How he got in this situation, Diluc will never truly know the answer to.
Currently, he was kneeling next to a stump, clothes singed and ripped from an encounter with a rather nasty mitachurl, as he tended to the injuries on Bennett's arm, the boy frowning as he kept his arm as still as possible for Diluc. Next to him, Klee was leaning against his shoulder, nodding off every few seconds, only to wake herself up with a shake of her head and a yawn. Standing a few feet away, examining her bow, was Fischl, who was thankfully uninjured.
Klee’s situation was something he actually knew the answer to. While out on a stroll around the more open parts of the winery, he’d spotted some explosions in the distance. It didn’t take him many guesses to figure out who it was. when he found Klee, she was covered in ash and debris and looked like she had crawled out of an animal den. When she looked around to admire her destruction and saw him, frown somehow even deeper on his face, she began to wail and beg him to not tell master Jean.
Thankfully for her, another flash of fire and howls of pain from both hillichurls and humans alike stopped Diluc from dragging Klee back to the knight's headquarters at that second. They both followed the sound to the source and found Bennett and Fischl, fighting against a hoard of hillichurls, mitachurls, samachurls, and four abyss mages. It was unlike anything Diluc had ever seen. He’d taken down plenty of hillichurl camps in his days, and the biggest ones he’s seen couldn’t even begin to compare to the number of monsters the two young adventurers were desperately trying to face off against.
Well, that Fischl was trying to face off against.
Bennett was trying his best to support her from his crouching position on the ground, looking much worse for wear than his partner. He had considerable wounds on his arms and, by the looks of it, his left ankle appeared to be twisted by the way he leaned more on his right leg. While his field of healing warmth took care of the minor injuries, he was obviously in no state to stay on the battlefield for much longer. Fischl was doing her best to protect her ally, but her bow and Oz combined could only do so much against shielded mitachurls, who would simply block the arrows flying at them and knock their shields at the girl when they got close enough.
Klee was the first to act, launching bombs and setting Jumpty Dumpty loose on her enemies, setting their wooden shields ablaze and melting the ice shields of the abyss mages. Diluc was quick to follow-up, summoning his claymore and rushing to Fischl’s aide. After some overload reactions and some minor burns on Klee, the field was littered with charred grass and monster parts, their corresponding bodies disintegrated into dust.
The fight had taken a toll on the four; Klee was exhausted, her little body quivering with the strain to keep herself standing. Halfway through the battle, she started getting careless with her bombs and almost threw one in Diluc’s direction. Thankfully, he was quick enough to call out to her and snap her back into consciousness.
Fischl had a few scrapes on her limbs, but what really put her in a poor mood was Oz. He’d been fighting an excessive amount, as Fischl had to remain close to Bennett to ensure he didn’t gain any more injuries. The shadow raven cooed to his master as she stroked his beak, her other hand examining his shade plumage. His transparency worried her.
Bennett was easily the worst of the four. gashes and cuts were scattered across his entire body, his clothes torn and tattered in certain places, face and hands caked in blood. It was a sad sight to see someone usually so enthusiastic and energetic suddenly become quiet in pain.
Diluc himself had a few close calls, resulting in some minor bruising and scrapes, but nothing he wouldn’t sleep off. What mattered most was that he help the young adventurers as much as he could.
Hence his present situation.
When he felt that he’d done all he could, Diluc sighed and stood up, taking a glance at the sky above him. He grimaced when he saw how high the moon had risen. It was easily past midnight. He scanned over his rag-tag bunch of... teammates? Liabilities? And took a deep breath to prepare himself. “Alright, I need all of you to listen.” Fischl looked over to him, her green eye scrutinizing, and hmphed, before dismissing her bow with a wave of her hand and crossing her arms. Bennett simply looked up miserably, pouting as he rubbed his scraped up knee, and Klee could barely hold herself together. This was a mess. Diluc wanted to go home and sleep for 3 days to forget this ever happened.
“You’re lucky I’d found you—all of you. I understand that you’re members of the Guild, but you’re also children. Please, for Barbatos' sake-“
“Master Diluc?” Klee murmured, tugging on his pant leg as she sleepily rubbed her eye with her other hand. Diluc glanced up at the sky in a silent plea, mumbling a prayer to Barbatos, who was probably drinking in his tavern about now, before looking down at the young girl and sighing for what seemed to be the 27th time in the past hour. The young knight made little grabby-hands up at him and he somehow found it in himself to not drop to the ground and simply give up then and there. He bent down to pick her up, too tired to even care much at this point, and she happily walked into his arms, sighing tiredly at the warmth he radiated. Once she had situated herself in his arms, head laying on his shoulder and her tiny arms wrapped around his neck, he turned to the other two adventurers. Both had wide-eyed expressions, even Fischl, who Diluc hadn’t seen smile or frown or change her expression from that calculating, royal gaze in the past three hours he’d been with her.
He cleared his throat, ignoring the way Klee fisted a hand in his hair, bringing it to her cheek to nuzzle into it. “As I was saying—please, for my sanity and the Adventurers Guild’s, bring a healer with you when you go out.”
Bennett suddenly perked up, raising a hand. “But, Master Diluc, I can-“
“A reliable healer,” he specified, and Bennett dropped his hand with a pout.
Diluc turned away from the two teenagers and examined their surroundings, looking for any more enemies and a safe route back to Mondstadt. Judging by the thick foliage and the occasional wolf cry, they seemed to be in or near Wolvendom. Unfortunately, there weren’t any straight roads back to Mond from here, meaning they would need to cut through the cliff sides to return. Diluc frowned as he plotted the course in his head, nodding to himself once he was satisfied. “Listen up, we’re heading back to Mond.” He pointed to Fischl with his free hand. “Fischl, support Bennett as we walk back. Make sure he doesn’t put any pressure on his ankle.”
The archer nodded and made her way to Bennett. When she finally stopped next to him, the two sat there, just looking at each other, and Diluc wanted to punch the nearest tree until it split in two. “Just lend him your shoulder, Bennett, put your arm on your bad side around her shoulders. We don’t have time for this.”
Almost begrudgingly, Fischl bent down wrapped her arm around Bennett’s torso, slinging his arm over her shoulder. She mumbled something to him and he nodded in response before she hoisted him up. He winced and whimpered as he stood, injured leg bent in an attempt to take the pressure off his ankle. Fischl frowned and, in an awkward display of affection, patted her hand on his hanging off her shoulder. He gave an appreciative smile and Diluc looked away with his own more exasperated one when he saw the way Fischl’s pale cheeks flushed pink.
The walk back to Mond wasn’t as excruciating as Diluc dreaded it to be. Fischl and Bennett kept up despite his grueling pace and didn’t complain once about it. It was obvious to both of them that he wanted to return to the city as fast as possible. With the way he would glance over his shoulder to check if they were alright, or the occasional gentle stroke to Klee’s head as she slept, though, the young adventurers knew his urgency was for their sake.
When they arrived at the gates, the soldiers stationed there straightened upon seeing Diluc. They saluted and he scoffed under his breath, walking in past them without a second glance. He’d been gone for almost four years, and yet they still insist on treating him like their superiors. Ridiculous.
The group made their way to the cathedral, Diluc having to help Fischl support Bennett as he miserably hobbled up. He actually felt bad for the kid. He was obviously trying his best to stay strong throughout the fight while aiding his teammate. It was admirable, especially in a young adventurer. Fischl herself was impressive as well; her aim was precise enough to pierce the eye of a samachurl on a raised platform well over 20 meters away, and Oz was an irreplaceable asset to their team. Diluc would need to check up on them from time to time, just to see how they’re progressing, that’s all.
They entered the cathedral, and almost immediately, a group of nuns came to take Bennett and Fischl away. From the far back of the cathedral, Diluc could hear Barbara begin to scold Bennett in a hushed but stern voice. Diluc raised his gaze to the ceiling and shook his head with a sigh. It was a long night, but thankfully, it was finally over. He just had one more nuisance to return home.
Jean never left the knight’s headquarters unless absolutely necessary. It was a terrible, unhealthy habit that Diluc and every other citizen of Mondstadt knew and accepted. Barbara has tried to persuade her to take a break and rest at her home, which is merely a 5-minute walk from the headquarters, but her sister refused. Lisa asked her if she could help with any paperwork, offering to take over the entirety of it. Again, Jean turned her down. Amber tried to take over her field duties without telling Jean and was quickly returned to the headquarters when she found Jean waiting for her outside the gates. Even Kaeya offered his assistance, willing to take care of diplomatic matters. Jean shut that down faster than Mona could name any star in the sky.
It was almost heartbreaking how harsh the acting grandmaster was on herself, working herself to the bone to satisfy others, and yet never satisfied with herself. Unfortunately, she’d always been this way, even as a child. What they say about Gunnhildr children rings true: they learn to say “Mondstadt” before “Mommy”.
When Diluc knocked on the door to the acting grandmaster’s office, he was met with silence. It was unnerving. Now, while he usually kept a cool head in situations like these, with how the beginning of his night went, Diluc was already on edge. He quickly opened the door, expecting the worst, and his chest grew light at the sight of her sleeping. Albeit, it was on her desk on top of scattered paperwork, but she was getting the rest she most definitely needed.
He felt terrible about doing so, but he walked up to the sleeping knight and used his free hand to gently shake her shoulder. “Jean, wake up,” he whispered softly as to keep from startling her. Slowly, she opened her eyes, blearily glancing up at him, only to hide her face back into her arms. She mumbled something that Diluc couldn’t hear, but judging by the tone, she didn’t sound very pleased. He rolled his eyes fondly and shook her a little harder, resulting in her jolting awake, glancing around frantically. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Jean looked back to him and after a few moments of collecting her thoughts and examining her surroundings, she relaxed with a sigh and placed her head in her hands. “No, I should apologize, it’s inappropriate of me to sleep in my office. Thank you for waking me, Sir-“
She paused and turned to look at him, locking eyes. Diluc felt vulnerable under her gaze, and yet, it didn’t cause him any distress. Maybe he was just tired. Finally, Jean responded. “Diluc.” It was touching, in a way, that she still thought that highly of him even after he left the Knights of Favonius. If anything, he should be referring to her as his superior. The thought made him huff in laughter but decided against voicing it. It’d be a conversation for another time.
“So, I presume you’re here to return Klee, yes?” Jean asked, voice heavy with exasperation. As if on cue, Klee began to stir, slowly opening her eyes and taking in her surroundings, only to yawn and fall back asleep, rubbing her cheek into the lock of Diluc’s hair she had held onto as she slept. Diluc clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow, cheeks twinged a slight pink, but when he saw the fond way Jean looked at Klee, he decided that he would suffer through as many flustering moments as possible if it meant Jean would smile like she was now.
The acting grandmaster stood and took Klee from Diluc’s arms, carefully untangling his hair from her grasp as she did so. As if sensing her lack of comfort, Klee began to wake up once more. She seemed more conscious this time, and when she saw Jean, she hummed happily. “Master Jean, I’m sleepy,” the small knight murmured.
Jean chuckled and began to stroke her hair, running her fingers through the strands and gently detangling any knots. She made her way to the door and Diluc followed, opening it for her. She nodded her head in thanks and continued. They walked upstairs to the dormitories, the halls of which Diluc examined in nostalgia, and stopped in front of what he assumed must be Klee’s room. He was quickly proven wrong when Jean pulled a key from a small, hidden latch in her gauntlet and opened the door.
“No special room for the acting grandmaster?” Diluc asked from outside the room, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed.
Jean scoffed good-naturedly as she sat Klee down on her bed to take her backpack off. The child moaned in her sleep, upset at being jostled around, and Jean whispered something to her in response. Diluc desperately wanted to know what she said to make Klee giggle like that even in her sleep. Once her backpack was removed and placed safely in a far corner of the room, Jean began to take off Klee’s hat and boots. “I like to keep my quarters simple. Besides, it’s like you said: I’m only the acting grandmaster,” she smiled.
Diluc frowned at the wall in front of him. “Well, you’ve certainly done more than the actual grandmaster.” She didn’t answer him. Once Klee’s boots were removed and her hat was set aside on Jean’s nightstand, Jean helped a half-wake Klee slip under the blankets, making sure to tuck her in. she sat on the bed for a moment, stroking Klee’s head as the young knight slept.
Diluc felt out-of-place. He didn’t belong here, he shouldn’t be watching this. It felt too tender, too familial. Perhaps it discomforted him because of its distant familiarity; a memory of him and his father passes through his mind.
“You’re thinking too much,” Jean said, suddenly in front of him. He wanted to retort, but it must be true if he hadn’t noticed her walking towards him. Jean sighed. “I know you dislike the knights, but...” she paused, seemingly looking for the correct words. “There is a home for you here.”
Diluc scoffed. “I appreciate the offer, but have a house, Jean.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. You’re smarter than that.” Diluc was never good at deflecting. It was always Kaeya’s skill. “Just...” Again, she fumbled with her words, finally shaking her head in frustration as she settled on some. “We’re here for you. I’m here for you.”
They sat in silence after that, Jean staring at him with a concerned expression that he wanted to erase from his memory. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel so guilty about his disdain towards the organization she led. Jean was the first to break the silence, glancing out a window in the hall from inside her room. “It’s late. You should go rest.”
“Only if you do the same.” She didn’t seem to expect him to respond in such a way. She blinked, stunned, and Diluc furrowed his brow. “You fell asleep in your office, Jean. You need to rest.”
That seemed to be enough to convince the knight. She smiled half-heartedly, eyes tired. “Thank you, Diluc. I’ll make sure to tell Klee to give you her gratitude next time she sees you.”
Diluc shook his head. “No need. She helped me take care of some abyss mages tonight. That’s more than enough for me.”
Jean pursed her lips and took a glance back at the sleeping knight. “She’s quite the brawler,” she murmured. Diluc wanted to deliver a sly quip regarding her mass destruction when fighting, but his thoughts promptly dissolved to mush in his brain when Jean placed a featherlight kiss on his cheek. “Thank you again, Diluc. Goodnight,” she smiled and closed her door.
With how hot his face felt, Diluc was sure his cheeks were as bright as his hair, even as he left the knights’ headquarters. It was just a simple kiss on the cheek, something a child could innocently give to their friend, and yet it consumed his thoughts.
The walk back to dawn winery was calm as if the entire world was sleeping, from the hilichurls in their camps to the pyrotechnic child knight in the Favonius headquarters. It filled him with a sense of peace. On the way back, Diluc found his gaze lingering on the puffs of dandelions he passed, and noted with a softness that he hadn’t felt in years, that they seemed to glow a little brighter under the night's moon.