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What We Must

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“I see,” Diluc says, with the air of someone who does not.

He has his own methods in keeping apprised of the latest developments in Mondstadt. The information network is good in that regard. It’s impossible not to hear everything when he is one of the primary agents taking point in this region.

Even so, nothing he heard would have truly prepared him for this.

In sleep, there’s something eerily still about Kaeya. Brittle, when his usual mask is stripped away, leaving him prone and unanimated, lacking any of his usual flourishes. His long eyelashes form a dark sweep along the edges of his eyelids, so close to the curve of his cheekbone. Only the quiet rise and fall of his chest indicates he hasn’t been stolen away for good—a surefire sign he yet lives.

That, and the strained furrow of his brow, shifting even in his slumber.

Diluc has known about the latest catastrophe to hit both Mondstadt and Liyue. A series of meteorites falling from the sky, putting those who come into contact with them in deep slumber. His own staff has been affected by the issues—business has grown slower as they’ve worked to contain the threat, to prevent other casualties. He knows that the Traveler has done the brunt of the legwork, destroying the meteorites without any harm done to herself.

It begs the question of just how different she must be from the rest of them. They already know she carries no Vision with her to channel her abilities; she’s kept it quiet, but there’s no denying the aura of Geo energy that clings to her now, when previously she carried wisps of Anemo before she’d gone trekking to Liyue in search of her brother.

That drunken bard had spoken obliquely of it, once, during a high of dozens of glasses of wine—enough to raise more questions than answers. And Diluc hadn’t questioned any further.

Once, Kaeya made it his business to investigate the Traveler—had seen her more as a storm than an ally. He’d implied as much during a raucous evening at Angel’s Share, with no one close enough to overhear him through the din, save Diluc. Whether he liked it or not, Kaeya’s instincts were seldom wrong.

But little by little, they’d all been won over.

Diluc can’t deny that it’s true of him as well. The Traveler has her secrets, but so do the rest of them. And now, she’s the only one who might have an answer to the question looming over him.

For Kaeya to become one of the captive dreamers—it’s nearly unthinkable. But now, Diluc’s seeing the proof with his own two eyes: Kaeya lying in one of the beds of the infirmary in the Knights' Headquarters, dark hair splayed over the pale fabric of a pillow.

The knights standing guard by the entryway had done a double-take at the sight of Diluc Ragnvindr marching into the building like he was still a captain.

In the privacy of this room, however, none of them are here to comment on the way he takes several steps closer to the side of the bed, listening intently to the quiet cadence of Kaeya’s breathing.

“Master Diluc,” Lumine says. She looks weary and solemn all at once. Surprisingly, her flying companion isn’t with her; without her friend’s lively chatter, there’s an edge to her that Diluc’s never seen before. “Paimon and I—we went with Mona, Fischl, and Oz to the source. There was one meteorite fragment that was keeping all the remaining dreamers asleep. The core.”

“And you destroyed it,” Diluc guesses. “From the matter at hand, I can presume it didn’t work for everyone.”

The briefing from Jean told him everything and nothing all at once. That Kaeya had gone on his lonesome to deal with a monster swarm that was gathering around one of the meteorites and hadn’t returned. When they found him, every monster had been seamlessly dispatched, but Kaeya himself was unresponsive.

“No,” Lumine agrees. She reaches up to touch one of the two flowers in her hair, fingers faltering as they close over a space that has none, betrayed by muscle memory. Diluc spots the fumble but doesn’t comment. “It’s been a few days, and all the other victims I know of have awakened, but Kaeya’s still sleeping.”

She gnaws at her lip for a moment. Something steely glints in her eyes.

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“What makes you say that?” Diluc murmurs. His fingers twitch with the near implacable urge to do something, to touch Kaeya’s hair, to watch that eye flutter open, to have Kaeya to give him that familiar smug grin, as though Diluc’s played into his hands once again.

“Paimon always says you two are more similar than you’d think,” she says. She’s touching one of the flowers in her hair properly now, as though reasserting it's still there. “At first, I didn’t see it. But now, I think I get what she meant.”

Diluc says nothing. He stands silently at the bedside, like a looming shadow or watchful sentinel. Or both.

“And I think I’d want to know, too. If anything happened to someone close to me.”

“Still no word about your brother?” Diluc asks. His voice has softened, gentling subconsciously.

“None.” She smiles then, face illuminated in the soft light of dusk, like the last rays before sundown. “I don’t think I’m too worried. I mean, just between the two of us—my brother’s a few minutes older. So when we used to travel together, he always made it a point to be looking after me. Even if I didn’t need it.” She tilts her head, fond and exasperated all at once. “So I’m sure he’s handling himself fine. The people he’s met—he’s probably won them over, one way or another. He’s always had that quality to him.”

The same quality you hold, Diluc doesn’t say. He doesn’t remark that for all she thinks he and Kaeya are similar, she has her own similarities to Kaeya. Something that draws people closer, that makes others want to be around them.

Diluc watches her for a moment, searching for cracks. Then he lets it go with a soft breath. “Mondstadt owes you more than just the usual debt. As I said once, just say the word if you need anything.”

“You’ll do the same, won’t you?”

He should have expected as much, that his gaze would drift back to Kaeya unbidden. Lumine follows his gaze with something that isn’t quite pity. Understanding, perhaps. As young as she looks, despite all the times he’s served her only apple cider and nothing that would contain even a trace of alcohol, there’s a gravity to her that belies her youthful face.

As though she once could have seen the rise and fall of countless civilizations.

“If all the resources at my disposal aren’t enough,” Diluc says, “then I don’t know what that says of me. Or this situation, for that matter.”

The feeling in his throat feels uncannily like despair. It wedges itself there, waiting, until it’s mere moments from smothering his words before they can escape his mouth.

There’s no precedent for any of this. No other events in recent history that they know of—and few have been able to approach any meteorite fragments without falling victim to slumber. The Traveler is the only one to salvage them safely, disposing of them to rouse the other batches of sleepers from otherwise indefinite dreams.

“Fischl called it a curse,” says Lumine. “And Mona agreed it was something of that nature. These meteorites came from the constellation of an adventurer named Leonard. He had unfulfilled dreams—he wanted to scale a mountain that has now become the island of Musk Reef. Most of the dreamers were trapped by that compulsion. All they knew was they had to finish climbing to the summit, just as he wanted.”

The summit of a mountain. Though Kaeya’s not lacking in stubbornness or fortitude, his Cryo Vision makes him a terrible victim of such a dream. He’d sooner freeze than reach the peak.

“If the core is destroyed and the compulsion with it,” Diluc says, “that doesn’t explain why Kaeya would still be trapped by it.”

Finally, his hand smooths over Kaeya’s forehead, fingertips sweeping stray strands of hair out of his face. It’s been a long time since he’s touched Kaeya so easily, without fielding any ensuing taunts or that one perilous look that Kaeya gives him every so often when they can both feel the weight of all they’ve gone through. When they’re fractions from closing the distance regardless.

Kaeya’s certainly come to him for things before—for Mondstadt’s sake. Their continuous temporary alliances don’t amount to a single isolated instance. It didn’t stop after the Black Fire Incident. Since then, Kaeya makes things difficult for him on purpose, as though to test him, feeling out the extent to which they still know each other.

“I know it’s only been a few months since I first came to Mondstadt,” says Lumine, “but I think I have a gauge of a lot of people now.” She looks at Kaeya thoughtfully. “You told me once that you can only really trust half of what Kaeya says. I agree, but…”

Already, Diluc doesn’t like the direction of this. “But?”

“I won’t tell you anything he’s said in confidence, even if I can’t be sure how true those things are,” she says. “But something about him…”

The words trail into thoughtful silence. The slope of her mouth shapes a small smile, and she shakes her head.

“If the dreams were tethered to someone’s constellation, preserved by sheer force of will, and if someone’s still trapped… Maybe there’s something unfulfilled he’s looking for, too. Maybe there’s something he’s still seeing in the dreams.”

Kaeya, trapped in a labyrinth of his own secrets. That would be the sort of thing that suits him. He dons mask over mask over mask until one can’t be certain which is his real face. If he’s shown his true hand at all.

Diluc should have known as much. They’ve both been tethered by the weight of the past. If Kaeya hasn’t managed to surface above it, then perhaps it falls on the only other person who knows much of it to drag him back.

He closes his eyes. Reckless, he tells himself. He thought he put this sort of trait behind him, in the years he spent away from Mondstadt, seeking not just vengeance but the truth. Perhaps this is still a core piece of him, just as it was in the past.

Especially when it comes to Kaeya.

“Were all the meteorites fully destroyed?” he asks. “Since there’s still something keeping Kaeya in the dream… Then it stands to reason there’s a trail to follow, isn’t there? Somewhere, there’s a loose thread.”

Theorycrafting. He’s never been one for it. The sort of thing best left to those more interested in weighing hypotheses and seeing how the reality measures up—the pursuits of alchemists like Albedo.

Or the adventurers and astrologist who resolved the brunt of the crisis in the first place.

Lumine meets his eyes and reads the question in them for what it is.

“The smaller meteorites we salvaged don’t carry any more elemental energy. But the core… Even though we destroyed it, there might still be traces.”

“Then that’s as good a lead as any.”

A beat of silence. The breath that gusts from his parted lips sounds half like a sigh.

“You don’t seem surprised,” he says.

“By your reaction?” Lumine asks, ever perceptive. She huffs out a laugh. “No, not really.”

In the light, her eyes are a molten gold.

“After all,” she says, “there are a lot of things we’d do for the people we love.”

 

 

 

 

An alternative option is to simply wait it out. To let time pass, and hope that Kaeya will awaken on his own.

After another few days with no signs of change, it no longer becomes a viable option.

Perhaps, once, Diluc would have prayed to the gods, anyone who would listen. In the past, he’d tried to take after his father. To be devout and steadfast. Even though he never was a knight, his father had been just as loyal as any, and he too had laid down his life in the name of duty.

Whether the ends justify the means, who could really say.

Nearly four years away from Mondstadt. More than enough time to reevaluate everything. The way Diluc had thrown aside titles, status, and even his own Vision. He thought he’d made his peace with the way things had played out.

And yet, well over a year since his return, it feels at once like too much has changed and nothing has at all.

He has half a mind to scour Musk Reef himself for any lingering remnants of the meteorite core, but in the end, Lumine and her companion sweep into Angel’s Share with the prize at hand. It’s a quiet enough evening that most other patrons have already left or are preoccupied at the other tables. No one notices when she reveals it with a flourish and a sly grin: a small, corked vial, seemingly innocuous.

Lumine’s discreet enough that Diluc has a moment to set aside the glass he’s been polishing and take the vial from her. From within, the blue meteorite dust pulsates gently, the glow waxing and waning.

Not unlike the gentle pulse of a Vision, at that.

“Took us a while, but we found about all that was left over there!” Paimon hovers in the air, hands gesturing excitedly. “Lumine had to use her Elemental Sight a lot, but it wasn’t too bad!”

“Easy for you to say,” Lumine grouses good-naturedly, sliding onto a stool. “I did all the actual collecting too.”

“Paimon was good, um...moral support! You know! You would’ve been all by yourself out there without me, and then what?”

“Moral support—you mean emergency food?”

“Hey! For the last time, Paimon is not emergency food!”

Diluc pockets the vial, the corners of his lips quirking ever so slightly. While his latest patrons entertain themselves, he turns around to prepare their drinks. Mocktails seem like they would suit the two this round, rather than the usual servings of apple cider—something different for a change. The wolfhook juice from today is still fresh, the pulp and seeds perfectly sifted out, and it takes no time at all to throw together a mix, ice cubes tinkling inside the glasses as he puts on the finishing touches.

A sweep of a wolfhook slice along the top of each glass for extra flavor, then a touch of salt to the rims, the grains sparkling under the lights of the tavern. Diluc fits a berry wedge and sprig of mint atop each for garnish before sliding the drinks onto the counter.

“As a thank you,” he says. “I’ll talk to Charles about waiving your drink expenses for a while. It’s the least I can do.”

“What about food?” Paimon asks.

In her distraction, Lumine has taken a moment to move one glass in front of Paimon, serving her friend first, before taking up her own. Her eyes brighten with delight at the dreamy violet hues of the drink, the way the purples shift in a darkening gradient from top to bottom, broken only by the color of the ice cubes floating at the top.

“Meal expenses as well,” Diluc says graciously.

“All according to plan,” Paimon crows, and she settles herself at the countertop for a taste of her drink, humming gleefully.

Lumine lifts her own, hiding a smile into her drink as Diluc turns around to clean another glass.

On days like this, when business at the tavern is neither too slow nor busy, he can almost pretend that everything in Mondstadt is as it should be. If not for the slight weight of the vial in his pocket. If not for the absence of a certain lilting voice that usually haunts one of the corner tables, gracefully charming information and nonsense alike out of tipsy adventurers.

How infuriating, that Kaeya manages to make himself the center of attention even when he isn’t there.

“Are you going to be alright, Master Diluc?” Lumine asks his back.

“You know you can always rely on us!” chirps Paimon, and Diluc can envision her nod even if he hasn’t turned to look.

“I’ll see what there is to be done,” he says levelly, his voice betraying nothing. “Don’t stay up too late tonight.”

Long after Lumine and Paimon have departed, after the last of the patrons have trickled out of the tavern and everything has been wiped down and cleaned, Diluc contemplates the vial of meteorite dust. He’d seen in the Traveler’s eyes that she wanted to intervene, wanted to help. Even so, she had gracefully left, nudging her companion along. There’s something to be said about those who understand when a situation calls for space. It’s a refreshing sort of consideration.

Despite the hour, the Knights’ Headquarters isn’t empty. There are still a few stragglers on duty, but Diluc lets himself in regardless, having long memorized the general patrol routes and stations from when he was a captain himself. He suspects that even if he were noticed, no one would stop him from stopping in the infirmary again. Few know how to give words to the curious relationship between Diluc Ragnvindr and Kaeya Alberich, but they know better than to butt in.

In the moonlight, the streak in Kaeya’s hair looks as though it’s glowing. Diluc stops at the bedside once more, surveying his profile.

Then he bends, fingers ghosting over Kaeya’s arm as he eases their foreheads together in an old, familiar gesture.

“Kaeya,” he says. “Where have you gone?”

Even before the meteorites, they had both kept tabs on each other, for better or worse. It’s the same reason he’d known Kaeya would be at the Temple of the Wolf all that time ago, guiding the Traveler. The same reason Kaeya knew how Diluc spent his evenings when he wasn’t at Angel’s Share, even if the information didn’t always make it back to the Knights’ case file on the so-called Darknight Hero.

It was a delicate dance they tread, existing in each other’s peripheries, divided by layers of tension, instead of side by side as they did in the past. Everything they’ve said and done—the gulf, now, is too vast to be mended all at once. Resentment doesn’t simply dissolve when you’ve looked away for long enough.

Perhaps he’s looked away for too long.

A pulse of light catches his attention from the corner of his eye. At his hip, close to the pocket the vial of meteorite dust sits, his Vision is humming quietly with elemental energy. Peculiar. It would ordinarily only do so once he’d channeled enough energy to unleash an elemental burst, or if he stood in the presence of another Pyro user. But here it is now, pulsating, responding.

He considers it for a moment, then reaches down to ease the blankets off of Kaeya. No one had removed the Cryo Vision from his hip, and there it is, a faint glow ebbing and flowing to the same rhythm as the rest.

It could mean nothing.

Or it could mean anything at all.

He had considered going to Lisa to see if some of the dust could be measured out into any sort of potion, anything that might create a link. A studied mage like her would know better of obscure branches of magic and other unexplainable phenomena.

As it stands, perhaps he need not go anywhere else at all.

Perhaps the answer has always been here, waiting with Kaeya.

Far be it for Diluc not to try at all. He gathers their Visions and the vial together in one hand, watching the synchronized pulses of light for just a moment, before he presses his forehead to Kaeya’s again.

A Mora for your thoughts, says a voice in his mind, one that sounds uncannily like Kaeya’s—younger, on the edge of a heart-stopping laugh.

Diluc closes his eyes. Their eyelashes brush together.

The potent elemental energy is a beacon on the edge of his awareness, tangible without tapping into any sort of elemental sight. It curls over the eaves of his mind, murmuring:

To be alive is to seek, to set foot in every place that the eye can see.

I wonder—

 

 

 

 

When Diluc next snaps his eyes open, for a moment, he can’t breathe.

A suffocating presence lingers all around and above, weighing on him, anchors clinging taut to his limbs and dragging him down. It feels like hurt. It feels like a wound so large that despite scarring over, the ache remains.

It feels like guilt.

He catches his breath, and when his vision clears, the fair streets of Mondstadt surround him, every cobblestone in place. For once, the city is calm and sleepy, lights dimmed, buildings quiet. When he reaches out, tests the air, frowning, something is out of place. It’s entirely too still—and Mondstadt, City of Freedom, the domain of the Anemo Archon, should never be without a passing breeze or the wind watching over it.

It’s the first sign he’s gone where he’s meant to.

Only when he turns does it feel as though sounds resume, a rush of water echoing in his ears, splintering the silence. The city square is a familiar sight, surrounded by stalls and shops, the fountain picturesque at its center.

The four flower pots that decorate the fountain in the square are missing. Diluc walks toward one of the unadorned corners. He takes a seat, angling himself to watch the turbines rotate leisurely on the windmill in the distance. It seems like the best way to collect himself when something in his chest is shuddering.

All is quiet—unnaturally so.

Overhead, the stars gleam brilliantly, so bright that they illuminate the square even in the absence of the moon.

Then, a rustle of fabric. A quiet scrape of footsteps, a slight weight hopping up onto the same corner of the fountain to take a seat. Warmth, as a back presses against his own. The newcomer leans heavily against him.

“Don’t forget the mission,” murmurs Kaeya.

Even the eerie note in his voice can’t conceal how young he sounds.

Diluc doesn’t turn just yet. There’s something fragile threaded in the air. As though turning to look will splinter the world around him, and the answers he’s seeking will flee into the darkness, leaving nothing but a vacuum in their wake.

Mentally, he can place the sound of Kaeya’s voice. It must be from when they were children; it must be from the same year when Kaeya had first appeared on the grounds of the Ragnvindr estate, drenched to the bone and two steps from catching ill.

“The mission?” he asks softly, waiting for the specter at his back to respond.

Already, he knows what the words mean. The same mission Kaeya had confessed to when Diluc had only just turned eighteen. The same evening everything came apart.

No response save a small hand settling over his on the stone of the fountain corner, fingers tucking in the gaps between his own. A child’s questing grasp.

Kaeya’s trembling, he realizes.

They sit in a silence neither tense nor companionable for several moments. Then Kaeya tugs at his hand, and Diluc rises to his feet to follow his lead. For the first time since he’s arrived in this strange imitation of Mondstadt, he takes a proper look at the town around him. The lines of the buildings shift, their edges shuddering, hazy in quality. The outdoor tables of Good Hunter nearby are empty, but the lingering scents of grilled meat and sweetflowers linger in the air, turning it saccharine.

Kaeya’s grip tightens around Diluc’s fingers. His small hand belies his surprising strength as he squeezes, as though afraid to let go. Diluc allows himself to be led forward, keeping pace with him—half-strides in place of fuller ones, to avoid outpacing Kaeya’s careful steps.

As a child, he always had a wariness to him, like a creature out of a tale, something wild and unknowable. Even when fear lit the depths of his eyes, he stood his ground in the way of a cornered animal with nothing left to lose. It’s much the same now, as Kaeya leads him along with an air that feels infinitely too close to finality.

“Never forget,” murmurs Kaeya softly, and Diluc’s attention snaps back to him, at the lonely figure he makes even as he leads the way, dressed in some of Diluc’s spare clothes, a ribbon woven into the long strands of his dark hair to keep it out of the way.

With an exhale, Diluc realizes it’s his own ribbon. It’s the same one he’d tied into Kaeya’s hair a few days after they’d met. When they were children, Kaeya hadn’t stopped wearing the thing until it had gone missing one day, having unraveled from his hair during another one of their errant trips through the winery grounds, wandering into the adjacent forest.

The maids had scolded them for those, when they finally caught up.

His thoughts race. Is this a dream of his own making?

Or has he joined Kaeya’s?

The starlight that falls over Kaeya washes his hair in paler hues. He’s let go of Diluc’s hand without turning to look back, and Diluc pauses, uncertain of the right step in this strange dream. Is he meant to follow in silence?

He reaches out to touch Kaeya’s shoulder, only to watch his hand pass through.

In another blink, Kaeya is gone entirely.

Pulse thundering, Diluc stops. It was reckless in the first place to seek out a solution when he wasn’t certain what would happen. There was no guarantee he would wake from the dream either, if he’d gone and seized the same thread that Kaeya was tethered to.

Even then, he knows there’s no other alternative. For all that he’s done in the past, he can’t just leave Kaeya like this.

The front gate of Mondstadt looms solemnly in front of him. The bridge extends ahead, disappearing into a fog that shrouds the land beyond.

The dreamers snared by Leonard’s constellation had been driven by a compulsion to climb the snowy mountain once known as Pilos Peak, now nothing but the island of Musk Reef. By all accounts, Diluc should be there at the treacherous heights, snow and wind howling around him. Instead, the dream has him settled in Mondstadt.

Why?

Once, he’d been the person who knew Kaeya best. Or so he’d thought—and then everything he knew was a lie.

“I can only trust half of what you say,” he murmurs. There’s no response, but he didn’t expect one.

If Mondstadt itself is a sign, then there’s more here, despite it looking, by all accounts, empty of life.

He backtracks. Points of interest: places Kaeya frequents. The Knights’ Headquarters is the most obvious place to check. Then Angel’s Share, perhaps.

This time, there are no knights to guard the building. He pushes the doors open decisively, and inside, the main hall is fully illuminated despite having appeared dark from the outside. Around him is a bustle of activity, people from when he remembers being a knight. Back when they were still young.

When had that changed?

None of the specters pay him any attention. He weaves through the throng, sidestepping the knights instinctively. His feet lead him past the library doors, up the stairs, down one of the hallways. At the end: a door ajar.

It gives way easily once nudged.

A murmur of voices.

“Would be a shame, wouldn’t it, if they found out. They wouldn’t like that—and neither would you.”

A familiar figure from early in the knighthood. Diluc recognizes the boy pinning Kaeya—older now, no longer the child from before—against the wall, and something inside him lurches. An early rival of his, fighting for the same sort of ascension through the ranks, striving to seize the title of a Captain. But there’s nothing intimate in the gesture. Nothing fond at all in the way the boy exhales raggedly, fist bunching at the fabric of Kaeya’s collar, lips pulled back in a snarl.

All while Kaeya gives that one sharp, double-edged smile he wears when he has the upper hand and knows it.

“You wouldn’t—how dare you—”

“Oh, I do so dare. You made it simple, anyway. So what’s it going to be? Do we have a deal?”

“This isn’t a deal! This is blackmail!”

This—” And even now, Kaeya manages a jaunty little wave, a flick of his wrist that Diluc can’t help but stare at, with how perfectly it epitomizes Kaeya’s usual nimble grace. “—is what you were asking for.”

There’s that gleam in Kaeya’s eye. Diluc’s seen it before. He remembers how much he’d hated it the day their father died, the day Kaeya had stumbled across the scene and had the entirely wrong reaction to a moment of loss and tragedy. He hadn’t thought it would have been there even in days when they had been younger, newly minted knights.

Perhaps it was there all along.

Perhaps he’d never taken the time to really see it.

“How could I have? Are you mad? All I asked you was—”

“I’ll have you know that loyalty isn’t so easily bought. That’s all there is to it.”

“Yeah?” The other knight’s hand clenches tighter into Kaeya’s collar, jerking him back only to slam him into the wall once more. “Is this the part where I ought to pity you? A stray orphan, taken in by the hospitable Ragnvindrs. That’s loyalty bought, all right. Should’ve known an outsider like you is just one of their dogs.”

Kaeya huffs out a laugh. “Dog, huh? Want me to roll over? Shall I show you a trick?”

There’s no describing the way Kaeya has with motion. Even when they were new recruits, Kaeya had taken to swordsmanship like a fish to water, mastering stances so swiftly it defied belief. Every graceful toss of his sword is always calculated, even when excessive, weighted with his personal flair.

And always, it makes him impossible not to watch.

One moment, Kaeya’s the one against the wall. The next, he twists, using the other knight’s weight against him to pivot them, draws his sword in a flash, and presses it so close to the other boy’s throat that it kisses the delicate flesh.

“Well? Deal?”

A star in the darkness, a knife between the ribs.

Kaeya is perilous, treacherous. He resorts to unethical methods even when he makes bold claims about the knightly virtue of integrity and says it in a way you can’t be certain he believes it or not.

And yet.

Diluc can’t ignore the implications. That even as early as then, Kaeya—

Loyalty isn’t so easily bought.

The specters dissipate.

Below, the floor shatters, and Diluc falls.

 

 

 

 

A whisper of thought, like the brush of a wing.

Humans create tools to conquer nature. And when nature conquers them in return—

 

 

 

 

In the soft lamplight of the library, the room turned ethereal in the quiet of night, a half-smile crosses Lisa’s face. Something mildly impressed, for all that there’s a shadow to it.

“You should know better than to pry into a lady’s secrets, Kaeya.”

A tinkling flip of a coin, followed by a familiar chuckle. “Me? Prying? Not at all. When something’s in plain sight, is it truly a secret?”

“We all know you have a knack for getting into things you shouldn’t. But not all of us have sordid secrets hidden away.”

A beat of silence. Lisa smiles, and Kaeya smiles back.

“I’m sure you’re aware of the state of affairs in Sumeru. I don’t need to elaborate on that. Academia—well, it makes its own mess.”

She hums as she picks up another book from the small stack in her arms, nudging it into place on the shelf.

“Visions have been a subject of study for the ages,” she murmurs. “The gods grant us power. For passion. For a need. For a pursuit of something greater than ourselves. Or perhaps in the wake of a loss, when we need a key to change things. But for what?”

Nearby, Kaeya has gone still.

“What is the true price for this power? I’ve wondered—ah, but even trying to grasp that sort of truth… That’s a job best left for grand mages, not librarians. Far above my paygrade, unfortunately.”

 

 

 

 

A shuffle of paper. Kaeya tilts his head, amused, a laugh escaping him.

“So Huffman has me beaten. Tragic, but I can’t say I’ll miss the opportunity to be a subject.”

“Some people aren’t suited to be subjects for portrait sketches,” says Albedo, not sparing a single glance from his notes. “In capturing someone’s natural state of being, one can document change. We record growth, and therein find meaning.”

“Is this the part where you tell me I’m uninteresting? My, I’m hurt.”

“You’re inauthentic,” Albedo says without hesitation. “Just as confounding variables muddle the data, there’s little meaning when someone takes on excess and leaves little room for change.”

A sliver of a smile, as though he’s found a private joke and dissected it in a fraction of a second. “Albedo,” says Kaeya, something shifting in his eye, and then he stops.

Something passes between them—the steady gaze of the Chief Alchemist, the sharpness of the Cavalry Captain’s smile.

“Mm.” The corner of Albedo’s mouth curves just a few degrees. “Yes. The step in which change begins. I suppose there was a reason my master entrusted me with such a name.”

“Ever the alchemist, I see,” Kaeya says.

“Alchemy applies to all forms of life. If you know of the second step, then you must know of the first.”

“Can’t say I have a deeply vested interest in alchemy though, can I?”

“Nigredo. Decomposition, a breakdown of form and function. As with all things, we find our own meaning.”

A beat. That swift, quicksilver mind turning that statement over multiple times, prying it apart. If one didn’t know Kaeya, it would be easy to miss.

“Just as you’ll find the truth of this world, right?”

Only then does Albedo pause.

“That,” he says, “isn’t just the domain of alchemists.”

 

 

 

 

A night at Angel’s Share. Tables raucous with laughter. Charles at the counter, mixing a drink for a cluster of adventurers.

Lumine at a corner table with Kaeya.

The slope of a familiar, amused smile, a laugh that rings just a touch hollow.

“Khaenri’ah, huh? You sure know a lot! The legacy of Khaenri’ah is long gone, the sinners are all that’s left, and they’re not worth mentioning.”

 

 

 

 

A moment of quietude. Jean, turning, a profound look of sadness on her face.

“Kaeya, please know you’ll always have a place here with us. Even when—”

 

 

 

 

Clarity hits between shifts of motion, specters and memories churning around him. Diluc seizes that moment of understanding, that piercing realization that he does not belong here.

If this is a domain of dreams and memories, then he has no business prying into matters that are strictly between Kaeya and others that are in his life. Diluc had given up that privilege the moment he cast it all aside and left Mondstadt. The moment he left Kaeya behind.

Their lives no longer revolve around each other as they once did. Even if Kaeya was once his shadow—his best friend, his sounding board—they’ve had years to grow and years to grow apart.

The haze splinters. It shatters, the shards cascading around him like fractured glass. If there are thoughts he has any right to know, they ought to be ones that involve him—not others.

It takes several long moments before the world stops spinning, before Diluc manages to rise to his feet, fighting back the churning sensation tucked inside his ribcage. Kaeya has always had secrets, and those that might threaten the safety of Mondstadt would always be his business, but everything else…

Footsteps patter nearby. Then, stopping before him: a shock of red hair, curls neatly tied back in a ponytail. A child with familiar eyes.

How surreal, to see the face of his childhood self beaming up at him, as though nothing is out of place.

He kneels properly so they can be eye level. He’d been guileless back then, but even as a child, he had a stubborn streak. It’s evidenced in the way his younger self tugs at his sleeve, mouth set in a determined line.

“Take it,” he insists. “You said you didn’t have any of your own. So hold on to this—for good luck.”

With small fingers, he pries open Diluc’s hand and presses something into it. When Diluc chances a proper look, a single Mora coin glitters against his palm—an old one minted many decades ago that his father had given him. It had been his favorite one for the way the ridges on one section of the circumference had been worn down, smoothed out.

For this to surface again—

You said you didn’t have any of your own.

The same set of words from his own mouth.

He closes his eyes and draws a slow breath.

When Diluc next glances up, his younger self has disappeared, scattered like so many of the other specters and memories that have crossed his path so far.

Around him, Mondstadt is frozen, the windmills still, everything silent.

Diluc grips the coin in his hand for a moment before he pockets it. His feet lead him not to Angel’s Share, but in a different direction. He scales the steps that lead toward the peak of the city, where the plaza of the cathedral sits. Then further, toward the doors. Specters stand waiting around him, just as frozen as the rest of the city.

Under the weight of their suspended judgment, Diluc lifts a hand and steels himself for the climb up the side of the building.

It’s familiar. When they were young, they’d been competitive—in a city blessed by wind, it was only natural that they’d challenged themselves to go higher. First it was one of the windmills. Then the high tower of the Knights’ Headquarters. Once, Barbatos’ statue.

And then there’s the highest point in all of Mondstadt: the belltower, the closest thing to any peak.

He scales it all, then perches along the ledge above the roof of the tower, pressing back against the pole that forms the uppermost section of the spire.

Mist twines around him. Another specter of a memory—and he lets it take him.

 

 

 

 

“You’ll fall, you know.”

“Haven’t yet.” A flutter of hair, a starlit eye settling lazily on him, going half-lidded. “If you’re so concerned, Diluc, you’ll catch me if I do, won’t you?”

“Not if you continue being reckless,” says Diluc, like being on the uppermost spire of the church’s many towers isn’t inherently a little reckless.

He nearly reaches out to grab Kaeya’s hand and pull him back from the ledge, but something stops him.

It’s a cloudless evening in Mondstadt. Below, the city slumbers; even the bargoers have gone home by now. They’d slipped away from the Ragnvindr city manor in the dead of night, Kaeya lured by some inexplicable whim, and Diluc by Kaeya himself, following him like a Seelie leading the way to treasure.

Perhaps the treasure lies in the moment. This: Kaeya, illuminated in the glow of moonlight, the fabric of his eyepatch a dark streak over part of his face. Kaeya, leaning over the edge, a half-step from falling, as though he has no worries.

He’s too far to grab hold of any of the support pillars lining the inner perimeter where the bell hangs, but he’s always been daring, flirting with danger the way a saner person would a lover.

It is—damn him—an ineradicable part of his charm.

Diluc leaves the refuge of the pillars and joins Kaeya by the edge. He takes a seat, letting his legs dangle. After a moment, Kaeya sits next to him, their sides pressed together in a warm line, sharing heat.

“We can see Dragonspine from all the way over here. The snow at the peak.” A laugh. “Barbatos had his work cut out for him, didn’t he? All that, and there's still a cliff every direction you look.”

They gaze out over the erratic slopes of the landscape, over cresting hills and treacherous cliffs.

“We have gliders in Mondstadt for a reason,” Diluc says. “As you well know.”

And he himself is too aware as well. There’s a certain way that Kaeya takes to the wind, when he snaps out the wings of his glider. A familiar set of words: catch the wind.

“Of course. Where would we be without such innovations?”

Kaeya looks out into the distance, eye fixed on the distant horizon. Some evenings, it seems like an instinct, the way his gaze goes far away.

In the past, it always seemed like it would be enough to wait for him.

This time, Diluc lifts a hand, grazing it over Kaeya’s cheek.

Lightning-fast, Kaeya catches his wrist before his fingers can stray along to the strings of the eyepatch.

The smile Kaeya gives him is lethal and perilous. Diluc finds himself leaning in all the same, and he can’t bring himself to feel terribly guilty for taking advantage of Kaeya’s reflexive reaction to bring him back.

Not once has he managed to see Kaeya without that eye covered. By this point, it’s an unspoken agreement. A continued status quo by design, and if it’s all tied in the same secret that brought Kaeya here, to Mondstadt, to him, then Diluc can’t begrudge it terribly.

“Why, Captain,” Kaeya says, voice a purr, “if you wanted my attention, you need only ask.”

“That was me asking,” Diluc says simply, meeting Kaeya’s gaze head on. It’s the honest sincerity that usually takes Kaeya by surprise the most, and he’s not afraid of weaponizing it.

He tangles their fingers together before Kaeya can pull away, letting their clasped hands settle between them.

“Where did you go?”

“Might want to get yourself checked, Captain. I’ve been right here with you.”

Another sidestep, as usual, though he can’t say he didn’t expect it.

Some days, he wants to know where it is that Kaeya goes. What he’s looking at—what he’s searching for.

“Either way, no matter where it is,” he says, “you’ll always have a place here, Kaeya.”

“Do I,” Kaeya murmurs, and it’s more a statement than a question.

His head drops against Diluc’s shoulder, angled just enough to make it impossible to read his expression.

In lieu of a response, Diluc rubs his thumb over the curves of Kaeya’s knuckles, trying to communicate through touch what he can’t in words.

“We’re at the highest point in all of Mondstadt,” he says instead. “Pay attention.”

A laugh. “The highest point in all of Mondstadt,” Kaeya echoes. “All the world before us. Would it be the same looking down from any other peak? The tip of Dragonspine, maybe, where they say there’s a lost civilization. Ever thought about it before? If we went up there, would we still see the lights of Mondstadt? Or the lanterns from Liyue, whenever they hold their next Rite?”

There it is again: the light back in his eye, something bright dancing in Kaeya’s gaze until it ignites him.

It’s nonsensical. The perpetual snowstorms around Dragonspine would drown out the lights, but Diluc lets himself imagine it.

“You’re mad,” he murmurs, with the sort of fond affection you’d offer when there’s nothing at all you would change.

“If madness means catching the lights all the way from on high, can’t say I have any regrets.” 

 

 

 

 

When he next comes to, the soft scent of flowers greets him.

The spires of the cathedral are gone. Instead, the surrounding space unfurls in a kaleidoscope of color, dizzying in its intensity. Then the colors flatten once more, and around him, a massive field of white flowers sprawls like a muted ocean, their leaves rustling.

Diluc shifts his weight, testing the integrity of the ground, whether it’ll shatter as it has all throughout the course of this dream. A flower crumbles beneath his boot before he realizes. He gently works his feet between the blossoms to avoid crushing another, and he steadies himself.

Sitting nearby is Kaeya, young as he was in the beginning of it all, plucking idly at the flowers. Methodically, he strips leaves from a stem and shreds the petals, one by one. The streak in his hair glistens against the soft hue of the ambient light.

Around them, the sprawl of the massive cavern is endless, torches lining the stone steps of a walkway that looms above. The rushing sound of moving water hums in the distance, and when Diluc looks, he can spot various sets of waterfalls flowing from fragmented stone cliffs, coming together in bottomless pools.

Above them: nothing more than only a haze of light—no sign of the surface, no discernible glimpse of the sky.

Now, more than ever, it feels as though he’s followed the trail of a secret and found himself in another plane altogether, surrounded by riddles that bear too few clues to understand.

Beside him, Kaeya makes a soft, inquisitive sound. Diluc only has to look at him for a moment before Kaeya’s reaching up just enough to tug at his sleeve. Down he goes, like a man chasing the ephemeral flutter of crystalfly wings.

The streak in Kaeya’s hair looks as though it might be glowing in the light.

Diluc kneels properly, like a knight to some otherworldly prince. Even now, in this younger form, a memory from their earliest days together, Kaeya looks like something out of a dream. Only when he lifts his other hand does Diluc spot the fresh Cecilia flower he’s gripping by the stem, not quite destroyed like the others. It has been plucked from the ocean of white around them, one piece of some massive, murmuring whole.

“In the old tales, there were other places lost too,” Kaeya says, his voice soft and sweet. Before he’d grown into his charm or learned to don his masks in full, when his insatiable hunger for fairytales and the lost worlds that beckoned from within them dragged them both into reckless dreams. Promises made by the fireplace, back when they’d curl together among piles of books until one of the maids found them and ushered them properly to bed. It had taken years for them to grow out of the habit. “There’s a civilization that used to grow Cecilias in secret greenhouses underground a long, long time ago. I always wondered if the same thing happened to them.”

“If what happened to them?” Diluc asks this boy, this quiet fragment that might be neither dream nor memory, that may well be both all the same. Not once had Kaeya mentioned this sort of thing to him when they were children. Is it real at all, then? Or a complete fabrication?

Or if he’s truly wandering Kaeya’s dreams—perhaps it’s another secret tucked under lock and key, something Kaeya had guarded closely from prying eyes?

Kaeya says nothing. He reaches out and touches Diluc’s hair, fingers sifting through the red strands, slipping a few behind his ear. A pair of slender digits parts a lock of hair, only to ease the stem of the Cecilia flower into the waiting gap, tucking it in properly.

“And in Liyue,” he says, with the uncanny knowledge of a child who shouldn’t be so well-versed in the nuances of other cultures, “white is one of the colors of mourning. I hear they put white flowers in their hair when it’s time.”

Diluc watches him, reaching up slowly to finger the white Cecilia blossom tucked into his hair. “What are you mourning for, Kaeya?” he asks gently.

Kaeya turns, looking into the distance. He lifts his chin, setting his gaze heavensward. Even when Diluc looks up, trying to find whatever it is he’s seeing, Kaeya feels far away—lost, distant.

Ah. There it is again.

Diluc’s no stranger to these moments. Far too often in the past, there were moments when Kaeya seemed far away, lost to something inexplicable and beyond Diluc's grasp. When they were children, it was all he could do to speak quietly to Kaeya. To murmur different things—anything—to lure him back to the present, until he was certain Kaeya had come back home to him, settled back in the warmth of the manor instead of wherever it was he’d so often go off to.

There was always something heartwrenching about the wistful look in Kaeya’s eye. As though, somehow, Mondstadt simply wasn’t enough. That no matter what Diluc did, someday, Kaeya would wander off in that way he so often did and never come back.

“I don’t know,” Kaeya says. “That’s just the problem, isn’t it? What do you do when you don’t remember how something was before it’s gone? If you’re supposed to remember—for their sake—and you can’t?”

Finally, he lowers his head. Their gazes meet. When Kaeya reaches out and touches the Cecilia flower again, it crystallizes in Diluc’s hair.

It shatters and flakes apart, the pieces disappearing among the flowers below, consumed by an ocean of white petals.

“That’s the sort of feeling you have to put aside, right?” Kaeya whispers. “For the mission.”

Abruptly, the ground gives way. The Cecilia flowers part in a rush of motion.

When Diluc falls, as with all the other instances, there’s no time to muster a shout.

 

 

 

 

“You’re supposed to be in here,” Diluc hisses once he’s sufficiently closed the distance to the doors leading out to the balcony.

Instead, Kaeya only laughs and pulls him outside, hand gliding from his wrist to his shoulders. He nudges Diluc around the side, toward the edge of the railing that overlooks the estate gardens.

“And entertain another flock of would-be suitors who would sooner pick my mind about the Ragnvindr name than any of my own interests? No thanks.”

As expected. Kaeya does fine with attention, is capable of drawing all the eyes in a room when he wishes, but he has his moments of solitude. Those times when he recedes gracefully into the background as though he doesn’t wish to be seen, and even then, it’s all Diluc can do not to look away.

“I hope you realize you’re just as much in the running as I am. No matter what you say.”

He has the beginnings of a headache. His father hosts these banquets as a matter of tradition; Mondstadt can’t be known as a place of revelry without its leading wine tycoon throwing a party and putting his most celebrated products on offer. But as with any of these banquets, there are always those who have come for more than just the wine.

You don’t have to choose now, son, Father had told him privately, laughing. But perhaps you’ll want to give it some thought for the future.

He’d certainly given it some thought—and promptly decided he wanted nothing to do with the prospect of marriage proposals when there are other priorities.

“You cast a long shadow, Diluc.” Kaeya gracefully sidesteps a halfhearted elbow to the side, only to close back in again. “Easier for someone like myself to hide in it, don’t you think?”

“You make it sound as though you’re an assassin in the night,” Diluc says dryly. He lets his elbow drop back to his side and leans in when Kaeya curls an arm around his waist. “At any rate, some of Father’s contacts mean well, but…”

“But?”

“Others, less so. The Richters want our backing after the past few years of their business ventures went awry. The Kleins are sitting on accumulated debts. The Langes want to expand into the wine industry—and it’s the same for countless others. It’s all transactional.”

Not to mention that none of the young men and women who had been presented caught his eye. At least not the way his gaze drifts to meet Kaeya’s knowing look.

“Ah. Well, that won’t do, will it,” Kaeya says. “Can’t have your first romance settled as a purely transactional sort of relationship.”

“First roma—” Diluc huffs out a breath, though he nearly bites his tongue. He forges on valiantly. “Either way, I suspect that’s how the rest of the evening will go. Entertaining guests while trying not to offend Father’s contacts with outright rejections.”

“That’s no fun.” Kaeya’s eye has that look in it, the one that makes that star-shaped pupil radiant—a familiar glimmer of mischief. “We’ll tell them later that I had to borrow you. That there were matters of great import, and the Knights of Favonius need the wisdom of their esteemed Cavalry Captain.”

“I see,” Diluc says gravely. “I can't shirk my duties. It’s unfortunate, but the party will have to wait.”

“An expedition sent to locate a missing relic has yet to return,” says Kaeya, without missing a beat. “They say the prize is being guarded by a squadron of hilichurl grenadiers—”

“Fearsome.”

“—and not one, but two Eyes of the Storm—”

“Little wonder then, that the expedition has yet to return.”

“—alongside three entire hypostases, one of each known element. An entire symphony.”

“That,” Diluc says, “is indeed dire.”

“Maybe,” Kaeya says, tugging him closer, “we’ll have to send a search party. Or maybe we should go ourselves.”

“Maybe,” Diluc agrees.

Allowing himself to be drawn impossibly closer, Diluc fits one hand to Kaeya’s, the other settling along the slope of his arm. Overhead, the stars above the balcony are bright. They illuminate the amused grin that Kaeya greets him with.

Diluc presses their foreheads together, as though doing so would let him see into that razor-edge mind, the sharp intellect that has made Kaeya irreplaceable as his right hand.

“A Mora for your thoughts,” he says softly, listening to the strains of music from the ballroom they’d left behind. They have a moment to themselves, borrowed or not.

“A Mora for yours,” says Kaeya, breathlessly, his voice laced with that husky edge that always steals the breath from Diluc’s throat. “Distracted enough?”

Diiluc closes his eyes. “No. Not yet.”

He takes a step, and Kaeya goes with it, following the steps of a waltz in time with the music that drifts out to the balcony from indoors.

“This isn’t one of our dance lessons,” Kaeya says, a laugh in his voice.

“It isn’t,” Diluc concedes. “Dance with me anyway.”

Better Kaeya than anyone else. Even with the throngs of suitors they’re each meant to entertain, no one matches him seamlessly the way Kaeya does. It’s always been like this, every time one of these gatherings occurs: Kaeya, sweeping in, drawing him away from the crowds when he needs it most.

They’ve always been able to read each other.

Kaeya lets him take the lead, and Diluc guides them through each step, moving perfectly in tandem. They’ve fought side by side countless times; Kaeya’s flourishes and movements are seared into Diluc’s muscle memory, and now, he navigates with them instinctively.

Diluc has never truly been denied anything in his life. He’s wanted for nothing, growing up with the gilded privilege of wealth and status.

And right now, he wants.

Perhaps that’s the reason his own steps turn purposeful. He follows the beat of the waltz, hours of tutoring guiding him, but in the end, he draws them both to the far side of the balcony. Out of sight, out of mind.

When he presses Kaeya into the wall, their faces close enough for their breaths to mingle, it’s impossible to miss the way that star-shaped pupil dilates.

If even one person dared to step out onto the balcony, they’d be seen.

“Kaeya,” he murmurs, for the simple pleasure of saying it.

“What’s it going to be, Diluc?” Kaeya murmurs back. His hand glides over Diluc’s back, nails tracing lightly like the brush of a feather, until shivers rake down his spine. The arm he wraps around Diluc is tight and possessive.

For all that Diluc is the one pressing Kaeya into the wall, Kaeya is hardly passive about it. Not with the way his other hand catches Diluc’s wrist, one finger crooking, snagging under the satin of his glove. A slow, sensual gesture, one that has no business being so graceful.

Sooner or later, it was always going to come down to this.

Diluc thinks back to the huddled silhouette he’d found on the day they met—a boy with stars in his eyes, who came seemingly out of nowhere, who would sooner bite his lip raw than let himself cry in front of someone else.

There was something heavy he carried. Something like loss, or the damning weight of some inexorable secret.

Never forget.

“For my first,” Diluc says, unflinching, “I want you.”

So he kisses him.

When they part, Kaeya laughs breathlessly.

“You’re terrifying when you have your mind set on something,” he says, though his blown pupils tell their own story of what he thinks about that. “Remind me to never get on your bad side.”

 

 

 

 

A star in the darkness.

“Young Master Kaeya?”

A knife between the ribs.

It was a flash of instinct. Kaeya looks up from the fallen body and draws a slow, shuddering breath. “Miss Adelinde,” he says quietly, pulse thundering.

Adelinde says nothing, only taking in the figure lying prone on the ground. Then her gaze flits to settle on Diluc, still slumbering in bed. As a child, he had always been a heavy sleeper.

Kaeya had been the more alert one of the pair, wearing skittish wariness where no child ought to.

“Let’s get this cleaned up,” she says.

In the aftermath, once the worst of the evidence has been buried and they have paused in one of the siderooms, Kaeya lets her gather him in her arms and touch his hair. He breathes in her scent, sensing kinship.

“Don’t tell Master Crepus or Diluc,” he says.

He feels more than sees her nod.

“It’s not unusual,” she says, after a moment. “The Ragnvindrs are a distinguished, high-profile family. They have enemies. There are going to be those who target Master Crepus or Young Master Diluc.”

Kaeya dwells for a moment on the life that he ended. Where he comes from, there is no place for hesitation. They’ve all been stained from the onset—what is another sin to crown that heap of agonies?

“Why do you work here, Miss Adelinde?” asks Kaeya, already half-aware of the answer.

“I owe them everything,” she says. “And sometimes, we do what we must for the people we love. You’re the same, aren’t you?”

 

 

 

 

“You don’t belong here.”

It’s a voice hardened with fury, slicing through the fog of memories-turned-dreams with all the cutting force of a blade.

The venom in it, more than anything else, drags Diluc out of the haze, rousing his attention. He surfaces, shaking off the echo of Adelinde’s words in his ears.

His surroundings have shifted once again. Rain sluices down around him; lightning lacerates the gray sky.

Standing before him is none other than himself: freshly eighteen, uniform soaked by the rain, the grief on his face turned monstrous in its despair. His sword is raised. Flames kiss the metal, burning like a beacon.

“Not after this.”

When his doppelganger swings, Diluc only blocks, conjuring his sword from nothingness, something leaden sinking in his chest. This, of all memories, is the one that’s haunted them both for years. Even now, something not unlike anger surfaces, molten and vicious. He’d wanted something to blame that day, when his father died.

It had been easy to turn the hatred inward. If only he had been faster, stronger—he could have slain the drake himself, before the tragedy.

And when that self-loathing hadn’t been enough, the anger had set its sights outward.

“What else have you lied about?”

The doppelganger drives him back, elegant swordsmanship turned sloppy in grief. Is there any purpose in arguing with a specter? A memory of himself?

In a single day, he had recanted all of his promises to Kaeya and set them on fire.

Around him, the scenery is splintering like cracked glass. If all of this is still a dream—one in which he has yet to find Kaeya—he’s ventured deep. Colors swirl in eddies along his periphery, bleeding into each other like paints. Perhaps he’s gone too deep, losing himself here, lured in by the temptation of grasping what had once seemed unknowable.

Maybe he’d never known Kaeya after all.

A familiar line of trees enters the corner of his sight. They spark a realization: there had been a misstep, right in this coming moment. He remembers it clear as day. The poor traction due to the mud and rain. Kaeya had parried the blow, only to be forced back by the monstrous strength with which Diluc had pressed forward.

Diluc draws a breath, watching as his doppelganger closes in. He parries the attack the same way he remembers Kaeya did, boot slipping backward in the mud. They’d both been so much younger on this day, and yet, in its duration, they’d aged countless years. He lets the force take him down to the ground, hitting the muddied grass. His sword falls from his hand, disappearing in a flare of light.

His younger self watches him with furious eyes.

Will you kill me then, Diluc?

This was the moment when he had swung with finality, the first time he had fought to truly hurt, blind to the thready, wounded note in Kaeya’s voice. This was the moment when Kaeya’s Vision had manifested, ice cutting between them in a glittering wall.

This time, there’s no ice. The sword in his doppelganger’s hand sinks tip-first into the ground beside his head, and his doppelganger looms over him, cheeks wet with rain and tears alike.

“Even then,” Diluc murmurs, “you didn’t want this, did you.”

Is it truly Kaeya’s dream—or his own?

The specter kneels over him, breaths ragged. Diluc reaches up to touch it, but his fingers don’t meet tangible flesh. It flickers away, leaving him alone in the rain, something heavy lodged in his ribcage.

Tragedy always did make beasts of them all.

They can’t turn back time. What’s happened can’t be erased.

He thinks of Kaeya sitting in Angel’s Share, ever watchful, something unreadable in his eye. Kaeya giving a smirk that’s all edges as he says, Loyalty isn’t so easily bought. Kaeya murmuring his name between breathless kisses. Kaeya pressing him into the sheets of his own bed, something lonely and far away in his gaze, asking, Do I?

Kaeya, caught between Mondstadt and the weight of a homeland he can’t fully remember.

Diluc shifts, pushing himself up from the grass. Where the specter’s sword struck the ground, cracks have formed. The grass there has turned translucent—like glass.

He considers it for a moment, remembering his purpose here.

When the meteorites cursed their victims to seek the summit, the dreamers tried to reach the furthest point of the mountain. Here, caught in a haze of memories, there is no summit to scale. His surroundings have changed countless times with every fall. And with each fall—

If there’s no path up, then perhaps the only way is down into the depths, toward the deepest point of the descent.

The bottom of the abyss.

His claymore comes to him with nothing more than a thought. He raises it, then drives it into the ground—

The floor shatters, and Diluc descends.

There’s nothing spectacular about this final drop. One moment he is falling, and the next, he is standing on a platform with architecture he can’t recognize, carved with intricate designs he’s never seen. Pillars and symbols lie scattered along the perimeter, some in ruins, some glowing faintly. In the distance, the stone walkways give way to ornate windows that lead nowhere at all.

All around him: a sea of stars and constellations, galaxies condensed into a single view, scattering a spectrum of colors into the distance.

It’s vast. It’s gorgeous. It, like so many other things, carries a secret funneled away in the star-strewn expanse.

And there, perched on a fallen pillar overlooking the edge, is Kaeya.

“You,” he says, “have no right to be here.”

It’s the very first time Diluc’s seen Kaeya like this, colder than the ice he wields, the look in his eye so ruthless that any lesser man would have been eviscerated on the spot. It’s harsh. It’s pitiless.

He’s beautiful.

Like he himself is just another flicker of this dream Diluc’s been traversing.

More than anything, Diluc misses him.

“Maybe I don’t,” he agrees.

For several seconds, neither of them move. Then, pointedly, Kaeya looks away to watch the stars again. It feels like a rejection, but Diluc knows better now.

He closes the distance and quietly takes a seat at the same spot. When he settles, their backs press together in a warm line, and Kaeya flinches like he’s touched an open flame.

“Do you truly not want me here?” Diluc asks.

The memories, the thoughts. None of which were his to see. Kaeya has always guarded his secrets carefully, revealing only what he wants others to know.

“Do you want the truth?”

Diluc, there’s something I have to tell you.

“Yes,” Diluc says.

“I did want you here.” A soft laugh, low and wounded. “Funny, isn’t it? I came for one thing and wound up trying to find another. I thought there were things I shouldn’t have forgotten. But here I am, no closer to recalling them than before. And here you are, nosing through everything like an overzealous bloodhound.”

Kaeya has always been uncannily self-aware, carrying a weight that no one else understands. The same sort of weight that takes him far away, a lonely figure in the dark, moving to the steps of a choreographed waltz even when he believes he’s alone. Because to falter even for a moment is to reveal his full hand.

A never-ending performance.

“Back then,” Diluc says, “you confessed at the worst possible time.”

Even he can’t hold back the quiet accusation.

Kaeya lets out a mirthless laugh.

“I confessed because I knew there was no other time I would be able to say it. It had to come to that. I’d always been too afraid of your judgment. Whatever you pass upon me now, whether it’s in Angel’s Share or because of another matter with the knights—it’s nothing compared to that. And I was right to be afraid, wasn’t I?”

Kaeya rises. Diluc stares after him, stunned into the silence that yawns between them, emptier than any void. His hand goes, spurred by a frenzied urgency he’s never felt before, seizing for Kaeya’s wrist. When he catches it, the greatest surprise is the way Kaeya stills instead of jerking away.

“So that’s it,” he says, like he’s hearing himself through layers of glass. Kaeya’s back is to him, his expression impossible to see, but under Diluc’s fingertips, his pulse is racing. “Who was the one who really paid for what happened?”

The words shudder out of him, seeping into the chasm that sits ever-present no matter how close they are.

“Father, who made use of that power and destroyed himself for it? I, who never thought things had to change—that those days would always be the same?”

He breathes out a sigh. He remembers the way things went—the Delusion backfiring, his father’s shuddering gasps, the spasms of pain. It had seemed a greater mercy to end that suffering, rather than watch him slowly expire at the whims of the Delusion’s influence. It was the first time he’d ended a human life. The first time he felt the give of human flesh as he slid a knife into his father’s chest, seized by a sort of despair that couldn’t be adequately captured in words.

For how long had Kaeya already understood that feeling?

“Or you, when you gave up everything for what can’t be the first time—all to submit yourself to my judgment? And still, I didn’t understand.”

“Is it that you didn’t understand,” Kaeya asks, “or that you refused to see?”

The words give Diluc some pause.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“You’re always so certain you never knew me,” says Kaeya. He settles again, taking a seat, still looking out at the sea of stars. Not once does he shake off Diluc’s grip. “But you always were the one who understood me best. Even then.”

They’ve never talked about it all. Not properly. Not until now. But here, with Kaeya’s masks torn apart, and Diluc in shambles himself, would there ever be a better time?

Diluc lets out a slow, shaky breath. “I almost killed you that day.”

“And you didn’t. Fate does work out in funny ways, doesn’t it?”

Fate. Was fate the same thing that led Kaeya to Mondstadt—the same reason he was duty-bound to some distant land?

Around them, the sea of stars glitters tauntingly.

“I wanted you to stay,” Diluc says. More than anything. “That day, when you told me everything... That was when I realized where you had gone, all those times you seemed far away.”

“Diluc.” Now, more than ever before, there’s an exhaustion that clings to Kaeya, unearthed from the same place he houses all of those curious, sordid secrets. A darkness to him that rustles like a flutter of wings from among the shadows. “You were the one who left.”

And Diluc has nothing to say against that.

Kaeya hums. “But blame is hardly ever so one-sided. You’re right, you know. I could have told you everything at any other time. But I didn't.”

They sit together for a moment, silent. What they have now is a start. But the hurt lingers; the wounds haven’t healed.

“We’ve spent a long time hurting each other, haven’t we,” Diluc murmurs.

“We have.”

What’s broken can’t be returned to what it was originally. They would never go back to how things were before.

It doesn’t mean he has ever stopped wanting Kaeya.

Diluc lets out a breath. He reaches for the lone Mora coin in his pocket and draws it out. He flips it into the air and listens to the familiar sound, trying to put himself in Kaeya’s shoes, trying to understand.

Then he flips it higher, into a trajectory that might bring it further away, out of his grasp—and he hears the precise moment Kaeya catches it.

“Say, Diluc. Dance with me. Let’s talk, since we never had the nerve for it before.”

“Here?”

“What better place?”

They rise as one, and with each motion, Diluc catalogues what he once knew intimately. What he still remembers, because despite all that’s happened, they’ve still come together again. There’s a quirk to Kaeya’s mouth as he arranges them to his liking. Diluc lets him choose the part he wants to play; he falls into step when Kaeya chooses to take the lead.

They move together to a slow tempo, gliding along the platform. Kaeya moves with an achingly familiar smile, something open and vulnerable, guiding Diluc through the steps with a grace he has never managed to mimic. A sort of finesse that is uniquely Kaeya’s, that makes him impossible to look away from. He draws eyes with every motion, because who could ever hope to capture the same sort of dexterity?

But here, it’s only the two of them. 

“When you touched the meteorite,” Diluc says, “was that all according to one of your plans?”

“It seemed as good an idea as any,” says Kaeya.

How like him, to make a treacherous gamble with his own life. 

A rueful smile curves at his mouth.

“To be quite honest, I wanted to see if there was something I might recover in a dream. If a long-dead constellation can still impart an idea from the past, then someone else might remember more about the homeland that I can’t.”

“It’s not like you to engage with such a reckless experiment.”

“Seeking the truth isn’t just the domain of alchemists and academics,” Kaeya says, and Diluc huffs out a sigh at that.

“Did you find what you were searching for?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“You—”

“Don’t look at me like that, Diluc,” Kaeya says, but something like amusement glimmers in his eye. “If you must know, I was hardly losing sleep over it. I’d go as far as to say I’ve had more than enough.”

“Then why?”

“You’re not the only one who’s trying not to run away anymore.”

Kaeya is no longer the skittish boy who appeared one day on Ragnvindr lands like a fragment of a myth. No matter his place of birth, he is Mondstadt’s now, by choice—a beloved Cavalry Captain and the Knights of Favonius’ de facto tactician. He has dipped his fingers in a webwork of information and misdeeds, watching over the city even when others have turned their back on it.

Just as he’s done so many times in the past, Diluc takes a half-step closer, bringing their foreheads together. This close, he can feel the flutter of Kaeya’s eyelashes; he can see the perfect points of that star-shaped pupil.

Perhaps this moment, however brief, will be enough for him to truly understand.

“If fate ever catches up with you,” he says. “If there ever comes a choice you have to make. You’ll always have a place here, Kaeya.”

More than anything, I want you to stay.

“Do I,” Kaeya says.

“As long as you consider Mondstadt home.”

A laugh. “Always have.”

He draws back for a moment, meeting Kaeya’s gaze. The sea of stars around them suits Kaeya, in more ways than he can say, in a way that hurts—but it’s clear Kaeya has already made his choice.

Diluc extends a hand, palm up, waiting.

“Then let’s go home.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

They open their eyes together, blue meeting red, surfacing from the dream at the same time.

For several long moments, neither of them breathes a word.

Then Kaeya lets out a hoarse laugh.

“Didn’t think you would be the one to come after me.”

Diluc presses his lips in a line. His pulse is steady. In his hand, their Visions glow softly, and the vial of meteorite dust no longer hums with elemental energy.

Kaeya is home.

“Sometimes,” Diluc says, exhaling a sigh, “we do what we must.”

For the ones we love.