When Aether begins coughing up petals, he doesn’t exactly know why.
“Hanahaki,” Lisa tells him, one lip between her teeth. “I’m surprised an outworlder can get it.”
“Hanahaki?” Aether replies, the word a strange weight on his tongue. “Is it dangerous?”
And Lisa looks at him quietly, a frown pulling at the edge of her lips. “Sometimes,” she replies, and Aether hears the yes for what it is.
When Aether continues coughing up petals, he has a better idea as to why:
“It has to do with unrequited love,” Lisa tells him. “You wouldn’t happen to have any of that, would you?”
But Aether does, he absolutely does, and even better than that—he seems to have it in spades. His hands fill with perfect petals and blood-tinged saliva, and he thinks of small smiles tucked away within the winding spires of Dragonspine, and small frowns cast down from the upper balconies of Wangshu Inn.
I might, Aether had replied, and Lisa had simply sighed.
When Lisa later recommends that Aether reach out to Albedo, Aether feels his stomach drop. “He might be able to help you fix it,” Lisa tells him, simple as that, “being Chief Alchemist, and all.”
Aether stares back at her, sees the hint of a smile, and then leaves to find Albedo.
Albedo’s office is small and cluttered—notebooks and alchemy ingredients spread out across every available surface—and he looks up from his desk with bright eyes that Aether recalls far too vividly.
“Aether,” he says, voice warm. “To what do I owe your visit?”
And Aether drops petals into his palm, sees Albedo’s expression freeze up, and suddenly his lungs feel tight, as if for lack of air.
“You have Hanahaki?” Albedo asks, and Aether nods, swallowing dryly. He watches as Albedo picks through the flower petals—setting them down in different piles upon his desk—and feels petals rise in his throat. The urge to cough around Albedo is far greater than he’d expected it to be, and he grits his teeth as Albedo stares down at the flowers, a small frown on his face.
“Qingxin and Cecelia,” Albedo tells him, still looking down, “and couple Windwheel. How interesting.”
“It is,” Aether replies, trying not to choke on the petals that seem desperate to make it to his lips. “Isn’t it.”
He swallows again, dry and rough, and Albedo’s gaze shoots up, his frown deepening. They stare at each other for a couple seconds longer—Albedo frowning, and Aether trying his hardest not to gag—before Albedo looks down again, fingers coasting across the petals on his desk. Warm sunlight filters in through the window behind him, softening the sharp angles of his face, and Aether pushes down thoughts of unrequited love, stares down at the pale of Albedo’s wrist.
“I’ll do some research,” Albedo tells him, slowly, “and see what I can do. But I can’t promise I’ll get results.”
Aether nods back, and nods out a quiet thanks as he stumbles out the door.
He’s barely out of the building before he’s coughing fully—Cecelia petals spat from his mouth and coating his hands with blood—and he leans heavily against the side of the Favonius Headquarters, his breathing ragged and rough.
He cares about you, Aether tells himself, he does. And the weight of Albedo’s stare reminds him of their days in Dragonspine: of warm hands and scientific methods, of mumbled hypotheses and sudden goodbyes. Aether thinks of the days he’d returned to Albedo’s tiny cave—many weeks after their experiments had ended—and his lungs feel far too full, petals itching their way up his throat.
Aether leans against the wall, sunlight casting shadows on his face, and doesn’t leave for a long time afterward.
Aether goes to Liyue after that—to visit Bubu Pharmacy at Lisa’s suggestion.
The petals push to fill his lungs only when he thinks of Albedo or Xiao, and so Aether puts the two of them out of his mind as best he can: focusing on doing what he can to learn more about the foreign disease.
“Hanahaki, hm?” Baizhu mutters, staring down at the flower petals that Aether hands him upon entry.
“I was hoping you’d be able to help me cure it,” Aether says, and Baizhu looks back at him, his mouth thinning out into a grim smile.
“I can help you slow the symptoms,” Baizhu replies, simply, “but that’s about all I can do. I assume that by now, you’ve learned the cause of it?”
And Aether nods, because the words unrequited love simply won’t leave his lips. Baizhu prescribes him a medicine that burns terribly as it goes down his throat, but it lets him breathe better than he has in days, and Aether thanks him before he leaves.
“It’s only temporary relief,” Baizhu reminds him, eyes dark as he locks eyes with Aether at the door. “If you want to survive Hanahaki, you have you address it at its source. And I trust that you know who that is?”
Aether ducks his head, thanking Baizhu again and descending the Pharmacy steps as quickly as he can.
Address it at its source, Aether thinks, grimacing as he descends. Who, not what.
And it’s not as though he knows his love is unrequited: he knows that Xiao cares, in the same way that he knows Albedo cares, too. Call out my name, Xiao had told him before, his face open and serious, and I will be there when you call.
And Aether wonders—if he were to call for Xiao now—would Xiao be willing to listen? Would he be willing, able, to help?
Aether thinks of moonlight reflected upon Xiao’s cheeks—the softening of Xiao’s face when he’d last seen Aether in the kitchens of Wangshu Inn. Quiet smiles, an expected brush of knuckles against skin; a looming darkness, and a scowling face.
Aether thinks of Xiao refusing to step into the Harbor with him for Lantern Rite, of Xiao’s frown over their dinner that night at the inn, and his throat starts to itch.
“It wasn’t because of you,” Paimon had tried to tell him, “that he hadn’t wanted to go down.” And yet—the disappointment had lingered, festered. And Aether can’t help but be reminded of it each time he considers visiting Wangshu Inn once more.
Hanahaki isn’t fatal; Lisa had told him before he’d left, but it certainly isn’t pleasant. It forces you to deal with either acceptance or rejection. But honestly—isn’t it better that way?
“Rejection certainly hurts, but isn’t knowing better than not?”
Aether isn’t really sure, but he feels the burn of Baizhu’s medicine as it works its way to his lungs, and he stares at the sun as it sets over Liyue Harbor.
Xiao. Albedo. Adeptus. Homunculus.
There’s a place for Aether in both of their lives, and he had been so sure that he’d finally found it. Smiles, nods; occasional meals whenever Aether finds the time to stop by.
And yet—here he is, forever wanting more, and the guilt that pools in his gut is impossible for him to ignore. Who is he, to ask them for more than they’d be willing to give?
Who is he, to want more than they’ve already given?
Aether feels his throat itch, sees the sun sink down beneath the waves of Liyue’s ocean, and he coughs blood and petals into the palm of his hand, answering the question for him:
When Xiao and Albedo meet for the first time, it had been during one of Albedo’s experiments with Aether on Dragonspine.
Aether had called Xiao’s name accidentally—the name slipping from his throat as he’d watched the arms of an enhanced Frostarm Lawachurl slam down over his head—and Xiao had appeared before them both: his mask in place and his spear in hand. The fight had been quick, and Aether—bloodied and wide-eyed and far too exhausted to be embarrassed—has simply sat back and watched.
“Who are you?” Xiao had hissed, rounding upon Albedo, who’d busied himself with sheathing his sword at his side. “And what are you doing with Aether?”
“I am Albedo,” the other had replied, simply, “and Aether is running some tests.”
Xiao had snarled then, his mask dissipating from his face. “By nearly killing him?” he had snapped, and Aether had stepped up to him, smiling lightly and resting a hand on Xiao’s’ shoulder.
“It’s fine, Xiao,” Aether had said. “I agreed to them, and I’m fine.”
“Xiao?” Albedo had asked, the name strange on his tongue. “The Adeptus of Liyue?”
“Yes,” Aether had nodded, and that had been that.
“Does he come whenever you call?” Albedo had asked him, eyebrows arching upwards, and Aether had bitten his lip—heart beating fast as he’d looked over Xiao’s way.
“Of course I do,” Xiao had cut in, frowning, and Albedo had looked at him critically, eyes flicking over the residual darkness that had been drifting around Xiao’s face.
“Interesting,” Albedo had eventually said, his eyes shining bright despite his muted expression. “And if I were to call your name, would you come to help me, too?”
Xiao’s expression had darkened, confused and incredulous, and he’d disappeared with a sharp: “No.”
Aether had bitten his lip even harder at that.
“Let’s conclude for the day,” Albedo had laughed, staring at the spot where Xiao had disappeared, and Aether had nodded appreciatively, the two of them returning to Albedo’s cave and pouring over test results for the remainder of the evening.
Since that day, Aether is certain that Xiao has been called upon by Albedo on more than one occasion—and Xiao, for whatever reason, has acquiesced. He’s found paintings of the Adeptus half-finished in Albedo’s office, and Xiao has mentioned offhand that he’s glad Aether’s “idiotic tests” with the other man have concluded.
Aether’s not sure he would call it friendship, but he imagines the two of them sitting across from him for dinner at Wangshu Inn, or going out for drinks at Angel’s Share, or adventuring through the Marsh—and his head starts to spin.
He thinks it would be nice, if they one day become friends enough for that.
When Aether begins coughing up full flowers, he recognizes how badly he’s let the illness spread. Baizhu’s medicine, though certainly helpful, isn’t anything close to a cure, and adventuring starts to put more strain on his body than Aether had expected it would.
Full flowers bloom bloody in his palm: Qingxin, Cecelia, Windwheel.
Other flowers get thrown into the mix as well—small Snapdragons and the petals of lovely Silk Flowers—yet those three are the ones that he coughs up most, and Aether is fairly certain he knows why.
He gets a room with the Adventurer’s Guild as he works to figure out exactly what he plans to do. The most straightforward thing to do would be to simply tell the both of them what’s going on—rejection be damned—and yet, the thought leaves a dark fear coiling deep in his gut.
Aether is used to disappointment, used to rejection: he’s been alive for so many years working to reunite with his sister, and he’s undertaken so many dangerous missions that he can no longer count on two hands all of his close encounters with death. He is used to not getting what he wants, and he’s used to the universe doing everything it can to spite him.
But it’s scarier, he thinks—when it’s matters of the heart that are on the line.
“You overthink things,” Xiao has told him.
“You would find success,” Albedo has said, in return, “in learning to think about things a bit more before you do them.”
And Aether, flowers in his chest, tries his hardest to do both. He thinks and thinks and thinks while simultaneously pushing those thoughts from his mind, and he finds himself with bloodied lips and far too many flowers surrounding the hardwood floor of his borrowed bed.
He’s staring at the ceiling—Baizhu’s medicine burning down his throat—when Xiao finally tracks him down.
“Hanahaki?” Xiao spits out, snapping into existence in front of Aether and casting a furious gaze his way, and Aether chokes on his spit: unable to stop three small Qingxin flowers from pushing their way up his throat. Xiao stares at him, eyes wide, and snatches the flowers from Aether’s hands, blood and saliva dripping from his fist.
“I told you,” Xiao growls, “to call me when you need me.”
“I—” Aether starts, unable to keep the flowers down, and Xiao shoves a glass of water into his hand, and holds him steady through the resulting fit. The Qingxin flowers spill down onto to the floor, discarded by Xiao in favor of helping Aether, and Aether heaves heavy breaths, does his best to refill his lungs with air.
“Who is it?” Xiao asks afterward, one lip between his teeth, and Aether looks away, his shoulders tight and lungs filling again as Xiao stares back at him.
“I’m sorry,” Aether eventually says, throat dry, “for not calling your name sooner,” and something in Xiao tightens, his hands gripping harder at Aether’s shoulders.
Aether had always imagined Xiao to be rough with him: hard like the words that snap from the other man’s mouth. And yet, Xiao holds him carefully—as though he’s something fragile—and presses soft kisses to Aether’s cheek, a question in his eyes once he finally pulls away.
“Is this—?” Xiao asks, and Aether nods, his heart beating heavily as Xiao leans in again. His lips are cold and Aether tastes blood—his own blood—when Xiao kisses him, and Aether clings to him tightly: breathing even breaths into the soft of Xiao’s mouth.
When Xiao pulls away, Aether feels fear coil again in his gut, sees the question in Xiao’s face before it’s even reached his lips.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Xiao asks him, and Aether can’t look away. He thinks of sunshine and sunflowers and a golden smile, and of paintings in offices that are not of him.
He opens his mouth to respond, and immediately starts to cough.
The Cecelia that sits in his hand afterward is large and tinged red, and Xiao—his hands held carefully around the jawline of Aether’s face—sucks in a breath.
“It's not me,” Xiao says, quietly, and Aether is wild in his denial:
“No—” he says, quickly, “no, no—it is.”
He coughs out another flower, pale and large, and Xiao holds him through the fit.
“It is, it’s just—” Aether says quietly, once the flower has been crushed in Xiao's fist, “it isn't only you.”
And Xiao's face softens again, because he knows—of course he knows—and he bites his lip so hard that there's more blood there than there is on Aether's own.
“Does he know?” Xiao asks him, and Aether shakes his head.
“Are you going to tell him?” he continues, and Aether takes in a breath. Shakes his head again.
And Xiao holds Aether’s head in his hands, eyes burning as he stares into the pale of Aether’s face—looking, if nothing else, for answers.
“If your condition gets any worse,” he says, eventually, “then you need to tell him.”
Aether licks his lips.
“Promise me,” Xiao insists, voice low, “that if your condition gets any worse, you’ll tell him.”
And Aether nods. “Okay,” he replies, faintly, “okay.”
And Aether gets better before he starts to get worse. Xiao’s presence is enough to curb the steady river of flowers into nothing more than an occasionally trickling stream, yet the illness continues to plague him, and Aether deals with it as best he can. Xiao remains by his side as often as he can, too—gone only when his duty to Liyue calls him away—and the small smiles he sends Aether’s way whenever Aether takes Xiao’s hand in his is enough to settle the fluttering weight that remains within his chest.
It’s enough of an improvement that Aether is able to begin taking commissions again, and he continues his work across both Mondstadt and Liyue: inquiring after his sister and lending a hand to the citizens that dwell within them. Xiao travels alongside him—holding Aether through the coughing fits that occasionally overtake him when they pass through Mondstadt or venture too high up Dragonspine for work—and Aether grows closer to him with each passing day.
Xiao’s presence alone is grounding, and he hopes—perhaps foolishly—that that will be enough.
In the end, of course, it isn’t—and Albedo smiles at them both when he finds them in Mondstadt later that year, sunlight shining of the gold of his cheek. Aether nearly throws up—the itching in his chest ripping quickly up his throat—and the feeling leaves his hands clenched tight and clammy.
“Aether, Xiao,” Albedo says, and the sky halos his face in ribbons of light. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you both.
“Albedo,” Xiao says, slowly, his hand coming up to grip Aether’s arm, and Aether clutches at his hand like a lifeline, swallowing desperately at the flower petals that he can feel pushing out from his lungs.
“I heard you’ve been better,” Albedo says, nodding Aether’s way, and Aether smiles wryly, stifling a cough even as he feels Xiao’s body tense next to his.
“In a sense,” Aether replies, slowly, and there’s a faraway look in Albedo’s eye when the words leave his lips.
“That’s good, then,” Albedo says. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Thank you,” Aether manages, and Albedo’s eyes flick back between the two of them, then down to Aether’s hand resting atop Xiao’s.
“It seems my research will no longer be needed, then?” Albedo asks, less of a question than it is a statement, and he smiles faintly—something small and strangely sad. Aether stares at his face, sees the pull of Albedo’s lips, and struggles to keep his petals down.
Albedo bids them goodbye before Aether has a chance to reply, turning back towards the Knight’s headquarters with his office and his books and his paintings and his research. Xiao grips Aether’s arm and pulls him into a side alley just as Aether can swallow down his feelings no more, and Xiao holds him through his fit, wet coughs and full flowers trembling out of his mouth.
“Breathe,” Xiao tells him, quietly, “breathe.”
And Aether does—big, gasping breaths as soon as he can manage them—and by the time he’s feeling any better, there’s a small pool of flowers that have gathered at their feet. Xiao’s lip is dark with blood, and Aether raises a shaky hand to wipe it off his skin.
“You need to tell him,” Xiao says—a frown pulling hard at his lips. “You can’t keep living like this.”
Tell him, Xiao says, or I will.
And Aether feels his head begin to spin.
“But what if he doesn’t love me back?” Aether asks, the words dry as he pushes them from his throat. “What if that just makes this worse?”
And Xiao replies: “Who wouldn't love you back?” with his face raw and open, and Aether can’t help but smile back—his heart beating heavy in his chest.
It’s getting worse, Xiao says.
I'll kill him if he doesn't, Xiao says.
I’m so sorry, Xiao says.
And isn’t it selfish of me, Aether tells him in reply, to not be satisfied as I am? To not be satisfied as we are?
And Xiao shakes his head: fiercely loyal and fiercely loving.
“We can't help but love the people that we do,” he says. “We just love them as much as we can. And we hope that it’s enough.”
Aether loves him and loves Albedo and hopes—instead of being enough—that it’s not too much. To him, love feels too selfish of an emotion to thrust upon another person—let alone two—and Aether hates to feel as though he’s imposing in a way he’d never originally planned to do.
“Even at the cost of your own health?” Xiao asks him, incredulous, and Aether just shakes his head.
For what’s an inconvenient illness to a friendship perhaps forever lost?
“You didn’t lose me,” Xiao frowns, as if that isn’t something that Aether has been thankful for, every single day.
“I didn’t,” Aether says, “but can you be so sure I won’t lose him?”
In the end, Aether doesn’t end up telling him—not, at least, in the way Xiao had intended—and neither does Xiao.
Xiao does, however, eventually drag him into Albedo’s office in Mondstadt, and he slams through the door with a scowl on his face and Aether at his heels.
“Fix this,” Xiao snaps, glaring daggers at Albedo as they step through the door and Aether coughs Cecilias into his palm.
“I—” Albedo says, his head turning quickly in their direction. “Aether, Xiao—”
Aether watches as petals fall from Albedo's lips.
Xiao stiffens next to him, and the two of them stare as Albedo coughs and coughs and spits petals into his hands, and Aether feels his body start to shake. Albedo’s face changes little through the fit, but there’s sweat on his brow and blood on his hands, and Aether knows what it feels like to have your lungs fill with flora until there’s no way to get it out.
“Albedo?” Aether asks carefully, his voice dry. Xiao’s hand steadies him—grounding as it clings to Aether’s arm—and Aether takes a careful step forward, leading them both to Albedo’s desk.
It’s a long time after when Albedo starts to speak.
“I hadn't thought myself capable of love,” Albedo tells them both, a curious expression on his face, “let alone any of the unrequited variety. And yet—”
There are lily petals, wet with saliva, sitting prettily on his palm.
“Who is it?” Aether asks, carefully, pushing down the small bit of hope that continues to press flowers up his throat. “Do you—?”
And Albedo looks back at them both, confusion lining the exhaustion on his face.
“Who else would it be?” he says, and then Aether moves forward, hands outstretched to press kisses into the edge of Albedo’s lips, and feels his small hope grow when Albedo doesn’t push him away.
“I’m sorry,” Aether says, quietly, “I’m sorry—”
And Albedo shakes his head, smiles carefully into their kiss, and then his eyes flick back to Xiao.
Xiao stands behind them both—hand at his mouth to cover a small sort of smile that Aether can see only in the crinkle around his eyes—and then Aether pulls him in too, kisses his face and apologizes some more when Xiao refuses to say, I told you, so.
“I didn’t think—” Aether tells them, then stops, and shakes his head.
“You’re always been too far away for me to reach,” Albedo replies, quietly, and Xiao scoffs in that small way he always does, and Aether kisses them both again and again and again: his heart, instead of flowers, finding a way into his throat.
“And you’re both too bright for me,” Xiao tells them both back, staring at Aether with his hands on Albedo’s cheeks.
They sit in Albedo’s office for a long time after that—the fear that had before settled so perfectly in Aether’s gut finally beginning to uncoil—and Albedo makes them both tea and talks of the simple things that they’d used to before Aether had fallen ill, and the afternoon is filled with simple kisses and golden light and drying flowers left forgotten upon the desk.
“You’re both idiots,” Xiao tells them later—after Albedo has touched up the sides of his face, smiling at the things that he’d seen in Xiao’s eyes.
Aether agrees, heart still in his throat, but thinks that he’s more than willing to be an idiot—as long as the two of them don’t mind.
When Aether finally stops coughing up petals, it’s still a long time after that day in Albedo’s office.
“Personally,” Lisa tells him, when Aether eventually returns to the Knights of Favonius Library in order to ask, “I believe that Hanahaki has more to do with emotional repression than with the unrequited nature of one’s love.
“I believe Hanahaki to be the result of one’s negative emotions surrounding that love, and that the illness is simply the Archons’ way of forcing you to resolve them.”
You think that Venti did this to me, then? Aether had replied, and Lisa had simply laughed, shaking her head and brushing the question away.
Not so directly as that, she’d replied, but Aether had taken that, too, to mean a solid yes.
“Even if rejection can cure the illness,” Baizhu says, when Aether returns to Bubu Pharmacy and informs the man he no longer needs a steady stream of medication, “I’ve heard the process is still quite painful.”
“So,” Baizhu continues, staring critically back at Aether. “I’m glad, for your sake, that you didn’t have to go through that.”
I’m glad I didn’t have to, either, Aether had replied, and really—he is.
The effects of Hanahaki on his body fade over time, and Aether continues to recover as the three of them begin to spend time together. Xiao shakes his head each time they ask where his own flowers went, and Albedo recovers alongside him. Aether makes them eat dinner with him as soon as he can manage it: has them get drinks with him, has them go adventuring with him—and Xiao and Albedo do their best to mesh their schedules with his, Albedo’s notebook always at the ready.
New paintings begin to line the walls of Albedo’s office, and Xiao takes them both through Liyue when Albedo gets travel leave for experiments outside of Mondstadt’s border. The sunsets of Liyue shine golden across both of their faces, and the moonlight nights shine pearlescent against the them much the same; and the weight on Aether’s chest lightens more with each passing day.
Wasn’t it selfish of me, he asks them later, a repetition of the question that he’d asked of Xiao, so many weeks prior, to have not been satisfied as we were?
“No more selfish than I,” Albedo replies, and Xiao’s smile is thin and forgiving.
“If there’s anyone who deserves to be selfish sometimes,” Albedo continues, “then I’d think it would be you.”
And though Aether isn’t so sure, he still smiles down at Xiao’s head where it rests in his lap, and he feels Albedo lean into him—head falling back against Aether’s shoulder. Xiao stares up at him, his face open and honest in a way that tells Aether the same thing, and Aether closes his eyes when Albedo begins to speak again.
“I believe,” Albedo tells them, “that unrequited love is oftentimes love that one simply doesn’t know how to express. And as such—it physically can’t be requited.”
“That’s a strange way of putting it,” Aether replies, letting the setting sun cast colors against the back of his eyelids.
“He just means,” Xiao says, his voice quiet, “that the two of you will need to learn how better to express it.”
And Aether—fields of flowers between them and the vast expanse of the future—resolves to do his best, and try.