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wind through clasped fingers

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As much as Venti preferred the view from the top of tree branches, or reveling in the shade under them, there were few places in the world that compared to the little island that overlooked all of Liyue, just off of the Qingyun Peak. An invention of the Adepti, he knew, but also one that had been unoccupied for a while. He was certain that he committing some form of trespass, but the bottle of wine in his palm dulled any concern over retaliation. There were times when one simply just had to stop and admire the view, and think, whether it be over world affairs, or a particularly unfortunate recent series of events.

He doubted that Morax would come personally to chase him from the floating rock—as long as his old, dear friend the Geo Archon had not heard any silly little ditties he had made up in recent days regarding their history.

His thoughts had lingered for long enough that the sun set over the sky, bathing the bard in a warm glow of dying rays, he was distinctly aware of eyes set upon him—and the disturbance of the wind informed him that he was not alone. Thus, when a sour-toned voice rang out over the low whistle of air the caught on the floating rock’s crevices, he couldn’t count himself truly surprised.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

Venti looked down, figuring to himself that he was well enough into the bottle of dandelion wine in his palm that it wouldn’t be too much of a loss of it happened to fall in whatever fight that he was sure would follow. No, wait, there was still a little too much for it to not be a waste.

He kicked back the bottle once more, feeling the sweet swirl on his tongue, along with the even sweeter way his senses tingle a little at throwing his head back so quickly. Ah, mortal bodies and their weaknesses. Even gods were not above such temptation—or at least, he wasn’t.

The time he takes to swallow directly from the lip of the wine bottle is more than long enough for him to feel the blade of Xiao’s spear slide to the narrow, pale column of his throat. Really, it’s his own fault for leaving it so exposed for the duration of his three little chugs. And here he thought that such a display might even be impressive; it would have the off-duty Knights of Favonius cheering his name at any of Mondstadt’s taverns, at least.

It takes an extraordinary amount of willpower not to choke, just a little, because the blade at his throat made it very difficult to lower his head (and by default, the wine bottle). The result is far more ungraceful than Venti would have liked, because it spills wine down his lips. A few land, wayward, on the edge of Xiao’s spear.

“You never minded me drinking in Liyue before, Alatus.” Venti does not miss the way the name hardens Xiao’s expression, but he does chase away the guilt that follows it. It is a name that few living would know him by, and fewer still would recognize. He had always loved a good story, but the one of the Yakshas was enough to inspire heartache in even the most emotionally adventurous listener. He can’t blame him for not recognizing him; Barbatos had not chosen this form among the times that they had met in the past. Without his Gnosis… well, Xiao wouldn’t have been able to sense him out, either.

It draws the physical response he wants it to, though, and the weapon is pulled away from his throat. “Barbatos.” The greeting is curt. “The name is ‘Xiao,’ now.”

“Then the name is Venti now, too.”

Xiao doesn’t miss the way he winks conspiratorily, but at least the bottle is set aside. In exchange for the spear at his throat, he gets to relish in the slight gust of wind that catches Xiao as the adepti sits next to him. It’s far enough that they don’t touch, but close enough that Venti could, if he reached out for it. Maybe in a bit.

“You haven’t come to drink in Liyue since you went missing from your own lands,” Xiao pointed out; it had been before Venti had taken on … this particular form, as well, too. He couldn’t blame Xiao for not recognizing him.

“There haven’t been many occasions to drink.” Venti admitted. It earns him a hard look. “Maybe I’m… celebrating that victory over Osial I heard about over in Liyue.” The look doesn’t soften.

“There’s nothing there to celebrate.” Xiao answered, one hand on the edge of the island curling into a fist.

Venti tuts, before carefully setting the bottle between them. A peace offering. “Then maybe I’m mourning Morax. People drink more when they’re not happy, you know.”

“You don’t strike me as mourning,” came the short reply, and truly, Venti couldn’t fault him for assuming so. He had a particularly bad habit of expressing when he was taking things seriously. Despite that, after a long moment, Xiao reached for the bottle, and took the last two swallows that Venti hadn’t finished off. The Adepti regretted there wasn’t just a bit more, so he might be able to actually feel anything other than the taste of Venti’s lips against the rim, and the too-sweet dregs at the bottom of the bottle.

“Who’s to say I’m not?” Venti asked, with no real defensiveness in his voice despite the turn of phrase. “The time of Rex Lapis is over in Liyue, he’s folded his cards.” He sounds hollow, as full of wine as he may have been. “I suppose this is what you call a ‘changing of the guards?’” The rhyme doesn’t quite work, he knows that, but he also knows he can blame the liquor for that.

Xiao’s brows knit neatly together, forming a small line between them as he turned to the other. “Is that why I don’t sense your normal power?”

Venti flinched. He had assumed that Xiao, of all people, might have heard of his encounter in Mondstadt. But then again, the Yaksha spent so much time alone that he wouldn’t be surprised if he barely knew what year it was. What were years to they, who had no need to keep count of them? “Are you worried? You’ll keep my blessing, regardless of whether or not I pass on.”

Xiao’s hand settles over his own, too rough, but Xiao had always been rough, free to use his power around the Archons but Venti could claim godhood no longer. The touch softened only when Venti’s jaw tightened in discomfort, and Xiao became painfully aware of his own strength. “You think I’m worried about keeping your blessing?” He asked, almost offended. He might have been, had he not been able to pick up the worried listlessness of uncertainty in Venti’s tone.

“Mm, no. You’re one of the few who never needed it.” Venti admitted, and the smile that lifts to his lips hints at thoughts of nostalgia. He lifts his palm, with Xiao’s hand still folded over it, and brushes his lips to one of Xiao’s knuckles. The gesture is so familiar that it drew memories of the first time he’d felt it.

After an old battle, in the service of his last master, before he had been Xiao and before he had fought demons. When he committed unacceptable atrocities under the control of someone now long dead. What face had Venti worn then? Something weak at the time, something softer. His knuckles had been bleeding, then, but the wounds over his heart had been the only ones doing true damage. What had he said?

Take my blessing, and it will carry you to freedom from this bondage.’

Rex Lapis had formed a contract with him only days later, carrying him on the same winds that Barbatos had lifted his soul upon.

“I needed it,” Xiao answered, quietly. The thought seems to offer Venti some comfort, because he stopped running his mouth for the time being, looking out at the view, towards Mondstadt despite Liyue’s vast expanse under them. Hesitant, Xiao continued. “Just as they need you.”

“Is this the Conqueror of Demons being sweet on me?” Venti offered, disarming Xiao’s soft words with a slow, comfortable grin. He didn’t miss the color that rose to Xiao’s cheeks. “Such kindness is such is such a rare decree.”

“Don’t make me take it back,” Xiao warned, eyes narrowing. “You’re over wearing your bard facade this time. You’ll be a nuisance.” The fast shift from that soft inspiration to the hard frown was enough to make Venti break out into a chorus of a laugh that echoed well off of their high perch, kicking his legs into the open air under him, though he let their hands drop, turning his palm upwards instead to wrap his fingers through Xiao’s. The gesture is familiar, ancient in a way that spoke deeper than just the bond of physical contact. Venti would cease his teasing, though he spoke and spoke, filling the silence between them. Xiao’s answers were subtle, usually when prompted by a question.

They spoke of the Traveler, of how they had made such a strange impact on their world despite having appeared seemingly from no where, only a short time ago. To hear that even Xiao had encountered such a figure wasn’t really surprising. “I think there are a few songs I should write for their sake. Stories that will mention you fighting at their side in saving Liyue.” His grin is obnoxious. “Ones that will last even after I’m gone,” Venti adds, drowsily letting his smile linger. The wine is settling in now, and from how he’d spoken already, Xiao could only guess the now empty bottle was not the first one that Venti had made his way through that night. In a tavern, it would have been fine—a normally giddy drunk, he would have had people to play songs for until he dozed off in some corner of the building until morning. Alone, he had gotten lost in his own head.

“Don’t say that,” Xiao answered, his impassive frown deepening. Don’t remind me, his thoughts provide unhelpfully even as he didn’t dare speak them aloud, don’t remind me that I may blink some day and lose you to time, now.  What a traitor his heart was, even in the centuries since last seeing this troublesome spirit. How long would he regret these years that had stretched between them, now that there was no time to chase the strings his own heart tried to tie?

Venti gave a little sway, and though it was his own weariness from the exertion that the flight up to the island had taken, it was easy to imagine it was the weight of his own thoughts weighing him down against Xiao’s shoulder. “Mm.” It seemed Xiao’s reprimand would receive no answer, whether it was because he would not commit to not saying it in the future, or because he was too tired to argue. “Carry me home, Alatus?” His tone is quiet, cloying in a way that he knew the other wouldn’t be able to refuse, no matter how stern the Adepti might be.

Xiao sighs, as if the burden is troublesome. It’s an unintentional mistake, but he doesn’t correct him. Instead, he presses his tongue to the inside of his cheek instead. “You will owe me another drink if I do, Barbatos.”

He only gets a soft “Mm,” in reply—but it’s enough of a confirmation that Xiao will hold him to it.

In the years past, he would tell anyone who asked that the Anemo Archon of Mondstadt was little more than a thorn in the side of most who knew him. It had always been a lie, but the more troublesome people tended to think someone to be, the more they were likely to leave them alone. He wished such discouragement had reached the ears of whatever bastard had ripped the Archon’s Gnosis from him. Reaching out, he tucked a hand under each of Venti’s thighs, while Venti lazily wrapped his arms around his shoulders, resting his cheek against Xiao’s collarbone.

Xiao tries not to think about how fragile the body in his arms is now, how light his frame is. He tries not to think of the warmth of humanity, like the flicker of a candle that can be blown out with a light breeze, no stronger than the breath that slips against his throat as he steps from the island onto the next gust of wind.

The scent of dandelion wine is lost on the breeze, and he starts on what he knows will be a journey far too short to a certain tree in Mondstadt while Venti dozes off against him.