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to love (and be loved in return)

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This is perhaps the worst mistake Diluc has made in his entire life.

And he is, in fact, counting the time that he’d had a bit too much Snezhnayan fire-water at a diplomatic event, and had made a complete fool of himself in front of several ambassadors.

But this...this is miles and leagues worse than that.

He might actually be attracted to his new husband.

Granted, most newlyweds would find that a rather...obvious thing - a prerequisite to marriage, in fact - but Diluc is not so lucky. This is a marriage for political gain, after all. They hardly know each other.

And Kaeya is, unfortunately, rather abrasive. Or perhaps he finds himself amusing, but Diluc does not particularly agree.

Kaeya is also, equally unfortunately, rather attractive. And gods help Diluc, but Kaeya is also a very good kisser. So perhaps it is only Diluc’s racing heart and fast breathing that makes him believe there’s more than just surface-level attraction there. Certainly it’s just that - he’d be just as breathless in the event of kissing anyone with that kind of skill.

Now, if only Kaeya were just a bit less talented an actor.

He hangs on Diluc’s arm, drinks wine like water and invites Diluc into warm, easy kisses throughout the night, and Diluc wonders if the sheer amount of wine he’s tasted from Kaeya’s lips is enough to make him feel so intoxicated.

It’s either that or the act of kissing Kaeya itself, and he’s starting to hope it’s the former.

As the evening wears on, it wears down Diluc’s patience - more with himself than anything. Kaeya is a perfect gentleman, and perfectly amicable toward everyone Diluc introduces him to. And Diluc does not want that. He doesn’t want reason to fall for Kaeya, truly.

He’s given brief respite - or perhaps dragged deeper - when Kaeya pulls him aside, out of view of most of the party guests. Kaeya’s hand rests at his waist, warm in a way that draws all of Diluc’s attention.

“Something the matter, darling?” Gods, he’d flinch at his own put-upon tone, except that Kaeya’s expression relaxes into something a bit less ostensibly cheery.

“I think we’re safe for the moment.” Almost a laugh, somewhere in his tone, and Diluc wonders if he still tastes of Mondstadt wine. Wonders why he dares to think that way, when it’s clear that Keaya would like to drop the facade for a moment. “Is there truly no one here that questions your sudden...infatuation?”

For a moment, Diluc pauses, considers these words and not the lips that they came from. Considers the lines of suitors his father had turned away upon finding out that Diluc had little interest in the idea of marrying for politics. A tricky web they’ve woven, but his father must’ve had reason for his decisions.

In any event, it’s not an inexplicable situation they’ve ended up in.

“In truth...” Diluc lets his gaze drift just a bit as he considers it. “I suspect some may see through the ruse, though they’d not dare to accuse us.” After all, Mondstadt is certainly not an enemy to be trifled with. “And many more find me enough of an enigma that they’ll believe most anything, even this.”

He realizes perhaps belatedly that the emphasis might be...misinterpreted. He considers scrambling to correct what Kaeya must assume - the quirked brow speaks volumes - but...well, it does nobody any good if he continues to entertain this...infatuation he has with Kaeya.

Finding him attractive and actually falling for him are two very different things, and he most certainly will not be doing the latter.

“I think most anyone would be convinced by your exceptional acting,” Kaeya says, then, and Diluc clenches his jaw. Right. Acting. That is what this is, he certainly hasn’t lost sight of it. Even if he has found it rather...easy to play the part.

Gods, what is he doing? He’s far more intelligent than this, this simple case of finding Kaeya attractive. Finding him easy to kiss, to touch, to hold close to his side. This is not meant to be amusing, it is meant to be convincing. And he should not be enjoying it.

“Well, you’re hardly acting lovesick enough to convince even the dullest of those in attendance,” he grumbles under his breath, and would resent the irritation in his tone except for the fact that he still feels it, just not quite directed at Kaeya.

It is not his fault for their situation. And certainly not his fault that Diluc cannot control his emotions.

It’s then - suddenly, without warning - that Diluc finds himself pressed with his back to the wall and Kaeya against his chest, and Kaeya’s eye widens just slightly. Behind him, Diluc catches the barest glimpse of someone approaching, and then lips- gods, frankly incredible lips, harsh and warm against his. And yes, Kaeya does still taste of wine.

Diluc would like to say that he’d planned it all out, thought methodically and logically about the most effective ways to show- well, to show whatever it is that Kaeya’s attempting to have them portray. Infatuation, unbridled excitement at finally being wed, whatever it is. Diluc would like to claim he’s managing to keep a level head.

He would, unfortunately, be lying.

His heart hammers at the warm, insistent press of Kaeya’s lips, his tongue, and Diluc does not hesitate to drag his fingers up and beneath Kaeya’s jacket. Even warmer, here, and Diluc wants to melt, to burn up in this space with Kaeya’s lips on his, with Kaeya pressed against him. Kaeya’s tongue does frankly incredible things to him, addles his thoughts beyond all comprehension, and Diluc’s teeth nip at his lip in turn. His fingers dig into Kaeya’s back, sudden and desperate in their desire to keep Kaeya here.

A thing he shouldn’t want - doesn’t, he doesn’t want it, of course. This is just a product of a very long day and a very attractive person, it is not a reflection of his actual desires. He pushes against Kaeya briefly, gently, while he still has the clarity of mind to do so - surely whoever Kaeya had seen is gone by now, or they’ll find the performance convincing enough even if Diluc needs a moment to pause, to recollect himself and catch his breath.

“They’re gone,” he adds once his eyes open and glance past Kaeya, once he’s had a moment to reign in his rapid breathing. Kaeya’s lips remain close, though, and his tongue flicks out over them, and it takes a momentous effort for Diluc to hold himself still and avoid leaning back in. Kaeya, for his part, exhales sharply, and a subtle smirk touches his lips. Diluc does not think about the way those lips taste.

“And how was that for my inadequate acting?” Sharp and teasing, and warmth finds Diluc’s cheeks anew. But he will not admit that it was irritation at himself that brought his words to the surface, so he only rolls his eyes.

Fortunately, Kaeya takes it as his dismissal, though he does not go far even when he steps away. Because, of course, they are still in the eye of the public, and they have an act to keep up. When Kaeya offers his arm, Diluc takes it, and a deep breath as well.

“Shall we continue?” Kaeya half-whispers, low and close, and Diluc swallows. Thinks of those words in other contexts, in other locations. Alone with Kaeya, instead of here, among so many prying eyes. Would he want that, even if this is just a political ploy?

The thought brings fresh warmth to Diluc’s cheeks, to his whole body, and he sets off without another word. Better to distract his thoughts from Kaeya for the time being.

-------------

And yet, Kaeya worms his way into Diluc’s head, rather unbidden and certainly unwelcome. It is not his place to think of Kaeya so often, to...to want him. Beyond the obvious desire for his body, of course - for how could anyone look at Kaeya and not want him in that way? - Diluc also finds himself rather...attuned to Kaeya’s company.

Finds it quite easy to walk alongside him down the halls of his home, to lead him through the gardens and introduce him to those he’s known for most of his life. Finds it, in spite of himself, a rather deceptively simple thing, to incorporate Kaeya into his day.

He finds it far harder to read Kaeya, to speak with him. To...understand him, in the way that he should. Even if they are not true lovers, they are allies, and yet, Diluc finds speaking with him to be not dissimilar to speaking to foreign ambassadors. Tricky, uncertain, and he does not know if he reads too much into Kaeya’s expressions or not nearly enough to glean the full meaning of his words.

“They certainly can’t compare to Mondstadt’s.” Ah. Kaeya’s tone is flat, and Diluc senses he’s ventured into unwelcome territory in discussing whatever meetings Khaenri’ah must have - and oh, isn’t it particularly insensitive of him? Khaenri’ah is at war, he reminds himself sharply. He cannot imagine those meetings would be...pleasant.

“In any event,” Diluc adds quickly, and Kaeya almost seems to exhale. “We have some free time this afternoon. Aside from a few standard meetings that can’t be put off, my father has seen to it that most of my time post-wedding has been freed up.”

Because, of course, they are meant to be spending their time...together. In spite of himself, a warmth floods Diluc’s cheeks, and he glances to the side. Presses his lips into a line.

Pointedly avoids thinking about how their time might be spent, were they as infatuated as they’re pretending to be. Phantom hands wander Diluc’s body, and he swallows, quickly forces his thoughts elsewhere.

“It would naturally be expected that you and I are, ah, honeymooning,” he clarifies, though he does not dare to glance at Kaeya to gauge his reaction.

He’s startled, then, by a breath of laughter, and it makes his heart race. Exceptionally unfair, he thinks, that Kaeya should sound so lovely even as he laughs at Diluc’s misfortune.

“Right, of course. I should think that would include far more time spent in our rooms…” And oh, it is misfortune indeed that hangs at Diluc’s side, that makes his cheeks burn with the unspoken implications beneath Kaeya’s words.

He clenches his jaw for a moment, just long enough to center his thoughts - they are allies, nothing more. Diluc should not- does not want for anything more than that. No matter how pretty a laugh Kaeya has, nor how deeply his voice sinks into Diluc’s skin.

“We’ll be expected to attend dinner,” Diluc tries, desperate to redirect this conversation. “But is there anything you need or would like to do prior?” He dares a glance in Kaeya’s direction, finds an unexpectedly tight smile on his lips. Did he find this topic just as uncomfortable? Gods, Diluc needs to get himself together. “Tour of the castle, or the town?” he adds, hoping to steer them into calmer waters.

Kaeya glances down, and Diluc’s traitorous heart wonders at the vision of Kaeya wearing his clothing. It suits Kaeya in its own right, and a strangely...possessive corner of Diluc’s heart leaps at the fact of seeing him like this.

Though he wants to focus on- no, to move past the idea of Kaeya wearing his wardrobe, his thoughts remain steadfastly fixed on it.

“I could stand to get some attire,” Kaeya says finally, and Diluc exhales a breath of relief. And of loss, but he shouldn’t have felt that anyway, and so he will not entertain it. “Since I’ll be staying a bit longer than expected.”

Longer than expected?

“How long were you expecting to stay?” He hears the tension in his tone and does not care that it resides there. Had Kaeya not been informed of this ahead of time? If he’s looking to purchase clothing so quickly…

“Prior to this arrangement?” Kaeya pauses, and Diluc holds tightly to his growing anger lest Kaeya think it’s somehow directed at him. “A week, at most. Long enough for my father to meet with yours and discuss the same old trade agreements for the umpteenth time.”

Diluc hears the words, but processes only ‘a week, at most’ before his irritation takes over. Kaeya was not, evidently, informed.

There are levels of injustice that he can abide by virtue of the fact they are inevitable. This is most certainly not one of them.

“I have matters to discuss with my father.” Oh, he sounds downright livid, but he does not wish to unleash his emotions on Kaeya. This is still too new, too tentative, and he does not wish to ruin it. To make Kaeya any more uncomfortable than he must already be.

“Please,” he grits out, “enjoy the town, purchase anything you need. We’ll cover the costs.”

His father will empty the damn coffers if it makes Kaeya feel more at home here, where he has been all but kidnapped to be Diluc’s husband.

-----

He cools off enough by the time he’s made it to his father’s office, though he does not do him the service of knocking before entering.

“Ah, Diluc!” Jovial as ever, though his brows furrow when he looks up. “Something the matter?” Genuine concern, Diluc knows, and his anger ebbs a bit. Surely, surely there is a reason behind this that he can understand.

“I was just informed that Kaeya, my new husband,” he puts perhaps a bit too much tension into those words, “was not informed of this arrangement of ours until after he’d arrived.” He holds the rest of his rage at that injustice at bay, if only because he cares for his father enough to allow him the chance to explain.

But Crepus only drops his gaze, brows furrowed, and shakes his head. Presses his hands together on his desk, hums a disgruntled sort of noise.

“That’s rather unfortunate.”

“That- that's rather unfortunate?” Surely he’s not being so obtuse on purpose? “You made mention to me of your desire to find me a political partner months ago, and of your decision that it be Kaeya - and the particular requirements of that agreement - weeks ahead of his arrival.”

Here, Crepus lifts his gaze.

“Did you expect me to send a letter to Prince Kaeya himself to inform him?” A little short, and Diluc huffs out a breath. Very well, he supposes it is unfair of him to expect his father to be the one to inform Kaeya, but nonetheless…

“You failed to inform me that he was never a part of the discussions.” Diluc cannot justly rage at his father for the predicament he’d put Kaeya in, for it may very well be Kaeya’s father that is truly complicit, but-

“I assumed-”

“Assumed?” Diluc coughs out an uncharacteristically bitter noise. “This man has been dragged to another country, told upon his arrival that he is to be wed to the crown prince, with whom he is hardly acquainted, and yet you assumed he’d-”

Diluc.” Not harsh, but it gets Diluc’s attention all the same, and he takes a slow, steadying breath. Feels the anger that’s flushed his cheeks, the hands balled into fists at his sides, and he makes a conscious effort to loosen them.

“I apologize for my outburst, father,” he says tersely, because he knows his anger is misdirected. “That said, I would like to be included in any and all subsequent discussions regarding my own future.”

Ah, there it is - he sees it more clearly now. It is an anger directed inward, too - at Kaeya’s father, yes, but he cannot control others, only himself. And he was loath to participate in any discussions of a future partner - had hoped, honestly, that fate would allow him to evade getting married after all - but he’d have asked. He likes to think that he’d have asked after Kaeya’s absence from conversations, but maybe he’d have done as his father did. Maybe he’d have just assumed that Kaeya was aware.

“Of course, son.” Careful, and Crepus dips his head. Diluc returns the gesture, then spins on a heel and marches out the door. He needs to calm down before encountering Kaeya again.

---------

Naturally, he is not at all afforded the reprieve to calm down. Instead, he’s assailed with an unexpected letter carrying unexpected concerns coded in the innocuous message that Rosaria has discovered some troubles with a vendor for the upcoming summer banquet, and that she very politely suggests that Diluc look into other options.

I’ve heard of a spectacular place in Liyue, near the outskirts of the city. They do fantastic things with squid.

Ah, so she’s recommending that he call Zhongli in for assistance. Very well, he’ll be here for the summer banquet anyway. It would not be unusual to request that he arrive earlier, under the pretense of catching up before the event.

Diluc exhales slowly, feels a headache forming behind his eyes as he sets the letter aside and settles on the sofa. Just for a moment, just to-

He lands on a crumpled blanket, and remembers rather suddenly that Kaeya slept here last night. His hands brush the edge of the fabric, soft and careful, before he pulls back. Stands abruptly, makes his way over to his desk.

Zhongli - I believe I owe you a chess match. Before the summer banquet, if you have the time. Much obliged, Diluc.

Nothing ostentatious, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary, though he will leave it tucked safely inside the drawer where he’d found Rosaria’s letter. She knows to check for a response, and so Diluc’s request should be on its way to Zhongli by morning.

He pauses with a hand on the drawer, uncertainty flickering in his chest. How will Kaeya fit into all this? Granted, Diluc hardly knows him - not truly, not genuinely - so will he be little more than a figurehead? Someone to stand beside Diluc, a false lover and very real husband, who does little more than attend various meetings and events on his arm?

This is the future he’d envisioned upon hearing that his father was - against his desires, though he made certain to at least assure Diluc that he had reason for his actions - searching for a potential political ally for Diluc. Not a proper suitor, I don’t expect you to fall in love! He’d laughed at that, and Diluc had felt...perhaps not better about the situation, but he’d felt less pressure.

At least the person in question would know about the arrangement before they married.

Not that Kaeya knew about it more than a few days beforehand, but he supposes they are, at least, on the same page about this false relationship.

Or perhaps they aren’t - Diluc sits heavily on the sofa again, glances furtively at the pillow Kaeya’d used last night. Thinks, in spite of himself, about last night. Kaeya’s hands on him, lips on his, it’s...it’s admittedly a lovely thing to think about. To see himself there, in that place where they are...perhaps more than just political allies.

It would be nice, he thinks, to have someone he trusts with all of his affairs, not just the ones that the public - and most of the castle - know about.

But he does not extend trust easily, and certainly not to someone he can hardly speak to, let alone- no, not kiss, he can kiss Kaeya whenever he wants, so long as they’re in public. But if he can hardly speak to Kaeya, then trusting him with the operations of his spy network is certainly not likely any time soon.

He shakes his head sharply, banishes thoughts of trust - and of Kaeya’s lips - from his mind. He has other things to attend that do not include wishful thinking.

----------

Of course, wishful thinking does not leave him alone, for he is expected to spend quite a lot of time with his new husband. And, naturally, share his room with him. Diluc has not had nearly enough practice steering his thoughts away from Kaeya for such a predicament.

He stands with a hand extended, holding the door wide as he stares - he should not be staring, he knows, but he can’t quite tear his eyes away.

Kaeya, naked in the bath. He should- gods, but Kaeya looks-

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Diluc grits out as he turns his head, forcibly, to the side. It does not comply easily, nor does it wish to stay. Warmth floods his body, only in part from the steam lingering. Only in part from his own embarrassment.

Wishful thinking does not seem inclined to leave him be - it wanders, languid and slow, toward Kaeya in the bath.

“These are your chambers, are they not?” Diluc’s traitorous eyes flick over, find Kaeya watching him with a smug sort of satisfaction perfectly opposite his words. Diluc turns away again, feels embarrassment war with his own imagination inside his head. “You should go where you please.”

Not to Kaeya, of course. He certainly shouldn’t go there. Kaeya’s here all but against his will, forced to shift to fit into Diluc’s life with little warning and not even a bed to sleep in. Well, not yet. He had, after all, come to let Kaeya know of its arrival. However...

“They belong to us both,” Diluc says quickly, in part to rush this train of the conversation along and in part because it feels necessary. Though Kaeya did not choose to be here - or, perhaps, chose only to be here because he was given little other choice - Diluc wants him to be...comfortable. “In case you’d forgotten.”

“That we’re married?” Kaeya says with something almost like a laugh, then shakes his head. From the corner of his eye, Diluc watches Kaeya trace some invisible pattern in the surface of the water before his gaze flicks up again to meet Diluc’s.

“There was quite an eventful party the other day in honor of that fact, I’d find it rather hard to forget.”

Phantom trails of Kaeya’s fingers now trace Diluc’s skin, leaving fire in their wake that warms his body. He supposes he can’t quite disagree with that - forgetting the taste of Kaeya’s lips will certainly not be an easy task.

Harder still with each passing act they put on, each moment in public where they must play the part of lovers. In spite of himself, Diluc wants nothing more than to spend all his free time roaming the halls with Kaeya on his arm, chancing encounters with various staff for the excuse to crowd Kaeya against a wall, to take more than he has ever deserved for what Kaeya has agreed to give.

It’s a selfish thing, the way Diluc wants Kaeya, and he shoves it away. Glares hard at the wall, hopes to erase those errant wishful thoughts from his head.

“While I’m sure you’re having a lovely time,” he grits out, harsh in a way he does not entirely mean to direct at Kaeya. “I’d recommend finishing up and finding some clothes. Carpenters will be here any minute to get your bed assembled.”

With that, he turns quickly, though his gaze still catches - drags, desires to linger - on Kaeya. Just for a moment, though, before he corrals it back into place, and he marches out the door and pulls it shut- ah, nearly shut.

But he needs to direct his attention elsewhere now, for Kaeya in the bath is a very tempting thing to let his thoughts drift back to.

---------

“Please never call me ‘dearest’ again,” Diluc grumbles, feels heat flood his cheeks again - can think of nothing but his grandmother’s voice, her warm smile, and would very much prefer to keep any thoughts of her far removed from thoughts of Kaeya.

“What would you prefer to be called, then?” Diluc’s eyes widen, and he swallows. Forces his expression to even out as much as possible when Kaeya turns, though he can do little for the warmth still burning under his skin.

Kaeya tips his head subtly, a thing Diluc has come to notice often accompanies some impending irritating comment, and Diluc blows out a slow breath. Shakes his head, a silent resignation.

“Darling?” He does not mean to react, but Kaeya’s brow ticks up just a bit, and Diluc realizes he’s grimacing just...just a small bit. “Sweetheart? Love?” The word makes Diluc’s heart stutter, though he holds carefully onto his expression now. “My treasure? Light of my life? The wind beneath my wings, my eternal flame, my-”

Gods,” he grits out, in part because Kaeya is being ridiculous. In part because he says those things with just enough subtle infatuation beneath his tone that Diluc forgets it’s all a ruse for just a brief, terrifying moment. He squeezes his eyes shut, blocks out the view of Kaeya - closer, now, and grinning wide in the short seconds before Diluc had quieted him.

“You’re insufferable.” You’re remarkable, I wish you were not acting. But he is, and his smirk proves it easily. Makes Diluc’s heart hammer even as it aches from the whiplash of Kaeya’s teasing. “Finished having your fun?” he asks, entirely deadpan, though it only makes Kaeya’s expression brighten.

What a lovely, terrible thing, to see Kaeya smiling like that because of Diluc. To know, even still, that it has little to do with any feelings he has for Diluc.

“Not for a long while yet.”

Diluc rolls his eyes for the act of feigning annoyance, but turns quickly, sharply, because those words - those, of all the things that Kaeya’s said - make him panic. Make him desperate, suddenly, for- for more. For that to mean something else, for Kaeya to want him. To want this, in the same way that Diluc’s traitorous heart does. He should know better than to fall, to put Kaeya in an impossible situation.

Knowing better, of course, does not actually stop his heart from hoping.

“Luc,” he says quietly, aloud, and already aches for the moment he might hear it in Kaeya’s voice. Something casual, comfortable. Not so intimate as to make Diluc’s heart race, though it does already at the thought - something reserved for Kaeya alone. Nobody else would ever call him that.

“Bless you.”

Diluc rolls his eyes.

“Shut up,” he grumbles as he turns. Kaeya watches him intently, something in his stare that makes Diluc pause for a moment. Makes him forget his thoughts, forget his words, and wonder all the same if Kaeya will close the distance between them.

He won’t, of course. They’re alone, after all, and Diluc would not- certainly would not want that.

“Call me Luc, if you want something less formal. Anyone that hears it will know it’s-” He clears his throat, ignores the embarrassed heat that floods his body as he waves a hand in dismissal. “More...personal.”

For who but his husband would dare to call Diluc something like that? It speaks of a casual intimacy, two people who are so undoubtedly comfortable with each other. Diluc wonders, briefly, if he might ever find such a thing with Kaeya as that kind of comfort.

“Luc it is,” Kaeya says, and Diluc’s heart skips a beat. He inhales slowly, does not focus too closely on the subtle, gentle smile on Kaeya’s lips. “Ah, to that end, I assume we should have this discussion with regards to our...history?”

Because this is an act, because they are not in love, because they are married in name only, so that Khaenri’ah can make use of Mondstadt’s soldiers and so that Diluc’s father can fulfill his unnamed agenda. Diluc hums, gestures at the sofa for Kaeya to sit.

“I’ll get someone to bring us some lunch.” His voice feels distant as he turns, and he ignores the ache in his chest until he’s out in the hall, door shut soundly behind him. For a moment, he checks the corridor, ensures that he is alone.

Then he lets it crash over him like a tidal wave, strong and forceful - the panic that ricochets through his chest, because he does not know how to feel. Knows that he does not want to feel anything for Kaeya aside from a distant allyship, and knows that- that something sparks in his chest all the same, and without his permission.

Luc echoes in his head in Kaeya’s voice.

He shoves away from the door, sets off to the kitchen.

-------------

Naturally, that echo does not go away. Nor does the hum of...of interest that buzzes incessantly beneath Diluc’s veins. He’d like to say that he cast it aside, that he decided he did not want it and set it down easily, moved on from it like any rational adult would.

But Diluc has always had a way of putting himself in particularly troublesome situations, and it seems that Kaeya is quickly becoming another.

And he wonders, now, if he’s perhaps digging his own grave.

Kaeya stands across from him, shirtless, and twirls his sword in hand. Dulled, but Diluc finds the sharp attention Kaeya fixes on him far more- not intriguing. Only...interesting. Kaeya stares, and Diluc tells himself over and over again that it has nothing to do with the removal of his shirt.

In turn, he tells himself that he does not stare at Kaeya because Kaeya’d chosen to remove his shirt as well. Diluc is not entirely sure if he believes either of those statements.

Kaeya’s body is a perfect match for the blade he wields, lithe and agile, and he strikes as though he knows its every strength, treats it like an extension of his own arm. Diluc is unexpectedly impressed, both by his skill and his- not his body. Only his skill.

It wears on him, seeing Kaeya like this - dangerous, and amused. Entertained, perhaps distracted from time to time. He grins as he swings for Diluc, coughs out a laugh when Diluc manages to put him on the defensive. And he is talented, Diluc could not miss that if he’d tried. Very few stand up to him in terms of combat skills, and Kaeya has managed to put them all to shame.

“You’re quite a skilled fighter,” he says aloud, a little breathless and with a bit of a desperate hope that saying so will banish the thought from his head. But it does little except draw his attention to Kaeya’s shifting muscles, then up to his lips where they press into a line. A faint smile, there, but it fades so quickly into a shadowed sort of look. The barest twitch of Kaeya’s brows, and Diluc’s thoughts flicker with uncertainty - what brings that to his face? Something Diluc had said? He thinks to ask, to inquire further, but Kaeya’s expression closes off, shifts into a painfully neutral territory, and Diluc laments his lost chance to reach past that wall.

As though Diluc has been so forthcoming, he thinks with a thread of bitter amusement. He should not expect what he refuses to give.

And he should not be so enticed as to give Kaeya parts of himself. He does not want that, and does not want Kaeya. Wants only to ensure Kaeya’s comfort here, and he could do so by holding his tongue when it’s clear that Kaeya does not wish to be pressed on a topic.

“As are you.” Kaeya’s voice takes on a strange tone - genuine, but distant. Diluc wars with his concern and uncertainty.

“Your stamina is equally impressive,” he adds, hopes at the very least that he can draw Kaeya from whatever place makes his gaze so hollow, so empty.

And it works, though not as he’d intended - Kaeya focuses suddenly, sharply, his gaze a blade at Diluc’s throat, though it eases as he coughs out a laugh. It seems genuine enough, though who is Diluc to say? He’s certainly been fooled by Kaeya’s lovebird persona more than a few times.

“Impressive, is it?” he asks, brow quirked, and fire ignites in Diluc’s chest, warm and startling. He pulls away from it, and from Kaeya, in search of his shirt. Wishes that he could dump a bucket of water over his head, that he might cool his sudden warmth. A pause, and Diluc inhales slowly, tries to calm- “Oh, you walked right into that one, Luc.”

The fire blazes hotter, ignites that desire that Diluc does not want. But he knows- he knows that this is an act. Knows that Kaeya chooses to use that name for the express purpose that Diluc had given it to him - they have a performance to put on.

And so Diluc allows himself the things he should not want, because they are acceptable here, right now.

“Are you so desperate to impress me?” he asks as he turns, wonders at the true answer. Wonders if Kaeya would ever give it, or if he holds his cards so close that Diluc has no chance-

Of course, of course he has no chance, and doesn’t want one. Yes, yes, Kaeya is attractive and charming, but that does not mean that Diluc has interest in him. But, of course, he still has a part to play.

He steps forward, lifts a hand gently to Kaeya’s jaw and holds it. Let me past that wall, let me see your heart and let me give you mine in turn, he wills into every fiber of his being, every word and action. Finds it a remarkably easy thing to do.

Suddenly, he feels as though he’s spiraling wild and out of control, and he fights tooth and nail inside his head to reign in his errant emotions.

“I’ve already married you,” he says with a subtle smile, and hopes that it does not come across forced. “Do you expect me to turn you away the first time I outperform you?” Perhaps he chooses to lean into that teasing, perhaps it comes easier than trying to infuse his words with sincerity. “In combat, that is?”

Kaeya huffs out an amused breath, one that tickles Diluc’s wrist, and he wants - so sharply, so suddenly, he wants to try it again, to let go of his control and see what Kaeya would do with it.

“I am eternally lucky to be your husband,” Kaeya says, then, and Diluc melts into Kaeya when his hand presses against his back, warm and damp as it pulls him closer.

“Forgive me for wanting to ensure that you have reason to stick around.”

He could believe it, he thinks. He could hear those words and think them true, and he can’t quite tell if that comes from Kaeya’s acting skills or from Diluc’s own still-spiraling emotions. He...he could want Kaeya, and it should not be so easy. He should not want him, doesn’t, but-

But this...he pulls hard at his untethered feelings, shoves them deep into his head. The taste of Kaeya’s lips is something Diluc knows. He can lean in - and he does. Can kiss Kaeya until his own heart threatens to burst, until it races as quickly as it had during their sparring session. Can taste Kaeya’s lips, eagerly, desperately, and not think about the way it leaves his head spinning. All a part of the act, right?

He cannot- will not forget that this is an act, and he will not want it to be anything more than that. For Kaeya’s sake, because he had so little choice in this, and for his own sake. Feelings are not something he cares to entertain, no matter how relentless Kaeya’s mouth is against his, how his tongue-

Diluc will not lose all sense of himself in Kaeya’s lips - he pulls away now, because he will not force Kaeya to be here longer than strictly necessary, and he does not wish to be here any longer than needed. Of course.

“They gone?” Quiet, in shared breaths, and Kaeya glances past him. Diluc shoves hard at the urge to reach up, to brush aside a stray hair that falls across Kaeya’s eyepatch. An interesting thing, his eyepatch, and a sensitive topic, and- and yes, Diluc cares, perhaps he’s curious, but it is not his place to demand anything of Kaeya. Certainly not after all he’s already given. He does not owe Diluc anything.

“Gone,” Kaeya says quietly, then, and Diluc nods, steps back. Aches for the sudden loss of heat against his body, and blatantly ignores the desire to pull Kaeya back against him.

-------

Diluc does not sleep well, though he should - his body feels spent, aching and sore from a good bout of training, but his mind buzzes, whirls around itself in its frenzy.

Fixated on the eye of the storm: Kaeya.

He’s abrasive and irritating, seems determined to get under Diluc’s skin at every opportunity, and-

And Diluc can’t quite bring himself to be as bothered by this as he’d like. He can’t entirely imagine how he’d react if thrown into a foreign country, married off to a man he hardly knows, and expected to act as though he’s been head over heels in love for ages upon ages.

Ultimately, he decides with a huffed breath up at the ceiling, he is irritated with himself - both for his lack of involvement in the initial agreement and with this unwelcome...interest in Kaeya that he can’t seem to get out of his head.

He does not want Kaeya in that way, should not want him like that, and certainly does not want to make Kaeya any more uncomfortable with this current situation than he must already be. And yet, Diluc has made very little progress in evicting these emotions, and is not entirely sure how to go about doing so successfully.

Perhaps...he hums to himself, tips his head back into his pillow an inch further. He’s grateful to have seen the note tucked into his drawer, informing him that Zhongli had received his letter and intended to make his way to Mondstadt soon. Perhaps Diluc could stand to discuss more than just the upcoming banquet - and potential problem that accompanies it - with Zhongli upon his arrival. Diluc would not mind hearing his thoughts on this...situation.

Ah, but the ceiling has turned a faded blue now with the rising sun. Diluc exhales slowly, props himself up on his elbows and glances at the door to the sitting room. He hopes that Kaeya sleeps well - he’d been rather restless last night, and Diluc’s lips tug into a frown.

A thought he did not ask for, but it worms its way into his head all the same - would Kaeya sleep better curled up in Diluc’s arms? His heart races, and he climbs quickly from his bed in the hopes of banishing that image from his mind.

The cool tile of the bathroom floor against his feet, the cool stone of the sink under his palms, it centers him. He inhales, exhales, shifts his focus to the day ahead - state of affairs meeting, a few quick appointments with regards to the upcoming banquet, and he should stop by the guest wing to ensure it’ll be prepared for Zhongli’s arrival.

He wonders, as he turns to start the bath, what Zhongli would make of Kaeya - how much does he know already? Have they met? Both are politically well-traveled, and Zhongli had provided some information on Kaeya prior to his arrival, but had not mentioned whether they’d interacted before.

On the other hand, he wonders what Kaeya might think of Zhongli. Kaeya is...brash, bold with his words and bright, a fire in a dark night. And, at least from what Diluc recalls when they were young, Kaeya finds many of the hobbies that both Zhongli and Diluc enjoy rather...boring.

Zhongli has always been a reserved sort of man, thoughtful with his words, calculating and calm. Observant, refined. A perfect leader for Diluc’s spy network, but Diluc suspects that Kaeya will find him uninteresting, just as he had found Diluc all those years ago.

Does he still? Or have they both changed too much to-

“Di-”

Diluc’s head whips up, glares daggers at where Kaeya stands in the doorway.

Luc.” Oh. Oh. A low-cut, dark blue shirt drapes loosely over Kaeya’s shoulders, held in place by a tight belt at his waist, and Diluc’s gaze refuses to pull away from the rather overwhelming view of Kaeya’s half-exposed chest.

Until it occurs to him that he is, in fact, not wearing anything himself.

Leave.”

Kaeya’s gaze lingers for a moment, and Diluc’s heart hammers even as his body floods with heat, and he grits his teeth as he waits. Kaeya lifts his hands, a mock surrender, and Diluc tamps down on the wave of desire that washes over him.

It disappears quickly, though - of course Kaeya’s not staring at him for that reason. He should not be so naive, nor should he want that. And he doesn’t, and Kaeya doesn’t, and so it’s of no concern, and he should forget the brief and embarrassing encounter entirely.

“I’ll be out for a bit,” Kaeya adds as he steps back through the door, and Diluc barely hears the words through the rapid thud of his heartbeat in his ears.

His hands press harder to the stone beneath his palms, and he does not think about a world where Kaeya wants him, where he wants Kaeya in return - where that brief moment had ended very, very differently.

And then he squeezes his eyes shut, banishes it from his head, and glances up to the mirror.

Finds himself flushed and pupils blown wide, breathing fast enough that he can catch the rapid rise and fall of his chest in his reflection. Were things different, would Kaeya saunter up behind him, press his chest to Diluc’s back? Let his hands wander as they seem so very inclined to do when they’re out in public?

Diluc tips his head back, imagines Kaeya’s lips at his throat. He’d bite, Diluc thinks with a shake of his head, a subtle smirk that tugs his lips. Diluc’s breath hitches at the thought of it, of-

Of nothing. Finding Kaeya attractive is not the same as- as actually wanting him. Wanting to be with him. And even if it were, he would not put Kaeya in that position. He is all but forced to be here, and Diluc has no interest in-

Water pools at his feet, startling and sudden, and it snaps him from inside his head. He turns quickly to find the bath overflowing, and exhales a sharp breath of disappointment - at himself, mostly. Silly of him to allow himself to be so distracted by such a wild, unfathomable fantasy.

----------

“Kaeya, there you are.” In the Khaenri’ahn plant bed, settled on the grass not unlike a particularly intricate plant himself. All shades of blue, he’d match the rest of the flowers quite nicely.

“And there you are.” Kaeya quirks a brow back at Diluc, a subtle smirk touching his lips, and Diluc wonders if he’s still thinking about earlier, in the bathroom, if he-

Of course not. Of course he isn’t, and Diluc isn’t either. He swallows, schools his expression back into something he hopes is entirely neutral.

“You missed the state of affairs meeting,” he says flatly, and finds that it helps him focus. Kaeya did, in fact, miss it, and Diluc wonders if he’s simply been sitting out here all morning, or if he’d done something else for a while. ‘I’ll be out for a bit’ doesn’t really give Diluc much to work with.

Not that Kaeya owes him an explanation for his whereabouts, except perhaps for the fact that he’d very clearly intended to find himself elsewhere during the meeting’s allotted time.

“Oh dear…” Diluc finds it even easier, now, to express irritation. Remarkable how quickly Kaeya’s able to turn his emotions around. “Well, I’m sure I’ve missed nothing of import, but do correct me if I’m wrong.”

On any other day, that might be enough to make Diluc huff out a breath and accept his embarrassed fate where Kaeya is perfectly correct and Diluc looks like the irrational, boring prince who’s trying to force him into doing an entirely pointless task.

Today, however…

“I’m sure you’ll be disappointed to have missed the announcement.” A flicker of satisfaction runs through Diluc’s chest when Kaeya sits up, gaze sharper now where it fixes on Diluc. Perhaps he should think twice before taunting Kaeya like this, though - the weight of his gaze, innocuous though it is, reminds Diluc of earlier, of-

“Alright, sadist, you’ve got my attention,” Kaeya says, tone bordering on laughter, and Diluc huffs out a breath in some misguided attempt to calm his racing heart. He does not pay too much attention to the way Kaeya leans forward, the way his shirt falls away from his chest, exposes more-

Right. Focused.

“I’m not sure what all you know of Mondstadt culture,” he starts, and wonders if the sudden shifting of Kaeya’s expression means he’s caused some offense. “But we mark the turning of seasons with a large banquet.”

One that he knows with certainty Kaeya himself has never attended, though Diluc has never been quite sure of the reason. Only that Kaeya and his father were invited to them all, and that they’ve politely declined each such invitation. Which is just as well, for Diluc is not certain how he’d have reacted if he’d seen Kaeya before-

Well, before all this. Cautious indifference? He’d have appreciated Kaeya’s aesthetic appeal, certainly. Or would he have made such enemies of Kaeya - always at odds during their younger years - that they’d have avoided each other completely?

He wonders if that’d have been better, in some way - better that he never kissed Kaeya, never lost his traitorous heart to someone who was all but forced here against his will.

“Ah, and summer approaches rather rapidly, doesn’t it?” Kaeya muses, then, startling Diluc from his thoughts, and he hums.

“The event will be at the end this coming week.” So very soon, and Diluc’s focus shifts to something far more dangerous than his emotions - he needs to determine what it was that Rosaria had been concerned about, and he needs Zhongli’s help.

“I look forward to it.” Kaeya grins wide, surprisingly...genuine. Ah, but of course, free access to Mondstadt’s wine and a party he’s yet to attend? He must be thrilled - he’d certainly seemed to have a grand time at their wedding reception.

“We’ve been assigned the first dance,” Diluc says, deadpan, though it doesn’t seem to deter the smile on Kaeya’s lips. It softens it, though, just a little, and Diluc swallows. Forces himself not to look away, though Kaeya’s stare drags him unwillingly back to this morning, to things he should not be thinking about.

“Then I look very much forward to it.” That is not- not what Diluc had hoped that Kaeya might say, not the reaction he hoped for. Certainly not one that will corral Diluc’s errant thoughts, and he presses his lips into a line.

“You know how to dance?” Gods, what a stupid thing to ask - but it earns him a moment of peace, at least, as Kaeya scoffs, as he finally breaks that devastating eye contact to climb to his feet.

And then it’s worse, so much worse, for Kaeya steps closer.

A warm hand finds his, gentle as Kaeya lifts it into something of a lazy waltz position, and Diluc holds his breath when Kaeya’s palm presses flat to his lower back. Drags him closer, and Diluc’s heart hammers. It takes a very long, very terrified moment to rearrange his expression into something befitting their infatuated lover personas, and he hopes that Kaeya had not noticed his momentary panic.

It takes far longer to force his hopeful heart to begrudgingly accept that Kaeya has probably seen someone tending the gardens nearby - Diluc had certainly passed a few of the staff on his way out here. But he does not manage to convince himself of that quickly enough to prevent leaning into Kaeya, leaning into the warmth of his body and the simple dance that he leads.

Certainly not quickly enough to prevent the feeling that echoes in Diluc’s chest, that tries valiantly to convince him that this is real, that it should be real. That he- that he truly wants Kaeya.

That Kaeya might want him in return.

He doesn’t, of course, and Diluc does not truly want Kaeya, no matter the way his chest aches at the subtle broadening of Kaeya’s smile into- ah, of course. A huffed breath of laughter.

“Something funny?” An embarrassed warmth touches Diluc’s cheeks at the idea that Kaeya might be laughing at him, perhaps at his...silly infatuation, or whatever this is that he feels for Kaeya. But certainly he hasn’t been so obvious? Of course not, he can’t have been - this is an act, after all, and he would be perceived as merely playing his part.

“You’re rather graceful for someone usually so…” A pause, and Diluc’s brows lift. “Stiff.” Diluc huffs out a breath, torn sharply from his panic and tossed into a disgruntled sort of irritation. But Kaeya pulls away, then spins back into Diluc’s arms, and Diluc allows the slight to pass otherwise unacknowledged.

Perhaps because Kaeya’s lithe grace surprises him, makes him think suddenly of their sparring match, of the idea that’d plagued his thoughts at the time. Of running his fingers down every inch of Kaeya’s skin, feeling those taut muscles flex beneath his palms.

“And,” he says quickly, aloud, for this is not the time to let his mind wander so rampantly. Really, never would be the time for that, but his priority at the moment is simply not now. “For someone so typically abrasive…”

You are quite gentle, unexpectedly so. He does not say it aloud, but feels it when he tucks his head into the space beneath Kaeya’s neck. And oh, how easy it is, how deceptively simple to be this close, to have-

Not something he wants, he doesn’t want this. And Kaeya most certainly doesn’t, but he’d seen an audience to entertain, and he’d chosen this particular method of performance, and so...Diluc will not begrudge himself the chance to enjoy it.

Even short-lived though it might be.

“You’re not as terrible a dancer as I’d have expected,” Diluc says, because that is a safe thing to say, one that does not give weight to the emotions that he begs to leave him be. One that does not make Kaeya aware of those emotions, for if he knew, he’d be even more uncomfortable than he must already be.

Above him, Kaeya hums a low, quiet sound, something content, something- something that only Diluc would be able to hear, but Kaeya does it anyway. Diluc’s heart skips a beat, traitorous and hopeful, and he forces his breathing to remain perfectly even.

It does, but only when his focus shifts to everything else - the warmth that surrounds him, that presses up against his chest and low on his back. The warmth of the sun as well, though that certainly pales in comparison. The gentle sway of his and Kaeya’s movement, no longer a proper dance now. The slow rise and fall of Kaeya’s chest, and Diluc’s eyes drift shut.

It’s...it’s good, it’s warm and gentle and Diluc wants it so badly that his heart aches, and it’s this sharp pain that pulls him back. He goes slowly, carefully when he steps away from Kaeya.

Kaeya, who smiles at him even though he had no choice but to be here. Kaeya, who does not want Diluc the same way, but who plays his part so masterfully that Diluc himself could be fooled by the act.

“I have some matters to attend to in preparation for the banquet,” he says quietly, the only way he can think to excuse his absence. The corner of Kaeya’s lip ticks down for only a moment, so quick a thing that Diluc isn’t entirely sure it wasn’t just a trick of the light. “I’ll find you for dinner,” he adds, and he turns before Kaeya can respond.

Before he can say anything else, because Diluc’s heart will get ahead of him again if he isn’t careful.

------------

It is not getting ahead of him. And it won’t, it certainly won’t, because Diluc wants Kaeya to find comfort here - it may not be a home to him, but Diluc does genuinely want Kaeya to feel at ease. And how quickly would he shift to discomfort if he thought Diluc had real feelings-

Which he doesn’t. He certainly doesn’t. He thinks of Kaeya as a partner, perhaps hopes for a friendship of sorts, but nothing more. He is not interested in-

“Kaeya?” Diluc draws to a stop at the end of the hall, blinks at where Kaeya stands near the library’s door.

“Diluc.” He sounds...startled? Very well, but Diluc is too - what is he- “What brings you to this wing of the castle?” Kaeya interrupts his thoughts, though he supposes that was indeed the direction in which they were headed. And...

“I could ask you the very same.” He hears the tonelessness in his voice, but his attention drifts to the walls. They look...he can’t quite put his finger on it, but something feels different. Did Kaeya do something? Or it is merely his presence in this often disused wing that leaves Diluc unsettled?

To his surprise, though, Kaeya blows out a breath, and a subtle smile ticks up the corner of his lips.

“Well, it seems to be the only area free of wandering eyes, or so I thought.”

Ah. Wandering eyes...does he wish to be alone? Surely their room would suffice, unless he’d expected Diluc to be there. Of course - naturally he’d appreciate time to himself, properly alone. Without Diluc around. Diluc could probably stand to be a little more thoughtful in that regard…

“It is rather disused at the moment,” he agrees, already casting his thoughts to how he might accommodate some time for Kaeya to have to himself. “Although it won’t be for long.” He can excuse himself for discussions with Zhongli, of course, once he’s arrived. Not a permanent solution, but if Kaeya needs space, this will at least give Diluc the time to consider other options.

In spite of himself, a flicker of disappointment swirls in Diluc’s stomach, hot and sharp and unwelcome, and he presses his lips into a line. Forces his body to move, though it does little to quell that desire for Kaeya’s time, his attention. His presence.

A thing that does not belong to Diluc in the slightest, and he would do well to keep that in mind.

“Oh?” Kaeya prompts, and Diluc’s focus sharpens. “And pray tell, what use will it have? Surely the banquet won’t be taking place here…” Kaeya trails off, lifts a brow as Diluc approaches.

“No, this is a guest wing.” He’d scoff at the obviousness of his statement, but he’s clearly already interrupted Kaeya’s desired time alone. It would be better to move past it without incident. “A friend is coming to visit shortly before the banquet-”

“A friend?” Kaeya all but laughs, and Diluc’s jaw tics. “I didn’t realize you had many of those.” This close, Kaeya’s amusement paints itself clearly in his wide grin, and Diluc clings tightly to the irritation that worms its way up beneath all the other emotions for Kaeya that Diluc does not wish to name.

“You’d find him boring, I suspect.” Too much like Diluc himself, but that’s why he cares for Zhongli so deeply. It’s a rare thing, to find a friend with the same interest in history, in philosophy, in chess. Rarer still to find someone with skills to rival his own. “And would be wrong,” he adds. “But that would be your opinion.”

Diluc does not turn as he brushes past Kaeya, afraid for a moment that he’s let- well, let something slip into his words. The fear that Kaeya still finds him boring, as he had when they were kids. A part of him argues that there’s hardly any foundation for that now, but the other part...the other part sees Kaeya’s vibrancy, his quick wit and laughter. Sees so very many things that he does not know about Kaeya, behind the eyepatch, beneath the easy smirk. He must find Diluc so uninteresting in comparison, and Diluc could not blame him. They are certainly dissimilar.

“Well,” Kaeya’s voice trails behind Diluc along with the soft sound of his footsteps, “that hardly seems fair when I haven’t even met him.”

An equal mix of hope and fear tugs at Diluc’s heart, then, at the idea of it: Zhongli and Kaeya meeting, talking. He does not know if it would hurt more to find Zhongli rejecting Kaeya or Kaeya rejecting Zhongli, but both feel like an extension of himself, a rejection directed at him even when it is not.

Which, of course, is a silly thing to even think about. He should not feel anything for Kaeya but amicable appreciation. He should not give such importance to Kaeya, not in that way.

“You’re welcome to meet him,” Diluc says aloud, though the thought still sparks another wave of panic in his chest. He tamps down on it, forces it to subside as he moves through the library - he’ll be glad to return here with Zhongli’s presence, it always seems livelier that way.

“What, will he be taking up residence in this forgotten library?” Kaeya steps in behind him, and the door drifts shut.

“It’s not forgotten,” Diluc says, perhaps a bit too quickly, and his gaze flicks to the armchair he typically leaves uncovered. Although, he will admit that it’s been...a rather long time since he was able to make it down here. He’s been otherwise occupied, he supposes.

And Kaeya would find this place uninteresting too, wouldn’t he? Perhaps that can be his excuse, then - that he’d like to read alone, and he’ll leave Kaeya to their rooms by himself so that he can have some time without Diluc.

Something about it - the idea of sitting here alone, wrapped up in a book but still unable to think of anything but Kaeya - does not feel quite as right as it should. He should ache for this time alone himself, as he typically does, but the appeal falls flat.

“Is he a bookworm, then?” Kaeya asks, and Diluc glances from the corner of his eye to find Kaeya’s gaze roving the library, slow and intentional. Perhaps Kaeya wouldn’t mind time spent down here. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind time spent with Diluc.

“He’s a fan of books, yes.” They are speaking of Zhongli, after all, not of Diluc, nor Diluc and Kaeya. He pulls sheets from the furniture as quickly as he can manage, now, suddenly uncertain that he wants to linger here.

“Is your friend arriving soon?” Kaeya’s voice is quieter, now, and Diluc glances over to find his gaze unfocused. It sharpens, though, and Diluc turns away, presses his lips into a line and does not think about Kaeya curled up at his side, passing hours in the library in a calm quiet together.

Wishful thinking at best, he knows.

“Within the week.” Within the week, Diluc can speak to Zhongli about Kaeya, can hear Zhongli’s rational, reasonable explanation for why Diluc should let go of whatever hopefulness flutters in his chest, and Diluc can hear it and put those feelings to rest. And they can discuss the banquet, of course - it’s this thought that snaps Diluc back to reality, and he banishes those silly hopes in favor of focusing.

“I need to stop by the launderers,” Diluc says aloud from behind a ball of sheets as he turns toward Kaeya, “then we can collect dinner from the kitchens.”

He should see if Rosaria has learned anything, too. If she called in Zhongli for reinforcements, it is likely because she’s hit a dead end, but it couldn’t hurt to check.

----------

Diluc wakes to the sound of a door opening, just a subtle click of the handle turning, and he knows that it isn’t Rosaria.

“Kaeya?” He sits up just a little, on an elbow, and blinks sleep from his eyes. Kaeya stands barely-illuminated at the door, fully dressed and tinted entirely blue by the pre-dawn light that manages to make its way through the cracks between curtains.

“I’ll be out for a bit,” Kaeya whispers, and the words process fuzzy and slow as Kaeya shifts and pulls the door open. Diluc thinks to ask, he really does - why? Where? Does he want Diluc’s company? But it’s the last of those questions that makes him hesitate. That reminds him of yesterday.

It seems to be the only area free of wandering eyes, or so I thought.

And so Diluc says nothing.

“The garden,” Kaeya adds, and it shoves Diluc’s thoughts off track, sends them spinning far too quickly for such an early hour, for how near to sleep he still is.

“Back in time for the state of affairs meeting,” he half-grumbles, the only coherent thought he can put words to without- without saying something damning. Without asking if Kaeya wants his company, after all. If he wants Diluc. No, those are very bad things to say.

He almost wishes he’d said them, for he’s entirely certain that the words he did say never made it to Kaeya’s ears anyway, with how quickly he’d closed the door.

“I’d like to join you,” he says to the wood, more awake now than he’d like to be. But Kaeya is long gone, and so his words are safer, even if they do not belong in his heart or on his tongue. Kaeya does not want him, or he’d-

He’d have said so. Or invited Diluc along. Or...told Diluc where to find him.

Diluc sits up quickly, pulls the covers off and relishes the sudden rush of cold. It centers him, and he stands and rushes for his wardrobe. Pulls out the first thing he sees, pulls it on haphazardly, and does not stop to think about it.

Overthinking might very well be the death of you, Diluc. Said over a game of chess, of course, but Zhongli has always known him better than anyone. And so Diluc does not think, and appreciates the early morning and rushed awakening that do not allow him to fall prey to his own thoughts, and he rushes out the door and into the hall.

-----

Finding Kaeya is a remarkably easy task, and Diluc watches the sway of silver branches as he approaches. From behind them, Kaeya’s eye peeks out, blue and sharply focused on Diluc.

A vibrant gem amongst twisting leaves of silver. Unexpectedly precious.

Diluc moves slowly, both a product of the early hour and of his desire not to startle Kaeya. He’s quiet, unusually so, and so Diluc matches that silence as he steps between the branches of the tree and settles on the bench at Kaeya’s side. Not too close, for he does not want to make Kaeya uncomfortable.

And he wants - or, a part of him does - to sit in that silence. To allow Kaeya his peace, if that is what he finds here. But curiosity wars with that, the desire to...to know Kaeya. To understand him.

“This is the second time I’ve found you with the Khaenri’ahn plants.” He keeps his voice gentle, gaze fixed ahead, though he peeks from the corner of his eye. Kaeya’s stare has turned distant, now, and Diluc’s heart aches for the things he has not been allowed to know.

If nothing else, Diluc knows how to recognize a deep sadness.

“They remind you of home?” he tries, afraid still to go too far, to push Kaeya beyond what he wants to share with Diluc. He knows, though, that it’s not quite right - tension blooms along with that sadness, and Kaeya extends a hand. Not for Diluc’s hand, and it’s rather irrational of him to think that Kaeya might reach for Diluc for comfort - they hardly know each other.

It is infinitely more irrational that Diluc wants that. Wants Kaeya to be comfortable, of course, but wants to be a source of that comfort, too. But Kaeya reaches out, and his fingers graze the edges of the silvery leaves that hang over them.

“Did you know…” Kaeya’s voice is low, unexpectedly toneless in spite of the flicker of emotion behind his eye. He hides his feelings well, it seems. “That these willows grow in spades around a large lake at the very center of Khaenri’ah? They crowd around the shore, a wide ring of silver at the water’s edge. In the mornings, just as the sun begins to crest over the horizon, they seem to glow as though caught on fire.”

Diluc sees it, in his mind - the earliest glow setting these trees ablaze with golden light. He glances over, finds Kaeya’s gaze distant, now.

“That sounds lovely.” He means it, too, and thinks that he’d like to see it sometime. Would like even more if Kaeya were the one to take his hand, lead him down to the water as they wait for the sun.

“Only rivaled by their glow under the light of a full moon.” Oh. The vision in Diluc’s mind shifts until it’s dark, but light glows silver around them, soft and gentle and an exquisite backdrop for a too-close view of Kaeya, of his lips.

“It is unlike any place on Teyvat.”

Mondstadt is beautiful in its own way, of course, but Diluc hears it in his tone - that aching homesickness. Diluc’s jaw clenches tight with the bitter reminder that Kaeya is not here by choice. Or, rather, that his choices were exceptionally limited.

Marry Diluc or allow his people to die in a war that he’s been trying to end his entire life. Hardly much choice there.

“You can visit any time you’d like, you know.” He hears the tension in his own tone, does his best to even it out. “You are not a prisoner here.” I want you to feel freedom, feel content and at peace. If visiting Khaenri’ah would help him feel less homesick, he should. He should do whatever he’d like, so long as it remains within their carefully crafted story.

And if it does not, Diluc will find ways to make it sound logical. He will do whatever it takes to ensure Kaeya’s comfort.

“Be that as it may,” Kaeya says, voice bordering on a distant sort of heartbreak that makes Diluc’s own chest ache. “Khaenri’ah is not particularly safe. The battle against the Abyss Order…”

Of course. Of course, and Diluc is the fool for bringing it up. He can see it, too, the moment Kaeya’s expression closes off, and he detests that he is the one to have caused it.

“My apologies, of course.” He does not know how to turn this conversation around, to turn it to lighter topics. To bring Kaeya peace, when the peace he desires cannot possibly be found here. His pained attempt at a smile says as much.

“I’m used to it.” Diluc’s heart aches at the words - maybe he is, but he should not be, and Diluc hums. “Your gardeners do a remarkable job keeping these Khaenri’ahn plants flourishing.”

Diluc’s brows furrow at that, and he glances around the stretch of Khaenri’ahn plants - the change in topic is admittedly appreciated, for he cannot imagine he’d have managed to turn the conversation around himself, but…

“They are indeed skilled at their jobs,” he admits, then turns his attention to Kaeya. “Though you sound surprised. Are they so hard to keep alive?” Perhaps that had been his mother’s reasoning for her insistence on hiring Dainslief - now the head gardener, but personally in charge of this particular bed of plants, purportedly due to his Khaenri’ahn heritage.

“They grow from soil long embedded with Khaenri’ahn magic.” Ah, indeed that must be the case, then. “I admittedly would not have expected them to survive in a place like Mondstadt.” Diluc glances over, lets a subtle smile touch his lips - both at the memory of his mother and at Kaeya’s obvious curiosity.

It is an eternally more pleasing expression for Kaeya to wear than that of his earlier sorrow.

“That does explain my mother’s long-ago insistence on hiring a gardener blessed with Khaenri’ahn magic,” Diluc says, and something in his chest flickers at the way Kaeya sucks in a breath.

“You know of Khaenri’ahn magic?” Ah, but it is not at all the reasoning he’d expected. Diluc’s brows furrow.

“Should I not?” If it is meant to be a secret, it is not a particularly well-kept one, though Kaeya’s strange concern does put Diluc on edge.

“No, it’s not that…” He pauses there, though, and his gaze flicks down. He’s quiet for a moment, and Diluc wonders if he’s said something - or done something - wrong. If he’s upset Kaeya somehow, though he isn’t entirely sure how.

“You just seemed rather surprised to see my eye the other day,” Kaeya says finally, “so I assumed…” Here, he trails off, waves a hand vaguely before it falls back into his lap.

And then the words process, now that Diluc is not particularly fixated on the movement of his fingers. His gaze flicks up, fixes on Kaeya’s eye.

“You have magic?” It fixes now on Kaeya’s eyepatch - does that have some tether to his magic? He seems to imply that all Khaenri’ahns have- what, an affected eye such as this? But Dainslief certainly does not, though-

“You weren’t aware?” Kaeya’s tone is light, but uncertain, and Diluc blinks, returns his focus to Kaeya. To Kaeya, who watches him with a strange sort of curiosity, of...trepidation, perhaps. It makes Diluc’s heart ache, the uncertainty beneath his gaze, and he turns entirely to face Kaeya.

He wants - suddenly, desperately - to lean in, to press his lips to Kaeya’s, to blame it on some passersby and- and, no, that is not something he wants. He will not push Kaeya to discomfort over his own unfounded desires.

What he does instead is lift a hand, because this is what he truly wants. Kaeya remains impossibly still, and Diluc moves as slowly as he can, as gently - he does not want to startle Kaeya, but...he would like to understand. He hopes, very desperately, that such a thing is not too much to ask of Kaeya.

His thumb brushes Kaeya’s cheek, a startlingly intimate thing that sends a spark of panic through Diluc’s chest, but Kaeya nods very slightly, and so Diluc does not think. Just lifts the eyepatch gently from Kaeya’s eye.

The one that is most certainly gray, not black, as Kaeya had said the other day. Almost offended at the idea that Diluc had gotten it wrong, though he can’t imagine how he had now. Perhaps distance and poor lighting, though it’s very clearly a dark gray from the iris outward. His pupil, to Diluc’s surprise, is almost...gold. Not unlike the way he’d imagined the trees around the lake, caught on fire by the rising sun. Around them, the branches shift, letting sunlight flicker across Kaeya’s eye, and it glitters with...something. His magic, perhaps?

“Forgive my lack of knowledge on such matters,” he says quietly, and Kaeya inhales a sharp breath. “Your eye is the source of your magic?” It would be a logical conclusion, although he wonders still at how that ties in with Dainslief’s magic.

Questions for another time, he supposes.

“Yes,” Kaeya says quietly, and it’s that gentle voice that makes Diluc rather suddenly aware of how close he is. How close he’s leaned toward Kaeya, and he pulls away. The moment he’s settled back, though, Kaeya lifts a hand to the eyepatch.

“Does it bother you to leave it uncovered?” Kaeya had certainly rushed to cover it the other day. Perhaps, Diluc considers with a twist of guilt in his stomach, he should think through his actions before putting Kaeya into one uncomfortable position after another.

But Kaeya pauses, and does not seem quite so rushed to cover it. His gaze flicks over, and Diluc nods at his hand, still suspended beside his eyepatch.

“It is easier to keep it covered.” Ah. Diluc hears the avoidance, sees it in the way that Kaeya lowers his eyepatch back into place, but he does not press Kaeya for a better answer. He’s pushed Kaeya far enough for one morning - for one day, really - and he should not desire things that Kaeya does not wish to give.

That does not mean that Diluc will forget about the exchange entirely.

“If it is of any consequence,” he says carefully, hoping that he does not give away his suspicions. “When we are alone, do not feel obligated to keep it covered on my account.”

Kaeya hums, and Diluc hopes that he’s said the right thing. That he’s allowed Kaeya some comfort, some peace, if keeping his eye covered is truly a bother to him.

-------

The air clings cool to his skin when he wakes, and the feeling of it settles in his lungs. The storm will break today, likely soon. Not ideal for anyone, but Diluc does find storms rather...peaceful, so long as he does not have to be out in them.

He climbs from his bed slowly, glances at the door to Kaeya’s room. Wonders, in a childish, silly way, whether Kaeya likes storms as well. Does he find them comforting? Cacophonous? Or does he have no opinion on them whatsoever?

Trivial things, and Diluc shakes his head. Makes his way to the small table and pulls the drawer open, pleased - but not overly hopeful - at the sight of a folded piece of paper.

He takes it out and unfolds it, breath held even as he knows that he should not set his expectations too high.

Diluc - the room in the guest wing will be prepared according to your specifications in advance of Zhongli’s arrival.

Good, so he will be provided a coded debrief of all that Rosaria knows as soon as he’s settled.

That said, we were unable to locate the squid requested for his meal. Unfortunately, it seems he will have to provide it himself.

Ah. Nothing more than what she’d already shared - that some of her bounties have mentioned a plot for the banquet, though they could not be persuaded to provide more information than that. Or, rather, Diluc would not permit her to use her typical...interrogation techniques. There are lines he does not wish to cross.

If you need anything else, I am ever at your service - Rosaria

Diluc rolls his eyes. She plays the game well, in her own way. A devoted consultant to the crown and long-time ally of Diluc’s, though she keeps under wraps her past and present dealings. Which is all the better to continue her employ in Diluc’s network, and he is grateful for her assistance in spite of the lack of news.

He can only hope that Zhongli will be able to uncover something more.

He tucks the note back into the drawer, unfolded so that Rosaria knows he’s read it but has nothing more to say on the matter. For a moment, he stands there at the drawer, and his eyes fix on the near-perfect script of Rosaria’s handwriting.

Should he mention this to Kaeya? His brows furrow - he would like...he would like to extend trust to Kaeya, would like it in return, but this is not a small matter. Granted, he supposes it’s no small matter of Kaeya’s potential safety as well - does he not deserve to know that he may be in danger, should this plot turn out to be something nefarious?

For all they know at the moment, Kaeya could even be the target of this attack. The idea of that does not settle well in Diluc’s stomach, and he grits his teeth as he shoves the drawer shut. It is perhaps a little harder than strictly necessary, but he does not appreciate being faced with this particular dilemma.

To tell Kaeya runs the risk that he is not trustworthy - though he’s not proven himself to have ill intentions, he must take the utmost caution with the operation of this network. But to avoid telling Kaeya leaves him all the more vulnerable - he cannot defend against an attack that he is unaware of.

Diluc blows out a heavy breath, runs a hand over his face. Another topic of discussion with Zhongli, he supposes, for he is not entirely in the right state to come to an appropriate conclusion himself. Certainly not when his heart stubbornly refuses to let go of this crush that he should not have on Kaeya.

That’s it, of course. A crush, an attraction at most, though he pushes it away just as harshly as if it were true love. Better not to let it grow roots in his chest, otherwise he’ll never be rid of it.

------

The storm strikes well before he’s expected it to, although - although.

Although Diluc is now pressed to Kaeya’s chest, wet from the downpour and enraptured by the droplets that trickle down Kaeya’s throat. His heart hammers louder than the thunder that rumbles over head, and he can’t bring himself to pull away. To even look away.

How gracelessly he tempts fate, tempts the destruction of whatever tentative thing that Diluc would like to think they’re building. How easy it is to send it all to shambles with a single word.

Gardener,” he says as he leans close, and he thinks he should feel guilty. Should at least detest himself for the simple lie, though he had seen some movement in the hedges. A weak justification for the way he presses his lips to Kaeya’s, for the way his hands pull at Kaeya’s waist, drag him closer.

He does not deserve this, but he takes it anyway, because the way he wants Kaeya is a selfish thing, and he is far more selfish than most are willing to believe.

His chest aches for the way that Kaeya leans into him, eager, as though he does truly want this - Diluc’s heart skips a beat, then another, and a third, until he’s certain that it’s stopped altogether. But Kaeya is nothing if not a masterful actor, and Diluc chases his lips with desperation. Tastes rainwater in the warmth of his mouth, drags at Kaeya’s lip with his teeth.

At the very least, Diluc hopes that it is not so terrible a thing, to kiss him. That Kaeya does this willingly enough, even if he does not want Diluc in the same way.

He sucks in a sharp breath at the fingers that twist into his hair, tug gently but enough that a sharp spark of desire dances through Diluc’s chest. He pulls back to find Kaeya watching him, lips swollen and pink as they turn up into a smirk.

And then he’s gone, and a warm breath brushes across Diluc’s throat in the short seconds before Kaeya’s tongue- gods, it drags hot and slow up the length of his neck, and Diluc’s knees go weak beneath him. A noise nearly escapes, damning for his lack of control over it, but he clamps his jaw shut around it, and it blurs into the background noise of the storm.

He feels it, though - the subtle smirk as Kaeya’s lips twist against his skin, and an embarrassed warmth floods his cheeks. But Kaeya would assume he’s playing his part, wouldn’t he? And so what is there to be embarrassed about?

Diluc steps closer to danger, closer to Kaeya, ever closer to losing himself in whatever- whatever this is, whatever he’s fallen so far into. He does not know if he’ll ever make it out.

Warmth returns to his lips unexpectedly as Kaeya captures them, grins into them, and Diluc can feel that he’s losing it, losing what little control he had left. His hands wander of their own accord, slip beneath Kaeya’s shirt and press against damp skin.

Luc.”

It’s this - this, of all things - that drags Diluc unwillingly back to his senses. To what he’s done, the way he’s deceived Kaeya. Guilt stretches icy fingers through his body as he pulls back, and Kaeya stares at him, expression unreadable.

“I think we’re-” Oh, oh no, he sounds- he sounds like he’s enjoyed that entirely too much for the fact that they’re supposed to be acting. “Think we’re fine.”

He is not fine. He is nowhere near fine, and Kaeya nods as though it’s fine, and Diluc dips his head and pretends that it’s fine, that any of that was fine.

So much for preventing this crush from taking root.

----------

“I’ve made...a mistake.”

“Ah, I was starting to wonder when you’d notice.” Zhongli hums, a subtle smile touching his lips as he taps absently at the edge of the board. “Eight turns ago. You’re losing your touch, Diluc.”

Diluc exhales a sigh, then leans forward. Stares at his hands, still clasped in his lap, and not at Zhongli. Who, at this point, has likely realized that he is not in fact referring to his erroneous move eight turns ago.

“This is about...Kaeya.” He glances up when he says Kaeya’s name, finds Zhongli watching him with a perfectly neutral stare. At this, however, he hums. Moves a piece, though Diluc is no longer paying attention to the board.

“I…” I lied for the opportunity to kiss him.

“You…” Zhongli prompts, then blinks up at Diluc. “Have fallen quite hard for the Khaenri’ahn prince?”

Diluc’s eyes go wide, and his lips part, prepared to insist otherwise, but his objection dies on his tongue. Zhongli’s lip curls up in a gentle smile, a knowing smile, and Diluc exhales a slow, shaky breath. Forces his heart to calm, even as he glances over at the door of the library. Very much closed, though he admittedly fears now that Kaeya - and Childe - will come bursting through at any moment.

“I...may have some unexpected feelings for Kaeya,” Diluc says quietly, attention split now between Zhongli’s persistent stare and the door.

Better to tell Zhongli the truth now, or he’ll devote himself to drawing it out of him, and Diluc would prefer to have Zhongli’s attention focused predominantly on the banquet.

“But…” Zhongli prompts again, brow arched gracefully on his forehead. He speaks of perfectly refined elegance, even as Diluc knows his ruthlessness when it comes to getting what he wants. And right now, it seems, he would like answers. From Diluc.

About his...feelings. For Kaeya.

But,” Diluc starts, then inhales slowly. Glances again at the door. “But this is a charade,” he says tersely, waves a hand between himself and the door, as though Kaeya stands just on the other side of it. Gods, he hopes that is not the case.

To this, however, Zhongli only hums, and Diluc frowns down at the chessboard. Has Zhongli taken his turn already?

“It is a charade,” Zhongli parrots with a tip of his head, and Diluc glances up, taps anxiously on the edge of the board as he waits. “And yet, you’ve managed to develop feelings nonetheless.” He stops here, though, as though he’s made his point, and Diluc presses his lips into a line.

“That does not mean that Kaeya has developed any feelings in return,” he counters, more invested now in this game of logic that Zhongli seems to be trying to win. “He’s been forced to be here by an impossible choice. I do not wish-”

Gold bores into him, insistent and steady, and Diluc turns away.

“I want him to be happy.” His voice feels heavy with the weight of that desire. “I suspect that I am not the kind of person he would be happy with.”

“Oh, he’s told you so?” Zhongli asks with such put-upon nonchalance that Diluc rolls his eyes. Takes a pawn at random and moves it into the perfect position for one of Zhongli’s rooks. Zhongli’s lip ticks up at the corner.

“Of course not,” Diluc says finally, hears his own irritation. “He does not tell me much.”

He did yesterday, Diluc’s brain supplies unhelpfully. Zhongli lifts his brows, a silent encouragement to speak a bit more truthfully.

“He has not seemed inclined to open up to me, and I cannot blame him. But,” Diluc adds, “I am not incorrect in my assessment that he has told me very little up to this point.”

“And you?” A move that does not capture Diluc’s pawn, though Diluc’s split attention struggles to keep up with the game and with his thoughts surrounding Kaeya.

“Me?” He fails on both counts.

“How much have you opened up to Kaeya?” Zhongli’s gaze settles back on Diluc, pointed in his silence now, and Diluc exhales a long, slow breath.

“How long did it take for you to learn all my secrets?” he asks in turn, with as much humor as he can manage. Remarkable that it feels increasingly like gallows humor. At the very least, it earns him a low laugh, and Zhongli tips his head, offers Diluc a soft smile.

“If,” he starts, and Diluc exhales slowly, “you wish for Kaeya to share his thoughts with you more freely, it might benefit you to try doing the same with him.”

Diluc’s lips twist. He came to Zhongli for advice - among other things, though Zhongli has already been filled in on the little they know about the banquet attack - and so he should take that advice to heart. But he does not...give easily, certainly not his trust. Nor his feelings, though that seems like too dangerous a precipice to even approach.

And in truth, Zhongli’s advice must have a basis somewhere. He and this Childe character seem perfectly content with each other. A flicker of amusement sparks in Diluc’s chest - perhaps he should be sending Zhongli to provide Bennett with relationship advice. What can Diluc truly offer aside from platitudes and generic encouragements? He’s certainly in no position to claim any expertise on connecting with someone.

“You haven’t mentioned the banquet situation to Kaeya yet, nor of my true purpose here.” An observation, not a question, and Diluc exhales a short breath.

“I do not trust easily. Speaking of which, your new-” He pauses, feels an unexpected wave of warmth flush his cheeks as Zhongli’s gaze settles on him, sharp. “Recruit. Childe. He can be trusted?”

Zhongli’s jaw tics, and Diluc tips his chin up. A silent discussion that does not require words - Zhongli would have him trust by extension, Diluc will struggle to do that without any solid proof. Zhongli will remind him who he is, and who he is to Diluc. Diluc will acquiesce, albeit begrudgingly.

And he does trust Zhongli, perhaps more than anyone. But he is wary with good reason, and Zhongli knows that just as well as Diluc knows that he can be trusted. Zhongli’s stare softens, and Diluc nods minutely.

“I would not bring him here nor inform him of the situation if I were concerned about his alliances,” Zhongli says aloud now, eternally careful in his wording, and Diluc exhales a slow breath - it will have to do.

“And you are avoiding the topic,” Zhongli adds, lip ticking up again in a subtle smirk. Diluc glances to the side, to the door. It remains closed.

“I will...consider discussing the situation with Kaeya,” Diluc agrees, reluctant though he is to admit it. To his surprise, Zhongli almost...relaxes? Diluc’s brows furrow, and Zhongli’s smile widens just slightly.

“It would put my mind at ease to know that you have someone at your side that you can trust.”

“I trust you,” Diluc counters, and Zhongli dips his head, lifts a hand to pull a knight from its place on the chessboard. He turns it over in his palm, silent for a moment.

“You know that I cannot be here all the time.” His gaze lifts. “Let me worry for you, Diluc.”

Diluc exhales a long breath - there’s no arguing with him when he starts fixating on the past, and for Zhongli, perhaps Diluc can...try.

For Kaeya, too, because...perhaps he can hope, and perhaps it is a silly, unfounded hope, but maybe Kaeya could become-

The door swings in abruptly, and Diluc tamps down on his thoughts, errant and wild as they try to run from him. His gaze flicks to the head of blue hair, to Kaeya standing in the doorway behind Childe.

“Did you have a satisfying match?” Zhongli, humored and composed, and Childe grins as he makes his way over. His hand trails up Zhongli’s arm, intentional and intimate in a way that only serves to deepen Diluc’s blush, and he forces his gaze away from Zhongli.

“He’s an adequate opponent,” Childe says easily, and Diluc bites back the smirk that threatens to overcome his lips - he hopes, in a very petulant sort of way, that Kaeya had given Childe a rather formidable fight. He’s certainly talented enough in his own right.

Kaeya’s gaze drifts slowly, focused on Zhongli and Childe for a moment before finding Diluc, meeting his stare, and Diluc’s heart leaps in his chest. Something like pride flickers through his veins, and he wishes that they had a ruse to uphold here.

Wishes that Kaeya would wander over, trail hands along Diluc’s body in a perfect match for Childe’s treatment of Zhongli. That he’d whisper in his ear how he’d found their sparring session rather entertaining, but it did not compare in the slightest to sparring with Diluc.

“And your little game, Xiansheng?” Childe asks, though it does not draw Diluc’s attention. He’s fixed too intently now on the faint traces of pink coloring Kaeya’s cheeks, and his heart races in his chest.

It is a charade, and yet, you’ve managed to develop feelings nonetheless.

But it would be selfish, wishful thinking at best to hope that Kaeya has developed feelings as well. Wouldn’t it?

“Oh, it was quite…informative.”

Panic floods Diluc’s veins at Zhongli’s words, and he stands abruptly, hears the scrape of his chair against the floor echo tenfold in his head as he nods at Zhongli.

“You must be quite exhausted from your travels, Zhongli. And Childe.” He swallows - but surely Zhongli would not parade his admission in front of Kaeya like this? Though he does not like his odds for whether or not Childe will be informed of this...

“I’ll have something sent to your room for dinner, and we can continue this match in the morning,” he adds quickly, and Zhongli’s gentle smile is...perhaps not a reassurance. More a damnation: that he will not be the one to inform Kaeya of Diluc’s feelings. That Diluc will have to do that for himself.

“Of course,” Zhongli says easily. “As always, your hospitality is greatly appreciated.” At his side, Childe’s hand drifts down his chest, and Diluc turns before his mind conjures any undesired visions of how they might choose to spend their evening.

It’s this sudden spark of uncomfortable panic that spurs him on, and he brushes past Kaeya and out of the room. Words echo behind him, perfectly amicable and-

Hot stuff. Perhaps he is not entirely a fan of Childe’s...nickname for Kaeya. But that’s not his problem to resolve - if Kaeya dislikes it, he can tell Childe that himself.

--------

“That was a rather...interesting encounter.”

Kaeya’s voice makes it to his ears, though he’s admittedly still rather caught up on...well, on Zhongli’s advice. Trepidation slithers between his ribs, twisting its way around as hope follows in its wake. It is a dangerous thing, to want to trust Kaeya. To want…

To want the outcomes of what trusting him might lead to. Would Kaeya truly trust him in return?

“Interesting…” he says aloud, partly in agreement. A selfish thing, for Diluc to hope that Kaeya might see Diluc’s extension of trust and decide to trust him, to talk about himself. To open up. But the desire to know Kaeya, to know what he hides, what he closes off behind terse smiles and distant gazes, it burns like fire through Diluc’s chest.

More fierce, though, is his desire to know what makes Kaeya smile. A genuine smile, and what makes him laugh. What brings him comfort, what Diluc can do to give it to him. And, infinitely more selfish than all those things, Diluc wonders whether Kaeya could ever see him the way he pretends to. The way he acts, as though he is so truly in love. Is that something Diluc could ever even dream to see in reality?

“Childe said some rather interesting things,” Kaeya says, and Diluc’s head whips up and around to find Kaeya leaned back into the cushion of the sofa, nonchalant when he glances over at Diluc.

“And what did he say?” Diluc’s tone is not as careful as he’d like it to be, and logic wars with panic in his chest - he hadn’t outright mentioned anything to Zhongli until today, until their earlier discussion. Childe was most certainly not present, but Zhongli hadn’t been surprised by Diluc’s admission. Which would imply that he had his suspicions beforehand - had he mentioned them to Childe? Had Childe said something to Kaeya?

“That you and Zhongli are very close.”

Diluc’s brows furrow. That is what Childe mentioned?

“Ah, we are...friends.” He’s not certain why this is news to Kaeya, either. He’d said as much already, hadn’t he? But Kaeya quirks a brow at him, and Diluc flounders for a moment, waits for Kaeya’s lips to part again in the hopes that he will offer more clarity.

“If you wanted time alone with him to...catch up...” Diluc hears an implication, one that does not quite register behind his still-panicked concern that Childe had mentioned something of his...feelings for Kaeya. “You need only ask.”

Time to catch up? They’d already-

Oh. Oh.

“Your assumptions are wildly incorrect,” Diluc grits out, entire body suddenly warm - he and Zhongli have never been anything more than allies and friends, and the idea that Kaeya had assumed that they were- that they were something else makes Diluc’s body prickle with nerves.

Not for the fact that Zhongli is unappealing, only for the fact that he has never looked at Zhongli in that way, and does not intend to. That is simply not the nature of their relationship. It is an easy thing to distinguish from the kinds of things that Diluc desires to have with Kaeya.

“Oh? What assumptions?” A pointed pause, and Diluc grits his teeth at Kaeya’s all-too-innocent tone. “Of your...friendship?” If he does not know what he’s doing, then Diluc must admit that he truly knows nothing of Kaeya at all.

Yes,” he huffs out, crosses his arms over his chest. He does not particularly appreciate this game that Kaeya’s playing - if he means to state the obvious, he’d better do that now before Diluc says something exceptionally stupid.

Something like ‘I have interest only in one person, and it is certainly not Zhongli.’

“So you’re not romantically-”

Absolutely not.” From the corner of his eye, Diluc watches with unexpectedly rapt attention at the amusement flickering through Kaeya’s expression. Though it is at his own expense, Diluc finds himself inordinately thrilled at the idea of Kaeya’s happiness. Laughter.

“Forgive my assumptions, but he is rather attractive-”

“I am not interested in him in that way.” Is Kaeya, though? Why else point out his attractiveness? But surely Zhongli would’ve indicated if he had any interest himself, or at least not gone so far as to encourage Diluc’s feelings toward Kaeya.

“But the two of you are close.”

Diluc huffs out a breath. If Kaeya does indeed have interest, Diluc would at least appreciate him mentioning it outright. If he hopes to gain favor with Zhongli by asking Diluc to put in a good word or some such reason for his pursuit of this topic, then he should be more forthcoming. More open-

He turns, holds the stare that Kaeya fixes on him and narrows his eyes just slightly. Very well, he will take Zhongli’s advice, then.

“He is the head of my spy network.”

Diluc holds his breath as Kaeya watches him, and he hopes very desperately that he has not made a mistake. But Zhongli would not counsel him poorly, and he has faith in Zhongli’s assessments if nothing else, and he wants Kaeya to open up to him in return, so…

“Your...spy network…”

Diluc nods, tries not to let his amusement grow too much in the wake of the confusion in Kaeya’s tone.

“Ah, so when he said that your match had been informative…” He leaves the rest implied, and Diluc’s panic flares anew - but Zhongli is not here to divulge the exact details of their discussion, and Diluc forces himself to take a steadying breath.

“Yes, we had a lot to discuss.” Here, he waits, expecting Kaeya’s line of questioning to lead Diluc in the direction of mentioning the banquet. Silence follows for a moment as Kaeya nods absently, tips his head just a bit, and Diluc allows himself just a single second.

Just one second of...of appreciation. Of the barest lightening of this thing that he carries, that he does not have to hide it entirely from yet another person. That he does not have to hide it from Kaeya, from someone he-

That he wants to be as close to him as Zhongli. Closer, far closer.

It would put my mind at ease to know that you have someone at your side that you can trust.

And he wants that, and wants more. Selfishly, so very selfishly. He wants what they pretend to have, though that feels a far-fetched dream at best.

“And Childe? Was he as unexpected as you claimed?” The question catches Diluc off guard, but he blinks, nods vaguely in Kaeya’s direction before exhaling a slow breath - he admits only to himself that it is far easier to tell Kaeya the truth than he’d expected.

This truth, at least.

“I did not anticipate his arrival,” Diluc says easily, and is glad that he has not had to contradict any earlier statements. He does not particularly like the idea of outright lying, though he has carefully avoided telling the entire truth until now. “But Zhongli did mention his endeavors to expand a few of the circles he manages personally.”

Which Diluc cannot begrudge him - he remains in charge of such a large territory of Teyvat, far more than Venti or Rosaria, and Diluc had found it rather easy to trust by extension. Well, when he was not put face-to-face with one of those particular trusted individuals.

“A potential addition to the network,” Kaeya observes, and Diluc nods his agreement. “And Zhongli’s current, ah...partner.”

Diluc resists the urge to roll his eyes - but he cannot begrudge Zhongli that either. It has been a very long time since he made mention of anyone he was similarly involved with, and if that is what makes him happy, then Diluc will be...something like happy for him.

“Yes, though he did not inform me of that prior to their arrival either.” He has his reasons, Diluc must assume.

A thought occurs to him, then - though it’s been a while since he recruited for his network personally, he has not forgotten the earliest days of its formation.

“What did you make of him?” he asks, then, and Kaeya meets his gaze with furrowed brows.

“Childe?” Diluc nods. “Wild and flippant.” Kaeya tips his head, thoughtful. “Does not seem inclined to think before he speaks.” Ah, that does not bode well for an addition to the spy network, but he agreed to trust Zhongli on this matter... “An excellent fighter, though.”

Excellent fighter notwithstanding, Diluc cannot claim that he’s thrilled about the other pieces of Kaeya’s assessment. Perhaps he should have another word with Zhongli, or with Childe himself-

“I should correct myself,” Kaeya adds, interrupting Diluc’s line of thought, and his gaze sharpens, focuses on Kaeya’s pursed lips. “He knows how to fight and manipulate with his words, when necessary, and appear as though he’d said them thoughtlessly.”

So he can act and deceive, then - that is a reliable skill, at least, and he wonders if it’s the basis for Zhongli’s initial recruitment. But beyond that, curiosity prickles under Diluc’s skin.

“Did he say something to you?”

“It was of no consequence.” Kaeya’s answer comes quickly, and his gaze flicks down for just a moment, and Diluc recognizes that avoidance all too well.

Very well, then. If Kaeya is uninclined to speak openly, Diluc should not - will not - push him. No matter how badly he’d like to know the real reason behind Kaeya’s non-answer.

“But you recognized it as manipulation,” he says, to which Kaeya only hums his agreement, and Diluc chastises himself - or, a part of himself does the chastising, the other argues that his choices are appropriate given the circumstances. Regardless of which part of him wins, disappointment settles in his chest at Kaeya’s silence.

“He did not,” Kaeya’s voice startles him, and he focuses intently on those words, “mention anything of political significance. Though I do suspect that he knows the layout of this castle well enough.”

Ah, that’s to be expected, he supposes, if Zhongli had brought him here. And it is something of a reassurance that Childe had not chosen to divulge any particularly sensitive information, but still-

But still, he should let it go from his mind. He cannot force Kaeya’s trust, and he risks losing what little he’s gained by pushing Kaeya on the matter. What Childe told him is none of Diluc’s concern, no matter his curiosity.

He straightens up, inhales a slow breath.

“If Zhongli trusts him, I suppose I will extend my trust cautiously but accordingly.” For what else can he do? His gaze drifts to Kaeya, now, and he wonders if he’s done the same - extended his trust cautiously but accordingly - or if he’s justifying actions made for the sake of his heart and not his head. Kaeya’s brows lift minutely at his stare, and Diluc hopes that he has not made a mistake.

Or, rather, that he hasn’t made another one.

“I’m hardly a part of your...organization,” Kaeya says aloud, “so if you’re expecting my input-” Diluc holds up a hand at those words - if Kaeya isn’t certain, then it would be better for him to remain unentangled in this. Even if it means that Diluc must return to keeping this all from him.

“If you wish not to be involved, that’s fine.” It’s not entirely fine, but it should be Kaeya’s choice, not Diluc’s. There are areas in which he cannot afford to be selfish. “But I need to know now.”

Now, before he lets too much slip, before Kaeya gets wrapped up in this. Before Diluc learns how to be open with Kaeya, before he desires it too much. Before his hopes fall flat for a thing that Kaeya will never want. He watches Kaeya’s brows furrow, and holds carefully onto the fact that he would like Kaeya to be happy, above all else. If this will not contribute to his comfort here-

“If you would like my participation and input, you have it.”

Ah. Diluc nods stiffly, sharply. Exhales a slow breath of relief, though it tastes bitter. Kaeya wanting this does not mean that he wants Diluc. Agreeing to participate does not mean agreeing to open himself up to Diluc, to- to talk. Talking with Kaeya, Diluc finds, is still something he is not so adept at.

“Good.” He pauses for only a moment, then forces his thoughts to shift - how would he speak if Zhongli were sitting here? “Zhongli mentioned that you are rather well-versed in the politics of the kingdoms, and yes,” he stops for just long enough to meet Kaeya’s almost-amused stare, “we did speak about you.” A sudden flush of warmth blooms in his chest, and he fights the sudden, indescribable urge to mention everything they’d talked about.

But Kaeya grins at him, wide and teasing, and Diluc finds it easy to roll his eyes, to take a small step back within himself.

“Don’t let that go to your head,” he adds, to which Kaeya only presses his lips into a line. A poor attempt at hiding his smile.

“I’ve spent more time in every kingdom in Teyvat other than my own,” Kaeya says, and something sharp and sad sparks in Diluc’s chest. His gaze focuses now on Kaeya, though Kaeya only waves a hand. “I mean to say that Zhongli is right, although I’d be curious to know how he acquired such information.”

Here, Diluc huffs out an amused breath.

“He is very good at what he does.” But that is not his story to tell - Kaeya can discuss the particulars of how Zhongli had come to know what he knows with Zhongli himself. It is very rare, these days, for Zhongli to explain all his methods in detail.

“I suppose,” he adds, for it occurs to him that he has not yet been given the opportunity to discuss this piece of their situation, “that I should explain the reason for his arrival.”

“The banquet.” Hardly a few seconds after his statement, and Diluc’s brows lift in mild intrigue. Again, something like pride flickers through him, warm and thrilling.

“The banquet indeed,” he says with a nod, and he takes a moment to exhale. Regrets the way that it sounds...disappointed. Although, he supposes that he should be disappointed that this event - the first Kaeya’s ever attended, to boot - runs the risk of being ruined by some nefarious actors.

“You think something will happen?” Kaeya prompts, and Diluc nods.

“Know it, although we’re having trouble nailing down the particulars.” To his surprise, Kaeya does not look exceptionally bothered by the idea that something bad might happen. “Namely what, how, and to what end.”

“Ah.” Kaeya’s lip ticks up in a smirk, and Diluc takes the moment to appreciate the fact that Kaeya has taken this all in stride. “So you know nothing.”

“Very little,” he counters immediately, curtly, and Kaeya’s grin only widens. Something about it, that defiance in the face of danger, makes Diluc’s chest ache. And he stares, perhaps a bit self-indulgently, as Kaeya watches him in return, and...appreciates.

“What?” Kaeya says, although he doesn’t sound entirely bothered. Diluc’s heart hammers, his hope flutters on anxious wings. He tamps down on it, though, because this is not entirely about him.

“I would expect most anyone in your position to question their own safety,” he says, for that is what he wishes to focus on. “But you haven’t.”

To his surprise, though, Kaeya only huffs out a breath of laughter, low and short, and Diluc wonders what it would sound like up close. Close enough to feel that breath on his lips, to taste Kaeya’s amusement on his tongue.

“I doubt I’m in any danger,” Kaeya says easily, and Diluc quickly schools his expression back into something he hopes to be more neutral, less- gods, less enamored.

But it hits him hard, in that moment, how deeply he- he cares for Kaeya. How sudden and sharp his need to ensure Kaeya’s safety - to ensure that they can look back on this with lightness, with Kaeya’s humored I told you so and Diluc’s false irritation.

And he will do everything in his power to ensure that happens.

----------

Diluc was attempting to do just that - Zhongli mentioned a few contacts he’d reached out to, and so Diluc was trying to make his way to Zhongli’s room to discuss if they’d located anything useful, but…

But now he’s pressed against Kaeya, heart racing as his hands slip up beneath Kaeya’s shirt, press to too-warm skin. It takes quite an effort to prevent his fingers from digging in, dragging Kaeya impossibly closer.

And perhaps Diluc is selfish, perhaps he should not want things that he has no right to want, but he hears the quick, quiet recession of footsteps somewhere down the hall. Knows for certain when the unexpected passerby has left their vicinity, and yet…

And yet, Kaeya hums into his mouth, and Diluc does not want to pull away. Wants to taste Kaeya’s lips for a little bit longer, feel his chest rise and fall with shallow breaths against Diluc’s. He pretends it isn’t all a facade, just for a moment. Just long enough to wrap his arm around Kaeya’s back, drag his hand up Kaeya’s chest and feel Kaeya arch into him, feel his teeth graze Diluc’s lip.

He has an excuse, he argues within his head - Diluc remains facing the wall, while Kaeya has the view of the corridor, so if he indulges a little, then Kaeya would certainly just assume he didn’t know.

It’s a dangerous thought, one that comes with a landslide of far more damning ideas, and Diluc’s chest aches even as he pulls away from Kaeya’s lips, dips his head low and drags his tongue just beneath Kaeya’s jaw.

Gone?” he half-whispers against Kaeya’s skin, said because he cannot allow himself to take advantage of Kaeya like this, no matter how good it feels. How good Kaeya feels, when he leans into the act like this.

Kaeya hums a sound like agreement, and Diluc lets his eyes drift shut in silent mourning for the ending of this indulgent moment. But he cannot pretend that he hadn’t heard that, so he pulls back, drags his fingers down Kaeya’s chest on the way before stepping apart from Kaeya entirely.

Hardly a glance in Kaeya’s direction, and Diluc has to avert his gaze - still, the image will burn inside his head for a very long time, he knows. Kaeya, breathless and flushed, shirt rucked up to his waist and hair a sleepy mess. Gods, Diluc wants nothing more than to push him back up against the wall, taste his lips and his skin and drag fingers across every inch of his body until he’s had his fill.

He does not think he ever would - in this moment, he feels nothing short of insatiable.

And so he keeps his gaze fixed elsewhere, tries to focus his thoughts on-

“Running around the castle in the middle of the night...” Kaeya. He could take perhaps a slightly less sarcastic tone. “I can’t imagine what your employees must think.” Diluc’s gaze flicks over sharply, and he wishes that Kaeya had the common decency to look just a little less wrecked.

A little less like Diluc had not just spent the past several minutes pressed against him, indulging his fantasies and wishing that reality were quite so sweet.

He grabs Kaeya’s wrist and drags him off down the hall, mostly because he does not want to acknowledge that Kaeya’s implications are likely correct. Does not want to admit that he’d nearly been caught, that Kaeya had provided him an alibi of sorts, even if it had also provided him with another wave of desperate desire.

“I’m sure they’d have nothing worthwhile to say about a midnight visit to the guest rooms of your...dear friend and his companion,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc’s grip tightens for a brief moment. He does not say a word, irritation warring with the ache of his desire in his chest, the desperate urge to use the presence of each person they pass as an excuse to shove Kaeya up against the wall again, feel his teeth and tongue and the warm pressure of his body against Diluc’s.

But the walk cools him at least a little, and by the time they make it back to the still-dark room, Diluc manages to- well, to redirect his energy, at least.

“What on Teyvat were you thinking coming after me like that?” he grits out under his breath. Kaeya quirks a brow, crosses his arms over his chest. Diluc does not look at him for more than a second at a time. “You could’ve gotten caught, I thought we discussed the issues that could create.”

And yet, they’d also discussed why Diluc getting caught might cause a problem, and Diluc’s irritation is hardly enough cover for the real emotion that burns in his chest. He huffs out a breath, as though that might keep his frustration on the surface, prevent it from giving way to desire once again.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” he adds, half in reference to their current situation, half in reference to the way that he wants Kaeya, the way he truly wants Kaeya. How is he supposed to handle that? What is he supposed to do with that desire, with that hope?

What is he supposed to do with Kaeya, who makes his heart race, who leaves him breathless and a little terrified of his own desperation? Of Kaeya’s inevitable rejection? Of a world where he does not get to know Kaeya, not the way that he wants to? He does not like the idea of such a world.

“Are you finished?” Diluc’s gaze flicks over to find Kaeya watching him, brow raised.

“If you have something to say, you do not need to wait for my permission to speak,” he says, confusion flickering in his chest. He hopes that Kaeya did not-

A laugh, and Kaeya shakes his head slightly.

“Trust me, I’m perfectly aware.” Diluc’s lips press into a line at the sharpness in Kaeya’s tone, unexpected and clearly intentional. “But no, I was simply waiting for your little rant to be done.”

Irritation returns full force, burying Diluc’s hopeless lamenting for a moment as Kaeya stares him down.

“You have the audacity to accuse me of causing trouble and venturing out unwisely.” Ah. Diluc resists the urge to drop his gaze, for Kaeya is staring rather intently at him now.

“Had I not followed you,” he continues, “we’d have to redirect half our attention to stalling the rumor mill, leaving fewer resources to focus on this plot you hope to uncover before the banquet.”

Though Diluc hears the words, his thoughts fixate rather unhelpfully - we, our. It sends an unexpected flash of warmth through his body, and he forces a careful neutrality to his expression. He does not know how he’d answer if Kaeya asked why he’d found Kaeya’s chastising amusing.

“Next time, wake me first.”

Oh. A warm smile touches Kaeya’s lips, and Diluc wants - so very desperately, in that moment - to close the distance between them, to wrap his arms around Kaeya’s waist, to hold him close, mumble his appreciation into Kaeya’s skin.

“I-”

“Diluc.” Diluc’s words fall away, and feel suddenly so small for the magnitude of what he’d like to express. I appreciate it. I appreciate you. I don’t know how to say that in words, will you let me show you?

“Let me enjoy the fact that you have to be grateful for my presence for once, if you don’t mind,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc lifts his gaze to meet Kaeya’s for a moment.

Is that what he thinks, truly? Gods, Diluc has gone so very wrong if he believes that…

He turns sharply, afraid, suddenly. How far is too far? How to convince Kaeya that he is so very appreciative without overwhelming him?

“I am not ungrateful for your presence,” he tries, and hears how miserably far it falls from what he’d really like to say. Behind him, Kaeya laughs.

“I’m truly humbled by your kind words.” Humor laced easily through his tone, and Diluc squeezes his eyes shut - what a mess he’s made of this, all of it.

“I’m not.” I crave your presence whenever I’m alone, you bring so much unexpected light. I want you, yes, but I want to know you. I want to understand you, I want your trust as much as I want your lips.

Too much, so impossibly much that Diluc feels crushed under the weight of his desires.

“And I am not ungrateful for yours,” Kaeya says, quiet and gentle, and Diluc wants to melt, wants to live inside those words even as he knows that they do not mean all the things that they do for Diluc. But it is something, and he clings to it as he turns. Offers Kaeya a soft good-night, watches Kaeya retreat to his own room.

It will have to be enough.

-----------

It is not enough, and Diluc knows with panicked desperation that it likely never will be. Kaeya leans into his side, though his attention remains focused on the paper.

“Zhongli mentioned that it’s unusual for us to hire more than one or two new employees at a time, and here-” Diluc gestures to the three staff members hired within a week of each other. “It’s hardly anything to go on, but…”

“But,” Kaeya picks up his sentiment with ease, “the banquet is the day after tomorrow, and it’s quite literally all you have to go on.” Diluc exhales a heavy breath, then leans back. Laments the loss of Kaeya’s warmth at his shoulder, but it’s just as well - he should get used to this, should prepare for a lifetime of it. Kaeya close, but never that close, never in the way that Diluc truly wants.

“Do you ever wish,” he says on a low breath, and it takes a momentous effort not to end that sentence with ‘that our relationship was real’. “That you were not born a prince?”

“Of course.” Kaeya’s tone belies so very much within that single phrase, and Diluc feels it in his chest, the weight of the crown they both bear.

“I used to daydream about it,” he admits as he stares up, “and feel horrible guilt for wanting something simpler.” Perhaps vulnerability is not quite as hard as he expected when he knows that Kaeya feels the same.

Perhaps that is what makes any admission of his true feelings for Kaeya all but impossible.

“Remarkable.” Kaeya’s tone drips with humor, and it bolsters the ache in Diluc’s chest. “It seems we have at least one thing in common.” A smile tugs at the corner of Diluc’s lips - it’s refreshing to know that he is not alone in this, at least. This silly fantasy of a life that did not ever belong to them, that they both wished for all the same. Something simpler, something free of machinations, something where…

Where love could be love, if he dared to hope for it.

“Oh,” Diluc says, affecting as much humor as he can manage himself. “You’re telling me you didn’t want to get married off to a stranger for political gain?” A brief glance in Kaeya’s direction, and he exhales a short breath of relief - Kaeya’s expression shifts into something amused, if a bit surprised.

But he doesn’t speak right away, doesn’t laugh or make any comment, and Diluc’s stomach twists with guilt - he did not mean to make Kaeya uncomfortable.

“It is not my place to apologize,” he says quietly, “but I will anyway. My father informed me of this…” He searches for a moment, uncertain of the best word to use. Glances at Kaeya and finds him watching, expectant, and Diluc hopes that he has not made this all worse. “This arrangement nearly two weeks in advance of your arrival.”

Silence lapses again, strained and fizzling with an uncertain energy. Or perhaps that is just what burrows under Diluc’s skin as they stay in that uncomfortable moment, and he watches the tension in Kaeya’s expression from the corner of his eye.

It fades, though, after a moment, and Diluc tries not to let his hope get out of hand. Kaeya is rather skilled at hiding his true emotions behind a wall, from what Diluc has observed.

“I wasn’t aware you were only told at the very last minute,” Diluc adds, if only to fill the silence. He hates rather viciously the way that those words taste on his tongue. That they speak of excuses and deception and a distinct lack of caring for Kaeya, who is the most affected of all involved.

“I am not pleased by this information, but…” Kaeya pauses for a moment, and Diluc sucks in a slow, steadying breath at the unexpected calm in his tone. “I’ve known my whole life that half my value was my hand in marriage to some other kingdom in exchange for supplies, or troops, or something of that nature.”

So flippant, so accepting of- gods, of something that Diluc did not even have to concern himself with. He’s protected his people in his own way, one that did not require the uprooting of his entire life, but Kaeya…

Diluc turns away, tries to rein in the injustice at Kaeya’s life. At the choices that were not choices, at the fact that he deserves so much more than- than this.

“Besides...” Kaeya’s word startles him from his anger, and he glances over from the corner of his eye. “I had always thought you immensely boring.”

Diluc stares for a moment, uncertain if this is meant to be an insult or something else entirely. But Kaeya holds his stare, and suspicion turns to curiosity in Diluc’s chest.

“Turns out I was wrong on that front, at least,” Kaeya says easily, and Diluc blinks.

“You don’t find me boring?” That would indeed be news to him - a dangerous sort of thrill races through his chest, bright and blinding and unfairly hopeful. He tamps down on it quickly, viciously, lest it grow into something unwieldy and untameable.

“You do put up a rather uninteresting exterior…” A pause, so intentional, and yet Diluc finds himself hanging onto Kaeya’s words. Watching, waiting. Hoping. “But at every turn, you manage to surprise me.”

Such a careful tone - is that a good thing or bad? Does Kaeya find it as endearing as Diluc finds his flippant teasing? Or does he wish that Diluc were instead exactly what he expects, exactly what Diluc appears to be on the outside?

“You’re easy to provoke.” Kaeya grins at his own words, and Diluc presses his lips into a line. “But you do not rise to the bait and provoke me in turn,” he adds, and a curiously uncertain expression flickers across his face. “Even with the easiest of ways to get under my skin.”

His hand lifts, gentle and slow, and gestures toward his eyepatch. Diluc’s stomach drops.

“There are lines that should not be crossed.” Even the idea of using Kaeya’s eye as a method of irritating him makes guilt twist though his chest. “Besides, I see no reason to start fights with you.”

“Oh, but you can certainly finish them,” Kaeya quips easily, with a laugh that sings through Diluc’s veins. “Your skills with a sword,” he clarifies, and Diluc blinks for a moment. Sees Kaeya’s blade crossed with his, Kaeya’s wild grin as they sparred.

“And…” A pause, and Diluc’s breath catches in his throat. From the corner of his eye, Kaeya’s face relaxes into something gentle, something softer, and Diluc wants to turn, to reach out. Wants to ask what brings that evident comfort, how he might recreate it for Kaeya. “It is so very apparent that you care.”

“For you?” Diluc hopes desperately that his panic does not come across in his tone - has he made himself too obvious? Has he made Kaeya uncomfortable by doing so?

“For your people,” Diluc exhales slowly, “and Mondstadt. And yes,” his gaze flicks up, holds Diluc’s for just a moment. “For me. As a political ally.”

As a political ally, of course. Nothing more. Diluc’s stomach twists - a part of him had almost hoped that he’s been too obvious, that he’s done something to indicate his feelings for Kaeya without realizing.

A part of him curls inward on itself at the fact that he hadn’t. He shifts back into the sofa, exhales slowly.

“It’s clear you have people you care dearly for, like Venti and Zhongli.” Like you, Diluc wants to interject, but he will not. “But beyond that, you’re kind and thoughtful toward those outside your inner circle of trusted friends as well.”

He must be referring to Bennett, then - it admittedly warms his heart that Bennett looks up to him, he hadn’t quite realized until Kaeya had mentioned it, and it brings a moment of peace in the reckless turbulence of his emotions.

“Of course I care for my people.” Perhaps it’s heavyhanded, the way he pointedly notes that he cares for his people. The way he avoids mentioning that he cares for Kaeya. “As you care for yours, or I suspect you wouldn’t be here.”

“We are princes, are we not?” Kaeya says with a smirk, one that belies so very much that Diluc can see written into his expression. So very much, too, he suspects, that Kaeya does not wish to show him. “Whatever it takes.”

Whatever it takes, including marrying someone he does not know with hardly a few days’ notice. Changing his entire life so that his people might survive this war. Diluc’s heart aches, and he wants nothing more, in that moment, than to take Kaeya into his arms and hold him close.

“And I must say,” Kaeya adds suddenly. “Your acting skills have been unexpectedly convincing.”

“Acting skills? Ah, right.” Of course, this is all an act. Diluc has been acting from the start, he certainly hasn’t come to desperately crave any chance to taste Kaeya’s lips, any chance to be at Kaeya’s side. “You’re quite...convincing as well,” he adds - certainly convincing enough that, were Diluc not aware of the act, he might very well believe that Kaeya’s fallen just as hard as he has.

Gods, what a mess.

“Oh?” Taunting, and Diluc’s heart races. “Not planning to drag me into a corner during the banquet and chastise me for my inadequate performance?”

Panic floods Diluc’s chest, not for the reminder of that particular discussion, but for what had come after - for the feeling of Kaeya pressed against him, relentless and tasting of wine, and Diluc shoves hard at that memory. Rolls his eyes, and-

And his gaze lands on the clock. For a moment, he laments this conversation, that it’s managed to so easily distract him, though he cannot say he regrets it.

“Dinner,” he says as he stands, and Kaeya follows his movement. “We’re late.”

-----------

“I would appreciate you giving this situation the gravity it deserves, Diluc.”

Diluc’s jaw tics with irritation - does his father truly think that he isn’t taking this seriously? That he isn’t painfully aware of the corner they’ve been backed into after his father’s gracious rejection of every suitor under the sun only for Diluc to suddenly turn up with a husband, claiming true love to cover up a carefully-crafted, politically-neutral alliance?

“Can I trust you both to play your part convincingly?”

Convincing. As though Diluc has to even think when it comes to showing affection toward Kaeya. In public, at least. His father’s condescension cements something hot in his chest, something daring and wild.

If anyone important begins to suspect the truth, trap them in a room with us. I can vow they won’t have any such doubts by the time they leave.

Kaeya’s words flit through Diluc’s head unbidden, as tempting as they are dangerous. For a long, uncertain moment, he remains entirely still, and then-

Gods, then he snaps. Feels it in his chest, when his hand finds Kaeya’s shirt, drags him close and pulls him into a rough kiss. And Kaeya goes so easily, leans into Diluc eagerly, and Diluc nearly loses himself, loses the purpose of this particular show.

That is what Kaeya does to him - and so how could he possibly take this anything but seriously? How could he not acknowledge the way Kaeya makes his heart race, the way he feels when Kaeya’s around? And how could anyone doubt Diluc’s feelings for Kaeya when their act is the only time he gives into those feelings fully, truly?

He sucks in a sharp breath at the warmth of Kaeya’s tongue, lets his teeth bite Kaeya’s lip and he lives for the way that Kaeya shifts into him, the subtlest movement that feels magnified tenfold by how close he is, how much-

A rather unsubtle cough, and Diluc pulls away with a harsh sigh and turns his attention - begrudgingly - from Kaeya.

“Will that be convincing enough, father?”

He should not be so harsh, but his irritation overwhelms him - and a petulant sort of anger that stems solely from selfish things, from selfish places. From desire for things he cannot have, because Kaeya was never truly his to begin with.

“I’ve lost my appetite,” he grits out, feels warmth flood his veins as he stands abruptly. Barely glances at Kaeya - can’t quite bring himself to hold his gaze. Embarrassment follows as he stalks out of the room.

-----

“Well, that was-”

Save it.” Diluc grits out, still chafing from his own idiocy.

“I was going to say that it was rather interesting, but I’ll refrain.” The door clicks shut, and Diluc leans back with a slow exhale. He allows himself only a brief glance in Kaeya’s direction, then decides immediately that it was a terrible idea. Warmth still colors Kaeya’s cheeks, a smirk curls his lips, and it only serves to add insult to injury.

“I apologize for my behavior,” Diluc mumbles, half to himself. He tries not to startle at the sudden weight of Kaeya settling on the sofa, tries not to wish that Kaeya were closer.

“Why?” A short breath of laughter. “I found it rather entertaining.”

Entertaining? Diluc glances over, considers that Kaeya’s definition of ‘entertaining’ likely does not align with his own.

“If it’s any consolation, you most definitely proved your point,” Kaeya adds, which only serves to spark the dying flame of embarrassment in Diluc’s chest. It flares up, bright and hot, and Diluc bows over, lets his head fall into his hands. The warmth that floods his veins is not at all the kind he’d like to feel with Kaeya around.

I acted irrationally,” he says into his palms, and wishes they did more to cool his too-warm cheeks.

“Perhaps you did.” Kaeya’s voice borders on taunting again, and Diluc goes still. “But I certainly won’t complain.”

Diluc’s heart stops, and he runs the words through his head again. Surely he heard wrong - Kaeya doesn't...doesn’t mind kissing him? Doesn’t mind his irrational behavior? Diluc glances over, finds Kaeya watching him.

A thrill sparks through his chest - Kaeya won’t complain. Doesn’t find Diluc boring, either. Diluc swallows, terrified to consider that this is perhaps not...not entirely an upsetting experience for Kaeya. That he might find some aspect of it...enjoyable. Might not find Diluc’s presence intolerable.

“I’m relieved to know that I have not put you through any...undue discomfort,” he says carefully, afraid now that he’s made some discovery entirely too large to process at the moment. His gaze fixes on his hands, now, for looking at Kaeya might very well break him.

“Certainly no discomfort.” He sounds as though he means it, and Diluc glances over to find a smirk on his lips. When he rolls his eyes, Diluc huffs out a breath and turns back to his hands. “If kissing you was truly that horrible, I’d find ways to avoid it,” Kaeya adds, entirely unnecessary except for the fact that it makes Diluc’s heart race faster.

Kaeya certainly does not seem inclined to avoid kissing Diluc. Still, Diluc shoves at that, too - he cannot begin to consider the implications with Kaeya by his side like this. Is not certain how he’d react, if he came to any conclusion on his swirling thoughts.

“I suppose my father will not be particularly pleased by that...performance.” Redirection, he should focus on that. On anything else.

On Kaeya’s laughter as it spills from his lips, bright and sharp.

“How could he not be? He got exactly what he asked for.” For a long, terrifying moment, Kaeya holds Diluc’s gaze. Grins as though he’s glad for it. “Had he been anyone else, he could not doubt our infatuation.”

Our infatuation. Perhaps Kaeya did not say it with this intent, but Diluc’s heart wants desperately to leap to all kinds of conclusions - is it possible that he-

Warmth floods Diluc’s veins, tempts him to believe for a moment - believe that Kaeya might- might not be acting after all, or not entirely. He does not find Diluc boring, would avoid kissing him if he felt the desire to.

“You’re not terribly hard to feign infatuation with,” Diluc says carefully, uncertain if he’s disguised his words too much. If he asks too much in hoping that Kaeya will speak plainly, that he will hear Diluc’s meaning and-

“You’re rather easy to be infatuated with yourself.”

Diluc’s heart races, fast and unsteady, and he runs through the words again, certain he’s misheard. He has, hasn’t he? Or perhaps Kaeya was simply responding in kind, and did not think quite as closely about his phrasing as Diluc did. That’s it, that must be the case.

He tamps hard down on the hope in his chest, forces it back into his heart.

“Well,” he glances over to find Kaeya’s smile a bit unsteady, and that settles his racing heart - Kaeya hadn’t meant it like that, naturally. “At least that is one less worry to occupy my mind during the banquet.”

“What, my distress?” A breath of amusement, as though it hadn’t even occurred to Kaeya that Diluc might care so deeply about his comfort here.

“Yes.” Yes, of course. All I want is to ensure your happiness. And it does set his heart at rest to know that Kaeya does not find this all...burdensome. Uncomfortable.

But his response leaves Kaeya laughing, unrestrained and bright, and Diluc simply exists for a moment in the lightness of it. The way Kaeya’s whole body moves with the force of it, the way crinkles form at the corner of his eye. It’s a beautiful thing, Kaeya’s laughter, even if it is possibly at his own expense.

“What?” he asks once Kaeya’s calmed a bit, though mirth still glitters in his eye, still curls the corners of his lips as though it hasn’t quite left him.

It sparks something terribly light in Diluc’s chest, and he grips tight to that feeling, keeps it from making it to his expression.

“You think yourself so horrible?” Kaeya asks with a shake of his head, humor still dripping through his tone. Disbelief, too, and Diluc has to pause for a moment to collect his thoughts. To steer them appropriately away from their focus on Kaeya’s laughter.

“When it’s something you have been forced-”

He does not finish that sentence, and forgets the rest of it entirely, because Kaeya lifts a hand gently to his cheek. Holds his gaze with a soft stare, though Diluc can do nothing but watch with a degree of panic.

It’s overwhelmed the moment Kaeya’s lips brush his, gentle and featherlight, and Diluc forgets everything in the wake of that kiss.

It is by no means the kind of kiss that should overwhelm him, but the very fact that it had happened at all leaves Diluc’s head spinning, and he stares with wide eyes as Kaeya pulls back, as his hand falls away and leaves Diluc suddenly cold. Suddenly wanting.

“Stop acting the villain, I’m not being forced.” Quiet, gentle, but the words break through something in Diluc’s chest, something that builds like a tidal wave in the wake of Kaeya’s lips. Something-

“That’s...good to know. That you don’t feel forced. But...” But is he certain? Is Diluc reading too much into this? Is Kaeya merely trying to prove a point, or does he- does he actually- “You don’t have to do that,” Diluc says, half to himself.

Kaeya didn’t have to do that. He chose to, he wanted to.

“Apologies but you seemed to have quite a one-track mind on the matter.” Such nonchalance, and Diluc wants to - and doesn’t want to - believe it. “I thought it the fastest way to assuage your concerns.”

It’s remarkable that he can recognize it, the way Kaeya’s tone shifts, the way it sounds so false, suddenly. So put-upon, even though it’s just Diluc. So, then…

“I need to go meet with Zhongli,” he says abruptly, because he does not dare trust his hope.

“Do you need an alibi?” Kaeya’s voice, careful and tight.

“I’m fine,” he says quickly, and does not think about Kaeya too much - if he does, he fears he’ll jump entirely to this conclusion, and he does not know if his heart can handle it if he discovers he’s wrong.

---------

The door swings in, and Diluc grits his teeth.

“Well hello there, prince.” Childe’s tone grates in his ears, and the smirk makes Diluc’s stomach twist with discomfort.

“I’d like to speak to Zhongli alone,” he says, and knows that he comes across more harshly than is warranted. Childe lifts his brow, and his grin widens. His lips part, but Zhongli steps up behind him just then, leans in and says something under his breath, and Childe rolls his eyes.

Fine.” A smirk that he turns in Zhongli’s direction, and he drags him in for a kiss that Diluc turns away from - really, does he have to do that right in front of Diluc?

“You owe me, Xiansheng,” Childe says with a laugh as he pulls away, and Diluc determines it safe to return his gaze. Just in time, then, for Childe to brush past him and into the hall. “He’s all yours!” he calls behind him, offers a lazy wave over his shoulder, and Diluc lifts a brow at Zhongli.

“Don’t mind him. You came to discuss something?” Zhongli’s tone remains entirely even, a perfect contrast to the sudden return of Diluc’s panic. It races through his veins, and he nods sharply as Zhongli steps back, gestures for Diluc to come in.

He settles in an armchair. Diluc cannot even imagine sitting down right now - instead, he paces.

“Would you care for some tea?” The soft plink of tea poured into a cup, but Diluc shakes his head, lips pursed and hands clasped tight behind his back as he walks. “Very well. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit this evening, then?”

Though Diluc knows that he does not mean it this way, the words stall Diluc’s steps. He dips his head, then turns to offer Zhongli a tight smile.

“Forgive me. I hope you’re finding everything here to your liking?”

Zhongli’s gentle smile tugs at his lips, and he sets the still-steaming cup of tea down.

“Everything is amenable, as always.” A pause, and he folds his hands carefully in his lap. Fixes Diluc with a measured look, and Diluc exhales a slow breath. “Now, my dear friend, I came here to assist you. Please tell me how I might do that.”

He gestures across from him, and Diluc dips his head for a moment, forces the restless panic in his veins to settle as he makes his way over to the chair opposite Zhongli.

It doesn’t quite work, and his foot bounces once he’s seated, and he feels like-

“Kaeya kissed me.” The words tumble out before he can think them through, but Zhongli takes them with little surprise. Just a subtle hum as he lifts his tea to his lips, certainly still too hot to drink, though he does anyway.

Diluc blinks at him, wonders if he’s chosen his words so incorrectly that they do not cause Zhongli the same sudden panic that bleeds through Diluc’s veins at every breath, every beat of his heart.

“Did he.” Zhongli’s tone is entirely flat when he sets his cup back on the table, his expression so neutral that Diluc’s fears multiply tenfold. His heart races faster, because if Zhongli is not surprised by this information-

“Did you know? Does he-” Diluc does not finish that sentence, some overwhelming and unnamed emotion sticking in his throat, but Zhongli’s subtle smile curls the very corner of his lips.

Oh.

Zhongli,” Diluc half-hisses under his breath, a demand for an answer that he does not even know if he wants at this point. Doesn’t know if he needs it, for he has seen that look on Zhongli’s face many times before.

This was not news to him.

“Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that tea?” Zhongli offers, even as he pours a second cup. Sets it gently in front of Diluc’s knee, and Diluc glances between it and Zhongli with a frantic sort of uncertainty.

“How- how?” How did he know? How could he tell? Or did Kaeya speak with him? When? And why? And why would he say nothing to Diluc? Why would Zhongli say nothing?

Here, Zhongli only tips his head, then nods down at the tea.

“It should have reached a drinkable temperature by now,” he adds aloud, and Diluc blows out a sharp breath. Reaches - gently - for the tea, lifts it to his lips. Smells the subtlest hints of jasmine and something he can’t quite place, and he glances over the rim of the cup to find Zhongli still watching him. Waiting.

He takes a slow sip - it is most certainly still too hot - then sets the cup back on the table.

“Zhongli,” he says - implores, for he feels as though he’s been thrown from the top of a mountain with no way to land safely.

“If it is of any consolation, I had only suspicions. This,” he waves a hand in Diluc’s direction, and a smirk returns to his lips, “was a confirmation.” A pause as he lifts his tea again, though he stops just short. “A rather amusing one, at that.”

Please do not tell me you find my suffering humorous,” Diluc grumbles, though he takes another sip of the tea. Finds it calming, and knows better than to ask what’s in it.

“Diluc, I have never found your suffering amusing.” A terse tone, and Diluc lowers his gaze for a moment. When he lifts it again, he finds a softer expression, almost like pity. “I only mean that the manner by which you discovered this was…” He tips his head, and his lips purse in a painfully obvious attempt at disguising a grin. “Unexpected.”

“Unexpected,” Diluc repeats, shakes his head as Zhongli hums.

A few breaths of silence pass between them, and Diluc can feel his heartbeat slow just a bit. It gives him the space to acknowledge that- that he was not wrong, although he’s been rather oblivious up until this realization.

Or perhaps intentionally ignorant - Kaeya does not find him boring, he is not ungrateful for Diluc’s presence. He does not feel forced to kiss Diluc, finds him easy to be infatuated with. Does Diluc read too much into Kaeya’s words, or not nearly enough?

Zhongli seems to be suggesting it’s the latter, and he has not steered Diluc wrong in the past.

“He also...has feelings for me?” Diluc asks quietly, trepidatious. The assertion brings fresh warmth to his cheeks, and a wave of relief follows it. Perhaps it’s a foolish thing to hope, but Diluc will hope it anyway, for Kaeya’s sake. That he does not feel so uncomfortable here, that he finds this false relationship with Diluc...amenable, at the very least.

“I have reason to believe that he does, yes,” Zhongli says simply. “But I only say that because you’ve already reached that realization yourself,” he adds, brows raised, and Diluc exhales. As always - Zhongli will confirm, but never influence Diluc’s beliefs one way or another.

“What do I do, then?” The tea warms him from the inside, though it provides just as many answers as Zhongli does himself.

“What would you like to do?”

Diluc scoffs, tips his head back to stare up at the ceiling. What would he like to do? He’d like to return to Kaeya, kiss him back, show that he means it, that he wants it too. That he wants Kaeya, and wants to know Kaeya, and wants-

Wants so very much more than this.

“Perhaps I should reconsider my question,” Zhongli says with a huffed breath of amusement, and it sends fresh warmth to Diluc’s cheeks.

“I’d like to get to know him better. I want him to be comfortable here. I want…” He drops his gaze, appreciative that Zhongli does not keep a smirk affixed to his lips. “I want him to trust me.” With his heart, with his past, with his thoughts and emotions and anything else. Everything else.

“And trust is not requested, but earned,” Zhongli concludes, and Diluc dips his head, a silent agreement. Already, the path clears before him, one that will take time. One that cannot be solved simply by rushing back to Kaeya, by taking what he wants.

“Is it unfair if I say nothing of my suspicions?” Is it unfair that he thinks - perhaps knows - how Kaeya feels, that he’s...interested, at the very least? That Diluc feels the same, or similarly?

“I am not the arbiter of justice, Diluc.” Zhongli’s level gaze, though his lip ticks up at the corner. “That isn’t for me to decide.”

In truth, that isn’t the question Diluc wants answered anyway - it’s not one that Zhongli can answer either, though. Will Kaeya detest me if I choose to keep my suspicions to myself? Will he see it as manipulation?

But if Diluc speaks on the matter, if he brings it up, then he will have influenced Kaeya’s choices regardless. Will have influenced the way he acts, the things he shares and does not. Zhongli was right, overthinking might very well be the death of him.

“You hope to earn his trust?” Zhongli asks, and it is a simple enough question, so Diluc nods. “Then do that.”

And such a simple answer that is in no way simple. Diluc huffs out a breath, half amused and half disappointed, and Zhongli grins behind another sip of his tea.

A muffled shout startles Diluc, then, though Zhongli just lowers his cup to the table and stands.

“I believe that’s the extent of our time,” he says with a warm smile, though his gaze flicks to the door, and Diluc suspects that the warmth was not reserved for him alone. “And…” A tip of his head, and Diluc hears the other voice as well.

He stands just as the door swings in, as Kaeya appears and hands Childe off to Zhongli.

“Kaeya?” Kaeya. Kaeya. Diluc’s chest aches for a moment.

“Diluc.” Diluc glances back to find Childe already dragging hands all over Zhongli, so he pushes out through the door and into the hall. Smells wine on Kaeya’s breath for the moment he’s far too close, and Diluc’s stomach twists.

“Raiding my wine cellars, I see.” He catches Kaeya’s furrowed brows from the corner of his eye, though they smooth out a moment later, and Kaeya tips his head. How drunk is he, really? How much of this will he remember in the morning?

“One of the many perks of our marriage.” Flippant to a fault, and Diluc wonders why he sounds so-

Ah, so petulant. Is he mad at Diluc, then? Granted, perhaps Diluc did not leave him in the best manner, but...

“One of many?” He can choose to...to guide this conversation, can’t he? Perhaps Kaeya will come to an admission of sorts in his mildly inebriated state.

Diluc can hope, anyway.

He sets off, and Kaeya follows after him a moment later. He seems rather steady - not exceptionally drunk, then. Diluc presses his lips into a line.

“And what might these other benefits be?” he tries, and knows that he asks far too much of Kaeya. Hopes for far too much. Kaeya finding him attractive, finding it enjoyable to kiss him, finding his presence pleasant...none of those equate with trust. Earned, not requested, and Diluc owes Kaeya that, at least. To give him the chance to trust Diluc on his own terms.

“It would set me at ease to know you find life here amenable,” he prompts at Kaeya’s continued silence, and Kaeya meets his gaze for a brief moment.

“I have wine and entertainment, what more could I ask for?” So nonchalant, and Diluc hears those two particular benefits in tandem - he’d certainly just gotten the wine, so what was his entertainment? Childe?

His jaw clenches with unexpected tension.

“Entertainment.” The word tastes as bitter as the wine Kaeya had probably shared with Childe, and unpleasant images flash behind his eyes. “I do hope that Childe kept you...entertained.”

He will not claim to know the particulars of Childe’s and Zhongli’s relationship, but he knows Zhongli well enough. Knows that he is not one to demand monogamy, if Childe were interested in Kaeya in that way.

“He has horrendous taste in wine,” Kaeya says after a moment, and Diluc’s brows furrow. He looks over just in time to catch Kaeya’s eye, though Kaeya does not wear a smirk. Perhaps...he has jumped a little bit to a conclusion that was not warranted…

“Is that how you judge your suitors?” he tries, hopeful and nervous all the same. “Based on their taste in wine?”

Kaeya laughs, a full, bright kind of laugh, and Diluc’s heart flutters. It beats faster when Kaeya stumbles into him, and Diluc does not hesitate to steady him. To tuck his arm beneath Kaeya’s, to keep him close. It’s late, and unlikely that anyone might happen upon them, but Kaeya’s arm tightens in his, and he does not seem inclined to pull away.

Hope grips Diluc just as tightly, just as steadfast.

“He did proposition me,” Kaeya says after a moment, grin still bright on his lips when Diluc glances over. He seems unbothered by the fact that Childe had...propositioned him, but that gives Diluc very little in the way of whether he’d actually wanted to-

The image in Diluc’s head makes his stomach twist, and he decides that he does not particularly like the way that jealousy feels.

“Did he.” He knows his words are devoid of tone, but he would very much like to know Kaeya’s thoughts on the matter - even if they hurt. Kaeya having an interest in Diluc does not preclude him having interest in others, too. He certainly does not belong to Diluc.

“I don’t think he meant it.” Quieter, and Diluc bites back against that spark of jealousy - ultimately, all Diluc wants is Kaeya’s happiness. Would like his trust, yes, but would be more than satisfied in knowing that Kaeya is comfortable here. That would be enough.

“Did you want him to?” A question that physically pains him to speak.

“To…”

“Mean it?” His eyes go wide for a brief moment when Kaeya coughs out an amused breath, shakes his head just slightly in the corner of Diluc’s vision.

“No.”

Hope again, fluttering desperately around his heart - but Diluc is not sure what to say to that, if he can say anything that wouldn’t make a mess of this precarious, tentative thing, so he only hums. But Kaeya’s quick response, his ensuing silence weigh heavily in the air between them, and Diluc bites back his pride for a moment.

“If you want to-”

“I don’t.”

Oh, Diluc wants to say. Then what do you want? Who do you want?

He won’t, of course, but temptation burns on his tongue. He would do well to forget it, to...redirect.

“He’s that insufferable?” he tries, and hopes that this will keep his thoughts safely elsewhere. “Or is his taste in wine just that atrocious?” It’s easy, easier than he expected, to let humor touch his tone.

And he is so generously rewarded - Kaeya’s vibrant laughter echoes around them again, fills the sleeping halls with a light that Diluc feels in his chest. He dares a glance over just as Kaeya’s hand flies up to cover his mouth. A too-abrupt end to something so lovely to hear.

“His wine preference is bad,” Kaeya says as he tips his head, voice still bordering on laughter, “but he isn’t exactly my type.”

The question burns Diluc from the inside, sudden and desperate, and he is both grateful and rather disappointed that they’ve arrived at their room. He pulls the door open, steps inside, and Kaeya follows, and the question does not abate, does not release its grip on Diluc’s chest.

“And what is your type, then?”

It spills out without his permission, and panic floods his body, hot and sharp and desperate just as much as it is terrifying. He turns slowly, surprised to find Kaeya’s gaze distant, unfocused. Diluc wonders at what might be happening inside his head - who does he imagine, now? Diluc? Childe? Someone else entirely? Hope twists his gut, holds his heart in a vice grip.

“Trying to get me out of your hair for a bit?” Kaeya’s gaze focuses sharply, suddenly, and fixes on Diluc. Kaeya accompanies it with an easy smirk, lazy and taunting, and Diluc hears his mistake in that perfectly closed-off tone. It is not his place to push Kaeya too far, to ask for things that Kaeya is not willing to give.

“Of course not.” I’d never wish to get rid of you. “Forget I asked. We should get some rest,” he adds as he turns away, squeezes his eyes shut. Sets about pulling his jacket off just to appear as though everything is-

“Has something upset you?”

Diluc freezes, breath held.

“Why would you think that?” he asks carefully, dares a glance back over his shoulder - he does not want to lie, not to Kaeya, but he’s already come far too close to the edge, far too close to a kind of manipulation he does not want.

“Two minutes ago, you actually smiled.” Kaeya’s lips turn up at the word, and Diluc’s heart aches for a moment. “Now you’re…” He waves a hand, and that grin shifts, a little...is he nervous?

“I smile,” Diluc counters, though he turns away. You make me smile.

“Do you?” Kaeya huffs out a breath, clear in his disbelief, and Diluc takes a slow, shaky breath, already panicked at the idea that flits through his head.

“Of course I do.” Of course he does, when Kaeya is around. When he thinks about Kaeya, sees Kaeya. Hears that laughter that is so genuine and so rare and so bright. When he catches just a glimpse behind the curtain, behind what Kaeya wears as a facade. Of course he smiles when Kaeya is involved.

So he turns carefully, catches Kaeya’s stare and holds it. Thinks of Kaeya’s laughter and his lips pressed to Diluc’s, thinks of dancing in the garden, of kissing in the rain, of Kaeya’s wild vibrancy behind their clashing swords. Thinks of sitting beneath a silver willow, of hearing Kaeya’s soft voice as he described something so impossibly beautiful. As Diluc saw past the suave persona to the person beneath it - still the same, but less polished, more...honest.

And it does truly, genuinely make Diluc smile to see it. To know Kaeya, even if he does not know everything. He hopes that he might, some day.

“Dare I ask what caused such a rare sight?” Kaeya’s voice is gentle, soft, curious, and Diluc’s face warms - hope, he does not say. You, his heart says.

“By all means.” These are the words that come out, though, and he turns away to prevent the smile that overtakes his face from speaking too clearly for him.

“Well, do tell.”

Diluc huffs out a breath, quiet and amused, and makes his way to the bathroom. He needs...a reset, a chance to clear his head. A chance to think, though he knows well that his thoughts will inevitably drift to Kaeya.

“I don’t recall actually agreeing to provide an answer,” he says with just enough lighthearted teasing in his tone to cover his own panic. What can he say if Kaeya pushes him for an answer? Can he even prevent his own recklessness? Already, he feels it tempting him, luring him closer to the edge of a precipice he cannot return from.

“If I can do nothing else for you,” Kaeya says quickly, and Diluc pauses in the doorway. “At least let me know how to make you smile.”

The words make him suck in a sharp breath, certainty twining with hope to create something terrifying and new in Diluc’s chest. His hand presses flat to the doorframe, heart racing as it leaves him unsteady and-

“You don’t have to do anything.” You make me smile by existing. Gods, so cliche, but it rings so truly through his veins that he cannot imagine saying anything else.

“You are just as forced into this as I am.” Kaeya’s voice is gentle, quiet. Imploring in a way that Diluc finds impossible to ignore, and a small smile touches his lips. “How did you put it...it would set me at ease to know you find life here amenable.”

And that pulls a laugh from his lips, quiet and genuine. Naturally, Kaeya would turn his words back on him like that, and something in his chest glows with the knowledge of it.

“You asked what made me smile,” he says as he turns, as he glances for just a moment at Kaeya. “It was something…” How to say this without saying it? How to put into words the way that Kaeya makes him feel without overdoing it, without overwhelming him?

“Something unexpectedly endearing,” he tries, and another smile touches his lips. His gaze flicks up, focuses on Kaeya, and he knows already that he will not be able to - nor desire to - keep the entirety of his emotions to himself.

“I meant when I said that you do not have to do anything in order to make me smile.”

He sees it, then, the bright spark that lights up Kaeya’s eye, his chest, his whole expression. Every corner of his being. And though Diluc wants nothing more than to bask in it, to melt into Kaeya, he has not been invited to do so. Not yet, though he hopes that he might, some day.

Hopes that Kaeya wants something more, too.

---------

“Well, that was entirely pointless.”

Diluc’s lip ticks up at the corner, but he quickly shifts his expression. This is a serious conversation, after all.

“Perhaps,” he admits. “But we can’t say for certain until I chat with-” Ah. Venti and Zhongli, but they can divide and conquer, can’t they? Perhaps it’s not so bad, to have someone he can trust with this. Someone who has agreed to share this burden with him.

He glances over at Kaeya - better to send him to speak with Venti, given the circumstances.

“Care to share with the class?” Kaeya asks, though he seems more focused on removing his eyepatch. His fingers rub gently at his temple, then beneath his eye, and Diluc forgets that he’d had anything to say at all. He would like to ask, of course, to understand, but…

But for now, he will simply appreciate what he gets to see, what Kaeya seems to give without thinking. The fact that he expresses his comfort around Diluc, even in such an innocuous gesture.

“I need to speak to Zhongli-” he starts, and Kaeya’s expression shifts.

“Couldn’t he have attended that meeting with you?” So petulant. Diluc’s stare hardens, half in a reminder that Kaeya is not the only one that could stand to remember the gravity of this situation.

“Politically speaking, no.” There is a pointed need for his apparent neutrality. “I need to relay this information to him as well as Venti.”

Kaeya’s parted lips shut, and Diluc wonders at the idea of working them open again, but with his tongue instead. Then quickly banishes that thought from his mind.

“Would you mind speaking with Venti?” he asks, intent on redirecting his thoughts. “Our banquet clothing should be prepared as well, if I recall correctly?”

“I’ll speak to him.” A pause, and Kaeya wanders over to the sofa. “In a bit.”

Diluc’s brows furrow as Kaeya tips his head back, lets his eyes drift shut. He exhales, almost...melts into the sofa.

“Your urgency around the matter is greatly appreciated…” Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner, but Diluc’s concern does not fade. “Hangover that bad?” he asks as he settles carefully beside Kaeya.

“I am not hungover,” Kaeya says immediately, and an eye flicks open to fix on Diluc. “As if I’m such a lightweight.” Diluc exhales a slow, short breath, but his amusement dies at the way Kaeya seems to...almost deflate.

Though Kaeya does not owe Diluc his thoughts or his emotions, worry twists in Diluc’s stomach - has he missed some sign of Kaeya’s discomfort, or his inner distress? Does he worry over the banquet, over Diluc? Or something else?

“So something is the matter, then?” he tries, uncertain. But hopeful, still, that Kaeya will open up, even just a little. That Diluc can help assuage whatever bothers him, help bring him more comfort here.

“I can’t simply desire a moment of rest?”

Diluc should back down, he knows, but…

“Of course you can.” Kaeya inhales slowly, and Diluc wonders if that is a good sign or if he’s made another mistake. “But in the event that something is actually bothering you, I would appreciate if you told me. I would like to help, if possible.”

Let me help you. Let me show you that I care.

Kaeya remains silent for a moment, then another, and Diluc glances away. Perhaps he’s pushed too far, or too quickly, or this revelation that Kaeya might have...some kind of feelings for him has made him too bold.

“My eyepatch,” Kaeya says then, and Diluc returns his focus. “It’s nice to have it off for a while.”

“Oh.”

He finds it uncomfortable? But why wear it so often - because it’s easier, but to what end, to what purpose? Easier to hide? To keep his distance? Or for some other reason entirely? Diluc wants nothing more, in that moment, than to pull Kaeya into his arms. He isn’t sure what exactly he’d do at that point - kiss Kaeya? Simply hold him? Listen to him, certainly, if he’d like to say more.

“I didn’t realize…” Didn’t realize that Kaeya walked around in a state of discomfort at all times, outside this room. That he never mentioned it, not without some prompt from Diluc. Kaeya stares up at the ceiling, now, though his gaze flicks over for a brief moment, and Diluc wonders at his strength.

Unspoken, rarely mentioned even in a passing complaint, but...Diluc cannot even imagine the kind of burden he must bear. Beyond the eyepatch, of course - the weight of his people’s safety, their lives. The weight of a crown, of course, though his must be barbed and sharp. Not that Diluc will claim his own is gentle and featherlight, but it has grown lighter over time. He wonders whether Kaeya’s has, or if it only bears further down on him.

“It is not my place to pry,” and Diluc is in no position to demand Kaeya’s trust, “but if I might ask-”

“Why keep it covered to begin with?” Kaeya supplies before he can quite get the question to his lips, and it’s close enough, and if Kaeya will volunteer his feelings on the matter, Diluc will not complain.

“If it causes you discomfort…” he adds as Kaeya sits up, a thin smile on his lips that does little to assuage Diluc’s concerns.

“How much do you know of the Abyss Order?” Kaeya asks, and Diluc’s chest aches at the ease with which he references his people’s bloody history. “How they came to be?” He sits up straighter, gives Kaeya the entirety of his attention.

“A corruption of Khaenri’ahn magic, if what I’ve read can be believed.” He knows just as well as anyone how easily the truth can be twisted on the pages of a history book. How easily it can be left out entirely, if the right people get their hands on it.

He has made certain that Mondstadt’s history remains clean of his own actions.

Kaeya tips his head, though, and Diluc refocuses. This is not his story that they speak of, after all.

“Essentially.” A subtle pause, and Kaeya’s lips press into a line for the briefest moment. Diluc wonders if there are words he leaves intentionally unsaid, or if he only needs a moment to consider them. Diluc waits, wonders at how this ties into his eyepatch.

“So, while most Khaenri’ahns are familiar with the uncorrupted version of our magic, I’m sure you can imagine how everyone else in Teyvat views…” He shrugs. “Pretty much any Khaenri’ahn magic.”

Any magic...such as Kaeya’s. A vitriolic anger flares in his chest on Kaeya’s behalf at the injustice of that. People would equate Kaeya with the very Abyss Order that slaughters his own people over...over something as innocuous as his eye?

“And seeing your eye...because it is the source of your magic, that makes others uncomfortable,” he says, tone flat for fear that it might sound too outraged if he allows any emotion to reach it.

But Kaeya only nods, resigned, as he waves his hands in casual acceptance.

“That’s...atrocious,” Diluc grits out, and he considers whether he’s allowed perhaps too much of his emotions to show. Kaeya’s brows lift, and Diluc wonders at his surprise. Is he really the only one to have expressed how horrible a thing that is?

“Maybe,” Kaeya agrees. “But I’m used to it.”

“You shouldn’t be.” Even as he says it, he knows what little use his words are. Of course Kaeya understands, and of course there’s nothing Diluc can do to fix every single person who looks at Kaeya with mistrust.

“If you don’t desire to wear it, don’t.” He will gladly lift a sword to anyone who dares to treat Kaeya poorly for something he was born with. For a part of who he is, for the person that Diluc is so very glad that he- that he married.

It’s remarkable that he might ever forget such a thing, that he might ever forget Kaeya’s kiss that evening.

“I would rather deal with a mild headache than the entirety of Teyvat’s heightened suspicion of me,” Kaeya says simply, interrupting Diluc’s thoughts.

Very well, then, I will raise my sword to the entirety of Teyvat for the injustice it does to you.

“We can speak to the healers, at the very least,” he offers. Thinks again of Kaeya’s fingers pressed to his temple, beneath his eye. “They might have something for-”

“Diluc.” Diluc’s name on Kaeya’s tongue leaves him speechless, suddenly, and he lets his words die there. “I’m not on my deathbed,” Kaeya says with a subtle smirk, and Diluc exhales a slow, steadying breath. “I’ll survive a thing I’ve coped with my entire life.”

His entire life. Diluc forces his rage to cool, for Kaeya is asking it of him, and it goes with tail tucked between its legs back into the furthest corners of his mind. If Kaeya would rather he leave the topic alone, he will do so.

Kaeya is his priority, after all. Ensuring his comfort should come before any desire to change the entirety of Teyvat overnight. And in that vein, Diluc does not like the idea of asking Kaeya to put his eyepatch back on for the sake of a task he can complete himself.

“Then please stay here as long as you’d like,” he offers, and Kaeya’s brows furrow for a moment. “I’ll speak to Venti after I meet with Zhongli, and-”

“Diluc.” Diluc holds his tongue, watches Kaeya’s smile widen, turn warm. He wants to bask in it, to melt into it. “I’m perfectly capable of speaking to Venti myself, the eyepatch will not cause me some irreparable harm.”

As though he thinks that Diluc will not believe him without proof, he grabs the eyepatch from the table and returns it to its place, and Diluc presses his lips into a line. But his gaze shifts just enough to catch Kaeya’s eye - the uncovered one - and he sees...something there. Something imploring, and he would gladly give Kaeya the world if only he asked for it.

“If it is not of consequence-” he starts, and a strange relief floods Kaeya’s expression at those words.

“It’s not. I appreciate the opportunity to help.”

Diluc exhales, lets those words settle him. Kaeya wants this, or at least, he seems sincere enough. His tone doesn’t take that put-upon quality, and Diluc wants to believe in his honesty. That he trusts Diluc enough to say if it is truly bothering him.

He hopes that he’s earned such trust, even in a small way.

Very well, they will each complete their respective tasks, then, and Diluc will not worry for Kaeya and will trust him in turn.

They head from the room, then, arm in arm as they make their way through the corridors, and Diluc feels...settled. Not thrilled about this revelation in regards to Kaeya’s eyepatch, but...Kaeya had told him, hadn’t he? It is not everything, but it is certainly more than he had before.

The hall splits, then, and Diluc takes half a step away from Kaeya.

Feels the magnitude of this mistake as the idea sparks in his head, and chooses to ignore the ramifications. Instead, he turns to Kaeya and pulls him in - it’s easy, it’s so incredibly easy, the way they melt into each other. The way that Kaeya leans into him, into his lips, though Diluc doesn’t dare allow this to last more than a moment.

That’s payback, he says within the safety of his mind as he turns away, heads off down the hall toward the guest wing. I hope it makes your heart race the way mine did when you kissed me before, when we were alone.

-------

“I kissed Kaeya,” he says the moment he’s stepped inside, and Diluc will admit that it perhaps did not entirely occur to him to ensure that Childe was not present.

Ooh, is that what you two have been up to?” he laughs, then wiggles his brows in Zhongli’s direction. Zhongli, for his part, looks up from a spread of papers with a mildly inquisitive look.

“Oh, wait, hold on, hey,” Childe snaps, then, and Diluc glances back to find his lips twisted in a petulant frown. “We’ve been doing actual work, and you’re over there making out with-”

“I wasn’t,” Diluc grits out, embarrassment swirling with discomfort in his stomach. “We were discussing the events of the latest state of affairs meeting,” sort of, “and-”

“So it’s politics that gets you going, is it?” Childe taunts, and he stands and saunters up to Diluc. Lets his gaze drag down Diluc’s chest, and Diluc grits his teeth. Glances past Childe, but Zhongli has returned his attention to whatever papers have caught his eye.

“Now, look at me,” Childe says, sharp in a way that sounds like little more than a mockery of Kaeya’s suave tone. His fingers tug at Diluc’s chin, and Diluc jerks it from his grip.

“Zhongli, please control your-” A glare in Childe’s direction, though he seems to at least have gotten the message that his...attention is undesired. He steps back, hands raised in false surrender, and all Diluc can see is Kaeya. Remarkable how little he minds that flippant teasing when Kaeya is involved.

“He’s not mine to control,” Zhongli says, tone distracted, but he glances up and in Childe’s direction, and Childe’s lips turn into a pout.

“Fine, Xiansheng, I’ll behave.” He says the word like it pains him, though his assertion doesn’t stop him from smirking in Diluc’s direction, from dragging his gaze down to Diluc’s chest again.

Fortunately, he turns back to Zhongli, then, and settles beside him to join him in assessing whatever documents he’s been looking through. Leans in very close, though, and Diluc rolls his eyes.

“Now, Diluc,” Zhongli starts, and he lifts his gaze to glance up at Diluc. “Are you going to tell us about your kiss with Kaeya?”

Beside him, Childe coughs out a laugh that he buries in Zhongli’s shoulder, and a fresh wave of warmth floods Diluc’s veins. He clenches his jaw, though, and holds Zhongli’s stare.

“I am still...uncertain about his feelings for me,” for that is what Zhongli likely wants to know, and it’d be better for Diluc to get to the point now rather than subject himself to further torture. “But it felt appropriate, due to our prior conversation.”

“So politics does get you-” Childe cuts himself off with a huffed breath, and Diluc nods tersely at Zhongli as he removes his elbow from where it’d found itself rather suddenly shoved against Childe’s ribs.

“And how did Kaeya react to that?” he asks, tone entirely neutral, and Childe lifts a hand to his mouth. It does little to muffle his giggling, as though Diluc’s very real and complex relationship is little more than a passing piece of entertainment for him.

“He...didn’t.” Diluc did not give him much time to react, and he’ll admit as he glances away from Zhongli’s stare that fear may have played a small part in that.

For a moment, Zhongli only hums, then turns his attention back to the document in his hand. Beside him, Childe’s gaze flicks between the paper and Diluc, and Diluc isn’t entirely sure-

What, whether he wants to discuss this further? What is there to discuss? And, to that end, what would he even want to discuss with Childe here? Besides, they have matters of far greater import to go over.

“Do you have a moment to go over the events of the state of affairs meeting?” he asks, and Zhongli lifts his gaze. A subtle smile touches his lips, and Diluc can all but hear his words of wisdom - something to do with not overthinking, probably.

“If that’s your idea of foreplay, I can’t say I’m thrilled,” Childe says with a quirked brow. “But I’ll try anything for you, pretty boy,” he adds, and Diluc debates it. He very genuinely, earnestly considers the idea of throwing Childe out the window.

Of course, he’d have Zhongli to answer to for his actions, and Childe would only fall a few feet, so it’s hardly worth the effort.

“Childe,” Zhongli says, though not unkindly. “Assist or find yourself something else to do.” Not a command, exactly - Diluc has heard Zhongli’s commanding tone more than a few times - but Childe’s lips twist up into a smirk as he dips his head.

“Fine, go on then, prince. I do hope you found something.”

----------

“You look upset.” At his words, Kaeya’s smile flickers, then evens out. The facade falling back into place - Diluc wonders at his ability to see it, now. To recognize when Kaeya wishes to keep something to himself.

“Well, it’d certainly be a shame to lose my husband so shortly after we’d wed.”

In spite of himself, Diluc’s heart hammers at the word husband. Perhaps he will never quite tire of hearing it.

“There’s no need to worry for me,” he says, in part to focus himself on Kaeya’s true concerns - though he doesn’t say it outright, it seems rather clear now that he’s looking for it. Kaeya does genuinely worry. “It’s certainly not the first time my life has been at risk,” he adds, and his mind flashes with visions of darker times.

Though, he supposes his status as crown prince does also attract many would-be assassins as well.

“Oh, well, in that case…” Kaeya says with such put-upon nonchalance that Diluc lifts his gaze, watches as he settles casually on the sofa and props a foot up on the table. He tips his head back as well, affixes an easy smile, and Diluc knows already the point he’s attempting to make.

“If I have no need to worry, then I suppose I can enjoy the banquet to its fullest.”

Though Kaeya certainly does not mean to call up those memories, Diluc’s thoughts flash to their last public event, to hanging onto Kaeya all evening, stealing kisses at every opportunity. Tasting wine from his tongue and finding that he does not mind the flavor if Kaeya is involved.

Warmth floods his veins at the thought, and Diluc glances away.

“Well, I appreciate your sudden lack of concern,” he says flatly, because Kaeya intended to make a point and Diluc will gladly push back on it. “But please try to refrain from getting too drunk.”

He is not fragile, he can fight and defend himself well. He has more practice than Kaeya seems willing to give him credit for, though Kaeya wouldn’t know that. And Diluc hopes that he has no need to - maybe some day, down the road, they can discuss Diluc’s past, but that is not something he cares to delve into when they have other matters that require their attention.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kaeya says with a huffed breath of- of something bitter. Amused, but Diluc’s stomach twists, and Kaeya’s gaze turns distant. Diluc glances down, curses himself for his thoughtless words.

“I do worry.”

So quiet and gentle when he speaks, so sincere suddenly, and Diluc’s heart aches - both with irritation at himself for insinuating otherwise and with relief at Kaeya’s admission.

“I know.” He knows that Kaeya worries, he knows that Kaeya is not the only one to worry for his safety. Not the only one to care about him, but the weight of it bears down on him if he allows it to seep in too heavily. If he allows himself to acknowledge just how many people care for him.

“Every time this kind of thing happens,” he says, heart aching still, “Zhongli and Venti remind me that people care, that they worry for me.” And now you worry as well, he thinks, and his gaze flicks over to find Kaeya watching him. To find the barest hints of concern that furrow his brows. “I will be fine.”

I will be fine, because I have so very much left on Teyvat to do. So many people who not only care for me but depend on me, so many who do not even realize. And I have you, Kaeya, and I want to see what life is like at your side, in whatever capacity you desire.

“Still,” Kaeya leans away, and does not look assuaged by his statement, “I would much prefer to spend the banquet without any worries at all.”

Of course, so much must already weigh on his mind that having to worry over Diluc...it only adds to his unspoken burden. Would that Diluc could say anything to lighten it, but Kaeya seems dead-set on gripping tight to his concerns for Diluc.

If Diluc had doubts about the fact that he cares, they fade at the sight of Kaeya’s clear worry.

“You did not spend much time in Khaenri’ah growing up,” Diluc says carefully, and Kaeya hums an agreement. “I imagine this situation would not wear on you quite so heavily if you’d grown up in a typical kingdom.”

One where the idea of some plot against royals is almost a constant threat, so much so that it fades into the background of daily concerns.

“And I imagine the situation would wear on you quite a bit more had you grown up unable to protect your people.”

Kaeya’s tone is sharp and unkind, and Diluc stings from the bite of it. Kaeya’s jaw ticks with unspoken anger, too, and gods...Diluc did not think through this situation at all, did he?

“I didn’t realize-”

“Of course you didn’t,” Kaeya says quietly, and Diluc shuts his mouth before he can say anything else so disastrously insensitive. How could he possibly forget the reason for their marriage? The thing that must weigh heavily on Kaeya’s thoughts at all times, though he never voices that pain aloud. That is not an excuse for Diluc to speak so thoughtlessly.

“I will truthfully say that I cannot imagine how you must feel,” he tries, because he does not want Kaeya to believe that he does not care in return. That he doesn’t see the things Kaeya tries to hide, though he does it well.

It hurts him, those moments of silence wherein Kaeya stares straight ahead, jaw tight with emotion and chest rising and falling slowly. It hurts Diluc to think that he’s caused Kaeya more pain, made him feel alienated and alone in his suffering. He wants to reach out, to apologize, to tell Kaeya that he can bare his soul to Diluc if he so desires and Diluc will listen, will hear him and hold him and offer him comfort if he wants it.

He does not do any of that, no matter how deeply the desire to help burns in his chest.

“The sentiment is appreciated,” Kaeya says finally, and his gaze flicks to meet Diluc’s. And he believes it, though a part of him doesn’t want to - that Kaeya appreciates his words even if they cannot possibly hold enough meaning to convey all that Diluc feels.

------------

“Is that all you think of me?” Sharp and bitter, though still with that undercurrent of amusement, and Diluc pauses.

Perhaps he’s been a bit...heavyhanded with the mentions of Kaeya’s appreciation for wine, though Kaeya hasn’t given him any indication til this moment that he found them bothersome. Diluc’s stomach twists - but isn’t Kaeya very adept at hiding whatever he chooses? Perhaps it’s bothered him far more than he’s willing to admit.

Is that all Diluc thinks of him? How to say ‘of course not’ without revealing something deeper? He catches Kaeya’s stare, but words do not reach his lips, certainly nothing that would convey exactly what he thinks of-

Movement flickers in the corner of his vision, and Diluc sucks in a sudden breath. Very well - he cannot find the words to tell Kaeya what he truly thinks, so he will show it with actions. Even if Kaeya believes this only to be a part of their facade.

He leans in, captures Kaeya’s lips and pulls him close, and the first thing that flicks to his mind is that he belongs here. This, this warm, easy kiss, Kaeya’s hand slipping up to the back of his neck and fingers twisting into his hair...there is nowhere on Teyvat that he’d rather be, nothing that quite compares to this feeling.

His breaths come too quickly when he pulls back, though he can’t quite bring himself to pull away entirely, not yet. Please tell me you understand, he thinks in Kaeya’s direction. Please tell me that you know what I truly think, how I truly feel about you.

But Kaeya says nothing, of course, and Diluc glances past him - whoever had wandered into their presence is now long gone, so Diluc steps away, pulls the door open. Steps inside, hears Kaeya follow, and his tongue burns with words unsaid and he knows that it isn’t enough.

“It isn’t,” he says aloud the moment he hears the door shut.

At Kaeya’s silence, he glances back to find slightly raised brows, and Diluc inhales slowly.

“It’s not all I think of you.” Not even remotely close.

“Oh, you don’t just consider me a wine aficionado?” Diluc’s stomach twists. “True,” Kaeya adds as he tips his head. “I suppose you must also consider me a means to an end.”

Is that what Kaeya believes? Perhaps Diluc has been far too...withholding of his true feelings toward Kaeya. Perhaps, he considers with no small amount of amusement, this is what Zhongli had hoped to impart on him.

“I consider you a means to an end, yes,” he says, for that is not untrue. “And a talented swordsman, a remarkable diplomat and an even more remarkable actor. A prince who cares deeply for his people, who wants nothing more than to help.”

I see it, he thinks in Kaeya’s direction, even as he turns away. I see your pain, the burden you bear. Let me help, let me know you better.

“I consider you irritating and amusing,” a smirk touches his lips, “and kind in spite of both of those things.” When he turns back, he is not entirely prepared for the sudden openness of Kaeya’s expression. The- is it hope? Is that what sparks in his gaze?

“And I consider you a partner,” Diluc adds, because this is truest of all - partner in all things, as they vowed during their wedding ceremony. He can hope to no end that Kaeya might desire other aspects to their partnership, but if things do not change from the way they are now, then Diluc will be content.

“We are in this situation together.” He turns properly, finds Kaeya watching him with wide eyes and lips parted. “Please trust that I-”

He pauses, something bright and warm flickering through his chest, and it threatens to overwhelm him.

“Please trust that I-” His smile overtakes his lips, soft and gentle. “How did you put it...that I am not being forced.” He holds Kaeya’s stare, intent now. “To marry you, perhaps,” he concedes, “but not to like you nor to trust you.”

He had thought those were good words, that they might mean something profound to Kaeya the way that they do for Diluc, but Kaeya only stares, lips parted, though nothing comes out.

“I-”

“Thank you,” Kaeya says before he can finish, and Diluc lets his words fall away.

I care about you, he’d almost said, but a part of him is glad that he hadn’t. That he hadn’t spoken too boldly, that he hadn’t put Kaeya in a position to either admit his feelings or- or decide that they did not compare to how Diluc feels.

But truly, it is more than enough for Diluc to know that Kaeya has heard him, that he knows and understands at least a part of Diluc’s feelings. A small smile touches his lips, one that mirrors Kaeya’s.

“I assume that this does not negate the fact that you would still prefer your solitude this evening,” Kaeya asks, then, and Diluc’s heart leaps from his chest. He hums, though, makes a show of considering it. As though it’d ever occur to him to turn down time spent in Kaeya’s presence.

His entire body warms with the idea that Kaeya had been the one to mention this.

“I suppose if you can manage to remain quiet…” Mostly teasing, though he does require some time to recharge. But he finds that Kaeya’s presence does not automatically exhaust him, so if conversation is not required…

Or, rather, if Diluc does not step all over his own toes trying to understand Kaeya better without revealing the depth of his own emotions for him, then he would very much like Kaeya to stay.

“You won’t even notice my presence,” Kaeya says, and even goes as far as to place a hand over his heart. Diluc coughs out a laugh, thinks of earlier, when he’d called Kaeya unexpectedly endearing - albeit in a rather roundabout way.

And still, Diluc finds himself endeared yet again.

-------

Even more so when Kaeya falls asleep on his shoulder.

It’s late, true, and it’s been a rather long day. Diluc can feel sleep curling its way through his veins, tempting him, but he wants- gods help him, he wants to enjoy this. The warm press of Kaeya to his side, his quiet breaths the only sound in the still room. If Diluc is particularly careful, he can turn just enough to see Kaeya’s face relaxed in sleep.

He looks...unburdened.

Diluc would consider himself an avid reader, and that includes most every genre - perhaps he’s read more than a few books where romance takes a central role, and he’s read many a lover’s description of their partner’s sleeping face.

Peaceful, light. Calm, relaxed. Content.

He did not particularly believe them - or, rather, found it a bit of an unnecessary waste of space to describe such things. For in sleep, outside of nightmares, who does not look peaceful? Is it not more relevant to the advancing of a relationship to describe a character’s waking actions, their deliberate choices in the presence of their romantic interest? After all, is intentional vulnerability not more powerful than unintentional vulnerability?

But he thinks he understands it now, perhaps on some vital, indescribable level. Something that resonates deep in his chest - perhaps it is about trust, for Kaeya to sleep so easily here at his side. Perhaps it is about the comfort that Diluc so desperately hopes that Kaeya feels. Perhaps it is a manifestation of a subconscious desire for closeness.

A part of Diluc does not care to understand the precise reason, only that he knows it, understands it now. Wants it, craves it.

Kaeya stirs just slightly and shifts further into his side. His hand falls, rests on Diluc’s arm now, warm and gentle. Would that he could lift Kaeya from the sofa, take him to bed. Lay curled against his side, warm and comfortable. That, if Kaeya were to wake, he could pull him closer, tell him to go back to sleep. Tell him that he is safe, that he deserves to rest, that he deserves peace. That he is cared for.

“I want to tell you so very many things, Kaeya,” Diluc says quietly, and lifts a hand to brush hair from Kaeya’s face. Kaeya stirs at the touch, though, brows furrowing, and takes a slow, deep breath. Diluc’s heart aches in his chest with the renewed desire to gather Kaeya up from the sofa, carry him over to the bed and wrap himself around Kaeya.

But Kaeya has not asked for that, and Diluc cannot - will not - force him to express feelings he does not wish to discuss.

“Kaeya,” he says gently, a little louder. Kaeya sits up abruptly, then, and Diluc exhales a breath at the loss of his warmth.

“Sincerest apologies,” Kaeya says, voice still thick with sleep as he blinks over at Diluc.

“There is nothing to apologize for.” Nothing at all, except possibly that he hasn’t made mention of his feelings for Diluc just yet. But Diluc supposes he can forgive that, for the fact that Kaeya has so very many other things to worry about. “I only thought you might prefer to sleep in a bed,” he adds, which is not an untrue thing.

He does not, of course, mention that he would prefer Kaeya to be sleeping in his bed.

------------

Diluc would like to revise his earlier thought that marrying Kaeya was the worst mistake he’s ever made. His past self might argue the point, but he’s not here at the moment, and Diluc’s present self very much is.

The new ‘worst mistake he’s ever made’ would perhaps go to the decision of allowing Kaeya to give him a massage while having, as of yet, made no mention of their feelings toward one another. Diluc has endured quite a few different forms of torture, but this one may invariably be the worst.

He can feel himself melting back into Kaeya’s touch, his warm, strong hands that make a point to roam his entire back, his shoulders, his neck. They move low, to Diluc’s waist, just above the waistband of his pants, and he wonders if it’s possible to spontaneously combust into flames.

If so, he might find out very shortly.

Kaeya’s hands drift higher, though, and Diluc cannot decide whether to call it a relief or not. They make it to his shoulders, then pause, and Kaeya pulls his hands away.

“Your hair is making this rather challenging,” he says, breaking the mostly-silence between them, and Diluc tips his head back. Continues until he’s caught Kaeya’s eye, and Kaeya’s gaze flicks to his lips. He’s certain of it, and it makes him bold.

“Will you tie it up?” He stares up, eyes wide, and a spark of something bright and hot dances through his chest at the way that Kaeya sucks in a breath. It’s intoxicating, better than any alcohol could ever be, and he wonders if he’s pushing too far.

But Kaeya nods with hardly a moment of hesitation, so Diluc watches Kaeya as he waits. Feels the gentle release of his hair from its current confines, and- gods, Kaeya’s fingers comb through his hair, then, deft and gentle, and it sends shivers down his spine. What he wouldn’t do for the excuse to have Kaeya’s hands remain there, twisting through his hair, or traveling across his body again, anywhere they’d like.

He wonders where Kaeya would like them to go - what he wants, what he likes. How Diluc fits into that realm of his desires, if at all.

Kaeya’s hands return to his back, though, and Diluc cannot particularly complain - this is, after all, what Kaeya’s agreed to do. What he’d offered to do, and so he must want to. That would be a fair enough assumption, would it not?

Those hands do not, however, begin to move, and Diluc glances back over his shoulder. Finds Kaeya watching him, something in his stare that makes Diluc desperate. Desperate to turn around, to let his hands rove Kaeya’s body, to take whatever Kaeya is willing to give and to give him anything in return.

He will not do that, of course, no matter how much heat floods his veins, how much desire tempts his fingertips to trace every outline of Kaeya’s body.

“Alright your majesty,” Kaeya says with a laugh, and Diluc realizes he’s been frowning. That Kaeya must interpret his expression as impatience, and in a sense, he’s certainly not wrong. He can feel the flush on his cheeks when he rolls his eyes and turns away, though he forgets it all in the wake of Kaeya’s hands again, warm and strong and-

Gods, who gave him the right to feel so good? Even the sharp pricks of pain from a particularly tense knot do not overshadow the warm press of Kaeya’s fingers as they work the muscle loose. He wishes, as Kaeya’s hands make their way back up to Diluc’s shoulders, that he had some excuse to keep Kaeya here for just a few moments longer.

An excuse to push Kaeya back into the sofa, to taste his lips, to feel his hands anywhere else. Everywhere else. To feel his body pressed against Diluc’s with no pretense, with no audience. Simply because Kaeya wants it as much as Diluc does.

It takes a dangerously long moment for Diluc to pull himself out of his head, to realize that Kaeya’s hands now rest gently on his shoulders.

“Thank you,” he says, voice quiet and a little hoarse. He can’t get it out of his mind, the image of Kaeya beneath him, pressed against him, and it makes his heart race.

“I do sincerely hope that helped.” Kaeya’s voice, low and warm, and it does not help the way Diluc’s thoughts wander.

“It...did…” His gaze falls to his hips, and oh, he has a problem to contend with. His body goes still, immeasurably still, and he considers his options for how to escape without Kaeya noticing just how much that helped.

How much he’d rather appreciate Kaeya’s help in further alleviating his current distress. How much he’d like-

“I’d like to take a bath before the banquet,” Diluc says quickly, sharply, in some attempt to keep his thoughts clear of anything more dangerous. He stands abruptly, and decides he will deal with the fallout of his sudden departure at a later time.

For now, he needs only to escape.

He hopes very desperately that the tall back of the sofa provides enough cover, and he should have his back turned to Kaeya by the time he’s past it, and the bathroom door calls to him like a safe haven. The door slams perhaps a little too hard behind him, but at least he’s no longer in danger of Kaeya noticing his current predicament.

A part of him thinks it better to run the bath cold, to shock himself out of any wayward thoughts of Kaeya, but the other...the other part tempts him both with the image of Kaeya’s hands all over him, his lips and tongue and body pressed to Diluc’s. Besides, would it not be better to get these thoughts out of his head now so that he can avoid any distractions at the banquet later?

-----------

He does not, as it turns out, manage to avoid the distraction of Kaeya. Far from it, in fact.

How could he focus on anything else with Kaeya’s arm wrapped around his waist, with his chest pressed to Diluc’s? With his earlier words ringing ceaselessly in his ear - you look breathtaking. He is not normally vain, but a fresh blush touches his cheeks at the idea that Kaeya found him so...attractive.

Without prompting, without their audience, Kaeya had felt the desire to compliment him, and- gods, and Diluc had failed so miserably to return that sentiment. Though, he will admit, Kaeya is rather breathtaking himself. Black suits him tremendously well, and the gold accents give him the appearance of a midnight lit only by the soft glow of candlelight.

It is very much the kind of thing that Diluc would like to fall into with Kaeya, though he supposes-

Kaeya goes stiff where Diluc’s head rests on his shoulder - he still moves along with the music, but Diluc’s focus sharpens as he assesses what he can from his current position.

“Everything alright?” he asks quietly, lest anyone nearby overhear them. Kaeya sucks in a sharp breath.

“Why do you ask?” Diluc’s grip on his hand tenses just slightly, though neither of them stops their dance.

“That’s not an answer.” They do not have the luxury of Kaeya’s avoidance right now. “Have you noticed something?” He hopes, perhaps in vain, that this evening will pass without incident. That he can enjoy time spent with Kaeya, though he knows well enough that such things are wishful thinking at best.

Then again, hadn’t his desire for Kaeya - and Kaeya’s desire in return - felt so very similar? An unattainable dream, and yet, here they are. Sort of. Kaeya has yet to make clear mention of his feelings, and Diluc does not want to force him.

“I haven’t.” Kaeya’s voice, quiet and uncertain.

“Then relax,” Diluc says, half to himself as well as Kaeya. Find peace while we have it, he urges silently. Enjoy this, and let me enjoy it as well. On any other day, any other event, he might be more focused, might be more intent on his goal of discovering this plot before anything truly nefarious can come of it, but right now…

Right now, he feels Kaeya’s warm breath as he makes some attempt to relax, feels his arm crowd Diluc ever-closer, and it is...it is something he was not entirely aware that he wanted until now. Years upon years spent protecting his people, guiding them from behind the scenes and leading them whilst standing in public view. Years spent in the shadows, though, waiting for the next plot, the next attack, the next danger.

It occurs to him quite suddenly that he has not felt peace like this in a very long time.

The music fades out around him, around the two of them, and Diluc’s stomach twists with disappointment - not at Kaeya, of course, but at the end of this brief moment of calm. He thinks that...perhaps he might like more of that, in the future.

Kaeya watches him as he pulls back, holds his gaze and Diluc’s heart aches at the way Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner, a subtle smirk meant only for Diluc.

“Shut up and kiss me,” he says before Kaeya can think to say anything - they have a show to put on, of course, but Diluc only wants Kaeya. Wants to taste that smirk from his lips, lose himself in that warm fire that Kaeya lights in his chest.

Kaeya complies so very easily with his request, and Diluc allows it for a moment. Allows himself to forget where they are, what dangers lurk in the shadows. Allows himself to savor this, to savor Kaeya, and the peace that he brings.

It will not last, of course - danger is not particularly inclined to leave Diluc alone, and he is not entirely inclined to let it simmer in the darkness, but...just for now, just for a moment, he can have this light.

He is the one to pull back first, breathless as his heart hammers in his chest, because they have other concerns that require their attention. That does not mean that Kaeya’s desire does make Diluc desperate, suddenly, that they might be able to bypass all the attacker nonsense in favor of...continuing this. Ideally alone, though that might also require some bravery on Diluc’s part, if Kaeya still does not feel inclined to discuss his feelings just yet.

But a plan forms in Diluc’s mind as he leads Kaeya back through the crowds, as music begins anew - if all goes well, if they make it out of this banquet with little trouble, he’ll say...something. Perhaps not the entirety of his feelings, but he can make his most basic desires known, at least. That he wants Kaeya, in whatever capacity. His lips, his body, or merely his presence at Diluc’s side, as he’d had last night.

“Well…” Childe. Diluc’s gaze focuses sharply. “Wasn’t that quite the performance.” His jaw tics with unspoken irritation, though he glances over to find Kaeya rather of the same mind, and decides it better not to start anything unnecessary.

They have an attack to prevent, and Diluc knows better than to alienate one of their allies if they want any chance of success.

-----------

That said, Diluc could do without all the requisite socializing that this night entails - it is always magnitudes more difficult when he must also be alert for any sign of foul play. And with Kaeya at his side, he finds his attention split even further.

Though he’ll admit, he does...like it. Walking around with Kaeya on his arm. They have their part to play, of course, but Diluc does take a modicum of pleasure in his role of infatuated husband.

Even when a subtle twinge of discomfort flickers through his chest at lady Ningguang’s charmer comment.

“Do you dislike her?” Kaeya asks as they step away from her circle of Liyuen companions, and Diluc’s composure flickers for a moment.

“Dislike her? Of course not.” She’s perfectly amenable, even if she did suggest that he and Kaeya are rather the unexpected match. “Did I do something to suggest otherwise?” he prompts, in part because, if he had made his reaction a little too obvious, he may need to smooth things over with her at some later juncture.

“No, you- you seemed tenser than usual when we spoke to her.” Warmth floods Diluc’s cheeks, and he keeps his gaze on the gathered crowds. “Did she say something that bothered you, then?”

What, did she insinuate that Kaeya might find someone else more suited to his tastes? Someone less boring or more charming? Diluc grits his teeth, and knows that his anger is misplaced and pointless - if Kaeya likes him, then he likes him, and if not, then he does not.

That does little to prevent the burning in Diluc’s chest, and his feet stall beneath him for a moment.

“Of course not.” He glances over to find Kaeya already watching him, brows furrowed slightly. “I just find socializing at this scale exhausting.” I do not particularly enjoy hearing that others find us incompatible.

“And parching,” he adds abruptly. “Excuse me while I get something to drink.”

He’s gone before Kaeya can even open his mouth, which is just as well. It’s not that he believes Ningguang’s words, or even that he believes that she believes them, but it puts doubt in his stomach all the same. And he did not entirely lie - the socializing is exhausting, and he wouldn’t mind a moment to take a breath before returning to Kaeya’s side.

That, at the very least, does not exhaust him.

Or it hadn’t, not until Ningguang’s words, and doubt battles with Diluc’s earlier confidence. Perhaps it is not the best time to be bold, to step forward and admit his feelings for Kaeya. Perhaps he should wait a little longer, give Kaeya more time to settle in. To make his own decisions about how much he cares for Diluc, and in what capacity.

“Sir? Can I get you something to drink?” The words filter through his thoughts, and Diluc nods in the direction of the bartender.

“Nothing alcoholic,” he adds aloud - not all the staff are aware of his aversion to alcoholic beverages. In his periphery, the man nods, then pours something- ah, grape juice. Diluc takes the glass when it’s offered, nods again in thanks, and takes a sip.

It does center him, at least a little. He should return to Kaeya, ensure that no wandering eyes find their separation worth noting. The very last thing he needs, on top of everything else, is his father making disappointed comments about their act not being convincing enough.

As though he could be any more convincing than actually being infatuated with his husband. There’s hardly any acting involved, with the notable exception of pretending that he does not actually care for Kaeya when they’re behind closed doors.

But he does care, and has shown that now, without the pretense of their false relationship. Perhaps not to the degree that he’d...like to show it, but…

He’d kissed Kaeya. More than once, and at least...at least one time where they’d been alone. Perhaps he should do...that...do it more...he does enjoy kissing Kaeya…

Kaeya. He was...he was supposed to find Kaeya, wasn’t he? Or...was that something else he was looking for? His head aches suddenly, or maybe it’s full of fog, or fluff, or something else...he can’t quite tell anymore.

His vision swims as he scans the crowd - Kaeya, he should find Kaeya. This is- oh, oh, it’s...something bad. Drink. He’d had a drink, it’s…it’s bad, and he fumbles to set it down. It’s bad, and he should get away from it, find Kaeya. He needs to find-

“K-Kaeya?” Blue hair, soft blue hair, he knows that hair, knows the person attached to it. “Wha’s hap’n…” he manages, barely, as Kaeya wraps arms around him - this is...good? This is good, it feels good, but-

Hm, but bad, also. Something- everything feels bad. His arms feel heavy, his legs feel heavy, his everything feels heavy, and then he’s- he’s...sideways? No, upside down. The ceiling? And Kaeya, Kaeya is here. He’ll be alright if Kaeya is here.

His voice, it’s so nice except that he sounds scared. And it makes Diluc scared too, just a bit. A hazy sort of scared, and he blinks his eyes open when Kaeya shakes the world around him. It’s warm, too - always warm with Kaeya, but it’s too warm, too hot, like standing in a fire.

Hey.” Kaeya. Diluc should...say something?

“You’re- mm,” Diluc’s brows furrow. “Carrying...me?” Kaeya shook...him, not the world. He’s staring at the ceiling. Kaeya makes more noises, but then he’s not moving anymore, and Diluc lets his eyes close again. They’re heavy, it hurts to keep them open.

Everything hurts, actually. Really really badly, but it’s a distant kind of bad. He can feel it, but he can’t, and it’s- it’s okay. He wants to tell Kaeya that it’s okay, but Kaeya-

Kaeya’s gone. He’s...oh, not gone all the way, just not above Diluc anymore. In front of Diluc. Darkness swirls around him like the night sky is trying to eat him, and Diluc’s mouth opens but nothing comes out.

He closes his eyes when loud noises start happening, and he wants to close his ears, too. But he doesn’t know how to do that, so he waits and feels the world shake again and he hopes that it’s Kaeya. Hopes that everything is Kaeya, always.

Something soft lands on his back, or maybe the other way around, and he hopes that it’s Kaeya too. Hopes that he gets to say goodbye, and that everything is Kaeya before he goes.

He hears Kaeya’s voice, and it feels good, except not - it feels good because it’s Kaeya, and bad because he’s so sad, so scared. Don’t be, he wants to say. Don’t be afraid. But his mouth doesn’t work, but he has to say it, has to say something.

It’ll be okay, he wants to say, or maybe he hears Kaeya saying it, he’s not sure. Maybe he does say it, but Kaeya still sounds so terrified, and- look at me.

Did Kaeya ask him that? I’m too tired, he doesn’t say. I can’t. It’s okay, it’ll be okay.

But Kaeya is asking, Kaeya is asking, and Diluc can’t leave without saying goodbye. So he does it, for Kaeya, he opens his eyes, finds too much light and too many colors and it takes too long to find Kaeya.

Kaeya, with tears on his face. Kaeya, crying because of Diluc. Because Diluc is dying - he knows this, and he hates it so badly in that moment.

How dare he do this to Kaeya? If anyone else hurt Kaeya like this, Diluc would not hesitate to hurt them in return, and Diluc is the one doing this. He can-

He can hold on. Kaeya asks him to, he says stay with me, Luc and Diluc wants to hear those words again and again and again until the world ends. He won’t leave yet, he can’t.

Kaeya’s hand presses to his chest, and he feels it, something warm and gentle flowing through him. Warmer, then, and warmer, until it’s hot and painful and he coughs, and his eyes water and he tastes something atrocious, something truly vile on his tongue, and he coughs again. His ears ring and his head spins, and his stomach turns with a visceral kind of pain before he-

Ah.

Something black and horrendous, something that came from his stomach, and gods does it leave the most revolting taste on his tongue. Beyond tear-stained vision, Diluc sees- oh, he sees Kaeya, and comfort follows.

“K-Kaeya…” Oh, he sounds awful… “Water?” he asks, voice hoarse and rough, and he falls back onto his back and away from the disgusting pile of whatever had-

Whatever had nearly killed him.

“I can’t- can you wait?” Kaeya sounds so frantic, still, and Diluc chastises his own haste, though he does detest the taste that remains on his tongue. “Just a minute or two?” Kaeya asks, and Diluc cannot begrudge him that, not when he sounds so desperate. “Healing magic,” he adds, and Diluc’s flicks down.

That poison might very well have killed him without Kaeya’s intervention. His hand remains pressed firmly to Diluc’s chest, and inky swirls of magic fade into his body. It feels warm again, not painfully hot, and Diluc wants to-

Kaeya gasps, and Diluc’s eyes fly open, fix on Kaeya with an ardent stare. Finds fear there, fear...fear for Diluc.

“‘M ‘kay,” he says, though the words do not come out quite right. But they sound better, he thinks, and his head does not throb too horribly, and he can keep his eyes open.

Stay with me, Luc. Of course he will stay, of course he will.

“Kaeya,” he says gently, carefully, and Kaeya’s whole body seems to relax at his voice. What a lovely thing, though he wishes it were under any other circumstances. Slowly, Kaeya’s hands fall away from Diluc’s chest, and the magic ceases its warm, comforting flow into his body.

“I’m okay,” he adds, and relief flashes brilliantly across Kaeya’s expression. And then it’s gone - he’s gone, half-collapsed to the floor with a heavy thud. Diluc sits up, and knows already that he’s made a mistake - his head spins wildly, vision blurring and turning black at the edges, and he squeezes his eyes shut in an attempt to make it stop.

Kaeya sucks in a breath, though, and Diluc blinks his eyes open immediately.

“Headache,” he says quickly. “I’m okay, Kaeya, I’m okay.” He reaches out, grabs tight to Kaeya’s hand where it rests on the edge of the bed. I’m still here, you asked me to stay, and I stayed.

“Water please?” he adds aloud, because his head hurts just considering saying those other words right now. Too much, too much after so very much fear for Kaeya to handle.

For a moment, Kaeya only stares at him, and Diluc worries that he’s said- well, that he’s said what he wants to say, but too soon, too much. But Kaeya nods after a moment, and stands, and Diluc exhales a slow, unsteady breath as he watches him disappear through the bathroom door.

He waits, breathes, tries to avoid turning toward the vile filth on the other end of his bed. Tries even more desperately to ignore the lingering taste of it, and he hopes that Kaeya will-

He moves carefully when he returns to Diluc’s side, stiff as he hands Diluc the glass, and Diluc downs it all quickly. Still tastes that bitterness, but it’s dulled a bit. He lifts the glass back to Kaeya’s open hand, then catches the...it’s a vague sort of distance in his eyes, like he’s looking at Diluc, but not quite.

And it hits Diluc then, quite suddenly - how much stress Kaeya must’ve been under, to- gods, to carry him all the way back here, to watch Diluc slip toward death as he tried desperately to heal him…

“More?” Kaeya’s voice comes out quiet, hardly a question, and Diluc’s lips curl down just a bit. He takes the glass back - he’s healed enough for coherence, feels only a soreness in his muscles, so surely he can-

Ah. Perhaps not - his legs give out immediately, and he falls back with a grimace. In a moment, though, Kaeya’s at his side again, and he takes the glass back from Diluc’s loose grip.

“Stay here.” No room for argument, and a latent wave of dizziness forces Diluc to remain where he is regardless of his intent to take some of the stress off Kaeya’s shoulders. But he moves more smoothly now, and Diluc watches as his vision clears and Kaeya returns, both a glass and a cloth in hand.

Diluc takes them both, grateful for the semblance of calm that seems to have returned to Kaeya.

“Do you think you can stand?” he asks gently as Diluc wipes away what he can of the black filth, and he takes another sip of water as well. It’s cool, crisp, and he appreciates the feeling of it.

Even as he craves the warmth of Kaeya pressed against him, the comfort that Kaeya’s presence brings.

But Kaeya’s asked a question, and Diluc takes perhaps a more realistic stock of his senses, his abilities. His limbs feel weak and tense, and he knows from failed practice that his legs do not seem inclined to support his weight, but…

From the corner of his eye, the black vomit stands out in stark contrast to the white of the bedsheets, and he decides it’s perhaps better to risk it than to remain here.

“With help?” he tries, and Kaeya nods. Moves to help him from the bed, an arm around his waist as he helps him upright.

They make their way across the room toward Kaeya’s room - and bed, he notes, though the effort leaves his muscles aching with exertion and the rest of his body as weary as if he’d spent three days straight in pursuit of some dangerous villains. And that comparison, as it happens, is one he can make with confidence.

But Kaeya’s bed comes into sight, and Diluc nearly collapses with the relief of it. But Kaeya stops them in the doorway, and Diluc turns to glare at him.

“You’re not going to ruin my bed too, are you?” The memory of that vile taste returns to his tongue, and Diluc grimaces. But no, he does not feel sick, nor any lingering effects beyond his weary body and aching head.

“I’m fine, Kaeya.”

Kaeya tips his head, and a subtle smirk touches his lips, and Diluc wants to melt into it, into him, and forget that any of this had happened. Would that things were so very simple...

“Cause the sofa is not nearly big enough-”

Kaeya,” he says, too tired to bother with moderating his tone. “Please, my head hurts and I’m exhausted. Can we argue tomorrow?”

There will be a tomorrow, he notes with another wave of tired relief - there will be a tomorrow during which he and Kaeya can go back and forth about whatever it is that Kaeya wants to discuss, and Diluc-

Diluc can say it, he can tell him. He can tell Kaeya how he feels and he will not waste another moment of pretending.

“At least take the jacket off,” Kaeya says, quiet and gentle, and relief tugs at Diluc’s aching body. Begs him to go to the bed, to rest. “I can’t imagine it’ll be comfortable to sleep in.”

Perhaps not, but Diluc can’t imagine putting forth the effort. Except that Kaeya is requesting it of him, and he helps Diluc over to the bed, and it’s so very soft but he can give Kaeya this, he can give Kaeya this one thing.

His fingers move slowly, lethargically responsive to his commands, and he manages a button before Kaeya-

Gods, before Kaeya’s on his knees in front of him, hands at his chest and Diluc wishes rather desperately that this was occurring under any other circumstances. That he had Kaeya like this at any other time, where he preferably has some control over his body.

Although, he considers with a spark of intrigue, he wouldn’t mind having...less control-

But that’s a thought for another time, for even the idea of getting worked up over Kaeya is exhausting enough. Instead, he opts to appreciate this for exactly what it is: Kaeya caring for him, gently, slowly.

He moves with steady fingers, though Diluc cannot imagine how, and- and maybe he can do this now, maybe he has the strength, for Kaeya. He could move the entirety of Teyvat for Kaeya, he thinks.

When Kaeya lifts his gaze, Diluc lifts his hand, fits it gently to Kaeya’s jaw and brushes his thumb over Kaeya’s cheek.

“Kaeya…” Gods, what even to say? How could he possibly articulate how deeply he cares for Kaeya? Even at his most composed, it feels like an impossible task. Words cannot do justice to how Diluc feels.

“Diluc, I-” Kaeya starts, but Diluc does not have time to consider how Kaeya means to end that statement. Knocks echo around them, coming from the door to Diluc’s bedroom, and Kaeya stands abruptly.

“Who-”

“Don’t move,” Kaeya interrupts before he can finish, and Diluc watches him stalk from the room. It’s situated so poorly that Diluc cannot even shift to see who might be there, why Kaeya’s tension returned so quickly, but he makes an effort to-

Ah, it seems that standing will not be an option, then.

Kaeya, Diluc, open the door.

Oh. Oh, it’s only Zhongli. Diluc exhales at that, lets the tension bleed from his body, and it’s replaced so rapidly with exhaustion that Diluc cannot help but lean back onto the bed, curl in on himself and wait. For Kaeya’s return, for Zhongli, he’ll wait here and just close his eyes for a few moments, no longer.

-------

When he wakes, he feels like- well, like death. Perhaps slightly better than death, given that he is, in fact, alive.

His head aches momentously, and every fiber of his being feels as though it’s been dragged up a mountain by a particularly energetic horse, but…

But he is still alive. And laying in a bed that is not his own.

The bed’s owner remains upright against the headboard, fast asleep and...ah, it’s the other night all over again. He looks unburdened and at peace, something so very deserved after the events of the past evening. Diluc watches him, appreciates him.

For saving his life, of course, but for...for showing how deeply he cares. For forcing Diluc to fight when he’d been-

Not willing to accept death, but not unafraid. When he’d forgotten, in his hazy half-dead state, that he had so very many things left to live for. One of those very things inhales a slow, deep breath, and Diluc’s heart aches.

“Kaeya?” he says quietly, so as not to disturb the warmth of this moment. Kaeya blinks slowly, that still-waking gentleness in every subtle movement. It makes Diluc want - for Kaeya, yes, but for more. For mornings curled up in bed, for walks through still gardens in early sunshine, for the sound of Kaeya’s laughter, unrestrained and vibrant.

“Diluc.” For the way Kaeya holds his name with such care, such relief that it makes Diluc’s heart ache, and he does not bother to restrain the smile that tugs sleepily at his lips.

“I-” How to begin? He props himself upright, that he can better get his thoughts in order. How to even start to express how he feels, let alone- gods, let alone relay his gratitude. Kaeya had brought him back from the brink of death, after all.

“I believe…” he tries, and the words feel wrong, insignificant, but he says them anyway. “You saved my life. Please, allow me to express-”

He stops, then, and he stares. Meets Kaeya’s gaze, those beautiful mismatched eyes that speak of something so incredibly breathtaking, so magnificent - not only his magic, but Kaeya. The person that he is, that Diluc, for some gods-forsaken reason, is still trying to keep a careful distance from.

He does not want to continue to do that.

Before he can consider his actions - and talk himself out of them - Diluc sits up and all but falls into Kaeya’s chest. Wraps arms around him, pulls him close and buries his head in Kaeya’s shoulder, in warm hair that smells of Kaeya.

Thank you,” he says on a breath, though the words do little to convey the entirety of his gratitude. They feel better, though, than his careful formality.

Kaeya inhales slowly, a shaky breath that makes Diluc’s heart ache, and Diluc pulls away carefully. Not too far, just enough that he can look at Kaeya properly. At the tear that rolls down his cheek, at the beautiful eye he hides for fear of judgment, at those lips that Diluc has kissed so many times, but never-

Never the way he wants, never for real.

“Luc, I-”

Before he can say anything, Diluc leans in, presses his lips to Kaeya’s and hopes that Kaeya wants this as badly as he does. But Kaeya pulls back almost immediately, watches him with wide eyes and parted lips and Diluc’s heart hammers so quickly he fears that the uncertainty might kill him all over again.

“We’re...alone,” Kaeya says quietly, almost...hopefully. Disbelief, too, Diluc hears it, and it sends a spark of something warm and bright through his chest. His lip ticks up at the corner.

“I know.”

He goes more slowly this time, gives Kaeya the opportunity to pull away, to say he doesn’t want this, doesn’t want Diluc. That Kaeya doesn’t only serves to send Diluc’s heart soaring off on bright wings, and he leans into Kaeya’s chest, finds kissing him as easy as breathing, as easy as-

“Gods,” Kaeya interrupts as he pulls away from Diluc’s lips, and Diluc does not mind too much for the fact that Kaeya laughs as he holds him close. “You taste like death.”

“I did nearly die,” he argues, pleased that the statement does not seem to upset Kaeya. “But I do apologize.”

Not for this, not for kissing Kaeya, but...perhaps for the fact that he does still taste rather bitter.

“Don’t, gods.” Kaeya laughs again, breathless in a way that makes Diluc’s chest feel light, and he melts into the soft kisses Kaeya presses to his cheek, his jaw. And if he makes it a little easier for Kaeya to progress down his neck, well, that’s for the two of them alone to know.

“So you…” Diluc starts, and lets his words trail off at the sudden warmth of Kaeya’s tongue. At the way his heart races, because Kaeya pulls him into his lap, and Diluc can think of far better ways to use his mouth than forming words.

“Hm? I…” Kaeya prompts against his skin, warm and sweet and slow, and Diluc wants to forget his own doubts, even as they drift up and cloud his head.

“You want...this?” He can’t quite bring himself to ask what he really means - does Kaeya want him like this? Want him in other ways, too? Want to know him, to love him, perhaps?

His words earn him a breath of- is Kaeya amused by his question? Warmth floods his cheeks just as Kaeya lifts a hand to one, holds him gently. And he smiles, gods, Kaeya smiles so brightly that Diluc wants to melt into it, into him.

“I want you, Luc.” Breathless and so quietly sincere that it makes Diluc’s heart ache. “I want you, gods, I want you…” And now he laughs, and Diluc does not feel embarrassed. “If you'll have me?” Quiet, still, and so very hopeful, and Diluc can only stare. Just for a moment, it’s all he can do to remain here and see Kaeya.

And what a wonderfully overwhelming, incredible thing, to truly see him. His vulnerability, his openness, his desires laid out so plainly in so few words, and Diluc feels as though he’s standing under bright sunlight, made warm by its mere existence.

“Have I made myself unclear?” he says, finally, when words return to him, and Kaeya blinks.

“No.” So certain, and laughter follows his response with such vibrancy. “But I still want to hear you say it,” he adds, warm and close now as he leans in, as his lips trail gently across Diluc’s jaw, and he forgets for a moment that something has been asked of him.

“Please, Luc?”

“Yes, of course,” he says without thinking, without needing to think. It makes him melt, that nickname in Kaeya’s quiet voice, and he’d do anything and everything that Kaeya asked of him. “Of course I want you.”

Kaeya pauses at that, and Diluc wonders for just a moment if he’s somehow misunderstood, or said something wrong, or-

“Tell me how you want me, Luc.”

Oh. Oh, that is far too much to consider at the moment - already, Kaeya overwhelms him, and yet asks how to overwhelm him further? So very many answers to Kaeya’s question flit through his head that he can’t keep any of them straight, and they all drag him into dangerous territory.

Dangerous, he realizes, not for the fear of pushing Kaeya away, but for the fear that there will certainly not be enough time to get to each and every one of the ways he wants Kaeya before- well, he has Kaeya, he can take his time. Even if he’d rather take Kaeya apart now.

And Kaeya seems to have the same mind, for he leans in and captures Diluc’s lips and does not seem so averse to the taste as he had before. Which is just as well, Diluc can think of no better answer than this.

“Tell me, Luc,” Kaeya asks, then, as he pulls away, breathing fast in the space between them, and Diluc’s heart leaps at the smirk that tugs at Kaeya’s lips.

“If you don’t shut up and kiss me, I’m divorcing you,” he says, hardly a threat, but it’s enough to make Kaeya laugh, and it makes him softer again, bright and warm where he leans back into Diluc.

“Anything for you, Luc.”

He wants to say it back - anything for you, Kaeya - but Kaeya captures his lips before he has the chance, and he allows himself to melt into Kaeya instead. Such a response will have to do for now.

---------

“You’re not leaving Mondstadt,” Kaeya insists for the umpteenth time. Diluc blinks at him.

“Of course I am.” He does not leave room for argument here, because there is no argument to be had. He will leave.

“Then who do you plan to name as the new king? Me?” Kaeya scoffs, shakes his head. Diluc waits - he’ll get around to explaining his position eventually, and in the meantime, he can appreciate the arch of Kaeya’s brow, the curve of his lips. “You have to rule your people.”

“I don’t,” he says easily. “That’s the point.”

While Kaeya has been managing missives from his father with regards to Khaenri’ah’s hard-won victory over the Abyss Order, Diluc has been...planning. With Zhongli, in part, but with his council. With his father, though his father’s recent resignation was not initially part of Diluc’s plan.

He hadn’t been...pleased by Diluc’s decision, but he certainly had no power to stop Diluc either. And after a bit of explaining, he’d accepted it well enough.

“Alright, Luc.” That name in Kaeya’s voice still sends sparks of warmth through Diluc’s veins, and he lets a small smile touch his lips. “Talk,” Kaeya requests, and pulls him down from where he stands over the sofa.

He goes easily, gladly, into Kaeya’s lap, and that warmth grows to a pleasing sort of heat when Kaeya’s hands drift down his thighs.

“I’ve spoken with my advisory council.” And many others, but this is the part that matters - this is the part that answers Kaeya’s unspoken question. “Handed over the king’s duties to them, as of…” He pauses, feigns consideration. “Tomorrow.”

Kaeya coughs out something close to a laugh, and relief floods Diluc’s veins. A silly sort of relief - he does not doubt that Kaeya wants him, still, but he appreciates seeing that painted on Kaeya’s face with his tentative smile.

“What happened to me being involved in all your affairs?” he asks, and though he does not sound offended, Diluc dips his head just a bit.

I could not involve you here, because you might’ve tried to convince me otherwise, he thinks, because Kaeya is so very good, so very determined to do right by his people. To be the one who lifts them all up, now more than ever. But Diluc...Diluc has created something that will persist, a system that gives power to his people and allows them their own governance.

It is something he’s thought about for quite a while, but his father’s resignation paired with the opportunity to join Kaeya in Khaenri’ah has given him exactly the push required to fit the final pieces into place.

To step back, to live up to the ideals that Mondstadt has always championed. He has long believed it ironic that such a nation would still hand all its power to a single person, and he’d like his first and final act as king to be the dissolution of that paradoxical ideology.

“You had your own matters to handle,” Diluc says finally, and Kaeya glances to the side for a brief moment. “We are, on occasion, two individual people,” he adds, and it draws a smirk back to Kaeya’s lips. But still… “I apologize that I did not inform you until now.”

And if Kaeya is upset, he has a right to be - this affects him as well, if not quite in the same way. Hopefully, he sees this change in plans as a positive one.

His thumbs draw small circles on Diluc’s thighs, gentle as he thinks, and Diluc holds exceptionally still. Ignores the desire that pools in his stomach, for this is a serious moment that requires his full attention.

“You’re certain about this?” Kaeya asks finally. “You don’t want the throne?” Diluc’s lip ticks up at the corner, and he goes easily when Kaeya pulls him closer.

“I have never found the idea of becoming king very appealing.”

“Says the uncrowned king himself.” Ah. The moniker assigned to him by Venti after his indoctrination into Diluc’s network. Diluc huffs out a breath, tucks himself closer against Kaeya’s chest.

“I did what needed to be done.” He’s aware that his voice is not quite as light as he’d like it to be, but it rarely is when mention of his efforts to undo his father’s panicked decisions come about. Though it led to the peace he oversees today, he does not particularly enjoy thinking about those years.

“And what of Zhongli and Venti, and the rest of them?” Kaeya prompts, either out of a desire to move past Diluc’s somber moment or out of genuine curiosity. Diluc hums, lets his hands wander Kaeya’s chest. Undo a button simply because he can.

“They’ll still work for me.” They’ll still keep tabs on Mondstadt, and on all of Teyvat, as they’ve done since the worst of Mondstadt’s panic had been quelled.

“You don’t give up control easily.” Kaeya laughs, a warm sound that makes the corner of Diluc’s lip curl up. He slips his hand beneath Kaeya’s shirt, and Kaeya’s chest rises and falls just a little faster.

“Only to you,” he admits easily, and lives for the way that Kaeya sucks in a short breath. “We set off tomorrow?” he adds as he undoes another button, more focused on Kaeya now than on their travel plans.

“I suppose we do.”

Diluc’s lip ticks up at the corner - if he is very honest with himself, he will admit that he is glad not to be forced to stay behind while Kaeya returns to Khaenri’ah. Glad to remain by his side, glad for the chance to explore...this.

Whatever this is, whatever it becomes.

“Will you take me to the lake?” he asks suddenly, as the thought occurs to him that he will have the chance now to visit Kaeya’s home. “The one with the silver trees?”

Kaeya huffs out a short breath, one of amusement and surprise in tandem, and Diluc lets his lips travel down the expanse of Kaeya’s shoulder as he pulls his shirt out of the way.

“I’ll take you anywhere you want,” Kaeya says, breathless now, and it makes Diluc’s heart race. “Everywhere. Anything for you, Luc.”

-----------

“You’re certain we have time for this detour?” Diluc asks, and he knows that he’s asked it many times, but that does not change the fact that they have affairs to handle at the Khaenri’ahn castle.

But Kaeya just laughs, bright and wild, and fits his hand into Diluc’s. Pulls him farther from the path, closer to the shore of a lake. As they walk, the leaves turn from dark green to faded jade, then to a pale silver that makes Diluc’s heart warm with something vibrant and light.

It’s something almost intangible, strange and hard to put a name to, but it burns bright in Diluc’s chest as Kaeya leads him on, as Diluc catches up to walk at his side. Branches sway around them, brushing against Diluc’s arm and hair, and he turns just enough that he can watch Kaeya.

He shines here. A part of Diluc thinks that perhaps magic is involved, or it’s a product of the near-reflective nature of the silver willows, but a part of Diluc is not so certain it’s something...logical. Something tangible.

After a moment, Kaeya glances over, catches Diluc watching him. His grin only widens, though, and he pulls Diluc along a little faster. For a moment, he reminds Diluc of when he was a child - unrestrained and wild, with his hair whipping along behind him in the same breeze that makes the silver branches dance.

They draw to a stop beside the lake, just short of the shore where water laps up in gentle ripples. Kaeya pulls him closer, then, and catches his eye. Nods in the direction of the rising sun.

“Just a moment, and the leaves turn to fire,” he says quietly, reverent, and Diluc waits with his hand held tightly in Kaeya’s. Just as the sun hits the horizon, the lighting shifts, and the pale silver of the trees shifts too - and it is exactly as Kaeya had said.

Red-orange flits from branch to branch, tree to tree with all the vibrance of a flame eagerly devouring everything in sight. Except that it stays, too, and Diluc thinks that he’d liken the leaves to a shifting field of gems in some impossible, otherworldly place. His grip on Kaeya’s hand tightens just slightly, though he does not want to blink, lest he miss the sight of this.

“I’m going to say something I’ll regret.” Kaeya’s voice, quiet and bright with laughter, and Diluc glances over to find his cheeks flushed with warmth that makes Diluc’s heart race. He pulls Diluc into his chest, now, turned to face him and not the sun.

“Should I kiss you, then? To prevent you from speaking?” Diluc offers, and Kaeya’s grin widens.

“Not yet.” Not yet, and Diluc huffs out an amused breath. He wonders if he’ll ever quite get used to it, being in Kaeya’s arms like this. Alone, without pretense, and with the ever-growing desire to lean in and capture his lips anyway.

Kaeya lifts a hand, though, and tucks a wayward strand of Diluc’s hair behind his ear, and that drags Diluc’s attention back to this moment, to the warmth in Kaeya’s eyes as he inhales slowly.

“I know I brought you out here to show you the willows, but you…” He shakes his head, and his hand shifts to cup Diluc’s cheek. “You are far more captivating.” His gaze drops to Diluc’s lips, and his thumb brushes across them gently.

Warmth spreads like wildfire through Diluc’s veins, and he glances to the side, away from the intensity of Kaeya’s stare. Not for a lack of appreciation, only because they are-

“We are standing at the edge of a lake in the middle of the forest,” he says quietly, and Kaeya hums his agreement, tips Diluc’s chin gently back in his direction. And Diluc goes easily, as he always does when Kaeya wants something.

“That we are. Did my compliment leave you so flustered, Luc?”

Diluc’s stare sharpens, and Kaeya holds it with a smirk on his lips.

Because they are alone, and because Diluc would very much like to even the playing field, he leans in and lets his lips brush Kaeya’s neck, just beneath his jaw.

“The moment I have you alone and access to a soft surface, I’ll gladly show you captivating…” he says against Kaeya’s skin, and Kaeya’s breath hitches. Sparks flicker through Diluc’s chest, warm and bright and begging him to pull Kaeya closer, to feel him come undone.

“Oh?” Kaeya’s tone belies his clear desire - his fingers dig into Diluc’s back, twine into Diluc’s hair to pull him back up to Kaeya’s lips. “Well, we’d best hurry, then,” he says with a smirk against Diluc’s lips, hot when he captures them in a kiss, and Diluc melts into him with ease.

For the first time in quite a while, Diluc finds himself looking forward to what his future might hold.