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through your veins songs of courage doth flow

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“I need to talk to you,” Diluc says as Venti tilts his empty glass at him. He makes no move to refill the glass or even reach behind the counter, and Venti sighs and decides he’s mooched enough for one day.

“Talk away then, but you should know that I carry precisely zero Mora on me as of this moment, so I won’t be paying off my tab for a while.”

He huffs a laugh. “It’s not about that. Although…”

“—Forget I said anything,” Venti says, leaning across the table and flashing his most innocent smile. It’s never been known to work on this particular person, but there’s always a first time. “You were saying, Master Diluc?”

“I need to talk to you in private.”

“…Uh-oh.”

“In the cellar would be best. No one will bother us.”

Venti considers it. “Sounds like something a murderer would say.” He raises his voice, just in case someone needs to bear witness to his untimely demise.

“I would never.” Diluc pauses. “The wine barrels are too precious to stain with blood.”

“Oh, sure, that’s why.” He hops off the bar stool nonetheless and follows Diluc into the badly-lit gloom downstairs. The walls of the cellar seem thick enough, but with a little effort, his screams are sure to be—

“—heard about your engagement,” Diluc says as soon as he closes the door behind them. “My congratulations.”

“Did you have to take me to the cellar to tell me that?” Venti says, sniffling a little and wiping his nose on his sleeve. “This place could use a good thorough dusting.” He sneezes once, for emphasis, and clouds of dust fly into the air. “I’ll do it for you if you like, but I don’t work for free.”

Diluc shakes his head. “It’s an anti-theft measure for drunkards with allergies. Any attempt at pilfering a drink would surely alert anyone upstairs who wasn’t deaf.”

“Oh, very funny, Master Diluc. Your sense of humor is coming along quite nicely.” Venti bends to examine one of the wine casks. “Why’d you bring a poor bard into your cellar if not to tempt him with treasures beyond his reach? I didn’t think you capable of such cruelty.”

Diluc sighs a long-practiced sigh and holds up a single, cobwebbed bottle. “Well, I was going to present you with some dandelion wine as an engagement present, but—”

“—Gimme,” Venti says, making a grab for it. Diluc hoists it above his head easily.

“—On the condition that you will share it with your husband-to-be, of course.”

Venti rolls his eyes and propels himself into the air, somersaulting lazily for show before he snatches the bottle from Diluc’s hand. “I do owe him a drink…”

-

“Morax!”

Zhongli knows that voice.

He groans once and clears his valuables off the table in the main room. He has barely put away an artisan vase (beautifully crafted, that one, with fine jade set in the handles and gold veins kneaded into the clay—it was quite undervalued at the shop too, and he was able to acquire it for a measly 90,000 mora) when his window blasts open, the shutters slamming into the walls of his apartment and rattling the entire house to its very foundations. The force of the wind sends chairs flying across the room.

“Barbatos, really,” he says, brushing the leaves and dirt from his suit. “Who will pay for the furniture?”

“I don’t know. Your new boyfriend?” Barbatos flops on the sofa, kicking his feet up and ignoring the sudden flush on Zhongli’s cheeks. “He’s the, ah, Snezhnayan, right?”

“Yes,” he says, steeling himself lest the bard choose to comment.

“Still doesn’t know that you proposed to him?”

Zhongli sighs, recalling that day in Wanmin Restaurant. He had been quite certain that he had gifted Childe a book on Liyue customs a few weeks before, but it would seem that the man hadn’t yet reached the relevant chapter. “It would seem so.”

“You could just, I don’t know, tell him—”

“—Out of the question,” Zhongli says decisively, putting an end to the conversation. The silence, while blessed, only lasts for a couple of moments.

“Anyway, speaking of partners, where’s Xiao? I can’t find him anywhere.”

“You shall not see him.”

Barbatos, insufferable person that he is, sticks out his tongue. “You can’t tell me what to do, old man.”

“It is an ancient tradition within our borders. ‘The betrothed couple shall not be allowed to lay eyes upon each other a month before their marriage, for curses and evil spirits may sour the love in their eyes and turn it to hatred.’”

“Sounds made-up.”

“All traditions are “made-up,” as you so bluntly put it. It was further said in ancient times that the true test of a couple’s love is in their separation, for in wartime, when on the battlefield—”

 “—And I didn’t ask for a history lesson, either.”

“You are getting one, nonetheless.”

Barbatos crosses his arms. “Brute.”

“Drunkard.”

“Tell me where Xiao is.”

“I will not.” He crosses his arms as well. Two can play at that game.

“I’ll find him myself then.”

“You will not.”

Barbatos does not respond, having disappeared in a burst of feathers. Zhongli sighs and closes his window. He will have to ask the landlord about repairing it one of these days.
-

Really, there was no need for Zhongli to act all mysterious. Despite their short acquaintance and even shorter engagement, Venti knows that Xiao can be relied upon to visit the Wangshu Inn, to devour all the almond tofu that they care to stock, and to disappear to conquer demons and return dolls to children. Or something.

So he waltzes into the inn, singing his sweetest songs and tossing winks to the passerby as they gather around him. Surely, surely, Xiao would turn up again, looking wrung-out and wide-eyed and lovely like the first time they met. Any time now.

After four songs and an impromptu dance to get away from the resident cat, Venti is getting quite fed-up. The sun is dipping below the horizon, the crowd is starting to disperse, and there is still no sign of the adeptus. Venti briefly considers throwing himself off the inn’s roof to try to get Xiao to catch him, but it seems too drastic a measure for their second date.

Finally, he decides to order a serving of almond tofu and leave it out on the table in the kitchen. By the end of the night, Xiao takes the bait, appearing in a flash of light and shimmering shadow. In the light from the dying fireplace, he looks younger, weariness settling on his shoulders like a thick blanket of snow. Something inside Venti aches at the sight, at the sudden brightness of Xiao’s face when he takes his first spoonful and the faintest of smiles traced on his lips. The careful, deliberate way he puts away his spoon and plate.

“You’re so pretty,” Venti blurts, and immediately regrets his decision.

Xiao is tense in a moment, mask on and spear in hand. “Show yourself, demon!” he hisses into the darkness, and Venti has to bite back his laughter before revealing himself.

“Hehe, relax, Xiao, it’s me—”

“—L-lord Barbatos.” Xiao straightens, clearing his throat awkwardly. His mask is still on. “We are not allowed to meet. Please leave.”

Venti laughs then, taking a step forward. Xiao edges backwards. “Technically, the exact wording Zhongli gave me was ‘lay eyes on each other.’”

Xiao, obediently, covers the eyes of his mask. The tips of his ears are red. “Even so, Lord Barbatos…”

“Please, call me Venti.”

“…Very well.” He pauses. “Barbatos.”

Venti huffs, and lets it slide. After all, he can’t expect a follower of Morax to change his ways overnight. He needs to be patient.

“Please leave. If Zhongli finds you here—”

“Oh, come now. Zhongli can’t hurt me!” He steps closer again, relishing the way Xiao inhales, the sudden kick of his heartbeat. “Really, you have to live a little. I mean, you don’t do everything your Archon tells you to, right?”

“…”

“Oh. Oh. So that’s why—”

“—Yes.” He has the grace, at least, to sound embarrassed.

“Well, this is simply unacceptable! Inconceivable! Tell you what, you’re coming with me to Mondstadt, we are getting drunk, and you’ll have your first taste of rebellion.” He grabs Xiao’s hand, twining their fingers together. “So, you up for it?”

A sigh. “If you insist.”

“Oh, but I’m not—”

“—If you insist,” Xiao repeats, and Venti grins at him. It’s the work of a moment to bring them both to the balcony and summon the wind under their feet. Xiao squeezes his hand as they rise into the air. “Won’t you take off your mask? People will stare.”

“Your people have no respect,” Xiao mutters, but he removes his mask anyway.

“Of course! They are my people after all.” That makes Xiao huff. It’s the closest thing to a laugh that Venti’s gotten from him. “Now, when we arrive, be sure to call me Venti. No one in Mondstadt knows I’m their Archon, so let’s keep it that way!”

“No one in Mondstadt—why?”

“Well, because they’ll hound me all day asking for blessings and favors! I wouldn’t have a free moment in my life if they found out that I was Barbatos. All that meaningless praise and—and the unconditional obedience.” He shudders, remembering a wall of endless storm and a boy with determination in his eyes. “Who would want that?”

“I understand,” Xiao says, and maybe he does, because he breathes out slowly and looks Venti in the eye. “Venti.”

-

They alight just before dawn, in the hands of the Archon Statue. Mondstadt is just beginning to wake up, the streets still empty except for a few stragglers. Far below them, a nun leads a prayer, whispering some nonsense about thanking their hardworking god. Venti blows away some stray dandelion seeds—more prayers—and sits. Xiao, being a fool, opts to stand, despite Venti trying to tug him down.

“So?” Venti prompts. His betrothed seems to be rather distracted, staring at the statue in the face with unnerving intensity. “What do you think?”

“That’s…not what you wear as an Archon,” Xiao says, looking quite flustered. “I should know.”

“It’s not.”

“Then why…?”

“Oh, I had to—ahem—inspire a few changes a couple of millennia ago. For, ah, personal reasons.” Venti laughs. “Let’s not talk about it.”

The look on Xiao’s face suggests that he very much wants to talk about it, so Venti hurries to distract him. “So,” he says, gesturing grandly to the entirety of Mondstadt. “What do you think of my city? Isn’t it amazing? Wonderful? Beyond description?”

Xiao peers over the edge, taking in the sights. “It’s…rather small.”

You’re rather small,” Venti says, and Xiao smiles. It’s a stunning sight. “Take it back.”

Xiao pauses and shakes his head. “I am allowed to disagree with you, right?” he says, although his voice is filled with doubt.

“Ah, you learn so fast. Come down, then. Let’s go. I’m showing you around before you get too drunk to walk.”

-

The streets of Mondstadt are cramped, the cobblestone uneven. There are no storytellers, only bards who can barely play a tune and whose voices pitch and crack. The city doesn’t bustle, the guards don’t seem to patrol, and every once in a while, someone jumps out of their window to glide into the street. It’s all foreign to Xiao, and if he’s being honest, he doesn’t see the appeal. The only thing keeping him from leaving is Venti’s hand in his, and his surprisingly strong grip.

They turn a corner and come across a flower shop. The strange flowers set out in front of the stall aren’t ones Xiao has seen before—spinning orange wheels, glowing blue bulbs, and pale fragile flowers that remind him of the mountains of Liyue. He stops to observe, just for a moment. It’s a mistake.

“Welcome!” the woman above the stall calls out. Her eyes are fixed on them. An enterprising merchant, perhaps. Xiao can deal with enterprising merchants. “Would you like some flowers?” She glances at their joined hands. “Couples are our specialty!”

Perhaps he can’t.

“Um,” Xiao says, reeling back. It’s perfectly ridiculous, the brazenness of some of these mortals, the sheer audacity. He wants to disappear, to flee back to Liyue and forget he ever dared to enter this strange city. “I—we’re not a couple,” he stammers instead, hating himself for it.

“I’m sorry—”

“—Oh, but we are engaged!” Venti chirps. “Do you think that counts? Maybe it does. Xiao, are we a couple if we’re engaged?”

“—You’re engaged?” the woman says. She makes no effort to hide her surprise. “Congratulations…”

Venti preens, enjoying the attention. “We just got engaged a few weeks ago, and we’re getting married in…ah, um…when’s our wedding?”

“Next month,” Xiao adds dutifully.

“Isn’t he great?” Venti says, ruffling Xiao’s hair. “Honestly, where would I be without you?”

“In the tavern, playing songs to buy your wine.”

“It was a rhetorical question. Don’t mind him, Miss Donna. He gets like this sometimes.”

Thus empowered, Venti chatters on and on about inconsequential things, like harvests and the weather. Why the weather needs to be discussed in a city where it hasn’t rained in 500 years, Xiao will never know.

“I guess,” Donna—for that seems to be the woman’s name—says finally. “I guess since it’s your engagement, I can give you one flower as a-a present?”

“Much appreciated,” Venti says. And because he is never one to waste a situation, he continues. “May the Anemo God bless you!”

“What flower would you like?”

“What’s your favorite flower, Xiao?” Venti says, elbowing him in the side.

He thinks for a moment. Liyue has many flowers, but most of them now grow in human gardens, watered by human hands. He hasn’t had much chance to observe them, much less play favorites. “Qingxin,” he decides.

“Pardon me?” Donna says.

“Qingxin.” He blinks at the blank look on her face. “It’s…white.”

She stutters. “Um, I haven’t—you see, we-we don’t stock—”

“We’re not in Liyue,” Venti whispers in his ear, sing-song. He shudders at the faint puff of breath. “Please stop confusing the poor citizens.”

Right. Xiao resists the urge to hide behind his mask. It would only end up scaring the mortals. He instead gestures to the only other white flowers in the stall. He’s seen them before, pinned on Venti’s clothes and hat. “Um, that.”

“Cecilias?” she says, plucking one from the stall and trimming the stem before handing it to him. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

He turns away instead of answering, tugging at Venti’s hand. After a rushed apology, Venti follows him.

-

“Xiao, you’re crushing that cecilia,” Venti says, after they’ve made it back to the city gates. It’s tricky work, to make it look like they aren’t teleporting when they have just rounded the entirety of Mondstadt twice in the last five seconds. “If you don’t want it, give it here.”

“No,” Xiao says. “I…I want to keep it.”

“Well, at least let me—” Venti snatches it from Xiao’s hand and tucks it into his hair, brushing his cheek with one hand. It’s too easy, really, to get him to fluster, to lean against Venti’s hand. “There. Now we match!”

Xiao doesn’t speak, only stares fixedly at a point beyond Venti’s shoulder. Before Venti can say anything, a voice pipes up behind them.

“State your name, strange yet respectable traveler!”

Amber. Of course. Her feet are firmly planted on top of the city walls, wind glider in hand. “Hi, Venti!” she says, waving cheerfully before frowning at Xiao. “Please state your intended destination and allow the Knights of Favonius to escort you!”

“I don’t know,” Xiao says, looking quite wretched. “I haven’t been here before.”

“Oh? I’ve been following you around the city and you seem suspicious to me. All that skulking about.” She puts her hand on her hip and points. “I’ve got my eye on you! Outrider Amber’s on the case! If you try any funny business—”

“—He’s with me!” Venti says, before Xiao can make himself even more suspicious. “This is Xiao, Amber. Amber, Xiao.”

“Nice to meet you,” Xiao says through gritted teeth. He’s a horrible liar, and Venti winces as he raises a hand and gives a stiff, awkward wave.

“He’s my, ah—”

“—We’re going to be married in a month,” Xiao mutters.

Amber’s slack-jawed expression turns into a grin. “Oh, I’m so happy for you! Are you going to do it in Mondstadt?” Her eyes gleam and she starts shouting. “Oh, do it at the festival! Please do it at the festival! There’s nothing more exciting than a Windblume wedding! And you’re sure to get the blessings of the Anemo Archon!”

“I think we have that part covered,” Venti says, scratching the back of his head. Xiao nods vehemently, squeezing Venti’s hand. “Anyway, it was very nice to see you again so we’ll be—”

“—let me treat you at Good Hunter!” Amber bursts out. “They have a special on Sticky Honey Roast today!”

Venti suppresses a shudder at the mention of the food. Sticky Honey Roast. Truly the worst thing to happen to Mondstadt since his last visit a couple hundred years ago. “No, it’s alright. Xiao here is a picky eater, can’t stomach…ah…meat.”

“Oh.” Amber’s very headband seems to droop at that. “Well, I guess that’s…fine. Okay.”

“We’ll make it up to you,” Venti promises.

“I could learn to cook whatever you guys want! I won’t burn it this time, I promise!” Amber calls after them. “Just get me the recipe!”

-

Venti pulls them to a stop just outside Angel’s Share. It’s not as crowded this morning, even with the dreamy-eyed men and women fluttering around the tavern. Diluc must be tending the bar then. It’ll be easy to nip in and borrow a few more bottles for their excursion if he was distracted trying to fend off marriage proposals.

“I just need to attend to some trivial matters,” he says, turning to Xiao. “You’ll be fine on your own for a couple of minutes, right?”

“Of course,” Xiao says, but he doesn’t let go of Venti’s hand. Venti tugs, experimentally, but the hold doesn’t loosen, and Xiao does not budge.

“Kind of need my arm.”

Xiao nods and refuses to meet his eyes. “I understand,” he says, although his grip does not change. It’s cute, Venti will admit, but he really does need his arm—his future as a bard looks bleak if he always has a grumpy adeptus stuck to his side every performance.

“Come on, we don’t have to do everything together. Just make sure not to attract the Knights’ attention again; we don’t need to get you arrested on your first day here.” He pauses to allow the gravity of the situation to sink in. “That would make a terrible impression and Zhongli will never let me hear the end of it.”

“I…” Xiao glances up at him and away again. “…I don’t know where to go. I haven’t been to Mondstadt before,” he says, defensive. “I’d…get lost.”

Venti has to laugh at that. “Silly adeptus. I’ll be a few minutes at most. Just need to greet a friend.”

“I don’t see why you have to.”

“Because he is the very kind sponsor of our afternoon activities and I have to beg off paying my tab for another day.”

A blink. “Do you not have Mora?”

“I’m not Zhongli; I can’t conjure up that stuff from thin air.”

“But,” Xiao says, face scrunched. “Surely you have some sort of income…or a way to accept offerings? Do you people not have offerings?” He looks aghast at the thought. “Not even food?”

“…I let people buy me drinks sometimes when they like my performances?”

“…”

“You think less of me now, don’t you?”

-

Xiao doesn’t remember how they got here. The cliff—Starsnatch Cliff, Venti called it, and Mondstadt names are stranger than he thought, really—the cliff drops sharply to the coast, to a calm, placid beach and a churning sea. The wind is salty on his tongue when he opens his mouth, though it’s no stronger than a gentle breeze.

“Still think Mondstadt isn’t the best place in Teyvat?” Venti says. They’re leaning against each other now, propping each other up. The talisman on Venti’s cloak digs into Xiao’s back, but he is warm and Xiao doesn’t mind. Under most circumstances, Xiao would balk at the very idea of physical contact, but he is currently having trouble remembering what those circumstances are.

What he does remember is wine, lots of it. Where Venti managed to get ahold of those quantities is frankly none of Xiao’s business and he is scared to ask, but he is curious, nevertheless.

Instead of answering, he hums.

“Have some more,” Venti says, nudging the bottle under his nose. For some reason, Venti hasn’t taken more than a sip, proclaiming that it was vital, no, absolutely essential for Xiao to get the full Mondstadt experience. Apparently, that included drinking several bottles of wine, by himself. Xiao has never heard of the custom, but he’s willing to concede that perhaps the ruler of the nation has more knowledge on these matters.

He takes the bottle instead of thinking on it further, puts it to his lips, and swallows. It tingles on his tongue, sweet and strange, and he shudders involuntarily.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” Xiao says. He’s already draped himself all over the Archon, he doesn’t need to admit to anything else. He can control himself. Never mind how his head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, or how he can’t seem to stop leaning into Venti’s warmth.

“Anything I can do for you?”

He shouldn’t answer. He should keep his mouth shut and shake his head and enjoy the view of cecilias—they only grow here, or so Venti told him. He should never speak of desire; he’s learned that long ago—

“—can you…play something?” he says, instinct winning out again. It’s always been this way around the Archon, his very presence loosening Xiao’s lips and clouding his head. Like wine. Like hope.

“But of course!” Venti says, lyre already in hand.

The folk song he eventually plays is old, from the tense periods of peace after the Archon War. Xiao remembers hearing it from the villages he used to defend, before the plagues forced them out. The lyrics speak of monsters and mysteries, of the Dark Sea and the gods that had come before. It’s cheerful though, a wild rollicking tune, and the winds don’t sweep away Venti’s voice like they would a human’s.

It's nice.

Xiao says so.

-

They’re at Windrise now, lying underneath the tree. Xiao nuzzles against the ruffles on Venti’s shirt, and Venti twines his fingers through his yaksha’s hair. His cloak is balled up under his head—he would have kept it on, but Xiao had looked mortally offended when the bow got in the way of his cuddling, and so the cloak had to go.

“You know, I learned to play the flute because of you.” Xiao hiccups and sits upright, and Venti shifts so he can keep his arms around him. “It took me a while, but I did it.” Xiao looks so proud, face red from the wine and hair a tangled mess.

“Oh? Show me?”

His face falls. “I don’t have a flute.”

“No problem!” Venti sits up and pulls out his old flute, the one he hasn’t played in centuries. Xiao’s eyes widen, and the color in his cheeks gets brighter. “Bit dusty but—”

Xiao blows a gust of wind through the flute, sending both dust and flute flying. “Sorry,” he whispers. “I’ll get it—”

“—Allow me.” It only takes a twitch of Venti’s fingers to bring the flute back. “Now, your turn!”

Xiao blinks and takes the flute, putting it to his lips. The first few notes trill through the silence, and Venti laughs.

“You remembered that? You absolute sap.”

“It was quite memorable.”

“The song I was playing when you first spoke to me—”

“—Please stop.” Xiao’s face is completely red by now. He shoves the flute into Venti’s hands. “It’s really nothing worth remarking about.”

“Oh, but that’s when you confessed you loved—”

“—Please.” Xiao’s mask is back on his face, both hands covering it. It is, quite frankly, adorable. “We can talk about anything else. Anything.”

Venti laughs and reaches out to catch Xiao’s wrists, gently pulling them away from his face. “Take off your mask, you buffoon.”

“Why should I?”

“Because…” he says, pressing a kiss to Xiao’s palms. “Because I want to kiss you, and your mask will get in the way. You know, with the fangs and all. Kind of inconvenient, don’t you think?”

“I…” Xiao opens his mouth and closes it again. “I…”

“So you didn’t think. We can remedy that.” Venti lets go of Xiao’s hands and taps the side of the mask. “Off! Let me see your pretty face.”

Xiao fumbles at his mask, knocking it to the ground. “Satisfied?” he asks, breathless.

“Quite.” Venti leans forward, smiling against Xiao’s lips. Xiao makes a soft noise of surprise, his hands hovering hesitantly in the air. The way they’re pressed together, Venti can feel how Xiao’s heart races, how warm his cheeks are.

When they break apart, Xiao immediately clears his throat and scoops up his abandoned mask, picking grass blades off it with every indication of great concentration.

“Oh, was it that bad?” Venti says, letting his voice curl around the words and relishing the way Xiao shivers.

“It was fine.”

“Fine. Just fine, he says,” Venti repeats, letting his voice go pitchy.

“It was…nice,” Xiao relents.

“Blockhead. Come here and kiss me again.”

-

It’s night, and the lamp grass is just starting to glow. Venti has been playing for hours now, first on the flute and switching to the lyre when he found himself out of breath. A veritable flock of woodland creatures have gathered around them, their heads (and in the case of the slimes, their entire bodies) swaying to the music.

Xiao is curled up in a ball, his head in Venti’s lap. From time to time, he reaches out and bats at one of Venti’s braids before settling back into a peaceful daze. It’s a shame he can’t hold his alcohol, really, but Venti really can’t complain.

“Why’d—why’d you stop?”

“It’s night.”

“So?

Venti sighs, coaxes Xiao into an upright position. The adeptus blinks, sleepy-eyed, head drooping on Venti’s shoulder. “We should probably get you back to Liyue,” he says. “Zhongli’s going to be mad at us as it is.”

“Don’t want to go back,” Xiao mutters into his shirt.

“Oh? You like Mondstadt now?”

“Ngh.”

Venti laughs and presses a kiss to Xiao’s forehead. “Come on. You don’t want to get Zhongli mad.”

“He’s probably already mad,” Xiao says reasonably as he gets to his feet. He’s remarkably steady even after all the alcohol—it’s really impressive. “He’s going to put on his disappointed voice.” Xiao frowns. “I hate his disappointed voice.”

“You get used to it after a while.” Venti stands, and picks up his cloak, refastening it around his shoulders and brushing the leaves and tree bark from his clothes with a burst of wind. After a moment’s consideration, he does the same for Xiao, blowing away all traces of his stay except for the flowers—Venti had taken the opportunity to braid windwheel asters and dandelions into his hair along with the cecilia. Xiao doesn’t seem to mind.

“Let’s get going,” Venti says. “Do you feel well enough to fly?” Xiao looks sick at the very thought, so Venti quickly backtracks. “Walking! Walking is fine! I love walking!”

-

“Why are the slimes following us?” Xiao says, looking behind him. The small blue slimes blink innocently at him until he turns back. “It’s…disturbing.”

Venti strums one last chord before shrugging. “Have no idea.”

“And the foxes?”

“No idea.”

“The birds?”

Another shrug.

“Crystalflies?” Xiao tries.

“Maybe they think you’re a nature spirit!” Venti suggests. “There are tales of seelie who take human forms—”

“—I am an adeptus. Not a…” Xiao gestures behind him to the ever-growing crowd of creatures. He even spots a mitachurl among the throng. “…creature charmer.”

“You would make a very poor nature spirit,” Venti agrees. “I think it’s the spear. Something about it…I don’t know. It just doesn’t scream ‘friendly.’”

“I have never aimed to be—” Xiao shudders. “—friendly.”

They’ve reached the border now, the mountains that separate Mondstadt and Liyue. Xiao takes a deep breath, drinking in the familiar scent of home. The violetgrass, the lotuses, the earth steady and solid under his feet—

—the ground shakes, and Xiao immediately takes back that particular statement. There have been frequent earthquakes since the geovishaps started waking, but nothing like this. Dimly, he registers that the creatures behind them have fled. Venti seems close to fleeing himself, unsteady on his feet.

“Hehe.”

Xiao blinks at him. “What?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just—” Venti gestures to the ground, his smile twisting into a wry expression. “He’s definitely mad at me.”

The ground rumbles, as if in agreement. Cracks start to form in the rocks surrounding them, the earth beneath their feet sinking. The mountains loom overhead.

Barbatos.”

Venti laughs again, shakily. “I-I can explain—?”

Barbatos.”

Venti pats Xiao on the shoulder and kisses his cheek. “Anyway,” he calls to the echoing stone, to the shadows descending overhead. “I brought him back safe and sound, so, ah, I’ll be going now! See you at the wedding!”

And just like that, he disappears in a cloud of feathers.