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In the glittering expanse

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The last thing Ajax expects to find in this strange world is a woman.

In reality, she found him—cowering in fear and cornered by yet another hideous beast. He doesn’t know how many days it has been since he first fell into this hellish dimension. His only means of measuring anything comes from the number of monsters he has encountered so far, and he counts six along with this recent one as his seventh. The shortsword he carries on him has no purpose without any proper training, and it lies useless on the ground beside him as he trembles and shakes at the horrific roar this beast lets out.

The woman swoops in at the last moment, just before the beast’s sharp claws sink into his fragile body. She moves with unnatural swiftness, her saber glinting in the dark as she slashes and stabs at the enormous beast. Ajax can only watch in awe of her fighting prowess, reminded of the stories of adventure and glory that his father would tell him.

Once the monster is defeated, she approaches him with uneasy footsteps, and Ajax wonders why such a fierce maiden like her would need to be wary of him.

Finally, she steps close enough that he can get a good look at her. His vision is met with golden eyes and dark hair, quite the contrast to his own fiery mop of hair. Her gaze is scrutinizing as it passes over his face, and he wonders what he must look like to her. A dirty and rumpled child, lost and confused, probably. It appears that assessment is enough to have the woman lower her guard at last, and she crouches down to meet his own bright blue eyes.

She introduces herself as Skirk, and Ajax gives her his real name without any hesitation. He does not know this woman, but he feels that he can trust her. The kind smile he is given for his answer cements this feeling for him. Although he thinks she looks unused to such an expression, the corners of her mouth pulled too tight and her brows lightly furrowed.

Ajax wonders how long it has been since she last shared such a beautiful sight with someone.

Skirk is an odd woman. For one, she is here of all places. There are many different creatures that Ajax has encountered in this place, but Skirk is human. Almost.

She has a power that no regular human he knows has, but he sees no vision on her person. He wonders how anyone could ever wield the abilities she has without a gift from the gods, but after all, Skirk is nothing like anyone he has ever met before.

Once, when explaining to him about what this place is, she confessed that her abilities are no longer what they used to be. The Abyss is what she called this world, a place where time meets and ends, an ancient world for lost souls like them. The realm operates on rules that not even Skirk fully understands. Ajax thinks that if this is Skirk at her weakest, she must be downright terrifying at her strongest.

Skirk is also very beautiful, unnaturally so. When he first thought these things, he would blush and try to look at anything but her face. He recalls having conversations with his father about growing up and noticing girls.

He notices Skirk a lot these days as they travel through this domain, and his face heats when his eyes linger on her lips for far too long. She is alluring in a way that no other girl or woman back at his village had ever been. There were pretty ladies and then there was Skirk, who was more lovely than all of the stars in the Abyss and Teyvat combined.

She also seems to know everything. Every question he has, she has an answer, and she always answers with patience and a small smile on her face. Ajax wonders why she seems so happy to talk to a kid like him. His older sisters would often get annoyed quickly after one too many questions, but Skirk only welcomes his queries with open arms.

Not only does she listen to his questions but to everything else as well. Anything he can think of, he blurts out to her. He speaks of his family back home, of the icy landscapes of Snezhnaya, of the different types of fish he has caught before. Skirk hums and responds when necessary, sometimes even asking Ajax a question to have him elaborate. She is particularly interested in hearing about his family, her gaze always warming when he rambles on about his mama and papa.

“My youngest sibling, Teucer, is still a baby,” he informs her, as though she would even care. “Everyone says he looks like me. I don’t see it though. He kind of looks like a ball of dough, actually.”

Yet, she does care, and Skirk nods at his words even when he cannot see her from where she stands behind him. She is currently trimming his hair, making use of the small knife she has to chop away at the locks that have grown too long. He doesn’t like having his hair too long. It makes no sense to him how Skirk can enjoy having such long, flowing hair when fighting against abyssal monsters.

Skirk’s strong hands are gentle as she caresses his hair, turning his head this way and that to inspect her handiwork. He has no complaints regardless. It isn’t as though there are any mirrors here for him to look into.

“Do you miss your family?” Skirk’s voice is quiet. Her fingers card through his hair, massaging his scalp. Ajax closes his eyes and leans into her comforting touch.

“Yes, I do,” he whispers in response. “I don’t want to forget them.”

“You will not.”

His eyes flutter open when he feels the press of her lips against his forehead, and he finds her now standing before him. Her expression is nothing short of affectionate, and Ajax’s heart nearly stops when she strokes his cheek with a tender hand. He isn’t sure why, but he believes her with all his heart.

At night, Skirk offers to keep watch over him as he sleeps. It is a necessary precaution considering the creatures that prowl by their campsite at night. In the beginning, he would offer to switch shifts with her. However, she would only laugh, not unkindly, and assure him that all would be alright.

There is no way for Ajax to measure day versus night in the Abyss, if this realm even has such a concept. They stop to rest when neither of them can go any further, and more often than not, it’s him that requests a break. Even though Skirk promises him that she does not mind, he’s always embarrassed by how human he can be at times. Tonight, the insecurity eats at him more than usual, and he slips into the makeshift bed Skirk provided for him without another word.

It can’t be helped, he thinks as he drifts into a fitful sleep. Skirk would always be leagues ahead of him, even here where her powers are lessened. Despite her appearance, Ajax is reminded every day that she isn’t human. Sometimes, when the realm gets so quiet that he can hear the blood flowing through his veins, he wonders if perhaps Skirk is part of a test. Maybe it was foolish of him to have trusted her so easily, fooled by her plush lips and the shine in her eyes.

His sleep is interrupted when he wakes up to find her draped over him, her arm fastened securely around him and tucking him into her chest. They’ve never been this close before, and it feels as though he’ll die from how warm his body grows at the realization. The mortification dissipates eventually and he relaxes enough to feel comforted by her embrace. It’s been so long since anyone last held him this way.

The heartbeat he feels at his back, calm and steady, is proof that she’s human enough.

Some time passes and Ajax has mastered the blade.

His shortsword has seen better days. It is in dire need of a proper whetting, the measly grating of it against broken abyssal ruins not enough to keep it in its best shape. Just as Skirk has knowledge in all things, it makes sense to Ajax that she would have extensive combat knowledge as well. After all, the first time they met was because she saved him.

Now, she corrects his form with a claymore that they found earlier, cast aside with its hilt needing repairs. Skirk seems to have made it her mission to teach him all she knows about combat and fighting, and Ajax can see that there is a lot for him to learn. Despite being a self-professed swordswoman, she exhibits excellence in all sorts of weapons.

There are so many mysteries of the Abyss that Ajax has yet to uncover, namely the scattered remains of an unknown war ravaged all over the land. There are no bodies; there never is any real evidence of others like him in the Abyss. But there are weapons and armor and clothing that have been repurposed to aid in his and Skirk’s survival.

Claymores are wielded much differently than the shortsword he has grown accustomed to. He is forced to place both hands on the hilt, using all of his upper body strength just to get one swing out. At least now he no longer madly swings about but is able to slice with controlled precision, blade arcing in the air and leaving nothing in its path safe from his destruction. Skirk lauds him for his recent improvement, but there is still much to be improved upon.

Her hands are gentle yet firm on his arms as she repositions his stance, her chest warm against his back. Ajax can feel her heartbeat, the steady thump thump thump that is torturously slow in comparison to the rabbit-quick pace of his.

His… feelings for Skirk have not let up in the last year of traveling with her. In fact, they’ve only become worse. It isn’t just her face that he focuses on now. Her body is impressive, at least he thinks so. It’s difficult for him to compare when he hardly remembers the people of Morepesok.

When he finds time alone, rare as it is, he tries to relieve himself of such thoughts. He recalls his older brother making dirty jokes about such acts with his friends. Ajax had been too young at the time to really think about it, and his mother scooped him up and away too quickly for him to hear any more.

Now, he lets his instincts take over as he takes himself in his fist, thinking of Skirk and the curves of her body, her reddened, full lips inviting him for something more. He spills out into his hand quickly, gasping into his arm. When Skirk returns from foraging for their next meal, any evidence of his release is disposed of and he tries to forget the dirty thoughts he was having about her when they speak.

Mealtime is quieter than usual, and Skirk studies him with curiosity, calculating amber gaze feeling invasive as Ajax tries to finish his food quickly.

“Your body is changing,” she finally says, voice disrupting the hushed atmosphere.

“Wh-what?” He squeaks out, disbelieving. He thought he was being so careful, how could she know about what he does in his spare time? His face flushes with warmth as he tries to think up an excuse or apology. “I know what puberty is!”

Skirk shakes her head. “That is not what I mean. The Abyss—it is too much on your body.” She grows quiet, and somehow, the glow in her eyes dims. “You are only human after all.”

That stuns Ajax into silence. He doesn’t feel any different. Stronger, maybe, but he chalks that up to the constant training and fighting they engage in on a daily basis. His eyes drop to look down at his hands, pale and freckled, and he wonders what she could mean by that.

For all her openness, Skirk never tells him how she came to the Abyss.

When he first asked, all those years ago (at least, Ajax thinks it’s been years) she told him that she did not remember. He accepted it as the truth before, but the more time he spends with her, the less willing he is to take that as an answer.

She’s always too vague about things, too deliberate in her responses. It always seems as though she is holding herself back from giving him a full answer when it comes to her life. He wonders what life for her must have been like before he came around. Lonely, he would imagine. Hardly any time had passed during his time alone in the Abyss, and it had been the most terrifying time of his life. He wonders what sort of life Skirk has to have lived to be okay with solitude in this place.

They’re having a meal together when Ajax asks again. It has been a while since he last inquired, but something that occurred earlier made him think on it once again. He has moved on from claymores and now practices with polearms. For a swordswoman, Skirk is particularly adept with a polearm. She freezes when he makes note of this, an offhanded compliment that he thinks nothing of until her eyes go glassy and she turns away from him much too quickly.

Once the question leaves his lips, Skirk does not respond in her usual way. Rather than answering as she usually does, she pauses, considering.

“I was not always here.”

That, Ajax has long since figured out. Someone as exquisite as Skirk could not have been the product of such a place.

Her confession tumbles out unlike any other words from her before. Ajax is used to her composure and elegance, but she is nothing like that when she admits to her faults now. She reveals that before her time in the Abyss, she was someone of importance. Her time in the Abyss is a result of having shirked her duties and the many responsibilities that came with her rank. Things simply became too much for her after she experienced loss after loss, so when that bottomless crevice made itself known to her, she said farewell to the light and walked in.

Her voice speaks of nothing but guilt and regret for her actions, and his heart twinges in sympathy for her. “I won’t ever leave you.”

Skirk smiles at him as though he has just said something silly. “Time here works much more differently than you could ever imagine, Ajax.” She sounds so grave as she explains this to him. “I fear our separation is inevitable.”

Ajax shakes his head, insisting, “Even if we’re separated for a time, I’ll always find my way back to you.”

The look in her golden eyes tells him she doesn’t believe him.

Ajax’s seventeenth birthday is celebrated even though he has no idea when it actually is. He tries to measure his age through appearance alone these days but it still proves difficult. Still, it is the only thing he can rely on at this point.

He’s bathing when Skirk approaches him, eyes averted for his comfort. It isn’t needed; he no longer feels the need to hide from her. When he calls her over to him, she listens, allowing him to pull her close to the river’s stream.

The rivers in the Abyss are, expectedly, unusual. The currents travel upstream and the waters glitter black like obsidian, entirely opaque. Every time he steps in for a dip, he can only hope no creature will pop out. Not that it would be a hassle, he has enough confidence in his abilities now to know that he could take one down with his bare hands.

“Did you need assistance with anything?” Skirk asks, pointedly staring at the rushing water rather than at him.

“Help me, will you?” Ajax steps out of the river, dripping in shimmering liquid when he joins her where she stands on the shore. “I want to know how I’ve grown.”

Finally, Skirk looks up at him, eyes trained on his face. Her hands, now so much smaller than his own, reach up to cup his face. Her touch is soft against the stubble on his jaw; he thinks he’s getting better at shaving, even if he still nicks himself at times. Somehow, she never retains any calluses on her palms, just as her wounds never stay for too long.

“Your features have matured,” she murmurs to him, eyes flitting back and forth to study his face. Her thumb brushes against his cheekbone and her nail accidentally scratches at the corner of his eye. Though he doesn’t flinch, gazing back at her determinedly. “Here… Your face has thinned and your jaw…”

“...My jaw?” Ajax prompts when Skirk trails off.

She clears her throat and averts her gaze to look down at him next. His body is the greatest indicator of change, no longer so scrawny and weak. Ajax is much taller now, now easily matching her height, and broader as well. She informs him of this as her hands skate over scarred flesh, the pads of her fingers tracing the jagged pale lines across his shoulders and torso.

“Am I bigger anywhere else?”

Skirk’s eyes dip down for a second before going back up to his face. It could almost have been imagined with how quick she was about it, but Ajax is sure of what he saw. His chest blossoms with pride knowing exactly what is on her mind. With a blush, Skirk informs him that his ego has grown the most.

Things have been like that between them for a time now. Maybe longer, but Ajax couldn’t be sure for a while. His newfound confidence proves to be a terror to Skirk, who has long since grown comfortable with his skittish nature. When her gaze lingers on him for a beat longer, he wastes no time in asking her about it. For once, Skirk is unable to answer his questions with such eagerness, forced to look away and urge him to continue on in their journey.

They travel further again, their direction as aimless as their purpose for surviving is. He no longer knows what his goal here is. To return home, he thinks privately to himself as he sharpens his shortsword, rust already settling onto its surface. Soon enough he will completely outgrow the weapon, just as he feels himself outgrowing the challenges of the Abyss.

Their campsite is attacked by a ferocious monster that has been on their heels for days, and this time, Ajax saves Skirk instead.

Never before has he felt such power as he had when he ripped into its thick skin with his rusted blade, starry violet spilling out of its wounds and onto the cracked pavement of the ruins they stand in. His skills have grown to the point where he needn’t even break a sweat or get a speck of dirt on him before the creature falls and smashes its skull against the corner of what Ajax thinks might have been a temple once.

Ajax returns to Skirk’s side after wiping his blade, eyes alight and a manic grin on his face. It’s the first time she kisses him, and it’s the first time he has ever been kissed.

He doesn’t know what to do with a woman’s body, or anyone’s body except his own. He confesses this much to her, but she already knows, of course she does. She knows everything about anything, Ajax included. She knows about the way he craves for her, has craved for her during all these years, muffling his desires into a shaking fist.

Just as she teaches him to wield his sword, she teaches him how to touch her, guiding his hand against the expanse of her skin. He follows her instruction eagerly, letting her take control of his movements and soaking in her beauty now bared fully to him. After spending so long of a time with each other, Ajax thought he knew his master’s body as well as anyone in his position could, but the brief glimpses he had seen in the years before are but a candlelight to the roaring flame she is before him now.

For someone usually so bold, Ajax falters in his exploration of her body, the press of his fingers light against her flesh. He knows what she’s made of—light and stardust and everything in this world worth worshipping. She won’t break under his touch. Still, he’s careful when he cups her breasts for the first time, gathering them in his hands and marvelling at how full she feels in his grasp.

Skirk’s tone is encouraging when he dips his head down to suck on her nipples, laving the pink buds with attention. He wonders how he could have gone so long holding back from his desires when this was so easily accessible to him all this time. She is particularly sensitive here, and he can tell when he gropes at her breast and she cries out at the flick of his tongue against her.

Her hips arch up to meet his, begging for attention. Another lesson begins when she nudges his head down, and he presses kisses from the space between her breasts all the way down her stomach. At her center, he’s met with bare skin, so different from his own, and she parts her legs for him to see the effect he has on her.

Your mouth, she tells him, the pressure of her hand in his hair firm. Ajax has never heard of this act of pleasure before, but he opens his mouth and obeys.

She tastes sweeter and more refreshing than anything else he’s had in so long, her folds soft and clit swollen against his tongue. He can feel her shuddering at his inexperience, hopelessly endeared by the enthusiasm he shows her as he endeavors to prove to her what a quick study he is. His fingers join his mouth next, pressing into her for the first time and making her gasp out into the twinkling darkness.

“So good for me, Ajax” she moans, soft praises that he eagerly laps up with each lick to her dripping cunt. “I need more of you.”

It takes little effort for her to push him off of her body, and he goes willingly, allowing her to fully take charge now. Her legs move to straddle his waist, strong thighs bracketing his hips. She is stunning, porcelain skin glowing like moonlight itself when she moves on top of him. The head of his cock presses against her tight entrance before she finally sinks down onto him, allowing his cock to fill her up for the first time.

Ajax orgasms too quickly; she only needs to bounce up and down on his cock a handful of times before he’s coming inside of her, filling her up with his seed. However, she doesn’t stop there, continuing to ride him until she reaches her own climax and they begin again. Just as she trained him for endurance in battle, she tests his stamina now, allowing him to claim her over and over again.

“I love you,” he confesses when he’s pressed into her again.

They are chest to chest now, and he’s comforted by the matching pace of their hearts, for once beating in time together rather than against it.

“One day, you will not,” she replies simply.

He feels something rupture within his chest at the sad smile she gives him, and he swears the day will never come.

When Ajax wakes, the frigid cold of Snezhnaya’s winter bites at his face.

The distant sound of howling has him sitting up with attention, eyes scanning the woods surrounding him for any sign of wolves. Although he quickly finds that there is no need to worry when he sees the head of a pack of dogs enter the forest clearing, his papa and mama standing together on the sled pulled along.

This is how he learns that he has returned to Teyvat.

Here in the little village of Morepesok, only three days have passed, but Ajax feels as though he has lived a lifetime. At home, he is forced to sit by the fireplace to warm himself while his family dotes and frets over his wellbeing. As he stares into the bright flame, he stops to wonder for a moment if it had all been fake perhaps. But the shortsword he had with him is proof enough of time having passed, its once shining steel blade now nothing but a useless hunk of rusted metal.

With newfound power brimming at his fingertips and courage stirring in his chest, he promises to himself that he will return to the Abyss one day and meet his master again.

Years later Ajax introduces himself as Tartaglia to the Fatui’s newest business partner—the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour.

Zhongli, is the name the funeral consultant introduces himself with. His smile is brighter than the Liyue sun and eyes like honey, what little alabaster skin he has on display already a feast to Ajax’s eyes.

He wonders why the man seems so familiar.