Aether was alone. Again.
You would have thought that he was used to it by now, but as he walked out from the harsh lighting of the Bubu Hospital lobby he turned to his right-as he recently started doing, and felt inexplicably lonely. Recently he had found himself adopting strange mannerisms he didn’t understand, such as the odd feeling that something was missing. Or maybe it wasn’t something, maybe it was… someone?
Aether shook his head, as if that would dispel the disturbing train of thought running through. For now he had bigger things to worry about. Like where he was supposed to go “home” to. Turning to glance back at the large building he had apparently been housed in for a matter of months, he sighed and turned towards the train station. Might as well head to where he knew he would be accepted in with only minimal fuss.
The late night train was eerily quiet per usual, but it certainly fit with Aether’s headspace. The train car was empty save for an older woman dozing in the corner, uncaring of his entrance. His reflection in the window mocked him, golden hair dull, eyes lined underneath with a bruised purple. Even to himself, he looked like a walking corpse.
As the train cut through the night Aether watched the landscape blur by, his thoughts overlapping with each other in a distant dissonance of unease. Anyone would be uneasy after waking up and learning you were comatose for the last seven months, right? It was probably a reasonable feeling for coma patients. He would be fine. Right?
Pulling himself up from his slouch against the window, he exited the train car just one stop shy of Dihua Station. Outside the city there were less lights, allowing the night sky to showcase the abundance of galaxies dotting its domain. Aether has always found comfort in the sheer size of the universe, that his struggles were nothing compared to the universe’s endlessness. But tonight- tonight all he could think of was how small he was against the spread of stars in the sky.
He hesitated in front of the gated structure before him, sparing a glance down the dark path he had come down as if he might turn and run back from where he came. No, he shook himself, there’s really no reason to be apprehensive. It’s not as if he had just woken from a months long coma, nope not at all. I mean, what is he gonna do? Pop his head in and say hey, sorry I disappeared, I just woke up?
Before he could finish deliberating on what to do, Aether startled at voices coming along an adjacent path to his right. Doing everything against what his instincts were wailing for him to do, Aether froze in place. Coming up the path was a familiar face in all the confusion- her kindly face going slack in recognition as she quickly hung up on whoever she had been on the phone with prior.
Ver Goldett’s brown eyes were huge and rapidly filling with tears as she reached tentatively toward Aether, her mouth opening and closing a few times before she finally mumbled a wet sounding version of his name. Aether’s heart pounded rapidly, but not unpleasantly as the tiny woman abruptly dropped her hand and rushed forward to pull him into a surprisingly tight hug.
“Aether, we were so terrified, what happened? Baizhu was supposed to tell us if you woke up! How did you get here so fast- where did you-” Goldett stopped, seemingly gathering herself, “Let’s get inside first, you must also have questions. And this night air is way too chilly for you to be in.” With a frown she began moving him along like a disobedient feline through the gate and towards the largest of the cluster of buildings.
Wangshu Plaza was centered around the original Wangshu inn, constructed around the largest tree Aether had ever seen and spread out into a few similarly fashioned buildings from there. It was one of the closest places to home Aether had found in his long life so far. For all his apprehension, he was relieved to be at Wangshu again.
Verr Goldett herded him gently through the doors of the original inn, and Aether couldn’t help but wince at the assault the sudden change in lighting wreaked on his just woke up from a coma state. Taking in the interior of the inn, Aether fought the urge to peak around every corner, for the familiar golden eyes. The owner of said eyes that would probably be furious about the kind of trouble Aether had landed himself in this time. He shuddered a bit despite the warmth of the inn.
However much he was hoping Xiao would show up suddenly (or maybe he could take his time and give Aether a break first thank you), Aether didn’t see another soul around but him and his concerned motherly figure who had plopped him into a plush couch and was wrapping yet another blanket around him. It took him a minute to realize she was talking to him. Right.
“Aether, honey are you listening to me? I need to make sure you are feeling okay. Dr. Baizhu hasn’t answered my messages yet and I need to call him. I don’t want to leave you though.” Her warm hand cupped his cheek and water gathered behind his eyes, uninvited.
“Oh honey..” Goldett’s kind face was creased with worry as she gathered Aether to her and held him as he hiccuped through the dawning that things had changed. Things had changed while he laid prone in a hospital, oblivious to everything around him.
At some point, while tears were still blurring his vision and his breath was still periodically catching on sobs, someone else had come in the room and left just as quickly. Goldett’s muted tones rumbled through her chest that she had Aether cradled against as she talked with them, her hands never stopping her soothing motions. Held here, in this warm inn against her, for the first time in a while, Aether felt truly safe.
He sees himself standing underneath a dense gray sky. The wind whips his hair around and out of his signature braid, and pulls at his clothes with greedy hands. Pushing at his back, and then pulling him forward, he falls and finds himself suspended in time, the earth below him shattering and falling away.
The wind around him echoes voices that he recognizes, but can’t quite make out. He feels like he should be doing something. He needed to get something. Or maybe, it was someone. Why can’t he remember?
Instead he is helpless, suspended in this gray plane, distant thunder rumbling both above and below.
He turns, something pricking the hairs at the back of his neck and is greeted by a hand on his shoulder. Turning to them, he tries to find the source. Somebody had their hand on his shoulder. Who was it? What did they want?
The woman gripping his shoulder was talking to him. But he couldn’t hear the words.
He glanced around wildly, the whispering around him reaching a fever pitch before the sudden cutoff. Aether was left in the violently silent void, staring into the grayness and feeling as if he was being watched back.
Forcing his breaths through his nose and rolling his shoulders once, then twice, he reeled himself back in. There was something he had to do.
She was counting on him.
He just had to remember what.
Coming to at an indecipherable time later, the blonde woke to a dry throat and dried streaks down his face that stuck to his tangled hair. Extracting himself from a mess of blankets, he sat up slowly in hopes the room could stop spinning so much. That would be nice.
Slumping out of his position on the couch earned him a panicked exclamation from somewhere to his right, and gentle hands helped him back onto the couch before someone else pulled a blanket back around him. His vision refocused to find Verr Goldett’s brown eyes huge and worried, and a brillant amber gaze also trained on him.
“Master Zhongli... ,” Aether mumbles out, feebly pulling away from Verr Goldett’s grip, “When did you....”
Zhongli’s brows furrow briefly before he regards Aether carefully before responding, “Aether you have given us quite another scare. While I do believe it is most likely out of your control, I would appreciate it if we can get away from this becoming a trend.”
Zhongli’s voice washes over Aether in a soothing baritone, grounding him in the fact that yes, this is in fact real. Aether’s chest constricted, and he somewhat deliriously thought ‘by the gods, I could cry in relief over Zhongli’s bizarre speech patterns. Who knew he would end up finding comfort in them now. At least one thing has stayed the same.
Aether realizes that both Zhongli and Verr Goldett are still watching him, concern shining in both of their eyes. He shifts weakly in the mess of blankets, still feeling as if his ears were stuffed full of cotton and vaguely disoriented.
Verr Goldett clears her throat, breaking the tension stung around them quite effectively, “Aether you need to rest. We are moving you back to your old room. It’s been unoccupied since you left so-“ she falters a bit, perhaps regretting her choice of wording. “It is still yours, and that’s where you’ll rest while we wait for Dr. Baizhu.”
Although Zhongli says little more, his gaze is heavy on Aether’s back as he allows himself to be supported and moved back to his old room.
Goldett leaves him resting under his worn comforter, left here all those years ago. Glancing around wearily, Aether recognizes the gray walls and large window, the small desk and homely bookshelves that make up his room here at Wangshu. He can’t shake the strangeness of it all despite knowing his history here began with this bedroom. Maybe it’s the coma talking.
He isn’t sure how much time passes while he stares around the room and out the window at the dawning morning outside, but the first sliver of sunlight has just passed the horizon when he first hears a commotion in the halls. The creaky flooring being assaulted by careless stomping is his first clue, the second being a loud (but not unpleasant) voice muffled through the walls. Aether is unsurprised when Venti bursts through the door, his eyes a bit wild and at odds with his cheerful smile.
“Golden boy, golden boy~ you should have told me you were ready to wake up~” His singsong voice was light, but as is the trend with everyone as of late, his eyes were worried. Aether studies his friend as he perches on the edge of the bed. Venti’s cheerful demeanor is but a fragile front at the moment, his pale face betraying the stress he must have been under while Aether was asleep.
“Sorry Venti, I’m not really sure what happened.” He felt a bit bad, lying through his teeth like this to his best friend, but there was no way Aether could even articulate what happened upon waking even if he wanted to.
Sterile walls and erratic beeping greeted him as he surfaced, yanked up from a haze by unseen hands. Something in his gut lurched and he felt something akin to a marionette pulled up by his strings. He woke up wrong. Something about this was wrong. Aether whipped his head around, his vision spotty as he sat up frantically. A dull prick in his arm was all he felt as he yanked out an IV, all but tumbling out of a hospital bed he felt like he shouldn't be in.
“..re you ther… Aeth...you alright?” Venti’s turquoise eyes are inches from his, and he startles. Venti pulls back sheepishly, his blue tipped braids swishing with the motion. “What happened? Are you feeling bad?” His friend is uncharacteristically worried and calm as he questions him.
“I’m okay. Just zoned for a second there.” Fiddling with his hair, Aether glances down at the golden locks in his hands. He can’t help but look at it and think, see? Even that is wrong. He shakes his head a bit, brushing his fingers through his low ponytail. He can’t let Venti worry any more than he is. Or anyone else for that matter. Everyone is already concerned enough about him, he can’t bear to make them worry about his state of mind on top of it.
In the end Venti drops it, but Aether knows it will take more than that to make sure Venti doesn’t pick up on his turmoil. He’s always been scarily perceptive despite the cheerful and slightly ditzy demeanor he displays. He’s also known Aether long enough to pick up on things others wouldn’t.
The morning wears itself into late afternoon as Venti helps him dust his bedroom and keep him company as he rests. Aether doesn’t mind the companionship, he just wishes that Venti would let him actually get out of bed. Recently occupied with a book pulled from God knows where, Venti is settled into the spinning chair at Aether’s old desk, absentmindedly humming a tune. Every so often he spins in a few circles before turning to the next page and slowing to read. Aether suppresses a fond smile, and continues to sort through the clothing strewn across his lap on the bed, having persuaded Venti to let him organize his closet as long as he stays sitting in bed.
The relative quiet is broken by a short knock on the door, followed by Verr Goldet poking her head through, “Boys, we have dinner just about ready if you want to come down.” She takes in Aether sitting on the bed, glancing at the emptied contents of the closet and back up again. Smiling sheepishly, Aether nods and murmurs his thanks before she can interject. Her lips twitch into a knowing smile, perhaps remembering a younger Aether and his inability to sit still and rest.
She leaves them with a soft click of the door closing, and Venti snaps his book shut before spinning to look at Aether. Aether musters up what he hopes is his best ‘i’m perfectly fine and able to get out of bed face’ and smiles back. Venti clicks his tongue playfully, but gets up and helps the blonde extract himself from the bedcovers and clothing piles.
The walk down to the inn’s original kitchen is a fairly short one, due to the fact that Godlett and the staff live in the original part of the Wangshu inn, and the rest of the extended, more modernized version was built on. Seeing Smiley Yanxiao at his familiar spot in front of the stoves cooking up something delicious smelling fills Aether with a strange nostalgic feeling. He still remembers when the gruff chef first tried to teach him to make Almond Tofu like he did. Aether had begged and begged, he knew his was always too lumpy when he made it and didn’t want to subject Xiao to any more mystery tofu.
...ah yes. Xiao. How on earth could he even explain to Xiao what happened?
If he’s having this hard of a time convincing Venti that he’s fine, Aether knows that the grumpy adeptus will instantly see through everything as if his walls were made of glass. Xiao had always cut through his walls like they were made of melted butter. How he does it, Aether isn’t sure. All he knows is as soon as Xiao comes by, his ruse is done for. He’d better get his shit together then, and fast.
He finds himself ushered into the humble kitchen and situated between Venti and Zhongli, which honestly, is a rather unfortunate place to be. Between the two immortals’ long (complicated) history with each other, and their vastly differing personalities, they definitely bickered like an elderly couple. Aether thinks that Venti should put it on his resume somewhere that he can irritate the seemingly unbothered Mr. Zhongli. That, and somehow, much to Zhongli’s irritation and Verr Godlett’s exasperation, Venti had somehow obtained a bottle of Liyuen wine.
So there Aether is, attempting to stomach a bowl of noodles while squished between a tipsy Venti and irritated Zhongli and desperately hoping he can keep himself from keeling back over right there. So of course, when Godlett’s eyes snag on something behind him, light footsteps stop in the doorway beyond, and Aether belatedly realizes why Smiley Yanxiao is still making something at the stove. He’s making someone Almond Tofu.
And that someone is now standing right behind him, despite being just about the last person in the world Aether feels equipped to handle right now.