Aether is especially jittery this morning.
The blond is bouncing off the walls so early in the morning that even Zhongli was taken aback by his energy. The ex-Archon watches him with wary eyes as the traveler paces back and forth in front of the breakfast table, muttering to himself about ‘fates’ and ‘primogems’. Vaguely, Zhongli hears Aether mutter the numbers ‘one hundred and sixty’ and ‘thirty-two-eighty’ as he paces, and the deity ultimately decides he wants nothing to do with what Aether is scheming. The sun is rising and Zhongli has always loved watching the star rise with every inhale. The day starts when the sun wakes up, and it ends when the sun begins to rest. Zhongli closes his eyes, ignoring Aether’s anxious pacing in favor of the serenity of the wilderness they chose to camp out in for the night.
Mona and Keqing clamber out of their shared tent together, pinkies linked as usual. Keqing still dons her elegant silk sleeping robe and her lavender hair spills past her shoulders in cute, candid waves. Her eyes are still slightly hooded with sleep but she’s quick to blink her drowsiness away in favor of the day to come. Mona, on the other hand, is in the oversized tee shirt she bought from Majorie and her usual black tights. Her dark locks are out of their usual twin pigtails and flow down her back, tangled, and significantly less put together than Keqing. She yawns obnoxiously as she shuffles closer to the group.
The astrologist sniffles. “G’morning.”
“Good morning, friends,” Keqing greets with a small smile of her own and drags Mona to sit across from Zhongli. He offers her a smile. Mona blinks in response.
“Good morning, ladies. Did you sleep well?” Zhongli responds, and takes Mona’s glare as an answer in itself. “Still not a morning person, I see.”
“Never will be, Mr. Rex Lapis,” Mona sighs, thanking him quietly for the cup of tea he hands her in passing. Keqing makes a beeline for their makeshift kitchen to make the unruly bunch some breakfast. Zhongli always handles the tea, as picky as he is about his morning tea, and Keqing always handles breakfast.
“I assume young Chongyun will not be awake for awhile,” Zhongli chuckles, bringing his cup to his lips.
Keqing scoffs from the kitchen, “You can expect him around noon, Zhongli-xiansheng.”
Try as he might, he’s associated the suffix to a certain ginger. A ginger who he misses dearly, but hasn’t seen since he left for Snezhnaya in a hurry. Zhongli’s heart swoops. He left without so much as a goodbye, leaving Zhongli to pick up the pieces he left Liyue in and the unfortunate state of his heart. The thought of not seeing Childe ever again ate at him continuously until he felt hollow inside, and all he had left was a familiar ache every time the ginger came back to haunt his dreams. All Zhongli wanted was to know if the latter was okay, but with the way he had deceived him, he wasn’t sure if he deserved to know. As someone who greets death as if it were an old friend, never seeing Childe again simply because the circumstances do not allow it upsets him far more than he’d like to admit. Life, human life, was too short for Zhongli to be sitting around wasting time. But no matter how many times he’s preached this to himself, the ex-Archon still struggles with taking the steps to make contact.
How would he even begin, anyway?
The Harbinger was stuck with his Harbinger duties. Childe had a family to tend to and treasure hoarders to chase. It wasn’t like Zhongli could warp to Snezhnaya and sweep him off his feet; that would be inappropriate and selfish of him. And yet the idea of seeing him again, of hearing his laugh, watching him smile, pay for his food with that adorable expression of his, it almost makes him want to leave to see him right now. But he can’t. The situation simply does not allow it.
“Two minutes!” Aether suddenly yelps, making Mona jump in her chair. She whips around to glare at the overzealous traveler. Keqing’s head snaps in his direction and almost drops the pan she’s frying fish on. She clicks her tongue in mild annoyance. Zhongli frowns, his curiosity getting the best of him.
“What are you so anxious about, Aether?”
“You don’t understand, Zhongli!” Aether whips around, his crazy eyes locking onto Zhongli’s amber irises. “This team needs an archer. We need an archer. This is non-negotiable! I can’t keep bothering Keqing to shoot those stupid water birds if she can’t throw her hair pin that far! We need arrows, Zhongli, arrows!”
Keqing makes a small noise of offense.
His arms flail in the air, desperate to make everyone in the room feel the panic he is currently sinking under.
“Alright, alright,” Zhongli hushes him, unsure of why his friend was so disgruntled in the first place. As far as he knew, it was another normal day full of daily commissions and mindless material farming. “We need someone adept at long range fighting. But what does that have to do with your current state of distress?”
“Mona said that today, his chances are increased by two-hundred percent. Right, Mona?” Aether’s gaze suddenly locks onto hers. She blinks.
“Yeah,” she responds, “but we had this discussion already, Aether, Childe’s rates are increased but that doesn’t guarantee you the fifty-fifty-”
“Childe?” Zhongli interrupts, interest suddenly piqued. “What does this have to do with Childe?”
Fifty-fifty? The more the conversation went on, the more confused Zhongli grew.
“Agh!” Aether scrambles, “I have to go! It’s happening!”
Zhongli watches with twice the amount of curiosity he had two minutes earlier. The mention of Childe has his heart racing faster than he’d like to admit.
Aether frantically pulls out a bag full of intertwined fates and rushes out to the open field ahead of them. The bag is absolutely loaded, filled to the brim and overflowing with these small, circular things that, in his six thousand years of living, he has never seen before. They are colored blue and pink, and they mix together and sparkle so divinely that Zhongli finds himself entranced by their color alone. He has read about them and their uses in the past, but he has never seen someone actually wish upon them.
Mona sighs around her teacup. “He gets like this every time I tell him someone new is coming,” she shakes her head wistfully, “I always tell him to stop spending so much of his mora on these fates! They’re not good for the economy-”
“And what do you know about the economy, Mona?” Keqing chuckles, coming around with plated food for the trio, “you spend the entirety of your paychecks immediately on the newest hot astrology item. Not that they’re not important to you but I’ve told you before that you ought to be careful with how you spend your mora.”
Mona’s jaw drops. “What!” she fumbles, “I am plenty responsible with my mora! And the things I buy are completely valid and of high rarity, thank you!”
“Hmm, is that why you almost starved and ate nothing but mushrooms for three months?” Keqing teases, nudging Mona’s mouth open with chopsticks holding fish. The astrologist pouts, but opens her mouth to eat, anyway. She’s right, but Mona would never say that to her face.
Zhongli doesn’t pay attention to their bickering.
Instead, he fixates on the way Aether scurries out and dumps the bag of fates out on the open field before picking them up, one by one, until ten of them are bunched up in his arms. Aether flops down on the grass beneath him and folds his legs underneath himself. The traveler hunches over the fates, huddling them close to his chest, and Zhongli can barely see his mouth moving as Aether begins to wish upon ten stars. With every word spoken, each fate slowly starts to disappear. The more his mouth moves, the more the fates begin to disintegrate from his arms.
A loud whirring noise above their heads suddenly takes place. It gets louder as it gets closer, and Zhongli cranes his neck to see stars hurtling toward Teyvat. He feels panic bubbling up in his chest as he sees the bunch go straight for his friend.
“Aether!” he yells, “Get over here, it’s dangerous out in the open!”
“I’m fine!” he hollers back like a stubborn child. “Ugh, dammit!”
Zhongli looks back up, and is baffled to see that one of the stars has turned purple. What in Celestia’s name-
Barbara appears before them, and Zhongli’s eyes all but bulge out of his head. Celestia, he’s too old for this. The young nurse is not the only thing to appear, though. Zhongli observes the various weapons that litter the ground and surround Aether’s feet. The blond observes them with a scrutinizing gaze, nudging the three star weapons with his foot and pushing the four star weapons aside for later. How peculiar.
Mona, on the other hand, smiles and waves a hand at her fellow water catalyst. “Barbara!” She hollers, “It’s good to see you!”
“Mona!” the young idol responds with a blinding smile, before focusing her attention back on Aether. The traveler sighs, gives her a quick hug in greeting, and sends her on her merry way back to Mondstadt after apologizing profusely for the inconvenience.
Keqing snickers. “It’s always so funny watching him get so intense about wishing.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Mona adds, “Remember how much he screamed when he finally got us?”
“Oh yes,” Keqing smiles around her cup, “I remember him throwing these strange artifacts at me and shoving a sword in my face, demanding that I use it, as if I don’t already have my own weapon!” She waves her hand dismissively, reminiscing her days when she was first introduced to the team.
Mona tips her head back and laughs heartily. “Oh, yes. He took my book away from me and gave me my lovely eye of perception . I must say, it’s a bit of a downgrade from my five star weapon, but I do feel as if I deal more damage this way.”
Keqing hums in agreement. “Likewise.”
Zhongli is quiet.
All he remembers from joining Aether’s team is being pulled at the last minute and being tackled into a hug as soon as he appeared. The traveler had all but pushed the skyward spine into his hands, and told him to hold onto what looked to be archaic petra artifacts. Zhongli had cocked his head, confused, but followed along anyway. What Aether was doing seemed important, regardless, and he decided to support his endeavours from there on out.
Now he watches with bated breath as Aether curls around another set of ten fates. Zhongli is beginning to understand what he is doing, but he fails to decipher what Childe has to do with any of this. His rates are increased? What in Celestia’s name does that even mean?
Aether begins wishing upon ten more fates and the abrupt whooshing above their heads starts up once more. One of the stars morph midair into purple once again.
Keqing and Mona sigh.
Zhongli just wants to understand.
Aether punches the grass beneath him.
A young woman appears before them along with another unnecessary plethora of weapons. She’s blonde, just like the last one, but she dons two pigtails and an eyepatch. A strange electric bird hovers around her, too, and Zhongli can’t help but wonder why she is dressed the way she is; she’s covered in purple and black, cocking one hip as if she owned the world. Zhongli is unsure about the energy she exudes. But in fairness, it is far too early to judge one’s character on nothing but appearance. Still, he watches carefully.
“Fischl,” Aether breathes, slumping against the floor, “hello.”
“Traveler,” she greets. “What exactly am I doing here? I will have you know, as Prinzessin-”
“Der Verteilung, you have many duties at home you must attend to, lest the kingdom you rule with grace and elegance burn to the ground without your remarkable leadership,” Aether finishes for her, “I know, I know. Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to grab you. You can go home.”
Fischl harrumphs. “I’m relieved to know you are aware of my importance. Good day to you, strange traveler.”
And then she’s gone.
Zhongli sighs, pushing himself up from the table and ignoring the way his knees disagree with the sudden movement.
“Where are you going?” Keqing asks, helping herself to another cup of tea.
“I’m going to talk to Aether,” Zhongli declares, “He seems...rather troubled, and I wish to help.”
“He gets like this every time,” Mona reminds him, voice softer than it was two minutes ago, “it’s really nothing new.”
Zhongli shakes his head. “It does not make it right to let him sit in his anxiety like this. Perhaps he could use a friend.”
Mona shrugs and lets him go. As he walks away, he hears the girls behind him begin to talk.
“Does Zhongli have a thing for Childe?” Mona asks in a hushed breath. Keqing’s eyes widened comically.
“Not that I know of? Why, did you sense something?” She leans in closer, ever the gossip. Mona shuffles so they’re speaking in hushed tones, even though Zhongli can definitely still hear them. He chuckles, shaking his head disapprovingly.
The ex-Archon pads over to where Aether sits, frantically bunching together ten more fates. Zhongli sighs, and bends to sit next to him. His back screams in protest. Goodness, mortal life is getting to him.
“Aether,” he begins, “I worry for your health.”
“I’m fine, Zhongli. I’ll be fine as soon as he gets here,” Aether answers without even sparing the elder a glance. He picks up fates and observes them carefully to inspect their quality, as if he were picking ripe apples out from the grocery.
“And who exactly are you waiting for?” Zhongli asks, indulging the blond for a moment.
“Childe!” he yells, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. The latter sighs. He, too, wishes for Childe to appear, but it simply did not work like that. One cannot summon another’s presence upon demand. Childe was too busy for that, anyway.
“Aether,” he begins, “you are anxious, friend, and I implore you to take a break from this please-”
“Zhongli,” traveler shuffles on his knees to look at him, “I have spent the last three months working my ass off for these fates, I’ve spent more mora than I’d like to admit, and I’ve spent far too long in that godforsaken spiral abyss scraping for three hundred primogems each time I freeze my ass off in floors nine and ten and it sucked, Zhongli, but I’ve worked hard and I need this, okay? I need Childe to come home. Because I need to get stronger, and I need a stronger team because I need to find my sister because I know she’s out there and, and-”
Zhongli raises a hand to quiet him. Oh, there was much to unpack here. His heart breaks for his friend’s state of distress. He places a comforting palm on Aether’s shoulder, lowering himself even more to look his friend in the eyes. The traveler looks a bit haggard, obviously from waking up early in anticipation. Zhongli wishes he could take his pain; he wishes he could take away the longing he desperately felt for his sister. But unfortunately, there was nothing he could do, so he offers his best comfort, instead.
“It’s alright,” Zhongli mutters, “I understand. You have worked hard, and you deserve a win. But Aether, whatever comes will come. Whether or not you ‘win the fifty-fifty’, you will be pushed in the right direction toward your sister, I promise you that. No amount of artifacts or talent books or weapon upgrades can compare to the strength you already harbor, looking for your sister every day despite knowing where she is. You face a battle against the unknown, and that in itself is commendable. Acknowledge your strength, Aether. You have come very far.”
Aether sags against him, letting himself lean forward until his forehead thumps against Zhongli’s chest. The contact is comforting. Everything about Zhongli is so warm and homey, and he smells of sleep and sandalwood. The calming effect is immediate, but his brain is still plagued with anxiety. Oh, Aether can’t bear the thought of Childe not coming this morning. It makes the blond sick to his stomach. Zhongli pats the top of his head soothingly.
“I know you miss her, but you will find her,” Zhongli continues. Aether squeezes the single fate in his hand anxiously. The blond fidgets with the single intertwined fate, pressing it up against Zhongli’s stomach as he squeezes his eyes shut, willing the tears to go away. He’s so, so tired.
“You must not give up now, alright? I, too, wish for Childe to come home. I wish to see him again, and frankly, it scares me how much I want him by my side once more,” Zhongli acquiesces, “I miss him dearly, and all I want is to be able to hear his laugh again. You feel the same about your sister, do you not? But Aether, this kind of loss is something we both must grieve. But what is grief, if not love persevering?”
Aether opens his mouth to begin responding, but his jaw quickly snaps shut as the fate between his palms disappears.
Keqing and Mona gasp loudly from where they sit back at camp. Aether startles, and pulls back to look at him with wide golden eyes.
All four of them look up to the sky, and are astonished to see a single golden star hurtling toward the ground they sit on. Aether gasps, barely containing his scream.
“Oh my god,” Traveler inhales sharply, “oh my god, you-”
“Get out of there!” Mona yells, and suddenly she’s standing up on her chair. Keqing places a steadying hand on the small of her back. “It’s going to crash right into you! Move!”
Aether scrambles backward as soon as he sees the pseudo asteroid plummeting directly toward where they’re both situated. “Zhongli!” he yells, “Move!”
The man in question shakes his head, unable to look away from the shooting star.
“It’s alright,” he responds, a sudden calm washing over him at the sight. Something about it feels so undeniably right. His heart tugs impatiently, desperately wishing to make contact with the ethereal being threatening to crash right into him, like a magnet reaching for its other half. “It’s alright, Aether.”
Seconds before it lands, Childe materializes right in front of him, arms flung wide open and a smile so bright that Zhongli almost winces.
The wind is knocked straight out his lungs upon seeing Childe’s gleeful face in front of him. It’s no longer a dream, Zhongli realizes. Ajax is here and he is very real and he is definitely plunging toward him at breakneck speed. This is no longer a figment of his imagination, and he has all but less than two seconds to comprehend that before the ginger barrels right into him.
Zhongi regains himself and digs his feet into the ground, summoning geo shackles from the ground to wrap around his ankles and lock him into place. He braces himself for impact.
Keqing screams. Mona looks away. Aether watches with wide, disbelieving eyes as Tartaglia comes plummeting out of the sky. He lets out an ugly mix between a sigh and a broken sob of relief. Finally. Celestia knows how much Aether needed this.
Childe, Tartaglia, Ajax, slams into Zhongli at full force and immediately latches onto him like a lifeline. He wraps his arms around Zhongli’s neck, legs winding around his waist, and clings to him like a koala around a tree. Zhongli responds in kind, pressing Childe to his chest with strong arms that hold him impossibly close. The weights around his ankles drop as soon as he stabilizes the both of them, and the ex-Archon swings him around gleefully.
Tartaglia laughs, the noise slightly muffled from where his face is pressed into Zhongli’s collar. Tartaglia squeezes him tighter, and Zhongli eventually has to put him down because his back simply does not want to cooperate today. Tartaglia looks at him then, a little winded from his trek through the sky of all things. Cerulean eyes meet gold, and the sight of his freckled cheeks in front of him makes Zhongli feel as if he can do anything, gnosis or not. He is so filled with joy, heart so full of glee that he feels like he might burst. Celestia could redact his position as a god in its entirety and in this moment, he wouldn’t care. He couldn’t care, because immortality has been nothing but a curse to him so far, and growing old with the love of his life is all he ever desired.
“I can’t believe it,” Zhongli breathes, “you’re here?” he cups Ajax’s face gently, holding him as if he were made of glass.
“You called,” Childe responds, hands grasping at Zhongli’s waist. The Harbinger leans forward until their foreheads knock together. “I heard you, xiansheng. So I came.”
“Huh,” Zhongli says dumbly, “that’s all I had to do?”
“It’s all you had to do, idiot,” Childe scolds him, “I could feel you overthinking all the way from Snezhnaya!” he thumps a fist against Zhongli’s chest playfully. And to his delight, the sound that echoes is no longer hollow. Zhongli’s smile reaches his eyes for the first time in an abysmally long time.
“Childe!” Aether screams. They let go of each other in favor of looking at the one who made their reconciliation possible. “You son of a bitch!”
Childe’s eyes widen at the unprovoked insult. “What did I do?!”
“What did you do?” Aether is quick to rip his shoe off and fling it at Childe’s head. It misses, but only narrowly . “What took you so long, asshole!”
Tartaglia cocks his head to the side. “You were wishing for me, too? I only heard Zhongli’s voice, comrade!”
Aether squawks a noise of indignation. “You-!” He's never been so happy to see an obnoxious red head of hair in his life.
“Aether,” Zhongli interrupts their squabble. His hand never leaves the small of Childe’s back. “Thank you.”
The traveler lets himself slump forward, exhausted from draining all his emotional energy so early in the morning. “You’re welcome. Couldn’t have done it without you, Mr. Zhongli.”
“Is everything okay?” Keqing hollers from where she’s helping Mona down from her chair. “I hear a lot of yelling!”
“Everything is fine!” Aether yells back. Zhongli takes that as their cue to make their way back to camp.
When they arrive, the sun has risen well up into the sky and looms over all of their heads. Chongyun finally clambers out of his tent after he’s completed his ten hours of sleep. His light blue hair is ruffled adorably and he rubs the sleep out of his eyes. He stretches, yawns, and coughs when he takes too deep of an inhale. The exorcist summons one of his famous popsicles and sucks on it absentmindedly in place of a proper breakfast. He’s exquisite.
“Morning everyone,” he greets, nodding at the girls at the table. “I heard a lot of screaming. Who’s the new guy?”
Chongyun watches Childe blearily through sleepy eyes. He blinks, before taking in the newcomer. The first thing the young exorcist notices is the obnoxious head of red hair that barely looks styled. Next, is the mask he wears askew. And finally, the abnormal length of his femurs. Chongyun’s eyebrows furrow. He scratches his head. Why are his legs so long?
Childe leans into Zhongli’s side and grins wickedly upon noticing his vision.
“A cryo wielder, huh?” he snickers, “this is going to be fun.”
Mona is horrified to see the way the two never leave each other’s side.
Where there is Childe, there is Zhongli. Where there is Zhongli, there is Childe. Frankly, it is quite concerning. Do the two ever separate? Do they ever have an individual thought? Do they share those, too? Honestly, Mona thought she and Keqing were attached at the hip. But the fact that they can at least go to the bathroom separately says a lot more than what she can say for Zhongli and Childe. Seriously, these two act as if they’re never going to see each other again.
Regardless, Mona can’t bring herself to be surprised. From the moment she met the wild card that is Tartaglia, she knew that he and Zhongli were a good match. It was undeniable that the two had chemistry. Mona may not have been there for Aether’s adventures in Liyue, but she has seen enough of these two to know that they have quite the history. Although, that’s not the only thing about them that catches her attention. What was especially strange, however, was the way their pinkies would twitch anytime one would stray too far from the other.
It has been happening for a little over a week. Take, for example, this morning when the two had taken over the kitchen to allow Keqing to sleep in. Tartaglia moved to the far left side of camp to gather some ingredients, and Zhongli’s pinky had twitched and stretched out to where Childe was, not too far from him. At first, Mona had thought it was a Liyuan custom that she had no knowledge of, like the way Zhongli always told her to raise her pinky whenever she would drink. But this felt different. It looked effortless and candid, almost like Zhongli had no idea that it was happening.
The second occurrence was later in the afternoon when Aether had given them a new list of commissions for the day. Tartaglia was practically vibrating with excitement at the mention of four separate battles, and even offered to handle two of them on his own while the other four (Keqing requested a day off) separated and completed the other two. Aether had looked at him pointedly and shook his head no. They either did this as a team, or not at all.
Mid battle, while Childe was up against a blazing axe mitachurl, the jade shield that Zhongli had put up for him withered and dropped as soon as the mitachurl raised its weapon to swing violently at Childe. The wild look in its eyes made it very clear that the creature was out for blood, ready to defend the land that belonged to it. If Childe were to fumble for even a second and meet the brandished blade of the axe, it would have been the end for him.
His eyes widened.
Almost immediately, both of their pinkies twitched in place and stretched out as if reaching for the other. Mona watched the duo from the sidelines with curiosity as she and Chongyun froze a group of hilichurls together. She had sent out an illusory Phantom to continuously deal hydro damage and allowed Chongyun to go crazy with his claymore. The astrologist had sat back and observed the two on the opposite side of the battle field.
It had gone like this: the jade shield drops, their pinkies flutter, and Zhongli whips around with a level of ferocity and speed she’s never seen before to frantically summon a geo pillar right in between Childe and the mitachurl.
The Harbinger moves backwards just in time for the pillar to bear the brunt force of the swing, and his head snaps to where Zhongli stood. He stares at him, pointedly unamused with Childe’s recklessness, while he holds two hilichurls away from him with the butt end of his polearm. Childe grin and nods his thanks, and Zhongli rolls his eyes at the overzealous soldier. With a flick of his wrist, the geo wielder summons another shield to encompass Tartaglia as he lets loose on the battlefield. Though this time, Mona can see how the ex-Archon doesn’t let him out of his sight.
Childe switches to his melee style then. He forgoes his bow in favor of his hydro blades and launches forward while the mitachurl’s axe is stuck in Zhongli’s pillar.
Mona gasps, and a hand flies up to cover her mouth. Chongyun’s attention snaps to where she stands and gives her a once over to check for injuries. She waves him away, telling him to shut up even if he hadn’t said a word.
Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the water Childe summons bends the sun’s rays a certain way until a very obvious, very crimson, very rare string of fate is revealed between Zhongli and Childe. It hangs between them languidly, but anytime either of them moves away too far, it’ll be pulled taut. They’re linked together by an invisible thread that Mona has only ever heard stories of; they were stories that spoke of a whimsical and eternal love that lasted liftimes and exceeded generations. The first time Mona had heard about it, she scoffed at the idea of having your partner chosen for you. But as she stands now, looking at Zhongli and Childe as they treat the battlefield as if it were a dance floor reserved for them, it felt almost illegal for either of them to be with anyone other than each other.
Her mind comes to a screeching halt when she realizes just how long Zhongli must have waited to meet him. Six thousand years, Mona ponders. But doesn’t the wait make the reconciliation all the more delicious?
Would you look at that, the astrologist thinks smugly, they’re tied by the pinkies.
It was never an accident, after all. These two souls, regardless of the six thousand year old gap between them, were meant to be together.
Oh, she has so much to tell Keqing when she gets back.