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Interlude

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After the fiasco with Osial and Childe, Aether thought returning to Mondstadt would be a good idea. Liyue was starting to pick up the pieces left behind from the battle. He figured it wasn’t his place as foreign being to meddle with the reconstruction of a nation. He’d only meant to get more info on his sister, but even then he turns up empty-handed. 

He was ready to make the jump from where he stood on the harbour to the waypoint in Mond until he felt a tug at his cape. He turned around, confused. He sees his floating companion wear a worn out expression on her usually cheery face. Panic began to seep into his bones, quickly running gloved hands over her tiny body to check for injuries. He’d been so caught up with the whole situation, he’d forgotten to check on Paimon. 

“I’m fine, Traveler.” She forced a smile, worrying Aether more. “I just… can we rest in Liyue a little longer?”

Aether bites his lip. “...Sure.”

He wanted to leave as soon as possible but seeing the state Paimon was in, he didn't have a choice.

So now he sits on a single bed, Paimon’s small chest rising and falling as she peacefully sleeps on their shared mattress. The room was relatively small, but it was nothing the two of them weren’t used to. With the near destruction of the harbour, it’s not like they can expect top-tier services from the inn. His knees are pulled to his chest, huddling himself into a ball. Golden eyes fazed out, lost in thought. To anyone else, they would’ve thought Paimon was being dramatic and making up an excuse to keep lazing around. 

But not Aether. He knew exactly why Paimon was exhausted. 

Being who- or rather what - he was, he could quickly recover himself even in the midst of a battle. His scars heal unnaturally fast, a side effect of his former powers. Though, whatever little abilities he had right now was only a fraction of what he could do before chancing upon that unknown goddess. His ability to jump from one location to the next in a split second, to be able to control the elements with ease without the help of a Vision. All of that was what made a difference between the mortals of Teyvat and him. 

And Paimon was just the same. 

He blames himself incessantly for making her so small and weak. He made her in the spur of the moment, when he felt his powers being slipped from his grasp, it took all he had left to bring her to life. That brief moment of panic, desperation and anger, all amalgamated into one as he reached out for the closest star and brought it into consciousness. Stars were complex beings that needed time and careful consideration. But Aether had none of that at the time. As a result, her physical form is weak and the only powers she had were levitation and teleportation.

Even then, her floating is only possible to a certain height, as her wings were never given the chance to fully develop. Even her ability to transport is only limited to short distances. Aether figured that Paimon was only capable of this much since these were the basics of what every star could do. 

He also figured that many of Paimon’s quirks were a side effect of Aether’s state of mind during the time of her creation. He was deprived of food at the time, scrounging for every bit of meat or berry he could get his hands on. He was desperate for something to fill his stomach, hence Paimon’s obsession with food. 

Being a stranger to this brand new realm, he had no money to his name. He didn’t dare step anywhere near a settlement since he couldn’t speak a lick of their tongue. He was bound to be swindled and fall in with the wrong sorts, especially since he was ultimately broke. So, Paimon was utterly fascinated by Mora and was just generally stingy with it by nature.

After his wings were stripped from him, he felt utterly naked. He was so used to flying around with ease, traversing large expanses of land in mere seconds. Funnily enough, the term ‘shooting stars’ was first created because a couple of mortals witnessed stars who were travelling across their lands through the air at a high speed. He missed being able to glide through the air effortlessly, feeling the familiar thrill of being so high up from the safety of the ground. And so, the young star would constantly be floating in mid-air, her feet never touching the ground unless absolutely necessary.

Having to build up his stamina during his time spent in Mond was exhausting. So, when Amber had introduced to him Wind Gliders, he was over the moon. She called him a natural, unaware of the blond’s relation with flight.

He knew he should’ve come clean with this to Paimon, but with everything going on, he couldn’t find the right time to break it to her. In his defense, he hadn’t made the connection that Paimon was a star just like him until recently. It was as if he’d suppressed the memory of creating her, or maybe he had made her unconsciously and only came to realize it now. Either way, he had to take responsibility sooner or later. 

He gives a heavy sigh, carefully pushing himself off the bed so as to not wake the young star. He leaves the room, giving one last glance to the sleeping girl, before shutting the door behind him. He wasn’t sure where his feet were taking him but next thing he knew, he was standing in front of Wanmin Restaurant, ordering a piping hot bowl of Black-back Perch Stew. He figured food would help ease his guilt. He sat at a round stone table alone, enjoying his meal in silence. The night air was cool but the steam emanating from the stew warmed his face.

“Well, if it isn't the Savior of Liyue.” He hears a voice come from the streets. He recognizes it, but pays no mind to it. He hasn't got the time or effort to care.

“My, my. How rude of you, comrade.” The Harbinger comes into view, a gloved hand resting on his table in order to get his attention. “You should atleast look at the person when they call for you.”

Aether continued to focus on his food. He was too preoccupied with other things weighing on his mind to entertain the redhead. 

A brief moment of silence falls between them and Aether thought Childe would’ve given up and left but instead, he pulls up the seat adjacent to him and sits himself down. At this point Aether can no longer ignore him. He wipes his mouth with the tissue, golden eyes meet ocean ones after a couple days since the incident. 

“Uncle! Two more bowls here, please!” Childe calls out to the chef. 

He turns back to Aether, a wide grin on his face, chin resting on gloved hands. “It's been a while huh? Where's your little floaty friend? She run off somewhere?”

Aether tucks a tuft of hair behind his ear. He figured that if he didn’t answer, the man would only continue prodding. "🏱︎♋︎♓︎❍︎□︎■︎ ⬥︎♋︎⬧︎■︎⧫︎ ♐︎♏︎♏︎●︎♓︎■︎♑︎ ❖︎♏︎❒︎⍓︎ ⬥︎♏︎●︎●︎-"

“Woah, woah, woah.” Childe cuts him off, his eyes as wide as saucers. Aether cocks an eyebrow. “...What language are you speaking, comrade?”

Now it was Aether’s turn to be surprised. A hand comes up to his lips in confusion, eyebrows furrowing. “Sorry… I've got a lot on my mind.”

Ajax pursed his lips, studying the Traveler. For whatever reason, the other looked… different. No, he still looked the same, but his aura was just unusual, unlike his usual self. The redhead’s first impression of the man was how cute he looked and how innocent of an aura he had around him. He had the kind of face that made you instantly want to rely on him. But right now, he looked very stoic, almost distant.

It was suddenly obvious to Ajax that the Traveler was much older than that baby face of his was letting on. 

The blond continued to eat his stew, his face distorted ever so slightly, indicating that he was thinking about something. What Ajax wouldn’t give to know what goes on in that head of his. Genuinely, he thought Aether was younger than him, and even wanted to consider him as his little brother. But after fighting with him, it was clear to see that Aether was not as young and naive as most people believe him to be.

It was shocking at the time, but Ajax was vaguely reminded of his master, Skirk when he first fell in front of the Traveler’s feet. Aether was in no way as intimidating or strong as she was, but they were very similar in the sense that they both possessed combat abilities way beyond any normal mortal in Teyvat and are purposely holding themselves back. For what reason? Ajax can never hope to find out, he reckons.

Ajax’s eyes move down from studying the man’s expressions to his gloved hands holding a pair of chopsticks in one and a spoon in the other, admiring how dainty and small they were. And yet, those same hands were the one to cut Ajax down from his throne. Though his arms weren’t as muscly or beefy as other fighters Ajax has seen, he still swings his sword with such violence and vigor, cutting and slashing at any who stand in his way so elegantly yet viciously. When he stands he holds his shoulders back to give himself the illusion of a larger figure than he actually had. But right now, they’re slumped and relaxed, making him look smaller than usual. 

Aether notices the awkward silence that fell upon the table. “You asked about Paimon?”

Ajax nods, realizing that he’d been staring at the outlander for a tad too long than what can be considered normal. Then again, the young man himself is far from normal.

“I meant to tell you that she’s been feeling weak these past few days. So we decided to stay in Liyue until she regained her strength to float again.” Aether goes back to his stew, finishing the last of the soup. 

“What is she weak from? It's not like she did any fighting.” The Snezhnayan points out. Which is less of an insult and more of a fact. She didn't do much in battle other than make callouts for the blond. 

He saw the way Aether’s face soured ever so slightly. Ajax thought maybe he might've said something wrong, but then Aether wipes his mouth to reply. “Yeah, you’re right. I'm thinking maybe she’d just caught a fever.” 

It was a terrible lie, but nobody except the star himself knew the true nature of Paimon. 

In reality, no one knew a single thing about Aether or Paimon. He could easily make up anything about themselves and no one would be able to call them out for it. Just like that time with the Chief Alchemist, Albedo. Even after all the tests and experimentations he’s done on Aether, he’s no closer to finding out the Traveler’s true nature and understanding what exactly makes him so different to other human beings in their world. In his defense, a star wasn't exactly created to be understood by mortals anyway. 

“Hey, why don't we go for a walk after this?” Childe says, pushing a new steaming hot bowl of stew towards the Traveler. “It’s a lovely night to have a quick stroll, is it not?”

Aether purses his lips, eyes narrowing on the bowl of steaming hot stew then looks up at the redhead. He knew he had a large appetite and could eat about as much as a village, but he hated how Childe used that to his advantage just to spend more time with the Traveler. Much like every other encounter they’ve had, Aether has no idea what agenda the young man has for him. It could just be him trying to get under his skin, or perhaps he was just looking for some time to kill. 

Either way, Aether reluctantly accepts the bowl, and digs in. Neither of them strike up another conversation, but it wasn’t suffocatingly awkward. To an outsider, they looked like they were just two friends enjoying a nice, hot meal together. Just before leaving the restaurant, Childe oh so generously offered to cover the bill and the star was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. So, there were no arguments to be had there.

The harbour was mostly empty at this time of night. Everyone had either gone to bed or sat at the remaining open restaurants to have a meal or a drink. Liyue was in no way short of their supply of liquor, but taverns aren’t as popular as they were back in Mond. Liyuens just preferred to have their drinks with a piping hot meal rather than sit in a place to gossip and drown themselves in alcohol with other equally intoxicated people, Aether supposes. 

And so, they were simply two men walking along the harbour, the familiar scent of the sea and a gentle blow of wind against their bodies. There was a fair amount of distance between them, Aether being a few steps ahead of Childe, his eyes focused on the ground in front of him. The redhead had nothing to say about it and took this opportunity to study the mysterious outlander without any restraints.

Ajax has yet to say a word ever since leaving the restaurant. He had no clear intention or motive to spend time with the Traveler like this. He just wanted to bother him for a short while and be on his way. But Aether had a way to attract others. There was no way to explain it, but it seemed like the whole world revolved around the blond. To Ajax, everyone here was nothing more than just ambling figures who were bound to die sooner or later. Most having never achieved anything in their lives, while there were a select few who lived long and fulfilling enough lives to be written down in history as legends.

And Ajax was adamant on being those select few.

He spent his entire life chasing after that childish, selfish dream. Going through hell and back just so he could look back on his past and say with pride that he was someone worth remembering for centuries to come. Never would he have thought that someone else would come along and become a competitor to his life-long goal. He often thought what he would do should someone like that appear in front of him.

He never expected his final answer would be wanting to stand side by side with him as they looked down upon the havoc wreaked on the world of Teyvat.

“Childe.” Aether’s voice shakes him back to the present. The man had stopped walking, his body turned slightly to face him. “How old are you?”

The Traveler had this query in the back of his mind ever since they first met. He was tall and looked older than he did. But after spending some time with him, Aether noticed how his face retained boyish features and even his outlook on certain things were borderline childish. All tell-tale signs of someone just learning on how to navigate adulthood. Which was funny, considering how between the two of them, Aether was the one that looked underaged.

“Why I'm flattered that you’re taking this opportunity to get so close to me, comrade…” Childe teases. 

Aether gives an unamused look.

“To answer your question, I only reached adulthood two years ago.”

Aether nods, returning his attention back to the cobblestone. It was in no way interesting, but he had to focus his eyes somewhere. There were a couple beats of silence before it was broken again.

“You don't seem surprised.” Childe points out. 

Aether hums and gives a nonchalant shrug. “I figured you were much younger than what most people think you are. Why else would you be dubbed the youngest person to become a Fatui Harbinger?” 

It also made Aether come to the depressing realization that if he was that young and had already risen up the ranks this quickly, he can’t imagine at what age Childe must’ve been when he was first indoctrinated. There was no way he could’ve gotten to the position he was in currently in only a span of two years. It wasn’t entirely off the table, considering his personality. But the chances of that are still slim seeing how he was still the lowest ranking Harbinger amongst eleven of them. 

“What about you?” He hears the young man behind him ask. “How old is the great Traveler?”

Aether stops in his tracks a second time. He bites his bottom lip, wondering if he should answer this question truthfully. No one had ever outright asked him for his age, they just assumed he was a minor considering his young face and short stature. He turns around once more, his hands held behind his back. The wind was a little too strong, carrying his braid along with its current.

“I've lost count.” He smiles, almost teasingly.

To Ajax, it almost seemed like he was being mocked, or perhaps that was the intention. Normally, he would take it as a challenge but for whatever reason, he couldn’t bring himself to be insulted. Instead, he was merely reminded of his mortality and just how different the image of the Traveler in his head was when compared to reality. 

He wonders which Aether is the real one. And his heart flutters at the thought that the two of them are a lot more similar than he previously thought. Both seem to hide more of their true selves than what meets the eye, in hopes of lowering others’ guards down and earning their trust. Whether or not the blond’s motives for that facade was the same as his was a different story.

Ajax thinks back to their fight in the Golden House, how exhilarating it was to be at death’s door against someone like him. If he hadn’t underestimated the star back then- if he had taken it seriously from the start, would he have emerged victorious?

...Would his mind still be stuck on a certain outlander if Ajax had easily taken the win back then?

“It's getting late, Childe.” Aether’s voice was music to his ears. And he hadn't realized how melodious it sounded until today. “We should head back.”

“…Alright.” He replies. Whether or not Aether noticed the change in his demeanor, he decided not to comment. 

Both men walk the quiet streets of Liyue in the dead of night, side by side. Their hands brushing against each other with every step, the sheer awareness of their skins being separated only by the fabric they wore on their hands and the cold breeze of tonight. Ajax slowed his pace to match the Traveller, and even then neither of them pointed it out. It was quiet. It was comfortable. 

Both were unaware just how significant this small meeting was for them this day onward.