Everything is going to be okay.
“Kill me,” he begs. The water from last night’s rain splashes underfoot, soaking into Xiao’s flimsy shoes.
The voices roar again. He can practically see their hands leaping from beyond the border, grabbing onto every bit of him they can. “Venti, please.”
The spirits force his spear into his hands. Xiao tenses, the slightest bit of revolt against them sending electricity crackling down his spine, jerking his arms as it goes. But he succeeds; the spear dissolves into shards of black light that prickle at his palms.
Something pushes him down into the muddy puddle with a splash. Or maybe something had made him fall. He lies there silently, listening to the voices cackle with glee at his weakness.
“Xiao!” Venti kneels down next to him, carding a hand through his hair. “Oh, Zhongli, what--”
“--Stop using his name in vain,” he tries to chastise, but there’s no energy left to put the disapproval behind his words. His voice is echoed by the cacophony of gods long gone, twisting his words into ones of malice. He writhes in Venti’s embrace, the cool touch soothing his aches but only aggravating the gods’ resentment.
Xiao would never admit it, but, “I do not want to hurt you,” because Zhongli is his saviour but Venti is his lifeline.
Venti goes silent, though both of them are aware of the black streaks in Xiao’s hair slowly spreading to its tips. Venti opens his mouth and Xiao prepares for a verdict, but all that comes out is a soft song. The notes are sweet, dripping with melancholy; they coax Xiao’s head back into the crook of Venti’s elbow with a sigh.
“You cannot die in any way that matters.” Venti’s hand trails down to the Vision on Xiao’s glove. It hisses as his fingers patter on it, the rhythmic sounds contrasting with Xiao’s sporadic gasps for air as shadowed hands close themselves around his throat.
Xiao’s fingers convulse painfully as he places them where Venti’s gnosis should be. “I know…” he pushes his hand through the illusion as Venti gasps, clutching at his chest. “If I were to...lose myself fully to them…”
He doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t have to. Venti tugs his hand off his chest, eyes still unfocused.
“I don’t think I could live in a world without you.” Venti’s voice is strained. He withdraws his hand from Xiao’s Vision, holding it over his chest instead.
Xiao stares into Venti’s eyes. In the teal reflection he sees his own sorry self. The demons that torment him are only visible in the way his hair is plastered to his face and how he fights Venti’s soft caresses like they burn him. “You do not have to...so long as you remember me, I will be here to watch over you as I did Liyue.”
Venti buries his face in the crook of his neck. His tears are hot. They burn like fire against his skin. “...You promise I won’t be alone? You’ll come back like he can’t?”
The words sting. A painful reminder that even in death, Venti only looks at him and sees his old friend. But this is Venti, this is his love, and so he says, “Reality may tear us apart and place the world’s greatest challenges against us, but I promise that I will always come back to you. And all you have to do is wait for me.”
Xiao holds back the spirits’ urge to simply take and take and take, to take Venti’s vulnerability as weakness and attack. He lets Venti cry, because if Venti sheds enough tears for both of them, perhaps he can die with no regrets.
“...Okay,” Venti whispers. He settles into Xiao’s side, eyes content but mouth pulled in a frown.
Xiao feels warm. “I need you to promise me something in return,” he says urgently.
Venti hums in response. The sound sends vibrations down Xiao’s body. The spirits scream in protest.
When had their position switched to Xiao holding Venti close?
“Promise me that you will keep living. Promise me that you will wait for me to come back for you.” The words are soft. Any louder and Xiao isn’t sure that it would be his voice. Venti deserved to hear it from him. “Promise me that no matter what pain you have to endure, you will remember that I am trying my best to return, that--”
Xiao’s voice fails him.
“That I love you,” he finishes, staring up at the sky. It’s sunny. Xiao doesn’t tell Venti he loves him enough. He wishes he’d done that more now.
Xiao holds out his pinky. Venti had always loved making him swear oaths for menial things. He’d thought it was cute. Xiao had thought it was unnecessary. Maybe Venti had been right. Venti seemed to be right alot.
It’s not raining, but Xiao’s shoulder feels wet anyway. “...I promise.”
Venti leans over to seal the promise with a soft kiss. It tastes like apples, and the soft touch he doesn’t deserve sets his lips on fire. It’s a promise, not a contract, Xiao thinks. A promise that Venti will hold onto forever.
Venti pulls away too quickly-- not quickly enough, he watches the sky flash red and black and all sorts of colours that it has no business being-- and sighs.
Xiao reaches to see what Venti has been doing with his hair. “Braids,” he says through gasps. Venti places his braided bangs into his hands. Xiao can’t find the energy to look. “They are dark,” he says hoarsely, completely sure.
Venti looks at him with remorse in his eyes. “Yes.” The voices laugh. Somehow, even though he’d known already, the confirmation still awakes a part of him that mourns for a part of him not yet dead.
“Get...get away,” he insists, rolling away.
“I will hurt you!” Xiao surprises himself with the growl in his voice. “I might hurt you,” he repeats, seeing the fear in Venti’s eyes that he tries so hard to hide.
“Stay back,” he warns, still a pile on the muddy ground. The shadows circle him, all hungry for the chance to touch the world with his hands. “Stay back, Venti.”
The wind seems to pick up-- whether it is Xiao’s resistance or Venti’s panic it is impossible to tell. “What’s wrong?” Venti screams, holding his arms over his face, but they both know it’s rhetorical.
“Stay back!” Xiao feels his right hand move not of his own accord-- his sword hand-- and swats it down with his left. “Run!”
Venti’s voice comes from atop a cliff, his face peering over the edge. Xiao looks up at him. Their braids blow in sync in the wind.
“Ven--” Xiao’s voice breaks off as his right hand twitches again.
“Barbatos!” He can hear his voice saying, the name backed by the thousands of voices echoing the sentiment. “At last!”
The wind rushes around him again, but despite his abilities, he watches the ground beneath him grow further away and Venti’s face grow larger.
“Vengeance will be mine!” The words feel coarse on his throat. Is it even his voice? It hurts all the same.
Venti’s face is glistening as he reaches out a hand to Xiao, like Xiao’s not already too far gone to be worthy of saving.
Xiao’s spear forms in his hand. His left hand joins it on the shaft.
“Ven, please,” he begs, raising the spear to eye level. “I...do not want to hurt you,” he repeats, straining all that’s left of his coordination to stay back.
Venti watches two arrows hit their mark, horrified. For just a moment, Xiao’s eyes clear of their black cloud, reverting to their once pure yellow. It’s a painful reminder that Xiao was impure at all.
The world sighs around them, the heavy air of impending doom finally lifting.
His Vision and spear fall next to him as he plummets to the ground, braids trailing behind.
Venti covers his ears as Xiao hits the ground, body bending listlessly with the impact. He marvels at the way Xiao’s eyes still shine even as his soul has been torn out.
Venti realises with the start that it isn’t shine at all-- it’s the reflections of his own tears dripping over Xiao. It is not a stormy day, but the way his tears pour soaks the ground all the same.
He brushes the dirt off of Xiao’s Vision, now only a cracked glass orb. Never again will it house the light of ambition-- Masterless Visions ignite for those whom the gods recognise, but never will someone come close to Xiao.
“Oh, my love…” he chokes up as he closes Xiao’s eyes with his hands. “Rest peacefully with an Archon’s blessing....” Xiao’s form dissolves into feathers, taking the spear with it. Zhongli will know what the feather-wrapped spear means.
The two arrows clatter to the ground. Venti kisses the bloodied tips, revelling in the metallic taste, before tucking them back into his quiver.
He cradles the dead Vision against his chest. The sharp glass threatens to draw blood.
It wasn’t raining before, but it is now.
It is a stormy day when Aether trudges into the tavern, soaked from head to toe in rainwater. “I’m looking for Venti,” he tells Charles, as he wrings his braid out just outside the door.
“He must be upset again. He’s upstairs drowning his sorrows.” Charles gestures with the glass he’s cleaning.
Aether pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I’ll get his tab.”
Charles deflates in visible relief.
The stairs creak under Aether’s weight as he climbs. He times his steps with the jazzy music the bard downstairs is playing. It draws a smile to his face as he spins around on the staircase, shaking some water on the walls as he goes.
The happiness is quickly sucked out of him when he sees Venti curled up in the corner.
“Archons, Venti, what happened?” Aether shakes him by the shoulders, nose stinging at the acrid smell of alcohol. “Who died?” he jokes, attempting to pull Venti up.
“Xiao,” Venti says, swaying.
Aether does a double take. He looks at the bottles of wine piled with reckless abandon, the mysterious spill on the floor, but above all, he looks at Venti. Venti, with hair plastered to his face and clothes a mess. Venti, with a cracked Vision.
“Are you okay?” Aether slides into the chair across from Venti, pulling his cap off and setting it on the only dry spot on the table. “Is Xiao okay?”
“No,” Venti says, turning away from Aether with a pout.
“What happened to your Vision?”
“It’s...n-not mine.” The orb clinks against the seat.
There’s a beat. “...What?”
Venti sighs, rolling his shoulders as he sits upright. Aether watches as he places the cracked Vision on the table. The air around them grows cold as the teal glow seeps out of the cracks; it becomes evidently clear that Venti had been holding the glass together with sheer will.
“You know,” Venti starts, smiling off somewhere above Aether’s shoulders, “He was...smiling.”
Aether hums, fiddling with the dead Vision without his gaze ever leaving Venti’s eyes.
“For just a moment with his braids, before he started falling...for a moment, he looked like my friend.”
A hush falls over the pair.
“He was smiling,” Venti repeats, before burying his head into his arms again. His body shakes almost imperceptibly as he sobs.
“Is he actually just...gone?” Aether whispers, fingers tensing so hard a new web of cracks forms under them. “Venti, this isn’t the alcohol talking?”
Venti lifts himself up off the table, taking Aether’s hand gently in his. Aether lets Venti use his hand to brush his bangs back despite Venti’s cold, tear-streaked skin.
“Oh, no,” Aether gasps, running a finger over the diamond on Venti’s forehead. “Oh, Xiao, no…”
Somehow, through the grace of the gods, Aether manages to drag Venti into a room without giving either of them a concussion.
“You know, I was actually here to ask you about something,” he mutters, unfolding the blankets. Venti’s face is finally starting to pale a little, the alcohol flush thinning down to nothing more than a light fever. “But I…I don’t think you should be working.”
If Aether’s honest with himself, he doesn’t want to work either.
Venti pulls the blanket over his head with a sigh. “A commission?” His already soft and grief-heavy voice is muffled, almost completely gone from exertion.
Aether sits down next to Venti, rubbing circles into his back. “Diluc said something about the water quality declining. I was thinking...maybe we could speak to Rhodeia about it.”
“This Oceanid in Liyue. We’re...acquainted.”
Venti sighs. The curtains on the windows rustle. “Did I ever...tell you the truth about Oceanid Mimics?”
Aether tucks his chin over Venti’s shoulder. “Mm?” Better to let Venti go off on his tangent than wallow in despair.
“They are the...how do I explain this? Twisted manifestations of...souls that seek vengeance.”
Venti hums, the sound sending vibrations down Aether’s body. “On those who killed them. An adventurer like you will have killed many animals on your journey.”
“Oh…” Aether sees the ghostly mimics charging at him again, the water beneath them splashing harshly against his shins. “...Punishment.”
“No, not really...merely a reminder. The ocean is gentle and just, Aether. It is the Oceanid’s call that hardens their souls.” Venti finally pokes his head out from under the blanket to face him. Aether’s struck by how silently Venti can cry.
He wipes the tears off Venti’s cheeks with the blanket as he sighs. “You should sleep.”
“You should too,” Venti quips right back, but it lacks the usual sparkle in his eye.
Aether stares at Venti, at the little diamond, at the tear stains on the sheets. He stares at the spot Xiao would’ve been standing in by the door, now all too empty without his customary glare.
“I have to do something,” he whispers softly.
Venti pouts. The usually endearing action only serves to heighten the sadness in the room. “Don’t leave me,” Venti begs, snaking a hand out towards Aether.
What’s left of Aether’s heart cracks-- he so desperately wants to curl up next to Venti and be two broken young men together. Xiao had meant so much to both of them; a dear friend, and for Venti, the love of his eternal lifetime.
“I’ll be right back.”
Aether sits on the roof of the tavern, feet dangling out into the streets below. He watches his shadow’s legs sway in time with his silently. Somebody slams a window closed across the city, the hollow sound echoing once before all that remains is the rain pattering down on the roofs.
His vision blurs and he wipes away tears. “Dammit, Xiao, I haven’t even started talking,” Aether laughs, choking up already.
“You know, I still remember what you said to me when we first met. You never said ‘hello’ to me, Xiao.” Aether squints up at the sky, looking for a constellation hidden behind rain clouds. “You told me...if I ever needed help, I could call out your name.”
He reaches out a hand, but this time not to conjure up a constellation, but rather to cup droplets of rain in his palm. They’re cold and unforgiving, each one stinging. He stares at his own sad reflection in the tiny pool.
“I...need your help now. I’m not dying, I’m not being attacked. But, Xiao, I’m hurting-- Venti’s hurting-- and I don’t know what to do.” He clenches his fist around the shingles, his knuckles turning white. “What happened to forever? You promised us forever, and we agreed. We were happy to spend eternity with you.”
“God, Adeptus Xiao, say something. Anything.”
The endless sky above him is silent. Perhaps the rain that refuses to cease mocks his own tears.
Aether buries his face into his hands, shaking. It doesn’t matter that his hands are wet-- his face is wet already. He doesn’t want to understand. “So this is...t-this is it, then? You’re...really gone.”
That despair that had been so evident in Venti’s dull eyes-- that same despair colours Aether’s world in gray.
“I guess...you never got to say goodbye either,” he smiles as the sky mourns with him. “So I'll-- I'll say it for you."
"My head hurts," Venti complains, sitting up. The morning sun peeks it rays through the gaps in the curtains
"You drank about fifteen bottles of wine last night," Aether chastises, but he hands him water anyway. He's not about to deny a grieving man a hangover cure. "Drink up. There's some Fisherman's Toast you can have too."
Venti downs the water so quickly Aether checks to see if it's not alcohol. "I did get drunk," Venti smiles, without the shame to look sheepish. "It feels good to not feel."
Aether scowls. His shirt is still damp from last night. “...Yeah.”
“Something wrong, Aether?” Venti tilts his head like a curious puppy.
Aether opens his mouth to say something scathing in response-- of course there’s something wrong, his friend’s just confirmed his own death-- but he can feel Venti’s sadness under the cute facade. “Just annoyed with the rain,” he lies. Maybe he doesn’t want to hurt Venti. Maybe he doesn’t want to acknowledge it aloud.
“Mm,” Venti says. “You know you can always talk to me, right?” Venti’s eyes, though innocently pleading, bore themselves into Aether’s soul.
“Stop trying to read my emotions,” Aether reprimands. He flicks some dust at Venti, breaking Venti’s concentration. “It’s not polite.”
Venti sticks his tongue out. “Nobody ever said gathering information had to be ‘polite.’”
“I’m saying it now.”
“But you’re not telling me the truth!” Venti whines, kicking the blanket aside. “I’m just concerned for your well-being.”
There’s a beat. “Sometimes people lie for a reason.” Aether picks the blanket up from its spot on the floorboards. “Come, Venti. Either you eat something before going back to sleep, or you come with me to talk to Rhodeia.”
“Easy! Let’s go!” Venti springs up, hands on his hips. “Xiao wouldn’t want me lounging around like this.”
Aether opens his mouth to say that actually, Xiao would have liked his lover to indulge in the freedom he so embodies despite his insistence otherwise, before Venti’s knees buckle under him. “God, Venti, what did I say? Are your wrists alright?” He kneels down, all too aware of the splinter-riddled floor.
Venti hisses as Aether turns his hands over. “They’re bloody,” Venti says, voice cracking.
“How the fuck did you--” Aether stops short, breath catching in his throat. “Venti, your hands are fine. A-Are you alright? You’re not still drunk?”
“Aether…” Venti curls into Aether’s side, burying his face into his scarf. He tugs Aether into the side of the bed, leaning into the mattress. “It hurts…”
“Let me see,” Aether murmurs, unfurling Venti’s fingers. They’re cold and perhaps a little clammy, but, “There’s no blood. What hurts?”
Venti starts shaking like a leaf. “...Xiao.”
“Whoa, whoa, what?” Aether snakes an arm around Venti. “Shh, you can cry.” He feels a little odd, comforting somebody thousands of years his senior, but it’s so hard to see Venti as an Archon when he’s nothing but a ball of grief.
It’s a long moment before Venti catches his breath long enough to speak again. “They did it,” he whispers. He stares out at the window. It takes Aether a second too long to realise what he’s referring to.
Aether closes his eyes. “Yeah. I know. It’s hard to accept…” He recalls the times he’d caught Xiao fighting with the mask on the roof of the inn. The times Xiao had brushed off injuries when the karma’s smoke had been burning through his clothes. “But I’m sure he’s resting easy now.”
Venti gets up unsteadily, dusting his hands. The space where he’d been leaning on Aether’s shoulder feels cold. He walks to the window. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.” Venti speaks out the window to nobody in particular, the wind almost whisking his words away before Aether can catch them.
Aether closes his eyes, the afterimage of Venti’s silhouette burned into the back of his eyelids. Perhaps, in an odd reversal, it looks like Venti is the helpless mortal praying to a light from above, rather than being a god himself. “...I didn’t either.”
Maybe it is his uncharacteristic vulnerability, but as Venti stares out at the sunny world outside, it almost feels that as the light’s flare bends around him, it blurs the line between god and mortal.
Diluc catches them before they leave for the nearest waypoint. Neither he nor Aether miss the way Venti tries to duck around him at the tavern’s door. Venti wishes he had succeeded.
“I’m so sorry, Venti,” Diluc says, in an awful mimicry of the condolences Venti had heard so many times already. “I heard about your boyfriend…”
Aether winces. Venti steps on Aether’s toes.
“I’m fine,” Venti smiles. “You know how it is with immortals...live forever or die a painful death, right?”
There’s dead silence in the room. Clearly, Diluc did not know how it was with immortals.
Aether pinches the bridge of his nose. “So, uh! We were just about to head out, Diluc. For that commission of yours.”
Diluc stares at the pair of them, his usually flat expression coloured in surprise. “Right. Thanks again.”
“Bye,” Aether waves, dragging Venti out by his cape.
The greater town area is just starting to come to life, last night’s rain still fresh, giving the houses and streets a soft glow. Every so often, the pattering of water on shingles breaks the silence as they stumble to the central waypoint. Venti waves to Quinn. Quinn stares at the angry Aether pulling him along. Venti turns away from Quinn.
They finally reach the waypoint. The tip of Aether's braid glows blue in the light. Venti hates how right it looks on him.
“Never joke about that again,” Aether reprimands, finally letting go. “Even if you’re immortal yourself.”
Venti finds anger tinged with sadness in Aether’s frown. Aether had been Xiao’s friend, too. Aether had mourned, too. “Yes. Sorry.” Does he mean it? Is brushing death off not the right thing to do?
“...But I’m sorry he succumbed so soon.”
“Yes,” Venti says. “The karma took him.”
Aether sighs. He looks tired. There are dark circles under his eyes. Did he sleep last night? “Come on. Let’s go.”
The karma took him, Venti repeats, holding two arrows as he touches the waypoint.
Aether pokes at the muddy tunnel floor with his boots. It makes an uncomfortable squelch. “God, it’s so damp in here,” he complains. “My socks are all wet.”
Venti stares at the footprint. “...Yes,” he says, before returning right back to trudging through the tunnel. Aether can’t find it in him to ask what’s wrong-- Venti’s allowed to have secrets. But above that, as the light dawns on Venti’s eyes, illuminating the teal within,
“Rhodeia’s pond is just up ahead,” Aether says instead, jogging to catch up to Venti.
Venti stops short. “I can feel her elemental power. Careful now.”
The tunnel opens up abruptly to the all-too-familiar lake curtained with gushing waterfalls. Though the sky boasts sunny weather, Aether shields himself and Venti as they hop across the ruined path to the arena. “It’ll start raining,” he yells over the pouring of the falls, holding his scarf over their heads. “Mind your step. And careful; the water’s colder than you’d expect.”
Aether swims the rest of the distance to the arena, wrinkling his nose at the feeling of his clothes sticking to him as he emerges. Though a seasoned adventurer, he’d never gotten quite used to swimming in everyday wear. “Up you go,” he says, pulling Venti up after him. He feels Venti’s hands shake in his grasp, presumably from the cold.
“It’s cold,” Venti says, wringing out his braids.
Aether frowns. “Yeah,” he says. “I warned you.”
Right on cue, the water’s reflection shifts from that of a cloudless sky to one of deep gray. Their faces in the water shift as ripples speckle the surface. Soon they disappear entirely. They stare at the water for some time in silence broken only by splashing, poking at the ruins that are still visible on the surface.
“Come on,” Venti sighs. “Let’s get this over with, and then you owe me some cider.”
“Wait!” Aether grabs onto Venti’s wrist. It’s cold. “We need a plan, in case Rhodeia refuses to listen to us.” Were Venti’s wrists always small enough to slip his hand around? Are they the Nameless Bard’s or are they Xiao’s? Aether certainly doesn’t remember being able to slip his hand around Xiao’s wrists, but Xiao’s wrists were always gloved and Xiao himself was skilled in dodging affection.
"Plan?" Venti bites his lower lip. "Oceanids are not partial to violence, and we shouldn't be either," he chastises.
Aether frowns. “I’ve never had a peaceful encounter with Rhodeia.”
Venti tilts his head, beret slipping slightly. "Really? How curious."
"She spawns these awful mimics…won't even fight me herself. It’s only after that she’ll come out as herself and talk.” Aether mimics the explosion of the water bomb with his hands. “I had hoped your presence would make her more amenable to reason, but in retrospect, I should have gone to Zhongli instead…” He gives Venti a sheepish smile. “I guess I just thought of you first.”
“I like spending time with you,” Venti says. “But if you want Zhongli, I can go…”
“No, no...it’s fine. Uh, I have a sword, you have a bow--” Aether frowns. “You do have arrows, right?”
Venti’s face goes pale, the water that had been sticking to his face looking an awful lot like sweat. “Y-yeah. Arrows. Yes.”
Aether eyes Venti’s lack of quiver. Then again, he’d never seen Venti nor Amber fight with a quiver. “Good. Let’s, uh, go.” He doesn’t mention the way Venti fixes his cap one more time than necessary, or the way Venti sighs before motioning Aether to call Rhodeia out. Gods could get nervous. Aether would be nervous too.
“Rhodeia!” Aether’s voice bounces off the rocky cliffs around them as he plunges his foot into the cold whirlpool. If his socks were wet before, they’re soaked through and freezing now. “We want to talk!”
In a rush of water that sends a wave over them, Rhodeia manifests herself in that ghostly form Aether had come to loathe. “An assassin from our homeland? Or a fool who trespasses upon the waters of Qingce?”
“Neither!” Venti grips his bow at his side. “We come in peace!”
Aether grimaces as the familiar mimics begin to form in the arena. “Venti! It’s no use!” He wades through the water steadily rising to his calves, manifesting his sword.
The first wave is cranes. Aether remembers coaxing Amber into shooting a group from afar. She had only taken a little convincing-- an adventurer must always think of survival first. They’d had some skewers for lunch that day.
The mimics flap their wings, three identical waves aim straight for Aether. He'd helped in killing them, after all. It is no wonder they are angry.
He’s never quite ready for the force with which they ram into him. “God,” he hisses, holding his sword up in front of his face as he charges. His eyes look manic in the sword’s reflection, hair plastered against his cheeks. The rain pours down behind him.
Something flies past his ear. “One down!” Venti calls, as the mimic melts back into the water. The other two jump back, dodging the volley of arrows that fly.
Aether slashes at the cranes. He takes care to dodge their attacks and note Venti’s position. His sword passes through the mimics-- it was always disorienting to be fighting something he couldn’t feel but could incapacitate him in an instant. “Two down!”
Venti laughs as the wind domain under the crane rushes violently, sending its wings into a state of disarray. “Think you can get away?” The crane opens its beak to protest, just as Aether sends the final blow through its stomach. It melts just like the others, but this time, Aether remembers how the crane had seen him in its last moments twice. He’d never had remorse for killing them before, but the fear in its eyes is an unshakable image.
A large finch forms itself in the center of the arena. It turns around blindly before settling on Venti. “I’ll cover you!” Aether shouts, pushing Venti away. “Fly up!” He doesn’t mention how he can’t risk losing his other friend-- not so soon after his first.
Venti complies without complaint, closing his eyes as the fragrance of cecilias washes over them. The teal marks that form on the floor of the arena glow as brightly as Venti’s braids.
Aether doesn’t stop to admire Venti’s show of power. He ducks under and around one particularly large splash the finch sends, jabs upwards when it jumps on top of him, and gasps for air as he chokes on water.
Venti stares down at them, the glow in his eyes slowly fading back to their usual teal. “You sure?” He tries to draw his bow to help, but changes his mind as his wind glider closes and he nearly falls. “Ah, I may not be very helpful up here,” Venti says, grimacing. “Care for a song?”
“No,” Aether deadpans. “I don’t need your theme music as I fight off your demons.” They have this conversation a lot. Aether throws Venti a lighthearted glare as he adds sound effects to his swings.
“They’re not demons!”
Aether pauses his hacking to point his sword up at Venti, who’s smiling. “‘Souls out for vengeance’, then. You’re such a nuisance, Venti,” he sighs, blocking another wave with the flat of its sword. “...But I’m happy you’re here.”
Venti’s smile becomes more genuine. “My knight in shining armor!”
The finch’s form finally disintegrates with a sharp jab to its neck. “Move!” Aether yells, scrambling to join Venti in the wind current. His glider barely opens in time to clear the explosion. In the sanctity of the air, he smells that familiar cecilia scent again. Although it’s mired with the damp smell of the soil and plants, it evokes the memory of Starsnatch Cliff and a picnic with Venti.
The taste of apples.
“You did well down there,” Venti says, as the current finally lets them down. They land with a soft splash on the tiles. “Watch out for the sinking.” Venti points at the tile next to them already disappearing into the depths. There’s a painful grinding sound that worms its way into Aether’s ear as it goes.
“Mm. We can take a short second to rest, I suppose. Wait for Rhodeia to summon another round of those god-forsaken mimics.” Aether leans on his sword, breathing heavily. The adrenaline is wearing off.
Venti does a little dance. “Well, we’re almost there yet, and then we can finally clear up this whole thing with Diluc!” The cheer in his words is dampened by the way he is soaked from head to toe.
“Come splash in the water with me! It’s like a huge puddle.” Venti stamps his foot particularly hard, laughing as the rain pours down around him. He shakes violently, but the pure happiness on his face is an expression Aether has missed dearly.
Aether humors Venti. Maybe it’s a little fun to pretend he’s a child again. He wishes he’d done this more back when his age matched his appearance.
“See? Isn’t it--”
Venti’s interrupted by Rhodeia’s voice booming louder than should be possible. “The power of water is its ability to take any shape…”
“She’s always like this,” Aether grumbles. “Monologuing on and on about the water’s treasures…” Honestly, Aether wishes she’d just throw him in the arena with all the mimics at once. He might get injured, but he’d get the fight done faster and they could both move on with their days.
“Well, Oceanids are sentimental…”
Venti’s voice trails off as a singular mimic forms in the center of the arena. It takes its time-- its form is taller than that of a finch, about as slender as the cranes they’d fought earlier, but the presence it holds on both of them is much stronger.
Venti watches in horror as the last thing the mimic needs to come to life is formed. It blinks, once, twice, its eyes slowly revealing an endless expanse of stars. It sticks its hand out, clearly waiting for something to happen.
Nothing does. It frowns ever so slightly.
“What…?” Aether’s saying. He’s stepping forward, hand outstretched.
Venti wants to believe it’s him so badly. “You kept your promise,” he breathes. “You kept your promise.” The giddiness is enough to overwhelm him. That ache where his heart should’ve been gives way to the joy of seeing Xiao again. “Oh, I missed you so much…”
The mimic tilts its head. It’s scanning the area. What is it looking for? Aether’s right here. Venti’s right here.
“He did promise you,” the mimic says. Aether flinches back with a gasp, withdrawing his hand like he’s been burnt? The voice echoes, but it does not bounce off of the cliffs, it is trailed by its own horrific chorus. “He was so weak for you.”
Aether draws his sword. He’s shaking. “Stay away from Venti, who-- whatever you are!” The mimic smiles. And it looks so sweet, those are the lips Venti had promised he’d give everything to, the same pair he’d sworn to.
“It’s just Xiao,” Venti says, resting a hand on Aether’s shoulder. “Why are you so scared?”
Aether shrugs his hand off. He doesn’t lower his sword. “You’re delusional, Venti. That’s not Xiao at all. You know how he died, I can’t believe...”
Venti frowns, conjuring up a pair of arrows. Aether doesn’t know how he died, it’s better if he doesn’t know. If he did--
As if reading his mind, the mimic speaks again in that horrifying voice. “Aether is wrong about you.” Venti’s eyes widen. The mimic walks towards him. “The person he loves isn’t you at all.” It doesn’t have a spear, but it has stars in its eyes that are nothing like the clear yellow of Xiao’s. “You let him believe in a lie to protect yourself.”
And it hits him like a truck, and he should’ve realised before; this isn’t the love of his life, this is his demons and his fears and his deepest darkest secret using his body as a toy just as it had before.
Aether’s sword clatters to the ground. Rain starts running down the blade immediately. “...Venti?”
“You’re nothing but a liar...and when he sees the truth, he’ll hate you just as much as you hate yourself.” The mimic laughs, and it laughs, and it laughs, and Venti’s never seen Xiao smiling this much but he wishes he’d made him laugh more before. “If he knows the truth, you’ll never be able to regain his trust.”
The mimic holds a hand over its heart and Venti swears he sees water start to pour from a wound that isn’t there. “He didn’t tell you because he’s afraid of what you’ll do. He didn’t tell you because he’s a coward. He didn’t tell you because he’s grown attached to you and he can’t bear to be the cause of your pain.”
Aether is completely shielding him now, but the image of those starry eyes that betray no emotion is burned into his memory already. “Venti? What is it talking about?” Aether’s voice is soft, cracky. Had he grieved in this voice too?
“It’s lying,” Venti says. He’s lying to himself. Venti knows exactly how Xiao died. “It’s lying to get in your head, just kill it, please just make it--”
The mimic casts Aether aside like a ragdoll. His braid trails after him and Venti screams until his voice is completely hoarse, he screams because what can he do otherwise? Aether had looked like the bard, he’d looked like Xiao, he’d looked dead and lifeless and completely gone.
Venti can’t handle losing anyone else.
“Don’t listen to him,” Venti begs, cradling Aether’s form in his arms. He’s cold but breathing, soaked to the core. He’s grimacing and crying out in pain, but in pain is better than dead and there’s nothing Venti won’t give to keep him right by his side and alive.
Aether mumbles something. It’s incoherent.
“Aether?” Venti shakes him. “Aether, no, I can’t--”
“No matter what you do, it will be hopeless. All you’ll do is make things worse.” The mimic lifts his chin in a cruel mockery of the way Xiao would tilt his head for a kiss. “It would be better to just die.”
The mimic pushes him to the ground. His nose connects with a crunch and suddenly blood is blooming in the water at the mimic’s feet. “It would be better to just die,” it repeats.
Venti lifts his head up through the pain. Everything is a little blurry, a little too dull. The stars in the mimic’s eyes are gone. “No,” Venti insists. “I can’t die. I promised.”
Blood drips from his nose steadily. Aether hadn’t been bloody before, but his scarf is stained in a washed out red.
“It would be better to just die.” The mimic kicks Aether away. Venti stares. “Do you want to live forever bound to a promise like that? Do you think it’s worth living a life for somebody else?”
Venti draws his bow, shaking. It feels too familiar. He’s done this before. He hates that he’s done this before. “Yes. He was everything to me. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have given up to make him happy. Even if I have to chain myself to an existence I never wanted, even if I bleed and cry every night, I promised.”
“You were so weak for him,” the mimic realises, and then two arrows sprout from where its heart should’ve been. Two arrows clatter to the ground. It is a rainy day when Xiao’s form melts into feathers for the second time. It is a rainy day when Venti picks up the two arrows that have taken Xiao’s soul twice.
Venti sees red. “I can’t believe you!” he screams, flying up in the air to match Rhodeia’s height. “Summoning something so cruel in the face of an Archon! I should kill you right here, end your miserable existence cowering in fear of the God of Justice. And it would still not be repetenance enough!”
He throws the arrows that have killed Xiao twice down into the arena. The tiles sink deep into the pond as the force crackles through them. The displaced water flies up in a glorious splash, higher than Venti can see. The droplets freeze as the wind chills them to the core in an instant. They twinkle even with no sun. Beautiful jewels. Piercing.
Rhodeia screams as the ice cuts through her, freezing her solid. She falls, shattering into glittering shards at the bottom of the pond. Venti feels no remorse. He has never felt remorse for killing anyone. He has murdered a nation with his own two hands and he has lived.
That’s a lie. Venti runs his finger around the shattered Vision at his waist. Just once, he has felt remorse.
Aether stirs. “Venti...? Are you...okay?”
Venti looks down at the traveller beneath him. He looks so frail, so small. “Yes,” he lies. “I’m glad you’re awake.” He fetches Aether’s sword for him.
“It hurts…” Aether shifts so that he’s sitting up. “I’m all bloody.”
Venti frowns. “Right. Sorry about that. I got...injured.”
“You’re injured? Let me--” Aether lies back down. His face is contorted in pain.
“I can heal you. Everything is going to be okay.” Venti presses his palms against Aether’s heart, feeling the faint fluttering beneath his hands. “Everything is going to be okay.”
“Everything...is...going to be okay,” Aether repeats. He sighs in relief as the healing takes effect. Venti smiles. He likes seeing Aether happy.
“You can go to sleep, I’ll carry you back to the waypoint.” Venti lifts Aether up gingerly, taking care not to hurt him. “Zhongli knows you need the rest.” He’s lighter than Venti had expected.
Aether curls into him. He’s warm. “The mimic was...lying, right? You wouldn’t lie to me…I know you wouldn’t.”
Venti stops short, nearly dropping Aether onto the ground. So he had still heard. “...Yes.”
“You’re a good person, Venti. A good person wouldn’t do that to Xiao.”
Venti shakes. He resolves right then and there to take his secret to a grave that’ll never come. Maybe the mimic was right. Maybe it wasn’t worth living forever with something always weighing on his shoulders.
But he’d promised. It wasn’t one of those contracts Xiao and Zhongli were always on about, but it was a pact between the two of them. It was forever.
Venti would wait for Xiao, the real Xiao, to come back for him. However long it took.
Everything is going to be okay.