The sun rises late today. Xiao sat up with a yawn, slipping on his beige moccasins. They’re lined with fluff and have white flowers embroidered on the tongue. He remembers the day he got them - it was the dead of winter, where the snow piled up to his mid-thigh and he was forced to sleep no less than three feet from the fire lest he freezes to death. He still dropped by, despite Xiao’s warnings not to. He never listens.
Xiao poured a sparing portion of oatmeal into the bowl. He’ll need to go into town soon to refill the jar. Eyeing his cabinet, his grocery list increases tenfold. That time of year again, huh?
The mug he drinks tea from is amateur in quality. The handle is crooked and the rim is uneven; the glaze was spread inconsistently, leaving several light patches amongst darker streaks. It still warms his heart regardless, even if he has to bend his wrist differently to hold it upright.
Three-hundred-sixty-four, Xiao counts. One more day.
Knock, knock, went the door. Or not, he revised.
“You’re early,” Xiao said. Venti offers a sheepish grin, brushing off the dusting of snow that’s collected on his cape.
“The winds compelled me to come faster, that’s all.” Venti hands him a cotton sack and makes his way towards the sun shining through the window. He chuckles at Xiao’s empty shelf. “Need help going to town?”
“That’d be nice,” Xiao replied. He untied the twine closing the sack and peered inside. Tea leaves.
“Inazuma,” Venti explained. “This farmer out in the countryside was selling loads of these, and I thought you could use a new brew. They’re supposed to taste a little like apple cider.” His voice lilted up at the end. Xiao rolled his eyes, the corners of his mouth crooking upwards against his will.
“Of course it does.”
The village is as lively as ever once they arrive. It’s around midday and the square bustles with people looking for a hot lunch.
“Xiao,” an old woman crooned. “Long time no see.”
“Pleasure to see you again,” Xiao replied. “Could I have two dozen eggs?” He jabbed an elbow into Venti’s side, ignoring his startled yelp. At his pouty expression, Xiao’s stern look softened. “Those chickens aren’t for you,” he scolded.
“Oh, but the wind told me they were.”
“Yeah, well, this wind is about to make you wait at the fountain.”
“I think that wind needs a lesson in kindness.”
“This wind -“
“Here are your eggs,” the woman chuckled. Xiao felt his ears flame, the burn increasing when Venti joined in the laughter. “He’s so lively when you’re around, Venti. What a shame you can’t stay longer.”
Xiao stiffened. He tilted his chin down and carefully counted the coins in his pouch, willing himself to steer away from whatever expression Venti was making.
“Ah, well,” Venti sighed. “The winds are always calling.”
Xiao pressed the coins onto the counter. He gave his most convincing smile to the woman and thanked her, promising to visit again soon.
“Stay safe,” she hollered to them both.
Venti wrapped his arms around Xiao gently. His chest was sturdy against Xiao’s head, heart beating steadily. Ba-dump, ba-dump.
The moon illuminated the ends of his hair, black fading into blue like how the sky meets the sea. Venti ran a hand through Xiao’s hair, pressing his lips against his forehead. Xiao hesitated, not wanting to break the silence. Venti hummed.
“I’m thinking of going back to Mondstadt this time.” Xiao curled his hands into Venti’s shirt, pressing his face into the crook of his neck.
“The festival is supposed to be soon, right?”
“Mhm. You remember how it goes.”
“Get drunk off your ass and sing it off?”
The embers of the dimmed fire crackled in the fireplace. The faint scent of smoke hovers in the room and the glow of the coal flickered and faded.
“Alatus,” Venti murmured.
“Barbatos,” Xiao responded.
“Come with me.” Xiao closed his eyes, willing the water collecting in his eyelashes not to fall. There’s nothing to be done about the throbbing in his chest, though. Venti pressed another kiss to his head.
“Next time, then.” Next time.
When Xiao woke up, a plate of cold eggs and bacon sat on the table with a small bouquet of Qingxins. He groaned and flipped back into his cocoon.
Long ago, Xiao made a promise. He promised to stay and watch over the village at the bottom of the hill, to protect its people and guard them from danger. He hasn’t spent one day off; he stands at the top of the hill, watching the people mingle below around the clock. It’s consistent and steady and familiar. Xiao’s learned how to ignore the niggling feeling at the back of his head, the one that moans about the pain and wails over the boredom.
Then he met Venti.
It wasn’t accidental by any means - no, the wandering traveler had heard of him via his master and “had his heart so piqued that he must meet the stranger on the hill”. Guardian, Venti had called him when they first encountered each other.
Venti was eccentric but not foolish. He adores anything apples but can’t handle the taste of cheese, no matter how subtle. Cats love him but he can’t handle the allergies. He pretends not to know much, but his gifts say otherwise. His eyes hide sharp wit and his tongue conceals rhymes of gold. Carefully crafted, tightly sewn. An enigma dipped in a false bronze coating.
Venti made Xiao want. The voice’s begrudged whisper crescendoed into an exuberant yell, sirening Venti! Venti!
He was warm and complex and he loved Xiao.
“I love you,” Venti said with the confidence of a warlord. “I love you.”
His love was encompassing, exhilarating, and enlivening. He professed his feelings in soliloquies and ditties, braided flower rings and pressed kisses against Xiao’s lips.
Then he had to leave.
“I can’t stay here,” he admitted. His aquamarine eyes met Xiao’s gold sadly. “Come with me,” he pleaded.
Xiao felt a rift twist and tear at his heart. He longed and ached for freedom - it was at his fingertips, clutching his wrist and caressing his cheek with a featherlight touch. But a promise is a promise.
“Next time,” he choked. Venti bit his lip, frowned, and nodded.
If Venti ever mentioned their relationship to his master, Xiao never caught wind of it. Zhongli visits once every month, sweeping in with his regal stature and detailed anecdotes. It’s been years, but there’s still that little spark of something that stirs in Xiao’s chest every time he arrives. Hero worship, maybe. Gratitude, absolutely.
Zhongli’s gaze flickered around the room as Xiao hung his coat on the rack.
“Venti came by recently?” Xiao nodded.
“He brought me tea this time. It tastes like apple cider.” Zhongli wrinkled his nose in disdain but asked for a cup anyway.
Usually, this is the part where Zhongli would fill the polite silence with a story of a songbird he saw in the city or a particularly delicious bowl of noodles he ate. Adventures that took Xiao to the tops of towers, overlooking the sea and the ships in the harbor. Introductions to peculiar people and some rather suspicious characters. His stories were a small respite from the same worn walls, the same creaking stove. Freedom, neatly wrapped and packaged. It used to make him warm. Now, it leaves him hollow.
“Are you happy?” Xiao jerked his head up from the table.
“I said,” Zhongli paused, “Are you happy?”
“I’m always happy to see you, you know that.” Zhongli huffed, a gentle smile curving his lips.
“Let me rephrase - are you happy, staying here?”
Xiao stared into his cup. The reflection stared back at him, mournful. His fingers tightened around the rim, pressing against the warmth. His words felt like ash against his tongue.
“Don’t lie.” Xiao winced.
“A promise is a promise,” he affirmed. “That’s what you’ve always told me.”
Zhongli sat back, crossing his arms. His eyes were stern, but not unkind. He looked down at his lap as if arguing with himself.
“Yes,” he ceded softly. “I do suppose so.”
Two-hundred-five, Xiao noted as he answered the door.
“What’s the occasion?” Venti’s chime rang in his ears.
“Wherever the wind goes, I simply follow.”
Venti’s managed to drag him out to a meadow. The village isn’t too far off, but the view is blocked by the bushes and it makes Xiao a little anxious. Venti brushes a thumb against his knuckles.
“Relax,” he said soothingly. “We won’t be long, they’ll be okay.”
Wrapped in tissue paper and ribbons is a jar of jam. Sharp-strawberry jam, the label reads.
“It’s infused with Juyun chilies. I thought it’d taste terrible, but it’s actually not too bad. Here.” Venti spread a thin layer of it on a piece of bread and held it against Xiao’s lips. “Ah.”
There’s a faint tingle on Xiao’s tongue, but the overall flavor is pleasant. Sweet with a kick. Not bad at all.
They bathe in the sun for a while, watching the clouds crawl by. Venti spins comedy out of the twists and curves that make up a clown, a dog, and a rather spiteful bartender. Xiao lets the bubble of laughter rise out of his chest freely. This, he has learned so long ago, is fleeting. It’s best to enjoy every moment of it.
“Come with me,” Venti asked. He stands at the doorway, sunset shining behind him. Xiao craned his head down to press his forehead against Venti’s chest.
One-hundred-sixteen. Ninety-three. Fifty. The visits become more and more frequent and the gifts start to pile up in his cabin. Every time he asks, Venti gives him the same answer - the winds, the winds, the winds.
Zhongli doesn’t directly ask. He’ll prod at Xiao’s living quarters, take him on walks and question his opinion on the village, poke at his interests in the world.
One day, a guard greets him at the gates. She’s dressed in simple attire and carries a sword at her side.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Keqing.”
“Xiao,” he replied. She smiled politely. He didn’t know how to feel about the poorly veiled pity in her eyes.
“You’ve been watching over this town for a long time, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t been keeping track,” he muttered. Venti waved at him from the fountain. Thirty-four.
“Come with me,” Venti called. His voice cracked at the ends and his frame shivered just the tiniest bit. Xiao grasped his hands and held them in his lap.
“Stay with me,” he argued. “Just one more day.”
Venti shook his head, hands shaking. He fell forward into Xiao, a wet sob pressing into his shoulder.
“I can’t,” he cried. “I can’t.”
“Why can’t Venti stay?” Zhongli stared at the snowflakes drifting down outside. Xiao clenched his fists. “Was it a promise? Did he promise you? Is that why -“
“Not with me.” Xiao stiffened.
“Then who?” Zhongli seldom looks sad, but this is the closest Xiao’s ever seen him get to it.
“A friend,” he muttered. “Somebody he lost long ago.”
Two-hundred-forty-one. Venti hasn’t come.
Keqing is the one on his doorstep this time. At her side stands a small child with a curiously blank gaze.
“This is Qiqi,” she introduced him. “She’s always been wondering about the ‘lonely man on the hill’, so I thought I’d let her see the real thing.”
Xiao hesitated. He’s never been good around children. Qiqi reached out and wrapped her little hand around a finger.
“Can we go play, Mister?” At their questioning gaze and the slight tilt of Qiqi’s head, he melted.
There are more guards in the village. They walk the borders and some converse with the shopkeepers. There’s been an increased interest in the quaint life, Keqing explains. That included some of the guards from the city.
Qiqi asks him for a chicken. The old woman gives him a wry grin when he asks for an egg.
“The wind hasn’t taken him back yet?” Xiao shook his head, ignoring the pang in his chest.
They’re sitting on a bench at the edge of town, Qiqi settled in between them while she drinks a cup of milk.
“Hey.” Keqing turned her head to look at him. “Who’s Venti?”
“A friend,” he replied. A ghost, a dream. A fraction of a second, a fleeting moment. Fragile kisses and warm hands. A green cape and the smell of cecilias. Laughter that sounds like bell chimes. Songs that sing of love and life and freedom - his freedom, his heart. “A precious person,” he admitted.
“He doesn’t stay for long,” Keqing remarked.
“One day, one night. Nothing more.”
“Why don’t you come with him?” He inhaled sharply. Too many short-lived nights, twisted fabric, and clutched shoulders. Too many desperate whispers and held back tears. Xiao can still feel the way Venti’s body shook in his arms. The gargled gasp he muffled into his shirt, the tears that mottled the thin fabric.
“A promise is a promise.” He knows the response is weak without the glare Keqing shoots at his side. His breath catches in his throat and his muscles tighten. He’s a whip ready to snap at any moment.
“The village is safe.” He flinches at the hand resting on his. Qiqi looks up at him with her violet eyes. “I’m safe.”
Xiao shatters. Qiqi lets him curl over her, brushing the tears that finally flood over his cheeks. Keqing scoots closer and rubs a hand over his back, offering hushed comfort. He sobs and wails, missing the lost years and longing for the wind.
Four-hundred-twenty-one. Venti hasn’t come. The jam jar has long run out and the slippers are hanging on by threads. Xiao’s on his last cup of tea. He needs to go back in town for eggs again. He twists around at the knocking.
“I brought lunch,” Zhongli said apologetically, holding up a picnic basket. They don’t mention the disappointed look on Xiao’s face.
They ate in silence. The almond tofu melts on Xiao’s tongue, the mild sweetness sliding down his throat smoothly. He paused, staring at the array of food spread before him. The cookies are cut in the shape of cecilias.
“Ask me again,” Xiao said. Zhongli crooked an eyebrow up, golden eyes shining with amusement. “Ask me,” he demanded.
“Are you happy?”
“No,” he responded. Something warm and gold swirled in his stomach, swooping up and spreading throughout his body. “I’m not.”
“Well,” Zhongli answered. “Perhaps this promise has long been fulfilled.”
Xiao gave the jam jar to Keqing and the ribbons to Qiqi.
“I’ll take care of the cabin for you,” Keqing chirped. “Qiqi will help too, won’t you?” The girl nodded, hugging Xiao and telling him to come back soon.
At the village gate stood the old woman and her flock of chickens. “Where are you off to,” she asked. He smiled.
“Wherever the wind carries me.”
Four-hundred-forty. The city is as busy as Zhongli described it. Xiao finds the noodle shop and asks for a bowl. It’s hot and hearty with a kick. The girl asks him about the taste when he stands up to leave.
“Delicious,” he replied.
Five-hundred-two. Inazuma is flowers against stones, cherry blossoms planted along patterned paths. Xiao asks a local where he could find a tea that tastes like apple cider. She laughs and wonders how he’s heard of that specialty; it’s deep in the mountainside, hidden to most. A friend told me, he responded.
Six-hundred. He’s wandered out to the heat of Sumeru and the frost of Snezhnaya. He’s been amazed by the local delicacies and taken aback by some of the customs. The performances in Fontaine bring gleeful joy and the brawls in Natlan still carry an exhilarating rush through his veins. He stares at his map, eyeing a certain walled town in the corner. It’s his final destination.
Seven-hundred-thirty. Mondstadt is in the middle of its annual festival. Bards line the streets with their songs and beers are passed around. Xiao’s offered a dubious smelling one from a small girl around Qiqi’s age - he declines, excusing himself. His eyes rake through the crowd for green. A breeze pushes him back towards the gate.
A walk away from the city stands a tall tree with imposing greenery. Its branches curve and pose proudly against the night sky. At its roots sits a small man in white, lyre on his hip as he plucks the strings uncommitedly. A cracked twig startles him. He looks around, eyes landing on a shadowed figure. As they move closer, he gasps.
“Alatus?” He scrambled to get up, rushing towards the other. He hesitantly brushed his fingers over the other’s cheeks, taking in his hair, his mouth, his eyes . Golden like the sun, his fire, his passion. “What are you doing here,” he croaked.
“The winds compelled me to come, that’s all.”