Blue comes from frogs. For different tones, different amounts of mist flower nectar can be mixed in: the more nectar is added, the more brilliant the blue. As for its lustre, one would find that slime concentrate is strangely useful in obtaining a glossy finish once dry. Turquoise, on the other hand—
—is now all over the floor. The floor that is made of unvarnished wood. The wooden floor. Albedo looks first at the puddle of paint worming itself into the seams between the planks, then up at the offender. “Sorry, this cape does seem to have a mind of its own sometimes,” Kaeya laughs sheepishly, bending down to at least right the pot to stop the paint from spreading further.
“If you hadn’t made a habit of dramatically swishing it around wherever you walk, I imagine it would be significantly more obedient,” Albedo quips back. He gives the floor an investigative wipe, but it is already stained dark.
“What can I say? Part of the job is maintaining my reputation.”
While Kaeya talks, Albedo continues his futile attempts at ridding the wood of turquoise. For a moment, he finds himself wishing grumpily that Kaeya would shut up and help, but notes that even if he did try to help, it would probably make things worse. Even now, he still finds Kaeya extremely difficult to manage, and he’s Klee’s designated caretaker.
“So, what are you painting?”
Albedo abruptly stops abusing the floor and shoots up to flip his canvas over. It’s not dry yet, he winces, but the smudging can be easily fixed. “Aw, why can’t I see? Is it something embarrassing? Albedo, you are a young man now, and so am I, having those kinds of interests is not something you have to hide—”
"I feel that that is not something you should be condoning, Captain.”
“Captain? Since when have you seen me as a captain?” Kaeya smirks. Albedo can think of no intelligent reply, because while the majority of Mondstadt sees him as a friendly neighbourhood hero who helps the elderly carry their groceries in (although that is not explicitly inaccurate), Albedo sees him as more reminiscent of an overgrown baboon.
Seeing that no amount of coaxing will make Albedo cave, Kaeya lets out a good-natured sigh. “Fine, keep your secrets. If you ever run out of inspiration, I am readily available as your muse for the low price of 500 mora per hour.” He strikes an exaggeratedly suggestive pose against the doorframe, which in turn strikes a dissonant chord in Albedo’s chest. Only when Kaeya has completely disappeared around the corner (to give his report to Jean: captain’s duties) does he flip his canvas back over.
Ah. He looks forlornly into the now-empty pot of paint. There is no more turquoise.
I plan for this to be the final installment of the series and so it has been sent to you with the highest expectations thus far; not that you would ever fail to meet them in the slightest. Funnily enough, the publisher has commented (thinking that I was out of earshot) that my writing is much like “a dictionary with divine illustrations”. While he has been promptly dealt with, I must agree that your illustrations are of the best quality I have ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on.
That being said, there is something of interest that I thought I’d bring to your attention before you begin your drawing. While a good majority of the series requires illustrations of the battle scenes, this installment is slightly different. In a bid to appeal to a wider audience, this manuscript contains a pivotal scene between the protagonist and a...love interest. It is true that this is wildly different from the bloodshed and conflict usually wonderfully depicted in your drawings, but I am confident that you will do an equally outstanding job at it.
Albedo folds the letter back along its creases and neatly packs it back into the envelope. He has heard that there is an interesting piece of machinery from Sumeru called a typewriter that is hitting the common market soon, and has half a mind to recommend that Xingqiu use it, not just for his drafts but for his regular correspondence.
A love interest, he says. Albedo flips to the tagged page and skims through the passage of which he is supposed to illustrate. Before long, his skimming turns intense and soon he is so absorbed in his task that he does not hear the door to the lab creak open.
“I didn’t know you enjoyed romance novels, Albedo. I’ll be sure to ask Lisa for some recommendations next time.”
He snaps his gaze behind him to see Kaeya bent slightly and reading over his shoulder, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Slamming the roughly-bound manuscript shut with a small thud, he summons the most terrifying glare he can muster and directs it at Kaeya. “The sign outside clearly indicates that I am busy.”
“Well, I did knock a few times but you didn’t respond so I let myself in. Besides, this can hardly be called an experiment,” Kaeya grumbles, swinging his leg over a nearby chair and sitting back to front. “Unless...are you looking for reference?” A grin spreads slowly across his face and he elbows Albedo in the side.
Albedo takes a moment to realise what Kaeya means, but it’s too late. Kaeya is no longer willing to shut up. “No, this is just something Xingqiu sent me to—”
"Name. I need a name. I have not brushed off this many elderly folk who try to betroth their daughters to me without knowing the names of most of the ladies in Mondstadt.”
He rolls his eyes. Even though he is quite possibly one of the most sought-after bachelors in Mondstadt, hearing him acknowledge it so nonchalantly kind of rubs Albedo the wrong way. “As I have mentioned previously, this is just—”
Kaeya has two visible ears, but neither of them seem to be functioning. “Okay, if you’re too shy to tell me her name, what about how you met her? That’s quite important,” he continues to ramble. “You barely even go out into town, though, so she probably didn’t have to do anything spectacular to make you remember her so,” he laughs, and while it is not an unpleasant sound, Albedo finds himself getting increasingly frustrated. However, before he can rebut for the third time (which is three times more than should have been necessary, he feels), there is a significant crash that sounds like it had come from just outside the Knights’ headquarters. Almost instinctively, Albedo shoots to his feet and rushes out the door, leaving Kaeya still trying to extricate himself from his dramatic and impractical sitting position.
There is, after all, one girl that never fails to keep Albedo on his toes.
There is no way the rubble is real. The Knights’ headquarters has always had a door and will always have a door, so evidently the charred hole blasted into the front of the building is fake. An illusion.
This is the eighth time this week, and a week has seven days. Albedo is almost out of Heatshield, and to gather more flaming flower corollas would occupy quite a large portion of his available time. Besides, gathering materials to repair a large door would take even more time out of his already busy schedule. Klee stares forlornly at her feet, fidgeting with her fingers guiltily, but for now and the foreseeable future, Albedo only sees a tiny devil.
Has the door always been this big? Why make such a large door when the average knight is only about 1.7 metres tall? Surely Jean would not accept such frivolous spending on extra headroom. Too much manpower (Albedo) would have to be deployed to gather the wood and other parts as well as for the repair work. He is merely thinking from the town’s perspective: what would the people think if their taxpayer money was used to repair the obscenely large door of the Knights?
Kaeya has appeared at the entrance and he is laughing. Lisa is next to him and she does not look amused in the slightest, and Albedo swears the sky had just turned a shade darker. Was that thunder?
“Albedo, you need to keep Klee on a tighter leash. We can’t have her running around destroying public property on a regular basis. A few fish can be tolerated but the headquarters itself?” Albedo is looking very favourably upon a hole in the ground to swallow him whole. Perhaps he may lose custody of Klee. Does he have custody of her in the first place? Does she, a literal toddler, understand that he is not technically related to her and hence does not have to listen to what he says? Has a toddler figured out the complex power dynamic between guardian and ward?
“Albedo, Klee is very sorry.”
Albedo feels a small tug on the hem of his cloak and looks down to see Klee fiddling with the fabric of his clothes. In most respects, she is not a naughty child. Merely difficult, perhaps. Difficult to manage, and that is almost equal parts Albedo’s problem as Klee’s. He attempts to soften his gaze before kneeling down to reach Klee’s height and patting her head firmly.
“Klee was on her way to go fishing and brought a lot of bombs...but I couldn’t hold them all and a few dropped. They were the ones that are detonated by movement,” her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper, “y’know, the ones you taught me to make! So when they fell onto the floor right here, they went boom…”
Albedo sighs. It can’t be helped that Klee’s build is not really meant for holding this many heavy explosives. “It’s alright if you know you messed up and you’re sorry. Next time, only take what you can carry and be extremely careful with the sensitive ones. Why don’t you help me find the materials we need to fix the door?”
Klee nods and grins with all her teeth showing before starting to sprint towards the forest, but is abruptly yanked back by her collar. “No bombs.” This time, she sets off toward the forest sluggishly with a small axe.
When Klee is out of sight, Albedo turns back to face Lisa, but she has already left. Only Kaeya remains near the gaping hole that once was the door of the Knights’ headquarters. Albedo is a smart man; he knows that between Kaeya and Lisa, only the latter deserves to be truly feared. So he decides to slump himself against the wall in an unsightly heap, letting out a sigh so huge it makes his body sag like a dried fig.
“Hate children?” Kaeya suggests helpfully.
Albedo shakes his head. He won’t deny that Klee is a troublesome kid, and has to admit that her escapades have a full success rate of resulting in property damage, but when he had heard the crash from inside his laboratory, the first thought that came to mind was to check if Klee was alright. She is, after all, a toddler with highly-destructive explosives.
“Actually, she reminds me of you,” Albedo muses.
“I do not destroy buildings and make new forest clearings eight times a week,” Kaeya replies, incredulous.
“I never know how to handle either of you,” Albedo finishes, standing up and patting the dust off of his cloak. “I can only experiment continuously. The two of you are really never stagnant.”
He can never take his eyes off of Klee, not even for a second, because statistics show that every unsupervised second she spends in the forest, an average of ten trees get burnt to a crisp. If Miss Alice returns from her journey to find Klee in any worse shape than when she had left, it would have been a failure on Albedo’s part, and he is made to be beyond capable. He is under no such obligation to care for anyone but Klee, so why has he always found it so hard to take his eyes off of Kaeya too?
Kaeya looks at Albedo, then down at his outstretched palm, then at Albedo again.
“Wow, I didn’t think you’d take it seriously,” he laughs somewhat sheepishly before closing Albedo’s fingers back around the mora he had held out. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it for free! Having my portrait painted and hanging grandly in the cathedral is payment enough.”
Strangely enough, Albedo feels slightly disgruntled. It’s not like he’s doing this for Kaeya, and for him to model for free just makes it sound like Albedo wants to paint him for fun. That would mean he cares for him; the thought alone is making his stomach flip uncomfortably. “Why would a picture of you be hung in a place of worship? It’s supposed to be very holy there,” he mumbles, stuffing the money (500 mora, exact) in his pocket.
Kaeya, on the other hand, wears a shit-eating grin on his face. “The cathedral is where beautiful things go, so of course it would belong there.”
“Sorry, I only paint what I see. I am not a Liyuen face-tune app.”
Kaeya only has time in the evening, and instead of heading to the tavern as he usually does, he makes his way to Albedo’s laboratory just on the edge of sunset. “Hello,” he drawls, opening the door without bothering to knock. Albedo does not bother to reply either.
“Here.” Albedo draws a chair from one of his work benches and motions for Kaeya to sit. A few metres away is where he sets his easel and canvas, before he starts to prepare his brushes and paints.
“What do I have to do?”
Albedo takes a moment to consider, before waving his hand absently. “Nothing, really. Just do whatever you do naturally and don’t move too much.”
“For how long?”
He shrugs. “If you behave, a few hours maybe. Piss me off and it’ll be three seconds.” Kaeya raises an eyebrow but keeps his mouth shut and folds his arms. Albedo feels the edges of his lips tug upwards. That’s not a bad pose, but it would be comical to see Kaeya try to keep his eyebrow raised for three hours.
About half an hour passes, and Albedo’s brushes are still paint-free. “What’s the matter?” Kaeya asks, breaching the thick silence in the room.
“I hate to admit it, but when you keep your mouth shut you suddenly lose all that’s worth taking interest in,” Albedo grumbles, setting his brush down for the umpteenth time. Kaeya laughs.
“Well, what would you like me to talk about? I’m sure having a nice chat would be more interesting than having you ogle my chest in complete silence every few seconds.”
“Don’t kid yourself. I was not ogling your chest.” He was. But the warmness that crowds his cheeks is more an effect of the shame of being caught in the act than in the act itself. It’s obvious that Kaeya shows it off on purpose anyway.
Kaeya looks out the window. The sky has already shifted from its previous orange-red to dark blue, and the sun has been dethroned by the stars. The sun is a star, but it has grown to such an immense size only for it to be pushed out of Teyvat’s sky by countless tiny ones. The sun is a star. The sun was once a star.
“Where I come from, it is always night,” he begins, and Albedo looks up. “Before coming here, I had never felt natural warmth on my skin, so you can imagine how I felt when I saw the sun for the first time.” He laughs. Albedo picks up his brush.
“I was terrified. But he laughed at me, asking how I could be frightened of something that was so far away. He didn’t understand that it looked like a cannon’s loaded mouth to me. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a white-hot cannonball headed straight for your face?” It’s the same lilting voice, almost as if he intends to tease himself.
“He?” Albedo asks, but more so Kaeya knows he’s listening. He knows. There isn’t anyone in Mondstadt who doesn’t.
“Diluc, of course.”
“Ah, yes. The two of you were inseparable.”
Kaeya chuckles. Albedo’s hands are working faster now, dabbing delicately at the canvas in quick, staccato strokes and at other times, covering large swaths of the canvas in colour. He finds himself sarcastically wondering if Albedo finds inspiration in other people’s trauma, but decides that artists are probably eccentric for a reason. As he’s about to continue speaking, Albedo interjects.
“He was your sun, was he not?” There is a pregnant pause.
“Perhaps he was,” Kaeya shrugs. Albedo ceases his brushwork to look properly at him. “Scared me the first time I met him, involves vast amounts of heat...” And warm, he wants to add. After being scared of the sun, he began to crave it, to feel more of its gentle touch on his skin, to see it cast its glow on the morning dew. After he had spent a whole day basking in his new interest, he awoke to find himself with a horrible case of sunburn, and the peeling skin all over his body had hurt almost enough to make him cry. Diluc had laughed at him again, saying that although the sun was very far away, it was still a star, and stars are light and heat. So it was a cannonball, Kaeya had sniffed, betrayed, and Diluc had merely sighed before rubbing the cream a little more harshly on his back, earning a pained yelp from Kaeya. Stupid, he had scolded, but the way he nursed Kaeya’s skin made Kaeya think it was probably okay to be stupid anyway.
Albedo puts his brush down again. He’s mostly done, but the face is still blank, and for some reason he’s scared to work on it. He looks over the top of his easel, and sees Kaeya looking out the window on the left. Albedo’s gaze trails unabashedly over his face in spirals, from his cheekbones to his lips, when it finally ends at his eyes. Or eye. Is it weird to ask people how many eyes they have?
He turns to face Albedo, smile once again plastered on his face. “Yeah?”
“What’s under the eyepatch?”
For a split second, Kaeya’s only visible eye widens almost imperceptibly, but quickly flits to an expression of horror. “Oh, it was truly a terrifying battle…” Albedo feels slightly guilty for dragging up some part of Kaeya’s trauma, so he avoids making eye contact by focusing on his canvas. But the terrifying battle in question turns out to be Kaeya poking his eye out with an icicle just after receiving his vision because he had no clue how to control it, so Albedo musters up as much disdain as he can and fixes Kaeya with a horrifying stare.
“You’re so stupid, it’s starting to get sad.”
“How can you say that to a person who no longer has depth perception?” Kaeya exclaims, pressing a hand to his chest and leaning back in his chair. Albedo is about ninety percent sure that Kaeya’s pulling his leg, but from the slightly forlorn look in his remaining eye, he decides that he should play it safe for the remaining ten percent.
“Well, this is not a compulsory proposition—though I feel that it’ll make your life a lot easier—but if you really wanted a second eye, I could probably do something about it?” What if Kaeya doesn’t want a second eye? Would anyone actually reject an eye? Albedo finds himself feeling somewhat awkward, and the feeling only intensifies the longer Kaeya remains silent.
“I am so sorry.” So Kaeya doesn’t want the eye. Albedo makes a mental note to never ask people if they want body parts ever again. In retrospect, why had he decided that that question even made sense in the first place? See, Kaeya looks like he’s about to cry. Good job, Albedo! You’ve made a grown man cry!
Then Kaeya bursts out in a fit of raucous laughter and promptly falls off the chair. “I’m so sorry,” he repeats, “you look so awkward, it’s almost cute. I was just joking; I’m not actually missing an eye, but you looked so sad on my behalf that I just went with it.”
“Then what’s the eyepatch even for?” Albedo attempts to restrain the growing urge to throw the entire palette into Kaeya’s face.
“The drama, of course! The mystery! For people like you to ask me why I have an eyepatch so that I can act like I have secrets! It helps with the reputation,” Kaeya explains, having gathered himself and now sitting cross-legged on the floor. He looks up. “Oh no, Albedo, I’m sorry now, I won’t do it ever agai—” He gets cut off by a paintbrush hurtling straight towards the centre of his forehead before meeting its mark with a painful smack.
“And I’ll never be nice to you ever again too.”
“You sure about that?” Kaeya chuckles, rubbing at the slowly reddening spot on his forehead. “I was just getting to enjoy your niceness so it would be a pity if you stopped now.”
Albedo whips out another three paintbrushes poised between his fingers. “I am giving you five seconds to get out. Five, three…”
Kaeya scrambles to his feet and makes his way to the door. “You’ve become a lot more expressive lately, Albedo. It’s quite a nice change,” he remarks, before slamming the door shut just as a paintbrush hits the door with frightening accuracy.
Once Kaeya leaves, the room falls silent and picture-Kaeya now has a face. He has his eyepatch now, and he’s smiling so wide that it no longer matters how many eyes he has. Albedo only paints what he sees, but this time he feels the need to take some artistic liberties, which is why by the time dawn breaks the next morning, the sun’s glow illuminates the tear running down Kaeya’s painted cheek.
Every day at about ten in the morning, Klee turns up at Albedo’s door. Depending on the sign outside, she either sits patiently beside it or barges in with a new drawing, and Albedo pretends that he hadn’t expected her to come. “That’s a nice drawing,” he’ll say, pulling her up onto his lap, “is that supposed to be me?” He will point to some stick figure with yellow crayon scrawls atop its head and comment that it’s like he’s looking into a mirror.
Today, Klee’s attention is pulled to the canvas still on its easel from the night before. “Is that Kaeya?” Albedo stiffens. He probably should have covered it before letting her in, because now he has no idea how to answer.
“Yup.” Hopefully Klee will lose interest in it and continue talking about yellow-haired stick-Albedo.
“Kaeya is really smart, isn’t he? He even knows the trick to making Jean not ground me anymore,” she remarks matter-of-factly, pulling out a sheet of paper. “See, he even wrote a poem for me so that I can remember.”
Albedo barely has enough presence of mind to read the paper that’s been held to his face, still regretting his decision to leave the painting in the open. “Yup,” he responds affirmatively without thinking.
Klee brings a finger to her chin contemplatively. “Klee thinks he’s really pretty too, even though he’s a man. His eyes are so cool!”
Klee’s eyebrows disappear into her hairline. “You think so too?” Albedo snaps back to his senses then, and realises that he has no idea what he has just agreed to.
“Um, yes,” he ventures, hoping that he hadn’t made a fool of himself. Klee giggles. Shit.
Klee fishes out another piece of folded paper from god-knows-where and puts it in Albedo’s hand. “Then you can have this! Klee is going into the forest again now. I haven’t finished gathering all the wood we need for the door,” she declares. “Oh, how I wish the door was smaller…” Albedo chuckles as she hops off his knee.
“You’ve learnt your lesson, haven’t you, Klee?”
“Yes…” she grumbles in reply, before brightening up almost instantly. “Bye bye Albedo!”
Albedo smiles and waves goodbye to her as the door closes behind her. But the sky is slowly fading into oranges and reds, and Klee has yet to barge into his office with her small axe and gathered wood. She can’t have taken this long; by telling her to gather supplies Albedo had only meant for her to have a sense of responsibility. He had already obtained most of the supplies and told her to get only a small portion. He puts his papers down and stares blankly at the sky, which is soon already tinted with purple.
He scrawls a note for Sucrose if she comes back for extra research to find the lab empty, grabs his bag off of the hooks on the wall and makes his way to the forest.
“Klee?” he calls, ducking under a low-hanging branch. “It’s getting dark soon, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have enough wood yet, you can always come back tomorrow.” Then, he turns a corner to see a flash of red. Albedo feels his muscles unclench almost imperceptibly. “There you are, it’s really getting too dark to see, let’s go home now—”
Kaeya hasn’t seen this door in ages, but today he’s quite glad that he still has the key.
At around this time everyday, Adelinde can be seen giving instructions to the other maids about dinner. Elzer can be found sorting through contracts and other paperwork at his desk near the first storey window. Nothing much seems to have changed, save for the addition of the horrendously obnoxious vase displayed near the staircase. Kaeya chuckles.
“Master Kaeya! You haven’t been back for so long...are you staying the night? Master Diluc hadn’t informed me at all, I will see to it that your room is tidied up,” Adelinde fusses, already reaching out to take his coat.
“No, it’s fine, really, Adelinde, there’s no need to pamper me, I’m just dropping by for a quick chat. Is Diluc home?”
“I’m afraid he isn’t around at the moment. I expect that he’ll be back in about ten minutes though, so if you don’t mind waiting a bit...”
“That won’t be a problem. Ah, there’s no need to bring me anything—Adelinde, wait!” Due to an inevitable stroke of overhospitality, Kaeya now sits at the table with some tea. His coat has been shedded and draped over the back of his chair, because it’s so warm in here, so warm that he somehow feels naked. He has a nice chat with Elzer about the winery and about Mondstadt’s political scene but both of them can tell that they’re skirting around the very intention of Kaeya’s visit. Kaeya’s attention is drawn to the window and he realises vaguely that it’s raining. He hadn’t realised; it’s so warm in this house.
Diluc opens the door to Kaeya and Elzer laughing, looking like a wet cat. Water drips off his hair and off the edge of his heavy coat, puddling around his boots. Adelinde comes running from the kitchen at the sight of a potential ruined flooring (water does things to old wood) with a towel and throws it on Diluc’s head. “Master Diluc! Did you not bring an umbrella with you?”
“You call me Master Diluc yet you fling a towel at my head and scold me,” Diluc mumbles.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Diluc dutifully dries his hair while stepping gingerly out of his boots. Then he seems to notice for the first time that Kaeya is around, and his eyes widen for a split second before his mouth curls into an unpleasant scowl. Kaeya just waves.
“What do you want?”
“I think it best that you speak to me dry, Diluc. You might catch a cold and I may just make it worse,” Kaeya chuckles. Before Diluc can refuse out of spite, Adelinde clicks her tongue and drags him off to the bathroom by force. It’s funny how she’s so much nicer to Kaeya than to Diluc, even though one is a Ragnvindr and one is just Kaeya.
Diluc has always had unmanageable hair. When he comes downstairs with his hair loose but now dry, Kaeya feels a little better about this inevitable confrontation. There is no way he can take Diluc seriously when his hair looks almost twice the size of his face. “What are you laughing at?” Diluc snaps halfway down the stairs.
“I wasn’t laughing.” Kaeya chokes out, stifling a giggle.
Diluc scowls, but makes no further attempt to rebut. That could either end in harmless banter or a violent altercation, and neither of them want to risk it. He drags a chair out and sits himself opposite Kaeya, back ramrod straight. “What did you come here for?”
“I can’t go home once in a while?”
“This is no longer your home.”
“That’s for me to decide.”
“You should be grateful I even let you keep the key.” Diluc is glaring at him now, voice laced with remnants of a fury a few years old.
“Did you let me, or did you just forget I had ever been entitled to one?” Kaeya never sounds like he ever means what he says, or in some cases says a lot of things he doesn’t mean, but with Diluc he always finds himself toeing the line. There is silence on Diluc’s end, and while Kaeya has always known that he’s right, the silence stings all the same.
Diluc cracks his knuckles and the sound of it makes Kaeya’s muscles instinctively clench, but he indicates no further aggression, the act only an idle one. “Get to the point,” he says, albeit a little softer.
“Remember that day when I got sunburned?”
“No,” Diluc remarks, even though he does.
“I don’t think I ever learnt my lesson,” Kaeya muses. “To be fair, my skin is not the same as yours.”
“That’s obvious. Anyone with eyes could tell.” Diluc answers a little too quickly for his liking, and Kaeya falls silent.
“Was it easy for you to hate me?” he asks after an uncomfortable silence. “When I broke the news to you that night, was it a relief that I was exactly the kind of person everyone expected me to be?”
Diluc swallows. “You saw my father die and laughed. I wanted to kill you by the time you told me the truth.”
“But did you hate me? Or did you already have some semblance of caution, already expecting that it was only a matter of time before I showed my true colours?” Kaeya presses. Then he laughs. “Or is it that I had been misled from the very start?”
“I trusted you, so of course—” Kaeya raises an eyebrow.
“What is it that you placed your trust in? The fact that I would always follow you? The fact that I would never betray you? Or,” Kaeya hesitates a little before continuing, “the fact that I was a good person?”
For the first time, Diluc has no answer.
“Well, that’s enough emotional vulnerability to last a lifetime,” Kaeya huffs, standing from his seat and reaching for his coat. “It’s time I be off.” Diluc says nothing as he heads for the door and leaves without so much as a goodbye.
It’s still raining when Kaeya leaves the winery, and as the water soaks through the fur of his cape, he realises that it’s been quite a long time since he’d properly felt the sun’s warmth. At least he knows now. He knows that Adelinde won’t call him back to lend him an umbrella and that Diluc is but one of many, as many as the stars in the sky.
It was warm in there, Kaeya thinks as the mud sinks beneath his boots.
For some reason, Albedo can’t bring himself to step closer, even though every single fibre of his being is screaming. So he takes stock of the situation. There’s an axe, a branch, and Klee. None of them are moving, and all of them are covered in blood.
Interestingly enough, it’s when he catches sight of the feeble rise and fall of her chest that he springs into action. There’s blood everywhere but especially on her face, and oh dear, he hadn’t thought to bring a handkerchief so he tries to rub away the red with his sleeves. “Klee, wake up. This is no time to be sleeping,” he mutters, and the blood is already starting to dye the edges of his sleeves a soggy crimson, but still she does not stir. He shifts such that Klee’s head is cradled to his chest as she lies in his lap.
Albedo feels his own blood rush out of his head and his ears are ringing with his pulse. What am I going to say to Miss Alice, is probably what he would have wondered if this had happened a while ago, but now his mind is completely blank. He can’t find the wound, whose blood is this, why is the axe also bloody, why is the branch on the ground, why is Klee not waking up—
“—bedo…” Klee mumbles, burrowing further into Albedo’s chest without opening her eyes. “That you?”
“Yes, Klee, it’s me,” he replies shakily, gently placing a hand behind her head. “Does it hurt anywhere?”
“Mm, it’s loud,” she whispers.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Klee giggles. “Klee climbed the tree because that branch looked like a really good branch. Then, I dropped my axe while cutting and that’s bad because if you aren’t careful you’ll hurt somebody, right, so I tried to catch it! But I did an oopsie and fell…and then when I woke up I found Albedo! He’s going boom, boom, boom…”
She pries her face out of Albedo’s chest and grins at him, only for her eyes to well with tears a second later. “Albedo, why are you crying? Does it hurt here? It’s going boom, boom, boom,” Klee presses a small hand to his chest.
It’s only now that Albedo realised that his cheeks are warm with tears. “Yes, Klee, it does hurt,” he breathes as his shoulders sag.
“Klee will make it better, so don’t cry anymore, okay? Kaeya told me that when people are hurting they’ll feel better if you give them a hug,” she sniffs as she wraps her arms around his neck. “Klee knows it works, because when I miss Mama too much, Albedo gives the best hugs. He makes all the pain go away…”
By this time, the sky has darkened to an inky blue. At some point, Klee has fallen asleep in Albedo’s arms, and he is soon to follow. The lantern he had brought flickers out in the middle of the night, but there is no space for any darkness between the two of them. That night, the stars grant Albedo dreams of a red, beating heart.
When he sees the glow of the sun through his eyelids, Albedo wakes up to find himself holding something decidedly bigger and decidedly sturdier than Klee. “Good morning, sunshine,” says a smooth voice that is decidedly not Klee’s.
Almost instinctively, his arms grasp tighter at whatever he’s holding. “Where’s Klee?” he tries to say, but with his sleep-addled mind, it comes out sounding like “Ass me.” When he gets no answer, he starts wriggling around on what he now recognises as someone’s back.
“Woah, don’t do that, I might just drop you. Amber brought her back first in case she needs medical attention.” Albedo stops his wriggling immediately. He lets out a sigh and thumps his head onto a shoulder covered in fur. It’s really soft, he thinks.
“Yeah? I could give it to you, if you like. You’re always going to Dragonspine, with what you wear, the cold must be especially brutal.”
Albedo snores in response.
He’s completely drenched, his boots are muddy, and he currently has the temper of a boar. “What is it?” he all but snaps.
“Albedo...he said he went to find Klee in the forest but it’s already so late and they haven’t come back,” Sucrose stammers. “It’s dangerous when it gets dark in the woods, what if something happened to them and they couldn’t get help?”
This is how Kaeya ends up on a frantic trek in the woods with Amber, socks still squelching in his boots. “There!” and his gaze darts to where Amber is pointing to, before his eyes widen and he hears a gasp from next to him.
Amber is close to tears as she pries Klee out of Albedo’s grip, his hands unconsciously reluctant to let go. “Take her back to the city with your glider, it’s faster. Judging from all this it’s more likely that she’s injured,” Kaeya instructs, trying his best to keep the quiver out of his voice as Albedo’s hands grab at nothing in his sleep. “Up we go,” he huffs as he lifts Albedo onto his back, comforted by his even breaths. I hope it’s a nice dream.
A piece of paper flutters onto the ground as Kaeya shifts to let Albedo rest more comfortably on his back, and as he bends down to pick it up, he’s greeted with a photograph of himself. He’s smiling but not facing the camera, and the sun shines from behind him, making his features almost indistinguishable from his shadow.
Accurate, he laughs, albeit a little bitterly, as he starts walking with Albedo asleep on his back. But if an artist like Albedo had been keeping it on him, then there must be some beauty in it.
When he walks back to Mondstadt, he walks away from the dawn.
He hears a shrill cheer, but before he can open his eyes a weight lands on his stomach with a thud, forcing him to wake up immediately. “You’re awake!”
How could I not be, he grumbles as he sits up with Klee now seated on his lap. Wait, Klee?
“Klee, are you feeling better now? You probably got a concussion from falling from that height,” Albedo murmurs as he rubs the drowsiness out of his eyes.
“Mhm! Not only did I get a concoction, I also got a nosebleed,” Klee declares.
“It’s called a concussion, Klee.”
Albedo sighs. “Never mind, I’m just glad you’re okay now.”
“Doctor! What is your report on the patient?” Kaeya demands, swinging the door open solemnly. Klee immediately hops out of the bed and salutes (with the wrong hand).
“I’m fine,” Albedo remarks, a smile teasing the corner of his lips.
“Albedo is fine!” Klee reports.
“What time is it?” Perhaps he should have thought of getting a clock for his room. The light shining through the window hints that it’s probably afternoon, which means a whole morning of research time wasted.
“Albedo would like to know what time it is!” Klee declares, hand still poised in an adorably wrong salute.
Albedo decides to test a hypothesis. “Actually, I would also like for Kaeya to get out because he is being an eyesore.”
“Albedo would also like for Kaeya to get out because he is being an eyesore!” Klee all but shouts, before turning back to Albedo with a frown. “Wait, that’s not very nice! Just yesterday you said he was pretty!”
“You did?” Kaeya’s eyes widen.
“I did?” Albedo looks equally surprised.
“Yes, you did! And why else would you have two paintings of Kaeya in your office?” Klee exclaims, slightly indignant that her claims are being refuted.
“Two?” Kaeya asks incredulously. “You only had one canvas that day, didn’t you?”
Albedo has no idea when Klee saw another one, but is secretly thankful that she only saw two. But both of them are looking at him as if they expect an explanation, of which he has none to give.
“It was for research,” he says. “It’s a long story.”
“I have loads of time,” Kaeya teases.
“Well, I don’t. Good night.” Albedo decides that he can no longer handle this interrogation and burrows completely under the blanket.
“But Albedo, it’s 2pm!” Oh, so now they want to give him the time.
“Albedo is asleep,” he mumbles from under the blanket. From inside his cuddly cave of shame, he can hear a muffled chuckle from Kaeya and a few moments later, the sound of a door being swung shut.
The coast must be clear now, he thinks, so he peers out from under the blanket, only to see Kaeya sitting next to his bed. “Gotcha.” He winks. Or blinks. It is rather hard to tell.
“I have things to finish in the lab,” Albedo says lamely as he sits up on the edge of the bed.
“Can’t a man speak to his buddy for five minutes?” Kaeya whines. Buddy; the word echoes in Albedo’s mind a little longer than it should have. Perhaps spending the night in the forest has addled his brain slightly too. “Let’s play a game! We’ll take turns answering questions and the only rule is that you have to answer.”
“Okay, but how do you win?"
“By answering everything!”
Albedo does not see that as a win. “Isn’t Klee the one that’s ten years old here?” he snaps. He sees a glass of water on his bedside table, probably a kind gesture done while he had been asleep, and brings it to his lips. He needs a way to soothe the headache that he already knows is about to happen.
Kaeya clutches his chest dramatically. “Oh, you truly wound me so. Anyway, are you into guys?”
Albedo spits all his water out.
“That was some sweet projectile motion,” Kaeya whistles.
“Perhaps,” Albedo grits out. “It is a relatively new discovery, though. How about you?”
“Is that really what you want to waste your chance to know my deepest, darkest secrets on?” Kaeya glances at his nails, bored. “I thought it’s always been pretty obvious. Okay, my turn. Am I a good person?”
“Did something happen?” Albedo asks.
“That’s your question? Wow, you sure are terribly boring,” Kaeya snorts. “I went back to the winery yesterday and talked to Diluc. Now that I think about it, I have no idea what I had been expecting. Maybe an apology. I was ready with mine. Albedo,” he sighs, “can I have a hug?”
Albedo stiffens. Then he opens his arms hesitantly, with which Kaeya immediately sinks into his embrace. “One minute. That’s all you have,” Albedo insists, awkwardly patting Kaeya’s back.
“Who would ever want to be alone? I just wanted a family,” Kaeya mumbles into his neck.
“There is a chance that Diluc may see things differently in the future, just that not enough time has passed for him to think things through yet,” Albedo suggests. Kaeya doesn’t reply. For someone who constantly looks like magic, knowing that he too can be petulant is more of a relief than an annoyance. The only inconvenience is how Albedo is slowly realising their proximity to each other, and is becoming increasingly skittish.
“One minute is up, get off.”
“Nah.” With some sort of frustrated grunt, Albedo concedes and does not pry Kaeya off. Perhaps Sucrose can assist with his research tomorrow.
Albedo’s breath just barely brushes the shell of his ear, but it’s warm with life. And in his chest, Kaeya can hear the thudding birth of a star.
I have received your illustrations safely here in Liyue, and I must say, you once again leave me in awe of your talent, even though I have already had many opportunities to catch a glimpse of your work. Even though I had my doubts about my portrayal of such a new theme, your work seemed to bring my characters to life on the pages. Interestingly enough, I found myself reminded of Captain Kaeya through your drawings of the love interest. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but now that I see your input (whether on purpose or accidentally), it fits together rather nicely. Please tell him to read my book when it is published as well! Thank you for your hard work and dedication so far, and I hope that we will get the chance to collaborate more in future works!
“Ooh, so I’m a love interest now,” Kaeya hums thoughtfully. “This is quite the rich incentive for me to pick up one of Xingqiu’s books.”
“You need to break the habit of coming in silently and reading things over my shoulder,” Albedo snaps as he whirls around in his chair to face Kaeya, who merely grins.
“I’d stop doing that if you’d actually show me stuff, you know. Such as the multitudes of portraits of me that you stash inside this office. Me looking extremely handsome, me looking extremely handsome while doing paperwork, me looking extremely handsome while in the shower—”
“Please do not insinuate that I look at you in the shower,” Albedo declares emphatically with a punch to Kaeya’s arm. He mumbles something that sounds like I’d let you, though and Albedo pretends he is deaf. See no evil, hear no evil.
“How’d you even get the chance to paint them, anyway? I only recall sitting still in front of you once.”
“Hmm, I wonder.” Albedo replies both half-heartedly and cryptidly. “I guess I tend to look at you a lot because you’re interesting.”
“Not because I’m so hot I gave you a crisis about your sexual preferences?”
“I do not have any preferences. This is more of an inevitable fact that I am forced to face.” Albedo emphasises. “If I had the liberty of choosing, you are literally the last person I’d choose.”
Kaeya grins. “Well, that’s too bad then! Here’s a deal: I stay interesting and you stay interested. Everyone’s a winner! Even the cathedral, because eventually one of those paintings is going to end up on its walls.” A laugh bubbles in the base of Albedo’s throat and rises in a chuckle.
“Albedo! Oh no, Albedo and Kaeya are doing the thing again,” Klee whines just after slamming the door open.
“Lisa taught it to me, but now I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s when Albedo and Kaeya make the smoochy eyes to each other,” she explains, leaving the two of them completely stunned. Then, Kaeya doubles over in laughter.
“The smoochy eyes? That’s a new one.” He picks Klee up despite her reluctance to be carried (she is eight now, and that’s a whole one number bigger than seven) and snorts at Albedo who suddenly doesn’t know where his limbs should go.
“Klee thinks some fish blasting is in order,” she says with a strangely regal tone from atop Kaeya’s shoulders, “because this is gross.” She must have learnt the term “in order” from Lisa, who probably thought it would be funny to see a child use courtroom speech.
“You’re right, it is gross.” Albedo is definitely happy to have an excuse to extricate himself from this situation. “Why not I go with you to make sure you don’t blast things other than the fish?”
Klee nods. “Okay, let’s go!” Kaeya chirps, running out the door with Klee bouncing on his shoulders, having lost all sense of superiority with a delighted squeal.
Albedo laughs, freely now that no one else is here to hear it. Perhaps one day, he’ll show himself to the ones he now knows that he loves, picture by picture, smile by smile.