The first time Diluc uses the delusion his dead father left behind, he realizes that the only pain worse than conjuring chains of steel is the recoil of said chains hitting you back with equal force.
Delusions, he realizes, are not meant to be fought alongside. They fight in your place. Never with , like visions do, because an existence born out of the desire to kill and conquer would not care to help or aid its wielder. If a vision is a soothing hand of the boy you love on the arm you accidentally burned, delusions are the man who abandons you on the day of your father's death.
It takes quite a lot of times to get used to. Often, after the chains hit him in the chest because of a momentary loss of control, the blood he vomits after makes the Fatui he's fighting pause in worry. In pity . It humiliates him, angers him to his very being. Each time, he wins the fight, in the end, a desperate plea for survival makes him move without thinking. With broken bones that make travelling healers worry, but he wins.
Throughout his travels, Diluc realizes many things. Surviving in the wilderness is different from training to survive in it. The safety of people around disappears when there is no one but you and all you hear are the same insects, humming the same buzzing sound that does not leave your ears for days to come. A single snap of twigs shakes your very being, how one can never get used to the darkness on a moonless night. The first time he gets robbed he doesn't even register what's happened, the guide he's overpaid having to chase the thief for him. At the short break they take in front of a brothel, he does not get offered any service but instead, the Madam inside scrutinizes him, then offers a hefty sum to buy him. Diluc bristles, in anger and humiliation, his guide's eye widens at the price.
He starts wearing a mask and a hood too large for his frame after that.
Over time, the chains become an extension of him. He can control their direction and the recoil does not shatter his wrists like it did the first few times. They're just as heavy, maybe heavier than his body weight, but mastering them silences his grief for a few days. A few days of silence, in solitude he finds by pretending he likes people as he chooses the cheapest rooms, much to the displeasure of the innkeeper.
He gets used to slipping through places unnoticed, dodging thieves on crowded streets, trying to get information from the attendants at brothels and handing out bribes without guilt. Soon, petty theft and crime stop surprising him. He understands them, not as a bystander or a victim, but a perpetrator himself, as he stalks the people who refuse to spill secrets he needs.
There is a cycle in the way these things ultimately work. The prostitutes who will always want to touch his hair before they tell him what their customers were ranting about, the various gangs will have their own bottom lines that aren’t worth touching, growing familiarity with the government officials and their systems compared to their pay grade means the amount he has to give for bribes does not change.
He gets used to it. Repetition means boredom and boredom means he now has time to think. The loneliness flourishes.
The disadvantage of using something which goes against the principle of the world you're in means that the world will compensate for the imbalance. Something of equal value, for the thing you took from the world for your use.
Diluc does not think he has anything left to give. He is a boy who grew up with excellence, at the top of everything he decided he was interested in. A terrible storyteller's words in a run-down inn are something he does not pay heed to.
He finds the next base. Researches, ignores the pointed stares. Trains.
The base is hard to clear out. Harder than usual.
Exhaustion is second nature to a man who spends his days tiring his body out but in the aftermath of that fight, it does something to him, his brain. Diluc spends days, weeks, getting nursed in and out of consciousness as memories come up blank of things he should remember, like the secret passageways of the house he's lived in all his life or the day he met his only friend for the first time. He forgets what he's forgotten, the crushing pain doesn't leave his body or his head. His body breaks down, maybe a futile attempt at making him give up his delusion and then his head fails him. These blackouts are not timely, many times they happen during a fight, the worst one in memory is when breaks his leg and renders it useless for months.
Perhaps the most inconvenient of them all is when the last fatui agent out of the mob he was fighting burns to death and Diluc relishes in his screams. The man screams for his mother, of the man he promised to marry when he returns home, calls out a name in Snezhnayan which Diluc can't understand, for the man's vocal cords have long been burned away by the fire he’s trying to escape from.
Fire seems to love corpses as much as it loves the air and the fire over a man's burnt flesh reaches the sky. Diluc remembers someone telling him that burning to death is the worst way to die, a blackout later, he comes back to life with his leather gloves melting into his skin and his shirt on fire.
Diluc waits. The pain doesn't register, because maybe a greater pain has overridden it, and he steps back. Pours a cooking agent over his burns, plucks back pieces of leather from his skin, looks at the flesh that comes off with it.
The first healer he visits after faints at the sight, the second cringing through the entire process. It's inconvenient, because Diluc could let it be if it wasn't getting in the way of him wearing his gloves, injuries mean the bribes he has to give out will increase in number.
It is not awful, he reckons, because Diluc learns of the world during his travels. He picks up languages, customs, entertains himself by analyzing the different nations of Teyvat, sometimes by how they contrast and sometimes by how similar they can get.
The hardest to visit is Snezhnaya because the people he must impress are related to the ones he's killed. He stays up at night to wait for the guilt to catch up, because of the families he's ruined by strangulation, but it never comes. He feels faint sadness, but the cold seems to freeze out the rest.
He sees a lot of snow, cryo visions abundant by default, is constantly reminded of a wall of ice that separated him and his anger, locked him out to burn alone. Visions are awarded, he remembers, his anger let his brother have one that could defeat his. He remembers that from the ice everywhere around him, every time he blinks, every time he turns to look outside his window. The grief lessens the longer he stays, and then he feels not much of anything when he hears of the Archon that rules over this land, not the anger he once felt at her separating his family, or the longing he had long accepted as being part of him.
Meeting the Cryo Archon under the guise of a high priority tourist is impossible, so is meeting any of the Harbingers. He does manage to meet high ranked military officials, but he makes most of his connections through a different identity, where he is of another nation and has black hair, a decision taken begrudgingly because his intel had informed him beforehand of how the government seems to be on high alert for any tourist that has red hair, for some reason.
The officials are tightlipped at first, but after a few meetings, they complain to him about large amounts of paperwork, worse than usual and mutter angrily over the upper management going through some changes. Changes that help him in the long run, because they frustrate people and frustration makes people talk.
He only realizes that three years have passed since he stepped foot in his home country when he overhears people describe last year's Ludi Harpastum and their excitement for the one coming up. Then describe the one before that one and the one before. Diluc remembers none of it, no flying dragon in the past year and no drunk bard in the one before. It takes a while to remember what happened during the year of the festival he last witnessed, he remembers dancing, an eighteen feet fall statue of Barbados made of wine bottles. There is no mention of that. Counts his age, missed birthdays that were once celebrated by the knights he grew up with and realizes today is his.
Diluc decides that he must return to the land that raised him and failed his father when he turns twenty-one.
Mondstadt hasn’t changed in the years he has been gone. It takes a while for him to find Angel’s share. By the time he gets the fussy coat off of his body, the tavern has grown eerily silent. “Sir Diluc?!” gawks Charles, and soon he's surrounded by half of the tavern furiously questioning him and congratulating him on his return. He remembers most of them, they’ve stayed more or less the same. Deeper wrinkles from smiling too hard, healthier bodies due to the spring fast approaching. He can’t help but notice how he has changed. He remembers believing all their genuine smiles, once, and now he rethinks all of their nice words, trying to see if they are lying by their body language. He notices a knight sneaking away and finds that his hands are clutching onto his delusion, waiting for an ambush as he analyzes the room he’s in, mentally thinking of the best escape plans.
Perhaps Diluc has changed far too much for Mondstadt because the bright smiles he receives makes him uneasy. He has changed because he feels Kaeya sneaking in before he sees him. Kaeya does not approach him, he sits at one of the empty tables and stares at him instead. Diluc shifts in discomfort, feels longing and anger wash into him again. Kaeya is different now, he isn’t the kid Diluc had to introduce to everyone, who shied away from approaching conversations. Kaeya walks with flourish, with confidence. Most of the people in the tavern turn around to greet him, more casual than they are with him. Familiar. Kaeya remembers everyone’s names, asks about their families, if the problems they submitted to be checked have been resolved.
Mondstadt hasn’t changed in the years he has been gone, but Diluc has. Kaeya fits into the picture better than he ever did, and Diluc sees his interactions with others as if there is a glass wall separating him from everyone else. He picks up the noise of ruffling knights outside the tavern door, of people teasing Kaeya on how his date went. Diluc has returned to the nation which raised him with wrists that won’t ever work the same and a body too broken to be touched casually, to a person he loved changed beyond recognition, a person he doesn’t know if he has ever recognized.
Charles smiles at him, teary-eyed, and says, “Welcome back.”
Diluc tries to smile back. He does not feel like he’s returned, maybe a part of him has been left in the Snezhnaya cold to wither, or burned away by Natlan.
He nods to the people who have greeted him and slips to one of the rooms upstairs, pretends he doesn’t see how their smiles drop at his cold greeting. He’s barely done showering when someone knocks at his door. He thinks it’s Charles, so he lets them come in as he walks out, with his hair still wet and messy as the water drips from how long it’d gotten.
It is not Charles.
Kaeya enters the room he’s staying in and pauses after he sees Diluc, shock evident in his features. He wonders if it’s because the person Kaeya once knew prioritized perfect appearances above all. Kaeya keeps staring at him. Diluc notices it’s his scars and ugly muscles that Kaeya is looking at, and how Diluc looks worse for wear, with his unkempt hair and scarred body. Diluc moves to find a shirt and hastily covers up.
Kaeya is the opposite of Diluc, he looks well-put-together, just as beautiful as Diluc remembers him being. He seems to be shining brighter. Diluc can’t look at him anymore. “Yes?” he prompts.
Kaeya clears his throat. “Your vision,” he says, and takes out a well wrapped up vision from his breast pocket. Diluc can’t be closer to him than he already is. “Put it on the nightstand and leave.” he tries saying, with the voice he used to threaten the fatui. It comes out as weak to his ears. He turns away, pretending that he’s trying to find something in his messenger bag. He hears Kaeya set his vision down and turn to leave.
Kaeya opens the door, his voice is incredibly soft when he says, “Welcome back, Diluc.” He leaves. Diluc is transported back to them being kids, where he went camping without Kaeya and how Kaeya had refused to leave his side for weeks after.
His vision looks exactly how he left it. It’s been kept safely near Kaeya’s heart, while Diluc himself was seemingly pushed away. It’s the reason his father’s praise grew colder, and the reason Kaeya was rewarded his own vision. He picks it up to place it near his heart. Pyro visions and pyro vision holders run hot, but this one is cold.
Diluc chases the cold with all his heart, until it turns into the same warmth he’s used to.