“After you,” Kaeya says with an unnecessary flourish, tossing an arm out towards the small cave opening, placed carefully within the walls of the mountain that they had been searching up and down for the past hour or so.
Diluc shoves his arm away, tossing him an irritated look as he ducks and enters the cave with some effort. It’s a tight fit at first but the cave walls extend further as he enters. Glowing purple lanterns light the way forward but are so far away that they appear as nothing more than seelie lights floating in the air. “It’s clear so far, but we’re not alone,” he says, watching with some amusement as Kaeya struggles to follow him inside. “It might have been a better idea to bring the Traveler and Paimon, considering their short stature. Your lack of insight is fitting of the idiocy that the Knights of Favonius display more every passing day,” and here he smirks meanly as he tacks on, “Captain.”
Kaeya rolls his eyes as he hops down to join Diluc within, narrowly avoiding hitting his head in the process. “The Traveler has business in Liyue, as it just so happens. Don’t fret, brother, you’re always my second choice. My first choice is always Paimon.”
Diluc ignores him, walking through the dimly lit cavern halls. “And you’re sure this has the mark of the Fatui?” he asks, almost tactfully if it weren’t for the doubt in his voice. “Normally they prefer to be flashy and irritating, if memory serves me correctly.”
“They do try far too hard to be devious while wearing masks,” Kaeya says, very pointedly, and watches in delight as Diluc’s ears redden at the comment. “But yes, I am quite sure. There have been multiple sightings of Fatui mages, who are more powerful than ever before if word of mouth is to believed, and they just so happen to disappear in this area with the corpses of monsters.”
“Yes, word of mouth is surely trustworthy,” Diluc mutters, irritation clearly growing the further they walk inside.
Kaeya stops him with a hand at his arm, ignoring the slap to his hand that he gets for it. He nods towards the spot where the walls curve wider, branching out into two different paths, and from one of the paths two shadowy figures appear to be heading their way.
Diluc rests a hand on the hilt of his blade.
The Fatui mages step out, both dressed in their purple robes, and tilt their heads to look at them through the slits of their mask with glowing eyes.
The mage on the left says, “Well, this is a surprise-”
“And a wonderful one, as it were,” the other mage finishes for her.
“We’ve been excited to test out our new power-”
“For quite some time.”
Kaeya raises an eyebrow. “And I see you’ve been practicing talking in sync as well.”
“Kaeya,” Diluc says, exasperated. “Not the time.”
The Fatui mages turn towards each other, locking their hands together and chanting as the glow around them brightens deeper purple, then suddenly warp as their Visions change color rapidly through every element, even as a black sludge drips from it onto the ground. The Vision looks distorted, wrong, and there is little time to act as the air pulsates with power.
Diluc rushes forward, smashing his claymore in-between them as Kaeya slips behind them and tries to separate them.
“You fools,” one of the mages shouts as the cave walls start shaking, all the elements lashing out in one huge burst worsened by the introduction of two more Visions.
Everything is suddenly bright, neon lights dancing off the darkened walls as power seeps from all four of their bodies and combines, merging in such a way that feels unnatural. There is silence before it explodes outward, knocking all of them back.
Kaeya hits his head against a cave wall, wincing upon impact and trying to keep his eye open as he watches the Fatui mages fall on the ground with spent and lifeless bodies. He tries to look for Diluc, but the cave is unnaturally dark, and he can’t see much else before he falls unconscious.
Kaeya comes back to sometime later, buried beneath rocks. He attempts to shove his way through, but they won’t budge. He feels weaker, oddly so, and isn’t sure if he can gather the breath to shout for help. “So, this is how I’ll die,” he murmurs, the adrenaline flooding his systems fading out and leaving him tired. Something about his voice feels off, but he can’t put a finger on what.
“Certainly not quietly,” Diluc says from above him, shoving at the rocks while trying to pull them free. He sounds angry. “If this is how you plan to go, Captain, they ought to remove your title.” He must be equally frustrated with his weakness as he says, “Use your Cryo to push the rocks upward.”
“Whatever happened must’ve sapped our strength,” Kaeya comments, even as he raises his hands to form icy spikes that push the rocks away from him. They don’t last long, most of the spikes breaking off from the effort, and such messiness at controlling his Vision is concerning. Perhaps he’s more hurt than expected. “Though I don’t see the Fatui mages surviving it, we also need to make sure to check for their corpses.”
“Let’s get you out first,” Diluc says, elbowing a rock out of the way as he looks down at Kaeya through the thin layer of ice. Fire climbs up his arms as he pushes through the ice, ignoring the whining noise Kaeya makes for being hit with melt as he pulls him free from the loosely collected rocks around them.
Kaeya climbs out willingly with Diluc’s help, kicking rocks down into the hole to keep himself from being buried once more as he goes. He looks up at him, still lit by the flames flickering out around him, and his eye widens. “Diluc…” He isn’t sure how old Diluc looks in the dim lighting, but he’d guess younger than 10.
Diluc looks back, equally wide eyed. “The Fatui mages were talking about that power of theirs… I suppose this is what they were taking the monsters for. Testing out a fountain of youth.”
“I do love a good side of blasphemy first thing in the morning,” Kaeya comments, rubbing at the back of his head and wincing when he feels his fingers come back sticky with blood. He quickly tries to hide it by jumping down from the rocks, stumbling on the landing.
Diluc slides down the rocks with ease, holding a hand out and gripping Kaeya’s shoulder to steady him. “You sit down.” He sounds like he had when they were children, nagging and overprotective, and it makes it feel like all those years hadn’t passed by for just a moment. Like being trapped in the past. “I’ll go check for the bodies.”
Kaeya reluctantly sits down away from the pile of rocks, back against the wall. He fidgets with his Vision, not enjoying feeling useless. He wonders if this is how Amber feels every time he leaves her in the dust for his network and could almost imagine feeling guilty for it. Almost. “They should be nearby. I saw them drop before I passed out.”
Diluc searches around for some time in silence before speaking up again. “I found them. Buried beneath the rubble like you were. It seems like they suffered the worst of the cave-in. No pulses.”
Kaeya pulls himself to his feet, feeling unbalanced for multiple reasons. “I can see some light up above. We might be able to climb out.” He looks upward, trying to gather an idea of the distance. “It shouldn’t be too far, but we’ll have to be careful to find footholds with these smaller bodies.”
“And you’ll be going first,” Diluc says as he steps towards him, resting a hand at his back and shoving him forward. “After all, you’re the knight between us.”
“Of course,” Kaeya says smoothly, beginning to climb. He doesn’t bother to glance down, hearing Diluc starting to climb behind him. “Why would you think I’d force a citizen such as yourself into such a risky situation?”
“Yes, why would I?” Diluc asks, reaching upward to steady Kaeya when he starts to slip from his foothold. “Now shut up and focus on climbing.”
Kaeya shuts up and focuses on climbing. He knows when to pick his battles.
Climbing down from the mountain wasted most of their daylight hours, mostly because they had to stop frequently to take breaks and build back up their stamina. They were lucky, however, that they had taken the time to defeat a nearby camp of hilichurls beforehand and could take shelter in their abandoned tent.
Kaeya leans against Diluc’s shoulder, staring ahead into the darkness. “This is not necessary,” he says for what feels like the thousandth time. “I could easily go to one of the other tents and rest.”
“I could list all of the reasons why that isn’t possible, if you’d like,” Diluc says, adjusting his coat from where it’s thrown over the two of them. Their clothes had shrunk with them, strangely enough, but Kaeya had been a small child until he hit a growth spurt in his teens so they both fit perfectly well underneath it. “Your pride might take a hit, but that may be for the best.”
“If you’ve forgotten, I’ve been capable of defending myself from a young age,” Kaeya says, narrowing his eye at him. It would do more, he supposes, if he wasn’t nearly two heads shorter than Diluc now. And if Diluc was looking at him.
“You have a head injury,” Diluc says. “And you were taught how to fight by me, for the most part, because you were only taught how to stealthily hide and stab someone. There is also the fact that you’re a lot smaller, harming your balance, and the head injury is not going to help that either. You’ll find yourself clumsy, even wielding a knife. If you think you’re capable of taking on a Mitachurl alone, be my guest.”
Kaeya frowns. “You’ve made your point,” he says. “But I doubt you could take on a Mitachurl alone either at this rate. We’re in quite the situation.”
“The Dawn Winery is not too far from here.” Diluc glances down at him. “As long as we’re careful, we should be able to make it there safely. And then we can get your head looked at.”
Kaeya presses a hand back against his head, letting a wave of ice wash over it once again. “It’s minor,” he says dismissively. “And I can ice it myself. Shouldn’t be a problem for long.”
“And you’re certainly not known for hiding injuries.” Diluc scoffs. “Just go to sleep. We can discuss this more in the morning when we’re prepared to move out.”
Kaeya listens for the sound of monsters, his instincts having forced him awake just a few minutes ago. He can tell its lighter outside, with a glance from one eye, and as he lifts his head off Diluc’s shoulder he can hear the bouncing of slimes signaling their arrival. He tries to slip out from under the coat with slight movements, not wanting to wake Diluc. It shouldn’t be too hard to take out a couple of slimes.
He steps outside, feeling for his sword in the back of his mind but it won’t come forth into corporality. It feels far too heavy, weighing on his mind in a way it never has. One of the few things that had remained in size, it seems. He sighs and grabs one of his knives, glad that at least that hadn’t gotten much smaller. “Right then. How are you lovely slimes doing today?” he asks them with a winning smile, not waiting for them to bounce on over as he slashes out at them.
The slimes barely take the hit, but it does some damage. They bounce around and smash into him with their round sides, their dark coloring signifying that they must be Geo slimes. At the very least, this means they’ll be retreating often.
Kaeya pushes any doubts to the back of his mind, using his foot to launch off the back of one slime and jumping somewhat gracelessly onto the back of another as he stabs his knife into the creature’s underbelly. That does some more damage than before, he notes, even as he stumbles from sudden dizziness and falls off the slime’s back. “Ah… so this might be a concussion,” he says to himself, breathless as the slimes retreat. He watches warily, sure they’ll be back to attack soon, and pushes himself back to his feet.
Diluc proceeds to launch himself in front of Kaeya, his shrunken glider receding into his back as he holds out a hand and sprays the slimes in an unnecessary amount of flames. Such a drama queen. “Next time bring the Traveler,” he says. Oh, he’s very mad now. “Care to tell me why you’re acting as old as you look?”
“In my defense,” Kaeya starts, then realizes he has no real good defense. “Well,” he says. There’s a long pause as the silence stretches on. “Hm. You’ve got me there.”
Diluc sighs. “I’ll keep their attention on me. You go sneak around or whatever it is that you like to do from the sidelines.” He makes a shooing motion with his hand before diving in to hack and slash at the slimes, seeming mostly unbothered by the fact that he’s using knives by supplementing it with even more flames. Ridiculous.
Kaeya does as he’s told, slipping away into one of the trees while the slimes are distracted and waiting for his moment to strike. He watches from above, tossing his knife up and catching it with ease until he finds an opening and launches himself downward in an arc of ice, wincing as the melt hits his skin and burns. He powers through, slicing through the slime’s underbelly once again. He sees no other slimes around, as they must be too occupied with Diluc, and stabs the slime repeatedly to make sure there won’t be a resurgence from the creature.
They repeat the same song and dance until all the slimes have been defeated.
Kaeya rests his fingertips against his burnt skin, letting ice rest against it and cover the wounds enough to be unnoticeable. Or so he hopes, at any rate, because Diluc can be exceedingly observant at times and it’s quite annoying. “Brother, no one would ever call you a show off,” he says as he walks over towards Diluc, resting a hand on his hip as he takes in the damage. Burnt grass everywhere, but most of the flames are dying out. He flicks a finger and any leftover flames are helped along the way to dying.
“And no one would ever say that you listen to directions either.” Diluc turns to him. “I suppose it shouldn’t shock me.” He glances him over. “And now we’re taking a break before starting towards Dawn Winery. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”
Kaeya raises an eyebrow. “And waste precious time?”
“That depends.” Diluc gestures for him to come closer, a movement that’s so much like how he acted when they were younger that it makes it hard to remember they’re in the present when things have changed much from those days.
“On what?” he asks, playing along as he steps closer with an easy-going smile. “Are you wishing to play pretend like we had as children and need the time to get into your role? Perhaps you’ll be the Prinzessin der Verurteilung, Sovereign of Immernachtreich, omniscient and eminent judge of… oh, what was it again?”
“I’d rather not discuss Fischl’s love of roleplaying, from what little I know of the girl,” Diluc says, rubbing his temples.
“Then what, exactly, is it?” Kaeya asks, growing curious now. “Are we going to have a heart-to-heart now, brother?” He steps even closer so that they’re now face-to-face, or as close to it as they can get. The height difference is tragic because lording those scant few inches of height over Diluc had been the best part of his teenage years by far.
Diluc grabs his arm and yanks him closer, pulling them both down to sit on the ground. “I suspected and it seems I’m right,” he says, watching the ice melt under the natural heat of his fire. “I burned you. I… don’t have enough control over my Vision, as I had at this age. It seems the physical must have carried over.”
Kaeya frowns as he lands halfway on Diluc’s thigh and the burnt ground. “You couldn’t have waited to pull the protective older brother act until we were off the literally burning ground? That smell is going to linger on me forever.”
“You wouldn’t have let me see what I did otherwise.” Diluc shifts his weight, pulling Kaeya into his lap rather awkwardly. Sibling displays of affection were never much their forte, even as children. “But I happen to have burn cream on me while I know your medical kit consists of the strongest alcohol you can buy.” He uncaps it before smearing some on his fingers and applying it to the burns, lathering it over with gentle fingers.
“I suppose it wouldn’t be such a smart plan to be drinking in the body of a child,” Kaeya says, almost mournfully. He squirms at the burn cream being applied, wondering how they had gotten here. “You’re trying to make sure I won’t escape,” he realizes. “And here I thought we were bonding.”
“Maybe we would bond more if you were quiet,” Diluc says, flicking him on the side as he finishes applying the cream. “The lack of care you show for yourself should surprise me, but it really doesn’t.”
“Yes, it doesn’t,” Kaeya says, twisting around in the awkward hold to eye him. “Because you’re hiding a wound right,” he jabs a finger into Diluc’s torso, “here.” He smirks at the slight hiss of pain he’s rewarded with. “Quite a pair we make, hm?”
“Get off me,” Diluc says with a sigh, raising his hands to free him. “It’s a minor wound from in the cave, nothing compared to a concussion and burn wounds.”
Kaeya quickly scrambles off from where he’s been balancing on Diluc’s knees, mostly to save his pride. Much as he hates to admit it, that casual sort of affection felt nice in its briefness. Lisa’s told him before that he’s the textbook definition of touch-starved, to which he told her he still has one of her books and plans to throw it into the nearest body of water in Mondstadt. He wonders how he survived that encounter in retrospect. “Pot, kettle,” he says, a bit distractedly as his heart beats loudly in his ears.
“I’ll treat it as soon as we’re somewhere safe,” Diluc says with an irritated sigh. “We don’t want to lose much more daylight, as I’m sure you’re aware.” He pulls himself to his feet and offers Kaeya a hand up. It feels a bit like an olive branch, though he’s not sure why.
Kaeya takes his hand and allows Diluc to pull him to his feet, brushing himself off and avoiding eye contact. At his current physical age, he can even say this is the level of maturity he should be at. Small wonders. “Well, lead the way,” he says, falling into a half-bow as he extends an arm outward, “my liege.”
“Shut up,” Diluc says, reaching out to smack him on the back of the head and then hesitating. He ruffles his hair instead, going for embarrassing him over injuring him today apparently. He starts walking down towards the water.
Kaeya hurries to follow, resenting his short legs more than ever. “Your condescension is showing, Master Diluc,” he says, not even caring that his voice is taking on a more whiny quality because he’s got the voice of a child to work with here and it’s quite difficult to sound smoothly superior in every way with a pitch close to Paimon.
“I’m just taking advantage of being taller than you again.” Diluc smirks at him, like the bully he is.
Kaeya flicks a small amount of ice at him in retaliation, smirking when it hits Diluc square in the nose. “Well, if we’re going to be childish about it…”
Diluc glares at him and walks faster to make it harder for Kaeya to keep up.
Kaeya decides to be very mature about it. “Ugh,” he says, holding his head and swaying his body slightly. He sees Diluc looking back at him and then slowing down his footsteps, quick to hide his amused smile behind his hand as he catches up to him so that they can walk to the Dawn Winery side by side together.
It’s strange, going back to their childhood home together like this. It feels like going home, even when there’s no home left for them.
Kaeya makes eye contact with Diluc for just a second as his brother rests a hand at his back, steadying him when he stumbles. He wonders if home can be a person, too. Maybe there’s still a chance for him to have one after all.
“I’m telling Adelinde this is your fault by the way,” Diluc informs him.
“You will not,” Kaeya says quickly as he’s ripped away from his thoughts. “She’ll never believe you. I was always the picture of innocence as a child.”
“Not as I remember it, you weren’t. You were a little terror, running through the halls and tackling people from closets.”
“Ah. The tackling from closets was reserved for you, brother, not to worry.”
Diluc sighs loudly at him. “You better not teach any of this to the Traveler and Paimon if they happen to stumble upon us like this, as they do.”
“I’m sure they’ll come and save the day as they always do,” Kaeya says dismissively. “And if not, well, we’ll figure something out. I’ve got my fingers in plenty of pies, just as you do, and our combined networks will come to our advantage.”
Diluc sighs. “Hopefully soon. Being a child again is not something I’d like to relive.”
Kaeya considers having to go through puberty twice, staring at the Dawn Winery in the distance. “I agree with you for once,” he says. “But I’m still telling Adelinde this was your fault.”