Everything is still when he awakens from his deep slumber to Childe gently patting his head. It is early enough in the morning that the sun has yet to peek its rays over the horizon.
“Xiao left you a present I see,” Childe notes, holding the glaze lily pendant around his neck up so he can see it.
His stone heart skips a beat - Xiao is too good to him.
“We can both be sappy at our loved ones after we deal with this storm,” Childe chides without malice as he activates the protection spell. His expression turns serious. “It doesn’t matter where we are as long as we focus our energies evenly around the area we want to protect. Are you ready?”
Gales of determination answer his call.
“Then let us begin.”
Energy flows out of them and into the sky, a barrier slowly taking shape and enveloping the coast, the village, and some of the forest deeper inland. It’s not painful at first, feeling all his precious energy leaving him at such a quick rate. Childe looks like he’s handling himself fine, so perhaps-
Childe yells in front of him, falling to his knees. “I,” he gasps in pain, “I don’t know why I didn’t expect that to happen,” he manages through gritted teeth.
His mind burns with pain and he has to use all his mental will not to scream with the wind and lash out. The glaze lily pendant hangs heavy around his neck. He tries not to think of anything other than going back to strong arms around him, gentle fingers in his hair, the warmth of his beloved. Beloved? Yes, that’s what Xiao is to him, isn’t it?
He really, really wants to see Xiao again.
Like a mantra, he chants to himself quietly so that Childe doesn’t hear, his consciousness slipping away the more they continue pouring their souls into the spell. At least it’s working, he thinks, the barrier’s energy crackling around them and its borders thickening ever so slightly with each passing second.
“Looks like it’s working,” Childe confirms, crawling slowly towards him. “The storm hasn’t arrived yet, but we’ll need to brace ourselves for when it hits.” He reaches him and leans back with his back. “Do you mind if I just sit here while we wait?”
Not at all.
Their energies mix with more resistance than him and Xiao, but he doesn’t mind. Having the friendly presence nearby will help their recovery before the storm, the impending doom somehow lulling him into a shallow slumber.
Then the pain hits without warning and they’re both rudely awakened by the storm, the agony being indescribably worse than what they’d felt while feeding the barrier. The energy they’d put into the barrier reaches back at them, tendrils wrapping the already-fragile remainder of their souls to bear its torment at them.
Childe is writhing in front of him, taking physical damage as his body flickers between his human and elemental form.
Revert to your elemental form and hold onto me, Childe!
“Will do,” Childe grits out, his form dissipating into water droplets and wrapping around his stone body. “Guess being made of stone has its advantages.”
Not enough for him to want to stay like this.
A choked laugh comes from the water droplets. “I bet.”
Around them, the ocean churns and the winds scream in discordant harmony, assaulting all his available senses for what feels like an eternity. His mind cannot process anything else other than the storm raging around them, all of its destruction and anger and pain and destruction and anger and pain and destruction and anger and pain and-
Flashes of a storm and buffeting winds, beating down on him like he is nothing more than a fly to a giant.
He crashes, his body cannot move, his cries are lost.
He is not ENOUGH.
But you don’t have to be. I’m here. We’re all here. Come back to me, Venti, please.
The warmth around his neck burns against everything, more radiant than the storm. Of course, how could he forget something so important, so precious?
He holds and holds and holds onto the warmth and never lets it go. He doesn’t let go when finally, the pain slowly but surely lessens. He doesn’t let go when the cacophony recedes far, far away from them, until all that’s left is the ringing in his head.
He doesn’t let go when Childe releases him, collapsing into a puddle just as the world fades around them into nothing.
When he awakens, they are no longer on the cliff and he is lying on his back.
He thinks he’s lying down in some sort of field - a wobbly field at that, seemingly trying to rock him to sleep. Around him there is only an endless void through which he cannot see anything, not even himself.
Should he try to find Childe? “Childe?” He doesn’t recognize his voice, distorted from exertion.
“Hm?” Childe hums from beside him. Ah, so he’s here.
“I’m… so tired.”
“Me too, wind spirit. Me too.”
His eyes feel like they’re drooping shut. “Does that mean we did it?”
“I think it does,” Childe replies drowsily.
Then they can afford a few minutes of sleep…
Don’t sleep, my dear spirits! a quiet voice urges. Well, if the voice insists, then he’ll try to stay awake for longer.
“You can call me Venti by the way,” he says after a while. “I think we count as friends now.”
Childe chuckles beside him. “You think so? Then you can call me Ajax.”
He can hear Childe, no, Ajax’s breaths evening and remembers the voice. “Don’t sleep, Childe. Ajax.”
“Huh? Why not?” Ajax asks, words slurring together.
“Because a nice voice asked us not to.”
You will not be able to return to your loved ones if you sleep, dear spirits! the voice insists again.
“Oh. I heard it this time.”
He hums tiredly to himself. “Sleep is nice. But I love Xiao more than sleep, I suppose.”
Yes. Use your love to stay awake for just a little while longer, the voice says. Fight to return back to the world of the living!
“But fight for how much longer? I’m done fighting.” Ajax sighs forlornly. “I’ve been fighting too much.”
“Can you fight just one last time for Zhongli?” He speaks with as much urgency as he can muster, but he’s exhausted.
A different sigh from Ajax, fond. “I think I can do that. I miss seeing him.”
Push with all your might, dear spirits, the voice tells them , and do not stop pushing until you’re fully awake!
“Push with me, Ajax?” He reaches a hand out to his side. A hand grabs his.
“The pleasure is mine, Venti.”
The darkness of the void transforms into a bright light…
The fingers stroking his hair stop as soon as he begins to wake up.
“Don’t stop,” he whines softly. A huff comes from above him, but the fingers continue. He makes a contented noise, allowing his eyes to stay closed for a little while longer.
Wait, wake up?
His eyes fly open as he shoots upright in the bed, pulling a startled noise from the person stroking his hair. When he turns, Xiao looks at him with concern.
“Is this a dream?” Venti rasps, leaning over to poke Xiao’s shoulder. “This feels real. But the dreams felt real? Where am I?”
“In my room. And yes, this is real.”
The sunlight hits him at just the right angle and he squints, realizing it wasn’t ever day in their dreams. That had to confirm it, right? “How?”
“I don’t know. You appeared at our doorstep right after the storm, unconscious and,” Xiao’s face turns an interesting shade of red, “completely naked save for the pendant I gave you. You’ve been asleep for two weeks now.”
He looks down at himself, clothing unfamiliar but the energy attached to it one that’s grown accustomed to and pendant still holding on despite all its been through. He beams at Xiao. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do.” Xiao stands up, seeming to realize something. “Would you like something to eat?” He tilts his head, looking unsure of himself. “Do you even eat?”
“I do, I think.” Venti pokes his stomach experimentally. “Might as well try, right?”
Half a meal later, Xiao clears away the dishes and starts talking to Venti about what’s been happening in the village since the storm while he listens along, content to hear the sound of Xiao’s voice again. He doesn’t even realize he’s been still until Xiao clears his throat pointedly.
“Venti?” Xiao waves a hand in front of him.
“Xiao?” He answers easily without moving.
“You haven’t moved in a while,” Xiao says, tone suggesting that that should mean something to him.
“Ah! Force of habit.” He shakes his head a little, entertaining himself with the sensation of his hair moving. “Is this better?”
Xiao gives him a fond smile. “Whatever you like. I was just making sure you were feeling well.”
“You’d think after all those dreams, I’d be a little better at being human,” Venti says, sighing unhappily.
“You’ve been trapped as a statue for years. It’ll take time to get accustomed to moving again.”
“I know.” He moves his arms up and down, figuring it won’t hurt to start practicing now. “Until then, you’re free to let me know if I’m being unnerving.” A yawn escapes him and he decides to slide back down onto the bed, his head heavy. How is he still so tired?
“I’ll be happy to be your movement reminder,” Xiao jokes, patting him on the head. “Take a nap. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
A mild sense of panic bubbles up within him. What if this is all just a dream? “Can you sleep with me?” he asks without thinking.
Despite however many times they’ve laid next to each other, Xiao still manages to look scandalized at the question, making a noise that Venti hasn’t heard him make before.
“I’m afraid,” he admits, at which Xiao’s expression goes impossibly soft, “afraid that this is all just a dream and I’ll be on that cliff when I wake up again.”
“I promise you this isn’t a dream,” Xiao says as slides under the covers with him. “But I’ll stay with you, however long you need.”
Waking up next to Xiao the next morning, the sunlight framing his face and the very real arms around him, he’s inclined to believe this is real after all.
It takes another week before he can stay awake for an extended period of time and comfortably stand up without having to lean against Xiao, at which point they decide he can go out and walk around the village.
“It’ll be good to stretch my legs after, well, several years.”
Venti feels a little bad about Xiao’s mildly horrified expression, the latter already reaching over to support him. “I can carry you-”
“As much as I’d love that, I need to start practicing. What happens if you’re not there to carry me, hm?”
“I could carry you as well, bird- Venti,” Ganyu quips from the doorway.
“Ganyu!” Venti makes a poor attempt at getting up out of bed but Ganyu is there to catch him before he can fall.
“Xiao, you’re supposed to make sure he doesn’t exert himself,” she tuts as she moves to pat his head. When she realizes what she’s done, she quickly pulls back. “I’m sorry!”
Venti leans his head forward and nudges her hand. “I don’t mind.”
Ganyu giggles and pats his head, turning to Xiao. “Now I understand why you always look so lov-”
“Look so… happy? Whenever you return from your cliff sleepovers.” She shifts her gaze back to Venti. “You’re lovely, Venti.”
“Please, not as lovely as you are. Look how you’ve grown.” He sighs wistfully. “I’m sorry I’ve been asleep while you’ve come to check up on me.
“I’m happy you’re awake now,” Ganyu says with a relieved smile. “But before we head out, I just need to talk through how...”
Venti tunes out the siblings, happily letting their idle chatter fill the air as he stares out the open window, the wind beckoning him to join and dance.
Accepting the invitation, he closes his eyes and flies with the gales high up into the sky, around the house and through the village and on and on and on and into the forest where there is-
There is? There is nothing here. Nothing left, where is everyone?
Up, the air demands. Up!
So up and up and up and up and up and up until he’s falling and grasping at the air with his arms and the wind cries out for their lost spirit, desperately calling his name as he tries to scream back but he can’t-
“Venti!” Xiao shakes him gently, cupping his face. “Hey. You’re here with us. You’re alright.”
His body tremors, his eyes cannot open and he’s still falling, further and further down until he’ll meet the hard ground and his end and suddenly Xiao is in his space and he’s holding onto Xiao’s something but he doesn’t know what it is and he doesn’t care.
“Venti?” Xiao tries again.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps out, gripping tighter on whatever part of Xiao he is holding. A flight such as that one should have been easy had he been at his full power, an uneasy pit forming in his gut as he realizes that something’s horribly wrong. What is wrong with his energy? Why is the forest empty?
“What do you need?” Xiao runs fingers in his hair. He times his breaths with the length of Xiao’s strokes.
“The forest,” he says, hardly above an out-of-breath whisper, “I need to return to the forest and find out what happened to the other wind spirits.”
“Alright. Ganyu, do you want to come along?”
With a vigorous nod, she offers a hand to Venti and helps him out of bed. “More than anything. It’s only fair we help you when you’ve helped us.”
“There is no need for debts between us,” Venti manages to say with a small smile, gladly allowing Xiao to support him and sinking closer to his side. “I’ll show you how to get there.”
The uneasy pit grows heavier and heavier until they are at the forest edge and he can feel everything and nothing in the air. The wind does not dance, does not give him a chance to breathe.
It is suffocating.
“There’s,” he gasps, “there’s nothing here. Where did they all go?”
“They left,” Childe says, appearing in front of them with Zhongli in tow. “They couldn’t bear what happened after the storm, so they’ve moved.”
“Bird statue. No, Venti, they left this here for any remaining wind spirits that may have survived,” Zhongli says gently, holding out a ball of green light. “There is a home waiting for you if you wish to return them.”
Venti readily accepts it with an outstretched palm. To any wayward spirits that survived: We cannot bear the grief of losing so many of our kind. If you have found this, you may follow this home and we will welcome you again with open hearts. Be safe.
Home. He hasn’t been home in so long. Yet his heart yearns not for the company of the other spirits, but for the people surrounding him now, people he’s come to call his friends. The thought of never seeing Childe, Ganyu, Zhongli, Xiao ever again makes him shudder. “I don’t know,” he says finally, heaving a sigh. “I couldn’t even return now if I tried - I’m too weak.”
“You do not have to decide now. You are welcome to stay with us until you have recovered sufficiently,” Zhongli offers, nodding at Xiao and Ganyu. “If you tire of doing nothing, I am sure your help will be appreciated around the forge.”
“Thank you,” Venti says, trying to keep the energy in his voice. “There’s something wrong with me, but I think it has to do with my separation from the other wind spirits. It’s far easier to recover near a similar energy, but I’ll make do.”
“I don’t think it helps that you’ve been trapped in your elemental form for so long. It seems like your body’s essentially rejecting that form in favor of your human form.” Childe gives him a concerned once-over. “Have you tried returning to your elemental form recently?”
“Not at all.” Trepidation creeps into him as he concentrates and commands his body to revert to its elemental form.
He tries again.
He is not going to cry right here. He will not. “Why?”
A guilty look flickers on Childe’s face, already mid-apology, but Venti holds his hand up to stop him. “It’s not your fault. I offered to help and I regret none of it.”
“I know, and I’m sorry anyway. The protection spell might’ve pushed you over the edge. You should still have command of the winds but I don’t think you’ll be able to control as much as you used to.”
“So no more ship wrangling?”
“Unfortunately not. If it’s any solace though,” Childe gently pats him on the head, “I’m finding it quite difficult to return to my elemental form as well, for different reasons, but I think that storm took quite a toll on us. The fact that you even returned at all surprised me, if I’m being honest.”
He can barely keep his voice from shaking. “And why’s that?”
“Your soul was hanging on by a thread even if you were able to recover your energy like nothing had happened. You were slipping away.”
“But he’s here now and that’s all that matters,” Xiao cuts in, pulling Venti to his side. “Will he be fine?”
Childe nods. “Without the other spirits it’ll be difficult but he’ll manage. You can help by just being with him.”
“Then we’ll be with him,” Ganyu says. “Let’s get you home and put some lunch in you. I’m sure you’re starving.”
Gods, he’s going to cry, isn’t he? He tries to hide into Xiao’s shoulder, mumbling a quick “thank you” as his thoughts race.
What is he going to do now?
A few days later, he still doesn’t know what he should be doing, but knows it’s not helping that with Xiao and Ganyu busy at the forge, he doesn’t have much else to do other than sleep or memorize every detail of Xiao’s room for the nth time.
Far too similar to how it was on the cliff.
Restlessness brews within him as he tries to keep his mind off of how useless he feels. Today is a good day at least - he can stand for more than a few seconds without getting dizzy from fatigue. Might as well take advantage of his temporary mobility. He takes careful steps out of Xiao’s room and towards the forge that juts out of their quaint home, accessible by a metal door, the sounds of metal upon metal growing louder as he approaches it.
All he sees when he pokes his head through the door is the strong dips of Xiao’s back, years of smithing defining his muscles through his shirt. He ducks his head to hide a blush, only to catch Ganyu’s quiet giggle from his side.
“Bored?” she asks with an amused lilt in her voice
He looks at her, surrounded by many newly-forged goods that need to be polished and cleaned, and nods.
“If you’d like, I can teach you how to polish these up.” She sweeps her hand around at all the things around her. “I could definitely use the help.”
Compared to Ganyu’s years of experience, he’s substantially slower at lessening the piles around them for the first few weeks, but he soon reaches a pace that he finds acceptable. It’s not that the act of polishing itself is difficult; it’s learning how to efficiently use his energy to finish as many as possible. But when all is said and done, there is catharsis in watching his efforts come into fruition whenever he finishes the last piece in a pile.
For the first time in a few weeks, he doesn’t feel like a burden.
If Xiao notices his pleased smile, he doesn’t say, instead brushing his hand against his and pulling him out of his thoughts. “At this rate, we’ll have to teach you to forge too,” Xiao teases, placing a cleaned nail into the pile. Ganyu snorts at the forge, her steady rhythm faulting for a second.
“Maybe you’ll just take over and put Xiao and Ganyu out of their jobs,” Ajax jokes from the doorway.
He’s almost tempted to throw his rag at the water spirit but stops himself. “Ajax! What brings you here?”
“Venti, my lover,” Xiao glares at him, “my friend lives here and I like to visit sometimes. Is that so bad?”
“Depends on if you’re distracting said ‘friend’ from their job.” Venti pokes his tongue out.
“Hey, it wasn’t me who convinced him to take the day off. Technically.” Ajax beckons him to follow. “We need to figure out the barrier situation if you have a quick moment.”
Giving Xiao a reassuring look, he stands and walks with Ajax. “Something wrong with it?”
“Not currently. It protected the village well this time, but we’ll need to start feeding it energy early and often if we want to make sure it’s good for the next storm without us going through all of that again.”
“I thought you said it needed a year’s worth?” The path they’re taking begins winding up a cliff. Are they…?
Ajax nods. “Yes, but spread out over the course of several years so we don’t exhaust ourselves. The spell is meant to be long term and not for burning through everything all at once. If we’re smart about it, we can feed the barrier without a noticeable dip in our energies.”
At the top of the cliff, the familiar sight makes his eyes water. “I haven’t been back here since-”
“We can leave if you want. This doesn’t have to be done today.” Ajax pats his shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
“If what you say is true, we should get started today.” Kneeling and touching the spot where he used to be, he tilts his head and gives Ajax an apologetic smile. “But if we could make it quick today…?”
“Definitely. We can always make up for it another day if you’re prepared to sleep for the rest of it.” Ajax chuckles and holds out his hand, water pooling at his fingertips. “You ready?”
Hands outstretched so his palms face the sky, he nods and calls the winds.
The next thing he knows, he’s waking up next to a worried-looking Xiao running a shaky hand through his hair.
“If you furrow your eyebrows any harder, they might fall off,” Venti mumbles, poking his finger between Xiao’s eyebrows and swirling around as if to unwind them.
Xiao gently bats his hand away and uses his other to tap a finger indignantly on his scalp. “Then you should stop draining yourself so much and collapsing.”
“I suppose this means I’m still pretty weak.” Venti huffs, giving Xiao an apologetic smile. He seems to be giving many of those out lately. “You’re stuck with me for a little while longer.”
“Stay as long as you need,” Xiao says, carding his fingers through his hair again. “We really appreciate your help at the forge. But even if you couldn’t help us in that way, you’d still be welcome to stay as long as you’d like.”
With a deep breath, Venti closes his eyes and moves his head along with Xiao’s hand movements, nuzzling deeper into his touch. “I promise I won’t collapse anymore after barrier duty,” he promises, “but I have to do it every day.”
“I know. Do you want me to start coming with you? So that we can share our energy?”
He lazily opens his eyes and they twinkle with amusement. “It’ll just be like those daily visits you used to do.” He giggles. “Except this time instead of you visiting me, we’ll both be visiting the cliff.”
“I think I much prefer it that way though,” Xiao admits, running a gentle finger down his cheek. “Being able to really talk to you is quite nice.”
He hopes Xiao can’t feel how hot his face is. “I agree.”
Every morning, Venti and Xiao meet Ajax on the cliff and feed the barrier a small amount of their energy. And every time when they’re finished, the winds grow more and more insistent, begging him to return home.
Home. Often his heart sinks at the thought of seeking out his fellow spirits and returning home. He longs to know what happened that stormy day, to see the fellow spirits he hasn’t seen in years. But if he returns, will they still accept him? Flightless and powerless? Human?
Even if the spirits did welcome him back, to leave the warmth of polishing by the blazing forge, the laughter of the family that’s taken him in, the cozy safety of being in Xiao’s arms after a long day, makes his heart sink further.
How can he possibly go now that he’s so attached to them? Yet if he stays, he risks being an unnecessary burden should something happen to him, vulnerable in his human form and unable to fully control the winds as he once did. What value did he have to them? He can’t polish as well as Ganyu, can’t forge as well as Xiao - he will need years to truly feel useful in any capacity.
In his musings, he barely notices both the lack of progress he’s made on the pile of forks and the lack of gentle admonishment from Ganyu. Turning to his side, his apology dies in his throat when he realizes Ganyu is no longer sitting next to him, her polishing rag replacing her on her chair. Xiao had gone to bed an hour ago, a particularly large order tiring him out faster than usual.
With a slight amount of alarm, he leaves the forge and goes to Ganyu’s room, only to find the door open and her not inside it. He checks Xiao’s room, Xiao already asleep, and raises an eyebrow, trying to think of where she can be. Where would he go if he needed to think?
Well, there is one place.
He leaves a note for Xiao in case he wakes up. Grabbing a jacket, he heads to the cliff, plucking the wind to pick up a familiar energy signature at the top. A head of blue hair confirms his suspicions as he walks up behind her loudly so she isn’t startled.
“I can’t catch you if you fall.” Venti sits next to Ganyu and dangles his legs over the edge. “Not anymore at least.”
Ganyu laugh is strained. “I don’t plan on falling. Just up here to think.”
“Anything I can help with?” He coaxes the breeze into bringing the fresh scent of the sea towards them, taking a deep breath and sighing contently. Only the sounds of the rolling waves fills the comfortable silence between them, a small part of him missing the time spent on the cliff for halcyon moments like this. The present catches up to him again when Ganyu makes a contemplative noise next to him.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” she starts, scooting backwards to pull her legs up to her chest. Her head falls into the space between her knees. “I want to go to the mainland and continue my work with Ningguang in person.”
“But you’re afraid to leave the forge alone for Xiao to handle, right?”
“Right. I know papa and Xiao will tell me to go, but who will take over? The forge isn’t a one-man job.”
“You say this like I can’t take over your job,” Venti teases.
Ganyu lifts her head, guilt on her face. “Oh! No, I didn’t mean it like that. I just don’t want you to feel obligated to stay,” she says. She opens her mouth and closes it again, holding back a question.
“Go ahead,” Venti urges.
“Are you staying?” she asks shyly. “I’ll miss you if you return home. But I’m not trying to guilt you into staying!”
He’s poised to say ‘I don’t know,’ but the words die on his lips when he realizes that yes, he does know, but he’s afraid to admit it. Patting her head in understanding, he forces out a wet chuckle. “I want to stay, but I can’t knowing that I’m being a burden-”
“You aren’t a burden at all,” Ganyu interrupts, eyes fierce.
“But I can’t keep up with you or Xiao in the forge and I don’t have any other skills,” Venti says, sighing with melancholy. “What else do I have?”
“Your worth isn’t determined by what you can do,” Ganyu insists. “And even if you can’t keep up with us, you can practice - we don’t need you to be at our level right now. We’re just happy you’re here with us.” She smiles to herself. “Xiao would definitely say so too, I know it.”
His worries don’t dissipate completely, but the relief that washes over him frees him, enough that he accidentally summons a delighted breeze. “Then by that token, this means you should go and pursue your dreams. Go work with Ningguang!”
Ganyu lets out a melancholy sigh of her own. “I know you’re right, but it still scares me.”
Venti stands, holding his hand towards Ganyu. “Then let’s be scared together. The next chance we get, let’s tell your father our plans. I know he’ll be supportive, no matter what you choose.”
Taking his hand, Ganyu gives him a resolute smile and they head back together.
There is a strange tension in the air when they’re finished charging the barrier a few mornings later, Xiao and Zhongli having a silent conversation with their eyes while him and Ajax finish up.
“Venti,” Zhongli calls to him with a slight nod, “how are you feeling today?”
“Awake and not tired at all,” Venti answers proudly.
“That makes it a full week where you’ve felt fine. I think this means your power’s as recovered as it can be,” Ajax agrees. “This calls for a nice meal to celebrate!”
He allows himself to be swept along for the ride, noting how silent Xiao is throughout most of their meal, his thoughts clearly not with them. His questioning gaze is only met with a slight shake of his head. Later.
Later comes when they’ve finished at the forge for the night and Xiao is running his fingers through his recently-unbraided hair, detangling it for him.
“Venti,” Xiao says, almost like a question.
“Hm?” He is not quite awake, but he fights against his heavy eyelids, realizing Xiao is trying to explain what happened before.
“When you were missing after the storm, I came to visit the cliff every day hoping to find you, but you weren’t there. No bird statue, no pendant, like nothing had been there at all,” Xiao says quietly.
“How long was I gone for?”
“Four months and seventeen days.”
A finger is placed on his lips to shush him. “In those four months and seventeen days, no, even before that. After our last dream,” Xiao takes a shuddered breath, “I worried every day, not knowing when I’d next see you again, or even if I would ever see you again.”
His mouth parts in surprise when Xiao cradles his face in his hands, giving him an intense but adoring gaze. “Because I wouldn’t be able to tell you how much I want to hold you.” He plants a kiss on his forehead. “How much I want to kiss you.” A kiss on his nose. “How much I want to love you until we’re nothing more than dust on the earth.” A kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Wherever you go, whether you return home or stay here, I will love you with every bit of my soul.”
His tears startle Xiao into pulling away but he pulls him right back. “Xiao. Xiao.” He cannot stop himself from speaking the name of his beloved over and over again. “My beloved Xiao,” he murmurs as he leans in to plant a chaste kiss against Xiao’s lips. “You needn’t tell me of your love for me to have felt it all this time. I can only hope that you can feel the same from me.”
“I did. But I couldn’t rest easy knowing that I never would have the chance to tell you,” Xiao whispers, stroking a thumb against his cheek. “I’m glad you’re here now so you can hear it yourself.”
“And I’ll be here for much longer.” Venti smiles. “I’m staying, Xiao. This,” he waves his hands around the room, “you are where I call home, where I want to return to when my spirit needs rest. There’s no place I’d rather be than by your side.”
Xiao starts to cry and he can do nothing more than cry along with him, happiness filling him to the brim. “I almost left, not because of anything you did, but because I was afraid you’d think me useless enough to want me gone. But Ganyu talked me out of leaving based on a false assumption.”
“You’re not useless at all,” Xiao insists, brushing his thumb against his cheek. “Why would you ever think that?”
The same anxieties push their way out into words. “I can’t forge or polish as well as you or Ganyu. And I can’t even control the winds as strongly as I did before.” He looks away, ashamed.
“The first two things are things you can learn slowly. I don’t need you to be perfect from the start.” Xiao gently tilts his face back so they’re facing each other again.. “And you don’t need to move oceans for me to love you. Just to have you here with me is enough. Though,” he gives one of his cheeks a teasing poke, “you have already moved oceans for me, but I don’t expect you to do that every time you want my attention.”
Venti sniffs. “I’ll just have to find other ways to show my affections for you then.”
“As long as you don’t collapse afterwards, I’ll eagerly await them.” Xiao shakes his head with a small smile. “Honestly, I thought you wouldn’t want to stay because you’ve grown tired of the forge. As you can tell, the daily routine can be monotonous.”
Like the cliff is left unsaid, but Venti understands. Letting out a thoughtful hum, he shifts so he’s on his back. “I don’t mind. But I think a break in monotony could be good.”
Xiao props himself up on his elbow and brushes aside his bangs, tracing the shape of his face with his finger. “What are you thinking?”
“Have you ever wanted to travel?” Venti wrinkles his nose, tickled by Xiao’s explorations.
“Yes, but with the forge and papa needing to sell every day...” Xiao trails off.
“Now things are different, aren’t they? Since your father is busy with Ajax, maybe he’d be more willing to open up a store here. I remember that he mentioned the village’s popularity increasing and his buyers being interested in going to a physical location.”
“He did.” Xiao nudges at his arm with his elbow so he can rest his head on Venti’s shoulder.
“What if we got your father to allow us to close the store some days so we could go around and sell the goods, like traveling merchants?”
“I think I understand.” Xiao’s hair tickles his chin as he nods. “This way papa can also take a well-deserved break while we get to mix things up.”
“Exactly! Let’s tell your father tomorrow then, about our new plan,” Venti tells Xiao, eyes twinkling with excitement.
“We will.” Xiao gives his neck a kiss, huffing in amusement as it turns red. “But first, some sleep.”
“And some extra kisses?” Venti asks hopefully.
“And some extra kisses,” Xiao says, leaning up to plant more delicate kisses all over him.
The next day, when Zhongli has agreed to both Xiao and Ganyu’s proposals, he tells Xiao that he thinks the extra kisses gave them the good luck they needed for things to work out and Xiao only buries him in more in retaliation for his silliness.
In the blink of an eye, an entire year passes. So much life, joy, and change happens so fast that he can’t help but be overwhelmed every morning when he wakes up to a scene that he’s since memorized: a sleeping Xiao, hair mussed up, face relaxed, and chest rising and falling in even intervals.
This morning finds him internally shaking with excitement as he slips out of bed and prepares breakfast, realizing that today is a year from when he’d woken up in Xiao’s bed after the storm. Do they do something special for this occasion? A part of him finds it morbid to celebrate such an event, but it is a joyous thing after all. He never thought he’d ever find happiness like this again, resigned to die on that cliff as a statue.
But here he is, actually moving around and preparing breakfast for his beloved. By the time he’s setting aside a portion for Xiao, familiar arms snake around his waist, his cheek receiving a kiss from behind. “Store day?”
“Store day.” He tilts his head to the side until his lips just brush against Xiao’s. “Your father and Ajax are taking the afternoon shift, so we’d better get ready soon.”
“I’ll certainly be faster than you.” Xiao dodges the teasing swipe of his hand and catches it, giving the wriggling hand a kiss. “I’ll love you even if you don’t spend far too long on your braids.”
“They only take me five extra minutes,” he whines, sticking his tongue out, “but I’ll keep that in mind next time you pull on them-”
The rest of his sentence is smothered by a piece of bread that Xiao shoves into his mouth, but the red tips of Xiao’s ears tell him all he needs to know. He gives Xiao a cheeky grin as he finishes up and they head up to the cliff to feed the barrier, then return to the store to open it up for the day.
It takes the arrival of the mailman for him to notice that the morning had bled into the afternoon and lets out a laugh while the mailman hands him their letters. With an odd look, the mailman leaves with a wave as Venti finds two particular letters of note in the pile: one a pale gold with a light blue seal and the other a forest green, a breeze wrapping all around it.
Excitedly, he runs up to Xiao, mid-conversation with Zhongli and Ajax. “Xiao,
Zhongli, Ganyu sent something!" He hands him the golden letter.
“Do you want to read it together?” Xiao asks, breaking the seal.
Waving the green letter around, he shakes his head. "Tell me about it later. I have this letter to read first."
He heads back to the forge and hunkers down on the floor, prepared to be incapacitaed either by tears or laughter. And that’s exactly how Xiao finds him when he comes back, rolling on the floor and clutching at his stomach in uncontrollable laughter.
“The spirits tried playing the flute we gave them last time and one of them blew the other straight into a tree,” he finally chokes out when he’s able to speak. A giggle escapes him and he rolls onto his back to look up at Xiao.
Xiao sits on the floor beside him, letting out an amused snort as he helps him to sit up. "Glad they’re doing well. It seems that Ganyu's doing well too, if the amount of excited cross-outs in the letter is anything to go by.”
“Ooh, let me see.”
Traded letters and another laughing fit later, Xiao persuades him to get off the floor so they can pack for the next day.
“A travel day, remember?” Gently, Xiao gives his forehead a playful poke and a kiss.
“We haven’t forgotten to pack anything once,” Venti says with amusement, but allows Xiao to order him around for what they’ll need the next day.
Their mental lists consist of all the goods they plan on selling, some extra gifts for the spirits, and an extra reminder to buy the specialty apple jam they previously skipped out on if they see it again.
“I can’t believe I let you convince me we didn’t need it.” Venti pouts over his pack, completely packed with space left for the aforementioned jam.
“Only because I didn’t want to be wasteful,” Xiao shrugs, “but you’ve proven that you won’t waste it so I’ll allow it this time.
Venti sniffs, only mildly offended. “I’ll leave some extra space for almond tofu of course.”
“A man after my own heart.” Xiao gives his cheek a kiss.
“I’d like to think I already have it.” Wrapping his arms around Xiao’s neck, he reciprocates with a cheek kiss of his own.
Venti hides himself in his neck, the tips of his ears burning against the coolness of Xiao’s cheek. “Xiao! You can’t say nice things like that without warning me.”
“I’m warning you now,” Xiao says, turning his face so his lips are against his ear. “I love you,” he whispers.
Exploding from affection isn’t a way Venti thought he could die from, but he’s undoubtedly feeling like it’s possible now. “You’re, ugh,” gods help him, he can hardly think straight, “you’re incorrigible! You’re lucky I love you so much.” He pulls away with one final kiss to Xiao’s neck and holds his hands up to his face to try to cool them off. “I’m taking a shower and you’re not invited.” He scurries away to the bathroom, turning one last time to give Xiao a fond look. “I love you too.”
After he emerges from his shower, Xiao tells him that they’re fully packed and jumps into the shower himself, leaving Venti to lie in bed and wind down for the night.
He only notices something suspicious when Xiao leaves the bathroom and quietly pads away from their bedroom, bursting through the doorway with a beautiful slice of apple pie.
“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to do anything special for your ‘I’m not trapped as a statue anymore’ anniversary,” Xiao starts nervously.
“Oh, Xiao, you didn’t have to.” Venti jumps out of bed and takes a large bite of the slice. “This is delectable, my love.”
Taking a bite of his own, Xiao hums in agreement. They take turns feeding each other until the slice is no more, at which point they crawl back into bed and Xiao pulls him into his chest. The increased sugar intake must make both of them drowsy because they stay in that position, silent for quite a while.
“You know, mama used to tell me there were two things we had to remember when we visited you,” Xiao eventually murmurs into his hair, his hand rubbing up and down his back in a familiar soothing motion.
“Oh? And what were those things?”
“One: pat you on the head. Two: you’ll grant our wish if we’re nice to you, sometimes.”
Venti laughs. “Well, she wasn’t wrong.”
“And they’re all technically still true now, I think,” Xiao quips. “I also had my own secret third thing: you’d talk back at us with the wind if we talked to you.” He bumps his chin against the top of his head. “But I’m glad you can talk with your mouth now. Your voice is music to my ears.”
“Hey, what did I say about saying nice things without warning?”
“Sorry. Do you want me to try again?”
Huffing, he moves his head slightly up to displace Xiao’s chin. “I think you’re missing another important thing though.”
Xiao raises an eyebrow at him. “And what’s that?”
“Four: he’s deeply in love with Xiao.”
It takes a lot of willpower not to shake Xiao at the adorable shade of red he turns, silently congratulating himself for flustering him in revenge.
“I see why you ask me for warnings,” Xiao mumbles, closing his eyes in embarrassment.
Venti giggles into the kiss he gives Xiao’s nose. “And I see why you don’t give them.”
They break into peals of laughter, unable to stop, until their breaths finally even as they tire from the physical strain of laughing and they drift off again, tangled with each other in a mess of limbs.
As his consciousness slips away, he reminisces on who he used to be, the carefree wind spirit that was trapped on that cliff, shouldering the weight of responsibility for the village, but doesn’t lament the loss of his past life. Especially not when the present held the forge, his fellow spirits, his beloved friends, Xiao.
A bright future awaits them after all.