Xiao thought he was a bit of a hypocrite for trying to save Aether. He was no stranger to entertaining thoughts of the sweet, sweet bliss of nothingness when karmic debt weighed upon himself, unrelenting and suffocating. But when the wind blew with the heaviness of what could only have been despair and grief, along with a hint of that otherworldliness the golden boy carried with him whenever he went, instinct carried him to the cliffs which held countless Cecilias.
He remembers not living until Morax gave him a purpose. Until he found companionship and experienced what he thought was close to the joy humans share. In fact, he never doubted its warmth. Ever since that was taken away from him, though, Xiao was reminded of the duties he had to fulfil. He was complacent to believe companionship belonged to him. The very act of breathing had changed to serve only one purpose; to dedicate his entire existence to the safety of Liyue. Morax gave him a taste of life. It is only appropriate to repay him with his own.
So when Xiao witnessed Aether standing dangerously close to the edge of a cliff in a trance, he thought of the time that he spent, living as neither Alatus nor Xiao. Dutiless and remorseful. He thought of the golden boy surrounded by humans and joy and life and felt that the image in front of him was so wrong.
Xiao wonders, briefly, if joy could ever belong to nonhumans like Aether and himself.
Clutching the severed braid in his right hand, Aether readjusted his vision to the brightly lit surroundings. Xiao brought them to the rooftop. Aether thought it might all have been a daydream, but the hard, wooden floorboards beneath his fingertips proved otherwise. It seemed as though the intensity of emotions he felt just a while ago was buried beneath a fog in his mind. He wasn’t quite sure why he had been sobbing so intensely, like he meant it. Aether gazed up at Xiao numbly. The sudden change in attitude must’ve seemed like exhaustion to him. To Aether’s surprise, Xiao spoke first.
“I care not for the systems of morality humans have created, nor do I understand them.”
Xiao pulls to his feet, taking a few steps away from Aether to lean against the wooden railing. Aether has to strain his ears to catch his next words.
“But I do know, human or not, someone like you deserves to live. Liyue’s debt to you is bigger than you think”
Aether didn’t know how to respond. He looked at the braid in his hand and felt nothing. His eyes were drawn to the shorter strands of hair that were straying from the bunch. Any movement would dislodge them. He didn’t know what to do with it. Would a good person think like this?
Aether was tired of thinking.
As if sensing his exhaustion, Xiao spoke again, his voice carried by the wind, “Sleep, even if you do not need it. It clears the mind. I will keep you safe.”
And so Aether slept. Braid in one hand, sword in the other. He curled up on the wooden floorboards bathed in warm, yellow lights. An emotion he had not experienced in a long time ached in his chest. Belatedly, it registered as warmth. As he let his eyelids close, he saw the adeptus vanish in a flourish of dark green. Yet, his presence did not fully disappear, only growing fainter.
Aether dreamt. He dreamt of false confidence as he faced a god who wielded obsidian cubes. They glowed red as if the sun couldn’t reach them. He was forced to witness the look of fear on his sister’s face, partially obscured by the black cubes. The rare desperation which filled him then crashed into him like waves, once again. He realised that the god before him held magnificence and authority he had not experienced yet. Regret filled him.
He dreamt of golden wings cool to the touch, yet glowing warm. The sensation of wind against his face, the smile of a sister, curious and waiting to discover. A time which triggered a sense of nostalgia so strong and abrupt his chest ached. He tightened his hold on their entwined fingers to prevent the scene before him from slipping through their fingers.
He dreamt of the adeptus with cat-like irises and a tendency to speak as little as possible. Who carried karmic debt like a burden on his shoulders, forcing him to live out the days by himself. He dreamt of emptying his heart out to the endless stretch of inky darkness above, splattered by stars like paint on a canvas, and the green adeptus who took the wet grass beneath his palms and replaced them with hard, solid floorboards.
He dreams until he wakes and opens his eyes and does not see the sky he is used to. But for reasons he cannot fathom, his eyes burn when he blinks and the air he exhales feels hot. Symptoms of illness. But stars did not get sick.
The space behind his eyes pounds in a regular rhythm, like the mockery of the absence of a heartbeat. The disorientation of waking up to a darkness without stars catches up to him. Aether never sleeps, much less at a place he cannot see the stars. Nausea fills his gut.
Frantically, Aether tries to figure out his whereabouts. The surface beneath him is no longer wooden, but soft to the touch. His fingers clench around nothing. His braid. His sword. Where were they? His stomach gurgles ominously and he scrambles out of the bed, only to land sideways on the floor in a mess of limbs and bedsheets. The impact supplied a sharp throb to his head and a twist of discomfort to his gut. Saliva fills his mouth and he only has enough time to face away from the blanket and push himself up onto shaky elbows as he coughs out bitter stomach acid.
Aether hears the sound of a doorknob turning and the dirtied floor in front of him is illuminated as he continues heaving and gagging pathetically.
The next thing he knows, a soothing hand has positioned itself on the centre of his back, rubbing circles rhythmically. Aether opens his mouth to a ridiculous question, false hope stuttering his breath.
“L-Lumine? Is that—”
He clacks his mouth shut the moment he feels acid rush up again. He heaves practically nothing out. His eyes water involuntarily. He can feel the person behind him pause at the question.
His hair remains unsoiled, this time. Even the shorter, choppy strands that usually obscure his vision. Something—not Lumine’s hand, she doesn’t wear green; gathers his hair with startling gentleness, and holds the strands out of the way.
Aether lets the silence run while he catches his breath. He can hear the faint chatter of patrons and the clanging of utensils against plates. The presence behind him shifts with uncertainty. Aether finds it an unusual action.
He tries not to sound angry. “Where are my things?”
The hand holding his hair drops. His eyes averted. “On the table. I apologise for removing them from you.”
After glancing upwards to the bedside table and confirming that his items are safe, Aether gathers the strength to untangle his limbs from the blanket. Stands up on shaky legs. His vision almost goes black and he sways for a moment. The area behind his eyes throb. Strong hands catch his shoulders. Stabilises him.
Aether shut his eyes, blinking once, twice. Tears squeeze out. His nose is blocked. “Sorry. I’ll—uh, I’ll clean the floor. Where’s the bathroom?”
“Don’t worry about the floor, the bathroom is just down the hallway. Talk to Verr for medication.”
The hand on his shoulders releases after a beat. Aether takes a shaky step forward, their shoulders brushing, until—
“In the realm of Teyvat, only humans exhibit symptoms of illness.”
Aether was caught off guard. He pauses in his steps, eyes widening, breath catching in his throat. He lost his wings when he landed in Teyvat, what if he really—?
He recovers a few moments too late, humming noncommittally. If falling ill meant he was human, he would rather stay sick to prove his humanity.
Aether trudges towards the bathroom, unsure of the feeling in his chest.
Xiao hates the loss of routine; of familiarity. Naturally, he avoids getting comfortable too with others. So he takes it upon himself to spend as much time out of Wangshu Inn, slaying demons; performing his duties. Sometimes, even staying out till dawn.
But everytime he comes back to Wangshu Inn, Yanxiao prepares a plate of Almond Tofu for him, unless it's too late at night. Verr always greets him with a smile, never bothering to strike up a conversation. She knows him well. And he always, always heads to the rooftop. Routine was inescapable, and it scared him.
Now, he finds himself starting to expect someone else up there on the rooftop when he goes back to Wangshu Inn. Aether is always lying on his back in the same spot, with the same grieving expression on his face, looking up towards the stars as if they could save him. It’s a face Xiao has to tear his eyes away from. And every night, Aether never bothers to acknowledge Xiao’s presence. Neither does Xiao acknowledge his. Ironically, Xiao makes a half-hearted attempt not to let himself indulge in this routine too much. So they share hours of silence, sometimes only minutes, until Xiao forces himself to depart without a word.
The thought of losing all this terrifies Xiao. Aether doesn’t belong in Teyvat, after all.