He drags himself across the ground to where Venti is lying sprawled across the cold stones, completely motionless. In all the time Aether has known Venti, the bard has always seemed so alive, so full of ideas, always thrumming with the restless energy of the winds. Now, as he struggles to cross the few metres separating them, there is a stillness about Venti that looks utterly wrong.
It makes Aether's heart clench.
A painful lump of fear in his throat throbs with every breath he takes, and he nearly cries with frustration at the how agonisingly slow his progress is. Signora's ice still clings to him, making it hard to move any faster until he unfreezes. Aether grits his teeth against the pain and keeps going, until the tips of his fingers finally curl against the fabric of Venti's cloak that pools around the ex-archon like long-forgotten wings.
“Venti?” he calls, and there comes no answer.
Aether musters up the last bit of energy inside him to push himself across the remaining space between them, until he can hold on to Venti’s shoulder and shake him, like the time he woke him up after they had fallen asleep together under the stars on their way to Stormterror’s Lair.
“Venti, come on, wake up,” he pleads. He pushes himself up to a sitting position, trying to get a look at Venti’s face. The ice on him has almost melted, making movement easier now, though he still feels exhausted.
He gently pats Venti’s cheek and flinches at how cold his skin his. He quickly turns Venti’s face to him, cupping his cheeks in his palms, and the bard is freezing cold to the touch. Venti’s face looks pale and bleached clean of all warmth, his lips tinged blue from the cold, ice crystals forming on his long eyelashes, and at the corner of his eyes where a single tear had crystallised.
“Venti, please -” he’s begging, panic racing through his veins. “Please, not you too -” he pleads, as he tries to wrap Venti in his arms, desperately trying to pour all the warmth in his body into him.
“Help! Please, someone help!” he shouts, feeling his voice crack on the last word. Where is everyone? Where is Paimon? Oh gods, he hopes Paimon is okay. “Barbara! Jean - we need a healer!” he yells, and in the distance he can hear one of the knights on patrol shout something to others, followed by the sound of footsteps as they rush into the cathedral.
“They’ll fix you up, don’t worry,” he babbles, pressing Venti tighter to his chest to warm him up. “Then we’ll get your gnosis, and you can kick that nasty lady right back, okay?”
Venti remains silent, quiet and unresponsive in his arms, his head lolling to a side when Aether tries to check if he’s breathing. Do Archons even need to breathe? He remembers seeing Venti laugh until he was breathless when Aether had done his impression of Kaeya, and Venti pausing for a breath in between verses of his songs. He remembers Venti’s soft exhales when he sleeps, lips moving in a voiceless murmur as he dreams. For all intents and purposes, Venti breathes, and Aether needs to make sure he’s still breathing, still alive.
It’s then that he notices it -
In Aether’s opinion, apart from Venti’s eyes, the most distinctive features of his appearance would be the twin braids that frame his face, that seem to almost glow with a beautiful teal hue.
Now, Aether feels his heart sink as he gingerly touches Venti’s hair. Instead of the lovely teal that seemed to thrum with Anemo energy, the ends of his braids are now a frosty grey, devoid of all colour. It feels wrong.
“Venti -” he breathes, not wanting to think about what this could possibly mean.
“Holy Barbatos! What happened to you?!” Barbara exclaims, sprinting to them with Jean and some other knights in tow. She crashes to her knees next to them and immediately reaches towards Venti, hydro magic pooling in her hands already.
“We were attacked,” Aether tells them, carefully shifting Venti in his arms. “Harbinger Signora,” he tells Jean, who immediately stiffens at the name.
“Oh Celestia,” she curses. “The Fatui have gone too far this time.” She turns around to regard the knights standing behind her.
“Otto, send up the alarm signal. Joyce, Alert Captain Kaeya and the other knights. We must secure the gates. Don’t let anyone out of the city. Porthos, fetch Master Diluc here, immediately. Tell him it’s an emergency.”
“Outrider Amber, please alert Albedo.” She glances towards Venti, who remains unresponsive even as Barbara pours her healing magic into him. “Tell him it’s urgent, and ask him to bring something to counter an intense Cryo attack.”
“I’ll be right back!” Amber promises, already on the move as she jumps off the edge of the staircase to the cathedral and unfurls her glider.
“Why isn’t it working?” Barbara frowns, sweat beading at her temples. “My magic, it’s not reaching him at all…”
“Here, maybe I can help,” Jean says, as she kneels beside Barbara to place her hands on Venti’s chest and begins to channel Anemo energy. “It’s the Harbinger’s ice. She must’ve hit him at a very close range, didn’t she?”
Aether nods, trying not to think about that terrible moment when Signora had thrust her ruthless hand into Venti’s chest, and Venti’s pained gasp as she ripped out his gnosis.
“It’s not much, but my vision is compatible with his. It seems to be helping,” Jean says. “We should move him inside soon, before Albedo arrives.”
“Jean, did you see Paimon? She was there too, we all got hit with a huge blast of ice -” He remembers now, how Venti had thrown up an Anemo barrier to shield them from the worst of Signora’s frosty winds.
“I’ll look for her!” Barbara volunteers, eager to be of help. Jean nods at her in approval.
As soon as she leaves, Aether shifts his attention back to Venti.
“She took something from his chest - from inside him,” he tells Jean, now that they’re relatively alone. “She said it was his gnosis.”
If the information shocks Jean, she doesn’t show it. She chooses instead to maintain a steady flow of Anemo energy into Venti.
“Lord Barbatos may not be as strong as he once was, but he is an archon nonetheless,” she says, her voice steady. “As long as the wind blows in Teyvat, we will not stop fighting for him, and for the freedom he wishes for all.” She looks at him with eyes that glimmer with strength and determination. “You need to have faith, Aether. Venti will be alright.”
Aether nods, swallowing the lump in his throat. Suddenly he understands why all the people of Monstadt respect Jean so much. She is truly worthy of being the Acting-Grandmaster.
“Thank you,” he says, and Jean gives him a warm smile.
“I have done what I can,” she says, lifting her hands from Venti’s chest. “A pyro user with the required experience would be much more suited to help.” She signals to some of the knights waiting nearby, and they bring a stretcher to carry Venti on. Aether and Jean carefully lift him onto the stretcher, and Aether’s heart clenches painfully at the sight of Venti’s arm hanging limply on one side as the knights prepare to carry him into the healing rooms.
He spots something green lying at his feet, and as he bends to pick it up he realises it’s Venti’s beret, damp from the melting frost. He clutches it to his heart like a priceless artefact. Venti will want it back when he wakes up.
Absurdly, Aether misses Venti. He had gotten used to the bard’s near-constant presence next to him while they were trying to save Dvalin. Even when he was fighting a huge dragon mid-air, Aether had never been scared, knowing that Venti and his winds would always cushion his fall.
Faith, Jean had said. He needed to have faith.
“Lord Barbatos,” he prays, “please listen to my prayer. Please wake up, and come back to us.” A gentle breeze caresses his cheek. It feels like a good omen. “I miss you, very much.”
“Aether? Are you okay?” Jean asks, her brows creased in worry.
Aether nods. “I was praying to Barbatos,” he says, and her eyes soften in understanding.
“Come on, let’s go inside,” she says, wrapping a comforting arm around his shoulder as she ushers him in the direction of the cathedral.