Barbatos has slept often in the boughs of his tree, nestled in the comfort of knowing that he could usually catch himself on the threat of falling if he rolled a little too far. The base of each branch is generally impressively thick, so it’s rarely a problem in the first place.
This, however, does not make any of it particularly comfortable. With his own hat or a particularly thick bustle of leaves serving as his regular pillow, the god is sure there are many more comfortable places to rest. Unfortunately, so few of them are easily accessible in the guise of ‘Venti.’ For this reason, and this reason alone, he’s moderately surprised when he finds himself not only comfortable when he starts to rouse on the last day of the Ludi Harpastum, but warm, as well. He can tell by the wind that he is in his tree once more, but there is something else there. It’s not amiss, but it’s certainly new.
With a hesitant blink, he was very careful not to move or shift—and he was rewarded, because of it.
He had long wondered if the Adepti of Liyue slept as often as they might need to. Barbatos has spent many a year in sleep—either in the doubt that his people needing him, or the lingering regret over certain mistakes. Xiao’s expression is surprisingly peaceful, in sleep. His back is curled against the tree itself, and the mixed strands of the colors of his hair brush forward against his cheeks where his head has tilted forward. At some point, he’d let Venti’s head rest back against his lap, which explained the warmth and the softness under his shoulders—if one could consider the pleasant muscle that made the other’s thighs a little firm under him ‘soft,’ which Venti very much did.
Xiao is prettier without the weight of the world on his shoulders, Venti thinks. It’s an expression that he feels privileged to, because he is so very certain that he is the only one who has seen Xiao like this in a very, very long time. Did even the other Adepti lower their guards around one another, in their strange formality and their divinities? Just short of gods themselves, did they allow one another kindness, or had war hardened them even now?
His hand moves of its own accord, lifting slowly enough to try and not disturb the other, and brushes against Xiao’s cheekbone. The touch has the Adeptus tense all at once, inhaling sharply as his hand snapped up, catching Venti’s. Tension had bled through him as his eyes snapped open. Venti catches his pupils narrow like blades, catlike and alarmed that he wasn’t alone. The grip on his hand is enough to bruise and make his bones ache. Barbatos has felt worse.
“It’s just me,” he offers, softly, to bring Xiao back to the tree, to the other arm curled around Venti’s shoulder—and away from whatever battlefield waged in the dreams that the fates were kind or cold enough to offer one of the scariest living weapons to ever roam the lands. Xiao’s hold loosened, and he relaxed with a quiet, tense breath.
Instead of pulling his hand back from the tight grasp, Venti double downs, and lets his palm brush up against the other’s cheek. Xiao looks as if he might want to flinch from the kindness of the touch, but he steels himself, and instead closes his eyes again.
“You trusted me enough to sleep here,” Venti points out, no shortage of pride in his tone.
Xiao doesn’t have an easy answer for it, but he’s spent so long being cold and hard and sarcastic that it makes him afraid to ruin the small motion of affection. Instead, he simply tilted his head gingerly into the brush of Venti’s thumb, reminding himself that he’d have to work much harder than normal to hurt this bundle of fresh breezes and cheeky comments. “Was I supposed to sleep on the ground below?”
Venti laughs, and slowly tilts himself to sit up, sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the branch. “No. I just didn’t expect it. You’re welcome to come nap with me whenever, you know.”
“You have a bad reputation for oversleeping,” Xiao answered with no hostility, and it makes the Archon snicker.
“I suppose I do. Maybe I just need someone who will wake me up on time.” Venti answered, his tone perhaps a little wistful. It’s not as suggestive as it could be, but before they can linger on it, Venti pushes himself from the branches of the tree. He hovers there for a moment, the wind holding up his weight as if it were nothing. “It’s the last day. I’ll let you go back after this.”
His hand is extended again. Xiao wonders if it’s a curse to be sent back to what he has in Liyue, or if being so intrinsically involved with Barbatos is more dangerous than fighting the evils of the world alone.
Xiao’s hand fits against Venti’s like a glove, no matter how different the callouses of the lyre and the spear may be.
The Anemo Archon drops them to the ground gently not far off from the bridge, just out of sight for the power of flight to be noticed as strange, and together, they make their way through the crowds again this time, neither needing the food that Venti picked off of free platters for them, nor the sweet wine handed out in small, disposable cups made of paper and wax to get more product out by name to coax the festival’s patrons back for more later.
“Have you ever heard of the Ludi Harpastum’s final day?” Venti asks, when he notices the crowd starting to form again. Xiao, who knows very little of festivals and things that could be considered fun outside of Liyue and battles that humans dared not cross, shakes his head.
“But I’m sure you’ll tell me?” The words normally come more dry, but he thinks he could listen to Venti talk about the simplicity of the festivals of Mondstadt’s people all day.
“It’s not that far off from the handball games of Liyue, if you really think about it. On the final day, the one who has won the most games of the festivals will choose a maiden to throw a harpastum to the crowd.” Venti takes his wrist this time, not wanting to occupy his hands too much. It doesn’t take much coaxing this time, though Xiao still seems a little hyper-aware of being surrounded by humans so close—humans who did not know all of the tales of Adepti, and their place in the world. Mondstadt’s civilians continued to live with a surprising lack of care for such formalities.
“Are there not injuries?”
Venti frees his wrist, and his gaze leaves Xiao up to the statue of Barbatos at the church’s courtyards among every other citizen of the town. “Sometimes. Usually the throw falls short, and the fastest of the town will chase forward. The one who picks it up or catches it will usually have a year of happiness.”
“How would a children’s toy guarantee that?” Xiao asked, with some small skepticism rising to his tone. He could understand the touch of magic, should there be one, but… this was a very elaborate game simply played by humans.
Morax would likely chide him at this point, and tell him some long story about how faith in something had long guided the attentions of humans, no matter how misguided that faith may be. The strange creatures had the ability to will practically anything into existence, and that had been proven time and time again.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Venti asks, his gaze bright as he flashes up to where so much of the attention of the crowd lingered. Xiao had scarcely realized that Venti’s hypotheticals and explanations had been a lead up to the climax of the festival itself. A maiden stood alone, clasped in their god’s stone hands at his statue, and Xiao could see the little bundle of red wrapped carefully in her hands. The crowd is thrumming to life already again—and without much more warning than that, the harpastum is chucked with considerable force down to the crowds below.
Xiao scarcely knows to look at the way the girl wavers dangerously on the edge of the statue, or to try and track the ball that’s already soaring through the sky. Venti, however, knows that she will be fine—and he’s much more focused on his own objective.
It’s cheating. Venti knows it is cheating… but is the one who catches the harpastum not also known as the one blessed by the favor of Barbatos himself?
The tips of his braids let off a soft, subtle glow that goes unnoticed by those around him, Xiao included. For a moment, it seems as if the ball will fall short, until the strangest gust of wind swings it upwards. It’s a careful amount of work to make it look like it was bouncing out of every hand that reached for it, until it landed with the gentlest ‘thud’ against Xiao’s chest. It falls into his stunned hands, and it’s another beautiful little expression that Venti isn’t treated to often. Surprise as the crowd circles them both, and cheers for Xiao, a dozen different people congratulating him and clasping the poor Adeptus on the shoulder, clearly unaware that he was far, far more than simply another lucky human who had supposedly been blessed by Barbatos himself with the harpastum this year.
He’s nearly swept off from Venti, jerking his head back to reach for him as the crowd moved them along. Though there were more than two taverns in the city, the drinks slid Xiao’s way are from all manners of private stock and price. The one who catches the harpastum is truly celebrated, after all, a sign of good luck to come for all of them. Venti manages to grasp his hand, entwining their fingers before they can be separated—and truly, Xiao finds himself surprised that Venti doesn’t partake in just as many drinks as he likes from all of the ones offered Xiao’s way. They’re paraded from tavern to tavern, until they finally end up at a place that Venti calls ‘one of his favorites,’ even though the red haired man behind the bar looks like he could throw Venti out by the scruff if the bard hums even an off-tune verse.
He had partaken in only a few drinks, when they settle in a comfortable corner in the Angel’s Share. Despite his love of wine, Venti clearly wants to stay sober, just to enjoy seeing his city welcoming Xiao in such a way. Xiao may not have been this fortunate, feeling a little light-headed and warm in the cheeks, but the citizens of Mondstadt had been more than welcoming, he was starting to find. He sits in the corner with his...nineteenth? Twentieth? Free cup since he’d caught the harpastum, and Venti slides into the seat next to him.
“I told you,” he teases as the hours fade through the day, and people finally start leaving the two of them alone to celebrate the close of the festival. “I would get you that drink, didn’t I?”
Xiao scoffs, and turns to the other with a little sway. “I don’t think this counts.”
Venti only grins, setting his elbow on the table. “Then what would count.”
“A drink from you,” Xiao started, trying to find just the right words to try and hold the other to this odd little contract that both knew they didn’t have to keep. “Instead of all of Mondstadt.”
Venti seems to ruminate over the words carefully, before he takes the cup from Xiao’s hand, tilting back a swallow. Xiao starts to open his mouth, to point out that this might mean Venti owes him even more, before lips are over his own, and Venti parts them both between them to slip the sweet taste of wine past Xiao’s own. Venti is slow and deliberate, feeding him just a sip of the borrowed drink in the shadows of the tavern, and Xiao does his best not to choke on it for his shock when Venti pulls back once more.
His smile is a little more sly than normal. “There, Alatus,” he offers, “Before on your deal you may rethink, from me you certainly had your drink.”
Xiao could kill him for the play on words of all times, but he’s clumsy, pleasantly tipsy and flush with warmth that was hardly the alcohol on both of their tongues. Too busy to look mortified and play it off as unpleasant, he grabs Venti by those soft cheeks, one in each hand, and kisses him right back.
He would be damned if he allowed another Archon to direct his fate and fade out of his life again.