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the wind and the lyre

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Xiao can count on one hand the number of times he’s been drunk.

For an adeptus who’s lived thousands of years, it’s somewhat surprising; you’d think that after living that long, he’d have at least 200 reasons to knock a few too many back to “relieve some stress,” or “live a little,” as so many have oft concluding before downing a single swig and losing all common sense.

For Xiao, the number is 3. The first two times Xiao doesn’t remember; he’d never actually gotten to the point of “wasted” before, just a slight buzz and perhaps, dare he say, even tipsy. Nevertheless, Xiao was about as familiar with being drunk as he was the art of operating a catalyst.

 

(Perhaps, he thinks, staring down the bottom of the glass he’s holding, golden liquid swirling with each twist of his wrist, there was some merit to an alcoholic’s cause; after all, if he was going to get wasted, he might as well make himself forget.)

 

The night is young. The moon hangs low in Liyue’s sky just above its horizon, the scene etched in Xiao’s mind in perfect detail, a detailed work of art over 2,000 years in the making. If he really, really focuses, tearing his eyes away from the abyss of aureate, he can make out the sound of a cool night breeze, the way it coaxes the leaves of nearby trees into a solemn dance of restless whispers, each brush reminding him of a time long gone, a time of archons and of war, a time when the only thought on his mind had been to fight, fight for the cause, fight for Morax.

The mere thought of the name is enough to break Xiao’s rigid posture; he tentatively brings the glass to his lips, the pungent stench of alcohol permeating his nostrils. His face inadvertently scrunches up, a glare settling in his eyes towards the offending liquid, its golden color taunting him, mocking him, swirling amber like the eyes of a god defiled—

Xiao’s fingers grip the wooden railing as he tilts his head back and swallows. The liquid is bitter and burning, warmth plummeting down his throat, any hint of a tolerable flavor ruined by the bitter aftertaste of alcohol. Still, he does not stop; blame it on stubbornness, but Xiao will be the last to admit he has no experience when it comes to drinking.

When he tilts his head back down, eyes adjusting to the wooden floor beneath him, his glass is empty and light; his throat is still warm, and he clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth in an effort to erase the taste. He gives up upon realizing it is going to linger, and he sighs, arching his back over the wooden railing before him, glass twirling dangerously over the edge, his fingers just begging to slip on its smooth surface and send it tumbling down into the waters below.

He can’t remember the last time he’d been here. Well, he could, actually; it wasn’t that long ago, but what is time to an adeptus? The days blur together after the first millennia, and by that point, Xiao had given up on a calendar.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t remember why he was last here, rather, he wishes he didn’t. Because the last time he was here, that girl had been here, too, short blonde hair twirling in the wind, long strands hanging by her face, that annoying floating creature by her side as the words tumbled out of her mouth I’m sorry Rex Lapis is dead—

“Shut up,” Xiao growls to no one in particular, his fingers tracing the bunched skin on the bridge of his nose. He’s been scowling more lately; Cloud Retainer would just chastise him, tell him the more you make that face the more it will stick, he can practically feel Mooncarver’s disapproving gaze, silent understanding hidden beneath the stag’s harsh exterior as he regards Xiao with a certain type of reverence reserved for pouting children.

And the one adeptus Xiao actually wanted to see, the one he wanted to find… well, Zhongli certainly wasn’t dead , that was for certain; Xiao wasn’t stupid. One does not spend two millennia guarding Liyue only to be ignorant to one of its most gossiped about individuals. No, Rex Lapis was dead. Morax was dead. Zhongli had cast aside his title, his position as Liyue’s archon, the entire nation he’d spend almost four millennia developing, all in favor of… what?

Xiao doubted he would never understand it. He pulled the glass back from the edge, his stomach twisting when he realized it was empty; he’d planned to get wasted, damnit, and all the gold liquid was doing was reminding him of a god who was gone. Rex Lapis was dead, living as Zhongli; Liyue Harbor ruled itself now under the Qixing, hell, even the other Adepti were finding it easier to move on from Rex Lapis’ passing than Xiao.

The old contract was gone. It had disseminated to dust, silk sand flowing through Xiao’s fingers, an empty void labeled “THE FUTURE” taking its place.

What the hell was Xiao going to do now?

 

(Well, perhaps he already knew what he was going to do; follow along the other Adepti in adjusting to this new regime. Gone with the old, in with the new. Perhaps this isn’t so different, he reasons, remembering a time just like this, when the old ways of fighting and survival and sole duty to Morax and Morax alone were done and gone, when he had to adjust after Guizhong—)

 

The glass continues to taunt him, its emptiness begging to be refilled. Turning the glass in his hand, Xiao faces the warm light of Wangshu Inn, his skin bathed in its yellow light as he makes his way to the small elevator tucked away in the corner. Glass situated neatly in his palm, he shifts, and the elevator descends.

As the elevator approaches its stop, Xiao becomes distantly aware of… wait, was that lyre ?

The grip on the glass tightens; it had been centuries since he’d last heard the lilting tune of a lyre such as that. While not entirely uncommon, it was rare that a bard acquainted with an instrument like a lyre with such proficiency as what Xiao was hearing now would be found so deep in Liyue. Many did not make it past the Stone Gate, if into Liyue at all.

Pushing the lyre’s melody to the back of his mind, cool and haunting compared to the warm ambiance of Wangshu Inn, Xiao twirled the glass around once more as a reminder of his mission.

Rex Lapis was dead. And because of that, Xiao was going to get absolutely fucking hammered.

The small taste he’d had earlier on the balcony twisted in his stomach as Wangshu Inn’s restaurant and bar area came into view; human food had never been on a list of his favorites, and even the alcohol had been a stretch. He stifled the nauseous feeling stirred up by the pungent smell of cooking spices and herbs, instead choosing to focus on the faint bitter taste of alcohol on his tongue.

 

(Or perhaps, he recounts later, it was really the lyre he was focusing on; he vaguely remembers ghosting over the vision on his wrist, sparkling turquoise against the dim light of the inn. The ghostly tone of the lyre mixed with the breeze stirred a longing rooted deep within him, something he hadn’t felt in what seemed like eons.)

 

Xiao rounded a corner, his mouth forming a small “o” as the instrumentalist in question came into view.

Of course, he thought, no bard in Teyvat could coax such a haunting lullaby from the limiting strings of a lyre other than Venti, disgraced absentee Anemo Archon of Mondstadt. Xiao couldn’t remember the last time he’d even met Venti, but he could recall enough about his character to understand when he was drunk out of his mind.

And right now, as the bard’s song came to an end, the empty seats of Wangshu Inn’s restaurant offering silent applause to his performance, a ridiculous red haze gracing the bard’s cheeks as he opened his stunning emerald eyes to reveal pupils way too big for the amount of light in the area, Xiao knew Venti was smashed past the point of no return.

What was even more startling, in Xiao’s opinion, was the bard’s ability to remain unreasonably coherent when wasted.

“Alatus,” Venti breathes smoothly, and the grin Xiao’s become so accustomed to seeing on the bard’s face spreads like syrup, smooth and silky and all too familiar. From the way Xiao tenses, Venti blinks, and offers again, “... Xiao. It’s been too long, old friend.”

“Why are you here?” Xiao questions without a beat; he knows enough about the bard to discern that Venti performed to the cluster of empty seats with a lullaby a bit too solemn for the bard’s usual tastes to know that something was up.

Instead, Venti counters, a soft breeze fluttering the stay ends of his hair as the lyre dissipates before them, “I could ask the same of you. It’s not very often that the adeptus Xiao would willingly integrate into a human settlement, is it?”

Fuck, when was the last time they met?

Before Xiao can respond, Venti breaks into a fit of giggles at the sight of the glass in Xiao’s hand.

“Xiao, what are you doing?” the bard gasps between chuckles, a slim hand darting towards the glass in Xiao’s hand. The adeptus, gaze swirling suddenly with images of the liquid abyss, molten cor lapis shimmering like the eyes of one disgraced, tears his hand away before Venti has a chance to grab it. A pout graces itself across Venti’s face before it’s replaced with another question.

“I’ve never thought of you as one to drink,” he surmises, dilated eyes darting from Xiao’s hand to his face, then back down to his hand, “Perhaps it is... to help you think?”

Xiao huffs, allowing just a bit of the tension to leave his body. Venti was rhyming; as long as the bard didn’t do something actually stupid, Xiao supposed Venti could stick around to watch him waste his evening away on a shower of booze. Hell, knowing Venti, the bard would actually try to help Xiao in his endeavors. Looking over the bard again, currently the definition of a drunken stupor, Xiao knew that there was no way Venti didn’t have booze on him.

As Xiao continued watching the bard, who had now revealed his lyre again, thin fingers dancing lightly over the cords taught across its u-shaped body, he became painfully aware that not only was Venti performing to an assembly of empty seats and tables, but Venti was performing for absolutely no one. It must’ve been later than he expected, for the Inn seemed to be completely deserted. Even the restaurant was closed, the lights that Xiao had become so acquainted with just hours ago while scowling angrily down his glass at the bar before ascending to his preferred balcony had been temporarily dimmed for the night.

This created two problems: one, how was Xiao supposed to drown his worries in alcohol now? He was well above petty thievery, especially in his home of Liyue, the land he was sworn to protect; he would not defile its citizens like this, no matter how detached he was from human empathy and morals.

Two, what the hell was Venti doing here?

“Why are you here?” Xiao asks again, tone clipped and low; he is not messing around with Venti, not tonight, at least not before he can lose his grip on coherent logic.

 

(Maybe, he muses later, staring up at the ceiling of Wangshu Inn, sunrays dancing gleefully across his smooth skin, his anger with Venti stemmed from the mere fact that while Xiao was mourning the death of his own archon, Venti was here, away from his own land for seemingly no apparent reason other than to mock Xiao for his losses. It would be an extremely Venti thing to do, sure, but perhaps the bard did not deserve all of the resentment thrown his way.)

 

When Venti’s fingers stop, the lyre’s tone echoing eerily into the night, he turns, and Xiao becomes aware of the distant look in Venti’s eyes.

When Venti is facing Xiao, the adeptus can clearly see the frown situated neatly on his face, his eyes quivering, small tear droplets threatening to slip down his face.

Before Xiao gets a chance to answer, Venti’s eyes widen and he breaks out into a smile.

“Since the bar is closed, you can have some of my wine. It’s the finest brand in Mondstadt, expensive, too, but I don’t mind.” Xiao ignores the failed attempt at a rhyme for now, his eyes following Venti’s sleeve covered arm to where it is gesturing: a table close to venti, 3 wine bottles sitting in silence. Was this the audience Venti wished to perform to?

 

(Xiao doesn’t notice it at the time, but two of the bottles are empty. Venti has been here a while.)

 

Xiao taps the glass in his hand, thinking, but before he can do anything the bard has already uncorked a bottle, walking towards Xiao. The bard smiles, tears sitting primly in the corners of his eyes, slim hand reaching for the glass Xiao is holding. The adeptus relents and watches Venti pour the wine, thick and dark and smooth into the glass that is definitely not suited for wine.

Just as Xiao thinks Venti’s poured a little too much, the bard tilts the bottle back up, handing the glass to Xiao. “Enjoy it, it’s sweet,” Venti says quietly as Xiao takes the glass. “Think of this as… my treat.”

“Why are you here?” Xiao asks one more time, his voice quieter this time; something is definitely up with Venti, he notes, bringing the glass to his lips and thanking Celestia that the reek of alcohol is masked by something sweeter. The liquid is dark, much darker than the amber concoction he downed earlier, and its sweet flavor makes it go down easier. It burns Xiao’s throat with warmth, not unlike his drink from earlier. It sits heavy on his stomach, and Xiao knows that maybe he’s at his limit, because he blinks and suddenly the drink from earlier is coming back to him and he feels light in the head.

The sweet taste of the wine begs him back, however, and he indulges in another sip.

Venti doesn’t answer. The bard’s face stays still, his eyes downcast, tears continuing to well at the side of his face. Xiao watches as the first droplet breaks, streaking down the bard's left cheek; the trail it leaves shimmers in the ambient lighting of the inn as Venti raises his head and smiles sadly.

“Rex Lapis, my old friend…” Venti begins, his voice edging above a whisper; the mere mention of the late archon causes Xiao’s alcohol-laden belly to steam; he feels hot all of a sudden, even though the cool breeze from earlier is still whistling around them, the night just as cold as it has always been.

“It was inevitable that you would meet your end.”

Xiao’s composure breaks, and, steeling himself, tilts his head all the way back and downs the rest of the glass in one gulp.

 

(Xiao doesn’t imagine a time where the trees are young and the people plenty. He doesn’t imagine a time without Rex Lapis, without Morax , he doesn’t imagine the old god’s deep voice, Follow me, Xiao, and I will build you as tall as Liyue’s highest peak, he doesn’t imagine promises of mountains and immovable stone, he doesn’t imagine a terrible war, rocks flying through the sky, the sounds of the damned welling up from the ground save us help save us —)

 

“Xiao. Xiao, stop— Xiao—

Venti’s cries fall on deaf ears as Xiao strides over to the bottles on the table, dark green and glinting in the dim light. Damn, Xiao thinks, was everything here sparkling? The light isn’t bright but everything he’s looking at seems to have a strange sheen to it. Maybe it's the alcohol, he thinks.

“Venti,” Xiao breathes, grip closing on the neck of the last open bottle; he scowls internally when he realizes the other two are empty. Just like Venti, getting wasted for the journey and the destination. “I should be clear. I don’t actually care about why you’re here,” is his voice deeper? He isn’t sure; he feels warm and his head is still light, and he’s dimly aware of Venti’s voice in the background. “I’m… I’ll get wasted. Tonight. I want to get absolutely hammered.

He raises the bottle. He can barely hear Venti shout in the background.

“Xiao, don’t—”

The bottle meets his lip. Dark, lukewarm liquid flows down his throat. It burns, but Xiao welcomes it, keeping the bottle against his mouth until it is dry. It takes a second for him to realize the bottle is empty before his lips part away from it. The wine is still burning in his throat, but it’s a comforting burn; he may not be used to the alcohol, but damn if it isn’t doing it’s job.

“Xiao, that was incredibly rude,” Venti’s shrill tone is right next to Xiao’s ear, “I thought you of all people would be above stealing others’ food!”

“Stop… stop rhyming,” Xiao breathes, turning on the archon. Venti is close, and he has a frown in his eyes, but luckily the bard knows when enough is enough. Venti’s mouth closes into a disapproving pout as Xiao turns away.

“... Venti. You’re…” Xiao inhales; god, he feels like he is on fire; this is what he gets for a millennium of abstinence. “Rex Lapis isn’t dead. Wait… no, that’s wrong, Zhongli isn’t dead. Rex Lapis… I don’t know.”

Xiao feels very unlike Xiao during this moment. Perhaps it’s the alcohol talking, swirling in his stomach with his drink from earlier, a lightweight unable to hold his own. He feels like… well, it’s just him and Venti, and Venti’s known him for what, almost 2,000 years now? Or is it 3? Xiao smiles to himself, for he does not know and is finding the whole situation hilarious.

“Zhongli isn’t dead, but Rex Lapis sure fucking is,” Xiao hisses, planting his hands firmly on the table around the bottles. “He… he thought, he said , he told that traveler and the traveler told me—”

“Xiao,” Venti sighs, a note of agony to his high pitched voice, “I know. Zhongli isn’t dead but Rex Lapis is. As far as I’m concerned…” The absentee archon takes a step towards Xiao, their eyes meeting. Xiao thinks Venti’s emerald irises look very much unlike the amber swirl from earlier. They remind him of the wine he’s just drunk, dark and mysterious yet unmistakably sweet. “I’m mourning the loss of an old friend.”

“Venti,” Xiao begins, his mind starting to waver from the reason he came out here to drink in the first place; guess the wine is doing its job. “How do you manage to stay coherent after drinking that much wine.”

It didn’t sound like a question, but like a statement; the tears in Venti’s eyes seem as small as the stars now as his mouth cracks into a crooked grin. A lofty sound, as light as the breeze itself, echoes through Xiao’s ears. He realizes that Venti is laughing, and it is a pleasant noise, a reminder of a dream long gone, a desire for freedom, a desire to have the breeze whipping against his face at the top of the highest peak.

 

(Later, as the wind whips past the balcony of Wangshu Inn, Xiao’s fingers trace his blessing, small and diamond-shaped on his wrist. How long has it since the Anemo Archon graced him with such power? Xiao would never understand it, never realize the call to freedom in his own heart, pulling him up, pushing him forward.

After all this time, who was it he was really following? Rex Lapis, for his power and strength, or had the desire of the Anemo Archon always lay in his heart, silent and dormant as Xiao bound himself to the protection of Liyue?

Could he even call himself free? )

 

“Xiao, I can’t believe you’ve never been drunk before,” Venti exhales between chuckles, bending over at the waist in what is most definitely an exaggeration of his delight. “How about we put aside our worries for now, and instead settle down for one last show?”

“I thought I asked you to stop rhyming,” Xiao retorts, but the threat is empty; he feels as though the power of Anemo has taken over his body and is lifting him up to newer and bolder heights. “Also, there’s… no one here.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, my dear adeptus,” Venti coos; the adeptus in question ignores Venti’s flagrant flirt in favor of focusing on that signature devilish grin spreading across the archon’s face. “For you’re here, which means that you can be my audience!”

“Audience…?” The word is lost on Xiao for a moment, his brain lagging behind as he suffers the consequences of his actions. “O-Oh. You actually want to play for me?”

“Of course, why not?” Venti trills, shrugging as his lyre appears in his hands. “Even if it’s a small one, an audience is there to listen; you seem like you could use a good song right now. So,” Venti’s fingers dance dangerously over the brilliant blue chords of his magical lyre, “won’t you listen to me, Xiao?”

Bright gold meets mischievous green as Venti plucks a soft chord from his instrument. Xiao exhales as the lilting sound meets his ears, feeling his chest cave in as his stomach still swirls with the heat of the wine. He feels unbearably hot and frighteningly cold at the same time, and all he can manage to do as Venti begins his performance is grab the nearest chair and sit down.

Xiao doesn’t register that Venti isn’t singing, ignoring the bard’s atypical music in favor of the soft plucking of the lyre. He closes his eyes and breathes in, already feeling as high as a cloud, rising and dipping in the wind with every dynamic change the lyre makes. When Xiao opens his eyes from a particularly loud crescendo, he doesn’t realize he is crying until the tear in question splatters unceremoniously against his forearm.

When Venti enters his vision once more, Xiao can see that he is crying, too.

“... What do we do now?” Xiao manages quietly, a slight slur to his words acting as a sign of the alcohol’s effects. “Venti, what… what do we do now?”

He can see the bard stiffen from here. He questions, “What do you mean, Xiao?”

“I mean,” Xiao struggles, the weight of the wine in his stomach pulling his thoughts down, dragging his coherency with it; well, he certainly got what he was wishing for. “I— Rex Lapis is dead , the adepti… our contract… Venti, what am I supposed to do now?

He’s staring into his palms, tears leaving hot streaks across his face. He is unraveling here, before the bard, before the archon who bestowed upon him their blessing, whether as a result of the alcohol or his emotions and archons be damned he cannot hold it in anymore

“Xiao.” Venti’s voice is a soft tremble; Xiao doesn’t look up, but he listens, his ears strained for the archon’s words. Venti is the last one he has, the last one who knows, who is aware, who understands the true horror of suppression and fought, survived, pushed forward for a better future.

The place where they differ… is that Venti is free.

That is the message of the Anemo Archon; a certain type of freedom that exists in Mondstadt’s winds, the scent of cecilias whisking any who feel its soft, downy kisses into the spirit of freedom, of chance, of purpose .

 

(It is later, when Xiao is sober and nursing the worst— and only— hangover he’s ever had in his life, that he surmises it would not have been so bad to follow Venti’s footsteps instead of Rex Lapis. If he had, at least he wouldn’t have to deal with something as troublesome as the death of his archon. He smirks at the notion of Mondstadt’s fifth wind, but he cannot shake the pull of freedom that echoes in his heart.)

 

“Have you ever thought,” Venti begins, his voice quavering in the cool night air, “about what it is you want?”

Xiao breathes in. What he wants?

That’s always been simple.

“I want to protect Liyue,” he whispers, “from those that want to hurt it.”

But, has that always been it?

Perhaps it’s the alcohol talking, but a seed of doubt begins welling up within him. But wait, no, that's not entirely it, either; he does want to protect Liyue, but how can he without the guidance of one archaic lord?

Perhaps, he thinks, tilting his head up to meet Venti’s emerald gaze, it’s not that he wants to protect Liyue; he wants to have the freedom to choose to protect Liyue. He cannot protect Liyue unless he chooses to, and right now, he does not want to protect his home without someone to guide him.

“No, that’s not it…” he sighs when Venti’s face sets, rubbing his temples with his thumbs; the stress of the past couple of weeks, months, however long it’d been since Rex Lapis died was getting to him, and if he kept going at the rate he was he would be compressed into a tiny emotional diamond.

“Then what is it?”

“I want to be free,” Xiao answers this time without missing a beat. “I want to be free to make my own choices and I want to choose to protect Liyue. I want… I-I want…”

Oh no, the alcohol has come back up, because now his cheeks are burning. Oh, wait, no, those are more tears. But, he reasons, the alcohol still stirring in his stomach, he can’t go back now. He manages, quietly, barely loud enough for Venti to hear, “I want to be strong now that Rex Lapis is gone.”

The world is silent as Xiao relents himself to his tears. If this is what it means to get wasted, then Xiao is never getting wasted again. He is not subjecting himself to this type of emotional humiliation ever again, especially not before Venti. His tears give way to a surge of embarrassment, and soon he is sitting there, turned away from the Anemo Archon, avoiding Venti’s gaze as the bard simply stares.

It’s Venti’s footsteps that break the silence, slow and sure as he approaches Xiao. The adeptus tilts his head up, his eyes half-lidded and dim in Venti’s shadow. A thin, porcelain hand reaches out to touch Xiao’s shoulder. The adeptus flinches, yet does not shy away from his companion’s touch.

“I knew you would put my blessing to good use,” Venti chides sweetly, hand trailing down Xiao’s muscular arm, fingers stopping just above the blessing on his wrist. “Anyone can sense your desire to be free, Xiao. You are free now.”

Xiao says nothing and ignores the rhyme; he can vaguely recall the sound of a lyre playing as Venti’s fingers intertwine with his own, smooth against the roughness of his gloved palm. Venti pulls, ever so slightly, and Xiao follows; they are standing close, and as Venti takes a step back, Xiao follows.

He vaguely remembers what the humans call this. “ Dancing ,” he can hear Venti say in a tone from what seems like eons ago, from the first time the bard and the adeptus intertwined themselves together like this. Xiao had scoffed at the notion but had played along with the bard’s seemingly innocent offer. Venti’s grip was firm yet relaxed, just like all those years ago, and his sense of ease allows Xiao to fall seamlessly into place.

His free palm rests seamlessly on the dip in Venti’s waist; he isn’t much taller than Venti, unfortunately, but he knows enough to press his head on top of Venti’s shoulder, like puzzle pieces locking together. They’re close now, incredibly so, but Xiao isn’t phased. The wine in his stomach has emboldened him for the night, and in such a twisted emotional state, Xiao is eager to push such troubling thoughts from his mind.

“Do you remember how it goes?” Venti’s voice is a whisper in Xiao’s ear; vaguely, he does, but it’s been so long that a reminder would be nice. Xiao breathes in as a response, closing his eyes, letting the scent of dandelion wine and cecilias and saltwater dull his senses as Venti guides him into a slow waltz. The lyre sounds distant now, so close yet so far, strings plucking a tune softly, low and slow.

 

(Xiao recalls this experience, as well as the first, with great fondness in the morning, unable to still his beating heart; the bard’s light laughter and quip about “ That’s just the sense of freedom ” doesn’t do much to ease the sensation, and it only worsens when he and Venti meet eyes for the last time. Xiao feels like Rex Lapis all over again as Venti leaves down the elevator of Wangshu Inn, and he wants to desperately scream please don’t go I need you I don’t know what to do I’m all alone—

And Venti’s light response, laden with quiet yet sincere emotion hurls a gust of fresh air in his lungs.)

 

Venti swirls them around slowly, lazily, even, and Xiao, in his drunken stupor, lets him. Their steps are slow and clumsy at first, but it doesn’t take long for the two of them to develop a rhythm, smoothly swaying in the air of the rapidly dissolving night.

Both of them, drunk out of their minds, dancing slowly to the tune of Venti’s lyre, invisible fingers pulling and tugging the soft sound from the strings like the moon coaxing the waves.

“Now that Rex Lapis has left us,” Venti’s voice is a whisper breaking the silence, “Tell me, what are you going to do now, my dear adeptus?”

Xiao pulls away from Venti’s shoulder, and he immediately regrets it as the loss of warmth bugs his skin. He meets Venti’s eyes, bright green and sparkling despite the bard’s obvious drunken state. The heavy blush had returned full force on Venti’s face, extending from his cheeks to his jaw to all the way down his neck.

Xiao pretended not to think about the implications as their eyes met. Feeling exposed after noticing the bard’s blush, Xiao’s eyes dart away quickly, except that was also a bad idea because now he’s staring at Venti’s lips, which are either red from the blush or red from the wine and he should really look away—

“Is everything alright?” Venti asks softly, and Xiao becomes aware of how close they are when Venti’s breath, reeking of the sweet scent of the alcohol, is warm against his cheek. “If you’re tired, then we can stop for tonight.”

Xiao leans forward, Venti’s breath still ghosting across his cheek. The hand nestled on Venti’s hip had snaked around to the small of his back while dancing, which Xiao languidly traced up the side of Venti’s frame, bringing it to rest against the Anemo Archon’s soft cheek.

Xiao leaned forward… and kept going, past Venti’s face and towards the curve of his ear tucked behind a braid. Xiao exhaled lightly, a single thought surfacing in a haze of music and wine.

“Stop. Fucking. Rhyming.”

Venti’s laughter when he pulled back was fast and shrill; Xiao gazed at the bard, focusing on the blush still covering his face. Venti’s eyes narrowed, a playful smile replacing his laughter. He breath was against Xiao’s face again, warm and familiar, carrying the scent of cecilias and rain and Venti was getting really close wasn’t he—

“Make me.”

The bard’s tone is low and full of spite, and it is so incredibly Venti that Xiao allows the alcohol to take over for a split second, a single thought bubbling in his consciousness as he crashes his lips into the bard’s.

Alright .

It’s clumsy and heavy and painful , Xiao winces when his teeth click against Venti’s a little too loudly, the bard squeaking at the contact. Xiao has no idea what to do, or even why he did what he did, but he’d already done it and might as well see it through.

What he most definitely isn’t prepared for, however, is the bard’s hands removing themselves from around his body, fingers detangling from his own, only to wind up sliding up the adeptus’ neck like two hungry snakes, finding their meal in the thick, navy locks on the back of Xiao’s head.

The lyre falls silent as Venti coaxes Xiao closer, their forms entwining in a familiar yet completely new dance.

They’re drunk, so it’s no surprise that the kisses are sloppy and all over the place; Xiao already has no idea what he’s doing, and he can hear the bard laugh when he sucks a little too hard on what is most definitely Venti’s jaw. The hands in his hair twist and pull him back, bringing Xiao face to face with a completely flushed Venti whose eyes are just a little too big to be normal.

“Now tell me,” the bard whispers, a soft smile playing on his lips, “how long exactly have you been wanting to do that? Or is it just the wine having a little too much fun in your system?”

Xiao responds by pressing another sloppy kiss to the archon’s lips.

 

(Later, when Xiao awakes, head rolling with what is the worst headache of his life, he asks himself the same question.

Wangshu Inn’s bed is warm, much warmer than normal, Xiao thinks, eyes slinking over Venti’s thin frame sprawled beneath the sheets. The bard’s question is still echoing in his dazed mind.

His fingers trace the vision on his wrist, cool green against his pale skin. A reminder of what Venti had called freedom.

A reminder that Venti had called Xiao free .

Xiao’s eyes trace the bard’s dark hair, braids undone for the first time Xiao can identify, his smooth face previously flushed scarlet in the dim light of the inn.

Perhaps, then, Venti was right; Xiao thought back to Rex Lapis, a literal god among men; Xiao thought of the time before, when chains and darkness were all he knew, before the blinding light of Morax had freed him before sending him into contractual shackles of his own making. Xiao finally thought of Guizhong, a goddess of love in her own right, of her grim passing, of her gentle nature and desire to protect those she held dear.

Xiao thought of himself, constantly abiding by the wishes of others, always thrown into metaphorical handcuffs whether he liked it or not. And maybe there had been times when he’d welcomed such a ruling, even, as he had with Rex Lapis; Xiao’s complex feelings over his passing were another matter altogether, a matter to discuss at a different time.

That, and there was now the future to look forward to. What had once been a swirling abyss of uncertainty and doubt had taken on the form of a soft, gentle breeze, of qingxin and the earth, of cecilias and the sea.

Perhaps this is what Venti meant, he thinks as he leans over to push the turquoise locks of hair away from the bard’s visage. Emerald eyes fluttered open, a smile becoming all too familiar spreading across his face.

Perhaps this is freedom .

For now, Xiao thinks, as Venti sits up from the sheets, capturing Xiao’s lips in a soft, chaste kiss, he could get used to this “freedom” the bard often spoke so fondly of.)