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“That was foolish even for you.”

A familiar gait. He’s heard the cadence of it before, that’s for certain. Felt the weight of it in the distant past, walking alongside it, matching it footstep for footstep.

Another dream, then, as these kinds of things tend to be. That’s how it should be, at least. But even he knows that this is no dream, not when he can hear the telltale drip of blood against the stone floor, the way every step bounces him where he’s cradled in deceptively lithe arms. A lash of agony races up the length of his arm where it hangs limp, swaying with each motion. He’s heavy and weightless all at once, with a familiar splay of fingers against his back and another set hooked under the bend of his knee.

How unusual, to be the one carried out of the wreckage. The remains of the makeshift Fatui base smolder around him. He could lift his head just enough to take a look—it would be more than enough to confirm the way the smoke is swiftly dispersing nearby. Even as it flees, the telltale scent of burnt flesh is unmistakable.

As is the curl of red hair fluttering in his peripheral, taunting him. All at once, he wants to reach for it; whether to touch it and confirm it’s real, or twist his fingers in it and pull , who’s to say.

Kaeya hums. The sound emerges from him like it’s been processed through sand, then drowned thirty feet underwater. “So I’ve been told,” he rasps to his dark-clad savior, managing his most winningly shit-eating grin. He trembles from the effort of it. “Got the invitation, did you? Figures Finn would pass by the winery regardless of which route he took.”

But Diluc does not rise to the bait. He makes a noise, half in acknowledgment, half in distraction, as his steps quicken. “If that’s the name of your recruit, yes,” he says. His mouth twists, as though finding something offensive in Kaeya’s words.

Not difficult at all to imagine what. This—all of this—is far from a well-meaning invitation of any sort.

Finn isn’t a terrible recruit. Earnest, that one. Painfully so. He has a lovely childhood sweetheart he constantly speaks of with excruciating fondness, despite the ribbing he gets from the other knights. The few occasions she had visited headquarters, bringing with her assorted snacks for Finn, a sizable number of knights in the barracks hadn’t stopped bemoaning their single lives for days.

Kaeya had taken one look at him and known he was the sort better off handling menial, routine tasks. Anything more dangerous, and he would more than likely be among the first to fall. That was how it always went, with the blistering romantics who had someone waiting for them at home. They’d make a promise, and one way or another, circumstances would conspire to prevent them from fulfilling it.

This time, circumstances nearly did.

A routine patrol gone wrong, Finn coerced into something or other by a group of ex-Fatui skirmishers who had gone rogue. The Fatui were merciless to enemies—they were even more merciless to those who tried to remove themselves from the ranks. Traitors, it seems, have the greatest number of debts to pay. Perhaps desperation forced their hand. Who knew what kind of threat or blackmail they tried to force against Finn, but either way, it must have been enough for Finn to contemplate treason. Delivering confidential documents pilfered from the archives to an enemy.

No doubt they meant to bargain with the upper echelons of the Fatui. Perhaps a Harbinger might humor the gambit. If only Kaeya hadn’t stepped in first, tossed the documents into the open campfire nearby, and cut down two of their number in one fell swoop.

Lisa would kill him for destruction of prized documents, but it’s easy to win forgiveness in the right circumstances.

And men like Finn—well. They’re the sort best saved and sent home to their waiting darlings. With how sickeningly sweet Finn was on his, one could even call them soulmates.

Not that Kaeya hadn’t planned to get out of this alive. In truth, he hadn’t counted on expecting Finn to stop at the winery and beg the assistance of the manor’s master. If Diluc hadn’t been willing to humor the plea, it simply would have taken Kaeya a little longer to get back to Mondstadt.

After all, the bodies were cooling before Diluc even stepped inside the base. Even if he had been the one to set things ablaze to destroy what the ex-Fatui had set up. It’s different from how he used to be. Now, he’s pragmatic in the face of those who don’t fall within the umbrella of his protection. Mondstadt’s favorite Darknight Hero metes out justice to criminals, after all.

Surely he would mete it out to one of the Knights of Favonius’ cavalry captains, should said captain fail to meet his exacting standards.

But Diluc does nothing but carry him away from the ruins, the claymore hovering at his back flickering away in a gleam of light. It would be easy to reach out and touch his tie. To trail fingers over the dark silk until they settle over the red gem gleaming not far from his throat.

Always impeccable, even more so these days. The sort of perfection that Kaeya wants to dig his nails into, to ruin, the way he’s always ruined good things in the past.

His contingency plans are many, but there was never a true need to bring Diluc into this particular matter. Kaeya has messengers and informants under his wing, easily tapped if he were to disappear without communication for too long. Whether it was from the Knights or his own personal network, he’d get the help he wanted. But whatever the case was before, even if pride would have had him keeping his distance, the present is the present.

He’s here now, for better or worse.

“My hero,” he says, smiling. None of that spares Diluc from the low note of amusement in Kaeya’s voice. “Couldn’t let me keel over in peace? Wanted to be here to witness it yourself? Kind of you to stop by, really.”

“I’ll drop you,” Diluc says, voice low with warning, belying the way his arms tighten more securely around the weight of Kaeya’s body, gloved fingers digging into a thigh.

Maybe it’s the blood loss, or the notion of confronting the possibility of things playing out in the direction he had expected but least wanted. The sentence spills from Kaeya’s mouth easily as he looks up at Diluc.

“You couldn’t kill me back then, either.”

Words just to twist the knife in, and aside for exhaling a breath torn halfway between sigh and something else, Diluc doesn’t quite react to that, either. Not the way he used to, at any rate, with anger lashing out in the wake of wounded pride. How boring. Diluc’s been a stranger in countless ways. Since the day he stepped back into Mondstadt after his long absence, his masks have been just as plentiful as the spectrum that Kaeya himself cycles through like each is going out of style by the second.

Boring in the sense he doesn’t know him so well anymore.

Boring in the way that he does get it, on some level. In the way things are when he knows them so intimately they grow predictable.

Please kill me , the stray Amber briefly picked up a year ago once told him when cornered, and it was his own weakness that stayed his hand. Her voice echoed a desperate resignation he understood all too well—after all, once, he’d said the same sort of thing, even if he’d couched it in the trappings of a taunt.

Then, Diluc—

A moment of clarity. The eye of the firestorm. Diluc’s claymore rising as a cutting blade of flame, evaporating raindrops mid-fall, its trajectory steady and true despite it all.

Kaeya had smiled something brittle and fractured, a facsimile of his usual easygoing quirk of mouth. Of course it had come down to something like this. Too many times, Diluc had allowed him his silences, his secrets—and it was only fitting that Diluc would be the one to finally rip that deceptive mask right back off him.

A long time ago, Kaeya had thought he’d known in his core what he was, what he was meant to do. Last hope , echoed his father’s voice, low and final, hatred banked in the far-flung stars reflected in his eyes.

A mission for a land he was too young to remember, whose people he did not know. Not in the way that mattered. It may as well have been the stuff of fairytales, the same ones Diluc had read to him when they were children, back when Kaeya hadn’t yet mastered the right way to smile just so, in the way people would simply believe and take for granted. Finally donning that armor had just been the first step.

In the end, that had been a choice.

Kaeya had come here to this foreign land, to Mondstadt , and carved a place for himself in the cobblestone streets. In the lines of people’s smiles. He’d won over his fair share of people, and even now, he remembers the first time Diluc had smiled at him, scarlet eyes warm with some inexplicable sentiment, and said, You have a place here too .

All of those things had also been a choice.

And that day in the rain, he’d chosen again, shaping cruelty with his own mouth, because it was the only thing he truly knew, no matter what Diluc had shown him through the years. Another sin to crown a smoldering pile of agonies, when Diluc had still been reeling from all that occurred in the day.

Will you kill me?

A beat of silence, and the would-be executioner’s blade had fallen.

It could have struck true, if Diluc’s grip hadn’t faltered. If a wall of ice hadn’t risen between them.

The first of many divides.

It was the second time that day that everything was upended from beneath Diluc, the ground ripped away with nothing to break his fall. Kaeya hadn’t caught him. Not that time.

What does it say now, that he’s the one in Diluc’s arms, spirited away from a scene of carnage of his own making?

“Was that your idea of justice?” Diluc says softly. The words draw Kaeya back out of the haze, bodily sensations settling again: the sluggish warmth of blood dripping down his own arm where he’s been cut; the stab of pain in his ribcage, where something is bruised and something else is broken; the gentle jostle of motion as Diluc walks, still holding him like—

“You tell me. Who’s to really speak of justice these days, hmm?”

A scoff. “Then what’s the meaning of this?” The lush scent of grass greets them, as does a passing breeze. They’re outside, then—well on their way back. To where is the question. “This is unlike any of your usual schemes.”

“Take a guess, Master Diluc,” Kaeya purrs, in the way that never fails to get under Diluc’s skin. To his satisfaction, a shiver passes over Diluc that doesn’t go missed with the way they’re so close. At least some things haven’t changed. “Surely you can’t expect me to turn my back on one of my own recruits. The Knights do follow a code of integrity, after all.”

“Some code that is,” mutters Diluc, the tail-end of the words gusting past parted lips in a sigh. Kaeya watches Diluc’s mouth for a moment, now that he can do so, for once, without threat of being shown the door and implicitly told to let it hit him on the way out. “You’ve always had your hand in clandestine affairs. And you expect me to believe that despite it all, you didn’t have a better plan in place to deal with this matter. Without emerging looking like this .”

There’s always a backup plan, until there isn’t. Until coincidentally, his contacts are tied up in various things, and the knights are undermanned and stretched thin over other matters. Jean, bless her, has always tried her best. But sometimes, protocols and procedures mean there isn’t enough time to contend with a threat before the overhead interferes.

Before everything is mired in bureaucracy and red tape.

The very thing Diluc once bemoaned as a young knight, and Kaeya had simply said nothing and gone around the obstacles all the same, cutting away anything that might block Diluc’s path.

And now—well, what does it matter now?

“The Fatui follow no schedule but their own,” Kaeya informs him cheekily. “Even poor Finn was beholden to it. Look where it got him.”

“Enough of your games.”

“How can I resist when you’re humoring me so well?”

Kaeya remembers the way Finn had changed in recent days. Jumpier, more fearful. Whatever the ex-Fatui had held over him, it must have involved his lovely girlfriend. Soon-to-be fiancée, if the ring Finn was hiding in a friend’s quarters of the barracks meant anything at all.

I’m sure she’s my soulmate, Finn had said, once. I must be blessed by Barbatos himself, to be so fortunate.

A hopeless romantic. He’d passed stories around the barracks easily, some of them from his equally hopeless sweetheart. A voracious reader, but he digested dramatic romance novels like they were just as filling as his daily supper. He’d been fixated, lately, on tales of soulmates. The concept that he had been born just to meet his girlfriend, to protect her in the line of duty, should there ever be a need.

The fanciful ones wove their own theories. That if people could be blessed by the gods with Visions, so too could they be blessed by those who might be their better halves. A mark, somehow—some way to match, to be certain.

Even if such things existed, Kaeya knows that in godless lands where sinners can only dream of dreaming, there’s no doubt that people like him would bear none.

For many long moments, Diluc doesn’t speak at all, long tiring of giving Kaeya any other openings to get under his skin. Time compresses to mere pinpricks of awareness; there is merely the silence and the vague sensation of motion. It’s only then that Kaeya realizes, with a touch of humor, that he’s lost even more blood than he thought he did.

Awareness returns in trickles. The first of it hits in the sweet scent of grapevines. The next arrives when Diluc shoulders the door open, as though it’s a common sight for the last Ragnvindr to come home with the one figure in Mondstadt with whom he’s known to have a tense relationship.

It’s late enough that most of the extra staff has gone home, and the live-in servants have retired to the other wing. Each step up the staircase rouses a hiss from Kaeya as his wounds are jostled, and Diluc says nothing, even as his hold shifts to settle at better angles, gentling.

“How forward,” Kaeya says. His smile hasn’t faltered. “Changed your mind about how welcome I am?”

“I was taking you back,” Diluc says sharply, with the briefest of pauses, and Kaeya stills at that for a moment, mind running over that fragment. “To someplace secure. And this is the closest location. As soon as it’s light out, you can be on your way.”

It could have been any other room, but the one that Diluc enters is none other than his own. There must be blood on the expensive carpet by this point, but Diluc says nothing of it as he finally sets Kaeya down on the bed, only to move away, rummaging for bandages. Too late to make the journey back to Monstadt and get fuller treatment, no doubt.

Kaeya allows several moments of quietude while Diluc works the bandages around his cut arm before he speaks again. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you actually cared.”

Diluc doesn’t pause, though he tightens the bandages more than strictly necessary, coaxing both a grunt and a breathless laugh from Kaeya. “Bandage yourself then.”

For a moment, Kaeya hums tonelessly. Diluc closes his eyes as though to listen, and all the while, his ministrations don’t cease as he tends to the other wounds. How familiar. The two of them alone together in this very room, as though nothing else exists. Diluc had listened to him plenty of times, back then. Taking in the countless stories, even when he could not tell when Kaeya was simply exaggerating or lying bald-faced about something that had occurred. Trusting. Accepting.

The bitterness is potent on both of their tongues. But Kaeya reminds himself it’s what he wanted. After all, when it comes to Diluc—he’s always wanted to ruin him.

As with all moments of peace, he could destroy this too. But perhaps he’s made his choice once again.

“What really made you return after all those years?” he asks, single eye watching Diluc, the star-shaped pupil unfaltering, relentless.

“I wasn’t going to run away. Not anymore,” murmurs Diluc, meeting his gaze with his own, something fathomless in the red depths. They glint vibrantly in the moonlight that streams into the room. “I have a duty to Mondstadt.”

Kaeya lets out a breath. “Of course.”

Those binding oaths that keep them tethered where they are. A duty to the places they call home. And should home be a place? A distant homeland he can’t remember? The city that came to accept him? The family that had taken him in?

The same family that had left him behind, one way or another, scattered like the four winds? One fallen, body cooling in the rain. The other gone, blazing a warpath through Teyvat.

Fascinating, really, that they’d all succumbed to one thing or another, in the end. Whether it was a sinister power, vengeance, or something else entirely.

A pause. Kaeya watches Diluc watch him for a moment, and in the end, it’s Diluc who looks away first.

It doesn’t stop the wrenching devastation of his words either way.

“You were always part of Mondstadt as well.”

Checkmate. Kaeya huffs out something that could be a laugh. Could be, but even he knows it sounds too wounded. Trust Diluc to inflict the most damage when he’s trying to be kind. He never lost that particular trait, even if he’s buried that double-edged kindness beneath layers of hurt and cold indifference. “Funny that you should recall that now, of all times.”

“As I said, I’m not running away anymore.”

He’s close enough. Just near enough that Kaeya has the reach and leverage to catch Diluc’s wrist. His fingers glide underneath the fabric of that two-toned glove, luxuriously slow, snagging the warm material and peeling it off with agonizing deliberation, inch by inch. Kaeya’s nails scrape lightly over the skin of Diluc’s palm as he removes the glove, until it finally lands against the bedsheets with a soft sound.

Their eyes meet again for just a moment, and Diluc lets it all happen, neither flinching nor pulling away.

When Kaeya settles their palms flush together, Diluc’s is tantalizingly warm.

“Not running away anymore,” echoes Kaeya. His hand snakes up Diluc’s arm, grasping him by the shoulder. “Is that how it is?”

And he twists, shoving Diluc down into the mattress, uncaring for the sharp twinges of pain that flare from his own injuries with the abrupt motion.

Even pinned, Diluc manages to look simultaneously unimpressed but unreadable, the sparks of emotion he once wore on his sleeve years ago now tucked under lock and key. Only the creeping flush over the pale, delicate flesh of his throat gives him away.

“You nearly died,” he says, the words emerging on the cusp of a snarl. As if that’s an explanation at all.

Diluc always did need to be spooked into action by the prospect of too late .

“Nearly,” Kaeya says. “And I didn’t. I have a certain someone to thank, don’t I. I’ll let this cancel out your lack of taste in drinks. Call it even for now. Just a touch romantic, considering the Darknight Hero came to my rescue.”

Who is he kidding? Would they ever be even?

“Romantic,” says Diluc flatly. “If that’s your priority—”

“Take a guess,” Kaeya says for the second time for the night, and his hand wanders, sweeping up into the layers of soft hair that frame Diluc’s face. He pushes it out of his eyes, taking in the nostalgic sight of Diluc trapped beneath him. Perhaps it could be more nostalgic, if not for the resentment festering between the two of them, aged more finely than wine over the yawning chasm of the years they had gone without speaking. A pair of burned bridges and frosted hearts.

He’s given more openings than he should have. Diluc seizes on them wordlessly. His mind isn’t quite the steel trap Kaeya’s is, but he’s perceptive in his own way, and they know each other uniquely. There’s a single breathless moment where they both say nothing.

Then something akin to realization flickers in Diluc’s eyes, and it’s in that second that Kaeya’s smile flattens, goes mirthless.

“What a shame it would be, wouldn’t it,” he murmurs, “if the sweetheart waiting for Finn at home had to find out the difficult way that he wasn’t coming back.”

Diluc shifts restlessly, as close a reaction to a flinch as he gets these days, eyes blazing with something unreadable.

“He talks a great deal about her at the knights’ headquarters,” says Kaeya. “Calls them soulmates. That if matching marks existed here as they do in fanciful romance novels, they’d have a set of their own. They’d be fated to be together.”

Kaeya leans down, hair slipping with a soft rustle to join Diluc’s where it’s pooled over the sheets.

“Fate’s a funny thing, isn’t it. In fair Mondstadt, blessed by the Anemo Archon, they chose each other. Would they think the same if they’d been fated to other people instead? If they woke up one day, and everything they had was invalidated because they were matched to others? By the will of the gods?”

Home could be a place. Home could be a person.

And if it were the latter, what did it mean when one was tossed away?

Even in godless lands where sinners can only dream of dreaming, where those who aren’t chosen are but dregs in a forsaken landscape buried where the sun cannot reach, there are ways to defy fate. To choose things for himself, to choose something far from the reaches of fate and destiny. Something he could make his own.

Just as he’d stayed in Mondstadt all these years, working for the betterment of the city, no matter how long the rancor steeped. He’d made a choice then as well, to live under the eternal weight of lies. It was all he knew then, and it’s all he knows now.

For Diluc to come back, the two of them playing at being strangers for well over a year, and then this

If there was ever anyone, maybe it was always Diluc.

Fingers touch his cheek. The contact snaps Kaeya out of his stupor when he realizes it’s Diluc’s bare hand, the one he’d stripped the glove off of. Then Diluc’s hand wanders, slides over the back of his neck, and presses him down until their mouths meet in a soft brush of lips. It’s just enough for him to sample the faint taste of grape juice that lingers on Diluc’s tongue.

“The gods can show us one way. Just as Visions do.” Something is ablaze in his eyes, the same spark that lit Diluc all those years ago, that banked low with Crepus’ passing, then surged with his return to Mondstadt. Had it ever gone out? “But we make our own decisions. I’ve made mine. Whatever grave I’ve dug, I’ll lie in it myself.”

Kaeya watches him for a moment, rapt.

“I said it before,” Diluc murmurs quietly, assertively. “I’m taking you back.”

Kaeya laughs softly. How simple. It isn’t so dissimilar to when Diluc had found him that first night and ushered him into the manor like a stray to be taken in and claimed as his own.

So that’s how it is, then.

He steals another kiss, ravenous.