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the bird without wings

Chapter Text

When Kaeya turned eight, he celebrated his birthday for the first time. 

He always knew when it was, of course, a small tingle in the back of his head whenever the last day of November came. He knew that birthdays were special and some kids got cake and presents and lots of hugs on their special day. 

Not him.

In Khaenri'ah, birthdays were different. They were a reminder of the reason he was born, the sole purpose behind his existence. For his sixth birthday, his father gave him a knife and showed him how to use it.  

He went to sleep that birthday with scratches and bruises all over his arms and a heart burdened heavy with responsibility. 

Two years later, when Kaeya turned eight, he woke up in Mondstadt burrowed in a comfortable blanket with the warm sunlight shining onto his face. Oh, he thought quietly to himself, I'm eight now.   

And then he put his birthday out of his mind and crawled out of bed to get dressed. 

After he finished washing his face, he headed down to the dining room. Diluc was already there, his tiny legs swinging animatedly as he talked to Crepus, but he beamed widely when he saw Kaeya coming down the stairs. "Kaeya!" 

"Hello," Kaeya said, still not used to the unconditional love the Ragnvindr family showered him with every day. Crepus smiled gently at him as he bowed slightly, sliding into the seat next to Diluc. "Thank you for the food." 

Diluc was fidgeting a lot, his hands tucked suspiciously in his pockets. Kaeya blinked at him. "Diluc? Are you alright?" 

Diluc bobbed his head eagerly. "Kaeya," he whispered loudly, a bright smile on his face. "I have something for you." 

Kaeya stared at him. "For me?" 

Crepus let out a sigh. "Diluc, I thought we agreed to do this after breakfast." 

"I changed my mind!" Diluc said, and then he's reaching into his pocket and holding out something for Kaeya to take. "Here! I made it for you. Happy birthday, Kaeya!" 

Kaeya took it tentatively with both hands, staring down at the little creation. It appeared to be some kind of bird sculpted out of clay. The wings were deformed, its face pinched and its legs too big in proportion to the rest of its body. 

"Sorry," Diluc said nervously after a couple minutes of silence. "Maybe I should've just bought something." 

He reached to take the clay sculpture back and Kaeya scrambled backwards. "No!" he said a little too loudly, clutching the bird against his chest. "No, I love it. I love it a lot! Thank you, Diluc." 

Diluc beamed. "You mean it?" 

"Yeah," Kaeya said honestly, looking down in wonder at the clay sculpture. "No one has ever given me something like this before." 

Diluc leaned over and clutched Kaeya's hands between his own. "I'll do this every year," he declared. "Everyone deserves to have a happy birthday, especially you Kaeya!" 

"Thanks," he said softly, and if Diluc could hear how shaky his voice was, he didn't comment on it. 

"Alright boys, let's eat before the food gets cold," Crepus said. Diluc retreated back into his own seat, and Kaeya's hands suddenly felt so cold without his. "Happy birthday, Kaeya." 

Kaeya straightened up in his seat. "Thank you." 

"I don't have anything as amazing as what Diluc made." Diluc stuck his tongue out. "But why don't I let you try some wine during dinner? The bottle you're always staring at?" 

Kaeya blinked. "But I thought I had to be an adult to drink that." 

"Well, a little bit never hurt anyone. Besides, you turned eight today." Crepus reached over and ruffled Kaeya's hair. It felt so much different compared to his father's desperate hands, grabbing him roughly by the shoulders and pleading for him to finish the mission. You are our last hope, Kaeya. "I think that's something worth celebrating, no?" 

Kaeya, you were born to save us.  

"Okay," he said, the smile coming much easier than it ever did in Khaenri'ah. 

And then, with the excited chatters of Diluc and Crepus filling the dining room, the small clay bird clutched tightly in his hand and the promises of wine and more fun times ahead in the day, Kaeya Alberich turned eight. 

When Kaeya turned eighteen, he stopped celebrating his birthday. 

The room the Knights of Favonius gave him was by no means terrible, but he had made no effort to turn it into home. Aside from the clothing arranged in the wardrobe and the basic necessities scattered in the bathroom, the room looked no more lived in than when he first arrived. 

The moonlight shined through the open window, casting a glow onto the covers in front of him. He sat in bed, a glass of wine in his hands as he stared at the night sky almost wistfully. 

He remembered when he was a kid, he couldn't wait to grow up, couldn't wait to become knights with Diluc and protect Mondstadt alongside him and try that fancy wine Crepus always liked. 

But now, he wished he could turn back time. He wished he could go back to that naive and innocent child who only thought about catching up with Diluc as they played in the forest. He wished he never learned how to lie, and lie, and lie, until he stopped being able to remember when the last time he smiled for real was. 

He wished he never found out how bitter this wine tasted. 

Kaeya sighed, taking another sip. The day had passed by uneventfully. He hadn't told anyone about his birthday, and so the day had proceeded as usual, with Jean giving him various duties around the city. It proceeded as usual, with several meetings with treasure hunters and other pesky bandits taking up much of his schedule. 

It proceeded as usual, with a Diluc-shaped absence that was becoming more and more painful as the days went on. 

He hadn't seen Diluc since that day, when the rain turned red with Crepus' blood, when he had laid his whole heart bare and placed all his vulnerabilities into Diluc's hands as his lips mouthed the truth of his darkest secret.  

He hadn't seen Diluc since that day, when the boy he grew up with pointed his sword at him and cut down the decade of trust between them. 

"You liar," Kaeya said wryly. "You said you would always protect me." 

His head hit the wall behind him with a thud, the cooling winter air brushing against his face. It had been many months since then, many months since Diluc disappeared from Mondstadt and took a large part of Kaeya's heart with him. 

Kaeya wished he thought to bring the clay bird with him. But even that was gone, left behind in a house he could never return to. 

You must carry out your mission, his father's voice echoed in his mind. Kaeya had forgotten so much over the years, but that voice had never left him. Kaeya, you are our dream.  

Kaeya took another long sip of his wine. It burned all the way down. 

"Hey Diluc," Kaeya said quietly. "I wonder where you are now. Inazuma? Snezhnaya? There's no way you're dead. You're too strong for that.” 

“Jean has taken over your position," he continued. "It's not as fun without you here. I always thought I'd be by your side when you became the Grand Master. But I guess that wasn't in the cards, huh? 

Hey Diluc, his mind whispered. Do you hate me?  

Hey Diluc, his mind mumbled. If I was someone else, would you still have left?  

Hey Diluc, his mind laughed. Why am I still alive?  

"Happy birthday to me," Kaeya murmured to himself, finishing the rest of the bottle in one swing, the brightness of the full moon his only companion on that lonely winter night. 

Kaeya blinks out from his memories with a jolt as the familiar scenery of Mondstadt falls into place around him. It's the evening now, the sun beginning its descent behind the buildings as the street lamps in the city blink to life. 

He sighs; he hasn't fallen back into his memories in a long time. He knows he’s not who he was when he was eight, a hopeful and naive little boy who still believed that he could fight against his fate. He knows he's not who he was when he was eighteen, a young man who stood near the door every night just in case Diluc came home. 

He turns twenty five today, and he feels like he's aged decades in just the past five years. 

He's been wandering around aimlessly for awhile, and he smiles a little wryly when he sees where his feet have taken him. The sign for Angel's Share stares down at him from above, the lights blinking on inside the store as customers slowly trickle in after a long day of work. 

Maybe I haven't grown up as much as I thought, Kaeya sighs, but pushes the door to the tavern open anyway. 

Once inside, his eyes instantly scan around for the familiar spot of red. His heart drops slightly when it's Charles, not Diluc, who smiles back at him from behind the bar. But what did he expect? It's not like he expected Diluc to remember his birthday, and the last time he celebrated with anyone other than his own wine glass, Crepus had still been alive. 

"Sir Kaeya!" Charles greets as Kaeya slides into a barstool in front of him. "How are you doing today?" 

Terrible, his mind supplies. "Pretty good," he says, putting on his best public smile. It's charming enough to fool most people he's met, and the one person who used to be able to see through it is long gone. "Didn't expect to see you here today." 

"Yeah, I wasn't expecting to be here either," Charles admits. "It was my day off, but Master Diluc begged off last minute. Said something about needing to check something out and asked me to take his shift for him." 

There's a sharp pain that stabs Kaeya's heart and he shrugs it off. Diluc's life does not revolve around him, especially now that they barely acknowledge each other's presence, and there are plenty of other things Diluc could be doing other than trying to avoid Kaeya on his birthday. Even if the timing is a little suspicious. 

"Oh? Interesting," is all he says.

He grabs for the glass when Charles slides it over to him. He stares down at his own reflection, the mask of a liar peering back up at him as it grins mockingly. It's been seven birthdays since he and Diluc parted ways, and he's developed a certain tradition of drinking glass after glass until he can barely walk. 

He gives a different answer anytime anyone asks for his birthday, so he's not surprised that no one has brought it up with him today. Yet, sitting at the bar with the chattering of drunk friends and loved ones filling the tavern around him, he can't help but feel incredibly lonely. 

The door slams open. 

"Kaeya!" someone yells, and Kaeya jolts out of his stupor and turns around. That voice sounded suspiciously like—no, it couldn't be. 

He sees a flash of red before a small body barrels into his stomach. 

"Oof," Kaeya says, barely avoiding toppling out of the barstool. Small arms wrap around his waist tightly, red hair spilling out of the ponytail, and Kaeya's heart almost stops. 

He's talked his way out of all types of situations. From placating international disputes to buttering up his informants, he's always had a quick response to everything. 

But for once, Kaeya is speechless. 

"Happy birthday!" the boy says, pulling back with a huge grin. Kaeya would recognize that face anywhere, from the puffy cheeks to the slightly crooked teeth to the sparkling bright eyes. It's been more than a decade since he last saw this, but he would never forget the happiest times of his life. "I told them it was your birthday but no one believed me! I would never get the date wrong. It's your special day after all—" 

The boy cuts off, eyes widening almost comically as he stumbles back. He barely reaches the height of Kaeya's stomach. "Wait," says eight year old Diluc. "You're not Kaeya." 

Chapter Text

“So,” Kaeya says slowly, looking from Jean standing hesitatingly at the doorway to Diluc hissing behind a barstool. “Does anyone want to explain what’s going on?”

“Who are you?” Diluc points accusingly at him. He’s wearing a knight’s uniform, though even the smallest size is too big on him. The sleeves cover his hands and the boots are high enough to reach his knees and Kaeya has the sudden unexplainable urge to pinch his cheeks. “You’re not Kaeya. You’re too tall! Kaeya’s shorter than me.”

Kaeya smiles at Diluc’s childish logic. Before he can say anything, Jean cuts in with “He’s Kaeya’s older brother.”

Instantly, all the aggression vanishes from Diluc’s body. “You’re his older brother? Really?” He leans in excitedly. “He never told me he had an older brother!”

Kaeya glances over at Jean, who shrugs. “There was an accident at the Fatui base this afternoon. By the time the Knights got there, he was already like this,” she says.

“Like this” meant a short little eight year old sitting on the barstool and swinging his dangling legs around happily.

“Any idea of how long he’ll be like this?” Kaeya asks, smirking when he sees Diluc sniff curiously at the glass he had been drinking out of and making a face.

Jean shakes her head. “No. Lisa and Albedo are looking into possible cures right now, but they aren’t sure how long it’ll take.”

Kaeya frowns; it must have been several hours since this age reversal happened, and it’s slightly concerning that Diluc hasn’t reverted back by himself yet. Not to mention the fact that Lisa and Albedo seem to be having trouble procuring a cure as well.

He wonders how this happened. While he had been loitering around Mondstadt in self-pity, had Diluc been suffering? Kaeya knows how strong he is, has seen firsthand what a terrifying warrior Diluc has grown up to be.

But even though he’s had more than seven years to come to terms with it, it’s still hard to accept that if Diluc were to ever die, Kaeya wouldn’t be there with him.

(And if Kaeya were to die, well, he’d be alone.)

“Anyway,” Jean says. “He was causing quite the stir earlier at headquarters. He said he had to wish Kaeya a happy birthday, no matter what.” Her smile turns fond. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him like this.”

Her smile vanishes when she looks at Kaeya. “We also need to talk about your habit of lying,” she says sternly. “Why did you tell me your birthday was in April?

Is this really the time to be talking about that? Kaeya’s about to ask, but Diluc cuts in, large round eyes blinking curiously. “Are you in trouble, mister?” he asks. “Are you part of the Knights too?”

“That’s right,” Kaeya says charmingly. “I’m a captain.”

Diluc’s eyes light up in adoration and it hurts, it hurts despite how much he tries to bury it. He can’t remember the last time Diluc looked at him with anything other than disdain. “That’s amazing! Kaeya and I want to be knights when we grow up.”

“Yeah?” Kaeya says. “I’m sure you’ll be a great one.”

Diluc puffs out his chest proudly. And then he glances over at Jean. “I want to go with Sir Knight,” he declares, tugging on the sleeve of Kaeya’s uniform with his small hands.

Jean hides a smile behind her hand. “Do you not like the headquarters?”

Diluc mutters something under his breath. It sounds suspiciously like Miss Lisa is kinda scary.

“I’m sure Jean would be a better option,” Kaeya says. He’s not sure what seeing a Diluc—no matter how small—running around his house would do to his heart. “Wouldn’t you rather go with her?”

“No!” Diluc tugs even harder on Kaeya’s sleeves. “I want to stay with you, Sir Knight.”

“Jean,” Kaeya says, and his voice comes out a lot shakier than he anticipated.

Jean is failing to hide her smile. “Well, I don’t see why he can’t stay with you. You can bring him to the Dawn Winery for a couple days.”

Kaeya has a million reasons why this is a bad idea, but they all disappear when Diluc turns his huge puppy eyes at him.

With a sigh, he leaves Angel’s Share on the night of his birthday with one excitable eight year old bouncing happily next to him.

“This isn’t home,” Diluc says when they arrive at the winery. He’s glancing around at everything curiously. “Is Kaeya here?”

Kaeya sighs. “We’ll be staying here for a couple days. Kaeya isn’t here.”

As expected, Diluc instantly digs in his heels and crosses his arms. “I want to see Kaeya!”

“He’s training to be a knight,” he says. The winery looks exactly the same as the last time he visited, when Diluc stood on the balcony and coldly told him to leave. “He won’t be here for a couple of days, so it’ll just be the two of us, okay?”

Diluc looks down at the dirt, kicking his feet. “Oh,” he says sadly. “I thought we promised to train together. Did he leave me behind?”

Kaeya crouches down next to him. “Diluc,” he says, and it’s been years since he’s been honest with other people, with Diluc, with himself. But this comes out surprisingly easy. “He would never do that. His greatest wish has always been to be by your side.”

Diluc stares at him for a few moments, eyes wet. And then he’s scrubbing them furiously. “Oh,” he says quietly. “That’s what I want too.”

Once they’re inside the house, Diluc’s eyes are dry again and he’s looking around in amazement. “Wow! It’s so big.” He hops over to the bookcases in the corner. “Wow! There are so many books here.”

“Don’t run or you’ll trip,” Kaeya says, and watches as Diluc gives him the world’s cutest salute before tiptoeing slowly to the other corner. Had Diluc always been this adorable? Or is it only because Kaeya now knows that this unconditional adoration toward him won’t last?

“This is the book Father’s always reading!” Diluc says. He smiles at Kaeya. “Oh yeah, where is he?”

Instantly Kaeya’s heart drops.

“He’s away on a business trip,” he says, though his voice sounds foreign. It’s been a long time since he’s thought about him. The man who gave him a place to stay, the man who took care of him and loved him in place of his birth father, the man who showed him that there was a place in Teyvat for him and taught him the meaning of family.

He can’t even remember Crepus’ face anymore. 

“Oh okay,” Diluc says sadly. “I thought he was with Kaeya. That means Kaeya’s all by himself, even though I told him I would always be there on his special day. I hope he doesn’t feel alone.”

He’s so stupidly selfless. This is why Kaeya’s heart aches every time he sees Diluc’s cold eyes across the streets in Mondstadt. This is why he finds himself searching for familiar red every time he enters Angel’s Share.

This is why, years ago during that terrible rainy day, he stared down the blade of a sword and thought it’ll be okay if Diluc is the one to kill me.

Kaeya ruffles Diluc’s hair. It’s as soft as he remembers. “Yeah,” he answers honestly. It’s been so long since he’s taken off his mask that he feels foreign and vulnerable without it. But he ploughs on. “I’m sure he doesn’t.”

Diluc beams. And inside his heart, the bittersweet longing grows even heavier.

They spend the next few days together doing various activities.

They start with hiking first, something Kaeya remembers Diluc enjoying during childhood. He remembers the redhead running ahead excitedly, yelling over his shoulder, Kaeya, hurry up! I just saw something move over there!

Kaeya Alberich will always chase after Diluc Ragnvindr. It’s one of the facts of life. He’s spent so much time during his childhood in Diluc’s shadow that sometimes he still struggles to do anything else.

But ever since that day, the back that Kaeya’s been chasing after all this time stopped turning around to wait for him.

Perhaps that’s simply fate. Diluc. Crepus. His birth father. Khaenri’ah.

One day, without fail, everyone will leave him behind.

Diluc’s kicking at the ground forlornly with his little boots. “What’s wrong?” Kaeya asks, shaking himself out of his thoughts. The reemergence of Diluc in his life has sent him spiralling down a loop of memories he’d rather not revisit. “I thought you liked hiking.”

“I only liked it because Kaeya was here with me,” Diluc says petulantly. “Kaeya’s so cool and nice and funny. He knows so much about all the plants and stuff here, but he gets scared by insects so I need to fight them off for him.” He picks up a small branch and waves it around menacingly. “Kaeya’s a prince, and I’m the knight who protects him!”

Kaeya quickly throws up his public smile; he’s not sure what expression he’d be making without it. “Yeah?” he says. He remembers small hands flipping frantically through library books in the dark, a small boy eagerly absorbing information so he could show off the next day. The look of pure adoration on Diluc’s face had been enough happiness to sustain him for a long time. “He sounds like he’s pretty lucky to have you.”

“No, I’m the lucky one,” Diluc says. “Before Kaeya showed up, I didn’t really have any friends. But now I have Kaeya!” He beams. “He makes me so happy.”

Kaeya smiles politely, unsure of how to respond without laying his whole heart bare in Diluc’s hands. Luckily, the boy doesn’t seem to expect an answer anyway, falling into step next to him and humming a small tune under his breath. Kaeya recognizes it as the song Crepus used to sing to them before bedtime.

The melody is sad and nostalgic. It reminds him of better times, when mealtimes were accompanied by laughter and chatter. It reminds him of better times, when his cheeks hurt from smiling too widely every day.

It reminds him of better times, when he would look at Diluc and think of home.

(But perhaps he has never stopped).

Diluc fights well for an eight year old, small hands gripping the hilt of a wooden sword.

After the hike, the two of them decide to spar for a little. They’re outside the winery, weapons clanking against each other. Diluc’s movements are unrefined, but he moves with enough enthusiasm to balance it out, dashing forward for a hit before scampering backwards again.

Kaeya remembers the two of them fighting in the forest with small branches years ago, making dramatic noises every time one of them scored a hit. It had been so much fun, their little boots squashing in the mud as they ran after each other, dreaming of great adventures and a city to protect.

And then Crepus had started training them to be knights, giving them practice weapons and hiring tutors in an effort to make Diluc the knight that he could never become, placing a sword and the weight of the whole Ragnvindr family name in an eight year old’s tiny palms.

(Diluc’s always been so different from Kaeya. He’s the golden boy, the one who manages to surpass expectations. The one who became the youngest to ever join the Knights, who took Crepus’ dreams and made it reality. The one any father would be proud to call a son.

And Kaeya, well, he’s managed to disappoint everyone he’s met so far.)

“Diluc,” Kaeya says, and the little boy’s head snaps up. “Why don’t you try one of the claymores?”

Diluc blinks and looks over at the wooden weapons. “But it’s so big,” he says, and Kaeya nods. “And I’m so small,” he says, pointing at himself. Kaeya nods again. “Will I really be able to use it?”

Kaeya places the weapon into his hands, and a look of wonder crosses over Diluc’s face. It’s so different from the one he wears now, where he picks up Wolf’s Gravestone with a scowl and eyes burning with vengeance. 

There’s a certain innocence that Diluc lost, washed away with Crepus’ life that terrible rainy day. And it’s hard for Kaeya to look at the childish joy that sparks in Diluc’s eyes as he swings around the claymore wildly for the first time and not wish for it back.

They train in front of the Dawn Winery until noon. Adelinde comes out to check on them from time to time, but other than that, no one else interrupts them. Diluc’s struggling with his new weapon, but even then he’s still moving better than Kaeya expected, and he is reminded yet again of how talented and gifted Diluc really is.

Diluc looks up after he finishes gulping down his water. “Sir Knight,” he asks curiously, looking at something near his belt. “What is that glowing thing?”

Kaeya looks down. “Oh you mean my vision?” He holds it out and Diluc huddles closer, eyes wide with amazement. “I have a cryo one.”

He snaps it onto his belt every morning with mixed feelings. To him, his vision is a reminder of his failures, his weakness, his despair as red eyes glared down at him with pure unfiltered hatred.

But Diluc stares at it in awe.

“Can you show me?” 

“Sure.” Kaeya thinks for a bit, and then flicks his wrist. It comes easily to him now, the ice melding under his fingertips as naturally as breathing.

He remembers sitting in the forest, the sight of Diluc’s back walking away etched permanently in his mind.

He remembers sitting in the forest, gasping as the ice froze uncontrollably up his skin as he struggled to stop it.

He remembers sitting in the forest, laughing uglily that of course the coldhearted traitor would get a cryo vision.

“Wow!” Diluc peers over curiously at where a little ice sculpture of a bird is sitting in Kaeya’s hands. “You made a bird! That’s so cool!”

“Yeah?” He lands the bird on Diluc’s nose and laughs when the boy wrinkles his nose cutely and swats his hand away. “It’s for you.”

Diluc’s doe eyes blink up at him innocently. “For me?”

“Yeah.” He takes Diluc’s hands and wraps them carefully around the ice sculpture. “This bird is like you, Diluc.” He thinks about the pyro phoenix, soaring up and into the sky in Mondstadt. A protector of peace, flying to great heights. “You’re free. You can do whatever you want.”

Unlike me, his mind whispers. My wings were clipped a long time ago.

That night, Diluc is a small head peeking out from the opening of the covers. On the nightstand next to him is a small jar with the ice bird sitting in it. Kaeya smiles when he notices a fan pointed clumsily at it, as if trying to prolong its life.

“Sir Knight,” Diluc says when Kaeya turns to leave. “Can you tell me a bedtime story?”

“Sure,” he says, plopping down into the stool next to the bed. Diluc giggles and scooches over. “Anything in particular you want to hear?”

Diluc shakes his head. “I’m okay with anything! Tell me about one of your adventures as a knight! Or any cool stories you’ve heard!”

Kaeya thinks for a bit. There are many different stories he can tell. He can talk about defeating a hoard of mitachurls to protect a town. He can talk about taking Klee on an adventure and the dangerous Abyss Mages they ran into. He can talk about exploring Dragonspine amidst the harsh cold.

But when he opens his mouth, something else entirely comes out.

Once upon a time, there was a prince. He was wealthy and strong and kind. And so the prince was loved by all.

One of those admirers was a knight. The prince had saved him, given him a reason to live, and so the knight wanted to dedicate his life to serve him. He loved the prince. But there was one problem.

The prince’s beloved homeland had an enemy. And that was the kingdom the knight hailed from.

The knight tried his best to cherish the life that the prince gave him. But the knight was a traitor, and traitors did not deserve love, trust, and certainly not a second chance at life.

Despite that, the knight prayed. Prayed that he could forget his dangerous mission, forget the responsibility thrust upon him, forget everything except the warm and comforting days he spent with the prince.

But the knight was a cursed, wretched soul. And he knew that no one granted the wishes of monsters like him.

The prince found out about his betrayal and flew into a fit of rage. He did not kill the knight, because death would be too easy for a traitor like him. Instead, he banished the knight from his kingdom, doomed him to eternally live with the weight of his sins.

After that, the prince returned to his kingdom and lived happily ever after with the people who loved him. The evil had been vanquished from the kingdom, and the knight became nothing but a folktale, just one of the many villains that the prince had defeated on his path to greatness.

When Kaeya finishes the story, Diluc’s eyes are wet. “Diluc?” he says, handing over a handkerchief. “Why are you crying?”

“The knight did nothing wrong!” Diluc declares, looking upset. “Why didn’t he get a happy ending?”

Kaeya laughs hollowly. “He was an enemy, Diluc. He deserved what he got.”

“That’s dumb. The prince is dumb,” Diluc says bluntly, and Kaeya stares at him. “If I was the prince, I’d go and save the knight from his kingdom. So that way, the knight doesn’t have to be scared anymore.”

“Scared?” Kaeya echoes. “I didn’t say the knight was scared.”

Diluc looks at him like he’s stupid. “He was forced to go against the person he loved, all alone in a foreign kingdom,” he says. “Of course he was scared.”

Scared. He had never thought about that before. Upset and nervous, yes, but it had never occurred to him that he was scared. That he deserved to be.

Fright. Love. Peace. He didn’t know if someone like him was allowed to have such emotions.

“Sir Knight? Are you okay?” Diluc’s tugging on his sleeve. “You look so sad.”

I’m all alone. I don’t want to lie to anyone anymore, the little boy inside him whispers.

Please help me. I just want to be happy, the little boy inside him begs.

Is that… is that impossible for someone like me? the little boy inside him cries.

Kaeya smiles. It feels too wide, too sharp, too fake. But lying is the only thing he knows how to do.

“I’m fine,” he says. “Let me tell you a happier story, okay?”

Kaeya closes the door quietly behind him, the image of Diluc’s sleeping face burned into his mind.

If I was the prince, I’d go and save the knight from his kingdom. So that way, the knight doesn’t have to be scared anymore.

“Sir Kaeya.” Kaeya jolts out of his thoughts. Adelinde is standing at the base of the stairs, expression emotionless. “Someone dropped by earlier. They asked me to inform you that a lead has been found.”

That must have been one of his contacts then. Kaeya nods, glancing briefly back at the door where the sound of Diluc’s soft snoring quietly drifts through. 

He takes a deep breath and sheds his Kaeya personality for perhaps the last time. It’s a mask he dug up from a decade long past, back when things were happier. Now, well, he doesn’t suppose he’ll need it if they get Diluc back to normal. And he has no intention of opening up his heart again to anyone else.

It’s less painful this way.

He melts back into the role of the captain of the Knights of Favonius, even though some part of him yearns to return to Diluc’s side once more. “Alright,” he says, eyes hardening. “Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

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.

Kaeya stares.

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.

It’s empty.

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.

Forest. 16:00.

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.