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My Freedom Is Only You

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Venti was very late.

 

Blame it on his messed up sleep schedule or on his non existent sense of time management, the boy was now running as fast as he could, glancing at the time on his phone screen. The recital was starting in mere minutes but by some miracle, he hoped he could make it in time. 

 

Running in formal clothes was never a good feeling. Venti felt his skin sticking to the white shirt, hoping his braids were still holding up. Truth be told, this was not the first time for him to miss a violin competition. His professors never missed an opportunity to praise his musical talent but to, at the same time, tell him his careless personality will one day ruin him. Even so, Venti couldn’t help it. 

 

He stepped inside the building, pushing through a group of people and apologising, bowing quickly before turning away. As he was trying to get the violin out of its case while still running, he did not notice that the way was blocked by someone so he dived head first, making both of them fall hard onto the ground. The other person cursed. Loudly . Venti looked up. If he wasn’t in so much of a hurry, he would have probably taken a few more seconds to look at the young man in front of him. Amber eyes were locked onto his, the air in his lungs suddenly gone. He felt his heart beat fast as he stumbled, getting back up as fast as he could. He couldn’t even process if he was so quick to flee the scene because he needed to go on stage or he just didn't want the stranger to see just how red his ears had become.

 

Soon enough, he was backstage. Just in time. It seemed the Archons still held some love towards him. Swiftly he took his violin and bow, fixed his clothes as much as he could and stepped into the light. Venti loved to be in the center of attention while playing but one thing he could never get used to was the blindness he had to endure when facing the public until his eyes adjusted. He wanted to see the expressions his playing created. 

 

He started playing. It was a melody he knew well and loved. It started slow, building up until the notes suddenly exploded. He felt like the wind blew around him, softly caressing his head and pushing his hair around in a playful way. Carried away by the music, Venti forgot to pay attention to technicalities. Music was his everything, his freedom, so he let the violin express that. All his emotions, all his sorrows and happy moments, everything turned into song. 

 

Before he knew it, people started clapping. He stepped forward and bowed deep, smiling. He took a second to look at the audience and something caught his eye. The same amber eyes that he met moments ago were now on him. Venti’s eyesight was not the greatest but he had the feeling the person was glaring at him. He quickly turned his gaze from the spot and fled backstage.

 

Venti was already planning to get away from there before he and that person had a chance to meet again or he might just be murdered. It was just a careless mistake after all, the fault of his very own clumsiness, indeed, but not a reason for someone to be this angry. He sighed, putting away his violin and walking away. He spotted his professor on the way out. Although he tried to turn the other way around he had already been seen. Taking in a deep breath, he braced himself for what was about to follow.

 

“Venti,” the man said to him, “Where is your mind these days?” He genuinely waited for an answer. After a few seconds of complete silence, with Venti looking at the ground without muttering a single word, he continued, his voice full of exasperation. “I keep telling you, just playing is not enough. You have to work harder if you really want to become successful.” 

 

And with that, he walked away. Venti hated that. Ashamed, he took his leave as well. He wanted to go home. While waiting at the bus station, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He  took it out and saw Aether’s name. 

 

“Hi,” he said simply after picking up. “What’s up?”

 

“Hey Venti! How did it go? I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. I really wanted to hear you play. What do you say if I treat you to some coffee to make up for it?” 

 

Venti noticed how his tone softened. Aether was very perceptive so he was easily able to tell just how down he felt. 

 

“Now?” Venti replied, not really knowing if he was in the mood to face any people after the talk with the professor. 

 

“Yes, now. Where are you? I’ll come get you.”

 

Venti didn't have to wait long until Aether pulled up, greeting him from his car with a friendly wave. The two had been pretty close ever since they met in highschool. Venti used to not have much time for friends as he spent a lot of his time practicing the violin. One day, he got tired and skipped the music class, deciding to just find a good spot to take a nap. However, he saw Aether all alone and lost outside. The boy used to be very anxious, especially around new people and hadn’t managed to make any new friends. Venti approached him and since then they just stuck together. They befriended Albedo during that time too, who was now working into becoming an artist after he decided he did not find any joy in science. They were all in college now, following their dreams. Aether was an English major, just like his twin sister Lumine, Albedo was doing art and of course, Venti chose to pursue music. 

 

“Did it really go that bad?” Aether asked, seeing the absent-minded Venti staring out the window. “I think you are putting too much pressure on yourself.” Venti couldn’t argue with that. “You look tired.”

 

He felt tired. He felt frustrated. Venti didn’t know if he wanted to just crawl into a corner in a bar and drink his sorrow away or get his violin out of the case, throw it into the street and ask Aether to run it over with a car. Him too if Aether was so kind. 

 

“I don’t think I can do it sometimes.” Venti spoke quietly, more of a mumble than anything. Aether waited for him to continue, focusing on the road. “I sometimes try to pay attention to how my bow is angled on the strings, my posture, the exact duration of each note. Every time I do, I can barely even finish a song. It’s all empty and lifeless but at the same time that’s the correct way to do it.”

 

Aether contemplated for a bit. “You mean that’s the way people want you to believe it is. There is no correct way to play, I think. I mean I can’t imagine telling Albedo he didn’t draw something correctly. Art doesn’t have rules, right?”

 

Venti gave a loud sign. “That’s the problem, it does. It’s all patterns and rules and I am starting to think-” He didn’t want to finish that sentence. He couldn’t.

 

“You know what? The competition is already over. Why dwell on it now? Just forget about it. A good coffee made by Xingqiu is what you need.”

 

Venti wanted to believe it but something inside him just didn’t let that bad feeling eating him up go. A void inside him grew bigger and bigger. He just wanted it to go away. 

 

The coffee shop they always went to was really close to the college. Most of the students liked to come here, especially because it wasn’t that expensive and the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. Xingqiu, who worked there as a barista, even brought books for people to read if they felt like it instead of doing work. He was an English major like Aether and shared a lot of his classes. They got along really well so Xingqiu was glad to give them discounts from time to time too. 

 

“Hello there Aether, Venti!” He greeted them cheerfully when they stepped inside. “What can I get you?”

 

The two ordered and chose a table near the window. Like always, Aether made a face at Venti’s overly sweet beverage. 

 

“How can you even drink that and not feel sick?” 

 

“Oh?” Venti looked at his drink. “I don’t actually drink coffee that much. I’m not a fan of bitter stuff. This tastes good though.” He wanted to explain why his taste was so weird some more but he remembered about the stranger he bumped into suddenly. “Oh my Archons, Aether, I forgot to tell you I might have got myself targeted by a hitman.” 

 

He explained to the blond boy how he was running late and how he made the person fall over. He mentioned the death glare he gave him from the audience and how he was sure that if they were to meet again, he would be quickly declared a missing person.

 

“I will leave it to you to find my body and avenge my death,” he half joked, not doubting the guy would at least beat him up. 

 

“What did he look like?” Aether asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Oh, he was beautiful!” The words flew from Venti’s mouth before he could stop them. His ears turned red as Aether was sent into a fit of laughter by the response. He apologizes after, making Venti give him an actual description. “He had these amber eyes… Oh! And I think his hair was dyed with green streaks. I can’t really remember, my head was spinning from the fall.”

 

“If you see him again. Make sure to ask him out. I think you would enjoy some time outside music lessons.”

 

Venti blushed again. “What part of 'he was about to kill me' do you not understand?!” A shiver ran down his spine thinking of that awkward interaction. If he didn’t look that scary, Venti would have totally considered the idea. There was one problem however. “Plus, you know how little free time I have.”

 

Aether’s expression softened. A flash of the time Albedo came to him, years ago, angrily throwing all his chemistry notebooks on the ground frustrated that school was taking all his time while he only wanted to draw. Venti was a stubborn person and as much as he sometimes wanted to quit music, something made him continue, even if it ruined him. Once, he mentioned to Aether that it had to do with a promise he made to someone a long time ago. He didn’t pry. If Venti wanted to tell him, he would.

 

“I happened to hear some of the conversation,” Xingqiu was suddenly next to them, an excited smile on his face. “And I think I know just what you need. You know Chongyun right?”

 

Venti nodded. “Your boyfriend?” He enjoyed seeing the blush creep up Xingqiu’s cheeks. The two had been together for a while but for some reason they still felt embarrassed when people mentioned it. 

 

Venti knew him from his classes. Chongyun was also a music major and a talented guitar player. Venti loved hearing him play. 

 

“He and his band are performing tonight at that bar not too far from here. Why don’t the two of you come along? Venti, maybe some non-classical music will take your mind from things, even if just for a little bit.”

 

Venti considered it. He hadn’t seen a real performance from Chongyun yet. Actually, this would be the first time he heard about him even being in a band. He looked at Aether. The other boy nodded.

 

He picked up his phone, typing fast. “I’ll ask Albedo if he and Kaeya will join us. Lumine might be interested too. We haven’t seen each other in a while because of exam season. Hm…” His thumbs stopped for a second. Aether tried to think of the people that may be interested, wanting to give more of a reason for Venti to come too. 

 

Xingqiu turned to Venti who was now trying to calculate the bare minimum of sleep he needed to be able to function for the music class tomorrow. “What do you say Venti?”

 

“Ok but you are paying for my drinks,” he told Xingqiu. That’s what he deserved for having a wealthy family and befriending broke college students after all. 

 

“Fine. See you!” Xingqiu was glad to hear that Venti was finally going out. His tired eyes were starting to worry him. A lot. He knew just how stressful the music department was from Chongyun. He however paid no mind to the competition in the class. Plus he didn't want to become a prodigy. Music was supposed to be fun. Venti seemed to forget that.

 

Aether and Venti finished their drinks and continued to chat about stupid things like how Lumine was being the worst roommate and kept inviting her friends over while Aether was trying to finish his essays. He loved his sister very much, Venti knew that but that did not mean he didn't also love to always rant about how annoying she was. 

 

After they were done, they said goodbye and arranged to meet an hour before the performance outside Venti’s apartment. Venti was delighted to go home and pass out for a few hours. When he got there however, he got distracted by the memory of the stranger he met at the competition. 

 

A few hours later, Venti felt like his eyes were in flames. His entire body felt heavy from exhaustion. His mind was still repeating the events at the competition, trying to remember every little mistake he made while performing. He only managed to get half an hour of sleep after turning to the side, over and over, legs tangling in the blankets. Just as he finally drifted to unconsciousness, his alarm rang, making him jump and almost throw his phone out of the window. 

 

For a moment, he contemplated hiding under the bed and not getting out until he felt a bit better. How great it would be if life just had a pause button... Despite that thought, he walked to his closet, picking out something to wear. Winter was already making nights more chilly than what they used to be making wearing a jacket mandatory. Venti however, had the habit of catching colds very easily so he opted for a hoodie too, the multiple layers keeping him warm. Why so many of his clothes were green, that was a mystery. Truth to be told, he didn’t really pay attention when he was buying clothes. He usually just picked some random things that he liked the texture of, checked the price tag and brought it home. Maybe it was time for him to actually get something decent for times like these when he was supposed to at least look presentable. 

 

Aether was already waiting downstairs when Venti got down. They both got in the car and drove to the bar. Venti had been there before, many times. Kaeya’s brother Diluc worked there and Venti loved to pay him a visit from time to time, especially to enjoy his mixing abilities. For someone that was very upfront with his dislike for alcohol, Diluc never failed to make the best drinks, especially when it came to wine, Venti’s favourite. The bar was pretty big, having just enough space for performances on the weekends. Passing some people waiting near the entrance, the two could already hear whispers and comments about the show.

 

As they entered, looking around for some familiar faces, Aether spotted Albedo first, sitting in a corner, sketchbook in hand. The blond was not a big fan of populated areas so it wasn’t a strange image to see. Next to him was Kaeya. At first, Venti couldn’t believe the two could get along. Kaeya, although very handsome, had quite the personality and loved attention, while Albedo kept his distant way of being at all times.  Neither Venti nor Aether remembered when exactly the two started hanging out. Even so, they were happy to see their artist friend enjoy himself. 

 

“Oh hello there!” Kaeya waved with his glass, almost spilling some of the contents. Albedo shifted away, looking up only to glare at him. 

 

It took the other a moment to process who Kaeya was greeting. “Venti, Aether, I’m glad to see you.” He smiled softly, closing his sketchbook and putting it aside. 

 

“Hi there Albedo, how’s it going?” Venti asked, feeling relieved to see the art student look not even a little bit tired. He laughed as Kaeya tried to pick up the sketchbook, probably for safekeeping but his hand was viciously slapped by a smug Albedo. 

 

“Don’t touch my stuff,” he warned Kaeya and turned to his other friends, his expression softening. “Aether, I heard from Xingqiu you are working on a project when I came by the coffee shop last Tuesday.” 

 

Albedo, although a reserved person, was not the shy type. He liked to act spiteful from time to time, even so, his friends knew just how big his heart was. 

 

Aether smiled awkwardly, embarrassed when having to talk about his work. In contrast, he wasn’t the best at social interactions but he had improved from the time Venti met him in highschool. “It’s more of a personal thing, really. It still needs some work. Lumine makes it very hard to have any kind of inspirational moments at home so I have to go somewhere else to work at all times.” He sighed. “Speaking of the devil.”

 

Venti turned to see Aether’s twin. The two looked very much alike but their personalities could not be any more different. As much as the two bickered, they had a wonderful relationship. Lumine was the bolder one, yes, but when it came to his sister, Aether could get surprisingly protective. 

 

“Nice to see you here asshole, already talking shit about me.” She softly smacked Aether at the back of his head before turning to the others. “Why is everyone staying here? The show is about to start and the only one I see drinking is Kaeya.” 

 

“Good point.” Venti laughed, remembering where they were. “I’m going to ask Diluc for a glass of his famous Dandelion Wine!”

 

Kaeya raised an eyebrow. “I hope you can pay for that today. I’m tired of Diluc complaining about your never ending tab, you know.” He said, only half joking.

 

“Don’t worry Kaeya, Xingqiu is treating me tonight!” He winked before running to the bar. 

 

Diluc greeted him with a sigh, which Venti did not blame him for. He knew all too well he was a nuisance. “You are lucky to have friends with money or you wouldn't be able to step back here again until you paid for the enormous amount of alcohol you consumed.” The older man spoke in all seriousness. 

 

Venti answered with a small smile and an “Ehe.” Waiting to be served, he switched the attention to the stage. He spotted Xingqiu and Chongyun at the front, the pale blue hair of the latter being very hard to miss, even in the crowd. He could also spot the blush on Xingqiu's face as Chongyun kissed him lightly on his cheek, even from a distance. 

 

Wine glass in hand, he thanked Diluc and went back to his friends. Lumine was already gone, wanting to see the stage up close. Looking at his phone to check the time, Venti was pretty sure it was about to start. He left the others to find Lumine and join her to see the performance. He was excited to hear some music and to cheer up for Chongyun. Making his way, he saw the girl already joined by Xingqiu who nodded at him, a silent greeting. 

 

The band was already set up, ready to play. In front there was Xinyan, a girl dressed in red with orange streaks dyed in her hair. Lumine knew her already, it seemed, by the way the girl cheered. Lumine seemed to know everyone somehow, befriending so many people everywhere she went that Venti wouldn’t be surprised if she knew every person here. 

 

The drummer was Scaramouche. He was quite a mysterious character studying medicine at their college. Even that was a surprise when people heard about it because of the feisty personality that had the habit to scare people away from him. Next to him were the guitarists. He saw Chongyun who looked understandably nervous and a girl he did not recognise, with blond hair and a peculiar sense of fashion style. Venti’s breath was cut away by the third guitarist. He even stepped back a bit, earning a concerned look from Lumine and Xingqiu. 

 

“Are you ok? What is it?” Lumine asked him by yelling into his ear, trying to cover the loudness of the crowd. 

 

Venti shook his head, not taking his eyes from the figure. Now he remembered. His hair really did have green in it. His haircut was uneven, the pitch black clothes he wore with some chains around his hip only made his golden eyes appear more bright. 

 

Venti did not have any time to think about running away because the music started, locking him into place. From the very first note, everything that he could feel was the wind . But what was a small breeze while he played now seemed to be a full-blown tornado. He wasn’t exactly a big rock fan but the songs did not even seem to resemble the genre. Xinyan’s voice was so powerful and full of emotion, the guitars always in sync, Venti felt himself thinking ‘ so this is what music sounds like ’.

 

He could see Chongyun's anxiety dissipate as he got lost in the moment, smiling as he strummed the chords, putting his everything into the music. Venti could feel it. As much as he wanted to watch his classmate and friend, his eyes kept drifting away to the other male guitarist. His hands moved fast and precise on the guitar, every single note full of perfection. His amber eyes were now closed, half hid away by his hair. 

 

He was quickly startled from his state by a sudden push and a colourful laugh from Xingqiu. 

 

“Venti, you’re drooling,” his friend pointed out jokingly, coming closer to him so Venti could hear him. “Do you know him?” He said, cupping his hands near Venti’s ear. It was still low, the words dissipating in the loudness around them. 

 

Venti couldn’t speak so he just shook his head. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Some more words were spoken, but it was too late. Venti was back in his previous state, only hearing the music. 

 

He just stared for a very long while, letting the notes wash over him, feeling all his tiredness go away. Venti remembered this feeling, this freedom. The wind. His heart seemed to ache. His hands tightened onto his hoodie. His eyes were stinging again, this time however, from tears. 

 

Xingqiu was busy looking at his boyfriend and Lumine had moved even closer to the stage, now too far away to notice the sudden burst of emotion. The hand he felt shaking him was Aether’s. He was met with eyes full of concern. He didn’t even notice he was crying. Just from looks, he knew that Aether was asking if he needed to get away. Venti turned his eyes again to the stranger and, suddenly, for the first time since his competition that morning, their eyes met. The boy’s fingers seemed to hesitate for a second on the guitar. Venti jumped, turning away and motioning to Aether that he was going outside. 

 

The boy followed, keeping a distance just in case Venti needed his space. There were still quite a lot of people outside, most of them either drinking or smoking. Or both. The two had to walk a while to find a place where nobody would disturb them. Finally having a bit of silence, Venti sighed, dropping down, sitting on the ground, knees held tight to his chest. 

 

Aether joined him. He didn’t know what exactly to say. Comforting people was more his sister’s thing. “I really think you need to take things slower, Venti. I know how much music means to you but lately-”

 

“Sometimes I hate it.” Venti spoke, his voice nothing more than a mumble. His eyes were not visible, looking down at the ground. “I go and play and sometimes I feel nothing. And I have to keep asking myself, am I even doing the right thing? And then I remember that promise-” he stopped, his words sounding choked. More tears escaped from the corners of his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he gave an awkward laugh, “it’s probably the tiredness finally getting to me.” He shook his head, braids dangling from his head. 

 

Aether tried to change the subject. “What about that guy you kept looking at? Is he the one you were telling me about? The one who was going to murder you?”

 

Venti remembered just now about the stranger. He regretted leaving, now just wanting to go back and hear him play. Never did he feel so connected to music like tonight. There was something he was looking for, something he thought he lost forever and now found once again. The image of the guitarist, playing so free, with no worries. It reminded him of someone from his past that too looked like that while strumming an instrument. The memory made Venti feel cold, the darkness of the events came back to him and he was afraid he could no longer shake it away.

 

“I need more alcohol,” he said. 

 

Aether was just about to say no when he caught a glance of Venti’s expression. When did it become so bad? Aether could have sworn a few weeks ago his friend was doing better. He felt hopeless, not knowing what to say or do. 

 

After a while, they went back inside, joining the group still in the back of the bar. Lumine was still near the stage but Xingqiu was there, talking to a very worried-looking Albedo. Even Kaeya was frowning in distress as he listened to Xingqiu’s inaudible words. Aether did not even realise when the gloomy Venti behind him ran up to the group, a large smile on his face and wrapped a hand around the worried boy, saying something with a cheerful tone. He and Albedo exchanged looks. Knowing him for so long, they were quite familiar with the way Venti changed his mood in order to not worry others. They were scared however that this facade will one day be his doom. 

 

They talked for a while, sometimes shouting over the sound of the guitars, other times just drinking as Xinyan’s voice echoed, making their glasses vibrate. The performance ended too fast for Venti’s liking, who stole glances at a certain guitarist. His playing seemed off now. Was he looking for something in the audience? Did something happen after he ran outside? Xinyan thanked the audience and that was it. The loudness dissipated, the voices of the public being the only ones that remained, even those slowly growing fainter and fainter. 

 

After many drinks, Venti already felt like the room was spinning. For the sake of his friends, he tried his best not to throw up.

 

“Yun!” Xingqiu greeted his boyfriend. “You were great!”

 

“That’s right, I never thought the rockstar life fit you this much.” Venti said. “If the department teachers saw you I’m sure they would bite back on the stuff that they throw at you.”

 

Having received the praise from Venti, Chongyun beamed. Not only did he look up to his classmate and friend but he was also the best from the department so it meant a lot to hear that. “It’s not like their words bother me. I’m sick of their close mindedness. Music is not supposed to be perfect anyway.” His face suddenly dropped. “Too bad this will be our last show for a while.”

 

“Why is that?” Albedo inquired as he sipped from his glass of water. He was not drinking tonight as he had to take Kaeya home. 

 

“Oh, Xinyan is moving tomorrow. She got contacted by a really big studio overseas. With her talent, I’m really not surprised. It’s going to take a while for the band to find a new singer. “ He responded, feeling both proud of his friend but sad as well, knowing he won’t be able to play for a while.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that. Anyway, where is she? I thought you said she and the others would join so you could introduce us to everyone. “Xingqiu looked at the stage, trying to find the band members in the sea of people. 

 

“Xiao is angry again. I have no idea what happened but the others are helping him pack away. They should join us soon enough though. Oh and Venti!” Venti was surprised to hear his name, more focused on the thought of potentially finding the name of the mysterious stranger. “Do you by any chance know someone named Ganyu?” 

 

The boy tried to remember. His brain wasn’t that good at remembering names. Alcohol did not help. “Can I have a description?” 

 

“Uh.” Chongyun started thinking, trying to find his words. He started giving details of the girl’s appearance. “Her hair is styled similarly to Kaeya’s most of the time.”

 

That did sound a bit familiar. That’s it! “Oh yeah, I think I know her from some of my violin competitions. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken but I know her playing is very good.” 

 

“I thought so. It’s Xiao’s sister. He went to a competition to listen to her just this morning. Maybe you two met already. I think I saw him looking at you during the performance.”

 

Venti couldn’t tell if his face felt warm because of the alcohol or because of the fact Xiao was really looking at him and even Chongyun noticed. He gave an awkward laugh. “We might have bumped into each other today but I’ve never seen him around before.”

 

“That’s weird. He goes to the same college as us after all.” Seeing the surprised expression on Venti’s face, he added, “He’s studying psychology though.”

 

Aether gasped. “You’re right! I think I have a class with him.” He smiled proudly. “I knew he looked familiar.”

 

Just as he finished his sentence, a voice called for Chongyun. Xinyan approached the group. “Nice to see you all! Did you enjoy the show? Chongyun here killed it.” She slapped a heavy hand on the boy’s back, making him lose his balance and almost fall down. His boyfriend chuckled. She turned to everyone, shaking hands as they told her their names. Behind her there were the other members. 

 

The female guitarist's name was Fischl and she was still in high school, a year younger than Xingqiu and Chongyun who were first years. Venti was impressed by her skill, even though she still had some room for improvement. Scaramouche didn’t really seem too happy about having to interact with people, making a few remarks about how Fischl should have practiced more and Xiao got distracted half way through the show. Venti was pretty sure he wasn’t the kind and friendly type, not even with his bandmates. 

 

Xiao did not even make the effort to come near them. He was carrying his guitar case, fidgeting with the strap, clearly not wanting to be there. Sensing his awkwardness, Xinyan stepped back only to return, pulling a very angry Xiao towards the group, encouraging him to talk. Venti was afraid for the safety of the girl. The boy’s eyes were shooting death glares. 

 

“This is Xiao, he studies psychology and he likes appearing tough but in reality-” Venti did not miss the way the girl moved a few steps away as she continued the sentence. “He is really soft.” 

 

Although Venti did not know Xinyan for long, he already developed a deep respect towards her. That courage was something to envy. 

 

Thankfully, Xiao did not chose to murder the girl right then and there and just turned to the rest of them, scanning the people. Venti could not tell if his eyes avoided him or not. “I can’t stay long. Ganyu has something to do tonight and I can’t leave Qiqi alone in the house,” he told his bandmates. He took one look at his phone and sighed. “It’s already late.”

 

Aether turned to him. “Do you need a ride? Me and Venti should probably go too. I can drop you on the way there.” 

 

Venti looked at his friend, a bit alarmed. Did Aether just offer the person that was close to killing him just this morning a ride home? 

 

“Thank you, I would really appreciate that.” Xiao thanked him, bowing his head a little. 

 

Weird. Venti did not expect him to be the polite type. As Aether bid the others goodbye, paying for his drinks, Xiao and Venti stood in awkward silence near the exit. He tried to think about something to say but nothing really came to mind. 

 

“You are really good at playing the guitar.” A compliment always worked in situations like these. Right?

 

Xiao’s fingers tighten his grip on the strip of the guitar case. “Thank you.” He responded simply, avoiding eye contact. 

 

Silence fell again, the attempt at small talk failing miserably. Standing next to each other, Venti realised the two of them were very similar in height. The contrast between their clothes however somehow seemed funny in Venti’s very intoxicated mind. Seeing the other was not turning towards him, eyes following the cars passing by, he took the chance to look more into the details. He was wearing black combat boots and black jeans. His jacket was already on, covering the rest of his outfit. What did catch his attention however was an earring hanging from his ear. It looked a bit too elegant for the clothes Xiao was wearing. 

 

“You are pretty good with the violin.” Venti jumped, not expecting the belated words. Then, he remembered the events from that morning.

 

Turning abruptly, he bowed his head in shame, apologizing profoundly. “I’m really sorry about bumping into you. I was late and did not look where I was going. I should have said sorry before but I was

 

He was cut off by Xiao. “Don’t worry about it.” He did not sound angry, to Venti’s relief. 

 

Aether came, making them follow to the car. Xiao did not live very far from the bar but waiting for the bus would surely have taken much more time than the car. He thanked the blond and Venti watched his silhouette as they drove away. His head was hurting from the alcohol. He knew the hangover in the morning would ruin his day. He prayed to the archons his teachers were not going to yell at him for being out of it. Maybe skipping for a few days was not that bad of an idea. 

 

“Are you going to be ok?” Aether asked him, eyes fixed on the road. “Lumine probably won’t be home tonight. You could just sleep on the couch. I can cook breakfast and help with the hangover if necessary.” 

 

Venti’s heart ached. He did not deserve such kindness. He did not want to become even more of a bother to his friend. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Thanks though.” He paused for a bit. “And sorry for what happened tonight. I think the stress finally got to me.” His laugh sounded strangled.

 

“Venti.” Aether sounded dead serious. “Don’t apologize for stuff like that. Just give me a call if you need anything.”

 

Back inside his apartment, Venti did not bother to change his clothes. He just took off his shoes, threw them randomly across the room, jumped into the bed and rolled himself into the blankets. It did not take long for him to fall asleep, some of his thoughts drifting away to Xiao’s playing, and the beautiful music the guitars produced. Venti wanted his music to have that effect as well. But what was he missing?

 

There was no worse sound in this world than that of his phone alarm. Once, he even tried making one of his favourite songs the alarm, in hopes it would make waking up a bit more bearable. It only took two days to make him despise that song completely, feeling his ears bleeding every time it played on the radio. It was a shame.

 

Venti lived alone in an old apartment that wasn’t his to begin with. The previous owner used to be a friend. It was probably the only thing that kept Venti from just dying somewhere in the streets. As much as he was no stranger to being homeless, he was pretty sure that if he didn’t have a roof on top of his head now, his life would be much worse. Due to his very little time between classes, competitions and even more lessons outside school, he did not have many opportunities to get a job. Venti’s fridge was pretty much always empty, save for the random apples he bought from time to time, the sweet fruits being a treat for the darker days. With no family to support him, the only thing that even made it possible for him to be in college was music. His talent got him a good scholarship, covering school expenses. 

 

Skipping at least the morning classes seemed like a good idea. Venti’s head was still spinning so he was in desperate need of some caffeine to help with the hangover. If luck was on his side, Xingqiu would be starting his shift early today. 

 

It took a while for Venti to find his shoes after kicking them so viciously. One ended up in the kitchen, under the table and the other he found all the way near the bathroom door. With some more power, it could have easily been in the toilet. Thankfully, the Archons seemed to still hold some mercy for him. 

 

Grabbing his violin, he took off.  

 

The coffee shop was only 10 minutes away from his home by bus. Most of the time, waiting for the bus took longer than the journey itself. Venti didn’t mind that. He liked to enjoy the world around him, sometimes taking the time to text his friends or even pull a notebook in a hurry, trying to revise for tests he only remembered about a few hours before them. The only thing that was a slight inconvenience was the concerning number of stray cats that always seem to appear while Venti was waiting for his bus. 

 

Cat allergies were Venti’s kryptonite and for some unknown reason, felines seemed to love him, always trying to catch his attention, mewing loudly for him to pet them. Not wanting to trigger a fit of sneezes, the boy would sometimes carry some cat food in his backpack or violin case to distract the cats from him. Naturally, that only made him appear even more likeable. 

 

Thankfully, today, Venti did not have to deal with such things. He got onto the bus, putting on his headphones, sitting near a window and letting a random playlist soundtrack the ride as he stared outside. He felt tired so, after a while, he decided to keep his eyes closed until he got down, his stop still far enough for him to get some rest. The anxiety of missing his stop however made him jump as soon as he felt himself drifting away. The result was him feeling even more tired than before. 

 

Venti really needed a coffee.

 

Xingqiu was there. The shop was pretty crowded, though, only one table empty, waiting for him. The blue haired boy greeted him, took his order and signaled Venti to take a seat. He happily complied, picking up a book to read while waiting for his drink. Xingqiu’s collection was not exactly his style but he did enjoy trying some of the stories from time to time, getting to know more about what his friend liked. 

 

As soon as he got his drink and took a sip, Venti regretted asking for something more bitter than usual. He took a few packets of sugar and poured them in the black liquid, stopping only when he could no longer taste the bitterness. 

 

The door of the coffee shop opened and Venti took his eyes off the book he was reading to see if the newcomer was someone he knew. Surprisingly, it was. Not one of his friends but Xiao, the boy from Chongyun’s band. He walked to where Xingqiu was. After he got a large cup of coffee, he looked around, probably to find a seat, pausing for a second. 

 

Venti waved at him, inviting him over. Xiao furrowed his brows, looking back at the barista that only smiled at him, probably apologizing for the lack of seats. Rude, Venti thought. The guitarist took the invitation after some moments of hesitation, sitting down on the opposite side from Venti. 

 

“Hi,” he said and for some reason, Venti’s face felt warm. “Venti, right?”

 

“Yep!” Venti was happy the other remembered his name. “Nice to see you again.” He smiled genuinely, happy to see Xiao was not angry at him. He even seemed relaxed today. 

 

“Actually, I have something to ask you,” Xiao said, suddenly seeming to remember something important. 

 

Venti raised an eyebrow. What could someone that he only met a night ago want from him? 

 

“It’s about our band," he explained. “You are a musician, right? I heard from Chongyun. He was probably going to ask this himself if we hadn’t met today.” His tone was flat, not really communicating any specific emotion. 

 

“You can call me that I guess. I’m pretty good at playing stuff. The violin is my speciality though.” Venti replied, listing in his mind all the instruments he knew he was at least decent at. “I do really enjoy the flute or the lyre now and then.”

 

Xiao seemed very focused, nodding at the words. His amber eyes suddenly locked onto Venti and for a split second, Venti could see excitement. 

 

“Can you sing?” he asked, eyes still sparkling. Seeing the confused look on Venti’s face, he realised the slip of emotion and turned his gaze to the ground, apologizing. “I’m sorry, I meant to say we are looking for a singer to replace Xinyan. Last night was the last time for her to perform before moving. After meeting you, Chongyun proposed we could use someone to fill in the position until we find a permanent member to take the position. He told us he heard you in class and really wanted to ask if you would be available.”

 

A bit sad to see the curious expression on Xiao’s face, Venti softened his voice. He could tell everyone in the band really loved what they were doing. He had to admit, he was a bit jealous. 

 

“I love singing but I can’t say I was ever that serious about it. As for joining ” Venti did not really know what to say. If there weren’t so many things he had to do, he would have accepted in a heartbeat. He craved a change of scenery.

 

“No need to answer now. Just give it some thought. I know you’re busy. My sister learned to play the violin as a hobby. Now it takes her hours per day just to practice for competitions.”

 

Venti nodded, thankful for the understanding. It meant a lot not having to decide on the spot. Trying to fill in the sudden silence, he tried to find out more about the other boy. 

 

“So are you an aspiring musician too? You are really talented, I’m sure you have a future in the industry.” And it was true. Venti never lied about someone’s skill, especially when it came to music. 

 

Xiao shook his head. “It’s just a side thing. I’m studying psychology at the moment. I don’t think I’ve really decided what I want to do with my future though.” He sounded genuinely sad and maybe even frustrated. 

 

Venti could understand the feeling. They talked for a while, falling into a pleasant rhythm. Contrary to Venti’s assumptions, Xiao did not shy away from talking about himself. He told him more about his two sisters, Ganyu and Qiqi. Venti mentioned seeing Ganyu at some of his competitions, catching a slight glimpse of proudness in Xiao’s eyes as he complimented the young girl’s skill. Qiqi was apparently only eight years old, which made Venti curious, not really knowing what to do with the picture of a cute Xiao taking care of his little sibling. 

 

They both finished their drinks. Xiao was the one to say goodbye first. His class was about to start and he did not want to be late. Venti waved at him, remembering he too had classes to attend to. Taking his phone out to look at his schedule, he saw he had about 30 minutes to spare. Just enough time to take his time and walk. 

 

Despite the time of the year, the weather was unnaturally warm. The sun shone brightly, the warmth making Venti smile. He didn’t even realise when he started skipping, jumping on the pavement, braids brushing the skin of his neck. 

 

He was lucky not to live in a big city. He was not a fan of modernity. Venti preferred to see nature around him. The little houses with big gardens and flowers on his way to school were the things he adored to see. In winter, the world seemed dull but in spring, when everything bloomed, the view was something Venti would not trade for anything in the world. As much as the boy loved to hang around people, he will forever love his quiet moments outside, under a tree, just breathing the fresh air. 

 

Lessons seemed to get longer and longer each day. Venti hated some more than others. He despised the times he was made to repeat pieces over and over and over, the agony never ending. As much as he tried fixing the issues, his hands did not move the way they should. The chords did not vibrate how they were supposed to. Being known as the prodigy of the department did not help. Of course, some of the students hated him. The competitive spirit did that to some and Venti couldn’t really blame them. The true struggle was the way the teachers seemed to expect so much more. One day, Venti was afraid everyone would find out his talent was only a bluff, a result of the sleepless hours he spent in his room alone, going over the music sheets until the notes were so blurred together he could no longer decipher the writing. 

 

Venti was not the one to work more than he should. Music however was the only exception. It was a promise he made to someone dear to him in the past. He had to go on and be better. He wanted to play songs that did not have the chance to be played. He wanted the music to be remembered. He wanted people to hear the memory of a young boy that loved music more than anything else in the world. 

 

However, now, the only thing he could hear was the ugly screech of a violin. Frustration was slowly building up. He could feel the pressure on the instrument’s strings threatening to break them. A part of him hoped they would. That way, he could just pack up, go home and sleep. 

 

“Venti, please take this lesson seriously,” the teacher said, passing by. 

 

Suddenly, the words made him feel numb. It was pointless. 

 

Not all teachers were like this. There were some that Venti genuinely liked. Miss Rosaria for example was one of his favourites. Not once did she make any comments about how Venti should do better considering his potential. Actually, the woman liked to tell him he sounded tone-deaf many times. Surprisingly, her words never bothered Venti. He wasn’t sure the teacher even knew his name. Venti preferred it that way. It was nice to be another nobody in the class. Regardless of all these, Miss Rosaria was a great teacher. She also taught Music Theory and Composition, which Venti used to find boring until this year, when she took over the class. He couldn’t really pinpoint what made it so much more interesting. Venti was just happy to finally have a period that did not make him fall asleep. 

 

The day was finally over. It was already dark outside when Venti left the campus, feeling exhausted. The caffeine had worn off a long time ago but thankfully it seemed his hangover did too. 

 

He had gotten a message from Aether, asking how he was feeling and if he needed any groceries. Venti smiled, softening his expression. He really did not deserve such a good friend. Not wanting to be a bother, he replied, thanking the boy but declining the offer. It was time Venti did things for himself instead of counting on others. But not today. He would go buy some food tomorrow. He wasn’t feeling hungry anyways. 

 

There was another text from Chongyun. He heard from Xiao about their meeting and only wanted to remind Venti to take his time about giving his answer regarding joining the band as a temporary replacement. How Venti would have just texted him back, accepting with no second thoughts... He wanted to experience that wind washing over him. He wanted to feel the same passion Chongyun felt while playing. And more than anything, he wanted to feel that freedom of music the band reminded him of. 

 

Without thinking, Venti dialed a number and put the phone to his ear, listening to the sound as it was connecting to the other end. After a few seconds, a voice came through. 

 

“Hello?” Albedo sounded a bit distant, probably having his phone on speaker as he drew. He used to do that a lot back in the day, not wanting to stop working if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

 

Venti felt awkward, not even knowing why exactly he was calling his friend. “Hi, it's Venti.” He spoke.

 

Some distorted sounds came in response, then Albedo’s voice suddenly became more clear. “What happened? Are you ok?” He sounded worried. 

 

“I’m fine!” Venti said in a hurry, not wanting to scare the other. “I just felt like asking for some advice.”

 

He did not need to see it to know Albedo nodded. He started explaining the conversation he had with Xiao that morning. He mentioned how stressful his life had been with keeping up with schoolwork, making sure not to fall behind and lose his scholarship. At the same time, he told the artist how he felt during the night of the performance. He went on about the void in his stomach, the raw emotion he felt because of the music, making sure to tell Albedo he was not drunk at the time. The other chuckled softly, continuing to listen and just giving quiet “mhm” sounds. 

 

“I don’t know what to do. I would really love to try doing something exciting for once instead of being trapped in my apartment either practicing or sleeping. I think I’m just afraid it will only make it harder to manage.”

 

Albedo paused for a second. “I don’t want to tell you what to do but I think it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen you enjoy playing. Plus, a few years ago you told me you really wanted to try out singing in a band.”

 

Venti’s eyes grew wide. “You really remember that? It was ages ago! I completely forgot. But you’re right I really wanted to do so many things.” He felt sadness overcome him. Venti really believed becoming an adult would mean getting to do more exciting things. 

 

“I think you should allow yourself to do the things you want to do. You need more freedom in your life.” 

 

Venti laughed. That was indeed true. At some point in the past, Venti thought he understood what freedom meant. Now, he was not that sure anymore. He thanked his friend for listening. He was glad to be talking to Albedo again. He forgot just how easy it was to talk to the artist. Understanding each other always came easy and he was thankful for that. 

 

“Anytime.” And Albedo meant it. 

 

The call ended just as Venti reached the entrance of his apartment. His hand paused on the door handle, his mind still far away. He turned the key and walked inside, this time making sure to place his shoes near the door instead of sending them miles away in opposite directions. 

 

The inside of his home felt cold. One of the windows had been left open, forgotten like that for a few days already. The breeze made Venti shiver. He took an apple off the counter in the kitchen, biting into it. As tired as he felt, Venti doubted he would fall asleep if he tried now. 

 

The sky was clear, some stars reflecting on the glass of the open window. The boy knew he was going to catch a cold if he didn’t close it soon but for some unknown reason, he found comfort in the chill of the night. It made it easier to think. He went back to get his violin and turned back to the kitchen. 

 

Carefully placing his half eaten apple back on the counter, he propped the instrument, relaxing his neck muscles. His thoughts played the scenes from the performance last night. Venti couldn’t remember the exact tunes but thankfully, this time he was not looking for perfection. He played, humming softly, moving his legs with the beat. The notes were all over the place. If one of his teachers saw his posture now, they would probably shake their heads in disappointment. 

 

Venti decided he did not care about that anymore. The small tingle at the top of his fingertips made him forget about all the things he was supposed to do. He imagined an audience in front of him, cheering, which only made him play with more passion. He closed his eyes, remembering the same gesture Xiao did while on stage, not bothering to look at his instrument. Tonight it did not matter. Nothing mattered except the music. 

It was not freedom. Not even close. But it was something, a glimpse of a feeling Venti was sometimes afraid he might have lost. 

 

He stopped, not letting go of the instrument for a while. He nodded to himself, remembering Albedo’s words. After a while, he placed the violin back into the case picking back his apple. He walked over to the window and closed it, looking down at the quiet road. The streetlights illuminated the empty road. Nights were indeed peaceful in this part of the town. Venti did not have to worry about being disturbed when it was late. More than anything, he was the annoying neighbour with his constant playing. Thankfully, he had never gotten any complaints. He was not sure but he had a theory that the walls were soundproof, however he had never bothered to check. 

 

Walking to his bed and changing into his sleeping clothes, Venti contemplated perhaps doing some schoolwork. He grabbed a pile of his textbooks, throwing them onto the bed. Not a few minutes later, he found himself scrolling onto his phone, pushing the books away from him with his feet. Some of them fell from the bed onto the ground. He did not try to get them back. Motivation never seemed to be there when it came to working for Venti. 

 

Finals were slowly approaching. After a year of already going through that stress last year, Venti did not worry. He still had some time to study and he wasn’t one to really strive for perfection when it came to written things. Passing his classes was enough. Thinking about it, Venti only then realised Christmas was right around the corner, less than a month away. In most years he hardly got to celebrate it but one thing he adored was the way the town looked decorated with all the lights. 

 

As cold and lifeless the winter was, Christmas had to be his favourite time of the year. He fondly remembered last year when he had even gotten some presents from his friends. It was the first time in a very long while and it almost drove the boy to tears. It hadn’t been much, some socks, a blanket and a picture Albedo had painted for him. It was now hanging on the wall of his bedroom, above his desk. It was the image of a green landscape filled with grass and flowers, in the middle a big tree. Venti didn’t know what exactly inspired the piece but he felt weirdly calm while watching it, especially when he was working or practicing an instrument. This year, he wanted to return that favour but didn’t really know where to start. 

 

Venti’s thoughts traveled back to the conversation he had with Xiao that morning. He thought about the potential of getting close to the strange boy and the other band members, perhaps even becoming friends themselves. As much as Venti lacked money, he wished to have many people to give presents to. 

 

More than anything, Venti wanted to feel that same emotion he felt last night at the bar. Xiao’s guitar, Chongyun’s unexpected burst, Xinyan’s passion, Fischl’s energy, Scaramouche’s control, they all seemed so — Venti couldn’t think of a right word to describe it. He wanted to be there on a stage and have fun. He felt that after years of searching for something, he finally had a lead. Of course, time was an issue and school was important but something in his heart yelled at him to follow his instinct. 

 

Venti never focused on singing. He did it of course. He received compliments too, more than a few times. Playing instruments however was the centre of his life which made him neglect his voice. The simple thought of trying to use an ‘instrument’ he hadn’t practiced at for so long felt terrifying. But just as exciting. Venti shivered, the pure enthusiasm washing over him in waves. 

 

Venti felt like leaving his room, running as fast as he could to Chongyun’s house, just to let him know how much he wanted to join them, even if only temporarily. He needed to feel that something again, the sense of being alive, that chill people sometimes described when they first heard Venti play his violin. 

 

In the middle of the night, laying on his bed in complete silence, his hair now unbraided, Venti felt so many emotions. A battle was going on inside his chest. Fear and excitement built up and for a moment, he was afraid he was going to combust. 

 

The room was a mess, notebooks and textbooks everywhere, a few sheets of crumbled paper left randomly around the floor. A faint lamp and the moonlight reflected on the pale boy's skin. His eyes were closed and a smile painted his face. Sleeping, he looked at peace, as if dreaming of a far away place. Nothing seemed to bother him. All the problems in the world seemed to have vanished for now. The blue ends of his hair laid on top of a white pillow. Looking from afar, they seemed to almost glow. It was all quiet, except for the sounds of car engines passing by now and then and the boy’s soft breathing. His face looked less tired, the purple around his eyes diminishing. Maybe, with some luck, until the morning, all the traces of the sleepless nights would fade away. 

 

A phone laid on the boy’s grip, the screen giving away some light, most of it prevented by the night mode being enabled. The message app was still open, showing a text sent at exactly  3:43am to “Blue Rockstar”, a nickname that had been recently changed. 


‘I’m in,’ it said simply.