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burn the world away

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An outlander has no place in a land that is not theirs. Those who travel through the cosmos- searching for a home- are forever lost, as no world would ever be willing to take them in.

This is what that ancient god had told Aether, long ago. It was a fleeting memory- one he could associate no sight, nor even feeling to. It was just words branded in his brain- a scar that would never fade. His punishment for breaking these rules?

He had last seen his sister 500 years, 4 months, and one week ago, on that fated night. The memories still played in his dreams- taking over his brain like wildfire, the cataclysm that had happened forever warping the world that he had come to reside in.

Was that day his fault? Sometimes, it seemed that way.

Now? All this time later, Teyvat felt like a home. He had friends- no shortage of them, actually- a place to stay, and things to do. A journey to travel- and the feeling that inside, he would have to let this all go. He would find Lumine. And then? Well...

An outlander has no place in a land that is not theirs.

Time seemed fleeting to the Traveler, with how long they had dreamed. Even then, the past two months had been agony- an impassable block in the road to his sister, Inazuma's borders being tighter than those of the worlds he had once travelled- or at least it seemed. This aside, he had been used. Somehow, as an outlander, he was being dragged into this world's history, a fate worse than death in retrospect.

After all, why get attached to something he had to leave?

His relationship with the Geo Archon had been strained through his lies, but at least he felt sincere enough to apologise. It had taken time, but his trust in Rex Lapis- who he knew as Zhongli- had repaired, somewhat. It would be a while before he would sign a contract again with the god, but he felt comfortable enough to be around him.

The Fatui, on the other hand? Aether had learned not to trust them. In fact, he had learned to despise them. The actions of the 11th Harbinger, Tartaglia (he refused to call him by the name of the man he had became all too close to) had effectively declared war against Liyue- both it's Qixing and it's adepti; and for Aether, a declaration of war on his friends was one against him.

Why was he fighting another world's war? He had no place in this world.

Though, he supposed he had it coming. After all, were he not simply a tool to be used for others' benefit, why was he picking apples for a random adventurer named Lynn who he had been commissioned to work for?

The Adventurer's Guild was a worthwile use of his time, as he waited for whatever scheme Ningguang was plotting to get him into Inazuma. It allowed him to hone his skills in combat, help the people, and receive payment, all at once. At the very least, it reminded him of before, his travels with Lumine. Back then, they would help the locals of the world that they were in with the most mundane, simple tasks- or at least he remembered so. He had little such memory of Lumine anymore.

He had lost her. Outlanders had no place in those worlds.

The guild also attracted enigmatic figures, all of whom intrigued Aether to no end. From the mysterious Fischl, who's elaborate stories of interworld travel he could quickly conclude to be false; to the energetic Bennett, always so sweet and kind to those around him despite his horrendous luck. The most interesting was Dainsleif, a man hunting the Abyss Order- although he was not a member of the guild, they were introduced through it. He felt a sort of kinship with the man-as if he were family, another person hailing from the stars trying to escape punishment. After all, this 'her' he was searching for clearly resided in the Abyss- so perhaps it was the goddess who had stolen his power and his sister, Dainsleif suffering this same fate too; his search for her fueling his vengeance, a desire to reclaim what was once his.

This speculation entertained the blonde almost as much as the tasks from the guild. For then, however, the latter was a priority- the day's deadline slowly approaching.

The blonde climbed into the tree holding the fruit he was searching for, his wisp of a friend Paimon hovering behind him as he climbed. The branches were rough between his fingers, scratching at his skin, but he knew there was no chance of the skin toughening through any damage. Through the unknown number of hundreds of years he had spent adventuring across the cosmos, he had not physically aged since his 19th. It was strange, in a way- and a nuisance, since he did look young for his age. 

"Aether, Aether, look! Paimon sees more apples in this tree!" she said, floating over to another bearing the crimson fruit. His friend was always so excited about the slightest boons. Much like Lumine, in a way.

Are you trying to replace her? Is she not good enough for you? Or do you believe you will never get her back-

"Are you listening to Paimon?"

Aether was shocked out of his deep thought by the pixie's shouting, thoughts of his sister subsiding as he fell out of the tree. Paimon was another mystery to him- a mysterious being he had found in the lake submerging his resting place. She had power unlike any other in this world, that seemed to betray Teyvat's knowledge of it's traditional seven elements. Aether too had power like that, long ago.

If he was an Outlander, why had Teyvat protected him? Why had it let him sleep?

The blonde couldn't hold his next sigh, his breath permeating the air before him with heat and the smell of Sweet Madame. "Paimon, you've really got to warn me when you do that!"

"Mhm-hm? Paimon wants to know what you were sooo interested in that you were ignoring her!" The pixie crossed her arms, a pout taking place on her face. For all of Paimon's excitement and emotional highs, her swings back down into anger and annoyance were just as spectacular.

Although Paimon was one of the select few aware of Aether's true nature as an outlander, he often tried to reserve thought of other worlds and his sister from the fairy. She had a tendency to tell secrets out loud to the world- and if the people of Mondstadt learned that he was not from Teyvat he would surely be shunned and feared. Even if he did wish to speak of those times, he would swiftly pick Venti or Zhongli as his confidant- or Albedo, if he was not busy with an experiment. Outside of those three, he had no other options. "Oh- nothing just- green apples." The lie rolled off his tongue easily. He had become accustomed to hiding the truth of his identity.

"Green apples? But Paimon's never seen a green apple in Teyvat!"

"Yeah, don't you think that's weird?"

"No? Paimon thinks that apples are red." Her confusion came through her voice quite clearly- she clearly had never encountered a green apple.

Humming, Aether stroked his chin. He had one very distinct recollection of running through a forest with his sister, sinking their teeth into the green apples that grew on the nearby trees. It was a sweet memory, and one of the few that still remained that was of just them. Just the thought of it managed to ease his lips into a smile.

In the back of his mind, a voice still whispered; 'just another part of her you' ve lost' the words echoing in his thoughts.

"You're right. Apples are red, and they go brown when they rot. But don't you think that they should be green like other plants as well? It is the colour of Dendro, after all."

"Paimon doesn't know nor care about the colours of apples." said the Pixie, taking the three that she had picked for her companion- the last that they would need to complete this commission. After thus, only two left to go. "Paimon wants to know if they'd be good for food!"

Aether chuckled- his friend's mind was always on food, whether it was Sticky Honey Roast or one of Xiangling's strange experiments with Slime Condensate. "Well, they're small, and easy to eat. They'd do pretty well as emergency food." 

"Don't you dare say what I think-" said the pixie, her voice poisoned with futile desperation.

"But as not as well as you would!" exclaimed the blonde with a hearty laugh, causing the Pixie to pout and turn away angrily- it may have been an old gag by now, but it was still funny.. "Anyways, let's get this to Lynn. After this, we only have one commission to go- and then we can go help out Albedo with his experiments maybe- or investigate those new cases of Geovishaps in Liyue."

"Geovishaps? Like the baby ones, but all grown up? No thanks- Paimon already can't deal with the hatchlings!" Paimon shuddered, the celestial patterns floating behind her drooping. He had a fond- if not scary- memory of the pixie being grabbed by one of the hatchlings whilst looking for treasure. It was funny at the time, but looking back, Aether could not stand the idea of losing her- he would be so terribly lonely.

You're already lonely without her, aren't you?

With that thought quickly dispelled, the Traveler and Paimon departed, joking and laughing together on the way. Paimon wasn't as fun a companion as Lumine, but the otherworldly man had truly come to appreciate her company over these last few months. They spent nearly every moment together, sans when Paimon was with Klee- she had a certain fondness for the small child. Aether didn't mind, though- it gave Albedo a well-deserved break.

After completing their task, Lynn promptly left after being handed her apples, leaving the Traveler and Paimon to deliberate over their next commissions. Between the two, one was in Liyue, and another in Mondstadt- only a few hundred meters away, in fact, so they chose the latter. It was a fairly simple affair- a generic report of Hilichurls being manipulated by an Abyss Mage. This time, the creature in question possessed the power of Pyro.

The travel to the camp was simple, as they were mostly unimpeded- aside from the occassional slime. The commission itself too was not too hard- a swift swing of his sword would send a hilichurl flying, another digging into it's organs- dark crimson blood spilling onto the blade and the floor beneath. For the bowmen, or the samachurls, it took nothing more than a flick of the wrist- the power of Geo granted to him by Morax manifesting in boulder which slammed into his enemies, cracking weapon and bone alike. When he withdrew them, crumbling into thin air, they left nothing more than blood, a mangled cadaver, and a few salvagable materials. With how pressed for Mora he could get, he needed to take anything he could find.

The chief of the camp, a mitachurl with a shield woven of tough wood, would fall quickly to the power of Anemo- Barbatos' power channeling the flames of a nearby bonfire to incinerate the shield- a swift stab with his cursed blade plunging into his chest as it fell defeated to the ground. With all the fighting he had done since returning to Teyvat, he had began to see truly the pain that a person would go through in the world to achieve power. That is why he never tried to suppress the truth of his combat- tried to cover up the blood with his reasons. Pain, in the end, was unnecessary, but often practised- and therefore it was not something he was averse to.

The Abyss Mage was quickly drawn out of hiding, and slain with similar speed- the power of Anemo blowing away its Pyro shield, and sharp stones of the Earth finishing the creature inside. After retrieving the ley line leaves that the mage held- Albedo was researching them, he ticked off the commission on his list as complete, and turned to his companion, who had not had the time to even throw off a few stray spells.

"Okay, now we have to go all the way to Liyue for the next one! It's probably that little girl wanting us to feed that dog again- or Lan needing us to do yet another favour." Paimon rolled her eyes, clearly peeved. "Paimon doesn't get the deal with that girl."

The blonde chuckled, looking at his notebook, where he had noted the commissions. It doubled as a handbook, giving him tasks to do to pass the time (all long completed), as well as information on all of the enemies found in Teyvat- including the Fatui, which he found strange, since he knew the Guild had branches in Snezhnaya. Whoever this 'Alice' person was, she clearly had no fear.

"Our next commission is titled 'A Talk', which is strange- we've never had something like this before." Aether noted, suspicion arising. "This commissioner is new too- have we done anything for someone called Ajax before?"

Paimon shook her head. "Who do you think it is?"

Aether shrugged, thoughts racing through his mind. "It could be a trap. Or, it could be some random person we met on our travels wanting to thank us. Either way, we get a reward."

"Paimon supposes you're right." She moved closer to Aether, signifying that they would soon need to travel to one of the Teleport Waypoints. It was a nauseating experience, but much more convenient than walking all the way. "Where do they want to meet us?"

"On Mt. Tianheng. All the way near Liyue Harbour." The Traveler cursed. Even with Paimon's mysterious ability to teleport them around the strange waypoints, the journey to the peak of a mountain was always taxing.

However, journey they did, wiping out hilichurl camps and collecting heaps of Slime Condensate from the slimes that they defeated. For some reason, Xiangling had an obsession with incorporating it into her food (then again, what didn't she try to eat?) so Aether and Paimon had become her main suppliers. For Aether, these fights were easy- just a flick of the wrist and the power of Anemo would send any hilichurls flying, or the incline of a finger summoning the power of Geo to puncture a slime. They were a far cry from the powers he once held, but he was becoming accustomed to his new abilities. In a way, he felt he was approaching his old power- his form with a sword mirrored the skill he once held more each day. 

'Did Lumine receive these same blessings too?' , he wondered. Maybe, in the past 500 years, she had traveled Teyvat as he did, gaining power from the Archons, but failing to met them. Then, perhaps she had met an unfortunate fate.

Aether shook his head, trying to dispel the melancholy involving his sister as they headed to the peak of Mt. Tianheng, the climb strenuous on his muscles. It didn't help that thoughts of Lumine were never truly absent from his mind, constantly distracting him.

Was she okay? Was she alive? Had she had kept their power from long ago?

Maybe she was watching him right now, mocking him for what he failed to see?

Sighing, the blonde turned to his companion, who was finishing off a stray hilichurl with the little magic she had learned from Lisa. Paimon, like Aether, didn't have a vision, her power instead manifesting as a myriad of whimsical butterflies and sparkles- yet another mystery surrounding the pixie. She was another thing that the Traveler desperately wanted an explanation for, how she had this power and how it fell in the history of Teyvat, but he didn't have a clue where to start- that would be a question for Albedo, he supposed. He shared the same stars in his eyes as Paimon- and Kaeya, strangely, and Dainsleif too- shaped like the gems that he sometimes found at the bottom of a chest, or in his commission rewards, unaccounted for. With the mystery surrounding Paimon and Dainsleif, and the revelation that Albedo was a homunculus, he couldn't help but wonder where Kaeya fit into this situation.

After she collected the few Mora the Hilichurl had dropped, Aether called to Paimon, telling her that it was just a climb upwards from here. It wouldn't have been the first time that they had accidentally went in two different directions when travelling, only to find each other again later.

"Paimon doesn't know why you don't just use your Anemo power to make a wind current in situations like this." she questioned, floating over to the Traveler, who was climbing the mountain. 

"You're not the one who has to climb." He mused, not trying to hide his envy for Paimon's flight- a boon he had lost long ago. With a final heaving breath, he was able to pull himself over the edge of the peak after some more climbing.

"Still,it must hurt your back!" scolded the pixie, hovering over the ledge, once again flaunting her ability to hover. "You should take- Ah! What is he doing here?" 

Aether arose and looked forward- eyes darting to find what Paimon was so startled by.

It didn't take long before he found it, his eyes settling on the man before him, amber orbs bubbling with anger as they met eyes so dull they were more gray than blue.

Before him stood Childe, 11th of the Fatui, sporting a nervous, untrustworthy smile.

"Tartaglia, I trust you played your role well?"

Childe found himself kneeling in the Throne Room of the Zapolyarny Palace, the domain of the Tsaritsa. The Cryo Archon was kind at heart, but had to be harsh, so she had locked herself away from the world. She rarely moved from her throne anymore, hiding behind a masquerade mask crafted of the bitterest ice.

"Yes, Your Majesty. I have done what you said- even if I did not...appreciate the deception that Rex Lapis and Signora required for their contract."

The woman laughed, the Harbinger failing to meet her veiled eyes, it seeming sacrilege to taint them with all the blood on his person. "That is only natural. I've always appreciated your... boldness, Tartaglia."

He smiled, it's soft contortion on his lips far subdued in comparison to his true emotion; as a compliment from the Tsaritsa was a compliment like no other. To any Snezhnayan- even the Harbingers- it was akin to Celestia itself descending to grant a person power. "You flatter me, Your Majesty. Have you any further orders for me?"

"No. Simply keep yourself entertained. Cause some havoc in Mondstadt or Liyue, eradicate those vile Abyss Order thugs, even go and spar with the skirmishers. As long as you are satiated, so am I, my eleventh sword." she raised a hand, picking at a fingernail. Despite her gloved hands, they always managed to peek through, formed of cerulean ice.

Tartaglia nodded, arising and turning. Eleventh sword? What a curious way to describe another- yet Tartaglia understood far too well. The same craving for battle that had eaten away at the young boy who had fallen in the Abyss had claimed her heart 500 years ago- or, that is what the stories said. Either way, they were much the same, blood dripping from every inch of their body, any guilt absolved behind a higher duty- and the mask they so diligently wore to maintain it.

"Halt. I have more to tell you, on a more... personal note." her voice was no sweeter, but it somehow seemed less harsh.

"Personal?" Tartaglia was stunned, words escaping his thought for the first time since his defeat- no, draw-at the hands of the Traveler. This was the first time the Tsaritsa had ever addressed him outside of his responsibilities as a harbinger. He knew that Signora and the Tsaritsa regularly shared tea, and that it was not uncommon for her to grace Pulcinella with the gift of a sparring session, but the eleventh had never been granted such a boon. 

"Yes. Firstly, I'm sure you heard about Scaramouche's expedition?" Her presence was once again cold- the mask she bore blocking any sign of emotion.

"No, Your Majesty. I try not to think of him."

The archon was unfazed by her subordinate's lack of respect for his colleague. "I sent him to try and kill that Traveler who defeated you in battle."

"What? First of all-" Tartaglia started, ready to defend his pride, briefly forgetting whom he was talking to. "It was not a defeat. It ended in a standstill- and I would've won if my Fou- surroundings were easier to fight in." That was his one secret. He wouldn't even tell his Tsaritsa of his time in the Abyss. As far as everyone else in the Fatui was concerned, it was just a product of his delusion- with how rarely he used it publicly, this was an easy idea to maintain. Those times were not something he liked to relive any more than he had to, trying not to concern himself with them outside of the dreams that plagued him at night.

"Is that why Signora said that she found you collapsed in the Northland Bank after summoning Osial?" Tartaglia could feel that humiliation. Signora had told her about that?

"Well- fine, maybe I did lose. But it was close. Anyways, why in the Tsaritsa would you want to kill him- wait." He had a moment of realisation, worry biting at his mind. Talking so rashly to his god? What was he thinking? "Your Holiness, I am so very sorry. I simply- lost control of my emotions there."

"Pay it no mind. Pay your emotions no mind either- they're needless on the battlefield." He thought he heard her sigh under the mask, a rare display of external emotion. "I told him to attempt it. If he succeeded, that's one less obstacle in our way. If he didn't, then it would prove that our Traveler is... truly special. He survived, so I have hereby ordered all other Harbingers to refrain from fighting him."

"All of the others? Why not me?"

"You seem like you crave the challenge. Besides, we know that you'd lose anyways now." delivered the archon, somehow more deadpan than her typical speech.

"That's... thoughtful of you, my Tsaritsa." Tartaglia grinned at this small favour, meaning as much to him as a second delusion would. "But why leave him alive if not just for my entertainment?"

"Why waste such talent? Such aptitude at causing chaos?"

Tartaglia blinked, slightly confused. "Chaos?" He wouldn't lie, after the carnage that the Traveler had shown him in the Golden House, he had more than enough understanding of the Traveler's ability. But chaos? He sided with Liyue against Osial- he sided with the other nations against Snezhnaya. Wasn't he the foe of the chaos that the Tsaritsa herself was trying to sow?

"After Rex Lapis' fall, there is nothing left that challenges me aside from Celestia herself. At least- that is what I thought. Then, he appeared- a blossom biting through the harshest Snezhnayan soil, not even my cold able to prevent it's growth. This man has defeated a wind of Mondstadt, the God of the Vortex, a Fatui Harbinger, alongside having had befriended multiple archons- and whatever type of god rom Khaenri'ah his little companion is. The way that he harnesses both the power of Geo and Anemo is curious too- it's as if he does not need a vision, because that focus exists within him. With this power, he throws himself into Teyvat's battle, one he need not involve himself with- a unique type of chaos following in his wak, defeating all that opposes him. It's so... serene. Yet terrifying."

Tartaglia saw her take a breath, this talk of battle the same as whimsy to her . Sometimes, through all her cold, he forgot she was alive- that she had to breathe- that she had to feel too. That was the way many people felt about him- he was often told that his eyes looked empty, that his heart seemed dead, by those he held dear. Whenever he was told this, he simply said that he wished they would never have to understand.

The Archon continued, once again drawing the Harbinger's full attention. "Is it not best to let him reach his journey's end? To keep him trained, to keep his power, and then to spur him against the heavens as another weapon of mine, no matter how unwilling; and if he proves to not succumb to my cold, at least I will get an exhilarating battle out of it."

Tartaglia sighed, now understanding. "A truly incredible idea, my liege."

"I know."Her face inclined to look at one of her pristine, azure nails again. "Teyvat is not ready for the whirlwind of woe approaching it- the calamity approaching. At it's end, no gods will walk out of the dust once called Celestia. Only then can the people truly be free."

The Harbinger nodded. It was at this point in her scheming that his understanding wavered. Surely this talk of Celestia's destruction was metaphor- to point a blade at it was suicide. "Anything else, your majesty?"

"Your family won the yearly Proyeznoy ballot. I would suggest you return to your home village and make preparations with them if you wish to go. It may be nice for you to visit the other countries when... not on official business." She rose out of her throne, moving towards a back door in the throne room that was not of Tartaglia's concern. "You are dismissed."

"I- we won! That's fantastic news, my archon. Thank you for this opportunity. I shall return to Morepesok at once."

Tartaglia smiled, his chest filled with pride, and left the Throne Room with haste.

He had an excuse to see his family now. He had an excuse to go home.

"What are you doing here?" Aether scowled, immediately unsheathing the Festering Desire gifted to him by Albedo. Its blade pulsed with unnatural energy, as if it was looking for a fight- it's venom mirroring that of the man it now faced.

"Relax, I just wanna talk." the Harbinger grinned, the blazing sun above painting his ginger hair a bolder orange, further contrasting with his dull, lifeless eyes. "After all, we're friends- and what kinda friend would I be if I didn't want to talk to me?"

Friends? Was he even more lunatic than Aether already thought?

"I don't consider you a friend. I consider you scum." The growl still didn't leave Aether's voice, his sword arm unwavering. He hadn't prepared for another fight, let alone one with a Fatui Harbinger. At least this time they wouldn't be trapped in the Golden House- Aether could use his greater mobility granted by his Anemo powers and smaller frame to his advantage. They were also atop a mountain, and unlike Childe, Aether had a wind glider- yet another advantage. Not to mention that the other man had no weapon on his person, and-


Was he not looking for a fight?

"Hey- you considered me a friend when Teucer was in Liyue! We even went on a cyclops adventure." Childe chuckled at the thought, ruffling his hair. "Look, I'm itching for a rematch too, but that's not what I'm here for now. I really don't want to fight you until I've had time to train more."

Time to train more? Wasn't he already the most feared mortal on the continent?

"Teucer is a child. I'm not going to try to kill his older brother in front of him." were the words that he concluded on saying after a considerable pause, stepping forward- Festering Desire returning to it's hilt, seeming to cry out in lust for battle. "And if you're not here to fight, what are you here for? I thought you lived and breathed bloodshed."

"Oh, I do, but now is not the time for fighting, comrade!" Childe strolled forward, placing a hand on the blonde's shoulder, sending a shiver down his spine. "After all, this our reunion after a month apart! Aren't you happy to see your friend-"

The floor was already spinning beneath him. "You're not my friend, and you never will be. You're just another of those Fatui fearmongers, apart from you're worse." Aether's head was all but telling him to cut at the man before him, begging him to bathe in the Snezhnayan's blood, in the manner he had become so accustomed to with the Hilichurls. He couldn't tell if this was because of his own anger, or because of the influence of his cursed sword. Either way, he agreed with the sentiment, but did not want to attack whilst still unprovoked. "You deceived me, and all of Liyue- and what's worse, you didn't even properly apologise." 

Childe's happy smile was maintained, but almost seemed to waver- as if he was preparing to frown, only to hide it swiftly beneath the mask named 'Tartaglia'. "I was deceived too, y'know. And I was just following orders-"

"Orders which you knew could've destroyed an entire country? Don't make me laugh." He shrugged off Tartaglia's hand and stepped back, a hand once again resting on his sword. 

Why was his devotion so blind? Could he not see the pain that his actions brought to others, or did he enjoy it? Or was he simply too scared to question it?

The audacity that this man held was unparalleled. To fight to the death in the Golden House and release a world-ending God when last they met, to him now acting as if nothing had ever happened? It was absurd.

"Ah- whatever. It's all a part of Her Majesty's plans, okay? Not something you have to concern yourself with. It's not something I fully understand, but- I guess I get to fight a lot, and I meet interesting people like you as well!" Somehow, the Snezhnayan seemed to be blind to Aether's utter hatred of him. Was he so used to it that he could feign ignorance, or did he not simply understand what there was to hate? The blonde was sweating- the world itself seeming to waver, the whispers from his sword begging him to slice at the man in front of him. Before he could give in, however, Paimon took the chance to intervene:

"We don't care about your orders or whatever you're talking about! We just want to know why you brought us here!" shouted the Pixie, now hovering between the men, her hands on her hips. This was enough to allow Aether to break out of his trance, regaining his composure. If Tartaglia had not yet attacked him, and seemingly had no plan to, there was no reason to raise a sword. At the very least, he could get information out of this meeting.

"Eheh- you're right, how could I forget to tell you!" Any uncertainties in his grin disappeared, thoughts of their prior conversation seeming to fade- or being hidden, to be dwelled on later. Either way, he continued to smile.

That goddamned cocky, shit-eating smile.

"I'm here to offer you a favour. This is from Childe to Aether. No Tartaglia, No Fatui strings attached. But considering your reaction to seeing me." The Harbinger laughed nervously again, pulling at his collar. "I suspect I know whether you'll accept or not."

"I don't want your fucking favours." the blonde growled, turning away. A favour? Did he think that Aether was so stupid that he would waltz right into such an obvious trap? Before he could remind Childe to file the commission as completed, however, he saw Paimon shake her head and then begin to speak, reinitiating the conversation that Aether longed to be over.

"Phooey! Paimon wants to know all about this favour that you're offering us!"

Of course.

Paimon would never turn down any sort of fucking favour.

Even from their enemy. A war criminal capable of easy murder.

"Glad to hear it! I trust that you know that the Adventurer's Guild hails from Snezhnaya, correct?" The Harbinger's nervous tone dissipated, his emotions once again drastically changing, as if he was switching masks. He took Paimon's enquiry as a sign that Aether was interested, for some reason.

Paimon nodded, interested in the ginger's story. Aether turned, ready to tell Paimon that he didn't care and that they weren't accepting, before meeting Childe's dull, lifeless eyes. 

Somewhere, in that empty abyss, did Aether see a sign of pleading?

Aether sighed and glared at his pixie companion, before sitting cross-legged on the floor. "Go on."

Childe nodded, joining him on the floor. His joyous smile was replaced with one more serious. "Well, in Snezhnaya, there is a yearly ballot offered by the Adventurer's Guild, named the Proyeznoy in our native tongue. Translated to more generalisable Teyvatian, it's called the 'Travel Ticket'."

"Ooh, the Travel Ticket? What does it do?" inquired the fairy, beginning to lounge in midair. 

What does she think it fucking does? Make her Sticky Honey Roast?

Aether sighed, looking away from the Harbinger, throwing Festering Desire off of his waist and to the side- but out of Tartaglia's reach. He needed to listen rationally, and the sword's influence wasn't helping.

Childe continued after Aether had discarded his weapon, shuffling away from it- signifying that he meant no harm. "Basically, all adult citizens of Snezhnaya are entered into the ballot, and one name is drawn. The winning person wins an all-inclusive trip around Teyvat for themselves and their direct relatives. Usually, it's about three months earlier in the year, as so to catch the Rite of Descension, but the situation in Mondstadt and yet another attempted coup in Natlan delayed it- not to mention Rex Lapis' supposed assassination."

Another coup in Natlan? People were rebelling against the Pyro Archon?

"My babushka won the ballot this year, but she's too old to go, so she passed it on to my mamushka instead. As a result, my family- mother, father, my elder sister Olga, my elder brothers Alexander and Dimitri, as well as my younger siblings Teucer, Anthon, and Tonia are going on the Proyeznoy this year- as am I." continued the Harbinger, his empty eyes seeming almost wistful. It seemed he really cared for his family.

Then again, could a Harbinger care for anything?

"Wait- so the Adventurer's Guild provides all of the travel and accommodation for you?" Aether asked, his dwelling on trying to interpret Tartaglia's feelings causing him to miss something that the Harbinger had said- scepticism not affecting his newfound curiosity.

"Yep, as are the ruling parties of the country in question. In other words, being on the Proyeznoy gives you a form of political immunity, which means I'm able to go without being-y'know- instantly arrested." He shrugged. "However, that's besides the point- my offer to you." Childe bit his lip, his upbeat attitude disappearing for the first time in this entire affair. For someone who seemed to constantly be cowering behind a mask, his emotions changed incredibly quickly.

Childe took a deep breath, playing with one of his short, choppy nails, as if he was mirroring another to assure himself. After a tense pause, he seemed to finally find the words he wanted to say.

"SInce my babushka cannot accompany us, there is an open slot on the Proyeznoy. I was curious if you would like to come with us, comrade."

Come with him?

Did Childe think he was crazy?

Aether blinked, the offer wrangling his brain. "You can do that?"

"It's open to anyone that the winner chooses, should a family member decline. My mamushka had no-one else in mind for the slot, so I can propose it to you. Unfortunately, Paimon-I'm not entirely sure if you count as a person- maybe a pet? Either way you wouldn't be able to come. Sorry." Tartaglia didn't sound apologetic- in fact, he sounded thankful- but the fairy wouldn't notice; she focused too much on words, and not their meanings.

"Hey, what if Paimon wanted to come?" shouted the pixie, her voice dripping with the contempt it should have possessed from the moment she had first seen the Harbinger. "Anyways, Aether, this is such a good offer! He'll have to accept-"

"I decline." Aether said, a deep sigh escaping his lips. His muscles tensed again, reaching for Festering Desire in an instinct. 

Even if it provided an opportunity to find leads on where Lumine was, Dainsleif had already helped him do that- his mind returning to the dandelion in Stormterror's Lair. The thought of seeing the rest of Teyvat was tempting, too- but none of the boons could outweigh the fact that he would be isolating himself with multiple potential members of the Fatui. For all he knew, it could still be a trap, despite Childe's 'sincerity' (could he really be sincere?).

Thus, he was surprised as Tartaglia chuckled softly and shrugged, his empty eyes looking downwards. His fake smile betrayed his disappointment- was he sad that Aether refused? Either way, the lack of hydro blades summoned from the vision at his waist was a less violent outcome than what he was honestly expecting.

"That's what I expected. It's a shame, really- I would've enjoyed having you along."

"I'm glad you didn't have your hopes up. Walking straight into the hands of the Fatui like that would be suicide, Childe. Someone like you should see that- and also see that I'm not dumb enough to fall for it." Aether growled, before standing and turning away, anger once again welling up inside him. "I don't know why you even bothered to offer. Make sure to mark the commission as done."

He was surprised when the Harbinger shouted out suddenly, his voice dripping with an uncharacteristic desperation- emotions unusually exposed. "Wait- it's not like that! I don't want to hurt you! I'm not- well, I'm only kinda a bad guy."

"Then why did you offer?" Aether stated bluntly, confused.

If that wasn't his plan, what was it?

"Because I- I saw the posters posted around Liyue Harbour." At this point, Childe's rambling had became unrestrained, as he desperately wallowed to convince the blonde. "And I knew you were looking for something, so I realised that you lost your sister! And- and I thought maybe traveling around Teyvat, even if you didn't get to stay in each country long, would be a good way of finding leads on her whereabouts." Aether could see dry tears welling in the corner of the Harbinger's eyes. It was so strange- the opposite of what he had learned to expect from the Harbinger, nor something he would expect from someone he considered an enemy-yet, he had reason to believe that they were genuine.

"I just wanted to help you. I just wanted you to like me. I- I just wanted to be the good guy for once in my life. I wanted to do something good, and I didn't think about any of the other implications. Not everything I do is evil, no matter what they tell you, I'm still just a person, I think, and- I'm sorry. I'll go now." Childe stood up and turned, the heaving of his chest somehow more noticeable from the back. Aether couldn't tell, but he swore that he heard him mumble "That's the last time I try to do anything nice."

To put it frankly, Aether was shocked. He hadn't expected to see Childe so exposed- to present his emotions to the blonde so bluntly. He always seemed to be hiding behind a mask, and Aether's cold attitude had seemed to freeze it- and the denial was like a pick, leading it to shatter.

Was this what he was really like? Was he really so sad all the time, the euphoria of battle being the only thing left that could bring him joy?

Biting his lip, Aether swallowed another sigh. He, against all odds, was feeling pity for the Harbinger. Knowing nothing but another's orders, finding joy in nothing but fighting, the only thing to bring any entertainment anymore? Constantly feeling vulnerable when alone, missing something they had lost more than anything else.

Had they always been so similar? The thought of being the same as Childe brought a shiver to his spine, the cold becoming sharper when he noticed just how close the allusion was.

"Tell me more, Childe." Maybe if he knew a little more, he would be convinced to go. It didn't sound that bad an idea anymore.

Childe turned his head slightly, his left eye now visible, its pupil fixed on the blonde. "You really want to know more?"

"Yeah. I do."

"W-Well." Childe reclaimed his seat on the floor. Aether took this as a sign to once again join him.

Once they were comfortable, the Harbinger started: "You stay in each region for 3 days, in the order of Mondstadt, Liyue, Inazuma, Sumeru, Fontaine, Natlan, and then Snezhnaya- not including the travel time, though with our Snezhnayan aeroplenes, it doesn't take that long. Don't worry, you'll find out about those soon enough. Our technology is more advanced than the other nations." Childe took a breath. It seemed longer than it needed to be. "You meet with the ruling parties of each region and go to the most expensive attractions their capitals have to offer. Then, at the end, you return to Snezhnaya and get to visit Zapolyarny Palace itself- that's where our Archon stays. You don't actually get to meet her though." Childe sighed, looking at the floor, as if he believed he failed to convince him. "I'm just looking forward to being able to spend time with my family for the first time in- a long time. Some time where I don't have to worry about being a Harbinger anymore; after- y'know, the thing, I really think I need some time off. Some time to just be Aj-Childe. Not Tartaglia."

Aether nodded, understanding his sentiment. "And I'd be safe this entire time?"

"100% guaranteed. My papa would kill me if he found out that I hurt a guest- so let's not mention our fight to them, eh?" The Harbinger winked, recovering a bit of his upbeat charm, although there was still anxiety in his voice.

"I haven't made my decision yet."

"Well, if you accept, I mean." Childe paused, his mind drifting to another topic. "That was the closest to a loss I've came in a while, y''know." Childe's smile returned.

Why did he keep on smiling, when his eyes looked so dead?

"I won. You passed out after that whole Sigil thing." the blonde pointed out.

"Yeah yeah, whatever. Anyways, do you accept now?" Tartaglia grinned like a child who had just been gifted a puppy. 

Was he really so happy to spend time with the blonde? Or was he just glad that he'd been able to bare his feelings, happy that he was able to be vulnerable around someone? Or was this simply his joy at the thought of seeing his family again speaking, joy seeping through his lips?

"Not yet." Aether turned to Paimon. "Are you happy saying with Albedo and Klee whilst I'm gone?"

Paimon nodded, speaking for the first time in a while- she had simply been attentively watching. "Paimon will stay safe, don't you worry!"

"In that case..." Aether took a deep breath, taking Childe's resting hand and forcing him into a handshake. "I accept."

What was he doing? He was willingly agreeing to being alone with an enemy- for multiple weeks! If he didn't already have a death wish, he had practically just signed his own will.

No. Childe wouldn't hurt him, right?

Would he?

What was Aether doing? What was he thinking?

What would Lumine think?

Aether was awakened from his moment of brooding by a handshake, Childe gripping his hand with a newfound resolve. The ginger's smile, for the first time in all the time they had known each other, seemed genuine. In his eyes, Aether could see the tiniest spark of life. The tiniest chance that he could be saved.

"I'm- far happier than you realise to hear that. My family arrives in Mondstadt in a few days- I look forward to seeing you then."

With that, after a few parting discussions, they went their separate ways- worry for the occasion slowly fading as he thought more on it.

After all, the first week or so would be safe. He'd be in Mondstadt and Liyue, where he had friends and knew the ruling parties, and knew that no-one would dare lay a finger on him there.

Besides, he had more trust for Childe now. He didn't trust him fully, but after seeing him so exposed, he felt as if he understood him now. Understood the fact that he would probably protect him until the journey's end.

Aether waved a goodbye to Paimon, who was going to play with Klee. He also bade Katheryne farewell, as he headed to the Favonius Headquarters, to find Jean and inform her of his involvement.

Aether was hoping to find Lumine, or at least traces of her. He expected to gain more of an insight into Teyvat, to learn more about the place that he had been thrust into, the place he didn't belong.

An outlander has no place in a land that is not theirs. 

However, the one thing that Aether did not expect to find on this journey was the thing he did find.

A place that he, an outlander, belonged.