It’s dusk when the knock comes on Xiao’s door, brisk and efficient like the knock Verr Goldet uses for consultations. Xiao permits himself a small moment of exasperation—another slime infestation perhaps, or a rogue whopperflower spitting fire on unsuspecting passerby. Why the inn had not invested more in security, he would never know.
“Yes?” he calls through the door.
“You have a visitor,” she says, in a false bright tone. “Asked to see you.”
No one asks specifically to see Xiao, except on the strange, strange days when Aether and Lumine show up with bribes and gifts of almond tofu. Venti just pops in when he wants to, teleporting into Xiao’s room to ambush him or clambering through the inexplicably wide windows, but he hasn’t visited for two weeks—Xiao might have said something, but the constant breeze that runs through his hair and the faint song it brings is enough reminder that Venti thinks of him.
Verr Goldet coughs from behind the door. “He insists.”
He. So it wouldn’t be the twins; they did everything together. Xiao can banish thoughts of sweet silky almond tofu from his mind. “I will be downstairs.”
Downstairs, at the quiet table near the kitchen is a pot of rice wine and two cups. Xiao barely has time to wrinkle his nose at the scent before Zhongli emerges from the shadows.
Thankfully, Xiao has had practice dealing with the same situation. He does not yell, does not even summon his spear or mask. He simply bows and takes his seat.
“No need for formalities, Xiao,” Zhongli says. “Please, have a drink.”
“Why are you here?” He winces. “I did not mean that harshly. I merely wondered. I haven’t seen you for a while.”
“Not since the day after your marriage.” Zhongli smiles pleasantly. “I learned of the most fascinating thing while in mortal guise and would like to share it with you. I thought you might be interested.”
Xiao takes a sip of rice wine and keeps a straight face, nodding to show that he’s listening.
“Vacations,” Zhongli announces, with a smile. “Paid vacations to be precise. They are wonderful things.”
“Oh,” Xiao says, feeling rather stupid. “You’re on one?”
“Ah, no. Director Hu thought it best not to leave me unsupervised for extended periods of time.” He drums his fingers on the table. “I thought that you might want one.”
Was that an offer? That was an offer. Xiao blinks and waits for him to take it back, but it doesn’t happen.
“Evil spirits do not take…vacations,” he says finally.
“No, but there have been surprisingly little of them of late, since Osial’s return, and of course, we may thank the travelers for their services.”
“I never asked them for help.”
“And yet they do it anyway. It appears that they enjoy it. Some form of bonding exercise.” Zhongli is wearing that indulgent smile again, and Xiao hurries to head it off.
“I cannot leave Liyue unprotected.”
“It does not need your protection any longer. Or at the very least, it does not require the constant vigilance of old. A week-long vacation would not be out of the question.” Zhongli looks him in the eye. “I believe it would be good for you.”
“I have no need nor want of it, and it is not essential to my well-being.” Zhongli frowns at him, eyes drooping down and slumping in his seat, and Xiao is left with the uncomfortable feeling that he accidentally kicked a very old, venerable dog, or perhaps a small dragon. “I appreciate it, but—”
“—no, I understand,” Zhongli says, standing and straightening his tie. “So long as you know that the offer is always on the table.”
“I know,” Xiao says, watching as Zhongli makes his way to the exit.
Zhongli has one hand on the doorframe when he pauses. “Xiao, you are aware of the Windblume Festival, yes?”
Venti had mentioned this, before. Talked his ear off about it, in fact. “A Mondstadt festival of love and freedom,” he recites from memory, trying to ignore the way the wind picks up and starts swirling playfully around him. “They give flowers to…the Anemo Archon. And their loved ones.”
“Yes. I have heard that it ends in three days.” A significant pause. “I thought you might want to know, that is all.”
This is a terrible idea, Xiao thinks as the gates of Mondstadt loom before him. A terrible, horrible, nonsensical idea.
The guard blatantly goggles at him as he walks up to the gates, which are adorned with flowers for the festival. The air is thick with dandelion seeds. Xiao is standing at the city gates, a truly enormous bouquet of native Liyue flowers in his arms, dressed in ill-fitting and mismatched Mondstadt fashion, and he looks like an idiot.
This is all Venti’s fault. It was Venti who gave him this disguise: the thin ruffled shirt that buttons to his throat and chokes him, the corset that is takes an inordinately long time to put on and take off by himself, the stockings with pointlessly elaborate embroidery. It was Venti who told him about the Windblume Festival and never bothered to say that only Mondstadt flowers were traditional. It’s because of Venti that he even considered the idea of travelling across borders to attend a festival he knows absolutely nothing about.
Xiao remembers Zhongli gushing about vacations and paid leave and wonders if that was Venti’s fault too.
“Greetings, strange yet respectable traveler!” the guard says, still staring. Xiao shrugs at him—there’s no good way to greet someone when you’re carrying a bouquet the size of a wild boar.
“Welcome to Mondstadt! You have arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the Windblume Festival. Make sure you don’t miss out!”
“…Thank you,” Xiao says, after an uncomfortably long silence. He hefts the bouquet higher. A stalk digs into his skin. “I will…keep that in mind.”
“Are those flowers from Liyue?”
Xiao nods, wretchedly. He had reasoned—and it sounded reasonable, at the time—that it would be a worse situation if he gathered too many instead of too few, and had erred on the side of caution.
The guard opens his mouth and shuts it again. Xiao pushes past him before he can make further conversation.
Mondstadt is decorated in a bizarre excess of flowers. Every bush is in blossom, every house is liberally and wastefully garlanded, and pollen is everywhere. He’s lucky he doesn’t have allergies.
(Venti has allergies, a corner of his mind announces helpfully. Xiao ignores it in favor of walking faster.)
Xiao heads to Angel’s Share, which is blessedly free from the encroaching floral monstrosities. He vaguely remembers Venti dragging him inside the last time he was in Mondstadt, the taste of dandelion wine lingering on his tongue. The red-haired bartender who polished a glass aggressively in their direction and who was injured at the wedding. The twanging, shaky sound of the lyres the other bards played.
Inside is chaos. Bottles and mugs everywhere, wilted flowers on the floor, heartbroken mortals sobbing quietly in corners. Xiao carefully avoids the kissing couples on his way to the bar.
“Xiao,” the bartender says. It is that red-haired man again, except he is no longer wearing an eyepatch or holding a chunk of ice to his face like when Xiao last saw him. Xiao meets his gaze head-on, even if he has to tilt his head to look the man in the eye.
“He isn’t here.” The man considers the giant bouquet in Xiao’s arms and very kindly does not comment on its excessiveness. “If that is who you were looking for?”
Xiao nods, grim. The man looks as uncomfortable as he is, and Xiao feels a sudden burst of kinship.
“I assume you did not come here to have a drink.”
“No, I did not.”
The man sighs and goes back to rearranging the glasses behind the counter. Xiao puts the bouquet down and thinks about the events of his life that led up to this moment.
“He’s in the plaza.”
“Venti,” the man says, pronouncing every syllable. “In the plaza.” Xiao blinks at him and he sighs. “Near the church. The foot of the giant statue.” The giant statue that is dressed nothing like Venti, the unhelpful voice in the back of Xiao’s head chimes in.
“I…thanks,” Xiao mumbles and heads for the door.
The plaza is crowded, a riot of color and laughter. Music wafts out over the crowd from a knot of playing bards, the songs loud and raucous and sentimental. Couples and trios swirl around, dancing and laughing, flowers tucked into their hair and clothes. It’s exactly as inane as Xiao would expect from a mortal festival.
At least he blends in.
It doesn’t take long to find who he’s looking for. Venti flits through the cheering crowd in mortal guise, strumming out accompanying tunes and giving last-minute poetry advice to stammering youths. He doesn’t have his cape on, the little tease, and he beams at the same time the sunlight hits his hair, the pale turn of his wrist, the thin fabric of his shirt, and oh, oh.
Want and longing bursts out in his chest, the feeling so large it chokes him, crowds out all other emotions. He’s never felt so much before, the sheer intensity of it as much of a shock as the emotion itself, and he’s left trembling.
Before he knows it, he’s pushing his way through the crowd, deeply and utterly aware of how dry his throat is, the pounding of his heart, and the unshakeable feeling that he’s done this before. He’s standing in front of Venti in no time at all, holding out the giant, ridiculous bouquet of flowers like an offering, and Venti’s stunned smile is blinding.
“Xiao,” Venti says, eyes soft. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“…I brought you flowers,” Xiao says, as if it wasn’t obvious, and he shakes the stupid thing just in case.
Venti nods, serious, and lifts the bouquet out of Xiao’s arms with utmost care. It engulfs him, almost—only his eyes peek out from over the top. “No cat hair?” he asks.
“No cat hair.”
Venti buries his head completely in the flowers, breathes in happily and—
—and reels back, coughing. “That’s an interesting scent,” he says, placing the bouquet on the ground and taking great care not to inhale again. “Very…ahem, complex. A moment, please.” He clears his throat. “Now, where were we?”
“Cat hair and the lack thereof.”
“Ah yes, long-lost lovers reuniting after ages of being separated by tragic circumstance.” Venti bounces on the tips of his toes, closes the little distance remaining between them. “Right.”
Xiao can feel the eyes of the crowd boring into the back of his neck. “…We saw each other two weeks ago,” he mutters, mostly to himself.
“Hush,” Venti says softly, and then he’s kissing Xiao, one hand cupping his cheek, the other at his neck, and Xiao doesn’t give a damn about anything else anymore. Venti’s mouth tastes of wine, of sweet apple cider, and he’s warm where they’re pressed together, and it’s everything that Xiao has dreamed of, yearned for, these past few days.
“—I missed you,” he gasps when Venti pulls away to press their foreheads together. “Missed you so much.”
“Well,” Venti says—how is he not out of breath?—with a terrifying smirk. “We should fix that then.”
He presses forward again, and Xiao could not care less about how people are staring now. He’s clinging, hands wrapped around Venti’s shoulders. Something solid bumps against the back of his knees and Venti laughs and dips him down further, grass tickling the back of his neck and heat burning through him—
“…Seriously, you two? Right in front of the altar?”
They jump apart, and Xiao is suddenly, mortifyingly aware that he is sitting someplace he has no right to be sitting. Venti helps him down, biting back laughter.
“Sorry, no, I take that back. Right on top of the altar?” It’s Lumine, hands on her hips, her brother trailing behind her. “You were crushing the Windblumes, you know.”
Xiao turns and sees a single Windwheel Aster beside a misshapen purple fruit. “This is not a flower,” he says.
“Try me, Xiao.” Lumine’s eyes glint with mischief as she gasps and presses a hand to her chest. “Oh, what would the Anemo Archon have to say about this?! How scandalized he would be!”
“Pretty sure he won’t mind,” Venti says. “After all that God of Freedom stuff, I’d say he was a hypocrite.”
Aether rolls his eyes. “Come on, is this really the best place to talk about this? We can discuss the Anemo Archon’s opinion on public displays of affection some other time.”
“But the Windblumes, Aether. The Windblumes!” Lumine laments as the crowd starts to disperse. “Whatever will we do about the Windblumes?”
“I didn’t expect to see you in town,” Venti says as they walk through the streets. Xiao’s arm is firmly threaded through Venti’s, and his head is resting on Venti’s shoulder. They’ve managed to escape the twins for now.
“…I didn’t expect to be in town,” Xiao admits. When he recounts the events of Zhongli’s visit, Venti bursts out laughing.
“A vacation? I never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“Paid vacation,” Xiao corrects.
“He’s broke. You’re not getting paid.” Venti stops to wave at someone before turning back to Xiao. “Well, then, since we don’t want a repeat of last time, let’s go introduce you to the Knights!”
“So they won’t arrest you, of course,” Venti says sweetly. “I hate to say it, but you look like a rather suspicious character.”
“Says the god who stole and broke their own holy relic.”
“You wound me.”
“Kaeya!” Venti yells as he bursts through the door. Xiao follows behind him, making much less noise. “Your homework is due!”
The man with the eyepatch—he looks familiar—blinks at them with no hint of surprise. “Please, Sir, don’t just barge in here like that. My poor heart can’t take this kind of shock.”
“Sir?” Xiao says.
The man glances over only briefly before turning his attention back to the papers on his desk. “Your husband here has been teaching the citizens a few tips and tricks on how to compose love poetry, although it seems my heartfelt rendition does not quite meet his standards.”
“I promised you improvement, didn’t I?” Venti says. “But let’s get back to the matter at hand. I want you to promise the Knights won’t lay a hand on this honorable Liyue citizen.”
The man looks Xiao over again. Xiao squints at him in return. “He’s not dressed like an honorable Liyue citizen.”
“He’s on vacation.”
“Very well. I’ll inform the rest of the Knights. Is there anything else I can help you with?” The man raises a single challenging eyebrow, and everything clicks.
“Wait, I know you,” Xiao says.
“How very kind of you. Kaeya Alberich, at your service.”
“You were at the ceremony a month ago. You offered an eyepatch to the…the redhaired man. When he was injured.” Xiao’s memory fails him then, and his voice falters.
“Diluc,” Kaeya says, sounding out the name. “He is a rather stubborn individual. It’s a shame, really.”
Before Xiao can think of a response—he has no interest in whatever drama those two have going on—Venti places a hand on his shoulder. “Great! Now that you’re reacquainted, we really must be going.”
“But of course. It’s the Windblume Festival, a celebration of love and freedom.” His single eye drifts down to their Visions. “Have you paid your respects to the Anemo Archon, then?”
Venti coughs, loudly, and starts unsubtly tugging on Xiao’s arm. “Oh wow, would you look at the time? We better hurry!”
Kaeya’s voice catches them on their way out the door. “If you would also do Master Jean the courtesy of paying her a visit, I’m sure she would be most grateful. I have heard she is at Good Hunter. If you hurry, perhaps you can catch her.”
“Does he know that you’re Barbatos? Is that what that was about?” Xiao asks as Venti pushes him through the streets. Venti shakes his head and walks faster. They’re headed directly outside, and Xiao feels this might be counterproductive to their goal of meeting someone inside the city.
“Weren’t we supposed to go see someone?” he tries.
“That can wait,” Venti says. “For now, let’s see you shoot down some balloons.”
“Balloons,” Xiao says. It’s not a question. “You expect me to spend my limited time here, hunting balloons.”
“Not all of your time here. Besides, it’s just party games. No need for that kind of language.” They’re past the bridge now, and Venti has his arm around Xiao’s waist as they stride through the grass. “Come on. You’re here now; you might as well enjoy it. It’s your first vacation in…what, 500 years?”
“Two thousand,” Xiao corrects. “Give or take a few decades.”
Venti huffs, his cheeks puffing out. “The nerve of your employer,” he seethes, before turning his attention back to Xiao. “Well, that’s all the more reason why you should be having fun.”
“You and I have very different ideas of fun.”
Venti frowns. “Just try it once. I promise I won’t ask again.”
“…I would rather not,” he says, and he looks away, because he’s seen Venti’s pleading face before, and is quite powerless against it.
“Please?” Venti whispers, just low enough for Xiao to hear.
“…You’ll have to try harder than that,” he lies.
“I’ll give you an apple!”
Venti thinks for a moment, tapping his chin with a finger. “I’ll give you two apples.”
Xiao hums in encouragement, and Venti chooses that moment to put both arms around Xiao’s waist and whisper something in his ear.
They’re right in front of the balloon stand when Venti pulls away, and Xiao’s face feels as hot as the sun. “Okay,” he says quietly. “All right.”
“That’s the spirit!” Venti pushes a bow into his hand and pays the small entrance fee, beaming as Xiao climbs the tower. “I’m sure you’ll do great!”
“I take that back. That was, frankly, horrible,” Venti says.
“I told you.”
“The worst shooting I’ve seen in centuries. No, millennia.”
Xiao laughs, ruefully. His arm still stings from the slap of the bowstring while Venti’s arms are filled with his own tickets and treats. “…That’s a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
“Only a little bit.” He holds up a caramel-covered slice of apple for Xiao to nibble on and takes another for himself. “Would you like to try again?”
“And be humiliated in front of your citizenry again? No, thank you.” Xiao picks up a pastry cut into the shape of a sweet flower, stem and all. “May I have this?”
“Freeloader,” Venti laughs. “Here, take more. You’ll do better when we get to the gliding challenges.”
The very thought of it sends chills through Xiao’s bones. “Must we?” he grumbles, and perhaps Venti takes mercy upon him, because he touches Xiao’s arm and steers them, not further into the grassy fields but back to the Mondstadt gates. Xiao has never been so relieved.
“Perhaps the lyre-playing then?” Venti suggests, gesturing in the direction of the challengers. He winces only a little at the sound of snapped strings and the high-pitched whines of dogs unfortunate enough to hear the cacophony.
“I’d much rather listen to you,” Xiao murmurs, with embarrassing sincerity. It earns him a delighted laugh and a kiss, so he can’t regret it too much.
“Oh, my silly adeptus. I’m sure you do, but I’d like to hear you play as well,” Venti says as soon as he pulls away. “Anyway, you’ll almost certainly be better at it than the shooting, yes?”
“I think you’re overestimating my musical ability.”
“You can play the flute.”
“I do not think blowing on a lyre will produce the kind of music you’re looking for.”
Venti’s eyes widen and he gasps. “Was that a joke? Did you make a joke?”
Xiao nods solemnly. The glee in Venti’s eyes almost makes up for the fact that Xiao is utterly mediocre at lyre-playing.
Much later, after Xiao had played the lyre to Venti’s satisfaction and received his prize—a crispy potato lump and a small jar of jam he resolves to eat with a spoon—Venti takes him to meet Jean. She is not hard to find, and she looks as tired as Xiao feels when Venti starts to rattle off evidence of how law-abiding they both are.
“And that is why you shouldn’t arrest my wonderful husband,” Venti concludes. “You’ve met, right?”
“At the wedding,” Jean confirms, with a diplomatic smile. Xiao, not given to diplomacy, manages to nod at her without an air of hostility. Venti beams.
“Aw, look at you two getting along.”
“It was a lovely ceremony,” Jean continues. “Shame about the dandelions though.”
“…Ah,” Xiao says, because he can’t think of anything else to say and Venti is now carefully avoiding looking at both of them.
“Welcome to Mondstadt,” Jean says, changing the subject with practiced ease. “I hope you enjoy your stay—”
Bells ring out, giant clanging bells. Xiao does not jump into the air and summon his spear, because that would be an overreaction.
“What was that?” he says, and he does not yell or scare away the birds.
“Oh, the worship services,” Jean says with a smile. “I’ll have to make time to go.”
Venti frowns. “I’m right here.”
Jean ignores him in favor of looking up into the sky and sighing. “Oh, it’s been a while since the last Windblume service. It brings back so many memories.”
“Maybe I should leave,” Venti says. “Wouldn’t want to ruin the moment.”
“I still remember my first Windblume Festival…
It’s afternoon when they finally find a corner to themselves, a quiet, cat-free place with a wooden bench and enough shelter from prying eyes.
“Enjoying your vacation?” Venti’s eyes dance as he traces meaningless patterns over Xiao’s skin. Xiao is nestled firmly in his arms, his head drooping over Venti’s shoulder.
“It’s…not the worst,” he says, and that must be the right thing to say, because Venti tilts his chin up and they’re kissing again and—
“—oh, hello, Venti! And Xiao!” The voice of the church deaconess—Barbara, Xiao thinks her name is—interrupts them. She doesn’t look bothered at all by the sight, taking a seat beside them and smoothing her skirt. They scramble to sit up properly. “Oh, I didn’t expect you here at all. Did I already congratulate you on your wedding?”
“My apologies. Congratulations on your wedding!” She smiles. “Oh, and I do hope your head is okay? After that bump you had with the sedan chair, we were getting quite concerned.”
“Made a full recovery,” Venti assures her. Xiao nods frantically to confirm. “If you want, we can move over.”
“No, no. I’ll soon be off. The church services are starting soon. Oh!” she says, jumping up. “I’ve just had the most marvelous idea! Would you like to join us in worship to the Anemo Archon?”
Xiao very carefully does not smile as Venti’s face morphs into a look of mild horror. “Um, uh, you see, about that.”
“…I-I don’t believe in the Anemo Archon.” Venti makes a face. “Sorry!”
Barbara does not look devastated, as Xiao thought she would. She just cocks her head to one side. “Oh, but…but you sing about them.”
“Strictly as a non-believer, I assure you. So, you see, it would really be much better for me to not attend—”
“—I’ll go,” Xiao says. Barbara beams at him.
“What?!” Venti bites his lip and lowers his voice. “I’m sorry, what?” he says, pulling Xiao aside.
“Well,” he says, shrugging. “She said it was a service for the Anemo Archon.”
“Xiao,” Venti hisses in his ear. “I am right here.”
“And I would like to know the proper worshipping procedure.” Venti makes a strangled noise, and Xiao continues. “It only seems polite.”
“Um,” Barbara says. “Excuse me, but if you wanted to attend the services…”
“…I’m sorry, dear Barbara, but I don’t think we’ll be attending just yet. If we ever change our minds, you’ll be the first to know,” Venti promises.
Barbara nods and stands, brushing dust from the hem of her dress. She turns to Xiao and clasps his hand. “I do hope to see you in church! Lord Barbatos always welcomes new adherents.”
And she’s off, running and skipping through the streets and past the stairs. Venti immediately bursts out into laughter, rolling on the bench and hugging his sides. They’re fortunately alone, so Xiao isn’t so concerned.
“Something funny?” he says.
“Just the thought of you in church.”
“I might be a devoted adherent of the Anemo Archon. You never know,” Xiao deadpans, and Venti goes into paroxysms of delight. “Why should I not worship them?”
“You never worship me!” Venti says, throwing his arms around Xiao with a dramatic swoon. “And you have no excuse. Just say the word and I’ll make you my disciple. I only require the smallest of offerings…”
Xiao pushes him off, laughing. “You’re the strangest god I’ve ever met.”
Venti gasps. “You’ve met Morax. Take that back.”
“I will not.”
“Take it back,” Venti whines, climbing into his lap and draping himself all over Xiao’s arms.
“I was never taught to lie.”
“My husband is so cruel,” Venti laments, and presses a kiss to his cheek.