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1.

Mondstadt’s Ludi Harpastum festival is, Xiao will admit, quite a sight to behold. Unlike Liyue’s Lantern Rite, there are no star-like rivers of lanterns against the night sky, or winding streets lined in crimson, but if Xiao isn’t wrong in judging human emotions — these Mondstadtians are almost more enthusiastic about the flower-throwing and Sweet Madame-eating and wine-tasting than the people of Liyue are about making lanterns with their families.

And that is at high noon, with the early summer heat shimmering around corners and blurring unfamiliar faces.

To be fair. Xiao is infinitely more familiar with Lantern Rite customs and decorations than he is with those of foregin celebrations, and it isn’t as if Xiao has actually walked the streets of Mondstadt to see for himself. Plus, his opinion may very well be affected by the fact that Ludi Harpastum has, in recent years, grown so extravagant that demand outpaces the comparatively meager Mondstadtian supply.

Which means Mondstadt has also, in recent years, negotiated an sub-clause in the Teyvat Restrictive Agreement for Domestic Exchange by which all participating nations agree to fund or provide up to 16% of additional items requested for any other nation’s yearly celebratory purposes, as so to foster both a sense of national identity and continent-wide unity. But given that both Snezhnaya and Inazuma have recently shrunk back from their diplomatic duties, Liyue is now stuck with shipping wagons of supplies to Mondstadt every summer.

Though why Xiao has to oversee the latest shipment, he isn’t quite sure.

“Yan — ah, Zhongli-daren,” Xiao starts, because while Zhongli may desire to live a human life now, Xiao would sooner eat Paimon’s slime pudding than address Zhongli so familiarly. “I have escorted the shipment to the edge of Mondstadt. Must I continue further?”

Zhongli brushes his sun-sticky bangs back from his forehead and smiles. Here — sleeves bunched around his elbows, hair tied in a bun to escape the heat, hitching a ride on the back of a carriage — nobody could possibly think of him as Rex Lapis. His dedication to humanity is, if nothing else, admirable. “Mn, why not? There may very well be more hilichurls past Springvale. In the event of that, who will protect the shipment, if not you?”

Xiao, who has seen Zhongli wipe out entire squadrons of abyss mages with nothing but a hastily-made spear of granite, thinks better of protesting. Zhongli clearly doesn’t want to reveal his powers to the other people helping in the transportation of the goods. “So be it.”

There do turn out to be more hilichurls past Springvale. Two small ones digging near a skeletal, moss-overgrown wagon, and a whole camp of monsters snoozing in the shade beneath a small cliff. But neither of them bother the carriages, which means Xiao’s presence was completely unnecessary. In fact, ever since they passed through the Stone Gate, the roads have been nearly hilichurl-free… perhaps Lumine has been fighting her way through Mondstadt. Again.

The towering walls of Mondstadt proper mark the boundaries of the furthest Xiao will allow himself to advance. While the guards check Zhongli’s trade papers and inspect the cargo, Xiao wanders over to where dandelions on an outcrop overlook the startlingly blue lake. From here, he can see the rolling green fields, the scattered ponds, the beginnings of verdant forests just beyond the cloudless horizon.

Xiao breathes in, breathes out, letting the faint scent of wine carried by the wind flow around him. So this is Barbatos’ land, then. A nation shaped by a god’s hands, gifted with fledgling wings made of his power. Xiao has only visited Mondstadt two times, both while tracking down a particularly elusive water demon, but both times he had finished his job on the wild outskirts of the nation.

He’s never seen it like this. Like the land that Barbatos would have seen a thousand years ago. It’s… it isn’t anything like Liyue, but still, the sight calms a wild part of Xiao’s heart.

“Xiao!” Zhongli calls, startling Xiao out of his thoughts. “Everything is in order. Let’s go!”

Yes, leaving sounds like a very good idea. This close to the crowded streets, even separated by a meter-thick stone wall, Xiao is already hyper-aware of the delicate human heartbeats in the city. A step too close to humanity for him.

Xiao is about to follow Zhongli back over the cobblestone bridge when Zhongli heads towards the entrance of Mondstadt instead. And then Zhongli has the nerve to say, “Xiao, what’s wrong?”

Humanity really is having a terrible influence on Zhongli.

“I cannot,” Xiao says, crossing his arms. “Why do you wish to go inside Mondstadt?”

“Ah, before I left, the Yuheng approached me to request that I update the Acting Grandmaster on some developments on our cor lapis exports to Mondstadt,” Zhongli explains. “None of the Qixing have the time to visit in person, and sending a formal envoy would take too long, so I am to act as messenger. Besides, it’s simply good manners to pay our respects to the leader of any place we visit, no?”

Well. Xiao can’t exactly dispute that, and if the Yuheng really entrusted Zhongli with such a thing, then he can’t stop Zhongli from entering Mondstadt either. But… “Why should I go inside with you? I am not responsible for contacting the Acting Grandmaster, I can simply wait by the gate…”

“It might take some time to go over all the developments with Jean. I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting in this heat — I’m sure the Knights of Favonius have some quiet rooms in their headquarters, if you’re worried about causing any diplomatic incidents?”

Gah. Xiao’s job is to subdue demons via brute force, and it’s the only thing that he’s good at, so he can’t really blame Zhongli for the insinuation, but still. He wouldn’t intentionally cause a diplomatic incident!

“That isn’t it,” huffs Xiao, refusing to move from his spot even as the sun bears down on him. “I just… I don’t want to get involved in these mortal festives. Especially foreign ones. I have no place there.”

“Ludi Harpastum is for everyone, not just Mondstadters,” Zhongli chides. “It is one of the biggest sources of tourism revenue for Mondstadt, after all. Of course, if you really do not desire to go inside, then I won’t force you. But, Xiao…”

Xiao jolts. Zhongli’s hand is on his head, ruffling his hair once, firmly, before it retreats. Right now, the man speaking to Xiao isn’t Zhongli, but rather Rex Lapis, the god and the protector. Xiao squeezes his eyes shut.

“You’ve already fulfilled your duties. When I gave you the name of Xiao, we formed a contract. However, when the situations surrounding a contract change, sometimes it must be revised. The people of Liyue are capable of protecting themselves. Demons still roam the land, but you are no longer fighting alone. Although you may still choose to fight, you…” He laughs, low and chastised. And just like that, Rex Lapis is gone.

“...Zhongli-daren?” Xiao dares to venture.

“These days, I must always ask myself — if I were human, what would I do? As a god, my contract with you required that you wield yourself as a weapon. But now, I realize that the situation is such that you no longer need to do so. You aren’t an extension of your spear, Xiao. If you fight, then then don’t just fight for the people of Liyue, but also for yourself. Your duty was never eternal. You, too, can choose your own path now.”

“Zhongli-daren, I — ”

Zhongli shushes him. Xiao feels almost like an earnest child right now, looking up at Zhongli, his gentle smile haloed by sunlight. “I cannot erase the burdens you carry, or the blood that taints your blade. But what I can say is that while you wear your mask, you are also human. Your will is strong, yet gentle. I trust that you can walk amongst the people, too.”

The weight of the jade spear on his back is as familiar as always. But Zhongli’s words… they make it feel lighter, somehow. Like the ties of sinew and flesh that had bound Xiao to his spear, and his spear to his heart, have shifted in accordance to their contract.

Ah, thinks Xiao, pressing a hand to his forehead half to hide his face and half to pretend to be wiping away sweat. Leave it to Rex Lapis to say such things.

“A-alright,” Xiao mutters. The notion of being bound to — to caring for himself now, of thinking of himself at all, is quite unusual. But if Zhongli trusts him, then… Xiao will try, at least. “I’ll go with you. But I will teleport away if I feel, at any point, that I may endanger others around me.”

Zhongli lights up like an oil-covered lantern, all his prior fears of diplomatic incidents gone. Xiao really has no idea how he can be so optimistic.

Inside Mondstadt proper, the noisy bustle of the festives is even more overwhelming than it is from across the bridge. Everywhere Xiao looks, there are stands hawking traditional Mondstadt delicacies, or selling flower bouquets, or advertising miniature models of gliding wings so the many children running underfoot can also partake in the spirit of flight and freedom. Kites wheeling above tiled roofs, garlands hanging between wooden balconies, stray petals lining the streets — there’s so much. Humans truly come up with the most inconceivable methods of having fun.

The path to the Knights of Favonius headquarters winds around a fountain (also decorated in flowers) and up two sets of stairs. Xiao is too busy trying both to take in all the architectural and cultural differences, and keep himself under control while surrounded by people on all sides, to really appreciate the lengthy lecture Zhongli is giving about the history of this city and the establishment of the Knights. He is aware enough to shake his head when Zhongli asks if he’d like to accompany him to the meeting with Jean, though.

“Are you sure? It would most likely be cooler inside the headquarters, with more places to rest.” Zhongli shakes his head at a lady who offers him a flowery bracelet and turns back to Xiao. “Less busy, as well.”

“Yes,” says Xiao, eyes following the steady revolution of one of the windmills that tower over the city’s quaint residential buildings. “I… I would like to see a little more of Ludi Harpastum. It is interesting how mortal customs diverge.”

“Ah, of course! Teyvatian anthropology is a fascinating subject, and there is no better way to get experience in it than seeing part of a nation’s most important festivals up close. I should meet with Jean now, but do not hesitate to explore the city.” Zhongli gives him one last reassuring smile before he shows his identification to the guards and pushes open the door. “I trust you.”

Xiao ducks his head. Thank you, he wants to say, but the words die in his mouth.

Zhongli trusts him. Instead of saying thank you for that, Xiao should walk the streets of Mondstadt as Zhongli did just now. Show him that his trust isn’t misplaced.

Though. It really is unbearably noisy and bright. He’s sure Zhongli won’t fault him for bypassing the large crowds to wander through the less crowded, amply shadowed alleyways of Mondstadt. Either way, Xiao is still getting that first-hand cultural immersion, which Zhongli will approve of.

Xiao is perhaps halfway through the confusing maze of narrow streets that zigzag through sleepier parts of Mondstadt when he hears a scream.

Or — not really a scream, but more like a cross between a wail and a sneeze. So humans are capable of making those types of noises too…

The sound came from the dead-end alleyway that Xiao just passed. Although it doesn’t seem like there is any real danger present — certainly Xiao’s time-honed battle instincts would have alerted him otherwise if that were the case — he still makes a sharp turn to peek in the alleyway. Just to make sure.

“Stay away!!” Shouts the person in probable but minor danger. “Back! Go away! Can you not understand me? Go away!”

Oh. That does sound bad. Xiao dashes to the entrance of the alleyway only to see a single person there, shouting at thin air.

….Wine is popular during these kinds of festives. Maybe that’s the cause?

“You little furry menace, look at my face! Please kindly run away! You’re ruining Ludi Harpastum for me, ah, you terrible creature!”

A lazy, pleased meow echoes through the alleyway. Xiao stops short, trying to understand what exactly he’s seeing. A person backed against a wall, and a tiny cat that looks entirely too happy with itself to not know what’s going on.

Ah… is the person… scared? Of the cat?

Xiao’s theory is all but confirmed when the person sniffles pathetically and wipes tears from their eyes. “Go awaaaay,” they whine again, brandishing a small instrument at the cat for reasons unknown to Xiao. “I’m here to drink good wine and have fun, not to have my day ruined by a puny little animal! I don’t care how cute you are!”

The cat trots closer, and the person sniffles again. Maybe… Xiao should… interfere? There’s only one exit to this alleyway, and the way out is blocked by the cat.

Yes. That will do. Shoo away the cat, and leave the person be.

Unfortunately, Xiao’s silent rescue doesn’t exactly go according to plan. He’d thought of using Anemo to dash through the alleyway and shift the winds to gently push the cat out of the way, and he does manage to do that — the cat hisses at him and slinks back into the main street — but in the process, he also misjudges the length of the alleyway, and ends up stumbling out of his dash so he doesn’t faceplant into the wall.

The person blinks at him. Xiao blinks back.

Up close, Xiao can see that the person is a boy, his features delicate and pretty. His green cape flutters past him as Xiao’s winds die down. Light blue braids frame the point of his chin, and a round, flowered cap marks him as one of Mondstadt’s many bards.

“Oh!” He says, clapping his hands together. “My savior, I was just wondering when that stupid cat finally leave!”

“I,” starts Xiao, completely unprepared for an actual conversation. He’d thought he would just dash back out of the alleyway after the cat was shooed away, and as such, didn’t ready himself for human contact.

The boy rubs furiously at his eyes, puffy from tears, and smiles brilliantly. Oh, thinks Xiao, his heart seizing. “Seriously, thank you so much, I was about to give it the ham from my sandwich if it didn’t scram… but since you decided to be my dashing hero, my ham is safe and sound, hehe!”

He talks so fast. Right now, Xiao’s vocabulary includes perhaps 10 words, and none of them can form a comprehensive sentence worthy of responding to this boy.

“I,” Xiao says again. “Thank… you?”

“No, thank you!! I’m so glad I don’t have to go back and buy another sandwich, since I used up all my mora for the last one. Argh, stupid cat allergy, making my life harder for me every single day!”

Cat. Allergy. Cat allergy? The boy? Has a. Cat allergy?

Oh, gods above. This is — this is. Probably the single most humiliating thing to happen to Xiao in his three thousand-something years of being alive.

“Goodbye,” Xiao grits out, gathering the unusual amount of Anemo energy lying stagnant in the alleyway beneath his feet and leaping up to stand on the railing of the second-floor balcony to the right.

“Wait! Hey, come back, I didn’t even get your name!” The boy shouts, but Xiao is already clambering up to the roof and running away as fast as he can.

Even if Xiao hadn’t been slam-dunked over the head with that offhanded mention of the boy’s cat allergy, he still wouldn’t have jumped back down. Adepti need not give their names to the humans they save, and though Xiao is trying to learn the mortal world better, he doesn’t need to undergo the mortification of being known to do such a thing.

Besides, Xiao has explored a majority of Mondstadt by now. As in, a little more than half. Surely Zhongli will not fault him for retreating to the Knights’ headquarters after this much exposure to human company.

Still, Xiao cannot help but think about the boy’s brilliant eyes on the trek back to the headquarters. As blue as the clear depths of the lake surrounding Mondtsadt, as free as a wisp of wind. Oddly familiar, too — almost like the faint glow of Xiao’s own vision, its misty wings wrapping around Xiao’s wrist.

It’s strange. Xiao’s heart, beating at double-time, the confusing itch at the back of his mind telling him he should go back and find that boy.

If this is what humans feel, then Xiao — well. Xiao wishes he could say he didn’t like it.

 

2.

By the time Zhongli gets out of impromptu diplomatic negotiations with Jean and has the necessary documents drawn up for delivery to the Qixing, the sun has nearly set, its light only faintly visible above Mondstadt’s stone turrets. Because night is a prime time for hilichurl activity, Jean extends a formal invitation for Zhongli and Xiao to stay in Mondstadt until tomorrow.

Apparently, having the last remaining yaksha of Liyue as the forward guard for their party is no excuse for knowingly venturing out when danger lurks in the shadows. Not even when Xiao very kindly volunteers to demonstrate just how adept he is at beating mobs of monsters up in the blink of an eye.

And since, according to Zhongli’s stern words, curling up in the heart of one of the outer windmills and passing time by watching over a sleeping Mondstadt until dawn is not something that Xiao is allowed to do, Xiao is forced to stew in a hotel room with Zhongli instead.

At least Zhongli looks quite happy with the arrangement. These human accommodations are indeed luxurious (“Nothing but the best for our honored Liyuen guests,” Jean had said, and directed them to a 5000 mora per night lodging in a quiet northern district of Mondstadt,) but unfortunately, Xiao is not so shameless as to capitalize on all the amenities this inn might offer, as Zhongli is currently doing.

“Zhongli-daren,” says Xiao quickly, when Zhongli starts musing about ordering more of that well-aged dandelion wine that the inn offers as a complimentary gift. “We should leave early in the morning. I — I do not wish to stay here any longer than necessary.”

“Is that so? Did you not enjoy your exploration of Mondstadt?”

“No, I only wish to get back to Liyue as soon as possible. Who knows what could have transpired in my absence….”

Zhongli tilts his head. “So you still wish to fight?”

“Of course I do. That is all I can do.”

A sigh. Oh — oh no, did he make Zhongli disappointed in him — but he did walk among the people, he tried his best —

“I’m sure that isn’t the case, Xiao,” Zhongli murmurs, his voice painfully gently. “You can be somebody beyond protecting Liyue. It may take time to figure yourself out, but it is possible.”

Just because Zhongli did it, doesn’t mean Xiao is the kind of immortal who is capable of doing it too. But Zhongli doesn’t deserve such harsh words coming from Xiao. Maybe if he shares his humiliating experience with that boy, then, Zhongli will reconsider.

“But earlier today, I… encountered someone,” Xiao starts. Instantly, Zhongli’s eyes sparkle and he leans forward, clearly enthusiastic about Xiao’s hypothetical adventures in befriending mortals. “I heard shouting coming from an alley and investigated. However, I misjudged the situation. The person was not in danger; he simply had a cat allergy and was being approached by a cat desiring his ham sandwich. Yet I still foolishly rushed in to try and save him. If I cannot even get something like that right, then I would only continue making mistakes in human society — ”

“A cat allergy?” Zhongli interrupts, suddenly serious.

“...Yes?”

“Can you describe this person in detail?”

“Um.” Xiao thinks back to that moment in the alleyway, when their eyes had met each other’s as Xiao swept past him. “He had bright green eyes, as well as a green cape and a round cap? His hair was short, but he had two braids that were blue at the bottom.”

Zhongli makes a face that is utterly inconsistent with his dignified image. “Did this… person carry a lyre?”

“Yes? He even pointed it at the cat like a weapon — ”

Venti!” Zhongli growls, in a rare display of negative emotion. “That boorish, drunken fool! Did he try to offer you wine? Or try something funny with you? I will deal with him if you ask — it will only take three hours or so.”

Maybe Xiao is just fated to not understand any kind of conversation he is involved in. Certainly Zhongli isn’t making much sense right now.

“Do you… know that person?” Xiao ventures, almost scared to learn what kind of human could make Zhongli this irritated. “And no, he did neither of those things — I believed he was in danger, so when I learnt it was only due to his allergy, I left.”

“Good thing you did. Tch, that bard is as irresponsible as ever. Even after a thousand years, he still has no intention of changing his ways. Truly a disgrace to the arts he practices.”

“A thousand years?” Xiao echoes. Wait.

Wait.

So — Zhongli knows that person. Venti. He had displayed familiarity with Venti’s mannerisms, but if Venti were just a simple bard from Mondstadt, when would Zhongli have had the time to meet him? The anemo energy coalescing in the alleyway, Zhongli’s casual mention of knowing Venti for at least a thousand years, Venti’s eyes, blue like the sky Xiao had seen that day, lying on the rotting battlefield with the faint sound of a flute breathing life into his limbs.

“Ah, did I say that?” Zhongli’s expression turns sheepish, as if he’s completely unaware of Xiao’s entire world reshaping itself in this dim hotel room. “Please don’t mind me. Barbatos may be living among humans too, but he does not wish for his true identity to be known any more than I do. Keep this information to yourself, alright?”

“Who would I even tell?” Xiao mutters, fidgeting with the tassels on his necklace. “So that was Barbatos…”

“Yes, a shameful sight to see, indeed.” Zhongli says, with no shortage of passive-aggressiveness. “Drinking his days away and living from performance to performance! It’s a wonder the Knights still let him gallivant around the city.”

“Do — do you… dislike Barbatos?” Xiao asks. Surely Zhongli wouldn’t, right?

“Hm? No, I suppose we could be called something close to friends. Of the Seven, we… are the last original ones, after all. It’s only that he insists on being so flighty and irresponsible — though I will say that he has never broken any of the contracts he’s made with me. At least he doesn’t shirk away from his godly responsibilities.”

Barbatos is widely known for leaving Mondstadt to its own devices, but before Mondstadt had become a free city, Barbatos had also reshaped the mountains and river gorges with his own hands. And he had given Vennessa her own wings of freedom, too, so that she might lead the rebellion… Xiao knows that Barbatos’ absence is his way of fulfilling his responsibilities as the archon of flight and freedom.

After all, if he had decided to preside over Mondstadt, Barbatos would have had to tell them to be free, as his title demanded. But what is freedom, if it is disguised as an order?

Even Xiao’s freedom, now and three thousand years ago, had been given as a contract. Yanwang Dijun’s contracts were not unbreakable, it was just that he had the power to make others fulfill the terms of their contracts. Xiao was never bound to fight — he had done it out of loyalty, and out of duty.

“I see,” Xiao says softly. Barbatos — or would he prefer to be called Venti? Back then, he had saved Xiao. Today had not come close to repaying his debt, or even just giving Barbatos a meager thank-you for it. If Xiao sees him again…

But what’s the likelihood of that, in a city where the streets are maze-like and narrow, when Xiao is leaving as soon as dawn breaks?

Still, Xiao wants to meet him again. Just one more time.

 

———

 

Xiao sneaks out that night. He knows Zhongli would be disappointed in him if he knew, but —

Zhongli doesn’t have to know. Zhongli is fast asleep in his warm, comfortable bed, and Xiao even clambers out of the window in under 30 seconds, so that he won’t be disturbed by the draft.

It’s just that after Zhongli had fallen asleep, Xiao had been sitting at the edge of his own bed, watching as the moon cast shifting shadows across the carpet, and felt a creeping, stifling sense of loneliness. Thinking about Barbatos, somewhere out there in the city — thinking about the juts and curves of Liyue’s mountains, the Millelith patrolling its borders —

Xiao needed to get out and stretch his limbs, ease that restlessness stirring in him.

He wanders aimlessly for almost half an hour, feet taking him back through the residential side-streets until he stumbles across the alleyway where he’d met Barbatos.

Of course it’s empty.

Xiao stares at the dark, ivy-covered bricks at the end of the alleyway for a moment. He sighs, and turns to head for the steep steps leading up to the cathedral instead, the open hands of Barbatos gathering moonlight.

Then:

Yelling, behind Xiao, up and to the left. The dull sound of swords being unsheathed, and feet thumping on roof tiles.

Xiao looks up just as a figure leaps over the edge of the roof, covering the moon for one second as they soar through the air. Their cape swirls behind them, and — Xiao could have sworn, just for a second, that it looked like wings.

The person rolls once and springs to their feet, brushing their clothes off. They lock eyes.

“...Barbatos?” Xiao whispers.

“Oh, it’s you!!” Says Barbatos, flashing him a brilliant smile that effectively shuts down Xiao’s higher brain functions. “Wait, what did you say?”

“Hey, you! Thief! Stop right there!”

Xiao looks up at the people clustered on the roof, all of whom are brandishing swords and pointing them right at Barbatos, a literal god. He looks back at Barbatos, who is smiling at him pleadingly, and clearly hiding something behind his back.

Xiao’s path of action is obvious.

“Come with me,” he says, and grabs Barbatos’ wrist before he can think too much of it.

Xiao is sure that the people who are chasing Barbatos are skilled fighters in their own right. Probably. But they’re humans, most likely without visions, while Xiao and Barbatos are, respectively, a battle-scarred adeptus and a beloved god.

After five or so minutes of evading their pursuers, Xiao makes a temporary stop beneath the awning of a quaint pastry shop and listens carefully for the sound of footsteps and yelling. The pursuers are still on the chase, but it’s unlikely that they’ll find Xiao and Barbatos’ hiding spot anytime soon.

“We’re safe now,” Xiao says, because he has nothing else to say.

Barbatos flops into one of the chairs outside the shop and thunks his head back onto the backrest. “You seriously keep saving me, huh? Well, thanks for not turning me in to those guys, anyhow!”

“How do you know I would have been able to capture you?” Xiao asks. It’s like a bold creature has wormed its way into Xiao’s heart, speaking without his permission, holding him up so that he can speak to Barbatos like this.

“Hm? You… you’re one of Liyue’s adepti, aren’t you? Your vision, I can tell — it glows like it’s seen battles beyond its years. You speak with a Liyuen accent. And, just now, you called me Barbatos.” He stretches and sets an expensive-looking bottle of wine on the metal table. “What, is it so much of a stretch to assume that you could beat me in a battle?”

“But — you’re Barbatos,” Xiao says dumbly.

“So? I’m just a tiny little god doing his indulgent godlike things, I haven’t fought since the archon war. I have power, you have power and practice.”

It’s astounding how easily Barbatos can admit to a weakness. Astounding, and admirable.

Xiao shrinks into himself. Why is it so hard to carry a conversation? “I wouldn’t have turned you in,” he mutters, as Barbatos uncorks the bottle and sniffs it happily.

“Why not? Aren’t you a just, dignified adepti?”

“No, I — yes, I am an adepti, but. I, I wanted to… thank you.”

“For what?”

“A thousand years ago, I fought a battle that I almost did not win. I nearly succumbed to the karma I had accumulated. But that morning, I heard the sound of a flute through the reeds of Dihua Marsh. The only person who could have saved me then had to be one of the Seven, and out of them, the only one who played the flute was you.” Xiao ducks his head. “You saved me. Thank you.”

“Ahhh, I… I can’t do this sober!” Barbatos declares. He downs what must be at least half the bottle of wine and sighs. “That’s marginally better. And please, please do not thank me for that, I can’t take being thanked for stuff like that, it makes me feel all mushy and sappy and we can’t have that! I can’t even remember what I was doing back then — probably taking my morning walk and tooting the flute because it sounded fun, are you seriously going to be grateful to me for that?”

Xiao blinks. “Of course,” he says, not even needing to think about it. “No matter what you were doing, it gave life back to me. I will be eternally grateful to you for that.”

Barbatos shudders dramatically. “Again, why do you need to be grateful for me in any case? Sure, yeah, I saved you, and I’m glad that I could do that, but right now, aren’t we supposed to be equals? Or something? As fellow immortals? I don’t like being indebted to others, or for others to feel indebted to me. Whenever I hear people saying stuff like that, I wanna tell them to use my blessings to be free instead, ya know?”

Xiao does not, in fact, know. But he can understand where Barbatos is coming from, what Barbatos is asking of him, and so he nods.

“Great! Now, why don’t you come sit down with me and tell me what you’re doing in Mondstadt — oh, and about the duties of the adepti, and about Liyue, and — ooh, if Liyue has any really good brews!! I want to hear all about it. Whenever we meet, Zhongli never tells me anything, but I have some dedicated fans who would be mad if I skipped town to tour Liyue, so that delicious baijiu continues to evade me.” Barbatos pats the seat next to him and smiles invitingly. “And one more thing before we drop this subject forever? I’m glad you’re alive.”

Xiao’s head snaps up. Those words — Barbatos truly means it, doesn’t he? Glad that he could save Xiao, glad that Xiao is standing before him today… for such a mischievous trickster, Barbatos really is an honest god.

Xiao never had any feelings on the matter before. Whether he lived or died, his life would have been spent protecting the distant lights of Liyue Harbor, and that would have been enough for him. But now…

“I am glad, too.” Xiao responds, soft and almost embarrassed. Barbatos is good — too good — at making Xiao blush.

The prospect of carrying a conversation with Barbatos is, at first, possibly the scariest thing that Xiao has faced in his life. But Barbatos proves to be talkative enough to converse with himself, yet patient enough to smile and laugh at Xiao’s tentative answers.

Xiao tells Barbatos — no, Venti, as he insisted Xiao call him — in halting sentences about Liyue’s winding rivers, the golden waves of Guili Plains, of what Liyue Harbor looks like from atop the calcified spears of Guyun Stone Forest. He… attempts to describe the more intricate details of Liyuen culture and the alcohol industry to Venti, too, though Xiao has only had one sip of alcohol in his life and since then has vowed never to have another.

(“Only one sip of alcohol??” Venti gasps, putting a hand over his heart in mock outrage. “How do you live like that?”

“I do… humiliating things when I am drunk,” Xiao responds. Why is he telling Venti this? Why is it so easy to talk without thinking, now, when he had been so scared fifteen minutes ago? Is Venti the exception?

“Oh? Humiliating things?” Venti rests his chin on his hands and grins. “What kind of things?”

Don’t say it. Don’t say it!

“I was told,” starts Xiao, feeling distinctly silly. “That… that I called Zhongli-daren. Um. That I called him ‘father.’”

Venti chokes on his wine. “Zhongli? That blockhead?? Father??? That’s — wait, oh my god, that’s so adorable, you really called him that? Oh my god.”

Xiao buries his head in his hands. “It was during the war!” He moans. Why did he think telling Venti was a good idea? He can’t just — keep doing stupid things to make Venti smile at him, it’s bad for his sanity! “I was drunk and emotional, please stop laughing! I’ll — I’ll attempt to get you a bottle of vintage sanhuajiu if you stop laughing!”)

In return, Venti describes Mondstadt’s most scenic places, speaks of the wild cecilias that grow on Starsnatch Cliff and the deserted, crumbling ruins of where a tyrant once ruled, and where Venti took his first breath as a god. Xiao learns that Venti actually loves cats, but has never once held once in his arms because they all get scared away by his sneezing. That his favorite spot in Mondstadt is atop the bell tower of the cathedral, that he knows the wine industry’s history like the back of his hand, that he worries about Jean and babysits a child named Klee, when nobody else is available.

Eventually, Venti finishes off the last dregs of the wine, though he looks no less sober than he originally was.

“What?” He says, when Xiao falls silent.

“That wine… where did you get it?”

“Ooohhh,” says Venti, his expression turning sheepish. “Um. I… might or might not have stolen it from Dawn Winery’s storehouse in the city?”

Dawn Winery. That name sounds vaguely familiar. If Xiao isn’t wrong, Dawn Winery is one of the biggest exporters of wine and fresh fruits to Liyue Harbor. Venti sure is brave, if nothing else.

“Hey, don’t look at me like that!” Venti huffs and spins the bottle cork between his elegant fingers. Xiao’s eyes track the movement. “In my opinion, Diluc had it coming. Though, just what he’d do to me if he got his hands on me…” He winces. “Let’s not talk about that! Diluc’s such a brute, anyway, he doesn’t deserve to be the subject of conversation.”

“Diluc?”

“Yep! Diluc Ragnvindr, the one and only owner of Dawn Winery. You might know him as that emo-looking guy who walks around like his fashion sense didn’t lead to the most atrocious outfit I’ve ever seen. Or the one who stores all his quality wines in a rickety little storeroom where poor bards like me can’t access them, and expects himself not to be robbed.”

Xiao thinks about it for a moment. Yes, that sounds about right, if Venti says so. “And those men?”

“Can you believe it? Diluc even has personal guards! They can’t act without the Knights’ permission, of course, but I guess chasing a thief across the rooftops is fine for them.” Venti crosses his arms like Diluc’s hired guards offended him personally. “Diluc already has a monopoly on the wine industry and a vision, what does he need guards for? Honestly!”

“Perhaps to scare off poor bards who want his hoarded wine,” says Xiao, offhandedly.

It’s only when Venti falls silent that Xiao realizes just what he said.

“Did… did you just tease me?” Venti says, before Xiao can explain himself or beg for forgiveness.

Did he? Xiao didn’t think that teasing was something he was capable of. But then again, Venti has drawn out things in Xiao that he never thought he even possessed. A smile, a raw gentleness, the inability to hold his tongue in a conversation — the ability to hold a conversation at all.

“So what if I did,” Xiao mutters, staring at the flowerbed past Venti.

Venti laughs, oddly enough, light and clear and beautiful. Xiao wills his heart to stop fluttering in his chest. Is that something human bodies are supposed to do? Xiao has never felt quite so unmoored in his life. Are these the symptoms of a sickness? But adepti are not susceptible to mortal illnesses. Perhaps Zhongli will know?

“You’re funny!” Venti decides, which. What? Xiao? Funny? Is Venti actually stupid? No, of course he isn’t, but Xiao isn’t — he isn’t — “I like you!”

Xiao’s thoughts screech to a stop.

“How in the world did Zhongli wind up with such a sweet and interesting son, when he’s such an emotionless blockhead?” Continues Venti, poking at Xiao’s cheek. It’s a testament to Xiao’s endless patience that he does not immediately break Venti’s fingers, but rather ducks away from the touch quietly and scowls at Venti.

“Zhongli-daren is not my father! And he is not emotionless or a blockhead, either.”

“Aww, sounds like someone is embarrassed!”

“Now you’re the one teasing me. Hmph, you think adepti are so easily baited?

“...Who knows?”

“We are not!”

Venti’s laughter echoes through the street as Xiao crosses his arms and decides never again to indulge Venti in his mischievousness. Above them, the moon seems to glow brighter as Venti smiles at him, if only just for a moment.

 

3.

Zhongli and Xiao leave Mondstadt the next morning, after Xiao has to convince Zhongli that no, eating breakfast at The Good Hunter to sample local Mondstadt delicacies at the height of the breakfast rush is not in fact a good idea, and yes, it would be troubling their hosts to stay any longer.

Xiao tries to hide that he’s anywhere close to happy, of course. Because he isn’t. Talking to Venti shouldn’t make him happy — and it doesn’t, he’s only glad that he’s able to talk with someone else after all, and that he’s found such a delightful conversation partner, that’s all. Still, Zhongli takes one look at him, blinks confusedly, and asks him if anything good happened.

Needless to say, Xiao volunteers to scout the path ahead of the carriage for their return journey, if only so that Zhongli doesn’t keep looking at him with an expectant smile.

Before Xiao had gone back to his inn room, Venti had given his contact information freely. Or more like: Venti had pouted when Xiao said he needed to go, told Xiao that if he missed Venti then he could always write a letter and toss it to the wind, and when Xiao gave him a withering stare, said instead that any letters should be directed to Jean, who handles his mail for him, as he doesn’t have a permanent address.

So now Xiao knows how to reach Venti, if he ever desires such a thing.

...Why would he, in the first place? Letters are unnecessary when one can simply teleport, if they are not obligated to other modes of transport like Xiao is right now. Besides, he doesn’t think he will be missing Venti in the first place. He had said his thank yous, and Venti had heard him, and that should be enough for Xiao.

Once Xiao is back in Liyue, he will focus on slaughtering demons again, anyway. Finding out who he is beyond the bloodstains on his blade, dedicating his heart to something other than the duty he has pursued for thousands of years — it is a hard task, and though Xiao will attempt it to make Zhongli proud, he does not anticipate laying down his blade anytime soon.

His heart lies in Nantianmen’s river valley, and Venti’s at the center of Mondstadt. Why should he yearn for company that he has already experienced? Why should he run towards Venti, when their fates are clearly different?

In the end, Xiao trudges back to the carriage and curls up in the back corner of the lastmost cart, steadfastly ignoring Zhongli’s questioning stares. Feelings really are burdens. If only he could go back to ruthlessly decimating them…

True to form, Xiao’s plan to carry out his duty perfectly while slowly figuring out how to fulfill his new contract with Zhongli goes… well. Not amazingly, like most of Xiao’s plans do, but he doesn’t fail at it, which counts for something.

Two things stand in his way.

The first is that whatever Zhongli wants him to do — associate with humans, find a passion, get a job, trust himself not to slip under the influence of his karma — is really hard. Not that Xiao isn’t trying. He does try. Sometimes. He bought almond tofu from Wanmin Restaurant 5 minutes before it closed, last week.

But interacting with humans is hard! They have so many unspoken social rules, and customs that Xiao never knew about, and everything in Liyue Harbor seems to be done at double speed, but Xiao isn’t about to go to Qingce Village in search of conversation partners. Even speaking to Lumine is easier, because Xiao is pretty sure she isn’t human — or at least, isn’t mortal — and also because she just. Does not care whether Xiao is socially awkward, as long as he helps her beat things up.

Xiao does enjoy helping people. He’s been protecting them for thousands of years, swooping in silently whenever he knows someone is in danger nearby, and he does it because it’s his duty but also because he loves Liyue, and he loves its people. But in mundane, everyday life, ‘helping people’ involves talking to them. Extensively. And learning of their problems, which oftentimes don’t involve monsters. No, Xiao’s passion is not being an errand-boy for Gou San’er or finding Baixiao’s cat.

The second is that he wants to talk to Venti again.

Well — that isn’t really a roadblock so much as it’s Xiao’s own personal weakness, but still. Sometimes, standing atop Mt. Tianheng, watching the sun be swallowed by the sea between the great receiving towers of Liyue Harbor, it gets… not lonely, really, but these days Xiao is uncomfortably aware of his regular lack of company, human or godly or otherwise.

So his odd yearning to speak to Venti once more is, in a sense, driving him to try and connect with humanity and figure himself out like Zhongli asked of him, and yet every day’s failure to successfully find someone he can talk to — or something he truly loves doing — makes him want to see Venti even more.

Three weeks after returning to Liyue, Xiao decides he has had enough. Today, he won’t try to enter Liyue Harbor and find people to help, or even loiter by Wanmin Restaurant until Xiangling takes pity on him and gives him almond tofu. No, today is a rest day. He’ll return to relentlessly tracking monsters and keeping Liyue safe from afar, just for a shred of normalcy.

Xiao picks up the tracks of a ruin guard quickly, after two quick stops in the north of Tianqiu Valley and Mingyun Village to investigate reports of hilichurl camps and a spike in resentful energy in Mingyun Village. For the first, he clears out the camp within 10 minutes, and for the second, he burns a meager offering to the former residents of the village in hopes that the knowledge that even one person is alive to remember them will bring them peace.

Then, the ruin guard. It seems that it originated in the bowels of Wuwang Hill before making its way towards the sunny plains of north Dihua Marsh. Xiao follows the ridged footprints through the fields of grass and into the watery islands, until he loses track of the trail and has to turn back to the stone bridge near the Statue of the Seven.

From there, he redoubles his concentration and eventually picks up on a fresh trail, headed out of Dihua Marsh into the fresh waters of the Stone Gate and through the craggy hills that tower over the passage. Xiao doesn’t notice that the lands have shifted into Mondstadt’s gentle green slopes until he passes by a copse of tall fir trees with glowing, bell-like plants growing at their base. Those are Mondstadtian specialties, which means —

No, he’s still very much in the uncultivated wilderness. There’s no way Venti would be out here.

Wait, why is he even thinking of Venti? He has a ruin guard to track. He cannot afford distractions.

Xiao resumes the trail, his sense tingling with the knowledge that he’s close, and this ruin guard has no chance of eluding his grasp.

That is, until he hears a scream. A familiar scream. A scream that sounds, distinctly, like Venti’s scream, because Xiao knows what Venti sounds like when he’s yelling, “Get away from me!” and this scream sounds exactly like Venti.

Xiao’s head snaps up. It came from beyond the edge of the forest he’s currently in, and Xiao accumulates more than a few pine needles on his sleeve and outer belt as he tears through the trees recklessly.

“Venti!” He shouts, as another scream comes. Venti is just in front of Xiao, he’s right there, he’s right there, Xiao can protect him, he would come the moment Venti asked for help, always —

Xiao bursts into the clearing to see Venti leap into the air, flip himself backward effortlessly, and let loose two arrows that soar right into a ruin guard’s orange core. He lands with a flourish two meters behind the ruin guard, and watches as it sparks and shudders to a temporary stop.

“Oh!” Venti says, looking over his shoulder at Xiao. He smiles, and Xiao thinks, completely unbidden — maybe this is what the ‘passion’ that Zhongli had talked about really feels like. “Xiao, you’re here! Perfect timing. Please beat this ruin guard up for me, I’m so scared!!”

Xiao stares at him.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Venti touches one finger to his lip and looks pleadingly at Xiao. “I’m just a decrepit, weak little god… Oh mighty adeptus, please heed my prayers and save me! You don’t believe me? But I really am scared!”

Xiao is saved from having to conjure a response when Venti is looking at him like that by the ruin guard’s joints creaking as it recovers from its temporary stunned state. Since Venti is skipping backwards and giving two thumbs up to Xiao… it seems as though Xiao has no choice but to defeat the ruin guard for Venti.

Not as if that’s a challenge for Xiao, though.

When Xiao fights, he fights swiftly and without mercy. He grasps the handle of his spear and twirls it once, testing its cold weight in his hands, before he gathers the winds and dashes towards the ruin guard. While the ruin guard is trying to track his movements, Xiao slips silently between its legs, swings his spear up, and pierces it clean through its middle.

Rusted cogs and springs fall at Xiao’s feet as the ruin guard staggers. Not disabled yet, then. It’s tough, Xiao will give it that.

First, Xiao checks to see if Venti is a safe distance away. As the ruin guard pushes itself back to its feet and turns its glowing eye onto Xiao again, Xiao’s hand drifts to the mask hanging on his waist.

He slips it on. The whispers of resentful souls swirl around his ears, imbuing him with something more dangerous and more fickle than mere Anemo energy, rushing through his veins and pulling him back into the darkness.

“Begone,” Xiao growls, and dives towards the ruin guard.

A flurry of melee attacks catches the machine unprepared and drives it further into the open. With every strike, wind pierces through the ruin guard’s hard exterior and forms ghostly butterflies, preying on its wounds. Xiao grasps his spear in both hands and leaps into the air, his eyes tracking every infinitesimal movement, before the winds coalesce beneath his feet and he strikes the ruin guard’s eye, straight and true.

The ruin guard groans and falls to its knees. In midair, Xiao uses the winds again to kick himself upside down and plunges towards the ground. At the epicenter is the ruin guard, and all around Xiao, howling spears of wind break through the earth and seal its fate.

Xiao leaves the ruin guard there, broken and punctured through in a thousand places. To Venti, he calls, “You can come out now.”

Venti whistles when he sees the corpse of the ruin guard. “You actually dealt with it so quickly… as expected! Those with Anemo visions really are the most powerful, hehe.”

“Could you also not deal away with it quickly? Quicker than me, even?”

“Hmmm, who knows?” Venti kicks the limp arm of the ruin guard and winces. “Either way, these things suck. I came out here to check on things, since Lumine swung by Angel’s Share yesterday to complain about how many ruin hunter commissions she’s getting these days, then tacitly directed me towards the location of one. Aiya, I should have thought it through before I told her I’d do it! They’re so scary!!”

“...They are?” Xiao’s lips quirk up at Venti’s exaggerated dramatics. He’s really… he really missed talking to Venti. “So even the great Lord Barbatos gets scared sometimes.”

“Hey! Everybody has something they’re scared of! I bet even you’re scared of at least one thing, hm?” Venti winks at him shamelessly. “Besides, the first time I fought a ruin hunter, it stepped on my original silk cape and absolutely shredded it. Now I have to live in fear of that happening every time i fight another one… don’t laugh, you’d be scared too! These capes are expensive!”

Xiao glances at Venti’s cape. It does have a lot of intrinsic, hand-stitched details, and the material looks like high-quality fabric made from imported silk flowers… Huh. He supposes that Venti’s reason for being scared is entirely valid.

He doesn’t notice Venti reaching out until it’s too late. When Venti’s lithe fingers brush against Xiao’s forearm, he hisses in pain, then tries valiantly to clamp it down.

“Xiao!” Venti says, drawing his hand back only to move closer and grasp his wrist instead. “You’re hurt? How — why?”

Xiao blinks. The pain is second nature to him by now, but to someone like Venti who is seeing it for the first time, it would probably seem terrible.

“Oh,” says Xiao, aiming for nonchalant and landing somewhere closer to strangled-because-Venti-won’t-stop-holding-my-wrist. “When I use that enhancing power you saw, at the end, it gives me pain. But I’m fine.”

“You clearly are not fine!” Venti scolds. He finally lets go of Xiao’s wrist, only to skim his fingers up Xiao’s arm instead. “Look, you’re bleeding here, and the wound is pretty deep! Even if you say you’re fine, you are still very much injured and in pain.”

“So?” Xiao says, which is evidently a bad decision, judging by the way Venti crosses his arms and glares at him.

So, this is not something you should be used to. It’s irresponsible!”

“It is the price I pay for having the power to protect Liyue,” Xiao responds, feeling irrationally defensive of his bad habits.

Venti rolls his eyes. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use that stupid power that gives you pain, I’m just saying — after you’re done fighting, you should take care of your wounds instead of ignoring them.”

“After I’m done fighting…” Up until now, that was a foreign concept to Xiao.

“Tsk, do all of Liyue’s adepti live in this state? You should care for yourself, you know.” Venti steps back and Xiao breathes a sigh of relief. Having Venti in his personal space is — is… a little too overwhelming for Xiao. The warmth and surety of another body, the way his own skin seems to reach for it even when Xiao should know better — no. He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t.

Venti’s eyes light up. “Wait a minute! Okay, let me just, do this — ”

Then Venti unties the ribbon holding his cape around his neck and straightens it out. His cape slides to the forest floor, but Venti doesn’t seem to mind.

“What — ” Xiao starts, twice as strangled because Venti is practically undressing right in front of him.

“Shhh,” Venti tells him, fiddling with his ribbon. Xiao kind of wants to protest that, or jerk back, or do anything, really, but Venti’s fingers are touching his arm and Xiao can’t move, he can’t breathe, he can only think of Venti’s soft touch and gentle eyes and —

Venti winds his ribbon around Xiao’s wound and ties it tight, adjusting it to make sure it doesn’t rub against the wound too much.

“There we go!” Venti says, his voice lilting and low. Like this, standing together in the quiet forest, Xiao is acutely aware of just how close they are. “Now, for the finishing touch…”

Then — Venti — Venti, he —

Venti ducks his head and presses a kiss to the ribbon, just above the wound. The wispy ends of his braids tickle the underside of Xiao’s arm.

“A kiss so that it gets better soon,” whispers Venti, almost to himself.

Xiao has absolutely no idea how he’s still conscious, because all the blood in his body must be rushing to his face, and yet he’s very much awake to stand in front of Venti with his mouth gaping open like a fish as Venti tucks his braids behind his ears and smiles, fond and genuine, at Xiao.

“I,” says Xiao.

“Hm?” Venti says. He must realize, because he also blushes and takes two rapid steps back from Xiao. “Oh, haha, that, I was just doing that because, uh, I see Barbara do it sometimes when she bandages Bennett’s wounds — right, Bennett is this super unlucky adventurer, ah, Xiao, don’t take it too seriously — ?”

Xiao does the only thing that he knows how to do when under the threat of severe humiliation.

He teleports away.

 

4.

Xiao spends the next few days restlessly prowling the dangerous ruins of Liyue and throwing himself into battle at every chance he gets, just to feel something other than flustered confusion.

It doesn’t help that he keeps conveniently forgetting to untie Venti’s ribbon from around his arm, so every time he lunges forward, he sees it flutter out of the corner of his eye, which makes him remember the — the… the kiss, which in turn only makes him feel even more flustered, and even more confused.

In situations like this, Xiao would ordinarily turn to Zhongli for advice. But there is no force in this world that can make Xiao walk up to Zhongli and ask, “So, Zhongli-daren, what does it mean when the god that you actually really enjoy the company of and love talking to and find unbearably cute and interesting bandages your wound with his own ribbon and then kisses it so it’ll get better soon?”

Which means Xiao has to… he shudders to think of it, but. Perhaps… perhaps. He should ask Hu Tao. She is one of the only mortals that Xiao tolerates the company of, and she is socially adept. Xiao has trust in her, despite only getting to know her after Zhongli took his current job.

It’ll be fine. He has ways to ensure she doesn’t go gossipping to Zhongli about this.

With that in mind, Xiao teleports back to Liyue Harbor and makes his way to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor.

When he says the exact same thing, but with Zhongli-daren replaced with Hu Tao, Hu Tao laughs out loud at him.

“Why are you laughing?” Xiao asks, when Hu Tao slaps her palms on the counter and wheezes with another round of laughter.

“Wait, are you serious right now?”

“I do not joke,” says Xiao.

“Yeah, I know you don’t, but I thought, like. Maybe you were… practicing? Trying to develop a sense of humor?”

“No.”

Hu Tao smiles at him. “Are you sure? Please tell me you’re kidding. Maybe this is all part of your longer, more elaborate joke!”

“Adepti. Do. Not. Joke.” Xiao grits out.

“Okay, okay, I got it, I won’t suggest that you can joke again!” Hu Tao makes a pacifying gesture with her hands. “So… you were serious.”

“Naturally.”

“And you seriously don’t know what it means?”

“Of course. I am… confused by his actions, and my corresponding feelings.”

Hu Tao rests her chin on her hands and grins innocently. “Mmhm, okay, tell me more?”

“I… I had only met him a few times, but we talked for several hours during our second meeting. He is witty, and knowledgeable, and funny, and understanding, and truly kind. I admire him, yet also want to stand by his side and protect him, though he needs no such protection.” Xiao sighs, thinks of Venti’s smile, sighs again. “I thought that we got along very well, but it is odd that I became so interested in him with only a few hours of acquaintance.”

“Hmm, is it?” Hu Tao waggles her finger at him. “You might not know this, but for us humans, in many situations, initial compatibility is decided within the few hours of knowing each other! So the fact that you two got along well is a good sign. Continue!”

“Our third meeting, he told me to be more careful, and that I should care for myself. Then, he… he. Bandaged my wound. And. Kissed it.”

Hu Tao whistles. “Way to go! So, what’s the problem here? I’m afraid I’m not seeing it, sorry.”

“Whenever I think of him, I feel…”

“You feel?”

“I feel. Weird. He makes my chest feel like a sunrise. His smile, it… it makes me want to do anything just to see it again. Hu Tao, have you experienced anything like this?”

“Oh, my! How swoon-worthy!” Says Hu Tao, who sounds much too invested in Xiao’s emotions. “And… me? Nope, never, but I do know people who have.”

“What are these feelings?”

“Ah… well, if I tell you, that’ll ruin everything! These sorts of things, you know, the value is in completing your emotional journey and growing into your feelings with your own strength! Or so that boy Xingqiu tells me…”

Xiao sighs. If Hu Tao isn’t going to tell him, then. Xiao supposes. He will have to figure it out himself. Euuuuuurgh. He bets Zhongli never has to deal with any of these… feelings.

“Can you tell me what I should do, at least?”

Hu Tao thinks for a second. “Yes! Yes, I can absolutely tell you that. Xiao, oh great yaksha, you must… visit Mondstadt and talk to your god!”

“No.”

Yes.”

“Why?”

“Communication is important for interpersonal relationships, of course! If you don’t talk to your god, then you’ll just be left wondering about your feelings forever.”

Xiao steadfastly ignores the way that Hu Tao’s casual use of ‘your god’ makes his heart leap. “If I wait long enough, then maybe I can stop feeling — ”

“Noooo! No no no no! Repression is a tactic that only pathetic people use! However, I am obviously a glorious and amazing person, and therefore I am also very emotionally mature. Which means I think about my feelings rather than letting them ferment in a jar of rice wine for three thousand years. It’s great, you should try it sometimes!”

Thinking about feelings? If Xiao had to choose between thinking about his feelings and fighting Osial again… he would rather be nice to Childe for a day.

“Don’t look at me like that, I’m serious! Thinking about your feelings is important, even if it’s the most cliche thing I’ve said in my life.” Hu Tao smirks at him in a way that means nothing but trouble for Xiao. “After all, if you don’t process your feelings, how will you ever ask Venti if he feels the same way, too?”

“What do you mean?” Xiao says. Why are they talking about Venti’s feelings? How in the world do they factor into this equation? “Venti’s feelings are his own. What relevance do they have to what I am currently feeling?”

“You’re so stupid,” says Hu Tao, lovingly.

The only reason Xiao does not slaughter Hu Tao’s demonic soul right there and then is that Zhongli would be disappointed in him. A very good motivator, by all means.

(And also because — and Xiao will never admit it to Hu Tao — he might, just maybe, hypothetically, enjoy talking to her. But that is irrelevant.)

“I am not,” Xiao protests, because you don’t live three thousand years without becoming at least a little bit wise. “I’m simply confused at your logic.”

“Awww, you seriously are just a little baby when it comes to feelings huh? Don’t worry, the great and revered Hu Tao will definitely help you walk my path of emotional proficiency!”

The only ‘path’ that Hu Tao will be walking anytime soon is the one to the underworld, if she keeps treating Xiao like her cute little brother instead of the elegant, dignified, and powerful yaksha that he is.

“I don’t need your help.”

“Then why did you come to me to ask for it?”

“...” Xiao crosses his arms and coughs awkwardly. “You really think I should visit Mondstadt again?”

“Yes! What, you’re expecting your god to come gallivanting over here when you’re the one who ran away? You gotta be brave! Take the lead, make him swoon!”

Xiao bristles at that. Whatever Hu Tao is insinuating, it is not real. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Uh huh, right, whatever you say.” Hu Tao’s tone is so irritating. Why in the world did Zhongli decide to work here, of all places? Is he just the kind of person who loves to make the acquaintances of shady individuals with possibly murderous inclinations? “Well, what are you doing? Go find that god of yours!”

“You mean — right now?” It’s two hours past sunset, which means wherever Venti is, he’s probably busy performing for the patrons of Angel’s Share, or sharing a drink with Lumine and Kaeya.

Hu Tao nods emphatically. Yes, she is much too invested in… whatever Xiao is experiencing right now. He is never again telling her anything pertaining to his personal life, ever. “No time like the present, ya know?”

Fine,” sighs Xiao, if only because apparently humans like doing everything as soon as possible with their limited time on this earth, and Zhongli is still egging him on to experience life as a human. Not because he wants to see Venti, or anything like that. No way. “Thank you for the advice. I guess.”

“‘I guess’?! I’m so hurt by your words! I give you all my accumulated knowledge and this is how you repay me?” Hu Tao lets her head drop over the back of her chair and mimics passing out.

“I’m going now!” Xiao hisses, so that Hu Tao doesn’t get startled by him teleporting away without warning like she did the first (and second, and third, and eight) time.

“Sure, sure, good luck!” Then, just before Xiao leaves — “Hey, bring your godly boyfriend around here sometime soon, hm? I wanna meet him!”

“He isn’t my — ” Xiao starts, but he’s already flashing out of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s lobby and into the empty plaza above Mondstadt’s central fountain before he can finish the sentence.

The sudden change in environment and the unusually chilly Mondstadtian night makes Xiao stumble instead of his usual graceful exit from teleportation, but luckily nobody is around to witness it. All the second-floor balcony doors are shuttered, and the flowers that sprout from the vines of ivy are closed, shielding themselves from the night air.

Making his way to Angel’s Share is a high order for Xiao in the daytime, since he’s only ever been in Mondstadt (the city) once and he tends to avoid the more… disreputable places, but at nighttime, it’s easily identifiable as the tavern brimming with music and laughter and light — well, the one that doesn’t have a cat-tail sign hanging at its entrance.

When Xiao pushes the door to Angel’s Share open, all the chatter dies down as the patrons notice the (hopefully) intimidating figure of the adeptus who just entered. The music here… is being played by some odd, flat-faced man who is most definitely not Venti. Huh.

Xiao ignores the customers’ questioning stares and weaves through the crowd, trying to get to the front of the bar. To the bartender, he says, coldly, “Where is Venti?”

The bartender sets down his glass and frowns at Xiao. “Venti? Why’s a kid like you coming in to ask for our best bard?”

“I’m not a kid — ” Xiao bites his tongue and hmphs at the bartender. He isn’t here to pick a fight with a defenseless human, no matter what they think of him. “I must talk to him.”

“Things beyond human comprehension,” says Xiao, going for the route that has historically proven to keep most conversations he gets roped into short. “Give me his location.”

“And how should I know that you aren’t someone suspicious out to hurt him?”

Xiao does rise to the bait at that. The insinuation that Xiao would do anything, knowingly or otherwise, to put Venti in harm’s way — unacceptable.

“I would never hurt Venti,” Xiao snarls, leaning over the counter to look the bartender dead in the eye. “Not today, not tomorrow, and not a hundred years from now.”

The bartender has the absolute gall to laugh in Xiao’s face about it. “You’re a dramatic kid! Well, whatever. I’m sure Venti could deal with you easily even if you were out to hurt him. He got drunk and went out half an hour ago, saying he wanted to borrow poetry from the Knights’ library, or something? I had no idea what he was talking about, honestly.”

“Where is their library?”

“You must not be from Mondstadt, huh? Your accent… no idea what Venti did to piss off a Liyuen, but everybody around here knows the Knights’ library is the most stunning part of their headquarters.”

Ah, that’s easy. Xiao knows the route to the Knights’ headquarters, at least.

“Thank you,” says Xiao, giving a shallow bow to the bartender for being compliant and a sweeping, frosty glare to all the other people for laughing when the bartender had called him kid. “I will take my leave.”

He’s out of Angel’s Share before anybody else can sling an insult his way. The path to the headquarters is more confusing in the dark — who designed this city and why did they decide to put so many stairs at every corner?? — but eventually Xiao makes it to their grand wood doors.

The guards on night duty are the same ones who saw Zhongli into the headquarters a few months back, but it seems they do not recognize Xiao.

“What is your purpose with the Knights this late?” One of them asks, stepping forward. His fist tightens minutely around his weapon. Such a shoddily-made polearm…

“I’m looking for Venti — he is a bard wearing green,” Xiao responds. He isn’t seeking a fight, and he won’t shift his own stance to a defensive one unless these guards give him reason to. “I was told he came here to borrow poetry from the library. Have you seen him?”

The guards share a look. “How can we ascertain that you aren’t looking for trouble?”

...Does Xiao really look like the kind of person who walks around looking for a fight? Or the kind of person who would dare try to harm Venti?? No, both of those roles are quite happily filled by that Childe person. Honestly, the lengths that these humans put him through… Xiao briefly contemplates retreating to Liyue, but Hu Tao would probably try to organize his funeral if he returned without accomplishing his goal.

Instead of shoving past the guards and darting into the building, which would technically be a crime, Xiao squares his shoulders and says, “I swear upon my spear that my intentions are not malicious. I would not harm Venti.”

“Ah, just let him through,” says the guard on the left, waving his hand. “Sir Kaeya is still in the building, he can deal with any interlopers.”

The guard on the right shrugs and opens the door. Xiao has the sudden urge to tell them very politely that their ‘Sir Kaeya’ would probably surrender within 10 seconds of sparring with him, but. He’s being allowed in, so he won’t push the boundaries of his hosts’ grace.

The headquarters are sparsely decorated, if not beautiful in a minimalistic sense. There are four doors on the first floor, each labeled with elegant carvings, and a diverging spiral staircase branches up into the second floor. At this last hour, nobody is around to see Xiao loitering suspiciously at each door until he finds the one with a book symbol on it.

When Xiao opens the door, it creaks under his force — but that’s the only sound that Xiao hears. None of Venti’s laughter, brightening the candles that light this room. No trace of Venti’s voice, sparrow-light and lilting. Not even the rustle of his clothes. Perhaps he’s respecting the silence of the library, but then again, this is Venti he’s talking about.

A quick sweep of the library’s upper floor doesn’t help Xiao with anything except increasing his admiration for Mondstadtian architecture. He makes his way down the creaking stairs and weaves through the towering columns of books until he stumbles upon a woman in a brimmed purple hat reading at the corner table.

“Ah… excuse me?” Xiao whispers. When that doesn’t get her attention, he shuffles closer and coughs awkwardly. “Hello?”

The woman flips her book closed and does a head-to-toe appraisal of Xiao. Her smile is mysterious and teasing and instantly sets off alarm bells in Xiao’s head. “Well, hello there,” she purrs. “What’s a young man like you doing in the library so late at night?”

‘Young man’ is infinitely better than ‘kid’. Xiao will accept it. He doesn’t expect Mondstadtians to know upon sight that he is a yaksha, after all.

“I am looking for Venti. He’s a bard, dressed in green. I was told he came here to look for poetry?”

The woman’s smile widens. “And what business do you have with our bard, hm?”

“That is between him and me,” Xiao says, mostly because even he doesn’t know what business he had with Venti. He’d come here on impulse because he wanted to talk to Venti, and because he will grudgingly accept that Hu Tao was… right, eurgh, about Xiao having to reach out himself.

He had been the one to get scared and run away. Venti was probably confused, after Xiao had left so suddenly. Perhaps he had even assumed that Xiao felt uncomfortable, or hated it, or that he had overstepped. And Venti will never know otherwise, if Xiao doesn’t tell him.

The yakshas have no use for fear. They go boldly into the sea of a thousand swords and emerge with an empty heart and a crimson blade. Xiao, as the last yaksha, cannot fear.

And yet the possibility of Venti not knowing — anything, everything — suddenly seems to instill equal parts fear and necessity in Xiao.

The woman doesn't accept his answer. Her book, Xiao is realizing, could very well be a weapon in disguise. “How do I know you aren’t out to hurt him? Old grudges, disgruntled customers, these things are certainly possible.”

“This again?” Xiao mutters. “This is the third time someone has dared ask me that, and for the third time, I say: I would never hurt Venti. I would pierce my own heart before that happened.”

“Aww, you don’t have to look so offended!” The woman traces the spine of her book, which Xiao knows for sure is a weapon in her hands. “It’s just that many of us in this city are fond of Venti, you know. You’ll always be able to find someone who was touched by his music and his voice, or someone he helped quietly… and to the Knights, especially, he was instrumental in saving Stormterror. We might not say it, but he’s our beloved bard. We want to see him safe and happy.”

“I… I understand,” Xiao says softly. He really does, Venti saved him, too — his life, and his heart.

“So, are you someone who intends to keep Venti safe and make him happy? These really are questions I must ask, if a mysterious stranger shows up late at night asking for Venti and not providing reasons.”

“Um,” says Xiao, stupidly. He’s never thought about that before. Being put on the spot like this… Xiao says the first thing that comes to mind, which is, “Ah. Yes? Yes. I want — I would like to make Venti happy. And to protect him, and — and… be someone who can make him smile…”

All at once, the woman’s hostility disappears. “Good! I’m glad to hear it. Now, Venti left fifteen minutes ago, saying he wanted to read romantic poetry to the moon. Your best bet is the plaza where Barbatos’ statue is.”

Xiao nods, and makes his exit from the library as quickly as possible. He means no offense to that woman, or anybody else he has talked to tonight (full offense to the bartender who called him a kid, though.) It’s just that searching like this, chasing the tail ends of Venti’s cape — for some reason, it makes Xiao feel like a desperate, lonely thing.

He wants to see Venti. He wants to talk to Venti, step close to him, tell him that Xiao wasn’t offended or disgusted or uncomfortable, that Xiao — that Xiao, he really —

Xiao’s heart seizes, stutters once, twice. He doesn’t know what he wants to tell Venti, only that he need to see Venti, needs him to know. To look at Xiao’s heart, in all its humanity, and understand.

But when Xiao skids into the plaza, Venti isn’t there. Not at the balcony, or in front of the giant statue, or twirling on one of the benches with a library book in his hand. The plaza is stone-grey and empty and quiet.

Oh. Xiao feels terribly stupid for having rushed here at all. If Venti isn’t here, then… perhaps he just doesn’t want to be found. In that case —

“Xiao!!”

Oh.

That voice… Xiao whirls around just in time to see Venti stagger up the last set of stairs.

“...Venti?” Xiao whispers. There’s a book and a bottle of wine in Venti’s hands, and he’s leaning on the stone wall for support as he catches his breath. His braids are coming undone, his hat is slumping off his head, and yet here, under the moonlight, Venti has never looked more beautiful.

“Xiao!” Venti calls again, wheezing. “Oh man, I’m glad I caught you — give me a minute, ah, why are there so many stairs??”

“Venti?” Xiao repeats. “What — what are you doing here?”

“Oh! Funny story, haha, let me just — “ Venti staggers over to the nearest bench and flops down with a groan. The wine goes beside the bench, the book next to Venti, and Xiao sits down next to the book, before he can think better of it. “There we go! Okay. So. Hi!”

Xiao blinks. “Hello?”

“Formal as always!” Venti says, a little wildly. “How I got here? Well. I went back to Angel’s Share to get a refill on my wine. Charles told me that a short kid with dark hair and a mean scowl came looking for me, and went to the library on his direction. Went to the library, Lisa told me the same kid swung by, and she directed him to this plaza. So now I’m here! Again.”

“Oh,” says Xiao. “Um. You… wished to. Get drunk and read romantic poetry to the moon?”

“Yep!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s fun and a wonderful way to stop wallowing in your feelings! I mean. Haha! Theoretically! Not that I’m trying to do that right now, nope, no, of course not.”

Xiao believes him for approximately one second. And because Xiao loves to make things harder for himself, he asks, “What are you wallowing about?”

Venti buries his head in his hands. “Are you seriously asking me that?”

Xiao has nothing to say to that. The conversation fills with a kind of awkward, unbearable silence that makes Xiao feel like he’s being slowly consumed by lava.

“...Did you really not mean it? Um. Back then?” Xiao says after two torturous minutes of this. The urgency in his chest pounds in time with his heartbeat.

“Ahhhh,” says Venti, very calmly. “Well! If you didn’t like it, then of course I didn’t mean it. You know how I am, always — always joking around, and doing stupid things for fun. Heh.”

Venti fidgets with the edge of his cape, wilting into himself. This… this is wrong. Venti should be bright and happy and too big for any space to contain, and Xiao doesn’t know how to fix this, but it must have been something he said. It has to be.

Xiao is aware, vaguely, that being honest is important in relationships. Something that Zhongli had told him, after the stormwaters threatening Liyue had receded and Yanwang Dijun was truly no more.

Being honest about his feelings is terrifying. But Xiao has learned by now that he will do just about anything to make Venti smile again.

“Wait!” Xiao says, just as Venti starts to surreptitiously slide off the end of the bench and gather his things. “Wait. Venti. I — I, it wasn’t — it wasn’t like that.” Xiao ducks his head, unable to look Venti in the eye. “I didn’t… I didn’t. Not like it.”

Venti inhales sharply. “Oh,” he breathes. He stops trying to creep away from the bench and turns towards Xiao instead.

“You… didn’t hate it?” Venti asks. Soft, almost pleading.

“No,” Xiao manages to say. Venti’s eyes are on him, and his heart is twisting madly at their proximity, at Vrnti’s tone of wonder, at everything Venti is. “I. I liked it.”

“Oh,” Venti says again. He shifts closer to Xiao, until the book is pressed between their thighs and Xiao is acutely aware of Venti’s shapes and movements and warmth.

Venti swallows. Xiao’s eyes trace the bob of his throat.

When Venti takes his hand, Xiao makes no attempt to pull away. Venti intertwines their fingers, squeezes briefly, and it is only then that Xiao notices Venti’s hands are trembling.

“So, you… wouldn’t mind, if I did this?” Venti brings Xiao’s hand up and kisses the back of it, the valleys between Xiao’s knuckles.

“No,” says Xiao, barely breathing.

“Or this?” Another kiss, this time on the inside of Xiao’s wrist. Venti leans closer, brushes his thumb over the faded scar and kisses there, too. “Healed already?”

“Adepti heal fast.” Xiao can barely recognize the sound of his own voice. His heartbeat roars in his ears.

“Hmm, I see.” Venti smiles slightly against his skin and trails his lips up, until they stop at the lean muscle of Xiao’s upper arm. A kiss, again. “What about this?”

Venti’s soft words, his touch, the way their knees bump together as Venti shifts unbearably closer — his lips — oh. Xiao is aflame.

“N-no,” Xiao manages to stutter out.

Venti’s eyes sparkle. He’s teasing now, Xiao can tell, but somehow he can’t find it in himself to stop Venti. Teasing or not, serious or not, everything Venti gives to him, Xiao will accept.

“And this?” Venti leans in, presses a kiss to the hollow of Xiao’s neck. His tongue darts out — just a little flicker, but enough to make Xiao gasp, his hands flying up to wrap around Venti’s back.

Xiao doesn’t — can’t — say anything. When Venti pulls back, it’s only so that he can look Xiao in the eye. He’s still so close. And his eyes are painfully beautiful in the night, his fondness crinkling the edges, and his lips are parted, making that strange urgency rushing through Xiao’s chest again, driving him forward —

And then Xiao is kissing Venti all at once, and Venti’s hands are cupping his face and he’s kissing back, tilting his head into Xiao’s touch eagerly, reaching for more, more, more. Venti pulls back for air, but Xiao vehemently disagrees with that — he’s the god of air, what does he need to breathe for when he could be doing better things, like kissing Xiao?

Xiao slides his shaking hands into the messy ends of Venti’s hair and holds him close, letting Venti deepen the kiss until Xiao’s sensations consist entirely of Venti. The gentle, greedy slide of his lips, his hands holding Xiao’s face like it is something to be loved, the faint smell of him, cecilias and azure summer skies.

Kissing Venti feels — it feels like nothing before. More exhilarating than his first time wind gliding, more lovely than the dreams he used to walk in. It feels like his purpose, his passion. Like that first morning hearing the flute. Like being alive.

All at once, Xiao knows.

“Wait, wait,” he gasps, tearing himself away from Venti and trying to catch his breath. “Venti. I like you.”

Venti blinks, and bursts into quiet giggles, meant for Xiao’s ears only. Xiao made him smile like that — made him laugh like that. It’s almost unreal.

“Ah, well, that’s good to hear!” Venti says, resting his forehead against Xiao’s. “I like you too! So much, you don’t even know.”

“No, I — “ Xiao cuts himself off, sighing in frustration. He grasps Venti’s hand and presses it to his chest, right above his desperate, lonely heart. “I like you. Do you understand? Venti?”

Venti’s eyes soften impossibly further. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand.” He kisses Xiao again, short and sweet and reassuring, and guides Xiao’s hand to his heart, fluttering like a freed bird. “Me too.”

 

———

 

Eventually, they do get around to talking a little more, in between the occasional slow, distracting kiss. Xiao tells Venti more about himself, though there really isn’t much to say — mostly he talks about the various adventures he’s had with Zhongli, because it makes Venti smile every time, and the strange understanding he has with Wangshu Inn’s boss and her husband, because for some reason it makes Venti happy to hear that he is cared for.

Venti does the same in return, except… the way Venti describes it, most of his relations with other humans are startlingly one-dimensional. He drinks with Kaeya and sometimes Lumine, both of whom manage to keep up with his spectacular tolerance. He visits the Knights sometimes, plays for the regulars at Angel’s Share, might get a part-time job teaching Klee the lyre so that she has something to do other than blow things up.

But Venti has never had another person who could really understand him, the way Xiao has Zhongli. Venti doesn’t seem like he minds his weak bonds with those he speaks of. Regardless, Xiao’s heart hurts when he hears Venti speak that way.

“When I was looking for you earlier tonight,” Xiao starts, still unsure of what the best way to give Venti reassurance is. “Three different people asked me what my intentions were with you — one was a guard, but the others were… the Charles and Lisa you speak of.”

“Um… okay?”

“Lisa, in particular, elaborated on this protectiveness. She said that there are very many in this city who know of you, who are fond of you, whether it is because of your music or your kindness.” Xiao pauses, absentmindedly stroking Venti’s hair. “You… whether you are Barbatos or Venti, there are people here who love you, both versions of you. Even if you distance yourself, there are still those who would want to know you.”

Venti nuzzles his head into the curve of Xiao’s neck and sighs. “Aiya, what does that have to do with anything? Making such complicated talk, when you could be paying attention to me instead.”

Obediently, Xiao presses a kiss to Venti’s forehead and continues, “Perhaps I am just being presumptuous, but do you… not wish to connect with these people? Is it because you are scared their lifespans are too short…?”

“Ah, not either of those things! I think.”

“You think?”

Venti stretches, lithe and cat-like, unfolding himself from where he was cuddled up against Xiao. “Yep! Though, maybe I am scared.”

“The people of Mondstadt love you. What do you have to be afraid of?”

“Who knows,” Venti huffs, glaring up at the moon. “It’s just, well. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision, to leave my people to be free by themselves. And if… maybe, if I had been there at the right times, I could have steered Mondstadt away from a path of grief, or helped the people more when they were struggling…”

“As Venti, I get to watch over my people, in a way, and see how strong humanity is for having persisted and grown this long.” Above them, moonlight drips through Barbatos’ outstretched hands. “But then I guess I get scared! That some of my people are secretly bitter that I didn’t help them more, or that I’m not doing enough for them — gah, it’s so stupid, please ignore me! This old god is merely rambling again!”

“I don’t think your feelings are stupid,” says Xiao, effectively surprising both him and Venti. He almost never speaks on issues like these without thinking first. But then again, Venti has been quite the trend-breaker for Xiao. “Even gods have their fears.”

Venti laughs, trying and failing to conceal the wet emotion beneath his songbird voice. “Even though these fears are quite irrational?”

“Even though.” Xiao squeezes Venti’s hand for the extra reassurance. “I cannot speak for others on how they feel. But as for me, I… I have always thought that you chose the best path you could take as the Anemo Archon, for your people and for your ideals. And that you have always been the god your people deserve.”

“You — !” Venti thunks his head on Xiao’s shoulder and groans. “Are you going to be like this from now on? You’ll kill me!!”

“Like what?”

“Like, you know, all sappy and romantic and shit! Argh, my heart!”

“I am not sappy,” says Xiao, bristling at yet another misconception of him. “I was simply trying to be upfront with my emotions, as I have been told that is important.”

“I bet Zhongli told you that, huh! That’s probably the reason why he’s always soooo insensitive. But, since you're cute when you do it, I won’t say a word!” Venti pecks Xiao’s cheek and nods self-satisfyingly. “A god my people deserve… well, if you say so, then that I shall be.”

Xiao takes Venti’s hand and returns the favor, pressing a gentle kiss to his wrist.

“I believe you can,” he says, watching as the full moon moves out from behind a cloud.

 

+1.

Xiao does not, in fact, end up bringing his godly boyfriend back to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor to show off and parade before Hu Tao, just to rub it in her face that yes, he is quite capable of talking about his emotions, and now he has an unbearably pretty and talented and amazing partner. It’s just that Venti had a prior commitment to perform a birthday song for one of the patrons at Angel’s Share at midnight, so they ended up parting ways once again.

Xiao does head back to Liyue Harbor to update Hu Tao, though he makes a pit stop at Wangshu Inn to cash in on Smiley Yanxiao’s daily servings of almond tofu. He gets quite a few odd looks from Verr Goldet and Huai’an because of his unusually good mood, but he can’t bring himself to wipe the small, trembling smile off his face.

Venti likes him. Venti likes him! Him, Xiao! This is the one time that Xiao will not question the whims of human-like emotion, because if it means that Venti can love someone like him, Xiao would give up just about anything.

When Xiao sidles inside Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s lobby, Hu Tao drops the 3 folders of paperwork that she’s holding, and for lack of a better word, wolf-whistles at Xiao.

“You’re practically glowing,” says Hu Tao, wrinkling her nose. “Good for you, Xiao! Good for you! Get that god-like ass!”

“What — what are you talking about??” Xiao sputters. He was thinking of helping Hu Tao pick up her papers, but she really is good at irritating people.

“Your tattoo is literally glowing. And it just glowed brighter when I said that — “

“You saw nothing,” Xiao growls, slapping a hand over the offended tattoo. “I am never letting you meet Venti.”

“Oho, so his name’s Venti?” The smile Hu Tao wears can be described as nothing but the one a demonic gremlin would sport. Xiao shudders. “Hmm, I see, I see!”

“Venti?” Zhongli says, appearing from the back room of the morgue like a silent fierce corpse. What, is Zhongli here to delve into Xiao’s love life too? Which doesn’t exist, by the way. Just because he kissed Venti one time, doesn’t mean Xiao is suddenly getting married or making drunk declarations of everlasting love or anything else he’s seen humans do… “Why are we talking about that bard?”

“Oh, the most interesting thing happened,” Hu Tao starts. Xiao dives for the remaining papers on the floor and shoves the last document into Hu Tao’s face to shut her up.

“No reason! No reason at all, nothing to concern yourself with, we are not talking about Venti!” Xiao says, trying his best to appear innocent and honest to Zhongli.

Unfortunately, Zhongli is not quite that gullible. “Has he been bothering you again? Just give the word, and I will bring retribution against him.”

“He hasn’t! It is not an issue. I have no idea what Hu Tao is talking about. Hmph, she’s just being ridiculous again.”

“Hey!” Hu Tao shoves the document back at Xiao, who rejects it with a dramatic swirl of Anemo. Huh. Maybe he is picking up some things from Venti. “I’m being ridiculous? Xiao’s the one who went all the way to Mondstadt only to do nothing but kiss — ”

Xiao slaps a hand over Hu Tao’s mouth, but it’s already too late. Zhongli’s entire form stills, his eyes blazing like a golden shooting star. The earth beneath Wangsheng Funeral Parlor seems to rumble menacingly.

Who did Xiao kiss?” Zhongli asks, tilting his head in mock politeness.

This is your fault, thinks Xiao, glaring at Hu Tao.

Hu Tao stares frantically at him, conveying a very ‘It was a slip of the tongue!!’ attitude.

Xiao arches his eyebrow. And if Zhongli-daren causes another archon war because you told him I kissed Venti?

I take no responsibility!! Hu Tao’s grimace wails. The ground shakes harder.

“Nobody!” Hu Tao yelps, thereby making things even worse. “Xiao doesn’t kiss humans! He’s much too refined and lofty for that, uh huh, yep!”

Zhongli’s eyes narrow. “So, non-humans are fair game… has that no-good bard been seducing you behind my back? Hm, perhaps I should teach him a lesson, since his mischief knows no boundaries…”

“No!” Xiao interrupts, because he can hear people outside yelling about an earthquake, and Zhongli might really incur some costs that Wangsheng Funeral Parlor can’t afford if Xiao lets this continue. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“I!” Xiao starts. He cannot look Zhongli in the eye. After this, he needs to go lick his wounds for a week or so in a hidden cavern of Mt. Tianheng, because there is nothing more humiliating than telling your boss-slash-paternal-figure about your stupid crush. “I, it’s because, I… I like Venti of my own accord, so you do not need to — you don’t need to bother him.”

Zhongli doesn’t look any happier about that, but his eyes lose their dangerous amber shine, and the earth settles back down to a nice, peaceful, non-shaking state.

“You really like him?” Zhongli asks, as if he can’t believe anybody in their right mind would fall in love with Venti.

Xiao ducks his head. “Yes. I do.”

Somehow that only makes Zhongli look more upset, though Xiao cannot fathom why. “I suppose I will accept this,” says Zhongli. “However, the moment that troublemaker does anything to hurt you… you only need to come to me, and I will happily deal with him.”

“Venti would not do that.” Xiao knows this for sure. Venti is much too good to harm Xiao. And even if he did, Xiao is fully capable of handling it himself, preferably without Zhongli turning municipal Mondstadt into a smoldering crater.

“Hmm,” Zhongli says, not listening to a word Xiao says. “If you truly feel this way, then I am happy that you have found somebody. Forgive my rash actions, I was only worried. You have been working alone for so long, so I wanted to make sure the person you chose would be someone who would never make you lonely.”

“I will be fine,” huffs Xiao, perhaps with more force than he needed to. Zhongli is only looking out for him, after all. He’s right, too — Xiao is the last surviving yaksha, and his job is naturally an isolating one. In fact, it isn’t that much of a stretch to think that Venti, someone who thrives on affection and attention, could be harmed by Xiao’s duties, his burdens, and inadvertently hurt Xiao in return.

Such instances of misunderstanding are quite common between humans, or so Xiao has heard.

But — he has to be fine. No matter what happens, Xiao has to be alright. It has to be fine, because otherwise —

Xiao does not want to think of what would happen if he did not tell himself to be fine.

“Don’t worry, Xiao!” Hu Tao pipes up, back to her antics now that she is no longer in danger from Zhongli’s anger. “Even if Venti does hurt you, Zhongli-xiansheng and I will always be by your side. Does Venti have a favorite flower? I wonder if those could be used appropriately at his funeral — ah, I’m just speaking hypothetically, of course…”

Across from Xiao, Zhongli nods in approval. First Zhongli gets irrationally angry over something as insignificant to him as Xiao kissing Venti, and now he agrees with Hu Tao? Today really is a strange day.

Xiao doesn’t stick around for long after that, first because he is not the kind of person who would ordinarily enjoy talking with others while two dozen corpses are in the room next door, and second because Hu Tao and Zhongli are getting along like a house on fire now that they’ve bonded over wanting to bury Venti 10 feet under if he ever hurts Xiao, and that’s… weird, to say the least.

After that, Xiao does go to have his quiet time alone in a nice, deserted cave near Mt. Tianheng, which is absolutely not sulking no matter what Hu Tao calls it. That works out well for approximately half a day, until a hilichurl camp moves in above Xiao.

Then Xiao tries scouting the long coastline of Liyue. This yields him a lot of water slime goop on his spear, and not a lot of understanding the universe and its ways through staring at the high and low tides, like some of Liyue’s old poets enjoyed doing. He still feels that gnawing anxiety inside his heart, the one that hasn’t gone away since Zhongli pointed out he was lonely.

He wants to see Venti again. That is a given — Xiao has just resigned himself to living every second of his life wanting to see Venti by now. He doesn’t know why the prospect of going to see Venti, of scarcely believing that he could make such a person smile, that he can hold Venti in his arms — he doesn’t know why, but it is, just the tiniest bit, scary.

It makes no sense. Xiao knows he basically signed himself up for Feeling Emotions and other wayward things, but feeling things all the time is overkill. So he does what he usually turns to when he feels things, and has done enough feeling sharing for the next decade.

He fights.

It helps that the moon is waning, now, and the demons are emboldened by the long shadows that it casts across Liyue. Before he sets off into Dihua Marsh, Xiao lets Verr Goldet know that he won’t be coming back to the inn for a few days, so she can tell Smiley Yanxiao to make one less serving of almond tofu for dessert. Then, in the clear depths of Dihua Marsh and the salt plains further north, Xiao’s blade rends into shadow and bone, pierces sharp and true through shields of stone and tears apart creatures born from resentment and evil.

Xiao does this until there is nothing left in Dihua Marsh to annihilate, and the stone roads that wind through fields of herbs are safe for the children here to walk at night.

The unbroken peace is too much for Xiao to bear. He blinks to the top of Qingyun Peak instead and flings himself off to plunge towards a gathering of abyss mages. These ones are surprisingly weak — Xiao only ever struggles with their shields, but once they’re down, he makes good work of them.

There are many more monsters in the vicinity of Qingyun Peak than there were in Dihua Marsh, but Xiao finds that the rhythm of combat is startlingly easy to fall back into, that when he grasps his spear in his hands and sees nothing but the target in front of him, he feels a sense of surety only paralleled by Venti’s touch.

It’s only when Xiao is forced into using Bane of All Evil during a stalemate with four geovishaps that he starts to realize.

His loneliness, his fear, all of it is because of what this power has given him. Pain, and more karma than he could ever hope to repay in this life and the next. If it’s in exchange for keeping the beating heart of Liyue safe, Xiao could never regret it, but —

Even though Zhongli believes Xiao can do it, even though he’s tried so hard, in the end, this pain is all that Xiao has. The other yakshas had fallen because of it, and Xiao had vowed to carry on their memory alone. But during this Lantern Rite, Xiao’s burdens started tainting the monsters around him, influencing them more than usual.

If, one day, he loses control — if he succumbs to his debt and ends up hurting the land he loves, the people he sought to protect, the one smile that draws him back from the darkness —

What would he do then?

Xiao doesn’t know. All he’s sure of is that he needs to talk to Venti, needs to do it now, needs to warn Venti that this could happen and happen soon — would Venti still want to choose him, knowing that? Could he love a being that would only corrupt him?

He disposes of the geovishaps first, uncaring of the way their claws sear across his skin. In this form, he is something less than human and more than metal, and either way, his injuries are insignificant. But Xiao tears his mask off right before he teleports to the alleyway behind Angel’s Share, and the sudden switch causes him to stumble to his knees on the rough cobblestone, black smoke wavering around his body.

A demon in broad daylight, walking the streets of Mondstadt. If only Venti could see him now.

Actually — wait. Venti is seeing him now, because Venti is lounging at a table outside the Angel’s Share in full view of the alleyway and staring dumbly at Xiao’s broken form, Lumine and her strange floating companion sitting beside him.

“Oh,” Lumine says, nonplussed. “Hey there, Xiao. Long time no see. What happened to you?”

Xiao sways, presses one hand to his side where the geovishap’s claws tore through the thin shirt. Next time, perhaps Madame Ping could weave protective talismans into them…

Oh. Was Venti… day-drinking with Lumine? Did Xiao interrupt them? Maybe coming here was a bad idea after all…

“He’s hurt!” The floating creature squeaks out, bobbing closer to Xiao and recoiling as the smoke around him flickers and sparks. “Um… should we, maybe, get him medical attention?”

“Xiao?” Venti says, pushing his drink aside. He slides out of his chair and edges towards Xiao, one cautious step at a time. Like Xiao is a trapped animal, now, something to be feared.

Xiao’s voice is a glass-splintered thing. “Venti…”

Venti closes the gap between them and kneels before Xiao, letting Xiao slump into his arms like all his ties have been severed by a single strum of Venti’s lyre. Xiao shudders weakly, thinking for one moment that the aura surrounding him will hurt Venti, but if Venti is in pain, he makes absolutely no indication of it. His hold on Xiao tightens until the world narrows down to the two of them, Xiao’s face pressed into the crook of Venti’s neck, his shaking hands fisted in Xiao’s cape.

“Um,” says Lumine. “You know what? Paimon, let’s go. Venti has it covered, don’t you think?”

“What? Venti’s not a healer, what are you talking about — ”

A yelp, and then the sound of Lumine making her hasty escape.

“Xiao,” Venti murmurs again, fingers stroking through the choppy ends of Xiao’s hair. “What’s going on?”

Xiao shakes his head wordlessly and presses himself closer to Venti. “Hold me,” he says — pleads, really, just how low has he fallen —

But Venti kisses the top of his head in acquiescence and keeps Xiao in the strong circle of his arms until Xiao’s shaking dies down and the smoke around him sputters into nothingness. He doesn’t ask, when Xiao refuses to talk even then. He hums an ancient, nameless song to Xiao and waits patiently for Xiao to extricate himself and regain his bearings.

“Hey. Hey, Xiao, look at me?” Venti strokes his cheek gently and tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, his expression soft and trusting. Giving solace to XIao even when he’s in this state… What has Xiao done to deserve him? “Won’t you talk to me? You don’t have to, of course, but you showed up here after a week of silence, bloodied and bruised — I’m worried. Let me take care of you?”

“Why?” Xiao croaks, too exhausted to control his tongue. “Why do you want to do that? Why me? You saw just now. All I know how to do is fight and bring others pain. You know that.”

“No, I don’t,” Venti retorts, pinching his cheek in a playful, scolding manner. “I know Xiao, not whatever you think you are right now, and I love Xiao. Isn’t it natural to want to care for people you love?”

Xiao flinches away from Venti’s touch at that. He can’t bear to hear such things. But Venti’s gentle expression cracks for just a second, letting his hurt seep through, and oh — that’s even worse. Xiao is hurting him, after all.

“Right now? Right now, I — I am a weapon, used to nothing but destruction and ruin. This is all I’ve done for thousands of years, Venti. This is all I know how to do. Kill to protect, bring pain to save. That is what I was made for. People — things like me — why would they be loved?” Xiao’s voice breaks on the last sentence. It… it isn’t that Xiao doesn’t want to be loved. Of course he does. He just —

He just doesn’t understand why anybody would want to.

“Because you deserve it!” Venti shouts, grasping Xiao’s shoulders. Xiao goes deathly still. Venti is kneeling above him, face shadowed by the sun, his eyes blindingly bright and sure. “That isn’t all you can do, and I know it. I know you’re Xiao, quiet and sweet and surprisingly funny and loyal and serious, the Xiao I fell in love with!”

“You — “ Xiao’s hand falls limply from Venti’s back. How can Venti say these things so easily? How does Venti know?

“So maybe I don’t understand your pain, and maybe I never can because I’m Barbatos — so what!” Venti continues. He shakes Xiao once, lightly, for the emphasis. “I’m still here with you. I still want to stand by your side and help you through your pain, even if I can’t ever know it! Isn’t that what partners do, after all?” He pauses. “Isn’t that what you want with me? Xiao?”

“Yes, yes, I want — I want that,” Xiao says quickly, because that is one thing he is sure of. “I just — Venti,” he whispers, letting his head fall forward onto Venti’s shoulder.

Venti grasps his hand, squeezes it fiercely. “I’m here. I’m here, Xiao.”

“I’m… I’m scared,” Xiao admits. Something about the act is oddly freeing.

“I’ll chase all your fears away,” responds Venti, his tone very much one of automatic flirting. Xiao appreciates it nonetheless.

“I am the last yaksha left,” starts Xiao, his voice tentative and wavering. “The others — they died, or disappeared, all of them driven mad by their debts of death. As a yaksha, I was — I could not protect them. As a friend, I could not help them. Whether I was a weapon or a human, I was too weak to pull them back, to save them before it was too late.”

Xiao’s hands shake. But Venti holds them firm and gentle, his touch burning away the invisible ribbons of smoke that circle Xiao’s arms, inch by inch.

“I lost them. I know — I know that was the sacrifice they were willing to make, but they’re still gone, and I am still… the only one left,” Xiao finishes. He squeezes his eyes shut and wills himself to be brave, to speak. Venti deserves to know. “And not even a year ago, I thought that I had lost Yanwang Dijun, as well. I — I don’t want to lose you, too. I can’t.

“You won’t,” Venti says. When Xiao tears himself away to search Venti’s face for any signs of uncertainty, he finds none. Only that terrible, brilliant trust, and the glimmerings of hope in the corners of his smile.

“How… how do you know? I could hurt you one day, or not be there when you needed help the most — ”

Venti grins. “Because I love you!” He says, as simple as that. “I love you, so I won’t ever let that happen. Whenever you’re hurting, whenever you don’t trust yourself, I’ll be by your side to blow the shadows off your wings and help you fly again. Can you believe me when I say that, at least?”

Xiao never knew before, that love could be this easy. He finds that he can believe Venti’s words, just like that, sweet and simple and true. Venti’s smile, the way he pushes his fingers between Xiao’s, how stunningly his eyes light up when Xiao squeezes Venti’s hand back — he means it. He really does.

“Yes,” Xiao breathes, letting Venti lean down and kiss the last vestiges of whispering shadows off his lips. “Yes, I can.”

It isn’t perfect. Xiao is still scared, he still doesn’t know if he can truly move past his karma and step into the light, holding Venti’s hand. But, Xiao thinks, he’s okay with not knowing, so long as Venti is by his side.

Venti kisses his forehead this time and rocks back onto his heels. “Now, you’re already in Mondstadt, so why don’t I show around my favorite places? Oh! I know, I could introduce you to all my friends at the Knights of Favonius, and Lumine’s probably still hanging around there waiting for someone to give her a ‘beat-these-monsters-up’ commission — you know her, right? We could catch up with her, too!”

“Lumine… scares me,” Xiao admits. He will not pout at Venti for another (proper) kiss. That is shameless and indecent and much too embarrassing for Xiao to do in broad daylight. But maybe later, if they find a nice secluded corner… “It feels as though she might gut-punch me for fun.”

“Same!! I swear, that girl is terrifying... I keep telling Lisa and Jean to watch out for her, but for some reason, Lumine is an absolute sweetheart to them? I don’t get it at all.” Venti wrinkles his nose and hops to his feet. “Ah, well, whatever! Let’s avoid Lumine, I’ll introduce you to Kaeya instead. Based on your description of Hu Tao, you two would get along swimmingly!”

Venti reaches his hand out to Xiao and grins. “Well? Are you coming or not?”

“Mmn,” says Xiao, as Venti pulls him to his feet and tugs him out of the alleyway, into the bright summer sunlight. ‘I am.”