"Isn't there anyone you usually hang out with around this time of year?" Aether asks on a whim over a steaming bowl of bamboo shoot soup. He scoops up the last one, tender and tangy, and chews slowly, savoring the flavor.
"I spend it in the wind," Xiao says over his own bowl, without even pausing to think about it. He sips silently while Aether digests this.
"You mean, traveling around? It must be nice seeing the lanterns from all sorts of different places." Aether picks up his bowl and takes a few large gulps.
"In a way, yes." Xiao says, after swallowing delicately. "When I am amongst the breezes of Liyue, I cannot see as I do now. I rely on my auditory sense."
Aether splutters. "Y-You mean you're literally in the wind? Like, you become wind?"
Xiao sends him a puzzled stare. "You have seen me appear in a space that I previously did not occupy. Surely you must have realized that I came from elsewhere?"
"I didn't really think about it," Aether says defensively. "There was always something else going on—Starcatcher, that would-be treasure hunter..."
Xiao does not look very impressed.
"Still," Aether says, rallying. "That's no way to spend the holiday. You can't even see the lanterns, and they're kind of the whole point!"
"It is what I have always done," Xiao says. His tone leaves no room for argument.
Wisely, Aether lets the topic rest while he drinks more soup and tries to think of another way to come at it. The idea doesn't come to him immediately. He works his way through his soup and is reaching for a skewer of tiger fish when it finally hits him.
"Hey," he says, trying to sound casual. "Do you want to go visit the shrine by the ha—uh, where Pervases manifested himself?"
Xiao looks up, eyes narrowing. "By the harbor?" It is absolutely infuriating the way he misses nothing, Aether thinks. He should be more irritated, but the way the adept's forehead is scrunching into the smallest wrinkle...Hm.
He chooses to ignore this. And also, Xiao's comment.
"Well, it occurred to me that he might be lonely," Aether says, waving his skewer around. "And, he likes this snack! We can bring some to him. It'll be nice."
"Adepts do not get lonely," Xiao begins. "We are—,"
Aether, sensing a dramatic and woeful monologue, sensibly heads him off before he really gets going. "Okay, yes, maybe the great and powerful Vigilant Yaksha doesn't get lonely, but Pervases wasn't that powerful, right? When I spoke to him, he seemed like he missed being human."
Xiao considers this. "Hm," he says.
It's not exactly disagreement. Good. Aether presses his advantage.
"I think he missed being around others. And, I know he wasn't family," Aether says, "but he was an adeptus too, right? Lantern Festival can be about friends too."
He watches Xiao bristle instinctively. "He wasn't a friend."
"I see," Aether says. He picks up his skewer and nibbles the perfectly cooked meat off of the bones. The skin is crispy and just a little charred. "It's fine if he was," he says gently.
"He wasn't," Xiao snaps immediately, his shoulders stubbornly set. He pushes away his bowl and looks away, towards the lake. He looks like he's seeking a crisp breeze, but the water is unusually still.
Aether exhales. "Okay." He sets down his skewer too. It feels wrong to be the only one eating, even if he is hungry.
They sit there silently. Aether eyes the remnants of their lunch and stuffs down his disappointment. Xiao needs his own space. He shouldn't have pushed so hard.
Above them, the sun is inching steadily west. He should go pay and be on his way; there's all those requests everyone keeps making that he should see about. It'll be a busy afternoon, and maybe evening too. It's nice helping people make lanterns, but Aether, gaze lingering on a crop of sleek blue-green hair, thinks maybe he'd really rather spend his time making lanterns with a specific person.
"Staring," Xiao mutters grumpily.
"Ah," Aether says, startled. "Do you have eyes growing out of your back? As expected of an adept, huh?" He laughs weakly. Standing, he stacks their dishes neatly and puts on a cheery tone. "Well, I'll see you next time?"
Xiao doesn't reply. He doesn't even turn around.
Aether can't help it, he sighs. Just a little one, but Xiao probably hears it anyway. Patience, he tells himself. Baby steps. One severe karmic backlash isn't going to fix everything.
He heads off with a slow step.
"Pervases was not a friend," Xiao says stiffly from behind him. "But...I fought beside him. I would like to go visit the shrine with you. If you still want to."
Aether spins around, the dishes wobbling precariously.
Xiao looks mostly as stiff as ever, but his eyes reveal a flicker of something new. Maybe, uncertainty?
"Yes," Aether says. "Let's go now! If you're free?" The requests can wait, he thinks giddily. Between them and this, there is no contest.
Xiao's shoulders relax a fraction. He nods. "I am available," he states.
"Good," Aether says, mind whirring. "I'll go order some cakes and stuff for the road. Maybe Verr has some camping gear I can rent or something."
Xiao tilts his head. "Why would you need to go to this trouble?"
Aether huffs. "You might be able to become one with the wind, but I can't. And the harb—the shrine," he corrects smoothly (Xiao raises an eyebrow anyway), "is two days away for me. Hence, supplies."
Xiao stands. "No," he says simply. "It is not." He reaches across the table.
"What do you mean no," Aether says, and then he can't breathe.
The world spins alarmingly around him. He feels at first stretched lengthwise like a taffy candy, then squished until he is as small as a single mote of dust. It feels cold and alien. The darkness, for it is dark even though Aether swears his eyes are open, screams.
Please let my daddy come home for new year's, a small voice whispers.
What do you mean you ran out of violetgrass? I'm telling you, I need some today! What kind of store is this??, someone yells.
Let my restaurant fill with customers until I can't fit a single person at any table, another demands.
There are so many voices, all jumbled together in a barely comprehensible flood.
Some of it is sad. (It's alright. You can let go. We're here.) Some of it is lovely. (Happy new year, grandma. Have some tangyuan! I made this dumpling for you!) Some of it is ugly. (You deserve a lot more than a kick, stupid. Now get up!)
All of it is noise.
Please! I am so alone.
Aether can't tell who said that one. Maybe it came from his own mouth. It's getting harder to distinguish between his thoughts and the awful din.
I love you I hate you Thank you, thank you I wish I never met you Someone come quick Look here Brother you're home Ow my knee This is so pretty I am so sorry
The flimsy little barrier between his mind and the yawning inkiness gives with a little sigh, finally worn through. And then he is just another little voice yelling help! into the void.
In the distance, he feels a great force sweeping through the awful roar, cutting through it like it is nothing. It dives through the emptiness, even though little fragments of noise try to hang onto its form. They can no more cling to him than the little voice can pull itself (himself) free.
It draws closer.
A little part of the voice is scared. It is so small, and this thing is very powerful. But another, larger, part of it takes in the shape of the large being that is so comfortable amidst the gaping maw and sighs in relief.
Here I am, the voice says, smothering its fear, holding up its tiny arms. Come find me.
And the creature does. Unerringly, it dives for it, him, he corrects, because as the being enfolds him within its form, he tastes its magic and relearns the simple fact that he is Aether, a boy who is known and loved and claimed, not a nameless voice among millions.
And the creature, the wonderful, fearless, creature, is
Xiao, he thinks.
"Xiao," Aether gasps, suddenly choking on warm air. Distantly, he hears himself retch.
The exit is just as violent as the entry. One moment he is nothing and the next he is everything. Something is soft and spiky beneath his palms and his knees as he wheezes. There's an awful rattling noise in the background, which, Aether realizes upon taking another breath, is him.
"Aether," someone is saying with great urgency, grabbing his shoulder, shaking it. "Aether, please,"
Aether can't tell where the person is. It's very dark (wasn't it only noon a minute—an eon—ago?). He opens his eyes, or tries to, at least. They're already open. Ah. It must be evening.
"Aether," the person says again, insistently. "I'm here. You called for me, remember? I'm here."
"Xiao," Aether says hoarsely. His throat hurts like he's been screaming for hours.
"Yes, it's me," Xiao replies patiently.
"Why won't you look at me?" He says, a minute later, confused.
"What?" Aether says weakly, turning his head towards the direction of the adept's voice. "Where are you? It's...dark."
"What?" Xiao says sharply.
A hand touches his chin firmly but gently, tilting it upwards. "Your fingers are cold," Aether mumbles.
Above him, he hears a sharp inhale. "Oh, god," Xiao says. Which is probably a lot coming from him, Aether thinks dimly.
Trembling fingers flit across his cheekbones, which seem to be rather wet. "Your eyes," Xiao says, sounding wrecked.
"It's okay," Aether says, reaching up clumsily. He tries to pat Xiao reassuringly, but his hand doesn't make contact with anything so maybe it's not as reassuring as he'd meant it to be.
Xiao makes a little noise. It sounds a lot like the dog in Mondstat did when Pallad had drunkenly stomped on its tail. Poor thing. Then he's holding Aether with both hands framing his cheeks. "Hold still," he says, as if Aether hadn't gone limp the moment his hand made contact with his skin.
Aether feels his breath, surprisingly warm compared to his hands, dance across his face.
He blinks, instinctively, and Xiao's tense face comes into view above him, backlit by the vicious afternoon sun.
"Ouch," Aether yelps.
Xiao releases him abruptly as if he was a lump of burning coal.
Without the support, Aether immediately falls backward, his head thunking against the grass. "Oof," he groans, his breath driven from his lungs on impact. He's a little light-headed, and everything is so bright. It makes him slow to react.
"I'm sorry," Xiao gasps, somewhere in front of him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I beg your forgiveness, I had no idea that it would try to take you like that, I should never have attempted to lead you through the wind, I—," He breaks off with a horrible, ragged sob, the kind that tears your throat as it emerges.
Aether, winded and dizzy, struggles to think.
"What should you do when someone makes a mistake and apologizes?"
"You should tell them it's okay!" Lumine says, chubby-cheeked and beaming with joy.
"And, and, you should give 'em a hug," Aether says, equally plump and not wanting to be outdone.
"Ah, well done, my lovelies, my dear ones, good job!"
"Hush," Aether says, pulling himself upright. He tries to get on his feet but can't. It's hard to balance. He settles for tugging at a drape-y bit of fabric hanging off Xiao's clothing until he drops into a miserable heap on the grass. Then he shuffles forward and folds his arms around the other boy. Because he is a boy, for all of his mighty powers and immortality. And boys make mistakes sometimes.
"It's okay," Aether sighs into Xiao's hair, who shudders and starts to tremble minutely. Who clutches the front of Aether's scarf like he is drowning and this is his only safe harbor.
"I nearly killed you again," Xiao says wetly, in a tiny voice. Aether discovers that he hates that tone.
"You saved me," he corrects firmly. "I wouldn't have made it out if you hadn't come to find me."
Xiao shakes his head violently.
Aether reaches a hand up and pats his head. It seems appropriate.
The adept stills.
"Just like I did for you, remember? That's what f-friends do," Aether says, stumbling for no particular reason. "We help each other. You shouldn't apologize for that. In fact, I should thank you," he finishes.
The idea is, apparently, too much for Xiao, who pops his head out from where it's buried in Aether's chest. "No!" he cries, aghast.
"There you are," Aether smiles, ignoring the wet cheeks and still suspiciously shiny state of Xiao's golden eyes. "I was wondering when you'd re-emerge."
Xiao looks down, unsmiling. "It's okay if you hate me now," he says, studying Aether's scarf, crumpled between them. "I am a very bad friend."
"I don't hate anyone except for the person that took my sister," Aether says. "I think you are a good friend. This is your very first try, and you're already doing better than I was. I ate all of my first friend's cookies, and then she didn't talk to me for two days."
Xiao frowns, like he doesn't believe it at all but just doesn't want to argue about it. "Your eyes are green," he says instead.
"They are the color of my tattoo. And the color of your marks."
Xiao nods. He looks defeated. "You do not have to be my friend anymore. I had no right to change you like this."
"Is that it?" Aether says.
Xiao looks up sharply. "What?"
"Is that all?" Aether repeats patiently.
"All? This is probably permanent. Your eyes will never—"
"I can still see perfectly," Aether cuts in. "I'm still here, as me, Aether, and not a lonely little speck in a very dark place. So what if I have green eyes now? Green is a pretty color." He plucks a blade of grass and holds it up for Xiao to look at. "See?"
Xiao looks. "You think it's...pretty?" He whispers.
"Yeah," Aether says. "I really do."
"Hm," Xiao says, ducking his chin. It doesn't really hide the way his lips turn down into a very small smile. Or the redness of his cheeks. "Okay."
"Okay," Aether hums. "Do you still want to go see Pervases at some point?"
"Later," Xiao says, seemingly content to stay where he is. It is nice. The field is solid beneath him and radiating warmth...neither of which are particularly grasslike attributes. This is when Aether looks down, really looks, and realizes in his half-blind state he'd actually climbed partway into Xiao's lap.
"Ah, maybe we should go soon, actually?" Aether squeaks.
"No," Xiao says swiftly. "Later." His arms close around Aether's torso, securing him.
"Ah. Mm, well, alright," Aether says nobly, but it’s not as if it’s a terrible hardship. It is quite a lovely afternoon in the hills beyond the harbor, the sun bright above and Xiao, below him and all around him, and well. Isn’t that enough?