difference. When it's all laid out on the counter and Aether starts slicing the tomatoes into a pan to heat-juice them, Childe looks over his shoulder to see what's going into the meal.He does a double-take.Toweling off his hands to prevent drippage, he pauses to sidle up next to Aether and peer at the ingredients, his whole face a picture of amazement. "This is...?""Borscht. Did I pronounce it right? I got the recipe from the owner of Third-Round Knockout. He said Zhongli gave it to him."Childe stares blankly as he processes that information. I told Zhongli this recipe... Well, more or less. Obviously the fish is an improvisation. Zhongli must have wanted to try borscht. After things came to a head, Childe could no longer move freely enough in Liyue Harbor to go to restaurants. That alone wouldn't have put an end to his meetings with Zhongli altogether, but there was a while where he refused to meet with the gentleman on account of his secret deal with Signora. They've since started having tea and lunch again, in less conspicuous venues, but the fact that Zhongli remembered the recipe he told him about—as an aside!—never came up. Or, to be fair, it hasn't come up yet. Childe can't help but feel good about this, because if the situation hadn't changed, he too would've been able to enjoy an approximate but convenient taste of Snezhnaya at the Third Round. Maybe it wasn't for his sake, but it would have been a gift nonetheless. He should've thought of it himself.He plucks himself out of his reverie. "You pronounced it quite well. Do you have a knack for languages? That'd certainly be handy for someone who gets around as much as you do."Aether shrugs. "I'm not perfectly fluent in Teyvat's common language yet, and I've learned nothing of the local languages. It's lucky for me that everyone in Liyue can speak common for trade reasons. Even luckier that Paimon speaks common so well.""That's why she speaks for you?"A nod is his answer."I wouldn't have guessed. In the fishing village I grew up in it was about an even split: we spoke Snezhnayan in the house and common in the street. That's an oversimplification, but... Traveler, where are you from?" Childe steps a short distance away to lean down and plant his elbows on the counter without being in the Traveler's way. His chin comes to rest on the heels of his palms.Aether glances at the look of open and hopeful curiosity on the other man's irresistible face. "...Would you believe me if I told you I fell to this world as a star and got trapped here by a god whose identity I'm searching for?"Childe's eyebrows rise higher. "Oh?... Actually, I'm inclined to believe whatever you say about your origin. A mundane explanation didn't seem likely after you showed me where the lobsters hibernate." He doesn't jump to explain the idiom, wondering if the Traveler will figure it out from context.The bait is taken. "...Given that there's only one thing I've 'shown' to you that would turn your opinion around that much, I'll guess you're talking about when I handed your ass to you. As the Mondstadters would say."That virtually punches a laugh out of Childe. "That sounds right, unfortunately." This laughter comes from a deeper, happier place than usual, and it isn't as quick to fade. In the wake of it he heaves an ebullient sigh and picks up where they left off. "So I believe you. Even so, my next question is going to sound a bit silly. Were you a star before you fell?""Yes." Aether doesn't look up from stirring and mashing the boiling tomatoes. A fire crackles in the stove now, necessary since there aren't any Pyro slimes around. He opens his mouth to explain but hesitates, hit by a pang of strange emotion. His hands continue their work uninterrupted. Up to now, he hasn't explained this to anyone in Teyvat except Paimon... He swallows and starts again. "In a certain world...there's a star that you could call my real body. My sister and I..." Then his hands falter, albeit almost imperceptibly. "We circle each other. We travel in a different form until we fall to a random world and explore in another different form," he tilts a spoon-wielding hand toward himself indicatively, "then we return home and...unify our new memories with our bodies. I can't say— that is, there's no telling how long we've been doing this. The memories don't...nn...I don't have the word. They don't cover the times between. Just what we experienced in our mortal forms and after returning. So...those times don't count anyway. Adding up what does count, it's been thousands of Teyvat's years."Childe stares at the Traveler, stock-still. He isn't sure what he was expecting on that front when he asked if the being before him was a star, and he always had that sense that the Traveler was older than he looked, but... He's not just older, he's old. Ancient. Possibly elder to all of the current Archons.Aether knowingly gives him some time to process.While cutting up the beets, the Traveler breaks the silence as if it hadn't just stretched on for a whole two minutes—an unprecedented length of time for Childe to be speechless. His even, soft-edged voice gently retrieves the conversation like it was a baby bird that fell from its nest. "Age doesn't mean the same thing for my sister and I as it does for humans. Humans have...seasons of life that are marked like a measuring stick. Each ten or twenty years has meaningful differences from the rest. Generally."The sight of the beet juice trickling over the Traveler's hands like blood clears Childe's head. Learning where the subject of his growing obsession came from, what he is, hasn't changed his feelings. If anything, it's compounding them. If the Traveler is basically a god, then...there really is no one better he could attach himself to for the furtherance of his goals. He folds his hands under his chin and nods to let the Traveler know he's listening.Aether offers him a tiny smile that he hopes is encouraging and not patronizing. He's half sorry now that he laid this revelation on Childe—this was very unplanned—but it isn't for no reason that he told him specifically. Childe is resilient and adaptable, and, unlike most people, he asked. "The more years that go by, the less they mean in groups of ten or a hundred. That still doesn't explain what I mean exactly... In short, I'm not smarter than a human and I'm definitely not wiser. Most of my memories aren't even...here with me right now. Just...random scraps and hints and a few things I choose to never forget. Travel light, you know?" He makes a little huff sound that barely qualifies as the truncated beginning of a chuckle by most standards."This explains why you can use multiple elements." Childe shakes his head contemplatively, reevaluating his performance in their duel in light of his opponent's true nature.Aether nods. He doesn't understand that whole business with the elements enough to elaborate."And you're trapped here? What did that god look like, the one who blocked your path?""White hair. Looked feminine. Yellow eyes, blazing yellow like they held fire within. She came out of a wide rip in the sky wielding weird...dark red cubes, in clusters and like vines. She pulled my power right out of me through my hand and sealed me in the cubes." Aether shifts his shoulders uncomfortably at the remembered terror. "...She took everything." Never mind his wings and his sword: he slumps as he comes back to the thought of his sister. He knows, too, that his forced slumber was full of nightmares just as terrifying as the encounter itself, but all he remembers from them is the lingering sense of uneasy relief he felt when he finally woke up. The magnitude of that feeling was haunting. It hasn't gone away; it lurks like a lump in his throat and a fist around his heart every time he goes to sleep and every time he wakes.Aether didn't mean to solicit sympathy. He was just being honest, trusting Childe—wisely or not—with a secret he never even thought of as a secret until the shape of its absence became an indelible feature of the person his friends think they know."That sounds horrible," Childe ponders aloud, frowning. "If I imagine myself losing all the power I've gained, it's the worst thing that could happen." Almost. The worst would be if something happened to Teucer or Tonia or Anthon or... The names of all his siblings cross his mind and he shuts that line of thought down.Aether doesn't respond. His own sibling is still on his mind. The loss of power was absolutely secondary to being separated from her. He suspects it wouldn't really be the worst thing that could happen to Childe either, knowing his love for his family.The loneliness takes hold before Aether can stave it off. It drags his mood downward, and he's self-aware enough to be reminded of Osial. Being dragged into the deep by the beastly god's crushing tentacles... It didn't happen, but it almost did. If not by Osial then by his widowed mate Beisht. He really had put it all on the line both times, and if it weren't for Shenhe, his journey could easily have been ended by Beisht. Then there's all the people of Liyue. So close to unmitigated disaster.Still he cannot find resentment within him for the man standing a couple meters away. He thinks he ended up with a fairly broad—though not deep—understanding of the web of causes and effects that they both became tangled in. Childe is far from blameless, and Aether has no right to forgive him on behalf of the thousands of other people he imperiled, but, speaking for himself alone..."You know I forgive you, right?" Aether says, quieter than he intended, not realizing just how much of a non sequitur it is. "For everything." He keeps his eyes down and focused on the peeling of potatoes. Of course he doesn't know, this is the first time I'm telling him. That was the wrong figure of speech to use.'For everything' is pretty clear though, and 'I forgive you' is something Childe hasn't heard for a long time. When those words hit him, he's reaching over to claim a new task since he's not going back to the wash basin any time soon. He stops with his hand on a cabbage. "...Now why would you do something like that?" Of its own volition, his voice drops to match the Traveler's in volume, and in softness too. His fingers dig into the cabbage, grip tightened by some kind of emotional aftershock he has no desire to trace back to its source."...Why not," Aether confesses. That's the truest distillation of his reasoning. There are plenty of reasons 'why not' and they have all failed to shake this damning forgiveness out of him.Childe notices how his fingers have punctured the cabbage's outer leaves and he slowly lets go of it. He wants to excuse himself and leave. Things are suddenly too much. He didn't promise to help cook, right? And even if he did, he has helped. It's alright to go...So why won't his feet move?In a rare episode of immediately applicable social insight, Aether senses what Childe needs and takes the initiative to excuse him. "I think we should cook this tomorrow. Breakfast borscht, how about it?" He has no idea whether borscht for breakfast is weird or not. "We haven't made too much progress anyway and bed is starting to sound better than food. Yours is the right-hand door in the other hallway, okay?"Having an out is relief enough that Childe can put on a smile. Little does he know how much weariness it reveals. "Fine with me." He lifts a hand in a gesture somewhere between wave and salute. "The Fatui appreciate you quartering their soldier," he quips on his way out of the kitchen, his brain not connecting how that contradicts what he said about quitting.Aether begins packing up the vegetables as he watches him go. His back isn't really the side of him he sees the most, but he sure feels like it is. It occurs to him that Childe might decide to be slippery and leave the teapot. He's not sure why he'd do that, but they've had an intense conversation, so there are a lot of possibilities. In the end, as he puts away the salted fish, he decides he'll do what he always does when left to his own devices and simply accept whatever state of affairs he finds in the morning.

(Tubby and Paimon, meanwhile, have theorized amongst themselves that Childe must be the only person so far who has entered the teapot by wishing to be exactly where Aether is, rather than wishing to be in his general vicinity or at his house. They've shared a lovely evening tea...but Paimon is wondering when dinner is going to be ready.)

Chapter 2: Day 7: The Boy with the Thorn in His Side

Notes:

shout-out to when I thought this fic was going to be only two chapters

Chapter Text

Morning comes and goes. The door to the guest room is closed and there's nothing to be heard from inside, so Aether is stuck with a mystery for longer than he anticipated. He does a good job of ignoring it, though, getting on with breakfast and his other morning routines. No breakfast borscht: he keeps all that for tomorrow or the next time he sees Childe, whichever comes sooner. Instead, he and Paimon enjoy some Mondstadt hash browns and simplified lotus flower crisp. An experiment with drizzling sweet cream over the crisp is declared a success by both of them.

Over breakfast, Paimon interrogates him as to why dinner didn't happen. It's a very short interrogation. All he tells her is that he was more tired than he thought and so was Childe. That answer is sufficient for her.

Bennett visits. Friends of Aether and Paimon know to come by early if they want to catch them before they head out. Aether doesn't tell Benny he's staying in today, but he does tell him he has an extra hour. They spend twice their usual amount of time training together and comparing adventure notes. Benny's bad luck never seems to follow him into the teapot and that continues to hold true.

Aether fills some time after Benny's departure with gardening. He's grateful for the excuse to give his gardens and the row of small grape trellises some quality attention. Next thing he knows, it's noon and he's been at it for over two hours. He unhurriedly finishes up, dusts the dirt off, and washes his hands before going inside to check on the guest room door.

Nothing has changed. He peeks into the other downstairs rooms and wanders upstairs. No sign of Childe.

Paimon floats straight up from the main room, returning from her noontime tea (and probably more than a few tea cakes) with Tubby. She trails after him, hands behind her back and eyes limpid with curiosity. After about half a minute waiting for his purposes to become apparent, she takes a guess: "Are you looking for Childe?" Normally when Aether has free time that he's spending in the teapot, and all his outdoor stuff is done, he'd be reading a book. With all he wants to learn about Teyvat, there's no time for listlessness like this.

"Yes. I don't suppose you've seen him?"

"Uh-uh. Paimon doesn't know if he's even still here. Paimon cooould...check?" She could teleport into the guest room and back out in a matter of seconds, she means.

"Mno." Aether mumbles, shrugging. "We can wait and see," he speaks up to add.

"Are you sure he's okay? He was in that place for so long." There she goes, mother-henning over a killer. It's both despite and because of her soft heart.

"Probably." Aether wonders if Paimon has any idea how often he himself secretly worries about Childe. Learning the cost of a Delusion in one of the worst ways possible took it up to a new level.

"Hnnn..." Paimon noises, not totally convinced. She hovers beside him in comfortable-enough silence until he pushes off from the railing he's been leaning over and descends the stairs.

He may as well put together some bento boxes of snacks that'll survive a few days in his bag. The bento box is one of his favorite things he's learned in Inazuma.

Aether frowns at the crossword puzzle.

It's forced him to realize that stringing together as many words in Teyvat's common tongue as he did last night took a real toll on him, under the circ*mstances. Thinking back further, he comes to the understanding that long conversations with other friends have sometimes been taxing too when Paimon wasn't there. He did too good a job ignoring that effect.

He readies his pencil to place a letter in the crossword only to second-guess himself and let his hand drop back down. He sighs. This isn't getting me anywhere and I'm not getting it anywhere. It seemed like such a good idea. Maybe it's just the wrong day for it. "What's creasing your brow, comrade?~"

Aether looks left to see Childe emerging from the hallway.

His outfit is rumpled from sleeping for so long, but he wears a much-refreshed grin. He closes his eyes as he stretches his arms over his head, one hand holding the other elbow. "Ahh..." After that he strolls over to the sitting area and leans across the end of the sofa to get a closer look, planting his hands on the armrest to support himself.

Aether, expressionless, just holds up the crossword puzzle. It's in a folded-backwards Inazuman magazine that's printed in Teyvat common. All he has to show for his effort is one word and a bunch of eraser marks.

Childe takes hold of the magazine as if he's going to borrow it, but he just tilts it toward himself and studies it that way. He keeps hold of it for no reason whatsoever.

They're both telling themselves it definitely doesn't have anything to do with their ungloved fingers being a hair's breadth away from touching.

"I see. Want some clues?" Childe's voice is melodious as always. Aether is discovering that it's a tad lower, and its breathy edges more noticeable, when he has just woken up. Oh no. It's...attractive... Is that really happening to me? He nods and lets Childe have the magazine.

Childe has more agility and energy than sense, at times, and he refuses to be slowed down by aches and stiffness. He hops over the armrest and plops down next to his comrade. The amount of room there between the Traveler and the armrest isn't a lot, and his failure to think about that is on account of the fact that there are only two things he's looked at since he entered the room. He doesn't land on the Traveler again, no, and the narrowness of his build is to thank for that, but they're hip to hip and he didn't quite mean for that to happen. Another protest from the muscle in his side is disregarded; he's had so many injuries since he was fourteen, he believes he can feel the difference between the ones that threaten his health and the ones with a bark worse than their bite.

Oh no, Aether's thought repeats. It's not the first time he's happened to sit close to someone in Teyvat, but it's the first time it feels...comfortably thrilling. And thrillingly comfortable. And Childe's shoulder is at the perfect level to lay his head on if— No! What kind of nonsense is that? On the outside he's unaffected. It would be inappropriate, he hasn't shown any sign he—... And he might feel obligated to do anything I ask because he obviously admires me, and it might lead him to think— Ah, I didn't expect him to be so warm. Help... The only help he receives is an exchange of hints and guesses between him and the ostensibly oblivious Childe.

Physical contact with the Traveler has, in fact, caused Childe's brain to stop working for the third time in two days. I'm sure he doesn't think anything of it. But it's so... He natters on about the crossword while part of him is just sort of sitting at the back of his mind with a stupid smile frozen on its face. It's so nice? And...being this close to him... Electrifying. The smile Aether sees on Childe's actual face is perfectly normal, which is to say: it's adorable and Aether has to avoid looking at it when it's this close. Once he's properly focused on the puzzle, though, he starts to relax. He hadn't found an ounce of fun in doing the puzzle alone, but doing it together with someone turns out to be great fun and even more educational than he hoped. He can ask questions, learn synonyms, and get onto lexical tangents with Childe.

By the time the crossword is all filled in, they've both calmed down and accepted the simplicity of being two friends sitting on a sofa. It's not that big of a deal, they've each realized (decided) with mixed relief.

"For some reason," Aether comments, "looking at the answer key felt like it would be..."

"Admitting defeat?"

"Yes. But getting you to do the puzzle for me just felt like being taught."

"Like tutelage," Childe suggests. "But, c'mon, I didn't do all of it."

"Thank you." For the word suggestion. "No, you didn't, but it was funnier to say it that way."

"Before yesterday I never thought you had a sense of humor."

"Did I do something funny yesterday?" Aether finally looks up, squinting slightly as he tries to remember something like that amidst all the major events of the day.

"When you did that little bow as you left the Onmyou Chamber. I never saw you smile before that, either."

"Oh. I do...sometimes." For all Childe knows, the Traveler just doesn't smile around Fatui. That interpretation isn't one Aether thinks of.

Childe wonders what he might learn from Paimon about what the Traveler is like around other people. Looking at him now, he impulsively decides he's going to find every way he can to make the Traveler smile at him more.

"What time is it anyway?" Childe inquires. "For that matter...what year is it? I slept so long." He beams.

Both corners of Aether's mouth turn upward the tiniest bit. The joke is alright, but the brightness of Childe's smile is better. His own smile slowly grows.

Childe privately celebrates. It worked! Ha! Aether remembers to answer the question after a (long, he thinks) moment (of looking kind of stupid, he thinks). "Ah, it's, er..." He looks to the nearest window. "It must be almost sunset." Between noon and sunset, the light coming through the papered windows isn't very indicative without the context of having been up before noon. "Do you want to— that is, shall we go outside?"

"Will you give me a tour?" Childe asks hopefully.

"Sure." Aether prods himself to add, "I would be happy to." Because he is, and he should say it. He gets up and unbends the magazine while he steps to one side to leave it on a haphazard stack of books. In the meantime, Childe approaches the door ahead of him.

This time I'll get the door before he does. Take that, comrade! Being in a position to see the bloodstain on Childe's back sidetracks Aether. He walks up to him and asks directly, "May I see that puncture on your back? I have something for it." Over time he's collected a number of first aid supplies from Noelle, Amber, Lisa, Barbara, and the Bubu Pharmacy. Just in case. Among them, a disinfectant salve that sounded good and smells heavenly.

"Ah, haha, that's nothing, and I already took care of it. Found some alcohol in that maze to clean it with."

"That's alright in a squeeze, I guess, but I've been told it's not the best way to clean a wound. Alcohol can slow down the healing. I have something better."

"Huh. That's interesting. Alright, I'll let you fuss over me. Just this once~"

The Traveler smiles—only a little—and Childe changes his mind about the 'just this once' part.

"Wait here," Aether tells him. In the bathroom he washes his hands and fetches the salve, a small clean towel, and a bottle of water. When he returns, he finds Childe perched on the arm of the sofa, jacket and shirt off, his back toward the rest of the sofa. "Perfect, thank you," he says simply.

"Shouldn't I be thanking you? I'm more than competent at patching myself up, I can assure you... But it's kind of you to do this. Do you always insist on taking care of your comrades' minor bumps and scrapes?"

"To be clear, I'm not insisting." Aether pauses with the towel in one hand and the opened bottle in the other. "You didn't exactly say no when I first asked, but you still can."

Childe laughs. "That would be so rude at this point. I'll bear it in mind though."

"Good." Aether pours some water on the towel and kneels on the sofa behind Childe. He begins gently dabbing away dried blood.

"...Stop."

Aether stops instantly.

Childe giggles. "Sorry. Joking."

"Hmm. No need to be sorry." So 'stop' is another word he knows. Good. And he doesn't take me too seriously to joke like that. Aether resumes tidying up the wound. "This looks deep. How'd you get it?"

"A splinter."

"A splinter?"

"There's wood everywhere in that place."

"So there is." Splinters could come in all shapes and sizes there. Soon Aether moves on to wiping away blood that had trickled downward when the puncture happened. He notes the panoply of scars Childe has everywhere he looks. All are battle scars, by Aether's reckoning. No surprises.

They're both quiet for a bit. Childe lets his eyes close. It's relaxing, being doted on in this way. The Traveler acts like a professional about it and his touch doesn't bring the thrill it has at other times, but it's such an extravagantly unnecessary kindness (in Childe's opinion) that it's mystifying to compare this to how cold the Traveler had been toward him before, in Liyue. He loves the cold, of course, whether it's the snows of his homeland, the icy regard of the Tsaritsa, or the Traveler's chilling scrutiny. But the warmth of these moments is as satiating to his soul as a cup of sbiten after a long day of ice fishing.

Speaking of honey, that's what Childe smells when the Traveler starts applying a salve. Pine, too. He inhales deeply of the scent, half turning his head. "That's nice."

"Something Amber gave me. She's a friend from Mondstadt."

"I'm a friend from Mondstadt too, according to Paimon."

"Heh. I couldn't live without her. She's so quick to smooth over situations that would get very awkward, at best, if I had to rely on myself alone." Aether scoots closer to the back of the sofa to reach Childe's left arm. "Sometimes she's the one who makes things awkward, but not often." Leaning around at a slightly awkward angle, he starts working on the laceration.

"Hmm. If it weren't for her, I was just going to tell Xinyan the truth. Lying isn't my favorite option when I don't have to."

"Admirable."

"That's not why—"

"I'm just saying. I usually know where things stand with you, because you..." Aether glances up. "Wear your heart on your sleeve. And your blood. I like that."

"The blood?" Childe grins, trying not to laugh so his arm doesn't trouble the Traveler with any movement.

"Tch. You know what I meant." Aether smiles softly without looking up again.

Childe doesn't stop smiling for a while. It transfigures into a general lightness in his features rather than a curve of his lips. The Traveler's smile was short-lived, and after it fades, he looks down too. He fidgets a little with the Vision on his belt; extended idleness makes him itch for a fight. He's still enjoying this particular idleness, though. Thinking about fighting is the perfect addition to it, so that's what he does. Pros and cons of hooked blades? He heard there was a type of hooked sword used in Liyue, always in pair, that fell out of favor and completely disappeared from the smithies. Years ago he mastered a hooked sword made by a retired Snezhnayan smith who'd taken to producing more creative designs as a hobby. Maybe he should find something like that and make sure he's still competent with it. Test it thoroughly on some Treasure Hoarders... He hadn't been able to acquire a pair of the Liyuen swords, or even one, despite giving it a real effort and offering a lot of Mora around.

"Done," Aether states when he finishes tending to Childe's arm. "And to answer the question you asked, yes, I would treat any friend's injury, even if it's minor, if I have the means to. I see no reason not to unless circ*mstances make it a bad idea."

"Huh. That reminds me, I read some intel that said you were in charge of a unit in the Watatsumi Army. Captain of Section Two in the Swordfish Platoon?"

Aether wipes his hands on a clean corner of the towel before getting off the sofa. Standing now at Childe's right, he leans in and around to meet his eyes and give him what might qualify as a smirk. "Are you trying to get me to confirm Fatui intelligence about Watatsumi military matters?~"

Childe grins innocently, which might not help his case that he is in fact innocent of that accusation. "Not at all! I just find it fascinating to think of you being part of a military and commanding subordinates."

"It's just as weird to see you do it," Aether retorts, the corners of his mouth briefly twitching further upward. As far as he's concerned, that's a flashed grin.

"Ahah, that was when I had to induct those recruits while Teucer was in Liyue, right?"

"Yes. Not a good example, I know. It was funny to watch, but that had nothing to do with whatever your leadership is normally like. 'Fascinating' is a better word than 'weird.' I haven't really seen that side of you and I'll admit I'm curious."

"Well I'm glad you thought my suffering was so funny," Childe complains in jest, complete with a dramatic sigh.

"I would say something about the recruits' suffering," Aether quips. "But I remember what you said about other Harbingers using lethal force against subordinates. Besides, it was no worse than what I do to people I have to fight.

"You did have a run-in with that batch a week later."

"Oh." It's not big news to Aether. He fought a lot of Fatui in Liyue. "...Did they all live?"

Childe is relieved he doesn't have to tiptoe around that, that he has an immediate indication as to whether the Traveler can take the truth of the matter. "Yes, but one had to go back to Snezhnaya to convalesce. He...might be able to get an assignment behind a desk."

"I see." Aether receives that information with measured solemnity. He has always understood that non-lethal violence is not the same as non-violence. There's always a risk that someone he subdues will die later of complications or be permanently disabled. Highly skilled though he is with a sword, it's still a sword, and each of the elements pose unique dangers to people they're used against, too.

Childe thinks thrice about continuing down this line of conversation. It's intriguing, but he also liked the lighthearted back-and-forth that preceded it. "...Do you regret it? You won't offend me if you say no. It's war, after all."

"I regret the necessity." The dispassionate answer of someone who confronted and resolved that question within themself long ago.

"A fair answer." Childe doesn't really have anything else to say to it. He expects he'll be obsessing for quite a while over the contrast between the Traveler's care for the smallest ills of those he calls friends and his equanimity with the damage he does to his foes. That is, he'll be toying with the notion in the back of his mind like a kitten with yarn while he goes about his days. He'd love to dig into it more right here and now, but he doesn't want to interrogate the Traveler too much. It's a very human characteristic to have only so much 'fellow feeling' to spread around. Is that true of...stars, too? "By the way, can I put my shirt back on now?" He doesn't care either way, but if he can, he may as well.

"Yes. The salve should stay in place. The pine resin in it is supposed to help with that, if I remember right."

Childe snags his shirt, sternum strap, jacket, and scarf-like sash off the sofa, one at a time. He turns forward on the armrest as he puts it all on. The muscle in his side acts up again, causing a hitch in some of his movements, but he doesn't even wince.

Aether doesn't notice, either. He's gathering things to take back to the bathroom, and without bothering to say anything he heads off to do just that.

Childe remains where he is for the time being. It's an opportunity to consider the room. No need to walk around: sight lines on the ground floor are mostly clear. The furniture is clustered in small islands that form an archipelago across the expanse of otherwise-underutilized floor space.

A pair of dining tables stand end-to-end to form one long table in the center. Plain tablecloths, a vase of yellow flowers, an Inazuman-style lantern, and some stationery that was left there. Five chairs scattered around the tables as if people were using them recently and didn't push them in.

At the back of the room: a board full of notes, and shelves of what just looks like miscellany from this distance.

The front corners have a varied population of plants along the windows, all large enough to sit in pots on the floor and still get full light. There's a hanging picture from Inazuma and a decorative curtain from Liyue, both very artistic without seeming to depict specific places. Childe's survey pauses on the Inazuman hanging. Water motifs in blue; curling waves highlighted by lines of lilac-purple as if lit by sunset or sunrise or even nighttime. He stares at it for a few seconds without having any particular thoughts about it. Then he blinks and moves on.

The sofa is part of a cozy seating arrangement that also includes three wooden armchairs with pillows and one tatami cushion. They're spaced and angled so that each hypothetical guest would be close enough to their neighbors to hold a conversation without anyone feeling crowded. At the center, a large orange floor-lantern from Liyue would provide light and probably warmth. Childe bets Zhongli would know exactly what type of lantern that is. Lastly, there's the side table and, on the floor, the tall and precariously messy stack of books.

The Traveler doesn't keep things very organized, evidently, but he does keep a clean house. There's no garbage lying around, no stains on the furniture, and no spilled dirt around the plants that Childe can see. That makes him pretty average when it comes to housekeeping. Nothing wrong with that. It's just another piece of information about his comrade.

Aether returns with a question. "We still have the ingredients for borscht. Do you want to have that before the tour?"

"Ah! Right, I got a little carried away and forgot about breakfast, hehe. Let's do that."

Cooking goes a lot faster this time aside from the necessary heating times. The two of them work together efficiently like the practiced cooks and weirdly compatible personalities they are. All they talk about this time is food, recipes, and restaurants. Childe learns that the Traveler knows Xiangling and that she sometimes comes to the teapot to cook for mutual friends, like Xinyan and Yun Jin. Childe can't say he knows Xiangling personally and he only knows Yun Jin from attending some of her performances.

Aether is informed that food is like weaponry: "A true warrior never deliberates unduly over their choice of weapon, nor do they do so over the food they eat," Childe says. He gets a raised eyebrow and no comment. A while after that, he gets a piece of fish wrapped in slightly caramelized calla lily petals as a treat. Aether prepared that on a whim, refusing to explain when he came back from a quick trip outside with a lily in hand and began cooking its petals in oil.

As he notes how much Childe enjoys the unexpected seafood sweet, Aether supposes he could have gone the other route in responding to the Harbinger's philosophy, by making him a much less palatable snack. But it would have been harder to come up with something that'd be unpleasant enough. That's the excuse he makes for himself, to himself.

All the while, the kitchen is submerged in sunset hues from the windows. Toward the end, as the artificial sun grows dimmer and relinquishes the realm to cooling twilight, pale light from the Inazuman lantern on the ceiling takes predominance. It's about then that the borscht is done.

As if magically alerted to the readiness of dinner, Paimon appears and announces she's starving. She flits over to the pot of borscht and inhales its scent so hard she does a backflip. "Oowhoa, it smells so good!"

Childe laughs from over by the shelves that hold dishware, where he's helpfully fetching bowls. He picks two regular-sized bowls for him and the Traveler and reaches for a smaller one for Paimon.

"Oh no no," Aether cautions him with an undertone of mirth. "Paimon gets a normal bowl or larger. How starving are you, Paimon?"

"Sooo starving!"

"Large bowl," Aether confirms.

Childe gives them both a questioning smile but obliges with a bigger bowl and sets all three on the counter to have food ladled into them. "Have either of you ever had any kind of borscht before?"

"Nope," is Paimon's answer. "What kinds are there?"

Aether's answer is the same so he just shakes his head. He does some poking-about in the pot with the ladle as he serves up, making sure no one finds themself with an imbalanced bowl that has too much of one ingredient and none of another.

Childe locates a rag to wipe down the counter. "As many as there are families in Snezhnaya! I really can't put a number on it. There are kinds that have much more meat, some without beets, there are some with kelp instead of cabbage... Traditionally, the preparation with beets involves planning several days ahead to ferment sliced beet into 'beet sour.' Adding stale rye bread can make that faster."

Paimon's face pinches into a skeptical look. "That doesn't sound so good."

"It's not to everyone's taste," Childe admits freely. "Sour and sweet are the key flavors of borscht. If you're not fond of that combination, there probably won't be any kinds of borscht you'd like." He has no problem with that. If Paimon doesn't like this borscht, there's more for him. She loved the smell, though, so it's unlikely.

"Paimon is a true warrior," Aether states too seriously to be serious. "She never deliberates unduly over her choice of weapon, nor the food she eats."

"Hey!" Paimon objects. "Paimon is not a warrior!"

That makes Childe laugh again, and heartily. "Comrade..." he wheezes between chortles. There's a world of difference between being made fun of by the other Harbingers, with their genuine distaste for him and their expertise in sly insults, and being made fun of by the Traveler. Worlds of difference.

Prompted by Aether, there's more talk of borscht varieties and other Snezhnayan foods after they move to the dining tables to eat. Paimon gets very enthusiastic when she starts hearing about sweets and desserts: medovik honey cake, pastila fruit squares she would no doubt eat by the dozen, the zefir that's similar to pastila but also comparable to meringue thanks to additional ingredients, kovrizhka gingerbread... She's nearly drooling by the time Childe gets to the whole-fruit preserves called varenye. It's all too easy for her to extract a promise from him that he'll make all of those things for her.

"You're going to have to come back for many more visits," Aether observes. "You have so many things to cook for us. And to teach me while you're at it. Speaking of that, do you want to stay the night? The guest room is yours whenever you'd like a comfortable place to sleep. Or a safe place."

"Your generosity is too much, Traveler. Will there be none left for other guests?"

"If you're asking whether someone else'll need that room: no. I had a smaller house built on one of the other islands for that purpose. After that, I decided to save that room for special occasions, without really deciding what makes a special occasion."

Paimon finishes Aether's line of thought. "And Childe is the special occasion!"

"Yes. An occasion that is also a person."

Childe scratches his neck, flattered beyond his ability to respond intelligently. An uncontrollable smile comes to his face along with an honest-to-the-Archon blush. "Oh. That's... Ahem. Thank you, com— Trave— comrade." I've earned a high opinion of myself but I never expected you to say something like that. Paimon giggles and gives Aether a meaningful look. He glances at her but doesn't get whatever the hint is. He's distracted by how cute Childe looks.

"Don't be too grateful," he replies, however. "It's just a room." Aether is aware to some degree that Childe's reaction was to what he said and not the room itself, but he wants to make a point.

"So it is," Childe leaps at the chance to recover. "But I'll appreciate it on the nights when I would've had to camp in the wilderness." Being out in the elements isn't something he actually minds(unless it's hot and there are mosquitoes), and on any other day he would have said so. Right now he's just saying the first thing he can think of.

"Mm. Well, since you're staying, I'm alright with asking if we can postpone the tour to tomorrow. That was a really filling meal, and it's dark out anyway." Tubby could fix that, but she can't fix the sleepiness that's threatening to take hold of Aether's eyelids.

"Rest up, by all means. Maybe tomorrow we can spar a little."

"Maybe." That doesn't sound bad to Aether. There's plenty of open space in the teapot, and that's his only thought on the matter at the moment.

Guessing Childe has already figured out where the magic privy is and can either figure out anything else he might need or, if not, ask Paimon or Tubby, Aether heads up to his own bedroom with nothing more than a "Good night." Paimon will be asleep soon too, hovering limply in her favorite corner of his room. He wonders sometimes how that can be comfortable, but chalks it up to her not being human. Far be it from him to judge. Tubby, though, sleeps light in her teapot-within-a-teapot and tends to stay on the porch.

Childe goes to bed too, despite having only been awake a few hours. More rest will be useful, especially if he's going to be sparring with the Traveler tomorrow. He flops face-down onto the guest bed and groans, part in satisfaction at the slosh of borscht in his stomach and part in pain.If it weren't for the warning the latter is giving him, he would maybe have exercised off the former. It might be a few days before he's fully recovered from the Mystic Onmyou Chamber.

He estimates that six days in there took a similar toll, in terms of muscle strain if nothing else, as...somewhere around thirty seconds of Foul Legacy, give or take depending on how fresh he goes into it and how fast he moves.

Chapter 3: Day 8: Away With Obsessions and Falsehood

Chapter Text

Paimon waves her arms. "Oh! Oh! We can have a picnic breakfast."

"Good idea," Aether agrees. He asides to Childe, "Paimon loves picnics."

"Paimon loves picnics!" she confirms ecstatically.

"Now we just need to decide what to make," Childe contemplates. He's leaning back against the counter with his arms folded. He wasn't the last to wake, but he was the last to show up in the kitchen, delayed by having a bath and washing his clothes. Apparently the Traveler slept in and found Paimon already in the kitchen finishing off a bento box.

Naturally, Paimon has room for a second breakfast.

Aether is by the shelves, searching for inspiration. The three of them have had several ideas, but all those recipes turned out to require advance preparations when they thought about them for more than two seconds.

He forces himself to think aloud: "...Salad? With radishes? No, radish balls on the side, those are quick to fry. Bamboo shoots and cucumbers in the salad? And egg? Lots of egg." Eggs will help Childe's body heal, like the fish and the rest of the borscht. Making food to help himself and others recuperate is the only thing Aether would call his specialty, as far as cooking goes. Sometimes it means going for rich and efficient nutrition, as in this case. Sometimes it means making something that's easy on the stomach, and sometimes it's about feeding the soul. Though he wasn't thinking in those terms at the time, maybe borscht for Childe fell into the third category too.

Halfway through Aether's planmaking, Paimon starts nodding along. "And cheese!" she puts in.

"Grated onto the salad or melted on the eggs before they're added?"

"Mmm...melted!"

"That seems to settle that," Childe remarks cheerily.

"Yeah!" Paimon agrees.

Aether nods. He collects the bowls and pan they'll need while Childe gets the fire going. Even Paimon helps by grabbing a cloth-wrapped slice from the cheese shelf before Aether gets the rest of the ingredients.

Once again, through whatever unspoken and unconscious coordination, the two cooks divide their tasks and work quickly.

(Watching the process at first, from a high vantage at the other side of the counter, Paimon finds her attention shifting to the people. Her head tilts bit by bit over time as she regards them with a thoughtfulness they don't notice. Aether always seems to enjoy cooking with friends, but if it were anyone else there beside him, it wouldn't be so...smooth? There'd at least be a few words exchanged every so often to decide who does what or request something be handed from one to the other. There'd be discussion of things like how much salt should be used. Those discussions were always very amicable, even fun, in part because Aether didn't tend to hold strong opinions on such things.

He'd be struggling to keep up with Xiangling, and he and Noelle had an inexplicable habit of bumping into each other. Noelle had once almost hit him in the head with a heavy pan as she turned, which she'd apologized for so profusely—despite no harm actually being done—that Paimon felt second-hand embarrassment as if she herself had almost knocked the Traveler out. Aether had reassured Noelle, of course, with help from Paimon when he faltered on a forgotten phrase.

But he and Childe haven't said a thing to each other about the food in front of them. They're chatting about archery at a level of technical detail Paimon can't follow.

She only has a few minutes to ponder what she's seeing before the meal is ready.)

There was short-lived consideration of using a tray or box to carry the food, but Paimon insisted on a basket. If they didn't use a basket, they wouldn't be having a picnic, they'd just be eating outside. There had to be a blanket, too.

Aether lifts a hand in greeting to Tubby as they step out. Paimon waves vigorously. Childe has, in a sense, already been introduced to Tubby; he just wasn't present for it. Yesterday, Aether and Paimon told her his names (both of them), that they first met him months ago, and that they ran into him in Inazuma. They left out all his crimes. If Xinyan didn't need to know, someone with very close ties to the adepti certainly doesn't need to know. Aether is glad he and Paimon have been on the same page about that.

"Childe, this is Tubby, also known as Rain Calmer," Aether says. "She's a spirit who takes care of the teapot in very important ways I don't understand."

Tubby has a uniquely sweet voice, and a disposition to match. "It's nice to meet you! I understand we both have more than one name. Many of the Traveler's friends do! You may call me Tubby. You prefer being called Childe with an E, yes?"

Despite Tubby having a beak, Childe gets the distinct impression she's smiling. He smiles back readily. "Correct!" He wonders if she might literally call him Child With An E, but he can address that later if so. "Thank you for the warm welcome. I'm sorry for bumping into you the other evening."

"It is no trouble! I am just glad you weren't injured. If there is anything you need while you're here, you can ask me. My capacity to help is mostly limited to matters of the realm, such as weather, but I'm familiar with everything here and may be able to offer directions. You are also welcome to join me for tea any time!"

What a charming spirit. She fits in with the kind of company the Traveler usually keeps and the place I imagined he would make his home. Home away from home, I suppose. Based on what the Traveler told him, they're both far from home. That was a foregone conclusion in a way, given that everyone knows the Traveler is an outlander from somewhere , but hearing the way the man himself talked about it shed a different light on it. Though, maybe Childe is just reading into it from the viewpoint of his own homesickness. "Likewise I'm at your service if you need anything cleaned or have any problems a Hydro Vision could solve." His right hand happens to be resting on his hip, so he taps his Vision with a fingertip. The 'picnic blanket' is folded over his left arm.

"It is much appreciated," Tubby replies happily.

Aether, observing the exchange, is gladdened that the two are getting along so well. Tubby doesn't judge who he brings in and she doesn't have a passive-aggressive bone in her body, much less an aggressive one, but it's still nice to see. "Maybe we'll take you up on that tea sometime." Being that it's a 'maybe,' he doesn't think he's overstepping by saying 'we.' He hopes he isn't.

"You bet!" Childe agrees, rising on the balls of his feet a little as if lifted by sheer verve.

He really commits to plans fast, Aether marvels, unsure if that's a good thing. So far it's an endearing thing, in his eyes. Besides, how does that saying about the pot and the kettle go?... Anyway! He starts walking and his fellow picnickers follow, Childe looking around with interest as they go. It's not far to the corner of the island where the most plants and trees are growing. Aether gestures ahead before they're quite there. "That's the garden. I'm growing sweet flowers, carrots, and calla lilies right now. I fell behind on stocking carrots and now I'm always short on them unless I go buy them in bulk from a grocer. And really fresh sweet flowers are nice to have on hand for when Paimon wants Sweet Madame for dinner." That serves as an early start to the tour.

Paimon makes a happy noise to herself at the mention of Sweet Madame.

"That's one of the popular dishes from Mondstadt?" Childe recalls. By 'popular,' he means it's one of those that has made its way to Liyue, albeit not one that's consistently available. The farthest Childe has been into Mondstadt is Dragonspine, so Liyue is his reference point. "Is it popular in Mondstadt?"

"Very. I'll make you one someday," Aether promises. "I'll have to make two so you don't have to fight Paimon for it."

Paimon starts to object—"Hey!"—but she doesn't have a counterargument. "Err..." Instead she chooses violence (in the purely hypothetical) and mutters, "Sweet Madame might be worth fighting over..."

"And these are...grape vines?" Childe asks. The vines are small and don't have any grapes on them at present. He recognizes them more by the shape of the trellis each is growing on, having seen illustrations of vineyards on wine bottles and so forth. Grapes don't grow in Snezhnaya.

"Yes. If no one will serve me alcohol, I'll make my own wine."

"Haha! Do you really get refused alcohol everywhere you go?"

"Without exception. I don't have any documents to prove my age, and besides, what would I put on them for age?" Aether shrugs. "Honestly, I don't mind. It's funny sometimes. People can think whatever they want about me." He's led the way to a sparse grove of bamboo separated from the gardens by the grapes. Much of it is fully grown, looking as if it's been there for years. There's a particularly open space in the center, where he gestures for the blanket to be placed.

After Childe spreads the blanket out, Aether sets the basket on it and removes the contents. Each salad has a stick of fried radish balls lying atop it.

"Are these still a 'side' if they're on the salad?" Paimon wonders as she drops to a very low hover and snatches up her radish balls. Her enjoyment of them is in no way affected or postponed by the question: she turns the stick as she gnaws the still-warm root vegetables like they were a single corn cob.

Aether shrugs. He makes himself comfortable on the blanketed ground with his legs to one side and a hand supporting him.

Childe doesn't answer. Yet to sit down, he's looking up into the leafy canopy of the grove. There's a breeze rustling the foliage and gently rippling the end of his sash. Lots of light reaches the ground here, from above and from all sides, but when he looks down he can still make out a faint dapple of shadows. This spot is truly idyllic... However, if he looks further afield and if he listens carefully, the unnaturalness of it is obvious. The terrain is too hom*ogeneous and benign, there are no birds or insects, and the temperature and humidity would be perfect for someone from Liyue. These details are somehow more striking than the otherworldliness of the 'sun' or the cloudscape surrounding the islands. There's just no chaos of any kind. It's a big downside.

He puffs a light sigh as he sits down, letting the pleasantness of the breeze, the company, and the food put that thought out of his mind for the time being.

After they've eaten, the next stop on the tour is a very logical one. This is the time of day when Aether would usually do his exercise routine. So, he brings Childe to the area behind the mansion that he uses for that. It's not much: there's a rack of practice weapons, but the main feature is a parallel pair of tightropes set up just a meter off the ground and a couple meters apart.

(Paimon, despite being mildly curious what Aether and Childe are going to do, assures herself it's just going to be the usual boring training. Sleep is boring too, but right now a nap sounds nice.) "Paimon's going for a nap!" she announces with a yawn before flying around to the front of the house.

That saves Aether having to ask her for the chance to talk with Childe alone. He has something to say that's as important as telling him about the teapot in the first place. But before that, he wordlessly climbs onto one of the tightropes and gives Childe an expectant look.

"Ahh, a little challenge to enhance your regimen?" the taller man speculates as he hops onto the other rope. His balance is instantaneously perfect. Furthermore, he opts to stand on one foot, crossing his ankle behind his calf. Hooking his thumbs in his belt completes a very casual image, as if he's just standing around on a street somewhere.

Aether isn't having any trouble either, standing with his arms folded facing Childe. "Yes. Balance and precision are my first priorities."

"Without which you can't have speed," Childe observes. At the Golden House, the Traveler nearly matched his speed when it came to strikes and parries. Less so when it came to dodging. Using Hydro or Electro to displace himself from one spot to another was a trick that kept him well ahead in that department. "So! Now that you have access to Electro, have you worked out how to use it to move faster?"

"Heh. No. That might take some more time and practice. And inspiration. Or...tutelage?"

"I'll gladly help you get stronger by teaching you what I can, comrade. The more you grow in power, the more I'll learn from sparring with you."

"Thank you." Aether slides into a very specific posture and proceeds through a series of slow, measured movements while adding, "On the other hand, someone could say your motive is purely selfish. I don't care either way. We'll benefit each other, and those benefits will...double for both of us when we fight alongside each other."

"They'll compound, yes," Childe helpfully supplies an alternative word as he agrees. He starts imitating the Traveler's movements, watching his legs and arms like a hawk. "It almost sounds like you believe the ends justify the means."

"Sometimes they do. ...But these means are worthwhile for their own sake. What about you?"

If Childe thought he 'could get used to' being complimented by the Traveler, now it seems he might actually be getting used to it, because he manages to not dwell on that one. At least, not to the exclusion of responding, "You're asking because you want to hear my reasoning? You certainly know the answer itself."

"Yes."

"Hmm. I could explain in a few different ways... Let's go with this. There are many people in the world who have achieved excellence in combat. I'm not alone in seeking that kind of power at all costs. The stronger I get, the higher I rise on the list of Teyvat's greatest warriors that no one's written. I take the place of those I exceed. There's someone at the top. Why shouldn't that be me instead? And by taking that place, I would conquer the world."

That's hard for Aether to argue with. Though the motivation seems frivolous to him and the goal meaningless, a counter to the logic doesn't come to his mind. He continues his exercises in silence for a few moments, and Childe lets the silence be. Finally Aether follows up, "For how long? How long do you plan on staying at the top, I mean?"

"Until someone knocks me down from there and kills me." There's a shrug in Childe's tone.

Aether hasn't looked at Childe directly very much while they've been at this. His eyes track his own motions. He doesn't break that focus as he remarks, a tad dryly, "Maybe I should wait until you get there, then take the spot from you. I spare you, and you go find a hobby."

"Heheh! Heh. But Traveler, I'd keep fighting you to get it back. What hobby could be more fulfilling than striving for that?"

"Rock'n'roll."

Childe sort of laughs, sort of sighs. "Ahh, I leave that to people with the kind of passion Xinyan has."

"You're the most passionate person I know."

"That's hard to believe, knowing some of the people you know, but good news for me if true! In any case, my passion is a weapon's zeal for its sole purpose."

"And for protecting your family. Your siblings' dreams."

"A weapon can be used to protect." Childe's certainty is absolute.

Another point Aether can't argue with. There's the question of who wields the weapon, but...Aether isn't sure he wants to know the answer. If Childe wants to 'conquer the world' then logically it's him, but there's also the Tsaritsa, and maybe even Aether himself, which leaves the door open to even worse wielders than the Tsaritsa. It galls Aether to think of Childe being controlled by anyone. The idea of himself 'wielding' Childe is horrifying for a whole slew of reasons. And that's why they need to talk.

Aether brings his exercises to a close and hops backward off the tightrope. "Come and sit," he invites Childe, taking a seat cross-legged on the grass. To his chagrin, he realizes his invitation sounded like a command. It...often does, doesn't it... He doesn't think it can be fixed now, but he resolves to improve on that in the future.

Childe follows suit. Initially he sits at an angle with his knees halfway up and his arms draped over them, an arrangement which comes to him a tad more naturally, but after a few seconds he turns to face the Traveler head-on and adopts the same cross-legged position. No reason not to.

That's how they end up sitting face to face with one man's knee a matter of inches away from the other's.

Aether studies Childe momentarily. The young Harbinger's brow is slightly knit by clueless curiosity. Aether is to blame for that, having given no hint as to why he asked for, presumably, a sit-down conversation. The last thing Childe said was about a weapon being able to protect, after which Aether was silent—and, true to form, unreadable—for a whole minute or two. Not very auspicious.

He jumps right into it. No unnecessary suspense or beating around the bush, or so he intends. "I don't think you should leave the Fatui."

That just perplexes Childe. He frowns and leans forward a little, planting an elbow on his thigh in order to prop his chin on his hand. His jaw settles into the heel of his palm; his knuckles squish his cheek upward as he tilts his head.

Aether is fleetingly distracted by those details. The sight of Childe just existing in front of him with human flesh and a complicated expression sparks a stray thought contrasting the way Childe is now with the way he looks in Foul Legacy: all expression locked behind a mask, all flesh encased in formidable armor... It casts the transformation in an even more saddening light. Aether clears his throat. "The Fatui don't seem to me like the kind of organization anyone can just quit without consequences. Look at Scaramouche. He can afford to leave everything behind, I assume. Maybe in his view he's not leaving anything behind at all. But you have a family, and I know you love them. And...anything could happen when word gets back to Snezhnaya that you..." There's a specific word for it. Not 'betrayed,' but close? "...ran off." He takes a deep breath. "All that having been said, I don't really know anything about how the internal affairs of the Fatui work. Or the Harbingers, or the Tsaritsa, or Snezhnaya. I don't doubt you've thought about this. Only you can judge your situation and decide what to do. But you have to understand that I'm not...requiring you to quit as a condition of joining me, or even wishing you would."

As he listens, Childe's frown thins into a grim line and he lets his gaze wander to what would've been the horizon out in the real world. (Here, it's just a bank of clouds that happens to be level with the island.)

Amid his fantasies of ditching the Fatui and growing powerful enough at the Traveler's side to defeat all the other Harbingers, he knew he had to face the question of his family at some point. He did know. The 5th Harbinger, Pulcinella, has been looking after his family for years and, to a degree, that was comforting knowledge. He even treats Childe himself like family. But Childe has known, too, for most of those years, that he can't fully trust the Rooster's motivations; he's still a Harbinger, with all the opaque schemes that title implies (of the ten who aren't Tartaglia). He's not ungrateful for the old man's kindness. Part of him wishes he could trust him more, but Pulcinella has a ruthless side when it comes to Fatui 'assets' beneath him, and that doesn't sit well with Childe.

His reluctance to face how intractably complex his situation actually is slowly gives way to resignation. He lets out a heavy sigh. "...You're right. Even I don't truly know what would happen." Why does it have to be so complicated... Aether saw how the dullness in Childe's eyes deepened while he grappled with the topic. It hurt to watch. In the last two days...it was possible to forget how tired he looks sometimes. And lost. And lonely. And I brought all that back by saying what I said. I wish—... His wish seems to be granted in part when, shortly after breaking his silence, Childe appears to rebound all at once. The smile that rises like the sun on his face looks a touch sad. Resilience, nevertheless, is one of his strengths. "In that case, I should probably go and report in."

Aether manages a very small nod. Childe's true state of mind is, all of a sudden, completely opaque to him. That's worrying. There's also the fact that he just doesn't want him to go. He can't be here all the time. I'm not even here that much. Life slowed down for two days, it was simple and peaceful, and...I guess I'll miss that now that it's coming to an end. He'll miss sharing that with a Childe who on some level thought his life was about to open up to a freedom as boundless as the sky.

He realizes his gaze has drifted down to the grass. He looks up,

and Childe is gone,

again.

Chapter 4: Day 8: On My Mind

Notes:

here's Childe's inevitable graphic violence! (it's just a deadly fight with some bandits, not...idk, torture or anything like that)

over a year has passed since Aether walked into Mondstadt with Paimon

edit: previously referred to Childe's outfit as a uniform, changed that because I don't think it counts as one

Chapter Text

Childe is fine. He's fine. The Traveler was right and that's all there is to it.That pretense doesn't survive long as he walks briskly through the northern reaches of Narukami Island. It's quiet in the region, currently, with no more monsters leaking out of the Onmyou Chamber. The lack of anything or anyone to fight leaves him alone with his thoughts right when he'd rather put off confronting them.He'd arrived back in Inazuma standing outside the Chamber's gate. For a moment he just regarded its shimmering blue surface. It reminded him that the Traveler had wondered if the Chamber and his teapot both being adeptal realms (more or less) would affect where someone ended up when they left the latter. Apparently it did. He'd have to mention that the next time he sees him.There will be a next time. Of course there will. The Traveler had spoken like they'd be adventuring together just minutes before giving Childe a reality check on what that could mean.

He's frustrated with himself because the facts weren't news to him. He's angry at himself because he was ready to do something that might have put his family in danger. He had months and months to think it through to the same conclusion the Traveler reached and somehow he didn't.He can still have it both ways, but not to the extent that he'd daydreamed of.Joining the Fatui wasn't his choice. Even so, he hadn't minded it. It gave him much of what he desired at the time. The structure chafed a little, but he saw it as a good bargain: just follow orders and he'd get training, experience, and opportunities to kill without inconvenient repercussions. Then he became a Harbinger and met the Tsaritsa that same day, gaining much freer rein and the inspiration of an authority figure who was worth his utmost respect.It seemed like a perfect arrangement. Until an alternative revealed itself.The Traveler spilled his blood, forced him to hold nothing back, chipped away at his Foul Legacy armor, and outlasted him until he couldn't maintain the transformation and collapsed. He'll never forget how unimpressed the Traveler looked as he stood over him, sword held in a steady hand. It was the first time since he returned from the Abyss that he had any reason to feel humble.He became even more annoyed than before at the underhanded schemes of the Fatui, their convoluted plans. His ill fit with his fellow Harbingers, and the isolation they imposed on him, became more wearying. Compared to what he imagined he could gain from that person who defeated him, he was getting nowhere. Stagnating.Too often he was cooped up in the Northland Bank with paperwork: reports, orders, assignments, requisitions, logistics, intel. He generally didn't even have time to ignore propriety and go out collecting the bank's debts himself. Fatui operations in Liyue required much more attention from him after the Osial incident than before. In that sense, his part in it didn't go unpunished by fate. Once in a while he'd sigh, stare out the window, and wonder what the Traveler was getting up to. Whenever intel came in that answered that question, he read it more than once and wished he'd been there.Childe drags in a deep breath, holds it a moment, then sighs it out in a lung-emptying gust. On his long walk he's been keeping a hungry eye out for rogues, Treasure Hoarders, hilichurls—anything he can sink a blade into. The tension in his body is a particular sensation that makes him feel like he needs to crack every joint at once. Getting into a fight would loosen him up at least, and maybe even clear his head.With Teucer's very unexpected arrival in Liyue, seeing the Traveler at his little brother's side was secondary. His attention was on Teucer the whole time as he struggled and juggled to keep the boy alive and entertained. He couldn't have done it without the Traveler. Okay, maybe he could have. He had plenty of subordinates he could have told to watch over Teucer. But none he trusted like the Traveler.That trust shouldn't have come so easily. But the Traveler had spared him even as he prepared to destroy Liyue Harbor. There were countless people in the underbelly of the country who had fought him and lived to tell about it because he'd spared them too. He left a trail of good deeds and solved problems everywhere he went. He was a hero and, by all indications, a good person.There had to be more to him than that, Childe knew. That was where his interest became personal. He could sometimes gather insights from the Traveler's face and body language, but not usually, and his flat, laconic words were no easier to construe deeper meaning from. His voice, however, had a soft, thoughtful quality to it that snuck under Childe's skin.All too soon, Teucer and the Traveler were both gone again. Childe hadn't even gotten to spend that brief time with his brother who had come so far to see him. And it was, in part, his Fatui duties that kept him away.The Traveler had gone above and beyond for Teucer, and that was another thing he'd never forget."Sorrow and hesitation are the enemy of an implacable weapon." He'd said that to Shiki Taishou. He completely believes in those words. It's too bad he doesn't live up to them... Or, maybe not hesitating was how he almost got into trouble.Great. More doubts. Just what I need.

Childe finally spots a nobushi camp in the distance. He eagerly stalks closer, finding a vantage point to assess them from. To his disappointment, the four vagrants are all sitting or lying around in various states of injury. None of them own any armor, leaving their torn clothing and bloodstained bandages plain to see. Two of them have katanas nearby them and one just has a small woodcutting axe. There's also a broken katana, its three pieces lying haphazard at the edge of the camp as if tossed on the ground in frustration.Traveler, Childe groans inwardly, feeling a tad bit thwarted by his friend. This has to be you. If it were the Shogunate, those deserters and brigands would have been either killed or taken into custody.He considers what to do. There's no challenge to be had here. In their current state, these people would hardly even give him exercise. He has no reason not to kill them, but he doesn't think there'll be the slightest satisfaction in killing them. He's not in a mood to enjoy bloodshed for its own sake, he wants a workout.Maybe just give it a try and see...? He forms a throwing knife from Hydro and turns it in his fingers idly as his dull eyes peruse the targets. Which one...shall...it...be... Droplets drift off the knife and rejoin its shape continually, as usual. It's the less necessary parts that are like that: the spine of the blade, the end of the handle. The edge is absolute, just like his own should be.Come to think of it... If my opponents aren't up to the task, I can just get creative.Tartaglia leaves cover and jumps down into the camp.The nobushi yell in alarm and reach for their weapons. One of them makes a loud croak of pain as his sudden movement aggravates his injuries and prevents him from getting his katana. One of his comrades grabs it on his behalf, or maybe just because his own was the broken one.Childe raises his hands in a shrug-like gesture, showing them to be empty. He smiles, closing his eyes. No peeking. No hands. His knife rotates slowly behind his back, held by nothing but his will. "Hajimemash*te!" he calls out cheerfully. He always tries to pick up some local phrases when he gets to travel to a new place.He waits. Two of them have gotten to their feet and a third is almost up. Between their heavy footsteps and the sounds made by their clothing, he can all too easily keep track of where they are. Plus, they're breathing hard already. Probably dealing with internal injuries in addition to the slashes and stabs from the Traveler's sword.They're definitely in aggressive stances. No wonder the Traveler had to put you all in your places. You didn't even learn the lesson he generously taught you. He starts walking backwards, drawing the first two out until the third is prepared.Numbers One and Three rush him. He does little more than step out of One's headlong charge, then whirls on his heel to evade Three. Meanwhile, he's levitating his knife higher and higher. Number Two must have just spotted it, because he shouts a warning—"Oi!"—and there's a quick swish of cloth from the direction of his upper body before he dives for a low attack at Childe's right. It's an attempt to strike him from an angle where the knife might not be able to hit him past Childe's own shoulder, provided the nobushi can move fast enough. He does not move fast enough. Childe lunges out of the way and into a spinning kick at his latest attacker. At the instant his boot makes contact, he sends the little Hydro blade flying in an arc across where the man's back must be. The sound of cloth and flesh being sliced open together confirms his accuracy. The knife circles back to its floating position behind and above Childe. Kicked to the ground, Two coughs and curses. The only thing Childe cannot be sure of is exactly how deep he cut Two. Not bad. Better than the first time I got monster ichor in my eyes and could only flail like a fool while I got my ribs broken, heh. But I don't think this quite lives up to my performance the last time that happened.The fight has only just begun. Plenty of time to practice. Of course he could end it in a second, but he's going to draw it out as long as possible. It's not any danger to his life that'll limit that: there's no such thing in this scenario. It's just a matter of when the nobushi finally give up and flee.Maybe he'll even let them flee. Call it conservation. Foes are a scarce resource in the Narukami countryside these days.Number One's axe is really just a hatchet, which makes it more hazardous to someone whose eyes are closed. It's light enough to be swung from one side, turned quickly in the hand, swung from the other side, and so on. Due to the bulky shape of an axehead, the angle of each swing can't be altered as easily as if it were a dagger or sword, but there is some room for variation. That's exactly the kind of onslaught One brings when he darts in from Childe's left. That One stumbles as he does so actually gives him a fleeting advantage by making his speed less predictable. Not enough of an advantage. Childe drops to kick One's legs out from under him, causing the axe wielder to fall backward into the recovering Two. Past them, he notes a body-heavy dragging sound accompanied by grunts of effort; Four seems to be crawling across the ground. Going for a weapon I didn't see? Ranged? Noted, but not an issue yet.The issue at hand is that this is still far too easy. He contends with Three for a bit, evading a series of determined attacks by wider margins than necessary, dodging and ducking and jumping with increasing acrobatics just to feel himself move. At the same time, he concentrates Hydro into five more knives. The set of six lag behind him when he moves fast and gather in a semicircle around him when he's in slower motion.He baits Three into an overhead swing, then punishes him for it by sending two knives to slice across his trapezius muscles. It's a test of whether Three's shouted kiai is enough for Childe to target areas near his neck without killing him. He puts extra distance between himself and Three before slowing down to listen for the results. That's when three of his knives suddenly fly out, driven by his instincts rather than his conscious will. He hears the splash-like sound of one of them being obliterated by a midair impact with some other object. The other two return. Ahh, Four; must've had a bow in their tent that he's got hold of. The lost knife is replaced in short order.He baits another shot at him to catch the sounds of the arrow itself and the bow it came from. Abruptly deciding to abandon the 'no hands' rule, he grabs two knives out of his set. The rule hasn't made things any more difficult and he'd rather get to throw things with his hands than not. (Similar issue with his own bow.) It's his turn to charge, and he sprints much faster than any of the nobushi have managed to, closing the distance to the ad-hoc archer before he can fire again and before any of the others can intercept. For good measure he leaps up and flips forward to arrive behind the archer, a quick Hydro torrent sweeping aside any obstacles he might come down on near the tent. A fumbled clack of an arrow against the bow body tattles to him that Four is low—either crouching or still sitting. As soon as one of his feet touches solid ground, he pirouettes to face Four and weaves a rapid flurry of delicate slashes. Judging by when and where those slashes start to hit, he ascertains where Four's posterior deltoid shoulder muscles are. Could sever them. No more drawing that bow for you~ But nn...that would only make it easier for me. Childe leaves Four with the exploratory flesh wounds and turns his attention to meeting an attack from Two or possibly Three.While he and that combatant press each other back and forth, Childe limiting most of his own attacks to feints that nonetheless drive his nervous, angry opponent backward, the other katana wielder and One try to flank him. He drops into something like the landing of an ice skater's jump, one leg and both arms outstretched. The would-be decapitating slash from behind him whistles through empty air. His two held knives are thrown, aimed for near misses that should make Three(?) and One reconsider how close they've gotten.Childe is starting to get a taste of adrenaline. It's only been two days since he last got to savor it, but he missed it. It's a prickling sensation in his chest, not the sweet stab that emergency adrenaline gives him, but the faster he moves, the more that cleansing prickle spreads through his limbs.He hears Four's bow being drawn again. In a flash of Hydro he's two meters away from where that arrow is going. He jumps straight up, then, using water to propel himself higher and fling himself into a spinning fall. He hurls all his knives downward by hand, two at a time, aiming them using only his mental map of the small battlefield.Three hits out of six produce pained, exclamatory noises below. One of them is cut off early and one has a familiar gurgle to it. There's a horrified, half-suppressed scream from Number Four.His fall slowed by one more surge of Hydro, Childe lands in another ice-skaterly crouch. The water trails off into droplets and vanishes as he stands up.Opening his eyes, he sees that Numbers One, Two, and Three have all fallen. It's obvious why: One is trying in vain to stanch a bleedout from his right brachial artery, Two is already dead from a knife buried deep in his eye, and Three is gasping silently like a beached fish as blood pours from his carotid artery via his slit throat."Hmmm." Childe strolls over to Three. A gaze as blue and as cold as moonlit stone is the last thing Three sees before losing consciousness, never to wake again. "Tsk. I got carried away. Oh well." The knives are evaporated with a flick of his hand, but the damage remains.He turns to Four, whose dirty face is streaked with tears of abject fear."They're going to die, these two. This one is already dead," he informs Four matter-of-factly. "So don't go thinking you could have saved them. It wouldn't have made a difference even if you'd been in top form, except that you might be dead too.""D-damare konoyarou!""Mm? I'm afraid I don't know that one yet." He's definitely being cursed at. He rarely feels any call for profanity, so maybe he doesn't need to know what it means. Turning without another word, Childe walks casually out of the camp, stretching his arms and checking his clothes for blood. He just washed them... Fortunately there are no splatters he can see. He'll be presentable if he passes anyone on the road near Konda Village.So I haven't lost that particular skill. Good. That wasn't such a pointless fight as I thought it'd be. It still wasn't very satisfying, but it did ease his tension.

Aether doesn't have enough pillows yet to put one on every chair, and the various cheap chairs he bought are all rather uncomfortable without a cushion. So he's gotten into the habit of borrowing a pillow off one of the dining chairs on his way up to his study.There are four or five or even six places around the house that Aether regularly reads in, where books persistently accumulate, but only one of them is set up like a study per se. It has something like a desk (a coffee table), two chairs, the biggest bookshelf, and a sense of settledness about it. It lacks all the stuffiness that the term 'study' might call to mind, though, on account of being merely a corner in the open hallways upstairs.It also gets the best light. Aether got rid of several windows above the mansion's front and only door in order to fit the library-worthy bookshelf, after having acquired and rapidly filled a number of smaller ones downstairs. The remaining windows turned out to be more than sufficient. In that part of the house, the sun's 'golden hour' lasts for several hours.He often brews some low-effort tea for himself and brings that up with him as well. Today, he plops the pilfered pillow onto one of the chairs, sets his tea cup on the table with a gentle little ceramic-on-wood clunk, and lays a third item near the cup. Or rather, a pair of items.Childe had left his gloves behind. Aether is sure he has spares and, if not, the money and resources to get new ones without a second thought. Plus, there's the frayed seam on one of them, which got worse when Aether gave the gloves an inexpert washing. But what's he to do with them? Return them as they are, next time he sees their owner? Drop them off the side of the island?No, he has an idea. It may or may not be a good idea, but it couldn't do any harm. He just has to come up with the details.He's in the midst of reading a mostly speculative treatise on ancient predecessors to the Mora (and consulting a dictionary at least once every minute). During a deep digression into theories about the spread of agriculture across Teyvat, his mind wanders to the hungry Fatui soldier he met in the fields at Qingce Village. From there, he inevitably ends up thinking about fighting Childe in the Golden House. Bet he'd like to know how often I think about it...If it weren't for Childe's own repeatedly-expressed enthusiasm about it, Aether might not have given it so many second thoughts. But, either way, he had to admit to himself there was something special about that fight. Maybe because he got to know his opponent a bit, before he knew he was going to be his opponent. Maybe it was the breathtaking power of Foul Legacy erupting from such an unassuming-looking person. The Devouring Deep was...beautiful, as much as Aether hesitates to permit that thought. It's also terrifying, not for what it could do to Aether—he isn't concerned about that at all—but for what it could do to Childe in the long term.Most people who go chasing after that kind of power lose their humanity quickly. It might be too early to judge, but he respects Childe for retaining so much of his. That is his true strength, Aether hopes.One of the other memorable experiences in that fight was when Childe threw a whale at him. A whale made of water. The main thing he remembers about it, aside from the 'oh sh*t' moment of having to sprint a significant distance to get out of its way, was that it had a horn. Is that a specific kind of whale? A real kind? Are whales just like that swimming in the oceans of Teyvat?Aether's gaze has wandered along with his thoughts, and he finds himself peering over his book at the gloves on the table. ...I don't think I have any books about, um, nautical animals, but who do I know who studies everything just to have more knowledge?He knows exactly who that would be.

Aether made some goulash from Harris's recipe before setting off. It's being kept warm in a vacuum flask borrowed out of the basic laboratory he's been gradually putting together. Aether is being kept warm by very little else, as he's once again neglected to wear weather-appropriate clothes. In fact, he still neglects to own weather-appropriate clothes. Sometimes people question it. It's the kind of thing Paimon would be his #1 pesterer about, but she has a single-outfit lifestyle going on too.Oh, I forgot to tell Paimon where I'm going.Albedo's laboratory drives home just how basic Aether's is. He knows he'll never have one so oft used, much less so well equipped, and that's fine: his interest in alchemy doesn't equal even a tenth of Albedo's interest.He takes a sip of goulash to bring some feeling back into his lips before calling, "Hello?"Albedo turns around and notes him impassively. "Hello. Come in. And please, have a seat by the fire." From the day they met, Aether has felt a kinship with Albedo over their shared disinclination to big displays of emotion. The more he learned about the Kreideprinz after that, the broader that kinship's foundation became. There was never any doubt in Aether's mind that the feeling was mutual, thanks to Albedo being quite straightforward when it came to saying what he felt. Aether, as is his most unfortunate tendency, might have left his side of things ambiguous for...a while. Or that's how it would have been if Albedo weren't such a keen observer.Once, Aether visited for a whole day to organize the lab for him, unasked, just because he remembered Albedo saying he wished he had the time to do it. With Paimon watching Klee nearby, Albedo was able to explain how he would like things organized. Wide-ranging conversations sprung from the process. It was a day that confirmed how comfortable their friendship was."Thanks." Aether drags one of the stools around the cooking fire even closer to it before sitting down and warming his hands. "Everything alright up here?" He has to raise his voice a tad, what with Albedo being on the opposite side of the cave."Mixed. Klee is taking an increasing interest in alchemy beyond explosives. She has a bright mind that can no longer be satisfied by such a narrow focus." Albedo is watching a set of specimen dishes. Each has a magnifying glass mounted over it. "She did inadvertently cause a vial to explode yesterday..." He turns a small sand timer and takes notes."What, uh, size of explosion?" Even as he asks, Aether isn't too concerned. He doesn't see any damage on the walls or furniture."Small enough that all of its force was expended in shattering the vial. But, in her excitement over the unexpected reaction, Klee cut her hand on the broken glass. It didn't slow her down any, and that was the problem. She didn't let me tend to her injury until she finished salvaging her experimental material from the ground." The sand timer runs out and Albedo doesn't turn it this time, he just takes more notes."An impatient patient? I've had some experience with those." Aether can't help being reminded of tending to Childe's injuries the other day. However, among the people Aether has met in Teyvat, Childe is far from the worst about it. That dubious honor goes to Inaba Kyuuzou."Ahh, did you change your mind about children?""No, I just meant stubborn friends." Aether doesn't understand children. He never was one himself, nor did he ever have parents. Albedo once asked if he could look after Klee for a day and he excused himself from it by saying he'd be busy with a commission—then he went to Katheryne to make the excuse true. (And yet, 'no' isn't a wholly truthful answer anymore. Teucer may have had something to do with that, against all odds.)"It's strange to me how careless some people are with their health. It is fundamental to all other pursuits." Albedo pauses, then directs a blank yet meaningful stare over his shoulder at Aether. "By the way, where is the coat you said you would wear this time?""Uh..." Aether has no good answer for that whatsoever. After a long moment he meekly holds up his flask of goulash. It counts for something, right?"You've also imbibed a frostshield potion," Albedo states. It's what Aether does every time."Yes, of course.""May I remind you that that type of potion doesn't provide protection against extreme ambient elements? It can suffice for chill weather in moderate climes but not for subzero temperatures.""Oh. Right..." Aether has been told that before, but the effectiveness of those potions against elemental attacks, which he so frequently has opportunity to test, has allowed him to forget more than once.His point made, no more and no less, Albedo leaves it at that. He sets about detaching the magnifying glasses from the specimen dishes so he can open them and use a dropper to add something in. "I heard Inazuma has reopened. Congratulations are in order?""Oh, right. Yes, both the Vision Hunt Decree and the Sakoku Decree have been lifted. They did a lot of damage to people's lives...but the nation seems willing to move on. They haven't lost respect for their Archon. That kind of amazes me.""Mondstadt has never lost its respect for an absent Archon.""True. It's different though, or I thought it would be. But I'm glad this is how it's going. The Electro Archon has learned a lot from everything that's happened, and she'll be a much better leader from now on. It wouldn't do any good if she wasn't given the chance to be.""Do you think the people of Inazuma would have been equally forgiving if their leader was human?""Good question," Aether responds, starting to give it real consideration before recalling the question he came here to ask. He leaves the fire and approaches Albedo, just so he doesn't have to speak up anymore. "Actually, I have a question for you. It's not urgent or anything, and I'm only asking you because you're the most likely person I know to...well, know. If not, I can ask Lisa if the library has a book about it."Albedo regards him with what Aether can identify as curiosity. "What is it?""Are there whales with horns? One horn, I mean."Albedo folds his arms so he can seat his chin between two of his gloved knuckles as he thinks. "I did read a work of marine biology once."'Marine' biology, Aether notes. Not nautical biology, then."From Inazuma, in fact," Albedo is continuing. "At least one species of whale with a single horn exists, but I would have to look up the name of the species... I do recall they're relatively small and slender. Not much larger than a human. Ah, and they have teeth instead of baleen.""Is baleen the...stringy mouth stuff some whales use to feed on very small animals?""It is essentially hair.""Mouth hair.""Yes."But the horned whales have teeth, not mouth hair, Aether reminds himself. He doesn't know what Childe's whale has in its mouth, but there are some puzzling external differences between it and what Albedo described. "...So the horned whales you read about aren't huge and kind of wide.""No; of that much I'm certain. There may be other species, though." Albedo's head tilts by one degree. "If you're going to return to Inazuma, that might be the best place to find more information.""Hmm." Aether puts that on the back burner for now. "If I draw the whale I...'saw'...could you redraw it? Just to clean it up?""In theory. I'd like to see this mystery whale, even if only approximated distantly by your hand. I'll do what I can from there.""Ouch." Aether smiles, enjoying the joke at his drawing skills' expense. In keeping with Albedo's sense of humor, it was a joke completely unmarked by any difference of tone or expression. Half the reason Aether smiles is because he makes an effort to, wanting to ensure Albedo knows he noticed and liked it.Albedo takes out the notebook he uses for drawings and finds a blank page. This he presents to Aether along with a thin stick of charcoal. "Use the top half of the page and I'll use the bottom half."Aether settles the notebook into the crook of his left arm, taking care to support both covers. He doesn't want to risk doing it any damage, even though he knows Albedo wouldn't hold it against him. For a moment or two he just rehearses the whale's shape in his mind, replaying the mere seconds he saw it for and finding a more familiar shape to compare it to. Like...an understuffed pillow being thrown around. The stuffing gathers into one end...and the half of the pillow that gets thin...looks like this... Two lines tapering toward each other for the back half of the whale. And the front was sort of like a clam shell but... He extends those lines forward in widening arcs, then joins them to represent what he thinks of as the whale's snout. No, not quite that round, not that blunt. Pointier. A sloppy correction is made—sloppy not in the way a sketch ought to be but rather missing the point of a sketch by being too hard and final. He ends up adding two more corrections and having to tell Albedo which curve is the right one.The end result has the long flippers of Childe's whale, the fin on the end of the tail, and even the set of parallel lengthwise lines that run from its chin all the way down its underbelly. Aether remembered more details than he thought he would.Though Albedo doesn't recall the name of the horned whale, the name of what he's presently looking at comes to his mind right away. "That's a humpback whale. With a horn.""Oh. How different is that from the one that's supposed to have the horn?""It's in a different class of size altogether. It has baleen. That's all I can tell you without locating the book again.""Huh... I don't think that'll be necessary. You've told me everything I wanted to know for now, and more. Maybe I could've lived without knowing about the mouth hair. But thank you.""Do you still want it redrawn?""Yes, please."With Albedo's skill, the part that takes longest is getting clarification on which of Aether's lines are truly final. Once he gets the nod from Aether that the resulting design is acceptable (it's an immediate and appreciative nod), it only takes him seconds to copy it onto a separate sheet of paper.Aether carefully rolls that sheet up and even more carefully stows it in his bag. "Thank you!" he says again. "Is it getting close to mealtime for you?"Albedo looks to the entrance of the cave and then to a 24-hour sand timer on one of his shelves. "It seems so.""I'll cook you something. Any requests?""Hmm... Something savory without meat. I have plenty of energy left, so I don't feel like something very sweet is called for.""You got it." The traveler uses some vegetables the alchemist has on hand to make a small stir-fry. Large portion sizes are too much for Albedo, and one thing Aether never forgets is the food preferences of his friends.

Teleportation is to thank and to blame for Aether getting away with visiting Dragonspine in the wrong clothes. After making lunch for Albedo he returns to the nearest waypoint. It glows blue when his hand touches it, and, with nothing more than that touch and a willed destination, he is transported to one of its counterparts in Mondstadt. It feels much like going to and from the Teapot, but not exactly the same.Going to and from Dragonspine, from and to anywhere, is always a temperature shock. Aether guesses the only exception would be Snezhnaya.He stops by the Good Hunter first and orders a single slice of fisherman's toast. He's not hungry after the goulash, but he feels it'd be impolite for him to hang around the restaurant without buying anything.He asks Sara if Noelle has come for lunch yet and she shakes her head, offering the speculation that their mutual friend has probably been held up by someone's request for help.While he's eating his toast a nibble at a time, he asks passersby if they've seen Noelle today. It's not necessary, as waiting right here for her is a good plan, but it occurs to him that if Noelle has been delayed by something really time-consuming he might be able to find her and assist. Two separate people tell him the unfortunately true urban legend that you need only shout the Maid of Favonius's name to get her help, and he has to quickly hush a third who just looks skyward and draws a big breath to shout on his behalf.Asking around doesn't get him any useful information. Aether decides to help out in the kitchen for a little while, in exchange merely for a promise that Sara will call to him if she sees Noelle.As it happens, it's only a few minutes later that Sara makes good on her end of the bargain. Aether quickly washes his hands and steps out to see a surprised Noelle."Aether! What's brought you to Mondstadt? Have you been well while you've been abroad?"Despite his privilege of access to the waypoints' teleportation capabilities, he hasn't been coming back to Mondstadt as often lately. That's about to change, in all likelihood. When he finds himself entangled in events elsewhere, he has little time and attention to spare. Now that things have settled down in Inazuma, he's at liberty.He manages a visible smile for her and nods. "Yes; things are going well right now. It's good to see you, Noelle."She blushes. "Ah! It's good to see you too!"While she's flustered he slips some Mora to Sara. A wink is enough to tell Sara he's ordering a certain salad.Aether is pretty sure Noelle doesn't have a crush on him. She just gets flustered whenever anyone says something nice to her. (The latter is true. As for the former... Aether is an idiot.)"How have you been?" he inquires. He takes a step toward the tables only to realize they're all occupied now. Mondstadt, being a rather leisurely place compared to Liyue Harbor and Inazuma City, has less predictable lunch crowds. "Do you want to sit out in the square somewhere?""Well," Noelle starts to answer his first question, but she hasn't actually formulated an answer by the time he asks the other one. "That would be lovely, I don't want to get in anyone's way here.""Lead the way.""Uh? Oh. Okay..." She shields her eyes from the high sun and surveys the square. "What about the fountain?""Lead the way," Aether reiterates gently, giving her a flicker of a grin."Right!" She marches across the flagstones to the fountain. In the middle of Mondstadt, the lazy flow of its waters, sparkling under the sun, is an island of tranquility. Whenever Aether visits Dragonspine, his instincts are taken over for a time by the caution toward water that the mountain's dangers drilled into him. He consciously puts that caution aside as he seats himself on the edge of the fountain.When she has settled beside him and smoothed her skirts, Noelle begins again. "As to your considerate question, I've had an especially...vigorous day in terms of the...excellent exercise I've benefited from while seeing to a few errands.""People've kept you extra busy with their problems," Aether translates.She adjusts a lock of her hair, looking sheepish. "That's... Not how it is at all..." Her voice diminishes with each word as she attempts to lie.Aether pats her shoulder. "As long as it makes you happy. But listening to you carefully put it into different words when asked about it, it makes me worry a little that you're trying to convince yourself too."Noelle sighs. "I think I'm just... Well, I was looking forward to training in the canyon today. So maybe...I'm just a little disappointed.""There. You've acknowledged your feelings. Good!" Aether has previously opined to her that it's 'important to look at and acknowledge one's own feelings' so as not to be 'caught unaware by them.'Still a bit sheepish, Noelle smiles. "I suppose." She notices Sara walking toward them with a plate and perfects her posture, which had been deflated by her sigh. "Oh! I should order my lunch. I forgot all about it."Sara brings the plate straight to Noelle with a soft smile on the side. She's one of the few people who truly appreciates Noelle and worries about her. "No need. This is yours, courtesy of our friend here." She knows Aether won't mind being outed like that; they've chatted a few times and they both know very well that Noelle will demur equally to her food being paid for by one friend or declared 'on the house' by the other. They've both explained their reasoning to her, too: if she doesn't feel comfortable asking people for payment, that's alright, but she has to let her friends treat her to a meal once in a while.Noelle covers the lower half of her face with her hands for a second as if physically restraining her reflexive objections. Then, glancing at Aether with a shy smile of thanks, she accepts the plate. "I can't say no to your salads, Sara," she all but mumbles, suddenly on a different level of shyness. She doesn't meet Sara's eyes, instead excusing herself from talking by putting a dainty forkful of salad in her mouth.Sara beams, twisting her clasped hands in front of her. Aether notes the flattered fidgeting and comes to a conclusion on something he's had suspicions about for a long time. He says nothing, but while Noelle is looking at her food he gives Sara an attempt at an encouraging smile and, literally behind Noelle's back, a thumbs-up. That makes Sara blush, confirming his suspicions. To his surprise, though, the blush is accompanied by a look of total surprise. Pleasant surprise. Giddy, even. Why's she looking at me like that? Did she not know how much Noelle likes her?Once, Noelle had asked him what he'd do if he liked someone as 'more than a friend.' He kept his objection to the premise of that question to himself—romance isn't necessarily more than friendship—but admitted honestly that he didn't know because he'd never had romantic feelings about anyone. That answer seemed to disappoint her more than he expected. He started suggesting people who might have better answers: Glory, Jilliana and Rudolf, Parsley and Rosemary, maybe Cyrus. He didn't get as far as stipulating 'most definitely not Beatrice' before Noelle interrupted, which was an odd thing for her to do. She thanked him for the advice he hadn't finished giving and said she needed to go and think.He'd pondered the incident and deduced that Noelle most likely had Sara in mind when she asked the question as well as when she went off to think.Now it looks like Sara reciprocates Noelle's feelings. How wonderful! He hopes they'll figure it out soon and be happy together."Well, enjoy!" Sara hurriedly returns to the Good Hunter counter to greet a waiting customer. There's extra pep in her step that has nothing to do with her job.A few moments elapse. Aether notices Noelle stealing glances in Sara's direction. It's obvious from how brief but frequent those glances are that she's trying not to let Sara see her looking. Noelle has ended up leaning forward and Aether has been leaning back ever since he did that discreet thumbs-up, so he can't see her face, but he imagines there's probably a thoughtful expression on it. "Sara's a very sweet person," he comments innocently. The waitress/proprietor's willingness to move past her initial prejudice toward Eula and become one of Eula's few friends was another thing that assured Aether she really is a good person.Startled from her thoughts, Noelle again fixes her posture to perfection. "She is very sweet, isn't she..." She sounds every bit as thoughtful as Aether guessed. He has his moments.After another period of conversational silence that doesn't feel anything like silence due to the hubbub of the city surrounding them, Aether takes out the drawing Albedo made. He doesn't unroll it just yet. "If you have time, sometime, there's—" He tucks the paper under one arm and gets Childe's gloves out too, realizing they're the much more informative item to show to Noelle. "I would like to pay you to mend these and add some...decoration to them. And wash them better than I did. Pleaseletmepayyou."Noelle turns to have a look at what Aether is asking her to mend. She moves to set her salad aside so she can look closer, but there's nowhere to put it, so she just holds the plate on her lap and lets Aether flip the gloves over to show her both sides. "That won't take long at all to fix," she assesses truthfully while also trying to build a case for not paying her.Aether ignores the insinuation and secures the gloves between his knees in order to unroll the drawing and hold it straight. "I'm thinking about this, small and blue, somewhere on them. Maybe on one side of the back of each one? Or along the thumbs? I don't want it to be really bright or obvious or to cover the whole things.""Just this whale?" Noelle is already contemplating how each possible layout would be stitched."With some...watery...ocean wave sort of things around it, maybe?""Don't you want to draw what you have in mind? This drawing is very helpful.""Ehm, heh, that would be because someone else drew it. Do you need the other stuff drawn? I wouldn't mind if you went by your own imagination based on what I said. I'd like it very much, actually.""In that case, I will do my best to design a satisfactory motif! I've memorized your instructions so far, but...you haven't yet chosen a location for the embroidery.""Hmm... On the back, then. Inside the black area, along the grey edge and around these metal parts."Noelle frowns at the gloves. "That metal doesn't look comfortable...or protective. And the wrist is completely unprotected! Are you sure you don't want me to extend and reinforce them?"

"Now that you mention it..." Aether adds a narrow side-eye at the gloves to Noelle's critical frown. After some consideration he shakes his head. "No, there must be a reason they're like that. I've seen other people wearing gloves with—...without wrists, not just the person these are from. For, I mean.""Alright," Noelle acquiesces. If her curiosity is raised by anything Aether just said, she doesn't let on. "I'll keep the gloves themselves exactly as they are, then. I'll only mend them and decorate them, and yes, I'll wash them too.""Thank you so much," Aether tells her with a smile that's much warmer than its meager width should be able to encompass."You're always welcome. As for remuneration..." Noelle thins her lips, still reluctant, but something comes to mind that makes it easier for her to relent: "I will allow it, but I will have my revenge in due time.""Hah," Aether all but chuckles. "You've been spending time with Eula!" He's very glad to know that."Of course. She is a Knight, after all. I daresay I've known her longer than you have." Noelle smiles."Mh! Do you and her and Sara ever do anything together?" It seems to Aether they'd be great as a friend group. Though, Eula does have a major habit of saying things she doesn't literally mean, and Noelle has a tendency to take things literally... Then again, Noelle just did an impression of that very habit, so maybe it's not the barrier he would have assumed it'd be."We frequently see each other one by one, but it's on weekends that we all meet together, our schedules and itineraries...sometimes allowing. Even though Sara and I can both cook as well, Eula insists on being the one to bring food and drinks she makes specially for us. It took me a long time to understand why. I think it's because she feels useful that way. That's something I can understand very, very well, which is why it's strange that it took me so long."Aether shrugs. "The mind works in strange ways sometimes." He's certain, in the vaguest terms, that he once heard a perfect analogy for that phenomenon. But he can't remember a single word of it, which leads him to suspect he doesn't actually have the memory in his current body. It's the least trace of a memory he can possess without simply having no clue it ever happened.He rolls the drawing back up and stands, stretching with the gloves still held in one hand and the rerolled paper in the other. "I'll be visiting Mondstadt again soon. In a few days. And I'll visit again after that, so don't worry about finishing the gloves before a certain time."Noelle eats her last bite of salad and walks with Aether back to the Good Hunter to return her plate and fork. She and Sara exchange slightly blushful smiles and waves. Her hands now free, Noelle accepts the items from Aether, tucking them away neatly in her own bag. "I'm glad you'll be back so soon. I know, you'll say I'm welcome in your Teapot, but I still hesitate to drop in on your residence uninv—" She anticipates the counterargument that word will get and says instead, "—Unannounced. All the reassurances in the world won't quickly change that, and I'm sorry.""In your own time, then. At least you've been there sometimes. Jean still hasn't taken up the offer, as far as I know." Aether almost mentions that Kaeya and Diluc stopped visiting after they ran into each other in the Teapot, but the whole situation between them is something Aether feels unqualified to talk about. He's not close enough to either of them to've learned how it started. Sometimes having friends who know each other is great. Sometimes it's very awkward."Thank you for being patient with me," Noelle responds, smiling once more."I don't think I'm being patient enough to thank. You've stepped outside your comfort area for me or at my suggestion many times. You're the one who's been patient with me."Her smile brightens with amusem*nt as she shakes her head. "Can we agree that we have met in the middle with some patience on both sides?"Aether can't imagine hearing her say something so wise back when they first met. In the time he's known her, she's come of drinking age and her Knightship seems just around the corner. Her personality hasn't fundamentally changed, of course; people very rarely change on that level. He wonders if Childe ever underwent a huge change or if he always had within him the seeds of the person he is now."Yes, we can agree on that." Aether pats Noelle's shoulder affectionately. They make their farewells, and he disappears to his Teapot. He'll have to apologize to Paimon for leaving her behind on a visit to their friends, especially with food having been involved. She'll forgive him for the first part with some token grumbling, but she'll hold a grudge over the second part for at least five minutes.

It's late into the night by the time Childe arrives at the last Fatui camp on Narukami Island. It's well-hidden, and staffed only by a pair of Pyro agents. He walks straight in. They startle, metaphorical hackles raised for a potential fight, but in the very next second they recognize his outfit and face. It's not time to relax, though: they come to attention."Lord Harbinger," they exclaim, greeting him as stiffly as they stand. They're not remnants of Signora's; they're spies from a separate command who were given their assignment when the main Fatui forces withdrew.He waves their formality off. "At ease," he says with a light sigh under his tone. "Any messages for me?" he inquires as starts wandering around the small cave-camp, casually assessing it. He's just curious how they're getting on out here, not looking for something to chastise them for. If he were any other Harbinger, he might be looking for something to punish them for, and that's why his little 'inspection' immediately makes them more nervous. But that's not his problem."Y-yes sir, a sealed missive from Pantalone.""Mm." Childe shrugs with his face. If he's Zhongli's wallet (and he knows he is), Pantalone—or 'Regrator'—is technically his. It's Regrator's financial activities that fund the Fatui so abundantly. That doesn't mean he enjoys interacting with the man. You can't attain that kind of wealth without every bone in your body being a conniving one. So it's good that their direct interactions are few, and almost entirely limited to one-way correspondence like this.He circles back to the agents and is handed the missive. He almost tucks it into his jacket to read later, but admits to himself that he'd better read it now. That way, if there's something he needs to do around the camp or an order he needs to give the agents, he won't have to make a second trip here. So he sits on a crate with one leg folded up and the other stretched to the ground—perching, as he's wont to do—and opens the missive.Right... Sakoku Decree, et cetera... Sumeru, et cetera... Oh? Scaramouche is suspected to've left Inazuma already. Hah. It was starting to look as if that would be the case. But did they know that when they sent me? Podi tuda, ne znayu kuda, hmm? Well, that's fine with me. It got me out of the bank, and it sounds like they'd rather I keep sniffing around here until Signora's funeral.When he's done reading, which doesn't take long at all (it's a short message made shorter by code), he brings it back to the agent who gave it to him. "Burn this." The Pyro Delusion wielder turns it into ash and smoke with neither effort nor delay. Childe relays a couple of updates to the agents' orders that amount to 'keep watching.'And now: "Unless there are any concerns, I'll bid you farewell."The agents glance at each other and exchange a nod. It's not a hesitant or worried exchange, so Childe accepts it at face value when one of them speaks for both by answering, "No concerns, Your Excellency. Vsego khoroshego.""Do svidaniya." Childe leaves unceremoniously. It's another long walk to get to Inazuma City. He sets a quick pace once again. Until he reaches the city's outskirts, he even breaks into a run a few times when the terrain is interesting.By the time he's ascending the first set of stairs that'll take him from the outskirts to the downtown areas, the sky is starting to lighten. It's not dawn quite yet, and it's as cold as Narukami Island gets, which doesn't even register as cold for Childe. Especially with a nice little burn going in his still-healing muscles.That he could go sleep in the Traveler's teapot isn't a fact he properly recalls until after he's paid for an inn room. It barely gives him pause before he decides on impulse that he'd rather avoid complicated thoughts and just stay here for now. Besides, with his Fatui mask absent, he'll be able to explore the city very freely later on. Hardly anyone outside Snezhnaya recognizes the mask for what it is, much less his clothing, but some of the Tenryou Commission might be clued in. If they are, it'd still be laughably late.

Chapter 5: Day 9: Thoma takes in a stray

Notes:

this whole chapter was inspired by one of the official promo art pieces for update 2.2

this is not a change in the direction of the fic, it's a scenic detour. an important scenic detour though! I love Thoma, and Childe needs more friends (and certain epiphanies). call it cinnamon roll on sinnamon roll action

(last edited on 2024-04-15)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

In the early morning, Childe wanders the main street of Inazuma City, keeping an eye out for someplace to have breakfast. There's no shortage of such places even at this hour. Food carts being set up for the day, small streetside bars firing up grills and stoves, lights coming on inside classy restaurants. Appetizing scents are starting to crowd the air, and he can't always tell which place a scent is coming from. He's spoiled for choice and there's nothing he's not willing to try. Indecision isn't his style, but he's also taking in the sights, sounds, and smells generally. There's no hurry but the eventual growling of his stomach.He ends up stopping at one of those little open-air bars. "Welcome! Come try Shimura's fine cuisine," the old man behind it greets him, his gravelly voice still strong even though wizened. "Menu's right up— ah, have a look over there." Childe is directed, by a nod, to a small board hanging on the wall with the menu written in Common. He's gotten the immediate impression that the titular Shimura (if that's him) is former military. Enthusiastic about his current job, though, as he adds, "We serve great local cuisine here. Satisfaction guaranteed!""Thank you, I'll pick something out and order up in a minute," Childe says genially, an assurance that he's not taking up limited space at the bar for no reason. There's also a sign in both languages advertising the daily special, every weekday, as 'good drinks.' The weekend days just say 'still open.' Nevertheless, the man is frying up some cuisine in plain view. The sizzling contents of the rectangular pan he's using smell and look like eggs. It's a thin layer across the whole pan, and there are unfamiliar notes in the aroma that promise a novel flavor.Childe isn't the only customer. There's a man leaning back against the other end of the bar. He was idly watching the trickle of people through the street start to grow into a hustle and bustle, until now, when Childe's attention gets around to him and he welcomes it with a sunny smile."Hey there. New to Inazuma?" It's a funny question coming from someone who looks almost as out-of-place as Childe does. Some of his clothing and accessories are local, and that's all that stops Childe from assuming he's a visitor too."Haha, how'd you guess?" Childe returns an affable smile of his own. The only thing he's done to make himself look less conspicuous is wrap his sash around his shoulders two extra times, so that it looks more like a scarf (and hides the holes in his jacket)."You look a little lost. I can help you out with directions if you'd like! I've lived here for over ten years. But first, you're hungry, right? If you want a recommendation, those egg rolls are good. They have that home-cooked comfort food feel and they make a filling breakfast." The blond man, who's about as tall as Childe, tips his free hand toward the frying that's in progress.Shimura is now folding the thin layer of egg over itself. He glances up to comment, "Thanks, Thoma. I'd offer you a job as a promoter, but eh, you know I like doing everything myself. Besides...""...I'm busy enough as it is," Thoma finishes, his voice bright with mirth."Indeed. Saw you around often enough, these past months, hurrying along," Shimura says."Ah, sorry about that. First there were the Decrees, and now business is—""Up, yes, very much so. I know you do important work and we're all appreciative, I'm just giving you a hard time. My way of thanking you for that favor last year. You're always welcome here."Childe wonders what kind of favor the restaurant proprietor has Thoma to thank for. It sounds like his fellow foreigner really is quite established in the city, and his occupation might be worth asking about if further conversation has to be made. In the meantime, Childe is attentively watching how Shimura keeps folding the sheet of egg over and over itself until it's a cylinder, which he then cuts into four neat rolls of convenient size."Are those available to order?" Childe glances between Shimura and Thoma."One'll be for Thoma here, the rest aren't spoken for yet. How many do you want?""Two," he decides will be enough for a meal. He checks the price on the menu again and lays enough Mora on the bar to cover a 50% tip as well.Shimura eyes the Mora as he sets out three small, boat-shaped bowls that look like they're made of paper-thin wood. Each is only big enough to hold one egg roll. He counts out the exact price and leaves the rest on the bar."No, that's yours," Childe assures him. "I included a tip, nothing to worry about.""Alright then, if you're sure. Chopsticks?"Childe has a hasty and rather nervous debate with himself over whether to take the utensils that have defeated him before. Since they're optional, eating with one's hands must be socially acceptable here. But he should probably give them another try... In a way, they're a weapon, aren't they? Theoretically? And he has to master every weapon. "...N-no, I won't need them, thank you." We'll meet again on another battlefield, chopsticks, he thinks, half in humor and half serious."No chopsticks for me either," Thoma says. "Itadakimasu!" he adds with a slight bow of his head to Shimura as he picks up his egg roll.Childe imitates the gesture and repeats the word, which looked and sounded to him like some form of thanks. "Itadakimas'!"It earns him a smile from Thoma. "You speak Inazuman?""Only a scant few words I've picked up. What did that one mean?""It's the thanks you give a chef or waiter before you eat. After the meal you can say 'gochisousama,' and the more formal thing to say is 'gochisousama desh*ta.'"Childe briefly practices all three phrases under his breath, then recites them back to Thoma, watching his reaction for any hints about which syllables he may have erred on. "Go'h'sousama desh'ta?""Hit the 'ch' just a little bit harder and you've got it. You're a fast learner.""I strive to be the fastest learner," Childe boasts, his issue with chopsticks forgotten already. "Go'sh'sousama desh'ta~""Close enough! Anything you're hoping to learn while you're in Inazuma?""Ahh, hmm..." Where'd Scaramouche go? Wherever he's taking the Gnosis, that's where the Traveler is going next. "I'd like to spar with a Shogunate samurai," he admits freely. "Learning a few local recipes would be fun, too." Picking up one of the two boat-like bowls that are his, he takes his first bite of an Inazuman egg roll. It's not the first Inazuman food he's had. He's been in the country for a week and a half, and he visited the city before striking out in search of Scaramouche. However, Inazuman cuisine is as vast and various as any other country's, and their egg roll is one of many examples he hadn't tried yet."You cook?"Childe finishes the bite and swallows before replying. "I wouldn't call myself a chef, but yes, I enjoy cooking! Often helped out with the meals at home. Now it's a nostalgic indulgence of sorts, when I have the free time for it."Thoma smiles. "Sometimes I make Mondstadt recipes for myself, for the same reason. When I have time." His laugh is soft. Between his turns in the conversation, he eats with tidy gusto."I'm getting the impression you're a very busy man," Childe remarks, canting his head. "What is it that you do?" He is prepared for that question to be turned back on him. There are ad-hoc lies of omission he can answer it with, but there's also a cover story he was briefed on for his time in Inazuma. The only real problem with that story is that it involves claiming he's from Mondstadt, and that doesn't seem like a good idea when he's speaking with an actual Mondstadter. Hopefully switching it to Liyue won't pull the story's threads too much."I'm a housekeeper," is Thoma's cheerful answer."Oh?" Childe huffs a short chuckle at that, surprised and not quite believing. "You must be keeping a lot of houses, then?""Just one!""Ah, but they give you a lot of errands to run? Mr. Shimura said you're often hurrying about the city.""Errands do take up more of my time than anything else. What about you? What do you do back home, wherever home is?"Hmph, that cover story is too far from the truth. I don't like it and I'm not using it. Something simpler. "I work for a bank in Liyue," he improvises with the ease that a close proximity to truth affords. "There are a lot of interests converging in Inazuma, now that the country has reopened. Lots of possibilities to look into.""Oh, Liyue? I was kind of hoping you were from Mondstadt too." Thoma's smile turns wry for just a second as if to say 'oh well...moving on!' "I've never been to Liyue though. What's it really like?""And I'm afraid I've never been to Mondstadt. I can tell you anything you want to know about Liyue, though. It's a land of high mountains and low valleys, staunch tradition and the accelerating necessity for adaptation. But I suppose you could get that much from a guidebook. What's it really like? Well... The locals and the tourists both argue amongst themselves about the Li and Yue cuisines perpetually, haha, ha... Have you heard of Captain Beidou?"Thoma nods, his mouth full. Already there's not much left of his egg roll; now that Childe is talking more, he's getting ahead in the meal they started on equal footing."I don't know what her reputation is like here, but in Liyue we call her the Uncrowned Lord of the Ocean. She's respected and greatly admired by the people, though not so much by the Qixing and the harbor administration. She really toes the line between privateer and pirate. Mm, perhaps it'd be more accurate to say she's something like a privateer on some days and an honorable pirate on others. In any case, she's quite famous and, as of recently, a national hero." Childe sighs, glancing skyward, suddenly wishful. "I hope I get to challenge her to a fight one day...""Sounds like you enjoy fighting at least as much as you enjoy cooking! I can see you have a Vision, so it's not much of a surprise. But you must have very high aspirations, if you're hoping to challenge someone called the Lord of the Ocean."Childe nods, feeling like he could have a daydreamy smile on his face as he dwells on the idea. (He actually looks rather serious.) "I intend to push my limits until I die trying."Thoma looks a tad confounded by the pivot into such a zealous statement, but Childe is unabashed. Having a Vision is about ambition, after all. Sure enough, the friendly blonde quickly goes back to not being surprised. "That's more like the attitude of a samurai or ninja than a banker. Are you sure you're in the right profession?" Now Thoma grins."Ahh, most certainly not," Childe says, heaving a big sigh. He shakes his head and then gives Thoma a wan, sidelong smile. One way or another, it's up to me to rise out of this rut. "It's what I have to do for now, though. On a more interesting note...you cook and I want to learn some Inazuman recipes. Would you have any time and inclination to teach me?""I happen to be on vacation for two more days! I'd love to teach you. Are you staying somewhere with its own kitchen? If not, we can borrow one from a friend of mine.""I have an inn room, so, that's a lamentable 'no.' I suppose we'll have to take advantage of your friend's.""Shouldn't be a problem. Are you busy today?""Ah... Uhm... Not at all, actually." I was probably going to visit the teapot again today, but—well, I still might. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't hurt to stay away for a day or two to cool off. After everything that was said... The revelations, the forgiveness, the compliments, and the strange mood it all put him in... I don't think I can be my normal self around the Traveler again just yet. Whatever that means. Whatever that means when I haven't been 'normal' about him ever since we fought."Great!" Thoma hesitates then, glancing down and scratching his cheek with one finger in a fleeting glimpse of uncertainty that he recovers from with the speed and grace of a socialite. "But first, I want to ask you something, and it might change your mind. If you don't like it, you can forget I asked and we can just cook, or, if you'd rather, we can forget the whole thing. Whatever you're comfortable with."This intrigues Childe. What could he possibly be getting at? Is he going to invite him to spar? He does have a Pyro Vision."I think you're very handsome and cute, and I wouldn't mind if we got to know each other better overnight. Just putting that on the table. I'll take no offense if that's where you leave it."It takes Childe a second to reorient his brain, like a telescope being pointed at an unfamiliar section of the night sky and adjusted into focus. He never thinks about sex or romance. It simply holds no interest for him, and that's been true since before the Abyss. Back then, the other teenagers in Morepesok mystified him with their relationships and their hushed, tittering discussions. All he dreamed of was adventure. His mother once said he was 'just a late bloomer.'He has tried it. He was curious what all the fuss was about, so when a tea seller from Qiaoying Village propositioned him during his first months in Liyue, he took her up on it. They agreed it was just a casual one-time thing. She also thought he was handsome, and his foreignness was evidently exciting to her. It wasn't an unpleasant experience in any way, but it didn't enlighten him as to why sex is such a big deal for most people. He found it no better than having a nice meal, and it was nothing compared to a good, death-defying melee.With a man, though? Maybe that's worth giving a try. Something different, something new. Something to learn. His quick learning had served him well before, or rather, it served that woman well by all indications. All he had to do was pay attention to her and her body, and her shchelka became an instrument he could play with his tongue. She likewise used her mouth to bring him to org*sm, but he had no frame of reference to evaluate her techniques.For a second or two he has a blank look on his face, then he regards Thoma thoughtfully for a few more seconds...then he nods and shrugs. "Sounds like fun." He gives him a jaunty smile. "Let's work out the details later.""Of course!" Thoma beams. His smiles all seem carefree but also kind. Childe doesn't necessarily trust him in a broad sense, because they just met and he hasn't faced him in combat, but he's made a good impression so far. And if he does anything nefarious tonight, Childe can kill him. He, Tartaglia, doesn't need his Vision or even a weapon to defend himself. In his mind it's that simple.Thoma is about to say more when he's distracted by the sound of things being dropped into water. He turns to see Shimura transferring green, white, and pink dough balls from a cutting board to a pot of boiling water. This also delights him, though not as much as Childe's agreement appeared to. Actually, it turns out this, too, is about him in a way: Thoma eagerly asks him if he's tried dango yet."Not yet, no. I take it I should?""Well, if you think you'll like something that's soft, chewy, and sweet, you probably should. They're made of rice flour. The dough doesn't taste like much on its own, but the glaze is sweet.""I've got nothing against any of that," Childe chuckles. "I'll give it a try."Thoma finished his egg roll a while back; Childe is working on his second. The dango pot bubbles behind them. A breeze is starting to pick up and Childe smiles, closing his eyes a moment to enjoy it. I really ought to visit Mondstadt one day. Just wander the windiest hills looking for trouble. Test myself against the Anemo Hypostasis."If we have time, would you give me a few pointers on combat skills?" Thoma inquires. "I've been learning how to use a polearm. Well, I've been 'learning' for years, but... There just isn't enough time to practice much, not properly, and I haven't found a teacher. So I think I'm okay at it but not good. If it weren't for my Vision I would have no confidence at all in my ability to defend myself and others against seasoned scrappers like the nobushi."Childe nods, opening his eyes and studying Thoma from head to foot. He's fit in a generalized way, not honed by any one activity in particular, which speaks to that lack of time for focused training. As an afterthought, Childe considers whether he finds Thoma attractive. ...He's alright I guess? Maybe he'll have a few interesting scars. "I can give you pointers, sure, but unless you truly dedicate yourself to it, you'll never get far.""That's fine with me; I just want to keep getting a little bit better so that I can...be more helpful to people.""Heh. So you're dedicated to something." The reason for his Vision? "That should be enough to keep you moving forward that little bit, at least. I look forward to seeing what your current capabilities are."

Thoma inclines his head appreciatively, smiling. "Thank you. I hope I'll get to see some of what you can do, too."Childe nods once. He leaves the conversation in Thoma's hands while he catches up on his food. Too bad I won't be able to show off, lest I invite questions that would be difficult to answer with any honesty. Moreover, if he's on the level he says he is, I'll really have to hold back. He's not going to be getting much of anything out of it. It's just a favor in return for Thoma's guidance on Inazuman cooking.Thoma is quiet for the moment. He looks plenty relaxed. At some cue from Shimura or a sound from the dango being prepared—Childe isn't really paying attention—he turns around to collect a skewer.The breeze is becoming a wind. A gust tussles Childe's hair and he closes his eyes once more...But he quickly reopens them when he feels something brush across his face.There are pink petals everywhere, suddenly. There'd been some all along, but it's the first time Childe has seen so many at once, blowing in like the gentlest snowstorm. The bittersweet cold it lacks is made up for by alien beauty and sheer spectacle. Caught off guard, he watches the petals fly in flurries through the air and dance across the pavement. And when he slowly looks up, his amazed eyes following a rising eddy of sakura 'snow,' he notices how the sunrise is starting to paint half the sky the color of lavender melons. With the wind coming from the east, it's as if the petals are fallen pieces of that sky.(He's not aware of how big the smile on his face is, or how pure it is.)As the wind slackens for a moment, he holds out his free hand below a drifting petal. It settles into his palm briefly, then continues on its way.

No Light In Your Bright Blue Eyes - PancakeBeast - 原神 (1)

He glances over at Thoma and finds he's not only watching him, he's smiling at him with a warmth and joy that makes him feel like he's being admired. Admired for what, he doesn't know, and he's inclined to assume the feeling is just a mirage, but for some reason he recalls his own words from days ago:"The more time you spend somewhere, the more joy it brings you when you return."I wish I could stay here a while longer. Inazuma?... Yes, Inazuma, of course. There's nothing else he could possibly mean."The best place to see sakura blossoms is up at the Grand Narukami Shrine," Thoma tells him. "The Sacred Sakura is the biggest tree, and when it's letting go of its blossoms and you're looking out from the mountaintop over all of Narukami Island, it's...well, it's quite a sight. It's not just Narukami you can see from there, either.""It's a long hike, I imagine?""It's a day trip, yeah.""Hmm. I don't suppose we'll have time for that, but I'll be sure to go up there before I depart Inazuma. Thanks for the recommendation."Thoma looks to the sky as he bites the whole pink dango off his skewer and contentedly munches it. Childe hands his empty boat-bowl-thing directly back to Shimura so the wind doesn't take it, and pays for his own dango."Oh!" Thoma spins around to face him while he's putting his coinpurse away one-handed, the other hand holding up the skewer. He raises his eyebrows a little, curious about Thoma's sudden excitement. (It's not an effusive display of emotion. As far as Childe has seen, Thoma's expressions and even his laughter tend to be on the understated side, easy and unmistakable though they are.)"If we hurry," Thoma says, "there's a great spot to watch the sun break over the horizon, if you'd like to.""If I passed up such an immediate opportunity to see more of Inazuma's natural beauty, I wouldn't be getting everything out of this visit that I could. Lead on!""Okay! Keep up!" Thoma laughs, hopping sideways into the street. "Gochisousama!" he calls to Shimura. He bounces up to his tiptoes and takes a quick look around to plan his route through the morning shoppers and work-goers. He's taller than most of the crowd anyway, but his enthusiasm (in this case) has him on springs. He darts off, weaving his way across the nearby bridge."Ah! Gochisousama!" Childe calls over his shoulder as well. Following Thoma, he's all but certain he'll keep up easily. Thoma leads him around the back of the bathhouse, then, to skip the stairs at its east flank, they stay atop the retaining wall. There, they're momentarily free to run without running into anyone. They emerge from that shortcut in front of the kimono store.Childe makes the mistake of thinking he can try a bite of dango while it's still hot. In that instant, when he glances down so as not to stab himself with the skewer as he raises it to his mouth, he loses sight of Thoma. The colorfully-dressed blonde has vanished somewhere beyond a passing group of four tall, bulky-armored samurai and a food cart on the move. Still, all Childe has to do is get around those obstacles and then he'll be able to—Thoma is in front of him once more and taking his free hand, laughing again. Childe lets him take his hand, lets him pull him along. Under his breath, he laughs too. This is a different kind of fun than he's gotten used to and it's a tad disorienting, almost like being one of those petals tumbling hither and thither on a shifting breeze. Not all of the fun that gets his heart pumping is violent these days: sometimes he'll surf down a waterfall or experiment with other applications of Hydro that aren't necessarily combat-related. But that's always when he's alone. At most, there were some foes he was on his way to.There are no foes waiting for him on the larger bridge Thoma brings him to. No one who knows he should be their enemy, anyway. At the middle of the bridge, on the east side, Thoma lets go of his hand and steps up onto the lowest part of the railing. His free hand on the top rail, the other raising dango to his mouth for a bite that's emphatic with satisfaction, he leans forward just a bit to feel the open air on his face.It's going to be a clear morning. Clouds are few and distant. In this direction there's not much more island before beaches, rocks, and a few hardy seaside trees mark the verge of an ocean that stretches out as far as the eye can see, bounded only by the sky. Where the water and sky meet, that lavender melon color is ceding to hues of red and orange.Temporarily holding his dango skewer between his teeth, Childe places his hands on the top of the rail. He jumps, curling his legs up and then flinging them out between his arms in the span of a split second. And with that, he's sitting on the railing, feet dangling over nothing but the far-below ground. He takes the skewer out of his mouth and peers down, keeping a secure grip on the rail with one hand. For the most part he just trusts his balance. Fear of heights is not something he's ever had to contend with, but at this immense height, his body treats him to a small frisson of vertigo that he savors."Whoa!" Thoma reacts. "Don't do that, it'll make people nervous. I guess I'm being a bad example." He chuckles apologetically."Hnnnm," Childe sighs, all but pouting as he contemplates whether to do as Thoma is implicitly asking or be stubborn. Thoma has been nothing but nice and kind to him, so heeding him in this seems like the honorable thing to do... After several seconds, he swivels around and stands up on the correct side of the railing. Sidling closer to Thoma, he leans over the way the other man has been doing and sets one foot on the lowest of the wooden rungs. Almost shoulder to shoulder, he's able to mutter a sheepishly-smiling "Sorry," and still be heard by the only person in this city he cares to say it to."Not afraid of heights at all, huh? I uh, probably should have thought to ask you about that before bringing you here." Thoma is apologetic again, but he's also smiling."Ahah, it's alright. In fact, it's remarkable that you thought of it at all. Let me assure you, I do appreciate your kindness. Especially to a total stranger such as myself.""Oh, it's nothing. Well, maybe I shouldn't say that. Some of it's just common decency, but some of it comes with the territory of housekeeping, and I must admit, some of it might be because you're...well, like I said earlier...very attractive in my opinion. But also, you've made my vacation a lot more fun just by being around and being great to talk with. Sometimes I don't quite know what to do with myself when I have a vacation. I was thinking about just going back to work today."

"Just as well for me that you didn't." The sun is a bright spot forming on the horizon. Its equally bright reflection is a glittering gilt starting to spread across the ocean's surface. There's an interval of silence in which Childe and Thoma just watch the sunrise they came to this spot for.When the sun in the sky and its reflection on the water become distinguishable from one another, and Childe is idly rotating an empty dango stick between his thumb and forefinger, he jokes with Thoma, "So propositioning people you just met isn't normally how you spend your vacations?" He has an impish grin, but his tone is good-natured.A soft laugh from Thoma. Softer than usual, that is. They're both still talking in undertones. "Sometimes. It's been a while, come to think of it. The stars don't always align, you know? And when it's like that I don't really go out of my way to find someone.""I wouldn't know," Childe admits blithely. "You'll be my second, if all goes well. Normally I wouldn't be interested, but you've caught me in a curious mood." Curious by both definitions of the word.Thoma's eyebrows rise, but only for a second. Just a little surprised. "In that case, I'm even luckier than I thought I was. Is there...anything you want to know ahead of time? Anything you're concerned about? Those are questions I was going to ask anyway, but now that we're on the topic...""That'll depend on what we're going to do, won't it." Childe casts a relaxed glance over his shoulder (and Thoma's, what with it being so close to his). He doesn't much care if what they're saying is overheard; someone would have to try to overhear them when they're talking like this, and then it'd be that person's problem, not his. But he doesn't actually feel like having this discussion quite yet, and his wordless allusion to the public place they're in serves very efficiently to put the topic on the back burner again. He hasn't had enough time to put any specific thoughts on it into order. It's a rearrangement of his mental furniture to even begin.Thoma opens his mouth to reply, but follows Childe's gaze and instead nods. He starts to say something else and stops again, staring at...Childe's hair?Childe instinctively reaches up to adjust his mask but, of course, it's not there. He left its broken pieces on the bedside table in the Traveler's guest room and forgot to retrieve them."Is it weird, do you think," Thoma asks, "if I say your hair looks like honey in the sunlight? The reddish kind, not the light kind but not very dark either..."Childe is bemused but by no means perturbed. He sinks his fingers into his hair a little bit, as if by touching it he could see what Thoma is seeing. "...I don't think it's weird," he ponders aloud. "It's not so different from appreciating a sunrise, perhaps. Humans are also products of nature." He pushes his hair back slowly, watching Thoma's eyes follow his hand and the locks each of his fingers are tilling up. It brings a small smile to his face. "I've just never thought of it that way before."In turn, he takes note of how the sunlight shines through Thoma's hair. It resembles honey too, but a lighter-colored variety. Yes, a thick golden-yellow honey comes to mind; he must have seen it in a jar on a grocer's shelf at some point, because he doesn't think he's eaten it. Thoma's shade of blond is unlike the Traveler's, which...What would he look like in this light?A pang of emotion. Not pleasant, not exactly unpleasant either. He recognizes it before he can decide whether he even wants to know what it is.Longing.What for? What does the sun on his hair have to do with...anything?There's a growing suspicion at the back of his mind about all these odd feelings he's encountering around the Traveler, and though it's still unclear, it's...not optimistic.Childe shoves those thoughts away and puts a lid on them. His fingers are curled into his hair and Thoma is watching him thoughtfully. He puts his hand down on the not-yet-warmed wood of the bridge railing. "Ahaha, pardon me, I got to thinking about honey. It's a favorite of mine when it comes to cooking." That's not not true, if enough favorites are counted. "Can you teach me an Inazuman recipe that has honey in it?""Sure. We can start with a mixture of honey, soy sauce, and sake that goes well on meats as a marinade. It can be used on dango as a glaze, too." Thoma seems to search his expression for something. Whether or not he finds whatever it is, he soon appears reassured. "Want to get started on that now, or is there anything you need to do around town first?""No, by all means, let's. I hope your friend has an icebox—sorry, a Cryo box—for all this food we'll be making~" That was a very Snezhnayan slip of the tongue...but if he's familiar with neither Snezhnaya nor Liyue, he might not notice.Thoma heads them back downtown. "I don't actually know... But there are plenty of other ways to make sure it doesn't go to waste, if not.""Such as?""Well, I have other friends who wouldn't mind surprise gifts. And...some furry little friends I bring scraps to every day in any case.""Heh! Dogs?""And cats.""Strays?""Mm," Thoma affirms. "One or two of them were born wild, I think.""And they're...friendly?" Childe questions doubtfully."Oh no, not all of them. I've been bitten a few times, haha. But I just keep bringing the food and not pushing their boundaries too much, and most of them slowly learn to trust me. Enough to let me give them sweaters for the winter."Childe stares at him. "...Are you joking?" It could be a joke. He doesn't want to assume it isn't. The Abyss didn't change his perceptions of people very much, other than making him keenly aware at all times of every method by which he might kill whichever person he looks at, and making everpresent in his mind a deep curiosity as to whether a given person could win if he did attack them. But being in the Fatui? That scrubbed much of his original naivety out of him.Thoma blinks at him, then smiles as if he understands. (He has no inkling whatsoever of Childe's path to such a conclusion, but there a hundred other paths to the same and he's encountered quite a few of them. Even walked some of them briefly, before choosing to turn elsewhere.) "No. I can knit pretty fast. It's not a big burden for me to make sweaters like that."Childe continues staring at him. He's a babushka reborn into the body of the 'strapping young man' every babushka wishes would show up to lift heavy things for her. Slowly he smiles, though his brow is faintly furrowed by a vague sense of confusion that lingers a moment longer. "...Coaxing the dogs and cats to accept not only food but also handling and clothing must demand a lot of patience. I respect that."It doesn't occur to him that that's what Thoma has been doing with him. (Thoma doesn't think of it that way either, not consciously at least.)They pass Shimura's and descend five flights of stairs to the lower Tenryou district. First on their right is the Yae Publishing House, where shelves and flip bins full of light novels catch Childe's eye. The multitude of colorful covers in every imaginable style would catch any eye. He's heard something about the prominence of the Publishing House and how it constitutes a 'cultural export' of Inazuma. It wasn't forgotten by readers in other nations during the Sakoku Decree, and now light novels are more popular than ever.He had it in mind to visit. If he can find at least one book for each of his siblings, appropriate to their interests and ages, he'll be very happy. But he doesn't plan to stop by right now until one cover in particular seizes his attention.Is that Paimon?Nudging Thoma's shoulder with the side of his hand to let him know he's stopping, he beelines for the novel that, yes, definitely has Paimon on the cover. Unless there's more than one 'Paimon' after all? He grabs the book and opens it to—...the back pages?"Turn it this way," Thoma advises from just behind him, reaching around to gesture demonstratively."Hm? Ah! I see." Now that he's flipped the Inazuman book around and is turning pages in the opposite direction than he's accustomed to, he finds the title. Luckily for him, the Yae Publishing House prints its novels mainly in common for that broad, international reach it's having so much success with. The Miraculous Adventures of the Traveler? He holds back laughter. Not because the idea is unbelievable, but because it was inevitable.Thoma, peering over his shoulder, provides an unexpected trove of information. "Ohh, that. It was submitted for publication through the novel-writing contest. The most recent one." He points to an emblem on one of the first pages. "Supposedly no one saw it coming and no one seems to know exactly who the 'Thousand Hands' who wrote it are. There's a rumor it was practically cooked up in a lab to beat out the novel that was most popular at the time. Also!~ The Traveler was seen with Lady Miko a lot around that same time.""How do you know all that?" Meanwhile, Childe skims the first page of actual story. It's describing Mondstadt, almost certainly, which tracks with the chapter title being a reference to the Traveler's arrival in Teyvat: 'Reincarnated in Another World.'"...I just get out and about a lot and I hear things," Thoma answers after a suspicion-rousing hesitation. Childe looks at him and sees embarrassment on his face, as well is in how he's touching one finger to the bottom of his jaw.Goaded by nothing more than the glance, Thoma half smiles, half winces. "Okay, I wasn't trying to hide it from you, exactly. It just...would've been awkward to tell you: some people call me a fixer because I know a lot of people and I can, well, fix problems between them. Problems of commerce, usually. It's really not as interesting or...um, 'prestigious' as it might have sounded if I told you earlier. Or as shady? I don't know, now that I'm laying out my reasoning it's not convincing me either."Childe waits for the whole explanation to unfold before laughing. He drops his head into a gentle shake. "Don't worry yourself over it. You're entitled to all the secrets you wish, except for recipes."Thoma chuckles, relieved and, in hindsight, amused at himself. "Thank you for understanding.""Oh, I do," Childe doesn't resist saying as he turns his attention back to the book. Struck by a very self-indulgent curiosity, he locates the second chapter: 'Took a Trip to Liyue.' There's a subheading that makes him choke on a completely natural, uncontrolled laugh: 'Tour Guide Turned Out to Be Rex Lapis.' Seems you can get away with revealing the truth in fiction if it's absurd enough.Thoma is giving him a concerned smile now as he recovers from both laughing and coughing. "It's even funnier when you're from Liyue, then? Not offensive?""Ahh," he sighs, "I can only speak for myself. I think it's hilarious." He flips through more pages, searching for the end of the chapter, then scans backward from there for any mention of the Golden House or the Fatui or a Harbinger. He's slightly disappointed to find none. It would also have been funny to find a fictionalized version of himself in there, probably cast in a most unflattering light. And what absurd truth about that event might have been lain bare with no average reader the wiser?He puts the book away. It's not the last copy on the shelf. He can pick it up when he makes a return visit to shop for his siblings; no need to do that on Thoma's time. Without a word he hooks his thumbs in his belt loops and strolls into the street, followed closely by Thoma and then led by him.Thoma sets an unhurried pace, walking just barely ahead of Childe. More like alongside him. "Why that one?" he asks. "You saw it and went straight for it."It's a simple question, and surely there's a simple answer: a simple lie or half-truth that Childe could put it to rest with. He's blanking on it, however. "Have you read it?" he deflects."Yeah. I—...mm. This is also going to sound like I'm trying to impress you.""Hmm?""I met him. Actually...he stopped my Vision from being taken. I had to lay low for a while after that, but, because of him, I only had a moment's taste of what it's like to lose your Vision."Childe's reaction is thoughtful. Maybe it should be impressed, for the sake of his 'cover' as someone who hasn't also met the man in question, but he can't be bothered to. He loves a good performance, whether his own or someone else's, but at the moment he just doesn't have it in him. Maybe that's another thing to be concerned about. Agh, I hate second-guessing myself!The silence is starting to get awkward for Thoma by the time Childe finds an icepick to break it with. "What is he like?" That's what he wants to ask Paimon next time he gets a good chance. She'd know best, but maybe Thoma has an insight or two."What is he like aside from...possibly too heroic for his own good? Hmm. Quiet? His companion, Paimon, does most of the talking. At the same time, he's sociable enough to participate in a hot pot game.""A hot pot game?" Childe has heard of hot pots—they have them in Liyue too—but not a game involving one."Eheh. It's not for the faint of stomach... Everyone brings secret ingredients to add to the pot. It's all put in together, then you take turns closing your eyes and picking an ingredient out of the pot and tasting it. The game is in guessing whose ingredient it is. If you guess correctly, you earn a point and you take another turn. Whoever finishes the meal with the most points is the winner. Take it from me, it can be a very painful victory. But still: worth it.""Huh. Did you win when you played against the Traveler? What did he put in?""He and Paimon entered as a team, so to speak. They put in mist flowers, Jueyun chilis, and salted ham. The mist flowers froze my tongue, the chilis felt like they burned off my taste buds, and the ham was so salty I couldn't tell what kind of meat it was.""So, identifying what the ingredient is is not part of the game," Childe snickers."No. Though...it could be! And speaking of ingredients, here we are." Thoma approaches a restaurant that's set up much like Shimura's. This one is clearly more food-centered, though, and maybe a notch classier. Keeping out of the way of customers, Thoma waves at the presumable owner. "Good morning, Anna! Business is looking good today.""Oh, hello Thoma!" the woman behind the counter replies. "Are you here to order some pizza?""Not this time I'm afraid! My friend and I just had breakfast, and we sort of already have lunch plans. On that note, do you mind if we use your house kitchen for a few hours? We'll clean up after ourselves and I'll pay you back for the ingredients we use.""Sure! I'll be working that whole time, so I won't be needing it. I usually make my own lunch over here anyway and just sneak a bite when I can." Anna says the last part with a slight giggle under the words.Childe speaks up. "We'll be cooking anyway, so why don't we make lunch for you?"Thoma seconds that with a nod. "As long as you don't mind picking something Inazuman for your lunch? I'm teaching him Inazuman recipes.""Aw, well thank you! I won't say no to that! How about some of your special miso soup, Thoma?""You got it!" Thoma beams at her before beckoning Childe across a little alley to a house that must be Anna's.

By all indications, Childe hadn't returned to the Teapot at any point in the night. Aether accepted that and took the opportunity to refresh the room's linens. He debated what to do with the broken mask on the bedside table, and ultimately did nothing with it.He really doesn't mind. There was a small sense of disappointment, but it wasn't tough to move on from. The offer of the guest room for Childe's use was just that: an offer. It's no business of his why the man didn't make use of it last night, nor does he consider it his business why Childe would potentially make use of it at any given time. The disappointment came from a very simple place: Aether missed him.Aether wasn't about to mope around the house pining for him, though. He had things to do. He'd wrapped up just about everything that had come to his attention in Inazuma, and recently received word from the Adventurers' Guild about a big job in Liyue.(He could pine while he got things done.)The Chasm awaited.

Childe couldn't tell Thoma he grew up in a fishing village, as such, but the housekeeper-slash-fixer asked if he was from Liyue Harbor, and answering yes to that was enough. Inspired, Thoma asked if he wanted to learn some seafood dishes. And why not? So not only did he learn the basic principles of making sushi, he got a verbal tour of over a dozen variations. There was sashimi, too. Unagi dishes had to remain purely theoretical, as Kiminami Anna's home Cryo box only had fish.It was while they were cooking that Childe put together some thoughts about what else he wants from Thoma.He brings it up as they wait for a batch of mochi to bake. Thoma was only going to tell him how it's made from scratch, not actually make it from scratch, until he got to the part about pulverizing rice and Childe took it on as a challenge for his Vision. Via some trial and error, he got two converse torrents of water into the right shapes, and flowing at the right speeds, to contain the rice and erode it into a paste. It nearly turned into a catastrophic mess. But, once Childe pulled all the moisture back out, it was basically rice flour. He did not mention his thought that a similar technique could probably be used to flay someone.With the mochi in the oven, they're leaning back against a very clean counter, side by side just like at Shimura's. Childe regards Thoma contemplatively."Looking a little intense there. Everything alright?" Thoma asks.Intense? Childe resets his expression to something light and easygoing, not knowing what it was before. Maybe it was nothing. His 'nothing' can be unsettling, he's gathered from...mirrors. "Quite alright! I'm decided on what I would ask of you when it comes to sex. Only if you're amenable, of course."Thoma smiles softly. "I'm listening.""I'd like you to be the..." He realizes he doesn't have the terminology to articulate what he wants. Rarely paying attention to matters of sex has left him with this inconvenience. Even if he had paid more attention, he might not have become as familiar with the common-tongue terms as with the Snezhnayan ones. Frowning thinly, he raises a hand to chin level and rubs his thumb along the side of his finger in a vague gesture that lets Thoma know he's searching for a word."...Bottom? Top?" Thoma helps, after waiting for a long moment."...Insertive?""The one who does the inserting would be the top," Thoma nods.Childe is grateful for the clarity of Thoma's answer. "Ahh, then yes. I want you to be the top."Another amiable nod. "I can do that. Do you want me to do it myself, or use a...an object?" Thoma seems very comfortable with discussing it, only pausing to pick a word that isn't esoteric."Hmm..." Narrowing in thought, Childe's gaze drifts floorward. Do I have an opinion on that? ...Any at all? ...No? His eyes, lit by the oven's Pyro slime more than the late afternoon sun from the windows, snap back up to Thoma and he shrugs. "I don't care. That is to say, I don't have a preference.""I'd love to do it myself, in that case," Thoma ventures, his voice slightly quieter and an almost shy smile drawing Childe's attention to his lips."No kissing," he decides on a whim. It just strikes him as so...beside the point? No, that's not it: it's that even he thinks of kissing as something romantic or familial. He's pretty self-assured that if he was ever capable of romantic love, he isn't anymore, for reasons that have nothing to do with natural inclination or lack thereof.Thoma smiles a tad wider for a second. "Thanks for telling me that. And hey, this won't be the last time I tell you this, but if, at any point, you decide you don't want something you said you wanted, please let me know immediately. If we're doing that thing at the time, whatever it may be, I will stop doing it."Childe blinks, not exactly surprised, but yet again noting how Thoma's care and carefulness combine. If he's telling the truth. If not, Childe still won't have any reservations about using his contingency plan of murder. "Hm. Alright. I'll bear that in mind.""We should agree on a system for signaling each other to stop that works even if speech is difficult for some reason. But we can go over that later."Each other: right, I guess he would need to have that option too. "Sounds wise. Is there anything I should do to prepare?""You can bathe really 'thoroughly,' if you want?" Thoma shrugs, then has a small realization. "Ah, let's go back and clarify, is it-- where do you want me to penetrate you?"Oh, that...has a sound to it that I like. 'Penetrate,' like a knife into a chest cavity~ It takes a second for Childe to surface from that thought. "Ass," he answers abruptly, choosing a word that's heard often wherever common is spoken thanks to its versatility as an expletive. He even overheard a Fatui recruit calling him an ass after he kicked theirs in training, once. Even if he didn't think it was hilarious, which he did, he wouldn't have considered punishing them. He just kept out of sight and went along his way. The boldness to talk about a Harbinger like that is, if anything, commendable."Okay. Yeah. That's fine by me." Thoma glances down at where Childe's ass is all but perched on the counter's edge—accidentally, if his hurried redirection of his gaze to several places around the kitchen is anything to judge by. He takes a quick breath through his nose. "More than fine."What, is he thinking about it right now? Hahaha! Cute. An amused smile, slightly condescending, quirks Childe's mouth. He adjusts it like a glove, smoothing that condescension out of it before Thoma can notice. "That's good to hear. I do hope you enjoy yourself.""Aha, ha, well...it's more like I'd be enjoying you, isn't it? No, wait, that was terrible, sorry," Thoma groans regretfully.Childe grins. Is this turning into flirting? For the moment at least, it's actually kind of fun. He drapes his arm across Thoma's shoulders and moves closer, bumping his hip against the other man's. "It was, but I forgive you."Thoma looks at him with wide green eyes and starts to turn toward him, but his posture straightens suddenly under Childe's arm. "We're still in Anna's house," he says as if he forgot. He's not stepping away, though.How much can I make him want me? Childe is no stranger to impulsiveness. He and impulsiveness are old friends. He and impulsiveness get along like a forest and a fire. So he's ready to hit the ground running with this idea even though he's never done anything like it before or even wanted to.He crooks his forearm up and hangs his hand down from it to touch Thoma's hair. With his long, bony fingers, he experiments: petting this way and that with just his fingertips, combing through it lightly, and giving Thoma's scalp the merest hint of his nails. He watches how Thoma closes his eyes and presses his lips together, feels how his breath stalls and then is caught with a sharp little inhale. Thoma leans his head into his touch and Childe experiences a faint glimmer of satisfaction. Teasing Thoma is fun. Bit by bit, he gets Thoma's head into the perfect position for him to whisper in his ear. "Do you like this?""Mmhm," Thoma affirms. His voice, normally deeper than Childe's, sounds almost small just then.In a way, it's about tactics. Childe isn't inclined to a lot of conscious tactical thinking; combat is a time to stop thinking and flow with his hard-won instincts. This is not combat. He is thinking, and it's getting him somewhere.Very delicately, he catches the top of Thoma's ear between his teeth."Ah," Thoma breathes. "That's—" He swallows. "That's nice. But..."Childe lets go, although he doesn't pull away yet. He sneaks a glance down at the front of Thoma's trousers to gauge his success. Flat. So it isn't that easy. Heheh. Duly noted."Save it for later, okay?" Thoma whispers, turning to face him. His smile is sweet and promising.With a light sigh and an agreeable smile (in which there is a hint of softness he is unaware of), Childe withdraws his arm and gives Thoma his personal space back. Placing his hands on the edge of the counter, he settles into a comfortable slouch, crossing one ankle over the other. "You're right of course. I do think I want to take some time to prepare, in any case. What say we meet tomorrow? Early for sparring—or just advice and demonstrations, if you'd rather. And when we're done with that...""That should work. Unless you mind being sweaty already after sparring?""I don't think I do. Sparring will set the mood nicely, as far as I'm concerned.""No objection from me.""We should wait for this mochi to bake, I suppose?""I can watch it if you want to go for the night. Or have to.""Hmm. No, I can stay. Shall we get a head start by discussing your training methods? Such as they are.""Sure. Uh... Well, feel free to laugh, but the foremost reason I use a polearm is because I can practice with a broom while I'm sweeping."Childe merely chuckles. "I would say that's good thinking. You accepted your situation and adapted. Few things are more essential to the underlying mindset of a warrior than that."

Notes:

the odyssey I went on to find an appropriate Russian word for vagin*...

I feel like Childe would use a word that isn't profane or crass, but also not childish or purple-prosey. I found one candidate that isn't loaned from English: щёлка, which has the literal meanings of "slit," "slot," "hole," and similar; it seems like it can be romanized as either shchelka or ščólka

please let me know if I've misinterpreted the tone of the word's usage!

Chapter 6: Day 10: Calm Me Down

Notes:

first sex scene is in this chapter! I'm posting it separately and linking to it in the middle of the chapter where it would have been. this way, I can put all the appropriate tags on it without cluttering the tags for the fic as a whole. don't misunderstand, though: the scene contains character/friendship/plot development, so if you don't mind explicit sex, you will definitely not want to skip it

title comes from the song by Mother Mother

warning for vague mentions of past, hypothetical animal death and non-explicit allusions to the idea of violence against animals, but none of that actually happens

edit: fixed Signora's rank, how tf did I get that wrong

Chapter Text

Childe walks down Inazuma's City's final staircase and follows the dirt road from there to the place Thoma said they'd meet up. He's passed through the area before: if you enter the city by normal means, you can't miss it.

The road splits into two paths around a large tree. The first thing Childe notices is that, sure enough, a number of cats and dogs have gathered in the tree's shade. They don't exactly look clean and sleek but they're definitely not starving. He keeps a distance, deciding it'd be best to wait for Thoma.

There weren't many strays in Morepesok; the winter tended to cull them. There were a few, though. In the old days, Childe liked dogs and cats pretty equally. But after three months of fighting everything that moved, everything that moved looked like an enemy in his peripheral vision. It wasn't that he feared animals, it was that when he looked at an animal, just like with humans, he saw all too vividly how he could kill it. Kind of put a damper on things. Something like a dog or cat could never provide him a challenge, however, nor threaten his life, so he never wanted to harm one. That gulf between his new instincts and his desires was...uncomfortable. Better avoided than confronted.

It's been years, though. He's become used to those instincts and how they're always there regardless of context or intentions. He can ignore the almost premonition-like flashes of violence behind his eyes when he wants to.

He can ignore them, but they don't go away.

He waits for Thoma because he's a stranger to these animals and he doesn't want to accidentally scare them off by approaching them. There was an abandoned dog in Morepesok that loved children but was terrified of tall people, and, having never quite forgotten that dog, he bears in mind that he is now the latter and not the former.

To pass the time he wanders a wide circle around the tree. On one side there are some of those little clouds of sakura petals that float in a magenta mist and scatter like lazy flies when a hand is waved through them. When he first encountered one and poked at it, he noticed it gave his hand an electric tingle. He didn't know what to do with that information, though. He tried splashing it with Hydro and nothing special happened. A few attempts were made to snatch a petal by just moving fast enough, but that didn't work. Ultimately he had to shrug and move on. There was one more thing he could have tried, his Delusion, but that would have been overkill for something so benign.

A red-clothed figure coming up the road from the Byakko Plain catches his attention. By the height and gait, there's no doubt it's Thoma. Childe raises his hand in greeting.

"Ohayo!" Thoma calls to him happily. When he gets closer he adds, "That's a casual way to say 'good morning.' The more polite form is 'ohayo gozaimasu.'"

"Ahah, ohayo to you as well." Childe is offered one of the bags and he accepts it. Thoma is opening the other one, so Childe opens 'his' and peeks inside. It's full of food scraps, dried meat, onigiri, and even some fresh meat and fish, all of which explains why it's so smelly. He notes that all the fish is salmon. "Hmm. Thanks, but I already had breakfast," he jokes.

Thoma laughs. "If you hadn't, I was going to suggest we stop by Kiminami after this—Anna's restaurant." He gestures for Childe to follow him to the tree, where the dogs and cats are all looking at Thoma with obvious anticipation. Or, maybe they're just looking at the bags that smell of food. Childe wouldn't rule out that the sight of Thoma is itself strongly associated with getting fed.

"This is a pretty good spot, right?" Thoma chats as two and then three friendly felines come over to weave in and out of his legs, squishing past each other, their faces upturned and a chorus of meows rising from their tiny mouths. "This isn't even all of the strays. There are a ton of them. Some try their luck foraging and begging in the city, but most end up in the outskirts. Less noisy here? More room? I don't really know why. In Mondstadt we didn't have strays so much as 'neighborhood dogs' and 'temporarily escaped cats.' But, well, I think that must have meant 'stray' about half the time."

Childe thinks about the big, hardy, thick-coated dogs that could survive outdoors in Snezhnaya. If any other animals were abandoned...they were probably eaten by those dogs, he realizes only now. ...Takova zhizn'.

Thoma nudges him with his elbow. He's smiling at him. "Your bag has the fresh stuff in it. That's their favorite. Go ahead and give it to them. You'll get into their good graces."

Feeling oddly shy all of a sudden, Childe gets a fish out of the sack and drops it on the ground with a gentle toss. The cats at Thoma's feet, as well as several others, converge on that single fish instantly. Seeing the imminent problem, Childe hastens to toss more for them.

One cat, smaller than the others, doesn't try to push through the kitty crowd. Instead it petitions Childe directly, and fearlessly, standing on his boot to cling to his leg. It meows and meows, stretching its forepaws as far up as it can. It might just start climbing him at any second. Bemused and surprised, he sort of smiles at it and offers down a piece of raw meat; there aren't any fish left. The cat backs up, waiting for him to toss the meat to the ground, and when he does, it snatches it and runs a few meters away to eat in relative privacy.

Keeping an eye on everything, Thoma grins at this. A dog sniffs its way to Childe, sits at his feet, and looks hopeful. Then another dog shows up, trying to stick its nose under his arm that's holding the sack. A terrier stands up by the same leg the cat was on and paws at him.

His eyebrows high and a soft laugh bubbling up out of him, Childe hands a cutlet to each of his new fans one by one. They scurry off with their prizes and more approach. When he runs out of fresh meat, Childe crouches and dumps the rest of the food out. He doesn't stand back up right away; he watches the dogs and tentatively pets a few of them as they brush past him.

Thoma is elated. "Oho! I've trained them not to be aggressive, but one of those dogs, that one there, has never let me get close. They love you! It's not just because of the food, trust me."

Childe is very quiet, not just on the outside but on the inside too. Thoughts about this extraordinary moment refuse to form. Eventually he does stand up, and the lights come on in his brain.

He's been followed by one dog or another in Liyue from time to time, but who hasn't?

They were never afraid of him. Even when he'd just walked out of a building where he'd nearly killed someone in a scuffle over a debt. Though he washed his hands in Hydro before leaving, they had to've still smelled like blood. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't square with the image he very rightfully has of himself as a bad and dangerous person.

Well, what do they know? Nothing, obviously. Turning, he sees that Thoma's bag isn't empty yet. He kind of wants to get going, but he's not going to rush Thoma. He puts on a completely fake smile. "So, do you give them names?"

"No, not really. I think of them with nicknames sometimes, but I don't need to call to them, only whistle. So I've never given them names." Thoma looks like he's considering the idea now.

Initially Childe has zero interest in suggesting names, but he sees the beggar cat making its way toward him again and a funny thought pops into his head. He gestures at it. "Call that one Zhongli." His smile becomes a little bit genuine. He doesn't mind Zhongli's financial habits at all, and in fact he's developed an affection for the old man's idiosyncrasies. Maybe that was why he couldn't stay mad at him forever. That, and he doesn't have enough friends to lose Zhongli without eventually missing him more than the betrayal itself hurt him. (He prefers to think of it as 'injured pride,' but...it really hurt to be used that way by someone he'd made the mistake of not expecting it from.)

Plus, it's a Liyuen name.

"Zhongli? Okay! Hey little Zhongli!" Thoma tosses a scrap to the undersized kitty. It pounces on it and starts gnawing. "Want to name more of them?"

"I think I'll pass, haha. It was only a momentary inspiration."

"Fair enough," Thoma chuckles. While he distributes the remainder of his scraps, the cat makes short work of its extra snack. Promptly upon finishing, it saunters back to Childe and sits on his boot, where it settles in to clean its face and paws. At length.

Childe is content to allow it and observe. The audacity of this cat is adorable! Its claws extend as it licks between its dainty toes, and he wonders if it hunts live prey for itself between feedings from Thoma. Would its size be a disadvantage even against mice and birds? Is it really a runt or is it just young? Is it true that cats torment their prey, like his babushka said? What would the real Zhongli think if he told him he named a stray cat after him?

What finally interrupts Cat Zhongli's ablutions is one of the larger dogs bounding over to Childe and headbutting his hand for pats. Zhongli springs away, looking affronted, and Childe laughs quietly. He indulges the dog with all the patting and scritching it'll accept, and soon it's on its back demanding belly rubs too. Fine, I'll spoil you too~ He crouches once more to oblige, and that's how Thoma finds him when he comes back around from the other side of the tree.

"That one really trusts you, to show you her belly," Thoma remarks on the dog.

"You didn't see the cat— er, Zhongli sitting on my foot to wash up."

"Hahah! This is shaping up to be a very good morning."

Childe agrees. They have sparring next, after all, though they'll start with Thoma demonstrating basics for feedback.

"You have an interesting style. How'd you come up with it?"

"Watching samurai train, mostly," Thoma answers. "The Knights of Favonius, too, back in Mondstadt. I added a few personal touches over time, to adapt it to the circ*mstances I find myself in." He's sitting on a tree stump, leant forward, arms crossed around his polearm where it sits between his knees, letting the shaft rest against his temple (or his headband, rather).

"Hmm. That thing you do, where you tuck your polearm in behind your back: it lowers your guard but it can make you less predictable. It might help conceal your next move from your opponent, provided you don't give your intentions away in your footwork."

"That's kind of what I was thinking. I'm glad to hear it has some merit."

"It does, certainly. On that note, you're very agile, and that's always a good thing, buuut~ Just because you can backflip into a lateral spin doesn't mean you should. Ha, anyone who's seen me fight would call me a hypocrite for saying that. But when I make use of acrobatics, it's to maintain a certain momentum, as well as to overwhelm my opponent with attacks from many angles." Childe lazily twirls his Hydro polearm, switching the direction and grip every few seconds: fidgeting, but quite relaxed, almost like a cat kneading its claws into a sofa cushion. "Often, it's assisted by my Vision, letting me conserve some of the physical energy such movements can be expected to cost. You might be able to do something similar with your own Vision, but for now, you're spending too much effort for what you're gaining in positional advantages. Hold that move in reserve for evading an opponent's low strike when you have additional opponents who are anticipating a dodge left or right."

Thoma's eyes are as wide open as his evident willingness to listen. The criticism seems to nourish his determination to learn, not daunting it in the slightest.

Childe spins his Hydro polearm once more as he brings it up to point at Thoma. Out of habit he smiles in a way that could perhaps be called grim. "Now let's see what you can do with an opponent. I promise I'll be gentle." It'd be a new line for him, if it were a 'line.' He tries not to do lines, but he gets caught up in the moment every time he faces an interesting opponent. In this case, the opponent isn't that interesting and he means what he said quite literally.

He did once fantasize about saying it to the Traveler when they finally, finally spar. However, such a promise made from him to the Traveler, who will probably beat him again, has no basis in reality. It'd be embarrassing if he actually said it to him! But he can't be sure what's going to come out of his mouth when that moment arrives, unfortunately.

Thoma pops up from his seat right into a ready stance, smiling (whether just in eagerness or also at Childe's words). He holds his polearm low and back, appearing entirely open. Open to attack, yes, but also free to respond to incoming attacks without the delay that committing to a specific guard ahead of time can cost. Childe approves of such flexibility. But does Thoma have the speed to make it work? Just watching the man demonstrate some of his moves couldn't tell him that.

He starts testing Thoma's guard with various thrusts and swings for him to parry. There's almost no force behind them; he's just seeing how fast he can respond. Gradually he adds some force, bringing the test closer and closer to real-life conditions. Real-life conditions if Childe was just a bandit and not himself, of course.

Every move Childe makes with his Hydro polearm is accompanied by a whisper of water, and met by the half-absorbed clack of Thoma's real weapon deflecting it. At first, the only sounds from the mouths of the two men are a mixed staccato of quick breaths. Their accessorized clothing rustles and whips with their movements. Their boots scratch through the grass when they make larger moves, though for the most part they're staying in one place. In the distance, songbirds go about their morning business.

Thoma's breathing sharpens as Childe continues steadily increasing the speed and strength of his simulated attacks. Thoma hasn't missed a parry yet, so Childe hasn't needed to stop short of hitting him yet.

Childe only has one hand on his polearm. Being that he's lefthanded, it's his right that's idle at his side except when he reflexively brings it up to help balance a movement. He might be pushing his 'cover' a bit, but he doesn't care all that much if Thoma gets a hint that he hasn't told him the whole truth. Actually, he wishes he could just tell him, but being a Fatuus in Inazuma City isn't a safe position to be in, even as a Harbinger. The Eighth did get herself killed here not too long ago.

He's pleased to see that Thoma is, so far, not just matching his performance with ease but also showing no signs of losing too much stamina or getting sloppy. Just signs of exertion. By now, the level of challenge Childe has set is somewhere between a particularly competent nobushi and a kairagi, judged against the manifested memories in the Onmyou Chamber. He hasn't been lucky enough to fight any real, uninjured nobushi, nor any kairagi. Yet.

Time to change things up. Childe takes a step back and lays his polearm over his shoulder, gesturing for a stop with his free hand. "Not bad. Now, strike back. I'll slow down again, but only so much, and only for a short time."

Childe resumes with a forward thrust. Thoma slaps it aside and immediately lets loose a flurry of thrusts that are remarkably varied in angle for how quick they are and for how little he moves his feet. Instead of parrying, Childe dodges, opening the option for both of them to move around more. Thoma keeps parrying, which is good practice for him, but when on the offensive he hops to one side or another to further widen his angle of attack.

The spar escalates in vigor and complexity somewhat quicker than Childe expected, spurred by Thoma continually proving he can handle more. Still, he keeps himself on the shortest of leashes. Throwing in some minor acrobatics every so often is a low-risk way to keep Thoma on his toes: a twirl into a thrust this way, a spin into a swing that way, a low flip into or out of reach. In turn, Thoma gives him delights like spinning his polearm from a right-side strike into a left-side strike with a blink-and-you-miss-it grip switch.

It takes a while to get Thoma breathing hard, breaking a sweat, and fired up such that his efforts are joined by a variety of noises. "Ha!" "Hup—" "Hnh!"

By then, Childe is seeing some real potential, squandered though it's sure to be. There's a determination in Thoma's eyes that he likes to see in his comrades, his enemies, and in those who are both.

One more phase to put him through, if he's willing. Childe signals another stop. "What say we bring our Visions into it? Being what they are, it won't be easy to injure one another accidentally so long as we mind the vapor."

Thoma grins. "Bring it," he pants.

As soon as Childe raises a stream of Hydro to defend himself, Thoma comes at him with a flying kick, a swell of heat, and a flicker of flame that stabilizes into a complete spherical shield. Their choices of attack become constrained to opportunities of clear air between the hissing clouds of dangerously hot steam caused by every contact between their Visions.

Before long, Thoma is emboldened enough to give Childe his best onslaught of spinning polearm attacks yet, Pyro bursting forth with every slash. Childe easily vaporizes the fire at a safe distance from himself, but he finds that Thoma's shield has grown so strong he can't break through it without unleashing more of his true power than he's willing to. "Good!"

He'd decided ahead of time that letting Thoma see a variant of his melee Hydro weaponry would be fine. Splitting his polearm into a pair of swords isn't special after the basic capability of his Vision to form persistent solid shapes has been established, and that capability isn't itself special. Grasping the polearm in both hands for the first time, he pulls it apart, the two halves swirling into his favorite sword forms almost instantly.

Thoma's eyes widen, just for a second, as he recognizes how much that changes the game. Then his grin is back and he counters the first dual strike by kicking one sword aside and parrying the other.

"Yes!" Childe laughs, rejoicing to see that move pulled off perfectly. Thoma laughs, too.

They keep at it until Thoma has had a few more chances to use his Vision and is starting to tire. At that point Childe flings his arms out to his sides and dissipates his swords, then raises his hands to clap slowly. "Not bad!" he repeats with emphasis. "You have potential. I hope you'll reconsider letting it languish."

Thoma drops the tip of his polearm downward and swings the weapon behind him, dismissing it, before bending over to put his hands on his knees and catch his breath. "Whew! ...Where...did you...learn to...fight? I could tell...you were holding...back."

Childe's expression retreats into reserved thoughtfulness. Idly he wanders to one side a few paces, his arms folding. "...I don't talk about it," he settles on saying, his tone calm, even placid, but definitely closing the topic. It's one of the truest things he's told Thoma about himself.

"Oh. That's fine, I don't need to know." Breathing easier now, Thoma looks up to reassure Childe of his sincerity with a smile. He stands up straight then, planting his hands on his hips instead of his knees. "I do need to know where we're going next. Is it okay if we use your inn room? If you're still—"

"Yes," Childe interrupts. Sparring at such a limited capacity has left him feeling unsatisfied and restless. Maybe sex will work some of that out, though he doesn't hold hope for it.

Thoma wastes no time and they make their way back into the city at a quick walk. They'd chosen an open, grassy area between the outskirts and the south cliffs for their spar.

On the way, Thoma reiterates that either of them can put a stop to things at any time, and he explains two ways to signal such. They'll have a verbal safeword, for which he suggests the phrase 'bubble tea.' Childe doesn't have a better idea, so he agrees to that. They'll also have a non-verbal system: show one or two fingers for 'everything's good, keep going,' three or four for 'slow down,' and five for 'stop.'

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The usual nightmare, if it can even be called that. It's the same every time, differing only in unimportant details. He'll be in the Abyss, running through the endless corridors, fighting his way through endless monsters. Running from nothing, to nothing. There is only the fight, the struggle, survival from moment to moment. He has always been there and he will always be there: that is his certainty in the dream.

It's old. Predictable. Trite. A nightmare at once too ham-fisted and too real to frighten him. It doesn't jolt him awake or anything dramatic like that. He typically wakes up in the morning just like the normal person he isn't, remembering the dream but not held in its sway.

It's the same this time. He opens his eyes to lamplight. There's still some sun coming through the window, but it appears to be waning.

He's tucked in under a sheet and blanket. It's too warm, but it's more comfortable than not. He can feel the sheet on bare skin from shoulders to feet, so he's still naked. There's no one next to him; he turns onto his back and outstretches an arm across the mattress to confirm. However, there's no need to wonder where Thoma went. He hears him in the room. He props himself up on one elbow, and now he can see him. "Hey," he says to Thoma in a voice laden with the 'hangover' of napping too long.

Thoma noticed he was awake as soon as he moved. Smiling brightly, he replies, "Hey there. I hope you rested well."

"Too well." Childe sits up, scrubbing a hand over his face and then running it through his hair.

Thoma is sitting on one of the room's tatami cushions, a big bucket of soapy water in front of him. The soap obscures what exactly he's washing. A cord from Thoma's outfit has been repurposed as a makeshift clothesline, strung from the door handle to the frame of an artistic hanging. On that, the black undershirt is no doubt drying very, very slowly. Something about that strikes Childe as odd, some confluence of facts his subconscious has already noted, but he can't consciously think of why it's odd. Thoma himself is fully dressed except for not having anything to wear under his jacket.

Childe's clothes have been left on the floor exactly where they fell. That's reassuring: hopefully it means Thoma didn't snoop.

Following the bleary journey of Childe's gaze around the room, Thoma explains, "I didn't know if you'd mind if I gathered your clothes and neatened them up for you, so I left them alone. I cleaned you up a little before putting the blanket over you, though. I hope you don't mind! I didn't want you to wake up sticky."

Childe brushes a hand across his midriff where, if he remembers correctly, he must have made a mess of himself. His skin is indeed clean. "I don't mind. In fact, I thank you. How long was I asleep?"

"Um, six or seven hours I think. I slept some too, at one point, and I've gone out a couple of times to get things." Thoma nods to the bucket and gestures to some takeout boxes Childe hadn't noticed yet. "There's food left for you, if you like. Fried soba noodles and rice, and some pork and cabbage gyoza dumplings. Cold now, but I can fix that now that you're awake."

"Now that I'm awake?" Childe spots Thoma's Vision sitting next to the food on the side table. It puzzles him why Thoma isn't wearing it.

"Well, you don't have your Vision on you right now, so...I didn't put mine back on either. Eheh...it's strange how setting your Vision down voluntarily is completely different from having it taken away. Though, I hope you don't know what that's like. Anyway it was no trouble!"

"Hm. No trouble other than not being able to dry your shirt the way I'm guessing you normally would?"

"Well..."

"I'm grateful. It's what I would have honestly preferred." Childe looks aside, but that doesn't hide the faint blush bringing out freckles on his cheekbones. He spots a piece of paper on the bedside table and he literally pounces on the topic change it offers. Twisting at the waist to flop down on his front in that direction and reach over a consequently short distance, he grabs the paper.

A,

Went out to get food , will be back soon

laundry supplies

~ Thoma

"Oh, that," comments the man who wrote it. "...Yeah." He shrugs.

The attempted change of topic backfired: Childe's face is even warmer now. He folds one arm and nestles his chin into it, the note held between two fingers in his other hand. Staring at it, he finds himself at a conversational dead end he can't immediately find a way out of as he normally would. Once again his mind turns to how nothing is normal anymore, though he refuses to think about it. There's some sloshing of water: Thoma is preoccupied with the washing anyway. "...Thanks," Childe finally settles for, placing the note where it had been. The first half of the word is somewhat muffled before he raises his head.

"It's really no trouble."

"Let me help with that?" Sitting up, Childe inclines his head toward the bucket. "For the nostalgic reason I mentioned yesterday, I'd like to help. My Vision comes in handy for this sort of thing."

Thoma smiles. "I won't say no! Bring mine over with you and I'll dry the things you rinse."

Childe gets out of bed and picks up each Vision as he walks over. He has no hangups about being naked in front of Thoma, or anyone really, provided they don't have an issue with it. Nudity is relatively normalized in Snezhnaya thanks to ice swimming and the banya. It does pose one problem, though, which he notes when he hands Thoma's Vision to him and is left holding his with no way to attach it to himself.

The solution he thinks of puts a small smirk on his face. He fetches the sternum strap, puts it on, and clips his Vision to it. "See? Useful!"

Thoma nods slowly and appreciatively. "I do see. You're right, it's very...utilitarian."

At a certain point, when they've finished with Thoma's undershirt and handkerchief and two hand towels he used for cleanup, they both contemplate the bed. They could wash the sheets and pillowcase. The bucket they have is big but isn't that big, so it'd be awkward to manage sheets in it, but they're up to the task. And they did wash the towels that belong to the inn... They look at each other.

"...If it wasn't so late," Thoma says, "I'd be very tempted to wash the bedclothes. I know it isn't our job, but..."

"You are very tempted as it is," Childe points out. He dons a smile. "I wouldn't mind indulging the urge, either. But you're right."

"Oh! And you haven't even eaten yet! Lemme heat up the food." Thoma springs up and strides to the side table. Bracketing the takeout boxes with his hands, he concentrates on creating a very limited amount of heat, just like he did to dry the laundry. The air shimmers slightly, like a mirage, and there's a faint orange glow of Pyro without fire.

When Childe comes over, he's fastening his trousers, having finally decided to put clothes on. Leaning to one side he peers at Thoma's face. "Hm, yeah, there it is. You stick your tongue out when you do that," he observes neutrally.

Thoma withdraws the tip of his tongue from between his lips so fast it makes a 'thup' sound against his teeth. "Wait, every time?"

"Every time this evening."

"Eheh-heheh..." A couple seconds longer and then Thoma ceases the heating. "It should be hot now." He prods the top of a container and it releases a wisp of steam. "Maybe a little too hot."

"Nothing a short wait won't fix, I'm sure." Childe has already wandered away, retrieved his socks and boots, and taken a seat on the bed.

"Ajax?"

Childe freezes with one sock halfway on.

Thoma walks toward him, but stops a meter or so away. He's fidgeting by slowly pushing the heels of his palms together in front of his midsection. "I just want to thank you. It was...unforgettably fun, what we did earlier. I realize now we didn't actually talk about whether it's a one-time thing, but I've been assuming it is, since you'll be leaving Inazuma at some point. That, and I wasn't planning on getting into anything serious any time soon. But I want to know if we're on the same page. Honestly."

Looking up at him with no expression, Childe pulls his sock on the rest of the way and pauses to plant his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. "I've been thinking of it as a one-time thing, too. I won't forget it either, but I'm not looking for...more. Well, maybe another 'one-time thing' if we meet again by some chance."

Thoma nods, dropping his hands to his hips in relief. "Okay. Yeah, I'd be up for that, probably—if nothing too big has changed in um, my life, by then."

Childe nods in turn. He almost goes back to dressing without another word, but is quick to realize there's something he almost forgot to say. "And...thank you, too." He glances down, then back up. "I didn't know it could be like that, that I could enjoy it. The other time I tried it, it was...tedious. I don't think it was that person's fault, there are just things...that I learned about myself thanks to you."

Thoma smiles as warm and bright as sunshine. "It makes me very happy to hear that I helped you out in any way."

I don't know that it's going to be helpful, exactly. Distracting, perhaps. But I did like it. "Well," Childe starts on a sigh that turns into a post-sleep yawn so mighty it makes his eyes water. "Sorry. As I was about to say, I'm unsure how long I'll be staying in Inazuma, but I'm almost certainly not leaving within the week. With your activities around the city, we will probably run into each other again."

"Ahh, probably! Don't be a stranger, alright? If I'm having a bite to eat, feel free to join me. If I'm on my way to feed the strays, feel free to join me then too!"

"Haha, I will." He gives Thoma one of his signature easygoing smiles, and he means it. "And take care, hm? If there are people you want to help and protect, you mustn't lose your life or your health. Make as much time as you can for your training." He gets as far as drawing a breath to tell him about the Mystic Onmyou Chamber, because it would be perfect for him, but he stops himself just in time. Shiki knows my name. Hnngh. This is why I hate having to lie. So complicated!

Thoma looks a little surprised and flattered. "That's not bad advice. I'll remember it. And...you too. You too." He looks at Childe with a soft, creased smile that seems to express some kind of understanding, along with veiled concern. Then he turns and walks to the door. As he opens it he glances back to wave, where Childe would have waved over his shoulder without looking back. "See you around!"

Childe hastily clothes himself in his own smile again. "Perhaps so," he replies cheerfully.

In short order he finishes getting dressed. When he opens the takeout boxes he finds what looks like a pair of disposable chopsticks behind them, wrapped in thin paper. A nervous smile freezes on his face and he opens the wrapping like he's unsealing a letter announcing his doom.

A small, equally disposable wooden spoon falls out into his hand. There are chopsticks too, but there's also this spoon. He doesn't know whether it came with them as a matter of course or if Thoma requested it on his behalf, but he's relieved either way.

The food is at the perfect temperature when he starts eating.

The sun has set and the moon hasn't risen yet, but Inazuma City is lit by a thousand lanterns. Childe wonders what it looks like from above. Would it appear as if humans built their own sky opposite the real one and filled it with orange stars in mostly rectangular constellations?

Lanterns are much fewer and farther between in the outskirts, but there are enough to follow the path to the big tree, and there's enough light to see the morning's crowd is absent. The blue glow of the Grand Narukami Shrine helps.

A single dog is curled up between two roots. It looks up as Childe approaches. Any skittishness it might have had vanishes the instant it starts sniffing the air. Literally following its nose, it gets to its feet with a slight difficulty that implies age and comes toward him.

He has one of those small bowls (which he learned are made of dried bamboo leaves), and it's full of sashimi.

This dog might be a problem. Under his breath Childe coos a friendly "Privyetik!" to it, then he throws a slice of sashimi a good distance away. Conveniently for his purpose here, the dog runs off to find it. Seeing how its arthritic limp slows it to a trot, he winces. "Sorry," he mutters.

But now he has a better chance of attracting Zhongli for a snack, without the dog potentially scaring it off. Two individuals 'competing' for food might be a different situation than when they all gather for Thoma's feast, and Zhongli seemed to appreciate some personal space when it wasn't invading his.

He calls the name softly a few times. It's quite possible, even probable, that the cat isn't even near enough to hear. ...But there it is! He spots a small feline shape darting between the shadows several meters away from the tree. Zhongli bounds over a root and arrives at his feet.

Smiling, he drops a sashimi slice and crouches slowly so as not to startle the cat. Not that the cat was at all hesitant about sitting on his shoe this morning! He just feels, again, like his presence should intimidate the cat as much as it intimidates Fatui subordinates. Again, he reminds himself that animals just don't know any better. For that, he counts himself lucky.

Zhongli eats the second piece of sashimi from his hand. The third, too, and when he ventures to pet the bony arch of its back, it doesn't even flinch.

Why am I bothering with this?... This has nothing to do with getting stronger. I have this precious time away from the bank to do whatever I want, and this is how I'm spending it?He searches for an excuse. He tries to glue together some prattle about an obligation for a warrior to respect the natural hunters of the world and learn from their primal pursuit of survival. It doesn't sound convincing even in his head.

The unavoidable truth is that this is what he wants to be doing right now.

It's hard to accept that. (Never mind that he often does things that have nothing to do with his ultimate goal.) It somehow makes him aware of how much he's checking that his guard is up: listening to the sounds around him, watching the shadows in his peripheral vision in case a new shadow looms in the lanternlight behind him, holding in mind the fastest ways out of this area, inventorying the advantages and disadvantages he currently has... That's reassuring on the one hand but on the other hand it reminds him why he ought to be more vigilant. He's not the strongest warrior in the world yet, and the necessity of his own lies today was proof that that weakness remains a liability despite how far he's already risen.

What he would call situational awareness submerges him gradually, then all at once. He gladly sinks.

He examines every sound and everything he can see, one by one, cataloguing what is normal so that he'll notice if anything changes. Rehearses in his mind his best options for responding to an attack if one came right now. He breathes slow and shallow to be silent—something he's more practiced at than anyone would expect—and stills his body, so that he might go unnoticed, be overlooked, and gain the element of surprise.

He measures some of the information around him by his heartbeats. They're accelerated but steady. Now that nearly all possibilities of being caught off guard have been prepared for, he feels a meditative serenity. His heart is only beating fast because it, too, has to be ready.

Something changes. All of his attention instantly focuses on it. Threat? No, it was already there and it's just a cat. It could be eliminated in no more than one second with minimal risk: bare hands, neck, twist. Safe either way. Soft fuzz nuzzling his hand, whiskers tickling, sandpaper tongue. Safe.

Childe emerges from the familiar state. He's always more tired after than before, yet girded with clarity and reassured. Sometimes it's like a reset. Like turning over a snowglobe: the fake snow whirls, falls, and then settles once more. Usually it lasts much longer when he's alone, though. He looks down at the cat licking his hand.

He wiggles one finger a little, then another. Zhongli pauses but doesn't take the bait to play. Childe supposes there's a taste of sashimi lingering on his hand.

What's the taste lingering on me that keeps the Traveler interested, heh? A thought out of nowhere. He has nothing to offer that man. Nothing at all. Unless... Intel on the Fatui? Influence? Favors? There are a lot of things, now that I'm thinking about it clearly. It would explain the suddenness of his interest.There's also the fact they simply hadn't seen each other for so long. But the Traveler knew where to find him. Right? Yes, he did, there's no chance he didn't. Yes, the Traveler was very busy, but he'd been seen in Liyue Harbor more than once since Teucer visited. There's just no logical reason he'd wait so long if he always felt the way he now seems to. For a second, Childe tries to grasp what way the Traveler seems to feel toward him. The attempt hits him with a pang of...something that hurts. He abandons that line of thought and goes back to the main point. I'm a Harbinger. He's an enemy of the Fatui. Though I don't like such simple delineations, that's how it is, and takova zhizn'. Come on, do the math, it's as easy as one plus one: he wants something from me now, or he's realized he'll need something from me in the future. Hence why he said I shouldn't quit. It churns his stomach to think that about someone he calls a comrade and a friend, but...

He wags a knuckle at the cat's cheek and it stops licking to lean into the touch, purring.

"After all, your namesake reminded me not to trust so easily," he murmurs to Zhongli with a sad smile. Thoma not knowing who he is is something to treasure while it lasts.

Childe lays his hand on the ground and again wiggles a finger upward. This time the cat pounces on it. Its claws and teeth scratch his skin, but he just smiles less sadly. Zhongli is entertained by the game for a few minutes before growing bored. Instead of wandering off, it hops up onto one of his legs and searches in vain for a lap to curl up in. He laughs. "Ahh, I would sit down and let you have a nap, but I should go and at least get some exercise." Carefully he detaches the cat from his clothes and sets it down, then stands.

"If anything tries to eat you, go for the eyes~" He turns and walks away, headed for that nice open spot where he and Thoma sparred. There's a meow from behind him, but he doesn't respond, and the cat doesn't follow.

Chapter 7: Day 11: 集中できてないな まだ体が迷っているんだ

Notes:

this was delayed by me getting my alt account up to the Chasm and also by this chapter being as long as 1, 2, and 3 combined

edit: fixed teapot lore mistake
edit: removed reference to an overly specific hangup about being believed (it was based on another thing I misremembered)
edit: there are five Bedrock Keys total, not four, I forgot to count the first one
edit: adjusted a reference to Fontaine technology to no longer imply that mechanized crossbows are their highest weapons tech (in light of the 2 June 2023 Fontaine trailer)
edit: fixed some italics that have been broken this whole time >:U

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Day one in the Chasm. Aether and Paimon have yet to go below ground. This morning was their meet-and-greet with Specialist Muning, followed by a certain amount of southward wandering before they realized the adventurer he told them to find was in the opposite direction.

Seated on a rock that's starting to grow warm under the sun, Aether stares at the pile of climbing gear on the crate in front of him. He's been putting this off since yesterday when Paimon convinced him to buy it in Liyue Harbor.

"Are you sure I need this, Paimon? I've been fine so far. I don't know how to use any of this. Or what any of it is called. Except this." He picks up the coil of rope. "This is rope. Unless rope used for climbing has a special name."

"Errr... Paimon thought you would know what to do with it. We could go back to the shop and ask for a lesson on how to use it?"

"Mh. One of the 'support staff' at the camp probably knows how. But if I needed any of this, I'd remember how to use it. I have wi— a glider. There's no risk."

"Almost no risk," Paimon points out.

"Paimon...have you been worrying about this all along?" Aether turns his full attention to her. "Is that why you got worried when I jumped off the cliff for Mushounin?"

She folds her arms, looking embarrassed and righteously disgruntled at the same time. "...Yes," she admits.

"I thought we settled this a long time ago? Just a few days after we met?"

"We did. It really was settled, it's just... Now we've been traveling together for all that time, Paimon knows you better... And since then, you have fallen! You didn't catch yourself when you fought Childe and he broke the floor, and you fell off the Jade Chamber twice, and, and... Knowing you makes Paimon worry more, not less!"

"I didn't fall off the Jade Chamber the second time, I jumped off and got knocked out of the sky," Aether mumbles, scratching his nose, knowing that technicality is not even close to the point. Paimon just glares at him until he arrives at a pertinent observation. "You know climbing equipment wouldn't have helped with any of those. It's...just the only thing you can think of to help a situation that's not in the control of either of us. Am I wrong?"

"Paimon—... Hnngh. You're not wrong." Paimon sighs, slumping in the air. "Paimon knows," she whines. "But if you use this stuff, maybe then at least your journey can't end with something as stupid as falling off one of those." She flaps a hand at one of the Chasm's outer cliffs. "Or off the wall of a huge cave."

Aether looks up at that cliff and thinks. It's not practical, in his view, to prepare all this equipment every time he needs to climb somewhere. But maybe there's something here, just one thing, he can use sometimes to reassure Paimon?

Not something here, but: "I need a grappling hook," Aether declares. He then meets Paimon's eyes and sympathetically explains, "It's not practical for me to use all this. But I'll get a grappling hook, one that can be used fast in an emergency. There's a kind that's based on a crossbow, I think? That would, actually, have a chance of helping in cases like those that made you worry the most." A chance. "And Paimon, my friend, I will try to think of you when I'm tempted to do something reckless while climbing, and then I won't do it. Unless I have to."

Paimon hesitates...but nods, her frown starting to ease. "Okay. Paimon guesses that's fair..."

"And hey, you don't need to worry that much," Aether attempts to reassure her further, smiling gently. "I was fine even when Beisht threw me at a...rock. I was fine in the end, anyway. Remember?" Whether it's a remnant of his own power that kept him alive and relatively unharmed, or some other power, he doesn't know.

She nods again.

"But if you need to talk about it more, we can. Or anything else you're worried about."

Paimon's mood turns thoughtful and she hovers lower next to him, level with his shoulder, as if taking a seat beside him. Aether watches her, becoming less concerned and more curious.

"Are you sure about Childe?" she broaches.

Aether blinks a few times like he's received a glancing hit from his own windblade. That question, of all questions... He's fine with telling her the answer, but he's not fully sure what the answer is. He's still clinging to the pretense that he isn't already past some point of no return, though he's known for several days that it's just a pretense.

"Um..." Aether starts, buying himself a moment. "...I thought you were warming up to him?" he deflects.

"Paimon is," she acknowledges. "He's really nice when he's not trying to drown Liyue! And maybe if he had more friends he'd be nice more and be less...er..."

"Less..." Aether tries to complete the sentence but gets stuck too.

"Uhh...less..."

"...Murd—"

"Less of a bad guy."

"Yeah. I'm not counting on it. But...do you think it's bad that I want to be his friend either way? That I want to be his friend no matter what?"

There's a long moment of silence in which Paimon folds her arms again in order to put her chin in her hand. "...Paimon isn't paid enough to decide that," she grumbles at last.

An amused smile flickers at one corner of Aether's mouth. He lets his gaze wander up the cliff face and scaffoldings ahead. "...What if I gave you one Mora? Would you have an answer then?" he half jokes.

"No. It would cost more Mora than you have, and Paimon knows exactly how much Mora you have."

"Heh." He's running out of energy for talking. He supposes he must still be recuperating from all that talking with the very same person he and Paimon have just been discussing. But, in a few minutes, he should be a little bit recharged.

Paimon senses that and lets the conversation rest. Looking for something to busy herself, she spots a sweet flower and flies to pick it. Snack time!

Aether stands up on the boulder, stretches, and turns to survey their surroundings once more. To the west there's a ridge that resembles an island from the angle he and Paimon are at. It's covered in wooden platforms and mining equipment. Beyond that, the opposite side of the Chasm looks far away. He can just make out the corners and tops of some structures over there, amongst the crags and red trees. Northwest, he's intrigued by some natural, semi-crystalline pillars that look like they might be Geo-active; they appear unrelated to the seven streams of energy flowing down from other, clearly artificial pillars.

The crater is a vast, forever-stilled hurricane of stone. Aether can't recall ever seeing anything like it before. That doesn't mean he hasn't, but the awe he feels every time he witnesses the Chasm from a new angle proves that he and Lumine were right to leave so many memories behind. He has, for the most part, nothing to compare this sight to other than Teyvat's other sights, and in that context, it is wonderfully unique.

"This place is beautiful," he murmurs. "I can't wait to show it to—..." —him. Her. Both of them. But she's already seen it, hasn't she. She probably has forces here right now. And I'm going to uncover whatever they're doing and stop it, whether I want to or not.

He's grateful to hear Paimon's voice from behind him. Without wings, she moves silently; it rarely startles him. "Show it to Chongyun?" she guesses.

She knows better, no doubt. Of course Aether was thinking of Lumine: he's made similar remarks many times, and it was always Lumine. Until it became Lumine and Childe. That part, Paimon doesn't know. At any rate, she's helping take his mind off matters that make him feel lonely.

"Yes. He said he hadn't been to the Chasm before, so all this should be new to him."

They'd decided it might be prudent not to go it alone this time. Beidou is at sea, Xiangling is on a trip to gather ingredients, Yun Jin is booked up, and Xinyan is in Inazuma. They failed to locate Zhongli the afternoon they were in Liyue Harbor. Xiao was nowhere to be found either, and they went out of their way to check the Wangshu Inn. Shenhe is taking a sort of vacation somewhere in the mountains, they were told. Everyone involved with civil service or commerce is busy, apart from Xingqiu, who Xu told them was out 'righting wrongs and enacting justice,' quote marks included. However, they found him with Chongyun, both of them having just returned from a combined thief chase and evil spirit hunt.

They invited both of them, but, with obvious internal debate and much regret, Xingqiu had to say no. There would be nothing wrong with him visiting just to deliver Muning the Mora for his debts; he was Xu's first choice for that, after all. But if he stayed, Muning would be placed in the very awkward position of having to tell him to leave. That, and Feiyun Commerce Guild has direct and indirect involvements with the Chasm, making the presence of a Feiyun heir potentially disruptive.

Getting assistance from friends typically requires Aether and Paimon to plan ahead. The ability to use waypoints for their intended purpose allows them to quickly get in touch with anyone they need to, but if someone is to join them, it's up to them to make their own travel arrangements. As often as possible, Aether prefers to travel with them and investigate anything they come across along the way, but he doesn't always have the time. His uncertainty as to how urgent the issue in the Chasm is counts as not having time, though it doesn't stop him from being a thorough explorer now that he and Paimon are here.

Chongyun is by no means Aether's last choice. His martial skills are as solid as his greatsword, and for all Aether knows, an exorcist might be just what this place needs. The best part is that once they get underground, Chongyun won't have to worry about sun exposure. Aether hopes it'll be cold down there, because if it is, it'll be one of the closest things Chongyun ever gets to a vacation.

Yes, it'll be nice to show this to him, and it'll be nice to catch up with him. They met by chance at the South Wharf a few months ago. That day, they both learned how to play hide-and-seek from the children they made popsicles for. In some of the same ways as Albedo, Chongyun was very easy for Aether to be around. Unlike Albedo, Chongyun is nearly as baffled by kids as Aether is.

Aether may not know what it's like to be a child, but, privately, he found it saddening that Chongyun didn't know either. He understood that all humans must be children for a while and that humans must experience childhood, and he has come to understand that these are two different concepts. Not all humans get to have a childhood, which, he has gathered, entails play, a certain freedom from burdens, and security in the care of responsible, loving adults. Many animals can be left to fend for themselves at a young age, but humans, being infinitely complex and sensitive creatures, require much more protection and guidance as they grow. Evidently there are plenty of things that can go wrong, some of which Aether has gotten troubling glimpses of.

Paimon, back again from her flower-picking and flower-munching, breaks the silence. "It sounds like you're pretty sure about Childe."

Ah. Right. I didn't actually answer that. He folds his arms and takes a deep breath. The air smells like grass, iron, and warm wood. "...I guess I am. I...can't stop thinking about him. Ever since Teucer brought us to the Bank and he was there."

Paimon tilts, linking her hands behind her back. She studies his face with a subtle expression Aether can't read. "...You're in love with him, aren't you?"

Something catches in Aether's throat. Something in his chest throbs. He stares forward, for the moment unable or unwilling to look at Paimon.

He's anxious about crossing this threshold. Wishing she wasn't right, because it would be so much simpler if these strange sentiments hadn't taken up residence in his heart and mind. He's afraid, too, of being judged by her, as harshly as he judges himself, for who the heart of this star shines for.

Paimon adds, hesitantly, "But you're not all smug and annoying about it like Kamaji when he thought he was going to get to marry Chisato soon. You're sad like Kamaji when he found out he couldn't."

"H-how long have you noticed?"

"Only since Childe came to the Teapot. Actually, it was watching you cook together that got Paimon thinking about it."

Aether's posture sags a little and he closes his eyes. "...I don't think he feels the same way. I'm just a— well, okay, I'm a friend to him. He keeps inviting me to meet his family. But he commits to all kinds of ideas really fast and I don't think it's that personal that he— I mean, I don't think it matters who I am? It's just the place I happen to be standing in, in his life. The rival he admires, the person who already met his brother anyway, the..." His voice drops to a shy grumble: "The 'mysterious' and 'powerful' Traveler who just keeps showing up in interesting places."

Paimon kicks him in the head.

"Ah! What?" He opens his eyes and looks at her askance. It didn't hurt at all, but it's quite surprising. Paimon rarely touches him (much less anyone else). And she's never kicked him before!

"Aether!" she scolds him, hands now on her hips. "You're being silly! You're making all of that up! You're just afraid of what it means if he does feel the same way."

Aether's mouth twists in chagrin. She caught him so fast. That's the blessing and curse of spending almost every hour with someone for over a year. He looks away and swallows thickly. "But... I am afraid. I've never felt this way about anyone before. Not exactly, anyway. I... Paimon, he's... He's mortal." Saying that aloud and hearing his own voice waver makes him squeeze his eyes shut again, his tear ducts threateningly warm.

There's a frown and a softness in Paimon's voice when she replies, "You're used to only being really close to your sister, right? And she's basically immortal. So of course that scares you. But Aether...what if you're letting a sad end stop you from having a happy beginning?"

"...It does sound foolish, when you put it that way," he admits quietly. Drawing himself up he reopens his eyes once more. A hawk, or maybe an eagle, appears to float in the sky on its long wings. Searching for a noontime meal, in all likelihood. It can see much more than Aether can.

"There are other things I'm worried about, with him," he tells her. "But I suppose if he doesn't...feel the same way, I don't have to worry about any of that. Not my clown, not my circus, as Venti would say. So...it's good news either way?"

"That's the spirit! Sort of!" Paimon smiles and bobs higher in the air, unmistakably proud of him despite her qualified approbation.

"Hm. Well, let's take this gear back to the camp and then go find Zhiqiong."

After exercise, breakfast, more exercise, laundry, and a bath, Childe resumes exploring the city.

During all that exercise it came to him that Thoma would almost certainly benefit from the Traveler's body-training technique. However, that's another thing he can't tell him, because he'd have to have an explanation for how he knows something like that about the Traveler. He can't teach it himself.

He visits the Amenoma bladesmithy and, merely via open interest and enthusiasm, obtains a long talk from the forge master on Inazuman styles of making, testing, and wielding blades. He doesn't mention to the old smith that he once made a Hydro copy of a katana shown to him by another Fatuus, and that he can now guess the origins of that katana.

His next stop is Yae Publishing. In his search for books to send home, he takes his time browsing and skimming, making sure his younger siblings won't receive any unpleasant surprises. No stories where the dog dies. Who does that in a book for children? Probably someone like Arlecchino, he grouses.

Finding perfect gifts for his family is a point of principle and pride. Nothing ill-considered can be allowed to reach their hands. As long as he has any agency in the matter, he will not disappoint the last three people he hasn't yet. Someday he will, of course: someday his younger brothers and sister will learn he's been lying to them. Following that day, their love and their joyful greetings will wither, replaced by yet more wary glances and awkward silences whenever he visits. But until then...

After well over an hour of book shopping, he returns to his inn room with a stack in a sack. He picks out 'The Miraculous Adventures of the Traveler' and flops onto the bed to read it. His own curiosity aside, if this novel is appropriate it'd be a sure hit with all three of the youngsters, Teucer especially.

At first he just lies flat on his back, holding the book above himself, but eventually he gets around to sitting halfway up with the pillow jammed between him and the headboard.

Reading about a very fictionalized version of his comrade isn't completely different from reading intel reports about the real person. It makes him feel the same wistfulness. He attributes that to his yearning to have been there. If he'd been there, he'd have gotten to participate in fighting some of the most exciting foes the world has to offer; the Traveler's real adventures are sometimes as incredible as the fiction.

Reading this also gives him an odd sense of comfort. It reminds him of sitting with the Traveler on his sofa, doing crossword puzzles and chatting about vocabulary...and, internally, being bewildered by the shocking pleasantness of sitting so close to him.

Childe sighs, tipping the book face-down on his chest for a moment and staring at the ceiling.

I just want to...get my hands on him. If I attained the level of competence that would allow me to disarm him, and the fight was reduced to its simplest form, testing the training of our bodies and minds against one another directly by just wrestling and grappling... That would be quite something, wouldn't it. Though he'd have to disarm me as well and I'm not sure that's even possible. Ohh but if anyone could do it it'd be him. He'd have to get my Vision and my Delusion. He'd have to get through every form of defense I have.

Eagerly he tries to imagine how it could be done. Anticipating his own weaknesses (in combat) and the possible exploitations of them (in combat) is so important that both meanings of 'anticipating' are applicable.

But he keeps getting sidetracked by an image of Aether pinning him to the ground. Weaponless, Visionless, Delusionless, too spent to risk transforming. Helpless. Maybe Aether would use Geo to pin him. There is nothing Childe can snatch away from Aether that would prevent him from using the elements.

Aether, he catches himself thinking as he imagines the Traveler staring down at him, even more unimpressed than the first time he defeated Childe, because surely by now Childe should have grown stronger just like he proclaimed he would. Stop that, he tells himself. You haven't earned the right to call the Traveler by that name.

The Traveler never introduced himself to Childe, nor was he introduced by Paimon. When Childe intercepted him fleeing the Millelith, he already knew his name from intel and he used it without hesitation. There was no time for the Traveler and Paimon to question it. Later, on a boat to Snezhnaya to report back after all was said and done, he decided he would never again address him by name unless and until he earned that right by surpassing him.

He'd slipped up once, sort of, when thanking the Traveler for seeing Teucer safely through Liyue. But it was, as he said, his sincerest thanks, so it didn't feel right to avoid his name like usual.

Childe tries a few more times to focus on stringboarding together sequences of events that could lead to someone getting ahold of his Vision or Delusion. It continues to be more difficult than it has any reason to be. That's unacceptable. His concerns about why he's mentally been on the back foot for the past week can't be left vague any longer.

He taps a finger slowly on the novel's back cover. As a warrior, he can't afford to ignore his repeated failure to keep his head clear and his priorities in order.

An effort is made to recall anything about the Mystic Onmyou Chamber, Shiki Taishou, or Xinyan that could have thrown him off his game. Maybe how Xinyan called him 'brother' and he instantly started thinking of her like a sister? Hey, he lied to her just like he lies to his real siblings. His feeling of verisimilitude on that point isn't lessened by the fact Paimon started the lie this time. He went along with it and never really corrected it. Xinyan still thinks he's an adventurer from Mondstadt who had nothing whatsoever to do with her home city nearly getting destroyed.

Let it never be said, by me, that battle is the only thing I'm great at. I'm also great at going along with other people's plans, heh. And that's fine. It gets me into the center of chaos. Whether I'm a pawn in a game, an actor in a play, or simply a weapon, it all serves my goals in the end. That's the truth and it always puts him at ease. So why does it sound a little hollow right now? Why is the memory of Aether's the Traveler's smile waiting underneath all these thoughts like a map buried under bothersome paperwork?

Where does that map lead? To new heights, as he assumed until now, or to more distraction and shortcomings? To weakness? To a version of himself that's so content to sit around on a couch doing crossword puzzles that he grows complacent?

Ahh, who do I think I'm kidding here. I've always preached a far greater clarity of purpose than I've practiced... If any of this is owed to the Onmyou Chamber, it's that the bliss of those six days of uncommon purity allowed me to forget that. To forget one's own fallibility is...the kind of indulgence I really can't afford.

Plus, he's definitely going a little extra stir-crazy from the renewed possibility that he'll get to spar with the Traveler soon. That's why this all started the day the Traveler showed that he's still interested. He can't deny that's when it started. Maybe once that wish is fulfilled, he'll go back to normal.

Childe sighs, shaking his head at himself, and goes back to reading.

By noon they've found the contact Muning told them to. Technically he told them not to find her, but by the end of Muning's instructive warnings, they more or less understood that he was merely covering his liabilities.

They exchange introductions with Zhiqiong. She mentions how well known Aether and Paimon are throughout the Adventurers' Guild. Paimon doesn't actually get mentioned, which Aether finds a bit rude. He nods respectfully, though, and stays off the topic, moving right along to business. Judging by Zhiqiong's enthusiasm when she brought up their (his) fame, he may have just managed to avoid a much longer conversation. They go over what Muning said and didn't say, what he meant and didn't mean, and receive some background information on the Qixing's investigation of the Chasm.

It turns out they were somewhat taken advantage of. "In any case, it is also said that your aid is not necessarily difficult to enlist," Zhiqiong awkwardly lets them know.

Being recommended for this type of work by people in the Qixing is fine and it's no surprise. But to hear that that is being said aloud in such circles... It kind of annoys Aether. Very few people are aware that his search for his sister has lost all urgency, and that it's no longer a search. Finding out that Lumine is alive and seemingly on top of things removed the urgency. Her advice to take his time and learn everything he can about Teyvat lifted all limits on the length and circuitousness of his journey, in theory. In reality, however, Lumine's own ever-advancing plans with the Abyss Order put the lie to her parting remark that they have more than enough time. The Tsaritsa's plans are ever in motion as well.

So, people who think he's still searching for a lost sibling are saying he and Paimon can be counted on to take any job that's tossed at them? That's presuming too much. Or it would be, if it weren't true.

He folds his arms and quietly sighs, glancing aside while Paimon lodges an objection to them being 'tricked.' His mild annoyance fizzles out completely. It's nothing but the truth: he and Paimon do take on almost all the tasks they're offered. What's more, even when he was actively searching for Lumine, he often had to remind himself about the urgency of his quest. For all their lives, most of the time, he and Lumine were in no rush as they wandered. They let serendipity lead them. They explored, investigated, and studied anything and everything that caught their interest.

"We have always...had enough time."

Zhiqiong takes back the words that weren't her own and assures Paimon that working for the Qixing will be lucrative. They'll get to keep whatever treasure they find, for one thing. As soon as the word 'treasure' is spoken, Paimon is onboard again.

Zhiqiong lays out the next steps. Warehouse to the south; a 'catalyst' called an Adjuvant, made of something called Lumenstone; retrieve. The warehouse is well-guarded, she says, so Aether infers that the only expected hazards are whatever they might encounter on the way there and back. Earlier, he and Paimon saw some people who looked like Treasure Hoarders skulking around at the bottom of a ravine. He expects hilichurls to show up somewhere, too. Those are both simple enough to deal with that he barely counts them as hazards. Hilichurls are predictable, and most Treasure Hoarders are incompetent in combat.

Aether lays his palm against his forehead when Zhiqiong explains why they found the warehouse unguarded and about to be raided by Hoarders. The silliest part is that if she'd just stayed a bit closer, she'd have been able to keep an eye on the place. She didn't necessarily have to stand by the doorway: there's lots of higher ground around the warehouse affording good overviews. It's apparent, though, that that specific kind of thinking comes as unnaturally to her as strategy games like chess come to Aether. So, he understands. The gentle facepalm is the only rebuke she gets from him.

Besides, the Adjuvant was still there. No harm done, and even if it'd been taken, Aether is sure he and Paimon could have recovered it.

The connectedness of the Geo anomalies is obvious from how they're clustered together. He and Paimon have seen the rough crystal outcroppings before, all over Liyue, which makes him wonder if they're a bad sign. Aether breaks an outcropping and takes its energy up to the 'cage' formation. What to do after that isn't as obvious. Zhiqiong is the first to suggest hitting something, and as it turns out, she's right. Aether mumbles a thanks as he summons his sword to give the cage a good whack with the flat of the blade.

The Bedrock Key sinks toward the ground. They repeat that quick process for the other cage-rock in the vicinity and the Key falls the rest of the way, making a considerable impact. The three of them wave away dust as they run to the cliffside fence to watch as the line of energy that flowed between the Key and the inner Chasm dissipates.

That's one mystery solved right away, or at least a question answered. "Easy-peasy, Paimon-squeezy!" declares Paimon herself.

The map Zhiqiong shows them, of three other Bedrock Key sites she's sure of, tells Aether and Paimon they're going to be trekking all over the valley. The unsealing process looks like it'll be simple, but just getting to all the Keys is going to be time-consuming. Aether glances up at the sun's position, squints across the Chasm, and mutters to Paimon that they can probably make it to the southernmost Key before evening. It looks closest and lowest. He doesn't sound at all certain, because he isn't; the terrain is unfamiliar, and all the more so for its uniqueness. There are two Keys high among the far ridges that he expects will be genuinely difficult to reach. Those are most definitely not happening today.

Zhiqiong, regretting her mistake with the warehouse, resigns herself to guard duty. Before leaving, Aether imparts the idea about staying within sight of the warehouse while still getting to do a little exploring. She laments that she's already been all over that area, but being freed from the prospect of standing in one spot for hours and hours picks up her mood nonetheless.

"Not quite as easy-peasy this time," Aether comments. He and Paimon both have their hands on their hips as they consider the midair cage-rock before them. "But look. Those lifts are still working." He has no idea how they go up and down automatically and doesn't care at the moment. "See that one over there? That stops right next to the cage-rock. I won't even have to jump to reach it once I land on the lift." He looks at Paimon, almost for approval. Her safety concerns are still on his mind.

"Hmm. Just don't get squished by the other one! Wait...if this one goes up, here, and the other one goes down, there..."

"They both go up and down."

"Paimon knows! But look. You can go up this lift to the platform up there and down to the rock without having to glide."

"Oh." Aether shades his eyes as he peers up at the equipment-festooned platform she's talking about. He lets his hand drop; the sun is completely blocked by the ridge that platform is built atop. They're right next to the ridge's high end, while the rest of it descends northward in the eroded arc it shares with all the other formations like it inside the Chasm valley.

"Coming?" he asks Paimon as he prepares to step onto the lift next time it comes down.

She points back at where grass and trees grow between one cliffside and the next. "Going to catch that Geo crystalfly!"

"Good, we can always use more crystal cores."

"For what?"

"You tell me. You're the one collecting them." Aether hops on the lift and grabs one of its ropes.

"We can sell them!" Paimon replies, tilting back to look up at him as the lift rises.

"To who?" he calls.

Her reply is muffled by the wind in his ears. These lifts are pretty fast.

Ohsh*tit'sgoingdownalready.

The line of his mouth is exceptionally straight as he's taken all the way down again. Paimon giggles at him, not having gone far yet. He gives her a deadpan wave that makes her giggle more. And up he goes again.

When he has to come right back down yet again because he forgot to grab Geo energy from the outcroppings, he gives in to his own laughter.

An undercover Millelith squad below saw them make use of the second cage-rock that has associated itself with this Key. The squad leader is waiting with his hands up when Aether and Paimon head for the third, located in the building behind the Treasure Hoarder-lookalikes. He's able to explain their disguises before Aether would have attacked.

Further explanations inform the duo that the Fatui are around and working a deal with the Treasure Hoarders. They exchange a glance. Of course the Fatui are here too, Aether thinks dryly, and he's sure Paimon is thinking the same thing. They're everywhere, investigating every possibility of power.

As gratitude for already chasing off some of the local Treasure Hoarders, they get the squad leader telling them the legal penalties they could face for disturbing the Bedrock Key. But then comes a task they can supposedly make up for their crime by doing. Aether raises an eyebrow before he realizes this might just be another instance of cautious doublespeak. In any case, Paimon plays lawyer and agrees to help break up the Fatui/Treasure Hoarders deal.

Probably would've done that accidentally anyway. Aether only steps in to let the squad leader know the location he's asking them to meet him at is too far out of their way to reach today. "In the meanwhile," Aether promises, "we'll keep our eyes open and our— my sword out for any other Treasure Hoarder activity."

The sun has sunk below the cliffs, casting much of the Chasm into shade. At odds with the warm saffron and peach colors the sunset paints it in, it's quickly starting to get chilly. Aether wouldn't have noticed the dropping temperature if not for Paimon mentioning that it'll be nice for Chongyun.

They'd arranged to meet outside the Chasm so that Chongyun wouldn't have to wait around in the Civil Affairs base camp with Muning trying to get him to leave. And there he is, sitting in a scaffolding-flanked camp Aether forced hilichurls to abandon yesterday. Chongyun has 'lit' the hilichurls' snuffed campfire with a harmless mass of glowing Cryo as a signal for Aether and Paimon to see.

As they get nearer, Aether spots a second figure in that dim, pale light. The person's green outfit blended them in with the grass behind them. Paimon spots them an instant later and points. "Who's that?"

"Looks like...a Guild adventurer?"

"Why would Chongyun bring someone from the Adventurers' Guild?" Paimon wonders aloud. "Ohh, maybe they're just passing by and decided to sit down for a rest."

When Chongyun and the stranger spot the glowing parts of Aether's armor and clothes, they both stand up at the same time and raise their hands in greeting. He returns the gesture.

Paimon waves vigorously. "Heeey! You made it!" she squeals at Chongyun, zipping forward to close the remaining distance while Aether maintains his steady stride. She wasn't there when he first encountered the young exorcist, but since then she's met him a few times. At first she was perplexed by his yang energy condition, and the limits he places on his self-expression to manage it, but once it was explained to her, she rapidly took a liking to him. Aether making sunsettia popsicles for her and Chongyun to bond over also helped.

The bright-blue-haired teenager nods. "We both made it after all." Yet he doesn't introduce the adventurer at his side.

Paimon promptly bridges that social gap. "Who is this? Nice to meet you, strange yet respectable adventurer!" Borrowing a phrase from the Knights of Favonius handbook.

Aether arrives next to Paimon at that moment. He studies the stranger, his curiosity joined by an odd sense that he knows the person.

Chongyun opens his mouth but doesn't reply. His jaw hangs in bafflement for a second before he looks to the other person as if deferring their introduction to them.

The short, Guild-uniformed adventurer takes off their hat and lets their hair out of a pin, laughing.

Paimon gasps. "Xingqiu!? You look completely different in that outfit!"

Chongyun smiles again while Xingqiu struggles to reduce his laughter to a cordial giggle. "It's a disguise," Chongyun says. "We thought it might keep his acquaintance from recognizing him. It seems like it worked even better than we hoped."

"It certainly worked," Aether confirms. "You'll have to keep the hat on around Muning, though," he says to Xingqiu. "It holds the whole thing together. The hairpin, too."

Xingqiu has recently started growing his hair longer. It's easier to gather long hair into different styles, and Aether sees now that the knight-by-night must have had his incognito chivalries in mind when he made the decision.

Maybe this explains how that little mask Diluc gave me fooled the Fatui, Aether considers, half joking with himself. Hmm. No, no it doesn't. His best serious guess has long been that that particular group of Fatui didn't have the most up-to-date intel on the outlander who fought 'Stormterror.'

"This is excellent," Xingqiu says, smiling smugly. "Truly I didn't think it would work that well. I was prepared to sneak into the Chasm by other means." He shrugs a shoulder to bring momentary attention to the backpack he has on. "We're also well-prepared for spelunking."

"For what?" Aether asks.

"Cave exploration, my dear Traveler!"

"Mh. Good. We haven't been underground yet though."

Paimon elaborates, "Tomorrow we're going to be doing a lot of exploring on the surface! We have to go to all the Bedrock Keys that keep the Chasm sealed and bonk the cage-shaped rocks that bring them down."

Aether hands the boys Zhiqiong's map and Paimon adds, "We met an adventurer named Zhiqiong who knows where all the Bedrock Keys are. It sounded like the fifth one is going to be complicated though, so she didn't put it on this map. We're supposed to meet up with her after we've taken care of these three."

And Aether adds, "We're also going to root out some Treasure Hoarders who're making some kind of deal with the Fatui. Actually, we should probably split up for that. The Millelith are involved, so, to be on the safe side, you two shouldn't be there. But you should have someone with you who...has more permission to be here than you do, I guess. So: Paimon, tomorrow, you go with them to the Bedrock Keys and I take care of the Treasure Hoarders alone?"

Being away from Aether during an 'adventure' isn't Paimon's favorite thing, so she frowns slightly and cants her head, taking a moment to think about it. "Hmmm... Okay. Just be careful if the Fatui show up and they have a Hydro guy and a Cryo guy!"

"If I see a Hydrogunner and a Cryogunner together, I'm out of there." Should I tell Childe that if the Fatui just retired everyone else and deployed those two types together everywhere, they'd take over the world in days? Heh.

Chongyun and Xingqiu look at each other. Xingqiu smiles but Chongyun looks serious as he inquires, "Do you think we're as effective as those Fatui when we combine our Hydro and Cryo capabilities?"

"Well..." Aether gives it some real thought. "...Potentially. Being able to keep both your swords coated in Cryo gives you about the same...frequentness of chances to freeze your opponents as the Cryogunner's, er, Cryo gun gives them. But that gun is extremely tough to face even putting the risk of freezing aside. And Xingqiu, you can't moisten your opponents often enough."

Everyone stares at him for a few seconds. Paimon looks disgusted and Xingqiu has an eyebrow arched. "...What?" Aether asks when he notices.

Paimon answers. "Euhh, 'moisten' is a weird word to use for that." Xingqiu nods.

"Sorry. I learned it on a crossword puzzle the other day."

"I don't see what's wrong with it," Chongyun comments.

"Oh Archons," Xingqiu exclaims in the mildest of tones, turning to his best friend. "Has all the literature I've exposed you to been for naught?" He shakes his head with exaggerated disappointment.

"I don't remember reading anything to you that said 'moisten' is a bad description for getting people wet."

"Not that one either," Aether mutters. He hasn't encountered that phrase in Teyvat so far, but it translates pretty directly to slang he's heard on other worlds. For whatever reason, he chose to remember it; he has little use for it himself, so it's probably in the category of things he remembers only so he won't be oblivious about them.

"Of course not," Xingqiu continues on his own point. "It is its absence from so many descriptions thereof that proves its unsuitability."

"Guys," Paimon interjects, "it's getting late and Paimon is hungry!"

A colorful stir-fry crackling in the pan. Filets of fowl seasoned like miniature Sweet Madames, staying warm and juicy in a covered pot. Two loaves of Snezhnayan black bread baking in the oven, minus the sourdough they're supposed to have.

Childe arrived in the Teapot in front of the porch this time. Tubby popped her head up from her porcelain dwelling and greeted him cheerily. Of the cat in his arms she observed, "You have brought another new friend! Don't worry if they wander: anyone or anything that falls off the edges of these islands will be returned to safety unharmed."

All pleasant smiles, he thanked her, and held the cat out from his chest a bit as he introduced it. If she recognized the name, she didn't let on. He asked if anyone was in and she told him the mansion was empty.

It was. He sighed as he stepped inside, marveling at how cozy the place feels despite how spacious and objectively sparse it is. Perhaps because I've been away from it, he thought, but he was more inclined to believe it was the Traveler's decorating sensibilities that made it cozy. There's a balance of practicality and comfort, and everything seems to take guests into account.

He placed the well-fed Zhongli in the guest room. After watching it explore for a minute, he turned a slow 360, looking for anything the cat might hurt itself with while unattended. There was nothing likely except the bookshelf: if it climbed that, it might pull a book or two down and fall, and the books might land on it. It's a free-standing shelf that only comes up to his shoulders. He turned it around so it faced the wall. Threat eliminated.

Planning to clean up any messes the cat would make, he closed the guest room door to keep it in there. Already heading straight for the kitchen, he recalled wanting to cook dinner for the Traveler and Paimon the first time he visited and getting outmaneuvered into an assistant role by the former. Well, now there was no one to stop him from doing it all himself!

And so he did. He hears the front door open and, out of habit, tracks how many footsteps there are. Three sets? Interesting! Good thing he made so much food.

An unfamiliar voice speaks up. "That smells good! Did you prepare something before you came to meet us?"

"No," answers a puzzled Traveler. A calm set of footsteps approaches, and after a second the other two follow. Childe lets himself smile. When the Traveler reaches the kitchen doorway, he's smiling so broadly that his eyes are halfway shut. He's very pleased with himself for setting up this surprise dinner. But more than that, in the brief moment between hearing the Traveler's voice and seeing him, he's filled with a joy the likes of which he rarely finds outside of battle. Returning was the right idea, his heart assures him, and any possible objection from any other quarter is drowned in the flood of that joy.

Aether stops so suddenly he almost bumps backward into Xingqiu and Chongyun. Above his shoulder, Paimon does a delighted hop in the air and rubs her hands together, but she holds herself back from saying anything, instead looking to him (like a parent prompting a child to say hello). He knows his eyes are wide and, despite Lumine's claim that he couldn't, he suspects he's blushing. To see him so soon after the conversation he and Paimon had this morning... There's a smile trying to take over his face and he's reflexively suppressing it out of embarrassment. He quits suppressing it, then he opens his mouth to say something. It takes a few heartbeats for words to happen. "...You're back," he almost whispers. Oh come on! He wasn't gone that long.

And there's that feeling Childe got before when the Traveler smiled at him and because of him. He'd all but forgotten what it felt like. With this warmth swelling in his chest, he can't understand how he could ever forget. Only a few days and he could no longer recall it the way it really was? That doesn't seem right. But here it is, and there he is. "Of course!" he replies, performing confidence without even trying. It comes naturally—more so than usual—with his mood being so elevated and his doubts vanishing into the distance. "I hope this will be enough food for everyone! If not, a hearty dessert might be just the thing to complete the meal?"

Childe almost misses the way the Guild adventurer behind the Traveler is looking at him. It's the look one gets when a face seems familiar but can't quite be placed.

Paimon swoops closer to see what he's made, exclaiming happily over the stir-fry and the bread. With comically great effort, she lifts the pot lid to find the source of the Sweet Madame smell. "Childe! This is sooo niiice! Paimon can't wait to dig in!"

Troubled recognition sparks in the adventurer's eyes, drawing their mouth into a thin line, though to their credit they don't let their brow furrow.

Given the material matter of dinner to respond to, Aether recovers his wits. "Yeah. Um, Chongyun will need his food cold, but..." He glances back at the exorcist.

"I can chill it myself," Chongyun answers the unspoken question. He tells Childe, sounding quite sure of himself, "I don't have any problem eating chilled food that isn't normally eaten cold."

"Alright." Childe is going to ask someone about that later. For now, he's missing some basic information. "Traveler, are you going to introduce us?" He meets the quieter stranger's sharp, speculative gaze with brazen innocence. Seems familiar to me too...

"Oh, right. This is Chongyun and this is Xingqiu." Aether tips his head to his right and his left. He's still standing between them and Childe, though they could step around him. Because his face still feels warm, he doesn't dare turn around.

Those are both Liyuen names, and Xingqiu's name is ringing a bell. Cogs rotate in Childe's mind while he checks the bread and speaks over his shoulder. "A pleasure to make your acquaintances. The Traveler has a remarkably diverse taste in friends, and I'm only too happy to meet them."

"You should all talk about martial arts," Aether suggests.

Chongyun perks up. "Am I correct in taking that to mean we share an interest?" This he addresses half to Aether and half to Childe.

"All forms of combat are my greatest interest. I'd be delighted to hear about your techniques and—"

"And spar?" Aether interrupts, lips quirked in amusem*nt.

Chuckling, Childe basically confirms the Traveler's assumption: "I was going to say I'd enjoy a demonstration. That can be through sparring if either or both of you would be willing to do me that honor."

Aether almost snorts aloud. Do him the honor? Where's your ego, Childe? The whale-size ego that said it was me who should be grateful for the opportunity to fight you? Sure, he humbled Childe that day, and it's been a while since, but he doubts the humility in what Childe just said is entirely authentic. None of which he should find charming, but he does.

Chongyun is standing slightly ahead of Xingqiu and leaning away from him to converse around the Traveler, and because of that he seems oblivious to Xingqiu's reservations. He has none about accepting Childe's invitation, giving him a single emphatic nod. "I myself would be honored to test my skills against yours!"

Xingqiu, prodded out of his thoughts by Chongyun's eagerness, erases any evidence of those thoughts and bows his head politely. "Please accept my apologies, my liege, but we shouldn't expend our strength. We have a great deal of work to do tomorrow."

"Oh, that's true," Chongyun says. "Sorry," he seconds, a little disappointed. "Another time perhaps?"

Intel reports? No, business papers... Childe is content to take a rain check on sparring. "It wasn't necessarily tomorrow I had in mind anyway, and certainly not tonight," he says cheerfully. ...Ah! The Feiyun Commerce Guild. Xingqiu is...one of the heirs in the clan that heads it? Yes. Inevitably they've had interactions with the Bank. Hmm.

"We can all still talk about martial arts over dinner," Aether says.

"But if you're all talking about that, then what will Paimon talk about?" Paimon gripes.

Aether considers her. "Why not the same thing? You don't fight, but you've seen every one of us fight. You've got to have some observations by now."

"Nnnn." She rejects the idea, fluttering her hand at him.

"Alright. Well, we can talk about food, too."

"Yay!"

Xingqiu steps into Aether's field of view, wearing a light smile (that Aether can't tell is fake). "Pardon me, may I have a word with you about tomorrow's itinerary?"

Childe keeps his eyes on plating the food, but Xingqiu doesn't lower his voice, so he hears what he says without being able to call it overhearing. He takes note of it. Could be trouble. If your friend from Liyue confronts you about me, Traveler, what will you tell him? He's curious more than anything. It's too bad I can't listen in. Having Ekaterina listen in on the Traveler's conversation at the Bubu Pharmacy wasn't something he enjoyed; he's not about to go out of his way to repeat that sort of thing.

Though, if someone happened to have an interesting conversation too near wherever he might happen to be, he wouldn't hurry to leave.

The Traveler simply nods, and he and Xingqiu head outside. Chongyun lingers in the kitchen doorway.

"Take the first plate," Childe offers. "You'll need a minute to cool it down, I assume? May as well get a head start."

"Oh, that's right. Thank you, um...child?"

"With an E at the end," he clarifies, forgiving Chongyun with an easy smile.

"Childe... As in 'young master'?"

"Precisely."

"Shàoye? Or gōngzǐ?" Chongyun wonders. "Ah, sorry, it's alright if you don't know."

Childe pauses. He taps his chin as he thinks back. "Mmh?..." Maybe he knows those terms? No, maybe not. "I haven't picked them up. What do they mean, pray tell?"

"'Gōngzǐ' has a connotation of royalty that 'shàoye' doesn't. Outside of fiction we don't use 'gōngzǐ' much, because in theory bloodlines aren't important in Liyue. At least, they're not as important as contracts and Mora. So even though Xingqiu is about as close as you'll ever see to real-life hereditary nobility in Liyue, he's called 'shàoye.'"

"I see." That confirms my memory of who Xingqiu is. "Well, I suppose it's closer to...gōngzǐ?" Although the local language isn't often spoken in Liyue Harbor, he's been living there for nearly two years, and on occasion Zhongli quotes old poetry in that language before translating it for him.

Chongyun nods. Whether that means he pronounced the word right or just that he doesn't want to correct him, Childe hasn't a clue.

"So!" Childe moves on, "You're clothed rather distinctively. What is it that you do...with that Vision of yours?" He watches Chongyun begin doing, in essence, the opposite of what Thoma did to heat takeout.

"I'm an exorcist, and I guess it's evident I'm from Liyue. My family has practiced the art of exorcism for many generations. It's an art closely tied with thaumaturgy and certain martial techniques." He develops a faint frown. "My Vision is more useful for this than for proper exorcism." With a jut of his chin, he indicates the food he's cooling. "It has a lot of practical uses, but no place in my profession."

"Do you not use it in combat?"

"I do, when I have to fight mundane adversaries."

"Does that not happen often?" Childe tilts his head marginally. He's fought many, many foes, but he can count on one hand the number of actual ghosts or spirits he's seen. Unless the classification is broader than he realizes? Do seelies count? Wait, Tubby is a teapot spirit, that means I've seen six, I think.

Chongyun looks reluctant to answer. "...Well...no... Mundane dangers are more commonplace, so it is hilichurls, Treasure Hoarders, and things like hatchling geovishaps I'm more likely to encounter. Even more so when I'm accompanying Xingqiu or the Traveler."

Childe sees an opportunity and seizes it. "No doubt! How did you become acquainted with the Traveler, if I might ask?"

This seems to be a more pleasant topic for Chongyun. "We met in Liyue Harbor. I was evaluating some leads on evil spirits. As he walked by I stopped him and asked if he'd seen any. Everything that isn't related to evil spirits, I usually ignore, so I didn't know who he was, but he didn't seem to mind stopping to review all the leads with me. Unfortunately none of them were substantial, and he saved me a lot of time by telling me so. Then..." Chongyun clears his throat. "To shorten a long story, we met a kid whose sister was hungry and the Traveler made popsicles to give them. I made some noodles for them as well. The kids taught us how to play hide-and-seek. Oh, and there was another game they tried to teach us after that, but it didn't make very much sense. We just pretended to understand it and tried to lose in ways that made them laugh."

"That doesn't sound like a bad day," Childe muses. The short version of the story leaves some holes in the plot. Why popsicles? That wouldn't be filling for a hungry child, much less nutritious; it's a good thing Chongyun made actual food.

"It wasn't," Chongyun agrees, a trace of fondness in his voice.

How did neither of them know how to play hide-and-seek? Surely the Traveler would have learned it in the course of his travels? At some point? He recalls then what the Traveler told him about not having most of his memories 'with him.' But why would you forget hide-and-seek? I suppose if you had to make difficult choices about what to 'bring' due to limited capacity...? Childe rousts himself from his thoughts to attend the conversation. "Well! I suppose I'll set these on the tables in the main room? Will you and Xingqiu want to eat there?"

"I assume so. Let me help." Chongyun picks up one of the other plates and carries it out with his own. Childe follows with two more and then darts back to bring Paimon's. Where'd she go, anyway?

To match Teyvat, it's nighttime in the Teapot, but the nights Tubby has provided aren't very dark. Xingqiu takes the lead once he and Aether step off the porch, stopping at the far side of the new water feature. Aether doesn't initially know that there's any reason for that. He figures it out a few moments later: the sound of the water acts like camouflage for their words.

Looking unhappy and concerned, Xingqiu wastes no time. His tone is careful, though, and Aether isn't sure whether it's out of care for him or out of caution. "You know who he is, yes?"

"Yes." A flicker of white near the porch roof catches Aether's eye. Paimon is waving to him. She gives him two thumbs up for encouragement and disappears, probably to find a better hiding place for eavesdropping. He long ago gave her permission to listen in on anything she wanted to. They are a team in almost all things, just like he and Lumine were, and he has no secrets from her. That she has secrets from him, which they have never talked about, doesn't matter to him.

"There are many rumors that he was responsible for Osial rising from the deep. Would you know anything about that?" He obviously expects Aether to. Everyone knows the Traveler was there. "Are those rumors false?"

"They're true. Basically."

"Then...?"

"You want to ask why he's here?"

"Even setting aside the attempted destruction of Liyue Harbor, and I am not setting that aside, he is a Fatui Harbinger."

"I'm well aware." This is the kind of conversation Aether knew he'd have to have with multiple people. So far, he's not feeling anxious at all. Well, maybe a little, deep down. In any case, there's not a single hint of emotion for Xingqiu to see.

"Then how are you so calm about this? Why is he here?"

"When am I not calm?"

There have been times, but Xingqiu didn't see any of them. "Don't be evasive."

Aether sits on the edge of the fountain, made mostly of natural rocks from within the realm, and tucks his hands between his knees. Maintaining eye contact, he gives his friend an answer. "He's here because he is also a friend to me. I'm not asking you to understand why. I won't hold it against you if it angers you. You would be well within your rights to cut me off for it, but I hope you won't."

Frowning open-mouthed, confounded and possibly betrayed, Xingqiu folds his arms and stares at him. After a long moment he throws his hands up. "There must be something I don't understand about the situation." It doesn't sound like he's sure of that, only that he's choosing to give Aether the benefit of the doubt. "You said he's 'basically' responsible?"

"What is a soldier to do when commanded by a god to commit an atrocity?"

"The right thing! The honorable thing! I would sooner fall on my sword than jeopardize an entire city! And he's not just a soldier, he's a Harbinger, he commands soldiers."

"You're not wrong about any of that. But I think for some people it's not that simple. We don't all have the same start in life."

"Are you saying there's a— a tragic backstory that makes what he did alright!?" questions the avid reader and writer of novels.

"I don't know his story. And it will never be alright. Xingqiu...I never swore any kind of loyalty to Liyue or any other nation of Teyvat. I don't call any place in this world home, not even this teapot realm. I agree that there's no excuse that makes what he did right, but you and I don't have all the same morals. We just...align more often than not."

Xingqiu sighs heavily and drops himself to a seat on the fountain's rocks with a good two meters between him and Aether. "...So those rumors are also true. That you're not from this world."

Ah. He didn't know that. That's a complication neither of them needed right now. "Yes," Aether sighs too.

"Under any other circ*mstances, I would be so thrilled to hear that..."

Aether waits for him to do whatever thinking he needs to do. Sparing Xingqiu from an expectant gaze, he watches a mellow breeze play amongst the leaves at the top of the bamboo grove.

"...There's nothing I can say that will change your mind," the absurdly-dressed Feiyun scion concludes after some time. His tone is resigned, but not bitter. Aether tries not to pin his hope on that.

"No. I don't believe there is." As his quiet reply passes through his lips, he feels like he's unintentionally emulating the softness of the breeze.

"He's not what I would have expected," Xingqiu admits, though not without a judicious measure of wariness.

Aether takes a deep breath, or it takes him. "Yeah. ...I think the complication, the obscurity, draws me to him. I don't know."

"Is it true that you fought him that day?"

"Yes."

A long silence follows, then is broken by a soft huff from Xingqiu. He's shaking his head slowly. "How my heart betrays me, that I cannot help seeing the romantic wǔxiá qualities in such a story."

Have I been seen through twice in one day? Aether is in a truth-telling mood by necessity, so it doesn't bother him like it might have if Xingqiu had guessed out of the blue. "What is that?"

"Wǔxiá is a genre of fictional tales about wandering heroes who gain legendary martial skills. They tend to rise from obscurity and learn from multiple masters or go on a long journey to master their abilities. When they reach their full potential, in my favorite tales, they bring justice everywhere they go. Usually they follow a code of honor. Of chivalry, heh. You...would fit right into that narrative, or so I thought." Xingqiu still doesn't sound bitter. Wistful, perhaps. He takes a deep breath of his own. Another silence, into which Aether doesn't risk intruding. Another breath. "...It wasn't wise or fair of me to look at you like a fictional figure. Whatever your failings, that is mine. You're a real person. If you have a code you live by, I don't know it, and it may be that I can't understand it."

And Aether releases a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Just by seeing that," he murmurs, "you understand me better than most people do. Or ever will."

Xingqiu looks at him for the first time in a while. He has a hesitant, sheepish smile. "Pardon, but...I actually couldn't hear that over the water."

Aether offers a tiny smile back. "Sorry. I said...that by knowing what you don't know about me, you understand me better than most people do."

"There's a great deal more I don't know about you, apparently." Xingqiu's own voice is a tad quiet and tentative. Fully making peace within himself, over the dilemma of his friend's association with someone who left his home at the mercy of a vengeful god, isn't something he can do right away or all at once. "I will ask you questions about your origins. You don't have to answer, of course, but I hope you'll entertain my curiosity on at least a couple of points."

"Sure. It's not secret. Some of it's hard to talk about, though."

There's a moment where Xingqiu might have thanked him if his agreement to that request hadn't come on the tail end of a much, much weightier topic. Aether doesn't begrudge him his reticence. Before he can mount a rescue for the conversation, Xingqiu provides: "Well, let's go and have dinner before it gets so cold that my dear Chongyun could eat it all." The joke is fine, but the delivery is stilted somewhat by Xingqiu's frame of mind.

Aether gets up. "If you'd rather eat...farther away from him, that's alright."

"That won't be necessary. I can hide my misgivings well enough." It might seem at the moment like he can't, but Aether knows he has plenty of practice from attending Commerce Guild business functions. "Besides," Xingqiu adds, "I'm curious how this, um, relationship works between the two of you." He starts toward the mansion, but Aether doesn't follow yet.

Far be it from Aether to assume the word 'relationship' refers to a romantic one. In the present context, however, that's where his mind is. "Ah, we don't—... He doesn't know. Please, don't tell him."

Xingqiu stops and stares at him, his eyes slowly widening. "He doesn't know...what? Are you saying what I think you're saying? Was I closer to the mark with my reference to romantic wǔxiá than I thought?"

Oh. Aether goes blank for a second or two, having himself a purely internal facepalm of stone-shattering proportions. "Ahh... Well. That's—. I thought..." He glances away. "Well. Yes. I can't explain why, even to myself, but I'm..." His voice shrinks: "In love with him." Back to normal: "If it weren't for Paimon being so observant, though, I wouldn't...know that yet. If that makes sense?" It's still profoundly difficult to wrap his mind around the revelation. In all his millennia, he's never, ever loved anyone romantically before. He knows himself well enough to be quite certain that if he had, he'd remember.

"Ohh. Ohh, I see." Xingqiu hurries around the fountain and then pulls Aether away from its noise by the arm so that they can whisper. "Forgive me— no, may our dearly departed Rex Lapis forgive me, but this! This is the stuff of epic romance! Enemies becoming star-crossed lovers! Unrequi—!" He claps a hand over his mouth, his wide eyes now mortified. Just as quickly he drops his hand to try another way of covering up what he almost said. "Unrequired companionship! The, the wonder of camaraderie where none is expected!"

Aether watches with his eyebrows slightly raised. Every word is just water sliding off a duck's back. It's such a bizarre situation to be in that he can't take the words very seriously. "I suppose so? It's kind of early for...all that."

"Yes, yes you're quite right, I'm sorry, I'll keep these thoughts to myself. And you have my vow I won't even hint of it to him."

"Thank you." Aether waits for Xingqiu to start walking again and this time he follows.

Dinner goes smoothly enough with everyone having food and combat to talk about. Aether vigilantly steers their discussions of the latter into benign technicalities and away from murder. It's easy to spark long debates over things like the finer points of how a specific weapon should be maintained, or how much the smithing methods really matter, or whether ultra-mechanized crossbows from Fontaine are useful or just more breakable. But even in those discussions he has to be on guard against Childe's tendency to digress into dangerous territory.

He resorts to trying to signal at Childe to change the subject. Eyebrow shenanigans prove ineffective, but lightly kicking Childe's boot with his shoe works. The length of Childe's legs makes up for the shortness of Aether's; he doesn't even have to slouch down to reach.

True to his word, Xingqiu acts like he knows nothing and that nothing happened. Aether's respect for the young trade-noble's acting skills grows by leaps and bounds. He doesn't expect any secrets will be kept from Chongyun, however, and he has no problem with that.

The first time the Traveler kicked him under the table—if that tap he barely felt through his boot could be called a kick—Childe didn't know why he did it, but it made him forget what he was talking about. The second time, he realized the Traveler was trying to change the subject. It wasn't until the fourth time that he saw the commonality between the subjects the Traveler was trying to avoid. He kept getting those nudges throughout dinner though, because again and again he dove into the deep end of his favorite subjects without thinking. Rather than shoot the Traveler any kind of look in response, whether they'd have been sulky or apologetic or otherwise, he did him the favor of his best efforts to make the interruptions seem natural.

Afterward, Aether directs Chongyun and Xingqiu to the guest house. The last time they were here was before it was built. It had been so time-consuming to carry all the planks and stone bricks into the Teapot by hand that he hired some porters to do it. Rather than tap their hands with the Realm Dispatch, he placed the teapot itself where they could repeatedly access it. Prior to buying the materials and hiring those people, he'd accumulated a lot of Mora. Not a lot by Liyue elite standards, but enough that only a project of that size could spend the majority of it.

It's just Aether, Paimon, and Childe now. Seeing Childe take charge of cleanup doesn't exactly surprise Aether, since that was what happened the last time he visited, too, and the Harbinger even told Tubby he could be relied on for cleaning. This might be an opportunity to ask him about it. First, he turns to Paimon. "Let's talk later if you're still awake," he says in a discreet undertone.

"Mm-hm! Good luck," she whispers back. "Don't forget to remember that if you're thinking things to yourself that are sad and silly, you're being silly and making yourself sad!"

His lips quirk into a confused but appreciative little smile. Good luck for what? Talking with him? Actually yeah, that's fair, I need it. Confusion resolved before either of them can say anything about it, he nods. "Thanks." With that they part ways, Paimon rising to the upper floor and Aether going to the kitchen.

As far as he knows, she doesn't listen in on his conversations with Childe. It may be that the only reason she eavesdropped on him and Xingqiu was because she wanted to know if Xingqiu was still going to be their friend. She must have known something was up before he himself did. What she'll notice and what she won't is so unpredictable it astounds him at times, but the same could be said of him. The same has been said of him, by her and by Lumine.

"Hey," Aether greets Childe, feeling a soft and involuntary smile coming over him.

Childe flicks his hands and the water flies off into suspended droplets before falling neatly into the sink. He turns on his heel and beams at the Traveler. "Greetings, my laconic comrade! What have you been getting up to since last we spoke?" His jacket and sash, taken off to make the dishwashing easier, have been lain over one of the two stools by the counter. It's tricky to get the sleeves of his shirt and jacket to roll up higher together.

"Since we spoke during dinner?" One corner of Aether's smile is lifted farther by mirth.

"Hehe, no, although if you've managed to get into any exciting trouble in that short span of time, I would be most interested to hear about it."

"Well, have you ever been to the Chasm in Liyue?"

"Oh yes, I've snuck in a couple of times for work. I've even been underground, albeit not far."

"How'd you get down there with the seal still active?"

Childe winks. "Fatui secrets."

"Hmph," Aether responds lightly. He comes nearer and sits on the stool that isn't occupied by Childe's set-aside items of clothing. They distract him. He carefully picks up the jacket to have a rarefied closer inspection, studying its various metal accessories and dangling decorations. He can't quite tell whether any of them are 'decorations' in the military sense. Altogether, it's rather heavy, at least compared to the light-weight attire he prefers for himself. The fabric isn't as stiff as it looked, though. The only part of it that seems to denote Childe's status as a Harbinger is not part of it: Signora had a cape or cloak with the same colors and ornamentation as Childe's sash, and Scaramouche had something similar attached to his belt that Aether never got a good look at.

Childe leans against the other end of the counter with his hands resting on its edge, watching the Traveler examine his jacket. He hasn't taken the time or acquired the supplies to sew up the rips yet. He should, or else they might get bigger. Then again, he can just have it replaced. It's pretty typical of the two very different lives he's lived to recommend polar-opposite actions to him.

The Traveler is handling his clothing so carefully, and yet he did so much damage to a previous, identical jacket that it had to be replaced. "...Is it that interesting?" Childe probes.

"Yes," Aether answers. He doesn't think he's going to bother elaborating, until he does. "You wear it all the time. It must have something to say about you." A thought strikes him and he lets it come out of his mouth: "It's interesting how much weight is concentrated around the shoulders, especially when the...scarf is on."

"Sash," Childe supplies automatically. That habit formed fast, and the intervening days didn't deteriorate it. He murmurs the word a bit absently, absorbed by the intensity of the Traveler's interest. He's not sure whether he's discomfited or flattered. That comment about weight on the shoulders is something he hasn't the faintest idea how to take or what to do with. If it were anyone else saying it, he'd be making light of it and steering toward a more fun subject, but when it's him, he's at a loss.

Aether glances up at him. "Sorry, that was kind of a weird thing to say," he realizes. His apology is flat; he doesn't feel guilty.

"Kind of," Childe agrees, rubbing his neck. "Is this revenge for all the times you had to remind me to behave in front of the others?"

Setting down the jacket so he can put aside his too-deep curiosity, Aether smiles apologetically. He's aware now of how much the atmosphere has changed, and he does feel guilty about that. Can I not go five minutes alone with him without making things awkward? "No, and, um, I'm sorry if that was out of line. If it was disrespectful."

Childe wheezes a bemused laugh. "You fret too much. It's your house, I should be the one respecting you, as well as your desire that I don't talk about levels of violence that might make your other guests uncomfortable."

"I suppose. I mean, I would appreciate that. Very much."

"I'll be more delicate next time, don't you worry." He turns around to finish the dishes.

"Thank you, though. For cooking that meal. It was nice. That is, I really enjoyed it, and the company. Your company. Not that I didn't enjoy the others' company, but. I. Almost didn't think you'd come back."

"Hmm? After I promised Paimon I'd make all those Snezhnayan treats for her to try? Heh. No, Traveler, I wouldn't miss the chance to go on adventures with you. Not for the world."

"'M glad to hear that," Aether mumbles shyly. He really is glad, though he speculates that Childe probably would miss that chance if the alternative was conquering the world. His hand has found its way over to Childe's sash and he's fidgeting by repetitively stroking the fabric with one fingertip. He took his gloves off before eating, and they're still off.

Childe sneaks a glance over his shoulder. The Traveler would certainly have seen it if he were looking, but, just as Childe's intuition suspected, his gaze is downcast. This is another side of the Traveler that's new to him. It's confusing, but...also...sweet? Positive feelings about it are a countercurrent in a stream of more confusion and some irritation. The Traveler had thought he might not come back? Did he believe anything Childe said? Ever?

Will he ever take me at my word? Hah, why should he. He knows how I lie to the people I love the most.

Aether waits for Childe to reply, but he doesn't say anything. The mood really needs to lighten. Fortunately, Aether has a card that will do it. It's something he was going to say tonight anyway. "Childe?"

"Mmmhm?"

"We're going to spar tomorrow. We can, that is. It's been on my mind a lot too. If you have time tomorrow, so do I." He should be focused on the Chasm, but damn the Chasm. He wants to make Childe happy, and giving himself permission to shrug off all his responsibilities is a major bonus.

Childe gasps in immediate all-consuming delight, whirling around to look at the Traveler with his hands clasped under his chin and the biggest possible grin on his face. There's a crash as the dish he was drying breaks on the floor, the towel falling next to it. A quick wince does little to diminish his grin, and nothing to diminish the joy behind it. "I'llpayforthat. My dearest comrade, I thought you'd never ask!" His mind is swimming in pent-up battle fantasies.

Aether smiles wide and soft, to such a degree that his teeth show a little. He's so gladdened and so relieved by the effect his offer has had, and this particular grin of Childe's is infectious. It's a sight to hold in his memory forever. Love warms his voice when he tells Childe, "I was always going to. Sorry it took me so long."

"You're forgiven," Childe laughs. It's a strong and pure sound, unlike his last one. It's the opposite of the type of laugh Aether has heard most often from him: the slightly manic one that ends sounding like he's dying or about to cry.

Lest he say or do anything that sends the mood plummeting again, Aether gets up and starts to meander out of the room backwards, folding his hands behind his back. He hasn't stopped smiling. "We should both rest up, then."

Childe scrubs a hand up and down his face to get it under control and then holds up a finger. "Ahah, wait. I need to ask you something."

"Hm? Anything."

"Anything, huh? I'm about to test that, though not by design I assure you. Traveler, can I keep a cat here?"

Aether blinks several times.

"I'll see to all its care, and it can be confined to the guest room if—"

"Yes." Aether half-suppresses a chuckle. "Yes, please, and there's no need to confine it."

"Excellent! Because I already brought it here." Childe looks sheepish and a tiny bit guilty at the same time as he's unabashedly beaming.

At that, Aether laughs, quietly but with much affection. "That's fine. I want to know everything about it, and I look forward to meeting it, but that can wait 'til breakfast." He gets a sudden idea and his smile turns mischievous. Venti would be proud, if it weren't for a cat being involved. "Hey, at breakfast time, put it on one of the chairs and act like it's normal. I will too. Paimon will be so confused. Oh, and put its food on the table like it's a person."

"Hah! Yes! My siblings will love hearing about that when I write to them about it!"

"My life's purpose is now to do everything the way that's funniest for Teucer and the others to read about," Aether jokes, grinning and bringing his hands forward to punch his fist into his palm decisively.

"Once in a while, that's exactly how I go about things." Childe heaves a happy sigh. "Thank you."

Aether bobs his head, nodding like a dork, and backs the rest of the way out of the kitchen and out of the hallway before it occurs to him to turn around and walk normally.

Childe scratches his fingers through the hair on the back of his head as the Traveler backs out of view looking incredibly happy. The sight lingers in Childe's mind, keeping a soft, steady smile on his face long after the intoxication of being promised a most anticipated fight settles into irregular waves of glee. Being around the Traveler is a bucking horseride of highs and lows, but at least it's never boring. And, despite Childe being far more inclined to dwell on lows than he'd ever admit to anyone, the highs are convincing him it's all worth it. All of it, all the way back to the original events that set him on the path where he'd meet the Traveler. He started thinking that way at such an early point in their friendship that even he himself looks back on it as somewhat irrational. Of late, he'd begun to doubt. Those doubts are gone now, he thinks.

Aether finds Paimon curled up on his bedroom sofa, an open book next to her. He smiles at that, and takes care to be silent as he changes into the plain yukata he bought for himself after Ayaka gifted him a kimono.

He'd been hesitant to accept that gift, because his outfit is the result of many years of optimization. It is perfect in every way for his needs and preferences. Well, okay, it fails him in sub-zero temperatures and a few other hazards, but in those cases he usually gets away with letting the familiarity of it outweigh his needs. He can rationalize that by saying, to himself and anyone who asks, that readiness for combat is the most important thing.

The exposed midriff and arms and the limited armor actually have a purpose: he found that when he wears anything more protective, he takes more risks and more hits. It's a purely psychological thing that he ought to work on, but instead he has stuck with this shortcut. Besides: Lumine, a better swordmaster, follows the same philosophy. Never mind that Aether knows she does that because she's in friendly competition with him and they've inadvertently created a self-reinforcing trend between them.

He accepted the kimono because he just couldn't say no to Ayaka at that moment. He hasn't had an occasion to wear it in public yet, but he tried it on. It wasn't bad! That gave him the idea that he should have something similar to wear in bed when his normal clothes are too dirty. An alternative to washing them first, washing the sheets, or sleeping in his underwear. And today, the Chasm got his clothes very dusty.

It's as he settles into bed that Paimon snorts and sits up. "Paimon's awake!" She rubs her eyes and rises to hover a few inches off the sofa.

"It's okay," Aether tells her, though he sits up too. "Go back to sleep."

"Mm... Wait, is it okay? Paimon heard something break."

"Heheh, that was just a dish Childe dropped when I told him we'll spar tomorrow. He was so happy."

"Ohh! But don't you have to meet that Millelith guy and do something about the Treasure Hoarders tomorrow?"

Aether shrugs. "It can wait. Sure, I implied I'd meet up with him tomorrow, but I didn't commit to it, did I?"

"Hrm. No, Paimon only remembers you saying it couldn't be today."

"If he has a problem with it, I'll tell him I was delayed. It's not even untrue." Not that he'd have a single qualm about lying to a random stranger. It's just simpler to tell the truth most times. Keeping multiple stories going is a hassle, and it can blow up in his face when people talk to each other.

"That'll work, Paimon guesses." She adds her shrug to his.

"Did you hear everything Xingqiu and I talked about?"

"Most of it. Paimon was worried it was going to go really bad."

"I was too. I'm still kind of wondering if a shoe is going to fall on me."

"You mean 'if the other shoe is going to drop'?"

"Is that it? Yeah."

"Paimon thinks Xingqiu just needs time. He was still upset, but he made a big effort to put it aside and hide it. That means he wants to get past it."

Aether nods slowly. "That's reassuring."

"He might want to talk it over again, though. Do you want Paimon to help?"

"I think that would be good. Thank you. I wanted to give it a try alone this time, but next time... I worry I'd say some kind of thing that would...reverse his acceptance."

"We'll do our best together!"

Aether nods again. "...Good night, Paimon."

She plops back down on the sofa. "Nighty-night!" No sleeping aloft for her tonight, apparently.

Notes:

No Light In Your Bright Blue Eyes - PancakeBeast - 原神 (2)

Chapter 8: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 1)

Notes:

edit: fixed Childe backstory mistake (his childhood wish for adventure was secret, not overt like I wrote it)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Childe made the decision, grabbed the cat, and wished them away to the Teapot in a single moment. He expected to be clawed and bitten for grabbing a stray cat that had only known him for three days. But, to his surprise, Zhongli put up no resistance beyond some initial wiggling.It was a wild whim that struck him. The cat made him happy, its lack of fear confused him, and there was no place for such a soft thing in his life. He didn't deserve it, and being aware at all times of how easily he could end its life made that impossible to forget. Of late, the Traveler was much the same, minus that last part. So, in his head it made a nonsensical kind of sense that they should be in the same place.Childe knew the cleaning supplies, linens, and such were in the bathroom, so he brought everything he needed with him and cautiously opened the guest room door, positioning his feet to block escape. The Traveler had given permission for Zhongli to roam, and the island's edges were supposedly safe, but for now he'd rather not lose track of the cat.Zhongli had just eaten, so it made quite a mess. That, at least, was in line with Childe's expectations.His way of being a middle child, with three older siblings and one-two-three younger, was to compete with the older ones on responsibility. It got him some attention and praise, and if his help was taken for granted more often than not, he still got to monopolize his father's attention for long hours when they went ice fishing, and that wasn't always unrelated. He'd had a very comfortable niche in his family, in hindsight, and because of his timid nature back then, he was never a rebellious teenager. Until he was.One day, he decided to leave and find real adventures like those of his father's youth. He took only a shortsword, some bread, and the clothes on his back. He was fed up with the monotony of his life, of every boring chore, of being boring and easily frightened. The quiet fishing village was not enough for the sense of ambition that burned within him even then.He got lost in the forest. He wandered until the sun was setting, and still he had no idea where he was. As it began to get dark, wolves he'd heard howling in the distance grew closer and closer until he started running. The situation went from bad to worse when he nearly ran into a bear. It didn't stop getting worse.If it weren't for the deepening twilight and the shadows of the trees, he might have seen that fissure before he fell into it.That's not where his thoughts went as he cleaned up after the cat. He was still in an absolutely glowing mood. All he could think about was crossing blades with the Traveler tomorrow.'Tomorrow' became 'today.' The first thing Childe sees when he opens his eyes is his mask, again. It's on the bedside table exactly where he left it the first time he was here. Early morning sun, filtered through the Liyuen screen on the other side of the bed, casts the red ceramic in a dim gold light. The surface is the slightest bit glossy, resembling metal. But fire is commonplace in combat, whether against element-touched monsters, Vision wielders, or just a normal human with a torch. Ceramic can be highly temperature-resistant, whereas having metal against one's bare skin is a liability when fire enters the equation.The mask's design was left up to him. He went with something that evokes his Foul Legacy form. Of course, there typically weren't mirrors sitting around on a battlefield, and when there were, it was inside a building where there was seldom enough room to transform. But, he wields Hydro. He's seen himself in water's reflections. He saw the Devouring Deep reflected in pools of blood the first time he succeeded in transforming.The mask's craftsmanship was masterful. Light weight, fine edges, flawless glaze. Anything custom-made for a Harbinger had to be the best. Should it have been able to break? What is Tubby's teapot really made of? Childe reaches out and takes one of the pieces. To be fair, it didn't shatter: it split where the two main parts were joined together. But with ceramic, that's tantamount to breaking. There's a V of surface area where the break happened that's unpainted and rough-textured.He fingers that texture, not feeling it directly in detail so much as he feels how his callused fingertips drag against it, instead of sliding smoothly as they do across the mask's intact surfaces.He'll have to get a replacement made. His upcoming visit to Zapolyarny for Signora's mandatory-attendance funeral will be a convenient time to do that. When that'll actually be, he can't estimate. Could be a while. Until then, he may have to avoid unnecessary use of his Delusion. The reason that Fatui wielders of Delusions must all wear masks isn't one he understands well, but it's supposed to reduce the side effects. It doesn't cost him any fun to wear it, so he never had any objection. It limits his field of view, yes, but that just adds a small margin of challenge. As he retested a few days ago, even fighting with his eyes closed isn't what he'd call difficult; people make all kinds of noise as they move.For now he puts the piece back, next to its counterpart. He stretches and yawns his way out of bed. "I suppose I should leave you in here a little while longer, Zhongli." Perhaps that name was a mistake. Though...it does give me a most amusing mental image of the real Zhongli with cat ears. "Just until breakfast."He goes about his morning routine. There's no reason to put on his jacket and sash, and he leaves his sternum strap off too. Whether to wear his boots gives him pause until he recalls that everyone was wearing shoes inside the house last night, including the Traveler himself. His host either doesn't mind shoes inside or might even prefer them to stay on. Back home, shoes are always taken off and slippers put on, but he's seen no slippers here. It makes sense: Snezhnaya's floors are cold and these aren't. There's something to be said for the role of culture in such things, of course. As he discovered in Liyue's traditions, it's not just about necessity. Does the Traveler have any sort of culture of origin? Has he absorbed habits from those he met in the course of his travels?Boots on, he strolls into the kitchen and comes to a pretty quick decision about what he'll make. It's time for blini. To save time he'll have to use unyeasted batter. That's fine. First, he browses the few bottles of alcohol the Traveler has on hand. He doesn't expect to find vodka, simply because it's not as popular outside of Snezhnaya as within, but there it is: one bottle, previously opened but almost full. Probably used for cooking. That's what he's going to use it for, too—just not in the same way.The only way to cook authentic Snezhnayan food is while tipsy on vodka. That's what his babushka used to say, and who is he to argue?He pours himself a glass of vodka and a glass of water. As he takes his time getting the ingredients and dishes together, he sips liberally from both.Among the Fatui he was always presumed to be a lightweight, and they weren't wrong in the beginning. He arrived as a scrawny kid to work and fight alongside some of the biggest men in the world, the most hulking specimens of Snezhnayan hardiness, insulated by so much muscle and fat they claimed they didn't feel the cold. Those men could've thrown him halfway to Fontaine...if only they could ever catch him without losing body parts.As in all things, that's what practice is for. Until he reached drinking age, he could only sneak a bottle once in a while, and he was always punished for it both by the hangover and disciplinary action from his superiors. By the time he learned how to avoid the former, the latter was no longer forthcoming.He waits until he starts to feel the vodka before he mixes the dry ingredients, adds the wet ingredients, and whisks them together. The egg yolks go in with the wet ingredients; he prepares the egg whites separately and adds them last.Batter set aside, he slices some apples. His dexterity is uncompromised, and it'd take quite a bit more alcohol before he'd have any problems on that front. His senses, however, have begun to dull ever so slightly, and the alcohol relaxes him just enough that the uncontrolled loss of acuity doesn't make him panic. It's a minor respite which he has never chased into an addiction. Indulging or perhaps overindulging now and again is one thing; blunting and hobbling himself with a dependency is another. Besides, he doesn't want to be like this all the time. It just makes a taste of home that much more enjoyable.Apples sliced, he puts approximately three spoonfuls of butter in a skillet and lights the stove.Movement at the doorway. He looks up from the melting butter and forgets what he's doing.Aether leans against the doorframe a moment to survey what Childe is working with for breakfast and get a couple of yawns out. He hasn't washed or shaken out his clothes yet, so he's wearing the yukata still. It's a very light blue cotton garment with a subtle print of white cranes taking flight. He adjusted it before leaving his bedroom, but since then, one shoulder has slipped down unnoticed, revealing much of his right clavicle and a skewed triangle of his flat, densely-muscled chest.The butter crackles in the skillet untended as Childe stops and stares at him. He's definitely staring at him, and his ever-intriguing eyes are wide. Aether can't quite tell why they're wide—what the emotion behind them is. He stares back, becoming caught up in a reverie of his own. It always feels to him as if Childe sees him differently than others do, sees more of the truth despite the battle-obsessed lens he sees him through.Why did I have all those doubts? Aether placidly questions. The doubts he told Paimon about are, here and now, nowhere to be found. Maybe she was right that he made it all up. Here and now, the way Childe is looking at him makes him feel...welcome.He comes forward to the counter, walking silently on bare feet. He's not thinking about what he's doing with his hands, he just lays them on the counter and leans on them as he gazes up at Childe's eyes. Oceanic, he keeps thinking, of their color and depth, and he tries to organize his admiration into more words. Quiet ocean. Deep and still. Shadowy, in this light, when he's facing away from the windows.Childe tracks the Traveler's every movement. The thing he's wearing that looks like a simplified, single-layer kimono is...not entirely unlike what he normally wears, in as far as it's light and flowing and doesn't seem to hinder him. But it's a different color than he's ever seen on Aether the Traveler, and there's no armor whatsoever, and a different part of his torso is uncovered. His eyes want to linger on the delicate way the man's skin is contoured around his clavicle and that hint of a firm right pectoral... But his eyes are also drawn to those that are staring back at him. Aether the Traveler is standing close enough now that Childe himself is blocking the windows' light from reaching the amber irises around dilated pupils.Ethereal. That's the word that pops into Childe's mind and insists on staying there. It's so appropriate, he thinks. Aether, ethereal. His comrade, recontextualized. Soft, beautiful, sleepy, and gazing at him like—...like he sees something, no, someone worth looking at. Worth looking at that way.The butter is starting to brown. No one notices.Aether doesn't know how he's going to get out of this moment without doing something—he knows not what—that would be too much too soon. He parts his lips to say something. 'Good morning.' That would be alright. "Has anyone ever told you—..." That your eyes are beautiful? That you are? He catches himself just in time.Childe quickly blinks a few times, pulling himself out of his transfixion. He's still kind of caught in it, actually, but more of his brain is functioning now. "Ah, what? Eheh, sorry, I've had a little to drink." Having that excuse handy is a stroke of luck he thanks his Archon for even though she didn't have a lot to do with it.That reintroduces a grain of doubt into Aether's mind: what if all that was just the alcohol, on Childe's part? What if it had little or nothing to do with him? He unintentionally curls his fingertips under his knuckles on the counter's polished wood surface, and he doesn't know what to say.Childe's eyebrows are drawn faintly upward and together in half a frown. Maybe he wasn't supposed to drink any of that vodka, or maybe Aether the Traveler has a problem with drinking in general? But no, that couldn't be it, he's growing grapes to make his own wine, and not just for cooking. "Should I not have?" he asks worriedly.How did he even know anything was wrong? Aether glances down and sees his hands. Ah. "No that's fine, that's— I don't mind. Sorry, I just..." Again unconsciously, he adjusts the shoulder of his yukata. "I just need some tea. I'll make some. You're busy." He nods to the browned butter.Childe absently considers the butter situation and decides it'll still work as it is. He adds the apple slices into the skillet while thinking back on what just happened. He knows he missed something there. What was Aether the Traveler going to say? Has anyone ever told me...what? There are dozens of ways that sentence could have ended that would have been chastising, insulting, or disgusted. But he doesn't think he can lie to himself by presuming that's where it was going. He saw something quite the opposite in the Traveler's softened stare and how that look unerringly focused on him, as if nothing else in the room existed from the instant their eyes met. There was a truth in the relaxed steps that brought the Traveler straight toward him, and the way he leaned forward. Childe can't forget the impression he got when the shorter man peered up into his eyes from just across the counter. He thinks...that maybe the Traveler was looking at him exactly the same way he was looking at the Traveler. That is difficult to believe. It should be impossible. But what he himself was doing, what he was feeling: that was even more impossible.He always assumed...No, it can't be love. Not in the Traveler's heart, and certainly not in his own. He is as incapable of loving as he is incapable of being loved. It doesn't hurt him to admit that, he would insist, because it's a foregone conclusion. It was never a possibility. Maybe if his life had gone differently, maybe he would have developed those types of feelings for someone eventually. Or, maybe not. Either way, it would have been a matter of nature. But the Abyss purified him, excoriating away any potential for such unnecessary baggage so that his potential as a weapon could be unfettered.Even his love for his family will be mere selfishness in the end, when he overstays his welcome in their lives. Feeling like he has anything good to give them is a joy for him that will never die, whereas Anthon, Tonia, and Teucer's joy—at receiving his visits, letters, and gifts—depends on a false pretense. None of it is real. Or at least, they won't think of it as having been real, and he won't disagree.As for being loved? He sees the evidence to the contrary every time he meets the eyes of his parents and older siblings. The Abyss also preemptively freed him from the fear of being missed if his pursuit of power met an early end.None of that makes him feel pain or regret, when he thinks about it objectively. (When he thinks about it 'objectively.') It is freedom.There is something going on, though, and he's curious what it is. His view of the Traveler has been altered, not by clothes or a glimpse of previously unseen skin, but by the expansion of context. And, for some reason, the Traveler is experiencing a similar shift in his perspective on Childe.He stirs sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the apples. He's dripping vanilla extract into the skillet when the Traveler brushes by him on his right to place a filled kettle on the stove next to it. It must be the buzz from the vodka that makes the mere incidental touch of the Traveler's shoulder, against a random spot just under his arm, feel like the tingle of connecting energy right before an Electro shock hits. Like when he sat so close to him that they were hip to hip. Unlike the nearest thing he can compare both experiences to, it is again utterly pleasant. His hands stop and he sucks in a breath that comes dangerously close to trading places with his voice, in the form of one of the smaller sounds he made underneath Thoma. The similarity ends there, but knowing he almost made a sound comparable at all to those that came out of him then...at such an insignificant accident of contact...And the Traveler heard his breath. Heat colors the tips of Childe's ears as he tries not to look at him. He retires the vanilla and stirs the apples.Aether didn't imagine that, did he? Just as he accidentally brushed his shoulder against Childe's side, and bit the inside of his lip at how nice it felt to be so close to him again, he heard a small but sharp intake of breath that he thought, for a split second, had come from himself. Well, sometimes people just...breathe like that, he rationalizes after realizing it was Childe. People breathe. Maybe he was holding back a yawn. Then his brain processes the fact that Childe stopped moving, and he turns his head enough to peek up at his face sidelong.Does he know how obvious his emotions are sometimes? Because that is a shaken look on Childe's face. Not fearful, though, absolutely not. He just has that wide-eyed, faintly knit-browed look he gets when he's been surprised by something. What makes it more than surprise, or perhaps off to one side of surprise, is how he's staring down at the skillet in front of him without doing anything. Then he seems to remember what he was doing before and puts himself back to work. His hands remain hesitant, stirring the apples more slowly and gingerly than necessary. And is it just the light, or is his ear red at the top?

Could it hurt to try something? A...small test? Aether is sure and unsure at the same time: sure that it's not considered unreasonable in this world for someone to touch their friend's arm with their hand, but unsure because he doesn't have an excuse to do so. He should have one ready... Also, he hasn't moved yet. He's just standing next to Childe, although at the moment there's no contact between them. Something about the tea. Uh. Is he in my way? No, I couldn't ask him to move when he's the one making breakfast.

Aether takes too much time. Childe steps away to pour batter into a second pan. He steps back into the same spot to take the skillet of now-boiled apples off the stove and replace it with the batter pan, but there's a tad more space between him and Aether now. Distracted though he is, Aether notes that the apple slices turned out well: they're covered in an appetizing golden-brown blend of butter, seasonings, and their own juice, and they smell lovely. From looking at the ingredients Childe prepared, Aether guessed this is what he was going for, but it was always possible there'd be a twist. No twist was needed, of course, for him to be made hungrier by that aroma.An excuse comes to mind.Childe feels the Traveler's hand settle gently onto his upper arm. For the next minute or two his only task will be to wait until the blin needs to be flipped, so it's neither here nor there whether he freezes up this time. He assumed the Traveler stayed to wait for the tea water, and if he was thinking logically (by his standard of logic) he'd still be assuming that. But for a moment the only things inside his skull are question marks and appreciation of the curiously intentional touch. He forces himself to look at the Traveler's face; his gaze trips over the hand on his shoulder but gets there in the end. "Mm?" he 'asks.'"Thank you again," Aether tells him softly. "For the food and cleanup but...also just you. Being here. I've missed you. Since Liyue, I mean." He dare not admit how much he missed him in the past few days.Childe's brow scrunches into puzzlement. "...You always knew where to find me," he murmurs in a mix of shyness and accusation he's especially suited to pulling off.A frown seeps into the muscles around Aether's eyes without reaching his mouth. "I know," he confesses, quieter still. "I'm sorry.""Why?" Childe can't help asking. "Why did you...ignore my letter and stay away? You were in Liyue after that." His voice isn't rising.Aether rubs his thumb up and down an inch of Childe's bicep pensively. "...It was a stupid reason. A really stupid reason."Childe waits for him to explain. He reminds himself to flip the blin and does so by rote, moving as little as possible and keeping his right arm completely still."I did think you were joking. Or just not entirely serious. I thought if I...came along and asked you to come with me somewhere, you'd..." By the gods of every world he's ever been to, it was stupid. It's painfully embarrassing to say it aloud: "I thought you'd just laugh at me." He shakes his head, glancing down and wincing. "I should've given you more credit than that, I know.""You still don't give me much credit," Childe grumbles and immediately wishes he hadn't. Why'd I say that. Why keep pushing on this right now?The frown tugs Aether's lips. He fears he doesn't know what to say to that, but it comes to him: he's not going to apologize, he's going to do better. "I'll trust you from now on. It's long past time I did. You've trusted me."Ah, but that pricks at Childe's conscience, because it's not true. In the sense that he'd readily entrust a family member's safety to Aether the Traveler again, he never stopped trusting him and he was never going to stop. The Traveler does not harm innocents. But the doubts he'd had, his suspicion that the Traveler's sudden interest was in getting intel from him or somehow using him to undermine the Tsaritsa's plans...Actually, those doubts still need an answer.Childe's eyes seem to darken, Aether notes sadly. A slight turn of his head changing the way light enters his irises, in reality. Subtle shifts of his facial muscles, and the fact of that slight awayward turn, are what really clue Aether in to Childe's walls going up.There's a delay while Childe swaps the finished blin for another portion of batter. It's not as evenly cooked as it ought to have been."...Why now, though?" he finally asks. Each word is enunciated delicately, as if Childe is being very selective about them. "Simply because we ran into each other?" He's not hiding his suspicion. "Did you perhaps have another reason to advise I stay in the Fatui?"Childe observes the Traveler's expression fall slowly to confusion and then snap to realization. A troubled realization, it looks like, but he can discern nothing beyond that."No," Aether says, barely above a whisper and sounding almost like a question. "No, I..." If I told him now, the full truth, that I love him, he wouldn't believe me. He'd never believe me about anything again. Don't know why I'm so sure of that. "I care about you, and..."The Traveler's eyes flit from place to place around Childe's face as if searching for something. Childe waits for something that will prove those words to him."I'm scared," Aether settles for. It's not the perfect word, but could there ever be a perfect word for what he's trying to express? "It's only ever been me and Lumine. Immortal. You see the problem? It scares me how much I care about you for so many reasons, but most of all because I think I'll blink and you'll be gone. You'll be a memory far too soon. Far too soon..."Though internalizing that the Traveler cares about him that much is an insurmountable difficulty, Childe is pierced to the heart by the rest of the sentiment because he can easily put himself in those shoes. His situation with his family isn't very much alike, he thinks, but deep down he feels as if he recognizes the emotions the Traveler is describing. Before he can think any further, he turns to Aether and frames his face gently with his hands. "Look at me," he whispers.Aether's eyebrows rise as Childe's palms come to rest against the sides of his head. Elegantly lank fingers on his hair, roughened thumbs near his cheekbones. His heart beats faster. It takes him a second to register what Childe is asking him to do. Not wanting to nod, he blinks a few times before fixing his gaze on Childe's eyes. "Yeah?" he whispers back."Now close your eyes."Aether closes them slowly.Heartbeats pass."Open your eyes."Biting his lip because now he comprehends what his friend is doing and it's so kind it hurts, Aether obeys, and he sees Childe looking at him with an unreadable resolve."Still here," Childe concludes, his voice nearly breaking. The Harbinger didn't expect to hear that in his own voice, to be affected that much by his own action, but that's unimportant right now.Aether bites his lip harder as he smiles through a blur of welled-up tears. He reaches up between Childe's wrists and swipes his eyes dry with the back of his own. There's no way to be stealthy about it. 'Thank you,' he mouths.Comrade, comrade, comrade... Childe sighs internally, fondness swelling in his chest. You're as sweet and warming as hot kompot sometimes. Outwardly he doesn't acknowledge what necessitated

Aether

to wipe his eyes, but he might not be able to forget it. That such a person, such a being, would shed tears about him...? He's convinced (that he's not being used), and he feels a little guilty that he needed so much convincing. "Alright..." he says on a deep breath. "I believe you. I won't doubt your motives again."

Aether hangs a hand on one of Childe's forearms, giving it a slight squeeze of appreciation. He leaves his hand there for a moment...then, realizing he should let Childe have his hands back no matter how much he enjoys them being on his face, he lets go. A quick look to the side reminds him there's cooking still in progress. "Pancake," he in turn reminds Childe.That interrupts Childe's thought on how reluctant to release his arm Aether seemed. The word itself throws him for a loop because, due to an automatic mental translation, it just sounds to him like the Traveler is swearing very politely. Then he remembers the actual pancake on the stove right next to them. "Oh!" He attempts to rescue the second blin but it's burnt beyond help on one side. He and the Traveler had made themselves oblivious to the scent."So, what is this exactly?" Aether asks, moving to Childe's other side to study the first pancake."These are blini, and that's a blin. They're Snezhnayan pancakes, just as you guessed. Not dissimilar to crepes, either. Apples are one of many options for filling them." There's plenty of batter left, and as he's about to pour the third blin, Childe has an idea. "Mm! I'm going to need a beet." He sets the bowl back down and darts to the vegetables before the Traveler can take a step. Beet snatched, he slices some of it off and squeezes the juice into the batter. Once he deems that he has added enough, he mixes it in.Childe's purpose for the beet juice becomes apparent as the batter turns pink. Aether nods. "Paimon will love that.""I thought she might," Childe says, pleased with himself.Aether moves to his right again to take the tea kettle and then claims the other end of the counter as his spot for pouring and steeping. He fetches some ground-up tea leaves, a diffuser ball, and a cup. "Do you want tea?""Hmm. What kind?" Childe inquires without looking up."Up to you. There are tea balls.""What are you having?" Now Childe peeks over at the tin the Traveler selected, but from where he is and with how the tin happens to be rotated, he can only see the edge of a label."Green. Nothing special."Good for counteracting alcohol. Don't mind if I do. "Hahah. You can travel from Mondstadt to Liyue in less than a day and be in Inazuma the next day, by all reports, and you don't take advantage of that to stock up on the finest teas? Not that I'm criticizing—well, I am, a little~""You're welcome to bring your own." Right on the line between a simple invitation and banter."Ahh, then I will! This will require some consideration. I feel it's on me to ensure you're stocked with a good variety and provenance of teas." I sound like Zhongli. And I blame him for it, too. Thanks xiānsheng."I won't object," Aether replies, tossing a smile over his shoulder at Childe. Fortunately, Childe is keeping an eye on him and sees it; he grins back."In the meantime," Childe sighs, doing a facial 180 to put on a very fake show of disappointment, "I'll accept what you're having.""Of course you will, warrior."Childe snickers."Why is it that you enjoy cleaning?" Aether asks, on the sudden recollection that he meant to ask this last night. "Cooking I understand, but the other people I know who love cleaning are pretty different from you."A moment is given to deciding how he'll answer the Traveler's question. His inclination is to be a bit more thorough than he was when Thoma was asking, but what does that entail? "...It's largely nostalgia," he begins in much the same vein. "It reminds me of home. There was never a shortage of chores to be done in a family the size of mine, particularly after each of the youngest three were born." The blini are faring a lot better now that he's paying them the proper attention. "To be quite honest, I started doing more than my share as a way of standing out. But, back then I was always secretly daydreaming about more exciting things.""Like?""Adventure. Traveling the world and slaying monsters, exploring ruins and contending with their machine guardians, solving ancient puzzles and the occasional crime. All the usual things that countless children the world over dream of."Aether reflects on that. Childhood dreams, huh? I wonder...where is the part where something happened that made you want to protect Teucer's dreams with such dedication? On the surface it sounds like yours came true. There must be more to it. But let's keep this light, this time. "...That explains why you're so keen to join me," he half jokes, glancing over again to assure Childe with a smile that he's neither belittling that desire nor fishing for a deeper story."Perhaps you're not wrong," Childe acknowledges lightheartedly.Even if it's too late, I will protect your childhood dreams from this day forward, Aether vows. It's at this moment that he has the chance to say what he's been thinking about more and more often; fetching more cups and tea balls, he tells Childe, "There's so much I've been wishing to show you. So many places. And some interesting opponents, too. There's the Perpetual Mechanical Array, the Maguu Kenki, the— Oh! You haven't been to Mondstadt, right?""Dragonspine, yes, but I haven't been to that verdant land beyond the snow."Aether grins at him. "Lupus Boreas. He's also called Andrius, the Dominator of Wolves, and the Wolf-King of the North. He is, or was, the northern of Barbatos's Four Winds. His physical body is long dead, but his spirit is whole, and he waits in an arena in Wolvendom for challengers to test themselves against him."Childe suspects the Traveler knew exactly how much that would interest him and he's not unhappy to be predictable. His eyes widen bit by bit as the Traveler tells him everything he needs to know in order to know he must meet Lupus Boreas. "Well, I've always wanted to see Mondstadt at some point, but this, I have to say, moves it to the top of my list!""Do you have a list?""Not really. But if there was one, it would be at the top~""Well, do you have any other places you've always wanted to go?""Everywhere else I haven't been."Aether's smile twitches and he huffs a proto-chuckle. "...Good. That just happens to be where I'm going.""Until you reach Snezhnaya. Then, I will be your tour guide.""You'll have to fight Paimon for that position."Childe laughs. "That's the second time you've told me I have to fight Paimon. I have a number of questions about her, by the way, but I suppose I should direct them to her.""That'd be best. I don't even know very much about her.""Oh? You've been traveling together all this time. There've been very few reports of you being seen without her."Aether is tempted to ask about the reports Childe is referring to, just out of curiosity, but it can wait. He understands, anyway, that they must be Fatui intelligence reports. The already-obvious fact that he's being spied on everywhere he goes is one he's totally indifferent to. "That's true, but I don't mind her having some secrets. I once asked her where she's from, when she was teaching me the common language, and she got a look on her face that told me all I needed to know. Every indication is that she's alone in the world. All I can do to help with that is be a friend to her, I think."Childe puts that line of inquiry on the back burner and takes the now-empty blin pan off it. Five blini are done and edible; when he made the batter he'd accounted for six servings in case anyone—Paimon—wanted seconds. Each blin is very thin but they're the size of the entire pan. Filled, folded over, and sliced, one of them is enough for a meal. "Speaking of Paimon, where is she? And where are Chongyun and Xingqiu?""I'm surprised those nice smells didn't bring Paimon down here by now. I guess the others are still at the guest house with no idea what they're missing. Let's set things up and get them.""You go, I'll set the table. Ah, and I'll bring the cat out."Aether nods once, but he gives Childe a head start by carrying his own cup of steeping tea to the dining tables on his way upstairs. He almost takes Childe's cup too, but he doesn't want to presume which chair to place it at.In his bedroom he once again finds Paimon with a book. Possibly the same book. This time, she's awake and actually reading, which must mean she's very bored. The book is abandoned the moment he opens the door. "Is the food ready?" she exclaims, all but springing off the sofa to hover at her normal height."Yes," Aether says with a lilt of amusem*nt. "How long have you been waiting?""Uumm not long," Paimon lies, looking oddly embarrassed.Aether raises an eyebrow."Okay, so, Paimon followed the tasty smell to the kitchen but you were talking so Paimon didn't want to interrupt.""Huh. I'm surprised neither of us saw you."(There was one period of time in which they were both preoccupied enough.)Paimon shrugs."Anyway," Aether continues, "go on down and have a big pink pancake. I'm going to see if Chongyun and Xingqiu want to join us." Paimon zips down to the main room and, just in time, Aether remembers to follow her. As far as the upstairs railing, anyway. He watches her...fly right past the cat Childe is trying to coax to stay in a chair. She goes straight for the food. Aether covers a tiny smirk. Now it's going to be even funnier when she notices their new housemate. At least, it balances out the fact that he and Childe forgot the part of their plan where the cat was meant to have its own place setting.He waits, leaning on the railing. Childe waits, leaning over the back of the cat's chair. He's blocking its forward escape route with one hand and petting it with the other. That's no way to keep a cat from getting away, and the cat is clearly more interested in exploring than being petted. If anything, it's lingering there because of choice paralysis."Paimon?" he calls down. "You're being rude to our guest."As usual, she's hovering above the seat of her chair instead of sitting on it. She does a confused little hop in the air, looking around, looking at Childe, then finally noticing the cat. She raises her hands to her cheeks, startled to realize it was there all along. "That's...not one of the cats from the Asase Shrine, is it?" she asks Aether, tilting forward and squinting at the cat's face.Now that she mentions it, Aether doesn't know. He almost jumps over the railing to come down for the introductions—he's 'durable' enough that it's safe for him to jump one storey, and he has all the expertise to land safely even if he weren't. But he realizes he might startle the cat if he does that. So, he goes around and descends the stairs while Childe asks Paimon about the Asase Shrine. She gives him such an abbreviated explanation that it sounds even weirder than it is."Nnno, I don't think it's from there," Childe says, sounding uncertain. There's no way to know, is there, unless it happens to speak. Could any cat in Inazuma secretly be one of those? They'd make great spies. I should go...talk to them at that shrine I suppose, and see if any would like to join the Fatui. He's not sure how much he means that idea. By all rights it should be a joke, but...what if? Filing the notion away, he shakes his head. "I found it in the suburb of Inazuma City. It was remarkably fearless."

"Is it a kitten?" Paimon asks. She grabs a slice from her plate and scarfs it down.Childe shrugs. The cat takes its leave to survey its new surroundings, and he doesn't try to catch it. At random he chooses to fold his arms across the chair's back and lightly lean on it instead of standing up straight. This keeps him relatively close to Paimon's current eye level. "It may be a runt, or it may be young. I don't even know if it's male or female." He glances around until he spots the cat and peers at its rear end when it turns the right way. It's too far, though, and it doesn't help that the cat has all-black fur except for white markings on its feet. "It was dark every time I went to feed it.""Where in the suburb exactly?" Aether asks. At this rate, Chongyun won't have to lift a finger to have a cold meal, but he can't pull himself away yet."By a large tree with dirt paths around it?""You're not the only person I know who's fed strays there.""Thoma?" Childe guesses. Thoma told him he knew the Traveler, so there's no new information here."Yeah! You've met?""Thoma always makes sure Paimon gets enough food," Paimon comments, appearing to think back happily on her encounters with him. "And the only time he's weird about ingredients is hot pot time." The period she punctuates this with is a big bite of blin."It's a winning strategy," Childe recalls. "Winning at all costs is something I can respect.""So you know him," Aether responds with amusem*nt. He's earnest when he says, "Glad to hear that. I think of him as being pretty trustworthy, in that his motives are clear and he acts on them consistently."

Childe wonders at that. Really? They weren't that clear to me.

"Does the cat have a name?" Paimon wonders.The answer is stolen from Childe's tongue by a fit of snickering. He closes his eyes a moment and brings up a hand to drop his forehead into, but he's also grinning. Fifty-fifty rueing his choice of name and being proud of how funny it is. "...Zhongli." He opens one eye to see the Traveler's reaction.Aether's laughter comes as a snerk, then a small snicker, then an explosion of quiet chortling. He's just laughing at the idea of a cat named after Zhongli, though; it's Paimon who gets the joke first."Because—!" Paimon covers her mouth with her knuckles, trying not to laugh before she can get the words out. "Because Childe feeds Zhongli too!" Giggles overtake her.Aether's laughter gets quieter rather than louder as it redoubles. He drapes himself on the back of the nearest chair and buries his face in his hands. A moment later when he looks up, his cheeks are wet with tears of joy and he can only wheeze, "I can't. Wait. To see Zhongli find out."Childe doesn't laugh any more with them, instead just beaming. Because, as he watches the Traveler crack up, the only thing on his mind is an incandescently strong feeling akin to satisfaction.(Someone looks like Kamaji Smug In Love, Paimon notices as she recovers. She keeps the observation to herself.)"H'okay," Aether says once he can keep enough breath in him to do so. "I have to go get the others." On the stairs he pauses and turns to let Childe know, "That was the best laugh I've had since...I don't know when." A quick, soft smile, and he continues up.When the Traveler is out of his sight, Childe pretends he wasn't staring. He looks to Paimon and plants his chin on his hand. "So, Paimon! How do you eat so much, physically?""Multiple stomachs!"He rubs his chin with one of the fingers holding it. "Are they 'transdimensional,' then?""Something like that!"The impasse Paimon has placed the short-lived conversation at is curiously tough to pry open. It just doesn't feel like there's anything he can follow that up with, without breaching politeness. Does she not know? It sounds like she doesn't know. He wonders if the look that stopped the Traveler from asking too many questions about her was the blank one she has now; he had assumed it was some kind of frown.After that awkward moment, Paimon tilts, regarding him with...an expression, but not one that's any more legible than blankness. A contented smile then resolves on her face. "When he's around you he's happier than Paimon has ever seen him before," she informs him, her high-pitched voice lowered in volume in case the Traveler returns while she's speaking. "He really cares about you, y'know. He really, reeeally cares about you, hehe."Childe tries to entertain a thought about whether Paimon is attempting to distract him from the subject of herself, but if that's what she's doing, it's very much working. He half smiles, half grimaces, looking at the table and shifting his hand from his chin to the back of his neck. "I'm starting to see that," he replies quietly for reasons other than discretion. His reluctance to believe, and his increasing inability to justify disbelieving, are in conflict, and sudden shyness is the outward manifestation. "I never truly thought he'd come to consider me a friend the same as I consider him one.""It's hard for him to open up, but once he does..."That sentence doesn't sound like it has a planned ending. In any case, they hear a door upstairs open and close, and in a matter of seconds the Traveler is trotting down in what Childe now thinks of as his day clothes. The Harbinger figuratively kicks himself out of his shy mood, and flips his hand up in a casual wave as his comrade passes by. "I'll warm up Xingqiu's.""And Paimon's gotta go!" she announces as if she just remembered something. She catches up with the Traveler just in time to go out the door with him. Her plate is empty, so Childe nabs it and takes it to the kitchen along with Xingqiu's breakfast.Outside, Aether nods to Tubby before disappearing.He arrives at the sub-space waypoint on the third island. Paimon drops gracefully from her own method of teleportation to her usual place at his side, and together they cross some twenty meters of grass before stepping onto a flagstone path. It leads shortly to the kind of house one would find in Springvale. Coming to stand between a potted pine tree and a sort-of-matching stone lantern, Aether knocks on the door.Chongyun opens it. He has a nearly-finished popsicle in one hand. He needed one already? This early in the day? Huh. The exorcist does look a little...harried. Just a little. But, he perks up as he greets Aether. "Traveler, hello. Is it time to proceed with our mission?""Getting there, but first, there's breakfast? Pancakes. Sweet, not savory like you might be used to.""Oh, like Mondstadt pancakes?""Not exactly. But closer to those than...what're they called again?""Cōngyóubǐng?""That. Thank you.""Xingqiu?" Chongyun calls over his shoulder. "You don't have to make breakfast. They have breakfast.""Oh dear, and I just finished assembling the ingredients," Xingqiu replies from the cottage's kitchen."You could still make something for lunch," Aether suggests, raising his voice to be heard by Xingqiu and lowering it again as soon as he sees the darker-blue-haired boy emerge from the other room. "Pick up a bento box or two from my kitchen after breakfast?"Chongyun winces subtly and Aether realizes his mistake. Paimon starts to say something but he's in a hurry to fix it: "Uh, or, I could make something quick for your lunches while you're eating.""I suppose," Xingqiu sighs, folding his arms to rest his chin on his knuckles. "I don't know what possessed me to attempt cooking, anyway.""If you learn to cook, you can make food for Paimon!" says Paimon, of course.Is that him trying to cover that he wanted to avoid eating food cooked by a Fatuus again, or am I reading too much into it? "I can teach you something about cooking, if you want. One of these days. Tomorrow? If you want."With a shrewd look, Xingqiu nods too solemnly for the subject. "In fact I would like that. You have my thanks for the kind offer."Okay, now I feel like I just agreed to something other than what I offered. That's the look people have when they've figured out an extra job they can get me to do 'while I'm at it.' Aether nods once and starts walking away. His part is done; the boys know how to get back to the mansion. As it turned out, everyone can use sub-space waypoints. Something about them being more similar to the Realm Dispatch than to regular waypoints, fundamentally. However, they have to attune to each 'point by touching it, just like he has to attune to normal waypoints.Paimon bids a very temporary farewell to their friends. "Hee, see you guys in a minute!"Aether is curious what Xingqiu has in mind for tomorrow. It actually doesn't trouble him at all that he seems to have an ulterior motive. Besides, in Aether's opinion he kind of owes Xingqiu after last night.

Notes:

"chapter 8" got stupid-long so I'm breaking my convention of having one day per chapter and one chapter per day

moved from beginning notes:
sooo... I've been under the impression for months that Childe addresses the Traveler as "sweetness" in his Teapot dialogues. I was so confused when I looked at those dialogues on the wiki and couldn't find that. turns out he addresses them by the player nickname...

...and the nickname of the player who uploaded the video I watched was sweetness; no capital letters, so it just looked like part of the sentence. 8')

I had thought "wow, that's not the term of endearment I would've guessed he'd use, but that's nice!" ........ anyway I've been planting lil seeds for it all along so it'd make sense. since it's about the most minor lore mistake possible, I'm just going to stick with it. according to Google, I'll actually be the first person to put that word in his mouth. but hey, the guy's full of surprises, right?

Chapter 9: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 2)

Notes:

see this? https://twitter.com/nautikalmiles/status/1563504098342731776 I happened to look at this lovely, heartbreaking art two minutes after writing about that exact topic and now you have to look at it too :)

also if you haven't listened to this, you should: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5sijOQw4yU

edit: updated the description of Childe's Vision/Delusion swap

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Aether only hears snatches of the conversation around the dining tables while he packs bento boxes for the Liyuen pair and for Paimon. It's apparently an enthusiastic exchange of opinions about physical conditioning between Chongyun and Childe. They're both obsessed with training, in that it constitutes a large facet of their personalities rather than just being a necessary routine. Aether can hold his own in a discussion like that, what with all the comparison of techniques and regimens that can be done, and the infinite range of people's perspectives on the matter. But in the end, his feeling is that an obsession with training is no different from making a major hobby out of bathing or toothbrushing.Nevertheless, he's happy to hear excitement raise their voices a little, even Chongyun's, when they discover they both like to spend time in ice-cold water. Chongyun is calling it a meditative exercise; he doesn't seem to have told Childe about his yang energy yet, though Aether could have missed it during an interval where their speech was less distinct. Childe, meanwhile, considers 'ice diving' a test of stamina.He thinks he hears an agreement to spar at some future date. That'll be interesting. I'd like to observe.Xingqiu isn't as lively in the conversation, but he gets drawn in from time to time by some minutia near and dear to his heart or by Chongyun prompting him.When breakfast is over for the Guhua swordsman and the exorcist, they, Paimon, and Aether gather on the porch and review the known procedure to knock down a Bedrock Key. One doesn't have to go outside to leave the Teapot, but mortal habits die hard. "If you run into anything weird, uh..." Any other day, Aether would've said 'come back,' because he would normally like to join them in examining the weirdness. He never knows when something odd and seemingly unimportant will reveal new information about this world. "Mark it on Zhiqiong's map and we'll check it out later. Or if you want to, just...see if you can figure it out." Putting too little faith in the pair would be a mistake. Plus, Paimon is with them, and she has all the same experience with Teyvat's mysteries that he has.Once the three are gone, Aether clenches his fists at his sides a couple of times to try to release some of his building anticipation. "Tubby, would you be able to form a sort of arena out of stone on the fourth island?" He describes a circle the same width as he estimates the floor of the Golden House to be."Yes, I could." She sounds contemplative but not uncertain. "It will, however, take some time. It might be finished by this time next week? Significantly changing the shape of the land itself once it has already been established is difficult. Tricky, you might say." Still, she seems more than willing to do it."Hmm. Okay. Start tonight, if it's not too much trouble. Until then, could you...mark an area like that by changing the plants? Maybe un-grow the grass?""Much more easily done. It will take only a moment.""Thank you. That'll be very helpful." He touches a hand to his chest's left side, a gesture of sincerity he first learned on another world that's also right at home on this one. It's much easier to do a simple hand gesture than to formulate adequate thanks, sometimes."And it is done," Tubby declares.Aether nods and turns to go back inside. He stops just short of running into the person he meant to fetch.Childe smiles wolfishly at him. "Don't you dare ask me if I'm ready." He now has all the same clothes on as the first time they fought, minus mask and gloves."Hah. I know you are." Aether slips past him. "I just need to bring the first aid supplies.""Not a bad idea, now that you mention it." Should've thought of it himself. To use the ten seconds he has to wait for the Traveler productively, Childe asks Tubby, "What is it that your...teapot is made of?" He nods to the one she's sitting in."I don't rightly know." Tubby seems untroubled by this. "It has been with me in one form or another ever since I came into existence, and is indeed part of my existence as a teapot spirit.""Huh. Well, thanks for indulging my curiosity."Aether reemerges, carrying a hat box under his arm. He closes the door behind him, gives Childe an eager glance, and sets off toward the light-bridge at a brisk walk.Childe is right behind him, then ahead of him, then matches his speed. As Aether marches, he strolls. "I can't tell you how pleased I am that this day has finally come." He puts his arms up in a stretch, linking his hands behind his head, and twirls 360 degrees between one step and the next."Me too. I mean, I know you've been the one looking forward to it more, I won't presume my desire's been as...impassioned. I don't think I could ever match your...fierce embrace of life and the good things in it. Like I said before, it's something I like about you."Looking down at him sidelong, Childe grins. "Careful, comrade. Stroking my ego might have insufferable results.""I'd stroke your ego all day and every day," Aether asserts boldly, aware of the innuendo but not leaning into it.Ironically, Childe is not aware of the innuendo. "Hahah! Is that so? You don't know the fire you're playing with. As a Harbinger I don't get many genuine compliments. Not on anything aside from my combat prowess, which, don't get me wrong, I do enjoy! But I get my satisfaction from my successes at vanquishing ever stronger foes. My point being: I don't know if I can handle any more compliments from you~""Yeah? What will you do about it?" Aether smirks up at him, still not intending any sexual flirtation. Flirting in general, though? He's letting himself try it.A short laugh. "I'll— no, I wouldn't want to shut you up. Hmm." Perhaps I'd just have to take it, if you held me down and forced me to. Abruptly, a warm tingle of what he recognizes as arousal threatens to take root. His eyes, which he'd closed for a moment, fly open and he stares ahead, mortified. That... No. Not now. Not the time. Stop thinking about it! He walks a little bit faster so Aether won't see his face.Aether is watching him the whole time, though. He sees Childe suddenly open his eyes, and he sees a look of shock seize his features before he moves ahead. What...was that? ...Actually, why don't I just ask? "Hey, what was that?" he prods, the amusem*nt in his voice verging on a chuckle."What was what?" Childe sympathizes with Paimon's evasiveness right now and wishes she'd teach him how to do the same. He has his own skills in that department, of course, despite preferring to be straightforward. It just...stops working when he's around the Traveler, nowadays. The retort he just made is good in theory, because it dares the opponent to be more direct than they might want, but he can tell his tone was too hasty."That look, like you just thought of something surprising."Nngh. "Oh, just a clever move I might pull on you today."

Aether is skeptical, but at this point it's clear Childe doesn't want to tell him. "Yet more for me to look forward to," he plays along.Childe nods as if pleased with himself, and lets a minute of not-too-awkward silence pass before he changes the subject. Falling back to his comrade's side, he looks at him earnestly and states as a matter of fact, "Traveler. I want you to know, you don't have to worry about me. I'm not going to let petty things like death and aging stop me. Not until I've achieved my goal." Not until you're the one who fights me to the death, at the end of my conquest, when all other challengers have failed.Aether raises an eyebrow somewhat, but the rest of the muscles in his face are relaxed. "You plan to obtain immortality, then?"Childe's attitude lightens as quick as it became serious, but he fully means what he says: "Most likely. I'll have to do it before I'm past my prime. My ambitions may be greater than even I can accomplish in just a few decades, I'm aware of that. Signora was five hundred years old, did you know? It's well within a Harbinger's remit to pursue power that defies mortality. The Tsaritsa herself would approve, I think. After all, a weapon that wears out too soon isn't that useful.""So you've really thought about it," Aether acknowledges. He gives it some thought as well, taking care to keep his concerns from coming out of his mouth before he has even articulated them to himself.In every world, humans try to escape death. It rarely ends well. In Aether's memory there are few details on the matter, but there's a large, gestalt impression of having witnessed such follies many times. Not only does the individual attempting it tend to obtain only horrific suffering, the path behind them is often paved with the bodies of people they sacrificed. Innocent people who also suffered greatly.But he has no intention of leaving Childe alone, so long as he's welcome. It's as simple as that, for now. If the Harbinger will accept his advice once in a while...maybe he can guide him around the pitfalls. In Teyvat's legends and hidden histories, he has found a variety of immortal humans. There are possibilities out there. And then there's what Venti told him, too: that all Vision holders have the potential to ascend to Celestia.That was a secret Venti told me. Childe might not know. But would knowing spoil his chances? Is it that kind of thing? All things considered, I shouldn't tell him, and I won't. But if anyone has the drive to attain divinity, it's him. Most Vision holders have ambitions that are more specific and limited in scope. His...is to stand at the top of the world. To do that, he'd have to defeat gods. To defeat gods, he'd almost have to be one.There's at least one other issue Aether knows he'll have to take very, very seriously, but if he doesn't promise anything today, that can wait its due time."...Yes, I have," Childe replies eventually. He didn't want to interrupt the Traveler's obvious pondering too soon. "And it seems you're thinking about it too. Will you tell me those thoughts?"Aether nods but doesn't speak right away, organizing his thinking into an answer and an offer. "...It rarely ends well. That being said, in this world there are multiple ways to gain immortality. I don't know exactly how any of those methods work, or even what they all are. But I think...that I might be able to help you. On other worlds I've seen countless failures in the attempt. Many of them led to fates far worse than death. Of course, you don't have to take my advice, but if you'll listen, I might be able to...tell when something that looks like an opportunity you can't miss is actually a bad deal." That's fine, isn't it? Just keeping him away from the worst ideas, if I can. That's fine to commit to. Good for everyone.This is a slippery slope. Aether knows it is. It's one of the things he's been worried about with regard to his feelings for Childe. It's dangerous for someone like him to aid someone whose morals are selectively blind to the extent that Childe's are. But Xingqiu gave him the benefit of the doubt, and maybe, he thinks, that's a sign that he too should relax his qualms a little. Though, he certainly sees the irony that Xingqiu himself wouldn't look at it that way.Childe has his arms folded by now, loosely, for no reason other than holding his hand up next to his chin. He's slowly nodding. "I would be a fool to turn away that offer, wouldn't I. ...Alright then. Go ahead and tell me what you think, when a situation like that comes up."Thank you, Aether almost says. But he's the one doing Childe a favor, so that wouldn't make sense to anyone but himself. A nod suffices.They begin crossing the last light-bridge. Amid the gap in their conversation, they both grow impatient with walking. Aether nudges Childe's arm with the back of his hand. "Race?" They grin at each other, and it'd be hard to say which of them grinned first.Childe sprints. Aether catches up despite his shorter legs. That's all Childe needs to see to satisfy his curiosity on that point, so from there he cheats: he transposes himself into Hydro and speeds ahead."Showoff!" Aether yells after him. "Save it for the fight!"Childe splashes down at the top of the light-bridge and waits for the Traveler, his hands on his hips and another grin on his face.Aether sees that wide version of Childe's sunny smile as he gets near, and when he skids to a stop in front of him, he's smiling back uncontrollably. It doesn't take long for him to catch his breath, but while he does, he rests his free hand on his hip likewise.Childe's heart skips a beat. The Traveler is looking at him so fondly he can't mistake it for anything else. Beyond him, the other three islands are arrayed across the cloudscape: the mansion on the first, the guest house and a large flower garden-in-progress on the second, and a bunch of floating boulders and leafy trees on the third. They passed it all on their way, but, not for the first time in this place, he didn't pay as much attention to the surroundings as he intended to. He's not really paying attention to them now, either, but he thinks it's picturesque how the Traveler is standing there with his very own realm stretched out behind him.Unidentifiable yearnings swirl in Childe, and he's confused by them before he guesses it's his excitement about the imminent fight. It feels different from the lead-up to any other battle he's fought, even the best of the ones that had life-and-death stakes. But the opponent is different, too, so it doesn't not make sense. With that 'understanding,' he takes the stone stairs two and three at a time to get to the island's upper plateau, the Traveler following no more than two steps behind.The plateau is empty and flat except for two trees which guard the brink on either side. Their foliage is a brilliant yellow that's practically glowing in the sunlight, and their thick, twisted trunks have veins of what looks like amber or molten metal. Probably amber. At the center of the island is a large, circular space where no grass grows. He's drawn toward it, seeing it as a perfect stage for him and his comrade to perform on. Nothing fancy, but for this, all he wants is open space where he can truly let loose.Rolling his shoulders, Childe strides to the edge of the circle. He notes that the dirt is not just free of grass but also hard-packed. It won't stay that way long with Hydro in play, but it'll be a nice start.Aether jogs to keep up with him, except for a pause to set the first aid box down at a safe distance from their makeshift arena's edge. "I need a moment before we begin," he says when he rejoins Childe. "And, uh..." He steels himself, because this is why he's going to need that moment. "Feel free to use your Delusion." To hide his apprehension, he pretends for a few seconds that Childe is someone else—someone who hasn't found their way so deep behind his customary stoicism. He suspects he's going to lose the ability to hide anything from Childe, soon, if the man keeps paying attention to him. "Maybe don't transform, though? It's the biggest limit on your stamina and I want this to... That is, I'm willing to keep at it for hours if you are."Childe doesn't want to hold anything back today, but the Traveler is making a good point. The idea of battling with him all-out for hours, pushing their endurance to their limits, completely exhausting themselves and finding out who can still stand at the end... He can't say no to that! It'd be like his entire unplanned vacation in the Mystic Onmyou Chamber was compressed into a fraction of the time. There is nothing about that that sounds, to him, anything less than magnificent. "Agreed."Aether enjoys how Childe's eyes widen in delight. There's no accompanying smile, but his reaction is quite transparent regardless, and seeing him so delighted warms his heart. He smiles softly, briefly, and walks a few steps away. "Now for that moment.""Wait." A thought popped that balloon of joy and Childe is shifting on his feet, frowning a bit. "The mask, it supposedly makes the use of a Delusion safer. I'm entirely willing to do without it, but I felt as if I should tell you." (It doesn't occur to him that taking that risk would be contrary to his earlier assurances that there's no need to worry about him.)Aether's mind flips straight to problem-solving. He's sure Childe would be disappointed if he asked him not to use his Delusion after all, and he can't have that. On the other hand, if they proceed as-is, he himself won't be able to give the fight the focus Childe deserves from him. He'd be distracted by worry. So, the obvious and only solution, he decides, is to supply him with a mask. Maybe they could do a quick and extremely amateur repair on his? Would glue keep it together long enough? Wait, I know! The one Diluc gave me! "...I have an idea! I have a mask I used in my early days in Mondstadt to infiltrate a Fatui operation. Not as a Fatuus, but, as an informant. Anyway, I can get it it and be back in half a minute!"Childe isn't sure whether the effect requires a specially crafted mask or just any old mask. He opts not to bring that up. Neither of them will notice the difference either way. "That should do! I appreciate it, comrade. I'll await you here."Aether teleports to the first island without delay and runs inside the mansion, giving Tubby a little wave as he goes past her so she won't worry that there's been some kind of emergency. He races upstairs, retrieves the mask from a drawer, and teleports straight back. A short run takes him from the sub-space waypoint to where he was standing before. Holding it out for Childe to take, he feels a glimmer of triumph.Taking the brown, mildly ornate but ultimately unremarkable mask by the edge, Childe gives it a cursory lookover. "Ugly," he laughs. "But beggars can't be choosers." He puts it on and rotates it to the side of his head."Definitely doesn't do you justice," Aether agrees.That's an interesting way to put that, Childe notices. He gives a sweeping shrug and drops his hands back down to his sides. "I'm a victim of an unfashionable fate.""Heh. Alright, well. I'm going to that side." By crossing the circle now rather than after he's done his meditation, he'll avoid questions about what he's doing and why. Once in place, he sits down, folds his legs, and closes his eyes. There's nothing more to it than that, physically. No special breathing, and his hands are just draped limply on his knees.Teppei.He doesn't want the memory to sneak up on him during the fight, so he confronts it now.He recalls the sense of foreboding, of doom, that he felt the first time he saw Teppei had aged far beyond his years. Not his own doom, of course. Just that of one well-intentioned young man and maybe the other Resistance soldiers who picked up Delusions. Teppei turned out to be a timely canary in that mine, though: he had been so ambitious and so eager to serve Watatsumi that he used 'his' Delusion more than the others used 'theirs.'Moving on, he sees Teppei propped against the side of that building in Borou Village, his breathing shallow and labored, his face wrinkled and drained. He remembers the anger he felt. It arose from the smoldering ashes that have lingered within Aether and Lumine since their early lives. Unwisely, he welcomed it back, and he held its burning ember tight as he searched out the Fatui factory.Intending that it should never happen again anywhere else, he was prepared to kill the architect of the plan to scatter Delusions on the battlefields. Whoever was in charge of the factory. Whoever was highest on the chain of command, who didn't leave in time to escape his metaphorical jaws snapping their literal neck.At the time, he didn't think about Childe.He himself was the one who barely escaped that factory with his life, and only thanks to Yae Miko. It feels like much longer ago than it was, but these memories press themselves to the surface of his mind almost every time he thinks of Childe using his Delusion. His brain paints him a vivid picture of Childe's face wizened like Teppei's, and he knows his heart would break into a thousand pieces if he had to hear Childe breathe the same feeble breaths as his last. Considering Childe is a Fatui Harbinger, maybe it's insulting to Teppei's memory that one man makes him think of the other and vice versa.It really wasn't that long ago, was it. It's going to stay with him like this for a while longer, he expects, but for now he has made a truce with it.The meditation takes him only a minute or two. All those thoughts were well-trodden ground. Opening his eyes, he stands up and approaches the center of the circle. If he and Childe start at close range, they won't have to think too tactically about how they engage.Childe stops stretching as soon as he sees the Traveler move. With a soft smirk he walks to meet him at the center.They halt about three meters apart.A trace of a smile on Aether's face greets Childe. He summons his sword without ceremony, and Childe does likewise with a physical bow Aether isn't sure he recognizes. He sees why when Hydro manifests around Childe's left arm and flows from there to completely cover the bow in a close-fitting layer of coursing water."So, comrade," Childe drawls. "I can't help noticing this space you've set aside is about the same size as the floor—""—in the Golden House, yes," Aether interrupts to finish, his smile growing.Childe co*cks his head and flips his bow between different grips while casually hooking the thumb of his other hand into a pocket. Aether sees one of his feet sliding back an inch and turning in a suspiciously deliberate manner. "It's very sweet of you to recreate something of our first meeting as foes," Childe says, "even if everything else around us differs. You're as sentimental as I am."Aether shifts his weight onto his left foot. It's not part of any plan. Few plans survive contact with reality, anyway. It's just a playful misdirection that he's pretty sure Childe won't even fall for, just as Aether hasn't fallen for that too-conspicuous stance adjustment he made. "You admit it, huh? No hiding behind motivational quotes about how a warrior should live, or how a weapon should be?" His tone isn't derisive. He might think some of that stuff is concerning, useless at best, but, in his opinion, it's not his place to argue with it. It is, however, his place to gently make fun of it on occasion."Pfaha ha! I don't hide behind them, I'll have you know... They're the aspirations that are worth reminding myself about.""I see. Well, fair enough." Let's see how far they'll get you today. Aether springs forward.Childe dodges in a torrent of Hydro and shoots five arrows in quick succession.They play a game of cat and mouse in which both of them are, at all times, the mouse, and both of them are at all times the cat. Childe's deft footwork and Hydro keep him just out of reach time and time again, while Aether uses every means at his disposal to evade or deflect arrows.The island trembles when, to obstruct a volley of arrows and give himself something to leap off, Aether summons a hunk of rock that would normally come from deep underground. That's where it has to come from in the Teapot, too, and there's not much depth to separate him and Childe from the consequences, nor much material to work with. The incident doesn't slow them down and they don't have time to comment on it, but after that, Aether refrains from using Geo.From the start, they move so quick a normal human observer would compare them to Electro seelies. Their already extraordinary physical capabilities are pushed to incredible extremes by the elements they command. There are just as many things Childe can do with Hydro alone as Aether can accomplish with Anemo and Electro.At one point, Aether boosts a leap with Electro and launches himself further with a well-timed gust of Anemo. As he dives down, sword aimed at Childe, the Harbinger forms his dual sabres and hurls himself up from a vortex of Hydro. They meet halfway, blades crashing together with such force that a wave of electrified water explodes out in all directions from the elemental energies surrounding them. They're in contact for a second or less before Aether falls and Childe tumbles up into his own downward arc. They easily break their falls with Hydro and Anemo, and there's not a moment's delay before they're back at it on the ground.From above, their skirmishes would resemble the collision of marbles in a box that's being tilted around at random: accelerated and dragged by momentum, chasing and violently repelling one another, spurring each other on. It would look like chaos, and it would look like a dance.When Childe was only using his bow, there was a certain stateliness to their dance, if the sheer speed of it were to be taken out of account. He did his best to maintain some distance between them, while Aether did his best to close in on him. Childe was grace itself, and Aether, as a melee fighter first and foremost, against an archer, inevitably had to follow his lead. Maybe that made Childe more like a musician whose tune Aether danced to.But once Childe brings out his swords, it becomes the kind of dance that obeys no rules but the passions of the dancers. It's wild and intimate now.They're often so close while locked in a melee that they can feel the heat radiating off one another's worked-up bodies. They smell petrichor, blood, sweat, and the ozone from Aether's Electro.Simultaneous ripostes almost turn into grappling as they stubbornly push back on each other's parries with the flats of their blades. Childe holds out long enough before Aether breaks his guard that, in the final second of the near-stalemate, their faces are so close above their crossed swords that they're breathing the same warm air.There's one fleeting moment in which Aether comes down behind Childe and they're back to back. Aether slams himself against him to stop him from turning, reverses his grip on his sword, and stabs backward, leaving a shallow cut across Childe's left side milliseconds before he can escape in a rush of Hydro.The trifling external injuries they accumulate are beneath their notice. Aether relearns the hard way that he should keep track of when there's a translucent, intangible blue mark on him. As little as a glancing scratch from any weapon Childe wields is enough to apply it, and while he's marked, any subsequent hit produces an explosion of Hydro. Its glow is hard to miss, yet with so much else going on, Aether fails to notice the first time Childe brings it into play. The explosion he forgot to expect is painful, but only for a brief moment before the bruised sensation is lost under adrenaline, determination, and the glee of the fight.Their scuffles are still broken up frequently by their elements. A windblade pushes Childe back, or his Hydro gets Electro-charged by Aether, or a point-blank whirlwind leaves him spluttering as his Hydro is caught up in it and turned against him. Aether takes a slashing fan of water right in the chest and stumbles back, or he's thrown back by a simple yet punishing water blast, or a literal rain of arrows gives him no choice but to retreat.If they're knocked down, they get up fast and counterattack without hesitation.Childe makes use of his bow when he has range, but after a while he's throwing the arrows as often as he shoots them. He ends up swiping at Aether with the bow itself, parrying with it, and using arrows like daggers. Sometime around then, the bow is abandoned.Aether has been using everything he has from the beginning, but Childe still has a lot of options to change things up. He sticks with Hydro much longer than he would in any other battle this frenetic, saving his Delusion for a 'later' that there's no hurry to arrive at.Fighting side-by-side and back-to-back in the Onmyou Chamber was one thing, but fighting against each other, just the two of them, lets them observe and admire each other constantly. If Aether's heart wasn't already hammering at his ribs, it'd beat faster every time Childe pulls off a move requiring his greatest finesse. If his breathing wasn't already being strictly managed by his body and his subconscious, the Harbinger's exquisite feats of footwork would take his breath away.Childe holds his Celestial Voyager in reserve for so long that it catches Aether off guard when he finally brings it forth. Sensing he can't escape to one side in time, Aether runs straight at Childe instead. The source of the whale is also a safe refuge from it; not safe from the rest of Childe's arsenal, but getting nicked by one of his sabres is a good price to pay for not getting crushed. Where the whale descends, a huge splash of mud is sent up. Seconds later, their arena is dry again, but none of it is packed firm anymore and it's all uneven.The terrain continues to change, never staying the same for long. They both get splashed by mud that sticks to them even after it's dry, because they're sweating profusely. Every so often some of the grime is swept off by Hydro offenses and defenses, but there's always more. During this, their second hour, neither resorts to intentionally kicking dirt in the other's eyes, but Aether has a few minutes where he's fighting blind due to what could be called collateral damage if he weren't, in fact, the target of the attack that incidentally brought dirt with it. He does likewise to Childe five or six times as side-effects of his Anemo abilities, but for Childe and his Vision, clearing his eyes is trivial.Childe has thrown his whale at him several times before Aether notices something and it gets through his concentration on the battle. The sound... Every time the whale rises and falls as if breaching from the ocean, it sings.Aether has no basis on which to interpret whalesong, but to his ears it sounds—He falters, slows down just a bit, and comes up short of his chance to get clear of the impact. An Electro leap is the only thing that might keep him from losing the fight—Childe sees the Traveler hesitate and feels at his fingertips all the ways he can take advantage. His instincts make a decision in an instant. He summons his bow, drawing as it materializes, a full draw, Hydro coalescing around the arrowhead not to enhance its punch but to soften it. The glitter of the sun on the water, an everpresent sight the whole time they've been sparring, competes with the bright blue glow.The arrow flies. It strikes the Traveler dead-on while he's in midair. There's a flash of Electro-charge at the same time as he's knocked all the way out of the impact zone. The whale crashes down in a virtual geyser of mud, its potential to end the fight in Childe's favor squandered.Aether finds himself on his back in the dirt, at the end of a short furrow made by his landing. Feeling no major injury, he scrambles to his feet and sends a whirlwind toward Childe to cover his own next move, whatever it's going to be.Nearing three hours into the fight of his life—not the hardest, but the best—Childe is entering a state of mind that is beyond self-deception. Though he has no time to think and might still fail to comprehend it if he did, deep down he knows...that he is loved, and that he loves. The Traveler's trust that he won't harm him too badly if he slips up, and that he will defend himself, that he's as good as he says he is at the thing his life revolves around...is love, and he places the same trust in the Traveler. The way they adapt to each other, synchronizing their actions, entwining their styles, becoming symbiotic in combat even as they compete, coming to know each other's capabilities as well as they know their own...is love.It's not until he hasn't made a successful attack in some time that he feels it's his Delusion's turn to take the stage.He gets himself out of the Traveler's range and, with a significant effort he has made efficient through practice, creates a dome of water around himself that'll protect him for a few seconds even after he switches from Hydro to Electro. That process he has also perfected. Every element is both matter and energy, and thus the separation between those two things becomes more lenient for those who control the elements. With a wave of his hand he swaps his Vision and Delusion, relegating the former to the pocket inside his jacket where he keeps the latter. The two objects being of the same shape and weight, any sensation from the swap is lost in the heady rush of the Delusion taking hold. It prickles under his skin and pervades even the fibers of his clothing, making changes in both. Though its effects on him are less visible, they are surely deeper. The battlefield is no place to think about that, and so he doesn't.He can do the same trick with his mask, but under the pressures of this fight, he settles for tugging it into place—just in time for the Hydro dome to fall away.It's hard to believe the Delusion actually drains him in any way when, every time he uses it, it gives him a second wind. That's something he can really use right now, and, as reliably as ever, he feels energy surge through him. It's a thrill that tops off his battle-euphoria and makes him wish he had something to kill. What a glorious opening scene that would be for his 'Act Two' with the Traveler.His Electro blades promptly form in his hands, and he translocates toward his dearest opponent in a bright streak of purple energy that's somehow more lurid in hue than the Traveler's Electro, or any normal Electro.Aether makes sure he's not in that spot when Childe gets there. His beloved opponent appears almost as fast as lightning itself, but in reality that would be an exaggeration. Aether is still faster. He outmaneuvers Childe again and again. But, he can't just run around forever. At the first opportunity he senses, he goes on the offensive.Childe meets the Traveler's attack with all his renewed vigor and violence. Every swing and thrust of these swords is bristling with electricity, crackling and snapping explosively, long arcs following the blades. Slash, slash, slash, thrust, spin, slash—finally the tip of one sword catches flesh.Despite the lingering pain of Electro, Aether barely notices the new cut. His attention is on not getting hit again, because now he's marked. For a short while his evasions are only enough to keep him a hair away from those awfully long blades, as if Childe is a predatory animal who has scented blood. It's Aether's own euphoria to see Childe fight so ferociously, and to be within that hair's breadth where one tiny mistake could cost him his advantages. He revels in his own desperation until he has regained a margin for error.There is no prey in this arena.Childe may be reenergized, and fiercer than at any prior moment in the past three hours, but he's just catching up. Aether has been inflicting Electro shocks on him all along; most of the time, he's had miniature bolts of lightning striking with his sword, and when he didn't, he was flinging out nodes of Electro to both cause problems for Childe and solve energy-related problems for himself.Aether hasn't succeeded in hitting Childe with his sword all that many times, however. It's just that Childe's successes with his weapons have been even rarer. Neither of them is keeping track, really, but this far into the fight they have a sense of where they stand.Still, all that matters is who is standing in the end. Fortunes could be completely reversed in seconds. Every move counts.The flashes of magenta-tinged Electro from Childe's constant attacks are half-blinding. Anyone with an unobstructed view from the first island could see them. Soon Aether is seeing afterimages behind his eyelids as if he'd been staring at the sun. He recalls this from their original fight, but he'd forgotten just how inconvenient it is.During the hours he wielded Hydro, Childe was relatively cautious with Aether, paying plenty of attention to his own defense. Now he's on a pure offensive, relying on keeping Aether busy with a berserker assault that forces him to go on the defensive. It impresses Aether how unpredictably he merges his dual swords into a polearm and breaks it back into swords; before, there had been a dynamic but identifiable pattern.Childe can tell his current tactics (such as they are) are working. He still would hardly know if the Traveler cut him, but he can feel him becoming more and more defensive. It's in the way their weapons meet, the vibration up the polearm haft as his overwhelming force is blocked with equal strength, the tingling sting of Electro on his bare hands as some fraction of the energy in his swords rebounds from the Traveler's blade all the way back to the grips. It's in the fact that the Traveler hasn't been able to get close enough for Childe to feel his heat or smell him in a while; there's only an all-pervasive smell of ozone.A difference in reach is something Aether can overcome with flexibility, but not while fending all this off. He can't even find a chance to push Childe back with Anemo... Until he can. An opening when Childe pulls another trick out of his sleeve. The Harbinger spins his polearm at his side and sweeps it out, not to attack directly but to call down a rapid series of lightning strikes in an arc toward and around Aether. Hopping forward just one or two steps and stopping, taking a risk that he isn't fully out of the lightning's path and another risk from simply being nearer to his opponent, he charges a windblade and—Childe's polearm comes up pointed straight at Aether and intercepts the comparatively shapeless windblade, its tip seeming to pull all that Anemo into a bright, concentrated cynosure around which streams and sparks of both elements whirl. It's a perfect repeat of what happened when Childe attempted to bring their confrontation in front of the Exuvia to a premature end, except this time, Aether is the aggressor. And this time, the brilliant turquoise of Anemo is slowly but steadily repelling the weapon that was giving him so much trouble seconds ago.Childe digs his heels into the dirt and grasps his polearm in both hands. Aether crosses his sword arm under his wrist to stabilize it. Sounds of effort escape both of them through clenched teeth, almost inaudible beneath the roar of wind and the loud, crackling hiss of electricity.The power of a Harbinger's Delusion should win. That's the outcome they would have agreed to be most likely if this were just a scenario they were discussing. Because Aether is making headway, he has no intention of letting up. Because Childe can't stop testing his limits, he won't change tack either. His tenacity halts Aether's progress, but can't seem to reverse it. Whether the struggle lasts moments or minutes, it's less a contest of elemental power than it is a contest of the stubbornness within both of them versus the accelerating burnout of their stamina.Also like the first time, it ends in an explosion. Aether tries to infuse his windblade with his own Electro, or maybe give himself an energy boost. He doesn't know, he's just trying something. Neither of them knows what happens between that act and the explosion that hurls them apart. They find themselves on their backs across the arena from each other. Between the pressure-wave bruising they took and the extent to which they drained themselves on that brief but exceptionally intense clash, they feel as if they were beaten up by a Geo lawachurl.

Yet they get up. They scrape themselves off the floor and rise onto momentarily wobbly legs, each starting to become aware of how every muscle in their body is on fire from exertion.Aether wipes blood from below his nose, staring across at Childe with the intensity of a different fire that still is not quenched.Childe stares at him with the same hunger. He calls his polearm back to his hand in another incidental reproduction of their first performance together. This time the shoulder he raises it to rest on is armored only in the tattered, bloodied cloth of his jacket and the shirt underneath.Aether picks up his sword.In sync they begin to stalk in opposite directions around the perimeter. Circling each other, never breaking eye contact. Both expressionless but for the feral glint in their eyes.Childe spins his polearm into a throwing grip. Aether runs at him and closes in fast enough that the polearm sails over his shoulder. He leaps as if to tackle Childe head-on but at the last instant uses a puff of Anemo at his back to knock his own course lower—Toppling forward as the Traveler tackles his legs out from under him, Childe twists around to grab for that cape or the braid—Aether's long hair and cape are self-inflicted weak points his reflexes know how to turn into a trap. He throws himself to his left, landing on his side, braid secured between his body and the ground. Childe, having moved very hastily to grab at him, is half sitting and half lying on his hip with one hand supporting him. His grip on Aether's braid doesn't pull him across the ground, but it upsets his balance and he lurches forward onto his chest—Aether springs into a kind of low backflip that sprawls him supine atop Childe's body. He locks his thighs around his head, sitting up sharply with the motion and letting it carry him forward to slam his hands down on Childe's wrists.Childe lets go of Aether's braid, knowing all his options with it would be in vain. Its length allowed the Traveler a meaningful freedom of movement, and now the Harbinger is partially pinned down; the braid is too long to give him any leverage. He gets his knees under him and tries to buck the Traveler off, but the shorter man's muscular thighs don't budge. Aether doesn't have the leverage, either, to keep Childe's wrists on the ground, but he can hold them together and keep them away from himself.The loaned mask is askew, and as Childe forcefully overturns them both onto their sides, it slips off. Delusions, Visions, elements, weapons: all have been forgotten by both of them. Armed with nothing but their purpose-honed bodies, they struggle in the dirt. It takes almost as much strength for Aether to keep Childe restrained and headlocked as it takes for Childe to try everything to get free. Almost.Their mutual exhaustion is deepening fast and adrenaline is abandoning them. A myriad of pains make themselves known, and the worst of their injuries—bruised ribs, intercostal strains, strained tendons, many torn muscles—are forcing them to slow down. Forced to slow down, they soon stop struggling against one another and collapse.Rather, Childe would collapse if he wasn't already lying on his side (again). He just slumps onto his back as the Traveler releases him. He is gorged on battle and emptied of cares. Filled with a satisfied afterglow, and yet, not sated. Exhausted in the very best way, but still burning inside, and it's not just his muscles and lungs. Restless even as he can barely move. The unaccountable yearning is still there, coiled tighter than ever, right after one of his fondest wishes has been lavishly granted. But, for the moment, all he can do is catch his breath in ragged gasps that feel like swallowing sea urchins whole.Aether gets an elbow under himself, then the other, and drags himself away a little to disentangle his legs from around Childe's shoulders. With a groan amidst his gasping breaths, he turns on his hip in order to crawl toward Childe until he can turn again and flop down alongside him. Every breath he drags into his overworked lungs feels like sandpaper in his throat.They stare at the sky while they catch their breath. Childe's arms are lying above his head, loosely extended across the ground. Aether has one arm lying at his side opposite Childe and the other resting on his own midsection.Aether is restless. He feels as if something is unfinished, as if he still has something left to expend. He doesn't think he has the physical energy left to do anything at all, though. Distantly he wonders how he's going to get to the first aid supplies, and that's just the first step. He looks at Childe. He's covered in streaks of dirt, blood, and mixtures thereof, and so is Aether, though maybe to a lesser extent. They need to clean their wounds and... He can't focus. Looking at Childe is more enrapturing than ever, and it stokes the flame of want until it's almost desperation. He has no idea what to do with that.In his periphery Childe sees the Traveler turn his head toward him. He does likewise. They stare at each other, almost the same way they stared at one another across their personal battlefield. Hungry. Searching. The air grows heavy between them, each becoming more conscious of the other's breathing than his own. It doesn't feel like the stare breaks when Childe's eyes wander to the Traveler's parted lips. Please, his own lips part to permit, but he doesn't say it, doesn't even mouth it. Please...what?Aether's hands itch to reach out. He wants to touch Childe. That's what he wants. He wants to hold him, kiss him, explore him, find all the other ways their bodies could connect and compete and satisfy each other. They've fought as hard as they can, learned their strengths and weaknesses, absorbed every detail of each other's movements in combat, and Aether, with a fervency that catches him completely by surprise, craves the rest of it. He has never had a sexual thought about Childe before, unless he counts his intense admiration of the Harbinger's grace in combat and the way he looks when he's happy. And maybe that feeling about Foul Legacy that he is continuing to ignore, the one that isn't sadness but which exists inseparable from it. He swallows anxiously and averts his eyes, but doesn't turn away.Childe's mind is full of things he can't put into words. Incoherent odes. Gratitude. Adoration. Deeper things that taste bittersweet. But at the moment all of that is an undercurrent in his rising desperation to... To be physically close to the Traveler again, closer than they are now and closer than they've ever been. To be separated by nothing: no space, no clothes, no fears or doubts. He wants to know what the Traveler's skin feels like against his and wants to know if he'd be able to feel the other man's heartbeat against his chest. He wants to lick the Traveler's pulse points, feel his life on his tongue, and know tangibly that they are both alive.They're pungent from prolonged exertion, and each of them is all too aware of the other's odor. Past the well-earned blood and sweat, there are scents unique to them and their bathing habits that tantalize them. If they could just pick out those scents, they could identify each other's uniqueness and savor it.They hold back, resolutely showing nothing of their wandering, impassioned thoughts. They both hope they're showing nothing, at least. The truth is, Childe is too wrapped up in himself to see the longing in Aether's gaze, and Aether is too bowled-over by the unprecedented experience of desiring someone in this way.However, Aether is a student of Childe's eyes. They fascinate him endlessly. He witnesses so many expressions anchored there that betray emotions Childe seems to prefer to hide. Emotions he pretends he doesn't even have, or wishes he didn't, judging by his 'motivational quotes' (as Aether called them). How much do others see when they watch the Eleventh Harbinger's face? Are they too intimidated to notice, or, in the case of non-Fatui, too suspicious? Does Zhongli—the retired god, not the cat, though maybe the cat too—see those things? Half the time, Aether wonders if he's imagining it. Now, when he begins to recognize some kind of longing in the faint upturn of Childe's eyebrows and the minuscule downturn of his mouth, he also notes a smoky quality to his eyes that he's never seen before. It could easily be mistaken for the dullness that sets in when Childe is bored or...anything other than happy. But that isn't what it is.Aether wants to kiss him so badly. Kiss the uncertainty from the corners of his mouth, kiss reassurances onto his eyelids, visit tenderness on his forehead. He'd brush his damp forelock of hair aside, and—"Traveler?" Childe whispers. The first either of them has spoken since they started sparring.Please touch me, Childe knows he wants to say. He wants it so much it hurts. What he thinks was pure carnality moments ago is plummeting to another level. He's used to physical pain, treasures it as lessons learned and life proven, but... He never gets used to the deep sting of knowing he'll always be a disappointment to his family no matter how many strong foes he vanquishes and no matter how high he rises in the world. He never gets used to the dread that even his dearest siblings will hate him someday soon and that he'll be alone after that, forever. He just buries and reburies those things in fake-it-'til-you-make-it acceptance and his own version of positivity. And, though he sleeps well at night despite the things he's done, every so often it gnaws at him that he has, perhaps, lost control of a large portion of his life. Those are the types of things that hurt. He doesn't know exactly why it hurts like that to wish his closest friend and comrade would touch him, and to find himself unable to ask for it.

"...Childe?" Aether whispers back, prompting.Childe closes his eyes and shakes his head up and down slightly. "...Nothing, comrade. I'm just reflecting on our battle. It was, truly, the best in my life."Aether bites his lip while Childe can't see him. He knows what he's hearing in his beloved friend's voice: sadness. He's pretty sure that's what it is. Childe seems to be retreating into himself at a time when he should be exuberant. They're extremely tired, yes, but still... He gathers his courage and asks, his voice hoarse from his sore throat and remaining very quiet, "Then why do you sound...sad? What... What can I do to lift your spirits? Because I'll do it, whatever it is. I—..." With a grunt he turns onto his side, disregarding all the bruises it tenderizes. Childe opens his eyes. Aether reaches out tentatively, arm trembling with the effort...and places his fingertips on the Harbinger's chin, moving one of them in a small, singular caress as he does so.If Childe hadn't lost the ability to cry, maybe this completely unexpected answer to the plea he couldn't speak would have brought him close to tears. He stares at the Traveler with a much deepened frown, but it's one of thankful awe and blissful confusion. ...Comrade...? You'd...? The Traveler said he would do anything to lift his spirits. He had noticed in the first place that Childe was out of sorts. How? Why?The Traveler frowns too, softly, studying his face. "Adrenaline crash?" he guesses.Childe's brows unknit (which, unbeknownst to him, makes his overall expression more puppyish). "I suppose it could be," he sighs. "It's been long enough, hasn't it." The closest he's come to something like that in recent memory was when he decided he'd make himself scarce while Shiki rediscovered himself. His mood had taken a pensive turn that, in part, led to him comparing the Traveler to the stars but not having the guts to say it to his face. If he thinks back farther, the last time he experienced this (the depression, not the sexual thirst that preceded it) was...Aether watches the focus of Childe's eyes flick between various points on Aether's own face and then get stuck somewhere. I should have guessed sooner, he's thinking, meanwhile. I could've— Oh. I'm the one who—! He sighs, his fingertips stroking Childe's chin a couple of times on an apologetic impulse. "I'm the one who suggested we go at it for hours without any breaks. Or that's what I implied, and I didn't think to... I wasn't thinking."With a quick intake of breath and a wince, Childe turns onto his side, mirroring the Traveler.Aether withdraws his hand a short distance to make way for the change in the other man's position, hoping to put it back where it was once Childe is settled, then having the second thought that maybe the time for that has passed anyway.Childe looks at the Traveler's hovering, hesitating hand forlornly. Maybe that gift of touch was bound to be temporary. He was going to say something, but it has slipped his mind.Aether's left hand is on the ground between them. He rests his right but extends the left, level with their shoulders, as a passive offer. For good measure he flattens his palm and spreads his fingers to make the offer clearer.Trying not to overthink it, Childe slowly moves his hand to cover the Traveler's palm. His eyebrows rise an increment when the Traveler folds his fingers around his hand and...holds it. Not tight, but leaving no room for doubt as to whether the contact is welcome. Gradually, in stilted motions, Childe ventures to curl his thumb underneath and trace the Traveler's tendons through his glove. His own hands are bare and stained red from the numerous scratches and scrapes on them that accumulated, and kept getting aggravated to bleeding, during the fight. They're also reddened from mild electric burns.Aether smiles, faintly and then very warmly. His gaze stays twined with Childe's, no glance given to their hands or anywhere else.There's still drying blood under the Traveler's nose, and at some point, somehow, blood got in his hair, staining a few strands and sticking them together. He looks every bit as worn-out as Childe feels, yet he's smiling at him, and it's not the first time he has seen that smile. Not the first time the Traveler has looked at him like he's...important to him, and a source of joy. His brows knit again as he smiles back, partly because he's still unsure why all of this is happening. Well, he has an adequate explanation for the bad: they really did overdo it, and apparently his body doesn't appreciate that like he does. But there's no explanation for the good. Where's the bitter that always comes with the sweet?He recalls the morning and idly sifts through it. Things of great importance were said, and he was assured, perhaps once and for all, that the Traveler cares about him. Paimon said that, too. And, when he took hold of the Traveler's face and told him to close his eyes... When he said what he said, making an implicit promise... It felt irresistibly right. Not all of his spur-of-the-moment decisions are good ones, he'll admit that any day, but that was a good one.There's something he needs to say to the Traveler about it, he decides. A moment has passed in smiling silence. Childe's expression fades as he scoots an inch or two closer, and as he inclines his head nearer to his comrade's, he develops a serious, neutral look. What he has to say is important.Aether's heart thuds when Childe leans in like that, but he notes the look on his face and prepares to listen."Will you promise me something, Traveler?""Will you call me Aether?" he asks, even quieter. It's the best and worst time to bring that up, he supposes. Best, because he wants Childe to think of him as him and not an abstraction, especially when he's entrusting Aether with some kind of request; worst, because he's interrupting.Childe can't be caught off guard right now because, for once, he's not at all on guard in the first place. Nonetheless, he...was not expecting that, and it both startles and warms him to hear it. "Of— of course...Aether." So much for waiting until I won against him in a fight. And now he's literally warm, in the face, and there is no way the Traveler Aether isn't seeing it. So much for my dignity, too. Whatever remained of it.Aether's eyes widen. "You have freckles," he blurts out in an amazed murmur. He saw a dusting of freckles across Childe's shoulders several days ago, but didn't know he had any on his face."Eheh. Do you have to point that out right now?" Childe mumbles, ducking his head and scooting even closer to hide his face under Aether's chin. It's the only way to hide, under the circ*mstances."No," Aether laughs quietly and a bit strained, his ribs retaliating against him for it. "Let me see? Please?""Mmph." Begrudgingly but not really, Childe pulls back enough for Aether to see how blushing makes otherwise-invisible freckles appear across his cheekbones. They just redden more than the rest of his skin; they show up in the cold of Snezhnaya's outdoors, too. He's not embarrassed by them... Actually, he is, and that's the problem: he knows he has no reason to be, so the embarrassment is itself embarrassing. It does not help that most of the time, in these parts of Teyvat (or in a realm modeled after them), he has to be embarrassed already for them to make an appearance.But it's him asking, so I don't mind. Also, it's immediately distracting that their faces are now about four inches apart.The Traveler Aether smiles again. His free hand comes into view, moving as if on impulse and, in a clear act of will, stopping. Childe reaches over and catches his wrist, guiding it a little closer to his face and letting go. He wants Aether to know that he wants his touch.Aether is surprised and honored. Slowly, just in case he misinterpreted, he brings his gloved fingers up to Childe's cheek and brushes them over his freckles with reverence. "This chance is hard to come by." He remembers Childe saying that, back then. He had pretty much ignored it as overconfident nonsense, which it was. But he does remember it, as well as the blasé tone it was stated in. Childe expected nothing. It was, ironically, the first time he started letting his walls down around Aether, dispensing with the suave persona he'd maintained up to that point. Low expectations seem to be his underlying default. That must be why he's surprised so often lately. The lower your expectations, the more pleasant surprises you get. In theory, anyway. At the same time, he has the highest possible goals. You are full of contradictions...and I love you for it.Childe lets his eyelids fall. Through the material of Aether's glove, he can feel only a hint of the warmth of his fingers. What he feels most is the intent conveyed in the featherlike and incredibly slow caresses. He doesn't know what to call it, doesn't even try to name it, but it's one of the most soothing things he has ever felt. The only comparisons that come to mind are hugging his siblings and...older memories of familial love that will never be the same again. Some of the ways Thoma touched him were very much worth considering in the same line of thought, as far as their relaxing effect goes, but this is somehow even better, and it's much closer to that lost familial comfort. That's why it's better."Do you mind if I take my gloves off?" Aether asks."Let me help." Opening his eyes but keeping them downturned, Childe uses his hands to work the glove off Aether's left hand, the one that's been holding his. Along with that, he tilts his head to delicately grasp the other glove's middle finger between his teeth, the very end of it, allowing Aether to simply pull his hand out.That is not helping Aether forget about wanting to kiss Childe. However, as their left hands find one another again, he and Childe both pause, their eyes drawn to where their weapon-worn palms are clasped together. They're unable to keep those hands still, and the miracle is that they're not trying to. Thumbs slowly trace any skin they can reach, weaving between wounds. Their fingers lightly entwine only to extend again, stroking along each other with the same slowness, from the webbing between fingers to the frayed borders of their short, battered nails. Aether, having a somewhat smaller hand, has to shift his palm upward against Childe's to complete that journey. He notices that one of the Harbinger's proximal interphalangeal joints is slightly crooked, no doubt from a past injury that healed imperfectly.Neither of them questions what they're doing. They're focused on these sublime little sensations, and tuning out their aches and pains to do that, though it's mostly subconscious, doesn't leave much brain power to spare.Enough for Childe to know he wants this to be part of his life and not just one stolen moment.Enough for Aether to wonder what Childe was going to ask of him before— whatever it was that diverted them. He wants to hear it and give him any promise he wants.After uncounted minutes, Childe is the one who stills their hands, but it's because he chooses to interlace their fingers properly and close his over Aether's knuckles in a gently tight grip. He lifts his gaze to the face of the comrade he never wants to lose.Aether in turn gives his hand a measured squeeze to assure him that this is more than acceptable. He waits a moment to see if he's going to speak. When Childe doesn't, Aether finally introduces them both to what it's like for his bare fingertips to reexplore his cheekbone. He follows its contour with a light and once again very lingering touch, from the area in front of his ear all the way to the side of his nose. The freckles had faded, but he suspects they're about to come back.Childe's eyes close on their own as comfort suffuses him down to the bones so fast that it's like vertigo. At this point he doesn't care if Aether hears any pathetic noises from him, but he's silent, and that's alright too. Regardless, his face warms up at the intimacy of letting someone touch his face so close to his eye.How has this guy not gotten scars on his face? Aether muses. How does he still have so many teeth? Heh. His two most impressive accomplishments: keeping his face intact, and keeping his humanity mostly intact. Aether has zero problems with facial differences and injuries, but it's just plain remarkable. Probably won't last. He imagines a few possibilities: acid burns, a lost eye, fewer teeth, near-fatal lacerations leaving deep scars, and so on. None of it would make Childe any less pretty, and certainly not less beautiful. What Aether sees in Childe that he calls beauty is the light within him that shines out when he lets his humanity come to the fore, whether in his love for his family, his happiness over simpler things than combat, or moments of vulnerability. There are no real lines between one side of Childe and the other, however, and having embraced that, Aether always sees that light. It is not a matter of 'light versus dark,' it's a matter of prisms and lenses, just like the elements.He's 'drawing' the constellation Viator between freckles, finding all the orientations and sizes of it that work. If he knew Childe's constellation, that's what he'd draw instead. Either way, it's just an excuse to keep doing this, and a means to vary the sensation for Childe. It's a while before he asks, "Do you like this?" Because the answer seems quite evident."Mm," Childe attempts to affirm, but it doesn't come out with any particular tone, so he nudges himself to give it a better try. "Yes," he says, his voice scarcely entering the near-whisper. One corner of his mouth is tugged back by a fleeting and ambiguous expression. Not even he knows what it was. "What are you getting out of this, though?" he murmurs, and now he smiles. He doesn't doubt Aether's motivations, not for a second, but the part of him that's always asking rhetorical questions is having its say."What do you think?" Aether asks with a loving softness. That's not an answer, he points out to himself. That's not anything. But he lets it hang, hoping Childe will come to a positive conclusion on his own.Childe thinks. His smile was brief, but his mood doesn't stir, and his thoughts are peacefully formless. "...You like it too." The simplest possible answer, but it's evidently true, and that's good enough."Yeah," Aether confirms. "...I...hope I get to do it again in the future?""I hope you never stop," Childe admits."I won't, then, for as long as you still like it." Aether soon slides his fingertips back and up in something of an experiment, however. Brushing them over the hair covering Childe's temple. "Does this count as the same thing?"If he'd been about to recover from blushing, Childe isn't going to now. His lips purse into a tiny, self-conscious smile. "I think it does."Aether continues stroking and combing through the whole front-left quarter of Childe's hair. It takes time to sort out all the strands glued together by dried sweat, and only after that can he slide his hand under the left fringe. Combing deeper necessitates being even more careful, but Aether has all the patience in the world for this. Sometimes, without stopping, he uses his thumb to caress one path or another from the outer corner of Childe's eyebrow to his hairline, just to make sure his skin gets some love too.It really doesn't take much of that for Childe to start falling asleep. He drifts into a half-asleep state in which he remains for some span of time, fuzzily aware of Aether's ministrations while everything else fades away.At least half an hour passes, in fact, before Aether listens to his body reminding him that both he and Childe still require first aid. He tapers off what he's doing with the other man's hair, not wanting to stop all at once. Childe doesn't react to that, nor when he eventually does stop. Asleep, Aether observes, his already full heart overflowing with adoration for the sight before him. That he could actually give Childe such comfort is the most pleasant surprise he's had on this world.Aether reluctantly extracts his left hand from Childe's. Sucking his bottom lip behind his teeth to help hold back any noises, he tries to sit up. Tries. It's harder than cleaning up the Mikage Furnace. Every muscle in his body is dead. Alive enough to be painful, but otherwise dead. After a few minutes he has a different idea and gives up; it may or may not not be a better idea.Barbara. I don't have to move to get to Mondstadt. This is going to be kind of humiliating, but it might be easier, and at this rate I don't know how we'd patch ourselves up without help even if we could get to the supplies.First he ought to tell Childe where he's going. He touches his hand, then his shoulder. "Wake up," he coaxes too quietly. Leaning closer he tries, "Wake up, comrade..." It makes so much sense to call Childe that that he doesn't know why he's never thought of it before.Childe stirs.Aether pets his shoulder. He doesn't know if that's going to help wake him up or send him back to sleep. "Childe..." He can't bring himself to raise his voice, is the problem. He can't break out of this soft tone, and maybe his sore throat is owed some blame, but mostly he just doesn't want to. "...Tartaglia... First Harbinger of my heart, wake up?""Hmh? Mmn..."Yeah. Aether knows he himself isn't going to wake up for ages once he falls asleep, whenever that will be. It'll take continued prodding for Childe to fully regain consciousness. He starts alternating the shoulder-petting with little taps and nudges. "Come on, comrade. I'm not going to leave you here not knowing where I went. I know, I'm the one who made you fall asleep...but I have to wake you up, too.""Mmmph." At last Childe opens his eyes, blinking heavily. "Mwhat?"Aether gives his shoulder a parting pat. "I have to go get something. Someone, actually. I know a very good healer in Mondstadt, and I trust her to come here. I'm not sure how long it'll take before I get back.""Mmkay.""Stay here and don't move, alright? I'll take care of everything."Childe has no interest in objecting. He knows that if he only had himself to rely on he'd manage just fine, but in his current frame of mind, it's nice to hear words like 'I'll take care of everything.'The dirt isn't such a bad place to rest since it was thoroughly tilled by his and Aether's activities. Not a bad place to sleep, either.Aether would take a deep breath if his ribs weren't going to stop him. All the more reason to do what he's about to do, no matter how ridiculous it is. He concentrates on the waypoint in Mondstadt where some of the Fatui used to hang out. Although the other waypoint in town is closer to the cathedral, its high and unfrequented location would effectively strand him.Next thing he knows, he's lying on the pavement of Mondstadt's central northeast-to-southwest thoroughfare.A passing citizen startles at his sudden appearance. "Whoa, are you okay? Wait...aren't you...?""Honorary Knight, yeah," he croaks out. "Nice to meet you. Um, can you get Barbara or get someone to get Barbara?"

Notes:

a final bow at last, though the show must go on
(check out all of that person's analyses!)

edit: omg, someone was inspired by one of the lines in this chapter to draw a Chilaether art that is so wonderfully soft!? check out the rest of her art, too! she drew two [x] of [x] my all-time favorites (and now she's drawn three) ❣️

Chapter 10: Day 12: Never-Ending Performance (part 3)

Notes:

I made a small but important lore-fixing edit to the beginning of chapter 8, if you read it before yesterday you might want to check that

edit: expanded slightly on a Serenitea Pot headcanon to fix an inconsistency

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Paimon isn't here to save Aether from awkwardness, so, after asking the passerby to get Barbara, he pretends to fall unconscious. He hears the person hurry away, but he also hears a knight approaching. Both stop. The passerby follows the knight back toward him, relaying the request he made, and is assured by the knight that the situation will be taken care of.

Aether is carried up the long flights of stairs to the northwest end of the city. Inwardly, he thanks and congratulates himself for the idea to feign unconsciousness, because otherwise, this trip would be awful. He would've had to figure out what to look at and what to say. Plus, he's probably met this knight before, but he doubts he'd remember their name. He would've had to ask...

It reminds him of times when he'd stay up late reading books that he and Lumine found on their journeys. On nights (or days) when she'd told him they should rest up for whatever they were doing tomorrow, if she stirred, he hid his book and pretended to be asleep. He's pretty sure she pulled similar tricks. Being the sensible one was a quality that shifted between him and his sister as if they were a two-person juggling act throwing brain cells back and forth.

He and his courier must be nearing the Favonius Cathedral by the time familiar boots of customized plate armor come running to catch up. "Mr. Raymond!" calls Noelle. "Sir, what's happened to the Traveler?"

"I don't rightly know. A citizen saw him appear out of nowhere next to the old statue by the square. As he does, of course. But he lost consciousness, immediately after asking for Barbara, I was told."

"Oh no!" She walks closer alongside Raymond and Aether assumes she's inspecting his injuries as best she can without touching him. There aren't any serious external injuries, so she's going to be guessing the problem is internal. That won't be incorrect, but it's not as bad as she's going to guess.

He feels guilty for making Noelle worry; his self-congratulation is revoked. He hadn't expected her to get involved. It seemed like such a simple plan a few minutes ago.

They're very close to the cathedral now: the sun no longer hits his eyelids and the wind is obstructed, suggesting that a large building looms just ahead. Time to 'wake up.' He opens his eyes slowly, blinking and squinting. What am I going to say to Barbara? She's the healer so I should tell her the truth that I wasn't unconscious. But with Noelle there...?

Noelle notices his eyes opening right away. "Aether! What happened to you? Knight Mr. Raymond is bringing you to Ms. Barbara and we are almost there. Is there anything else you need?" To her credit, she's maintaining a clear and even tone of voice, but Aether imagines that that might be one too many questions for someone who had actually just woken up.

Noelle just elbows the heavy doors open.

"Hm? Um... Noelle, 's good to see you again. This isn't how I uh...meant to come back for my next visit." Between the hoarseness of his voice and the typical hesitations in his Paimon-unattended public speech, he doesn't need to do any more acting.

The sabatons worn by Raymond and Noelle are very different in style, but both echo loudly in the high-vaulted interior. Quickly they stride forward and meet Barbara halfway.

"Raym— Noe— Traveler? Oh dear, what happened? You look like Benny! Put him on this pew. Careful."

Aether is placed, carefully indeed, on one of the many pews that are empty at this time of day. He didn't get a look around, but he has the sense that the only people here right now are the Sisters. That's a relief. Maybe this undue production won't grow any larger.

The doors open again.

Uh-oh. Distracted trying to identify the footsteps, Aether sounds a little concussed as he belatedly answers the question that's been asked of him twice now. "Uh..." Long legs. "It's not that bad, actually, I just..." Leather boots. "Overdid it." At least it's not Jean. She doesn't need an extra worry, no matter how small.

"What 'it' did you overdo?" Barbara inquires as Raymond and Noelle turn to salute the new arrival.

Hands in fingerless gloves settle on the back of the pew. Kaeya leans over. He co*cks his head and peers down at Aether with a subtle smile, all casual despite the circ*mstances.

If he had any cavalry to command he'd probably be great at keeping up their morale. As things stand, his main job is, what, Knights intel? He's going to see right through me. I'll just be honest.

"Well hello there, Honorary Knight Aether. This is a surprise."

Aether winces as Barbara checks his ribs, gentle though she is. Plenty of bruising is visible on his midriff, so that's one of her first diagnostics. She's not exactly a doctor, but she was a healer before she received her Vision. Conventional first aid and convalescence is something she's very familiar with. "I didn't expect this much of a...reception," he replies to Kaeya.

"I hear you made quite the entrance."

"Already? Who'd you hear it from, a bird?"

"Maybe." The Cavalry Captain winks, or he tries to. Aether quickly learned to recognize the slight head movement that marks the difference between Kaeya winking and Kaeya blinking. He winks back to let him know he noticed, which always seems to please him. Most people simply assume he can't wink, and Aether is one of the few who know better. In turn, Kaeya is one of the few who clocked Aether as an adult right from the beginning.

Kaeya chuckles in response. "You're in good spirits at least. Go ahead and tell us what happened, then."

Barbara needs a better answer than Aether already gave, but she's also unable to ask other questions while he and Kaeya are talking. So, in the meantime she steps to the end of the pew and flourishes with her Hydro, administering some surface-level healing as a start. It encircles Aether with shimmering hints of musical notation.

"Well, it's... It was kind of stupid. I was sparring with a friend and...I had the idea to compete on endurance. We were fighting for...at least three hours?"

Noelle clasps her hands to her mouth, her concern no doubt mixing with respect for such a long bout. One of her first thoughts is probably to wonder if that could make her a better knight. At the same time, she's probably scolding herself for that, in light of the evidence that it's not as great an idea as it sounds to an overachiever like her.

Kaeya raises his visible eyebrow and whistles. "In other words, you went on a bender and now you have a 'hangover,' but you were fighting instead of drinking. You'll have to tell me all about it!" At that point he butts out to let Barbara ask Aether some questions relating to possible head injuries. Folding his arms loosely, he meanders out of Aether's line of sight. His footsteps cease not far away.

Noelle, on a sudden inspiration or recollection, perks up and runs off outside. Polite as she is, she would have excused herself if it wouldn't have interrupted Barbara.

Aether briefly considers insisting he doesn't have a head injury, but in the very next second he admits to himself that he can't be sure. He hasn't noticed any symptoms, but he hit the ground fairly hard a few times. So, he tries to be patient with the questions. Time is passing, though, and he needs to get Barbara to the Teapot.

As soon as he can get a word in edgewise that isn't an answer to a diagnostic question, he tells her, "My friend needs your attention too. He's in my Teapot." Kaeya and Barbara both know what that means, and thank goodness, because explaining that right now would be pretty inconvenient.

"Oh! Let me heal you one more time and then let's get going. Are his injuries about the same?"

"I think so." Hydro glows and glitters all around Aether in a wide area as Barbara performs her Shining Miracle. It always looks as if sunlight is casting rainbows through that water, Aether has noticed, no matter what the ambient light is like. There's a spectacular burst of aqueous star shapes, and he feels almost as if water is washing away the damage to his muscles and soft tissues. His skin actually does feel wet, but only for a few seconds.

He tries a deep breath and finds that it's a lot easier than before. Next, he makes a cautious attempt to sit up. This too is achievable, albeit stiffly and with a few twinges of pain.

"Take it slow and easy," Barbara advises. "There's still more to do, but... Can you walk? Slow and easy, now."

Aether heeds her advice and takes it one movement at a time: turning to sit normally on the pew; flexing his legs a little; leaning forward; pushing up from the wooden seat with his hands. His legs accept some of his weight on them. He staggers when he puts more weight on them, but he's able to prop a hand on the back of the next pew and safely limber himself up to walk. Barbara takes the opportunity to give him another 'small' heal.

"Okay," Aether says. "You remember how to get there?"

She nods. "Just think of your house on that pretty island, right?"

"Yes. It's prettier now; you'll like it, I think."

"Okay! Here goes!" And she vanishes.

Kaeya takes one lazy-mannered step forward from the column he's apparently been leaning against. "Are you sure you won't need help carrying your friend anywhere?"

That might be helpful, yeah. Maybe. But bringing an extra person into this, and Diluc's brother no less... Better keep it as uncomplicated as possible. He's not sure if there's going to be any way for Barbara to recognize Childe as a Fatuus, but he's certain Kaeya would figure it out. If not now, then later when he's had a chance to do some research.

"No, it should be fine. Thanks. Besides, don't you have some horses to look after?"

"Oho! I've been so welcoming and you go for my throat like that?" Kaeya jokingly laments, shaking his head.

"One of your birthdays, I'm going to get you a horse. One horse. Will that make up for it?"

That gets Aether a warm smile from the Cryo user, though his reply is a verbal finger-wag. "What'd I say about making this a transactional relationship?~"

"Call it revenge, then." Aether pops away to the Teapot before he can get delayed any more by his own weakness for bantering with that man. Kaeya has been flirtatious all along, but that's the way Kaeya is. Aether has played into it occasionally in jest, but there's never been a single spark of anything like what he feels for Childe.

He misses Childe. That's his first thought when he arrives in the Teapot. How many minutes has it been? Tch. Because Barbara isn't attuned to any of the sub-space waypoints, he elected to come in at the porch, the same place she'd be.

And there she is. Aether nods to her and leads the way at a quick walk.

"What a nice fountain!" Barbara comments without slowing down. "Isn't it hard to get things built here? Or is it all just...?"

"I have to bring the materials in, and that's hard for the bigger things, but the rest is usually Tubby's effort." He doesn't feel like explaining the exceptions: custom constructions he couldn't find blueprints for.

She nods, having been introduced to Tubby the first time she visited. She coaxed Tubby to try singing, and they ended up spending an afternoon in duets. Tubby, it turned out, had several different means of singing and little experience with any of them. Aether doesn't know if Barbara has been back for more of that while he's out adventuring. If he's to guess from her not-completely-certain answer when he checked her memory of how to get here, maybe she hasn't. Her life is busy.

The second island delights Barbara. There are some materials stacked near the waypoint, and that's not very sightly, but this is the island with the most trees. Various green- and yellow-leafed species have created a sparse forest, through which an open central space can be seen. There, a small chunk of land floats surrounded by smaller airborne rocks that Aether likes to use for jumping exercises. The floating chunk, complete with dirt and grass, holds a pair of orange-leafed Amur maple trees, like a sconce holding a torch.

Most of these, Aether asked Tubby to grow to full size, but there's a handful of saplings too. He looks forward to watching those grow at their natural rate. Planting them was a decision he made about two weeks after his most recent encounter with Lumine. In a way, he was giving up hope. In another way, he was sowing new hopes.

Halfway to the destination, his muscles are starting to burn again. With Barbara here, though, he prioritizes speed over treating his half-healed injuries delicately. She seems to understand, because she doesn't tell him to slow down.

Barbara can't miss the guest house as they pass it on the third island, but the empty west half of the island is worth pointing out, too. Aether explains that he wants to set up a place there where his musician friends can, as he quotes Xinyan, 'jam.'

"So we can all meet up here!?" Barbara enthuses. "No travel needed! That's a great idea! Oh I'm going to love that so much. I've heard so much about Xinyan and Yun Jin, both. Are there any bards from Mondstadt you're going to invite?"

"Maybe Venti, if he wants to try playing some kind of weird mix of music styles with them, or you, or...whatever combination. I think the old dog should learn some new tricks, but..."

"Old? Him?" Barbara giggles. "Isn't he barely allowed to drink?"

Aether shrugs. "Some people are just born old, you know?" He doesn't know. It's just something he heard once that seems like a good cover for both Venti and Zhongli.

"Old-fashioned, you mean? I guess so."

Finally they come to the last of the light-bridges, a set of three spanning two little islets between Smoke-Something Isle and Evermist Isle. Aether keeps forgetting to memorize the names Tubby called them by before she courteously adopted his tendency to refer to them by number. "I'm going to go ahead," Aether decides. "This island is sort of empty, so you'll see us."

I hope nothing unexpected and bad has happened while I've been away, Aether thinks as he hastens up the steep bridges, soon panting. I sure do hope nothing unexpected and bad has happened. Can I have that today, Teyvat? Nothing unexpected and bad?

Apparently he can. Childe is right where Aether left him. Reassured, he slows down so he'll have caught his breath by the time he reaches the sleeping Harbinger.

He realizes only now that Childe's clothes had slowly faded from dark to light before he left. He had been paying so much attention to his face, hand, and hair that he hadn't taken note of anything else at the time. In terms of its ability to interest Aether, the color of his clothes couldn't hold a candle to the colors of his blushing skin and the freckles thereupon, or how the hue of his hair was gradually freed from dirt by Aether's finger-combing, or the way his eyes looked from mere inches away. He has to wonder, though: how does that even work? How do his clothes get darker when he uses his Delusion? Why? That's so weird. Or maybe it's not, maybe it's just something mundane I don't understand yet about this world.

At last he kneels beside Childe. Walking from the light-bridge to the arena felt like it took as long as getting from the first island to the fourth. Aether knows it didn't, but he found that the nearer he got to Childe, the more he missed him. On momentary reflection, he sees that that's in line with how it is on the larger scale. The more time he spends with this man, the more he misses him when he's not around. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but the more time you spend in a place, or with a person, the more joy it brings you when you return. Both are true... Or maybe it really is just that second one, the one he said. Because being around him has deepened my fondness for him so much faster than when I was just thinking about him from a distance.

He touches Childe's shoulder as he did earlier. For the sake of waking him quicker, he's more assertive this time, but not by much. Just a couple of gentle little shoves. Wonder if he'll remember later that I called him the First Harbinger of my heart, before. That is something I really did do...

It takes an extra poke before he gets a sleepy sigh as a response. The inhale falters against Childe's ribs, then is cut off. Considering their abilities, it would make sense if Childe came out of the fight with more lacerations and fewer contusions than Aether, but the severity remains an open question.

Childe opens one eye. Seeing that it's Aether, he opens the other, too, with a faint smile no less sleepy than his sigh. "Thought you were going somewhere," he mumbles.

"I'm back," Aether says, his answering smile warm and briefly brimming with amusem*nt. "Brought the healer. She'll catch up soon." He picks up his gloves off the ground and stuffs them in a pocket, scarcely glancing at them.

"Mmh." Childe's eyelids are heavy and he doesn't feel that he has any reason not to let them close again.

Aether is about to let him go back to sleep when two things occur to him: one, that Barbara will have the same diagnostic questions for Childe as she had for him, and two, that the Fatui emblem on his Delusion is the surest way she'd recognize him as being part of that organization. "Don't fall asleep again yet," he tells him, tapping his shoulder. "Do you mind if I hide your Delusion? In your jacket?"

"Mmhm. There's a pocket. Inside."

Aether detaches the purple-glowing object from Childe's belt, figuring out the clip without too much difficulty. The clasps of his jacket are easy. To keep Childe awake, Aether prompts him for more cooperation than necessary, first by directing him to lay on his back with a nudge, then by asking him to confirm which pocket in the lining is the correct one. When he slips the Delusion into it, he hears it settle beside Childe's Vision with a muffled clink.

He pinches the pocket's snap closed and sits back. "You have to stay awake and answer some questions from Barbara about how you're feeling. Physically."

Childe's first reaction would have been a huge sigh, but it doesn't get any further than the first one. "Make me," he grumbles. "Tell me something interesting."

Aether smiles. "Alright..." He glances over his shoulder. Barbara has arrived on the island and is coming toward them, so he'd best not get into any long stories. "Off the east coast of Kannazuka," he leans forward to whisper in a tone halfway between conspiracy and sweet nothings, "there's a spot in the ocean that's permanently Electro-charged. There's a shipwreck there, and I don't know if the shipwreck caused the charge or the charge caused the shipwreck, but the wreckage gives you a place to stand while you catch the rarest fish in Inazuma."

Childe's eyes are fully open now. He is listening.

"The Raimei Angelfish loves electrified waters. I haven't heard of any place—"

Aether hears Barbara stop behind him. Childe keeps his attention on him as completely as he kept it on Teucer when he and Paimon came to the Bank with the boy. "—Of any place it can be found other than this spot near Tatarasuna," Aether finishes. "Not even Seirai Island. You can only catch them at night, too."

Barbara sounds like she's speaking from behind her hand and trying not to giggle: "Am I interrupting something?"

"Of course not," Aether replies, meaning only that she's more than entitled to interrupt under the circ*mstances. "Go ahead."

"My comrade here is just keeping me entertained and awake," Childe agrees. Then, to Aether: "Will you introduce us?" This is his way of handing Aether the choice as to how much Barbara should know about him. It's also dumping all the thinking involved onto him. He seems less tired than Childe right now, so he can surely handle it.

Aether nods. "Barbara, this is um, Childe, with an E. An E on the end, not in the middle." Aether is tired enough that he thinks someone could hear 'child with an E' said aloud and interpret it as 'cheld.'

"Nice to meet you, Childe!" Barbara says with a bright smile, cheerful but not too saccharine or loud. Just the right bedside manner to perk up a patient without making them feel overwhelmed. "I'm the Deaconess of the Church of Favonius in Mondstadt, but please call me Barbara. You were trying to stay awake, right? Do you know if you've bumped your head or taken any hard falls?"

"Hmm. No, nothing like that," Childe answers. "All below the neck. Pleased to make your acquaintance, by the way. Actually, I think I've heard your name somewhere before."

"Oh, well, maybe~" Tactfully coy, Barbara steers away from the topic of her fame in order to keep the matter at hand on track. "I'm going to ask you some questions to check if you have a concussion. Just in case!"

Childe obliges the series of questions and tests. May as well get it over with.

Barbara multitasks by healing his most superficial cuts and scrapes with her Vision at the same time.

Aether has nothing to do but observe, or so he thinks.

"Now, is it alright with you if I check your ribs?" Barbara asks Childe, who nods and shrugs in minimal motions. "Let me know if anything hurts especially," the young Deaconess requests. While she's at it she comments, "Goodness, you two. Three hours."

At least, Aether does not say.

"I see a lot of adventurers in my work. You're all such thrillseekers, hehe." It seems she has assumed Childe is some type of adventurer, and she's not entirely wrong. "I don't understand it, but it keeps Mondstadt safer than it would be without people like that, and not just Mondstadt, I'm sure. Still, I wish you would take better care of yourselves! Did you at least take breaks to drink water?"

Childe and Aether exchange blank looks.

"I'll be right back," Aether announces, teleporting to the mansion porch. No wonder my throat's so sore, and no wonder he sounds like his is just as sore. When did we leave our brains behind, exactly? It was before we went out this door. He gets a bucket, drops two tin cups into it, and takes it back outside to fill from the well. He has chosen not question how wells work in this place.

Childe figures Barbara's question about their hydration has been answered. Indeed, after a tsk and a light shake of her head, she moves on to making some conversation by asking where he's from. "A village in Snezhnaya," he replies. Not everyone from Snezhnaya is Fatui, by far, so he's not necessarily giving anything away.

"Oh my, you're a long way from home. Wait, I don't actually know where you are! Or rather, where you were before you came to visit this place." With a petite giggle she adds, "The Traveler does travel!"

"Heh. Inazuma, in fact. Even farther from home."

"Well, if you think about it, since this place is nowhere, it's as close and as far from your home as you could be. So why not think of it as being close?"

That does give Childe something to think about. It's accurate, as far as he knows. He nods slowly, and for a moment, he holds onto the fantasy that he could step from here to Morepesok and back with nothing but a wish. "...That's a much more pleasant way of looking at it," he agrees.

"I've hardly met any Snezhnayans who weren't Fatui." Barbara starts to wrinkle her nose but then moderates her distaste.

Well, that hasn't changed.

"Mondstadt was a very cold place in ancient times," she muses as she stands up and gathers Hydro around them both. "The Great Wolf King of the North, Boreas, made it so," she explains. Seeing the undrinkable pseudo-water flow and shine in the afternoon sunlight redoubles Childe's thirst. Barbara continues, "After the defeat and death of Decarabian, the tyrant ruler of Old Mondstadt, Boreas and Barbatos stood alone as the most powerful beings in this part of Teyvat. In Mondstadt, I mean, hehe. Well, Boreas came to the realization that the constant blizzards he wrought would only extinguish life, not nurture it." Her orchestration of her Vision turns into a bit of a dance; Childe doesn't know whether she always does that or if she's been inspired by the story she's telling. "He didn't love humanity as Barbatos did. Understanding these facts, he chose to pass on and let his power flow into the land, not to keep it frozen, but to protect the land and its inhabitants." The healing Hydro bursts into a shower of liquid stars that refract the light into pastel colors.

Childe can definitely feel it working. As for the history lesson, or legend as it may be, he would've listened without interrupting even if it wasn't accompanied by healing that's as good as or better than a Hydrogunner's. Aether told him a little about Boreas, but none of this. If he had to choose, he'd much rather fight the Wolf King than hear his story. But, the reality being that no such choice is necessary, he's happy to fuel his eagerness for the former by learning the latter. "Boreas is of interest to me. The Traveler mentioned him."

At this exact point, Aether returns. He sets the whole bucket of water next to Childe and fishes a metal cup out of it, offering it to him full.

"Try sitting up," Barbara suggests. Childe is already on it. His limbs are very stiff at first, but he has that cup of water to sit up for, so he is quick to succeed. Aether's hand at his back probably has nothing to do with it, but he gives the gesture an appreciative thought as he gulps the water down in less than two seconds. And again Aether helps, by immediately refilling his cup. Childe looks at him over the cup's rim as he guzzles this one too, his eyebrows elevated as he mulls over...whatever this is. 'I'll take care of everything,' Aether had said, and that's what he's doing. Though Childe knows there must be some part of him, a small part at least, that would bristle at being babied, he can't seem to find that part right now. All he wants is to drink some more water, then go to bed.

And he wants Aether to stay close to him. As close as possible. How that's going to work, he refrains from thinking about. After draining his third cup he realizes: "You should be drinking too, comrade!"

"Had some already. Took the edge off."

"You should drink more."

A hint of a smile passes across Aether's lips. They do look a tad less dry than they did before. "If you insist, comrade." He fishes the second cup out of the bucket and drains it in one long sip without taking his eyes off Childe. When he lowers the cup to refill it, that faint smile is back. Is that the first time he's called me comrade? Childe wonders, his eyes narrowing slightly in thought. I seem to remember him doing it before, but when?

Barbara exists again. To the two of them, she may as well have poofed away like Paimon for a moment. "Well, I can manage one more dose of healing for you both. Then you need to rest, misters. Don't do anything strenuous today or tomorrow. I'll come by again tomorrow evening when I get a chance, if that's okay. You can use some more healing then after your bodies have done some of the work."

Guess the Millelith will have to wait another day, Aether accepts. A healer's orders are a great excuse. To spend more time with a certain someone, in this case. He nods.

"What about exercise?" Childe asks. He has a knee up and an arm slung across it, and presently he rubs his chin with that hand.

"Keep it light and gentle. It's important to flex your joints and muscles while you recover, but don't carry heavy things around or do any stunts. Don't do any fighting."

"I think we'll survive one and a half days without fighting or doing our normal exercises," Aether seems to say to Barbara in assent, but Childe senses he's being told in no uncertain terms to heed her. This amuses him. He decides he's going to be good and follow doctor's orders without any hedging. Of course he knows that it's best for his martial fitness and preparedness to let his body heal properly, but once in a while, a mood will strike him and his resolve to do that blows away like a scarf in the wind. Not this time, he decides.

Aether's actual intent was milder than that, but he doesn't dislike the look of consideration Childe gives him in response. It vaguely reassures him.

Barbara graces them with a final Shining Miracle, after which she's beginning to look tired too. "Now, from what I could tell, your injuries were types that would normally take around six weeks to heal." She hasn't seen Childe's Vision. "I know Aether understands this, but Childe, just in case you aren't used to this kind of healing: recovering in days instead of weeks is a real strain on the body. On the upside, you'll sleep extremely well! On the downside, you're going to feel worse tomorrow than you do right now, not better. Likely you'll start feeling better the day after tomorrow, but you'll have some tenderness, aches, and stiffness for up to a week after that. Doing basic things like cooking and cleaning will be very hard tomorrow, so Aether, I'm going to ask Noelle if she can check in on you, if that's alright with you."

Aether nods once. "She'll probably want to anyway, knowing her. And I want to apologize to her for scaring her. But if she's busy or anything, please assure her that Paimon and two other friends of mine are due back here in a few hours, so it's not like we're going to be all alone." Those three might be headed back out to the Chasm tomorrow, depending on how their 'mission' is going today, or they might need to figure out a new plan if something strange happened. He chooses not to mention this caveat to Barbara or, by extension, Noelle. "Thank you, Barbara. I owe you."

"My thanks as well," Childe adds. "You're a master of that Vision of yours, and it's obvious your healing skills don't stop there. You've an excellent bedside manner." Much preferable to the average Hydrogunner's 'tender,' 'loving' 'care.'

"Aw, thank you for saying that. And you're welcome! You don't owe me anything except taking care of yourselves as well as you can. See you tomorrow!" She holds up her hands and, wiggling her fingers in a double wave, she disappears.

"Let's go to bed," Childe blurts out. No longer required to be sociable with a stranger, he has nothing on his mind but sleep and Aether, and those desires combine accordingly. He's a little surprised to have said as much, but...he still only has those two priorities.

Aether nods again and yawns as if the word 'bed' unlocked some sort of yawn gate. (He doesn't catch the implication of Childe's phrasing.) "Okay. Yeah. Let's uh... Ah. I didn't tell you how to attune to the waypoints here. Sorry. You see that thing over there?"

"Uh-huh."

"That's a waypoint. We'll go past it on our way back and if you touch it you'll be able to teleport to it the same way you come into the Teapot." Standing up feels like unfolding a piece of papercraft, in that it's tricky and his limbs don't feel as strong as he'd like. His balance is fine, though, and as he takes a few experimental steps in a circle, nothing actually prevents him from doing so. He's every bit as able to walk as when he and Barbara arrived, it just takes him a moment to limber up again.

Childe is having the same experience, to a point. It seems he's in slightly better shape than Aether, which makes him wonder which of them won their spar. That'll be plenty to think about and debate, he expects, and it'll be fun.

They glance around the 'battlefield.' During the fight, Childe reclaimed most of the real arrows he shot by calling the Hydro wrapped around them back to his hand. There are however a scattered few lying in pieces, which broke on Aether's sword one way or another. Those can be collected later. The loaned mask blends in with the dirt until Childe spots it and picks it up. It's bent, likely having been crushed under one of their knees.

"Do you want this back?" Childe asks, holding up the mask.

"Not really. It only worked when I used it because of the timing. Keep it if you think it can be fixed, or whatever."

Childe develops an indecisive little frown and wanders toward the waypoint, trying to flip the mask between his fingers and finding it's not even good for that. Aether walks at his side, evidently not seeing a reason to bring the bucket and cups back with them.

There are other buckets and other cups. Aether can teleport back and retrieve them whenever. There's no weather to damage them. So, he proceeds empty-handed and is glad to be unburdened on the walk that's ahead of them.

They're quiet, not at all uncomfortably. At the waypoint, Aether just waits while Childe places his hand on it. Its surface proves to be almost, but not quite, as insubstantial as it looks. There's resistance against his palm but not like a solid surface. Chalking that up to the vagaries of adeptal arts, he glances at Aether for confirmation that he's done it right, and he gets a single nod.

Childe tosses the mask over the side of the first light-bridge they cross, just to watch it fall toward the mysterious mountains below this realm's clouds. It confirms for him that things falling from here disappear long before they'd simply vanish into the distance.

All the light-bridges are 'downhill' from there. If anything, the going is too easy, tempting both of them to move faster. They only go a little faster, and they cross the islands at a pace that's slower still. They're in the accursed state of being too tired to be taking a twenty-minute walk, but also too tired to hurry. It's not so bad, though: Aether acts as a silent tourguide, pointing out the same things he'd shown Barbara, and Childe kind of enjoys the chance to look around at the half-established scenery without having to think about anything. He's free from all mandates at the moment, even that of his own typically keen observational habits.

Aether is content to neither provide commentary nor seek it. He feels like part of his brain must already be asleep, and that he's just shuttling all this conceited meat he calls a body to the nearest bed. Well, not the nearest: he and Childe pass the guest house with no interest in resting there.

"Lost and found," he breaks the silence when they see the mask again. They've reached the mansion and come around to the front. The mask is lying on the grass in the same spot where most people—people who aren't Childe on his first visit—arrive.

"So I see," Childe says.

Their voices are less hoarse than earlier. Speaking makes Childe yawn after a couple seconds' delay, and him yawning makes Aether yawn. They leave the mask alone and trudge indoors.

Near the middle of the main room, they slow to a stop, both bemused and both looking to each other for an idea. What now? They need to eat and they need to bathe, they're both aware of those needs, but...

This brainless stalemate is broken by Zhongli zooming down the stairs and doing figure-eights around Childe's legs. It meows sharply as if telling him something he should know already. He and Aether watch for a moment before he picks up the cat and holds it to his shoulder like a human baby. Petting it, he takes it with him to the kitchen.

Aether follows. Without a word between them, they make a meal happen for the cat. Childe uses his less occupied hand to select two bowls and set them on the counter. Aether gets raw poultry from the Cryo box and cuts the meat off a thigh. Childe appeases an extremely intrigued Zhongli with the first tidbit that's ready, then another tidbit. When Aether is done—he's quick with a knife, even now—Childe transfers the pile of tiny poultry pieces to one of the bowls. This he places on the floor, along with the cat. Aether fills the other bowl with water and places it down, too.

"Thanks," Childe says, somewhat mumbling. "I wasn't sure if there was still enough water in the...other bowl, in the...guest room."

Aether looks at him and his heart softens to absolute mush. Childe's eyes look as dead as those of the fish in the Cryo box, but for once, it is pure exhaustion. Aether can't see the usual loneliness, lostness, and walled reserve. He really is just kind of tired all the time... It gives him a little bit of a second wind, or perhaps a fourteenth or fifteenth wind. He reaches out and touches Childe's hand, just grazing his knuckles with his fingertips.

Breath leaves Childe's body in a small, silent sigh as he sees and feels Aether's...gesture, of whatever sort it is. Whatever it is, he likes it. He turns his hand to reciprocate with a brush of his fingers against the outer side of Aether's palm.

"Go on and rest," Aether tells him softly. "Noelle will be here soon. I can try to wake you up for dinner?"

"You need rest too," Childe reminds him, only now meeting his gaze.

"I know. Believe me, I know, heh. But I'm fine for now."

"No." All but pouting, Childe steps closer and places a hand on Aether's shoulder. His last iota of inhibition is spent on not just embracing him without permission. "If you're staying up, so am I. We're comrades. We work faster together. It doesn't make sense to leave all the work on you." That's a pretty good stab at a rational argument, and he congratulates himself for it.

Aether sighs, smiling faintly, and covers the hand on his shoulder with one of his own. "...You win this one. But only because I don't have the energy to convince you otherwise, and if I don't even have that much, I'm not as...awake as I thought. I'll just leave a note for Noelle."

Childe is agreeable to that. "And after you've done that..." His heart squeezes, or throbs, or something that feels inexplicably physical. It hurts in a quasi-pleasant way. Maybe it's just the injuries? But it's different, and he has felt similar before, always where Aether is involved. Besides that, the reason for it is self-evident: what he's about to ask, quite directly, is an act of veering into uncharted territory. It scares him a little even now, when so many layers of his armor have been beaten to smithereens. But Aether is waiting for him to finish the sentence with such an open and perhaps even hopeful expression. "Will you...come to bed with me?" A tingly wave of unidentifiable feeling washes over him from head to toe.

Aether stares up at Childe as he is filled with warmth by the request. He almost feels like his eyes are going to well up, and there's a brief giddiness right at the pivot point between disbelief and belief. He takes in a breath and opens his mouth. It's another second or two before he has words. "Yes, please," he replies, just above a whisper. A subtle, wonderstruck smile wavers at the corners of his mouth.

Watching how Aether's intake of breath seems to draw his whole body up, seeing his eyes shine with what Childe almost dares to hope is some kind of gladness: he senses that he hasn't made a mistake, maybe, but every heartbeat in that brief delay still feels like an eternity.

Then Aether says yes. He says please. He smiles.

An impulse takes hold of Childe and he has no inhibitions left to resist it. His response has to be physical, and it takes the form of scooping Aether up into his arms. He stoops, gets an arm behind Aether's knees and the other behind his back, and, encountering no more resistance from Aether than from within himself, he carries him straight toward the guest room.

Happily startled, Aether laughs. He circles his arms around Childe's neck and shoulder, half on reflex, his hold loose and comfortable. "Hey, we're not supposed to carry heavy things," he reminds him before another breathless, giggly laugh comes out of him.

"You're not heavy."

"Hey." Aether grins.

Inside the guest room, Childe pauses. He had no plan here. He doesn't even know where to set Aether down. He settles, sheepishly, for letting him down at the center of the room.

Aether lingers there with him, his hands trailing down Childe's arms as he smiles up at him. "...Our clothes are really dirty," he notices, glancing at blood-edged rips his hands have passed over. The fabric of Childe's jacket is so dusty and dirt-streaked it's all just a grey shade of brown. "And so are we. I don't even know what to do about that at this point. It sounds like too much work."

Lips forming a thoughtful little moue, Childe doesn't know either until the obvious hits him. "My Vision." His look of realization and minor victory is short-lived. "Except," he sighs, "in here there's nowhere for the dirt to go."

"Outside?"

Glancing past Aether to the inordinately inviting bed, Childe promises himself they'll be back here in five—no, four minutes. Not that he's going to bother counting. He nods.

Aether takes him by the hand without thinking and they quickly walk out. Childe's longer stride could put him in the lead, and Aether being the one who grabbed his hand could've resulted in him leading, but these factors just cancel one another out, and neither of them has a thought or a care about it. The one thing they care about as they follow each other around the house to a random spot beyond line of sight from the front: how good it feels to walk hand-in-hand, how strange, how new, and yet how natural.

There's no deliberation when they let go, either. Subconsciously they know it's no permanent loss. Childe automatically starts shucking his clothes off. Aether follows suit, a tad slower, taking note of the sorry shape each item of clothing Childe drops on the ground is in.

"I ruined your jacket again." A lighthearted observation from Aether.

"You ruined all of it, I think." An equally lighthearted assessment from Childe. "Did you have something against my outfit?"

"No, it was just in the way."

For the moment, neither of them is aware of any innuendo in that. It's merely the logic of battle: they weren't attacking clothes, they were attacking the wearer.

Childe pauses with his thumbs in the waist hem of his grey cotton briefs. "Do you mind?" he checks with Aether cursorily, thinking nothing of it himself.

"No," Aether assumes as he glances over, because if it was anyone else, he wouldn't care at all. His attention goes right back to getting his second boot and sock off, followed by his trousers.

Despite each being, at times, aware of their own sexual tension toward the other, they've both been in militaries. They're here for the simple purpose of washing up and have no reason to believe that seeing each other nude will be complicated by anything. No reason except the obvious one they're overlooking.

"You mind?" Aether asks in turn, yet to look up.

"No," Childe verbally shrugs. He retrieves his Vision from his jacket pocket and holds it in his hand, not needing more than one hand free for this, if even that.

Aether pushes down the silky, close-fitting dark brown shorts he has for underwear. He has other pairs, always the same cut if he can find it, but this one is his favorite for its texture and for matching the rest of his favorite clothes. His mind stutters to a stop as he notices that at some point he must have been very aroused—and he recalls when that was. And who it was about. And that that person is... He wads up his underwear and hides it under his trousers, piling up his clothes to hide that action as well.

"It may be a little cold," Childe guesses without looking up from the twist of Hydro he has wrapped and rotating around his arm. He's double-checking the amount of pressure that won't be too harsh but will still clean skin. It's not cold to him, but, well.

"That's fine." Aether has turned away, hands on his hips, fingers tapping on his own skin nervously. His nervousness is entirely about the possibility that he might show his sexual attraction in some way and make Childe uncomfortable. He feels as if he has already betrayed some kind of warrior code that even he himself subscribes to, by having these thoughts while doing nothing more than bathing with his comrade.

Childe expands the gentle torrent of pseudo-water to rush across his chest, loop around his shoulders diagonally, and continue enveloping him in a downward spiral. It sounds like a small creek and the sensation is just a bit to the 'nice' side of neutral.

Aether risks a glance back. The supernatural blueness of Hydro is concealing, and what's more, it's being muddied by the grime it's taking off. Relieved, he turns around, of course not thinking his own nudity will have any effect on Childe. "I kind of want to sneak over to Fontaine, resonate with Hydro, and leave."

"Why not?" Childe chuckles. He looks over and his eyes go wide. Seeing Aether's entire body bared... It shouldn't affect him, because he's seen plenty of men naked, both in the banya and in bathing situations not unlike this. He's seen everything that's supposed to be attractive, and all he has ever cared about is the interesting scars he catches sight of.

The Traveler

Aether has fewer scars than he expected, which should be disappointing, but something about him enraptures Childe. So much strength contained in a frame that's light and oh so quick. From the chiseled planes of his chest to the scarcely-curved lines of his hips, from the elegant subtlety of his biceps at rest to the overt power of his swimmer-like thighs and calves, he's a tight package of lean muscle. Not excessively defined like he's dehydrated, just...perfect for what Aether does and how he does it. To top it off, the sunlight through his Hydro casts water shadows on Aether's skin that bring Childe's attention to how pretty he is.

Hands incidentally still on his hips, Aether stares back with no expression, not knowing exactly what to make of the look on Childe's face. Is he just...impressed? Is he surprised I have a vagin*? Something else? "What?" "Y-you've done a great job shaping your body into the perfect weapon for your own wielding," Childe says way too fast, the words tumbling from his mouth like he dropped them.

Okay. Right. Wow, does he get like this around every fit guy he sees naked? That must be a hassle. Kind of like how I'm feeling about him. Aether nods and shrugs. "Thanks."

Childe feels hot under the cool water. He flexes his toes in the grass anxiously and looks away, busying himself by scrubbing at a stubborn line of dried blood on his waist with his free hand. After that, he sends a jet of water through his hair and combs it quickly with his fingers until they no longer get stuck anywhere. Then, back to general scrubbing.

Aether stands there, waiting, growing bored as Childe's shower drags on two or three minutes longer than he thought would be necessary. "...So...can I have that water soon?"

By then, Childe is fairly sure he has calmed down. He managed to avoid getting an erection—a problem that's surreal for him to have in the context of actual sexual arousal—by thinking about Northland Bank business details. Still, he's nervous to lose this concealment. Aether is standing over there completely cool and indifferent, and Childe envies him. Nothing else to be done; he unwinds the water from around himself into a sort of yarnball shape a few meters away from them. He closes his hand into a fist and it all dissipates, leaving a fine dust of filth to drift to the ground. Then, wishing the shower hadn't given him a twentieth wind with which to be thinking, he sweeps his arm toward his comrade and conjures the same amount of Hydro afresh. He wraps it carefully around the other man's body: carefully because he's doing it at a distance, and he doesn't know how it feels to Aether. He just does his best to reproduce the pressure he himself found adequate and tolerable.

The gentle rush of water controlled by Childe, the same Hydro he used to attack him and defend against him earlier, leaves traitorous warmth under Aether's skin everywhere its cool touch goes. Ohhh nooo... It feels good... It's like...it's the kind of thing I wanted when our fight ended, sort of... No, no don't think about it!

Childe avoids letting any water course between Aether's thighs or buttocks or across his groin. Yes, he probably wants to be clean in those places too, but it might be crossing a line. Even though Childe can't feel anything his Hydro runs over, there's enough deliberateness required of him that he can't pretend he has no responsibility here. His ears start to redden just from the minimal attention needed to shape the water accordingly. At least once that's done he doesn't have to pay any attention to maintaining it. Cor Lapis market fluctuations in the last quarter...

Aether is bracing himself to ignore what the water is going to feel like wrapping around his inner thighs and flowing over his folds. But it never happens. So, now he just has that idea in his head for no reason.

"Tell me when to... When you're done."

That reminds Aether he can and should be doing some scrubbing, as best he can with his bare hands. It gives him something to do and he's glad for that. When he's done with everything else but his hair, he tries to catch a handful of water to wash the areas it's not getting to, but, being Hydro directed into specific shapes and paths, it doesn't work that way. Nn. I'll just visit the well on my own after this.

Moving on, he unties his braid and laboriously works it loose. There are a lot of things he misses Lumine for on a practical level in addition to the emotional levels, and one of them is that they always combed each other's hair. Thanks to her, his hair used to be perfectly smooth and silky, but, in defiance of his own efforts and Paimon's limited help, it has become...less so.

"Can you, um...water my hair?" That is not the right phrase, but Aether expects the meaning is clear enough.

"Ah, of course." Childe glances up and reroutes a significant portion of the water to flow downward from the top of Aether's head to approximately the end of his braid. The rest, he thins and spreads into a makeshift privacy screen between them.

Having that much trouble, Tartaglia? Cute. I wish my problem was as simple as admiring the results of all your physical conditioning. Though, maybe I'm underestimating what it's like for him? ...I should...tell him before we... He might not want to have me in bed with him when he knows. It's bad enough I didn't tell him before we did this. He has a right to know, I think. And make his own decision whether he's alright with it. Aether's hair takes a couple of minutes all by itself, but with that: "Done."

Turning away as he pulls the water away from Aether, Childe gets rid of it and considers his clothes. Putting them back on would undo some of the work he just did, so that option is off the table. How does Tubby feel about nudity? She's a bird spirit who exists to maintain an otherworldly realm, so, surely she has no issues with it? There are plenty of common-sense reasons to want to avoid offending her. Also, Aether had said 'Noelle' would be here soon. "Have you any ideas about...?" He gestures at what could generously be called laundry and would more realistically be called scrap fabric.

"I feel good enough right now to get you something that might fit from...somewhere. I have my yukata to wear."

"Is that what that light robe is called?"

"Yeah. You uh...stay out here, I guess, and I'll be the one to shock Noelle if she's already here when I go in to get that."

"Fine with me, I suppose." At this point, Childe would rather be so tired he might fall asleep on his feet than awake enough to think and overthink, and it feels like that wish might be granted soon. He wanders past Aether, giving him a wide berth, and leans against the house. They're both damp but not dripping.

Aether marches quick as he can to the corner, his feet all but silent on the grass, passes behind Tubby, who happens to be taking a nap anyway, and opens the door just enough to slip through. The mansion's interior doesn't look like it's been touched by the opposite of a hurricane yet, so Noelle must not be here. Going up the stairs two at a time drains much of his strength, but he doesn't realize that until he's panting in his bedroom. Soon. Rest soon. Just this one, last thing to do. He throws on some underwear, ties his yukata tightly, and grabs a pouch of Mora. There's a shop that sells clothes not far from Liyue Harbor's waypoint, so that's where he goes.

He feels very underdressed, not only because he's wearing just one layer but also due to his damp hair being unbraided. At least it's better than what he did in Mondstadt.

"What do I need for a complete basic informal outfit?" he hurriedly asks the shopkeeper.

He comes away with a white set of men's zhōngyī undergarments (he could only hope the pants fit) and a dark blue hanfu with a mid-length skirt. He wondered if he could find one with any kind of ocean or fish motif on it, but he gave up when he didn't lay eyes on one within ten seconds of searching. Childe's boots and socks are fine except for needing a wash, so he forgoes those items. The moment he's done paying, he teleports back to the Teapot, leaving the shopkeeper to puzzlement offset by a successful sale.

Knowing he'll be preoccupied as soon as he sees Childe again and will probably forget to visit the well, he goes there first. He lays the stack of clothing on the well's edge and, careful not to splash any on those, draws up some water. The well is near the garden; he transfers that water into a bucket he normally uses for carrying garden tools, harvests, and so forth. This, placed on the ground and crouched by, is easier to dip his hands in repeatedly in order to finish washing himself. To facilitate, he temporarily sheds his underwear and opens his yukata.

Back in order and with his hands washed and Anemo-dried, he returns to Childe.

"Here." Aether delivers the stack of clothing quite unceremoniously. He tries not to look at Childe below the waist. Have I been around humans too much? No, plenty of human cultures I've spent time with don't sexualize the body like that. This is all me, and it's just with him. Troublesome.

"Oh, Liyuen I see," Childe notes with mild interest. "Spasíbo," he unwittingly thanks Aether in Snezhnayan. He leafs through the stack, looking for the first thing he's supposed to put on.

That didn't sound like the common tongue, but I'm not sure. "Don't worry about all the blue things right now, just the white things."

That helps. Aether also helps by taking the blue articles back. Childe hangs the shirt over his shoulder while he pulls the pants on. He can't tell whether they're a few inches too short or just meant to be shorter than he's used to, but they fit in all the ways that matter.

Aether heads back to the front of the house. With his Vision, Delusion, and a couple other things from his pockets in hand, Childe catches up and follows him inside.

In the guest room once more, Aether places the hanfu on the dresser at the end of the bed, then leans against the dresser as he turns to Childe. He brings a few locks of his hair forward and fidgets with it while he pieces together something to say.

Childe empties his hands into a bedside table drawer before flopping into bed on his front. Last night he folded the blanket down and borrowed a sheet as a less overheating cover. He didn't even pull that aside before his semi-controlled collapse.

"Uhm..." Aether begins.

Childe repositions himself slightly so he can peer around his shoulder at Aether. He likes how breathy that non-word sounded. He doesn't like how uncertain it sounded.

"I. Need to tell you first. You have a right to know. If you..." Aether gestures at the bed. "If you don't want me in bed with you because of this, I'll understand. I'm just... I'm sexually attracted to you." His face is downturned but he makes himself look at Childe.

The Harbinger stares at the Traveler with no visible reaction as he tries to figure out why that's a problem. Sure, it would make sense to let him know that, if he were not also attra—... He doesn't know that. He...wait, he's...? Childe's eyebrows slowly rise.

Is he even awake enough to understand? Aether worries. But then he sees Childe's expression change, and he feels relieved on that front even though he has no idea what Childe is thinking and it might be—

"I'm also attracted to you." Childe feels like he still hasn't absorbed this revelation, but he knows one thing: he's glad. There's a burden of uncertainty that has just evaporated as if it were never there. The path to something he wants has been cleared, and whenever that happens in his life, he takes great satisfaction from it. This is great news and he looks forward to dwelling on it later. For now: will Aether please get into bed already?

Stunned, Aether stops fidgeting with his hair and closes his hands into tight fists around it, feeling a sudden need to hold onto something even if it is just his own hair. Dizzied by the words the man he loves said in that mellifluous voice of his. He...what? Childe... Tartaglia... You...are attracted to me too? He takes it to mean sexual attraction only, but that alone is amazing.

Childe becomes patient, which is as common a mood shift for him as becoming impatient. He pulls the top sheet out from under himself, arching and repositioning as necessary. Scooting aside to ensure there's enough room for whatever way Aether likes to sleep, he covers himself and leaves the other half of the sheet furled back as a reaffirmed invitation.

Note for Noelle. Aether is grateful to and annoyed at himself for remembering that at this particular moment. "W-wait here," he says as he darts out of the room. Those are the only words he can think of to assure Childe he's not actually fleeing. Fortunately, the end of the same hallway the guest room is on has a small desk next to a bookshelf, and the desk is cluttered with writing implements and paper.

Dear Noelle,

Thank you for your help. I admit I really need it. Please watch for the cat and keep it out of trouble if possible. It is fine if it escapes outside. Tubby can help us find it if it does. The cat does not have special dietary needs that I am aware of and neither does the guest. Thank you so much. Sorry about the scare.

He runs the note to the dining tables, leaves it there, and hurries back to where Childe is waiting for him. The thought that he's waiting for him, in bed or otherwise but especially in bed, makes Aether's heart leap.

He closes the door behind him. "Sorry," he apologizes for both the delay and the way he sort of crashes into the space that was undeniably left for him.

All at once, Childe is full of comfort and contentment. He lets his eyes close as he wraps his arms around Aether from behind, and curls around him, tucking half of his face into the hair atop Aether's head. Everything seems so simple now... Everything feels in place like a completed jigsaw puzzle, or like a crooked picture set right.

In seconds he is asleep.

Aether clamps his lip between his teeth amid the overwhelming comfort of being snug in Childe's arms. He crosses his own arms over them. They're covered by the sleeves of his new pajamas (if Aether understood the seller correctly), more covered than usual. The warmth of his body can be felt through the fabric. And he's so solid: he is flesh and bone and his weight is half-leant against Aether's back, his legs curled up partway to...to hold him that much closer. Every detail Aether notices is euphoria-inducing.

He eases his teeth off his lip and relaxes. There is no catastrophic end coming to this, he tells himself. Not in the next few hours, at least. Probably. He can stop worrying about overstepping bounds and...all of that, for now. He can sleep. Here, now, nestled against someone he fell in love with many months ago, but only in the past two weeks had the chance to actively love.

Aether joins Childe in the soundest sleep either of them has had in years.

Notes:

scientific observations:
1. Childe and the Traveler are both intelligent, meticulous people. however, the number of functioning brain cells between them decreases in inverse proportion to their proximity to one another
2. acceptance of feelings is a process that requires Childe to be rebooted into Safe Mode; this is done by entering the Konami Code and then pressing and holding the battle button for at least three uninterrupted hours

Chapter 11: Day 13: Emerging from the gentle grip...

Summary:

Shadows all around you as you surface from the dark
Emerging from the gentle grip of night's unfolding arms
Darkness, darkness everywhere, do you feel alone?
The subtle grace of gravity, the heavy weight of stone

You don't see what you possess, a beauty calm and clear
It floods the sky and blurs the darkness like a chandelier
All the light that you possess is skewed by lakes and seas
The shattered surface, so imperfect, is all that you believe

I will bring a mirror, so silver, so exact
So precise and so pristine, a perfect pane of glass
I will set the mirror up to face the blackened sky
You will see your beauty every moment that you rise

- "You Are The Moon" by The Hush Sound

Notes:

playlist WIP if anyone interested

CHILDE F-I-N-A-L-L-Y GETS A f*ckIN HUG

edit: fixed Russian grammatical error

Chapter Text

Only the most basic needs get either of them out of bed before midday the next day. Whenever one of them makes a bleary, plodding trip to the magical outhouse, he is accosted on his return by Noelle with snacks and water. Sometimes these provisions are dutifully consumed, sometimes they're waved off.

Otherwise, no one disturbs them.

When their sleep finally lightens, the sun is still high, its bright but indirect light filtered through the ochre-colored screen between the bed and the window. A sound from just outside the guest room door slowly wakes them.

Meow. Meow? Meow. Meow? Meow. Meow. Meow? Meow.

It's unclear how long that's been going on. Then there's the muffled voice of Noelle: "You mustn't wake your master, Ms. Cat! He's still resting. Come and sample the food I made for you, and see if it's to your liking. Come along."

Armored footsteps recede and there's no more meowing.

Aether opens his eyes to an obstruction. He's on his side, facing Childe, who is sprawled on his back. The sheet is tangled around their legs, leaving much warmth to be desired by Aether, and evidently he sought that warmth by nestling as close into Childe's side as he could. His head is tucked under the taller man's arm, which is stretched out against the pillow. The pillow isn't under either of their heads: it has gone askew and found its way above and behind Aether. As for Aether's arms, one is extended downward and the other is folded up, both all but squished between his body and Childe's.

He tries to lift his head and discovers that his hair is trapped under Childe. He frees a hand and tries, lazily, to tug it out. It's a mess after all the time they must've been sleeping. Every excursion and change of position brought a little more chaos to his hair. Peering up, he sees that Childe's hair looks perfect. It doesn't have a style to begin with, unless 'tousled' counts.

Aether might be biased in his opinion that it looks perfect. To him, Childe looks perfect from head to toe. In fact, looking down, Aether can see one of his bare feet sticking out from under the sheet. Longer and broader than his own, but similarly defined, with prominent tendons. Sharper angles. Less weathered: Aether does a lot more walking, climbing, and distance running. Cute, Aether decides, for no specific reason. Maybe just because of who the foot belongs to.

He hears Childe draw a deeper breath and feels him start turning over toward him.

"Ow," Aether warns him as the movement threatens to pull more of his hair underneath.

Childe has been awake, more or less, for as long as Aether seems to have been. He kept still, in favor of just observing and appreciating how it felt when Aether moved. He listened to his breathing and the sounds of his clothing shifting. It's strange to awaken properly and still be in a world where his closest comrade is so physically close.

With the toneless word of protest from Aether, he figures out why he was doing something with his hair a minute ago. A peacefully amused smile spreads across Childe's dry lips, thin but wide. "'S part of my plan," he mumbles.

"Doesn't seem like your style," Aether replies, his voice creaking.

"You say that like I don't even have tactics." Immediately after saying that, he realizes that's a defense that isn't going to work.

"You don't." From fighting with and against him, as well as from a couple of conversations they've had over meals, Aether knows Childe prefers to act on instinct during combat as much as possible. That doesn't mean he always gets to, of course.

"Hehh." Childe rolls the other way and raises himself up on an elbow so Aether can have his hair and his freedom of movement back. Doing so makes him aware that everything aches. Not bad enough right now to bother him, though he dimly remembers it starting to get bothersome the last time he walked to and from the outhouse. As soon as all of Aether's hair appears to have been gathered, he slumps back into place, now facing him. Gradually, another smile stretches his lips as he watches Aether restore some limited order to his blond tresses. "...Need any help with that, comrade?"

Aether puffs a short sigh. "Please. In fact, I beg you. I'm at wit's end with it, and split ends too."

"Ahah," Childe reacts. A twinge of pain forebodes that if he laughs any more than that, his ribs will hate him for it. That again? he complains inwardly before remembering that Barbara said it would be worse today. Not the same, not better: worse. "My pleasure to assist. Turn around."

Aether turns over to a mostly prone position and angles his body toward the edge of the bed. That makes room for Childe's arms to move freely as his hands work. "Thank you," he sighs. To be able to ask him for such a thing kindles in Aether a heartening combination of relief, comfort, and encouragement.

If there's a brush or comb in this room, Childe doesn't know where it is and it's not within convenient reach. That's good, because it gives him an excuse—if any was needed—to run his fingers through Aether's hair the same way Aether finger-combed his hair yesterday. If it's half as soothing and relaxing for him as it was for Childe, it's a chance to repay him for that. Or, in other words... Huh. There aren't any other words for it. And yet he feels like there are, on the tip of his mental tongue. A chance to dote on Aether? That too would just be 'repaying' what Aether has already done for him. This is an odd thing to be dwelling on.

He shrugs that off and concentrates on delicately separating tangled strands.

Aether has his hands folded under his chin. Childe isn't anywhere near his scalp, but the soft tugs on his hair are enough to relax him so much that he lays his head down and eventually closes his eyes. He doesn't fall asleep again. Instead he drifts through his memories from yesterday, admiring many of them like a collection of precious objects. All the mundane problems and awkward errands fade to the background while the fight and certain things that followed it are foregrounded. The fight was nothing short of glorious, and he's already looking forward to another one—of sensible length. And the little intimacies afterward... He must have been one of the luckiest people in Teyvat that day. In fact, he's going to say that.

"Childe, I think I'm one of the luckiest people in Teyvat today. And yesterday," he opines quietly.

"Is that flattery, Aether?~"

It's so good to hear Childe address him by name. He knows he knew his name all along, so what even happened there? A question to ask another time. "Just how I feel," he replies. It is flattery, but it's also sincere. "Thank you for being persistent about sparring with me and inviting me to visit your family. No matter what else I doubted or feared, I could never doubt that you wanted those things. It was an open door I was always going to...come back through, sooner or later."

"Eheh. I'm not sure if this was 'sooner' or 'later.' ...I still wish you would have reached out, instead of leaving it to a chance meeting in Inazuma, but, all is understood and forgiven."

Aether chews on his lip a second before shyly confessing, "...I actually, um... I sort of...reached out. Once. Secretly."

Childe's hands almost pause. Almost. He looks at the back of Aether's head with an unseen expression of very interested curiosity. "Oh?"

"Have you ever heard of the Windblume Festival?"

"Mm... No? I don't believe so."

"It's a spring festival in Mondstadt. Not long after Teucer's visit, there was a Windblume going on and I went to see what it was all about. I, uh, got pulled into giving out romance advice by the Anemo Archon."

So as not to interrupt, Childe holds back a chuckle. He was listening to what sounded like a normal everyday anecdote (or every year, in the case of a seasonal festival), and it turned out to have a cameo appearance from an Archon. It's just like the novel.

"Fortunately for everyone, Paimon is the one who did all the talking. I just relayed the Archon's hints to her. Anyway, there was a woman who wanted to give a gift to Acting Grand Master Jean. She was worried it'd be awkward because she was a— what's it called... She wanted to join the Knights of Favonius."

"A prospective knight, perhaps?"

"That doesn't sound wrong. So, she wanted to know if she should deliver the gift secretly or let Jean know it came from her. Barbatos's hint was...incredibly confusing, so Paimon had to decide what to tell her. She told her to put her name on the gift. Be bold, be open with Jean. And you know what I took from that?"

"I think I have a good guess, but go on."

"Heh. Yeah, I decided it'd be a great idea to send you a secret gift and never tell you it was from me. But I suppose that's what I'm doing now."

"Wait." Childe remembers. In the spring, a bouquet of flowers was delivered to the bank by a courier who'd been paid by an anonymous individual. They were fresh-picked flowers that only grew in Mondstadt; two species that, he was told, were notoriously difficult to grow in greenhouses or gardens because they required certain amounts of exposure to wind. There was a card tied to the bouquet which had only the number 11 written on it.

Childe starts laughing. It's a full-throated laugh that neither he nor his tenderized body can suppress. He takes his hands out of Aether's hair and props his forehead on one of them. He laughs until he's shedding the only tears he's capable of.

Aether raises his head and looks back at him with a confused smile. "What?" He starts to chuckle a little himself. "...What is it?" Soon he's almost laughing along, delighted to see Childe so amused but also worrying a tiny bit that he said something wrong.

"Th—. Ff—. Even. Number. Of f-flowers. Is for. A funeral!" Childe shakes his head, grinning at Aether past his hand and just letting the tears of laughter run down the sides of his cheeks.

It only takes a second for it to click in Aether's mind. He had sent four flowers. Two windwheel asters, two cecilias. He breaks into a fit of snickering.

Childe struggles to regain control so he can explain further. "The. Ehe-he. My agents. They. Heh-he. Thought it was a threat against my. Life. Ohh comrade, hahh, you made me so happy that day. I was thrilled to receive a threat! I thought, I might get to fight someone interesting! I was in a good mood for days. They never figured out who the original sender was. Obviously. An agent successfully tracked down the person who hired the courier, only to discover they too were paid anonymously. The trail ran cold. Just how many proxies did you use?"

"Six," Aether manages to croak out, by now wracked with deep, near-silent laughter that is kind of excruciating. Worth it, though. Worth all the Mora he paid those people, too. Worth the whole effort, no matter how ill-conceived it was.

"Why?" Childe all but exclaims, still grinning but doing his best to not get started laughing again. If he starts, neither of them are stopping any time soon. He has to hold the line.

After a moment of his own struggle, Aether answers, "Becau— eheheh, heh. Because then at least you'd. Ehe. Hngh. Hehehh. Ahem. You'd at least be impressed by the lengths I went to, even if you didn't like the flowers."

"H'ohh I kept those flowers alive as long as possible. Which wasn't long, because they did need wind and they weren't going to get any on my desk. But I was quite interested to learn more about them. They seemed so particular. It wasn't difficult to find out that they're both beloved in Mondstadt, or that the windwheel aster can tell Mondstadters how strong the prevailing winds are in a location, and that the cecilia only grows where the wind is harsh."

"You remember all that? Heh." Aether turns his head to look up at Childe with a soft smile. "Did you...see anything about the cecilia that said...that it is 'as intangible as the true heart of an unbound soul'?" He's tentative about saying this, because it's potentially baring his own heart, but it's quite possible that Childe did find that little saying in his research.

"No." But Childe is smiling back dreamily. "It sounds so much like you."

Aether's face warms, and his smile wavers between brightening and faltering: the look on Childe's face makes him happy, but at the same time he's embarrassed that Childe misinterpreted who the comparison was meant to be applied to. Should I...tell him the truth of that? Should I? ...Why not. He went there first! "...I think it sounds like you, actually."

That seems to surprise Childe, then sink in and flatter him, then fully sink in and...Aether isn't sure what the third stage of his expression means, at first.

Surprised, then flattered, then struck deeper by the simple statement and confused as to why, Childe doesn't know what to say. He should just take the compliment. Intangible, unbound: he would certainly like to think that those words suit him. Well, maybe not 'intangible,' as he would rather his foes find him too tangible for their liking, but it has an appeal nonetheless as another way of saying 'unbound.'

That's just the thing, isn't it? His comrade has been listening to him all along, noting his wishes and goals and his preferred means of obtaining them. When Aether said that description sounded like him, he was holding up for him a mirror that has no cracks. Aether sees his desires—as anyone could, for they aren't secrets—but he also sees something in Childe that he can't see in himself: a worthiness to have his desires reflected back by someone else with acceptance and, of all things, tenderness.

And Aether was trying to show it to him even back then...

His own mirror has cracks that, try as he does, with all his resolutions and maxims and self-assurances, he can only cover up at best. And when he does that, he hides parts of himself from his own view, too. And it's easier that way.

"Comrade?" Aether prompts him, ever so softly.

Aether tried not to let guilt take hold of him as he watched all the joy vacate Childe's eyes. He went too far and now all the things that choke the life out of his loved friend are back. But if he's too caught up in regret, he can't help Childe. To breathe air back into his lungs, he has to have air in his own.

That's if there's anything he can do to help, though.

Childe isn't one to retreat unless he has to. This goes for everything, not just combat. He hasn't retreated from his family. He doesn't often avoid taking hard looks at his own flaws and weaknesses, when something prompts him to. As Aether thanked him for, he persisted in keeping some kind of connection alive between them, any kind, at every chance he got, no matter how one-sided it seemed to be. While there is a not-insignificant part of him that wants to flee from...acknowledging the vulnerability Aether inadvertently pierced, or acknowledging it in any way at all... There is another part of him that trusts Aether too much to shut him out now. It dawns on him that he's losing the ability to. And he has no one to blame but himself. He chose to trust Aether, and chose to again, and again and again, letting him in deeper every time. He made his bed and not only did he lie in it, he asked Aether to lie in it with him.

He's not alone. That is terrifying. It's compromising. It's dangerous. It's doomed. But he is selfish, and he cannot let go of the joys and comforts Aether lavishes on him. He is literally past the point of no return.

He lets himself sag down next to Aether. He gives up the chance to stop himself from wrapping his arms around him once more. He falls at the feet of his vanquisher: he buries his face against Aether's chest and waits, silently, for his mercy.

As quick as if by reflex and entirely deliberate, Aether wraps his arms around Childe in turn. He holds him, at the shoulders and lower back, as tight as he can. His recovering muscles are weak: it's not as tight as he could hold him if they weren't, but it's probably as tight as he should in any case, especially given that Childe is sore too.

In Aether's arms, Childe is able to disappear from the sight of his own thoughts. Quiet settles over his mind like the silence of deep snow the day after a storm. Only a few snowflakes drifting down from a calm, white sky.

Before recently, he could only escape himself in combat.

In the meantime, although Aether is imagining apologies he could say, he doesn't speak. What he knows is that he doesn't know what went through Childe's mind just now. He can't be sure it was even something he said that tipped his mood over. By groping in the dark with uncertain words, he might just disrupt whatever peace Childe is finding in their silent embrace.

Time passes. Aether doesn't hear any voices elsewhere in the house. Through the door and walls, he could expect to distinguish people's voices from one another but not their words. It's just silent out there, however. He guesses Xingqiu and Chongyun have returned to the Chasm with Paimon. That, or all three of them are over in the guest house. As for Noelle, she might have left, or she might be with the others, or doing quiet work somewhere. Maybe taking a break? Reading a book or just having a nice, leisurely cup of tea? No, that would be too much to hope for.

He doesn't think Childe has fallen asleep. He's been feeling the rise and fall of his chest against him and listening to his muffled breaths this whole time, and there's not been the steady rhythm of autonomic breathing. It varies. Sometimes it seems as if Childe forgets to breathe for a moment and then remembers. Rarely, there is a sudden, jagged intake of breath, nigh-inaudible but distinctly felt, that puts Aether in mind of how one recuperates from crying. But he didn't cry and he doesn't. He never changes or slackens his hold, and neither does Aether. The longer he holds on the more it tires his arms. He is determined to ignore that, until it occurs to him that that, too, is an issue they both have.

Aether breaks the silence as gently as a snowflake landing on Childe's face. Between a whisper and a murmur he says, "Your arms must be getting tired. If you'll let me, just relax and I'll pet your hair as long as it takes for you to feel better, even if it's the rest of the day."

Childe tightens his grip and bites his lip until the bittersweet squeeze of that kindness around his heart relents. Then, he slowly eases his arms from around Aether. Even though he can't cry, he feels a need to keep his face hidden for now, so he turns onto his front and buries it in his own folded arms instead of Aether's chest. He is precariously balanced on the threshold between emptiness of mind and a dreaded return to normalcy. A thought about the other Harbingers or something of that nature is prowling the edges of his consciousness.

And then that thought, whatever it would have been, is calmly shooed away by Aether's fingers stroking through his hair.

Aether keeps it simple, doing what he promised to do and not less or more. He's lying on his side now, facing Childe of course. Childe is not facing him. Access to most of his hair is easy, and rather than being systematic and thorough, Aether does whatever seems right at a given moment, wherever it seems right. At its lightest, his touch is just his fingers caressing the surface of Childe's auburn locks. Over time, he tends toward more of a deep, slow combing, then massaging his scalp.

It works. Everything fades except for the tranquil sensations on his head. Even the soreness throughout his body, which he would at another time cling to as a sign he's alive, becomes unimportant and muted. He is not happy, he is not sad; he isn't having fun and he isn't bored. He just exists in the utmost simplicity, and right now, that is perfection.

Gradually he goes from existing to relaxing, and from relaxing to being able to think without spiralling. ...Find something to talk about. Can't pretend this didn't happen. Or perhaps...? No, because it happened right in front of him and he's been...he has been here the entire time, being... Being my evening star. Shining steadily for as long as I need him to navigate by.

...If there is love in me, it is for you, Aether...

If...if I have anything to give you, if there is anything left, it is yours...

Childe turns his head and resettles it on his arms, meeting the gaze that's on him.

The expression Aether sees on Childe's face now is a frowning brow and a hesitating mouth. He's scrutinizing Aether as if searching for something that makes sense to him, or for a confirmation. It's not a wholly unfamiliar look, which is why Aether can interpret it to some extent, but there's an intentness about it that takes him aback. He suspects Childe is about to speak, and he can't guess whether it's going to be good or bad. He stopped petting Childe's hair when he moved his head, but he hasn't withdrawn his hand. The turn left his palm resting on the side of his face.

Childe lifts his own hand and takes hold of Aether's wrist, tempted to hold tight as if, if he doesn't, the touch and Aether himself will leave. Rather, he grips so lightly that he could hold a butterfly in that hand without so much as bending a wingtip. If Aether is going to leave, now or ever, there's really nothing he can do about it. He can wish all he wants that this man will be the last thing he ever sees, in the distant future when he defeats him a final time... But the thing that makes Childe's heart instead of breaking it is that Aether hasn't been forced to do any of this. Not since the matter in Liyue was resolved. The freest choices Aether has made were those that welcomed him nearest.

So what does he have to fear except for discovering the truth of what's between them, one way or the other? Reality is inevitable. He faces it now or he faces it later.

"Lyublyu tebya ya vsey dushoy," Childe quietly tells Aether. "I love you with all my soul." By saying it in both languages, he is stepping forward with both feet. "I—" He inhales involuntarily. "I don't know how much of that is left." The feeblest breath of a resigned laugh punctuates that. "Or what will remain of it in the future. But whatever there is...it's yours." He lowers his hand from Aether's wrist, leaving it all up to him, and faces reality with his eyes open.

Aether isn't at all prepared for the tide of emotions and sensations that overwhelms him. He had no idea Childe was going to say that. His face flushed, he curls his trembling fingers slightly, caressing Childe's hair once more before trailing them down his temple and cheek. From his flipped stomach to his fluttering heart, from the lump in his throat to a hot-cold tingle around his ears, he is experiencing the full physiological force of his first love being reciprocated.

Yet, far from a naive infatuation born firstly of hormones and instincts, the love he stumbled into—and chose to walk ever farther into—is one that is under no illusions. He knows that the man in front of him is dangerous on more than one level, unstable, selectively blind to the effects his actions have on others, a willing enough participant in what might have been called war crimes on other worlds, and quite possibly headed for a future of suffering and atrocities. The man is also too young to have been a soldier as long as he has been, clearly traumatized, troubled by his complicated relationship with his family, capable of many good things, and, against all odds, holding his humanity together, fractured though it is.

In other words, he's just another person in the grand scheme of things. Just one more would-be conqueror, as common and inevitable as a virus in the larger human organism. All of his life, a collection of minuscule points within the margin of error in one statistic or another.

But to Aether, he matters beyond measure.

Aether falls across the narrow space between them and embraces him. With Childe still lying prone, Aether can only wrap an arm over his back and grip his opposite side, circling his other arm gently around his head to bring it toward the crook of his neck.

"I love you," Aether tells him through tears. "I love you." He says it twice because once isn't enough. Neither is twice, but it's a start.

Needing—absolutely needing—to have his arms around Aether again, Childe puts his mastery of his body to use in rotating himself beneath Aether without the other man getting elbowed or having to move. They end up more or less on their sides, each with an arm wrapped around, each with a hand at the back of the other's head.

From there, they don't know what they're doing. They just need. Need to get closer still, need to breathe each other's air, know the intimacy of being in each other's faces, never be apart again. Aether's cheek brushes against Childe's and all these simple, unprecedented things make him tip his head back momentarily, a whimper of bliss from him cherished by Childe before they're cheek to cheek again. Aether nuzzles; their noses drag against one another's cheekbones. He almost fails to hear a whimper much like his own get stuck in Childe's throat. Then, he feels Childe kissing the tracks of tears on his face, tears that are still falling. His fingers staying buried in Childe's hair offer assurance that he's more than alright with whatever they're doing, and likewise is he assured by Childe's hand underneath his hair.

Being able to taste Aether's joy is something Childe can't get enough of as soon as he discovers it. He finds himself going as far as parting his lips to lick the tracks of Aether's tears with the tip of his tongue. He'll never get used to this man crying over him... He hopes it will never be in sadness, but he'll settle for 'rarely,' because life is what it is. Though, this, all of it, was not something he expected life to grant him. He's dizzy with the knowledge that Aether loves him. Loves him!

While Childe is kissing his tears away, Aether can't easily kiss any part of his face. Formerly dry lips grow wet and soft from the tears and from what Aether soon realizes are tiny licks. That makes him smile. He's quite content to wait his turn by bringing up his other hand and tracing Childe's pulse along his neck. This contentment however is not lethargic; it is vibrant and sparking with potential.

Possibilities seem unlimited now that they know. It's a new dawn on a new horizon. They're both starting to feel as if they have a lot of catching-up to do.

Eventually Childe pulls back far enough to look at him, and frames his face between his hands for the second time ever. To Aether he looks simultaneously troubled and enraptured, his eyes alive with the delicate thrill of these moments but his thoughts perhaps pivoting. Still smiling, Aether cups his cheek and strokes his thumb from side to side across it, hoping that if Childe is troubled, the active touch will keep him grounded and reassured.

He can't help nuzzling into that and covering Aether's hand with his own. When the corner of his mouth snags on the heel of Aether's palm, he turns that into a kiss, followed by another, and a third that he places right where the veins in the wrist are most visible. That one lingers, because feeling his comrade's pulse under his lips is a comforting wonder he is definitely going to want to repeat.

The way Childe's kiss feels on the sensitive skin of his wrist causes Aether to sigh. He almost closes his eyes, but he doesn't want to, not even for a second, because Childe is right there and he can't get over that. He wants to drink in that sight forever: his face close but not too close, watching him through his eyelashes as he tilted his head to give him that kiss. He looks so...in place, like he too feels that this is natural for them after all. Aether turns his head to kiss the palm Childe still has cradling his face.

"Aether," Childe murmurs, giving his hand a small squeeze.

"Mmhm?"

"Promise me something, alright?"

Aether nods and gives what Childe is saying his full attention. "Is this what you were going to ask me for yesterday?"

"Yes. Aether...you must survive at all costs. Promise me that you won't die before I reach the top of the world and stand ready for our final battle."

It is no surprise that Childe is still thinking like that. Aether doesn't expect it to change. He will change, in some ways, for better or worse, because people always do over time. But Aether is not pinning anything on his fundamental priorities ever changing. He takes this request for what it is: the only way Childe can ask him for the same reassurance he gave Aether. Though he smiles faintly for a second, Aether is every bit as serious and solemn as he. "I promise I'll stay alive for you." He takes the initiative to offer a pinkie finger.

At that, the Harbinger is moved to a wan but grateful smile that warms up when he links his pinkie finger with the Traveler's. "You make a pinkie promise, you keep it all your life," he begins, dropping to a whisper.

Aether speaks before Childe starts the next line, whispering too: "You break a pinkie promise, I throw you on the ice." He remembers the whole thing, give or take an exact phrasing. Of course he does.

Listening to Aether recite that, Childe isn't surprised, but he is touched. "The cold will kill the pinkie that once betrayed your friend," he continues in the pause Aether leaves for him.

"The frost will freeze your tongue off so you never lie again," Aether finishes. Now he's the one with a sober expression. "You never have to be alone again, Childe. Not as long as you want me around. Not...literally, but...you know what I mean, right?"

Childe inhales, holds the breath, and then sighs it out. He's smiling sadly. And happily. It's a complicated and wavering expression with a mix of emotions behind it that, although seeming to contradict each other, occur together in him more often than not. He can't recall the last time the happiness was this deep and radiant and certain, though. "...S-stop making me wish I could weep so you would see how much that means to me."

He can't? Oh... A frown is suppressed and a small smile allowed back onto Aether's face. "Don't worry. I know. Guess I should warn you now: I'll probably cry enough for both of us. Lumine's an angry crier; I'm an everything crier." He smiles wider and tugs Childe's shoulder to invite him to lean in.

"Huh." Just a soft noise of Childe absorbing that information as he heeds the tug. He's unsure what Aether has in mind, but he's open to anything as long as it doesn't involve moving farther apart. The answer is pretty much immediate: Aether kisses his forehead, then his brow, then the bridge of his nose. It makes him close his eyes and it makes him smile, wide and warm.

Seeing that, Aether does it again, going up the same path slower. This time when he tries to kiss Childe's forehead, he gets a mouthful of hair by accident. "Pft, pfft, pfbt, pleh. Mleh." They both start laughing quietly; as their ribs threaten them, they reflexively try not to laugh any harder and soon settle down.

"How long?" Childe asks, picking up a lock of Aether's hair and running it through his fingers. "That is, how long have you known?"

"That I'm in love with you?" Aether realizes Childe has had a subtle blush going during most of the past...hour or so? He realizes that because the blush intensifying draws his attention to it.

"Uh-huh."

"A few days ago Paimon told me. Sort of. She asked me about it and...all at once, I had to...see a lot of things I've been doing and feeling for what they are. I kind of knew already, since...I don't know when. Ah, no, actually...there was...a specific time of a few minutes when I felt something change." Aether catches himself shyly glancing aside and meets Childe's eyes again.

"A specific few minutes? Hm..." That's intriguing to Childe even aside from the topic being of immense interest to him. "Which few minutes could that have been?" he prompts.

Aether bites back an embarrassed smile. "Um. When you... When you destroyed those three Ruin Guards in ten seconds."

Childe's eyebrows rise. Sure, if their roles were reversed that might have done it for him, but somehow it's not what he expected to change Aether's mind like that. Ah, hang on. "That was ten seconds, not a few minutes." An implicit question.

"Talking with you— well, mostly watching you and Paimon talk after that... I'm not sure how to explain it in words. I think...that was when I understood that all the 'different' sides of you are one and the same. That you can't be simplified to 'a bad guy with a good side' or 'a good guy with a bad side.' You're just you. You're complicated. Beautifully complicated. You are...intangible to categorization, and unbound from the way most people look at things."

This is another case where it's just so weird to hear something like that, that he's at a loss for a response. He blinks a few times, staring blankly and then contemplatively at Aether. It's the experience of hearing considered reflections on oneself coming out of another person's mouth. He's used to being the only one who cares about why he does anything. Everyone just declares him 'unpredictable' or some variation thereupon. He feels free to expound on his opinions, principles, and goals, any time the mood strikes him, because no one is listening and no one cares. There's comfort in that, or at least a comfort zone. And it doesn't bother him that no one listens to what he says because, one, he fully intends to prove himself through action, not words, and two, he's not out to prove himself to anyone but himself.

"It's as if you and I were in a large, crowded room," Childe muses after mulling it over. "All of a sudden you looked straight at me, and we could hear each other clearly from opposite ends of the room. Clearly enough to start a conversation, at least."

Aether brightens. "I like that." He adopts the same position as Childe is settling back into: lying on his front with his arms folded to rest his head on. Though, before he folds his arms, he hands Childe another lock of his hair to comb. "Hint," he says with something of a playful smile.

"Gladly." Childe doesn't have to get up on his elbows or anything to work on Aether's hair, given its length.

"What about you? When did you know?" Aether asks.

"Hmm... How long ago did I tell you?"

"Half an hour ago, I think?"

"Then it was half an hour ago. Perhaps you gathered this much, but until that moment, I thought myself incapable of love. Of this kind, and...maybe all kinds. I know, you're probably thinking about my siblings when I say that, but... It's very selfish of me, don't you think, to take the charade of being a toy salesman so far that it put Teucer in danger?"

Thoughtfully Aether concedes, "I was thinking about that at the time... I know that the naivety of human children means...that adult humans can sometimes see in a child's eyes a reflection of...an idealized version of themself. And you said that, more or less. ...But do you remember that time we ran into each other at Wanwen?"

"Of course. That was so early in our acquaintance you were on an errand for Zhongli-xiānshēng."

"Yeah. It was a time when I had no...idea what to think of you. You were just...that Fatui Harbinger who gave me a Sigil of Permission. And yes, rescued me from the Millelith, I guess. I didn't need a rescue, but thanks."

Childe has a short chuckle under his breath at that. He nods.

"So," Aether continues, "when I saw you at the bookshop..."

"The little girl?"

"Mmhm. She came right up to you and asked you if all the fairytales were real. I heard your answer. At the time...I didn't even know how I felt about that, because I've never been a— kid and it's difficult to understand why humans tell their children things that aren't true. Lumine and I always liked stories as well as facts, but...early on, we didn't enjoy not knowing the difference. The responsibility that adults have to children... I assumed for a long time that it included telling the truth no matter how...bad it might be to hear. That was what I thought a very long time ago, anyway."

"And now? Or then, at the bookshop?"

"Then, I was reminded of the...dilemma, but I didn't...judge one way or the other." On this topic, Aether is struggling more with his phrasing. The words aren't themselves long or esoteric. His current difficulties are around being certain he has the right word with which to accurately express his thoughts. "What you told her made a lot more sense later on, of course. To me. And that brings me to my point. You gained nothing from making her day happier. There was nothing in it for you. Are you going to say it was selfish because you liked to see a random kid smile? Or that it didn't count because it didn't take any effort?"

Childe raises an eyebrow at Aether's attempt to philosophically corner him. "I could have drowned her with the rest of the city, you no doubt recall."

"On the off chance that a plan you were counting on failing succeeded. If Rex Lapis didn't step in to save Liyue Harbor, as far as you knew, that meant no Gnosis. You had already discovered it wasn't in the Exuvia. If you destroyed the city, the Tsaritsa's entire mission for the Fatui in Liyue would have also failed, as far as you knew."

A sharp sigh from Childe. "All true, but I accepted the risk. That girl's life, and the lives of all the other children in Liyue Harbor, were not worth losing our chance at the Gnosis. That is the calculation I made. I thought you understood that."

"I do. I'm just saying that you of all people should not be weighing these things in black and white terms." There's another point I could make, but...some other day.

That was three different metaphors mixed, Childe notices. He dawdles on that thought because he doesn't have a good counterargument. Plenty of bad counterarguments, but he's not going to insult Aether's intelligence, time, and the effort that protracted conversation requires of him—which Childe just remembered. Closing his eyes in a show of defeat, he heaves a big sigh with a light tone. "Very well, you've made your point." He opens one eye. "It's too bad I've forgotten what we were talking about to begin with~" Aether may have knocked him down and he may have lost, but he can still sweep Aether's legs out from under him with a petty kick. Metaphorically. ...In this case.

Aether smirks at him and Childe gets the sudden impression of a cat poised to pounce. "Mmm..." Aether responds. "Too bad..." What is that look? Whatever it is, Childe likes it.

Something about Childe being cheeky like that has swung Aether's mind to a completely different place. He's inexplicably thinking about the tension at the end of their spar. "But that's fine," he continues. "I have another question."

Childe blinks innocently. "Yes, comrade?"

"Was it just me, or...around the time we stopped sparring..." His pauses are more coy than searching, now. "Did it feel like...we weren't done? Did you...want it to end a different way?"

That puts Childe on the spot in a way that he finds oddly agreeable. There's a little thrill in remembering how he'd fantasized about wrestling with Aether and how that came true. The original fantasy had been purely of battle, or so he'd thought. Looking back at it, he has to wonder. Because, when Aether had him in a headlock between his thighs and an unrelenting grip on his wrists... A spark had already caught fire in him by that point, and when they could no longer fight, he became conscious of that flame. Yes: in hindsight, that confounding restlessness and craving was sexual.

He thinks, too, of the multiple times he has been fleetingly aroused by imagining Aether pinning him down. He had resisted dwelling on those ideas. Now...why not follow them further? He can at least admit to them. "Maybe," he answers, smiling with his lips sheepishly pursed. "Perhaps...I wanted my comrade...to teach me a lesson?" It's not going to be easy to explain.

"What kind of lesson?" Aether smugly dares him to elaborate, his voice lower and breathier than a moment ago.

"Mmn..." A thoughtful noise shaped by Childe tonguing the roof of his mouth as he considers. Being asked like that, he finds it not too difficult to explain after all: "The kind where...you show me what else you can do to me while you have me pinned down and...restrained." He must be onto something, because he can feel excitement taking root, and it is most definitely sexual.

Heedless of his body's protests, Aether smoothly rises to his knees. Childe lets his hair slip free of his fingers and watches him with rapt attention.

The smirk that's on Aether's face now, as he looms over Childe, is soft and loving. It's full of ideas. He can scarcely imagine what those ideas are, but he is quite willing to place himself at Aether's mercy and find out.

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If he can't put his arms around Aether, Childe will just scrunch his legs up toward him. It's totally ineffectual but it feels right. He has finally let his eyes close, and he feels so relaxed as he catches his breath. There is no trouble in the world or within himself that can reach him here, with Aether on top of him and the two of them slowly cooling off. What Aether is doing with his wrists feels good, too; he feels cared for. The hair lying across his face is no problem for now. It does dissuade him from trying to turn his head and kiss Aether's, because it would definitely get in his mouth then, and he doesn't want either of them moving to address that.

Aether, on the other hand, is quite free to kiss Childe's lean neck. Just one light kiss, but he lets it linger for a long moment. Then he murmurs near his ear, "How do you feel right now?"

"Good," Childe sighs contentedly. All the involuntary tensing of his legs and abs is coming back to bite him, but he doesn't care. Also, the hair is indeed in his mouth now. He takes one hand from Aether's care to remove it, his motions lazy and imprecise. After the delay that requires, he returns the question. "And you, moya lyubov?" He lays his hand on Aether's back. A smile against the skin of his neck tells him Aether doesn't need a translation.

Aether doesn't need to know a single word of Snezhnayan to understand what Childe is saying when he says it in that sweet tone. "Good... I never really liked sex before, but...it's different with you." That hand on his back is nice. He leaves Childe's other hand unoccupied, too, as he places both of his on the Harbinger's shoulders. Idly he strokes the scars that happen to be under his thumbs.

Childe shifts his position a tiny bit in surprise, as if he had half a mind to sit up. "Really?" he quietly muses more than asks. "I've had a very similar experience." He wraps his other arm around as much of Aether as he can, laying it diagonally across his back from his ribs to the opposite side of his waist. Again, it just feels right.

"What do you mean?" Aether inquires, likewise perking up with curiosity and likewise resisting an impulse to raise his head.

"Sex is such a physical thing, of course I was curious," Childe explains in the manner of an anecdote. "There was a woman, a tea seller from Qiaoying, who was quite forward with her interest in having dinner and a night with me. So, I took her up on it. To be very honest, I enjoyed the food more than the sex. And if you're wondering, my comrade, all we did, we simply did with our mouths. Nothing elaborate. I don't think that was the problem, though, or even part of it. Perhaps her being a woman had something to do with it, but...not likely. I never understood the appeal of sex or romance, even as a teenager."

"Me neither," Aether marvels. "Er, not that I was a teenager, but I mean: never. I tried sex, too, and I went about it pretty much the same way in terms of finding people to have it with. Just...taking a few opportunities that presented themselves to me. But it was so boring I didn't bother to bring any of those memories with me. Not the details, anyway. No names or faces, or context, or specific experiences."

"Now, one moment, I want to come back to this, but I've been wondering: is there a limit to how many memories you can...hold in your mind at once? Or your brain, more to the point."

"Yes, but, it's not as if I'm...dilemma-ing about what to...bring." Aether pauses in the hope that Childe will give him the word he couldn't find.

"Deliberating? Fretting?"

"Mm," Aether concurs. He continues, "There's, uh, 'room' for plenty enough. And it won't deteriorate over time because I don't age." You remember 'deteriorate' but not 'fret'? "And...Lumine and I always leave behind all our...specific memories of places we've been and things we've seen. Well, 'all' isn't exactly... It's not an exact thing sometimes. Sometimes it is."

Childe feels a brief grimace at his neck. It's clearly difficult for Aether to explain these things. Not because they're fraught topics in any way, as far as Childe can tell, but simply because there's a gap between human life and the life of a star. He asks the question that calls to mind: "Are all stars alive and...?" It's Childe's rare turn to come up short of a word.

"Ah... I don't know. No one was around to explain anything to Lumine and I, and we haven't met anyone like us." An apathetic shrug in his tone. "It used to be something we thought of as a big mystery, but not as much anymore."

And he thinks Paimon is in a similar situation. As for his sister...I've many questions and I'm certainly not going to ask any of them right now. He strokes Aether's back, subtly, just in case his thoughts are veering into saddening territory. That's something Childe can innately understand where matters of family are concerned. "I see... Before we digress any further, may I ask a question that intersects both topics but is...rather personal? You need not answer."

Aether smiles. "We weren't already on personal questions?"

"Ehm, well, you can judge it for yourself: how did you come by your body, in its particulars?"

He's wondering about the anatomy. I could tease him about that, but it's not the only reason he's asking, considering his other questions. "I...chose it for myself when I still had the power to change it. It was more...random at first. Over time I...adjusted it to my liking. Short, by some human standards anyway, so I can use larger opponents' size against them. Sort of young-looking because it...hmm. I could say it makes people underestimate me, but that's not... Hm."

"I'm sure it does, though." Childe likes the strategic thought his comrade has put into these things. If I could change my body at will, what would I change? In a way, Foul Legacy answers that question, but he didn't have that much choice about what he would transform into.

"The important thing," Aether arrives at, "is that it goes toward making up for how little emotion I show around most people. It seems like people don't question what I'm up to or why, when they think I'm a teenager or something. What I don't understand is why so many people do think that, when there are human adults who are shorter than me, teenagers who are taller, and my face isn't so youthful that it couldn't be an adult's. And if they think I'm that young, why do they put all these hazardous responsibilities on me?"

That, Childe realizes, is a good point. Yes, he joined the Fatui at fourteen, and there are plenty of other Fatui who were recruited young, but those are exceptions that prove the rule. No matter how many children are forced to grow up fast by circ*mstances, even he—or, he especially—has a sense that it's not supposed to be that way. No one seems to care about the Traveler's safety when he can solve their problems for them. "...That's just the way of the world, I suppose. As long as you can solve problems they themselves are too weak to solve, they'll avert their eyes from any responsibility of their own that they might otherwise deign to have toward your safety. Except when it comes to alcohol, apparently~"

"Hah," Aether repeats. "Right. It is, again, not my problem." Another implicit shrug.

"Don't you make everyone's problems your problems, comrade?" It's sort of a humorous jab, but there's a note of concern in it too.

"They make their problems my problems. I don't do anything I'm not asked to. Sometimes it's Paimon who asks, though, and I don't mind doing what she asks. Most of the time." Aether sighs. "It is starting to seem like people are getting a little too comfortable relying on me. It's...kind of dangerous when there's one person who can get a lot done. Not for me, but for them."

"Because they become dependent on you and forget how to do for themselves?"

"Yes. It's happened before. And sometimes it goes even farther. Way too far."

"...Do you find yourself...cornered into some sort of rulership?"

"It's happened before." And now, with what Lumine is doing.

Imagine that. Conquering a world on accident... He would almost be humbled by that, if only momentarily, except Aether treats him as an equal. That must be a good sign for his ambitions. "...If you joined me on my path to world domination, we would be unstoppable."

"Mm." A neutral noise. Carefully neutral, as is what Aether says next. "I...am aware of that. But I'm trying to step lightly, Childe. As lightly as I can while getting pulled into all these...matters of nation. I really tried to avoid getting involved in the war between the Shogunate and the Resistance..."

"Why?" It mystifies Childe that someone with so much potential would repress it like that. It's upsetting, in fact. He's making a serious effort to question it with a question mark and not an exclamation point.

Aether is silent for a moment. He thinks maybe he should sit up and look Childe in the eyes for this, but he still doesn't want to move. Nor does he want to imply that the subject has put any distance or detachment between them, because as far as Aether is concerned, it hasn't. "...Let's talk about it another time, if that's okay with you. I will answer your questions about this, but...right now...can we talk about something else?"

Childe takes a deep breath and refrains from petulantly sighing it out. All things considered, he would rather not make his problem with this into Aether's problem, at least not when they're in the middle of a post-coital cuddle. His mood brightens the instant he reminds himself that that's the situation they're in. Stroking circles over a small area of his love's back, he concedes. "As you wish. Shall we go back to the origin of this subject? It seems comparatively simple now to ask you why you chose not to have the...usual equipment for a man? If indeed you chose." He's vaguely aware that not all men have the 'usual' anatomy, nor all women: that some people find themselves at odds with the body they're born with, and that some are born physically different. There was another Fatui recruit in his cohort who was open about being the latter. Unrelated: she actually graduated training, unlike some of the others who crossed his path at that time whose fighting careers met very early ends.

Aether smiles. "That is simple: it's very convenient for the type of sex I...least disliked, and it gives me an extra option for that. Mh, dislike isn't the right word. What I came closest to enjoying? Anyway...the bets are off; I don't know what I'll like best now." His smile returns, wider. "Are you going to want to help me figure that out?"

"Without a doubt! You can test out whatever you like on me, whether it's on the battlefield or in bed~"

"Heheh. I'm... You don't have to do that. But, I'm looking forward to it." He moves a hand from Childe's opposite shoulder to the side of his face, tracing his jawline affectionately. "I'm so lucky..."

"Mmmm. Would it be futile to argue that I'm luckier?"

"Yes it would. I will allow that we're equally lucky."

"Hehe. Fine."

"...Do you have any...reluctances about who should...be let to know about us?"

"Reservations? None at all. I'd love to see the looks on the other Harbingers' faces when they find out about our 'dealings.'" Glee rises in Childe's voice over the course of that remark until he punctuates it with a boyish laugh.

Aether chuckles with him. "I shouldn't be surprised, and I'm not. I love your boldness."

"You don't seem to put much stock in the opinions of others either, sladkiy."

Another cooed word Aether can't interpret as anything but an endearment; he grins. "No, generally. As long as it's alright with you, I don't plan to keep how I feel about you a secret from anyone. If certain friends of mine decide they don't want anything to do with me anymore because I love a Fatui Harbinger, I'll accept that. I'd rather lose any other friend I've made in Teyvat than lose you. Except Paimon. She's more useful than you~"

Childe laughs again. "Ouch! I'm not as useful as the toddler-sized fairy who can't fight a squirrel? You are cruel."

"Mmhm~" In truth, if Aether had to choose between Paimon and Childe...he doesn't know who he'd choose. Maybe the novelty of romantic love is weighing too heavy on one side of that scale. Paimon has been his best and steadiest friend in Teyvat through everything. Good thing he doesn't have to choose; it's abundantly evident that Paimon supports him even where Childe is concerned. "So you don't expect any, uh, consequences from above for giving...mmm, such aid and comfort to the enemy?"

"Oh no, I doubt it. As long as I keep serving the Tsaritsa as the vanguard of the Harbingers, I don't think she cares if I go to bed with someone who has opposed her efforts. She is a highly practical and pragmatic warrior. And, admittedly, er...you haven't stopped any of her major plans so far."

"You've got me there," Aether wryly acknowledges. "The only reason she doesn't have Raiden's Gnosis is because of Scaramouche. Because he abandoned." At the same time, the only reason he has that Gnosis is because of Yae. And the only reason I'm alive is Yae. He has no feelings about that at the moment. It's just the funny ways life works out.

"Abandoned: absconded?"

"Is that it? Huh." Aether thanks Childe for the suggestion with a set of soft kisses below his ear. "How long are you going to be in Inazuma?" he asks after that.

Childe appreciates all these neck-kisses. They give him little...fizzy sensations under his skin that keep his senses anchored inside his body instead of ransacking his surroundings. "I don't really know. To my knowledge the only thing I have to do in the near future that I don't have latitude on is attending Signora's funeral. That's going to be a drag." Childe makes no attempt to minimize his distaste when he adds, "All the other Harbingers will be in attendance."

"I'm curious about the other Harbingers. Actually I'm just interested in your personal opinions on each of them. But let's save that one for later, too. What I'd rather say is that even if you have to bear through a funeral for someone you didn't like, attended by other people you don't like, you can come here for the night and I'll help you forget all about it." The fact that Aether is flirting there doesn't quite reach his tone, but he smiles against Childe's skin and momentarily ducks his head further down to kiss the span between his neck and shoulder.

"Mmm! That does make the whole thing seem more tolerable. I only wish I could take your hand and bring you from here back to Snezhnaya with me while I'm there."

"I wish that too. I really want to visit, I do. It's just that...Snezhnaya is involved in so much of what's going on in Teyvat, and so am I, and if I go there too soon I'll be getting myself into the center of a storm I've barely begun to understand. I've thought about just sneaking over, but...I never seem to be able to go anywhere without things happening."

Childe breathes a small sigh. He doesn't like that Aether can't visit his family yet, but he likes the reason why. "Always at the center of chaos, aren't you. That's what they say about me, but compared to you, I'm just whirling around in the wind with everyone else."

"And now you're going to be right there with me sometimes. Often, I hope? But I know it won't always be possible. Right now the irony is that you've finally gotten out of Liyue and I'm back in Liyue again."

"It doesn't take too terribly long to travel between Inazuma and Liyue. That said, there are still so many things in Inazuma I'd like to see. You have to give me a tour of those strong foes you mentioned~"

"Heh, that might not be in the next few days. There's a beach on Kannazuka that I want to show you, though. I think I'll keep it a secret why, so it'll be a surprise. Don't get too excited, it's nothing big, but..." Aether's confidence dips for a second. He isn't completely sure Childe will appreciate pretty scenery with nothing more to it.

"Big or not, if you want me to see it I've no doubt I'll like it. At the very least, it's something that made you think of me. That's not an unexciting thought."

"Heh," Aether responds warmly. "Right, it did." He finally feels like changing position; he elbows himself up just enough to scoot a few inches down and lay his head on Childe's chest. His hand remains on Childe's opposite shoulder, he just bends his arm to accommodate the altered angle. His other arm, he slides under Childe's head, wanting to create a semblance of an embrace. It's quite nice to feel his hair on his arm and the weight of his head, too.

By the small degrees necessary, Childe adjusts his arms around Aether. Another contented sigh: "Sladkiy... For you, I would translate this word as 'sweetness.'"

"Hmm," Aether all but sighs, equally content. "That's sweet of you. Seems to me that a romantic has been hiding in you all along, and now you have a chance to let it out."

Childe huffs a faint laugh. "...That's not a possibility I would ever have considered before." He's not sure if he believes it, but he is entertaining the idea.

They let a comfortable quiet blanket them for a few moments.

Aether is listening to Childe's calm heartbeat; it's right under his ear. He could listen to that all day... Finding himself tracing the scar that extends from the Harbinger's right side along his pectoral, he decides to confirm something. "How do you feel about these scars?" he asks lightly.

"To my mind, battle scars are medals of honor—the true mark of a warrior. Even when they're still healing, I don't go covering them up unless I have to."

Aether nuzzles his chest with a nod. "I look at them as part of the...art that you are doing as you create yourself. The marks of a sculpturer's tools."

"Sculptor? Mm~ I'll accept that description too, and thank you."

Having ardently studied most of Childe's body from the front view while straddling him, Aether doesn't have to look now to realize, "You know, um...I think...all the cuts from our spar got healed..." He has a feeling Childe isn't going to be happy about that. Unless he already noticed, in which case either he's at peace with it somehow or he hasn't shown his unhappiness about it.

Childe tenses, frowning.

Aether can't see the frown, but he can sense it from that tensing-up.

Childe then deflates with a sad sigh. His thoughts are just a long ellipsis.

The fact he doesn't say anything suggests to Aether that he doesn't even know what to say. So, Aether carefully prompts him. "...Do you feel...?"

"Robbed? Yes. Disappointed? Quite... That fight meant a lot to me. To have nothing to show for it..."

Aether hesitates over what he says next. It's risky new territory and, at the same time, already part of their relationship in a way. "...I could...give you one to remember it by, if you want. But only if scarring you outside of battle wouldn't be different. Or, we could wait 'til our next spar."

Childe draws a hopeful breath, relaxing again somewhat. If he understands correctly what Aether is suggesting, it piques his interest on multiple levels. "Different? It would be, of course, but it'd be you. And your sword, yes? In that case...I think I could be satisfied with that. It would be a gift from you, one that I'd cherish. It'd bring yesterday to mind as well as today, and these have been two very good days." If he had to pay for those impossibly great parts with some low points, well, it was a bargain buy.

Aether draws a deep, thoughtful breath after that. "Well... Okay. If you're very sure. I'm fine with causing pain to you, when you want it. And injuring you, obviously. But I never want to hurt you, if you understand what I mean. I don't want to do anything that...ends up harming your trust in me, and mine in you. Don't take that as a lack of faith in you, because it isn't; it's just, I think, a reasonable thing to talk about first."

Initially Childe's pride prickles at what Aether says, but the last part puts that reflex to rest. And, on second thought, he once again feels incredibly cared for, in a good way. "I suppose so. How about this: if I have any doubts, I'll say the word. I'm certain I won't be having any doubts, but you can trust that I'll tell you if I do."

"Alright. I guess that's enough for me. And if you have any regrets afterward, we know how to get rid of it. Do you want it, uh...now?"

"The sooner the better, but it doesn't have to be right this moment."

"Mm. If we do it in a while, maybe we can make it a little more special? I mean it's already special, but...I'm thinking candles?" Aether thought he'd be kind of joking when he said that last part, but it comes out as an understated flirtation and he's hardly joking at all.

"Now who's the romantic?" Unforcefully, Childe rolls the both of them over so he's propped on his elbows over Aether. He just wants to see his face and let him see the warm smile on his.

That's what Aether sees, and it makes him smile back the very same. His right arm, the one he'd had under Childe's head, is now hanging on his shoulders. His left hand drifted down his side; he raises it to caress his face, and he feels like his palm fits perfectly along his jawline. "Guilty as accused, I guess. Because, in case you forget for even a second...I love you, Childe."

Childe glances up, then off to one side, then at the mattress next to Aether, blushing as his smile turns shy. It should be impossible. Yet, it isn't... He then, with great deliberateness, brushes Aether's fringe aside and sets a lingering kiss on his forehead. The matter of names comes to his mind. If anyone should know, he should. If Thoma knows, Aether should certainly know. When he lifts his kiss, he meets the sun-warm gaze Aether focuses on him. He can feel abiding hints of his own smile at the corners of his mouth and the corners of his eyes. "You can call me Ajax," he murmurs.

Aether knows immediately that he's been given a precious gift. A soft grin lights up his whole face and parts his lips. "...Ajax. I love you, Ajax."

A strange, heavy breath lands in Ajax's throat. He exhales it and his next inhalation shudders. Not this again! Amid a flurry of mixed emotions he still manages to internally roll his eyes at himself. He lowers his head and slowly kisses Aether's clavicles to anchor and distract himself.

Aether notices a fluctuation in Ajax's expression, and he's starting to see a pattern in when he hides his face. It's not surprising. Whatever the reason Ajax doesn't usually go by that name, it's probably painful in some way. Aether intends not to pry into all that unless and until Ajax is ready to talk about it. Crooking his arm on his beloved's back, he fingers the hair at the nape of his neck while wrapping his left arm lightly around him too. Keeping everything low-intensity for now. Maybe it'd be a good idea to say something. "Thank you. And thank you for calling me my name. I mean, it's not the only name I've had either, but...it's the one I've had longest, and my favorite. I like all the other things you call me, too! But not 'Traveler.' That's the only one I don't like."

Listening to Aether talk is an even better anchor to keep Ajax's thoughts from drifting inward. He halts the very slow wanderings of his lips so he can reply, his nose touching the bottom of Aether's chin. "I didn't know it was a vexation to you. I'm sorry."

"You couldn't have known, I never told you. Heh. It's what I earned for keeping so many things from you for so long. Besides, it didn't bother me too much, I just didn't want you to see me as...that. As a...'hero' or whatever. So, of course, then I did nothing about it."

"It always seemed unfair," Ajax comments lightheartedly, "that it felt as if you were reading my mind at times, while I never knew what you were thinking."

"That's not true," Aether recalls. "You caught on that I knew something about my elemental powers, and you guessed what I was thinking when you were talking about family in the 'toy research lab.'"

"Did I? That was more of a deduction. The purpose of your journey is well-known. As for the other, I'd say that one's balanced out by my assumption that you had the Gnosis."

"Still a correct guess in both cases. At the lab, it was...inevitable that I thought of her. But I don't know what it's like to have a younger sibling, so, it was you I was thinking about most. I wanted to help you out of there, but you gave me something else important to do."

"Something far more important."

"Yeah. And you made it out, anyway. Never doubted you would. I guess it just...pulled on what I was starting to feel for you, seeing you like that. Pity is what one feels for an enemy. An enemy one doesn't respect, especially. But pity was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to...I don't know, be there for you. Be your comrade."

"You were. All through that day you were the greatest comrade I've ever had." Ajax kisses Aether's chin as he raises himself up to look at him with a nostalgic smile.

"I'm glad I could help." Aether still has more of an earnest expression at the moment. Nevertheless, the kiss on his chin buoys the corners of his mouth, as does the sight of Ajax smiling. That will never get old; when it's heartfelt and carefree like this, it's the most beautiful thing Aether has seen in Teyvat.

That's when it hits Ajax that they haven't kissed yet. Not that way. It's funny to him that deciding to do it now makes something in him flutter like they haven't already confessed love, had sex, kissed each other's faces everywhere else, beaten the stuffing out of one another, fought for days as allies, and talked about so many personal matters. Leaning down once more, he— bumps his nose into Aether's. They share a quick grin, before Ajax tilts his head and rests his lips softly on his comrade's. Sweet simplicity suits the current mood, in his judgment.

Aether doesn't see it coming until their noses briefly squish against each other. Not knowing whether Ajax meant to do that or not, he grins until a second later when their lips are united. His grin then relaxes into a surprised and delighted smile. This is something else he never understood, but he gets it now. It's an intimacy akin to any other kiss on the face, but it also bears the sentimental significance of sharing breath. Like when they were in combat and got so close, in the midst of blocking one another's blades, that the distance between their faces contracted to a scant few inches.

Ajax sees Aether close his eyes reflexively, but he keeps his own open until a few heartbeats after landing the kiss. He can't see much at this too-close range, and closing his eyes focuses his other senses, too, as it would any other time. It grants finer attention to the feeling of Aether's lips on his. His comrade seems completely relaxed, and his mouth is still curved by joy. That's success enough for Ajax, in this, but his experimenting second-nature inspires him to try some slow movement of his lips, exploring how nicely one—upper or lower—fits between Aether's. Aether's mouth is so very pliable and pliant, the man following Ajax's lead with subtle, complementary motions.

They can and do spend minutes like that. They feel no hurry. They're allowed, by each other, to be lazy and indulgent.

Chapter 12: Day 13: ...of night's unfolding arms

Summary:

Mutual Simping

Notes:

TW: hemophobia (for descriptions of blood and of past hemophobia itself)
TW: emetophobia (for a mention of a past incident)

edit: changed instances of "Yun-yun" to Chongyun because I've heard that nickname might be too childish and condescending
edit: there are five Bedrock Keys total, not four, I forgot to count the first one

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

They're just starting to open their mouths and deepen their kiss when there's a flurry of small knocks at the door. "Are you guys alive?" Paimon calls. "It's diiinner tiiime!"They both startle a bit. Aether smiles with amusem*nt at the interruption, and affection at Ajax's briefly wide eyes. They start to move, shifting stiffly away from each other to at least sit up and cover themselves."Oh," Aether says in mild exclamation as they're reminded that they left a mess on their stomachs. He lowers his voice: "How are we going to clean...?" Glancing around in search of a cloth to use, he spots his underwear on the floor, which needs a wash anyway. He reaches for it too fast, counting on his legs to counterbalance him. Under the extenuating circ*mstances, it doesn't work out that way. He basically dives off the bed.That fall is nothing, so Ajax isn't concerned even for an instant. He leans over to enjoy, a tiny bit, the sight of his comrade awkwardly lying on the floor with the absurd consolation prize of his own underwear in hand.Aether wipes his stomach clean while calling to Paimon, "We're alive. You don't want to be in here yet.""Paimon knows Paimon doesn't want to be in there with you two, all your clothes were outside! What are you going to wear!?""I went and bought some," Aether explains, his voice still raised for Paimon to hear clearly."You went clothes shopping naked!?""No! I wore the yukata!""Oh. Phew."Passing the makeshift towel up to Ajax, Aether struggles to stand, holding onto the mattress for support. Ajax gives him a hand. His conversation with Paimon continues concurrently: "What've you— and— Xingqiu and Chongyun, hngh, been up to?""We went back to the Chasm for a few hours. We found lots of cool stuff! Chongyun's copying it all onto a bigger map. One with notes that aren't handwritten by Xingqiu. They wanna talk about it after dinner.""Thanks. We'll be..." He glances at Ajax, who looks curious if anything. "...Out in a few minutes.""Okay!" Presumably, Paimon flies away. If there's food ready now or soon, Aether has no doubt she has flown away."This," Ajax says, "would be the time for me to ask if that private conversation you had with Xingqiu the other night went well. He's been civil with me, so I assume it did.""Yeah. It was...not smooth, but it ended well. I think. I guess you guessed that he guessed who you are?""He seemed to recognize me and he didn't look too happy about it. I wonder what I could have possibly done to offend a citizen of Liyue!"Now sitting on the edge of the bed and putting his yukata on, Aether regards Ajax with a tiny smirk. "Kind of glad you can joke about it. As long as it's not in front of them."Ajax raises his eyebrows. He's putting the zhōngyī undershirt on. "Glad? Actually that sounds like something I shouldn't ask about right now.""Probably not." The mood hasn't been darkened, and they both want to keep it that way.To give Ajax's cheek a quick kiss, Aether need only lean to his left.To his own surprise, that makes Ajax blush. Only somewhat, but still. Such casual affection... I could get used to this. He definitely isn't used to it yet. That doesn't stop him from leaning right a few seconds later and returning the gesture. "Should I put on the hanfu? The blue one?""If you want to, but I think it's fine to wear just the zhōngyī when you're in your own house? Or maybe it's even alright to wear it to things like summertime festivals? I can't remember exactly what the shopkeeper told me." Meanwhile, Aether is inwardly gleeful over the two-way exchange of affection.Ajax doesn't pinpoint what it is right away, but the analytical part of his mind marks what Aether said as having a hole in its logic. In any case, he decides he'll be fine with the zhōngyī pants and shirt alone.Aether doesn't have underwear to wear now. He'll have to go up the stairs to get some, and the stairs are in full view of the dining tables. Is that going to give his friends an unwanted glimpse? The yukata comes down to his knees. He stares at it, trying to picture whether it's going to be a problem or not. If I thought of this sooner I could've asked Paimon to get some. Is it worth asking, though? Better safe than sorry for embarrassing his guests. "Ajax?"Ajax looks swiftly to Aether with a deer-in-torchlight expression that fades just as swiftly. He isn't used to hearing that name outside of his family's home yet, either. It's not unpleasant, not when it's coming from someone he's as close to as Aether. It's just a strange shock. He wonders if he'd still be comfortable with Thoma calling him by it, or if that was a temporary thing. No, I probably still would. It wasn't only how preoccupied I was at the time that made it comfortable, it was his kindness, too. A sheepish smile takes the place of startled blankness. "Yes? That's going to take some getting used to, but it's alright."That makes sense to Aether. He takes Ajax at his word about it being alright. "Could you go upstairs to my bedroom and get some underwear from the bottom-left drawer in the wardrobe?" It feels weird asking for a simple, domestic favor like this from anyone who isn't Lumine or maybe Paimon. Speaking of getting used to things, he suspects it won't take long for him to get used to that. It shouldn't be much different from cooking with Ajax, although maybe what makes that so easy is that it's non-verbal."Oh, of course. Which room is it?" It's nice to be asked something like that. The casualness of it, again, makes Ajax feel like a normal part of Aether's life. How far they've come from when the height of wishful thinking was that Aether might consider him a friend too, even if that friendship could only be expressed in battle.Aether gestures north. "Upstairs, that side. Feel free to explore later."That's going to be a feast of largely inconsequential but personally fascinating information. For now, I get to see what sort of bedroom he has. On his way to the stairs, Ajax doesn't have to greet Chongyun and Xingqiu. They're completely absorbed in going over not two but three maps at the dining table, and some notes and books as well. He assumes Paimon is hovering in the kitchen. Now that he's out in the main part of the house, Ajax can smell the food. It's a very promising aroma, savory and meaty but not spicy. Is that something pickled I smell, too?He has to keep a hand on the banister as he climbs the stairs. Really ought to find some kind of immortality before it takes any less than three or four straight hours of all-out fighting to put me in this sorry condition. I do have access to some of the field research findings of the Fatui, and Aether gets around more than anyone... Shouldn't take long.Neither does it take him long to reach the door on the second floor's north side. It doesn't have a lock.The room beyond that door is colorful. A large Liyuen screen in warm tones livens up one side of the room, a big potted plant brightens the far corner, a sofa is stocked with blankets and pillows, an orange rug surrounds the bed, and most of the furniture is made from Cuihua wood. Paper lanterns in whimsical shapes are on every surface where light might be needed. There's an expensive-looking kimono hanging on a rack next to the wardrobe.He doesn't have time to make any other observations. Crouching (painfully) in front of the wardrobe, he opens the drawer Aether indicated. Socks and underwear, all pretty similar at a glance. Having been told no preference on color or anything, he picks a satiny white pair of shorts at random and tucks them in the overlap of his shirt to bring down.Aether, meanwhile, is thinking about Xingqiu and the possibility that he'll talk to Ajax directly. He and Ajax hadn't really gone into that, as easily sidetracked as they are. He also wonders why the guest room bookshelf is backwards.On his way back, Ajax sees that Xingqiu and Chongyun have moved to the other table. Someone wearing armor that manages to look like a maid uniform, or maybe a maid uniform that's armored, has brought five plates of steaming food out on a large tray. Ajax is pretty sure he hasn't seen that tray in Aether's kitchen; the ease of going back and forth between the Teapot and one's original location has countless advantages, for sure. Paimon is flitting around the table, probably aware of him but focused on the food, which looks like meat pies. He almost goes unnoticed otherwise, but the person whose name he just remembered must be Noelle looks up and instantly straightens her posture despite being in the middle of serving dinner."Hello, you must be the Traveler's guest!" she greets him with what Ajax thinks could be called enthusiastic politeness. Not polite enthusiasm, enthusiastic politeness.Xingqiu glances over his shoulder and nods with unenthusiastic politeness. Chongyun is just normal about it.Noelle continues, "I've been told your name is Childe and also Tartaglia. Which name do you prefer I use?""Either, but for the sake of an answer, call me Childe." He offers her an amiable smile. If she's been 'told' both names, how much does she know at this point? He's not concerned, but depending on what she knows, her attitude is more interesting."Very well, Mister Childe. My name is Noelle, maid of the Knights of Favonius. I hope you don't mind a Moon Pie for dinner? Aether noted that you have no particular dietary requirements, but if this is not to your taste, don't worry, I can make something else." Noelle resumes setting out the small but, judging by the smell, hearty and filling pies."I don't mind at all! On the contrary, I'm eager to try something new. Is this a Mondstadt recipe?" While Ajax is saying that, Zhongli emerges from under the table and does its meowing figure-eights around his legs. It evades his attempt to pick it up, so he just stays stooped a moment, holding his hand down for it to shove its face against a couple of times. Begging for scraps of human food is well-ingrained in the cat already thanks to Thoma, so its attention is fastened to that prospect. With amusem*nt, Ajax suspects it was merely checking if he'd oblige."It is; it's very traditional and it's considered a staple in Mondstadt. Pickled meat, usually wild boar, is covered in a soft meringue and then wrapped in pastry. I brought a cut of boar from The Good Hunter. Ah, that's a restaurant owned by, um, a friend of mine. She buys fresh ingredients from the hunters of Springvale every day.""That sounds delicious! This realm of Aether's is a wondrous opportunity, isn't it? Full of such possibilities as having the chance to sample the cuisine of faraway countries, made fresh by someone from that country. You have my thanks for this one.""Oh yes!" Noelle agrees. "It's remarkable. I haven't paid many visits here, so, that thought is fresh on my mind as well! Oh, ehm, I didn't mean to make a pun."Xingqiu is getting started on his meal. Chongyun has nudged his own as far away from Xingqiu's as he can in order to cool it without the Cryo affecting his friend's pie. As thick as these pies are, it might take him a while and some extra concentration."I'd love to ask you a few questions about the recipe if it's not a family secret or anything. But first, our mutual friend is waiting for me to bring him something. See you all in a minute.""It's no secret, I'll gladly answer," Noelle says in parting.Aether has been carefully stretching his legs, first while seated on the bed and then by walking around the room. He turns as the door opens, and he finds himself smiling as soon as Ajax steps in. "Hey sweetheart. Missed you," he half jokes. Or, more like a quarter of a joke and three quarters sincere.Ajax closes the door behind him. "Sladkiy, don't make me go in front of your guests blushing," he feigns complaint, but he's beaming, eyes squeezed shut by pure glee and heated face downturned. He's been peppering Aether with pet names like it's been in his nature all along—and it has been. It really has, hasn't it. This is just a new kind of relationship he's doing it in. But that's the first time Aether has hit him with a pet name, other than 'comrade' which, in Ajax's opinion, counts when it's coming from Aether. Is this how he feels every time I call him something like that? I hope so."Oh, I don't know. Maybe then they'd see how cute you are." Aether hikes up his yukata before he sits on the bed's edge to pull his undershorts on. His comment dislodges a chuckle from Ajax. "Speaking of...that, what should I call you in front of other people?"Opening his eyes, Ajax rubs a hand across his cheeks and nose as if he could efface the redness. Either way, it's fading fast and his smile is fading slow. "The same as before. The reason is one I honestly don't like to look too closely at.""You don't have to explain anything for me to respect your preference," Aether takes this opportunity to assure him. He pats the bed, next to himself. "We should talk about Xingqiu more before we go.""Right, we didn't get very far with that did we." Ajax joins him. "I take it there's something in particular you want to tell me?""I was just thinking, if he talks to you, you...maybe shouldn't tell him anything about your long-term goals. I have a feeling he'd, uh, have even more...uh...objections to the idea of you conquering the world than to what you've already done. Or, at least, it'll push over his line.""Hmm. Alright. It doesn't make any difference to me if he knows, so if you'd rather he didn't, I can just as easily not tell him. Does this go for the rest of your friends, too?"Aether rubs his chin in thought, idly staring at Ajax's clothed knees. His eyes flick back up to his face when he has an answer. "...I think that would be best as a...general mode of operation. I can't think of anyone who would take it well." He shakes his head, blinking. "Even though I don't see what difference it'd make to most of them.""I'd love to pry into that thought later.""You're welcome to. Anything urgent on your mind before we go?""Nothing comes to mind." Ajax gets back up. Aether follows suit.It's Ajax who gets the door, but Aether is the first out, simply because he slips out like a cat as soon as the opening is wide enough. An unconscious, habitual move, Ajax guesses; he has seen him do it before.Side by side, they walk to the tables. Xingqiu and Chongyun are next to each other on one side. Noelle is opposite them. Aether sits next to her, and Ajax next to him. Paimon is floating above the seat of a chair at the end.Ajax wonders why Paimon bothers with a chair at all. Maybe it's just something she does when a place has been set for her. Considering how often that must be the case, he supposes she might be so accustomed to it she would gravitate toward a chair anyway."Thank you for helping us out today," Aether says to Noelle as soon as he has sat down, touching his hand to his heart. "It means a lot to me. And next time you see Barbara, please tell her that she may not have seen much smiling yesterday but she...made a lot of smiles a lot easier."Ajax resists putting in that he'd rather she didn't heal the external wounds next time. If there is a next time that he and Aether...are overly inconvenienced by fatigue and injuries, and Barbara or another Vision healer comes to assist, he can bring it up then.Noelle adjusts one of the velvet roses on her headband. Ajax notes that her bashfulness seems to be genuine, not an affectation. "You know it's no trouble to me," she says. "It's been very pleasant here, actually. It's so peaceful and quiet. It's, um, almost like those vacations people keep kindly telling me I should take."Aether is now cutting into his pie. "When you put it that way, it does sound—... I understand, I mean. In fact, any time you feel like...tending things here, you're welcome to—... Well, think of it as doing me a favor. Maybe you don't need an invitation for that?"Like the other two guests, Ajax eats quietly rather than butting into this conversation. The halting care with which Aether is phrasing things to Noelle suggests to him that there's a subtext. She seems a self-effacing type who puts everything into serving others' needs. If that's the case, Aether has probably been trying all along to convince her to...be a little less so, perhaps, at least around him. Does he see the irony?"I shan't disagree with that," Noelle replies thoughtfully. "It seems only reasonable.""Thank you," Aether says, nodding. He's the second-to-last to begin eating, Noelle the last.Paimon is almost done already. She pauses to add, "Paimon hopes to see you around here more, Noelle!"Noelle smiles at her. A petite smile; it's hard to imagine a wider one on her. "Sara has missed you. I'll be glad to see you more often, too.""Oooh! Paimon has missed Sara too! It's nice that she kinda had a part in these yummy Moon Pies. Say hi to her for Paimon!""I will," Noelle says with a slight giggle.There's a lull then, and Ajax asks Noelle his questions about how the Moon Pies are made. It is, as he suspected, tricky to keep the meringue from burning. They end up talking about it for over ten minutes. Aether comments on a couple of points and, as Ajax's questions run out, segues into giving Xingqiu some cooking tips. That occupies the rest of the mealtime.Afterward, the Liyuen pair return to the other table to finish their cartography. Ajax starts gathering the plates and finds himself at an impasse with Noelle, both of them having grabbed the fifth plate."I'll take care of the dishes," he asserts chipperly."O-oh, but..." Noelle may not be assertive in a conventional way, but Ajax learns today that she can hold her own. "You're a guest, and what's more, you were injured... Please, rest and relax. I will take care of all the cleaning while I'm here. That's what a maid is for, after all."Ajax feels obligated by pride to not give up that easy. "Let me thank you for your assistance in my own way. You've been working all day, I can tell by the floor." It's been mopped; some faint scuff marks that were there before are gone. "It's about time you had a rest yourself."Aether watches them with his chin on his hand, expressionless and showing no intention of getting involved. He sees Paimon move to interfere and he communicates to her, with a subtle gesture and half a glance, to let it go on. She hesitates, then understands. Drifting closer to Aether, she puts her chin on her hand and spectates just like he's doing."But, Mister Childe, I'm not convalescing. I don't need any rest at this time. I can't be content to sit by while you exert yourself to do work I ought to be doing.""Ahaha. I'm not that weakened, and I'll prove it to you. Let's go outside and fight this out." Any excuse for a fight!Noelle looks aghast. "No! Er, I'm sorry, but I will not accept your challenge. It would be irresponsible of me. I don't mean to cast doubt on your capabilities, not at all, but under the circ*mstances, I just can't do that."Behind his neutrality, Aether is loving this. He didn't think to see it coming, but it's such a predictable conflict. Ajax and Noelle are every bit as prideful as one another and every bit as determined on their self-set paths.Xingqiu is also watching, dumbfounded, while Chongyun works."Then you'll allow me to handle the dishes," Ajax concludes, cheery as ever. He knows this is laughable, including the fact there's a small part of him that's completely serious about it.Noelle thins her lips into a reluctant frown, but Ajax can see in her eyes that she's going to accept his victory. She doesn't look as if she has accepted defeat, though, and that inspires his respect. "If the alternative is a duel, then I must," Noelle agrees, letting go of the plate and offering him a small curtsy.Ajax remembers just in time that this isn't an ideal day to attempt a fancy bow with a stack of plates in hand. He settles for a slight dip at the waist...and a triumphant saunter as he takes the dishes kitchenward. "I'd still be happy to spar with you some other day," he says over his shoulder.Aether smiles at Noelle with his eyebrows raised in friendly sympathy. "Don't worry about him too much. If he's overdoing it and he breaks something, whether it's a dish or himself, I'll laugh." Noelle lost because she's more constrained by etiquette. And being sensible. Ajax won because he was willing to throw sensibleness away and raise the stakes to a fight.Noelle sighs. "I see." She leans toward the others and lowers her voice just in case he can hear from the kitchen. "What a perplexing man.""You can say that again," Paimon remarks."A lot of people I know can be perplexing," Aether opines."On that note," says Xingqiu, leaning toward Aether, Paimon, and Noelle and matching Noelle's hushed volume. "just how many Harbingers do you know, Aether? They can't all be...like that...can they?""Heh, just the one, unless you count being knocked out by the Eighth and almost getting killed by the Sixth." Aether doesn't bother to lower his voice. It's already a little on the quiet side anyway, as usual. "And no, I'm pretty sure he's the only one who's...relatively normal." He catches a disbelieving look from Xingqiu. "Relatively. That I can say that should give you an idea what the other Harbingers are like." Though he knows almost nothing about all the ones he hasn't met, and not that much more about Signora and Scaramouche, he's taking Ajax at his word—his various resentful words—about his colleagues as a whole. Ajax is literally the nicest type of person he can imagine being at the top of an organization like the Fatui, and he's violent and unhinged.Ajax can hear that Aether and Paimon are talking, but nothing of what they're saying over the sounds of dish-scrubbing and splashing water. He's happily engrossed in speculating on Noelle's combat skills, based on her apparent use of plate armor and her ownership of a Vision."Hmm," Xingqiu responds, sitting back."I still don't understand why the Harbinger who came to Mondstadt attacked that poor bard," Noelle says, shaking her head."Who knows," Aether says. "The Fatui are searching for all kinds of power in all places. Sometimes their leads are dead ends." Signora got a very dead end. "I can't say whether or not that one was." He's trusted not to say, which is close enough to 'cannot.'Leaning forward again, Xingqiu posits, "And what if he is searching for some kind of power you can lead him to?""Again, you mean?" One corner of Aether's mouth stretches to the side in amusem*nt. "There's the same chance, from his perspective, that I'm trying to use him to weaken the Fatui in some way. But I'm not. And leading all sorts of people, knowingly or not, to powers I don't understand...is something that happens sometimes. It's unavoidable as long as I keep doing what people ask me to.""But you're playing with fire," Xingqiu objects. Noelle is starting to look uncomfortable. Chongyun stays completely out of it, not even glancing up from deciphering Xingqiu's handwriting and copying his notes to the new map in a legible form."More like water and electricity," Paimon tries to lighten the mood. "And lots of pointy sharp things." She's not trying to take charge, though; she understands that Aether needs to speak for himself on this.Aether's reply to Xingqiu is simply, "So do the makers of fireworks and lanterns.""He's a wolf in sheep's clothing," the Guhua swordsman persists."Yes," Aether says, unperturbed. "And inside that wolf is a sheep. Inside that sheep is another wolf. Inside that wolf is another sheep. It's wolves and sheep all the way down.""All the way down?" Paimon boggles. "How many wolves and sheep is that?"Aether shrugs.Xingqiu sits back again. "I know I'm not going to convince you to change your mind," he relents, reminding himself aloud as much as admitting it to Aether. He sighs. "I—... It just needed to be said.""Well, it's good to clear the air," says Paimon."I agree," Aether states. "It doesn't bother me that you tell me these things.""I can tell," Xingqiu says a little dryly, sighing again. But then he eyes Aether with an interest that's not irate. "By the by, when he's done in there, would you show me the different kinds of flour you mentioned?"What's on his mind now? "Sure." Oh, right, he probably wants an update on...the...wǔxiá romance. Everyone here knows we slept together."Ahem," Noelle ventures. "Aether, may I just say your hair looks very nice today?"Aether glances down at the portions of his hair that have fallen in front of his shoulders. "Oh. Thanks." Ajax must've done a good job."Also," she adds, "the last time I was here, wasn't it daytime all the time?"Paimon jumps in to answer that in case Aether is tired of talking. "Yeah! The sun didn't used to move and there wasn't any nighttime! Tubby fixed it so it does all that! There's still no moon, it's just the sun shrinking and getting less bright and turning blue. She and Aether are trying to make the place more natural-like. Isn't it cool?""It's literally cool at night now," Aether notes."It wasn't always like that?" Ajax inquires as he strolls forth from the kitchen. His sleeves are still rolled up, and he's thinking he'll keep them like that when he's wearing these clothes, same as his usual. It's a convenient way to show off some of his scars. That's one advantage of a warm climate: being able to walk around in public with rolled-up sleeves and a half-undone shirt.Paimon catches him up with the part of what she already said that he missed. Under that distraction, Aether leans across toward Xingqiu and whispers, "There he is: the First Harbinger of my heart."The heir covers his mouth and fakes a quiet cough. Aether hopes he hit Xingqiu right in his sense of romance with that.Aether gets out of his chair and gestures for Xingqiu to accompany him. "We're going to go discuss flour," he says to everyone else. As he passes Ajax, he gives his lower back a slight push with his palm to tell him not to come with them. He's not sure the impromptu signal will be understood, but figures there's a decent chance it will be.Ajax blinks at the unexpected nudge. It wasn't a casual touch or a hint to come along, that much is immediately clear to him. It takes him a few seconds, as he makes conversation with Noelle about Snezhnaya's closest comparisons to Moon Pies, to ascertain that it meant he should stay out here. It was a nudge toward the table and away from the direction of the kitchen, which makes it very clear as soon as he thinks about it that way. Another clandestine chat with Xingqiu about me? Suppose I'll find out later.Chongyun glances over his shoulder at his two departing friends. "That's good," he sighs. "This is taking longer than I thought it would." He frowns at the maps."Might I help?" Ajax gives Noelle a 'wait' gesture. He's feeling energetic after all that sleep, and he'd normally be exercising after a dinner like that. But what he can do in that regard is limited by doctor's orders, so he steps toward Chongyun and leans far to peer over his shoulder without abandoning Noelle. She comes over too, allowing him to slide the rest of the way to Chongyun's side and straighten up like a drawn bowstring being relaxed.Chongyun looks at each of them and then nods to the original map. It's awfully small, and covered in Xingqiu's scrawl. "Well...can you read that?"Ajax and Noelle peer closer."Ah. No, I don't think so," Ajax admits.Noelle too: "I'm sorry, I can't. Dear me, I thought you were joking when you said Xingqiu's handwriting is unreadable...""There isn't really anything you can do then, but thank you."Ajax and Noelle go back to their conversation, more or less. He brings up her armor and from there delves into what kind of fighting she does. Coming from an organization where many people are taller than him, Ajax is surprised to learn the petite 'maid' wields a greatsword and regularly gets asked to do heavy lifting.In the kitchen, Aether shows Xingqiu where the several bags of different types of flour are. He pauses then, giving him what he thinks is a questioning look (but which is pretty much just a blank stare).Xingqiu is quite ready to jump into that pause. With semi-contained excitement he all but begs Aether for an update: "May I ask please what changed? It was only the other day you said he didn't know! It's none of my business, I know, but it's marvelous! Did you confess to him? Did your sparring session prompt an outpouring of emotions? What— ah, I'm terribly sorry, I've gotten ahead of myself, and I must recall that this is not a novel but rather your life." Quickly he calms himself, outwardly at least, schooling his wide-eyed expression and ironing out his leant-forward posture.Aether is once again just...mildly stunned by this bemusing enthusiasm for the very same relationship that, when it comes to moral grounds, Xingqiu loathes. "...No offense taken. The sparring...certainly had something to do with it."He wanders a step or two away to have room to stretch his arms while he indulges his friend's curiosity. "It meant a lot to us. It was a long time coming, and it was the first time we've fought against each other since, um, that day in Liyue. Recently we had a chance to fight alongside each other for a few days, so...we're...much more familiar with each other's combat styles and limits than before. He was really excited to spar, but I was the one who suggested we go for as long as possible."Xingqiu's eyes could be easily imagined to sparkle with the fascination he's showing."I was too excited myself to think about breaks or drinking water or anything like that," Aether says with a flicker of a wry smile."Did you know you were looking forward to it so much? It sounds like you surprised yourself.""I guess I did. Surprise myself, that is. He was always the one who reached out. Always reminding me I 'owed' him a rematch." Aether smiles fondly, resting his gaze on the door he and Xingqiu closed behind them while he continues to stretch. "And he invited me to visit his family, too, several times. I love that...that combination. It says a lot about him. He called me a friend right after that first fight. He wrote to his family about me. And it was all nice things, according to his younger brother, who I met one day in a...really absurd...course of situations. That guy is not normal and I love him so much."At this point Xingqiu is covering his mouth, presumably to hide some type of smile he'd be embarrassed to be seen harboring over this specific subject. After a moment he gets his face back under control. "And he reciprocates?"The question sounds hopeful to a much higher degree than it has any reason to be, Aether notices. He means to answer that question like any other, but he comes up short of words. A wonderstruck smile forms. It's hitting him again that everything that's happened today and yesterday was, and is, real. "...Yeah," he confirms in a softer tone, amazed. "Yeah, he does..."Xingqiu appears to give that some rather deep thought. He grows pensive and troubled, but not in the affronted way that he's troubled by who Ajax is. Observing this, Aether sombers. His friend turns away and paces slowly. When he turns back and comes over to Aether, he looks outright depressed. Speaking quietly as if needing absolute certainty that he can't be overheard, he reveals, "There's something I have a need to talk about, and I don't believe there's anyone else I can talk to about it. You understand...complicated relationships. Relationships with...challenges and problems beyond the mundane."Aether receives the sharp turn in topic and mood with neutrality-masked concern. He's never seen Xingqiu like this before. "I'll...listen? And if you want advice I guess I can try?"A nod. "In light of..." Xingqiu gestures in the general direction of the door. "Well, your questionable but admittedly fascinating taste in romance, I do have reservations about asking you for advice. However, your actions have always spoken well of you, and you've never done me the slightest unkindness. And I really don't know who else I could ask. All that to say: please, if you do have any to offer, I'd be grateful."Aether's turn to nod.Xingqiu stands next to Aether and parks his pensive gaze on the counters ahead of them. He takes a deep breath. "I'm in love with Chongyun. I've known it for close to two years." For a long moment he's silent, fidgeting with the red tie that is part of his Adventurers' Guild uniform. Aether doesn't say anything: it doesn't seem to him as if he's expected to yet. Whatever Xingqiu is trying to explain, he's having a difficult time of it in a very self-contained manner."...You know about his condition," Xingqiu states. "He spends all his time suppressing his emotions as much as he can. He says that he'll someday consider trying all the things he avoids now...when he rids the world of evil." His frown deepens. He looks equal parts dejected and guilty. "It's not that I don't believe in him and his cause. I think if there's anyone who could accomplish that feat, it will be him. He's so very dedicated to it. As his friend and as a fellow in arms with a cause of my own, I admire that! I love that..." His voice gets smaller as he comes to what might be the heart of the matter: "But... How long? How long will it take?" After taking another deep breath and sighing it out, his voice is back to normal. Still quieter than necessary. "I never ask, because I know there's no possible answer. No one could size up a task like that and just...produce an estimate as if it was a lumber contract."Aether nods again to indicate he understands so far."In the meantime...I... I want more. It makes me feel so guilty that I can't be completely satisfied with the way things are. I've tried to be patient. I understand his commitment to his ultimate goal. It's the noblest of goals and I believe in it, and I believe in him! But I fear the years will keep going by and...and any chance we might have...will pass by as well. The most frustrating part is that I don't even know if he would reciprocate my feelings. As long as he keeps his emotions locked up and refuses to even think about anything as passionate as love, neither of us will ever know."Xingqiu's silence feels more like a period than a comma this time. Aether sympathizes with the position Xingqiu is in. 'Complicated' indeed. He has a question to start exploring the problem with: "Is that why...the pranks...? You keep tricking him into going 'out of control'...""Yes. Yes! I've been trying for years, ever since we were kids, to show him that it's not that bad if he loses control of his yang energy! The worst that has happened is a bedridden fever or a little property damage. If he would actually practice being in that state and not just avoid it, he could learn how to control it! I think he would start being able to remember what happens, and maybe eventually he could manage the wild impulses." Xingqiu hangs his head and shakes it sadly. "But he won't try. Not until..." He shakes his head again."Hmm." Well. That...sure is complicated, Aether repeats to himself. He has always been a bit dubious of Xingqiu's pranks; he's never been able to tell whether Chongyun tolerates them out of pure affection and trust or whether he tolerates them out of a worry that he'll lose Xingqiu's friendship if he doesn't go along with what he wants. He has also had the thought that that aspect of the relationship between them might be less concerning if they were still small children, and that the nearer they get to being deemed self-responsible adults by their fellow humans, the more questionable it becomes.Now knowing why Xingqiu does it, Aether believes it's well-intentioned and, at its roots, innocent. It was a habit formed in childhood that has yet to be reconsidered. That makes sense for the transitional stage of life he vaguely understands Xingqiu and Chongyun to be going through.And now Aether has to advise. He almost regrets offering to. This, to him, feels harder to figure out than the ethics of whether to help Ajax become immortal. "Have you tried telling him all that?""In certain ways, yes... I've asked him questions about it and made...oblique suggestions...""My advice is going to be that you should talk with him about it directly."Xingqiu grimaces. "I don't want him to think I lack faith in him or that I don't respect his life's work, or—""Tell him that too.""Was it that easy for you, or did you have to spar for hours first?" Xingqiu retorts.I don't blame him for being a little...snappish. This whole thing is as close to his heart as it gets and it's not...a thing that is going happily. "Good point. We did have to spar for hours, lie around a while because we couldn't stand, tell each other we're sexually attracted to each other because some of the sparring made it kind of obvious, sleep in the same bed, and then talk about each other a lot.""Don't you mean 'to' each other?""About each other, to each other. That was...a lot of how it went. And how it...tipped over into telling each other we actually love—..." Aether feels like he malformed that sentence and isn't sure how to end it, so he makes a vague gesture."Hm..."Wait, I'm talking to someone who sets up situations using pranks. "I don't think you can trick that into happening. Beyond the very simple plan to spar, neither of us saw any of it coming. It was natural. And it was how natural it felt that...helped." Weird to be...analyzing it for the first time at the same time as I'm telling someone how it happened.Aether can't decipher the frown he is then regarded with. "...I have been starting to realize," Xingqiu says, "that maybe I shouldn't be tricking him into all these things. I've been doing it so long... It still makes sense to me. He would never take a break if I didn't trick him into one. But even Xiangling looks uncomfortable with it sometimes, and she likes the way Chongyun is when he's out of control. She told me she thinks that's the real him.""Have you talked with Xiangling about all this?""No. Knowing both of us for as long as she has, I think I would be placing her in an awkward position if I told her."Aether doesn't question the apparent logic that he is not being placed in an awkward position. He hasn't known Chongyun and Xingqiu long at all, compared to Xiangling. He and Xiangling are very different people, too. "You're right about him taking breaks. I'm certain if it weren't for you, all he'd do is training and chasing leads on spirits, all day every day... I guess what I should ask you is this: being totally honest, do you try to get him to change the way he handles his yang energy because you want to expand the scope of your relationship with him or because you want him to be happy?"Xingqiu doesn't react defensively. He doesn't answer immediately at all. Somber and certain, yet folding his arms with a hint of vulnerability, he says after some reflection, "I've always wanted him to be happy... That will never change, no matter what else I wish for. It will never be secondary."Aether nods. Good. That's the most important thing, if I'm anyone to say. Am I? Better not think about that right now. What I know is that that's my first priority with Ajax, too. "...Then it's time to come up with a solution. What if I talk with him about it? Maybe he'll reconsider avoiding his yang energy all the time if he has a conversation with someone who has a different perspective than he's heard before."At last Xingqiu starts to look hopeful. "You could. It might not change his mind, but surely it won't do any harm. Uh, as long as you don't tell him anything about..."Before Xingqiu has to struggle through the request, Aether interrupts to relieve him of the necessity. "I won't tell him anything about how you feel about him, and I won't tell him we talked. You made and kept the same promise to me." He'd do this anyway, but he wants to acknowledge Xingqiu's courtesy toward him."Ah, thank you!" Xingqiu is relieved on a higher level than that. "You owe me nothing for that of course, it was the only honorable thing to do. I appreciate your discretion nonetheless, and I'm glad for your assistance. Not for my sake, but for his. I'm afraid he'll miss so much more of his life outside of thaumaturgy if he continues this way.""Yeah. He already missed his whole childhood. If he really wants his current path, that's one thing, but if he's just afraid of the alternative... He needs to know we'd all support him if he decided to try something different.""And that we will still support him if he doesn't," Xingqiu agrees.Aether nods once more. They stand there in a silence that has been lanced of its former tension, at least as far as Xingqiu's worrying over Chongyun goes. Maybe some of the tension over Ajax, too.Chongyun and Ajax... They're kind of alike, aren't they. Totally different worldviews, totally different directions they're going, different methods, but they're both driven by absolute dedication to a goal that would be impossible if it weren't for who they are. Goals that might remain impossible even so. They both have people who love them who won't say to them that their goals might be impossible. Dominating the world, ridding the world of evil: there can't be larger goals than that. Larger than most gods could dream of succeeding at.And they both started so young... I wonder what Chongyun will do if he nears the end of his life, or the end of his prime, and sees his goal attainable only if he lives longer.Would their goals come into conflict?"...Hey, Xingqiu?""Yes?""What does Chongyun mean by 'banishing all evil'? Evil spirits, right?" He's not even interested in fighting anything else, except when Xingqiu or I get him involved in something else."Right. As his lineage sees it, a world where spirits can show up and ruin the lives of human beings is a world where the goodness of humans can't thrive to its fullest potential. Chongyun inherits the solemn duty to protect Liyue from the kind of evil that torments its victims until they either have to flee their home, or... He's told me stories about severe hauntings that caused the victims to end their own lives, commit murders, or both. That's not even going into the horrific consequences that possession can have.""I see," Aether responds with due gravity. In truth, he's a bit numb to such things in the abstract. He needs to know someone affected by a tragedy to feel much of anything about it.Long ago, there was a naive star who set out with his sibling to see and learn everything about life on the worlds beyond their home. Though together they saw countless wonders of human goodness and nature's beauty, they also saw things that broke their hearts, until they couldn't be broken anymore. Not by anything short of personal grief.Something occurs to Aether on that personal side. "Um, how old was Chongyun when he learned about that stuff?""Twelve, I remember. He wasn't allowed to read certain tomes in the clan's records. But, you know Chongyun..." Xingqiu sighs. "He thought if he read those forbidden guidebooks and journals, he would become a better exorcist, and he saw no reason to wait. It was a terrifying story in one of those that inspired his vow to rid the world of evil spirits."There's nothing Aether can say that isn't expressed by a slow, heavy sigh of his own. ...Meanwhile, Xingqiu is the one who wants to deal with injustices caused by human people. Quite a pair they make. Aether isn't sure if he admires them or feels sorry for them. Xingqiu's going to have the harder time. Good thing he only has to hold his resolve for...how long do humans live, here? He has about eighty years left? Seventy? "...Should I give you a quick summary of the flours?""The flowers?""The flour." Aether tips his head toward the bags."Oh. Yes, if you please. I really am interested in cooking, if only so I can make Chongyun's favorites when he's feeling poorly on a hot summer day."And probably to make up for when you're the reason he's feeling poorly? Though, it sounds like you're rethinking all that. Aether opens all the sacks so Xingqiu can visually compare the flours' various textures. In his stock he has wheat flour, whole wheat flour, pastry flour, cake flour, rice flour, and glutinous rice flour. He explains the purposes of each as succinctly as he can, and informs him that the pastry and cake flours are also wheat flours.After Aether closes up the sacks, the two of them leave the kitchen. On their walk to the door and out, Aether lists off a few of the many flour types he doesn't have, including rye and almond.That's what Ajax hears when the kitchen door opens. Leaning with one hand on the table, he's been supplying a most receptive Noelle with training tips. Chongyun is listening keenly as well and appears to have just finished the map.Aether meets a glance from Ajax with a smile that he doesn't intend to be so faint that only Ajax will pick up on it, but neither did he intend to smile in the first place. It's a happy accident.Ajax's demeanor is focused and serious as he discusses one of his favorite subjects, but it lightens in reaction to how Aether looks at him. It seems like everything is now in place for Aether's joint adventure in the Chasm with Xingqiu and Chongyun to be reviewed, so he wraps up the conversation he passed time with, delightful though it was and despite a twinge of reluctance. This, he reminds himself, is going to be the first time he gets to sit in on and maybe even be involved in Aether's adventuring plans.All of them, except for Noelle, gather in seats around the table that was given over to maps and other information. Noelle excuses herself to unspecified 'tasks' which take her outside.Xingqiu spends a moment vocally appreciating Chongyun's work. He combined the precision of the larger features from a quality map of western Liyue with the greater detail of Zhiqiong's map, enlarging the scale of the latter with what will hopefully be sufficient accuracy for their purposes.Thereafter, Xingqiu uses a dry quill pen to point out things on the map. He explains, "We came up with an ad-hoc system of iconography to represent the types of landmarks and oddities we found." Since Paimon was with him and Chongyun for all of this, the explanation is mainly for Aether. It does turn out, however, that everything cartographic is news to Paimon, who admits she wasn't paying attention to it at the time."First we have the gravestone, which signifies where we found what appeared to be burial sites or memorials, most likely of Millelith soldiers from long ago." The chance of discovering lost historical details enthuses Xingqiu. "If we find more, we might be able to confirm that."Aether lends them a nod of support. Paimon, hovering close by him, tilts to 'whisper' none too quietly, "There might be treasure, too!"Xingqiu gives her a pained look. "We spoke of this, my lady. That's graverobbing.""Not if the treasure isn't in the graves!" Paimon rebuts, hands going to her hips. "It might just be near the graves, or, or the graves' locations make a big arrow that points to it!""It's probably worth looking into, regardless of what we find," Aether ends the nascent argument, perfectly placid and reasonable.Xingqiu moves on down the map legend Chongyun included at one corner. "The symbol that looks like a pile of three rocks indicates where we found cairns with no obvious purpose to them. We accidentally broke one open and discovered some Mora inside: about fifteen thousand. So they might be Treasure Hoarder stashes.""Keep breaking them open, then," Aether says. "More Mora for the Paimon food fund.""Hehee," Paimon approves.Third item in the legend: "This triangle marks rock pillars that are likely related to Rex Lapis's past actions in the area. Sometimes they're clustered in groups or neighbored by rock formations that host Geograna. Interestingly, they sometimes correspond to between one and three Geo runes on a nearby stone wall. The runes seem human-made and perhaps more recent than the pillars; Chongyun deduced that they crack these walls wide open if struck by a Geo resonance from the pillars. The number of runes corresponds to the number of simultaneous resonance strikes required to trigger that effect.""The pillars have to be hit by something heavy, like a greatsword," Chongyun fills in."Paimon, you mentioned that you and Aether saw these before?" Xingqiu reminds her."Mm-hm! We only saw them in the distance though," she replies."I wonder how they react to the Geo element being used on them," Aether speculates."Some had pressure plates that needed heavier weight on them than we could shift," Chongyun recollects.Aether bobs his eyebrows in the smallest possible nod. "I'll resonate with Geo before setting out next time, and find out if my 'meteorite' is enough weight.""All this resonating..." Paimon mutters.That makes Aether also wonder whether those pillars might, in some small way, help him better understand Geo and its relationship with the tectonics of the planet Teyvat is on. He's far from an expert in such things, but he'll take any insights into this world that he can get.When no one continues that line of thought aloud, Xingqiu taps the quill nib on the fourth symbol. "This 'Ravenwing' marks Treasure Hoarder activity and camps." The fifth: "The face with horns marks hilichurls. These two that have lines through them, we had to clear out."The last one: "And this plus-sign is where we saw Fatui. We could only spy four of them, but they have three tents: one here, and two here."Ajax narrows his eyes at the map. The 'advance team'? Ninth Company, was it? Why are they still there...Aether notes Ajax's reaction and the fact that Xingqiu is also noting it.The Feiyun heir speaks first. "I'm aware of the Qixing's former deal with the Fatui."At that, Aether casts a curious glance between Xingqiu and Ajax, hoping one or both of them will elaborate. It's the first time he's hearing about this.He isn't kept waiting. Childe leans back in his chair, folding his arms, and enlightens everyone at the table who doesn't already know. Everyone except Xingqiu, in other words. "Part of Signora's mission in Liyue was to work with the Qixing and get a company of Fatui into the Chasm, to investigate the problem down there. This was shortly after the Chasm was closed." Bitterly he adds, ”As far as I was aware, that and brokering trade agreements were the only mission she had." He sighs. "In any case, the incident born of both our true missions resulted in the Qixing cutting all diplomatic ties with the Fatui. That included the nullification of the deal regarding the Chasm. In the months since, I heard nothing more about it and assumed the investigative force retreated when Signora left." As he finishes outlining the situation, his mouth closes into a small but tight-lipped frown, and his eyes remain narrowed.Aether stares at the table in front of Ajax for a moment. Then, as he puts certain pieces together, he shakes his head and drops it into his palm. "Why. Did Signora. Never. Withdraw her people? She pulled the same...I'm sorry Paimon, the same horsesh*t in Mondstadt. Those people finally got reassigned only a few weeks ago."Everyone is visibly surprised to hear the Traveler swear. Paimon grumble-growls at him.Childe shakes his head to recover from that surprise, and in exasperation at Signora. "An excellent question. I'll be sure to ask her corpse. Now, given that she's dead...I suspect those forces have been abandoned and left to rot. Her inattention to loose ends is to blame, no doubt, but some of those people are subordinates of another Harbinger. When it comes to him, I expect he decided they weren't worth extracting from territory that is now hostile." It's in keeping with Pulcinella's modus operandi to dispense with 'assets' he doesn't deem valuable."You weren't aware the Fatui are still there?" Xingqiu questions skeptically."Quite honestly, no. As the purview of other Harbingers, that company wasn't mine to concern myself with, for the most part. Early on, I collected some preliminary reports from them for the Tsaritsa, but once their supply lines were established, that was no longer necessary. I never heard another word about them. Come to think of it, they must have been without supplies for several months now..."Ajax doesn't look or sound worried, but Aether gets the sense, from his word choices and the apparent path of his thinking, that he cares more than he's letting on. Maybe more than he's letting on to himself. At the very least, it's another thing for him to hold against Signora, and something that can be chalked up to the general attitude of the other Harbingers.Childe himself is brooding over it. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in his mouth. He's leaning toward doing something about it just to spite Signora even though she's already dead. A superficial feeling and a petty motive: these are enough for him, and he has no desire to look any deeper. As for Pulcinella, he shouldn't—in Childe's opinion—be offended if someone picks up the 'trash' he has already thrown away."...And are they still none of your concern?" Xingqiu prods, eyeing Ajax and clearly not expecting a satisfactory answer.Aether is watching Ajax too, but he is neutral inside and out. Before the Harbinger can answer, Aether provides additional information. "I ran into some Millelith who are trying to stop a deal between the Fatui in the Chasm and the Treasure Hoarders. They previously captured a load of goods the two groups were trading between themselves. It was just food and other basic necessities. The Millelith think that was a ruse and that something dangerous is being traded. Now that you mention supply lines, I'm seriously doubting that. At least, the dangerous items aren't going to the Fatui.""Trading Snezhnayan guns to the local riffraff in order to survive, perhaps? Hmm..." That's an issue in of itself: giving away Fatui materiel with no orders to do so. A Fatuus is expected to die before betraying the Tsaritsa. It's also possible the Ninth Company hasn't yet resorted to trading weapons and high technology, and might never do so. He'd better find out either way.Propping his chin on his hand, he borrows a moment to silently think it through. Perhaps no one would ask too many questions if he took the company under his wing. It's not as if he really cares about them as people, but...what a waste to just leave them there. If he didn't attend to this issue, Signora's sloppiness would become his sloppiness, and that's a detestable thought. Plus, whatever's left of the Fatui in the Chasm, especially underground, will have survived adversity and become stronger for it. He won't say no to having people like that around him.If there's a part of him that wants to see those people—trapped in the dark, some of them, and surrounded by peril—escape into the light and eventually home as he once did, it's only because one or two of them might now have potential to pose him a challenge someday.There is certainly no part of him that believes it could be any more than that.The problem is, he can't immediately be in Liyue to handle this personally, and he doesn't want to leave Inazuma right away in order to be in Liyue a few days from now. He would rather not leave for another week or two at least.Moving his hand out from under his chin, Childe opens it into a palm-up gesture toward everyone else at the table. "I can't return to Liyue just yet, nor do I wish to. I am, however, quite willing to cooperate with you four to resolve this issue 'peacefully.' If indeed that's what you want to do?" He glances at Aether, but he's asking the others too, because Aether can't be everywhere at once no matter how often he appears to be."I would prefer a peaceful solution, of course," Xingqiu says to Aether. "Justice isn't done by letting people starve, enemies or not. To wit, I have no desire to fight people weakened by such privations.""We should escort them out and turn them over to the Millelith," Chongyun suggests.Xingqiu readily nods his agreement with that.Aether tilts his head to look up at Paimon, expecting her to have an opinion.Frowning, Paimon says, "We definitely shouldn't just leave them there, or let them starve, even if they are the bad guys." From where she's floating, she can look at the Harbinger straight over Aether's head. Her expression cools for a second. "Full offense, Childe. But we're still friends anyway!" She flashes a brief, seemingly genuine smile.Childe's smile is genuine as well, in a way, and at the same time a bit fake. It's a rhetorical smile, the kind he occasionally uses like punctuation, but behind it he has no shortage of good will toward Paimon. "Someday, Paimon, you'll see that we aren't the bad guys. Well, some of us are~ Myself included. But the Tsaritsa's cause isn't a bad one. It may be that the rest of humanity never thanks us after all the conflict we've stirred up, but it isn't for gratitude that we persist.""Then why?" asks Xingqiu. It's a blunt question, but not as demanding as it could rightfully-enough have been. He's minding his manners out of consideration for Aether, obviously. He's not minding all of his manners."There's a reason for the secrecy, you know," Childe informs him. "It's not just for fun. I'll give you a clue, though: five hundred years ago a great calamity occurred, and it will happen again. Unless, of course, someone stops it."Xingqiu knits his eyebrows in concerned confusion. He almost says something, but thinks better of it and sits back to ponder. His chair has arms, so he gets to put his elbows on them and steeple his fingers. Childe would've liked to do that, but his chair does not have arms.Aether finally speaks up. He's been listening to everyone else, attentive but passive, ever since he told Ajax about the Millelith operation. "Five hundred years ago, hm?" he muses, so unruffled he almost sounds blasé. "I hear that a lot...""...And? What do you know?" Chongyun prompts when Aether doesn't elaborate."I don't think I'm much freer to go into it than Childe is. I've been told things that...I was only told because of the unique circ*mstances I'm in. By people who are usually pretty secretive. Maybe when I understand it all better, I can talk about it. Until then, I won't take the risk."Xingqiu sighs. Chongyun inhales and exhales a more measured breath."Well," Xingqiu brings up, "the actions of Rex Lapis that I referred to earlier took place five hundred years ago. A meteorite fell at the Chasm and somehow brought with it a horde of otherworldly monsters. Rex Lapis, the Millelith, and a mysterious yaksha fought a ferocious battle and succeeded in defeating the monsters, but at great cost."After a moment's thought, Aether asks, "So, the Millelith who fought at that time are the same soldiers whose graves you suspect these to be?" He gestures to the map."Perhaps. If nothing else, we can copy any epitaphs we find onto paper, in case they haven't been recorded in history. Speaking of which, we found an ancient tablet of sorts...here." Xingqiu taps a dot right next to a crossed-out hilichurl location and one of the triangles that represent pillars. Chongyun digs a pocket-size notebook out from under the other books he and Xingqiu gathered as reference materials; he hands it to Xingqiu, who smiles at him in thanks before showing a page to the other three people at the table.

...The dragon-king traversed the mountains, and the hills collapsed with a sigh... Vishaps and other beasts stalked the wide graze-plains...

...Rex Lapis called upon the people in haste, and we must not tarry for all the profit in the world... I too shall come forth, armor, bow, and all...

...We shall sacrifice ourselves for the nation, though our chances of returning be slim. Let the mourners mourn! Death shall be our home...

"This refers to an entirely different battle," Xingqiu begins. Chongyun nods and finishes, "That was when Azhdaha turned on humanity."That's not exactly what happened, Aether knows. But if I said anything, it'd invite questions, and I probably shouldn't tell them how I learned the answers to those. He issues a small nod and says nothing.

There's an amiable little exchange of whispered words between Xingqiu and Chongyun, and the former passes the quill he's been using as a pointer over to the latter. Using it to indicate the same spot as before, with the hilichurls and pillars, Chongyun takes a turn at explaining things. "Here is where we almost gave up on finding Bedrock Key number four yesterday. The original map vaguely indicated that one to be at a low elevation. We couldn't find it anywhere aboveground, so we started wondering if the wall these pillars open might be blocking a passageway under. But, we couldn't get the resonance to travel far enough."He moves the quilltip across the south side of Fuao Vale. "Today our survey took us east, and from there, we found a tunnel that was only blocked by an oversized spider. We dealt with that, snuck past a full-grown geovishap, and found the Bedrock Key." He traces a more northerly route back west all the way to the first spot, conjecturing the path of the tunnel. "We followed a Seelie beyond where the Key was, and found two different routes deeper underground, but we didn't try to go any further yet.""That was a good find," Aether remarks. "Those routes might be useful later, even though I'm guessing they don't go as deep as the inside of the Chasm. If they did, Zhiqiong would have mentioned them. It sounded like she's been exploring the Chasm for a fairly long time. Months at least." He stretches his neck a bit. "Tomorrow I need to meet with the Millelith guy and do something about the Treasure Hoarders. Wanna come with me on that one, Chongyun? Xingqiu and Paimon, you can handle reporting back to Zhiqiong?"Those three exchange glances. Xingqiu nods to Chongyun's glance, Chongyun nods back, and they both look at Paimon. She shrugs and says, "Sure! Zhiqiong knows Paimon, and Xingqiu's disguise is great, so none of that'll be a problem. Aether, you shouldn't go fighting alone this soon, Paimon thinks, so taking Chongyun with you is a good idea!""It makes sense," Chongyun agrees."Thank you," Aether says, placing his hand over his heart. "Just to remind you, you're not obligated in any way to keep going. You can get uninvolved or take a break any time.""Oh no no," Xingqiu assures him, "we're having a great time! The more we find, the more we want to see what we find next.""It was really, um, salutary going underground for a while," Chongyun adds. "I'm looking forward to going deeper.""If you run out of things to do tomorrow," Aether suggests, "feel free to check those places near the third Key. You have your gliders, right?""Of course!" Chongyun says. "We got to use them several times yesterday. Had to use them, I mean.""Heh," Aether responds. "Use them as much as you want. They're hard to damage as long as you're a little careful." As long as you're not Amber trying to do new stunts."Gliders?" Ajax reenters the conversation, his curiosity perking up its ears. "Those devices Mondstadt is famous for?" Mondstadt's fame on that account ranks several places lower than its wines, bards, and 'freedom,' of course. Shipments from Mondstadt to other regions tend to be just bottles of wine stacked and packed as tight as they can be without breaking. No room for gliders that might not sell well; he guesses it has to do with the Mondstadters' unmatched reverence for the wind, or a lack of instructors elsewhere.Secretly, Ajax has always wanted to try gliding. When he was young he didn't believe he'd ever have the guts to, though, and besides, he couldn't have gotten his hands on a glider in Morepesok. Since then, he has yet to import one and teach himself how to use it. He's had time, especially in recent months, but that old dream didn't occur to him as something he could now act on. Not even when he saw Aether gliding around Liyue Harbor."Yeah!" Paimon says. "Childe, when are you going to get one?" She almost sounds impatient for it."He doesn't have to get his own glider," Aether asserts. "It'd take too long to ship." And I want to make a gift of it. He turns to Ajax. "I'm going to make a quick visit to Mondstadt tomorrow. What color do you want?" He had imagined asking that question in a more romantic way, like 'if you had wings what color would you want them to be?' Now it's like he's asking Ajax what he wants on his salad for lunch. That's what I get for waiting too long.Ajax blinks a few times. Did I ever wish for a particular color? "Hmm," he buys himself several seconds to think. ...Blue? It's got to be blue, no? But what about red to match the sash and earring? What about black?Aether smiles at him. The question may have been rushed, but the answer doesn't have to be. "Tell me later." He turns back to the others, smile vanishing. "Speaking of later, um, I think that's everything?""Wait," Paimon realizes, "there's one more thing! Shiki Koshou! We forgot Shiki Koshou!""Ah!" Aether sits up straight. "Where—""In your bag!""Ah," Aether repeats with emphasis, in lieu of cursing again. "I can't believe we forgot.""Paimon feels bad too, but Paimon can believe it! We didn't go adventuring for a few days after Shiki Taishou gave him to us, so we didn't have to remember."Aether relaxes his posture. "Right... Paimon, can you explain Shiki Koshou to our friends?" She nods vigorously; he nods once to Xingqiu and Chongyun and checks again, "Did you have anything else?"Xingqiu nods, and looks to Ajax. "About the cooperation that was offered in the matter of the Fatui. What exactly are you offering?"Before Ajax can respond, Aether lifts his hand in a 'stop' gesture not directed at anyone specifically. "We do need to go over that, but let's go over it tomorrow morning. After all that sleep, somehow I'm still tired. That's enough talking for one day." He puts out a sheepish twitch of a smile."Rest well," Chongyun bids him."Fair enough. Good night my liege," Xingqiu says.I've gotten my 'my liege' privileges back? Heh. Thank you, Xingqiu, even if I never exactly liked being called that. Aether gets up from his chair with an annoyingly non-zero amount of effort and waves goodbye to Paimon for now. When he's facing no one else, he winks at Ajax, trying to let him know he's not only welcome but invited to follow suit.Ajax hasn't forgotten what they planned to do tonight. He had to avoid thinking about it in front of the others, though. It's too exciting in more than one sense, and he doesn't know how that might reveal itself in his countenance. So, having it brought to the forefront by Aether's wink, he excuses himself from the table as quick as he can. Hopefully without seeming too hasty. "In that case, I'm going to take a little walk for that gentle exercise the healer recommended." He tosses out an amicable smile and stands. The heaviness of the movement irks him. Maybe the walk will help with that.While Ajax goes outside, Aether heads to the bathroom to collect some supplies. He picks two small towels and a medium-size one. The latter, he lays out to carry everything else in. Next, a bottle of boiled-clean water (Tubby told him the water in the well is very clean to begin with, but it didn't hurt to make sure). He almost brings a bottle of rubbing alcohol, because he knows he should sterilize Ajax's skin before he cuts it, but...he doesn't think Ajax will enjoy the sterility that smell might bring to the atmosphere. Besides, that's not a precaution they take when they spar. Far from it. Being extra careful with the water will, by some admittedly dubious logic, have to make up for being less careful on this point.He pours some alcohol on a cloth, however, and summons his sword. Gingerly pinching that cloth around the edge of the blade, he wipes it from guard to tip on both sides and manages not to slice the cloth in the process. Wherever weapons in this world go when they're dismissed, they don't take any foreign substances with them: any blood or dirt just falls away as the weapon dematerializes. That's superb for keeping them clean, but it does pose some issues around other forms of maintenance, like oiling. All that being the case, it isn't necessary in theory for Aether to sterilize the blade, but it's another excess he can pretend will make up for not properly sterilizing what matters most.Sword sent away again, he selects bandages and grabs the honey-and-pine-resin salve. Alright, is this all? Anything else we'll need?... Guess not. This is going to be very simple, so I don't think there are any extraordinary requirements. Now for the candles: there're some in the alchemy lab.Meanwhile, Ajax has set himself a course around the edge of the island. He starts at the waypoint and makes sure he's 'attuned' to it. It's so close to where people normally arrive in the Teapot that he's not sure why it's there. Easier to teleport to from elsewhere within the realm, maybe?From there, he walks briskly. He could run; pain wouldn't slow him down. But, that would only prolong recovery, and although he doesn't mind pain, he dislikes how heavy his limbs feel today. Having to put extra effort into every movement isn't good for combat performance. So, again, and more than once as he walks, he reminds himself to be a patient patient. He takes no particular pleasure in the pun.Seeing Chongyun and Xingqiu walking toward the light-bridge, he waves at them in passing. Chongyun waves back; Xingqiu nods politely. No doubt they could get to the guest house much quicker by teleporting, but Ajax understands they're both warriors who have their own uses for exercise. Chongyun is as enthusiastic about it as Ajax is.He makes a small detour from the south edge to step up onto one of Aether's training tightropes. Not to do anything acrobatic by his standards, just some stretching with an added element of what he still can't bring himself to think of as 'challenge' or 'difficulty.'By this time, Aether is sitting on the sofa while Paimon tries to pet Zhongli without becoming a cat toy. She doesn't know what's in the bundled-up towel he has on his lap. "Paimon? How would you feel about— if I invite Childe to sleep in my bed? Maybe permanently?"Paimon does a seemingly effortless backflip up out of Zhongli's reach, as if she just has no respect for gravity. For all Aether knows, that's exactly how her flight works. "Hmm! Paimon doesn't know how Paimon feels about that! It's nice sleeping in your room. It feels so homey. But there's no way Paimon will sleep in there with both of you two!" She makes a 'blech' face. "You or Childe, but not both! Sooo..." Devious now, she rubs her hands together. "Maybe it's time Paimon gets her own room!""Sure. Do you want something like an apartment in...the alchemy lab maybe if I move things around? Or...?""Paimon wants a whole room, not an apartment. But Paimon understands that it would be really hard to add another room to this house. Paimon will settle for a room-size house of her own right next door~""That won't be easy either, but for you, I'll do it. And I guess I'm doing it for me, too, if..." Aether goes to the door and opens it just enough to stick his head out. No Ajax yet. He ducks back in and finishes his sentence. "If he wants to, um, share my bedroom.""He basically moved in the first day he visited here," Paimon deadpans."No! Of course not, he's...just been a guest!" Aether doesn't know why he's being defensive about that. This is silly of Paimon and him both. "He doesn't even keep stuff here," he says as if that proves his point. Doesn't it?Paimon points at Zhongli with both hands. "He keeps a cat here!" She's starting to smile."That's new though. He didn't bring the cat the first day.""He left his mask and gloves," Paimon contends before bursting into a giggle. "...Paimon's point is that Paimon doesn't think he'll say no.""Well, you are an optimist. Now that you've said that, you're going to feel bad if he says no, aren't you. I won't, because I don't mind if he stays in the guest room. It just might be difficult for me to not move in there.""If that happens, Paimon calls dibs on your room! Wait, why can't Paimon have the guest room if he says yes?""If who says yes to what?~" Ajax inquires, leaning in through the doorway he has narrowly opened just now.Aether looks at him like a deer in torchlight and scrambles to put together a sentence. Paimon's question is still on his mind. "Uhh because if you— I mean Childe— I mean you, if you want to s-sleep in my bedroom thatwouldbefinewithme and you can keep the guest room to use however you want. But if you don't want to, that would also be fine. And if you don't wa—""He says yes," Ajax interrupts, grinning. Trying not to laugh. What an odd way to be asked to...move in? That's what it is if he's going to share Aether's bedroom and have a room of his own in addition to that, isn't it? He makes a token effort to see it a different way, but with everything that's changed in the past few days, his imagination is presently not up to that task.In any case, he knows what he wants: for last night to be every night. He need not overthink it, not anymore."Oh," Aether lets out on a sigh and a slight chortle. He smiles in relief, yes, and also affection for how Ajax handled it. "I'm. I'm glad. You can...go, ifyouwant, back to the guest— to sleeping in the guest room any time if you decide you'd rather. Or—"He's interrupted again by Ajax stepping forward, taking his face in his hands, and pressing their lips together in a simple but emphatic kiss. Silenced except for an exclaimed "mmph" of very pleasant surprise, Aether almost drops the bundle of supplies he's holding."Hey-ey!" Paimon protests. "Get a room! Either room!"She gets no response. Ajax doesn't intend to kiss Aether longer than a few seconds anyway. Against Aether's lips, his grin settles into a smile that feels like it's going to stay there for a time. He pulls back, or rather up, but leaves his hands on his sweet comrade's face. "I know, Aether. You don't have to tell me. I already trust you not to pressure such things. From now on, please trust me to speak up in my own best interest." He suspects his ego would start to chafe, sooner or later, at being tiptoed around like he can't stand up for himself, even though he knows that's not what Aether means by it."Okay," Aether says, feeling (and looking) a tad dazed as he smiles back. He kissed me... A thought that almost makes him laugh. It's still so new, the reality and even the idea that Ajax wants something like that. That he himself wants something like that! And that they can just have it. It feels too good to be allowed by this world that took so much from him.The novelty of each little thing might fade in time, but as long as he gets to love Ajax and be loved by him in turn, he must not take any of this for granted. Everything can be stolen away in an instant. He has a suspicion that Ajax knows that as acutely as he does.With these thoughts, he's staring softly up at Ajax.One word was as far as Aether got, but Ajax doesn't mind spending a long moment this way. They're just quietly staring at each other. His thumbs brush through and under Aether's fringe, and he looks so contented... All his accomplishments, his ongoing journey, his endless forward motion, and yet he seems so happy with the simple things Ajax can give him. Is he just as amazed that I'm happy with this? That this is enough for me, and I'm not always itching to do something more...active? Actually, I'm amazed by that myself. How long can it last?"This isn't fair," Aether murmurs. In no way does it sound like he's complaining. "My hands are full. I can't...""Paimon has a suggestion: whatever that stuff is, go put it down in the room where you're going to put yourselves. But, ehhh...where's Paimon gonna sleep?"Aether tears his gaze off of Ajax and smiles apologetically at Paimon. "What about the kitchen? It's where all your favorite things are.""That's...not a bad idea!" Paimon decides. "Good night, don't forget to rest!"Paimon is on her way to the kitchen when Aether and Ajax both hear footsteps outside. One pair, light weight, barely audible with the door closed."That's not Noelle," Ajax remarks, curious. Paimon drifts back, also curious.Aether opens the door before whoever it is has a chance to knock or open it themself.Barbara is startled, but that doesn't stop her from immediately gushing, "I'm so sorry I'm so late! Benny tried to help out a merchant on the road and things, um, didn't go well for either of them, or for the other adventurer who tried to help them, or for the knight who came across the situation on patrol, or..." She almost lets her shoulders slump as her rapid explanation peters out, but catches herself and instead rallies her composure."Oh no! Is Benny okay?" Paimon voices Aether's question."He's fine now! All in a day's work, ahaha..." Barbara smiles, and it's a very convincing smile, but overall it's obvious she's tired.Ajax, having no idea who the 'Benny' they're talking about is, wants to hear more about what sounds like a chaotic series of events which possibly involved combat. "Come in, Barbara, and have a seat. I'll make you some tea; it's the least I can do after yesterday. What variety would you like?""Um, perhaps chamomile? Thank you, Childe. It's good to see you both up and about."Aether motions Barbara to the sofa, and fills in what she didn't want to complicate her acceptance of Ajax's offer with. "Put some ginger and chili powder in with the tea, and when it's steeping, add a spoonful of honey.""Easily done," Ajax responds. "Now, don't tell the story without me!" That chipper request made, he vanishes into the kitchen.Barbara all but blushes, smiling gratefully. "Aether, how did you even remember that?""People's food and drink preferences are the thing I'm best at remembering," he shrugs."Well, thank you. It's been quite a day. That tea is going to be so relaxing I'm afraid I'll fall asleep here," she half jokes."Where did you visit from?""Not too far from home and bed, don't worry."Until Ajax returns, Paimon monopolizes Barbara for news about upcoming festivals and their other Mondstadt friends, especially Diluc.Once Barbara has her cup of tea warming her hands, Ajax and Aether sit in two of the chairs by the sofa. Paimon hovers between Aether and Barbara, but not intrusively between them.Barbara relates the story of Bennett's latest contagious misfortune in sympathetic terms.After that, she asks some questions about how her two patients have been feeling today, and they answer. "You're doing much better than I'd have any reasonable expectation of," she concludes. "Are you sure you're not straining yourselves?""Childe has been more active than me," Aether says, for whatever it's worth."Well," Barbara provides, "gentle exercise is good. Make sure you get yours, Aether."Ajax side-eyes Aether smugly. It's the grew-up-with-siblings urge to be insufferably self-congratulatory at the slightest hint that someone else is 'in trouble' and he is not."I will," Aether states. Need a bit of practice with my sword before using it. Make sure my precision isn't compromised. He reflexively ignores the look from Ajax, just as he would when it came from Lumine. Though they didn't have parents, interacting with human authority figures allowed that dynamic to develop between them. Ignoring Lumine's smugness was a more fun way to annoy her than anything Aether could do. Along the same lines, when he was in that position himself, his smugness took the form of an absolute expressionlessness that looked like humility to others but which gloated at Lumine louder than any words.Barbara ends the followup with some 'in case' advice, a glowing thanks for the tea, and an impressively peppy farewell.After they've seen Barbara out and Paimon has gone to tuck herself into a cozy corner of air in the kitchen, Aether and Ajax are standing near the seating area. They turn to one another with the tantalizing awareness that they're finally alone.Barbara hadn't questioned the towel bundle Aether was holding the whole time; she had no reason to. Paimon didn't question it because evidently she was wise enough not to, given the context of Aether acquiring that mysterious bundle right before he planned to go to bed with his romantic partner. Whatever she understands about human (and superficially human-adjacent) sexuality, it's clear she doesn't want to understand any more about it. Knowing she's touch-averse more often than not, Aether isn't surprised she's a bit grossed out by physical intimacy."Where do you want to do this?" Aether asks.Hands on his hips, Ajax draws a considering breath and casts a glance upward as if he could see Aether's bedroom—now his too, for all intents and purposes—through the ceiling. "Are you worried about getting blood on your sheets?""Heh. No. If you do bleed on my sheets, though, I'll make you wash them."It's a playful joke, but Aether's general demeanor lends it an air of seriousness that raises Ajax's eyebrows. For a brief moment he stares at Aether, thinking, Well of course I'd wash them, but I think I like it when he tells me to... No, that's not it, it's the 'make you' part. It inspires vague imaginings of Aether holding him at swordpoint to enforce what he said as if it had been a threat. Mm, it's definitely that. "...Your room." Our?"Our room," Aether corrects him with a soft smile. In this, there's nothing of the dominance Ajax self-indulgently chose to read into his joke. Such benign softness, such sweetness, alludes to other things which he has enjoyed just as much: things like lying around together, playing with each other's hair, and gradually acquainting themselves with every inch of each other's skin. I thought I already wanted everything. All the things that make being alive beautiful. But I had no idea...how much it could mean to me to...be invited into someone's life, arms, bed, and home. His.And Aether, shifting the stuff he's carrying under an arm to free one of his hands, takes Ajax's hand as gently as ever. It's only then that Ajax becomes aware of how warm his face is. It must've started when his comrade said 'our room.' He's also smiling, so faintly he barely feels it, but it's as heartfelt as can be. Aether is, too. What does he see that makes him smile back like that? I know I look 'good'—that is, handsome enough—but he's always peering deeper than that. On that level, what can he possibly see that he likes so much?Consciously placing his trust in Aether's love, rather than sinking into doubts they've already put to rest and older ones that have nothing to do with Aether, he climbs the stairs alongside him hand in hand.Aether doesn't have to let Ajax's hand go when they reach the bedroom door, because Ajax has a free hand to open it, and to close it behind them. He does after that, when he lays the towel open atop the dresser at the end of his their bed and sorts the supplies.Ajax kneels onto the bed and scoots to the end, folding his arms on the dresser's back edge. He watches Aether set upright a glass bottle of water, a ceramic jar he recognizes as the one for that honey and pine salve Aether used on him before, a couple of thick squares of gauze, a roll of wrapping bandage, and two smaller towels. "So prepared," he comments, a little amused for no particular reason."And you look very cute right now," Aether comments, glancing at him. Again he sounds and appears so serious, except for the soft edge of his tone and the lightness of his features. Ajax smiles and props his chin on one palm-heel, his relaxed posture and the dresser's low height relative to the mattress tilting his head up. He's aware of how thoroughly that exposes his throat to Aether; almost as if he's offering it to him. "Is that so?" he probes, just wanting Aether to talk (about him) more. His voice is sort of muffled by the upward pressure of his hand under his chin.Aether smiles inwardly, and a bit outwardly too. You're giving me a chance to elaborate? Prepare yourself, Tartaglia. The last items he brought are a handful of tiny jar candles and a matchbox. As he speaks, he goes around the room placing them wherever there's a spot to, and lighting them. "You aren't blushing anymore, but the way you crossed your arms on there and sort of...slumped forward, watching what I was doing: it reminded me of a puppy somehow. Your eyes are bright and your face is relaxed. Your hair is sticking out in different directions, like it always does. I noticed before that it sometimes sticks through your mask when you have it on your head; I don't have words for why that's cute and what type of happiness it makes me feel to remember that sight. And when you put your chin on your hand...I don't have words for that either, all I can say is I love it. Mh, and you look better rested today than I've ever seen you before; that's great to see."Bit by bit, Ajax melts. Every sentence is like Aether 'petting' his hair and kissing him. He lets himself slump further, hand slipping up the side of his face and above his head until his chin is resting on his other arm that's still flat on the dresser. He's sure the hazy way he's smiling now looks ridiculously besotted, but he doesn't care. Aether probably likes it~ He is being spoiled rotten, he knows it, and it feels fantastic. Until lately he'd forgotten what external validation felt like (for anything other than his combat performance). Showered with words of affection by a...a lover, someone who...chose... His thoughts drift apart like those strange little clouds of electrified sakura petals.But then Aether is in front of him again, folding his own arms to lean on the other side of the dresser. Again smiling back at him with, it seems, all the same adoration Ajax feels when his comrade comes into view. He recalls seeing that look on Aether's face before, that other morning in the kitchen, minus the serenity of assurance their mutual confessions have added to it. In hindsight, with things now fallen into place that were once up in the air, it's too easy to see the rocky path to this point as something simpler and more certain than it was. The long months of dejection and boredom, the mistrust, the bad-faith assumptions they both made about each other, his own belief that all this was impossible... But no, as recently as yesterday Ajax was still thinking it 'should be' impossible. The day before that, he was still certain it was. Much has changed and very fast, but there is much more that hasn't changed. These sentiments existed in Aether and in him long before they overflowed into words.Lowering his arm and resting his hand on his own shoulder, Ajax voices the conclusion of that line of thought. "I don't believe it was luck," he says, soft but as exactingly enunciated as is his wont. "It could only have been fate that we met. In your time in Liyue, have you ever heard the legend of the red thread?"Aether doesn't believe in fate, but he believes in Ajax. He'll entertain this idea without objection. (He would still rather not admit that Teyvat and its inhabitants seem to be bound to a form of fate, and that he and Lumine may have become enwebbed in it as well.) "I haven't. What is it?""Simply the notion that there is an invisible red thread connecting people who are destined to meet. Hehe, I know, don't question how it can be both red and invisible. I don't know where or how it's supposed to be connected, but...I'd like to imagine it's tied around the pinkie fingers, wouldn't you?""I would. I like that...and I like that you like it." Aether unfolds one arm to caress Ajax's face. A dallying round trip of his fingertips between temple and jaw.I like that you like that I like it. Hah... Ajax's eyes want to close as Aether once more reminds his body that there are sensations other than pain. He lets one eye close, keeping the other half-open so he can still see Aether. At first it's a little awkward physically, but if he tilts his head, it's easier. In his current mood, he has no worry about giving off the false impression that he's trying to avoid his comrade's touch, and indeed it turns out he has no need to worry. He also doesn't fear the answer to the question that has come to his mind. "Does all of this seem fast to you? You've lived so long. Does a matter of days not feel like a fleeting moment?" The important thing is that it couldn't be more obvious Aether isn't troubled by it. Ajax is just curious as to the hows and whys.

"Not really. As far as I can tell, from how humans talk and write about time, a day isn't any different for me than for you. Some of them feel long and some feel short, depending on what's happening. Some...long and short at the same time."Ajax affirms the familiarity of that experience with a nod."Besides," Aether continues thoughtfully, "it's not like we met for the first time last week. And if a long life tells me anything, it's...ironically, that there's no time to waste. If we both know what we want, let's have it."Another nod, small in motion but continuing for two or three seconds. Ajax's eyelids ease open. "...For someone with my ambition, denying myself what I want when it's right in front of me would be pathetic. When you were making it so clear you wanted me as well.""Exactly," Aether murmurs, proud of Ajax's reasoning and relieved to hear it. "I was worried that it would— might be harder for...you to accept it. Considering what you said when you told me. Considering a lot of things you've said. I was afraid that...your view of yourself as a weapon would mean you would have no...tolerance for this sort of thing."Ajax readily admits to himself that that's a fair point. But his reputation for being mercurial isn't baseless. He has never been perfectly consistent in his opinions and actions and the criss-crossed connections between them. Even 'before,' he was a child who daydreamed of bold and dangerous adventures within the same minutes that he feared he might be kicked by a cow or that something might be following him in the dark as he hurried up the stairs at night. Ultimately, though inconsistent details can nag at his mind and he's not free of internal conflict, all that should matter is that he accomplishes what he sets out to. "Aspirational," he repeats an answer he previously gave Aether on a related subject. "And what good is an aspiration if it runs counter to my purposes? A weapon I may be, but a weapon must have purpose and usefulness. Protecting the people I care for isn't one I intend to eschew, and if the number of people I care for grows, so be it." He's reminded of Xinyan again."Reasonable," Aether agrees. "You know, I didn't expect this world to have such cute weapons. I'm sure I've never seen anything like you before." The corners of his mouth curve coyly.Ajax chuckles. "You keep calling me 'cute.' I can't tell if you're stroking my ego or cutting it down to size.""Stroking, absolutely." Aether doesn't resist reaching over slightly further to stroke Ajax's hair, above his ear. "It's very talented of you to be so formidable and so sweet. Actually, I guess that's what a kitten is: a meat-eating predator with dangerous claws and teeth, but also cute and adorable and quite capable of...well, I don't know if—. It'd be weird to take this metaphor as far as...implying cats know romantic love. Heh. But I know you do. I know you're capable of it, even if you have doubts. I feel it, Ajax, in...the things you do for, with, and to me. I can see it in your eyes."Ajax almost puts stock in that, right up until the last part. Aether had said something about his eyes earlier, too. 'Bright,' he'd called them. Ajax hadn't questioned it then, content to bask in Aether's compliments without thinking about them. Hearing something like that again, though, he's hit by a pang of disbelief. Right in a weak and tender spot he never wanted to acknowledge as such."Comrade?" Aether gently checks, having seen Ajax's expression flatten and his gaze grow distant. He lowers his hand to cup one side of the other man's jaw, rubbing his cheek with his thumb."Hah. I'm sorry, that's...just not very plausible. I know what these eyes look like," he says with a bitter edge despite having told himself in the past that this is a good thing. He's trying to dredge up that assuredness again now. "I've seen mirrors, you know. I also hear what people say. The Eleventh Harbinger's eyes are dead and cold. How could I be displeased by that when it only furthers my goal to be feared and to be recognized as what I am: born to fight and conquer?"That burns Aether. Not the rejection of his well-intentioned remark, but the reason for that rejection. It burns in a way that quickly catches his anger and his tear ducts on fire. Frowning and scowling as those tears fall, he grinds his teeth a moment before speaking. He ever so gently grips Ajax's jaw and cheek as he stares intently into the oceanic eyes he loves.Though raising his guard is what he was, in a sense, attempting to do, Ajax is caught very much off guard by the sight of Aether angry. He's never seen it before. It's a sudden reminder that he is not the most dangerous person in the room. Yet, at the same time, Aether is silently weeping. Stunned, Ajax has no time to guess at a reason for this reaction before it's made clear."They're idiots," Aether hisses. "If someone says that," he declares with an undertone of a bitter chuckle, "you can be sure you'll win if you fight them, because they are not paying attention." His voice is right on the edge of being cracked by the lump in his throat.Ajax remains stunned, now by understanding. He's frowning wide-eyed, astonished by the vehemence of Aether's...defense of him? Between the seething and the crying, it's as if someone kicked Aether's puppy. Or...his kitten?There's something Ajax has to say, however. It meekly mumbles its way out of him while he's still confounded. "Don't call my parents idiots..."He can see Aether's heart fracture.Biting his lip to keep from sobbing, Aether's anger collapses into frustration. His forehead drops onto his arm. "...This...s-stupid world... That's. Not. What it is."Ajax doesn't know what Aether is talking about. All he can do is explain, reluctantly, "They didn't know I was listening. I was supposed to be in bed...""What's wrong his eyes? What's wrong with him?" "He's completely changed..." "I don't even recognize him." "It's as if Ajax is...just... gone . I can't—..."

Aether squeezes his eyes shut. 'Thousand-meter stare.' Unconnection. How would it translate? I don't know. He swallows, and wrests back some control of himself before lifting his head. He steels himself, too, because he knows the answer to his next question, if he's given an answer, will also hurt to hear. "...How old were you?""Fourteen," Ajax mutters. He hopes Aether doesn't ask him anything else about it, because he will refuse to answer. It's a conversation he just can't have tonight, if ever.That confirms Aether's guess. He didn't guess a specific age, but whatever happened had to have happened on a timeline that would lead to Ajax not only joining the Fatui but rising to the rank of Harbinger before he came to Liyue. Add in some amount of time for him to develop his combat skills, or for something to instigate all that, and the implication was bleak.With one more great effort, Aether quells his own feelings on this. He takes a deep breath, and then another. His throat flinches from the first, a shudder threatened, but the second is stable. Good enough. "I'm sorry I brought down the mood," he sincerely and almost regretfully apologizes. His frown is fading but it isn't gone yet. Brushing his thumb under Ajax's fringe where it touches his cheekbone, he looks at him in search of hints as to how far he overstepped."Hah," Ajax breathes. There's no force behind it. He shakes his head very slightly and closes his eyes for a second. "It was my fault.""It's not your fault.""I didn't take you at your word. And here I thought I was done with that sort of thing, when it comes to you.""What I mean is, it's not your fault you found it hard to believe. It's just the way things are. I'm sure it's not the last time. It'd be nice if I could tell you I love you and the next day all your misgivings would be gone, but that's not how people work. Besides...we have all the time in the world, hopefully.""So there's no rush," Ajax understands Aether is getting at, finishing the thought quietly. "Maybe what 'fast' means is this: that we have a lot of things to get used to all at the same time.""Mm-hm," Aether agrees, nodding. He's not daunted by that observation; it's nothing the two of them can't handle.Ajax isn't worried either. He gives himself a moment or two to absorb. He takes his hand off his shoulder and extends it to Aether, half intending to touch his face the way he has been doing to Ajax, but it's an aimless enough move that, instead, Aether withdraws that touch and threads his fingers between Ajax's. That's alright too. Their hands settle into a solid hold."You're 'allowed' to have doubts," Aether reassures him. "There's nothing wrong with that. I just hope you'll tell me, like you did this time, so I can tell you...the truth, the way I really feel, what I'm thinking, whichever. Whichever one you're unsure of."His gaze having come to rest on their hands, Ajax raises it to study Aether's eyes and face.Aether studies him in turn. Ajax's expression is minimal and inscrutable, but Aether can tell he's merely a bit fatigued by the direction their conversation had veered into; he's starting to relax, and that's a good sign."...You'll do the same?" Ajax asks. "You'll give me the chance to clear things up when you have doubts?"The corners of Aether's mouth twitch toward a smile. "Yeah. I will," he promises.Giving Aether's hand a small squeeze, Ajax nods once. "Then so will I."Aether leans forward over their hands to set his forehead against Ajax's. They both shut their eyes and rest in that uncomplicated, revitalizing closeness for a time.It's Aether who speaks again first, after a few minutes. "Do you think it would be easier if...I said things like that only during sex? Things that might be difficult for you to believe, that is. If I said them in a different situation than just talking with each other normally, maybe...?"Ajax doesn't quite smile, but his voice is lilted by pleased and flirtatious interest. "Ohh, so you'd like to literally hold me down and force me to listen to your compliments, hm? Perhaps it would work the way you're hypothesizing. In any case, I'd quite like that, as I said before.""...When did you say that?" Aether questions after a puzzled moment searching his memories. He's so conscientious about remembering things Ajax says, it's embarrassing and a bit worrying that he can't remember hearing that come out of his mouth.Ajax draws a blank too, now that he thinks about it. "...Ah. I didn't, it turns out. I certainly thought it at one point. Ehehm, more than one point."Aether lifts his head away, straightening up discomfortably from his prolonged lean against the dresser. He's smiling at Ajax, who opens his eyes to look up at him with low-key curiosity. "Ajax, my sweetheart, should I get you some nice red ropes to tie you up with?""Hmmm," Ajax sighs as that thought percolates through his nerve endings from head to foot. "Yes, please." The allusion to the red string legend he just told Aether about is a positively ambrosial icing on the cake."Ah, I like that sound from you," Aether responds. "Do you still want me to give you that scar tonight?"Ajax perks up. "Yes. I don't want to wait for it.""Then I need to prepare with some exercise, to make sure my reach and speed aren't off. You can go do anything you need to, or just relax and decide where you want it.""Hm. I'll take you up on both of those suggestions."Ajax going outside to take care of a necessity makes Aether wonder where Noelle went. Back to Mondstadt for the night, maybe? He mentally shrugs as he summons his sword and begins some slow stretches and practice forms in the middle of the room.When Ajax gets back, rather than giving Aether a wide berth he deliberately gets in his way, then ducks and weaves his way out with an impish grin. With a soft smirk, Aether plays along by speeding his moves up and jabbing a couple of lazy thrusts at him.It's about time he sped up anyway. Ajax tosses himself back onto the bed and returns to leaning on the dresser at its foot. Aether sweeps his sword in various arcs, quicker in motion and closer together. It's still sluggish compared to how he fights Ajax or how he defends himself in a real conflict. There's no need for that level of performance tonight.Ajax watches for fun and possible edification. This is only the second time he has gotten to watch Aether do anything like training. It's not a serious session and it doesn't seem to offer him any new insights he can apply to his own routines, but at the very least he can enjoy seeing his comrade move with a weapon in hand. He can appreciate the layers upon layers of underlying expertise hinted at by Aether's selection of exercises and his body language. It looks effortless, but compromised muscles are what necessitated these tests and warmups, so Ajax has to assume it's not that effortless.Aether has to be patient and expand his body's current limits incrementally, rather than just pushing through the stiffness and ignoring the aches. Only this way can he be sure an involuntary flinch or overextension mid-swing won't alter his aim or the depth of the resulting slash.When he's just about done, he pauses to get some helpful information from Ajax. "Are you going to be lying down, standing up, or...?""I'd be delighted to have you standing over me, so lying down seems the way to go, but will it be too much trouble for you to stand on the bed? The floor would do.""Hmm. I'm not as happy with the idea of you being on the floor as on the bed. Just seems...less...something. Let's see how it works up here." Aether walks over to the bedside and waits for Ajax to establish the position he wants.Ajax centers himself on the mattress and lies down on his back. Aether climbs up and steps over him, carefully planting his feet next to his hips. As soon as he's standing steady with his eyes on Ajax and his sword held low at his side, the Harbinger experiences a taste of bliss. He doesn't know how many times he imagined Aether and himself like this in the past months, but he's sure it was more than once. Before recently, he would have thought of its appeal as the thrill of being defeated by a powerful opponent who would let him live to learn from the experience.There's definitely more to it than that."Have you decided where?" Aether asks him."Only one option comes to mind. I'm pretty certain about it." Ajax brings one hand up from where he'd rested it at his side, and he presses his fingertips to the center of his left pectoral. "Here, where you struck deepest. Here, where a falling star landed."The air leaves Aether's lungs as he too is struck in the heart. His stance relaxes. He and Ajax gaze at each other, their expressions subtle yet full of enamorment. A mutual reverie. The space between them seems alive as if with static electricity, as if any and all spaces between them could be ionized by the sheer intensity of their fascination with one another."...The best place I could have fallen," Aether finally murmurs in reply. "The only heart that could catch me."Ajax half-closes his eyes; a wide, contented smile spreads across his face. "Come on then," he invites Aether in a sweet and hushed tone."Take off your shirt," Aether tells him in nearly the same tone. He readies his stance once more and tests his footing by shifting his weight around, then by flipping his sword between several grips and giving it a few practice swings far above where Ajax is unwrapping his hanfu.As his hands make quick work of the garment, Ajax's eyes eagerly track every move Aether makes. As if he were sexually aroused, his breathing quickens a little and his abs tighten, but he isn't—not so far, anyway. He isn't sure what to do with his hands once he's naked from the waist up, so he just gets them out of the way without a second thought by shoving them under the pillow.Aether steps backward and dismisses his sword for the moment. He picks up one of the small towels and the bottle of water off the dresser. Getting down on one knee beside Ajax, he wets the towel and lingeringly cleans the skin of his left pectoral. For that time, Ajax brings one hand out to idly finger the contours of his comrade's shin, ankle, and calf. The two of them maintain eye contact throughout.The water and towel are put back by Aether. His sword rematerializes in his hand. "Three closer tests before I do it," he notifies Ajax. As he returns to position, the thought crosses his mind that Ajax's reaction might've been interesting if he didn't warn him that the next three swings aren't the real thing, but right now he'd rather be careful than playful.The sword point sweeps over Ajax's chest an inch above his skin. Aether tries a slightly different grip and swings it back the other way. He decides to stick with the first technique. The third swing whips through the air less than a centimeter from the surface of Ajax's pectoral. Aether nods to himself.Full of anticipation, Ajax offers a nod of his own to Aether as confirmation that he's ready and has no last-minute cold feet. He inhales deeply and then empties his lungs, leaving his chest as still as possible.Aether gives him a brief smile. It's every bit as soft as his sword isn't, but there's love behind both.He swings his sword down one more time in a precise arc, pulling it up at just the right instant to keep the diagonal slash short.Ajax barely feels it, especially at first. What's etched into his memory is the caring concentration on his comrade's face. He dwells on the fact that skills honed over millennia have just been put to the service of so trifling a cause as pleasing Ajax with an unusual gift. It's also a quiet little emotional climax of sorts: it feels as if the trust he has placed in Aether has been rewarded, and Aether's trust in him demonstrated. It's nothing huge, from any angle, but it's one more thing he can hold onto as proof that the connection between them is real (the next time his emotional object permanence fails him).He gets onto his elbows and examines the thin line welling up with red. It crosses two existing scars at an aesthetically appealing angle, and the blood catches glints of candlelight. That's one sense: sight. Admiring the tangibility of it, he runs his finger through the blood. Two senses. He puts his finger in his mouth and licks it clean. Three senses.Aether watches him a moment to be sure he's alright, then steps back to bring over a gauze square. Ajax doesn't need to be told what to do with it: he places it on the cut and presses it down to stop the bleeding before it can make a mess.Ajax used to be afraid of blood. The sight of it, the loss of it. Of course he'd been: he was afraid of everything back then. But the non-stop desperation of his first few fights for his life in the Abyss cured him, more or less. As soon as he had a moment to slow down and check himself over, he saw that he was covered in blood and ichor. That's the way it seemed at the time, anyway—it's unlikely it was that much. The bread he'd snacked on earlier was promptly thrown out of his stomach, yet the adrenaline kept him from fainting. He kept going, kept moving. The search for some kind of safety eclipsed all else, and the rest of that first day, or however long it was before he had any chance to sleep, became a blur.By the time he rejoined the surface world, blood was beautiful to him.Aether brings the other small towel, this one also wetted with water. Lightly, his knees taking half his weight, he straddles Ajax's stomach. It's the most convenient place to sit as he uses the towel to catch and wipe away a stray trickle of blood. It's not the convenience he chooses it for, of course. He has a baseline desire to basically cuddle with Ajax at all times, but his current mood is almost singleminded about it.Ajax's smile for Aether, as the shorter man settles atop him, is subtle but as warm as a hearthfire. "Thank you, comrade," he says with quiet fervor.Smiling back, Aether tilts his head and takes in how the reflections of multiple candles are like golden sparkles over Ajax's shadowed-dark irises. Night has fallen in the time since they retired to the bedroom, leaving the room dim but for those candles. Staring into his beloved's eyes, he's reminded of the light of Xiao Lanterns glittering on Liyue Harbor's nighttime waters. "...You're welcome."Finished cleaning up, Aether tosses the towel far enough that it lands on the hardwood floor rather than the rug. He then takes off his yukata and tosses it over his shoulder to the end of the bed. This way it won't be stained by any blood that soaks through the gauze, as Aether leans down to replace the pressure of Ajax's hand on it with that of his own chest.Aether's fingers brush across Ajax's and curl under it, light as a ghost, just hinting that he should lift it. The hint is received and heeded. Ajax is happy to discover Aether's temporarily mysterious intention: to lie down on him and let the well-placed weight of his chest relieve his hand from duty. He's also happy to wrap his arms around Aether and savor the feel of skin on skin.They're in a good position to kiss, and so they do. It's more active than their first and much, much longer than their second. However, even as they move their lips together in the most pleasant of the ways they eventually tried that first time, it is a languid and restful thing. Except for their relaxed breathing and rarely the slightest wet sound, they are silent.Their eyes are closed and their relaxation is deepening. It's late, and they're tired.After some time, they part so that Aether can dress the wound properly. A calibrated breeze of Anemo suffices to snuff the candles.They sink back into one another's arms, and sleep takes them into its arms as well.

Notes:

tfw you load up the first stage of Tablet Analytics just to run Childe around a bit, rotate him, wiggle him, and wait for his idles

Chapter 13: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 1)

Notes:

since there are two separate sex scenes in this chapter, you will find two "chapters" in the accompanying post, one to read at the point where the first split-off is, and the second to be read at the second split-off point
seeing how many tags this post has and how many tags that post has, hopefully you understand why I do this weird thing

the whole thing about Childe having intrusive thoughts about how he could kill any living thing he sees is pure headcanon btw; intrusive thoughts are a very common symptom of PTSD that is stereotyped as flashbacks but doesn't necessarily take that form

please feel free and welcome to correct any Russian grammar mistakes I make!
edit: fixed one
edit: updated for 4.1

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The Abyss is empty.

Nothing stirs in the dark caverns. The displaced ruins are silent. Impossible spaces and twisted geometries seem almost mundane without their populations of jagged wolves, coagulated shadows, and forsaken revenants.

His expectation of dangers hidden and not so hidden around every corner is knotted into uneasy suspicion by the continual absence thereof. It can be no relief, because it never is. Being unable to find any of the monsters that surely stalk him can only mean they've become more treacherous.

He starts to find the corpses of all those things. They've been ripped apart, strewn in pieces. Dark stains are splattered across every surface along what proves to be a trail of bodies with no end in sight.

He follows the trail. The remains are more and more numerous. There are haphazard piles of them, as if a hurricane had come through and flung them aside. Undried pools of ichor and viscera ripple around his worn-out boots.

A cold, creeping fear, of unlike nature to any he has felt before, warns him to turn back. Whatever did this is stronger than everything else in the Abyss. Far stronger than him.

Yet, seeking out strong foes and proving himself against them is the only way he'll survive. It's their world he lives in. He has no choice.

If everything else here is dead, what more training can he do? If everything else here is dead, he is next. Face it now on his terms or face it later on its terms.

So, he keeps trudging cautiously forward.

Could all of this be his master's handiwork? Is she that strong? Is she waiting for him at the end of this carnage? Will they fight to the death after all?

He arrives at the colossal body of the most terrifying beast he has ever seen. The one Skirk told him he must prepare for.

It's run through with so many wounds that he can't tell which of them came first and which ended the battle. Its bulk sags where bones have been torn out.

As he makes his way around heaps of freshly disemboweled innards and the debris of its shattered horn, he sees the last thing the eyeless whale saw.

It's not Skirk. It's no dragon or giant. It is bright and golden in the gloom, and it looks startlingly human. It is much too clean to have torn all these monsters apart, but it stands here alone and its sword drips with their lifeblood.

It turns toward him.

Ajax knows this being is not human, but its pretty face and short stature are disarming. The blazing white holes in existence where its eyes should be stare at him. His own eyes hurt as if he were looking at the sun, and he feels a fiery heat rise around him until it's almost intolerable.

Then, the heat ebbs to a comfortable warmth. The bright light recedes until he can make out pupils and amber irises.

He knows this being will never harm him. It desolated the Abyss...for him.

The first thing Ajax is conscious of is the light of morning beyond his eyelids. He is warm. There's a weight atop him that's very comfortable, and it's why he's so warm.

He takes for granted that he had the same old dream again. He's been left with a nagging sense that something was different, but it's just outside the reach of his memory.

As he comes to his senses, he disregards the dream and luxuriates in the finer details of reality. They wash up on the shore of his awareness like seashells brought in by gentle waves. The weight of Aether's head on his chest and the warmth of his cheek make him feel wonderfully present in the moment. Few other things can make him feel that way. His comrade's forearms are hugging his upper arms, hands curled next to his shoulders. A river delta of blond hair covers the entire left half of his chest and midsection. Except for the bandage and a few numb scars, he can feel that hair's smoothness brush across his skin with every breath. Some strands, which must be stuck under him or Aether, pull taut each time his chest rises.

It seems Aether is still sound asleep. Ajax doesn't want to wake him. Blinking his eyes open, he keeps his movement minimal and unsudden as he turns his head to one side and peers down at the peacefully sleeping 'Traveler.' It feels like such a rare sight. But, that's just because it's only the second time Ajax is waking up in a bed with him. It won't be the last time, he reminds himself.

Still hard to believe that. His own outlook on life can only get him as far as hope. His trust in Aether, though... With that, belief is within reach, and he grasps it. Staring intently at every part of the other man he can see—the top of his head and how the light from the windows makes his hair shine, the rest of it cascading down to the left, his arms around his, his legs between his—he recollects the most important promise Aether has made to him: that he will stay alive. In fact, he said he'd stay alive for him. That means that if he...found himself without any other reasons to go on, he'd...think of me and...? I would be enough?

There it is, that sweet pain that feels like it's literally centered in the organ that pumps his blood. There's someone in the world who would live for me... That's very different from knowing there are Fatui who would die for him out of loyalty to the Tsaritsa and the Harbingers. Be that as it may, he doesn't like to think too long on the idea of Aether having no other reason to live. It must never get to that point, and Ajax will do everything in his power to ensure it doesn't.

Is there something I can do to help him find his sister? Something three Archons couldn't? Then again, perhaps those were matters of 'won't' rather than 'can't.' Really, I have no idea what their responses were... ...Where are the missing person posters in Inazuma City? Posters describing Aether's sister went up in Mondstadt, he knows from reports. He knows first-hand that they were put up in Liyue Harbor. Famously, that was the only thing the Traveler requested from the Qixing after Osial was reimprisoned.

A pang of wistfulness verging on regret.

No, he doesn't regret doing that. He doesn't. It was for the greater good. It was for the Tsaritsa. The Tsaritsa works toward humanity's survival, and to achieve something of that magnitude, sacrifices are necessary. Children must learn to eat their vegetables, et cetera. He doesn't regret it.

What's done is done. What it comes down to is that regret is pointless if it won't stop him from making the same choice again. The function of regret is to change behavior, and he doesn't plan on changing his.

Ah, it's too early in the morning for this. It's far too lovely a morning for it, as well. As always, he's too easily bored for his own good. Not that he's bored right now, exactly, but he is...inactive. Unpreoccupied. Maybe he can still salvage that simple sense of presence he woke up with, and maybe he doesn't have to wake Aether to do so. Once again he studies the way the man sleeping on him looks. He re-catalogues all the concomitant sensations, and after that, he fastens his attention on the rhythm of Aether's breathing: the cyclically changing pressure of his chest against his and the slow, steady exhalations tickling his skin.

That works for a while. He almost falls asleep again. Eventually, though, the vacuum left by his quashed thoughts draws in the elusive memory of what he dreamed.

His eyes fly open at the startling realization that the unchanging dream he's had almost every night for ten years has changed.

The details are jumbled. Aether was in it. Everything in the Abyss was dead...and Aether did that? In some way Skirk was involved, he thinks, but he can't remember seeing her. Not only did Aether kill everything, he ripped the underworld's denizens limb from limb like a marauding dragon. Ajax is disappointed he didn't get to see any of that happen, even though it was only a dream. He's also scandalized, absurdly, to recall that Aether stole the kill of that creature he was going to go back and slay! Is going to go back and slay. Aether had better not snatch that chance away from him in real life.

Inwardly he laughs at himself. Is that really what I'm going to focus on here? That dream has been a constant reminder that although he left the Abyss, the Abyss will never leave him. Now, for the first time, it's different. The truth, however, is that he doesn't have much in the way of feelings about this development. There was the initial shock, but he's not actually as surprised as he perhaps should be.

He remembers being intimidated by the sight of Aether surrounded by the ravaged corpses of the Abyss's worst. His comrade looked so alien, somehow. Within the context of the dream, did he even know who Aether was? Regardless, he also felt an absolute certainty that the strange warrior would never harm him. That certainty is real; he knows by now that the real Aether would never harm him, either.

The outrage on his behalf that he witnessed yesterday evening... Maybe it's irrational to believe that he could never end up on the other side of that, but... What he saw was a fury placed defensively between him and the rest of the world. 'This stupid world,' he said. And 'that's not what it is.' I've no idea what he meant by that. Dare I ask? It wouldn't likely be a pleasant conversation for either of us. Whatever that was about, it leaves no question in Ajax's mind as to why his recurring dream changed, nor as to why it changed now.

Not alone...

Though he risks waking Aether sooner than necessary, he can't resist lifting a hand and stroking the back of his comrade's head. Moya lyubov. Moye serdtse.

Aether doesn't stir and his breathing doesn't change. Ajax is quite pleased he can pet him and finger-comb his hair without giving up the joy of watching him sleep. Now, for a very happy thought, how am I going to tell my family about him? Of course, they already know plenty about him. He smiles to himself. But about what's new between us...hmm. I could wait until Signora's funeral and tell them in person, but I don't want to wait. A letter it is, then. I'm sure I can find time to write it today.

How should I explain it so that Teucer will understand?... Aether and I...are... We...love each other the way mother and father love each other? Egh, I don't know about that phrasing. That might also invite a few too many questions. Well, Tonia probably knows what a 'boyfriend' is by now, and she can convey that to the others however she sees fit. Heh, I was so confused when I found out a boyfriend isn't just a friend who's a boy. Unaccountably disappointed, too, as if the word was being stolen from me. Well, now it's mine! And so is Aether. So hah.

He would sooner think of himself as Aether's than Aether as his, whatever either version means. Just how far does that peculiar desire go, anyway? No doubt it's going to be fun to find out. ...Does he take the same level of enjoyment from the other side of that coin? That, I can simply ask him.

The next few minutes pass in perfect relaxation. Having something to do with his hands (or hand) really helps.

What alters that status quo is not some unpleasant incident but merely signs of Aether starting to wake up. It's a slow process stretched across another ten minutes or so. Ajax almost thinks his sladkiy has gone back to sleep at one point, but then there's a deep breath, a sigh, and a futile little attempt to snuggle closer even though gravity has already ensured they're as close together as possible.

Aether's front is warm and his back is cold. Not cold cold, and it wouldn't bother him if it was, but the inconsistency makes his half-conscious mind crave more of the comforting body heat beneath him and less of the lifeless air above him. He nuzzles his face against the surface that his cheek has been lying on, drowsily fascinated by how it's both solid and slightly yielding. He turns his head and buries his nose between one shallow knoll of the material and another. It smells good. Like... Something familiar. Groping for an identification or comparison of that scent lightens the hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking that he's in.

What brings him the rest of the way to full cognizance is the abrupt realization that he's about to drool on Ajax's chest. He purses his lips tightly shut, swallows thoroughly, and tilts his head up to see that Ajax is watching him with a fondly amused smile. All at once, every muscle in his own face eases into a beatific expression. It gladdens him so much to see Ajax first thing in the morning.

Ajax is overcome with a quiet exuberance and an urge to make Aether feel his adoration. He gathers Aether's hair, gently tugging it free wherever he finds it trapped, and he sees to it that it doesn't get trapped again as he rolls them over.

Aether happily lets Ajax do whatever he wants. The sweetness of his consideration for his hair turns Aether's widening smile into a grin. It's obvious, so obvious, that Ajax is as overjoyed as he is. The mutuality of their adoration is going to keep on amazing him for a while to come. Maybe forever. He can't tell if it's growing deeper by the day or if they're just uncovering more and more of what already existed. As Ajax uses his elbows to prop himself over him and slides his hands under his bare shoulderblades, Aether lightly places his hands on the taller man's waist. He doesn't want to influence him toward any particular position or action, but he must hold him to some degree. He lets his hands wander upward from there, stroking Ajax's ribs with a rapid increase in pressure that may or may not be related to what Ajax is now doing to him.

Ducking his head down, Ajax kisses Aether's neck, a hunger surging inside him as soon as he feels Aether's precious pulse under his lips. The skin is so soft, too, and judging by how his comrade tips his head back and how he gropes Ajax's sides, so sensitive. He can't get enough of the indescribable scent he's breathing as his nose smushes against Aether's sternocleidomastoid muscle. Neither of them had a bath yesterday, and they didn't use soaps of any kind the day before, so the scent, albeit mild, is purely Aether. His kisses devolve or perhaps evolve into mouthing that continues to intensify.

"Ah-h," Aether moans, squirming as the onslaught of tingle-inducing sensations at his neck awaken the libido he effectively didn't have, before he fell in love with Ajax and the lanky embodiment of his complexities and charm.

Ajax's intention, insofar as he had one at all, was to do something physical that would feel good to Aether. He had zero thoughts beyond that. Hearing that moan, he recognizes that this is becoming sexual very fast. That's fine with him, but he tears himself away from Aether's neck to look at him and ask, "Is this okay?" His voice sounds sort of breathless even though he's not short of breath.

Aether nods quickly. The same slightly husky, slightly rushed quality is in his voice: "Whatever you want to do, do it. I want to feel you. Any way possible."

The moan sent a stab of arousal straight to his groin, and hearing Aether say that sends another. Ajax suspects his pants are about to feel tight. What he's much more interested in, however, is how he's going to make Aether wet in a totally different way from how he makes him wet in a fight (or not so different, considering their proclivities). He remembers how slick his shchelka got yesterday. How does that taste—when it's him? Oh Archon, what sounds can I get him to make if— if I recall what I learned before and—. I know exactly what I want to do.

Aether watches a thoughtful look flash across Ajax's face, followed in short order by a sunny, promising little smile. Ajax looks so pleased with whatever he just decided on, and Aether can hardly stand how cute that is. He reaches up and grabs his sweet comrade into a tenderer kiss than the suddenness of that action may have foretold.

"Mm!~" Although the quick assertiveness of it nearly sets off Ajax's submissive streak, the plan he has in mind inspires him to thrust his tongue between Aether's lips. That's as far as he goes, leaving up to Aether what shall be done about it.

Aether sucks Ajax's tongue deeper into his mouth, momentarily making the kiss firm and possessive before he softens it again. He caresses his tongue so delicately with his own that it almost tickles. Their saliva mixes. Both of them have a bit of morning breath, and Aether finds that an interesting intimacy. Waking up together means they experience each other before any of the preparations they usually make prior to encountering other people. That's novel and special when it's not just the happenstance of a lifelong relationship such as one has with a twin. Also, Ajax has stubble this morning! He first noticed the texture while he was besieging his neck.

A few minutes of kissing is by no means an unwelcome detour from what Ajax had in mind. He marvels at how long he can be content doing nothing but mashing his mouth against another person's. Quite specifically Aether's, of course. There are so many ways to do it, so many minute variations that can change the whole dynamic. It's almost like cooperating with Aether in combat, in that his sensitivity to his comrade's every little choice and hint is heightened. Just as the prolonged melee of the Onmyou Chamber developed their instincts to complement one another, they're learning when to give and when to take, when to escalate and when to slow down, how to keep each other tantalized with a certain amount of unpredictability without going entirely against the current they've already set flowing. How to make each other's breath catch...hands clench...nails dig into skin...

It's not easy for Aether to resist using his grip on Ajax's sides to pull him down onto himself. This mouth-sex they're having, as he's starting to think of it, makes him want more of Ajax's body pressed and moving against his. But, whether by design or not, Ajax is up on his knees just enough to keep their bodies apart from the neck down. It wouldn't be a bad thing to tug him closer, especially given Aether wouldn't pull hard enough to leave Ajax no choice, but he really does want him to lead this time. He's practically vibrating with curiosity as to what Ajax will do when he has free rein.

Aether breaks the kiss by kissing Ajax elsewhere: the corner of his mouth, his cheek, the line of his jaw right behind his chin. Against the latter he mumbles, "I got us a little off track."

Smiling at the remark, Ajax noses Aether's fringe out of the way so he can kiss his forehead before he replies, "You really want me to do anything I want?" That came out sounding unmeritedly foreboding.

"Anything." Aether smiles back. Ajax can see that he's curious and eager.

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With a lazy lack of grace and an intentional absence of strength, Ajax suggests Aether lie down with him by way of pulling his hand forward.

Gladly Aether takes that suggestion. He steps his knees over Ajax's leg and settles in alongside him, slinging an arm over his chest and hooking one of his legs around the same one he just crossed over. Comfortable in every possible way, he sighs a quiet gust of air against the left side of Ajax's chest. "Love you."

Ajax holds Aether close, with one arm around his shoulders and the other halfway around his waist. "Love you," he murmurs back after a small delay, earnest and happy in equal measure.

A minute later, Aether is inspired to mention something by the fact that, where his head is resting, his chin is on the bandage. "...I don't scar easily. The ones I have were made by exceptional means. Otherwise, I'd want you to give me one too. You've struck me just as deeply, you know."

Tightening his arms around Aether in a hug that lasts some ten or fifteen seconds, Ajax responds, "I'm honored. For me it's enough to hear you say that. For you, is it enough to know, or do you want to find and employ those exceptional means?"

"I might have a better idea. Easier. It's weird thinking about it, because I've never considered it seriously before. I've had tattoos in the past, for many reasons, but never kept them long. Erased them from my body when they no longer meant anything or I got bored of them. This would be...more personal." Something I wouldn't want to get rid of, ever. I will burn out before I would ever want to lose what might be...one of the most lasting traces of you I'll have. No, I can't think about that right now, stop thinking about it.

"A tattoo doesn't have the same problem?"

"No. Because, I think, the ink stays under the skin when a tattoo heals perfectly. But for a cut to heal perfectly means it doesn't leave a scar. If that's not what the difference is, I don't know what it is, but that's how it works out."

"I see. And you're considering one? Do you have a design in mind?"

"Yeah. Maybe. Maybe I have a design in mind, I mean. There's no reason for me not to have a tattoo. In the worst case, the artist does a bad job and I might have to wait until I get my full power back to fix it. So, the design... One idea I have is that Hydro mark your strikes can leave behind during a fight."

"Riptide?" Ajax perks up.

"It has a name?" That opens a range of interesting questions Aether hadn't even thought of. "Is a riptide...something, or is it just 'rip' and 'tide'?" He feels like it means something independent of Ajax's use, but he can't quite place it.

"It's a narrow, strong current close to the shore. They're liable to sweep the unwary off their feet and drag them out to sea."

Oh, that. With a little grin, Aether acknowledges, "That is a perfect name for the mark. If I fail to notice it, the consequences sneak up on me."

"I'm always surprised how often my opponents fail to notice it. It's not exactly subtle."

"They're distracted by how glorious you look as you fight."

"Ahaha. If you like that, comrade, how do you think I'll look when I crush the thrones of gods beneath my heel?"

"Mmm." A thoughtful noise that is not without a note of enjoyment. "Hard to say. To me, you'll always be Ajax, and that's not a small thing. That's the best thing. Everything else is beside that point, for me. Don't misunderstand, I'm not insulting your ambitions; I want you to be happy, whatever that— whatever form that takes. But that's because of who you are, not what you accomplish."

"My accomplishments are who I am." Ajax isn't sure what Aether means by that. He has no objections to the rest of what he said. Aether's acceptance of him is irrefutable. His view differing from his own, on this, doesn't feel like a denigration or discouragement. Ajax just doesn't understand the last part.

"What I mean is, if for some reason you could never fight again, I would still love you the same as I do now."

"I couldn't live like that, you know. I'd—. Well. There would hopefully be no need for me to ask you to put me out of my misery; as long as I could still move, I would spare you that by taking care of it myself."

Chalk that up with all the other standpoints Ajax takes that Aether is too unsurprised by to be disappointed over. "Hmm," he noises quietly before responding. "...I understand. Do you understand, too?"

"Not completely. If either one of us were simple everyday people, we would never have met. Do you really think you'd fall in love with me if I was...truly just a toy salesman?"

"Well...I talked to Granny Shan even though I wasn't looking to buy anything from her, because I thought she might have some interesting things to say about the traditions behind the kites she sells. And she did. So I think I would talk to you for a similar reason. I can't imagine not making an excuse to come back again if I saw you smile. Or heard you speak. Especially about your homeland."

"Heh..." Should've seen that coming; you never stop earning the endearment 'sladkiy.' Nearly blushing, Ajax flounders on what they were talking about, unable to recall why he cared to debate it. He does blush when he realizes, "I suppose I would want you to, if you came by and asked questions in your soft voice, and listened to me tell you rather too much about Snezhnayan toys." His voice is quiet under the spell of this imagined scenario. It's so much more plausible than he thought. "Maybe, that very first time, I'd invite you to a homecooked dinner. To show off my country's cuisine, of course, but it would also be a chance to get to know you. And though I wouldn't know it until some time later, I just wanted to be around you..."

Smiling against Ajax's chest, Aether murmurs, "Are you still talking about the hypothetical toy salesman, or...?"

"Ahah. Both? Mmm. I proved myself wrong on that point quite compellingly."

"It was very compelling," Aether agrees. "The romantic in you has ambushed and defeated you again. So strong! A worthy challenger, wouldn't you say?"

"Hehe. Fine, yes, but, since it's part of me, I'll take credit for the victory as well while I admit the defeat."

"Sounds fair to me. Oh, right: do you have names for your other unique attacks?"

"I do. Some are simple, descriptive nicknames. Others are more fanciful."

"I'd like to know them."

"Don't mind if you do. 'Cutting Torrent' is what I call adding just a little extra Hydro or Electro to a bow shot. It's 'Flash of Havoc' when I really pour some power into it, and 'Light of Obliteration' when I do similar with melee weapons, as that's a somewhat different process even if the effect is comparable."

Aether nods.

"'Hydrospout' is the series of geyser-like water jets. Both the technique and the name need refining. I might branch it off into two different techniques, one as it is now with a different name, and an improved version that closer resembles the waterspout phenomenon I named it after."

"What's that?" The term could describe several phenomena Aether knows of.

"It's a column that forms when a whirlwind occurs over a body of water."

"Ah." Like on the Harbor that night. Better not mention that; probably not as funny as I think it is. "So you want it to be more like my Anemo whirlwind when it picks up water or Hydro."

"Very much like that, yes."

"What do you call it when you throw an arrow?"

"Hmm. 'Effective'!"

Aether huffs an understated chuckle.

"There is also, er, 'Shark Onslaught.' Heavy on onslaught, light on shark."

"And the whale?"

"Celestial Voyager... It's based on my constellation. Monoceros Caeli." No need to get into the other half of the truth just yet.

"Hm! That's sort of the other tattoo idea I have, but I didn't know what your constellation looks like."

Ajax has an immediate idea for how to illustrate it. Letting go of Aether's waist, he borrows the hand of the arm Aether has across his chest and guides it to trace out the lines between the six stars, with his chest as the canvas. Because he has to mentally flip the shape, it's somewhat slow going.

Aether likes this way of being shown what it looks like. When Ajax stops after six distinct lines, he entwines their hands and rests them on his stomach. This is also very agreeable to Aether. "I guess I see how that looks like a whale. With a horn."

"The only whale with a horn swimming in Teyvat's waters, so far as I know, is the narwhal." Careful phrasing keeps secrets. Ajax hopes he isn't going to keep this secret from Aether forever. "I saw one once, brought ashore by a deep sea fisher who lucked upon it when it was already dead. It was quite a bit smaller than the purpose of Celestial Voyager calls for."

"So that's the name..." The one Albedo couldn't recall. "I tried to find out what kind of whale it is, before," Aether mumbles in a cautious admission. He doesn't want to spoil the surprise gift.

"Really?"

"I was curious. Actually, since you're in Inazuma City, do you want to hunt down a book for me?"

"No problem. I've been to the Yae Publishing House bookshop and wouldn't mind revisiting it."

"Thanks. Whatever they have on marine biology. Not everything they have, just...one or two books that have the most detailed information?"

"Alright. Something about it still has you curious?"

"Mm-hm," Aether confirms, not wanting to elaborate until he knows why whales sing.

Ajax waits expectantly. When no explanation is forthcoming, he prods, "Now I'm curious. What could you learn from a marine biology book about my whale, I have to wonder. As we've established, it's not a real whale." I'd call it a beast.

"You'll just have to wonder until I get that book."

"Aw, but I won't be able to stop thinking about it!" Ajax protests lightly.

"Good." Aether raises his head to get a look at Ajax's face. "Puppy face," he adjudges, nodding to himself.

At that, the expression he's referring to changes to one he finds almost as charming. In exaggerated skepticism, Ajax looks like he just took a bite of a lemon. "I don't have a puppy face," the Harbinger contends, though he doesn't sound too sure.

Aether has an affectionately amused smile for that. "Hmm. Do you really think so, or are you doubling down because you know I think you're cute?"

"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean~ Besides that, didn't you say you wouldn't take advantage of our close relationship and the privileged knowledge that comes with it?"

"I promised I wouldn't hurt you." Aether brings their held hands nearer to himself and kisses Ajax's. "Not that I wouldn't take advantage for the purpose of...flirting with you, I guess I'm doing?"

"But you're wounding me. My ego. It hurts, Aether." Ajax is absolutely joking and, now that Aether mentioned it, he guesses he's flirting too. He doesn't suppress the traces of a smile at the corners of his mouth, and he's sure he can't hide the happiness in his eyes from Aether. (He's unconvinced they're that expressive, but he's willing to believe Aether is perceptive enough to glean things from them somehow. The evidence is abundant.)

"Wounding you is flirting, for you," Aether half jokes. He taps the bandage with their hands.

"Only when it's you."

"Good thing it's me, then."

Ajax decides he has been dialectically defeated. He lets a smile overwhelm his face, closes his eyes in contentment, and takes his turn to kiss Aether's hand. "Good thing it's you," he agrees, thinking not of Aether 'wounding' his ego or even about the memento in his skin, but with larger matters vaguely in mind.

"Do you have any more names for your techniques?" Aether inquires, gazing at Ajax a while longer instead of laying his head back down.

Ajax's eyes remain closed for the time being. "Mm. Let's see... 'Understream' is my Hydro displacement method, and 'Flicker' is its Electro equivalent. 'Raging Tide' is a flexible Electro attack that's not much more than Flicker and some particularly Electrified slashes, except for a thrust that has a little something extra."

"It sends out lightning. Always finds me somehow."

"Just so. I'm proud of that one. Opponents might learn to recognize the first move but they can never be certain how many more they're about to be dealing with, of the five, leading them to either under- or over-estimate. At the very least, it flushes them out of any position they've tactically chosen."

"It sure does. Counterattacking and even parrying parts of it are possible, but only if I'm quick enough and neither of us overshoots, and there's nothing I can do about the lightning. Yet."

"It always excites me to hear a 'yet' from you."

"I'll keep that in mind." I know he doesn't mean sexually, but if I told him about what I could do at full power, to arouse him... Actually, that might help...me. Rub off the sharp edges of...losing that. By turning it into something I can talk about. Same way sex turns certain subjects into things Ajax can listen to.

"Anyway, 'Dark Leap' is another kind of displacement. It takes advantage of the ability of lightning to be attracted to a certain destination and allows me to translocate to wherever I have a Riptide mark, bringing the lightning with me."

"Too easy to avoid if the mark is gotten rid of."

"Right. It has high situational usefulness, but not against certain opponents."

"Reminds me of my Whirlwind, in that way."

"Which can't be redirected after it's initiated either," Ajax agrees. "Say, what are the names of your techniques?"

"I don't think we're done with yours yet, but, uh... Paimon names them. I just call them...nothing, usually. She gave them names like 'Palm Vortex,' 'Gust Surge,' 'Starfell Sword,' and 'Bellowing Thunder.' Surprising choices from her, huh? She said they should have cool names and that it was boring to call them things like 'Whirlwind,' 'Windblade,' and 'Meteorite.' Those are the only ones I've called anything."

"I don't suppose we should be surprised by anything said or done by a being as mysterious as her. Why do you pass up the opportunity to give your techniques names befitting the effort that went into refining them?"

"I got bored of naming things a long time ago," Aether says, with a tiny shrug under the arm Ajax has around his shoulders. "If you hadn't named your cat, I'd probably just call it 'Cat.'"

"Pff. At least Paimon has a good sensibility for names."

"You'll have to ask her for more of the names she's given to my elemental attacks. I don't remember most of them."

"I will! And I'll remember them for you, and call them out when you use them~"

"Oh no. Please no," is Aether's dry response. He actually does find that idea embarrassing, but not to a degree where he'd genuinely ask Ajax not to do it. Maybe he'd have fun holding that over me.

"Next time we spar. Maybe it will distract you and give me a slight advantage? Either that, or you'll fight harder to shut me up. Either result sounds good to me."

Aether rolls his eyes and drops his head cheek-first on the very firm pillow of Ajax's chest. "We'll see. You got any more names?"

"Is 'Crescent Tides' evocative enough to recognize?"

"The crescent-shaped slashes of Hydro that you can send forward?"

"Yes. You'll do great on the test."

"Heheh."

"'God Arrow'?"

"That's what you call the rain of arrows? Why?"

"Because the first time I perfected it, someone shouted 'Celestia!' as they ran around trying to avoid it."

"That's...fine I guess. I like 'Rain of Arrows' better."

"Aether, you're not allowed to name anything anymore."

"Oh good, I'm finally relieved of that burden once and for all. I leave it to you and Paimon."

Ajax rubs Aether's knuckles affectionately. "The last of the Hydro techniques that has a decent name is 'Vortex of Turmoil.' It's a wide spear of water that draws energy through my Electro glaive and toward the mark in a sudden burst, which depends on a Riptide mark being present. Sadly, unlike Raging Tide, it's not unerring. Yet."

"I like to hear a 'yet' from you, too." Not always. "Watching you experiment and refine these and develop new ones is going to be fun." That's true. Unless... Unless Ajax takes more risks on the level of his costly transformation. Unless he starts to suffer from his use of a Delusion. Aether keeps his reservations to himself; what he said is true enough for now.

"Sweet of you to say. I'm sure I'll find plenty of inspiration in your approach to each element, even if I only have access to two myself."

"Mm," Aether agrees. He understands how inspiration can work that way.

"And lastly, I have 'Annihilation,' 'Judgement,' and 'Formless Blade.' They all utilize Electro weapon-forms directly in one way or another. Annihilation is an extended slash and cross-slash, Judgement hurls four temporary Electro blades to a single location, and Formless Blade is essentially a sharp wheel made of Electro that can rotate quite fast as it travels. Rather than exploding, dissipating, or getting stuck if it hits an obstacle, it can turn and continue in another direction."

"You seemed to cover Hydro first, then Electro, then you went back to Hydro and finished with some more Electro. Any reason for that?"

"The latter are inefficient unless I'm using the Foul Legacy Transformation."

"Ah. Are you hoping to get them, or yourself, to the point where you can use them just as efficiently without transforming?"

"That would be ideal. More versatility is never a bad thing."

There's a lapse in the conversation. Ajax slips his hand out of Aether's and uses it to finger-comb the blond's hair instead. Aether reaches up to return the favor by smoothing the auburn hair he had managed to make messier.

After a minute or so, Ajax wonders, "Since our next spar will be...much shorter, I can use the transformation then, right?" Eager hope tinges the question.

"Our next one should probably be really light. The only thing that's sore anymore is my c*nt." Minimally. "But that doesn't mean we've finished recovering."

Taken off guard by that word choice, Ajax cranes his neck in surprise, driving the back of his head deeper into the pillow as he looks askance at Aether.

"What?" Aether turns his head upward against Ajax's chest to raise an eyebrow at him.

"Ehm, isn't that the rudest possible word in common for a—...? At the same time I don't want to call it anything you don't like..."

"Is it? Hm. Maybe it's not as good as I thought. I just liked it because co*ck, cl*t, and c*nt all have four letters and start with the same one. Easy to remember." Even though I guess that could also make them hard to remember, but that's not how it went.

"Ah... I can get used to it, of course, it's just surprising." Ajax isn't sure what his discomfort with it really is, much less how to explain it. He can get used it regardless.

Aether studies the hint of hesitation in Ajax's demeanor. "...Are your siblings the only reason you don't usually curse?" he investigates respectfully. He has no reason to mock how anyone feels about words. Especially not his beloved Ajax.

Frowning a little at one side of his mouth for a second, Ajax gathers up an answer from a corner of his mind that's dusty because he doesn't want to metaphorically clean it. "Not exactly... There was a time when..." There's too much context he doesn't have. "Well, at the risk of not making any sense because this hinges on things I'd rather not go into, for a certain period of time before I joined the Fatui, it was best for my family if I... Well..."

Aether restrains the urge to remind Ajax he doesn't have to explain, and waits patiently for him to articulate what he has chosen to reveal. As Ajax said, there is a boundary he's not going to cross, so it doesn't seem as if he feels overly obligated.

"If I kept myself to myself, shall we say. No sudden moves in the house, no outbursts around Tonia and Anthon, that sort of thing. That was not a courtesy I extended to anyone else, but I didn't want my family to—" To fear me. "—get the wrong idea." Everyone else existed only to challenge him, entertain him, or get out of his way. Until...

You look almost afraid, Aether is observing. Why is that? Are you afraid you have to control yourself that strictly around me, too, and if you don't, I'll...? How did you end up in the Fatui after that 'certain period of time'... Damn it, I hope it's not what I'm thinking. A young human with aggression issues of some kind getting dumped into the military by their family? Aether gets the kind of deja vu that informs him he has heard or witnessed that kind of story before, even if specific examples aren't among his memories. He doesn't want it to be the case here because it strikes him as a grave mistake to throw a troubled human juvenile to the nonexistent mercy of a military life.

Aether rises on his elbow and shifts up closer to the pillow. Now his and Ajax's eyes are almost level. Regarding him with a solemn expressionlessness that he softens by placing a hand on his cheek, he tells him, "I want to be certain you know that you don't have to step lightly with me. You can be upset around me, angry, frustrated, whatever. I can take it, I promise."

Ajax is worried, though. His frown grows. "But what if..." Involuntarily imagining how he could kill any living thing he sees has, all along, had exactly eight exceptions, not counting Aether. Not at every moment, though. Occasionally, at home, he catches movement in his peripheral vision and he sees the path to victory (to survival) in the instant before he recognizes one of his siblings or parents. He hates it when that happens. It rattles him every time, whereas with strangers he can ignore it. And then he has to hide that anything is wrong, because if they ever found out... His welcome at home feels tenuous as it is.

Going into the Golden House, he could still see all the ways he assumed he could kill Aether. After he was defeated there, he has never seen it on him again. That doesn't normally happen when he's defeated; that's never what happens, except with Aether.

He doesn't want to see it on Aether ever again. Not on anyone he cares about. When he thinks about it in terms of being able to see the most important avenues of attack he must protect them from, he feels better about it, but the fact remains that it's outside his control. He doesn't even need it. When an opponent can dodge or block everything he throws at them, it's worthless. When an opponent can't do that, they're weak enough that he can easily handle them without being given some kind of unasked-for answer key. It literally cannot tell him anything he doesn't already know.

There's also the fact that, while using the Foul Legacy Transformation, he becomes vastly more aggressive. That made using it around Teucer a last resort for yet another reason. He prefers to flow rather than burn, but Foul Legacy brings forth the fire he felt in the Abyss and for years after until the Tsaritsa's icy acknowledgment cooled it.

In those minutes of truly overwhelming power, he has no reservations about it at all: it feels magnificent even as it tears his body apart and rebuilds it, and he revels in it. He will never stop using it.

Once in a great while, for a fleeting moment, he worries that fire will consume him. Then he tells himself that it's alright to burn if that's what's necessary to achieve his goals, and he banishes the thought before his heart can speak of the people he fears he'll hurt if he loses too much of his soul.

All of that is why he asks Aether, in the manner of a confession, "What if I hurt you? What if, one day, I'll have taken it for granted too many times that you can handle it, and I cross a line?" What if, one way or another, I change to the point where I no longer care?

Aether shifts forward a little bit more in order to rest his forehead on his comrade's. They both let the proximity usher their eyes closed. He strokes Ajax's cheek. "I have my own worry like that. That's why I kept reminding you that you don't have to do anything you don't want to. Why I still do, almost, before I remind myself what you said. I worry I'll cross a line someday and never even know I did, because I took your permission for granted."

Ajax reaches up to touch Aether's face, but instead ends up hugging him around the shoulders and not letting go. "Is it even possible to honestly promise someone you will never hurt them, or is it a...heh, a delusion?" It's a half-rhetorical question, reflecting his own uncertainty rather than commenting on the promise Aether made to him.

"...If it weren't for you, I wouldn't know the answer to that. But I think you already have the answer and you gave it to me, too. Don't you remember what you said to me and Paimon, at the 'Institute of Toy Research'...?"

Ajax thinks back, and when he recalls what Aether is getting at, it feels like he slipped out the back door of his own mind at some point in the past few minutes, and has just returned through the front door. "You mean... Oh." He breathes a deep breath that isn't quite a sigh. "If you make a promise, you keep it..."

"And if you make a mistake, you apologize."

"And if you give someone a dream, you defend it to the end." That's what family is about. "But how is this the answer if the mistake is unforgivable? Or, worse, if I don't even see it as a mistake?"

"Then we just have to find a way to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the promise. We have to talk to each other, listen, and work on doing better, no matter how hard it is. No matter if we feel so guilty we just want to run away. In combat and in everything else, Ajax, if we work together..."

"You and I will be undefeatable," Ajax finishes, nodding slightly against Aether's forehead. He takes another deep breath. "I see." Unbidden, the thought comes to him, Putting it like that, it sounds a lot like—... (A marriage vow.) He blushes fiercely, so embarrassed it tingles from head to foot for a second. Hoping Aether can't feel it on his cheek or forehead, he tries to throw that thought back to wherever it came from like an unwanted fish. Not unwanted, in fact, but it's too soon to catch it. A fry that hasn't grown to full size yet.

Aether tells himself not to regret asking the question that led to Ajax having to talk about such difficult things. He didn't have to. I couldn't have known—except I had a suspicion, or I wouldn't have asked, so I basically did know. Nngh. But it's alright. We had to talk about those things at some point. It's like gardening, right? We got some weeds out when they hadn't even sprouted yet.

Only a tilt of his head is required to give Ajax a small kiss. "What do you want to do now?" Leaving it up to him in case there's anything else along these lines that he wants to discuss, as well as in case there's anything specific he's now wanting to do to clear his head.

Ajax returns the kiss by way of a quick little motion of his lips before it stops. "Let's go outside and have some exercise?"

"Sure." The fact no one has knocked on the door makes Aether wonder what time it is. He sits up and looks to the window. It's late morning, possibly closing in on noon.

Seeing Aether sit up, semi-silhouetted against the bright sunlight, his hair appearing as if it's outlined in a pale yellow glow, Ajax changes his mind. Exercise can wait a bit longer. He sits up behind Aether and loosely wraps his arms around his waist, resting the bridge of his nose against his head. "Actually...can we have sex again?"

Aether leans back into Ajax's arms a scant second after they encircle him. He starts to smile, and that smile only grows when he hears the question murmured at the back of his head. Reaching up and back, he curls his fingers gently into Ajax's hair and strokes his scalp with his nails. "Yeah. Have something in mind?"

Ajax hadn't thought that far yet. How good what Aether is doing feels is both helpful and unhelpful, drawing him deeper into the mood but blanking his mind. "Mmmh... ...Just do something to me."

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"It was so...pleasing when you described how you wanted to do this," Aether says. "Have I ever told you your voice is..." A languid little shake of his head. "I don't know how to describe it. It affects me so much. It always has. It's like...honey and cream."

Ajax raises his eyebrows without opening his eyes. "You've never spoken of it before." Thinking back, he can't recall any signs that anyone else has liked it that much. But, in his position, that's not necessarily indicative. There are several things he wouldn't know people thought of him if he hadn't happened to overhear them. His habit of taking a stroll on the rooftops sure lends itself to eavesdropping.

"Then I have to make up for that. It's always been so distracting I had trouble keeping up with what you were saying sometimes."

"Is that why you always look like you're concentrating while I'm speaking?" Ajax grins. "I thought you were just suspicious of me."

"Probably. The first thing, not the second thing. It was odd for me to have any strong opinion about someone's voice, but I felt like I'd never heard one quite like yours before, so I thought it was just for that reason. It's how it...physically sounds, combined with how you use it. Makes me think of a wild cat prowling in a tree. A graceful, beautiful predator that might be hunting or might not be. Intent, either way. Careful, precise. Moving up and down between the branches without ever having to take its eyes off what interests it."

"This is the second time you're comparing me to a cat, lyubimy," Ajax notes, amused by that fact and flattered by the description. Independent of its relation to him, he also enjoys it for its sentimental aestheticism, which he doesn't often hear from Aether. He considers that that may well be because Aether still doesn't feel his fluency in Teyvat's common language is complete enough for that sort of thing. It sure sounds to Ajax like it is, though.

"I guess it is. ...I kind of like the idea of calling you 'kitten' sometimes. Do you like it?"

"Hm! I think I do, knowing your previous thoughts on it. But...call me your kitten."

"Sure...my kitten~"

Ajax sighs happily and mutters, "Yes, that'll do..."

"Can I test some other ones on you?"

"'Course."

"Honey?"

"Eugh, no. That's what my parents call each other. Not what should come to mind when you're saying it."

"Heh. Alright, the next one is... It's not one I ever understood before. It seems like it could be taken wrong. It has some appeal to me now because there are times I just want—... Sometimes I just want to hold you and protect you, even though I know you can protect yourself. Those times, I want you all to myself, far away from the rest of the world. Well, not far away from the other people you love, but. Just... Safe. And that could be taken wrong, too: I don't want to hold you back, I want...to be there for you when you want me there. That's all. So the word still doesn't really fit, but... How would you feel if I called you 'baby,' sometimes?"

Ajax listens patiently as Aether again speaks at greater length than usual. The meandering explanation winds his curiosity up a bit. When it finally comes to the word in question, he feels something about it, but it's faint and he doesn't know what that feeling is. "...Maybe I have to hear it in context. Try using it naturally on an occasion like that."

"Okay. Lastly, are there any I've been using that you're not happy with?"

"Not a one. They're all more than agreeable to my ears. Let me ask you the same question. Ah, and do you want me to translate the Snezhnayan ones?"

"I think I get the gist, but I'm curious."

"Moya lyubov means 'my love.' I might call you moye serdtse, too, though I haven't yet called you that aloud. 'My heart,' it means."

Sighing near-silently, Aether gives Ajax's hair some more distinct, deliberate caresses as his words warm him.

"Mmm." Ajax's voice softens as if he's saying sweet nothings to Aether: "Lyubimy means 'beloved.' Sladkiy means 'sweet one.' And, ya tebya lyublyu means I love you. The order of the words can be changed for different nuances. Lyublyu tebya ya vsey dushoy...means that I have many feelings for you and the strongest of them, the one I must tell you now, is love, such that I love you with all of my soul."

"Wow," Aether whispers, opening his eyes to look at Ajax. He can see nothing of his face, but at least he can rest an amazed and enamored gaze on the top of his head. "I'm...I'm honored beyond words, Ajax. Not that it's a revelation, exactly, but...it's so you."

"Is it? Heh. That's been nothing short of a revelation to me."

"I'm glad you've found some more of the beauty that was always in you."

Ajax smiles, turning his face toward Aether's chest momentarily to brush a single kiss against his skin. Without skepticism or reproach he asks, "How would you know something like that was always there?"

"Because it's what's buried deepest when your walls are up. But even then, signs of it are everywhere. In your passion, in your poetic bend, the way you treat people you like, and how fast you start liking them..." How raw your expressions of worry, apology, and sadness are, like the skin holding in your emotional organs has been flayed off all at once.

"Poetic 'bent,' that would be," Ajax helps, glad he doesn't have to have an immediate response to the substance of what Aether said.

The hints of your loneliness. "Thanks. That's a weird one." You were desperate to come with us in the Chamber, and I don't think it was just because of the opportunity to fight.

"It is. The common language is the ad-hoc offspring of many languages, some of which are long since extinct in their original forms. Ha, there, you can take 'ad-hoc' as an example. Like 'Fatuus' and 'Fatui,' it comes from Khaenri'ahn."

If that was all it was, you could've just insisted, or come along without asking, but you wanted us to invite you. "Is the borrowing of words from old languages like Khaenri'ahn the only reason why the Fatui are named that way?" You wanted us to want you with us, even if it was just for your usefulness.

With an impish smile and playful chiding in his voice, Ajax replies, "Will you permit me to be coy about that?~"

A smirk comes to Aether's face, and it too is audible. "Because you don't know."

"Hey now. I have a theory. Just do me the kindness of not asking me to serve it up before it's even out of the oven."

Aether chuckles and lightly hugs Ajax around the shoulders and head. He feels the long, scar-scored arms around him return the hug. "Fine. You just can't stop yourself from speculating, can you? Even though a weapon doesn't technically need to know."

Ajax stages a sigh. "Your perception is a hammer and all my secrets are nails, comrade."

"Only because you give me so much information for free, my kitten."

The Harbinger's conversational capabilities short out at that. He nuzzles his cheek against the pectoral it rests on, snuggling closer by laying a leg over both of Aether's.

Aether has in mind that they meant to get out of bed a while ago, and they're probably holding up the departure of Xingqiu and Paimon, but he has no desire to interrupt his and Ajax's current indulgence. He's done so much for this world, it can wait a few hours.

In his whole lifetime he has very rarely thought that way about things. When he and Lumine got bored or felt put-upon, they generally just left. Now he's without her, and he's stuck, and he has few choices. Can't forget the 'almost powerless' part, either. He cautions himself not to feel too entitled to bitterness, though. Resentment is like drinking poison, then waiting for the external sources of one's problems to die instead of oneself.

Ajax suddenly looks up, alarmed. "I didn't ask you where you wanted me to come!"

Aether is jerked out of his thoughts. "Hm? Oh. It's fine. I guess it might not have been fine if we weren't...us, but I took it as implied that you would, or might."

Ajax is reassured for about three seconds before an inarticulable possibility occurs to him, widening his eyes with fresh alarm.

Aether catches on immediately. Before Ajax has to put the awkward concern into any words, he hastens to add, "There's no risk. I can't. That is, the organs don't work. That way. They just don't...do some of the things that...would be necessary. I made sure of that."

Sagging in relief, Ajax plops his head back down. "Oh, good." He refuses to think about that anymore. Not even to attempt to imagine the unimaginable. Not even to acknowledge alternatives.

That finality dissuades Aether from apologizing for not clarifying sooner, though he thinks he should. It seems he and Ajax are in agreement that the subject isn't one they want to talk about. Aether certainly has no interest in it. He doubts there will ever be a time when it would be practical or safe to compromise his combat readiness for however long the human gestation period is. Was it a year? No. Ten months? Something like that. Of course, to do it he'd have to have regained his power, but even then, he can't just snap his fingers and make dangers and problems go away. That has to be accomplished with his sword.

Besides, he's well aware that the world is full of orphans who need homes. That's what he would do if he ever considered raising a child. He is capable of thinking it through this far without difficulty, but he is going nowhere near the extreme awkwardness of putting a partner in that picture.

It might now be an acceptable time to get up, Aether decides. "Well, shall we go get that exercise? And breakfast? In either order. But maybe a wash first."

"Ah, yes! Now that you mention it, I'm hungry, among other things."

"Yeah." Aether pokes Ajax's side and smiles. "You'll have to get off me first."

"Haha, I'm going, I'm going." Ajax rolls off him and sits up. He grabs his pants...and, with a short sigh, laments that he got so much precum on them. "This is your fault," he gripes in jest.

Aether glances over from where he has just stood up. "I'll accept the blame. No apology, though." He's still sore, and satisfied about it, but walking over to the wardrobe is no trouble at all.

"You already made it up to me~"

"I think this underwear might fit you, it's the loosest pair I have. Hn, but it won't work with the hanfu. Time to go shopping again. Any requests?" Aether continues to dress. All he has on hand is, once again, the yukata.

"Another of the same. It reminds me of the long underwear in Snezhnaya."

Aether smiles at him. "It was a happy accident, then." He's glad he gave Ajax one of those reminders of home that are so precious to him, even if he didn't know that's what he was doing. He collects some Mora from a drawer. "...Okay, I think I've got all I need."

"You're forgetting one thing."

"Hm?"

Ajax leans across the dresser from the bed, resting one folded arm atop it and his chin on that. He reaches out with the other to caress Aether's face, then subtly beckons him closer with a curl of his fingers against his cheek. Not missing the hint, Aether steps nearer the front of the dresser. With one finger under his chin, Ajax guides him in for a soft kiss. It makes Aether smile again, and when they part after just a few seconds, Ajax is smiling back with dreamy fondness.

"Thanks, sweetheart," Aether says in an undertone just as fond. "I definitely shouldn't leave without that."

Notes:

made a playlist for he

Chapter 14: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 2)

Notes:

this chapter has some explicit sexual content that's too short and light to be worth splitting off, and it's too diffuse to separate anyway

CW for mention/plan of mild to moderate exhibitionism

edit: fixed how much time is referenced to have passed
edit: fixed a Russian grammar error

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Aether is surprised it isn't noon yet in Liyue Harbor. He was under the impression that he and Ajax had procrastinated longer. This is good news, for people who care about things other than cuddling with the Eleventh Harbinger.He strides straight up Feiyun Slope toward the clothing shop he visited the day before yesterday. It's within sight when a familiar, sonorous voice greets him."Traveler, I almost didn't recognize you," Zhongli (the person, not the cat) greets him rather happily, emerging onto the main street from the direction of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. "Judging by the news coming out of Inazuma, you met with some success there? The free flow of news is itself quite telling."Aether promptly turns around and meets the former Archon at the curb. "Good to see you. No success in my search, but I can't be unhappy with how things turned out." Besides, I may not have found any direct answers in Inazuma, but I learned a lot, and...the most important answer came through Dainsleif."Likewise I'm glad to have run into you. I'm sorry however that your search has yet to bear fruit. Did you at least discover some useful information about this world?"Aether nods. I wonder what you expected I would find."That is good. Paimon is well, I trust?""Yes." Though, maybe you didn't have any particular expectations, since it was my and Paimon's idea to seek out the Archons. "She's back in the Serenitea Pot." As a quick afterthought he adds, "We had some close calls in Inazuma, but she's...as much herself as ever."Zhongli issues a single nod that Aether understands to be glad even though it doesn't come with a smile. "Perhaps I'll accept your offer of a visit to your realm soon. There is much to catch up on, if you're amenable.""I'd like that. I have other guests in, though, so let me get back to you on a day.""Of course. Where are you headed presently?""Shopping. I should get back as quick as I can, actually.""Would any advice help you make your purchase quickly?""Thanks, but not this time. I know exactly what I need."Zhongli nods 0.5 times. "Then I'll let you be going and wish you well.""You too." Aether starts to walk away but only gets a few steps before he has an idea. "Actually..." I could ask him about ropes. He might know who sells the best of the type I need. Nn, but eventually Zhongli might put together what that purchase means about Ajax, and Ajax is the one who should be in control of that information. But, speaking of Ajax—! He turns around and finishes the sentence he began. "Thank you for an indirect gift of a recipe. The owner of the Third-Round Knockout gave me one for borscht. He said he got it from you. You like seafood?"Zhongli's look of interest pinches into one of half-suppressed disgust. "Not at all. Just seeing it reminds me of...that slimy texture, and that scent that just won't wash off. As for why I hate it, it's a long story, so while we are short on time, let's just say my memory is a little too good." His expression then lightens. "I had in fact hoped Childe would find it a pleasant surprise on the menu. He has had no occasion to discover it, however; restaurants in the city are not as happy to take his Mora as they once were."Aether raises his eyebrows. It was an even nicer thing he did than I or Ajax thought.Zhongli assumes that reaction is incredulity, because he has no reason not to. "Odd though it may seem, I still value his companionship."Really? Odd way you showed it, back then. Aether had, and has, no objections to Zhongli's plan overall. It made sense. What he didn't and doesn't like was how the reveal went. But that's none of my business. He shakes his head and replies, "That doesn't seem so odd to me.""It seems your perspective on the matter may be more complex than one would assume. That doesn't surprise me." Zhongli smiles."Mm," Aether acknowledges somewhat affirmatively. To say the least. Literally. "Something else to talk about when we have a chance, maybe." Since they've already exchanged farewells, he just nods, turns, and continues on his way up Feiyun Slope.

Without Aether there, it only took about four seconds for Ajax to grow bored. He all but leapt off the bed and beelined to the most interesting thing in the room: the bookshelf.All the bookshelves in the house pique Ajax's curiosity because of what they might indicate about which subjects Aether has taken an interest in, but this one is even more interesting than the rest. Half its contents are envelopes, scrolls, and papers of all kinds. Holding these up are what Ajax guesses at a glance to be mostly journals and notebooks; many of them are small, some look old, and some are battered and damaged.He picks out an envelope at random. It's not sealed in any way. As it turns out, its only purpose is to protect the brittle, yellowed paper inside. It looks like it'll crumble if handled, so, after easily deciding idle curiosity isn't worth the risk, Ajax puts that one back. He doesn't intend to give Aether any reason to regret giving him permission to snoop.The next item is an intact, pocket-sized scroll tied with a Shogunate-purple ribbon. Untying and unrolling it, Ajax sees that it's one of the travel permits outsiders were required to obtain during the Sakoku Decree.Being that he's on Scaramouche's trail, Ajax has access to all the intel that the Fatui forces in Inazuma had gathered. Where Aether appeared in it, he didn't skip a word. It wasn't a complete accounting of his activities; there were gaps. Apparently Aether had gotten his travel permit from Hiiragi Chisato by delivering a love letter for her, to the man who's now the acting Kujou clan head. In a twist that mildly amuses Ajax, one of Signora's failed plots led to Chisato becoming the acting Hiiragi clan head.Everywhere 'the Traveler' goes, some people lose everything and some benefit greatly. Ajax bets Pantalone would love to be able to predict those effects, impossible as it may be. Aether meanwhile gained two highly placed connections in the Tri-Commission. Though, maybe that doesn't matter when the word on the street is that he was seen guiding the Raiden Shogun's personal tour of the city.It's the scale on which Aether is able to affect Teyvat as a mere individual that makes his feats and his ever-growing fame seem effortless to an outside observer. He isn't exactly keeping up with the Tsaritsa's plan, really, nor has he set it back significantly, but he has managed to be in the right place at the right time to interfere with the activities of three different Harbingers now—him included, of course.Ajax is certain it hasn't been effortless, though. Just how hard has the road been? Pondering the complex events surrounding the deceptively simple object of a travel permit, he's prompted to wonder about that. How have all these efforts affected Aether? His ability to keep going at such a breakneck pace for so long is admirable, and Ajax admires it immensely, but now his comrade's wellbeing matters to him more than ever.He has no baseline to compare to. By the time he met Aether, the man had already put an end to the Stormterror incident, encountered Signora, traveled to Liyue, and nearly became a suspect in the 'murder' of Rex Lapis. Ajax has no idea what Aether was like before his sister was torn away from him and he began his search for her—a search that doesn't seem to be going well. It has to have worn on him.Ajax can imagine turning the world upside down to find one of his siblings. What he can't imagine is being stymied at every turn and having no recourse but to go on solving other people's problems. Ajax can be impulsive, but he can also be patient. His patience however would wear very, very thin if he were in Aether's position. He would be angry, frustrated, and bitter. How does Aether not just lose it and start stabbing people until they give him answers instead of tasks?He's gripped by an urge to give his comrade a long, tight hug as soon as he gets back. But a sudden hug full of concern would worry Aether, and that's not what Ajax wants to accomplish. The mood Aether left him in is the best one to be in when he returns.Putting the travel permit back, Ajax idly scans the shelves. There's a row of bright red envelopes, quite a few of them, sandwiched between a couple of notebooks. It was in one such envelope, in accordance with a loose understanding of Liyue tradition, that he sent Aether the not-so-fateful letter revealing just how much he wanted to travel with him. In the end it had been fateful, just not right away and not in exactly the way he had consciously wished for.Curious whether that letter is among these, he slides each one out just far enough to check whether it's signed друг мой.None of them are. He frowns in a kind of confusion. Did he...not keep it? While waiting in vain for a response to the letter, he'd had the thought many times that Aether probably discarded it. But now, that possibility comes as a surprise.Two light knocks on the door almost startle him."It's me," Aether notifies Ajax.Ajax's first impulse is to relocate himself to the side of the dresser in one long, swift stride and lean his elbow on it in a casual pose. Naked. Perfectly normal. What am I even doing. He expects Aether to just come on into his own bedroom, so he doesn't say anything.Outside the room, Aether has picked up several more items of clothing that he found folded with impeccable precision on the floor. On top of the stack there was a piece of nice stationery paper folded just as neatly that he has yet to investigate. "Actually, could you open the door? My hands are full."Two of those quick strides bring Ajax to the door on footsteps silenced by the stealthy grace ingrained in him. Did he buy more things? A pair of pants doesn't seem like it could fill his hands. That curiosity is answered as soon as he gets the door. Clothes are tucked under both of Aether's arms: the long white underpants, yes, but also Ajax's boots, his trousers and shirt looking clean and mended, and Aether's whole outfit appearing to be in the same condition.Ajax half expects to see Paimon float in after Aether until he remembers what she said about not wanting to be in this room with both of them. As he closes the door behind Aether, he takes note of how quiet the rest of the house is. It sounds deserted."Where is everybody?" he asks Aether. He has no need to know, but he does have a passing want to know.Aether lays everything on top of the dresser, except for Ajax's boots, which he sets down. "I heard Paimon, Chongyun, and Xingqiu behind the house. Training, I'm pretty sure. Sounded like they're all having a good time." He inclines his head toward the clothes, except of course for Ajax's new pants. "These, I found on the floor right outside. It looks like Noelle's doing."Aether wonders when, exactly, she came by to leave them there. This house's walls seem well-insulated and the doors are solid with minimal gaps; sound doesn't travel far through them. But Noelle would have been close enough to the door to hear him and Ajax making loud and unmistakably sexual sounds, if the timing was bad. Noelle, I am so sorry for you if that's how it went. Humans in cultures with large houses and small families tend to be repulsed by overhearing such things.Ajax picks up his shirt, letting gravity unfold it, and looks it over. Amazement raises his eyebrows high. "It's... But... How? Look, Aether, it's good as new!"Aether doesn't look and doesn't reply. On top of the trousers, formerly tucked under the shirt, are several more items that he had felt as lumps in the cloth when the lot was under his arm: Ajax's socks, sternum strap, and original underwear. With these is a soft, hand-sized package, giftwrapped in bright blue and orange floral-print paper that was definitely bought from With Wind Comes Glory. Must be the gloves? Aether smiles at it while biting his lip in embarrassed humility at how much effort all this represents on Noelle's part.Ajax leans in and taps the gift curiously. "And what's this?""For you," Aether informs him, his smile warming for Ajax as he looks up. "From me, but it's all Noelle's work." And Albedo's, but Ajax doesn't know who he is. "Go on and open it.""Oh-ho!" Ajax hangs his shirt on the nearest bedpost before doing so. There's no ribbon, just skillful folding that allows him to open the gift without tearing the paper.Aether notes that and adds it to his admiration of Noelle while he also admires the choice of wrapping paper. Windwheel asters! Orange like his hair! Sky, blue like his eyes! Well not really, neither color is that close, but it's the best she could have picked at Marjorie's shop, no doubt about that. She put thought into it and it shows.Ajax recognizes the contents not instantly but after a second's delay, because he wasn't expecting to see his own gloves. "These—" he starts to state the obvious, pleased to have them back and apparently also mended; he's turning them over to confirm that and finds something new that halts his comment. On the back of each, along the two angled edges of the shortened cuff he prefers for maximized freedom of wrist movement, embroidery has been added. It's not large or elaborate, just a split outline of a shape with a few lines running along the insides. The thread is a dark but vivid blue. Overall, it's a subtle and tasteful design that would neither draw a casual glance's attention nor clash with the reds in his outfit.It's the design itself, of course, that makes him very quietly forget to breathe for a moment. It depicts in elegant lines an overhead or perhaps underneath view of Celestial Voyager, from the tailfin to the long flippers, from the familiar body shape to the short horn that joins the embroidery's split halves at the apex of the cuff edges. He stares at it with an open expression of not-unpleasant surprise, unable to immediately understand why it moves him.That almost-blank expression tells Aether that there's something unprecedented about the gift. Something good, he goes out on a limb to guess; he finds the look more charming than worrying. He steps over to Ajax and hugs him from the side, resting his upturned chin against his shoulder and continuing to watch him with a soft smile.Being hugged somehow nudges the pieces into place in Ajax's mind. This gift is special, he realizes, because it acknowledges all the parts of his life that gifts from his siblings cannot. Furthermore, it's lovingly attentive to that side of him: the Harbinger who lives for battle, the warrior who earned a Vision and with it shaped a whale to bring crashing down on his foes, the weapon forever honing himself. For the design to be so accurate, Aether would have had to—Ajax looks to his comrade with the kind of smile that ought to be accompanied by a shine of unshed tears in the eyes. (Ajax's eyes do not oblige, of course.) "When did you...arrange for this?""Three or four days after we left the Onmyou Chamber."He couldn't throw a whale around in that place, so, at that time, the last and only occasion Aether would have seen Celestial Voyager was when they fought each other. "...You were fighting for Liyue and still these details found a place in your memory..."Aether can't easily nod like this, so he shrugs. "I was a little surprised about that, too. But once I tried to draw it, it was all there." He shrugs, and, his arms still being around his beloved Harbinger's waist, he can't help noticing how Ajax's skin feels against his arms as the shrug's motion rubs them across it. Warm, even though he's wearing nothing but an earring. There's a raised scar under Aether's right elbow, and an indented one under his left forearm.Ajax thinks it's probably silly of him to have these deep feelings over a bit of embroidery on some gloves. But, he also can't take that thought seriously, because he understands gifts, and because, knowing Aether, he can't deny that the implications were intended. The man hugging him right now, gazing up at him so very softly, meant for him to read meaning into the gift. What he feels, once again, is a radical acceptance of who he is. Everything his family can't be exposed to and everything there is ostensibly no place for in a 'nexus of strife.'As he draws a breath to speak, Ajax becomes aware that he's not smiling anymore. Swallowing, he raises another smile.Such a bright smile Aether sees with his eyes. Bright and a little tearful, he sees with his heart. (A number of clues tip him off: the slightly unsteady curve of Ajax's lips, the way he swallows, and the pinched look at the corners of his eyes.)Aether keeps his arm around Ajax's back, but he reaches up his other hand and softly slides his fingers into the hair at the back of his head. With that hold and a gentle pull toward himself, he offers his shoulder for Ajax to bury his face in the way he hid it in his own arms previously. A shoulder to not cry on. Sometimes it's easier to accept one's own emotions when one isn't being watched, and a close hug can provide shelter from being witnessed even as it envelops one in intimacy.Ajax turns to Aether and leans down, following the suggestion of the uninsistent pull. Though he's still holding the gloves, his arms find their way around Aether as he rests his face in the crook of his loving comrade's neck. (Aether hasn't put his earring back on yet since taking it off to sleep last night; the glowing bead and the small feathers are not there to drag through Ajax's hair and settle amidst it.)Feeling permitted to dwell in that comfort silently, under no pressure to say anything, Ajax stays like that in silence until his breathing is steady and choppy waters are calm. The gift didn't bring up anything unpleasant; it was just overwhelming. Yet another unanticipated experience of care that he's not used to.His hair is being petted. Not much, only a bit, as if Aether understands he's overwhelmed and doesn't want to add to it.On a muffled sigh he voices what he's been thinking. "You make me feel whole."There is so much Aether wants to say to that. It's so tempting to pour reassurances and praises on his beloved whose egotism and solipsism naturally go hand in hand with deep disquiet about himself. But all those things he yearns to say would be too much right now. Too much for any time when Ajax isn't lulled into a different frame of mind by sex.Aether isn't certain what it is about sex that has that effect on Ajax, even though he understands it intuitively. It's probably a combination of things, he has theorized, involving the privacy that surrounds it, the release of adrenaline in a non-threatening context, and the constant low-level exchange of trust building up a safe haven for vulnerability.In any case, now is not the time to fill Ajax's head with ideas he's not prepared for. So, not even changing anything about how he's stroking his hair, Aether murmurs back only, "It's normal for that kind of thing to be rough to think about. I can help you think about something else now, if you want."There's nothing Ajax wants more at the moment than to sink down and lean against Aether and put his ear to his heartbeat. He almost does just that, but his head would be somewhere around Aether's middle, not high enough. Yet, he doesn't like the thought of getting back in bed. Part of him, and no small part at that, is itching to get outside and get moving. But, he doesn't know where the other guests are. Only Aether can be allowed to see him like this. "...C'mon."He lets go of Aether, straightens, and steps back so that the other man's arms slip from around him. Taking one of the freed-up hands, he leads Aether to the sofa by the bookshelf and sits heavily, pulling him down next to him. None of it is resisted, and, carefully setting aside the gloves, he leans in low to lay his head against Aether's chest. As expected, the sound of his heartbeat is exactly what he needs. He closes his eyes and puts his arms around Aether again.Aether gladly cooperates. When Ajax settles in with his arms encircling his waist, he places a hand on one of those arms as if to hold it there, and wraps his other arm around Ajax's shoulders. After a moment, he takes to stroking his arm as softly as he'd done to his hair.A very selfish question lodges itself in Ajax's otherwise tranquilized mind.Eventually he asks it. "If I asked you to stay with me instead of doing as you planned today... Would you?"It doesn't take Aether long to consider his answer. "Yes. Today, I think I could do that." The Millelith might proceed without me. There might be casualties. I accept that. "There might be consequences, but I'd accept them. But if I stay today, I can't stay tomorrow. When it's important to you, I would stop this world from turning. Or I'd pretend I could, anyway..."That's as generous an answer as Ajax could reasonably hope for. A petulant little piece of him wants Aether all to himself forever. That wouldn't mean just stagnating in this peaceful realm. They could do quite a lot in Inazuma. They could hop on a ship to Snezhnaya, never mind the risks. He could revive his old, not-so-great idea for Aether to join the Fatui. But actually, every second he dwells on this irrational fantasy, the less it appeals. It's too unrealistic. What he has with Aether is miraculous enough. It's more than enough that Aether said yes, qualified though it was.Ajax caps off that thought with a small sigh that is not disappointed. "Thank you, sladkiy. It's alright, though. I suppose I just wanted to hear you say that.""That's okay. You can ask me whatever you want any time, even if it's like that."Ajax mumbles another thank you, though at the moment he prefers to express his gratitude through physical means. He sits up a bit and slides the arm that he has behind Aether up to his shoulders. Now at eye level with him, Ajax stares appreciatively before giving his lips to him in a simple, lingering kiss. It's a somewhat firm press to emphasize the meaning behind it, but other than that, it is motionless.Aether's lips form a small, glad smile against Ajax's. Otherwise, he doesn't make any moves either. He just breathes with him, their eyes shut, everything calm and close and warm. It's a kind of hug within a hug.After a minute or so of that, Ajax feels his gratitude has been received. More than that, he feels at peace. Like he'd just had a nice, cleansing fight. He parts their lips, which, having been mostly dry, stick together for a fraction of a second. Once more he just looks at Aether.The gaze Aether meets is difficult to read. Serious but not thoughtful, solemn but not sad. A still surface on deep waters. He's seen similar looks on that face many times, but this one is peaceful, and a huge difference is made by Ajax being well-rested. Aether slows the hair-caresses to a stop; he doesn't remove his hand from where it comes to rest, behind Ajax's ear. "If you still want to go book shopping for me today, there's another one I want you to find."That perks Ajax up a little. It sparks his interest and gives him an extra dose of purpose. "What might that be?""Find a book about sexual use of ropes. Something that'll give me lots of ideas to try on you."Ajax flushes with anticipation. A twinge of desire in his loins doesn't set off any beginnings of actual arousal, as sated as the morning has left him, but he looks forward to how hot his blood is going to run in his veins when he gets that book into Aether's hands and watches him peruse it. "I'll find it even if I have to climb to the Grand Narukami Shrine and ask the Publishing House's editor-in-chief herself for it."Aether's smile brightens. The way Ajax makes it sound like some kind of important quest is endearing. "If it comes to that, tell Yae I sent you. Tell her...that I hope she can send my good boy home with what I asked him to find?" Yae strikes him as the type of person who wouldn't object to being peripherally exposed to knowledge of someone's sex life by an interaction like that.It turns out Ajax does have some virility to spare. As he blushes hard, his chlen starts to harden against his thigh. "Y-your good boy?""Do you like that?"He nods quickly. "Yes. Yes, I really do." Aether touches his chlen with one finger and a very small, very plaintive moan shudders out of him under his breath."Do you want me to do something about this?""Mmh," Ajax responds. "Maybe. I don't know what.""You don't have to worry about what, if you'd rather leave that to me.""Yes. Please." Ajax gets no hint as to what Aether might have in mind as he's teased to full mast by light strokes. Aether silently lays even lighter kisses atop his hair while he's doing that, and the petting resumes. All together, it's enough to make Ajax frown in pleasure and breathe another faint moan.Finally he hears his comrade's soft voice again, lowered to a gently authoritative undertone that makes Ajax's leg muscles flex in a subtle writhe. "You're not going to climax again until tonight. You're going to go to a certain place in Kannazuka this evening and wait for me. I'll meet you at that place and show you something beautiful, almost beautiful enough to be worthy of comparing to you. If it's alright with you, I'll hold you under the stars and make you cum with the moonlight on your naked skin."Ajax now exhales a long, reedy moan, his hips twitching upward once before he controls himself. "f*ck," he whines, high and soft and a little shy. "I want it, that, so much. How do you do this to me?""The same way you do it to me, Ajax," Aether says, obliquely but sweetly informing him that he does in fact have the same effect on him.With a weak chuckle, Ajax quips, "You don't beg as much."Aether grins, nosing aside some of Ajax's hair to kiss his forehead. "Is that how you remember me yelling your names earlier?" Not quite yelling, but close enough for his point to be made. Or when I said I wouldn't say please but I cheated by saying it in other languages."Hhah. A fair point..." He's still being stroked, Aether's hand closing around his shaft to keep him erect and simmering with low-key want despite being told he won't be allowed to org*sm. He likes that. It feels good as it is, and he loves every touch Aether will give him. He can just relax into it.Aether doesn't speak for a few moments. He can tell he has Ajax leveled off at a moderate buzz of sexual pleasure; he's not going to get him any further without changing things up. That's perfect. Aether merely saw him getting excited by the experiment of calling him a good boy, and wanted to do something with that. Another pleasant sensation for him to enjoy while having his hair petted. He wonders— "What's more pleasant right now," he asks in an unintrusively quiet tone, "what I'm doing with your hair, or what I'm doing with your chlen? Just curious.""Hair. It's close, though. They're starting to blend together. 'S nice." The movements of Aether's hands fell into sync at some point.Should probably stop soon, Aether thinks. He looks so tasty though. I know what a mouthful of his co— chlen feels like now, and I want him like that again, twitchy and noisy and getting his brain f*cked out so he all he can think about is when I'm going to let him cum. That's going to be him tonight. Not in my mouth, maybe, but somehow.Another question comes to Aether's mind. "Are you interested in...having me use a...nn, Ajax what's the word for a replacement limb?""Prosthetic?" It reminds Ajax of Dottore, who refers to his clones as 'prosthetics' because he uses them more like augmented limbs of his own than assistants or colleagues. Thinking of his weird coworkers makes his libido wilt slightly, simply on account of his distaste for them. Hey, think about getting to fight your clone. Now that's a happy thought!"Thanks. Would you be interested in me using a prosthetic to..." Aether doesn't want to say 'to f*ck you,' but 'to make love with you' isn't precise enough for a question, and he's blanking on any other terms he could use. He's left with one option: "Impale you, as you said so temptingly to me?"That obliterates any other thoughts and sends a fresh jolt of arousal through Ajax. "f*ck me? Would you!? Yes please, I would very much like that."Oh. So that whole struggle over words was for nothing, Aether is amused to find out. "Alright." The enthusiasm of Ajax's answer warms him with joy; finding another key to his beloved's pleasure is so gratifying. His hands slow to a stop as his thoughts pick up speed. "Then I have another task for you today. Find a shop that sells that kind of prosthetic in Inazuma City. Pick one out, and I will f*ck you with it."Ajax sits up to beam at Aether. "Ohhh," he reacts, his voice low and husky and wishful. "I really hope there is such a shop. I would hate to come back empty-handed and have my ass left empty as well."Grinning back, Aether laughs a short, soft chortle, surprised and pleased to meet this side of Ajax's sexuality. "Wow. This is new." As he raises his hand to trace Ajax's jaw with a fingertip, he leaves his chlen dipping toward his thigh, stiff enough to remain semi-upright unsupported. "You know what you want and you're being very good telling me. Have you gotten yourself f*cked before?" The freckles on his ass... Won't be able to stop thinking about them, now.Ajax's chin is nudged upward by Aether's finger and he holds his head high, basking in this sunny attention. Looking down his nose at his sladkiy only in the physical sense, his wide, closed-mouth grin sustains itself on the happily intrigued scrutiny he's being given. "Mmm-hm! Are you jealous, comrade?""Heh. If you're hoping I would get all territorial about it, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you, my love. Anyone who's treated you right is an ally to me.""Four days ago," Ajax prods that claim, letting some smugness into his expression. He doesn't even know where it came from. As for what he was hoping for: nothing specific, just anything he could play into."Ohh?" Aether is much more curious now, and delighted by whatever this little game they're playing is. He loves to see Ajax giving him an 'insufferable' look. The boldness, the confidence. In this context it's even better, because there's no sign Ajax has any real worries about Aether being jealous, and if he got the impression that he needn't worry, it's more proof they're on great footing in terms of trust.Ajax pulls one side of his lower lip between his teeth and slowly lets it go as he decides exactly what to say next. He cants his head. "It was someone you know~"This just keeps getting more interesting! Aether enthuses. "Hmmm. Let me guess until I get it right?""Do you want any hints?""I guess I could use one. Does this person go by 'he,' 'she,' or something else?""He." Ajax blinks, his grin faltering briefly. "I think? Perrrhaps I don't know." A funny thing to realize now, days later, he muses."Probably good enough to start with. Okay, I don't know why this guy is my first guess, maybe just because he has a Hydro Vision and a lot of Mora: Kamisato Ayato."Ajax drapes an arm over the back of the sofa and stretches his legs out floorward. "Haven't met him. I'm giving the Tri-Commission a bit of a wide berth. Being identified by the authorities might create problems for me.""That narrows it down. Kazuha's not back in Inazuma yet, so..." Aether's eyes widen. "Arataki Itto?" he asks in an incredulous tone he's not sure of the reason for."Who?""Okay. Uh... General Gorou?""Aha, I'd jump at the chance to spar with him! But no, I haven't met him.""Hmm... Can I get another hint? Is this person a Vision user?""Yes."Aether adopts a similar position to Ajax's in order to face him fully. He puts his arm on the back of the sofa as well, folded instead of extended so he can prop his chin against his closed hand. "...What was that guy's name... Kurosssomething... His first name sounded like Harunosuke but it wasn't that?""Don't ask me, I've no idea who that is," Ajax disconfirms, chuckling."Iiis he...a dojo master?""Definitely not." No offense, Thoma. Dressing the part of a samurai doesn't count.Aether has been counting Thoma out because of his association with the Yashiro Commission, but he's scraping the bottom of the barrel now. "...Thoma?" he asks with a shrug and a confused quirk of his lips.Ajax bursts out laughing. "Stop reading my mind, comrade!" He playfully slaps Aether's shoulder. A light slap for them, but not so light for most people.Aether laughs too. In the same jovial spirit, he swats Ajax's hand away after it connects. "What? I'm not! I can't! I swear I can't."Their laughter fades but their mood remains merry. Ajax elaborates, "Well, anyway, I made his acquaintance the day prior at a restaurant. Shimura's?"Nodding, Aether comments, "You hadn't been to Inazuma before, right? So I thought it had to be very recently you met Thoma."A nod in turn. Ajax brings his forearm up from behind the sofa to idly finger Aether's elbow. "He was very kind. No need for you to worry about how he treated me, hm? He is not shy though! I respect that he knew what he wanted and went for it. And what he wanted...was me~"Aether bites his lip to half-suppress a grin so he can say a second later, "I didn't know he had such good taste.""Good taste? Ahaha, I don't know about that. I didn't tell him I'm Fatui, much less a Harbinger..." Ajax wonders again if that was fair to Thoma. He still thinks he couldn't have told him the truth, for multiple reasons."Oh he probably knew.""Huh?" Ajax's eyebrows quirk in confusion. Why would he?"He...how should I put this, because this is definitely not why he liked you or why he had sex with you. Don't think that for a second; he really isn't that kind of person. But he keeps himself aware of possible threats to the Kamisato Clan. By the way, that's a weird way to give the Tri-Commission a wide berth, befriending the Kamisatos' fixer." Safe to say they're friends, I think. Ajax can make a friend in two minutes sometimes, no way he and Thoma don't see each other as friends. Why's he look so surprised, though?Ajax's confusion increases and he stares at Aether for a few seconds. The Kamisatos' fixer? They didn't come up at all. Why would he hide that? Because he knew who I was? Unless it's a card he keeps close to his chest as a matter of course? Would someone like Shimura or Kiminami know? Wait...that report about— "Ah!" He facepalms. "The Komore Teahouse! Of course. He's connected to it and the Kamisatos control access to it..."

"You didn't know," Aether states rather than asks as he reaches that conclusion. "Hm. There are other people who are connected to the Teahouse, too. If that's all the information you had, I don't see how you could have guessed. Not with any certainty."A pouting huff wafts Ajax's longest forelock. "I suppose you're right. Signora wasn't especially interested in the inner workings of the Yashiro Commission, and Scaramouche not at all. Their main focus was on the warfront. As a result, there are certain gaps in the intel our forces gathered under his field command.""...How do you feel about not knowing that?""Ah, don't worry yourself, I just feel a little caught out. If we were in the same boat, I'd not even have that qualm." I'm not sorry I lied, anymore, Ajax thinks pettily. Nothing against Thoma, but. "I told him I'm a banker from Liyue, by the way."Aether raises an eyebrow. "That is what you are."Ajax puts on a hurt expression. "Don't say that! How could you diminish me like that..." He gives Aether a slight wink to ensure he knows he's joking. (Unrelated, his erection has gone soft by now.)Though that's what Aether would have intuited anyway, he appreciates the cue. It's considerate and cute. "Hmm. If you were just a banker, even then I'd probably fall in love with you. Probably find you taking your break on the docks— no, in the morning, before you go in. Watching the fishing boats bring their catches in. You're from a fishing village, right?"All artifice has vanished from Ajax's visage, which has been taken over by a soft smile full of warmth. "When did I even tell you that, lyubimy?" he murmurs admiringly. The hypothetical scenario is vivid in his mind, too, from the dawn breaking over Liyue Harbor, and the smell of the sea, to the image of Aether wandering over to him to strike up a conversation. He has none of the doubts about this idea that he had before Aether convinced him the other scenario, the one where he was nothing more than a toy salesman, was plausible."The first day you visited here," Aether reminisces. "We were talking about languages. You said Teyvat common and Snezhnayan are both spoken in the fishing village you grew up in." It was evening and they were making borscht. Well, they started making borscht; they didn't cook it that night. Borscht! Zhongli! I have to tell Ajax what he told me about that.One of Ajax's hands has been resting on his own knee since the last time he changed position. It's this hand that he reaches across the small span that formed between them, and with it he cups Aether's face, stroking his cheek with his thumb. "That is information I don't give out freely, and yet I told you so easily I didn't even remember doing so. That's the level of trust I placed in you even then...""You're protecting your family by not talking about the Eleventh Harbinger's hometown to just anyone," Aether guesses.Ajax nods once, gently, with a slow blink of his eyes. "So when I tell you that its name is Morepesok...""I'll keep it secret," Aether promises, touching his heart and then covering Ajax's hand. "I would die before endangering your family.""Thank you, comrade," Ajax intones sincerely. "I knew I had nothing to worry about in that respect, when it comes to you."Aether meshes his fingers between Ajax's, and places on the inside of his wrist a light but earnest kiss. "I'm honored by how much you've trusted me for so long. I...guess I understand why? My reputation, right? My actions in Teyvat. Nothing fairer than judging a person by their actions."Ajax's wrist is so sensitive to a kiss from Aether. It's funny, he reflects, that he used to think he knew everything there was to know about his valued but unloved body. "Yes, but I'll admit to intuition playing a part. And perhaps a dash of optimism. I think what I'm saying is that it was instinct as much as judgment."Laying their comfortably entwined hands between him and Ajax, Aether momentarily extends his other arm to touch a finger to his auburn-haired head. "I love getting to know what's going on in there...""Haha, hm." Likewise, Ajax taps Aether's head with his free hand. "I wish I knew more about what goes on in here."Aether's response is a small and almost shy smile. "Believe me, you're much more interesting." I've always been kind of passive, but since coming to this world, I'm more passive than ever. Most of the time it feels like I just exist and react."Nonsense! I know I'm interesting, but I'm not that interesting as to be comparable to the infinite depths of the night sky. If the brilliance of its stars seems to shine from unfathomably far away, it's only because those stars hold so many secrets.""Shush," Aether mutters, inclining his head. He's not too serious, though, and his smile widens in spite of himself. "Firstly, I'm just one star. I'll let you have your poetic...um...""Poetic license?"A slight nod of thanks and Aether tries that sentence again. "I'll let you have your poetic license, though, because it's always nice listening to you talk like that. Secondly, you can ask me anything you want to. I don't intentionally have any secrets from you."Ajax gives Aether a placid look that's exquisitely subtle in its skepticism. "Do you ask me all the questions you wish to, or are there some you save for later because the time isn't right?"He's got him there. "Mh. Yeah... There are many more questions I want to ask than questions I have asked. I can't object to you using the same discretion."Ajax has a whim to draw Aether close, have him sit on his lap, and tell him something sweet. He doesn't know what he's going to say yet, but he has no doubt something will come to mind, just like a perfect excuse to have Aether closer comes to mind. "Are you going to put your hair back in its braid for today's outings?""Yeah?" Aether is about to ask Ajax if he'll do it for him, now that it's been brought up."No you're not," Ajax declares chipperly. "Because I'm going to braid it for you. C'mere."With a short, quiet chuckle and a flash of a grin, Aether starts to move forward. He pauses. "Shouldn't I just turn around here so you have room to...?"Ajax turns himself and sits like a normal person instead of a six-foot-long plank of wood lain diagonal against a sofa. He gestures cordially to his thighs. "Why don't you lay across my lap?"That sounds very relaxing to Aether. His smile melts into a generalized buoyancy of his whole face. "Happy to." He crawls over and lowers himself into place, not avoiding the other man's genitals, but careful not to get his elbow anywhere near them or put his weight there. "So close to temptation.""Hehe, get your mind out of the gutter, lyubimy." Ajax gets right to work finger-combing Aether's hair to prepare it."The gutter?""Just an expression that means 'stop thinking about sex.' Not that I mind, of course, but I have a job to do~""Thank you for this. Ah, I have to tell you before I get distracted again: I ran into Zhongli on my little shopping trip. The person, not the cat. I didn't mention you, but I thanked him for the borscht recipe. He told me something interesting. Did you know he hates seafood?"Ajax is perplexed by that. His fingers slow down for a second as he narrows his eyes. "But...he tried several seafood dishes I recommended..."Ohh, Aether thinks, feeling like he's starting to understand something but not clear on what. "He was vivid in his description of why he doesn't like it. He was definitely being honest.""Hmph. That man is too polite, he could have just told me he didn't like it...""You know what this means about the borscht," Aether prompts, looking up over his shoulder at Ajax.Ajax opens his mouth and draws a breath as his eyes widen, but he's actually speechless for a few seconds. "...It really was just for me, then?" Thoughtful and not entirely credulous."No doubt about it. He told me it was.""He mentioned me?" Again, a note of reflexive disbelief, albeit less."To explain why he gave the recipe to Three-Round Knockout. He meant it as a surprise for you.""That explains why he never said anything about it.""Mm-hm. He wants to visit the Teapot someday soon. He doesn't know you're here. Are you okay with him visiting?""You're asking me?" Ajax almost chuckles. "It's your—...""I think it's fine to wear just the zhōngyī when you're in your own house," he recalls Aether saying yesterday. It struck him as odd at the time but he couldn't put a pin in why. Now it's plain as day.Our, not my. Aether watches Ajax's freckles redden. He smiles slowly, suspecting but not certain why his beloved is blushing. "What?""You said yesterday—... And you said today—!""Tell her to send my good boy home with what I asked him to find."Ajax meets Aether's gaze with the kind of smile that crinkles the corners of the eyes and shines like early evening sunlight. "Yesterday," he composes himself to say properly, "you remarked that it's fine to wear the zhōngyī in one's own house. And today, you told me that if I have to consult Yae, I should tell her to send me home with what you asked me to find."Aether's eyebrows go up. He's well aware that he wants Ajax to consider the Serenitea Pot a place he can call a home away from home. But he himself never called it home before. A lump forms in his throat because he immediately understands why he did. Ajax being here made it home for me, too."Are you alright, Aether?" Ajax checks, seeing a strange look come over him. Bittersweet, maybe? Touched? Hopefully not hurt!"Yeah," Aether answers thickly. He wipes welling tears out of his eyes. "It's just never been home to me before, Ajax. You...are my home." A location could never be home to a perpetual traveler. A place that is not a location? Possibly. A person? Most definitely.Ajax smiles at him, again sunny in the manner of the golden hour, this time wide enough to half close his eyes. "Moya lyubov...I don't know what to say."Aether's expression grows into a similar smile. "I don't know what to say either. Except that...I love you, my comrade."Ajax strokes the back of Aether's head. "And I you... Barbara said something very insightful to me the other day. She said that if this 'teapot' is not in any particular location, then it's both as far away from my hometown as possible, and as close to it as possible. I've taken to thinking of it as the latter."Aether sighs, so happy he feels aglow inside. "Huh. I'm glad to hear that..." An idea that's been baking in the back of his mind springs forth. "Mm! I'll ask Tubby if the Realm Dispatch can still work if you borrow it. Maybe you can use it to give all your family access here the next time you see them! Uh, but I don't know if that will work.""Ahh, that would be..." Ajax shakes his head slowly in hope. "Superlative.""Doesn't superlative mean— isn't it just the whole category of words that mean 'best'?""Yes it is. What's the problem with that?" Ajax raises his eyebrows at Aether, tightening a droll smile into a small width for effect."I'm going to take that to mean 'superlative' can be used when you can't think of a better description.""By all means, and you're welcome.""Hah. Thank you. Hey, can you read the dictionary to me? One of these nights. Sometimes I read it myself to expand and remember my Teyvat vocabulary, but listening to you read it would be superlative."Ajax chortles. "If that's how much you enjoy my voice, sladkiy, it would be my pleasure.""Ohh not as much as it'll be my pleasure," Aether remarks."Now now, how are you going to stay focused on the vocabulary lesson?""Hmm. Good point and I don't have an answer. Speaking of answers, what about Zhongli? The person. Visiting. Okay with you?""Oh yes. I dearly want to find out how he reacts to learning why you and I have to specify to one another whether we're talking about a person or a cat. And speaking of that! I need to buy many things for the cat today. I should start a list, what with all this shopping I'm to do.""I have something else to add to it: go to the Adventurers' Guild and see if they have a uniform in your size. Xingqiu's disguise gave me an idea. If they give you any obstacle for not being a member...uhh..." Aether reaches for his earring but he's not wearing it right now. Instead he nods up toward Ajax's (although it just looks like he's nodding at his face). "Trade earrings for a day?"How about forever, Ajax almost suggests, but his earring goes with his outfit so well and Aether's really wouldn't. Besides, if they're going to trade jewelry they may as well— With some nervous internal laughter he stows that thought away. Again. He smiles like he isn't mildly panicking about his sudden certainty that it's going to get ever more difficult to resist that thought. He can't even pretend he didn't have it, this time. Too soon. Too soon. Be patient. We have so many new things to get used to, don't add another one. Acting skills to the rescue: the smile he has put on is a classic, but it's moderate and fits the moment. "Alright! And that will convince them of what exactly?""I actually haven't thought that through very well, but I'm hoping my, er, status in the Guild will count for something." Aether develops an impish little grin and he adds, "If they refuse, tell them not to send my good boy home empty-handed, and that I want you to wear the uniform for personal reasons." Attack me, get attacked. Inconvenience me, get too much information. Same principle.Ajax takes a measured breath, steeling himself against the distraction two of those words are pleasantly threatening him with. "Do you?""No, unless you'd like that.""Doubtful. Those Guild uniforms are..." Not my style. He starts to imagine what he'd look like if he transformed while wearing one. Oh no. Nooo no no. "—they have too many layers. In these parts of Teyvat, even two layers is quite a lot.""So that's why you leave your shirt and jacket half undone.""It also lets me wear my Vision on my belt.""There are so many other ways you could solve either of those problems or both. I like the method you chose, though." Aether isn't sure how he's going to survive seeing that corner of Ajax's waist framed by his usual clothes again. Why does that seem as if it would be so much more distracting than lying on his lap when he's not wearing anything ? Just thinking about it, I want to touch it. He looks around his shoulder at the waist of the man who is still combing his hair and has yet to start braiding it. Thanks to all the attention he has paid to Ajax's body in combat, it's very easy for him to recall and mentally demarcate the triangle that's usually exposed when he's not moving, rare though that is while he's fighting.It's his trousers' fault, actually, Aether decides. They hug his narrow hips so low, showing off the crests of his pelvis and the inguinal furrows leading from those downward. The shirt and jacket are just accomplices. He reaches around his shoulder with his opposite arm to lightly poke Ajax right where his inguinal ligament abuts the furrow."Ehey! It tickles there.""Really? You're ticklish there? So your weak spot is as advertised as a Ruin Guard's.""Comrade, no one's going to tickle me in combat.""Unless you have something against tickling, 'someone' is going to take advantage of this knowledge."Ajax considers. Their quality sparring time getting interrupted that way is an idea that holds no appeal in his imagination. It's too much of a tonal shift. He wouldn't even like to interrupt sparring for sex, he speculates, though having it as a kind of dessert after the nourishing meal of combat would be more than acceptable. They might have done that last time if they hadn't been so tired. "...I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you," he concludes. "However! If you'd like to try tickling me while you have me tied up, I'm game."With a smile, Aether nods, then kisses a bare sliver of his forehead between his forelocks. "I always like an honest answer. Thank you." He touches Ajax's chin, feels the stubble there, and takes the opportunity (of not being preoccupied with anything else) to comment on it. "This is different. My fault for throwing you off your routines?""Tsk. You're truly a menace in that respect.""I never saw this in the Chamber. You took the time to shave in there?""Plenty of quiet moments to be stolen from the jaws of death in there.""Mm," Aether concurs. "It's just interesting." He continues exploring the rough texture, tracing Ajax's jawline all the way and then running his finger sideways up and down the front of his neck. By then Ajax is smiling and his eyes are closed, and he now tips his head up like a cat who enjoys chin scritches."How's it interesting?" Ajax asks after a relaxation-induced delay. A lazy question, too."Well, I suppose this isn't the last time I'll see it and feel it, but it is new. Other than that, I'm curious about your reasons for always shaving your face completely.""Mh," Ajax shrugs aloud. "I like it that way. And yes, it serves me the same as your absence of facial hair serves you, 'encouraging' my opponents to underestimate me. Those who don't recognize me, anyway, and in Inazuma that's still just about everybody who isn't Fatui or Snezhnayan.""Hm," Aether acknowledges in a lilted tone of thanks for the answered curiosity. He doesn't stop stroking Ajax's neck, but he does start thinking about what to do next. They can teleport to the fourth island and have a Hydro shower, maybe. What about a real bath though? And would that be together?Ajax hesitates to bring up the third reason, but as he pieces the explanation together for Aether ahead of time, he finds it's a more comfortable prospect than he expected. So, he proceeds with it. "...I resemble my father much more when I don't shave. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I dislike him, nor have I any reason to." He really doesn't blame his father for anything that happened. He still loves him as much as he did before everything unavoidably had to change. (Before he came back 'wrong.' Before he became, at best, a disappointment.)Aether observes that Ajax's expression hasn't quite fallen. The faint smile that remains is wistful, but Aether can feel under his thighs that Ajax hasn't tensed up. Whatever it is that he's alluding to, he seems to be at peace with it, at least at the moment. Aether isn't sure what to say or if Ajax is going to say more. He can keep supplying soothing little caresses, and that's what he does.Ajax tips his head back a tad further—slowly, so that Aether doesn't take it as a cue to stop—and rests it on the top of the sofa cushion. His eyes are still closed. I've told them so much about him, but I've told him so little about them. There's a lot to be said that has nothing to do with troubles past or present. Those are the things he'll say, for now. "...My father's name is Lev. He used to be an adventurer. I grew up listening to stories from his adventuring days. There were so many of them. In hindsight I think he may have spun a few extra tales from each of his exploits, stretching and embellishing in order to feed my insatiable appetite for them."Aether feels the beginning of a chuckle in Ajax's throat, under his fingers. It emerges only as a soft huff from his nose and a brief blooming of the germinal smile at the corners of his mouth. It must be past noon by now, Aether is sure in the very back of his mind, but nothing short of the impending end of this world could move him from raptly listening to Ajax open up about his family. Evidently no one's going to disturb me in my own...home. He leans forward, laying himself against Ajax chest to chest, yukata to skin."He'd take me ice fishing and regale me for hours. Those were happy times. He's a kind man who loves his family very much." Ajax opens an eye and a half to peek at Aether as the shorter man cuddles against him and extends his arms alongside his head. It seems at first that Aether is just going to let his forearms hang off the back of the sofa, but, perhaps as an afterthought, he folds them under Ajax's head. As pillows go, his comrade's arms aren't as soft as the sofa cushion, but they're warm, and they're Aether's.Aether and Ajax share an affectionate look before Ajax closes his eyes again. Aether may as well too, and he does, because he resumes his attentions on Ajax's neck in the form of brushing the bridge and tip of his nose against his throat. Slow, aimless, and very light so as not to make speaking difficult for Ajax. At times he simply holds still, his nose poised where Ajax's bobbing laryngeal prominence grazes it as he speaks. Neck: not ticklish, Aether notes."As much as he evidently enjoyed traveling around, delving into mysterious ruins and facing dangerous beasts—not highly dangerous, I'm talking about hilichurls and slimes and the occasional vishap for the most part—well, he found he enjoyed settling down at the seaside with a certain Nadezhda even more. Which, come to think of it, isn't unlike those hypotheticals you and I considered earlier." Ajax isn't going to pause to dwell on what he accidentally implied (that in those scenarios Aether would settle down with him). "It's a good thing he had a soft spot for children, because they ended up with quite a few! I haven't told you about all of my siblings, have I. Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself, and I don't know if these mundanities of human life even interest you." No reproach toward either of them, just Ajax checking that his second-favorite audience isn't bored. (His favorite audience, of course, is any or all of his younger siblings.)"They do. Especially when they're about you and your family. Besides, I did ask you to read the dictionary to me, so...it's safe to say...that even if I wasn't interested, I'd still be very happy to listen.""In that case, how will I know whether you're actually interested or just using me for my voice?~""If that's what it was about, I'd be on your chlen. Or we'd be having some kind of sex, anyway.""You, er, technically are sitting—""And neither of us seems to care right now. Please continue, my love."A silent chuckle shakes Ajax's chest. "Yes lyubimy. Where was I. Ahh, my siblings! My father named all the boys and my mother named the girls. So, all of us boys have names from old stories p— father came across in the course of his adventuring career. Evander is my oldest brother. Damian is...rather, Sveta is— ahah, let me start again and make this clearer for you. From oldest to youngest it's Evander, Sveta, Damian, me, Tonia, Anthon, and Teucer.""You really are in the middle. The middlest, one might say."Ajax grins. "That's what Tonia says, in fact! Anthon, too, after he picked it up from her.""You know, if Teucer's such a cute kid and you're such a cute man, your whole family must be...just...irresistible if they ask for anything. Suddenly I understand your relationship with Teucer a little better.""H'oh? Well—... Oh. Oh I see. Alright, and suddenly I understand a little better why you keep calling me cute. I wouldn't have thought I was anything like—...""You and he are different, but the family resemblance goes deeper than just looking alike. You both have a way of being...hmm...—of getting what you want by being charming instead of annoying. And there's a forthrightness you both have. And you both act before you think, sometimes. Heh, did he grow up listening to your father's stories, too?"I'd rather Teucer wasn't like me. One of the things Ajax will readily admit to himself that he fears is Teucer's adventurousness leading him to run away from home like he did. In a way, it already happened: the boy boarded a ship just because he thought Ajax might be on it! That was terrifying to hear and it's still bone-chilling to think about the thousand ways that could have gone horribly wrong. Worse could still happen. He never wants to see Teucer's bright eyes turn into what he sees in the mirror."Ajax?""Sorry, just thinking. I really wish I could be home often enough and long enough to give him proper training. He's taking archery lessons from father and a local hunter, but... I feel as though if I don't have a hand in guiding him, he'll make the same mistakes I made." Not mistakes for me. Fate, for me. But for him...I reject any fate that would make him like me.Aether nods. "I...think I understand." That's how I feel about you sometimes. "It feels like if you're not there something will go wrong? Like you just can't trust the rest of the world to treat him as you wholeheartedly believe he should be." Your path has so many forks that lead to bad ends. "All the worst possibilities that could happen to him are laid out in your mind, and there are just so many..." You aren't even undefeatable yet.(Ajax is too focused on his own worries to wonder why Aether understands.) "That's it exactly, and yet... To answer your question, I don't think my father tells those stories anymore. But Teucer...he looks up to me so much. That's not a good thing. Aether, I'm selfish, I really am. I could cut ties with them, and it would hurt my younger siblings at first, but it would also prevent them from taking after me. If I had the guts to do that, if I could be that cruel to myself, they also wouldn't be hurt if something happens to me in the future.""Good that you don't," Aether says firmly, lifting his head. "You know where I stand on you being unkind to yourself. You also don't have it in you to be that cruel to them, and you're downplaying that fact because you're trying to convince us both of your point. But you're not selfish, you're self-centered. You see the world in terms of what each and every thing in it means to you, but the parts of it you care about, the people you care about, you really care. You—. I'm sorry, I shouldn't be saying this right now should I." He grimaces apologetically.Ajax has opened his eyes, has been observing the stony conviction on Aether's face. How abruptly that melts into a softer expression makes Ajax pause, despite what they're talking about, and just privately be in love with Aether for a few seconds before he goes back to thinking straight. (Or thinking that he's thinking straight.) He gives Aether a smile meant to reassure, and it's apologetic too. "It's alright. If I'm honest, the reason it's alright is that I don't believe it. I don't think you're lying, but it's not something I can believe. Admittedly, and this isn't easy to admit, you've a track record of being right that I can't wholly ignore, even though I should be the expert on my own nature."Aether draws a deep breath and sighs it out, for no reason other than he feels like he hasn't been taking in enough air while taking in Ajax's response. Accepting that response isn't hard: it's about as good as he could hope for under the circ*mstances. He nods. "I don't hold that against you." Softer, he reiterates, "Of course I don't." He leans in then to offer his own reassurance in the form of a simple kiss——and Ajax feels him smile as he meets him halfway. He prolongs the kiss that Aether seems to have meant to be short and sweet, because he wants to make it sweeter still. Every little push and ply of his lips is a way of stating respect for Aether's certainty, treasuring his high opinion of him, and thanking him for listening.Aether is very content to have Ajax take the lead, making no attempt to stop after his initial move to pull away. It had been only the smallest move, the very beginning of an end, something he would have assumed was missed if he and Ajax weren't such attentive students of each other. When Ajax slowly releases his lips, they exchange warm looks and a moment of stroking chins and cheeks. "...Thank you for telling me things about your family. I want to hear more, in time.""You're welcome, and I'm sorry I digressed into complaining about troubles that—...I suppose...you aren't entirely uninvolved in, given recent developments, and given you've met Teucer already.""It's more than fine, sweetheart. You and I never stick to one subject for long anyway.""Hmm, you've got us there," Ajax almost chuckles. Us. I like the sound of that. Us... As it should be. The two strongest warriors in this world, they'll be. (This time he successfully avoids thinking about them being the two strongest married warriors in this world.) He reaches around Aether's back to start and finish actually braiding his hair. Aether cooperatively leans in again, resting his chin on Ajax's shoulder and draping his arms on the back of the sofa to keep them out of his way. As he nears the end of Aether's hair, Ajax inquires, "Do you want me to tie it off with itself or use...your..."Aether feels Ajax crane his neck to glance around the room in search of the tie Aether usually uses. Aether sits up and stretches his arms. "I'll get it." His body, though hardy against a considerable range of temperatures, feels the loss of Ajax's warmth instantly as he moves off his lap and stands up. Heh. Every time...There's a slight tug on Aether's hair as Ajax gets up after him. He looks down and sees that Ajax is still holding it, keeping it from coming undone with uncalled for smugness. Because something must be said to that face, Aether quips, "Didn't know you wanted a leash.""Aren't I intangible and unbound?""Hmm." Aether doesn't have a comeback to his own description of Ajax.As he follows Aether across the room to the nightstand near the bed, Ajax asks himself whether he would like the other man to put a leash on him. Everything is worth considering. No immediate answer comes to mind, no physical reaction of desire or revulsion, so he just keeps trying to imagine it—until his attention is stolen by a glimpse of bright red paper in the drawer Aether is fetching his hair tie from. Before the drawer is closed he asks quickly and without thinking, "What's that?" And, breaking the inhibition he learned in Liyue, he points at what he hopes is a certain envelope, reaching an arm around Aether to do so.Aether looks up at Ajax, who is almost leaning over his shoulder. His eyes are, in their own way that makes Aether smile, bright with a special kind of curiosity. There's no need to wonder why. "Sharp eyes, comrade," he replies affectionately, his choice of phrase coincidental. He unearths the envelope from under his earring, the Realm Dispatch, a couple of omamori, and Yoimiya's fireworks note."There it is!" Ajax reacts, happily, to being handed the envelope with the words друг мой on it in his own handwriting. He takes a seat on the bed's edge to refresh his memory of the letter inside, only to encounter the problem that he can't open it with one hand. Not neatly, anyway. "Uh, comrade?" He smiles winningly up at Aether as a request for some assistance. He is handed the hair tie and temporarily trades the envelope back for it.While Ajax secures the braid, Aether opens the letter and looks it over for a moment himself. He reread it enough times that there's no point doing so now; he just skims it to enjoy the fact that the one who wrote it is right behind him. 'There it is'? Were you looking for it?~ He won't say that out loud. Making fun of Ajax for a perfectly understandable curiosity is not his intention, and the first step to honor an intention is to avoid foreseen risks of fouling it up.He's about to pass the letter back when Ajax takes the shortcut of pulling him onto his lap and plopping his chin on his shoulder to read over it. Aether huffs in amusem*nt and holds the letter at a good angle for him. "It's the first time you've seen it since then. It's probably the twentieth time I've seen it."Smiling wistfully to himself, Ajax closes his eyes a moment to dwell on that information and the complicated warmth it wraps around his heart. Though he has forgiven Aether for disbelieving what he said in this letter, knowing the full extent to which Aether was not ignoring it...hurts a bit, even as it flatters him. Because it means he didn't just dismiss his words once and never reconsider, no, he reconsidered many times and always came to the same conclusion. He didn't ignore the letter, he ignored him. Ajax supposes it doesn't change anything, though. Those months were what they were, and now things are completely different. He finds himself hugging Aether, holding him tight around the midsection, and to that he adds a single kiss on the unclothed portion of his shoulder near his neck. Lastly, he quietly fills his lungs with a slow, deep breath of Aether's scent before reopening his eyes.Aether notices the dead silence that follows his comment, as well as the hug and its progressive tightening. He can't guess the reason right away. ...Flattered? Too flattered? Thinking about how long I didn't—...oh. How long I didn't do anything about what I read so many times. How many times I convinced myself not to. He knows why and he said he forgave me, but that doesn't mean it's easy to think about. Ajax kisses his shoulder at that point. Reaching up and back, Aether apologizes with a tender brush of his knuckles along the side of Ajax's chin. He wonders if he should say something, but maybe limiting his acknowledgement to a touch is for the best: he doesn't want Ajax to feel obligated to respond to another explicit apology he hasn't even sought."I'm sorry, Ajax," he ends up murmuring anyway. "I know you forgave me, but the more I gain rearsight— hindsight on it, the more I regret every time I...convinced myself my fears justified not going to you and talking about this. I was selfish, and I hurt you. Even though I hadn't promised yet that I wouldn't do that, I really wish I hadn't kept you waiting so long." Months may not be long in the grand scheme of things, but Aether is keenly aware that it can feel like forever. Every month he didn't know what happened to Lumine was like that.Ajax answers by bending one of his arms upward and sliding that hand into place over Aether's heart. He had begun to loosen his hold, but he renews it in appreciation. In a creeping sense of displaced desperation, too, as he involuntarily imagines if they hadn't been drawn to the same spill of monsters onto Inazuman soil and taken interest in the source. Highly unlikely they wouldn't have, he reminds himself, and it feels like the scintilla of anxiety fades.Aether gently squeezes his arm with his free hand.Ajax almost starts to say something, like 'I know' and some sort of musing that would move them on and lighten the mood again, but other words leap to the tip of his tongue and he shuts his mouth so hastily to halt them that his teeth click together. Marry me, he almost said. Would you marry me? Will you stay with me? Please don't leave. A rush of thoughts that leave him inwardly chagrined and concerned. So... As compelling as all that is, it doesn't... That is, it's...perhaps not...ideal. I really should not be asking him that too soon if that's what's behind it. He doesn't have a big rationale for that opinion, just a sense that if he's going to propose it should be all about wanting a positive and not tainted by fear of a negative.A kiss on Aether's neck to orient himself, then he can try again. "Perhaps it had to be that way. You weren't ready, simple as that. Maybe I wasn't either. For this, for everything we can be? No...that needed to ripen, I'll bet."Aether leans his head against Ajax's. "You're probably right. Regret isn't...the right way to look at it. I'd do differently if I could go back from now, but if I only knew what I knew then, well...the only thing I would be able to do is what I did, I guess. Does that make sense?""It does, to me. Regret is of no use unless it changes your decisions going forward. You can't go back."Blond hair mixes among auburn and vice versa as Aether nods. "In that case, regret has served its purpose already."Ajax turns his head to kiss Aether's cheek, but Aether turns his too. Evidently they're acting on similar impulses, because Ajax gets a kiss on the bridge of his nose. Another one of Aether's amusedly surprised huffs suggests that's not quite where he meant his lips to end up. With a smile and a small chortle under his breath, Ajax sees fit to respond by catching the tip of Aether's nose in a quick kiss. It even makes a little 'chu' sound, unlike all the other kisses they've given each other so far.That gives back to Aether much the same smile and laugh that his accidental nose-kiss gave Ajax. "So, um, do you want to read it aloud?" A shy request. "Not because of your voice. I mean, not for that reason. I'm just...curious.""Why not. Let's see..." Ajax clears his throat, weighing his options in a second and deciding to make it funny at his own expense. In a weary, bored, and mock-depressed tone he begins, "Hey, pal." He heaves a forlorn sigh. "How have you been? You must have traveled far and wide...since we last saw each other...right?" He slumps against Aether's back to emphasize the dejection.It's obvious what Ajax is doing. Aether bites the insides of his lips sternly to keep from smiling, then switches to biting the insides of his cheeks to keep from laughing. Maybe he just doesn't want to be serious anymore right after we talked about it, but I'm glad he can joke about it."These past couple of days, I've used a work opportunity to explore Dragonspine and seek out some local specialties. I hope..."—another sigh, thinner and more wistful than the first—"...they will be of some use to you." He unslumps somewhat to whisper in Aether's ear, "The harsh cold of the snow-capped mountains is reminiscent of the scenery of my hometown...ellipsis..."That's Ajax's poetic intonation exaggerated to a homesick homily that would have been funnier if he hadn't whispered it. When whispered, and with Ajax's breath warming his ear, Aether finds it confoundingly seductive. Then comes the stated ellipsis, which frees a choked yip of a laugh from Aether's suppression.Ajax smirks to himself. He doesn't give Aether time to recover his self-control. "Sigh!" The exclamatory reading is improv, but the word is what he wrote. "I've had. Many. Mundane days that make me nostalgic of..." He sniffles, then pitches his voice up into a slight mournful keen atop an actual sigh. "Our time together..." Another sniffle for punctuation before he pivots back to wistfulness, now deeply contemplative. Aether is shaking in his arms and a number of faint squeaks, the tips of laughing icebergs, are escaping him. "Whether it's a fight or a challenge, I always feel that having you around is what makes life really interesting. I'm more than willing to put my job aside occasionally to experience your travels with you. To be honest, I would even quit my job to join you on your adventures."Finally Aether can't hold back. The emotional impact of that line in the letter ironically jars loose a burst of gasping, wheezing, crying laughter. "Sor—rehehe," he tries to apologize for the timing. "It's n-ahaha, it's not, haa, not what you wro-hote.""Oh, I know," Ajax assures him, grinning victoriously. "I'm the one who set you up for this. I just couldn't resist, and I must say: it's worth it. Look at you: you're falling apart. If you admit defeat, I'll go easy on you now~" He turns Aether sideways on his lap and kisses his cheekbones, dabbing away the tears of mirth with his tonguetip."N-no, fin-ish it, I can— I can get through— to the end." Focusing on the cute little lick-kisses actually helps Aether regain some control.Ajax has to stop in order to reply and continue. "Aha, okay then, but don't say I didn't give you the chance to surrender." He clears his throat once again. "I've been planning a special date to meet up with you. Huh? It doesn't say 'date'?" He pretends to be mystified. "It says 'day'? Strange!" Next he whispers in Aether's ear again, imparting as a fun, conspiratorial aside, "I'm sure I meant 'date,' even though I didn't know it then."Aether keeps his grinning mouth clamped shut, and he has his eyes closed too so he doesn't have to deal with Ajax's face. But...a snicker breaks his front line and then the whole vanguard holding back his laughter routs. It all starts again, now with hiccups. Trying so hard to suppress it only tightened the spring."Ahh," Ajax sighs, looking like the cat that ate the canary. "At last, I win." The incidental implication that this counted as sparring is what gets Ajax laughing, equal parts smug and boyish (a combination which, it turns out, would pass for an evil laugh)."You win," Aether admits as soon as he can get the words out. He shakes his head, his face aching from so much grinning. It isn't used to it, though it has had some training in the past ten days. "I can't...believe...you did that.""And I'm not done yet. Where were we? Ah: I've been planning a special day to meet up with you. Today could be that chance!" Writing this letter and actually having it delivered (through the Adventurers' Guild instead of his own people) had been Ajax's birthday gift to himself. "If you have no special plans, how about you swing by my place?" By which he meant the Northland Bank, in effect. His plan was to be in all day, but just in case, he'd instructed Ekaterina to direct Aether to him if he came looking for him and he wasn't around. "P.S., ask me what the phrase on the envelope means~"Aether blinks his eyes open, glancing at the letter. He knows very well that it has no postscript and doesn't say that anywhere. He always thought it was odd that no translation was provided, and his curiosity eventually pushed him to copy the letters onto scrap paper and show them to Viktor. 'My friend,' Viktor had told him it said."And you still say you're not joining the Fatui?" "No, I'm still not joining the Fatui." "So you say, Traveler, but you seem to have a habit of making Snezhnayan friends." "Yeah, well.""It means 'my friend,' doesn't it?""Ask me," Ajax sportively insists."Okay, what does it mean?"Marry me? "My friend." His smile is that of a self-satisfied rascal.Aether scoffs, lightly thumping the back of his hand against Ajax's chest. He's smiling too, of course. "You... What am I going to do with you. Come on, let's get our clothes on.""Hah! Alright, yes, we've probably fooled around enough for one day." 'Til tonight, anyway! He shoves Aether off his lap, knowing his comrade will catch himself with ease.Aether ends up on his feet as gracefully as if he'd simply stood up. He shucks off his yukata and starts donning his normal outfit. In the process, he sighs in relief not once but twice, and he catches Ajax doing the same as he fastens his grey trousers and adjusts his burgundy shirt."How did Noelle find the time to mend all this?" Ajax wonders, squinting perplexedly as he looks an almost fully dressed Aether up and down."Not this, just your stuff. My clothes mend themselves.""Come again?""It's like alchemy, but from another world. Far away and long ago. This is one of the reasons I prefer these clothes so much, even when they're not ideal in other ways.""I see... I don't suppose they clean themselves?""No, unfortunately." Aether frowns in a general downward direction and folds his arms. "Noelle washed my underwear... How am I ever going to make this up to her... How am I even going to look her in the eyes again? I guess she's washed other people's underwear before, she's basically a professional, maybe that's how I should think of it...""What's this mean?" Having just opened the note that was left with their clothes, Ajax shows it to Aether.It's the word 'Revenge' written in an impeccably tidy cursive hand. Aether blinks several times. "Wow. Yeah, that's Noelle's handwriting. She and I have a friend who uh...uh, it's hard to explain. Her name is Eula and she sort of tries to mask how kind she actually is by saying you've done something she's going to avenge, then doing you a favor and calling it even." He notices that Ajax is now nodding to himself with his eyes shrewdly narrowed at the note, as if he knows something about it that Aether doesn't. "What is it?"Forming a subtle smirk, Ajax rubs his chin. "This is about the dishes," he states in no uncertain terms.A quizzical look lasts less than a second on Aether's face before he recalls the weird standoff Noelle and Ajax had over who was going to wash the dishes yesterday evening. "Ooh..." he voices his foreboding comprehension. He suspects a long-term but good-natured feud has begun between his friend and his partner.Rubbing his unshaven chin reminds Ajax of the next orders of business. He claps his hands together and rhetorically glances at the wardrobe. "You know what we need? Bathrobes. I've foregone one until now because I'd rather just dress quickly and be ready for anything, but this place of yours—ahah, ours," he corrects himself, a giddy smile flashing across his face, "is secure enough to justify putting aside such caution once in a while. We keep finding ourselves in situations where we don't have anything to wear from point A to point B within the house lest we scandalize the guests. Or Paimon.""Yes. She's not generally a fan of the...physical things about humans. Don't touch her, by the way," Aether advises. "She might touch you, rarely, if she feels like it. Heheh, a few days ago she kicked me in the head when I said to her that you probably wouldn't love me back."Ajax raises his eyebrows. (Everything that happens with his eyebrows is more than half hidden by his hair, but, as with Kaeya's winks, Aether is used to extrapolating from what he can see.) "Ohh? Sounds like I have to thank her.""I don't know if I thanked her for that. Let's thank her together with a...special meal? Her favorite foods are fisherman's toast, Sweet Madame, sticky honey roast, and basically anything sweet. In fact, we could start by adding a crust of semi-sugared sweet flowers to the Sweet Madame to make it more special."Ajax nods along, quickly growing keen on the idea. "Mm-hmm! This would be a gift that plays to our strengths, and since we're planning ahead with no time limits, we can go all-out. So fortunate for us that she loves food! I'll make varenye, too. Does she have a favorite fruit?""Sunsettias?""Can do!""Isn't it a whole-fruit jam?""Fruits that size are sliced. Smaller fruits that are still larger than berries are typically halved."Aether nods, already thinking about what other preparations they can start today.A moment passes in which they're both just thinking about that. Abruptly, Ajax remembers they were talking about bathrobes before, and why he brought that up. "Ah, but we can think about this while washing up. Do you...?”"Oh, right. I was thinking we could have another Hydro bath?""That would be the most expedient. Your tub might not be big enough for both of us, not without putting us into a distracting position.""It's barely big enough for you. I'll get a new one when I can.""Why don't we look for one together when we have a chance? I'll pay for it.""Okay. One, that sounds fun, and two, I don't have enough Mora right now to pretend I object.""Ahaha! Please, sladkiy, let me fix that? Let me spoil you at least as much as I've spoiled Zhongli."Aether is made to smile by Ajax's almost puppy-like eagerness. With a token roll of his eyes, he agrees, "Fine. If it makes you happy." Then he steps closer and leans up to give him a kiss on the cheek and a soft "Thank you, sweetheart."Ajax beams, because it does make him happy to turn some of Pants's funds to treating his family and friends.That uncomplicated expression of satisfaction on his beloved's face keeps Aether smiling fondly a moment longer. Without glancing down, he takes the opportunity of their proximity to touch the bare section of the Harbinger's waist, wiggling his fingertips as he brushes them against his skin."Ehehehey!" Ajax flinches, naturally, but he doesn't mind one bit. "That's your thanks?~ Come on now, where are you ticklish? I must know in the interest of fairness, you'll agree?""Oh no, of course not, you have to figure it out yourself, just like I did.""Challenge accepted!" Ajax likes it better that way anyway. He retrieves his gloves from the sofa and pulls each one on with a peppy little flourish. He's pleased to have them back, and he's admiring the tasteful addition that was made to them. "Thank you for this, Aether. Perhaps one day I can receive a thoughtful gift like this without having a miniature crisis of identity about it," he half-jokes sheepishly.Aether looks at him with a small, absolutely adoring smile. His reply is simple, but it possesses a soft gravitas given to it by his faith in Ajax. "Probably." He reaches over to Ajax's forearm, just below his rolled-up sleeve, and briefly strokes his thumb across one of the few meadows of very fine, light-colored hairs that haven't been scarred off.Aether then turns away to revisit the nightstand, where he tucks the letter safely under everything again and gets out his earring. "I'm curious what color this is going to turn when you wear it." As soon as Aether picks it up, the bead goes from dim greyish to glowing purple.Ajax takes off his. "I've wondered: you can use multiple elements at one time, so why does it only show one color? And what happens if we both hold it?""I'm technically...resonating with one element at a time. The others are still there, but they're harder to use. Like those attacks you don't usually use when you're not transformed, maybe? Hm. Could you have used those the whole time we were sparring that day?""No, I'd have been spent much sooner if I tried to do that.""So elements I'm not currently resonating with are not that much harder to use. Anyway, the bigger reason is that wielding the elements without a Vision is one thing, having access to more than one element is another, and being able to use more than one element at a time is another thing. The first two facts are, uh, low-hanging intel fruit."Ajax nods."The third one, I want to keep less known for as long as possible. So that I can still surprise opponents the way I surprised you in our battle."Ajax nods again with approval and a nostalgic smile. "Smart of you. I won't go telling anyone. Your next opponents can find out the same way I did." His smile gives way to a cold expression of bloodthirsty hope as he imagines getting to see that. He shakes that distraction off, then, and offers Aether his comparatively simple earring while holding out a forefinger and thumb to grasp the bead of Aether's.Based on the question about what would happen if they both held the element-responsive earring, Aether guesses what Ajax wants to try. He keeps hold of the bead between his own thumb and forefinger vertically, and Ajax takes hold of it horizontally. That's a much easier way for each of them to hold about half of the cranberry-sized sphere than crowding their fingertips against each other straight-on.It flickers gently between blue and purple. They watch for a moment to see if anything else happens, but that's all."Asked and answered." Aether shrugs his eyebrows, underwhelmed."My siblings would love to see this 'trick,'" Ajax notes. Aether lets go and the bead turns pure blue. The two of them put on their borrowed earrings and then stare at each other, both pairs of eyes slowly narrowing in thought.Arms fold. Chins are placed in hands."It looks weird, doesn't it," Aether finally says."It does, unfortunately, it really does. On both of us, I'm sure.""Yeah. We're both just too good at matching jewelry to outfits." This truth that happens to be funny is stated flatly by Aether.Ajax tsks in agreement, shaking his head a little as if lamenting. The sway of Aether's earring feels different, he notices, but that won't be difficult to get used to."Want to just teleport to the fourth island and wash there?" Aether asks."First I'll need to fetch my Vision from downstairs." Ajax goes to the door and places his hand on the knob. He shouldn't have left his Vision and Delusion in another room on another floor, but he pardons himself just this once. Until he's adapted to having so much of his attention preoccupied with Aether, he'll have to be very mindful to avoid doing that sort of thing again. "Ready then?"Aether collects the parts of his outfit that he didn't bother to put on yet, then casts a glance around the room. "I think so..." He sidesteps back to the nightstand once more and grabs his Realm Dispatch. "Just in case. Okay. If anyone asks what's taken us so long, say whatever you want. I'm not planning to answer any questions about it, myself.""That's some wide latitude you're giving me there. What if I say something embarrassing?" Ajax leans on the doorknob for a moment."Well, whose fault would that be? Mine, I'd say, because I'm choosing not to take that latitude back." A tiny smile or smirk turns one corner of Aether's mouth. "I would just be curious what you'd say.""Oh I don't plan on saying anything either. A unified front of mystery is more amusing.""Heh. I think so too." Aether gestures at the door. Ajax opens it, and out they go to face the world.

Notes:

Pants (derogatory)

at some point Aether is going to understand that he and Zhongli are just a pot and a kettle with regard to how they've treated Childe in the past
(low-key Zhongchi? maaaaybe... eventual threesome? maaaaybe... I haven't decided yet. in any case, Chilaether will always be the primary ship in this fic by far, the "OTP" if you will, and there will be no jealousy or cheating)

also, I promise Noelle is going to get more chances to shine as more than a plot device

my version of Aether has been a lot nicer to Viktor than the game allows for, because every time we get to have a conversation with Fatui NPCs, most of the dialogue options make me internally yell "WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?"

~The Letter~ was adapted from the first of Childe's in-game birthday letters, obviously

the names of his parents and older three siblings are headcanons I made up when they became needed, and almost all the details about them will have to be headcanons too (whyyyy is Snezhnaya going to be the last region of Teyvat released T_T)

Chapter 15: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 3)

Notes:

I meant for this to be a shorter chapter that I could post sooner, but then I added one simple question to a conversation and ended up rewriting half the chapter, and it's not short anymore ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

going to try to write shorter chapters from now on anyway, because there was one that was 50 pages and that just feels like discriminating against my fellow ADHD-havers x)

anyway this chapter has another sex scene that has a bunch of roots and branches in other scenes and can't be re-potted into a separate post, and it's just...kind of atypical overall, so I'm simply going to include some "tags" here as content advisories:

Consensual Kink, Dom/sub, Shower Sex, Intercrural Sex, No org*sm

edit: fixed incorrect implication that all Fatui use Delusions

Chapter Text

"Are the others still training?" Ajax wonders as he and Aether walk through a seemingly empty house.

"Maybe?" Aether is doubtful until he takes into consideration that Chongyun is involved. He swings back to doubtful when he considers Xingqiu. It's lunch time for people who are going about their day on a 'normal' schedule, and Xingqiu, wisely enough, wouldn't have let Chongyun skip lunch.

No answer presents itself before Aether and Ajax reach the guest room. As soon as the door is opened, they're greeted by an exclamatory meow that turns into 'eow-row-row-row' in time with Zhongli's footsteps as it jumps down from the bed and bounds over to Ajax.

"Heeey there!" Ajax greets the cat in turn, bending over to show it his hand, then testing whether it's amenable to being picked up out of its habitual weaving around his legs. It is, this time. As he shifts it to the crook of one arm, he trusts the expensive and durable fabric of his shirt to be sufficient that mere cat claws won't give it new holes right after Noelle mended it. That she was able to match the material, at least as far as appearance and texture go, is why he was so shocked by her perfect and fast handiwork.

(He might be underestimating cat claws.)

Aether and Ajax both pause to impassively regard the murder scene on the bed. A virtual pool of red tatters adorns the middle.

"So that's where your sash went," Aether states the obvious, blinking.

"That's...a remarkably thorough destruction. Where's the top of it and the...?" Ajax twice glances from the bed to the feline culprit and back.

"Guess we'll find out sooner or later." Aether offers his hand up to the cat, which has no shame and probably no concept whatsoever of its own criminality. It appears to sniff his still-ungloved fingers, then it goes back to surveying the room from Ajax's shoulder height.

Zhongli's vantage point changes as Ajax goes to the bedside table. Its head swivels to track some point of interest as fluidly as a bird's. Ajax starts to lean down, realizes that's awkward with the cat, and instead has a seat on the bed while he gets his belongings out of the drawer.

Vision, Delusion, rings, Mora, and some pocket miscellany. He's used to swapping his Vision and Delusion one-handed when necessary, so he has no trouble clipping the former onto his belt. The latter, he has to settle for stowing in a trouser pocket in the absence of his jacket. He drops a fat wallet of Mora onto his foot and kicks it up toward Aether, who catches it just as Ajax expected him to. "Hold onto that for me for a minute. I'd say keep it, but—"

"—You'll need it today," Aether finishes.

Ajax doesn't bother to nod. He tries to adjust how Zhongli is sitting on his forearm so he can put his rings on, but the cat decides this attempt constitutes an offense and it jumps over his shoulder to sit at the center of his sash's remains. He glances back at it, shrugs inwardly, and goes on about his business.

Aether takes a quick step forward. "Wait, can I try? I want to know if I can remember which ring goes on which finger."

"Sure." Ajax offers him all three. Now he kind of wants to know, too. He won't be disappointed if Aether gets it wrong, but why not see? After the rings are taken, Ajax plants his hands on his knees and briefly wiggles his fingers.

Having placed the items constituting the other half of his outfit on the floor, as well as the wallet, Aether gets down on one knee for convenience. Two of the rings he now holds in his palm are identical, which feels to him like a trick question in object form as he looks between them and Ajax's hands. "At least one of these goes on a pinkie finger... Why's it called that, anyway?" With human fingers, either they're all pink like yours or none of them are pink.

"Mnn..." Ajax tries to remember if he's ever heard or read anything about the etymology of the last finger being called a pinkie in Teyvat common. "I've no idea." He watches as Aether decisively slides one of the two identical rings onto each of his pinkie fingers.

"Both. That's my best guess."

His gloved hands being held and manipulated by Aether reminds Ajax of when he tapped his palm with the Teapot sigil. It had been such a short, brusque touch, and not even directly on his skin, but it had been...human contact. Peaceable and inherently pleasant to his nerves, initially nothing like a grapple or shove in combat (which is fun, but not the same). That his hand was then hastily pushed away was very much in line with his expectations. He missed the touch in ways he couldn't then understand, but he hadn't gotten any hopes up to be dashed.

That past, not long ago at all, is such a contrast to the present. Aether isn't particularly tender as he puts the pinkie rings in place, but he doesn't hesitate, hurry, or flinch. And then there's the future this reminds him of... The possible future. It's been fifteen or twenty minutes since he last thought about that, Ajax estimates. Never mind that; why not ask him why he was so hurried back then? Seems a harmless enough question at this point. "Say, when you took my hand to give me access to this realm, why were you so, er, curt about it?"

"Curt?"

"Hasty? Short, brusque, abrupt?"

"Ah, thank you." Aether sits back on his heels, putting a pause to his ring-pondering in order to explain that moment from a bird's-eye view he hasn't previously thought about it from. "I was acting that way because touching your hand, even with both of us wearing gloves, was...too pleasant. I was still...conflicted over how I feel about you, and, I was uh...wary of...pushing you in any way. You agree to things so fast sometimes, I was kinda worried that if I let any hints out about what I wanted, you'd just go with it and not think about what you really wanted."

Ajax gives him a very flat look and then dramatically throws his hands up. "I—." He huffs. "You—. What—." He then wheezes a short laugh. "Archon, you and I were both idiots, weren't we." He double-facepalms, laughing again, before dropping his hands back onto his knees. Shaking his head in awe at his and Aether's recent past selves, he smiles. "We would truly be lost without Paimon."

Aether chuckles quietly. "Yeah. Yeah..." He shakes his head with the same awe, smiling the same bemused and amused smile. "The bad news is," he jokes, "we're probably still idiots."

"Truuue," Ajax sighs lightheartedly. "At least insofar as we are intelligent, capable people who evidently have some of that slip through our fingers every time we're around each other. I'm thinking back to the day we sparred?"

"Oh yeah. Didn't have one whole brain between us that day."

"Comrade, how are we going to be undefeatable together if that's how it is?~"

"Uhhm..." Aether rubs his chin, squinting at the side of the mattress in thought. "Well, by the numbers, most of our opponents are stupider than us. But, I'm a magnet for opponents who are smarter than me on my best days, and you're looking for fights with people like that. So..."

"Hmm..."

"...Obviously we should think about this when we're not around each other," Aether deadpans.

Ajax grins, shakes his head slightly, and glances down at the space between them for a second. Upon flicking his gaze back to Aether's eyes, he says, "I have confidence in us when it comes to important things."

Aether nods. "I do, too. Anything that turns out to need improvement, we can improve on."

"Yes! We have the will to do so, and we both know how to hone our will into praxis, and our praxis into excellence. No one in this world can match our determination individually, and certainly not combined."

"I wouldn't bet on that, but in any case, you're pulling way more than half the weight in that combination." Aether smiles fondly up at him.

"Don't sell yourself short, now! You have accomplished so much in such a short time, and you're set to do so much more. You will shake the foundations of this world, and I revel in having the chance to see it firsthand."

Ajax is getting rather high-strung in his enthusiasm, his body tensed like a spring and his eyes appearing somehow too sharp. "Okay," Aether says in a warm tone of amusem*nt, "take it down a notch, kitten. You're making me want to fight the Maguu Kenki with you or something, and we don't have time today." More than that, he suspects Ajax is making himself restless, and there's just no outlet for that in sight. Not of the types classically preferred by the Harbinger, anyway.

Ajax opens a pouting mouth to object. Aether quickly adds the important afterthought, "Besides, we're still recovering, even if we feel fine."

"Still," Ajax grumbles, "if we run into any problems in Kannazuka," and then he brightens, "we'll have to fight."

"Maybe, if we take it easy? There shouldn't be anything along the way that could give us real trouble." They could actively avoid confrontations, but Aether isn't all that interested in doing that. He really does look forward to the next time the two of them get to face off against someone or something.

"I could find some foes to giftwrap for you...and we could open them together when you get there..." Ajax considers wishfully, drumming his fingers on his knees.

Aether squints. He's curious what Ajax means by that and...not concerned enough. You know, this is what I was worried about. It's too easy for me to not care about people I haven't met. His self-centeredness is just one step past what an immortal always has to contend with. On the plus side, maybe that means it wouldn't get any worse if he became immortal. When he becomes immortal.

"Ahaha, oh, don't worry sladkiy, I'm only talking about a little 'catch and release,' assuming I find human foes," Ajax elaborates when Aether just stares at him like that. "And! Only if they're foolhardy enough to attack first. I would just lure them someplace convenient, near our meeting point, and 'gently' keep them busy until you can join me. Then, when we've all had enough, we part ways with them. Not too much harm done~"

Aether shuffles forward a few inches on his knees, moving in between Ajax's, and cranes his body up. He settles a hand firmly on one of the seated man's thighs—storing the third ring on one of his own fingers for the moment—and raises his other hand to his stubbly chin, delicately taking it between thumb and forefinger. He cants his own head as he regards Ajax with a narrow-eyed look of aloof contemplation. He's playing that up for him. "My poor kitten," he murmurs, "you need your exercise. They really waste you at that bank, don't they. You want to get out there and bring me a mouse, hm?"

"Please let me," Ajax breathes. All the bloodthirsty threads his mind was spooling out, all at once they bind together into a single rope that lashes his full attention to his loving comrade whose words imply understanding, whose touch assures him he is cared about, whose gaze pins him as surely and pleasurably as the other warrior's hands or thighs can.

"If I say no, will you be good and obedient, and patiently wait for me to make you so desperate to cum you forget everything else?"

Ajax bites his lip as potent mixed feelings rise in him. He wants to fight, he wants to submit, he wants to 'be good,' he wants to spill blood, he needs to feel his own blood pumping through his heart—

His heart is pumping. He can feel it. He can feel his pulse in his rapidly stiffening chlen, too; his trousers are much too confining when he's sitting down. He's breathing like he's been out on a short run.

He wants Aether to touch him more, hold him so tight not even a thought can escape, moor him, anchor him. He needs to feel alive, and it doesn't matter how, as long as Aether is there with him.

"I'll behave," he says in a choked voice, his breath catching. He's almost dizzy from how fast his mood accelerated and then changed direction, not to mention from the southward rush of blood within his body.

Aether caresses Ajax's face even more tenderly; feather-light fingers skim over his cheek to trace freckles below his eyes that are just visible. "Good boy," he whispers, cupping the back of his head and pulling it down forward so that he can, with soft reverence, kiss the bridge of his nose. "No diversions tonight. I'll take care of you."

Ajax shivers. He lets his eyes close. "Alright," he whispers back.

"It would be fine if you said no, and it'll be fine if you change your mind." His hand is still on the back of Ajax's head, rubbing into his hair, and he's now leaning their foreheads together. "But, I'm grateful you're willing to put off the chance for a fight so we can focus on our original plan for tonight. I'm going to make you feel so good, I promise. I love you so much, Ajax. How do you feel right now?"

All of that leaves Ajax reeling, and 'pleasantly' would be an understatement. A very small and faint moan creaks in his throat. He swallows and takes a deep breath before answering, "Ya tozhe tebya lyublyu... Need a moment..."

Aether has been completely improvising. It had been a while since he'd seen Ajax edging into what he guesses is some form of mania, in that it's an opposite counterpart to his sudden swings into depression. (He lacks the knowledge to make any distinctions between these minutes- or hours-long swings and the much longer cycles that would be more common.) It hadn't gone far, and might not have. In fact, the only reason he felt any need to try to redirect that energy in a less violent-minded direction was because he didn't like where his own mind was headed. It's not an inherently violent energy, he suspects: that's just the only way Ajax knows how to expend it.

Having exerted dominance for a new purpose, Aether is following that up with some soft, sweet doting. He wants to make sure Ajax still feels loved and accepted after his idea was rejected, and that the attitude Aether adopted wasn't too much. He goes from rubbing deep in his hair with one hand to light, synchronous petting with both hands—mostly his thumbs stroking backward from behind his ears, his fingertips just superficially grazing other regions.

Ajax's breathing slows and his posture relaxes as he starts to calm down. Though he's placated and very soothed, he doesn't like that his heartbeat is also starting to slow. He slips his arms around Aether and fidgets with the back of his croptop. "I'm looking forward to tonight more than ever," he answers the question of how he's feeling. "I...think I have whiplash from the pirouette the mood made there. Heh. I already miss how you made my heart race."

"I'll always make it race again, in fair time," Aether promises him in a low murmur.

That is nice to hear. "...In due time," he corrects when he gets around to registering the actual words and not only their gift of meaning.

"Thank you." In stages, Aether brings the hair-petting to an end. "...We can go wash up now? That'll be fun. Especially if you don't miss any spots this time." Aether pulls back to smile playfully at him.

Ajax blinks his eyes open. "What do you— ohh." A similar expression brightens his face as it clicks in his mind what Aether is referring to.

"Thanks for being so considerate last time, though."

"Of course! It was the least I could do." To avoid turning a merely awkward bathing situation into any kind of trespass on his comrade's boundaries. "Ah, ha, well, it was also the most I could do under the circ*mstances, I suppose."

"You did well," Aether tells him with the gentle gravity of praise. He brushes some of Ajax's hair aside to kiss his forehead.

"Mmm... You have one more ring to guess at, I believe."

Oh, right. Almost forgot about that. Aether kneels again, dropping the loose-fitting ring off his finger onto his palm, and quickly reassembles his thoughts about where it goes. He takes Ajax's right hand and starts to slide the ring onto his forefinger, but he stops midway, eyeing each of the hands in front of him for an extra second before putting it on the left forefinger instead.

"Well well, you got them all correct. I'm impressed. Not that I'd have blamed you if you got any of them wrong; I don't always wear all of them."

"Now I know why I was so unsure. Do they have any meanings? Are those two about promises?"

"That's what I had in mind when I bought them." Ajax extends his pinkie fingers outward, appearing to ponder the relatively plain steel bands, but right now their complicated significance is like water on a duck's back. He doesn't continue.

Aether leaves it at that, moving on to simpler questions as he stands up and gives Ajax a light hug, crossing his arms behind burgundy-shirted shoulders. The metal tab on one corner of the collar is cold against his right arm. "What are they made of, anyway? They match the metals on your jacket." Not the ones on his shirt, though.

It's natural at their relative positions for Ajax to wrap his arms low around Aether. "That would be because they are made of the same alloy. Some type of steel that's more resistant to corrosion." He tucks his head under Aether's chin with a smile that, unseen, turns mischievous as he lowers the circle of his arms a little further and tugs Aether's thighs between his. The warm press against his lingering erection draws a sharp breath across the bottom of Aether's throat and into Ajax's nose.

"Ahahey, you...mmh..." Aether bites his lip and lets himself grind against Ajax just a little. Just...a little... Just a little more... His hand hovers by Ajax's head, halted from sinking into his hair again. Gotta stop getting delayed... "Mmmh. This is good...but...too soon. We gotta stop." A weak protest, nothing like a command. As half-hearted as it sounds.

Ajax nudges the neckline of Aether's shirt down with his chin and murmurs right up against his collarbone, "I'm not hearing a certain two words...?"

"Ahhh damn it..." Aether clenches his hand closed, torn between the heaven of spending more time with his beloved Ajax and the purgatory of his responsibilities.

"Mmnot those two~"

"Can we at least take this to the fourth island and...?"

"Hm? You're asking me?"

Good point. That inspires Aether. He leans to one side and, catching Ajax's chin between his thumb and two fingers, he lifts Ajax's head in the other direction and holds it steady. He glimpses him looking at him with eager interest before he swoops in to lick along the edge of his ear, heedless of hair that gets in the way. The tonguetip lick is followed up by a nip at the top, then another nip that's slightly harder.

"Ah!" Ajax reacts quietly. It isn't painful, it's more of a neutral sensation, but the suddenness of Aether's action to retake control excites him. He feels Aether's hand between them, then, and the shorter man steps back just an inch, and suddenly he's being groped through the barrier of his trousers. The sturdy fabric increases the pressure of the gentle squeezes and intent rubs Aether barrages him with. "Ah, h'ah!" A louder reaction. "Ahh..."

Taking his hand off Ajax's chin to give him a mere hint of a stroke at his hair, Aether uses a tone of gentle authority to inform him, "I'm going to punish you for getting us off track." He pulls back to look Ajax in the eyes, checking for any sign that he's going too far. What he sees is that Ajax is hanging on his every word, with the beginnings of the exact frown that develops on his face when he's in the midst of intense pleasure. More aroused than before. Good signs. No bad signs, anyway. Aether is going to make sure, but first he stops groping Ajax's tightly-trapped hardness, because he has to stop to let Ajax stand up. He finds one of Ajax's gloved hands (which fails to remind him that his own gloves and all the other extra parts of his outfit are still sitting on the floor) and lifts it, inviting him to do so.

Punish? Huh... Ajax is fascinated by the idea and wants to find out what's meant by it. He's quite certain he wants to find out not by asking but by experiencing. His trust in Aether doesn't preclude questions and objections, but right now he is effervescing with wants and needs that Aether offers direction and outlet for, and he hasn't forgotten that he can stop this at an instant's notice.

Aether lets his demeanor soften as he smiles up at Ajax. He changes his hold on his hand, covering the back of it and lining his fingers up along Ajax's. "What was it, one or two for 'all good' and three or four for 'slow down'?"

Slowly smiling back, Ajax extends one finger against Aether's. He leans in and down to state in a light, low voice, "I'm quite ready for whatever you've got in mind. Don't tell me what it is; surprise me~"

"You wish for a surprise, I grant you a surprise." Aether's smile widens and he teleports away.

When Aether disappears, Ajax spots the other half of the traveler's outfit on the floor. He forgot these. Grabbing them up, Ajax has an impish impulse to tease Aether about it. It's not, perhaps, exactly in keeping with the mood, but... Aha, never mind, I have a better idea.

Ajax arrives with the armful of clothing and, to his satisfaction, Aether raises his eyebrows in a definite look of 'oh I forgot those?'

Aether doesn't even try to hide it. "Oh. Thank you." Immediately upon his own arrival he had made a few meters of space for Ajax's. Hands on his hips, he lets Ajax come to him.

And he does. Even at a coy stroll, Ajax crosses that distance in just a couple of long, slow strides. He tries for an innocent smile but doesn't try hard enough: above the innocent curve of his mouth, his eyes are narrowed smugly. "What do I get for being so helpful?" he asks as he hands over the stack of gear. He left the Mora in the guest room—there's no need to bring it here.

With amusem*nt, Aether cranes up and gives Ajax a sweet kiss that he isn't quick to end. Right away he can relax back down onto his heels, thanks to Ajax leaning his head down in happy cooperation.

Excited though he is, Ajax is heartwarmed by the sweet simplicity of this reward; he does nothing to change or hurry it. He rests his hands passively on Aether's waist.

After about half a minute, Aether bids farewell-for-now to Ajax's lips with a parting skim of his tongue along the bottom one. "How's that?" he murmurs while their faces are still close.

"Rewarding," Ajax answers, letting his eyes shut over a bright smile.

Aether sneaks an extra little kiss on his chin while his eyes are closed, incidentally prompting him to open them and making both of them chuckle under their breath. "Okay," Aether begins. "C'mon. We'll go to the other side of the island. Even more private." He leads the way, more or less, Ajax walking alongside him rather than behind him. Aether likes it that way, he notices within himself and doesn't mention.

The dirt circle where they sparred is still present (and littered with arrows), but it doesn't strike Aether as a great place to bathe. Grass was alright for Hydro-bathing on last time, so neither he nor Ajax try to fix what isn't broken.

That dirt is once more hard-packed in places, and the perimeter has risen into a meter-high ridge. Ajax starts to ask about it at the same time as Aether starts to volunteer an explanation, which causes another shared chuckle. The explanation, of course, is that Aether asked Tubby to keep working on the circle until it's a simple stone arena.

They enjoy stretching their legs as they walk to one of the places along the island's edge where craggy boulders and amber-veined trees preside. Ajax is kept hard by anticipation and the friction of his trousers. More hard than not, anyway.

Inefficient though it was, dressing just to get from their bedroom to the guest room was unavoidable. It's when they stop at a smaller boulder by the foot of a tree—a good place to lay their clothes—that Aether turns to Ajax and instructs, "Clothes off, then get your Vision ready. The water." He shucks off his own clothes quick.

Ajax does the same. Unfastening his trousers is a sigh-worthy relief. He notices Aether watching him and lightly bites the pleased smile that overtakes his face, casting a glance down to consider what Aether is admiring. He still can't see his body as anything but a weapon. That's how Aether sees it too, in part, and Ajax appreciates that a lot, but the other man's golden eyes seem to find so much more than that to study and enjoy. ...Ajax appreciates that, too.

Rousing himself from that moment of reflection (of looking at a reflection of himself that he can only find in the mirror of his comrade's regard), he plucks his Vision off his belt. Holding it in one hand as he did last time, he summons a stream of Hydro and begins lengthening, flattening, and coiling it, semi-consciously moving his free hand in vague gestures. That is a habit shared by most wielders of Visions and Delusions when it comes to uses of their power that they haven't practiced as extensively, or committed as deeply to the instinctual level, as their most common and critical uses. There is a kinetic aspect to focusing the elements, a connection between movement of the body and movement of the world's energies. It's for that reason that element wielders develop much more specific gestures and motions in the course of mastering their gods-given abilities. Delusions, also a god's gift in a sense, have been so thoroughly researched by the Fatui that every soldier who is given one is taught the same moves that have been proven to be most efficient.

Aether joins him, in that he comes to stand in front of him with scant inches separating them. He does his best to ignore how dry the air becomes on his eyes when the Vision pulls moisture out of it. Ajax is used to it, of course, and doesn't even notice anymore. How that moisture becomes enough water to form any of the shapes Ajax makes it into, Aether can only guess. Probably related to the fact that Hydro is not persistent water. As far as he understands, mainly from asking Mona, one can't drink Hydro because it would vanish from one's stomach as soon as the wielder stopped maintaining it. If they managed to keep it around long enough for it to be absorbed into one's tissues, it would vanish from there, too. It must be the case that most of it is summoned from some sort of elsewhere in the same way that a weapon is summoned.

Ajax had pretty much assumed, without giving it any conscious thought, that they'd be sharing the water this time instead of going one after the other. Aether's approach confirms that. He winds the stream around both of them. For now, he keeps it away from their heads, deferring hair-washing to the end of their shower.

Fully washing himself in Hydro is not something he typically does. He takes normal baths, and rarely does he have his Vision in hand during one. However, there have been times when he has been locked in prolonged combat situations, getting bloodier and filthier until he has a chance to do something about it. Times when he has simply been trapped someplace for an extended period, such as a ruin where the entrance collapsed due—ironically—to a Ruin Guard's unthinking actions. More often, he just uses a bit of Hydro to rinse blood out of his clothes and off his skin when there's an excessive amount of it.

Once the water is wrapped around and between them in roving runnels, Ajax adds the finishing touch: a gentler stream that swoops between their legs. He draws a sharp breath as the sensation coincides with Aether's reaction. He's never before been aroused while doing this.

Aether gasps, his eyelids fluttering shut for a moment. The water is cool almost to the point of being chilly, but more stimulating than that is the knowledge that Ajax's will is behind it. It's thrilling, too, to receive such a delicate sensation from the same power and expertise that makes his beloved so dangerous in combat. He gravitates closer to Ajax, reflexively seeking the warmth of his body. As close as they already are, that means pressing himself against Ajax from legs to chest.

They both experience a wave of arousal at Ajax's jutting chlen being enclosed upward between their midsections. Aether, however, decides he'd rather have it between his thighs. Temporarily making room to reach down, he uses his hand to tuck it in right under his vulva. If it weren't for the flowing water, it would be quite evident that he has been as aroused as Ajax all along.

Ajax's hand squeezes his Vision so hard that the metal setting pains his fingers. The heat of Aether's inner thighs and shchelka is elevated to bliss by the contrast with the water, which only seems cold to him now that that contrast is present. At the same time he's watching his Hydro course around Aether's body, and it's a sight that makes him feel proud and possessive. He felt nothing of that the other day, so deep was he trying to bury his feelings at the time. Now he has every permission from Aether and himself to look and savor.

Aether seizes upon the notion of rubbing his thighs together around Ajax's length, and he starts doing just that. The feel of it proves even more tantalizing in reality than in expectation. He's enamored with the whole concept of Ajax's arousal having this solid form that's so easy to play with in so many ways. It almost makes him wish he had the same, but the equipment he's currently stuck with has its own upsides. Free lube was always a major point in its favor, for one. They ought to make use of that right now, Aether decides. The water alone does little to help skin slide easily against skin.

He peers up at Ajax, who has his head low, his eyes closed, brow upturned behind his forelocks, and his lips parted around alternately heavy and bated breath.

"Could you..." Aether begins, too unsure of how to word this to make it commanding. Ajax's eyes open halfway in that they almost close again with each slow shift of Aether's thighs, which he is not pausing. "Uh, 'move' the water? Away from my shchelka. Feels good, but I think we'll both like it if I can just be wet the other way."

That opens Ajax's eyes fully. He hadn't thought of that, and he agrees. Glancing down even though he can't actually see between their pressed bodies, he promptly puts forth the focus to change his Hydro's path. As an afterthought, he unravels it completely, summons fresh water, and quickly recreates the whole altered path from memory.

"Oh, good. Good thinking. Thank you, sweetheart." Aether rewards him with another kiss; he smiles when he feels the Hydro falter.

It wasn't quite stable enough again that a lapse in Ajax's attention, which was already challenged, couldn't affect it. It's not like his weapons, which are so practiced and familiar that he can maintain them no matter what happens to his body (almost). His general proficiency with his Vision, however, ensures this is an issue for no longer than a second. That proficiency, born of extremely thorough experimentation and his discontentment with anything less than total mastery of its potential, is the same factor that allows him to do a wider variety of things with it in combat than the average Vision user. (Or at least, he's inclined to attribute it to his own proficiency...)

Now that the water isn't flowing between his legs, Aether narrows his stance to close his thighs tight around Ajax's length. Not too tight: he's very mindful not to overapply those dangerously strong muscles.

A low whisper of a moan from Ajax. He's making the smallest of thrusts into Aether's steady motions. Knowing there's going to be a punishment of some kind somewhere in this, he holds back, self-disciplining intuitively, much as he did when he kept his hands to himself until given permission to touch Aether yesterday.

It's not difficult for either of them to believe they had sex for the first time yesterday. Not at all. Their enthusiasm to explore this whole new option in their equally new relationship is a powerful drive. It's overwhelming, as evidenced by their repeating failure to resist it. The feeling that they're making up for lost time is also powerful. (Both of them harbor a deep-seated sense that all good things can come to a sudden and devastating end.)

"Tell me if you get close," Aether instructs him. He'll have to keep the stimulation steady and not flood Ajax with too much intensity and variety if he wants a reliable warning. No problem. This is the punishment he had in mind, or it will be. A preview of what he hopes to do to Ajax tonight, though he intends that to have a very happy ending that this won't.

"Mm-hm." Wherever this is going, Ajax is luxuriating in the keen awareness of his body, and Aether's, that centers on sexual organs and sexual instincts and radiates out. It's like a mist that spreads along his nerves until it saturates his mind and obscures everything but the present moment. He gives himself over to it, he leaves the decisions to Aether, and he is, in some small way, free—for a little while. It's still a new experience, exceeding his expectations every time and teaching him to anticipate the next.

Aether relaxes for now as well, letting his rhythm sustain itself, only needing to mind that he doesn't speed up and doesn't squeeze. He begins distributing slow scrubbing over Ajax's body with his hands...which is really just rubbing with a pretense of purpose. Ajax gets into doing the same for him.

That stretches into several serene minutes. The force of the water and the durability required of its form is so low that it takes hardly any elemental energy throughput to maintain beyond the initial summoning. The pretense of helping each other wash doesn't last long as their hands slow down to properly feel every inch of one another that they can reach.

They hadn't really done this yet. Piecemeal, in the process of other desires, yes, but there are places on Ajax's body that Aether had not touched yet, places on Aether's body that Ajax had not learned yet. Mundane plains of skin landmarked by insignificant scars. Previously-unvisited pathways that lead to nothing but the satisfaction of having followed them. Flesh that yields and feels, bones that scaffold their existences.

(Even Aether's existence is one delineated by flesh and bone and the false stars of this world, ever since his and Lumine's thwarted departure.)

The pleasure of their intercrural sex levels off, and as a result the act itself mellows until Aether is moving at the hips no more than Ajax is. From then on, they don't mind the sexual charge fading from what becomes merely a kind of embrace within an embrace. In the end, one man's thighs are simply keeping the other's former erection warm.

There is still plenty left untouched, below easy reach, by the time Ajax mumbles "Hair?" and Aether makes an affirmative noise.

They pull apart from each other slowly as if rising from bed. It does feel like their day has had a new start: they feel refreshed by their time spent in the cool running water and sated by the sex that turned out far more calming and languid than intended.

After cleaning off the free lube, Ajax again dumps out the bath water by unwinding it from around them, sending it a few meters away, and releasing it all at once into vapor and void. Again he summons fresh water, but it's a small amount, and instead of directing it into a semi-independent shape he gathers it around his hands.

Stepping behind Aether, he undoes his braid and combs the water through his loosed hair.

Aether sighs in appreciation. "Thanks, comrade," he says, without turning his head, lest he interfere with the favor Ajax is doing him.

Ajax smiles to himself and replies by pecking a kiss on the top of Aether's head, which earns a quiet chortle from the short blond.

When Ajax finishes rinsing his hair with excessive care and has dismissed the water, he remakes the braid in a matter of seconds. Aether is inspired to ask, "Did you learn to braid hair for yourself, your siblings, or...?"

The thought of himself with any kind of braid or braids would give Ajax a bit of a chuckle, but the answer to Aether's question is what makes him laugh softly. "My siblings, yes, you could say that. My older sister trained me to do her braid for her, every day, as soon as I reached an age where my hands had the dexterity to manage it. Now I do it for Tonia when I'm...home. With my—..." This is home. Aether is family, or near enough, and that has nothing to do with what I'm definitely not thinking about. The house of my parents, where Tonia and Teucer and Anthon live, is home too. There's no problem with these facts, no conflict, but how should I...distinguish between them when talking about them?

It seems to Aether that Ajax is just mildly puzzled and not troubled. It even strikes the 'cute' note. "Your...?"

"The rest of my family," Ajax settles on with a warm and sure smile, though he closes his eyes as a concession to the little bit of sheepishness that comes over him when he says that.

That warms Aether's heart and his face.

Summoning one last stream of Hydro, Ajax gets an idea so fast he doesn't hesitate before shaping a miniature Celestial Voyager and dropping it on his head, letting it splash and disintegrate into freely dripping water. Aether laughs, just as he hoped. He opens one eye, which is half hidden behind drenched-limp forelocks, and grins at Aether.

"Ajax," Aether exclaims amid his delighted laughter, "That was great. Drop one on my head next time."

"As you wish, lyubimy. It might be full-size, though~" With a sweep of his hand unintentionally resembling a hair-flip, Ajax draws the water up off himself and flicks it into oblivion. A certain amount of panache is intentional in these gestures, as he's quite satisfied with himself for getting that reaction out of Aether.

That gets an extra chuckle and a smiling shake of Aether's head. He starts putting his clothes on. "Actually," he brings up, suddenly curious, "why did you shoot me out from under your whale that one time while we were sparring? I'm pretty sure that I was pretty sure at the time that I wasn't going to make it out of the, uh, splash zone."

"I... Hm." Ajax remembers doing that, now that Aether mentions it, but he doesn't remember why. He could've won right then and there. That's a surprising realization. They were evenly matched right up until the end when Aether subdued him in a headlock, or so he thought. On the day-of, he felt the outcome had some ambiguity to it, but later he decided Aether was the clear winner. That self-sabotaged Celestial Voyager hadn't factored into his thinking at all. "To be honest...I don't know." And it doesn't bother him nearly as much as it should. He doesn't feel as if he failed to do what was correct in the moment. He succeeded in doing something very odd, but somehow not incorrect.

"Huh..." That confuses Aether even more than it does Ajax. He has no insight whatsoever into the thoughts behind the Harbinger's answer.

"Speaking of missed opportunities, weren't you going to punish me? Where's my punishment?"

"Uhh..." A sheepish grimace, then an even more sheepish smile. "I, um...forgot." Aether twists one of his gloves in his hands bashfully. He had been planning to bring Ajax close to org*sm and then deny him it, but the mood changed to such a relaxed one that the plan slipped his mind.

"Ahh...hahaha! Hehe. Oh my Archon, you're cute right now. Sorry, but you are!"

Aether huffs, trying to feign indignance, but it just sounds like one of his amused huffs. He thins his lips into a smirk under wry eyebrows, then lets the facade drop, revealing a soft smile. "Guess we're even, then. You with your mini-Voyager and me with my...whatever that was."

Ajax steps over to him and pats a hand down on his shoulder. "I'll call that even," he agrees.

They start walking. Detours are made, on their way across the island, to pick up arrows off their personal battlefield and retrieve the bucket they'd left behind.

"Aether," Ajax inquires, "I'm curious how much you enjoy the...role you play...in our..." Smooth, he snarks at himself. "Sexual relationship. I'm very happy with it, no doubt about that. I just wonder what you're getting out of it. Is it as exciting for you to take that authoritative tone and role as it is for me to surrender to it?"

A particularly thoughtful look comes to Aether's face. "...That's hard to answer. I enjoy...you enjoying it. But that's not to say I don't get...something out of it for myself. Everything is so different with you, so much better, that it's hard to sort out what's because of what."

"I can relate."

Small smiles of intimate camaraderie flicker between them on a shared glance.

Aether finds a way to clarify. "If I say I enjoy you enjoying it, it sounds like I'm just coldly providing a service. But I'm into it. Because of your reactions and the satisfaction of making you feel...good things. I'm excited the whole time." Never one to talk with his hands undeliberately, Aether leaves them hanging idle at his sides, even as his effort to explain leads him to speak more dynamically than usual.

Ajax has the bucket couched in one arm, the two tin cups inside it barely jostled by the graceful stride he has unconsciously shortened for Aether's sake. All the arrows, some broken and some not, are also in the bucket, their length making that arrangement precarious and necessitating more careful carrying than letting the bucket dangle by its handle. By making sure he got to the bucket first and started the storage of arrows in it, he manipulated the chain of extremely minor events so that he'd be the one carrying everything in the end. All on the vaguest of whims.

The thoughtful look that was on Aether's face is now on Ajax's. He's nodding slightly for several seconds before he replies. "I'm not certain I fully understand, if only because it's so much more of a 'direct' experience on my side. What I do understand is the satisfaction of earning positive reactions from you, whether by pleasing you physically or..."

"Or by doing something that I have words of approval for?"

"Yes... That." Ajax is beset by a shy smile. Downturning his head, he half-closes his eyes until the smile fades along with his irrational embarrassment over it. On some level, he feels like his newly discovered response to gentle praise says something about him that he isn't ready to say aloud.

Aether steals a glance at Ajax and smiles to himself. Getting to see this side of him... I hope I can protect it. Keep the world from snuffing it out. No, help him keep the world from doing that. He's been strong enough to protect the soft parts of himself this long. He doesn't need someone to do that for him. Just some support, as time wears on and the number of choices he has to live with rises. Aether can solve a lot of problems for people, but he can't solve the vicissitudes of life, or the vulnerability of the heart to hardening. He knows better than to want to, most of the time. What he can do is be there.

He already knows that he and Lumine aren't just going to move on from this world like they always used to. The uninterrupted daisy-chain of their travels together was broken by five hundred years and untold tribulations, and Lumine seems to be telling him that things can't go back to the way they were.

A companionable silence ensues. On some unspoken agreement to walk all the way back to the mansion instead of teleporting, the two men have descended the light-bridge to the third island. With its whole breadth ahead of them, they lengthen their strides to get some mild exercise. Very mild for them.

Between the third and second islands, Aether brings up, "Even if you find a prosthetic today, I don't think I want to use it for the first time anywhere near sand. I'm going to bring a sheet for us to be on, but still..."

Ajax feels a tiny bit of disappointment, which is overridden by his happiness to go along with whatever Aether has in mind for them tonight. "That's reasonable," he replies. "As for what you intend to do instead, again, surprise me." He tosses a smile to his comrade.

"By the way," Aether says, "speaking of reasonable... If you find a place that sells those, please get one that is of a reasonable size. I don't want to have to worry about breaking your spine if I f*ck you too hard." Aether hopes that what he just said is as much a joke as he meant it to be, but he has a suspicion about Ajax: that he is going to look at the largest prosthetic in the shop and take it as a challenge to master, something to conquer. It is all too easy to imagine him proudly bringing home something as long as his forearm.

Ajax doesn't know why he takes that as another tiny disappointment. "Well, what's reasonable?" he asks in an unnecessarily argumentative tone.

"Uh..." Aether thinks for a brief moment. "The same length and width as yours. That's perfect."

And Ajax brightens, any nebulous notion of offense disregarded. "Perfect, huh?..." He still doesn't care about that, but it's nice to know that's what Aether thinks.

Aether rolls his eyes and he won't dignify that with a reply, but he doesn't suppress a hint of a smile. And, it turns out, he will say something far sillier. "...Sooo..."

Ajax looks at him.

"Can I ask, uh... Not for any other reason than curiosity..."

Ajax peers at him.

"What...happens to your chlen when you transform?" Aether does not look at Ajax, at first. This is possibly one of the stupidest questions he has ever asked. He just couldn't pass up the opportunity. His two memories of Foul Legacy didn't single-handedly inspire the question: he has wondered this about other transformations on other worlds, and he doesn't get the sense that he has ever inquired before.

Stunned, Ajax stares at Aether as if he hasn't comprehended. To an extent, he hasn't. That dark transformation he was taught in the Abyss is a thing of combat and power, his purest expression of both, and he has never once thought about it in any other context. It is the past, present, and future apex of his fighting prowess; everything else he learns, masters, and wields will reach its maximum potential when he makes use of it while transformed. The Devouring Deep is heretical in theory and in application, and yet it feels almost sacrilegious to...even think about this.

Is double blasphemy like a double negative? That's the first complete thought he has on it. He barks out a disbelievingly hollow laugh and buys another moment by pushing his free hand through his hair. He's not offended, he's not disturbed or upset, it's just that the question slapped him upside the head out of nowhere and turned his attention to a strange little corner of his own life he has never looked at before.

Meanwhile, Aether is stoically hoping he hasn't struck into a sensitive subject or crossed a line. Hurting Ajax in some way by asking the most unnecessary question ever would be a special shame.

With a bemused smile Ajax at last says, "Alright, just to be very sure, did I hear you right? Did you ask what happens to my genitals when I transform?" There's almost no ambient noise, so he knows he heard Aether correctly.

"Yyyeah?" Aether chews his lip.

"Hah! Ahaha. Haha. Ha. Alright. It's just, I've never thought about it before. Not ever, not even once. It's almost as if you've informed me I have a tail I never noticed. I don't know how I'm going to stop thinking about this, because, in point of fact, I do not know the answer. When I use the Foul Legacy Transformation, all that's on my mind is the fight at hand. It is...functionally impossible for me to think about anything else during that time."

Hesitating to elaborate is a self-preservation reflex, because what he's willing to tell Aether next is an exploitable weakness. He casts a discreet glance around to make sure they're alone—as sure as he can be when invisible spies are a commonplace concept to him. Where they've stopped, they're in sight of the guest house but not earshot.

It's a sensible precaution to lean in and speak quietly. Nonetheless, it amuses him to be a little bit theatrical about it. A smile lurks in his voice if not on his face as he imparts secretively, "If I'm not focused enough on the battle, whether it's an imminent one or one I'm in the middle of, I cannot hold the transformation. A strong motivation, such as protecting my brother, can fill in for some of that, if it's urgent."

Aether does the thing where he catches up on what he just heard after a second of pleasant floundering in the wake of Ajax's voice. Focused enough, on the battle, imminent or the middle of, can't hold the transformation if not, motivation like Teucer, urgent... "I see."

What Ajax sees is Aether looking thoughtful in a manner that he thinks of as typical of him. Then Aether's gaze snaps up, sharper, as it always does after that look passes. It makes the traveler seem as if he's privately making perceptive connections that he'll be able to use to his advantage later. Ajax admires this familiar sight until he abruptly recalls what Aether told him about his voice's effect on him, and the connection Ajax himself drew to this habit of Aether's. He holds back a laugh and starts walking again. That's quite demystifying, he reflects with a swell of affection.

Aether promptly walks alongside him, no catch-up needed. The new information begs another question, quietly spoken out of a respect for caution but not heavy in tone: "Why was there a huge difference in how long it took you to transform the first time I saw and the second time?"

"Well, I was in a big hurry the second time." Ajax almost leaves it at that, to tease Aether. He waits until he's given an expectant glance before continuing, "But yes, there was more to it than that. I meant it when I told you I was going to use all of my power. I put everything I had into that transformation. Being under the impression that I was just one victory away from obtaining the Gnosis for the Tsaritsa, I decided to make it a quick and decisive one. Ahah. Heh."

"We both know how that went," Aether acknowledges, disinterested in teasing Ajax about it at the moment.

Ajax tries to sigh like he laments the loss, but he doesn't, and they both know that, and the sigh comes out a happy one. "Anyway, when it came to a few Ruin Guards, I didn't need as much power. Just as well... That was all I had in me at that point."

"Wow. I really...took that much out of you?" Aether did what he had to, and so did Ajax, and there's no room in that for regret or blame on either side. He's trying to flesh out his own understanding of how he won that fight.

"To be fair to myself while also criticizing my performance, I overexerted. If I had prepared for a longer fight...I might have lost in a less banal way than succumbing to exhaustion?"

"Or won."

"You really think so?"

"I really think it was a possibility," Aether replies honestly. "Even with the miscalculation."

"Interesting..."

"So that answers my question?"

"Pretty much."

It seems like they're going to stroll the last stretch of their scenic route home in another comfortable silence, but Aether suddenly wonders, "Are you going to shave with your Hydro?"

Ajax stops again, blinking. "I forgot. And you know what, that reminds me of something else I forgot. I meant to ask you if, in terms of bathing, I should prepare myself to be penetrated." He still likes that word, though at the moment, while he's boggling at his own forgetfulness, there's no thrill to be had from it.

"Oh. Uh... If you want to? No, that's no good with sand around either." Aether isn't sure the sand is going to be a problem at all, given the sheet he'll bring and given Ajax's control over water, but neither is he sure it won't be a problem. So, finger-f*cking Ajax is out, too.

"Well, no trip back up there needed, then." Ajax glances toward the fourth island. He doesn't need to set down the bucket, either, to summon a straight razor of Hydro and put it to very efficient use.

Aether watches in fascination. Ajax's hand is deft and swift, the strokes of the blade along his jaw precise and obviously practiced. He makes this mundane task look like an art, and an effortless one at that. Despite Ajax's performative inclinations, Aether suspects he really isn't trying to make it look like that. All he's really doing is putting his weaponry skills to an alternative use; he has dexterity and a fine sense of the pressure he's applying versus the resistance of his skin. That expertise is what Aether himself relies on every time he fights. By the time Aether notices a sheen of water on the skin around the blade wherever it goes, functioning as a substitute for shaving cream, Ajax is finishing up. And all with no mirror.

Ajax flicks the razor away, along with all the little hairs that were gathered into it. Its shape dissolves a meter away. Aether is staring at him, eyes slightly widened. A closed-mouth grin lifts Ajax's cheeks. "What are you looking at, comrade?"

"That was, uh. Cool."

"Why thank you. It's how I prefer to do it. I usually have my Vision on my person by the time I shave." He could use his Hydro as a mirror, too, but he never shaves in front of a mirror, or at least never facing one. In general he tends to avoid mirrors, although his aversion is not to the degree that he'd flee or even flinch from one.

"Huh. I don't think I was ever that good at it."

"You could be, I'm sure," Ajax says. "It's just an extension of skills we both possess."

"I could see that," Aether confirms. "You're probably right."

"Would you have facial hair again, given the chance?"

"No. Would you— not have it, if you could?"

Ajax shrugs one shoulder. "Perhaps. It's not such an inconvenience that I care either way."

They're nearing the mansion when Ajax thinks to ask, "When you're at your full power, are you able to...change the forms of other living beings, or only your own?"

"Only my own. Unless you count rearranging someone's body with a sword." Aether says that matter-of-factly, with no intent of humor.

At first Ajax takes that remark for granted as a natural thing for someone in their 'line of work' to say. Then he realizes it implies Aether has done far more damage to people in combat than he currently limits himself to. Or does it? It gets him thinking: how much does he not know about his comrade's history with the ways of war and battle?

It's a highly intriguing thought. He refrains from asking about it right now, because they're passing the fountain and approaching the porch.

Cheerful greetings are exchanged with Tubby. She informs them that Paimon and the two guests are inside, and that they just returned from an hour exploring the Chasm and having a 'cave picnic.' Some exploring had been done between breakfast and training, too.

"Tubby, is this a good time to ask you something about the Realm Dispatch?" Aether inquires.

"Of course! What is it that you want to know?"

"If I lent it to Childe, could he invite someone here by tapping their palm with it?"

"Oh, I'm afraid not. There is a connection between your energy and that of the realm, Aether, that the Realm Dispatch simply bridges to another person."

Aether and Ajax both slump very slightly in disappointment, Ajax quietly sighing and a faint frown visiting one corner of Aether's mouth.

"The answer is appreciated, regardless," Ajax assures Tubby.

"Thank you," Aether agrees.

"If this is important to you, I suggest asking Madame Ping," Tubby encourages them. "She knows arts I do not. It may be that she can find an alternative means to the end you desire."

That gives Aether hope. Ajax doesn't let it give him hope.

"I will, thank you!" Aether says. Maybe Madame Ping won't have to know who it's for.

This time Ajax, with a nod, is the one who seconds the gratitude.

Inside, they're met by surprised looks from the two humans and one Paimon gathered around the dining tables. The latter doesn't miss a beat, however. Jumping in the air and waving both her arms, she enthusiastically yells at them, "Aether! Childe! Guys! You're up!"

Chapter 16: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 4)

Notes:

this chapter isn't a strong one, but after so much delving into the most private version of Childe, I've been looking forward to revisiting the outward version of him, and that is here, along with Paimon and some plot

edit: changed the conversation about the Oceanid because I just saw a video of a Physical-build Childe obliterating it
fixed: I forgot Yanbo waits right at the waypoint
edit: changed instances of "Yun-yun" to Chongyun because I've heard that nickname might be too childish and condescending
edit: there are five Bedrock Keys total, not four, I forgot to count the first one
edit: made the length of time Childe has been a Harbinger both more ambiguous and less ambiguous, balancing out to 2-3 years

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Paimon zips halfway over to Aether and Ajax and turns her waving into beckoning. They come forward, she flies backward gesticulating all the way, and they follow her to the tables.

Sheer hype is the only reason Aether can think of for Paimon micromanaging their short walk to the center of the room. Supporting that theory, she doesn't stop being loud: "You were sleeping for sooo loooong! Didn't Barbara say you should get exercise too? Paimon didn't know you two could be so lazy!" There's no venom in her exclamations, just an enthusiasm that Aether can easily guess the origin of.

"You missed us," he asserts with a fond smile. In effect, gently yanking the veil off Paimon's bluster and revealing it for what it is.

She folds her arms, not quite ready to just hand that to him. "That's not true! Paimon didn't miss Childe!"

For a second, Ajax considers pretending to be shocked, but on what basis? Paimon has no reason to miss him, even though she called him a friend, and he has no reason to expect her to.

"Paimon!" Aether chides, chuckling.

Independent of Aether's retort, she is now ready to drop the act. She relaxes in the air, folding her hands behind her back with a big smile. "Ehee. Paimon hopes you're both feeling better. You must have needed all that rest."

"We were a little worried," Chongyun adds. "Are you well enough to fight the Treasure Hoarders today, Aether?" Xingqiu regards Aether with an interested, expectant, and faintly concerned look that seconds that question.

Aether is surprised to realize not one of them guessed that he and Ajax were doing anything but sleeping. Instead of being met with impatience and exasperation, they're getting concern and well wishes. In his periphery he sees Ajax glance at him, showing nothing on his face.

Ajax supposes it makes sense. He remembers kids around these boys' age being pretty gutter-minded when he was also a teenager. But, these two are sensible types, with minds full of far more than idle speculation about frivolous distractions like—...like what he and Aether have been distracted by for half the day. Oh. I...hm.

Still, he's surprised they haven't gotten a honeymoon wisecrack from Paimon. Or maybe that's just where his mind is.

Aether shakes his head. "I'm feeling a lot better. Don't worry, if I thought I was going to be a liability, I wouldn't go. But I am ready. After some food."

Xingqiu perks up. "I made zhōu! There's still plenty left." He and Chongyun have half-eaten bowls of rice porridge, plain for Chongyun and spiced with something for Xingqiu. There's an empty bowl at a nearby chair that must have been Paimon's.

It's nice, Aether thinks, to see Chongyun getting to eat at the same time as everyone else. It's a recent development. The dutiful exorcist had never thought to use his Vision for something as simple as cooling his food, despite the constant relevance of food temperature to his daily life. It hadn't occurred to Xingqiu, either. Both of them consider their Visions extraneous to their true callings, and that mindset applied outside of combat, too, as a matter of unquestioned course. There's also a mystique around Visions and their status as gifts from the gods; many Vision owners, Aether has found, hold the thing in too high regard to be used for mundane tasks that have nothing to do with the ambition that earned it. It's less of a conscious decision and more a blind spot.

Not too long ago he had asked Chongyun why he didn't use his Vision to make hot food cool off faster. There was a moment of confused silence from Chongyun in response, followed by some wide-eyed staring at his Vision, followed by several eager tests.

"Have you made zhōu before?" Aether asks Xingqiu out of friendly curiosity. It sounded like he started learning to cook very recently, but maybe he has some experience already.

"No, this was my first time making it. I knew how it was made, but I never tried to follow the steps myself before. It turned out...okay. The consistency is... Well, it's approximately..."

"It's not bad!" Chongyun insists.

"Put enough sugar and cinnamon and fruit in it and it's really not bad," Paimon says.

Aether suggests, "If it's too thick, more water can still be added. If it's too thin, more boiling will cause it to condense."

"Oh, I see!" Xingqiu says. "I thought once it had been taken off the stove and cooled, nothing more could be done about it. That seems a rather foolish assumption in hindsight."

Ajax points out, "Not so foolish, really. Dishes you can still fix after cooking are more the exception than the rule."

Aether nods. "Sometimes you can take a single portion and try things on it like heating it longer. That way you don't risk the whole meal."

"And when seasoning," Ajax adds, "all you need is a spoonful."

Xingqiu nods his thanks to Aether and looks only at Aether when he says, "I'm much obliged for the advice."

That's a bit petty, Ajax observes dispassionately, without showing that he noticed it. He doesn't begrudge Xingqiu a bit of pettiness. If passive aggression and the occasional argument is the worst he gets from someone whose hometown he threatened, he'll take that. He does wish an interesting warrior like Xingqiu wouldn't fetter himself with quite so many compunctions.

Aether doesn't notice. He's busy responding. "You're welcome. How was training?"

"The tightropes made all our normal routines more challenging," Xingqiu approves.

Xingqiu's satisfaction is matched by Chongyun's. "The amount of slack in the ropes affected every move; we didn't adjust them. It reminds me of some of my family's traditional training methods. The two ropes are well-spaced for sparring, too, and we took advantage of that."

Paimon giggles. "They fell so many times. They didn't get hurt, though! They're really good at falling."

"Being good at falling is very important," Chongyun acknowledges seriously.

"I'm glad to hear it was useful," Aether says, approving in turn. I wasn't thinking when I set up two ropes, but they've gotten plenty of use. Me and Kaeya, Yun Jin, Bennett, and Ajax, Xingqiu and Chongyun...

Ajax has stepped around the tables and collected Paimon's empty bowl. He leans toward the tiny lady herself and asks in an undertone so as not to interrupt the conversation, "D'you want seconds?"

"Yeah!" Paimon answers, not in an undertone. "With sugar and cinnamon and, umm, a peach this time!"

This preliminary catchup chat has run its course anyway. As Aether steps around the other end of the tables on his way to the kitchen, he says to Xingqiu and Chongyun, "We'll talk about the Chasm after everyone has finished breakfast." That reminds the boys they haven't quite finished theirs yet, and they get back to eating. Aether made chopsticks available, but for zhōu with few or no toppings, the Liyue locals are using spoons.

Paimon accompanies Aether and Ajax into the kitchen.

The two men say nothing to each other—they don't need to. After a quick survey of the remaining porridge, they look at each other. Ajax sees readiness in Aether's posture and tilts his head toward the side of the kitchen where water is kept on hand. Aether confirms with a nod. They split up: Ajax gets a jug of water, Aether gets two spoons and bowls. They return to the stove simultaneously as if choreographed.

While Aether is trying a spoonful of zhōu to make sure there's nothing off about it beyond the obvious over-thickening, Ajax reaches around him to set the jug on the counter. He could have gone to his other side, but this way he gets to brush his arm across Aether's back. It's also an opportunity he uses to lean down and whisper, "When was the last time you danced?"

"Haven't really danced on this world," Aether answers in an almost-whispering voice that makes Ajax decide he wants the dictionary to be read to him, too. He turns his head just enough to peek behind them and sees that Paimon is preoccupied choosing a peach from the fruit shelf. There are only two peaches to choose from, and yet. While she's not looking, Ajax removes a glove temporarily and places his hand on Aether's waist. It's oddly satisfying to touch him there when he's wearing the outfit that leaves it bare. Not more satisfying than elsewise, but off to one side of the normal satisfaction. The sudden, low breath Aether sucks in tells him he's not alone in that.

For the second time, Ajax feels possessive over Aether. It's not jealousy, though. It's the thrill of having this privilege, of getting to touch Aether's waist like this and receive the blessing of a pleased sound. He does derive some smugness from the fact that so many other people see it and never get to touch it, but that's not the important part. The permission of intimacy is what makes him feel special, and the rarity of such permission only adds a little to that feeling.

Aether is motionless for a brief moment, marveling at the pleasantness of this very simple thing. Ajax's palm is spread across his side in a spot where his fingers can wrap around to his abdomen. It's a gentle touch, almost a kind of holding.

Picking up the jug in one hand, he covers Ajax's hand with the other while he carefully pours an eyeballed amount of water into the zhōu. They tried to make a monster of him, and they keep trying, but he holds me so gently, Aether reflects with a pang of love. Setting the jug aside, he lifts the scarred hand—of Ajax, of Childe, of Tartaglia—to kiss each of his knuckles softly as he stirs the water into the porridge. He hears the quietest 'mh' of comfort and feels Ajax's chin come to rest atop his head.

Paimon flies over to deliver her chosen peach, but because she's covering her eyes like she expects to see something scandalizing, she's carrying the peach very precariously under one arm. Her attempt to set it down by blindly tilting her whole self down toward the countertop doesn't get far before the peach appears to leap out of her grasp. "Whoa-whoa-wha!" she yelps as she fumbles after it, but it lands on the floor with a small, squishy thud.

Observing this, unperturbed, Aether places one more kiss on Ajax's hand—the palm this time—and then lets it go. He felt the flinch of Ajax's reflex to go and retrieve the fallen fruit. Whether his chief motive is helping Paimon or just being housekeepy, Aether doesn't know and now wonders. Does Paimon's childlikeness set off his brotherly instincts? I don't think so, or he'd have objected to her being so close to our fight in the Golden House, probably. I can't see him having nothing to say if I had an actual small child tagging along with me there. By then, he knew Paimon well enough to know she's...unique. Just like he knew I wasn't a teenager. Heh, would he have seen me as a little brother if he had? That would have made everything harder on him.

Seeing that the peach has splatted, Ajax grabs a rag first and then wipes the juice off the floor when he picks up the peach. "The top half is fine," he assesses, giving Paimon a light smile. "I'll slice that part up for your porridge and I'll eat the rest."

"You can't eat that, it's been on the floor!" Paimon protests.

Aether has always thought it odd that someone as food-obsessed as Paimon absolutely refuses to eat food that's fallen on the floor or the ground. Odd, but nothing to argue over. Ever the pragmatist, he tends to claim floor food for himself, brush it off, and brush off her objections as he eats it.

Ajax doesn't see Paimon as a child, that's true, but he's not entirely immune to her resemblance to one. "Sure I can. Can't let food go to waste!" He changes his mind about slicing the top half for Paimon and fetches the other peach instead. Sucking juice off the bottom half of what is now his pre-breakfast snack, so that it doesn't drip, he proceeds to hearty, hungry bites while conjuring a knife of Hydro to prepare the second peach semi-handsfree in Paimon's bowl. He makes little slashing motions with one finger, and soon the fruit has been disemboweled of its pit and diced into Paimon-bite-sized pieces.

This amazes Paimon enough that she seems to forget where the peach he's eating has been. "Paimon didn't know you could do that! Can you make stuff with your Vision that's not sharp things and evil whales?"

Aether needn't keep his eyes on the zhōu as he reheats and stirs it, so he's watching how Ajax eats the first peach. Not a single drop of juice escapes at any point, and the reason is evident from the occasional muffled slurp: he's sucking on every bite. There are a couple of times when he darts the tip of his tongue out to catch a drip that gets past his guard. Aether can't help remembering what those lips and that tongue did to him this morning. No wonder he's so good at eating my— shchelka, if he can eat a ripe peach without dribbling any of the juice... He spares a thought of gratitude to his chosen anatomy for another benefit: he can dwell on this without any worry that his body will tattle on him.

"Of course I can~ I assume you and Aether have encountered the Oceanid of Qingce?"

"Yeah, lots of times!"

"Maybe four times," Aether corrects.

"Yeah, lots of times!" Paimon reiterates.

"Four times?" Ajax has already devoured the peach down to its pit and is nibbling off the last of the edible flesh between speaking. The very last of it. "Why? Did the first three fights not go well for you?" He turns a perplexed blink toward Aether.

"No, it went fine," Aether clarifies. "There are just some valuable residues and gems it tends to leave behind. It's an interesting challenge if I don't have help from a Cryo user. Have you fought it? With...your Hydro?" Now Aether is perplexed. "That could work if it's all Electro-charged..."

"Oh no, certainly not with Hydro. I didn't resort to my Delusion, either." Ajax starts taking care of some small tasks like disposing of the peach pits. "Just a real bow. The hawk mimics make decent target practice and the crabs are surprisingly brutal. Not bad for a little training session."

"How long did it take?" Aether has to ask.

"Not nearly long enough. A couple of minutes."

Paimon is astonished. "Whaaat!? Only a couple minutes with no elements!?"

Ajax disregards her amazement. It wasn't that remarkable by his standards. "And unfortunately, there's not much else to entertain myself with, in Liyue these days," he laments. Somebody cleaned the place up far too well."

"What about the regisvine?" Aether wonders. "And the hypostasis?" Those two should regrow and regenerate, respectively, on a regular basis.

"Fought them."

"Not going to fight them again?"

"Too predictable."

"So what was it that I cleared out that wasn't predictable? Treasure Hoarders?"

"Tch. Treasure Hoarders are even worse. No, there was an unusual geovishap in Tianqiu Valley."

Aether signals Paimon not to interrupt. He wants to hear Ajax's experience.

"Like all fully-grown geovishaps, it absorbed the elements to protect itself. But, as I have no doubt you're aware, given that it's gone now: instead of absorbing elements as needed, it always had one ready to go when I'd pay a visit to its lair. And it was a handful! Larger and fiercer than any of its brethren, and sturdy enough that I'd get a decent fight out of it before retreating to allow it to recover."

"That's the Primo Geovishap!" Paimon informs Ajax, bursting with 'well actually' energy. "But there's an even bigger one! Way bigger!"

Aether ladles porridge into their three bowls. "Azhdaha. Imprisoned under Nantianmen. We have to go in and check on his cage every so often. He forgets why he's in the cage and tries to absorb Ley Line energy again."

"The...legendary dragon Azhdaha? That Azhdaha?" Aether, I could kiss you! And I will! "Wait, what was that about a cage?" Please don't say we can't fight him!

"Ye—" Aether can't answer the first question before the second one is asked, so he answers both at once. "Yes, that Azhdaha. He's imprisoned kind of willingly, but his mind is lost and so are most of his memories. The seal keeping him contained got weaker over the centuries. He started manifesting himself outside it in the form of a young girl. No, not possession, just a shape of his will. He used that form to get a group of miners to dig down to the seal and break it. That was how Zhongli and I got involved; when those miners went missing, their foreman put up a commission to find them."

Ajax waits patiently-impatiently for Aether to get to the important part, standing with his hands on his hips and invisibly flexing his feet inside his boots. Does he know what he's doing to me? Is this my punishment come late?

(The likelihood that Ajax wasn't asking about the history behind Azhdaha's situation simply bounced off Aether's brain. He should know better, but he's not yet so used to being around Ajax that things like this can't slip his mind.) "Paimon, you tell him about how it all started."

Something is slowly happening to Ajax's face. Whatever expression it is, he hopes it will convey his plea for mercy.

"Yeah! So, Azhdaha and Zhongli became friends a long, long, long time ago," Paimon readily supplies. "Zhongli made eyes for him so he could see the sun and the world around him, and he was really grateful. He defended Liyue and coexisted with humans peacefully. But even though he's older than the mountains and oceans, his memories don't last long." She frowns, either in sympathy for the dragon or because she finds the concept troubling. "He kinda forgot everything, even who Zhongli was. But they'd made a contract where he agreed that if he ever became a threat to the people of Liyue, he'd be sealed underground. So that's what happened. It's all pretty sad when Paimon thinks about it."

Aether nods his agreement. He sees Ajax frowning, too, but it's quite distinct from a look of sadness. "Why the puppy face, Childe?"

"Huh?" Ajax rallies from his doldrums. "I have a question." That part about the eyes was interesting, I suppose. How does one make eyes for a Geo dragon? What else could that kind of power make? Does Zhongli still have that power?

Aether raises an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"Is there any chance left of getting to fight Azhdaha? What do these 'checks' of yours entail?"

Paimon pouts and folds her arms. "You're always thinking about fighting. Were you even listening? Paimon told the story well! Right, Aether?"

Aether is smiling at Ajax. A small but very promising smile. "You did great, Paimon. Were you listening, sweetheart? If you answer a quiz right, I'll answer your question."

The 'puppy face' returns in full force and then some. "...Go ahead then, quiz me," Ajax resigns himself with a sigh.

Aether slides a conspiratorial glance over to Paimon as he asks, "How many 'longs' ago did Azhdaha and Zhongli become friends?"

Ajax was listening; he can listen and suffer at the same time. "Three."

"Good job!" Aether smiles brighter. He's tempted to do more with that congratulation, but, as they're in the kitchen and Paimon is here, he holds back. "Anyway, yes, we fight him regularly. That uses up any energy he absorbs. It's usually just me and it takes a while. You'd help a lot by coming along, and I think you'll have fun."

Word by word, Ajax's anticipation grows and his eyes widen to encompass it.

"He uses two elements each time."

A hopeful little grin is pursed by Ajax biting the inside of his lower lip. He almost makes himself bleed in his eagerness and the odd urge to sink his teeth into something.

"There's some kind of sigil on the outer seal that detects what elements he's absorbed, but if you want to be surprised...I can cover your eyes as we go in."

"Ahh, my sweet comrade." All his former boredom forgotten, Ajax steps over, takes Aether's head tenderly in his hands, and kisses his forehead several times in the same spot. "When I'm back in Liyue, let's fight a near-deific dragon together!"

"Ehehaha," Aether laughs softly under the kisses. Almost by reflex, he touches one of Ajax's wrists, neither pulling at it nor holding it in place, merely appreciating. "Childe..." he says, just to let out the affection effervescing in his chest. "Sounds like a date." Half confirming, half flirting.

"Eeegh," Paimon grumbles from somewhere about half a meter further away than she was before.

Ajax's eyes are alight with the joy of having everything he wants at this particular moment. It's an uncomplicated moment and he has no reservations about indulging in it fully. Hugging Aether around the shoulders, he lays a grin-firmed cheek atop his head and rubs it against his voluminous blond hair. "Of course it's a date," he coos. "Are you looking forward to it as much as I am?"

Aether holds Ajax by his sides. He hasn't stopped grinning either, his eyes closed while he's being hugged and...having his head rubbed by Ajax's face? He can't recall a Teyvat word for that, but it's pleasant, and the happiness behind it is achingly heartwarming. "I don't think I can match your enthusiasm for anything, baby. I love that about you. I am really looking forward to it a lot, though."

Paimon murmurs to herself, not quietly enough, "Baby?" She sounds baffled. "...Baby with an E, maybe?..."

It was usually a serious kind of enthusiasm, before, Aether is thinking. Intense and philosophical. I'm starting to see more of this happy, genuinely happy kind that suits you so well and shines so bright I almost forget how rare it was.

"Mmm, I love you, sladkiy." Ajax's grin settles into a warm and indeed lovestruck smile as he lifts his head to look at Aether. With a parting caress behind Aether's ear, he releases him from his embrace. "On that note, I think what you called me is fine, once in a while. Nothing wrong with it, and it's pleasant enough; it just doesn't strike me quite as wonderfully as some other things you call me."

Aether nods once, glad to have that answer. He feels more or less the same way about it, now that he has given it a try.

"Does Paimon dare ask what the word you called Aether means? It sounds funny but Paimon guesses it's not an ugly nickname?"

Aether has a small chuckle at that. Giving Paimon a smiling shake of his head, he points out, "You're the one who gives people ugly nicknames."

Ajax has never noticed this about himself before, but it's true that although he has a tendency to address people he likes by positive 'nicknames,' he rarely if ever bothers with negative ones for people he dislikes. It seems to him that it'd be a waste to spend any amount of attention on doing so. "It, essentially, means 'sweetness.'"

"Oh! That's actually...pretty nice!" Paimon grants him. "Now where's Paimon's sweet, sweet, peachy porridge!?"

"Coming right up," Aether tells her, chuckling again. Ajax pushes the bowls closer and Aether ladles zhōu into all three.

As soon as one of them is full, Ajax takes it and sets it further along the counter, where Paimon is hovering. He starts adding sugar. "Tell me when it's enough."

The sugar accumulates. Paimon just watches, saying nothing.

The sugar becomes a sizable pile on top of the porridge. Ajax slowly looks askance at her. "Tell me when, Paimon."

Aether observes in amused silence. He borrows some cinnamon for his own serving.

"Paimon...?" Ajax looks to Aether for help.

"We can always get more sugar." Aether shrugs by tilting his head. "It doesn't seem to do her any harm."

Paimon finally speaks up when the sugar is about to spill over the bowl's edges. "Okay!" She does a pleased little bounce in the air.

"Do you just want this on top, then?" Ajax puzzles over it.

"Mixed in."

"...You need a bigger bowl." The Harbinger shakes his head, gets one that'll hold the porridge and sugar with plenty of room to spare, and gives it a good mixing, along with the cinnamon Aether has returned. The porridge still sounds slightly crunchy as he finishes stirring it, despite some of the sugar dissolving. "Peaches on top?" he inquires warily as if Paimon is going to spring a truly absurd request on him.

"Yep!"

Ajax spoons the peach slices onto Paimon's porridge and nudges them into a nice circle. He hasn't forgotten the gratitude he and Aether owe Paimon, and he hopes to get along with her well in any case. She hasn't shown any dislike of him beyond a degree of resentful caution that he must admit is fair. That she supported Aether's interest in him is a good sign, one he intends to live up to where his treatment of her and Aether is concerned. No promises he'll meet her moral standards, though, because he won't and he's fine with that.

"Yay! You even made it look fancy like at a restaurant. Thanks, Childe!"

"It's nothing," Ajax says with a smile and a slight chuckle. It really is. Paimon might not be a child, but she is as easy to please as one, sometimes, and that's lucky for him.

Paimon's bowl is too big for her to carry, so Ajax carries it. The three of them find Xingqiu and Chongyun in conversation over a book. It doesn't look like any of the reference materials they had out here yesterday. As Xingqiu closes the book, the colorfully illustrated cover of a light novel can be seen.

Paimon gracefully dips down over her bowl to eat, taking her time. That makes the contrast between her and the other two residents more marked: Aether and Ajax plop into adjacent chairs and dig in even faster than Paimon usually does. They're both good at ignoring hunger right up until there's food in front of them.

Chongyun realizes, "It's been a long time since yesterday's dinner. Aether, are you going to bring any snacks for yourself?"

Aether nods. He'll bring some jerky to keep his energy up. Dealing with entrenched Treasure Hoarders might take some time, assuming the Millelith haven't already gone ahead. The chance of that is about fifty-fifty at this point, he guesses.

"Alright," Chongyun responds. "I'll be bringing my own, and plenty of popsicles of course. Is there anything else we're going to need?"

Pausing between mouthfuls, Aether replies, "You're probably bringing all this anyway but: glider, something to take notes on if we end up with a need to, a backpack, and uh... Oh, I have some extra climbing gear you can use while Xingqiu has the other set."

Paimon pipes up, "How is it extra climbing gear if it's the only set you have?"

Ajax has an answer for that. "Extraneous to his needs." He's not sure if that's where the word 'extra' comes from, but it doesn't matter.

Eating again, Aether briefly tilts his head toward Ajax in a 'what he said' gesture.

"Hrmmn," Paimon ponders, but she comes up with nothing to say to that.

As soon as everyone except Paimon is done with breakfast (and she doesn't have much left), Aether leans back and declares, "Okay. Let's put the horse on the table. The—..."

Xingqiu is looking at him with a quirked brow. Chongyun is squinting. Ajax has a blank look fixed on him. Paimon simply informs him, "That one's not a saying in Teyvat."

"Ah." Sometimes Aether gets lucky and an idiom or metaphor that comes to mind as he's speaking happens to be one that Teyvat shares with other worlds, due to partially parallel cultural evolution. Some are simple and obvious enough that they just work. This idiom is neither, apparently. Paimon is used to this and so is Aether. He moves right along. "What I mean is, let's talk about the most important thing first. Childe, you said yesterday you're willing to help resolve the Fatui situation in the Chasm peacefully?"

Ajax has leaned back, too. When he saw Xingqiu steepling his fingers yesterday, he idly wished he could do the same; today he does happen to be sitting in a chair with arms, but his more natural inclination is to put one elbow on there and fold his other arm across, tucking his hand between his forearm and upper arm. "And I meant it," he addresses the Liyuen pair. "But my assistance comes with a condition."

Chongyun is leaning forward with his hands clasped under the table. Xingqiu, sitting in a perfect straight posture, raises an eyebrow warily. "What is the condition?"

"No Millelith involvement beyond the extent to which they are already involved."

Frowns form on the faces of Xingqiu, Chongyun, and Paimon, expressing a range of reactions from overt objection to puzzled uncertainty. Xingqiu draws a breath to say something, but stops himself. Aether shows no reaction whatsoever, nor does he have any.

Ajax continues, "You would rather they face a formal justice process for any actions they might have taken that are against Liyue's laws, right?" He may as well invite the comments that are on the tips of certain tongues. Put the horse on the table, as Aether said. Why does that phrase make sense without making any sense at all?

"Yes, of course," Xingqiu replies. "And if they've done nothing outside the bounds of the law, they will not be punished. They'll be sent home, and I think after everything they've been through, those of them who have done nothing wrong deserve to go home."

"And what do you imagine will become of them then?"

Again Xingqiu draws a breath and stops. Objection turns to thoughtfulness. "...What do you mean?"

"They've been abandoned. They're no longer under any Harbinger's authority. At best, they arrive in our motherland and are immediately reassigned. I will have no influence over their fate if they're sent back by the Ministry or the Qixing."

"And at worst?" Xingqiu inquires measuredly.

Ajax shrugs one shoulder in a small, slow motion, glancing north out of habit. What relation this realm's 'north' (as reckoned by the sun) has to that of the outside world, he doesn't question right now. "To survive for all these months with broken chains of command and supply, they may have taken actions that would not be favored by Fatui internal law. Some of them might be charged with desertion, absence without leave, insubordination, mutiny, surrender, wrongful disposition of materiel...even treason, perhaps."

"That seems unjust," Xingqiu notes.

"Yeah!" Paimon agrees. "If they're just trying to survive, why would they be blamed for all that? They were abandoned! Shouldn't the...the Harbinger who was in charge of them be punished instead?"

"It may not be fair," Ajax responds, "but unfairness can cut both ways. Which brings me to my point: if they're brought out of their current predicament directly into my command, it's up to me what happens to them. Harbingers answer only to the Tsaritsa, for better or worse. For my own convenience I wouldn't have it any other way, but it does create some...problems for those underneath."

Aether wants to raise an eyebrow at that, but it wouldn't communicate anything he'd intend it to. He would look like he's judging Ajax's words on moral grounds, when in fact he's judging them on accuracy. That's the most self-...minimizing way you could have put that without completely lying. You make it sound like you like the way the Fatui are run, and that you like it because it gives you some kind of minor convenience like...free napkins or something.

"What will you do with them?" Chongyun asks.

"In short, nothing. I can't send them home right away; that would be, more or less, to the same effect as Liyue sending them back. A little time is needed for the Pulcinella smell to rub off."

Paimon must know: "What does Pool-chee-nel-la...smell like?"

"Uh? Like an old man." It's not bad. Ajax never met one of his grandfathers. He has the vaguest memory of the other one, a memory of a scent that the occasional whiff of mothballs and mild cologne around Pulcinella reminds him of. "You know I wasn't speaking literally, right?"

"Paimon thought so, but you never know with you Fatui," she defends.

"Huh. I'm not going to ask what you think we'd do with...smells. Regrettable metaphors aside, Dragonspine is a peaceful rug to sweep them— nope, that's another metaphor. But it is a peaceful and safe assignment—..." Realizing he was about to say 'since the Traveler moved on from the area,' Ajax stops himself again.

"Since I was there?" Aether fills in placidly before Ajax can swerve.

"Yyyes... If you want to put it bluntly in present company."

"I don't mind."

"Very well then. The Dragonspine command was delegated to me not long ago. Another 'inheritance' from Signora."

"No wonder you're so bored," Aether comments. "Lately all they're doing is having you hold the bags left by other Harbingers."

Ajax leans his chin on his hand as he sighs wistfully, dropping a heavy stare on the empty bowl in front of him. "It does seem as if my eventful first years as a Harbinger were an early peak. This year, so far..." He looks over at Aether, and the cloud cover of his blasé attitude is pierced momentarily by the light of a certain sun. Almost as if to himself, he says in a very soft voice, "Not so bad, actually..."

Aether's smile at him has the same softness.

Before anyone needs to find a polite way to get the conversation back on track, Ajax attends to it by sliding back into his more businesslike mode. "So, a month of light duty in Dragonspine, amidst snow and ice that they will surely find reinvigorating after all this time languishing in Liyue. For a Snezhnayan, cold comfort is the best comfort. During that time, I'll arrange for their service records to be...somewhat creatively updated. Most of the delay will be owed to the time it takes for paperwork to travel back and forth."

There's a moment of thought had by Xingqiu and Chongyun, who look at each other.

"So they'd just be...chilling out?" Paimon puns, grinning.

Ajax can't help smiling a little. There's something to be appreciated, he thinks, about Paimon bringing levity to this table and many others. "Just enough to properly enjoy a sit by the samovar and a hot cup of tea."

Paimon's curiosity is caught. "Samovar? What's that?"

"It's a container for brewing tea. It doesn't need to be over a fire; it has a pipe to put fuel in so that it heats on its own. 'Samovar' means 'self-brewer,' in fact. Add a lot of black tea and a little water to the teapot to make very concentrated tea called zavarka, place the teapot on top of the samovar, fill the body of the samovar with water, and you get a large amount of tea that's diluted to normal strength. There's a spigot at the bottom that you can use to pour into a cup or a second teapot."

"Wow, that sounds complicated!" Paimon says. "Not as complicated as Zhongli's tea ceremonies, but why the extra steps?"

"When you have a larger number of people and you want hot tea to be available for a good while, it becomes the simplest solution to those needs."

Paimon appears to consider that deeply. Meanwhile, Xingqiu is polite about picking up the original subject of discussion: "I'll admit that this tangent has been interesting. Now that my lady's curiosity is satisfied and the rest of us are a little more educated on Snezhnayan culture, there's another question I must ask. Possibly the final question before we come to a decision."

"Ask away," Ajax replies casually. He's starting to get antsy again, though. He has a lot of shopping to do before nightfall, and the fresh air of Inazuma City beckons him. That air is warm and a bit smoky, actually, but it moves, and it carries those lovely sakura petals around.

"Why do you care what happens to the Fatui in the Chasm? Does it reflect back on you?"

Aether guesses what Xingqiu is trying to indirectly suss out: why would a Harbinger want to coddle those soldiers and send them home instead of using them to strengthen the Fatui's very precarious foothold in Liyue?

"I don't particularly," Ajax answers, "and it doesn't reflect on me any more than it will have reflected on Pulcinella. But my colleagues have been sloppy. I get petty satisfaction from picking up their trash and making it useful again." All true, and as it makes no difference to anyone, including himself, whether he has any other motives underlying those truths, he doesn't plan on expanding his explanation. He's used to not being listened to, anyway.

Then he remembers that someone is listening. He casts a sidelong glance at Aether. Being hit by this awareness mid-conversation is a little disorienting. The feeling it leaves him with is strange and inscrutable...and warm. It feels like having a connection to the world outside himself.

"Reason enough," Aether opines. He's been watching Ajax. To an inevitably lesser extent, he's been watching everyone else, too. At the moment he's looking directly at his beloved Harbinger, who seems half-dressed without his jacket and sash. In Ajax's glance at him, he observes boredom-dulled eyes again softening for a second. A faint flicker of naked humanity.

"Is it?" Chongyun doubts. "It sounded as if you find cleaning up after the other Harbingers burdensome. Yet now you're taking on something you weren't even called upon to do?"

"There's a certain appeal in that, don't you think?" Ajax evades, settling into a smug and flippant attitude that might annoy them enough that they stop asking questions. He presses, "Though, you both seem like dutiful types, so maybe you don't~ Take my word for it, then. Besides that, being unpredictable is advantageous not only in battle. I have a reputation for being such, and I'll happily maintain it." The fact that he's actually quite predictable is all the more reason he can say that and mean it. As long as Ajax stays light on his feet in every way and Aether remains the only person who cares to study his innermost self, he'll keep that perceived advantage. An advantage perceived by one's opponents is a very real one.

I'm going to ask him about this later, Aether decides. Not tonight though. He has a new theory: that Ajax won't talk about anything good he's done or wants to do unless it comes up and...some other factor comes into it. Necessity? Comfort with who he's talking to? Mood? In any case, it's clear there's a lot he isn't going to learn about Ajax unless he asks the right questions. The picture Xingqiu and Chongyun are getting from what he's saying about himself right now is not a complete one, and it seems like that's deliberate on some level. Of course, it's possible and probable that this is how Ajax is about the worst things he's done, too. Aether assumes those are also unknown to him as of yet.

Xingqiu still looks skeptical, but Chongyun is starting to come around. "I see," the latter says, pinching his chin between thumb and finger. "I understand the importance of tactical advantages in battle, and the strategic advantages that come with knowledge of one's enemy. Knowledge is indeed half the battle for an exorcist. Turning that around, it makes sense that if your enemies are also human, their knowledge about you can become an advantage against you. Unpredictability takes that back from them. That is reason enough."

Looked to now for his conclusion, Xingqiu issues a reserved nod after a moment. "Your motives aren't as noble as I hoped, but they are, if you'll pardon me, about as noble as I expected."

Ajax shrugs his eyebrows.

Xingqiu continues. "Considering the group of Fatui we've been talking about had nothing to do with what transpired in the city, taking no action to get the Millelith involved is a condition I can accept. However, the Millelith are already involved where the Treasure Hoarders come into the picture."

Chongyun picks up that line of thought by asking Ajax, "What is it you're asking me to do if Aether and I are faced with a conflict between Fatui and Millelith today?"

Ajax inclines his head as he looks once more to the man sitting next to him. "I leave that entirely up to Aether."

"I'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," Aether says to Chongyun. "You don't have to cross it with me if you don't agree with the decision I make at that time. I won't hold it against you. You don't owe me support in a hypothetical fight where you believe I'm on the wrong side."

Chongyun takes a moment to grapple with that, his brow knitting slightly in thought.

"That seems fair to me," Xingqiu says, though his voice is a tad quiet and there's almost a question mark implied at the end of the statement, making it a humble suggestion rather than an assertive declaration. He glances between Aether and Chongyun.

"...It is fair," Chongyun concedes. He might not be too happy with the position he's in, but he evidently has no better idea. Addressing Ajax again he asks, "If you're not going to be in Liyue soon, what kind of help are you offering?"

"The means to avoid violent confrontation with the Fatui, and to gain their trust as far as accepting your guidance out of the Chasm goes. Aether is already wearing my earring, and that's something he can use to back up his claim that I've sanctioned this, once he gets close enough. The real issue is, of course, getting that close without trouble. For that..." Ajax sheepishly looks across the house at the guest room door.

He grimaces an apologetic smile. "I had one idea that's no longer an option, thanks to the cat's, um, actions with regard to that red sash I usually wear. Somehow, I don't think armed strangers approaching wearing tattered pieces of it will send the right message. But there is another option. There are code phrases that were valid at the time the Ninth Company was abandoned, which are no longer in use by any of the other groups in Liyue; we should still have a record of them for the purpose of interpreting old reports. Aether, you'll have to drop by the Northland Bank and ask Ekaterina, the receptionist, for a copy of that code sheet."

Ajax reaches over and brushes his hand over Aether's hair by his nearer ear, which is, conveniently, the one with the earring. "I wouldn't be surprised if she grasps the full meaning of this right away. She saw what you did for me that day—you know the one I mean. And, uh...aheh, I don't think she's unaware of...how much I..." He clears his throat quietly and utters a soft laugh, shaking his head. "Never mind. My point stands."

Aether smiles, affection welling in him at the gloved touch, the trail off into shyness, and the way Ajax resigns himself not-unhappily to the impossibility of a smooth recovery. "Okay, I'll do that." He reluctantly takes his eyes off Ajax to speak to the others. "So is there an agreement?"

Xingqiu and Chongyun both nod.

Aether prompts Paimon, who looks unsure whether she's included, "What about you? What are your thoughts after all that?"

"Oh. Paimon is just glad it's settled. The whole thing is confusing. The Fatui are the bad guys, except these ones aren't, but they might be... And if what Childe said is true, about what their homecoming would be if they're sent back to Snezhnaya by Liyue, justice wouldn't be fair... It's getting hard to think all this through when we haven't met any of the people we're talking about."

A small nod from Aether and a long, slow one from Chongyun. Aether is acknowledging Paimon's viewpoint, not sharing it, but he suspects Chongyun is feeling a bit lost in this matter as well. His whole life is built around dealing with evil spirits, not morally ambiguous humans.

"Thank you," Aether says to all of them. "I'm grateful that we've been able to talk this out and reach an agreement. If circ*mstances or information change, we'll talk again. For now, we have a plan. Chongyun, how soon will you be ready to go?"

"I can be ready in five minutes. I only need to pack your climbing gear in my backpack and fill my canteen."

"I'll show you where the gear is. We'll meet at the place where Squad Leader Yanbo told me to meet him. It happens to be right where I'll arrive when I teleport. If we don't find him there, we'll go looking for him and his squad. Where will you be coming from?"

While these logistics are figured out, Ajax privately goes over some of his own: he tries to think of all the things a cat needs. Without ever having owned, lived with, or spent any extended amount of time with a housecat before.

"From the northwest side of the Chasm. All we did earlier was explore some of the cave we found, so we didn't go far."

"Right, how did that go by the way?" Aether inquires.

"We ran into some slimes that weren't much trouble," Chongyun answers at the same time as Paimon announces, "We found treasure! It wasn't a lot, but it was treasure! The slimes were guarding a chest."

"I'm not sure they were guarding it per se," Xingqiu says, smiling. He seems endeared, or at least amused, by Paimon's interpretation of their encounter. "We disturbed their habitat when we slogged through the water to get to the chest."

"We found the entrance to a domain," Chongyun reminds Xingqiu.

That fills Xingqiu with enthusiasm. "Yes, we did! In that cave, we went down the hole with the waterfall, made our way up a very uneven mining passage, and found a spoutrock coupled with a powerful, persistent updraft—"

"Paimon got caught in the updraft. It was scary! The spoutrock made it way too fast."

"Yes," Xingqiu concurs, "one second Paimon was with us and the next second she was gone. But it was no mystery where she'd gone—"

"Paimon screamed," she admits.

"Yes, and so we looked up to see a long vertical tunnel. As soon as we opened our gliders we were thrown aloft just as fast, and the three of us found ourselves right in front of a domain's door. We haven't gone in yet."

Ajax takes note. There could be interesting foes to be fought, in there.

Aether gives Paimon a tiny, sympathetic smile. "Let's check it out when the four of us are no longer split up."

"My hopes are high that we might discover something of historical import," Xingqiu says.

"And treasure!" Paimon adds.

Ah, Ajax sighs inwardly. I'll miss out on that. But that's probably no great loss. Instead, I'll have the chance to spend quality time in Inazuma with my dear comrade and the strongest foes he can point us at. That's a wonderful prospect that no single domain could measure up to.

"Paimon and Xingqiu: are you still reporting to Zhiqiong today?"

Xingqiu glances at Paimon, who answers, "If she hasn't wandered off somewhere else."

"Ah yes," the young swordsman remarks, "Paimon told us about what happened at the warehouse. A very strange form of negligence. So far, though, Zhiqiong pointed us in all the right directions, so I trust she knows what she's doing when it comes to scouting and mapping, at least."

"And that's what matters," Aether agrees. "We can't all be multitalented prodigies, I guess, even if three of the five people in this room are."

"Paimon is multitalented, too," Paimon objects.

Aether teases her, "But can you say you're a prodigy without letting anyone know how old you are?"

"Sure!" she meets the challenge. "Paimon has always been multitalented, therefore Paimon is a prodigy."

"Ahh," Aether concedes.

Xingqiu points out, "The location Zhiqiong told Aether and Paimon to meet her at after destroying the middle three Bedrock Keys is on the east side of the Chasm. Paimon, Chongyun, and I can travel there together and Chongyun can go north from there."

"Hmm." Aether is only slightly embarrassed to realize, "I didn't think about the fact I don't really have to go until around the time you'll be arriving in Lumberpick Valley, Chongyun. Unless you'd like me to meet you halfway?"

"That won't be necessary," Chongyun assures him. "Depending on the terrain, though, it'll take...anywhere between one and two hours for me to get there. That's also assuming no obstacles are encountered. So, I suppose two hours is the better estimate."

Ajax checks back in. Aether is looking at him with a raised eyebrow that he gets a sense of hinted-at flirtation from. He plays coy by keeping his own expression very neutral. "So you have two hours of free time, hm?" He rubs the back of a finger against the bottom of his chin contemplatively.

"I may as well go with you," Aether suggests.

"You're more than welcome to, comrade."

Chongyun gets up, his direct and dedicated nature having no more time for sitting around. "Then let's all of us be on our way, or ways."

"Paimon can show you where the climbing stuff is," Paimon offers Chongyun, doing Aether a favor which he thanks her for with a small smile. She smiles back and waves goodbye as she floats backwards toward the alchemy room, Chongyun in tow. Aether, rather than waving, touches his hand to his heart as a more overtly affectionate goodbye, which brightens Paimon's smile before she twirls to face the direction she's floating in.

Notes:

- "As the Harbingers' vanguard, Childe always appears in the vulnerable underbellies of Snezhnaya's enemy states, striking as a conflict is about to erupt."
- "The man is incomprehensibly ever in the eye of the storm"
- "a nexus of strife"
- "he invariably became the eye of a vortex of discord"
- "After all... "You shall ever be the eye of the storm,""

ok but where was he in Mondstadt? not there! Inazuma? only arrived after all the action was over and done with! Sumeru? NOWHERE lol

all those ominous descriptions get less and less true as time goes on, and it's hilarious

Chapter 17: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 5)

Notes:

a shrt ne! vwels aren't wrkng half the tme n m laptp, gd thng have a desktp where vwels alwas wrk bt man ths s fnn

Chapter Text

The sounds of Feiyun Slope in the afternoon: footsteps on the pavement; voices haggling, chatting lightly, and discussing heavily; a name called and a child's voice answering; wheels of a small cart bringing goods up from the North Wharf to one of the shops; a dog barks once in the distance.

The air is warm and laden with the smell of the ocean. A mild tang of smoke tickles his nostrils, inextricable from the aromas of the high-end restaurants' cooking.

As quickly as Aether's senses are flooded by Liyue Harbor's hustle and bustle, it all fades away with another teleport. A sweeter, less spicy, but no less smoky melange greets him as he arrives in Inazuma City's Tenryou district.

Ajax is returned, of course, to the exact spot he snatched Zhongli away to the Teapot from. The warmth and humidity of Inazuma is made less stifling by the shade of Hanamizaka's big tree. A dog skitters away as soon as he arrives, understandably spooked by his sudden appearance.

He takes several deep breaths. The air in Aether's realm is perfect in its cleanness, but the air in the outside world is so much more dynamic. It's invigorating whereas the Teapot is soothing. Ajax wouldn't want to give up either atmosphere.

He strolls a loop around the tree on his way to the stairs, passing his hand through the coagulation of sakura petals that seems always to be found in the tree's lee. It tingles, as expected.

Both he and Aether had forgotten to mention any specific meeting place. However, it's very easy for him to deduce that Aether will be at one of the two statues in the city that the traveler refers to as waypoints. It's no harder to reason that the one in the Tenryou district is closer to all the shops and would thus be his lyubimy's logical destination. Incidentally but conveniently, it's also closer to Ajax himself.

Aether hops up onto the fence behind the waypoint and looks out over the lower section of the Tenryou district. He's been seen climbing around and gliding in this city often enough that the sight has apparently become an urban legend attached to his broader fame. He has that to thank for the fact that, this time, no one reacts to him standing on this fence. It looks like a very precarious perch, he's aware, but his balance on the narrow wooden beam is flawless.

Parking his hands on his hips, he gives some thought to where Ajax might be. The last time he entered the Serenitea Pot, as far as Aether knows, was when he brought the cat. He hadn't taken the time to get any cat supplies, hence all of that being on his unwritten shopping list today. That, and knowing just how impulsive Ajax can be, tells Aether that his beloved very likely emerged in Hanamizaka.

Aether snaps out his glider and steps off the fence into empty air. It doesn't give him any vertigo or thrill, things that humans almost invariably experience when embarking on a flight or dive. He has heard they're often terrified for at least a second; those who have no fear of heights tend to at least receive an adrenal warning from their self-preservation instincts.

The currents over the city are a little unsteady and whimsical. The heat of many small fires rises, forming eddies in the breeze. Aether compensates reflexively. A glider isn't the same as his wings, and it took a fair bit of getting used to. He had insights into flying that helped, but it differed in every nuance. He never had to use such a device before. Nonetheless, his use of the artificial wings has become second nature by necessity.

As he floats northwest, Aether searches the crowds for bright auburn hair. It occurs to him that Ajax's height and hair color are often going to make him easier to find in a crowd. That's encouraging.

There's no sign of him yet, though. Patient and unconcerned, Aether alights on the roof of the Amenoma Smithy, right on the ridge. Walking along it, he steps down where it dips, over a crosspiece, and onto the shallow upward arc of the end-part that reminds him of a boat's prow.

And there he is, the incognito Harbinger. He has stopped near Naganohara Fireworks and is smiling up at Aether. They're not so far from each other that Aether can't tell how soft that smile is.

Ajax crosses the street to a square of pavement below the smithy that isn't getting any foot traffic. If the guess in the back of his mind is right, it's a temporary storage spot for goods coming and going; it probably saw a lot more use during the war. In any case, he has plenty of room here to open his arms wide and, grinning, brace himself to catch Aether.

Seeing that, Aether couldn't stop himself from grinning back if he tried. Extending his glider once more, he jumps off the rooftop into a gentle descent, buoyed by the heat emanating from the forge. When he's right above Ajax, he retracts the wings and falls neatly into his arms.

Ajax chuckles as he hugs Aether to him. Aether, keeping his feet folded up behind him, snickers warmly and then laughs as Ajax swings him around once.

It feels different and special, being together in the outside world. For the first time, their connection is witnessed by any random stranger who happens to glance their way. Anyone can see how proud they are of each other. Anyone can see that there's someone who makes the Traveler grin and laugh, and that that someone is a tall foreigner whose hair looks like honey in the sunlight and whose eyes shine with joy.

Ajax sets Aether down and they stand there for a moment, literally looking at each other in a new light. Whether Teyvat's sun is real or fake, it's still brighter and whiter in the afternoon than the one in the Serenitea Pot ever gets. Aether wishes he brought his kamera, because behind Ajax is the Hanamizaka sakura tree, and it would make a wonderful background for a picture of him.

He can actually just go and grab it. He's not going to stop himself. "Wait here a minute sweetheart, I forgot something." Aether pats the center of Ajax's chest before willing himself back to the Teapot, where he doesn't have to go far to snatch his kamera off a shelf.

Ajax doesn't entirely stop smiling even after Aether disappears. He's glad Aether could join him here. Yes, they would be out and about in Inazuma tonight too, and they'd surely spend time in the city together at some point, but there's nothing wrong with getting to sooner than expected—and everything right with it. His heart feels so very full, and he knows exactly why. Being cocooned in an adeptal realm with Aether for days had a dreamlike quality to it. If there's any irrational part of him that feared it would all fall apart in the light of Teyvat's day, such a doubt has been eradicated. It has all been real, it's still real, and Aether loves him. Aether showed that to the world without hesitation.

That wasn't on Ajax's mind when he held out his arms. It was no test. He was acting on pure empty-headed whim, out of pure joy at seeing Aether standing atop that roof. Bright and golden the man was, his surefootedness making him seem immovable even as the wind played with the ends of his cape.

It's not on his mind anymore, either, when Aether reappears in front of him. It's obvious that Aether is holding something behind his back. Ajax starts to lean over the shorter man's shoulder to see what it is, and smiles innocently when he gets a light shove for the attempt.

Aether suspects his own smile looks mischievous. Fortunately for their time management, Ajax doesn't try to step around him to see what he has in his hands. "Just stand there. Good. Cocogoat."

The meaning of the last three syllables, tacked onto the rest so seamlessly, only hits Ajax after a second's delay. He starts laughing, and in the next moment he's almost doubled over, hand on his mouth to muffle himself. Aether looks pleased with what he's done to him by just saying a single word, too, and that makes it funnier.

Aether is very pleased indeed to watch Ajax get slain by the unexpected callback to 'the best laugh he'd had in a long time.' He figured it had been long enough that Ajax wouldn't in any way see it coming, and it seems he was right. He himself is grinning uncontrollably and struggling not to laugh.

In gasps and giggles, Ajax catches his breath. "I had almost forgotten about that. Well, no, I could never forget that," especially since he has that ongoing project to set up a reliable supply of coconuts for Qiqi, "but I hadn't thought about it in some time. I must thank you again."

Aether holds up the kamera and points it at Ajax, though he doesn't yet peek through the tiny window-thing to aim it properly. His grin relaxes into a small, sunny smile.

Ajax blinks at the kamera, then darts his gaze the very short distance from it to Aether's eyes. He's aware that his own smile is taking a shy turn, and the only justification he has for that is that if Aether photographs him, he's probably going to see the result, which he doesn't have any reason to look forward to. But then Aether says to him—

"I love you." Aether can't say it as softly as he wants to, lest he go unheard under the noises of Inazuma City. The forge burns behind him, Hajime intermittently hammering a blade. The shrill, constant tone of cicadas is coming from everywhere and nowhere. The trees rustle in the winds. As in Liyue Harbor, people are talking. He and Ajax are only a little bit out of the way of all that.

It's the subtle reverence in how Aether says it that hugs Ajax without even touching him and sweeps away the potential awkwardness. The words themselves, too, of course, but hearing it said so un-casually is a powerful reminder of how much Aether means it. They might be acting like tourists—the modish type who bring kameras with them everywhere in the past year or two—but for that moment it may as well be just the two of them alone in a deserted city.

Involuntarily, Ajax smiles wide and warm at Aether. He can plainly see him peeking at the viewfinder, adjusting his aim, and pressing the button, and he couldn't care less.

Saying that to put Ajax at ease was Aether's plan all along. All along the thirty seconds he took to fetch the camera, that is. Step one: make him laugh, step two: make him comfortable, step three: photograph! It's also a good excuse to say it for its own sake.

The kamera spits out the glossy square of paper and Aether carefully grasps it by a corner, letting it hang from his fingers, watching as the picture develops. He has it facing him and not Ajax, because he would like to make sure it turned out alright before showing it to him. Of course, Ajax starts to sidle around to see. "Aht," Aether noises to stop him, holding up one finger of the hand he has the kamera in.

"Hehe. Can we take one together? And one of you?"

"I'd like that. We might have to get someone to take the picture for us."

"I'm sure we can find a helpful passerby with a steady hand." Ajax looks around.

As the image becomes clear, Aether's smile is renewed. Got it. There you are... "Okay, you can look now."

Ajax still has low expectations of the result. He's sure Aether has plenty of experience with that kamera, but the subject just isn't a good one. He moves to Aether's side and peers down at the photograph.

He almost doesn't recognize himself.

He looks...like a normal person. No more and no less.

Aether looks up at his surprised expression and says, softly now that they're standing so close together, "See...?"

Ajax winds his arms around Aether's waist and rests his chin on the top of his head. When he goes to speak he realizes how difficult it'll be if he keeps his chin there, so instead he leans his cheek against the side. "...I don't understand," he murmurs in peaceful thought. "That looks so different from the last time I chanced upon a mirror. Is it the kamera?" Is it because I'm happy?

"You look different than you used to," Aether admits. "You used to look very tired all the time. Very, very tired. And bored. And depressed. Always ready to be disappointed. But every time you were happy, the sun broke through those clouds and you...you shined so bright."

Ajax sighs, silently for once, his exhalation ruffling Aether's hair. "Shone," he offers as a correction.

Aether thanks him by means of a slight nuzzle.

Thinking back, Ajax finds Aether's description—the flattering part aside—pretty accurate to both how he looked and how he sometimes felt. At the time, though... At every time until now... He assumed it was because he had been fundamentally changed by the Abyss, just like his family thought. That he'd lost something. That he came out less human than he went in. He had seen it as a fair trade for the strength he gained.

Just like his assumption that he couldn't love, it wasn't true.

"So," Ajax muses, "all it took was getting some rest? Which is to say, the best sleep I've had in years, an amount of time spent idle that I'd never confess to, and, all in all...slowing down long enough to catch up to myself. Ah yes, and the simple matters of finding love and happiness~" Ajax kisses Aether's hair, then leans further over his shoulder to kiss his cheek and smile at him with deep appreciation.

Aether turns his head to give Ajax a casual kiss on his lips. "Mm-hm~ Just those little things."

"Mm, hehe. Shall we find—"

Aether interrupts, because he can't let that subject pass by without letting Ajax know this, "It's the best sleep I've had in Teyvat, too. When I sleep with you." My nightmares...if I'm still having them, I'm not remembering them.

Ajax's eyebrows rise. "Oh. I'm glad to hear that, to say the least. Being able to give back any of what you've given me...is a fond wish of mine."

"And you do." Aether smiles. "You're really good at loving me."

"Good. I won't accept that as an excuse to rest on my laurels, though."

Aether chuckles. "I know. You haven't sat on a laurel in so long you...uh... I don't have an ending for this joke."

"Haha, ha! How about this... Hm... No, I don't have anything either." He claps his hands onto Aether's shoulders and straightens up.

Aether is about to suggest they cross the street to Naganohara Fireworks to see if Yoimiya is in, but a random passerby notices them standing by the street's edge with a kamera and offers to help.

"Should we stand next to each other, or...?" Aether looks Ajax up and down. Their height difference isn't unusual for a couple, and it's not going to be a problem for the photograph, but there's a decision to be made in any case.

"We could—..." Ajax moves behind Aether again and drapes his arms around his shoulders. "Something like this?"

"Yeah." Aether follows his natural inclination to lean back against him and place his hands on his arms. He feels Ajax's chin settle atop his head once more, and it makes him smile. Yeah, I like this. We fit together perfectly this way.

As soon as Aether's head is tucked under his chin, Ajax feels a smile utterly take over his face. He closes his eyes in contentment...and remembers, just in time, to open them for the picture.

Or not in time. A picture is taken of Aether alone, and by then, the one with both of them has developed. Ajax's eyes were caught half-open in a way that does not look good, but which they get a laugh out of.

The second attempt comes out perfect. Ajax is privately amazed that he looks normal in this one too, that it wasn't just a fluke. I'll send this one with the letter. That one, with only Aether, is going in my wallet for those inevitable times when we're apart.

He insists on tipping their ad hoc photographer more than a few Mora. Between his smooth confidence and Aether's mostly silent nods seconding what he says, they convince the person to accept enough for a meal at Uyuu Restaurant.

As the person rejoins a very patient friend across the street, Aether and Ajax pocket the photographs and start walking up the Tenryou district. Neither of them knows who reaches for the other's hand first, only that their hands bump into each other by mutual intention and easily interweave.

They keep their eyes out for shops that might have any of the things they're looking for.

"Is that place selling animal supplies?" Aether nods to a small building with several cats loitering on and around it. There's a sign, but it's written in Inazuman. Part of his view of the place is blocked by a cluster of people.

"Ah...?" Ajax peers over the other pedestrians' heads but doesn't glean anything more informative. "Suppose we'll have to go in and see."

The door is ajar and equipped with a tinkly bell. The smells of dry feed for various animals instantly fill their noses as they enter, and they see that every inch of wall space is occupied by deep shelves which in turn display all manner of pet toys, beds, boxes, carriers, kennels, and so forth. Larger versions of those items are stacked on the floor. The building's limited space has been utilized to the point where there's just enough room for customers to walk single-file.

The owner appears from around a stack's corner and welcomes them, offering any assistance they might need. Aether just nods, and Ajax unwittingly takes on the role of Paimon with his outgoing sociability.

The two of them split up and start at opposite corners of the shop, piling into their arms everything that looks necessary until they meet in the center.

Once everything's paid for, the masculine urge to get all of it back to the Teapot in one trip takes hold of them. Crouching down for a foreseen reason, Ajax gathers the largest armload he can on his own. Aether then piles the rest on top without having to jump, throw, or climb. Ajax stands up and they victoriously admire their architecture for a moment before he wishes himself home with it. Aether is glad the shopkeeper isn't in sight at that point: he doesn't have to explain why his partner (or whatever that person assumes Ajax is to him) just disappeared into thin air.

When Ajax returns, he finds Aether outside, idly observing the cats.

Paimon and I should check up on Neko again soon. Aether's gaze flicks from the cats on the roof to the flame-like brightness of Ajax's hair catching sunlight as he emerges from the shop. "Went well?"

"Mm-hm. Left it on the porch when I recalled that there's no reason not to, for the time being. Tubby didn't seem to recognize what any of it's for, so I took a moment to answer her unspoken curiosity."

They fall into step beside each other again, continuing their southeastward stroll. "That's better than letting her wonder for the rest of her life what we're using the fake mice on strings for," Aether muses.

A familiar young woman's boisterous voice turns their heads toward a side street. "Is that you, bro!?"

"Xinyan?" Ajax responds happily.

Xinyan runs up to them from beyond a passing pair of samurai who are being pestered by an inquisitive adventurer. She scoots to a stop, now able to see Aether. "Hey, it's both of you! Awesome! How you guys been?"

They're both delighted to see her. Aether smiles slightly; Ajax beams. "Hello," the former says. "We've— I've been..."

"Fantastic, actually!" Ajax finishes for him. Aether confirms with a vigorous nod that that's where he was going.

"That's great to hear! What say we grab dinner together and catch up?"

"I can't stay much longer," Aether lets her know. "Actually, do you want to come to my Teapot tomorrow for dinner? Or lunch, either one."

"Ohh right, yeah! Sounds great! Should I bring takeout?"

"No, no, let us cook for you," Ajax suggests.

Aether agrees. "You're welcome to request something, as long as it doesn't need too much preparation ahead of time."

"Well shucks, I always love some extra-spicy chicken. Hey, I could make dinner for you guys instead?"

"As tempting as the chance to try your cooking is..." Ajax considers. He looks to Aether, who doesn't give away any hint of a preference. "What about this: you bring an ingredient, such as your favorite blend of spices, and we'll do the cooking?"

"That sounds good," Aether comments. He likes that it lets both parties feel they've literally brought something to the table.

Xinyan grins. "If I bring my favorite spice blend, it'll be pretty intense, I warn you."

Ajax comes awfully close to saying he's gotten used to spicy food thanks to his time spent in Liyue. I need to tell her the truth, but not here and not now, and certainly not by a slip of the tongue.

Fortunately, Aether is responding to Xinyan's warning. "We can use different amounts on each portion if necessary. Do you remember how to get to the Teapot?"

"Just focus on it, yeah?" Xinyan answers and asks.

"Right," Aether confirms.

"It has been a while," Xinyan admits with a sheepish little chuckle. "I've been real busy makin' the most of my visit to Inazuma, meetin' local musicians and tryin' out the local instruments. And then there's the folktales all rich with inspiration, and the gorgeous scenery..."

"It's hard to find enough hours in the day for everything Inazuma has to offer," Ajax agrees.

"Right? Anyhow, what time should I show up tomorrow?"

Aether glances at Ajax. "Noon? No, one— no, two hours after noon." The two of them are meeting at midnight and they're probably not going to be sleeping until at least an hour after that, and they haven't been good at early mornings in the past few days even when they go to bed early. "Mh, maybe three hours after noon?"

Ajax bets he knows what 'math' Aether is doing. His eyebrows rise a tad; he's mildly amused to watch his comrade think it through in realtime and keep amending the answer. "I don't mind," he professes once Aether seems to have settled on one. "A warrior must be ready to rise at any hour and must be prepared to meet any situ— huh?"

Aether has reached up and placed a fingertip on Ajax's nose. He's not pressing, just leaving it there as he stares up at him with no expression whatsoever. I just had to see what would happen if I did something like that in the middle of one of your lectures. Not that he minds the 'lectures,' but he really wanted to see what would happen, and the result, he thinks, is rewardingly cute: Ajax is staring back in blank puzzlement.

Xinyan covers half her mouth with her fist to stifle a giggle.

Aether takes his finger off his nose. "Continue."

"Uh...as I was saying...no, never mind that." Ajax decides it isn't important at this moment and in current company. "We do have limited time before you have to be on your way. Xinyan, when is your concert?

Aether planned on reminding Ajax to check the bulletin boards for that, but here's Xinyan herself, and Ajax has beaten him to asking her.

"Day after tomorrow! Sorry 'bout the short notice, I just got the ads up the other day. With the Irodori Festival coming up soon, I had to get a move on. I thought about performing at the festival, but it's too late to get in on that. The next best thing I could do was space things out a lil. It's okay if ya can't make it."

"No, I can make it," Aether assures her—

—at the same time as Ajax says, "Of course!" He pauses with an apologetic gesture to his comrade, only continuing when Aether gives a slight shake of his head. "I promised I'd be there, and you did say it was going to be soon."

"Rockin'!" Xinyan folds her arms triumphantly. "Lemme tell ya, I'd understand if you couldn't make it, but you'd be missed, both of you. Speakin' of which!" She grins. "Paimon said you can dance, bro. That true?"

"Aheha, yes, it's true. Dance isn't unlike combat. Both require precise control of one's body. I don't find dancing nearly as thrilling, but it's a very appealing crossover between exercise and performance."

"Well then why dontcha hop on stage with me? I've seen your moves in combat, I'm bettin' you'd shred to the songs I've got lined up."

Ajax smiles. "I'd be honored! Though I neglected to say so at the time, I really enjoyed what you played for Shiki Taishou. So very lively and stirring."

"Aw man, thanks! And don't worry about it! I know you'd been awake for like six days straight at that point, or close enough. You're too tough for your own good!" Xinyan bops him on the chest.

"I'll agree to disagree on that," Ajax chuckles, the light bop having no physical effect whatsoever. "Remaining fit to fight for that length of time is just about the minimum I would demand of myself."

Xinyan shakes her head and briefly closes her eyes in acceptance, smiling. "Well, you do you." She eyes Aether then, her smile knowing. "The you that you do definitely has fans."

Aether is happy she noticed that, though he doesn't show it right away. He first casts a glance at Ajax, who is looking at him with a softened smile.

Ajax sees how Aether's expression softens in turn. He has zero thoughts at that moment except for the glow of knowing that Xinyan's observation is true.

"He does," Aether affirms, a smile spreading across his face that's wider and happier than any Xinyan has seen before.

"Welp, I better let you two lovebirds go," Xinyan declares merrily. Receiving surprised looks from both men, she has to stifle another giggle. "Guys, you've been holding hands this whole time."

They flex their fingers.

Aether glances down at their hands unnecessarily before mumbling, "Ah...right...of course." How did I not think of that? Did I forget his hand is in mine?

Ajax winces his eyes closed over an embarrassed smile. At least he's not alone in having been caught unawares. He quickly brightens, not at all unhappy to be seen hand-in-hand with Aether. "You have a firm grasp on the situation I see, Xinyan. Evidently, the only firm grasp we have is on one another."

A short chuckle jumps out of Aether. "As soon as I leave, your intelligence is going to go up something like forty percent, and so will mine."

"Hahahey," Xinyan laughs, "you two did great in all those fights, it can't be that bad. Congrats, by the way! This's gotta be new, right, 'cause you hadn't seen each other in a while?"

"Overdue," Aether confirms.

Ajax nods. "Overdue indeed. But all is well now. Thank you for your congratulations, haha."

Aether seconds that. "Thank you. See you tomorrow at our— our home." He looks to his and Ajax's linked hands again and smiles softly.

Ajax glances at Aether's downturned head and gives his hand a squeeze and rub before they both let go.

"Aw man, you guys look so happy!" Xinyan enthuses. "You better take care of yourselves 'til then!" She has a warm smile as she waves goodbye to them, heading back to the northgoing street she came from.

Ajax gives her his typical small wave, smiling fondly. "You too, Xinyan."

Aether lifts his hand in his brief, motionless, and rare version of a wave. She's probably on her way to the park on the north side of the city, he guesses.

When she disappears from their line of sight, Ajax leads Aether aside to the shade of a narrow awning and moves in front of him. Taking both his hands and holding them gently between his, he places two kisses on the gloved knuckles. "Good luck, lyubimy. Your skill will surely see you through a few Treasure Hoarders with no trouble, but if matters become complicated, perhaps a little luck might be of use. Ah, and remember to see Ekaterina first."

Aether feels like he's going to blush. It's so good to be loved by someone who understands what he does, who respects his capabilities without disregarding his personhood. He hopes fervently that he makes Ajax feel the same way. "I will. Thank you..." He looks up and adds, with amusem*nt, "You'll definitely need luck for the rest of the shopping."

Ajax chuckles. "Most definitely." At Aether's behest their hands trade places. Instead of kissing Ajax's knuckles, Aether turns his hands palm-up and kisses the almost heart-shaped eyelets at the cuffs of his gloves. He has entire forearms Aether could kiss if the point was simply to touch skin with his lips, but no, he went for this little cheat through his gloves that makes Ajax hyper-aware of the sensation. It's strangely and savorably intimate. "...Piercing through my armor straight to my heart, as always," he compliments, leaning in close for just a moment so he can speak quieter and still be heard by Aether amidst the sounds of the city.

"They look like iconographic hearts," Aether observes, faintly teasing. He has an eyebrow raised and he's peering up at Ajax through his eyelashes. "Did no one tell you the saying isn't 'wear your heart on your hands'?"

Ajax enfolds Aether in a hug. "Hands, from which all things are built," he murmurs to his shoulder, quoting...something. A poem or maybe a song. He doesn't know why the eyelets look like that, so all he has for a reply is the random snippet Aether's words brought to mind.

"Hmm," Aether sighs, grateful for the hug, and more so for the chance to give one back. "What's that from?"

"Don't know." Ajax has a subtle smile residing in and around his eyes as they part. "I'll see you at our rendezvous point. Midnight, yes?"

"Yes. Try not to think about it too much until then." The playfulness of that advice is blanketed over by the contented tranquility of Aether's voice. It comes off more like a sweet nothing. His gaze remains entwined with Ajax's until he teleports.

"Hmh," Ajax responds belatedly under his breath, his smile blooming for a second as he shakes his head at the wall Aether had been standing in front of. Now I have to find a shop that sells sex accessories. He steps away from the awning and resumes the walk up the street, keeping an eye out in both directions. After we ran into Xinyan, is it too much to ask for Thoma to show up and avail me of his extensive local knowledge?...

It is.

Chapter 18: Day 14: A Place Called Home (part 6)

Notes:

Aether and Chongyun: Rapid as Wildfires
meanwhile Childe: Wii Shop Channel

anyway you're going to need this briefly: Hilichurlian lexicon

Chapter Text

Aether fetches his backpack first. "Hello," he says to Tubby with a respectful nod as he passes between her and the pile of cat supplies to enter the mansion.

"Hello," Tubby returns cheerily. She's snuggled low in her teapot, her feathers fluffed out, looking very comfortable; only her eyes and beak are visible under the lid.

Aether opens the door and steps through. He pauses... Then walks backwards and asks Tubby, "Is it possible to have a waypoint inside the house?"

She twitches her head into a tilt. "There is no reason it shouldn't be. Would you like me to create another waypoint?"

"Yes, please. Thank you." It's going to be difficult to make room for the apparatus in his and Ajax's bedroom, but it'll solve so many problems. "Just hold onto it for now. I don't have a spot ready for it yet."

The teapot lid bobs as Tubby nods.

Aether walks into the Northland Bank as though the last time he saw the inside of it wasn't when Teucer left. He strides straight to the reception desk. "Ekaterina." He issues a nod in greeting.

She doesn't hide that she's intrigued by his sudden and unexpected visit. "Well, hello there Traveler. To what do we owe this pleasure?"

"Let's talk somewhere else."

"Very well." Ekaterina must be taking the earring seriously, because she lets him into the secure rear of the building through the gate at her desk. He follows her through a narrow passage and a door, up a back stairway, and along a second-floor hallway where she unlocks another door. The plaque on this one leaves no question of what room waits beyond: no name, just a horned whale painted in neat, blue minimalism. At Ekaterina's simple but cordial 'after you' gesture, Aether goes on in. She closes the door behind them and lights a lamp.

The first thing Aether's glance around the room halts on is an entire wall dedicated to the display of weapons. There's a wide variety of types, sizes, and presumably provenance, but not so much variety of origin: most of them are from Liyue.

Hmm. No way I could guess whose office this is. Aether's affectionate sarcasm is very deadpan even within his mind.

The second thing he takes note of is a painting, mounted behind and to one side of the desk that immediately identified this room as an office. It depicts a large building that, while not quite what he would call ostentatious, is characterized by an austere regality. Gilded with ice, it's surrounded by what might be a wall or a row of shorter buildings. There's another painting directly across from the door, but it's just some generic-looking picture of a sunny, snowless woodland.

"Zapolyarny Palace," Ekaterina labels the interesting one for him. He nods his thanks and studies the painting a moment longer, while she relocates a chair from beside the door to the front side of the desk. There wasn't one there already.

The desk is near the room's window. The leather-upholstered chair behind it is even closer to the window. Compared to everything on the main floor of the bank, the furniture in here appears humble upon first impression. But once Aether's eyes adjust to the difference of style, he can see that it's all top-quality. Even he can see that. Underneath flawless finish, the unstained grain of the sandbearer wood is ornamental in its own right, carefully selected and assembled by whichever carpenter made it. Most of the things downstairs are unstained sandbearer wood, too, but the golden shine of ormolu is nowhere to be found in this room.

Ekaterina has seated herself in the chair she brought over. When she invites Aether to have a seat and indicates the chair behind the desk, he looks at her with some confusion.

She smiles knowingly. Her typical demeanor, as far as Aether has seen, is coolly composed, and that's exactly what it is now. "You're wearing Master Childe's earring. Somehow I find myself quite sure he wouldn't mind you using his chair."

Aether shrugs and takes her up on the suggestion. On account of his backpack, he has to sit leaning forward.

"It's good to see that you and he are on such good terms now. He hasn't been the same since you left. For my coworkers, I have to pretend I haven't noticed that."

Aether fidgets with the earring. "I know," he admits quietly. "I regret staying away so long." A question comes to him, and it's one that he's sure he knows the answer to, but this is an opportunity... "Does he ever take out frustrations on his subordinates?"

He reads a slight tilt of Ekaterina's head as surprise. The straightening of it a second later feels like what he would he would do if he was surprised by something and realized he shouldn't be. Her answer sounds honest, but he bears in mind that she may be obligated to speak well of her boss, who is also above her in the chain of command and an extremely high civil authority in her nation. "No, never. The worst I've ever seen him mete out is a few mild words of chastisem*nt. Nothing more than advising an errant subordinate of his expectations going forward. Of course, even that is enough to strike fear in some hearts. We all know how...certain other Harbingers treat their lessers. He doesn't go easy in sparring and training, which makes it all the more remarkable he has never killed anyone under his command that way."

The last part is old information, but the rest is even better than Aether expected. He does then have one of those moments of realizing he shouldn't be surprised: he recalls that Ajax is afraid to show aggression around his family, and Aether guesses that, just like cursing, that extends to how he acts around most people at most times. 'Mild' is the right word. He hopes for fights but he doesn't try to make them happen by having a needlessly hostile personality. Why would he, anyway, when he sees strong opponents in such a friendly light. 'Conflict' and 'strife' are happy things for him when actual combat is involved, but he's not someone who feels a need to prove he has power over other people socially.

Ekaterina observes him attentively from behind her mask, no doubt. He has always gotten the sense that she's a sharp one, and he's sure her duties as a Fatuus go far beyond 'receptionist.'

It's also advantageous, Aether readily acknowledges. If he decided to attack someone outside of a...situation where a fight is obviously going to happen, it would not be easy to anticipate. Even someone who thinks of him as a dangerous person wouldn't see the exact moment and method coming, because he could be calm and charming right up to that point, and probably even while, I dunno, slitting someone's throat. Which is one of the reasons why he is dangerous. Aether tries not to find that thought attractive. He is not completely successful. It's too easy to compartmentalize.

"So what brought you here today?" Ekaterina inquires.

Ah, right, I don't have all this time; need to get what I came for and go. "I need a sheet of the, um, Ninth Company's code phrases. The latest one you have, whenever that was. Just a copy of it."

"The Ninth...? The Chasm expedition? Yes, I can get that for you." Her wondering tone and a thin downturn of her mouth express curiosity about things she knows better than to question.

Ajax makes some easy purchases while he searches for the sex shop whose existence he and Aether aren't even certain of. Bathrobes for both of them (he makes a very educated guess as to Aether's sizing), a replacement for the article of underwear he ripped, and a replacement for the plate he dropped.

He may as well buy a larger bathtub now, too. What Aether has is a simple tin one, and although Ajax thinks his comrade deserves something nicer as well as larger, he is not sure how to get a heavier bathtub into the Teapot. A tin one, he can just pick up. This way they can have warm baths together in the convenience of the bathroom. Later, they can upgrade.

When Aether teleports to Lumberpick Valley, the code sheet rolled up in his pocket, he sees before him a grassy path through grey crags. He's standing on a haphazardly-constructed platform, a signature sight anywhere there's been industrial activity in Liyue. A signature sight in Treasure Hoarder camps, too, since they often move into such sites after they're abandoned. How teleport waypoints get on top of such recent structures, no one has been able to tell him.

A few stacks of crates sit on the corners of the platform like paperweights. One open container is full of rocks that look unremarkable to Aether's untrained eye. From recent reading, he learned that the worthless byproducts of mining are called 'gangue' in common. He wonders fleetingly if that's what those rocks are, or if they do have some use and just haven't been transported yet. Considering they've been there, untouched, since the last time he was here, the former is more likely.

He turns around and sees a broken bridge, as makeshift as the platform and the two short, wide flights of stairs that descend into the gap that bridge used to cross. There's a pathway down there, too, running southwest into the Chasm and northeast toward the rest of Liyue. These wooden constructions littering the land are fairly sturdy except for the bridges.

There's no one else here. He might be a little early for Chongyun's arrival. His first thought is to climb to higher ground and watch from there, but he spots a Seelie across the way. He squints at it. How did I miss that one last time? Maybe it's one I already followed to its court and it's gotten lost again. Well, time to get something shiny for Paimon. Down the stairs he trots, and over to the diaphanous creature he jogs.

As he accompanies the Seelie back to its court, he tries to avoid a single hilichurl staring off into space under a tree. It's close to the road, potentially a hazard to travelers, but it's just one, and it's not guarding anything of interest. Without Paimon here to sic him on it, Aether has no reason to disturb it.

The hilichurl, however, has other ideas. Just when Aether thinks he's gotten past without being noticed, there's a snarly yell from back by that tree. A thrown rock misses him by two whole meters. The Seelie court is in view and its resident is floating onward to it as Aether stops. He turns around wearily and stares at the hilichurl, which is quickly ambling toward him. It doesn't seem too sure of its plan, but, for whatever reason, it's determined to do something about him.

Aether extends a hand toward the oncoming biped. He doesn't bother to summon his sword. "Back," he warns sharply.

The hilichurl hesitates, and starts sidling a circle around him, studying him.

Heh, maybe this one has some potential. It's a little more thoughtful than most. Aether gathers a small ripple of Anemo around his hand as a second warning.

"Nini," the hilichurl mutters, growing more wary. Then, as if reminding itself of its motive, it growls, "Ya ika..."

"Beru si, odomu?" Aether responds, firmly but not as sharp as before. "Mi kuzi. Yo kucha. Nye kundala."

He pays the same attention to Ella Musk's research as he pays to learning the common human language of Teyvat. The hilichurls are ubiquitous, and despite how frequently humans come into conflict with them, his objective view finds they spend far more time minding their own business than seeking conflict. It's the same story he and Lumine have seen in many other worlds: humans spread and spread, and when other intelligent beings are encroached upon, humans blame them for the resulting conflicts.

Surprised to hear its language spoken back to it, the hilichurl recoils, then tilts its head sideways.

Aether lets the Anemo dissipate and slowly lowers his hand. "Yo muhe mosi? Zido, mita." He crouches to defuse the threat he represents, putting up his hands for a moment, then very slowly reaches for a side-pocket on his backpack. The hilichurl shifts from foot to foot uncertainly, but it neither moves forward nor retreats. Aether pulls out his bag of boar jerky and holds it out on his joined palms, letting the hilichurl get a good—if not close—look at it. "Mita." Next, he takes some jerky strips out and offers them at arm's length.

A mitachurl's roar steals the attention of both beings. Aether looks up the hillside to his left and sees the axe-wielder atop it. Two crossbow-wielding hilichurls join it and take aim. Aether could stay and fight, or try to smooth things over and probably end up fighting anyway. He chooses to spring up and run back the way he came, tossing down the handful of jerky strips so that the hilichurl he spoke with might still take them. An Electro-leap speeds his retreat and serves as a show of power he hopes will discourage pursuit.

On the stairs up to the waypoint he slows down, and at the top he stops. A look back is unnecessary to confirm he hasn't been followed, as he hasn't heard any footsteps or yelling. He must have trespassed on hilichurl territory, he guesses; there was probably a village nearby.

These roads are disused for now, but as soon as someone finds a way to make a profit here again, that village is doomed. Aether wonders how many times they've been forced to relocate already. Dozens of times, no doubt, with hilichurl and human lives lost every time. Typical adventurers aren't strong and skilled enough to attack a whole village, much less succeed at killing many of the inhabitants, but an adventure team or a squad of Millelith can do enough damage to force a relocation, albeit at great risk to themselves.

It's to be expected, of course. It's no worse than what humans do to each other. Teyvat is a very peaceful continent despite what the locals might think. Aether suspects that's largely because the hilichurls and the Abyss Order are presen