The hideout is an obscure opening, traces of magic fading along the cliffside of Starsnatch Cliff. Kaeya feels around it, checking for traps, and he quietly draws his weapon and feels the familiar ice crawling up his fingertips.
He’s gone on solo missions before of course, most of them by his own design and to Jean’s chagrin. But this isn’t some abyss mage hideout where he’s trying to gather information. This isn’t some treasure hoarder den where he’s going to apprehend some pesky thieves.
This is a Fatui base where he’s going to save Diluc.
It’s been a long time since Diluc has had to rely on him, the Darknight Hero more than capable of taking care of himself. And it will probably be the last time, he thinks bitterly to himself, if this all goes according to plan. Diluc will go back to being the untouchable tycoon that keeps Mondstadt running and Kaeya will fade back into the shadows, their paths uncrossing.
Kaeya shakes himself out of his thoughts. He made his choice all those years ago. Diluc did too. And despite the yearning to be on friendly terms again, to be able to walk into Angel’s Share without a suspicious look thrown his way, he has never regretted telling Diluc the truth. And so there’s no use crying over something that will not change.
There’s the sound of rustling in the leaves behind him and Kaeya whips around, sword pointed at the small bush. “Well well, what do we have here?” he says, keeping his voice light even as jagged edges of ice threaten to burst free from his fingertips.
To his horror, a small head pops out from the bush.
“Sir Knight!” Diluc says. His hair is a mess and he must have gotten out of bed in a hurry. “It’s just me!”
“What are you doing here?” Kaeya hisses. “How did you even get here?”
“I saw you leave and followed you. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t getting hurt,” Diluc says, his lips wobbling slightly. “I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”
Kaeya sighs. “I’m not,” he says, because he may have been bitter and hurt and jealous of Diluc before, but he has never truly been mad at him. “I’m just worried about you. This place is dangerous.”
Diluc nods seriously and then crouches again behind the bush. “I’ll stay right here,” he promises. “I won’t get in your way.”
Kaeya sighs again, but it would take too much time to walk Diluc all the way back to the winery. He’s not about to send the boy back by himself either. “Fine,” he says sternly. “But if you move from that spot, I’m going to freeze your feet to the ground, okay?”
Diluc gives him a salute. And then he disappears, ducking back into the bushes with a quiet rustle.
Kaeya’s standing up and dusting himself off when he feels a hostile presence behind him. He whirls around, cryo instinctively flowing out of his fingertips in one smooth motion.
The man standing a couple paces away easily dodges.
“What do we have here?” he leers. The man looks familiar, wearing a weird mask and earrings that glow in the night. “The captain of the Knights of Favonius, I see.”
Ah, he’s one of the Fatui Harbingers Kaeya had seen wandering through the dark outskirts of Mondstadt once. He plasters an easy grin to his face, his sword a familiar weight in his hands. “I’m honored that you know of me.”
The man smirks. Dottore. That’s his name. He remembers hearing the name through the grapevine, back when he first caught wind that Diluc was still alive.
“Everyone knows who you are,” Dottore says lazily. He looks right at home, leaning comfortably against the cliffside. “Your reputation precedes you, Sir Knight.”
The familiar nickname causes Kaeya to tense up. He’s not sure if Dottore saw Diluc, but even if he didn’t, the current area is not big enough for him to be able to protect the redhead if they were to fight.
“I’d ask what the captain of the Knights of Favonius is doing here.” Dottore’s smile turns sharp and sinister. “But I already know what you’re here for. You have a child problem on your hands, don’t you?”
Kaeya laughs airily. “It appears my information was correct then,” he says. “What did you do to him?”
Dottore waves him off. “You brothers are the same. That freak charged in by himself too, you know. Didn’t even wait for backup.” He cackles. “All I did was protect myself. He’s the one who fell into the potion I was working on.”
Kaeya’s grip tightens on his sword. “Where’s the cure?” he says, keeping his voice steady.
Dottore sneers. “I’m not obligated to tell you anything.”
And then the sound of whirring is all the warning Kaeya gets before the metallic arm of a ruin guard slams down from above him.
He dodges to the side, a burst of ice freezing the ruin guard while his sword slips in between the cracks and buries itself inside its armor. The ruin guard screeches, crashing down to the ground, but Kaeya can see two more coming up to take its place.
He doesn’t know how long he fights for. His cryo keeps him company, familiar ice weaving up the length of his sword and toppling the nearest enemy. He used to hate his vision, a reminder of the look of utter hatred Diluc had given him when he first manifested it seven years ago.
But now, he remembers the look of adoration Diluc had given the little ice bird he created. Now, he remembers the little boy huddled in the bush, trusting Kaeya and his cryo vision to protect him.
Perhaps… it isn’t all bad.
Dottore claps slowly when Kaeya finishes taking care of the ruin guards, breathing heavily as he drops down amidst the sea of broken metallic parts. “Well done,” he comments snidely. “But let’s see how well you fight while trying to protect that little brat.”
“What do you mean?” Kaeya says calmly, even though his heart tightens when Dottore simply smirks and glances right at the bush Diluc is hiding in.
“Let’s see how composed you’ll be when he dies right in front of you,” Dottore cackles. And then there’s the sound of whirring coming from the base again, the sound of something decidedly more dangerous.
And then the noise stops.
“Hey,” a voice calls from inside the base. Dottore jolts back as if burned. Someone walks out of the opening of the cave, tossing a small vial up and down in his hands. “I came here to pick something up, but it looks like I stumbled upon something interesting.”
The man notices Kaeya and gives him a grin. “We meet again!”
Kaeya remembers him, the Fatui Harbinger that had shown up one day wandering around the streets of Mondstadt. Jean had sent him to investigate, and Kaeya had somehow ended up finding himself in Angel’s Share listening all night to the man mope about getting rejected.
“Tartaglia,” Dottore hisses. “What are you doing?”
“Making a delivery.” He tosses the vial at Kaeya. “That’s the cure you came for. Make the little guy drink the whole thing and he should be back to normal in a couple hours.”
The vial feels warm in his hands. “Oh?” Kaeya narrows his eyes. “Awfully kind of you despite us only meeting once.”
“Hey, I appreciated you listening to me ramble about Mister Zhongli,” Tartaglia says. He has somehow casually slotted himself protectively between Kaeya and Dottore. “But even if you hadn’t, I’d still do this anyway.”
Tartaglia glances over his shoulder and he looks different. His expression is soft, not at all like the bloodthirsty one his enemies speak about in fear. “I have siblings that age,” he says. “So I understand.”
And then he’s whipping out his weapons, hydro power forming daggers in his hands. “Go!” he shouts. “I’ll keep him busy for a bit.”
“Her Majesty will hear about this!” Dottore screeches. He’s summoning dozens of ruin hunters, his face downright murderous.
“I’m sure she will, and I’m sure she won’t care,” Tartaglia laughs lightly, slicing one of the hunters easily.
“Sir Knight!” Diluc has crawled out from the bushes and is tugging on the hem of his sleeve. “We need to go now!”
Kaeya looks at him. Diluc’s trying to look brave, but his whole body is trembling in fear. “Right,” he says, grabbing Diluc’s hand. And then he looks back and says, “Thanks.”
Tartaglia tilts his head in acknowledgement. “Treat me to another round next time,” he says lightly. And then he’s jumping back into the fray, and Kaeya pulls Diluc away from the scene.
Kaeya lies on his bed and stares up at the ceiling.
The previous night had been a whirl, starting from the fight at Dottore’s hideout, to the unexpected aid from Tartaglia, to the escape back to the Knights of Favonius headquarters. He remembers throwing open the door with a trembling Diluc in tow, tossing the cure to a startled Lisa before storming back out by himself.
Diluc had reached for him when he left, eyes brimming with unshed tears. But Kaeya hadn’t stayed, hadn’t been able to work up the courage to face Diluc again in his older form, hadn’t been able to come to terms with the fact that the Diluc he spent the past week with was a lie.
And so he had left.
It’s been more than sixteen hours since then and no one has contacted him, so the cure probably worked. Diluc’s probably gone back to his regular life, whether that meant managing the winery or hunting down Fatui or whatever he likes to do in his spare time nowadays. He probably doesn’t even remember anything from the past week.
Kaeya needs to go back to his regular life too.
Instead, he continues to stare wistfully up at his ceiling and sighs.
The past week had dredged up several painful memories, but it wasn’t all bad. Walking around the winery with Diluc, making up names for the different types of exotic grapes with him, fighting off small slimes and fishing Diluc out of the water when he fell in.
It had been… nice. It’s been awhile since Kaeya’s let himself have nice things.
But of course, all good things have to come to an end.
Kaeya rolls himself back into sitting position. He’s tired, having spent the night prior rolling around. The bed suddenly seemed too big without a small boy hogging all the blankets, and he woke up in the morning with a cold sadness spreading through his heart.
Maybe he’ll go out and defeat some enemies, even though Jean has specifically told him to take a break. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, and besides, he has a feeling that even she would cut him some slack after seeing how terrible he looks.
He’s in the middle of shrugging on his uniform when there’s a knock on the door.
It’s one of the knights from the headquarters. “Sir Kaeya,” he says, bowing slightly. He very wisely does not mention the fact that Kaeya has dark circles under his eyes, though Kaeya can see him glancing at them worriedly. “I have a delivery for you.”
Kaeya raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms. “Oh?” he says. He’s not sure who it could be from. A present from Jean, perhaps? Weird art doodles that Albedo seems to enjoy sending him?
The knight nods, and then he’s dragging something over.
It’s a vase. It’s a vase like the one he gave Diluc all those years ago, a small pyro vision slipped in that was meant to convey the relief and thankfulness Kaeya felt when Diluc returned to Mondstadt alive.
He’s speechless for once, and the knight takes the silence as an opportunity to continue. “He didn’t want to leave a message,” he elaborates helpfully. “But he seemed certain that you’d know what it meant.”
No, Kaeya doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t know why Diluc is sending him a vase when he should be going back to happily ignoring Kaeya’s existence. “Yeah,” he says instead, and he doesn’t know what expression he’s making, but the knight looks at him with sympathy. Kaeya clears his throat and rearranges his expression into something more socially acceptable. “Thanks for coming all the way here.”
He retreats to sitting on his bed after the knight leaves. There was the sound of rattling when he dragged the vase over, so there’s something inside, but he’s a little anxious to see what it is.
He cannot think of anything in the world that Diluc would want to give him.
He finally works up the courage to pour the contents out. There’s a small metallic box and a sealed letter. Kaeya looks at them both for a bit before deciding to try opening the box first.
Kaeya stares at it wordlessly for a couple minutes. And then he’s turning the box around in his hands, checking for secret openings, but he finds nothing. Nothing to imply that it’s anything more than a simple little empty box.
He’s really not sure what Diluc is trying to convey with this.
With a sigh and one last look, he places the box to the side and reaches for the letter.
There are a couple words scribbled on the paper. It’s Diluc’s handwriting, though it’s nowhere near as pretty and elegant as Kaeya remembers. The words are written in a messy scrawl, as if Diluc had penned it down as fast as possible before he could change his mind.
Kaeya glances at the clock. It’s 3:30 PM. Even if he runs, he might miss the assigned time. Besides, he ran out of the headquarters just the previous night for the sole purpose of avoiding Diluc. The most logical course of action is to pretend he never saw the letter and offer a few insincere apologies the next time he goes to Angel’s Share.
Kaeya Alberich will always chase after Diluc Ragnvindr, a voice echoes in his mind. It’s one of the facts of life.
Kaeya sighs. And then he stands up and reaches for the door knob.
Diluc’s already there when Kaeya reaches the forest behind the Dawn Winery, sitting on a small tree stump staring at his hands. He doesn’t look up when Kaeya arrives, and Kaeya slides onto the stump behind him so that they’re sitting back to back.
Neither of them say anything, and an awkward silence descends over them
Kaeya runs several conversation starters in his head, ranging from a patronizing you were a cute kid to a teasing what does the dashing Master Diluc need with little old me? Something nice and light and not related to the painful feelings he revisited over the past week.
Before Kaeya can say anything, Diluc mumbles something under his breath.
“What?” Kaeya raises an eyebrow. He wishes he could see what kind of expression Diluc is making now but, well, he chose this position on purpose so Diluc couldn’t see his face either.
“I said thank you,” Diluc says resignedly.
Kaeya’s heart does a traitorous little flip that he quickly quashes down and replaces with a joking smile. “What’s that? I didn’t quite hear you.”
Diluc snorts and Kaeya can imagine him rolling his eyes. “You’re an idiot,” he retorts, but his voice lacks bite. In fact, this whole conversation so far has been strangely amicable.
Kaeya laughs softly. “So, what are you thanking me for?”
There’s a pause. “For staying with me the past week,” Diluc says. “I… I appreciated it.”
So Diluc did retain his memories then. Even though some part of Kaeya had hoped that he would, the other part wished that he would forget; Kaeya spent the past week with his vulnerabilities written all over his face, and even though Diluc’s drifted away over the years, he has no doubt that Diluc still understands him enough to figure things out.
Kaeya just shrugs. “Even I’m not heartless enough to abandon a little kid.”
Diluc is silent for awhile, staring up at the rustling tree leaves. Kaeya wishes he could figure out what he was thinking. Why did he invite Kaeya all the way to the forest? If he had only wanted to begrudgingly give his thanks, surely a letter would have sufficed.
“Kaeya.” Kaeya almost falls off the stump. It’s been so long since he’s heard Diluc say his name so softly. “It was nice to see you being honest again.”
“I… what?” is out of his mouth before he can help it, and he quickly tries to compose himself. “I mean, I’m always honest, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Diluc lets out a huff. And then he’s turning around, red eyes staring in his direction. They are clear and sharp and devoid of any annoyance that Kaeya might have expected. He looks a little embarrassed, but he continues on anyway. “You aren’t the only one who wants to go back to back then.”
Kaeya stares at him. “Diluc?” he says a little uncertainly.
“You’re not as good of an actor as you think you are,” Diluc says, and honestly that’s probably the most offensive thing he could’ve said. Kaeya opens his mouth to defend his honor but Diluc ploughs on. “Even as a child, I could see that you were lonely.”
“I’m not lonely—”
“Next time you are,” Diluc says, and his grip is firm but gentle as he grabs Kaeya’s wrist. “Come to the winery. There’s no need for you to be alone, and the winery is big enough for two.”
There’s a strange feeling in Kaeya’s heart, a certain nostalgia that blankets over him. He can’t quite place what it is—it’s been so long since he’s last felt it—but it feels warm and soothing and comfortable and like home.
Kaeya lets out a shaky laugh. “What’s this? Are you inviting me to share a bed with you?”
Diluc rolls his eyes, though Kaeya thinks he might be smiling a little bit. It’s hard to tell, but the corners of his mouth seem to twitch upwards.
“That’s all I had to tell you,” Diluc says, standing up. “You’re free to leave.”
“Kicking me out already?” Kaeya teases, standing up as well. “Why Master Diluc, do you make all your guests walk across Mondstadt just to sit in the dirt?”
Diluc shoots him a look of utter disdain that drags an unsuspecting laugh out of Kaeya. It feels different from the ones he’s used to; it comes straight from his gut, an ugly sort of sound that would make him feel slightly embarrassed if it didn’t feel so nice.
“Hey,” Kaeya calls out when the redhead turns to leave. Diluc stops in his tracks and glances back at him. “Was there some sort of meaning to that empty box you gave me?”
Diluc flushes red and he suddenly can’t meet Kaeya’s eyes.
Kaeya raises an eyebrow. “Oh? Was it something embarrassing?” he teases, even though he still has absolutely no idea what it could be.
Diluc lets out a slow, suffering sigh. And then he reaches into his pocket and nearly throws something at Kaeya.
Kaeya barely manages to catch it, fumbling around with the object. It’s smooth and cold to the touch, small enough to fit in his palms, and he stares down at it with wide eyes.
It’s a small black bird, forged with ore.
“I was having second thoughts so I took the bird out of the box,” Diluc explains. “But whatever, you can have it. I already made it anyway.”
When Kaeya doesn’t say anything, Diluc continues “You made one for me, so consider this repayment.” A beat of silence. And then, more quietly, “Now you’re free too, Kaeya.”
Kaeya clutches the bird to his chest. And then he’s smiling, and Diluc looks a little startled so he must have forgotten to tone it down a little, but when Diluc gives a hesitant smile back, Kaeya finds that he doesn’t really care.
His heartbeat thumps steadily under the cool surface of the bird, and suddenly he remembers the feeling he forgot the name of. An emotion that he had buried with layers upon layers of lies, forgotten over the years, threatening to bubble out of him in waves.
Ah, Kaeya thinks. So this is happiness.