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to love (and be loved in return)

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“Alright, are you planning to tell me what we’re doing in Mondstadt?” Kaeya asks as he settles into the plush chair. His father - pursed lips as he inhales a deep breath, not a fantastic sign - puts his hands flat on the table, sits slowly opposite him.

“And why,” Kaeya adds with a glance toward the rather expensive bottle of Mondstadt wine between them, “we’ve been given such an extravagant gift?”

From what Kaeya can tell, it’s of the very highest quality, likely taken from the castle’s own private cellars. His stomach sinks as he waits, as his father glances at the wine and back to Kaeya. His lips curl up, but it is a dishearteningly false smile that he plasters on his face.

“We are celebrating, son!” So forced, so painfully forced, and Kaeya shores up his emotions behind a well-constructed wall in his chest. Quirks a brow, waits for his father to grace him with this news.

“And what, pray tell, are we celebrating?” he prompts after his father’s silence has stretched for too long - he is so clearly loath to tell Kaeya, meaning it must involve him, somehow. Very suddenly, the oppressive walls of Mondstadt’s castle close in around him. He reaches for a glass, for the bottle. His father watches with a tight smile as he pours wine near to the brim.

“King Crepus has agreed to send twenty thousand men to the aid of Khaenri’ah.” The glass touches Kaeya’s lips, and he is quite glad he hasn’t yet taken a sip - that is no small number. He watches hope rise in his father’s gaze over the rim of his glass.

That is no small number, and he has not yet heard the cost of such a promise. He takes a very long drink, then - it is good wine, of that he cannot argue. Whether it’s worth the bad news his father intends to tell him, he’s not yet certain.

“Twenty thousand men,” his father repeats, as though he’s mistaken Kaeya’s silence for deafness. “That could turn the tides of the war!” He leans forward, and that hope sparks bright. Kaeya does not feel it, not entirely - in a sense, he does, but the other shoe has yet to drop.

“Twenty thousand,” Kaeya says with a hum, and he takes another slow sip. “And what did dear King Crepus ask in return?”

Ah, there it is. His father’s hope flickers out like a dying candle, and he blinks back his sudden discomfort with a soft ‘ah’. Leans back in his chair. Does not reach for the wine, so Kaeya fills his own glass again. He suspects he will need it far more than his father.

“Well?” Kaeya prompts again - like pulling teeth, and he grits his as he waits. “Out with it.” He can hear the hard edge that sharpens his voice, but he does not care. It affects him, no doubt, or his father wouldn’t have bothered to bring him here. Wouldn’t tell him in this way, wouldn’t be so terrified of his reaction.

“He asked for your hand in marriage to his son.”

Kaeya blinks, hand frozen where it holds his glass to his lips.

“Diluc?” he asks, as though the king has any other sons to which his father might be referring. In his mind’s eye, he sees the fire-red hair of the prince, the quiet demeanor and distant gaze. Kaeya’s eyes narrow, failing to piece together the reasoning behind such a request.

“The very same.” His father nods, leans forward as though this topic bears less potential for hostility. “It seems,” he starts, then glances around - Kaeya blows out a breath. They’re holed up in private rooms, and it’s rather doubtful that anyone would care much for Khaenri’ahn gossip anyway. What would they listen for? News of how many of his people have died as of late?

Kaeya takes another long sip, does not bother with prompting his father again. He’s sick of the game, sick of it all.

“It seems,” he starts again, finally, “that the king finds an alliance between Mondstadt and Khaenri’ah to be a middle ground of sorts.” Kaeya quirks a brow, and his father nods adamantly. “He wishes to avoid allying himself with another...strong kingdom, and by virtue of that, avoid setting Mondstadt at odds with the other kingdoms.”

Kaeya huffs out an amused breath at this - other strong kingdoms. Khaenri’ah may not be populous, but they are certainly strong. Though he supposes in a game of politics, they are hardly more than pawns among kings.

Kings, as though Kaeya’s father is not one such king. He drains the rest of his glass, fills it again. His father avoids the wine, and he wonders at whether it’s a bribe for him entirely.

“And the other kingdoms, they won’t view such an alliance as an insult?” He can see it both ways - perhaps some would, but others might see it as an escape. Either way, he can’t imagine it a beneficial move, politically speaking.

“His son will claim infatuation with you, or some such nonsense.” His father waves a hand in dismissal even as Kaeya coughs an amused breath into his wine - Diluc, infatuated? He can hardly picture it. “In any event, nobody will view our alliance as a threat.”

Kaeya takes a long sip, lets his vision glaze over for a moment as he considers it. The prospect of marrying a man he’s met only a handful of times, most of which when they were still children.

“Twenty thousand men, huh,” he muses as he sits back in the chair, glances absently at the walls around him - his future home, he supposes with a detached sort of amusement. “Well, at least now I know my value…”

He takes another sip of his wine and finds it suddenly bitter on his tongue. Would that it were poison that changed the flavor, at least that would be an interesting development.

As it stands, a future with Diluc as his husband promises eons of boredom and chess and books...he'll need more than just this bottle of wine, he supposes.

----------

The arrangements are made with lightning speed, and Kaeya wonders at just how urgently this is all being thrown together - granted, he and his father have been rather wrapped up in their own machinations, but he wonders very suddenly if he’s missed some large, impending political scheme that Crepus intends to bow out of with grace.

At least, he supposes, he is given every comfort he could ask for - including unlimited wine from Mondstadt’s cellars - as he waits for the ceremony.

To his mild surprise, he does not encounter Diluc during the three days set aside for preparations. Not wandering the halls, nor in any of the few meetings he’s been asked to attend. His father makes no mention of the prince, and Kaeya wonders at whether he’s even in the castle. Wonders then if he has any actual duties to attend to that would take him away from his home.

With only the mildest parts of his energy, Kaeya allows himself to think of his home. Of the dark, glittering palace of Khaenri’ah, the one long abandoned by him and his father as they dragged themselves from kingdom to kingdom in search of aid.

At the end of this charade, his father will return to rule what’s left of the lands, twenty thousand Mondstadt soldiers in tow. They will bolster the ranks of what remains of Khaenri’ah’s army, the ones that stand in a futile fight against the Abyss Order.

As he’s wont to do when thoughts of Khaenri’ah’s battle comes to the forefront of his mind, Kaeya thinks in alternating moods: first, hatred for the ancestors who’d started this war for their arrogance and ignorance. Then, despair for his people, who stand and fight and die every day to protect those they love. Then disgust - at himself, this time, and his father. They both possess strong magic, and both play diplomat instead of fighting alongside their people.

But we must, his father’s voice echoes in his head, and he drowns it with another long sip of wine.

“Must we,” he deadpans to nobody in the safety of his temporary room. Come tomorrow evening, he will be housed with Diluc in his royal bedchambers, a prince married off to secure them more warriors against a terrible force that threatens Kaeya’s people.

And so he must, he must play the diplomat and the prince and the newly-wedded husband, he must play any and every part to ensure the safety of his people.

“And I must get another bottle of wine,” he says aloud as he tips the final drops into his glass.

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

The suit is tailor-made with exceptional speed and even more exceptional skill: white, with pale blue lapels that contrast brilliantly against a vest of dark navy silk the color of the night sky. He’s given a simple white dress shirt to go beneath it all, white pants to match, and he’ll admit, he looks like quite a catch.

His reflection stares back from the full-length mirror, and he exhales a short breath. Of course, he can’t say he didn’t anticipate this day to come sooner rather than later - literally, with this most recent arrangement, but figuratively as well.

His father has not been subtle in his attempts to marry him off into some kingdom or another for this exact purpose. Kaeya admittedly did not expect it to be Mondstadt that ultimately made the first - or perhaps most agreeable - offer.

And he most certainly did not expect himself to be married off to Diluc-

The door creaks open, then, and he watches the reflection as a black glove curls around the wood, inches it open a bit further. He’s assaulted quite suddenly with the sight of a mess of bright flame-red hair, and his brows lift as the very prince he’d just been thinking of slips inside the room.

“I’ve heard it’s quite bad luck to see the groom right before the wedding,” Kaeya says with as much humor as he can muster. Diluc’s head whips around, and orange-red eyes fix on his reflection.

For a brief - very brief - moment, Kaeya allows himself to be captivated. For Diluc Ragnvindr, Crown Prince of Mondstadt, is certainly captivating. Red hair falls wild as fire around his head, tamed only slightly by the ponytail he’s pulled it back into. Delicate features, objectively attractive, composed and refined in all black. His white vest is a notable exception, his attire the perfect opposite to Kaeya’s suit, and his lip ticks up at the corner - gods, if nothing else, they will certainly be a stunning couple.

“Prince Kaeya.” Ah, the formality. Kaeya quirks a brow, hums. Adjusts the buttons of his suit jacket. In the mirror, in the corner of Kaeya’s vision, Diluc shifts his weight from one foot to another. Interesting that he would be nervous, Kaeya considers - did he have no say in this matter either?

“Titles feel rather superfluous given the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?” he prompts, and Diluc presses his lips into a line. “Did you require something of me, or simply here to break all pre-marital rules prior to the ceremony?” He grins into the reflection at the momentary furrow of Diluc’s brows.

“I have heard one about...hm, what was it…” Kaeya taps absently at his chin, knows this is perhaps not the most effective way to build some semblance of an allyship with his future husband. Does not care. “Ah, right. Something to do with pre-marital sex?”

Oh, Diluc’s cheeks turn the loveliest shade of pink, and his jaw ticks with obvious tension. If nothing else, Kaeya suspects this will be somewhat more entertaining than he’d initially been worried it might be.

“I am sure you understand the specifications of this arrangement,” Diluc grits out, and Kaeya’s brows lift in interest. “As such, we are to pretend to be...infatuated with each other.” Kaeya bites back a laugh at the clear tension in his tone.

He considers, for all of two seconds, whether to probe a little further, see how red he can turn Diluc’s cheeks. Then decides better of it - Khaenri’ah is in no fit state for Kaeya to intentionally fuck over their best bet at his people’s survival.

The thought sobers him far more than he’d prefer, though the room he’s been sequestered in is rather frustratingly devoid of any wine. The celebration afterward, however, should be overflowing with it.

“I understand the parameters of this arrangement, yes,” he says to Diluc’s reflection. Keeps his tone even, though he can’t quite bring himself to put any humor into it.

Diluc nods sharply, his gaze anywhere but on Kaeya. Interesting indeed, and Kaeya holds graciously onto the image of Diluc’s flushed expression.

“Good,” he says flatly, lifts his gaze to meet Kaeya’s in the mirror. “There will be many eyes on us during the ceremony.” A pause, and Kaeya blinks as he waits for the yet-unspoken words. “Kiss me like you mean it.”

With that, Diluc spins on a heel and marches out the door, and Kaeya watches with raised brows. A smile spreads across his lips, slow and sweet and perhaps a bit devious at the idea of giving Diluc precisely what he’s asked for.

Chapter Text

The whole thing is long-winded, tedious, boring as all hell. Kaeya’s father sits in the front beside King Crepus, along with some well-dressed, important-looking people that Kaeya’s never met. His gaze sort of blurs out beyond that.

Staring at Diluc is much easier, and he blatantly ignores the officiant’s rambling in favor of studying his soon-to-be husband. Up close, he finds Diluc’s wild hair to be less wild than he’d anticipated - well-kept, satin-smooth. He wonders if it feels that way as well. Wonders how much posturing they’ll have to keep up, if he’ll have an opportunity to touch it and see for himself.

In spite of his wild brightness, Kaeya can see the reserved nature that touches every part of Diluc: his expression is carefully closed, even though his eyes are wide and, perhaps to an outside observer, love-stricken. His hands remain clasped with Kaeya’s with careful tension, not so much as to appear nervous and not so little as to appear disingenuous.

He is, for all Kaeya can see, a rather convincing actor.

He nods at all the right cues - and Kaeya nods in turn when his name is mentioned, or when Diluc gives him a hard stare - smiles subtly at whatever words the officiant says that must be some declaration of their love or other nonsense. His cheeks remain flushed with warmth that any in the audience might view as proof of his excitement at finally marrying the one he’s supposedly been enamored with since they were children.

A hilarious fabrication, really, considering how little interest Kaeya had in whatever boring activities the young prince found interesting, and Diluc couldn’t be bothered with entertaining the wild and excitable Kaeya.

But the ceremony attendees coo over generic lies that the officiant voices with very genuine emotion, Diluc plays his part spectacularly, and Kaeya manages to keep a smile on his lips for the entire several hour duration of the stupid ceremony.

“I do,” Diluc says, voice fraught with subtle touches of heartfelt emotion. Kaeya has to bite back a laugh.

“I do,” he parrots at the command, hopes his barely-contained amusement at the whole charade does not come across too noticeably. Or, rather, that it comes across as some genuine emotion. Still, he cannot fight the grin that spreads when the officiant declares them wed, requests that they kiss.

He leans in, as does Diluc, and Kaeya catches that hint of a hard expression, hears Diluc’s earlier words ring clearly in his ears: kiss me like you mean it.

Kaeya has kissed many a person in his time, and he considers himself rather good at it - or so he’s been told on numerous occasions. So his smirk widens just a bit at Diluc’s hard look - yes, yes, he will certainly do as he’s been told.

Their lips brush briefly, and Kaeya leans further, lets his lips part against Diluc’s. And Diluc responds in turn, his arm wrapping neatly around Kaeya’s waist, and Kaeya hums rather unexpectedly.

His mouth moves with practiced ease, though, and he lifts a hand to Diluc’s cheek, cups it for a moment before slipping to the back of his neck and pulling him in closer. Vaguely, he’s aware of a cacophony of cheers from their audience, aware of flower petals that brush his hair and cheeks as they fall. Aware that these gathered people celebrate some fantasy love that does not exist. Aware that his ears are ringing rather loudly, that his heart hammers in his chest.

Aware of his own sudden breathlessness, aware quite suddenly that he does not want to pull away from Diluc. Aware that Diluc does not pull away so quickly either - but he is, as Kaeya’s noticed, a rather talented actor.

But he does pull away eventually, and Kaeya’s eye flicks open to find Diluc staring hard at him, lips parted and pink to match the deepening flush on his cheeks, and it startles Kaeya, that moment. That stare, and that aching realization that Kaeya would very much like the excuse to kiss Diluc again.

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

The gods have blessed and cursed him, he determines, with many more opportunities to kiss Diluc through the remainder of the evening - they now attend a lavish celebration filled with good food and overflowing wine, and Kaeya partakes rather greedily.

Partakes, too, in every chance given to press a kiss to Diluc’s lips, to hold him there for a moment longer than strictly necessary. It is, he decides, more intoxicating than the wine in his glass.

And Diluc goes willingly into every one, every time. Gives Kaeya no indication that this is too much, that he finds it uncomfortable - if he did, Kaeya’d stop in a heartbeat. This is a charade, and while they must play the part of the infatuated newlyweds, he does not intend to put Diluc in any legitimate distress.

He seems rather content to hang onto Kaeya’s arm through the duration of the festivities, though. Greets what appear to be old friends with gentle smiles and warm thanks for their attendance, introduces Kaeya to those he has not yet met. It goes deceptively smoothly, with not a single person questioning the whole endeavor.

This, ultimately, is what makes Kaeya pull Diluc aside - into a secluded corner, where guests of the party do not seem inclined to roam. Kaeya keeps a hand at Diluc’s waist, though, in case anyone happens to glance their way. They’d see only the lovebirds, smiling and flushed and perhaps a little too enamored with each other for their own good.

“Something the matter, darling?” Diluc asks with so much put-upon sweetness that Kaeya coughs out a laugh.

“I think we’re safe for the moment,” he says, even as he holds Diluc close, keeps a smile affixed to his lips. “Is there truly no one here that questions your sudden...infatuation?”

True to form, Diluc’s expression does not change, though Kaeya can see the moment when a certain neutrality touches the soft smile on his lips.

“In truth...” His tone is just as neutral, now, and Kaeya resists the urge to blow out an amused breath at the shift. “I suspect some may see through the ruse, though they’d not dare to accuse us. And many more find me enough of an enigma that they’ll believe most anything, even this.”

The particular emphasis on the word makes Kaeya quirk a brow.

“I think most anyone would be convinced by your exceptional acting,” he says, uncertain now if he means it as an attack or a point of praise.

“Well, you’re hardly acting lovesick enough to convince even the dullest of those in attendance,” Diluc says on a breath of- is he irritated? Kaeya scoffs, lets his gaze flick away from Diluc for a moment.

And, it seems, at perhaps the most opportune time - a couple wanders close, arm in arm, and one turns her head in just the right direction to spot them.

Kaeya slips his arm fully around Diluc’s waist, flips them around and presses him flat against the wall behind them. If he’s surprised by the movement, it doesn’t show on his face, and Kaeya widens his eye in a silent- well, a silent plea, of sorts, before he closes the distance between them.

This is not the kiss that they shared during the wedding ceremony, nor the multitude of chaste ones during the party thus far.

He presses into Diluc’s chest, melts into him, flicks his tongue across Diluc’s lips the way he’s thought about doing the entire damn night. Diluc gives easily, slips hands beneath the back of Kaeya’s suit jacket, beneath his vest, and Kaeya hums into his lips - bad acting, he could be running a race right now for how hard his heart beats in his chest, how fast his breaths drag in and out of his lungs.

How can it possibly be bad acting if he’s not acting in the slightest?

Oh my.” A voice behind him, though his focus most certainly remains on Diluc, on the teeth that graze his lips and the hands that dig into his back. “Young love,” the woman titters. “C’mon dear, let’s leave them be.”

He waits perhaps a little too long to pull away - in the event that the couple had taken their time leaving, he argues to nobody within his head - but Diluc must be paying some kind of attention. He nudges at Kaeya’s shoulders after a few moments, and Kaeya leans back with a sharp breath.

His tongue flicks over his lips, finds them swollen and warm, and he stares for an inordinate amount of time at the mouth that’d made them that way. Diluc’s breathing slows more rapidly than Kaeya’s, though the red-pink flush of his cheeks does not fade quickly. Kaeya resists the urge to lift a hand, to brush a thumb along his jaw, his cheek, over those swollen lips.

Oh, he fears his heart will never come down from its terrifyingly rapid pace.

“They’re gone,” Diluc says with a hoarse voice but distressingly neutral tone. Of course, of course, Kaeya reminds himself sharply. This is an act, it is a ruse to get them both something they need. They are merely playing at being lovesick fools, nothing more.

Kaeya quirks a brow, blows out an amused - perhaps a bit self-satisfied - breath.

“And how was that for my inadequate acting?”

He is perhaps a little too pleased by the eye roll Diluc gives him.

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

They manage an escape after several hours of obnoxious, over-the-top - and, for Kaeya, not quite enough - public displays of affection, and Diluc leads him with a sweet smile and hurried steps down the halls toward his private wing of the castle. Kaeya goes easily, and does not have to fake the smirk that tugs at his lips.

He knows how this will end, of course - they’ll arrive at Diluc’s room, drop the act immediately, and all will return to whatever their new ‘normal’ looks like. It does not stop his heart from racing when Diluc pulls the door open, when he drags him inside and lets his gaze fall on Kaeya.

Like shattered glass, the illusion breaks, then: Diluc’s expression shifts so easily, disinterested and neutral. Not hard, not unfeeling, but certainly not like he cares for Kaeya, or like he wants him. Kaeya swallows, pulls his own shield into place in the form of an easy smirk.

“I suppose this is the part where we consummate our thrilling new marriage?” he says with a quirked brow, and Diluc blinks at him.

“I’m going to bed, you’re welcome to take the sofa for tonight.” He waves a hand as he turns, and Kaeya follows it to an admittedly rather plush-looking sofa in the middle of the room. By the time he looks back, Diluc has already shrugged out of his suit jacket and undone his vest. Kaeya watches with rapt, entirely inappropriate attention as Diluc pulls that from his shoulders, as he turns his attention to the buttons of his dress shirt.

“We’ll arrange other sleeping accommodations after this evening,” Diluc continues, and does not look up from his shirt. Kaeya inhales slowly, lets himself stare as long as he dares.

Which is admittedly far longer than he should, but Diluc continues not to look up, and Kaeya cannot quite tear his eyes away from Diluc’s chest.

Would that he could be the one undoing those buttons, unwrapping Diluc like a very lovely gift for himself on their wedding night. Remarkable that he’d imagined this arrangement to be a boring one.

Instead, it seems he’ll be kept quite on his toes dancing around Diluc, straddling the line between appropriately distant in private and appropriately affectionate in public. What a dangerous line indeed.

“I take it that means you don’t intend to invite your groom to your bed?” Kaeya presses, and is met with a tired glare as Diluc’s eyes flick up. If he notices - or cares about - Kaeya’s staring, he doesn’t make mention of it.

Instead, he dips his head again, untucks his shirt and undoes the final few buttons. Pulls the shirt from his shoulders, and Kaeya does look away now, for fear that his wine-addled thoughts will give way to very bad ideas, his loose lips and fingers will give too easily into tantalizing temptations.

It’s this that finally breaks his spell, staring hard at the sofa he’s to call his bed for the evening. Of course, of course there’s nothing here. Diluc wants nothing from him, barely knows him - they are not infatuated lovers, they are not lovesick newlyweds. They are political allies and nothing more, regardless of the way that Kaeya’s heart races at the idea of kissing him.

This is for his people, he reminds himself, and the thought sobers him too easily. He swallows, sheds his own jacket and vest without another word. He’s brought nothing to sleep in - for he would, on most nights, sleep in nothing at all - but he’s taken advantage of this ruse all evening. The very least he can do now is provide Diluc some degree of comfort.

He removes his shirt, since Diluc had set the bar on that one, but keeps his pants on. Discards his belt, though, horrible thing. He can think of many good uses for it, but irritating his hips while he sleeps is not one.

A blanket has already been draped over the back of the sofa, and several soft pillows decorate the corners, so he chooses one and settles easily onto the cushions. In all honesty, he’s had worse sleeping arrangements.

“Good night, Diluc,” he says flatly as he undoes the ribbon holding his hair at the nape of his neck. He rubs a hand there at the base of it, does not think about Diluc’s hand there earlier in the evening.

On any other night, with some semblance of privacy, he’d remove his eyepatch as well. But those who are not from Khaenri’ah do not typically feel at ease with reminders of Khaenri’ahn magic, and he is genuine in his desire to ensure Diluc’s comfort. Very well, it will stay for the night. With any luck, these ‘other sleeping arrangements’ down the line will include a modicum of privacy for them both.

“Good night, Kaeya.”

Kaeya pauses at his name in Diluc’s voice - not a too-sweet, put-upon tone, not so falsely lovesick that it makes his stomach turn. A soft smile tugs at Kaeya’s lips, but he does not turn around. There’s a shuffling of sheets, and Kaeya waits until he’s certain he’s heard Diluc settle into his bed.

Only then does he lay down himself, pull his blanket up to his shoulders and hide his soft, persistent smile in his pillow.

Chapter Text

Morning comes bright and unwelcome, and Kaeya’s head swims with an ache he dislikes almost as much as the dry, bitter taste in his mouth. Both are atrocious, he decides, but neither quite compares to the atrocity of the curtains thrown open at whatever hour of the morning it is.

“Why on Teyvat would you-”

“Rise and shine,” Diluc deadpans as he steps in front of Kaeya, arms crossed and lips pressed in an unamused line.

Kaeya blinks, eye narrowed, and is eternally grateful for his foresight in keeping his eyepatch on. One less eye to contend with the blinding early-morning light.

One less eye to immediately fall into an enamored stupor at the sight of a just-woken Diluc.

His hair’s a mess, unbound from its ponytail and truly wild around his head. It falls behind his shoulders, and Kaeya wants to twist his fingers into it, use his grip to tip Diluc’s head back, kiss that soft skin of his throat. And oh, he remains rather shirtless, and Kaeya swallows back an entirely unnecessary comment - he most certainly does not have the energy to deal with Diluc’s inevitably unfavorable reaction.

“Up,” Diluc says flatly. “We’re expected for breakfast in…” A pause, and Kaeya supposes he’s looking at a clock somewhere. He blows out a sharp breath, shakes his head. “Less than half an hour. I’d have liked to take my time, but it seems we both slept in. Be ready,” he demands, and Kaeya’s brows lift in subtle amusement as he spins on a heel and heads toward some door that Kaeya is mostly certain is not the door they entered through.

In a matter of moments, running water sounds, and Kaeya hums - the bathroom, then. And upon that realization rides an entire slew of thoughts regarding Diluc in far fewer clothes, and he sits up quickly to end that line of thought.

And end it does, in a wave of sudden dizziness and a throbbing head made infinitely worse by the strap still holding his eyepatch firmly in place. With a sharp exhale, he pulls it over his head and tosses it on the low table in front of him, rubs at his temples and lets his eyes drift shut.

Thoughts and fears and desires spin and whirl on phantom winds inside his head, unruly and untameable, and they threaten to drag him under with their chaos.

Right - first order of business, picking apart his thoughts and taking stock of his situation: he is in Mondstadt, the Mondstadt castle. In the bedchambers of the crown prince, Diluc, to whom he is now married. This is a political scheme intended to secure Khaenri’ah a host of twenty thousand Mondstadt soldiers, with their bargaining chip being the relative weakness of Khaenri’ah’s empire. It is for this reason that King Crepus sought Kaeya’s hand for his son, that they might remain pointedly neutral toward all other kingdoms.

His pride prickles unhelpfully, and he inhales a slow breath, leans back on the sofa and stares up at the ceiling. The angle does wonders for his aching neck, and he melts into the stretch as much as he can manage.

Broader situation sorted, he shifts to the specifics. First and foremost, this impending breakfast. It had rather conveniently not been mentioned to Kaeya, so all he can do is speculate, but he wouldn’t be surprised if his father and King Crepus are both in attendance. If there are others, he cannot even begin to guess at their identities.

It has been many years since his last foray to Mondstadt, and his father has always handled much of the politics of their visits. With no small amount of resigned irritation, he supposes he will now fall into that role - or, at least, will be expected to keep tabs on the myriad power-plays and subtle negotiations and ever-changing kingdoms and nobles that fall in and out and back into favor with the king, with Mondstadt, with whoever. Already, the idea exhausts him, and he exhales a breath that turns into a groan, lets his eyes drift shut again.

Perhaps he can feign some illness, even just a hangover. Hell, they’re meant to be newlyweds, don’t they deserve a morning of rest? Which means that this is likely not a breakfast that will require their charade, and Kaeya can’t quite decide if he’s relieved or disappointed by that.

Relieved, he thinks, ultimately. At least he won’t have to put energy into a facade.

“Did you intend to lay there until we have to go?” Diluc’s voice startles him, and he sits up abruptly, winces at the way his neck twists. He blinks for a moment in Diluc’s direction.

“I’d like to-”

“Your eye...”

Diluc’s brows furrow, and Kaeya’s lips part. His eyes widen for a brief moment before he reaches for his eyepatch - and makes a very sincere point of doing so calmly, slowly. Once it’s firmly affixed over his eye, he turns back toward Diluc.

Diluc, who looks exactly as he had before - if slightly more damp. His hair hangs over his shoulder, hands combing absently at the ends that drip onto the floor. A towel wraps his waist, now, which Kaeya might be slightly more focused on if his heart weren’t currently in his throat.

He had not intended for Diluc to see his eye so soon.

“Apologies,” he says quietly, carefully. Diluc blinks at him, and the barest hint of a crease forms between his brows.

“What for? Are you alright?” There is, to Kaeya’s mild surprise, a hint of concern in his tone. Well, at least he doesn’t glare at Kaeya with some sort of disdain or hatred the way that many - even in polite society - would choose to do.

“I have a pounding headache and every joint in my body feels out of place,” he says with copious amounts of sarcasm, “but my eye is fine, which I suspect was your actual concern.”

“It’s black.”

“It’s grey,” he quips back without thinking. Diluc lifts his hands in surrender, as though that’s the end of it, and Kaeya watches with raised brows as he skirts the end of the sofa and heads toward his wardrobe.

Ah, a wardrobe. Kaeya presses his lips into a line, glances over at his exceptionally formal wedding attire.

“Yes, you can borrow something,” Diluc says without any prompting, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath. Wonders briefly if Mondstadtians have some sort of mind-reading magic.

Alas, magic lives and dies - and corrupts and enslaves - with the Khaenri’ahns. And Kaeya is not idiotic enough to try to pervert his magic to the point of reading minds.

“If you’d like a bath, you should go now,” Diluc adds, and Kaeya glances over at him. He is, much to Kaeya’s chagrin and relief in tandem, now fully clothed. His hair remains unbound and still damp, and Kaeya stares at him for a few moments before the words properly filter in.

“Trying to say I smell?” he asks, and feels suddenly like a small child.

He and Diluc hadn’t spent much time in each other’s company as kids, but it’d been forced on occasion. King Crepus and his father making attempts at friendly allyship by way of their children. Kaeya had not been a kind child, he knows, and Diluc had not given easily into his incessant requests to do something fun, Diluc, you’re so boring.

“You reek of wine and look disheveled to boot,” Diluc says flatly as he, coincidentally, pulls on a nondescript black boot. The other sits beside his socked foot, and Kaeya glances up to find him entirely unfocused on Kaeya.

“I think that’s a perfectly respectable appearance on the morning after my wedding,” he says, and means very intentionally to pry about this breakfast.

If Diluc knows his intent, he does not call it out.

“Those in attendance are aware,” Diluc says with little context as he ties the laces of his second boot and straightens up. They add an inch to his height, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line - he’d been right at eye level last night, and Kaeya wonders if his shoes had contributed to that or not.

“Well?” he prompts, and Kaeya lifts his hands in surrender.

“Fine, fine, I’ll make myself presentable.” He wanders in Diluc’s direction, stares for only a few moments at the abysmal wardrobe before removing a brocaded dress shirt and some pants - if they don’t fit, the shirt will look perfectly fine with his suit pants from the wedding.

With that and a subtle bow in Diluc’s direction - one that earns him an exasperated breath - Kaeya turns toward the bathroom and sequesters himself inside.

The eyepatch comes off first, and he inhales the lingering steam before wiping a hand over the mirror and staring at his reflection.

He does not find it unsettling, really, but he knows it unsettles others. An entirely grey eye, the iris a shade darker and the pupil a milky-white star to match his other. Few look at him close enough to find that eye unsettling, he thinks with mild irritation.

But Diluc had not seemed unsettled, at least - only caught off guard, perhaps a bit concerned for his wellbeing. Granted, it would be quite hard to use Kaeya as a veritable political shield if he’s unwell.

With a deep breath, Kaeya pulls away from the mirror and toward the tub - empty, now, but he turns the faucet as hot as it will go. The water fills the room with steam again, and Kaeya inhales it, lets it settle in his lungs and his head and his limbs. It’s too hot, really, when he dips his foot in, but he lets the burn center him.

He is a political pawn in play for the safety of his kingdom, tied now to someone who does not seem to particularly care for him beyond his usefulness. And Kaeya is, rather unfortunately, very attracted to Diluc.

He sinks low in the water, and wonders what Diluc would do if he never came out from this bath again.

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

“Ah, there are the lovebirds! You’re late.”

“We’re here.” Diluc’s flat tone, it seems, is not reserved exclusively for Kaeya. He steps in through the door behind Diluc and inches it shut, shoots his father a quick glance before dipping his head to Crepus.

“Kaeya, please allow me to welcome you to our home.” The man’s tone shifts from something chastising to something rather more...well, welcoming, and Kaeya lets an easy smile drift to his lips.

“It’s certainly a pleasure to be here,” he says, and means it with unexpected earnestness. This pulls a laugh from Crepus, low and, by all accounts, genuine. In spite of himself, Kaeya finds himself wondering what Diluc’s laugh sounds like, if it’s similar to his father’s or of its own sound entirely. He’d very much like to know.

“I appreciate your cooperation in this whole…” Here, Crepus just waves a hand. Diluc skirts around his chair and settles beside him, and Kaeya follows suit on his father’s side of the table. “I trust you had a pleasant evening, at the very least?”

Kaeya ignores the warmth that burns beneath his skin, offers Crepus a wide smile.

“It was a lovely affair, thank you.” A very true statement that belies his genuine enjoyment of the evening.

“Good to hear, good to hear. Diluc, I hope you weren’t too sour?” Diluc blows out a long-suffering breath at the comment, and Kaeya’s brows lift - indeed, it is teasing in Crepus’ tone, and there’s little to suggest Diluc’s genuine discomfort with the statement, but…

“He was a perfect gentleman,” Kaeya interrupts just as Diluc’s lips part. His eyes flick to Kaeya, uncertain for a moment, and Kaeya meets them before grinning at Crepus. “Really, a pleasure to be around.”

To this, Crepus offers no comment - only a nod and a smile, and he pats his son’s shoulder heavily.

“I’m glad to hear all went well,” Kaeya’s father interjects, and Kaeya’s own mood sours slightly. “I hope to head out within the hour-” Kaeya blinks - so soon? “And I believe you said half the promised men were ready to accompany me?”

Here, Crepus dips his head in spite of the rather impolite interruption.

“Of course, I understand your haste.” He sets his utensils down and waves at the door. “Let the stable hand know when you’re prepared to leave, he’ll alert the commander. They’ve been given orders to report to you directly.”

Kaeya’s father nods, but it’s not a cold or curt gesture.

“And the rest?”

“Will be on their way by the end of the week.” Kaeya watches with rapt interest as a strange sort of sorrow twists Crepus’ tight smile. “I very much hope that this will bring your army the strength it needs to succeed.”

Now, Kaeya’s father dips his head low, and Kaeya blinks at the unusual act of subservience.

“I am truly humbled by your gracious assistance, friend.” Kaeya quickly plasters a neutral expression on his face when his father turns to him. He clasps his hand tight, a display of affection that sets Kaeya spiraling for a moment.

“Son, I hope to see you again.” Not soon, just...again. Kaeya blinks, swallows. His father stands abruptly, drags Kaeya up with him, and pulls him into an uncharacteristic hug that sets his mind off balance.

You are our last hope,” he whispers, then, quiet and fierce, and Kaeya blinks in startled panic as his father leans away. It is in a haze that Kaeya feels his father’s hand clap his shoulder, watches him dip his head in a low nod to Diluc and Crepus in turn, then rush through the door.

Only once it’s clicked shut does Kaeya register any of what just happened, and he lowers himself carefully back into his seat.

“Well...I, ah, have some matters to attend.” Crepus, for all his earlier sincerity, seems suddenly uncomfortable now - perhaps at the way Kaeya’s father had left, or at Kaeya’s reaction? He blinks, forces a tight smile to his lips.

“Again, thank you for your generosity,” he parrots his father’s sentiment as best he can, registers with disconnected acknowledgment that Crepus nods, stands. Ruffles a hand through Diluc’s still-drying hair, turns toward the door. Exits the same way his father had.

“I do not mean to pry,” Diluc says quietly, once they’re alone, “but I feel my earlier question is perhaps warranted once again. Are you alright?”

Kaeya exhales slowly, lets his gaze drift absently to the pile of food on the plate in front of him. It looks entirely unappetizing, suddenly, but he lifts a bite to his lips anyway.

Well, he thinks to himself, my father just raced off to oversee a war whilst abandoning me in a kingdom that is not my own to get acquainted with my husband who does not love me - but I am rather endeared toward - while he fights for my kingdom with soldiers promised in exchange for my hand in marriage.

“I’m fine,” he lies with hardly a thought. What does it matter to Diluc, anyway? They’re little more than pawns for each other, means to an end. Diluc quirks a brow, but does not push the matter, and Kaeya takes another bite of food that tastes like little more than ash on his tongue.

Chapter Text

“What now?” Kaeya asks as Diluc leads him from the small dining room and down a hall. He casts a glance to the side, waves a hand.

“Whatever you want, I suppose.” His lips purse, and his hand comes up to pinch the bridge of his nose for a brief moment before he resumes his perfectly neutral demeanor. “As my, uh, husband-” An entirely unnecessary pause, and Kaeya lifts his brows. Diluc’s cheeks seem to have flushed a shade of pale pink, and he tucks that knowledge away for later dissection - something to focus on in place of his father’s sudden departure.

“As my husband,” Diluc tries again, more quietly, “you’ll be expected to be involved in all my affairs-”

“Having affairs? Mm, sounds scandalous,” Kaeya interrupts with a smirk, and Diluc blows out an irritated breath. Kaeya presses his lips into a line, but it does little to hide his smile.

Political meetings and the like,” Diluc tries again, rather too calmly for Kaeya’s liking. Still, his cheeks take on a shade deeper pink, and Kaeya wonders at how exactly to get them to that lovely dark red they’d been last night. Kissing him, perhaps, but he has little excuse for that when they’re alone.

“Well that sounds positively abhorrent,” Kaeya corrects his earlier assessment as he slips his hands into the pockets of his- rather, Diluc’s pants. Which had fit perfectly, interestingly enough. He’d brought quite a small amount of clothing with him, perhaps his first order of business should be shopping.

“Great.” Diluc’s tone sounds like he agrees with Kaeya’s assessment of the boring meetings he’ll be forced to attend, though he doesn’t say so in as many words. “I assume you have little knowledge of the castle’s layout?”

“Very little.” A lie, but there’s no sense in letting Diluc know that - he’d start asking questions, and Kaeya’s not particularly thrilled to give him answers. And not giving answers would be rather suspicious, wouldn’t it?

“Do as you please for the next hour, I’ll collect you here. State of affairs update at eleven,” he says without ever looking at Kaeya, and Kaeya exhales a slow, admittedly disappointed breath. So much for the Diluc who’d been hanging off his arm the entire night, leaning in for so many kisses that his lips never fully recovered throughout the evening.

He draws to a stop as Diluc waves at the door to what Kaeya is acutely aware is Diluc’s room, then continues on without a word. Kaeya blinks after him, narrows his eyes.

Whether this decision is a good one, he can’t quite stay, but it’s certainly far more interesting than sitting around in Diluc’s room for the next hour. So he jogs forward, catches up with Diluc in a matter of steps.

“What are you doing.” Not a question, and red eyes flick to the side just for a moment before turning back to the hall.

“Well, it seems rather uncharacteristic of two rather infatuated newlyweds to want to be apart so shortly after their wedding, don’t you think?” He’d only just had the thought himself, but it’s sound reasoning. Beyond that, it gives him the excuse to slip his arm through Diluc’s, and Diluc does not pull away.

He only blows out a slow - albeit suffering - breath as he continues on. This hall, Kaeya knows, leads to the central wing of the building, more a connector of sorts than a proper subset of the castle. Which means they’re either headed out into town, or they’re headed somewhere besides Diluc’s private wing. Leaving quite a few more possibilities than Kaeya can properly consider by the time they reach the central room.

To Kaeya’s mild surprise, Diluc tugs him gently toward the only castle door without a wing associated with it: the one leading to the back gardens.

“I never took you for a fan of the outdoors,” he says aloud as Diluc pushes through the door and into the late spring air. Greenery abounds, Kaeya notes with mild interest - far more interesting, he thinks, is the sudden vibrancy that Diluc exudes.

Red hair like wildfire blazing around his shoulders, skin flushed the palest shade of pink made only lovelier by the touch of the sun’s light. He inhales a slow breath, lets his eyes drift shut for a brief moment, and Kaeya stares unabashedly.

“I find the gardens calming. And quiet.” A cool gaze flicked in Kaeya’s direction as he continues on, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath. The smile that touches his lips is not put-upon, not by any stretch.

“A walk with your lover in the gardens, then?” He watches from the corner of his eye, eternally pleased at the shade of pink that Diluc’s cheeks turn. Rather a lovely match for the hydrangeas they pass, Kaeya decides.

Evidently, Diluc is not up for Kaeya’s teasing, and his lips press into a tight line as he stares pointedly ahead. Hedges rise around them as they go, though not quite to a height that leaves Kaeya feeling trapped. It’s a near thing, though.

“An interesting choice of landscaping,” he comments just for something to say to break the silence that Diluc clearly treasures. He inhales slowly, waves the hand not currently - still - holding Kaeya’s arm.

“My mother was quite fond of the gardens, and found peace here on stressful days. She ensured the utmost care was taken with it.” Kaeya hums at that - he hadn’t known his own mother, and hadn’t known Diluc’s either. The queen took ill when he was very young, or so Kaeya’s heard, before Kaeya and his father had ever started traveling the kingdoms in search of aid.

“I imagine these gardens bring you a semblance of peace as well, or a nearness to her,” Kaeya says simply - for what else can he say? Any sentiment beyond that would sound hollow or false, and he admittedly does not wish to come across that way.

He wishes, quite unexpectedly, for Diluc to find his words truthful. Genuine.

To this, however, Diluc only hums a sound that might be agreement. He leads with no particular rush nor leisure through the paths, an even pace that sets a quiet rhythm through Kaeya’s head as their feet crunch on the packed gravel. They pass all number of plants and flowers, some that Kaeya’s seen only in pictures. Some, he notes with particular intrigue, native only to Khaenri’ah.

Blue-purple petals and leaves of the deepest, richest maroon. Some trees with a uniquely silvery sheen to their foliage, and one rather rare gem of a flower that is pure black from root to petal. Plants derived from and affected by the magic inherent to Khaenri’ah’s people and lands, and he’s rather surprised to find them blossoming and growing quite well outside his home.

He does not mention them when they pass, though. Best not to draw too much attention to them - to him, to Khaenri’ah. To his magic. To the inevitable questions Diluc had chosen not to voice earlier about his eye.

Strange, he considers again, that Diluc had expressed only concern. Surely he must know that any Khaenri’ahn born with magic has some affected appendage? A seat of their magic, turned dark by its presence. For Kaeya, his eye - and he has been rather lucky in comparison to those with much more visible manifestations of their magic.

Regardless, Diluc has not mentioned it since, and Kaeya would prefer to keep it that way.

They round another corner which, admittedly, Kaeya has not been paying particular attention to, and the winding hedges spit them out at a small clearing. In the center sits a squat cabin made all of wood with the exception of a smoking chimney of grey-white stone.

“A second home?” he guesses with little context, and Diluc shakes his head.

“Royal carpentry.” That is all the explanation he gives as they approach, as he lifts his free hand to knock at the door.

Then, suddenly, in a rather hushed tone: “They do not know, so act your part.”

Kaeya nods briefly just as the door swings in, feels Diluc’s arm tighten minutely around his.

“Diluc, my boy!” The man laughs loud and deep, claps Diluc’s free shoulder and grins down at him - and down is the correct direction, Kaeya notes with mild surprise. The man’s nearly a head taller than the both of them, and broad enough that he could easily encompass them both in a wide hug.

“‘S that the prince? Prince Diluc!” A younger voice, and a kid shoulders his way around the man to grin wide up at Diluc. Kaeya quirks a brow, but holds his tongue for the moment.

Interesting that such a stick in the mud has somehow earned such vibrant affection from his employees.

“And this must be Prince Kaeya.” Kaeya dips his head in acknowledgment of the man’s warm assessment, again intrigued by his earnest smile. “It’s truly beautiful, you two…” Now he shakes his head, and- oh, Kaeya has to work hard to stifle the chuckle that crawls up his throat. This veritable bear of a man, tearing up over his and Diluc’s false romance?

“Aw, c’mon, dad!” The kid shoves at the man - his father, evidently - then inserts himself in front of him. “Prince Kaeya, it’s spectacular to meet you!” Here, he sticks a hand out, and Kaeya smiles as he takes it. He’d half expected a bow, but he’s pleased at the informality.

“Likewise. And, ah, what did you say your name was?” He hadn’t, of course, but Kaeya knows his manners well enough.

“Oh! Oh, right, sorry.” The kid pulls his hand away to rub at the back of his head, ruffling off-white hair in the process. “Bennett’s the name,” he adds with a laugh. “So, uh, Prince Diluc, what can we help you with?”

The man behind him nods, then, and wipes absently at his eyes before fixing a wide grin on his lips. Kaeya tips his head, turns to watch Diluc with interest.

“We’ve come to commission a bed, to be delivered and assembled in my sitting room.” He says this all with a perfectly straight face, and Kaeya has to hold back a hum of appreciation. Bennett, for his part, scrunches his own face in clear confusion.

“Uhm, I mean, we can- of course we can do that…” He trails off, glances back at his father. The man blinks, then turns to Diluc and Kaeya.

“Well, I’d think your bed was well big enough for the two of you, isn’t it?” His brows furrow, and his cheeks flush with warmth, but he holds Diluc’s stare all the same.

“Naturally,” Diluc counters with ease. “But we are both rather used to having our own spaces, and we’d like to ensure that-” A pause, and Diluc glances at Kaeya with a soft smile, and oh, Kaeya melts. “In the event that we do, perhaps, need time to ourselves, we each have our privacy.”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense!” Bennett chimes in almost immediately, and Kaeya blinks in surprise. But the kid offers nothing further, just twists his lips and squints at Kaeya for several long moments. Kaeya’s brows lift, but he waits patiently for whatever the kid intends to say or do.

“Whaddaya think, dad? Same size as the one we made last month?” The man - who, Kaeya notices, happens to be giving him the same assessing stare - nods and grunts out an agreement.

“Right!” Bennett, who seems rather more in charge of this carpentry shop than the older man, claps his hands and nods to Diluc. “We should be able to get it done by tomorrow at the earliest, will that be alright?”

“That’s perfect,” Kaeya says just as Diluc’s lips part with what appears to be an objection - he can spend another night on the couch, it’s really not a problem.

He says as much to Diluc upon their departure from the cabin, and Diluc exhales a sigh.

“If it’s truly not a bother…”

“It isn’t.” He resists the urge to mention some of the...less favorable places he’s had to sleep. If Diluc will agree this easily, he doesn’t have any reason to bring them up.

“Very well. I believe that leaves us with just enough time to get back to the briefing room,” he says half to the garden maze they enter and half to Kaeya.

-----------

Gods, this is tedious. And he’s expected to attend these horrible meetings for the rest of his-

His life. Because he’s now married to the crown prince of Mondstadt. And expected to be involved in all of his affairs, including these atrocious - and daily - meetings.

“How quickly can we enact a divorce,” he grumbles to Diluc as they’re finally released from that hellscape. To his mild surprise, Diluc coughs out an amused breath.

“Not any time in the near future, that’s for certain.” Kaeya groans, but allows Diluc to lead him down the halls to wherever it is he intends to go next. With any luck, not another boring meeting. “You really found it so unbearable?” Diluc asks, then, pulling Kaeya from his wallowing for a moment.

“You found it bearable?” he quips back, then nods almost to himself - yes, of course he does. The child who’d found more fun in chess and history books the size of his head than playing with other children his age.

“I…” Here, Diluc pauses, and they round a corner - at first, Kaeya suspects it’s more to do with fear of saying something out of turn should they happen to run into someone, but a few more moments pass in silence as they traverse the empty hallway, and Kaeya glances over to find Diluc’s brows furrowed.

“It did not entirely occur to me that you’d find such a meeting inordinately boring.”

“What, listening to your advisors ramble for over an hour to say, effectively, that everything is fine and nothing of import has happened?” He shakes his head, and Diluc glances over. Stares for several long seconds, until Kaeya lifts his brows in silent question.

“Were your state of affairs meetings so interesting?” he asks, and Kaeya’s lips part. Words do not come out, however.

The left-most wall’s been breached, sir. Do we have enough funds to send for materials to shore it up?’

‘If we institute another draft, will the citizens riot? We’ve lost too many, we’ll take anyone we can.’

‘Another magician in the infirmary. No, she’s not expected to recover anytime soon. I’m sorry, sir, but we have the best healers on it. If your son could- right, right, of course. My apologies.’

“They certainly can’t compare to Mondstadt’s,” Kaeya says flatly, with not nearly enough humor to pass his statement off as a joke. But if Diluc sees through his words to something deeper, he doesn’t press. Kaeya is unexpectedly grateful.

“In any event, 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.” A pause, and Diluc’s cheeks flush again - gods, Kaeya could stare for hours at the color, at the way it draws a warmth out of Diluc’s expression that seems otherwise buried.

He does not stare for hours, of course, but is grateful for the moment of distraction nonetheless.

“It would naturally be expected that you and I are, ah, honeymooning,” he adds after a moment, gaze fixed steadfastly on the hall ahead of them. Kaeya’s brows lift, and he coughs out an unexpected laugh.

“Right, of course. I should think that would include far more time spent in our rooms…” Oh, he’s done it now - Diluc’s flush deepens, and Kaeya valiantly resists the overwhelming urge to push him up against the wall, to press his lips to those too-warm cheeks, to the pout of Diluc’s lips, to the space beneath his jaw, his throat. Anywhere, everywhere.

But this is nothing more than a ruse. His arm remains held at Diluc’s side, but not for their sakes - only so that others see, so that they can believe. This is a game, played to maintain Mondstadt’s careful neutrality and ensure that Khaenri’ah gets its promised troops.

For Kaeya to want anything more than that is wishful thinking at best, and dangerous at worst.

“We’ll be expected to attend dinner, but is there anything you need or would like to do prior?” Diluc prompts, and Kaeya plasters on a thin smile as he glances over. “Tour of the castle, or the town?”

The town...Kaeya’s gaze drops to his clothing that is not his own.

“I could stand to get some attire, since I’ll be staying a bit longer than expected.” Diluc’s feet stumble for a brief moment, and he takes a measured step forward before evidently changing his mind and drawing Kaeya to a stop.

“How long were you expecting to stay?” His voice is low, tight, and Kaeya’s brows furrow.

“Prior to this arrangement?” He tips his head. “A week, at most. Long enough for my father to meet with yours and discuss the same old trade agreements for the umpteenth time.”

When he glances to the side, Diluc’s face is a shade of red to rival last night - and, based on the tightness of his jaw, it is not in the way that Kaeya would like. His lips part, but Diluc extracts his arm from Kaeya’s and turns on a heel.

“I have matters to discuss with my father. Please enjoy the town, purchase anything you need. We’ll cover the costs.”

With that, Diluc stalks off back in the direction they’d just come from, and Kaeya blinks after him.

Realization slams into him with all the force of a hurricane wind - had he not known the rather...sudden nature of this agreement? Or, rather, had he not known how suddenly it’d been thrust upon Kaeya?

He considers, for a moment, rushing off after Diluc and letting him know there’s no sense in angering his father over something so insignificant - what’s done is done, and Kaeya would not change it. Certainly not when it means such proximity to Diluc, though he can’t have predicted wanting that a matter of days ago.

But even if he were given more time to warm to the idea, it wouldn’t have changed much. He’d still be here, married to Diluc and glad for it - glad, certainly, for the troops provided to Khaenri’ah’s aid. Glad even more so for Diluc’s attention.

In any event, Diluc is long gone, and he supposes this had to come up sooner or later - though he is admittedly surprised that Diluc hadn’t been informed. Perhaps that is simply the way of all fathers: scheming even when they feign to care. He can’t say he’d be surprised.

He exhales slowly, sets his feet to moving - not toward Diluc, but toward the central wing and the exit from the castle into the city. At the very least, he can acquire himself some clothing.

Chapter Text

Each shop he enters greets him with a wary benevolence - the heads of shop come out to meet him personally, but do so with tight smiles and shifting stances. Their eyes flick around the spaces like jumpy children afraid to be scolded, and it’s beginning to wear on Kaeya’s patience.

He’s made a point of purchasing an item or two from each place he’s entered, if only to show that he does not intend any ill will, but he pushes through the door into what he has deemed his final shop with a weary smile.

A young woman glances up from a desk upon his arrival, and Kaeya blinks in mild surprise. She, too, wears an eyepatch. Her uncovered eye narrows.

Venti,” she shouts, and Kaeya blinks at the unusual greeting. “Y’got a customer.” With that, she turns back to the desk, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line - not a greeting, then. He does not miss the subtle flash of the hilt of a sword sheathed at her hip, though she’s in a relatively secluded and far-from-ostentatious shop in what appears to be a safe area near the residential district of the castle town. Interesting.

Just as he’s lifting his gaze and opening his mouth to offer a proper greeting, someone bustles through a back room and bursts out into the shop with hands waving a little wildly.

Beidou,” he chastises even as his gaze fixes on Kaeya, “you didn’t say it was a prince!”

It seems word spreads quickly in the town surrounding Mondstadt’s castle, as not a single shop he’s entered has not known his status. This Venti character seems to be no exception.

He looks rather young to own - or manage, or whatever - such a shop, but who is Kaeya to say? Perhaps he’s a prodigy of sorts, or from a wealthy family. Braids swing and brush his shoulders with each rushed step forward, and he extends both hands to take Kaeya’s.

“Let me say, it is an absolute pleasure...” Venti starts, and Kaeya offers a grateful smile as he’s led deeper into the shop. Away from the front, and Beidou, he notes carefully. Venti glances rather obviously over his shoulder as he weaves between stacks and rows of fabric and designs, dragging Kaeya now more than before.

Okay,” Venti breathes out, and drops Kaeya’s hands with little ceremony. His smile stays wide, though, and surprisingly genuine. “Sorry for the…” He waves behind him, then nods again at Kaeya. “Really, it is a pleasure to have you here. I also wanted to express my condolences.”

This catches Kaeya off guard entirely, and he tips his head. Keeps his smile up, though his head spins with the implications of that statement - a threat? News that hasn’t made it back to him yet?

“Diluc’s perfectly respectable, really a nice guy - nice to look at, too!” Venti adds with a smirk, nudges Kaeya’s arm like they’re old friends. “But sort of…” He shrugs. “He’ll kill me for this, one of these days. He’s boring as hell,” Venti grumbles, and Kaeya coughs out a noise that should not be a laugh.

It is, but it really shouldn’t be.

“You know him well?” Kaeya says quickly, in place of the many other things - agreements, mostly - that threaten to fall from his tongue. Venti tips his head back and forth.

“I’ve got a monopoly on his clothesmaking, even if he finds me a little annoying.” At this, Venti stops, then narrows his eyes. Drags his gaze rather assessingly down Kaeya’s current attire. Lifts a hand and tugs at the shoulder of the shirt Kaeya’s currently wearing.

“And this is some of my own handiwork, I’d recognize it anywhere.” He quirks a brow suggestively, and Kaeya can’t help the laugh that bubbles up his throat this time - oh, how he wishes there were something more scandalous in his reason for borrowing clothing.

“It does belong to Diluc, yes,” he says in place of anything damning - either damning to his emotions or to their facade of a relationship.

Venti hums, then narrows his eyes again at Kaeya’s face.

“You seem more interesting. Khaenri’ah, right?” He turns on a heel, and Kaeya gets the unspoken message to follow as he wanders back toward the front. Pauses on occasion to brush a hand down a piece of cloth, to tap absently at a button or detail affixed to one of the items of clothing on display.

“Khaenri’ah,” Kaeya agrees aloud, uncertain. But Venti doesn’t treat the word like a curse, just nods and continues to make his way through the shop. After several long moments of silence, Venti draws to a stop, whirls on a heel.

“I know the subject of your magic is touchy at best,” he starts with no pretense, and Kaeya blinks in surprise before reigning in his expression. “But I’d like to design a few pieces with respect to what I’ve seen of Khaenri’ahn magic, if that’s alright?”

His magic...inky black, blue, and purple. The night sky made tangible, fluid and beautiful and dotted with elegant stars and-

“Prince Kaeya?” A hand waves in front of his face, and Kaeya blinks and glances down at Venti.

“Ah, yes of course, by all means. Do you need to take my measurements?”

Venti shakes his head sharply.

“If these fit,” he tugs again at the shoulder of Diluc’s shirt, “then I’ll just use Diluc’s.” He leans back, lifts his brows and claps his hands together. “Any special requests?”

Kaeya twists his lips - this has been perhaps the most painless visit to a clothing shop in his life.

“Assume that I arrived with little more than the clothes on my back, and create accordingly,” he says with a grin, and hopes that his words don’t give away the truth of that statement. Fortunately, Venti’s eyes light up - whether it’s with excitement at assembling Kaeya an entire new wardrobe or excitement at the payment for such a task, Kaeya isn’t certain.

But if he’d been the designer behind what Kaeya’s currently wearing, and he treats Kaeya as...well, as a person, and not some terrifying foreigner from the frightening land of Khaenri’ah, he can hope that this will end with at least a few befitting pieces of clothing.

----------

He returns to the castle just as the sun begins to set, and he’s just had the thought that it is a perfect match to Diluc’s hair when the prince himself steps out and into the entry hall. Kaeya’s brows lift.

“Ah, there you are. Dinner,” he says flatly, and Kaeya watches with mild disdain as that aching wall of false adoration slips into place. Diluc extends a hand, affixes a soft smile. Kaeya takes the hand, wonders at whether that smile exists outside the realm of this falsehood. Could he get Diluc to smile like that without this facade? Or is that a thing whose sole purpose is to fool those around him?

With a slow sigh - hardly more than a breath, as it would appear to the guards and few other employees that bustle down the halls at this hour - Kaeya steps to Diluc’s side, lets his arm slip comfortably through Diluc’s.

“I trust your earlier meetings went well?” Kaeya says simply, and hopes that Diluc hears the unspoken request that he tell Kaeya what he’d stormed off for.

“They went as expected.” No intonation, but Diluc squeezes his arm gently, and Kaeya glances over to find Diluc’s lips pressed into an unreadable line. He gives a brief nod, though, and Kaeya wonders whether that’s meant to reassure him - and dismiss his questioning - or whether it’s an agreement to Kaeya’s request for more information.

Or perhaps Diluc can’t read Kaeya so well, and it’s merely an acknowledgment of whatever concern Diluc sees there. Who is Kaeya to say? There are far too many watchful eyes.

“And I trust your excursion into town went well?”

“Ah, I met a good friend of yours. Venti, his name was?”

At this, Diluc lets out a long sigh, and Kaeya quirks a brow in interest.

“Whatever he told you, disregard it.” Now Kaeya turns properly to watch Diluc’s expression - and is endlessly pleased to find his cheeks flushed.

“Oh, he told me many things...” Not entirely untrue. “Which of them should I be disregarding?” He knows his tone borders on flippantly innocent, and suspects Diluc to believe none of his words, but he says them anyway. If only because they turn Diluc’s cheeks warmer again, enough that Kaeya could-

Oh, he could, couldn’t he? Here, in the middle of the hall surrounded by many eyes, he has a much broader realm of permission.

He leans in, brushes his lips to Diluc’s cheek and relishes the touch of warmth.

Red eyes flick to meet his, then turn back to the hall ahead of them.

“Most everything he says is a flagrant exaggeration.”

“But not untrue,” Kaeya counters, entirely aware that he holds no cards whatsoever. But Diluc seems to think he does, or that he might eventually. “Perhaps I should go pay him another visit soon, he was rather lively company…”

“While it is not within my rights to ban you from visiting whoever you choose,” Diluc says under his breath, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line that does little to hide his smirk. “I would rather you not badger strangers if you wish to know more about me.”

“Ah, so you’d prefer that I badger you instead?” Diluc’s gaze flicks to Kaeya again for a brief moment.

“If you must.”

A begrudging, but open invitation to ask more about Diluc? Oh, Kaeya had not been prepared to coax that out of him. Had, in fact, expected Diluc to shut down that line of questioning entirely. What little thought he’d given to the idea, he’d genuinely assumed Diluc would prefer to keep to himself. To keep everything to himself.

Before he can consider what more, exactly, he’d like to know about Diluc, they round the corner into an open room with many - many - guests. Aside from himself and Diluc, they’re all already seated, and Kaeya plasters a polite grin on his lips.

“Ah, late again.” Crepus, though his tone is not unkind.

“Forgive our delay,” Diluc says with a short bow, and Kaeya dips his head in turn. He’s then led to two unoccupied seats at the end of the table, and he follows Diluc’s lead for which he’s meant to sit in.

At his left, Diluc. To his right, a woman he recognizes from the state of affairs meeting this morning - not far from his age, blond and meticulously poised. Jean, her name was, if he remembers correctly. She’d introduced herself as the acting leader of Mondstadt’s troops, and Kaeya gives her a brief nod as he settles. Across the table are more faces he does not recognize, and down toward the king’s end, only one or two stand out as familiar.

“Your patience is greatly appreciated,” Diluc says again, voice projecting clearly through the room. Crepus nods, waves a hand, and the server in the corner disappears through the door. Returns moments later with others in tow, and Kaeya leans into his role as a newly-wedded prince.

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

After three attempts to control the conversation by Diluc, Kaeya sets a hand on his thigh and offers Lisa - apparently, a veritable wizard with accounting and with anyone she finds attractive - a wide grin.

“Really, you’re too kind. He’s a catch, isn’t he?” Kaeya glances over at Diluc, who has turned every shade of red known to Teyvat, and it only makes Kaeya’s heart hammer harder. Granted, he isn’t the reason this time, unless his hand - still resting on Diluc’s thigh - can be compounded with the thousand-and-one compliments Lisa’s paid them both since the meal started.

“He’s too handsome for his own good,” Lisa says with a wink, then nods at Kaeya. “As are you, though at least you have the common sense to realize it.” She grins as she pops another vegetable in her mouth, and Jean sighs at Kaeya’s side.

“Lisa, please. You’ll make Prince Kaeya uncomfortable.” Lisa quirks a brow, continues chewing. Kaeya does not point out that the only one uncomfortable among them seems to be Diluc. His entire body is rigid beside Kaeya, and he takes another bite as if it’ll stave off Lisa’s incessant inquiries.

“Why don’t you two tell us how you met, hm?” Lisa prompts the moment she’s swallowed, and she waves a fork between Kaeya and Diluc. Jean exhales a breath, but must deem that safe enough territory.

It is, however, very unsafe territory for Diluc and Kaeya - funny, he’d just been thinking that her line of inquiry couldn’t possibly make him uncomfortable, and here they are. Diluc’s leg tenses beneath Kaeya’s hand, and he scrambles for a moment as Diluc clears his throat.

“Many years ago,” he says, and Kaeya inhales, exhales. Waits, in the event that Diluc needs him to take over with this fabrication. “We were young children, bored of our fathers’ talks. Left on our own in the library where, it was assumed, we could not get into trouble.”

Kaeya glances to the side, surprised to find a focused look on Diluc’s face. A subtle hint of a smile. He’s not fabricating this one, Kaeya realizes quite suddenly.

“He dragged me back to the history section, of all places,” Kaeya interjects, and Diluc’s eyes widen for a moment before he falls back into his besotted persona. Kaeya’s lip ticks up in a smirk, and he rolls his eye as he turns back to Lisa. “As though a kid of hardly ten years would be entertained by something so boring.”

“History is fascinating if you know what to look for,” Diluc quips back, and Kaeya rolls his eye again. Shakes his head minutely, and Lisa presses her lips into a line in a poor attempt to hide her smile.

“Regardless, I was bored out of my senses, and Diluc had the audacity to suggest I sit down and read with him.” The memory floods back in, a thing long forgotten but clear as day now that it’s resurfaced.

You wanted to play-swordfight in the middle of the library,” Diluc accuses. “Amidst all those fascinating stories, you wanted only to smack me with the nearest blunt object.” Now he shakes his head, glancing past Kaeya to Jean in some search for support.

If he finds it, Kaeya does not know or admittedly care. All he can think about is the unexpected vibrancy to Diluc in this moment. Talking as though he remembers Kaeya - and he does, he must, for he’d been the one to draw that memory back to the surface. Talking as though that had been some endearing thing for him, to get all in a huff over Kaeya’s insistence for playing knight.

“Oh, look at these two,” Lisa says with a laugh. “Bickering already like an old married couple.”

Now Diluc’s gaze flicks back to meet Kaeya’s, a sudden sweep of sincerity before he turns back to his plate. Kaeya’s hand, he realizes with a start, still rests on Diluc’s thigh, and he retracts it carefully. Offers a laugh at Lisa’s comment, though it’s probably too late to sound appropriate.

“Old married couple indeed,” he says to his food, and hates and loves the way his heart races.

Chapter Text

“That could’ve gone infinitely worse,” Kaeya declares once the door’s shut behind them. Diluc stills for a moment, blows out a long, slow breath.

“While I’m sure this is your prompt to get us to sit down and go over the details of our history together, I am not a fan of those dinners.” A pause, and Diluc glances over his shoulder at Kaeya. “I’d prefer to rest, if it’s all the same to you, and revisit this topic in the morning.”

Kaeya’s brows lift - although, he supposes, that was a rather...eventful meal, with no shortage of unexpected questions turned in their direction. And, based on what Kaeya knows of Diluc, he is not particularly social.

“I’ll let you sleep,” Kaeya says with a quirked brow and just enough subtle suggestion in his tone to make Diluc turn a tired glare in his direction. “If you answer me one question.”

Diluc waves a hand, and Kaeya follows his progress across the room. Lets his gaze drift elsewhere when Diluc’s hands lift to the buttons of his shirt.

“You did actually recall when we first met…” Where Kaeya’s going with this, he isn’t certain.

Did you actually find me as endearing as you implied? Or was that just a part of the act? Do you think back on those days fondly? Did you ever think of me? You must’ve, to recall something so long ago with such ease, right?

All things he won’t say.

“Of course I did,” Diluc says flatly, and Kaeya’s gaze flicks over without his permission. Finds the bare and very nicely muscled back that Diluc has turned toward him, and proceeds to immediately glance back toward- well, toward anything else.

His thoughts run wild with desire, though, to trace his fingers up Diluc’s skin, to find himself beneath Diluc and pressed into the sheets, nails digging into the planes of his back. Oh, he has found himself in dangerous territory indeed.

“Was that your question?” Diluc prompts, a kindness that Kaeya does not deserve for the way he’s picturing Diluc right now. He clears his throat.

“Ah, no. My question was…” Fuck. “What did you think of me, really?” His cheeks warm with answers Diluc hasn’t given, ones he wouldn’t give, because he’d probably thought exactly what he said: that Kaeya was nonsensical and obnoxious at best, and a nuisance at worst. Or something to that effect.

“Truthfully?” Diluc’s voice is closer, now, and Kaeya glances up just as he brushes past, heading toward the bathroom.

“Truthfully,” Kaeya confirms - requests? Whatever it may be, it stops Diluc in the doorway for a moment.

“I thought you were trouble.” Here, he glances over his shoulder at Kaeya, and his lip has ticked up in the barest hint of a smile. “It seems I was correct.”

The moment the door closes, Kaeya flops back onto the sofa and stares at the ceiling. Allows himself ten seconds of childishly giddy grinning and one very quiet laugh before he sits back up and composes himself as best he can.

Diluc did not say that he found such an assessment to be good, or even intriguing, or anything with any kind of positive connotation. He said only that he thought that Kaeya was trouble, and that he was not wrong.

But he said so with a smile, Kaeya’s heart argues valiantly, and Kaeya would love nothing more than to give into that lovesickness. But it is just that: love sickness. Diluc does not actually care for him any more than any other political ally, and he would do well to make peace with that sooner rather than later.

Besides, what does he even know of Diluc? Gods, not a week ago he had half-jokingly considered the idea of giving his life over to poison, for it’d make things more interesting than a lifetime by Diluc’s side. He’s infatuated at best, finds Diluc attractive and nothing more.

By the time Diluc’s stepped out of the bathroom, Kaeya has coerced his mind safely into ‘nothing more than attraction’ territory, and he offers Diluc a brief nod and quiet ‘good night’.

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

Kaeya wakes in a cold sweat, gasps as he sits up and blinks into the inky darkness of-

Not the Abyss. Not surrounded by the twisted magic of the Abyss Order, only by Diluc’s rooms in the castle in Mondstadt. Kaeya’s heart doesn’t slow, but he manages a shaky breath. A quick glance in the direction of the bed confirms that Diluc hasn’t woken, and Kaeya tips forward, curls his arms around his knees.

He is far from Khaenri’ah, farther still from the front lines. The fact brings him both solace and a twinge of disgust: Khaenri’ah’s prince, running and hiding while his people put their lives on the line. Khaenri’ah’s prince, a gifted healer that was not permitted to help the injured. Khaenri’ah’s prince, worth more for his hand in marriage to another kingdom than he’d ever be worth on his own.

Worth twenty thousand men, as it turns out. At least, he acquiesces with a huffed breath of bitter amusement, that is a rather sizeable number.

Though night still pools around him, sleep feels too distant to reach for. Carefully, quietly, Kaeya climbs from the sofa and slips into the bathroom. A lantern remains dimly lit on a corner table, and he takes it with him to the bath.

With Diluc just outside, he lets the water fill as slowly - and quietly - as possible. His impatience wins out, of course, and he strips his clothes and eyepatch off before it’s even reached the halfway point.

Still, the burn of too-hot water on his skin feels needed, desperately, and he sinks with a hiss into the bath until his body adjusts to the temperature.

Only then does he let his eyes drift shut, focused mostly on the gentle sound of water still pouring into the bath. Focused slightly on the heat that swirls around him, on the steam that fills his lungs with each slow inhale. His heart no longer hammers in his chest, calmed by the activity and distraction.

He holds onto his focus until the water’s up to his chest, just high enough to cover him if he scoots a little lower. Once the faucet’s off, he sinks down, dips his head beneath the surface and relishes the fresh wave of heat.

His lungs ache by the time he lifts his head again, and he gasps in a sharp breath as water streams down his face. He rubs absently at his eyes, at both of them, and relishes it - such a simple feeling, he thinks with a hum.

For the hell of it, he lifts a hand just above the water’s surface and calls on his magic. Watches a galaxy dance above his palm, slow and beautiful as it swirls. A parlor trick at best, with nothing for him to heal, but he tips his head, allows himself the simple pleasure of staring at it.

This is it, he thinks with a bitter sort of acceptance - outside Khaenri’ah, his magic is unsettling at best, damning at worst. Within Khaenri’ah’s borders, it would only draw the attention of the Abyss Order, and so he could not - would not be permitted to - risk it. But he is so very far from Khaenri’ah, isn’t he?

He closes his palm around the miniature galaxy, and it swirls into ethereal dust that drifts between his fingers before dissipating.

Gods, those soldiers had better be helpful.

---------

It is the creaking of a door that finally startles Kaeya back to awareness - he hadn’t fully dozed off, but the bath water has certainly turned tepid around him. He blinks wildly at the door, uncertain for a moment whether he ought to try to dash out of the bath in search of a weapon, or-

“Kaeya?” Diluc. It’s only Diluc. His heart does not slow in his chest.

It’s only Diluc, still rubbing sleep from his eyes as he steps into the bathroom where Kaeya is currently very naked in the bath situated right in the center of the space. Diluc’s feet slide to a halt, and he clears his throat as his head turns sharply to the side.

Oh, but that lovely blush returns to his cheeks, and it quickly overrides any brief embarrassment Kaeya’d had at Diluc finding him like this.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Diluc’s voice is low, crackly with sleep and very clearly embarrassed enough for the both of them. Kaeya tips his head.

“These are your chambers, are they not?” A glance before Diluc turns away again, and Kaeya wonders at why he doesn’t just...leave. “You should go where you please,” he adds, entirely too aware of the way Diluc’s gaze keeps slipping over to him.

“They belong to us both,” Diluc says quietly. “In case you’d forgotten.”

Kaeya’s brows lift, and he blows out an amused breath.

“That we’re married?” He hums, shakes his head. Drags a finger through the surface of the bath water. “There was quite an eventful party the other day in honor of that fact, I’d find it rather hard to forget.”

His hands on Diluc for an entire evening, his lips brushing Diluc’s with every easy excuse. A facade so convincing that, had Kaeya not watched as it fell away at the end of the night, he might’ve believed it wholeheartedly.

At least he’s convincing enough for the rest of the world to believe it.

“While I’m sure you’re having a lovely time,” Diluc deadpans to the wall, and Kaeya smirks. “I’d recommend finishing up and finding some clothes. Carpenters will be here any minute to get your bed assembled.”

With that and another subtle glance at Kaeya, Diluc spins on a heel and marches back out the door. It creeps shut behind him, not entirely closed by the time it drifts to a stop, and Kaeya sticks his tongue out at it.

A bit childish, he knows, but he’s running on little sleep and the high of Diluc staring-

Staring. At him. His hand flies up to his face, brushes skin just below his grey eye.

Of course. Of course. He’d been staring at Kaeya’s stupid magic eye, the one that does nothing but leave people uncomfortable and unsettled. The pointless one, because what the hell can he do with magic nobody wants? He flicks a finger, watches a tendril of inky blue-black drift from it and disappear.

The water is tepid, the air cold around him, and he regrets it the moment he rises. But if Diluc isn’t just trying to get him out of the bathroom for his own sake, then the carpenters will be here soon. While he doesn’t mind getting Diluc flustered, he does mind appearing entirely naked in front of- well, in front of strangers that aren’t Diluc.

Because Diluc is still a stranger in his own right, isn’t he?

And Kaeya is not his, they are married in name only. They owe each other nothing, they are little more than acquaintances. Kaeya towels off quickly, finds his eyepatch first and slips it into place. Dons the clothes he’d worn last night, at least for the moment, and steps out into the bedroom again.

“I don’t suppose Venti came by as well with more clothes for me?” he asks as he inches the door shut, and the very very brief sight he gets when he turns nearly knocks him out. Stuns him, at the very least, but he has the wherewithal to glance away - he owes Diluc that, at least.

Diluc, Diluc, who - for a brief and fantastic moment - had been entirely naked, just pulling a pair of pants on. And what a fucking sight, all smooth lines and sinuous muscles, and oh, Kaeya could spend an eternity just staring. Could spend even longer tracing his fingers or lips or tongue along Diluc’s skin, and he really needs to pull himself together.

In the time Kaeya spends scrambling rather frantically within his mind to keep himself together, Diluc seems to have dressed, and he clears his throat.

“None of your new clothing has arrived yet,” he says aloud, voice entirely neutral. “As before, you’re welcome to borrow whatever you need.”

Kaeya turns at the sound of footsteps, and he follows the bright red of Diluc’s hair as he heads for the door, pulls it open and leaves Kaeya alone in the bedroom. At which point, Kaeya drops down onto the sofa with a huffed breath, puts his too-warm face in his hands, and lets out a very long groan.

How is he supposed to survive this?

---------

When he finally steps out into the hall - dressed in an exceptionally plain navy button down and a pair of grey pants - he nearly walks straight into a head of red fluff.

Diluc whirls on a heel, presses his lips into a line and blinks at Kaeya for all of a second before offering his arm in silence. Kaeya takes it, brow quirked in unspoken question - of what, he isn’t entirely sure, but something seems off.

Perhaps, he considers with no small amount of self-chastising, it’s because of his indecent behavior and the multitude of embarrassing situations this morning. Perhaps Diluc finds speaking to him an impossible feat, so to keep up pretenses, he will say nothing at all.

Kaeya watches from the corner of his eye, hoping to catch a moment of Diluc’s gaze, but he does not so much as glance in Kaeya’s direction as he leads him- ah, Kaeya recognizes the halls. Nods at the guards when they catch his eye, the same ones as yesterday. They’re off to another abhorrently boring state of affairs meeting, then.

A yawn threatens to overwhelm him as they step through the door, and he wonders if it’d be exceptionally unbecoming of the newly-wed to the crown prince of Mondstadt to fall asleep in the middle of a state of affairs meeting.

He considers that question many times over as the advisors drone on, as Diluc gives his orders and suggestions and next tasks. Kaeya bides his time with distractions such as considering the most effective way to end up with such absurdly perfect ringlets in his hair as the woman who’s now speaking.

Another gentleman steps up to speak, and Kaeya stares rather unashamedly at the sword hanging at his hip. Wonders when he’s last used it, for how impeccably it gleams. Either a man who has not seen battle in a very long while, or one who knows it so intimately that he would consider it a point of pride to keep his weapon in perfect order.

Which of course brings about the idea of fighting, and of practice - practice, for Kaeya was rarely permitted to do much more than scuffle with borderland vagrants and the occasional group of bandits during their journeys between kingdoms.

Does Diluc train and spar? He must, Kaeya considers with a wave of warmth that crawls through his body - no way he’d attain those frankly exquisite muscles otherwise. Perhaps after this dullness has ended, Kaeya can ask after a match with him.

Chapter Text

“You want to...spar?”

“If you’re not too busy, crown prince,” he taunts, and Diluc presses his lips into a line as he nods at someone behind Kaeya. Not anyone exceptionally important, then, if his attention turns back to Kaeya immediately. He tips his head, gives Kaeya a wonderfully assessing look.

“Considering we’re meant to be honeymooning,” Diluc says with no small amount of distaste, “my afternoon is quite free. However…” Here, he pauses, and Kaeya wonders at the fact that it is so very rare for Diluc to be the one to bring up the subject of their marriage without prompting or strict necessity. In clear irritation, but nonetheless.

His arm slips through Kaeya’s quickly, then, and Kaeya watches with rapt interest as his expression shifts to something softer. It hits very much like running headfirst into a brick wall, then, the reminder that this is nothing more than a facade.

“I’d love to, darling,” Kaeya’s heart stutters, “but I’d prefer if we had something to eat first?” Kaeya plasters on a smile.

“You’re entirely correct, dearest.” Diluc’s lip twitches, and Kaeya mentally strikes through that term of endearment. “It wouldn’t do to fight on an empty stomach, would it?”

Diluc hums, turns his gaze to the hall in front of them, and Kaeya knows better than to glance back lest he give away that he’s aware someone is watching. Better not to clue anyone into this charade for as long as they can possibly manage.

“In our rooms?” Diluc says then, affecting such a subtle undercurrent of suggestiveness that Kaeya might miss it were he not paying special attention to Diluc’s reactions. He glances to the side, drags his gaze rather obviously down to Diluc’s lips.

“That sounds lovely,” he purrs, and Diluc breaks for the briefest moment. Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the way he rolls his eyes before settling back into this carefully crafted persona. But he leans into Kaeya’s side a bit further, sets a hand on his as he leads him back to his- their chambers, and Kaeya enjoys it for the moment.

Pretends that it’s enough, that he doesn’t want anything more.

They slip into the room without another word, and Kaeya inches the door shut with just the right speed to catch a glance of the maids who’d apparently been trailing behind them. They mumble between them, giggle and rush off when they pass the door.

“Please never call me ‘dearest’ again,” Diluc says with a heavy sigh, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line.

“What would you prefer to be called, then?” he asks as he turns, argues with himself that his question is entirely for the purpose of their facade and nothing more. Ignores his own arguing in favor of focusing on the pale pink dusting Diluc’s cheeks as he shakes his head.

As he remains intriguingly silent.

“Darling?” A twitch of Diluc’s lip into a subtle sneer - not that either, then. Kaeya steps closer. “Sweetheart? Love? My treasure? Light of my life? The wind beneath my wings, my eternal flame, my-”

Gods,” Diluc grits out, eyes squeezed shut, and Kaeya can only laugh.

You are something divine, he thinks to himself, I’ll give you that. He watches as Diluc pinches the bridge of his nose, other hand gripped tight to the back of a chair in obvious irritation. After a long moment, he exhales slowly and straightens up.

“You’re insufferable,” Diluc says, stares right at Kaeya with blazing eyes and that fiery hair around his head. Divine indeed, he thinks with a smirk that Diluc clearly misinterprets. “Finished having your fun?”

“Not for a long while yet.” He lets his grin widen, and Diluc rolls his eyes. Turns away.

“Luc.”

“Bless you.”

“Shut up,” Diluc grumbles, clearly exasperated. When he turns, his cheeks have flushed a shade of red that Kaeya hasn’t seen since the other night, and oh, that gets his attention very quickly. “Call me Luc, if you want something less formal. Anyone that hears it will know it’s-” He clears his throat, waves a hand. “More...personal.”

Luc. A personal nickname for him, and Kaeya wonders at how that came about. Wonders if some other lover had given it to him, or he’d thought of it himself. Wonders and wanders into dangerous territory for doing so - does Diluc wish to take other lovers during their charade of a marriage?

“Luc it is,” he says quickly, shepherding those thoughts away for another time - if Diluc wishes for that, he can bring it up himself. Kaeya certainly won’t be selfless enough to suggest it first. “Ah, to that end, I assume we should have this discussion with regards to our...history?”

To this, Diluc only hums, then waves absently toward the sofa.

“I’ll get someone to bring us some lunch,” he says as he turns, and Kaeya waits until he’s soundly shut the door behind him.

“Luc…” He tests the name, lets his lips curl into a smile for the sound of it. Considers the feeling of whispering it in Diluc’s ear, or against his lips as they kiss. Of calling it across a crowded room and watching Diluc’s face flush with warmth. Of calling it alone in their room, with heat racing through his veins and Diluc beneath him and-

“Right, food should be here shortly.” Diluc’s voice - his real, present voice, not the one that lives in Kaeya’s fantasies - startles Kaeya from inside his head, and he clears his throat and nods. If Diluc notices, or even suspects, that his thoughts had wandered so dangerously, he does not make it apparent.

“Excellent,” Kaeya says with as casual a tone as he can manage. “Now, the matter of our relationship?” Dangerous words, and his heart hammers in spite of the truth. In spite of the fact that he knows his words will not be so grossly misinterpreted. Wishful thinking will only get him so much.

Diluc hums, rounds the edge of the sofa and settles in the corner. He seems unexpectedly at ease, with how he leans back, crosses his legs and lets his arms extend along the back of the sofa and the armrest. Red eyes fix on Kaeya, patient and assessing.

“The story of how we met is simple enough, since it’s true,” Kaeya starts, for lack of any other ideas on the matter. Mostly, he isn’t sure how far he can take this. What kind of precedent to set, what Diluc is comfortable with - as much as he’d like to daydream their courting to his heart’s content, he won’t put Diluc in the position of forcing this any more than he already has to.

He enjoys this, what little he gets of Diluc-his-husband when they wander the halls or sit beside each other during meals, and he admittedly rather enjoys pushing Diluc’s buttons, but he doesn’t want-

He doesn’t want Diluc to grow to hate him. A naive, childish sort of thing to hope for, given all that he is, and all that he’s become to Diluc, but he hopes for it nonetheless.

“I think,” Diluc says, “wherever possible, the truth will be our greatest ally.” Diluc tips his head, presses his lips into a line as his gaze drifts off. Kaeya takes the moment to stare, to let his own gaze drift down the lines of Diluc’s face, across his chest and to the tips of his fingers - gloved, and Kaeya finds himself rather fascinated, suddenly, with the idea of removing those gloves.

“Perhaps this is far simpler than we’re making it out to be,” he adds, and Kaeya hums in prompting, and to get his thoughts back on track. He blinks, inhales slowly as he waits. Red eyes flick back to meet his, and Diluc nods almost to himself.

“I’ve always been a notably private person,” he starts, and Kaeya follows the trail to the rather uneventful conclusion well before Diluc says it aloud. He exhales a breath, but lets Diluc continue anyway. “I suspect that nobody would be surprised if such a trait applied to my...romantic life as well.”

“If asked, you wish us to simply say that you’d rather keep such things to yourself?” Diluc nods again, once and sharply.

“It will go unquestioned, although…” He lets his eyes drift shut for a moment, blows out a resigned sort of breath. “People will speculate regardless…”

“They’re people, and you’re their prince. They’ll speculate whether you tell them the truth or some fabricated, fantastical love story, or if you tell them nothing at all,” Kaeya says with no small hint of amusement. Diluc’s eyes flick open, stare a little harder than Kaeya expected.

“And what if they begin to speculate the truth?”

“Laugh it off.” Diluc’s expression shifts into something that speaks volumes for how well he thinks that’d go over. “Fine. 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 lets a wicked grin curl his lips, and Diluc’s brows furrow for a moment. And then warmth colors his cheeks a delicious shade of red, and Kaeya’s grin widens.

“Because we’ll speak with them,” Kaeya says easily, tuts and shakes his head. “Now what on Teyvat could you possibly have assumed I meant?”

Oh, he had very much meant I’ll push you up against the wall, drag my tongue up your throat and make out with you until your knees are weak, ensure my fingers touch every part of you, that they dip beneath that shirt of yours and dig into your skin.

He had meant I will leave you so breathless with my name on your lips that no sane person would look at us and think we weren’t madly in love. I will leave you so flustered and marked up and disheveled that anyone who sees you after we leave that room will not doubt our infatuation.

But he is more than happy to tease Diluc for his assumptions - correct though they are - and feign that he’d meant something entirely innocent instead. That Diluc is the one dreaming up fantasies - or perhaps nightmares - where Kaeya all but fucks him in front of some disbelieving audience.

Maybe does fuck him, if he’d so imagined. Although Kaeya suspects that not even the most doubtful of people would let it get so far before determining that they’d been incorrect in their suspicions.

Nothing,” Diluc grits out, still red as his hair. Kaeya lets that innocent smile widen as Diluc shifts, pointedly keeps his gaze on anything but Kaeya. He lets him stew in his embarrassment for a few more moments before finally humming, nodding.

“So it sounds as though we have a plan?” he prompts, and Diluc swallows. His jaw twitches, but he nods once.

“Keep as much as we can to ourselves on the subject of our...relationship, let the people speculate. If,” he starts, face flushing anew with warmth that makes Kaeya’s heart race, “anyone of import begins to suggest that this is a ruse, we…” Red eyes flick to meet Kaeya’s for the briefest moment. “Have a discussion with them.”

“Sounds positively foolproof,” Kaeya says, the smirk on his lips threatening to become something a little too thrilled with how quickly he’s flustered Diluc.

But he would do well to stop now, before he pushes Diluc too far - he’s yet to get a solid handle on his limits, on how much teasing he’ll put up with before he’d rather not put up with Kaeya at all.

And it’s just as well, as there’s a soft knock at the door a moment later, and Diluc stands in a rush - Kaeya presses his lips into a line, grins at Diluc’s back for his sudden and clear desperation to end the conversation.

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

The meal is pleasant, not overly indulgent, and Kaeya manages to keep his mouth filled with food for long enough that Diluc’s cheeks cool to a soft, subtle shade of pink. He very valiantly resists the urge to determine how exactly to get that deep red back, considers Luc, and throws it out immediately.

There is no need for pretense behind closed doors, and Kaeya would certainly prefer not to have his privilege of using the nickname revoked without even having the chance to try it out.

Besides, he was promised a fight, and he’d very much like to get that - it’s been quite a while since he’s had a qualified sparring opponent, and he expects remarkable things from what little he does know of Diluc.

And while it might be advantageous to bank on Diluc’s anger making him reckless or unfocused, he’d rather not risk Diluc deciding to refuse to fight altogether. Ever the precarious line that Kaeya must balance between provoking Diluc enough to get his attention and not pushing so far as to ensure that he loses it.

“I believe you’d requested a sparring match,” Diluc says, then, drawing Kaeya from his thoughts. “If that is still on your mind?” he adds, and Kaeya valiantly resists the urge to say that Diluc is the very epicenter of his mind, that every thought revolves perilously around him. That yes, in a way, fighting Diluc is indeed on his mind, though it is very far from his focus at any given time.

“I’d still like to see how well you manage to stand up to my blade, yes,” Kaeya says with half-interest, feigning a focus on the back of his hand instead. He glances up to find Diluc’s brow arched up on his forehead, and Kaeya’s lip ticks up into a smirk.

“Your pride could fill a room,” he mumbles, then stands from the sofa. “I suppose I should expect from your fighting the same superfluous flourishing you apply to your words?” Kaeya gasps, overly exaggerated, and presses his palm to his chest.

“That you would dare accuse me of being unnecessarily excessive in my words and my swordsmanship…” He huffs out a false breath of offense. “Well, I demand a divorce this instant.”

To this, Diluc actually blows out an amused breath, and when he turns, his lip has ticked up at the corner. Kaeya lets the distraught facade fall away just enough to grin at Diluc.

Diluc turns away, shakes his head. Mumbles something that Kaeya wishes desperately he was able to hear, then turns on a heel and waves toward the door.

“Are we going, then?” he asks with a flat tone and an endearingly obvious attempt to hide his amusement, and Kaeya stands with a dip of his head.

“Of course, dear husband.” An eye roll, and Kaeya grins as he pulls the door open, then follows him out.

Chapter Text

Were there not onlookers and passersby, Kaeya might declare that he is filing for divorce for real.

Diluc has no right to put him so easily off guard, to distract him this way. Even though Kaeya’s technically leveled the playing field, Diluc feels nothing for him, so it’s hardly a level playing field at all.

His gaze flicks indecisively between Diluc’s chest - bare, now, because what’s the sense in dirtying a perfectly good shirt? - and his hair, tied up in a high ponytail. His attention is not drawn to the claymore in his hands nearly as often as it ought to be.

It’s just enough, though, to prevent any severe wounds to either his body or his ego, though they fight with dulled blades and Kaeya’s skills remain just enough to hold up against Diluc. He is, however, quite talented. And far less distracted, even though Kaeya’s opted to remove his shirt as well.

Of course, he reminds himself - because Diluc does not have interest in Kaeya in that way.

“I have…” Diluc attacks between his words, and Kaeya dodges easily, swings in a low arc that Diluc manages to catch and deflect. “A question.” He pulls back, lifts his claymore between them and circles Kaeya slowly. Kaeya matches him step for step, sword held out lightly but ready to twist in any direction to parry a blow.

They fight differently, he notes - Diluc with his heavy weapon and grounded stance, and he swings with power behind each strike, while Kaeya’s light on his feet and nimble as he dodges and returns two blows for every one Diluc throws at him. They’ve yet to properly hit each other, though.

“By all means,” Kaeya says with a wave of his sword in place of his hand, and Diluc straightens up and out of a fighting stance. Kaeya waits for a moment, then opts to do the same.

“Your eye…” He does not specify which one, and doesn’t have to. Kaeya’s stomach twists even as he lifts his brows, a silent request that he continue. Continue, ask his question, and get this over with.

“Is your vision impaired?” Kaeya blinks - this is...perhaps not exactly the question he’d expected, and he approaches it with caution. Glances around them briefly, pleased to find the area empty of any onlookers - and potential eavesdroppers. That would explain Diluc’s willingness to ask such a question, one that it would be assumed by outsiders that he already knew the answer to.

“Well, the eyepatch does obscure things a bit,” Kaeya says with a touch of amusement, but that seems only to make Diluc’s brows furrow.

“So you can see just fine, then?” A pause. “Without the eyepatch, of course.”

“I can.” He can feel a practiced caution creeping into his tone, into his body, into every fiber of his being. He can see, yes, but not where this conversation is leading.

“I wonder, then, why you fight with it covered?” Kaeya’s body tenses. “Would that not put you at a disadvantage?” His thoughts scramble, flying around each other as if on the winds of a storm, and Kaeya grasps desperately for something-

Something easy. Something that does not force him to admit the judgment that follows him at every turn, in every village and kingdom. Something that does not force him to admit that he does not want Diluc to think about it too much either, lest he decide to judge Kaeya as well. Lest Kaeya remind Diluc of who he is, what he is.

“You practice with a claymore, your preferred weapon, yes?” Diluc’s eyes narrow, but he nods. “To spar with a sword like this would leave you unprepared to fight with your weapon of choice?” Another cautious nod. Kaeya mirrors it. “It’s the same concept.”

“You prefer to keep it covered, and want to hone your skills accordingly,” Diluc says with such a neutral tone that Kaeya feels himself drawing back into himself, hiding. He plasters on a placating sort of smile.

“Precisely. Now, shall we continue?”

To his mild surprise, Diluc does not inquire any further - Kaeya’d already been scrambling to piece together a not-entirely-untrue statement as to why he prefers to keep his eye covered while carefully avoiding anything that might remind Diluc of what, exactly, his eye represents. What it defines him as.

What it gifts him with, though his magic - both inside and outside of Khaenri’ah - feels like little more than a curse.

But Diluc does not ask, and the wide sweep of his claymore quickly redirects Kaeya’s focus, shattering his poorly-amalgamated explanation with a sharp clang of metal on metal.

He focuses wholly on the feel of his weapon in hand, of the grounding clash of his sword and Diluc’s, of the wildfire of Diluc’s hair as he spins and slashes and swings. Too, on the expanse of his chest, though Kaeya finds he can’t keep his gaze there for too long, lest he miss an attack entirely.

For some time they circle each other, battering their swords like children swinging sticks until they break, though the metal in hand does not crack and splinter at some point to remind them that the sun is setting, that they ought to return home before dark.

And so it is dark by the time they stop, sweat dripping down Kaeya’s body as much as it does Diluc’s, and breath coming in too quickly. A small, perhaps delirious fraction of Kaeya’s mind relishes the idea that it was Diluc that had reduced him to this state: breathless, heart pounding in his chest, sweat dripping down his brow and body aching with exertion.

Would that the circumstances were a little different, but he’ll take satisfaction in this as well.

“You’re quite a skilled fighter,” Diluc says as he lowers his weapon, and Kaeya takes the hint to lower his as well. His arms don’t shake, not quite, but they burn with the soreness of having fought for far too long.

A severe and painfully sharp thought rips through him, then: that this is what his people must feel like, right now in this very instant. Worn to the core for fighting, though they will have to lift their blades again and continue on while Kaeya has the luxury of stepping back, knowing that he is safe. That he can go to sleep peacefully tonight with no concerns beyond some sore muscles in the morning.

“As are you,” Kaeya says, forcing that thought to the back of his mind. He has bought his people twenty thousand soldiers. They will be worth far more on the battlefield than Kaeya could ever be worth himself.

“Your stamina is equally impressive,” Diluc adds, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath, brought entirely back into the present with an easy quirk of his brow, the easy tug of his lips into a smirk.

“Impressive, is it?” he taunts, and Diluc presses his lips into a line, glances sharply away and sets his claymore aside in favor of collecting his shirt and jacket.

Just then, a few of the guards march past, and eyes flick to Kaeya and Diluc. And Kaeya takes full advantage of their momentary attention.

“Oh, you walked right into that one, Luc.” It takes a momentous effort not to place any particular emphasis on Luc, no matter how badly he wants to drag that single syllable out. No matter how badly he’d like to say it with his chest pressed to Diluc’s back, with a hand traveling leisurely up his side.

Diluc pauses for barely a fraction of a second, then huffs out a breath.

“Are you so desperate to impress me?” Diluc says, and his words do not carry the same tone of teasing that Kaeya’s had. He swallows when Diluc turns, when he approaches slowly, intentionally. Lifts a hand to Kaeya’s cheek, cups it carefully.

“I’ve already married you, do you expect me to turn you away the first time I outperform you?” A pause, so intentional and sincere that it makes Kaeya hold his breath. “In combat, that is?” he adds, and Kaeya lets a smirk touch his lips again. Diluc’s smile is so subtle that Kaeya could miss it if he weren’t this close, this desperate - yes, to impress Diluc. Yes, he expects to be turned away at every opportunity.

And still, hope flies away with his heart.

“I am eternally lucky to be your husband,” he says, and means every word. Cautiously, he lifts his own hand, wraps it around Diluc’s back and presses it flat against tacky skin. “Forgive me for wanting to ensure that you have reason to stick around.”

Diluc hums, and his smile widens in the brief moment before his lips meet Kaeya’s, before he presses into Kaeya’s chest with all the ease of real lovers. Kaeya’s heart hammers so loudly that it rivals the earlier clash of their weapons.

But he takes as much as he thinks he can get away with - takes Diluc’s lips and his body pressed against his, takes Diluc’s hand that slips to the back of his neck. Hums into the kiss and savors it, every inch of Diluc and every moment he gets to spend just like this.

When Diluc pulls away, he determines that this must be a form of torture.

“They gone?” Diluc mumbles between them, quiet enough that Kaeya understands it to be an out of character question. A quick glance confirms that the guards are, in fact, gone - and probably had been for quite some time, though he chooses to omit that particular detail.

“Gone,” he says aloud, hoarse, breathless, and aching when Diluc pulls away entirely.

Torture indeed.

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

The bed is nice enough - of course it is, he should expect nothing less from the royal carpenters. It’s actually a mild surprise they hadn’t outfitted it with the same obnoxious detail as Diluc’s bed, though perhaps they assume that Kaeya will have little use for it.

Oh, how amusingly and tragically wrong they are.

Still, it’s soft and comfortable when he flops into it, bone-weary and exhausted - they’d grabbed a quick meal from the kitchens before returning to Diluc’s- their chambers, and Kaeya’d wolfed it down rather quickly. Better not to spend too long in Diluc’s presence when he can’t get his mind off of earlier.

Are you so desperate to impress me?

Kaeya’d wanted to laugh at the question, for how could he say anything but yes? In all honesty, beyond this charade, he wants Diluc to like him. To want him, yes, but to like him as well.

Again, that silly voice in his head argues that he still knows so very little about Diluc, and Diluc could probably say the same of Kaeya, so how could he possibly like Kaeya? And, for that matter, how could Kaeya possibly feel anything more for Diluc than simply finding him attractive?

And the voice goes on, turning dark and damning: if Diluc knew Kaeya - if he truly knew Kaeya - wouldn’t he run, just as everyone else has? He finds Kaeya insufferable now, has said as much, but he couldn’t possibly like Kaeya if he really knew him.

With the sitting room separated by a door from Diluc’s bedroom proper, Kaeya pulls his eyepatch off and tosses it aside. Diluc has given him privacy, a thing Kaeya wants and dislikes in tandem.

Dislikes it senselessly, because Diluc is so close, and he’d really prefer to share his bed rather than sleep in one of his own. Wants his privacy, rationally, because sharing a bed with Diluc is not a thing he will ever have, and so he should at least be grateful to have space where he does not have to hide from anyone but himself.

And hide he does: he tucks himself inside fantasies of Diluc in his bed, or his arms, or swinging a sword at him in another sparring match. Anything and everything to do with Diluc, so that his mind has no room for Khaenri’ah.

-------

He is not sure when sleep comes for him, but it must come eventually, because he wakes to light filtering through a window that, in all honesty, he hadn’t had the forethought to draw the curtains across.

So it is rather early, but he can’t say he particularly minds.

He shoves hard at the covers, shoves harder at the lingering nightmare that’d plagued him for the past however long. It drifts away easily, leaving only snippets of bloody scenes and torn bodies and ink-dark magic that had threatened to suffocate him.

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, ex-

Kaeya’s eyes narrow at a package sitting on the table beside the window, directly across from his bed. He glances then at the door, the one right next to the bed itself, the one he should’ve heard open in the middle of the night, had such a package been delivered.

There are no other entrances to this room, and he frowns at the window before climbing carefully from the bed. He skirts the table and package, giving it a cursory glance on the way to the window.

In the periphery of his mind, he considers that the window is rather a magnificent thing - it spans from the floor to the ceiling, woven with intricate wrought iron patterns between panes of glass. He gives more attention, however, to the fact that two armchairs have been pushed rather unceremoniously up against it - likely to make room for the bed, though they seem to have served the dual purpose of blocking the window from opening.

No one had entered through the window, then, and a thread of discomfort filters through him as he returns to the door leading back into Diluc’s bedroom. It’s unlikely - or so he hopes - that someone had snuck past Diluc and into Kaeya’s pseudo-bedroom, but he can’t discount that possibility entirely.

More thrilling - and less terrifying - a concept presents itself, then: that Diluc had brought this package into his room himself. He drifts back over to it, then, and takes a moment to-

Ah. Across the side, scribbled in dark blue ink, is a messy note.

Kaeya - first round! Let me know what you think, which I assume will be ‘WOW, this is amazing!’ -Venti

He wonders if Venti had delivered this himself, and if so, how. But it is curiosity that he deems far more important in that moment - he assumes the package will not explode upon opening it, given its source and supposed contents.

Carefully, he unties the strings and unwraps the thick paper, blinks down at the fabric staring up at him.

A grin curls his lips, and he vows then and there on his newfound position in Mondstadt to support the clothesmaker in any future endeavors.

Chapter Text

He opts for a loose-fitting shirt that dances the line between navy and royal blue, not quite close enough to either one to fit the description. It hangs in two panels over his chest, crossing in the middle at the very base of his sternum, and he affixes a broad black belt around his waist and accompanies the whole ensemble with simple off-white pants. Truly, he thinks as he glances in the mirror, Venti has outdone himself.

By the time he leaves his sitting-room-turned-bedroom, Diluc must already be awake, because his bed is empty and Kaeya can hear water running in the bathroom. Just as well, he has other things to attend to this morning.

After a quick - proper - examination of his new room, Kaeya had determined with a frown that such a place was not entirely equipped to serve as a bedroom. No closet, namely, and no dressers or wardrobes in which to store his new attire.

He has half a mind to waltz out and leave Diluc wondering where he’s gone, but opts instead to- well, to give Diluc a similar treatment as he’d received yesterday.

So he inches the bathroom door open, grins wide and steps inside.

“Di-” His voice catches in his throat, and Diluc stares with wide eyes for a very brief moment as his entire body - his entire body - flushes red.

Luc,” Kaeya finishes on a breath, half to himself and with a sudden and desperate wave of desire he has to rapidly tamp down on. The man should not have the right to look quite so tempting.

And oh, Kaeya is tempted - he wants to close the distance between them, rush over to where Diluc stands entirely naked at the sink and back him into the nearest wall, take him or suck him off or whatever the hell he wants, anything he wants. Something, for the gods’ sakes.

Leave,” Diluc grits out with a tight, panicked expression, and Kaeya does not think as he backs away, hands raised in mock surrender as he attempts to get his spiraling desire under control.

“I’ll be out for a bit,” he calls as he inches the door shut, and Diluc does not respond. Which is just as well, Kaeya needs a moment. Needs several moments, gods, just to begin getting Diluc out of his head.

He grips tight to the back of a nearby chair, waits til his knuckles turn pale under the pressure. His breathing refuses to slow, as does his heart, and he allows himself one single moment of imagining - properly imagining - Diluc pressed up against him before he tears the image from his head and tosses it aside.

It’s inevitable, he argues to himself as he slips out and into the hall, skin far too warm and the lack of breeze not nearly cooling him enough. They’re married, and living together, and it’d only have been a matter of time before they’d see each other undressed. They’ve simply...gotten a head start. Jumped into icy waters, and they’ll suffer the shock of it for a little, but they’ll get used to the idea of it eventually, right?

But the picture of Diluc flushed from head to toe, red and warm and- gods, that will not leave him anytime soon, he thinks.

--------

He wanders through the hedge maze for an uncomfortably long time before he manages to find his way out near the carpenter’s cabin, and while he’s certainly appreciative of the time to cool off, he could’ve done without the frustration of coming upon dead end after dead end.

At least he’d had a moment to pass by the bed of Khaenri’ahn plants again, and he considers that he might linger there a little longer on his way back.

But for now, he has a task to complete, and he focuses wholly on it in order to keep his thoughts in place. To prevent them from wandering as he’d done through the hedge maze, to keep them from trailing their way back to Diluc in all his-

“Prince Kaeya?” Kaeya blinks at the voice, the kid- Bennett, right, Bennett. Bennett rounds the side of the cabin with an axe slung over his shoulder, and Kaeya hums in acknowledgment. The kid’s got a wiry sort of build to him, and he looks strangely at home with the axe in hand. Perhaps as a product of growing up in the trade, with his father working in carpentry as well.

As he rushes over, Kaeya wonders with a strange, detached sort of homesickness at the idea of such a simple life. Worrying over shipments of wood or a chipped axe in place of corrupted magic and precarious politics. A life of tangible threats and victories instead of immaterial ones.

Rather belatedly, Kaeya waves a hand in greeting as Bennett draws to a stop.

“What can I do for you?” the kid asks, bright and smiling - another of very few who do not seem to care much about Kaeya’s origin, who do not find his presence unsettling.

“I’d hoped you might be able to help me out with a dresser, or a wardrobe?” Bennett hums, and his face scrunches up in thought. “Anything to store some clothing, really.”

They do not know, so act your part.

Kaeya clears his throat, affixes a smirk to his lips.

“It seems Diluc did not have the foresight to commission somewhere to store my attire,” he adds with a scoff, and Bennett nods with twisted lips as though he understands Kaeya’s plight so well.

“Right, of course! I’ll talk to my dad, I’m sure we can get something made for you. Urgent?” he asks over his shoulder as he turns, and his free hand beckons Kaeya to follow. The axe is relegated to the hooks near the entrance once they step inside, and Kaeya stands patiently in the entryway as Bennett rushes over to a hardy-looking workbench and flips through a well-worn book.

“Hmm…” He runs his finger along a line, shakes his head.

“Please don’t inconvenience yourself on my behalf,” Kaeya adds a bit belatedly. “It’s by no means urgent.”

“No, no,” Bennett waves a hand over his shoulder in dismissal, squints and flips a page. “We like doing stuff for Prince Diluc, it’s- ah!” He stops, glances frantically around his desk and then grabs a pencil and scribbles something, loops an oval around a couple lines.

“As long as it’s not any trouble…” Kaeya starts, and finds his meaning rather sincere. Bennett and his father seem kind, and have been rather accommodating - he does not intend to take advantage.

“Nope!” Bennett announces. “Just wanted to mark off a shipment of some nice wood we’re expecting early next week for it. Do you have any preferences on the design?” Kaeya blinks - admittedly, he hadn’t given it much thought. No such requests had been made with regards to his bed, and it didn’t occur to him to have anything prepared.

“Ah, I trust your judgment on the matter,” he tries. Bennett, however, just twists his lips and crosses his arms, lifts a disbelieving brow.

“You have no opinions?” A challenge and perhaps a suggestion of his true nature, and it makes Kaeya cough out an unexpected laugh.

“I have many opinions on many different things, but in this case, I hadn’t given it much thought.” He can be honest about this, at least. “Something perhaps to match Diluc’s furnishings?”

This earns him a narrow-eyed nod of approval, and Bennett whirls on a heel as he holds a finger up, like he intends for Kaeya to wait while he- ah, while he scribbles more notes in the margins of the book he’d been paging through.

“I can work with that,” he says mostly to the page, and Kaeya allows himself a smile while the kid’s back is still turned.

“Given the materials are not meant to arrive until next week, I presume…” he starts, and Bennett nods at the page, then turns to glance over his shoulder.

“Right, yeah, so once we get the wood, it’ll take a couple days to cut and stain and seal properly, so- ah…” He pauses and turns around fully, drags a hand to the back of his neck and gives Kaeya a sheepish grin. “I promise I’m not just drawing it out! The bed was so fast cause we had everything in house already, but we’ll work as quick-”

“Bennett, Bennett,” Kaeya says with a hint of amusement, and Bennett blinks at him with his mouth still wide open. “It’s truly not urgent, there’s no need to explain. If Diluc trusts you and your work, assume that I do as well.”

The kid visibly exhales, then sucks in a deep breath and gives Kaeya a wide grin.

“Well, thanks then! Prince Diluc is great, and we’re really glad that you two- um, that he’s-” A pause, and Bennett’s face flushes. “Uh, that he’s happy. And that you’re happy! Of course.” He blows out an embarrassed sort of laugh, and Kaeya gives him a sincere smile.

Ignores the prick of disappointment in his chest - would that it were true, would that things were so very simple.

“I’m glad as well,” Kaeya lies too easily, and Bennett seems to relax a little at the sentiment. “Was there anything else you needed from me for this project?” He hopes not - he’s prepared nothing else, and he’s not entirely sure ‘do whatever you’d do for Diluc’ will hold up in every situation.

“Nope- ah, um.” Bennett’s flush returns, his sheepish smile that he points more at Kaeya’s shoes than at Kaeya. “Actually, well, it’s not for- uh, not for this, but-”

Kaeya blinks, uncertainty creeping in. He is still unused to Mondstadt, to its people and customs and questions. His foray into town yesterday had only served to leave him feeling more alienated, and more cautious in turn. But Bennett seems...relatively harmless.

“It’s just- well, I’d normally ask Prince Diluc, but I- ah, I mean, not that I wouldn’t want your advice! Just- um, well, we only just met, but-”

“Go on,” Kaeya interrupts, mildly intrigued now - and he assumes this must be safe territory, for the way Bennett seems to believe his and Diluc’s relationship is genuine. Beyond that, he can’t possibly imagine-

“How did you know you were in love with Prince Diluc?”

Ah. Perhaps he did not anticipate every possible outcome to this request. Bennett stares at him with mild panic in his eyes and a deep flush on his cheeks that makes his hair look ever whiter, and his hands have gripped into tight fists in front of him, lips pressed into a nervous line.

“Hm,” Kaeya begins rather eloquently, and Bennett exhales a short breath of clear relief that he hadn’t taken obvious offense. “Well…” But gods, what does he say to that? Does the kid expect some sort of fairytale romance? Some waxing poetic about how he’d found Diluc to be his match in every way, his perfect partner? Or that he couldn’t imagine a future without him?

The kid can’t be older than, what, sixteen? Kaeya doubts that he’s found a possible lifelong love, but he’s also not about to dismiss his feelings entirely. And he should make some kind of effort here, right? If not for his own sake, for Diluc’s.

Bennett must look up to him quite a lot if he’s asking Kaeya for advice, either because he trusts by extension or because he thinks Diluc could only ever have some kind of perfect romance. That he would not love unless it was true love, would not marry for any other reason.

Oh, to be young and think that the world is fair and right and wonderful.

“Ah, sorry! If that’s, like, too much of a personal question, I don’t want to-”

“No, no, it’s alright,” Kaeya rushes to get his words out, to wave a hand. At the very least, if nothing else, let this kid keep his romanticism of the world. Let him have the uncomplicated teenage years that Kaeya never got, the silly, all-encompassing romance of a first love that Kaeya had been too jaded to even bother dreaming of.

“How did I first realize I was in love with Diluc…” he starts again, if only to give himself a moment to think.

I think...the truth will be our greatest ally.

Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner as Diluc’s words flit through his head, and he leans into them with unexpected ease.

“It was...not as long ago as you’d imagine,” he says carefully, and Bennett sucks in a short breath, nods in earnest, his rapt attention fixed on Kaeya. “We...hadn’t seen each other in quite a while.”

“Oh, that must’ve been hard!” Kaeya blows out a quiet, amused breath, but otherwise nods.

“And…” Kaeya graciously skips over the entire truth in favor of focusing on bits and pieces he can use to weave a truth that will suit him. “And we kissed, and...it felt like someone had taken my heart from my chest, given it wings and set it free.”

“So you knew when you...when you kissed him?” It’s careful, cautious, and Kaeya refocuses his eyes to find Bennett looking exceptionally nervous - though his attention seems to be focused inward, his nerves not directed at Kaeya.

“It took me a little while to properly realize it, but yes, I think the kiss was what started me on that path,” Kaeya admits, and Bennett hums.

“And how did you...like, know? Know for sure?”

Kaeya exhales slowly.

Because he doesn’t look at me with fear and mistrust. Because he cares somewhere behind that facade and the neutral exterior, I think - if not for me, for his people, at least. Because looking at him ignites a fire in my chest and makes me want to do reckless, dangerous things.

Maybe it’s not love, exactly, but he feels something for Diluc. And that will have to be close enough to the truth for Bennett’s sake.

“I realized I felt safe around him,” he decides, “that I could be vulnerable without concern.” It is enough of the truth, and Bennett lets out a soft oh, nods to himself as though this has confirmed his suspicions. Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner, pleased both at the natural end to his advice and Bennett’s apparent satisfaction with it.

“And who exactly,” Kaeya prompts with amusement, “might this lucky person be that you’ve found yourself interested in?”

Bennett’s eyes go wide, his cheeks turn a shade of red to rival Diluc’s hair, and he coughs out a painfully nervous laugh.

“Oh, ah, uh, it’s- it’s nobody! Nobody, I’m- uh, I was just wondering. Anyway! Thanks for, uh- for the business!” He clears his throat, offers a too-wide grin as he rushes over to the door, pulls it open and gestures for Kaeya to leave.

Certainly not the worst way he’s been requested to leave an establishment, and he waves over his shoulder with a smile as he goes.

“Thanks for your assistance, kid,” he adds just before the door slams shut, and amusement flickers through his chest - ah, young love.

Young love - c’mon dear, let’s leave them be.

Gods, the memory hits like a tidal wave, turns Kaeya’s skin to fire under the bright sun. Diluc’s body pressed to his, warm hands everywhere, fingers digging into his shirt. Lips hot against his, and he forgets for a moment where he is.

So much for ridding his thoughts of anything tied to Diluc.

Chapter Text

“Kaeya, there you are.” Diluc sounds rather displeased, and Kaeya tips his chin up with a smirk.

“And there you are,” he says with no intent beyond riling Diluc up. Sunlight casts itself around Diluc’s hair, setting it to glowing as though lit on fire, and Kaeya hums at the idea of running his hands through it.

Diluc’s expression tightens into something irritated, and he glances around briefly before narrowing his eyes at Kaeya.

“You missed the state of affairs meeting.”

“Oh dear…” Kaeya shakes his head with put-upon regret, and Diluc blows out a frustrated breath. “Well, I’m sure I’ve missed nothing of import, but do correct me if I’m wrong,” he adds. Diluc’s jaw tics with his unspoken irritation, but he does not, to Kaeya’s mild amusement, provide any updates on things that Kaeya had missed.

Meaning, of course, that he’d missed nothing, and Diluc is simply avoiding admitting that.

“I’m sure you’ll be disappointed to have missed the announcement,” Diluc says simply, and Kaeya shifts up slightly, dusts his hands from their time spent propping him up on the grass and leans forward.

“Alright, sadist, you’ve got my attention,” he says after a moment of silence during which Diluc only watches him with feigned disinterest. He blows out a breath, and Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner.

“I’m not sure what all you know of Mondstadt culture,” Kaeya blinks, but lets the truth slip back - he knows plenty, but he has little to work with and does not want to make any assumptions just yet. “But we mark the turning of seasons with a large banquet.”

“Ah, and summer approaches rather rapidly, doesn’t it?” He supposes the air has turned quite warm in the recent days, but his interest remains piqued for far less...innocuous reasons.

A party - where, of course, the crown prince and his new husband will be expected to attend. And, naturally, those gathered will assume that he and Diluc are still rather infatuated with each other.

Another long night of Diluc hanging on his arm, his body warm against Kaeya’s side. Any number of reasons and excuses to press his lips to Diluc’s. An entire evening of giving into his desires.

“The event will be at the end this coming week.” Diluc crosses his arms down at Kaeya, and Kaeya grins up.

“I look forward to it.”

“We’ve been assigned the first dance.”

“Then I look very much forward to it,” Kaeya quips back - if Diluc expected him to be disappointed at yet another excuse to have Diluc pressed against him, he’d be sorely mistaken.

But he would assume that, wouldn’t he? That Kaeya is just as disinterested in Diluc as Diluc is in him. That they’re on the same page, that this is all an unfortunate but necessary facade for their mutual benefit.

“You know how to dance?” Diluc’s question and the unfounded quirk of his brow catch Kaeya off guard - Diluc is unexpectedly inelegant in his presumptiveness. Kaeya scoffs, climbs to his feet and steps closer to Diluc. He intends, in that moment, only to use his single inch in height over Diluc to allow him to stare down at those flame-red eyes, but his body does not obey that thought.

Instead, his hand finds Diluc’s, his arm wraps around his waist, and he’s surprised to find that Diluc does not pull away immediately. Wide-eyed shock still touches his expression, but it’s only for a moment before-

Ah, that perfected facade of the infatuated lover: his lips curl in a soft smile as he fits his hand properly in Kaeya’s, and he steps close, allows Kaeya to lead the dance with no music. He moves easily, smooth and practiced in his steps, and Kaeya hums an admittedly amused breath.

“Something funny?” Diluc asks quietly, with that false smile that Kaeya sees straight through.

“You’re rather graceful for someone usually so...stiff.” He takes that moment to step away, to spin himself into Diluc’s arms for no reason other than because he can. Because Diluc, for this moment, believes that they have an audience somewhere. Believes that Kaeya’d seen someone watching them, and had acted accordingly.

“And,” Diluc starts as he allows Kaeya to press back into his chest, “for someone so typically abrasive…” Kaeya scoffs, and Diluc pulls away, and they drift back together to sway to imaginary music once again.

With no pretense, Diluc tucks his head into the crook of Kaeya’s neck, stays closer than even Kaeya had attempted. Kaeya’s heart hammers, stuttered and frantic as he wraps his arm entirely around Diluc’s back and holds him there.

“You’re not as terrible a dancer as I’d have expected,” Diluc mumbles into his shoulder, and Kaeya looses a breath of laughter. Lets his gaze drift past wild red hair to the patch of Khaenri’ahn flowers, blooming dark and beautiful shades of blue and purple.

In spite of himself, he hums out a contented sound, lets his eyes drift shut for a moment and imagines - pretends, very desperately - that this is real. That all of this is true, that Diluc wants to be here, tucked against him and swaying gently. That Diluc wants him, that he cares as much as he pretends to.

It’s a terrifying, thrilling thing, to imagine that this is his reality. He pokes pins and needles into it quickly, deflating his hope before it can get too out of hand - this is a facade, Diluc does not want him. They are each others’ means to an end, nothing more.

Still, Diluc does not pull away immediately. Does not mutter a question of whether they’re still being observed. Does not declare that they have matters to attend to, or that Kaeya’s taking things too far, or anything that would get Kaeya to let him go.

So they sway to imaginary music, and Kaeya melts into the warmth of Diluc pressed against him, wrapped around him, and he lives in this fairytale world for as long as Diluc will allow it.

Which, to Kaeya’s chagrin, isn’t for very much longer after he’s had the thought.

He pulls away slowly, though, carefully. Kaeya lets him go, meets too-neutral red eyes with an equally neutral stare. A gentle smile, one that pains him physically when Diluc does not return it.

“I have some matters to attend to in preparation for the banquet,” Diluc says quietly, and Kaeya does not catch up to the moment as quickly as he should. Stares, for that’s all he’s able to do with the phantom warmth of Diluc still clinging to his body. “I’ll find you for dinner,” he adds as he turns, and Kaeya watches him go without a word.

Lets him go, because Diluc is not his. This is only a ruse, and he would do well to remember that.

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

He finds himself in a rather annexed part of the castle after an inordinate amount of wandering - mostly to join the layout of the castle that exists in his mind with the physical one as he walks through it, and this is the final area he has yet to explore.

Little more than a short hall and a handful of rooms, though their purpose eludes him - they had not been marked with anything useful on the myriad maps that Kaeya has studied, but he concludes as he wanders that they must be left in disuse.

This conclusion he draws after a strange wave of realization: the hall is quite unguarded. He notices this only by virtue of the fact that his presence has been followed by eyes at every turn, around every corner. Guards stationed at regular intervals, all manner of employees that stare as they pass him on their way to continue their duties.

And yet, this particular area is left empty, save - now - for Kaeya. He exhales as he walks, an unexpected relief at being alone washing over him, growing with each echoed footstep that rebounds around the otherwise silent walls.

A handful of doors line the hall, and he has half a mind to peek into them - if nobody guards them, logic dictates that they cannot have anything worth guarding inside.

But his image is not particularly favorable to begin with, he notes with a twinge of irritation. Should anyone happen upon him investigating random rooms for no apparent reason, he’ll only further encourage the castle’s residents to find him suspicious.

Still, it’s not as though he has any other thrilling or even particularly boring tasks to attend to. Perhaps, he considers as a smirk tugs his lips, he can wait here until Diluc comes searching for him for dinner. He wonders just how long it’d take him to think to check such a disused part of the castle.

He feels a bit like a child, then, settling himself on the floor against one wall - no furniture lines the hall, with the notable exception of a single thin table and a vase of fake flowers. He chooses to sit opposite that, and he hums to himself at the random decoration.

Forgotten, perhaps, as the rest of the wing was gradually abandoned. He glances up toward the entrance to the hall, pleased to find it still and silent.

He lets his gaze drift up polished stone archways, trace motifs he does not recognize over doorways he is not yet confident enough to enter. Perhaps he can stay a while, return to this place in his free time, and see if it remains so empty at all hours.

If nobody else will claim it, Kaeya thinks with a strange spark of defiance, then he will.

He will allow himself something in this castle that is not his home, this country that is not his, this place that will never belong to him and will never feel like it could. He cannot have Diluc, because Diluc is a person who has no genuine interest in him and who does not want him beyond the confines of their agreement. He does not want Kaeya’s- Kaeya’s affection, his care. His love, if Kaeya ever ends up feeling that for him.

But a disused, abandoned hallway in the corner of the castle? He thinks that perhaps it will not care if it is a Khaenri’ahn that makes it his own.

------

He waits another hour before standing, then takes his time walking along the walls, dragging a hand across peeling paint and chipped stone. How unbefitting of such an otherwise well-kept castle, he thinks with both a thread of irritation and a thread of appreciation.

His fingers pause at the joint between a wall and a stone archway, and he blinks for a moment as the idea settles into his head.

It would be...a form of healing, wouldn’t it? To fix the paint - such a simple task, and it’s not much of a stretch to call it healing, certainly.

He wonders if this line of thinking is how his ancestors had corrupted their magic so severely, by justifications that led to more justifications that led to an infinitely slippery slope - healers turned to necromancers, water mages to blood mages, magic artificers to those fabricating new life from nothing.

But that is not his intent, he knows with conviction - he will never become that, he will never twist his magic so atrociously. But this hall deserves to look as well-cared-for as the rest of the castle.

He lifts his eyepatch and blinks against the dim light, lays a hand flat on the peeling paint and dips gently into his well of magic. Watches with a soft sort of thrill as dark blue drifts in wisps from his hand, curling in little swirls over the rest of the wall. Where it touches the peeled, tan-gold paint, it smooths it out, and Kaeya lets his lip tick up at the corner.

It spreads faster, then, along the wall and over the ceiling, righting the paint wherever it touches. Healing it, he thinks as his smile grows, as his chest feels light and warm. He follows the edges of his magic with his gaze, tracks it until it’s touched the very end of the corridor, then releases it with a wave of his hand.

The moment he’s done, he slips his eyepatch back into place and exhales a sharp, satisfied breath - the hall looks better, if still disused. Certainly not uncared-for. And his magic...his magic had a purpose, for once. The only time it has, he thinks with a touch of bitterness.

But that feeling dissipates as quickly as his magic had the moment a bright flash of red hair rounds the corner.

“Kaeya?”

Kaeya blinks in his moment of panic, swallows and quickly reins his expression into something casual and unbothered.

“Diluc. What brings you to this wing of the castle?” Diluc’s brows lift in mild surprise as he glances around, then returns his gaze to Kaeya. He stops a short distance away, and Kaeya wishes for a moment that he could hold onto the feeling of his magic, of being useful - that would be a lovely distraction when all he wants to do is hold onto Diluc.

“I could ask you the very same,” Diluc says flatly, and Kaeya huffs out a breath of amusement.

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

In spite of the jibe, Diluc only tips his head, a subtle sort of curiosity flickering over it before it disappears.

“It is rather disused at the moment, although it won’t be for long.”

Disappointment pools like a flash in Kaeya’s stomach, but he does not let his gaze flick to the newly-pristine paint on the walls.

“Oh? And pray tell, what use will it have?” A pause, and he lets the rest of the world filter back into his thoughts. “Surely the banquet won’t be taking place here…”

Even if it isn’t, this place will be reclaimed, and it will not belong to Kaeya. He swallows, inhales slowly. Quirks a brow for good measure, though Diluc just shakes his head.

“No, this is a guest wing. A friend is coming to visit shortly before the banquet-”

“A friend?” Kaeya huffs out a breath. “I didn’t realize you had many of those.”

Diluc’s glare is one of eternal irritation, and Kaeya lets his easy grin widen.

“You’d find him boring, I suspect,” Diluc says offhand. “And would be wrong,” he adds quickly as he brushes past Kaeya. “But that would be your opinion.”

“Well, that hardly seems fair when I haven’t even met him,” Kaeya says with no small amount of offense - put-upon, but something nervous twists in his stomach beneath it. He follows Diluc to the end of the hall, allows himself surreptitious glances at the paint on the wall. Absolutely perfect.

“You’re welcome to meet him,” Diluc says with a shrug as he pushes through a large door. Kaeya is met, quite suddenly, with the smell of musty books. He blinks, frowns, but steps inside behind Diluc all the same.

“What, will he be taking up residence in this forgotten library?”

“It’s not forgotten,” Diluc says with just enough of an indignant tone to hint at the fact that- ah, perhaps Diluc has not forgotten it. Kaeya huffs out a breath - of course, the one part of the castle, of Mondstadt, that he thought he might have for himself had really been Diluc’s all along.

“Is he a bookworm, then?” Kaeya says, and means a worm very literally.

“He’s a fan of books, yes.” Whether Diluc misinterprets the jibe intentionally or not is entirely unclear, so focused as he is now on pulling dusty sheets off furniture. Most furniture, Kaeya notes with interest. A large, well-worn armchair seems to have been left uncovered, and Kaeya can picture Diluc curled up there, book in hand and reading into the late hours of the evening.

It’s an admittedly pleasant image in Kaeya’s head, even if Kaeya is not part of it. He wonders, briefly, if he’d like to be. If he could find a comfortable way to fit into that scene, or if he would be unwelcome and out of place.

Out of place, he decides with a twist of an ache in his chest. And probably unwanted, too - Diluc does not want him, is not interested, so why would he desire to have Kaeya disturb some peaceful thing of his?

“Is your friend arriving soon?” Kaeya could do with a redirect of his thoughts, away from this and into something safer. Possibly safer. Depending on the nature of this friendship-

And if it is something more than friendship, Kaeya will accept it. Because he does not own Diluc, and if Diluc seeks pleasure elsewhere, that is his business and not Kaeya’s.

“Within the week.” A pause as he gathers all the sheets, then turns to Kaeya. “I need to stop by the launderers, then we can collect dinner from the kitchens.”

For lack of anything else to say - and with his thoughts still admittedly scattered - Kaeya just pulls the door open and waves Diluc through.

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

Perhaps it is better this way, he thinks as he curls into his bed hours later, tucks his face into the pillow with a bitter sort of smirk.

There’s no sense in getting attached to anything in Mondstadt, he will not ever fit in here. He will forever be Diluc’s husband in name only, in exchange for troops to assist his people. Diluc will not magically - certainly not by Kaeya’s magic - fall in love with him, and Kaeya will not try to force him to.

He will take what he can get, even if it’s only Diluc-his-husband at banquets and in public. Even if it’s the simple knowledge that some dear friend of Diluc’s will walk down a slightly nicer hall than he would’ve if Kaeya had not used his magic. The simple knowledge, really, that his magic is not something fearful and terrible. That he is not the Abyss Order.

That someone - especially someone dear to Diluc - will benefit from his magic, even in the smallest, most insignificant way.

That Kaeya is worth something here.

Chapter Text

He wakes slowly, appreciates the dark in spite of the fact that it means that it’s still so very early. An idea drifts into his head, then, a slow and simple thing, and he holds onto it, lets it coax him out of bed in spite of the time.

Venti had provided only two sets of clothes in his first package, and Kaeya slips the second set on now - a cream-white shirt with gold stitching in patterns like the night sky, and a pair of simple navy pants that he tucks the shirt into. Perhaps later, he’ll stop by the town and let Venti know how much he’s appreciated the clothing so far.

But first, he will seek out a place he belongs.

He slips out from the sitting room with little noise, and is pleased to find Diluc still fast asleep - perhaps someone had come in the other day to deliver Venti’s package, if Diluc does not wake now that Kaeya creeps through his room toward the hallway door.

He pauses with a hand extended toward the handle, lets his gaze drift over to Diluc’s still-sleeping form.

Would that he could crawl beneath the covers, wrap himself around Diluc and tuck his head into the crook of his neck and drift off like that, pressed against him. The urge to do just that nearly overwhelms him for its suddenness, for the vice grip it holds Kaeya in as he reaches for the door.

And then Diluc shifts, hums a noise of being woken, and it startles Kaeya from his paralysis.

Not quickly enough, though, for Diluc not to notice him. His head lifts, and he blinks sleep from his eyes as he stares Kaeya down.

“Kaeya?” Gods, Kaeya could melt for the sound of his name in Diluc’s rough, still-waking voice.

“I’ll be out for a bit,” he says quietly, as though his volume will prevent Diluc from asking any further questions. His hand turns around the handle, and he pulls the door open before Diluc can say anything else.

“The garden,” he adds at the very last second, just as he inches the door shut, and Diluc mumbles something on the other side that Kaeya does not hear, but might include the words ‘state of affairs meeting’.

If it does, well, Kaeya may simply never know.

----------

His heart aches as he makes his way down the halls, a brisk walk that ends with a brisk breath of fresh, cool morning air. Another week, and it’ll already have warmed by this hour, he thinks. Summer is fast-approaching indeed.

This, in turn, only leaves his heart aching more for the time he’ll be allowed with Diluc at the banquet - granted, he’s all but avoided Diluc for the past couple days, but what are they supposed to do? Laze around in Diluc’s rooms to feign a rather busy honeymoon? Wander the halls arm in arm with no real purpose? Kaeya can’t imagine that holding his interest, not unless Diluc would like to ensure they’re authentic in their portrayal of their, ah, honeymoon activities.

Gods, he’s grateful for the cool breeze on his cheeks - not that anyone’s out here to notice them flush with warmth, with desire. And desire not even just for Diluc - well, sort of. What burns in his chest now is a desire for this fabricated life they’re supposedly living.

A life where Kaeya is happy here, where he feels at home. Where he loves Diluc, and is loved in return. Where he is here because he wants to be.

A life where he can crawl into bed with Diluc - where he’d been there since the night before, where his touch would make Diluc smile, where his lips would be welcomed and eagerly desired. Where he is wanted, loved, desired. Cared for.

His feet move on instinct, leading him through the still-dark hedge maze toward the carpentry cabin - though that is not his destination, he hopes it’ll get him close, and not leave him wandering-

Ah, perfect. His gaze lands with a small amount of relief on a bed of plants, a few of which glow in the still-receding darkness. He heads over to the patch of grass beside the bed of Khaenri’ahn plants and leans down, but his hand meets dew and his lips twist with mild disappointment.

Perhaps elsewhere...he swears he’d seen-

There - a bench, tucked back beneath the canopy of silver willow branches, and he ducks under them and settles onto the cool stone with a slow exhale.

Here, here he can feel- perhaps not entirely at home, but certainly as though he belongs. Here, among the flowers and trees and plants of Khaenri’ah. The palace in his homeland had gardens not unlike this little patch, but spread across a vast stretch of land used also for growing food.

He suspects it’s all overrun by now - fields laid to waste beneath the grips of wild jade mint, the castle itself overrun with ink-colored ivy. He’d like to see it again some day, he thinks, even in its wildest state.

I hope to see you again.

He wonders if his father expects him never to visit, never to return. Wonders, too, if his words had been false, in the presence of others. If his father had instead meant that he hoped never to see Kaeya again, for that would mean that he is safe, tucked away very far from the battle raging in Khaenri’ah.

Kaeya exhales, lifts a hand to tug one of the hanging willow branches closer. He rubs a finger across a silvery leaf, lets his lip tick up at the corner as it glitters in the early morning light.

 

When he releases it, the whole branch sways and rustles, and it nearly covers the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel. Kaeya dips his head just enough to peek through the leaves, and his smile widens just a bit when he’s met with the sight of a shock of red hair.

The rising sunlight catches Diluc, then, and Kaeya’s chest aches for a moment - his own veritable sun. Diluc makes his way over to the patch of Khaenri’ahn plants, and Kaeya exhales a slow breath. Though he’d never say so in words - not while there’s nobody around to perform for - he’s admittedly glad for Diluc’s presence.

It draws him from inside his head, focusing on Diluc, and he laments at the fact that his biggest distraction happens to also be something so painful. Diluc, the sun - he’ll never get the chance to reach him, not truly, but will gladly bask in his warmth whenever he graces him with his presence.

He doesn’t speak when he gently parts the branches of the willow, nor when he settles beside Kaeya on the bench. Not too close, but enough that the edge of his jacket falls against Kaeya’s thigh.

A sudden, overwhelming urge wells up in his chest, and he fights against it with his entire being - would that he could lean over, twine his hand with Diluc’s and rest on his shoulder. Exhale his weary heartaches, find comfort in Diluc’s touch, in his presence. Find solace there.

But he can’t, and he won’t, so he remains still, focuses instead on breathing in the warming air.

“This is the second time I’ve found you with the Khaenri’ahn plants,” Diluc says then, quiet and careful. Uncertain how to respond to that - or if, really, he could respond with anything lighthearted enough - Kaeya only hums his agreement.

“They remind you of home?” Kaeya clenches his jaw at the question, fights back a sudden wave of emotion he’d pointedly been trying to ignore. Lets a bittersweet smile tug at the corner of his lip as he extends a hand for the willow branch again.

“Did you know,” he starts, surprised to find his words sound rather steady. “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.”

Not unlike Diluc’s hair in the very same early light, Kaeya muses with no small amount of humor.

“That sounds lovely.” Diluc sounds like he means it, and Kaeya’s chest aches with the desire to show him. But he does not know if he’ll ever return home, does not know if Diluc would ever accompany him there. If Kaeya would ever put him at such risk for something so frivolous. Instead, he hums his agreement.

“Only rivaled by their glow under the light of a full moon.” He inhales slowly, lets the branch drift from his hands. “It is unlike any place on Teyvat.”

For several long, aching moments, Kaeya lives and breathes the vision of that lake, those silver willows. The rippling reflection of the moon across dark waters, the cool air of late evening dancing through his hair.

“You can visit any time you’d like, you know.” Diluc’s voice is quiet, and Kaeya’s eye flickers open - he hadn’t quite realized he’d closed it, but he glances over to find Diluc’s gaze fixed across the garden. “You are not a prisoner here.”

Perhaps not, he considers.

“Be that as it may, Khaenri’ah is not particularly safe. The battle against the Abyss Order…” In his head, images of the war flash like strikes of lightning amidst a dark storm - all at a distance, of course. From well-guarded towers high up in the palace, where he can see little more than bright sparks of magic, hear only the clang and clash of weapons.

He swallows, inhales slowly.

“My apologies, of course.” Diluc sounds sincere, endearingly so, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line. Forces them to turn up in a bitter sort of smile.

“I’m used to it,” he says, and this earns him a too-neutral hum from Diluc. “Your gardeners do a remarkable job keeping these Khaenri’ahn plants flourishing,” he says, if only to shift the topic far from such dark thoughts. Diluc turns his head in the corner of Kaeya’s vision, and he glances over to find Diluc’s gaze wandering across the myriad flowers.

“They are indeed skilled at their jobs, though you sound surprised. Are they so hard to keep alive?” Kaeya tilts his head.

“They grow from soil long embedded with Khaenri’ahn magic. I admittedly would not have expected them to survive in a place like Mondstadt.” Here, to Kaeya’s surprise, Diluc tips his head. A subtle smile flashes across his lips, then, and Kaeya lifts a brow in silent question.

“That does explain my mother’s long-ago insistence on hiring a gardener blessed with Khaenri’ahn magic,” he says almost to himself, and Kaeya blinks. His mind flits through several thoughts all at once, hardly taking the time to land properly on one before moving along to the next.

“You know of Khaenri’ahn magic?” In his head, he sees Diluc’s furrowed brows, hears his voice asking if Kaeya’s eye is alright. Why this particular thing feels so important, he can’t quite say.

Or, rather, he can say, but chooses to blatantly ignore his selfish reasoning. Diluc glances at him, then, a curious expression touching his features.

“Should I not?”

Ah, how to go about addressing this carefully...Kaeya leans into the bench a bit, welcomes the cool press of the stone against his back.

“No, it’s not that…” It’s that you have never feared me, in spite of it. It’s that you do not judge me for it, or seem to even care that I have it. That you speak of Khaenri’ahn magic without prejudice or distaste.

“You just seemed rather surprised to see my eye the other day,” Kaeya tries, “so I assumed…”

Here, Diluc glances over, brows furrowed just slightly.

“You have magic?”

Now Kaeya’s brows furrow.

“You weren’t aware?”

In place of answering, Diluc shifts to turn toward Kaeya completely, head tipped in silent consideration. Kaeya wonders if - with the notable exception of their intentional ruse of a relationship in public - Diluc has ever looked at him so intently.

But he stares, now, and Kaeya’s heart hammers at the sudden attention.

He nearly flinches back when Diluc’s hand lifts slowly, carefully toward Kaeya. Gods, what he wouldn’t give to lean in, to kiss that contemplative look off Diluc’s face - whether to distract him from whatever focus he has on Kaeya’s magic or simply because he wants to kiss Diluc, for the gods’ sakes, he can’t quite say.

He holds immeasurably still, though, as Diluc’s fingers brush gently at the base of his eyepatch, and his stomach twists itself into knots when Diluc’s gaze focuses. He sees the silent question there, nods carefully.

Diluc lifts the eyepatch, intensely gentle, and Kaeya has to remind himself to breathe, to relax as he blinks into the early morning sunlight.

His skin itches, warm and uncertain under Diluc’s stare - and he is very much staring, attention drawn directly to Kaeya’s eye. The magic one, of course. Kaeya stares back, hopes that he’s been able to hold his expression even.

“Forgive my lack of knowledge on such matters. Your eye is the source of your magic?” He watches intently, and Kaeya swallows. Reminds his lungs to continue functioning, even under the full weight of Diluc’s attention.

He thinks of the myriad lectures received on how, precisely, Khaenri’ahn magic works, the intricacies of his affected eye and his well of magic, how they work together and what that means for his abilities, but words escape him. A silly sentiment, but he finds himself rather lost in Diluc’s gaze.

“Yes.” He manages that, at least - and it isn’t untrue, only a gross simplification of the truth. But Diluc hums thoughtfully and leans back, and Kaeya lifts a hand to his displaced eyepatch.

“Does it bother you to leave it uncovered?” Kaeya’s hand pauses at Diluc’s quiet voice, and he glances over just as Diluc nods at his hand where it’s suspended halfway to his forehead.

To say ‘no’ would be a blatant lie, but ‘yes’ is not entirely true either - it is not so much that it bothers him, but that it garners unfriendly attention for the way that it bothers others.

“It is easier to keep it covered,” he says instead of answering Diluc’s question outright. And, because he’s said it - in spite of Diluc’s clear nonchalance about it - Kaeya slips the eyepatch back into place and turns his attention elsewhere.

Toward the gardens, which have now lit up with the rising sun. Warmth crawls in on humid breezes, and Kaeya wonders briefly if a storm approaches.

“If it is of any consequence,” Diluc’s voice remains careful, neutral, “when we are alone, do not feel obligated to keep it covered on my account.” Kaeya hums a noncommittal noise.

His thoughts flit to the other morning, his uncovered eye and quiet apology that Diluc had not seemed to understand. He wonders if Diluc’s thoughts drift there as well, if that is what prompts his words. Kaeya’s cheeks flush with a wave of embarrassed warmth, but Diluc does not press him on the subject, and he is certainly happy to let it go.

But he wonders, still, as he watches the soft gathering of clouds at the very edges of the sky - what does Diluc think of his magic and his eye, really?

Chapter Text

Kaeya moves through the rest of the day in a haze, though he’s lucky enough that his attention isn’t particularly required. A state of affairs meeting - which Diluc does not allow him to miss - a quiet lunch in their rooms, a rather exhaustive stretch of time spent discussing banquet preparations at length with so many advisors that it makes Kaeya’s head spin just to consider them all again.

Upon finally returning to his room, another package from Venti awaits him - along with another self-congratulating note that, to his mild surprise, also includes the suggestion that Kaeya stop by again soon ‘to chat’. He sets it aside with a tired smirk, then sorts through the clothing.

Another three sets, all shades of blues and purples as well as one very deep, rich maroon shirt that rather reminds him of-

“Kaeya?” There’s a soft knock following Diluc’s voice, and Kaeya turns to find him standing just outside the door to the sitting room. He lifts his brows in silent question. “A letter for you.” He holds the aforementioned note between two fingers, and Kaeya hums as he makes his way over.

A letter from his father, perhaps? Good news of how the soldiers have assisted in the war efforts would be rather appreciated. Would serve to remind him that he stays here for a purpose, that it is not a simple excuse to remain far from danger.

That it was necessary, and that he is permitted to have positive feelings about the whole endeavor. Positive feelings about his new circumstances, he thinks as he glances at Diluc.

He takes the letter with that thought settled soundly in his head, though he can tell immediately that it does not come from his father. Nor from Khaenri’ah at all, for the wax seal on it is not one he recognizes. His hopes fall even as he offers Diluc a tip of his head in thanks.

“I see Venti dropped off another package,” Diluc says, interrupting Kaeya’s halfhearted efforts to open the letter. He hums his agreement, then runs Diluc’s words through his head again. His hands pause, and he tips his head in interest at the rather...disgruntled tone.

“Ah, he did. Left me a note as well,” he adds, nonchalant to the point of sounding rather obvious, at least to himself.

“Did he.” Diluc’s deadpan does little to hide his interest, and Kaeya hums as he makes his way back to the table, to the package. Sets his own letter - and his own interest - down for the moment, lifts Venti’s note in turn and waves it briefly over his shoulder. Taunting, tempting, and he waits to see if Diluc will rise to the bait.

“And what did he say?” Kaeya grins at the table, feigns reading through the note again.

“Oh, all kinds of things,” Kaeya says. “He invited me to stop by again soon.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.” Kaeya grins wide before reigning his expression in. By the time he turns, he’s wearing a very carefully constructed, easy smile. Diluc has taken to leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest and a particularly neutral expression tacked on his face.

His jaw twitches, a rather clear indicator that he is not nearly as unbothered by this information as he pretends to be.

“Do you intend to take him up on his request?” Kaeya would laugh at the question if he thought it wouldn’t give away that he can see rather plainly through Diluc’s false nonchalance.

“Perhaps.” A pause, intentional as he waits for Diluc to process that decision. “He was a rather entertaining conversationalist…” Here, he allows his lip to tick up at the corner, a subtle smirk that makes Diluc’s eyes narrow just the slightest bit with his sudden focus.

“Was he? And what did the two of you find so interesting to discuss?”

Kaeya allows his smile to widen just a little, lets himself pause to ensure that he has the entirety of Diluc’s attention.

“You, of course.”

It is something truly magnificent, to watch the slow spread of pink across Diluc’s cheeks, to watch his breath catch for a moment as he inhales, to watch his gaze flick to the side in his sudden moment of panic.

Oh, what Kaeya wouldn’t give to close the distance between them, to laugh in the moment before capturing Diluc’s lips with his own. To mumble reassurances into his skin, to feel that warmth radiating from him and taste that subtle pout he attempts valiantly to hide.

But he will not do that, because they’re alone and there is no reason for their facade here.

“And what about me?”

“Well, I suppose you could ask Venti-”

“I’m asking you.” Fire lights behind Diluc’s eyes, and Kaeya basks in it, the heat of that stare. Would that it were for other reasons, but he will take any and all of Diluc’s attention, no matter the cause. He lets an easy smile touch his lips.

He could draw this out, he knows - it’d be rather simple, to dance around the truth for a little longer. But a wave of exhaustion hits him unexpectedly, and it is not entirely out of a need for sleep.

It’s a bone-weary kind, one borne of years of putting on masks, considering his words and every implication behind them to determine which will be the most effective to achieve his goals. Speaking with the intent to manipulate, to coax or coerce, to flatter and change minds and bend decisions to his will.

And on top of all of that, he now has to do the same with Diluc: feign his disinterest when they’re alone, because he is supposed to be disinterested. Wear this mask to convince Diluc that it is reality, that he considers Diluc little more than a political ally.

And it is draining.

His thoughts flit to earlier, to Diluc’s hand brushing just beneath his eye. To that careful, gentle touch as he pulled away his eyepatch, and the memory of it wears at his resolve to continue this act.

If it is of any consequence, when we are alone, do not feel obligated to keep it covered on my account.

Would that he could remove this invisible mask as easily as his eyepatch, be as he is without fear that it’ll push Diluc further away. But he can’t, he knows this with vibrant, painful clarity, so he removes only his eyepatch and tosses it onto the table beside his new clothes.

“He said that you were boring, and offered me his condolences on our marriage,” Kaeya says with a quirked brow. “Is that what you’d hoped to hear?” He can hear the exhaustion that seeps in his tone, and does not care enough to correct it.

Diluc blinks, presses his lips into an uncertain line. Clearly, Kaeya’s taken him off guard, and he inhales a slow breath as he turns away, lets his eyes drift shut and his hands press flat to the table.

Before Diluc can comment on the shift in his demeanor, he exhales sharply and lets his eyes flick open. They dart to the letter, as of yet unread, and he grabs for it and for the potential distraction it’ll provide - both for himself and Diluc.

He tears at the seal haphazardly, unfolds the paper and scans the first line. Scans it again, when it does not properly register within his expectations.

Prince Kaeya,

Hello! It’s me, Bennett. From the Royal Carpentry, I don’t know if you recall? I mean, I’m sure you do! Ah, anyway, I hope this letter finds you well, and Prince Diluc also! Tell him I say hello, please, if you don’t mind.

Oh, also, I wanted to let you know that the shipment of wood was delayed by the incoming storm, the shipment I marked for your dresser. We have some other wood we can use, but I’m not sure if you want us to wait since it wasn’t urgent or to go ahead with the wood we have here.

If you wouldn’t mind stopping by sometime soon, that would be great! I also had another...question. For you. If you have the time! No worries if not, I’m sure you’re very busy as a prince and all!

Anyway, thank you for your time reading this letter and I hope you’re well! Thank you so much.

-Bennett, Apprentice Royal Carpenter

Kaeya huffs out an amused breath - the kid rambles just as much on paper as he does aloud, but it’s a refreshing place to turn his focus. Away from his own problems, onto much simpler things. And, he notes, as he’d thought, a storm is indeed coming.

He turns just enough to glance over his shoulder, and is admittedly a bit surprised to find Diluc still standing in the doorway. Which is just as well, he’d like to do Bennett the service of passing along his greetings.

“The kid from the carpentry, Bennett,” Kaeya says aloud, and catches the subtle shift of Diluc’s brows lifting in the short moments before Kaeya turns around completely. “You know him well?” He suspects not, but he’s rather interested in how Diluc has managed to get such an enigmatic and energetic kid to look up to him in such earnest.

“I’ve known him most of his life, but rather distantly. The letter is from him?” Confusion twines deep within Diluc’s tone, and Kaeya hums an agreement.

“He wanted me to let you know that he says hello…” Kaeya purposely lets unspoken words hover in the air, and Diluc rises to his prompting with such ease that Kaeya has to swallow a laugh.

“That was all he wrote in that letter? He could’ve just as easily told me himself.” Disbelief, now, and Kaeya folds the paper, sets it on the table. Takes his time doing so, half uncertain of his goal. Goading Diluc on? To what end, simply for fun? Perhaps, but he’s still not sure yet of Diluc’s limits, how far he can push before he risks losing all of Diluc’s attention.

And it weighs on him heavily now that he’s felt it, now that he’s let it in - that exhaustion, that desire to throw away his mask as easily as he had his eyepatch. As though it’s so simple, as though it could ever be so simple.

“I requested a dresser for the new clothing,” he says simply, to the table. “Bennett informed me that the shipment of wood set aside for it has been delayed. And he requested that I stop by to discuss our options.”

And for another question, supposedly.

“The storm,” Diluc says, and Kaeya hums his agreement.

There’s a long pause, then, long enough that Kaeya assumes Diluc has left. When he turns, however, Diluc remains framed in the doorway, a soft, distant sort of expression on his face. The kind that tempts Kaeya to wrap his arms around Diluc, to tuck his chin into the crook of Diluc’s neck and simply...hold him.

“I’ve always found storms rather...peaceful,” Diluc says quietly, almost distantly, and Kaeya tips his head just a bit. He seems to come back to himself, then, and he blinks up at Kaeya for a moment. “I’d like to return Bennett’s greetings, if you don’t mind my company tomorrow.”

“We could stand to be seen together,” Kaeya says by way of agreement, and ignores the warmth that blossoms in his chest at the excuse to act the part of the infatuated husband again. If Diluc is offering, he certainly won’t turn that opportunity down.

To this, Diluc only hums, then turns away. Pauses, just for a moment.

“Good night, Kaeya.”

“Good night, Diluc.”

Chapter Text

It is far later than he expects when he wakes - the light that filters in past the curtains is dim and hazy, and he wonders just how long it’ll take for the storm to break.

A quick peek out his window confirms that it hasn’t yet, but grey-blue clouds gather heavy in the air, and Kaeya can feel the hint of humidity seeping through the joint where the two windows meet. Perhaps someday he’ll open them, let fresh air drift through his makeshift bedroom and cast out any and all of his heavy burdens.

But he suspects that the dense air today would only serve to weigh him down further, so he draws the curtain shut again and meanders over to the table that currently serves as his wardrobe. In the hopes of bringing some lightness to his thoughts, he chooses a simple white shirt that he suspects Venti had intended to act as an undershirt for some other item of clothing.

And while he does, admittedly, appreciate the rich, dark hues of most of the clothing that Venti’s made for him, he feels that today warrants a bit of assistance in brightening his mood.

He dresses quickly, grabs his eyepatch from the table and pulls the door open. Is mildly surprised - though he supposes he shouldn’t be, with the later hour - to find Diluc already awake and dressed and tucked up on the sofa with a book in hand.

At Kaeya’s sudden intrusion, he glances up, then closes the book and sets it carefully on the small table. Kaeya watches this as heartache pangs through his chest, ricocheting off every inch of his ribcage with desperation to curl up beside Diluc, rest his head on his shoulder and read random snippets of whatever Diluc has deemed interesting at the moment.

But he won’t, and doesn’t, and even if he could, Diluc has already climbed to his feet by the time Kaeya remembers to inhale, let alone move.

“You wanted to stop by the carpentry today, if I recall?” Diluc says this as though they hadn’t just had this conversation last night, as though days have passed between the last time Kaeya mentioned it. Still, he hums his agreement.

“Right,” Diluc nods. “We’d better head over sooner rather than later, I believe the storm is expected to hit by the afternoon.”

Ah, that’d explain the weight in the air, the heavy humidity and moisture that he can feel even within the castle walls. He’d thought it’d break soon, but hadn’t realized its imminence.

“Then,” he tips his head, pulls his eyepatch on and lets an admittedly tired smirk touch his lips, “we’d best be going.”

It’s only once they step outside their doors - Diluc’s arm offered to Kaeya as they slip back into their lovestruck newlywed personas - that Kaeya realizes how easily Diluc had brought himself into this excursion, how easily Kaeya had allowed him here. Of course, he supposes, he wants to spend more time with Diluc in any fashion he can get Diluc’s time and attention - pretenses or no.

But Diluc had not been the one to offer, had he? Perhaps he’d simply taken his discovery of being an idol of sorts for Bennett rather seriously, or perhaps he’d had the same thought that Kaeya had voiced aloud last night - that he and Kaeya should make an effort to be seen together again, lest anyone forget their supposed infatuation.

“You’re quiet this morning,” Diluc says as they turn the corner, tone devoid of any obvious opinion on the matter. Except that he’d said it, which is interesting in itself.

“I had assumed you’d prefer my silence.” He hopes he’s added enough humor that the joke comes across as just that, but Diluc gives him little in the way of a reaction to interpret.

Diluc glances over just as Kaeya does, and he holds his gaze for an unexpected length of time - except that they’re infatuated lovers, of course, so Diluc would stare at him like this. Still, Kaeya finds himself the first to turn away, relieved when they stop just in front of the doors to the garden. He hopes that it might seem as though he’s paying particular attention to their surroundings and not that he’d simply found Diluc’s gaze to be too much.

He steps forward, pulls the door open and leads Diluc through, and does his best not to grimace at the moisture that clings to his skin like a second shirt when the oppressive wave of humidity hits him.

“It seems we’d do well to be quick about this trip,” Diluc says quietly, and with little more than a brief glance in Kaeya’s direction before he sets off. The brisk pace is almost refreshing, save for the fact that it allows the ambient damp air to infiltrate Kaeya’s lungs and body, leaving him feeling cold and heavy.

But Diluc is warm at his side, even if such a thought makes Kaeya achingly aware of his presence as they traverse the hedge maze with intent. Kaeya spares a passing glance at the Khaenri’ahn plants just before they turn a corner, thinks of Diluc sitting beside him on the bench.

Wonders, then, if he will be able to think of anything without Diluc intruding on his thoughts, finding a place among them as though he belongs there. Kaeya considers that perhaps the idea of that should bother him more, that he should not find Diluc’s continued presence in his mind so...welcome.

They arrive at the carpentry cabin in a matter of minutes, far faster than if Kaeya had made the trip on his own, and Diluc ushers him inside - he seems hurried, and Kaeya quirks a brow in silence at him. He can’t imagine the storm is that close, though Diluc is acting as though the sky itself has informed him that it intends to open up and pour rain down on them in a matter of minutes.

Diluc does not acknowledge his inquisitive stare, only turns in the relative warmth of the cabin in search of-

“Prince Diluc! And Prince Kaeya!” Bennett’s voice echoes from somewhere beyond view, and it takes a few moments of obvious shuffling and hurried footsteps before he appears around a corner and rushes to the front entrance.

“Bennett,” Diluc says with a clear smile. “It’s good to see you again.” His tone seems a hint warmer, Kaeya thinks, than it had been the last time. Perhaps a product of Bennett’s note to Kaeya? Kaeya suspects that Bennett’s face would light up like this either way, and he beams at Diluc for a moment before clearing his throat and turning his attention to Kaeya.

“It’s so good to see you both again! Um, Prince Kaeya, we had a- uh, like I said in- oh, I assume you got my letter?” He tips his head, brows furrowed, and Kaeya nods. Lets an easy smile touch his lips, because this is a rather simple subject in comparison to- well, to everything else.

“I did. You wanted to discuss the options in light of the delayed shipment, and you had…” He pauses, glances for the briefest moment in Diluc’s direction. Diluc, for his part, simply stands at Kaeya’s side and keeps a subtle, soft smile on his lips. “You had another question as well?” he adds, and Bennett’s eyes go wide.

A flush turns his skin pink in less than a second, and Kaeya’s brows lift in mild amusement.

“Oh, uh, yeah, um…” Here, he glances at Diluc again, and Kaeya follows his gaze. “Prince Diluc, too. If he wants! Uh, I mean, if you want!” he corrects, probably since he’s staring directly at Diluc as he speaks. Kaeya bites back a breath of amusement.

“Of course.” Diluc’s tone is amicable and surprisingly kind, no hint of the same humor that Kaeya finds in this situation - he has a feeling he knows where this might be headed, and wonders if Diluc suspects something similar or if he’ll be blindsided by the subject.

“Uh, right. Um, well, maybe first- uh, Prince Kaeya?” Kaeya hums, and Bennett twists his lips in clear disappointment. “The wood shipment, it seems like it really won’t be arriving anytime soon. Would you prefer to wait a bit longer, or are you okay with a similar type of wood as what we used for your bed?”

“That would be perfectly fine, the wood used for my bed,” Kaeya says easily - though he doesn’t mind a wait, his table is becoming rather cluttered with clothes, and he suspects Venti only intends to send even more. Not to mention the few packages that should be arriving soon from the other shops he’d stopped by...perhaps this storm has been something of a blessing in disguise, if it means he’ll have more storage sooner rather than later.

“Okay! Hold on, let me…” He trails off as he turns, and Kaeya watches with mild amusement as he rushes over to the workbench and flips the worn book open, scribbles his notes frantically in the empty margins. Diluc remains silent by his side, expression even and amicable as Bennett returns to stand in front of them.

His blush has returned as well, and he clears his throat with rather obvious nerves.

“Right, um. So...about my other question…” His lips twist, hands fiddling in front of his stomach as he clearly works up the courage to ask it. Kaeya waits patiently, does his best to keep his smile under control.

“Prince Kaeya,” Kaeya lifts his brows, a silent acknowledgement when Bennett looks up. “I wasn’t...totally honest the other day, but, um...I sorta...do, uh. Like someone.” This is said so quietly that Kaeya might miss it were it not for the muted silence in the rest of the cabin, and Kaeya allows himself the briefest glance in Diluc’s direction.

Pointedly neutral - either he knew of this already or his acting skills continue to be remarkable as ever.

“Oh, is that so?” Kaeya feigns his surprise to save Bennett any further embarrassment, and he nods in earnest.

“Well, I didn’t- um, I was hoping to ask for some...advice?” A pause, and he glances back and forth between Kaeya and Diluc. “Uh...romantic...advice?” he adds, and Kaeya nearly loses the tight grip he has on his laughter. A small bit escapes in spite of his efforts, and he turns it rather unceremoniously into a cough.

Diluc, for his part, just glances over with a soft smile on his lips, and it sobers Kaeya quite easily.

“Why don’t you tell us a little more about this person?” Diluc says, tone gentle as he turns back to Bennett. “And a little about your relationship right now?”

Bennett’s eyes widen and his cheeks flush even deeper.

“Oh, uh, um...well, he’s- he’s kinda quiet? A loner, sorta.” His hands fiddle in front of him, and he glances to the side. Kaeya inhales slowly, blinks at Diluc and then turns properly to watch Bennett. “He’s really good with animals-” He cuts himself off sharply, then casts a quick glance at Diluc and Kaeya before returning his gaze to the floor. Kaeya’s brow quirks in interest, but Diluc doesn’t say anything to that.

“Um, I only know him a little. We’ve done a couple jobs for him recently, but I don’t see him a lot outside of that.” Here, Diluc hums, and Bennett must deem his part of this interaction complete, because he stares up with hopeful eyes as Diluc nods thoughtfully.

Kaeya bites back a smirk at whatever Diluc is about to say - really, it couldn’t possibly be worse than Kaeya’s advice, could it?

“It sounds to me like you’d perhaps like to get to know him a little better?” Diluc prompts, and Bennett nods. “Outside of your job, is there anywhere you might encounter him?”

Bennett hums, and his face twists as he considers. Kaeya glances over just as Diluc’s gaze flicks to him, but he turns away before Kaeya can get much of a read on his expression.

“Well, he said he sometimes has to meet with the butcher in town...oh! On Thursdays, I think he said?” Bennett nods to himself, excitement flickering through his words. “Yeah, yeah, cause that’s when they get the big shipment of deer, that’s right.”

“Ah, well that sounds like an excellent opportunity to run into him, doesn’t it?” Diluc prompts, and Bennett grins, nods. And then his expression falls, dips into panic.

“But what about- what do I say to him? What do we- like, what do we talk about?”

Here, Diluc coughs out a soft laugh.

“That I cannot tell you. Shared interests are always a good place to start.”

“Or a greeting,” Kaeya says, aware that the comment is entirely unnecessary, and Diluc casts him a side-eyed glance. It seems good-natured though, based on the subtle smile that touches his lips. Probably to keep up the image of their infatuation, Kaeya argues to himself.

“Right, right, a greeting. And then shared interests...we both like animals?” Bennett says, apparently unaware of Kaeya’s teasing.

“That sounds like a great topic, then.” Diluc can be rather soft and encouraging, Kaeya thinks as he smiles gently down at Bennett, as Bennett grins up with an endearingly hopeful expression.

Just then, a crack of thunder rumbles loud and low through the house, and Diluc’s brows lift as Bennett gasps. Kaeya, for his part, goes still as stone. Has to, for a moment, remind himself that they are not under attack, that the Abyss Order has not found him out here in Mondstadt. He inhales slowly, tries not to tense at the hand Diluc places on his arm.

“And I believe that’s our cue,” he says, and turns a small smile to Bennett. “We wish you the best of luck, and be sure to take care with the storm,” he adds, as though he and Kaeya are not about to step out into what is likely to be a rather daunting downpour.

Kaeya’s heart does not slow its racing, either, spurred on by Diluc’s hand on the small of his back as he guides Kaeya toward the door.

“Oh, right! Thanks so much, um, try to stay dry!” Bennett calls behind them, and Kaeya pushes the door open. Wishes, then, that he could close it and stay here a bit longer.

Cold wind whips at his perhaps too-thin shirt, sends goosebumps across his skin even as Diluc nudges him out into the damp air. To his mild surprise, rain hasn’t yet started to fall, but he can feel the moisture, feel the way that the sky presses down on him. Diluc pulls the door shut behind them, loops an arm through Kaeya’s and tugs him gently toward the hedge maze.

“We’d best hurry,” he says under his breath as he casts a tight-lipped glance up at the rumbling clouds, and Kaeya hums his agreement as he puts effort into lengthening his strides.

He sucks in a breath, then, at the sudden, sharp sensation of a cold droplet that lands heavily on his back, and he exhales as a bitter smirk tugs his lips - though he’s not exceptionally familiar yet with the layout of the gardens, he’s aware enough that they are not remotely close to the door to the castle.

Another three drip into his hair, his shoulder, his arm, and then Diluc’s cursing under his breath as he picks up his pace and drags Kaeya off in a distinctly different direction.

The sky does not seem inclined to wait for wherever it is that Diluc is taking Kaeya now, because it hits a bit like a blanket, then, the sudden wave of rain that drenches Kaeya through to his bones. And in spite of Diluc’s jacket, he’s also notably soaked by the time he ducks beneath a rather lovely stone alcove in some as-yet unexplored part of the gardens.

Deep green vines crawl around the sides, dotted with pale pastel-colored flowers, and Kaeya might take a moment to appreciate the beauty of them a bit more were he not so grateful for the solid cover above his head.

That, and the very nature of the alcove itself, which is small enough to force Diluc to remain pressed close to Kaeya. His back touches cold stone, a perfect contrast to the warmth that Diluc radiates against his chest.

He is rather uncomfortably wet, although he’s having a harder and harder time focusing on that when Diluc is here, when he’s close like this.

Gardener,” Diluc mumbles, and it takes Kaeya a moment to process the word - and then he processes exactly nothing, because Diluc leans close, presses his lips against Kaeya’s with little pretense and even less warning.

Kaeya’s eyes widen before they drift shut, before he melts gladly into Diluc’s chest, into the warm hands that find his waist, that pull him tight to Diluc’s body. And oh, perhaps he might’ve been ungrateful for the rain a few moments ago - for the discomfort, if nothing else - but he relishes it now.

The slide of his lips against Diluc’s, the press of his chest to Kaeya’s, the slick feeling of his hand slipping beneath Kaeya’s shirt. The easy, easy way that Diluc nips at his lips, it threatens to overpower Kaeya’s senses with the sudden onslaught of all things Diluc.

But, Kaeya thinks, he will not be taken down so easily. While he adores Diluc’s attention, facade though this is…

He twines a hand through Diluc’s hair, tugs gently until he pulls back and offers Kaeya a confused look. Only for a moment, though - Kaeya smirks, dips his head into the crook of Diluc’s neck and drags his tongue across the damp skin.

Diluc shudders, hums low in the back of his throat, and Kaeya feels it, pretends that he is exclusively the cause and not that Diluc is simply acting the part. It sets his heart racing faster, drowning out the sound of the pouring rain, and he lives for the way that Diluc presses himself further into Kaeya’s chest.

He works his lips across his jaw, tastes rain and warmth and feels Diluc’s chest rise and fall too fast against his, and he returns to his mouth with a smirk. It disappears quickly, though, when Diluc’s hand slips up and rucks his shirt up further. His breath catches, heart racing well ahead of his own common sense, and he pulls back just enough to take a breath.

Luc.”

The name slips off his tongue before he can think better of it, and panic explodes through his chest, slicing through his wave of desire with a bitter edge. He swallows when Diluc sucks in a breath, when his eyes flick open and stare at Kaeya with a terrifyingly unreadable expression.

Warmth recedes so quickly that it takes a moment for Kaeya to realize that Diluc has stepped back, and yet, Kaeya remains too focused on the flush of pink on Diluc’s cheeks. The way it remains even as Diluc runs a hand through his hair, pushing back wayward strands that Kaeya had dislodged.

“I think we’re-” Gods, Diluc’s voice...hoarse, low and so clearly affected that it makes Kaeya’s heart race all over again. “Think we’re fine,” he adds quietly, and Kaeya blinks rapidly, nods in silent acknowledgment.

Disagrees wholeheartedly - he is very far from fine.

Chapter Text

They make it back to the castle soaked to the bone, through a side door that happens to be closer to the alcove than the main entrance. Kaeya’s heart hasn’t stopped racing, though he finds himself more focused now on the way his shirt clings to his skin and leaves him cold and uncomfortable.

A hot bath...he could certainly-

“Well, aren’t you two a sight.”

Kaeya’s head whips around, first to Diluc and then to the empty hall behind them. Which is, he notes with a sudden raising of his guard, no longer empty.

“Ah, Zhongli, welcome,” Diluc says with such practiced ease that Kaeya might forget he’d just spent the better part of the past ten minutes out in the rain, and the other part pressed against Kaeya in an alcove while kissing him absolutely senseless.

He sounds remarkably put-together, all things considered.

“Prince Diluc,” one of the men says with a dip of his head - not the one who’d originally spoken, and Kaeya’s gaze flicks to the other. “Please,” Zhongli says as he waves a hand to his companion, “allow me to introduce my associate, Tartaglia.”

“By all means, call me Childe.” He grins wide, dips his head slightly to Diluc and Kaeya in turn. “I presume I have the pleasure of addressing the princes and renowned lovebirds Diluc and Kaeya?”

Kaeya bristles at the comment, and knows well that he shouldn’t. From the corner of his eye, he can see Diluc stiffen, though he does not fall easily into his usual polite demeanor.

“I hadn’t realized you planned to bring an associate, Zhongli. My sincerest apologies, I’ll have the maids ready another room.” The moment he speaks, Zhongli waves a hand in dismissal, and Kaeya blinks as recognition flickers through his head - the paint along the walls of this hall is rather pristine, and he glances around as surreptitiously as he can manage.

Ah. This is the disused guest wing, then, implying that Zhongli is the newly-arriving guest and dear friend of Diluc’s. Kaeya’s stomach twists with the myriad implications behind that realization.

“It will not be necessary,” Zhongli says simply, and without further explanation. Childe’s grin widens, and Kaeya quirks a brow in silent interest.

“Xiansheng has mentioned you many times, Prince Diluc,” Childe says with a suave casual demeanor that Kaeya recognizes for his own liberal use of it. “Always described you as a rather...formidable opponent.” Kaeya wonders at his game, for his tone implies he’s playing one.

“In chess,” Zhongli adds, and Kaeya can’t decide whether to be pleased or bored by this statement.

“Ah, a shame…” Childe hums, tips his head. “I’d hoped I might challenge you to a duel of sorts. I don’t suppose the dear prince of Khaenri’ah might be more inclined…” Now, his focus turns to Kaeya, and Kaeya tips his head.

By all accounts, he should be polite - this is an...associate of a dear friend of Diluc’s. An unexpected one, perhaps, but an associate all the same. Logic dictates that he should agree to nothing until he’s spoken to Diluc about these two, but-

“Kaeya is rather skilled with a blade. I’m sure the two of you could keep each other entertained,” Diluc says easily, and Kaeya has to fight the surprise that flits through his chest at the compliment.

“You flatter me,” he says aloud, presses a hand over his chest and gives Diluc an exaggerated, doe-eyed look of appreciation. Unexpectedly, Diluc only rolls his eyes - do these two know of the nature of their marriage? Or is Diluc simply playing the angle of begrudging fondness for Kaeya instead of his usual lovesickness?

“Zhongli, allow us bit to dry off and get changed. I’ll find you in the library in an hour?” Diluc prompts, and Zhongli nods amicably. Childe just grins at them like he knows some secret, and Kaeya’s stomach sinks at the idea of it - at the idea of these two, in general.

With that, Diluc brushes past them and down the hall, and Kaeya starts off after him. Is uncertain what to make of the quirked brow that Childe gives him, the one accompanied by a subtle smirk.

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

“So that’s your friend, huh?” Kaeya calls through the closed door, waits as he hears only the sound of running water. It shuts off after a minute, and Kaeya inhales slowly. Exhales. Stands uncomfortably in his cold, wet pants, because he could justify removing the shirt but nothing else.

Zhongli is my friend, I do not know anything of this Childe character,” Diluc calls back - Kaeya had rather graciously suggested that he go ahead and bathe first, in part because Kaeya still needs more distance from-

From the feeling of hands all over him, lips on his and Diluc pressed against him. Gods, what he wouldn’t give for more.

He squeezes his eyes shut, though, and thinks very hard about the cold sensation of wet clothing against his skin, the unsettling presence of someone new. Two new someones, apparently.

“Zhongli never mentioned him?”

He probably did, though he didn’t give a name. I have my suspicions.” Kaeya blinks at the door, lets his brows furrow for a moment.

“Care to share with the class?” Kaeya makes his way over to the door, better to hear Diluc if he’s this close.

He nearly stumbles back when the door swings in, when Diluc steps out along with a billow of steam and thuds right into Kaeya’s chest.

“I- ah,” Diluc hums, clears his throat and steps back a pace. His gaze falls to Kaeya’s chest for a moment, then flicks away, and Kaeya presses his lips into a line. Tries not to think too hard about Diluc-his-husband, because that is a ruse and not his reality. Diluc’s cheeks are flushed, Kaeya can see it, but he blames the heat of the bath.

“Uh, all yours,” Diluc adds quietly with a short wave of his hand toward the bathroom.

“Childe,” Kaeya says, intent on redirecting this conversation away from any latent thoughts drifting in his head about the garden or a soaked Diluc or-

Right, redirection.

“Childe,” Diluc nods. “Not a name I recognize, but Zhongli had introduced him first as Tartaglia.” Kaeya hums at this, then steps into the bathroom and shuts the door. Fortunately, Diluc seems to understand that he’s meant to continue. “I’d have to check around, but I believe I recognize that title.”

A title...ah. Kaeya turns the faucet on, inhales the steam that drifts around him.

“He’s Snezhnayan,” he calls through the door, half an assertion and half to confirm his suspicions.

Precisely,” Diluc calls back, and Kaeya nods to himself.

“Political alliance?”

Zhongli has been careful to keep himself removed from politics, but it’s not out of the question.” Kaeya hums, sinks into the half-full bath and lets the water shock the latent cold from his body. A game indeed, then - but to what end? If not something to do with Zhongli directly, perhaps Diluc by proxy?

This, he thinks with no small amount of intentional ignorance, is a worthy focus for his attention. Certainly more worthy than anything related to Diluc, or Kaeya’s own ever-complicated feelings toward him.

Diluc does not add to his assessment, and Kaeya cannot think of any prudent questions at the moment, so he allows himself the time to sink into the hot water and rinse the rain and outdoors from his hair and body. Allows himself, too, a moment of simply existing in this space of comfort.

And then he pulls himself up and out of the bath, ignores the cool air on his skin and uses his time spent drying off and dressing wondering what on Teyvat a Snezhnayan ambassador is doing on the arm of a politically-unaffiliated friend of the crown prince of Mondstadt.

Today is shaping up to be quite a long - albeit interesting - day.

---------

“This is a stupid game.” The door swings in just as Childe speaks, and Kaeya’s brows lift at the sight: Zhongli seated gracefully in an armchair, Childe frowning and perched on the edge of a chair across from him, elbow propped on the edge of the table as he glares at the chessboard between them.

Zhongli’s lip ticks up at the corner, and he glances over at Diluc and Kaeya with a brief tip of his head.

“Ah, finally, a worthy contender,” he says, voice laced with just enough humor that Kaeya can read it as a joke. Childe, for his part, is not so subtle.

“Thank the gods,” he grumbles as he stands from his chair. “You, hot stuff,” Childe points directly at Kaeya, “with me. I could use a real fight.” This is said with a glance tossed over his shoulder at Zhongli, and Zhongli huffs out an amused sort of breath before glancing over at Diluc.

“And I could use a true battle of wits. Diluc, would you care to spar?” He adds a wave to the chessboard, and Kaeya rolls his eyes when Diluc steps forward with an amused smile. Is, then, admittedly surprised at the glance that Diluc gives over his shoulder, one of question.

What, whether Kaeya can handle one fight with an ‘ambassador’ who throws his words around so thoughtlessly and seems to care little about who he might offend? Kaeya offers Diluc a smirk in return, then waves a hand as Childe brushes past him and toward the door.

Diluc nods at him once, briefly, before turning away and back toward Zhongli.

Kaeya follows Childe out the door and back into the hall, and is admittedly grateful for his knowledge on the castle’s layout - it affords him the exceptionally satisfying opportunity to stop in an intersection between several corridors and wait for Childe to turn around.

“While I’m certain the king would greatly appreciate a visit to his personal chambers, I believe you requested to spar instead?” Kaeya says with no small amount of humor, and Childe-

Does not get huffy, to Kaeya’s mild surprise. Instead, he slides to a stop and spins on a heel with a breath of laughter. His lip curls up at the corner, and he wanders back down the hall with a grin.

“You’re fun,” he says as he draws to a stop in front of Kaeya. “What, this way?” A point, and Kaeya nods.

“And you’re pretty flippant for an ambassador.” If his assertion - which is, at this point, merely an assumption - catches Childe off guard, he doesn’t show it. Just wanders on half a step ahead of Kaeya in spite of his supposed lack of knowledge for their destination.

“Not an ambassador right now,” he says easily, though he does glance back at Kaeya. “But good to know you have something of a political head on your shoulders.” He turns back to the hall ahead of them, sticks his hands in his pockets as he goes. “Xiansheng said to watch out for that.”

Kaeya frowns - he is very certain that he has never met Zhongli. He’d recognize a guy like that, undoubtedly. If not for his political importance - which Diluc hadn’t mentioned, and Kaeya assumes cannot be too grand - Kaeya doesn’t often forget faces. Especially attractive ones.

“Did he?” Kaeya prompts, hopes that his sudden guardedness doesn’t sound too obvious. Childe just hums, though, something that sounds like an agreement.

“Sure, wanted to make sure you’re a worthy match for his dear chess partner.”

Ah, so they must not be a part of Diluc’s innermost circle, then - they think, too, that he and Kaeya are infatuated lovers. Interesting, for one that Diluc had touted as a close friend.

“So they’re chess partners, is that it?” Kaeya asks, and realizes a moment too late how his question must sound. His chest twinges with discomfort - perhaps there’s a small spark of jealousy, but it does not entirely fuel his words.

“Oh, relax,” Childe says with a laugh tossed over his shoulder. Kaeya notes but does not mention aloud the fact that Childe takes a correct turn this time, with the sparring arena at the next junction.

“Xiansheng and the prince are allies and friends, but nothing more,” Childe adds just as the rack of weapons comes into view, and Kaeya notes with mild amusement - and more than a little desire to redirect his focus - that Childe seems to gain a bit of a bounce in his step.

“I was hardly concerned about that,” Kaeya says aloud as Childe rushes off, gaze dragging across the weapons not unlike the way that Kaeya would look at Diluc- alright, perhaps he’d have been a small bit disgruntled to find that Diluc had not mentioned a romantic aspect to his and Zhongli’s relationship. Perhaps he’s a little relieved to hear that no such facet of their interactions includes…

Includes all the things that Kaeya wants with Diluc. The things he has no right to want, because they are meant to be feigning this infatuation, convincing others but knowing themselves that-

“Of course, of course,” Childe says half to himself. “Because this whole marriage thing’s a sham, right?” Blue eyes flick over, catch Kaeya entirely off guard for a moment, and he stills as he rushes within his head to gather his composure.

“An interesting theory,” he says carefully, just as Childe selects dual swords from the rack and waves them to indicate that it’s Kaeya’s turn to choose his weapon. “And how did you come to such a conclusion?”

He opts for the same longsword he’d used against Diluc the other day, finds comfort in its familiar weight and balance. Still, he perhaps makes a bit of a show of twirling it around, testing it as though it’s new to him. Whether Childe’s convinced by this act - and his words - he has no idea.

“I’ll tell you something, hot stuff,” he tips his head, grins wide, “cause you’re new.” In spite of his words, he sounds...unexpectedly genuine, like he thinks he’s helping. Kaeya hums, quirks a brow, and holds back his irritation for a moment. Lifts his sword between them, and Childe’s grin widens further, bordering on feral.

“Those two tell each other everything.” Two rapid slashes, and Kaeya dodges the first and deflects the second with ease. Childe pulls back with a fire lit behind his eyes, and Kaeya barely has time to process the words he’d said before he’s on the defensive again.

“I’ll give you this,” Kaeya says aloud, words just audible between the clang of swords as Kaeya takes an experimental slash. Childe deflects it just as easily, swings low and forces Kaeya back a step. “You’re pretty good.”

And Kaeya is grateful, sort of. Grateful to have his focus so fixed on this fight and not on Diluc. Less grateful to have no time to consider Childe’s words beyond the rather obvious assessment that Diluc and Zhongli are close, and that Zhongli and Childe must, in fact, know that the marriage is for a political alliance only.

Perhaps Childe’s earlier sentiment - or, rather, Zhongli’s sentiment - of hoping that Kaeya is a good match for Diluc had been spoken from a purely political perspective. That he will make a respectable partner in the realm of politics, of kingdoms and royalty. As though Kaeya has not spent his entire life learning to read and manipulate those around him.

As though he hasn’t lived and breathed Teyvat’s politics since he was old enough to be pulled away from childish activities in favor of learning how best to glean information and leverage from whoever he happened to be speaking to. As though he was ever permitted the grace of just existing.

Interesting, he thinks absently as he blocks another slash of Childe’s swords - this may very well be the first time in years that Kaeya has not been actively focused on some arbitrary goal assigned by his father. The first time in years that he is allowed to-

He sucks in a sharp breath as the dig of metal slaps his arm - sharp, but not enough to break skin, nor to cut through his shirt sleeve. It’s this that finally takes him off guard enough for Childe to sweep in, to pin him with a sword at his throat and the other pressed into the back of his neck.

Up close, Childe is admittedly attractive, in a wild sort of way. Eyes wide and thrilled, breaths fast and sharp and that wide grin on his lips as he coughs out an amused, breathless sort of laugh.

He pulls away after a moment, then, and points a sword lazily in Kaeya’s direction.

“You really are a fun one, I was worried you’d be boring. I like you,” he adds as he saunters back over to the weapons rack and rehomes his swords. “C’mon, I suspect Xiansheng and your prince are waiting for us.”

Kaeya bites back a comment about Diluc not being his prince. They do not belong to each other in anything but words.

“You must not know them well if you think Diluc will be finished with a chess match so quickly,” he says instead, and Childe laughs. It echoes through the halls as they walk, grating on Kaeya’s ears.

“Oh no, the match’ll take days, probably. But Xiansheng will be missing me, and I’ll bet your prince is missing you too,” he adds over his shoulder with a wink, and Kaeya’s heart hammers fast. And then he shakes his head once, sharply, because Diluc does not want him like that. Certainly does not miss him. If Childe thinks so, then perhaps he’s bought too easily into the-

The ruse. Which he’d claimed to know was, in fact, a ruse.

“You know perfectly well that this marriage is for political purposes only,” he says as they turn the corner to the guest wing. Childe does not respond immediately, just heads toward the library door and sets his hand on the handle. Pauses, then, and Kaeya holds his breath as he turns, a wide, arrogant sort of smirk on his lips.

“Oh, I know.” He tugs at the door, inches it open. “I said what I said.”

Kaeya’s stomach twists, his head spins, his feet feel suddenly frozen to the ground even as he wants to dart forward, to grab Childe by the collar of his jacket and demand he explain what he meant by that. What could he possibly mean?

But he’s through the door before Kaeya can decide what to do, and beyond him, Diluc and Zhongli lift their gazes. Kaeya inhales a shallow breath and forces his feet to move, forces himself to act as though Childe’s words did not affect him.

“Did you have a satisfying match?” Zhongli asks just as Kaeya steps through the doorway, and Childe hums, grins as he drags a hand up Zhongli’s arm and stops at his side.

“He’s an adequate opponent,” Childe says with a tip of his head in Kaeya’s direction. But he is far too focused, rather suddenly, on Diluc to care more than tangentially about Childe’s jibe.

Diluc, who watches him intently, with a slight flush to his cheeks, and Kaeya hears Childe’s voice in his head rather suddenly: Those two tell each other everything.

Everything, Kaeya thinks with a hint of panic. Without warning, concern floods his thoughts - did Diluc tell Zhongli about him? Beyond the parameters of their arranged marriage, of course. And if he did, what on Teyvat did he say?

Diluc’s blush is infectious, worming its way up beneath Kaeya’s skin and turning it warm and uncomfortable.

“And your little game, Xiansheng?” Childe says as he lifts a chess piece from the board, rolls it for a moment between his fingers before setting it back down.

“Oh, it was quite…” He tips his head, fixes his gaze on Diluc. “Informative.”

Diluc stands quickly, then, and clears his throat.

“You must be quite exhausted from your travels, Zhongli. And Childe,” he adds with a nod, and Kaeya blinks in confused surprise at the sudden rush to end the discussion. “I’ll have something sent to your room for dinner, and we can continue this match in the morning.”

A slow, easy smile spreads across Zhongli’s face, a tamer version of the wild grin on Childe’s lips.

“Of course,” he says with a dip of his head. “As always, your hospitality is greatly appreciated.”

With that, Diluc turns, gives Kaeya a hard stare as he brushes past.

“It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Prince Kaeya.” Kaeya glances over to find Zhongli’s gaze fixed on him, and Childe smirks at him over Zhongli’s shoulder.

“Nice fighting you, hot stuff.”

Kaeya hums an acknowledgment, affixes a neutral smile to his lips before turning and following Diluc out the door.

Chapter Text

“That was a rather...interesting encounter,” Kaeya says carefully, uncertain how to approach this. Clearly, Diluc had not elaborated on the extent of his friendship with Zhongli, and while Kaeya isn’t confident that he should be placing all his trust in Childe’s words, he’d like to hear what Diluc offers of his own accord first.

“Interesting…” Diluc repeats, clearly distracted as he paces across the room. His hands remain clasped behind his back, and he steps with clear control of his body, but his brows are furrowed deeply and his lips pressed into the kind of tight line that Kaeya would like nothing more than to kiss away.

“Childe said some rather interesting things,” Kaeya adds, playing off the word that Diluc has latched onto. His head whips up, then, and he slides to a stop, focused wholly on Kaeya where he sits on the sofa. Kaeya remains pointedly casual as he leans back, meets Diluc’s hard stare.

“And what did he say?” So nonchalant for how intently he stares at Kaeya, and Kaeya lets only the barest hint of a smirk touch his lips.

“That you and Zhongli are very close.” True, but not what he cares about. Even now, that burns at the edge of his mind, threatens to set fire to his carefully constructed self control. Why Diluc would miss him.

Why he’d miss him in the very same way that Zhongli would miss Childe.

“Ah, we are...friends.” Here, Kaeya tips his head, quirks a brow. Feigns that he believes the word to mean something more, and not that it is a product of Diluc’s moment of confusion and hesitation.

“If you wanted time alone with him to...catch up...” Kaeya puts particular emphasis on the words, watches with a short wave of relief as Diluc’s brows furrow slightly. “You need only ask.”

It is a remarkable and endearing sight when realization dawns on Diluc, when his expression shifts subtly, when his eyes widen and lips part. When, in direct contrast to that near-imperceptible shift, his entire face turns red with warmth.

“Your assumptions are wildly incorrect,” he gets out under his breath, and his gaze never quite makes it to meeting Kaeya’s. So Kaeya allows himself a short moment for his amusement to show on his face before corralling it back into something surprised, if ultimately neutral on the subject.

“Oh? What assumptions? Of your...friendship?”

Yes.” Diluc turns to the side, arms crossed over his chest and providing Kaeya with the loveliest view of his pink-stained cheek. Perhaps Kaeya could do with putting him out of his misery, before he pushes him too far.

“So you’re not romantically-”

Absolutely not.” Kaeya bites his tongue to hold his laughter at bay.

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

“I am not interested in him in that way,” Diluc grits out decisively, accompanied by a hard stare turned in Kaeya’s direction. Kaeya lifts his hands, false surrender as he sits forward in his seat.

“But the two of you are close.” This earns him a sharp breath of frustration as Diluc turns back to face him properly, jaw clenched tight and face still endearingly tinted pink.

Kaeya expects him to speak immediately, and is mildly surprised when he only stares. Narrows his eyes a bit, and his expression smooths out, but he remains silent, and Kaeya isn’t sure what else to add - a flicker of doubt swirls in his stomach, but he holds Diluc’s stare with as much casual nonchalance as he can manage.

“He is the head of my spy network.”

Kaeya blinks. Runs the words through his head again, and finds them equally as surprising as the first time.

“Your...spy network…” That Mondstadt has a spy network is news to him, for all his time spent running in the various political circles - both aboveground and the...less savory ones. Mondstadt has always appeared rather squeaky clean in that regard. That Diluc is currently informing him of this network is unexpected entirely.

Diluc nods once, sharply, and it draws Kaeya’s attention back to the present.

“Ah, so when he said that your match had been informative,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc clears his throat, glances away for a brief moment.

“Yes, we had a lot to discuss.”

Kaeya nods, admittedly absently, as he processes this.

“And Childe? Was he as unexpected as you claimed?” A Snezhnayan ambassador - it’s unlikely that Diluc hadn’t known he’d show up. But Diluc exhales a sigh, glances to the side.

“I did not anticipate his arrival, but Zhongli did mention his endeavors to expand a few of the circles he manages personally.” Kaeya hums as though he understands this sentiment while simultaneously processing the hint Diluc has just given at the sheer magnitude of this network. Several circles, then, and Kaeya wonders just how far the limbs of this network reach.

“A potential addition to the network,” Kaeya concludes easily. Diluc nods. “And Zhongli’s current, ah...partner,” Kaeya adds, and this only draws another rather long-suffering sigh from Diluc as he leans forward, hands braced on the back of a chair.

“Yes, though he did not inform me of that prior to their arrival either.” Here, Diluc glances over at Kaeya. “What did you make of him?” Kaeya’s brows furrow.

“Childe?” A nod. “Wild and flippant. Does not seem inclined to think before he speaks.” Diluc winces. “An excellent fighter, though.”

And he mentioned that you might miss me, Kaeya does not say aloud. Considers the precision with which Childe had chosen his words, flippant though they seemed, to garner that reaction from Kaeya.

“I should correct myself,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc’s brows furrow. “He knows how to fight and manipulate with his words, when necessary, and appear as though he’d said them thoughtlessly.”

There’s a heavy pause, then, as Diluc stares. Kaeya waits, knows the question Diluc will ask before he speaks it and wishes that he could find some answer that will not put Diluc off to the idea of...of liking Kaeya.

“Did he say something to you?”

“It was of no consequence.”

“But you recognized it as manipulation.”

Kaeya hums his agreement, but does not volunteer the words - neither the ones that Childe had said nor the ones that would indict him as a manipulator himself. He has not, he reminds himself, manipulated anyone while he’s been here. Not in any...nefarious ways. Not for any political gain.

Only Diluc, he thinks bitterly. Only to get more time with him, to have him as Diluc-his-husband for a few moments longer. Only in the hopes of swaying his heart, as though Diluc has ever indicated his interest in Kaeya beyond his alliance.

Diluc’s attention remains fixed on the chair, his hands still curled around the back, and Kaeya allows himself a moment to just...stare.

To appreciate, because he does appreciate Diluc. To vow, perhaps more to himself than anyone else, that he will refrain- or, perhaps, try to refrain from any further manipulations. In this moment, Diluc is placing an exceptional amount of trust in him. He could do with deserving it, for once.

“He did not,” Kaeya adds unprompted, “mention anything of political significance. Though I do suspect that he knows the layout of this castle well enough.” Diluc hums at this, clearly still lost in his thoughts, but the additional information does not seem to bother him.

After several long moments, Diluc exhales a slow breath, then straightens up.

“If Zhongli trusts him, I suppose I will extend my trust cautiously but accordingly,” he says as though he doesn’t quite want to. When he turns to Kaeya, expectant in his stare, Kaeya’s brows lift.

“I’m hardly a part of your...organization, so if you’re expecting my input-”

Diluc lifts a hand, and Kaeya breaks off there.

“If you wish not to be involved, that’s fine, but I need to know now.”

Kaeya’s brows furrow. Diluc is offering him a choice? And by virtue of that fact, does indeed trust him enough to be a part of this network. He inhales slowly, chooses his words carefully before speaking.

“If you would like my participation and input, you have it.” Diluc nods decisively, and it takes Kaeya off guard for a moment - such clear and immediate acceptance from anyone else would feel false, he thinks.

“Good. Zhongli mentioned that you are rather well-versed in the politics of the kingdoms, and yes,” Diluc pauses, lifts a brow, “we did speak about you.” Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner, but Diluc just rolls his eyes. “Don’t let that go to your head.”

“I’ve spent more time in every kingdom in Teyvat other than my own,” Kaeya says, and immediately realizes how much he’s given with that single statement. Diluc’s eyes flick over, concern behind his stare before Kaeya waves it off. “I mean to say that Zhongli is right, although I’d be curious to know how he acquired such information.”

“He is very good at what he does.”

Very well, Kaeya will have to learn the particulars of that for himself, it seems.

“I suppose,” Diluc adds after a moment, “that I should explain the reason for his arrival.”

There is a pause, then, and Kaeya’s thoughts flick to any and every-

“The banquet.”

“The banquet indeed,” Diluc says, exhales a sigh.

“You think something will happen?” It’s not a far jump to reach this conclusion.

“Know it, although we’re having trouble nailing down the particulars.” Here, he glances at Kaeya. “Namely what, how, and to what end.”

“Ah,” Kaeya says with a smirk. “So you know nothing.”

“Very little,” Diluc corrects, and Kaeya’s grin widens. It shouldn’t, he reasons - evidently, something is going to happen rather soon, likely something bad. But, he’ll admit, it’s nice to be included. Trusted. Wanted, even if it isn’t in the way he’d like.

But that kind of hope was never on the table, really, and he would do well to set it aside completely. Wishes he could, but it glows in his chest, embers of a flame just waiting to be stirred to life.

Diluc stares at him, then, as though he can see right through and into Kaeya’s thoughts, and he hums a noise that sets Kaeya on guard immediately.

“What?” he prompts, and Diluc shakes his head just a bit.

“I would expect most anyone in your position to question their own safety, but you haven’t.” Kaeya’s brows lift in silent amusement, and he coughs out a laugh.

“I doubt I’m in any danger,” he says easily. He is of little consequence outside his value to Khaenri’ah in the form of bought soldiers.

But Diluc fixes him with a strange look, one that Kaeya has trouble deciphering. And then it’s gone with a shake of his head.

“At least one of us has the common sense to be concerned,” Diluc says under his breath as he turns to resume his pacing. Hands clasped once again neatly behind his back, expression clearly focused, though not on the present.

“As I said to Zhongli, we’ll need to spend more time around the castle, search for unfamiliar faces and catch what we can of any unusual activity.”

“Ah, the prince of Mondstadt spying on his own castle,” Kaeya says with a hint of humor. Diluc’s gaze flicks over.

“Seeing as Zhongli and Childe are visitors, they will be suspect if they’re caught poking around.” Kaeya tips his head in acknowledgment of this fact, wonders for a moment where he’d fit in on the scale of suspicion.

At least as untrustworthy as Zhongli and Childe, if not more.

“So yes,” Diluc continues, “I will need to…” An exhale, slow and clearly frustrated.

“You see the problem with that, don’t you?” Kaeya prompts as he leans back. Tips his head, though Diluc doesn’t look over to catch his expression. “Whoever intends harm will-”

“Yes, will most definitely notice my unusual activity as well…” Diluc shakes his head, drags a hand over his face. “But it doesn’t matter, it has to be me.”

For a moment, Kaeya considers that he’d like to help - and he would, but he’d be equally useless. Worse, in fact, should anyone not associated with this spy network catch onto his activities. Gods, he’d hate to manage the fallout of some well-intentioned Mondstadt castle employee spreading rumors of the new Khaenri’ahn prince’s nefarious scheming or whatever they’d choose to call it.

No, Kaeya would be more of a hindrance than a help in that regard, at least.

“If there is any way in which I might contribute…” He expects Diluc to dismiss him outright for the very same reasons he’s just considered, but Diluc tilts his head, and his brows furrow for a moment. And his cheeks turn a fresh shade of pink, and Kaeya blinks in surprise.

“Ah, at this juncture, I suspect it’d be best if you weren’t seen acting strangely,” he says, in spite of his own reaction to whatever he’d just been thinking. Which, Kaeya concludes, was most certainly not that.

But clearly, Diluc does not wish to tell him his thoughts, and Kaeya would like to try out this ‘not manipulating Diluc’ thing. He’s been given trust, he would do well not to forsake it so quickly by irritating Diluc.

“I had the same thought. In that event, are there any other members of this network I might speak to?” Diluc glances at him for a brief moment, and Kaeya waves a hand. “You have your task, and it would stand to reason that Zhongli and Childe cannot feasibly interact with most of their associates while posing as guests here. To that end, is there anyone that it might appear normal for me to-”

“To interact with…” Diluc hums thoughtfully, then nods almost to himself. “Venti.”

“Venti?” He is a trusted member of Mondstadt’s spy network? The same one who’d so easily insulted Diluc directly to Kaeya’s face without half a thought on the matter? It’s certainly not how Kaeya would build a spy network - rife with people who speak without thinking - but he supposes it must be halfway decent to end up slipping under Kaeya’s radar all these years.

“Venti.” Diluc nods again. “I’d intended to speak with him anyway, to commission our clothing for the banquet. You’re welcome to go instead, there’s a clear established behavior and rational reason for your visit.”

“He did invite me to stop by again soon,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc hums.

“Very well. Tomorrow?” He actually looks at Kaeya, now, focused where he’d previously been lost in thought. Kaeya nods, pleased both at the ability to be useful and still basking, admittedly, in the glow of Diluc’s trust.

“Mention what we’ve just discussed, ask if he’s heard anything worth our attention,” Diluc adds. Kaeya tips his head.

“And what of our attire for the banquet?” To Kaeya’s mild surprise, Diluc just waves a hand.

“He knows what to do. But,” a glance in Kaeya’s direction, “be sure to let him know if you have any preferences. Or anything you’d rather avoid,” he adds, half mumbled to himself. Kaeya wonders at what item of clothing Venti had constructed for him that’d been the evident final straw.

Wonders what he might be able to request of-

No, no. No manipulation. Not of Diluc.

That seems to conclude their conversation, at least - Diluc turns away, lost in his thoughts, and Kaeya cannot think of anything else he’d like to bring up at the moment. At the very least, he’s successfully steered Diluc away from Childe’s commentary, though he’s still uncertain whether that’s a victory or a loss on his part.

But he has a task, now, and a part of Diluc’s trust, even if it isn’t exactly what he’d desire from Diluc. It is rather nice to be useful, especially for a purpose that he’s chosen for himself.

Not that he does not wish to help Khaenri’ah, not that he does not care for his people, but…

That was never a life he chose. This, albeit forced in many ways, is a thing he had been given a choice in. Diluc allowed him the chance to step away, if he wanted.

He did not want to, and still doesn’t.

Chapter Text

His head spins and keeps him awake, plotting as it often did during his time spent in other kingdoms. Assessing the levels of threat, the levels of manipulation required to achieve some goal. The feasibility of that goal, the effort and decisions and sacrifices required to-

A soft click, one Kaeya might not notice were it not for the fact that the storm has stilled outside, eerie in its calm, and Kaeya holds his breath. Drags his attention sharply back to the present, and ignores the sudden uptick of his heart rate.

There, another click. He blinks, sits up - it’s still dark, some abhorrent hour of the evening for the fact that he’s still awake. And, he considers as he listens carefully for the sound again…

And perhaps Diluc is awake as well.

And perhaps, Kaeya considers with an eye roll, he’s going to do something exceptionally stupid for someone who presides over a spy network.

Kaeya crawls from his bed as quietly as he can and grabs the nearest shirt and pants - mismatched, but it hardly matters for this effort. He does not bother with shoes, they’ll only announce his presence to any and every employee of the castle within a hundred-foot radius.

By the time he manages to get out of his room and into Diluc’s, it's gone quiet again, but the mattress is notably empty. Kaeya heaves a sigh - does Diluc have so little common sense? Yes, perhaps the nefarious individuals who are planning something will convene in the middle of the night, but they’re on high alert now. Will jump at any passersby, but would spook entirely should they encounter Diluc himself.

So Kaeya slips out the door, closes it more carefully than Diluc had. Pauses in the hall, listens carefully and is - once again - both pleased and irritated to hear the distinct clack of shoes on stone. His own bare feet press cold into the polished floor as he sets off in Diluc’s direction, pausing at each juncture to listen for the sound of footsteps.

On two separate occasions, he’s had to slip into tiny alcoves to avoid a distinctly non-Diluc presence noticing him, but he exhales a slow breath of relief when he catches up to Diluc near the junction between one wing and the next. Ah, his father’s personal wing and the guest wings. Interesting.

He has to bite back a curse when Diluc turns toward the guest wing, and he glances back over his shoulder before darting forward.

His hand does manage to clasp firmly over Diluc’s mouth when he grabs him, but he’s met with an elbow directed toward his stomach, and he barely dodges enough to miss the brunt of its impact. Diluc makes a noise that Kaeya’s hand muffles, then flicks his tongue out across Kaeya’s palm. Which does an excellent job of making Kaeya release his grip, and-

Gods, the feeling of Diluc’s tongue goes straight to his core, makes his entire body heat up several degrees even as Diluc grabs his arm, yanks it away from his face and uses it to shove Kaeya into the nearest wall.

The whole scuffle is over in a matter of moments, leaving Kaeya breathing heavily and trying very hard not to feel every inch of Diluc pressed against him. Trying to focus rather intently on the twist of his arm behind his back, the cold, solid wall that crushes his cheek and chest.

Kaeya?” Diluc hisses, and Kaeya exhales a breath of relief when he releases his hold. He rolls his shoulder experimentally as he turns to face Diluc properly. “What are you-”

Diluc stops suddenly, then, eyes widening just a fraction, and Kaeya hears it the second he’s frozen: footsteps. Quiet ones, perhaps intentionally or perhaps not, but they’re approaching rather quickly.

And then Kaeya’s pushed back into the wall again, Diluc’s lips on his before he recognizes it’s happening - it’s hurried and harsh, a perfect reflection of the irritation in Diluc’s tone just a moment ago, and Kaeya does not mind.

How could he, with Diluc pressed against him, with his lips warm against Kaeya’s? His hands find Kaeya’s waist, slip beneath the shirt that he hadn’t bothered to tuck into his pants, and Kaeya hums into Diluc’s mouth. Perhaps not the smartest move, given their situation, but it’ll go a long way to sell the part.

As though Kaeya has to sell anything. As though he’s not just overwhelmingly in-

Love? He can’t love Diluc. He barely knows Diluc. But it’s something, gods...it’s something bad. Massive and unignorable and demanding, and his own hands grab absently at Diluc’s back, dig nails into his shirt in the hopes of dragging him closer. As though he can get any closer, with how he’s pressed against Kaeya.

Vaguely, Kaeya recalls that he’s meant to be doing...something. Something that isn’t kissing Diluc. Something- footsteps, right, footsteps. He listens as best he can manage past the racing of his own heart in his ears, past the heavy breaths between them, and hears nothing. Carefully, cautiously, he lets his eye open just a fraction.

An empty hall. He should-

Gods, Diluc’s arm wraps around his back, his hand slips up his chest in the minimal space he forces between them, warm against his too-hot skin, and Kaeya hums low in his throat. Diluc pulls away from his lips, then, but only enough to lean close to Kaeya’s ear, to drag his tongue across Kaeya’s jaw and-

Gone?” Mumbled low, in a voice that could melt Kaeya’s bones, but it drags him to the present. To the right decision, because he said he wouldn’t manipulate Diluc anymore. No matter how fucking incredible he feels, pressed against Kaeya this way.

Words forsake him, of course, so he opts to hum an agreement, to nod as Diluc pulls back. As he slips his hands out from under Kaeya’s shirt, leaves him breathless against the wall for the briefest moment as Kaeya attempts to regain his composure.

It comes back to him, but gods, is it a battle. Diluc is every shade of pink across his face, his lips. His chest rises and falls quickly enough that Kaeya can see that he is not the only breathless one between them, and Diluc keeps his gaze fixed on the halls, away from Kaeya.

Kaeya pushes away from the wall, surprised to find that his knees do not buckle beneath him, then quirks a brow at Diluc.

“Running around the castle in the middle of the night...” he says as innocently as possible. “I can’t imagine what your employees must think.” Red eyes turn to glare at Kaeya for a moment before a hand grabs his wrist, and Diluc drags him off down the corridor. Away from the guest wing, he notes with interest.

“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 for good measure, because he refuses to allow Diluc to pretend that he is somehow at fault here.

Gods, had Kaeya not happened to hear him leave their room, happen to follow him and catch up just in time, someone might’ve caught him wandering. And perhaps it’d have been someone entirely innocuous, who might question Diluc’s strange habits but otherwise forget the encounter.

But more likely, rumors would spread - whether they’d impact this plot for the banquet, Kaeya can only speculate, but he cannot imagine they’d be good for anyone to catch wind of.

Diluc does not speak during the entire trip back to their room, and they pass only a handful of employees along the way. All of which have the common decency to glance away at the sight of their prince dragging his new husband toward their rooms with no small amount of urgency. Which means conclusions will be drawn about their activities, ideally further protecting them from any suspicions.

It is only once the door clicks shut behind Diluc that he lets his irritation show in the form of an exasperated sigh and two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. Kaeya, for his part, settles in.

“What on Teyvat were you thinking coming after me like that?” Diluc hisses, evidently still trying to keep his voice down. Kaeya does not deign to answer that question. “You could’ve gotten caught, I thought we discussed the issues that could create.”

At Kaeya’s silence, Diluc blows out another frustrated breath, then spins on a heel. Shakes his head, spins back around. Kaeya wonders at whether his heart is still racing the same way that Kaeya’s is. Thinks it’d be rather bold of him to imagine that Diluc’s heart races for the same reasons.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” Diluc says, almost to himself as he waves a hand in Kaeya’s general direction. Kaeya waits, then, but Diluc lapses into a brooding, irritated sort of silence.

“Are you finished?” Red eyes flick to glare at Kaeya, then narrow.

“If you have something to say, you do not need to wait for my permission to speak,” he says, unexpectedly sincere, and Kaeya coughs out a laugh.

“Trust me, I’m perfectly aware.” Still, it does wonders for his ego that Diluc does not seem to think him lesser. “But no, I was simply waiting for your little rant to be done.”

Diluc’s jaw ticks, and Kaeya thinks he could probably stand to choose his words a little more carefully, except…

“You have the audacity,” he says with an entirely calm, flippant tone, “to accuse me of causing trouble and venturing out unwisely.” Diluc’s careful neutrality flickers onto his face, and Kaeya wonders if he realizes now the error of his frustration.

“Had I not followed you,” Kaeya 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.” Diluc presses his lips into a line, and Kaeya offers him a simple, easy smile. “Next time, wake me first.”

“I-”

“Diluc.” Diluc blows out a breath, resigned in a way that makes relief flood Kaeya’s veins. “Let me enjoy the fact that you have to be grateful for my presence for once, if you don’t mind.”

Diluc’s gaze flicks up, then, unreadably intense for a brief moment before he exhales another sharp breath and turns away.

“I am not ungrateful for your presence,” he says quietly, and Kaeya coughs out a laugh.

“I’m truly humbled by your kind words.”

“I’m not,” he insists, as though Kaeya simply doesn’t believe him. Which, admittedly, Kaeya is not particularly inclined to believe that statement in its entirety - how much more of this will he actually tolerate? How long before he requests that they avoid any situations that might leave them in a position of having to-

“And I am not ungrateful for yours,” Kaeya says simply, neutrally, as he forcibly cuts off that train of thought. For now, they’re infatuated newlyweds, and Kaeya would do well to enjoy what Diluc will allow him before he changes his mind.

-----------

Kaeya wakes late again, and does not mind it for the fact that he’d gone to sleep so late. That sleep had not come for him as quickly as he’d hoped, after that little escapade with Diluc.

By the time he makes it out into Diluc’s bedroom, it’s nearly time for lunch - and what a shame, that he’s so unfortunately missed the state of affairs meeting...how ever will he cope?

Perhaps with a nice-

Note. There’s a note on the table in front of the sofa, and Kaeya reaches down, lifts the crisp parchment and scans it quickly.

Kaeya-

Meeting with Zhongli to continue our chess match after the state of affairs meeting you seem so inclined to skip. Please find some time to speak with Venti today, he’ll throw a fit if we wait too long to request custom clothing for the banquet. Dinner later with my father.

-Diluc

Kaeya hums to himself, reads between the lines: his postponed and frankly irresponsible foray to meet with Zhongli last night will be continued this morning over their chess game. A reminder that Kaeya needs to meet with Venti today, both for the purpose of their banquet attire and to update him on the situation, determine if he knows anything of use about this supposed plot during the banquet.

Dinner with the king...perhaps Crepus has news of the situation in Khaenri’ah, though Kaeya would rather his father had just sent word to him directly. The rest of the soldiers would’ve been sent out a few days ago, and would ideally just be arriving now. Ah, save for the storm…

Kaeya hopes, both selfishly and for his people, that the soldiers had made it before the storm broke, or had managed to outrun it. Hopes, truly, that they will be of some assistance to Khaenri’ah. That he, in his roundabout way, had been of some assistance to Khaenri’ah.

With a heavy sigh, Kaeya sets the note back down. Feels weary again, suddenly, at the entirety of this, and settles heavily onto the sofa. Would that one thing could be simple, did not have to spiral into some complicated mess that he has to hold carefully in his head at all times to prevent it tangling into some impossible disaster.

It makes his head ache, an irritating pressure behind his eyes, and he pulls his eyepatch from his head and tosses it onto the table. Tips his head back and stares at the ceiling, inhales slowly. Exhales and lets his eyes drift shut.

This does little for his growing headache, instead filling his head with images of-

Gods, of Diluc. A deceptively easy thing for his thoughts to drift to, when reality is so much more complicated. In his head, he feels Diluc pressed against his chest, sees hooded red eyes and flushed skin and lips that Kaeya can kiss without pretense.

Unbidden, Childe’s words flit into his head - I’ll bet your prince is missing you too. For a moment, he pretends that’s true, pretends that he’d been able to walk into that library the same way that Childe had, dragging a hand up Diluc’s arm and leaning close to his side.

He pretends Diluc would ever say that to him, that he missed Kaeya.

He wouldn’t, of course. Certainly not in the way that Kaeya misses him. Certainly not with the same desperate breath that Kaeya would use - I’ve missed you, Luc. No, Diluc does not miss him like that, the way that Childe had implied.

With a deep breath, Kaeya climbs to his feet, shoves hard at his naive desire to believe that Diluc has any interest in him. Would ever miss him.

He has a job to do.

Chapter Text

“Kaeya!” Venti shouts as he rushes out from the back of the shop. “Just the man I’d hoped to see. Well, you or Diluc,” he adds with a wave of his hand.

“Beidou,” Venti turns to glance at the woman still sequestered near the front desk, heavy boots propped up on the surface and a dagger in hand instead of sheathed. She hums an acknowledgment, then finally glances up after another moment of Venti’s silence.

“Oh, you’re-” She cuts herself off with a heavy sigh. “Fine, ‘s your funeral.” With that particularly foreboding comment, Beidou stands and shifts a tall rack of fabric that- ah, that seems to be hiding a large door. She swings it into place as Venti shoves Kaeya’s shoulder, pushing him off in the direction they’d disappeared toward last time Kaeya stopped by.

Venti leads him further, this time, until they reach a large bookcase lined with rows of fabric in place of books.

“You’re strong, come here,” Venti commands, waving at one side of the shelf, and Kaeya frowns. But Diluc trusts him, and Kaeya will admit that he trusts by extension, and that Venti - for whatever Kaeya knows of him - seems...well, Kaeya wants to trust him, which is perhaps a dangerous thing to think, but he does anyway.

So he goes as Venti had asked.

“There’s a notch back- it’s just above my head, right- yep, right there,” Venti instructs as Kaeya’s fingers catch on a not-quite-handle, and he uses it as leverage to pull-

“Well, a clothesmaker with a secret room,” Kaeya assesses as he steps back, stares with intrigue into the cellar-like room with little more than a table and a few chairs, a lantern hung from the ceiling.

“Dreary as the Abyss and twice as bothersome when I can’t get in myself half the time,” Venti grumbles as he shoves past Kaeya and down the short set of stairs. “But it does the job, and Diluc would spend an hour lecturing me on improper conveyance of information and another three hours lecturing me on proper spy tactics, and…”

Here, he trails off, waves a hand over his shoulder as if to indicate the extent of Diluc’s long-windedness. Kaeya bites back a grin as he follows Venti into the room.

“Ah, there’s a big handle on the back, hard to miss. Can you shut-” Kaeya finds it, drags the bookcase closed behind them. “Perfect, thanks!”

When he turns back, Venti’s already perched himself on one of the chairs, and he gestures at the other as Kaeya approaches.

“I suspect you have more to discuss than just the banquet outfits,” Venti says as he settles, and he lifts his gaze carefully. “Which, by the way, tell Diluc that he’s lucky I’ve been working on them for almost a week now,” he adds with a huff of irritation. Even goes as far as to cross his arms over his chest, shake his head. “I swear, he thinks I’m just made of fabric and time or something.”

“I will pass along your frustrations,” Kaeya says diplomatically, but he lets a smirk touch his expression, and Venti coughs out a laugh.

“Good! Now, the important stuff. The banquet.” Kaeya nods, and thinks better of questioning how exactly Venti had come to find out about his true purpose in showing up here when, as Diluc had mentioned, he should be the one updating Venti about the situation.

These Mondstadt spies are quite skilled, then.

“Here’s the problem, we haven’t found signs of anyone unexpected carting into town.” Kaeya’s brows furrow.

“How can you even begin to know who to look for without knowing their purpose?” It feels entirely backwards, but Venti just shakes his head.

“If Diluc says he doesn’t know the reason, he’s either going blind or choosing to be intentionally ignorant.” With that, he sits back into his chair with a huff, clearly irritated. Kaeya wonders at just how often this has come up, that Venti seems to already suspect what this plot will entail and why Diluc would pretend he has no idea.

“Enlighten me, then?” Kaeya prompts at Venti’s continued silence. Venti, for his part, just rolls his eyes.

“He’s the one in danger, it’s always him.” Kaeya’s stomach twists, and he tries his best to quickly school his expression back into something neutral - but Venti either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“Nobody is stupid enough to go for the king, or they’re caught well before they can get close. And nobody’s smart enough to play the long con, unless you’re a plant,” Venti adds, focus fixed suddenly on Kaeya. But he doesn’t look accusatory, only bored. “And I hate to say it, but you’re not really in the kingdom’s favor. Good on Crepus,” he adds with a tilt of his head, almost as an afterthought.

Kaeya lifts a hand, and Venti - lips parted as though he’s about to go on - pauses.

“Why Diluc?”

“Why not? He’s the only heir to the throne,” Venti says with a shrug. “Easier pickings than any of the other kingdoms, and everyone knows how much Crepus loves his kid. What better way to destabilize Mondstadt?”

Gears whir and spin in Kaeya’s head, trying to fit the machinations of this particular unnamed enemy into his current understanding of Teyvat’s politics.

“So it’s a plot to harm Diluc, but to what end?” Kaeya leans back, crosses his arms over his chest. “Destabilization is all fine and good, but-”

But,” Venti interrupts, “you’re missing the point.”

“Am I,” Kaeya deadpans. Really, the last thing he’d expected upon arriving in Mondstadt was that he might be sitting at a table in an underground secret room with one of the crown prince’s trusted spies who also happens to be a tailor, who is now informing Kaeya that he - in all his years playing court politics - might be missing the point of an assassination attempt.

“Yes, you are,” Venti quips back, brow quirked. “Eliminating Diluc will be viewed as a threat to Crepus’ and Mondstadt’s safety, and you may be unaware of this, but we are not. The king has been known to make...questionable decisions when he believes he is under threat.”

Kaeya holds his tongue, thinks of the three years that his father avoided begging aid of Mondstadt after the queen’s death - he had not said so at the time, but Kaeya had learned, later, of the strange new soldiers that’d joined with Mondstadt’s army and guard, that’d patrolled the castle town and nearby lands. That’d instilled fear into the people of Mondstadt.

He does not know, ultimately, what had banished those forces and brought Mondstadt back into the calm, peaceful state that has persisted since.

“Look,” Venti says, after Kaeya has not found words to respond to that statement properly. “Diluc may be a prince in name, but beyond his importance to Crepus and just between you and me, he does a lot more for this country than meets the eye. In many regards, he is the uncrowned king of Mondstadt.”

Kaeya inhales slowly, once again shifts and adjusts the entirety of Teyvat in his head to account for this new information.

“Clearly, you have some...stuff to…” Venti waves a hand in Kaeya’s general direction, pulling him from his thoughts for a moment. “Let Diluc know the outfits will be ready to be picked up the day before the banquet, and that I have every available person on my team looking for information on this threat.”

Kaeya’s stomach twists - a threat to Diluc, which he’d either carefully avoided mentioning or is somehow not observant enough to detect. Kaeya cannot imagine it being the latter.

“Will he be safe?” Kaeya asks quietly, intentionally neutral in his tone. Venti’s lip ticks up at the corner.

“You play the worried lover quite well,” he says, and Kaeya’s lips press into a line - Diluc could’ve probably done better to tell him who doesn’t know about the falsehood of their infatuation, rather than implying that everyone believes it’s real.

“He’s strong and smart, no matter what I’ve said. But…” Venti pauses, brows furrowed, then offers Kaeya a tight smile. “I can see that you care.” Kaeya’s stomach twists, but an objection does not reach his lips. “It’s good to know you’ll be with him.”

With that and nothing more, Venti stands from the chair and climbs the stairs, shoves hard at the bookcase and waves a hand for Kaeya to join him.

“Thank you,” he adds as Kaeya passes, and Kaeya fights the sudden spark of panic in his chest.

If these people - the ones that Diluc trusts, the ones who have known him for far longer than Kaeya - are concerned for his safety…

The banquet is becoming a less thrilling prospect by the minute.

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

“Kaeya.” Kaeya exhales a breath at his name, said in Diluc’s voice as he steps through the door into their room. “I presume you just met with Venti?”

He eases the door shut behind him, watches Diluc uncross his legs where he sits on the sofa. The uncrowned king of Mondstadt, Kaeya thinks with a subtle smirk, though evidently not subtle enough. Diluc quirks a brow.

“Did you learn anything interesting?”

Oh, Kaeya’d learned quite a lot, but whether that all bears relevance to Diluc’s real question…

“You’ll be rather disappointed to hear that Venti does not have anything useful, aside from a point of irritation that you waited this long to request our clothing for the banquet.” Here, Diluc rolls his eyes, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath.

“Well, he’ll be equally irritated by the fact that Zhongli did find something of possible import.” He waves Kaeya over, and Kaeya goes easily, settles at Diluc’s side and leans in when Diluc lifts a page between them.

Kaeya scans it, blinks a couple times, then pulls his eyepatch off - really, the more time he spends with it off, the less he finds himself able to bear keeping it on for such long stretches. Diluc turns to him, though, and he glances over, and-

And gods, Kaeya will never tire of the sight of him right here, close enough that he could lean in, press a hard kiss to his lips, forget the horrible, twisted world around them for a few minutes. Climb into Diluc’s lap and leave him breathless, skin warm and cheeks pink and-

“So it does impair your vision,” Diluc says, and Kaeya is pulled rapidly and unwillingly from his daydreaming to find Diluc’s assessing stare fixed on him. “The eyepatch.” He nods to where Kaeya’s discarded it on the table.

“Of course it does,” he says, flippant to a fault. “Now, what is this supposed to be? Employment records?” He scans them again, and Diluc drops the subject. Kaeya can’t decide if that’s a victory or a loss.

“A quick copy of the ones Zhongli’s group was able to track down without arousing suspicion.” Kaeya can hear the irritation in his tone, assumes that it stems from the very fact that he could easily acquire this information himself. Except, of course, that their current goal is to avoid tipping off the attackers.

“Something looks wrong?” Kaeya prompts, and does not think too much about where his shoulder presses into Diluc’s. Diluc hums, shakes his head for a moment.

“Zhongli mentioned that it’s unusual for us to hire more than one or two new employees at a time, and here-” He breaks off, points at a collection of three employees with hiring dates all in the same week. “It’s hardly anything to go on, but…”

“But the banquet is the day after tomorrow, and it’s quite literally all you have to go on,” Kaeya finishes the sentiment, and Diluc exhales a heavy sigh as he sets the paper down and leans back into the sofa. Kaeya watches with rapt interest as he drags a hand across his face, stares absently up at the ceiling.

“Do you ever wish,” Diluc starts quietly, and Kaeya holds back the desire to say that he does wish, all the time, for things that he absolutely shouldn’t. “That you were not born a prince?”

“Of course.” This is an easy truth. Had he not been royalty, he’d have fought - and probably died - among his people, he’d have been useful. Tangibly, actively useful.

Diluc glances over at him, exhales a short breath. A small smile touches his lips, though.

“I used to daydream about it, and feel horrible guilt for wanting something simpler,” he says to the ceiling, and Kaeya’s stomach twists.

“Remarkable,” Kaeya says to himself, and with the very clear intent to garner Diluc’s attention. When he lifts his head just a bit, brow quirked in question, Kaeya lets a smile touch his lips. “It seems we have at least one thing in common.”

“Oh, you’re telling me you didn’t want to get married off to a stranger for political gain?” Diluc says with a touch of sarcasm that, Kaeya will admit, he wasn’t aware that Diluc knew how to use. His brows lift, amused and a bit surprised.

His moment of silence must set Diluc ill at ease, as his expression shifts immediately to a more serious one. Kaeya’s lips part, but Diluc beats him to speaking.

“It is not my place to apologize, but I will anyway. My father informed me of this…” A pause, and he glances at Kaeya with pursed lips before turning back to stare at the ceiling. “This arrangement nearly two weeks in advance of your arrival.”

Kaeya blinks. Two- two weeks? His father - and Crepus - had known about this two weeks prior to their arrival?

And his father had decided to keep this from Kaeya until after they’d arrived? What, until after some piece of the agreement had been finalized? Kaeya’s jaw twitches with irritation - and then he inhales, exhales. Shoves hard at that sentiment, for it does him nothing now.

“I wasn’t aware you were only told at the very last minute…” Diluc shakes his head, and Kaeya glances over at the movement. Finds a subtle rage on Diluc’s face, rage on Kaeya’s behalf, of all things.

And he feels it, that rage - it settles in his stomach, hot and painful, but it is his rage to bear, to come to terms with, not Diluc’s.

“I am not pleased by this information, but…” Kaeya shakes his head. “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.”

He means it as a reassurance, that this had not come as some horrifying shock to him, but Diluc’s gaze only darkens. His hands tense at his side, then clench into fists, and Kaeya’s brows furrow when he turns away.

“Besides...” Thoughts flit through his head like fireflies, fast and bright and impossible to catch as he tries to present Diluc with something positive, something to ease that obvious frustration that he knows - and Diluc, too, must know - has no real resolution.

“I had always thought you immensely boring,” Kaeya attempts, and at the very least, it directs Diluc’s wave of irritation in Kaeya’s direction. With it, though, comes a spark of suspicion in the form of narrowed eyes as Diluc waits. Kaeya tips his head, allows a subtle smirk to touch his lips. “Turns out I was wrong on that front, at least.”

Diluc’s irritation falls back, gives way to a confused sort of stare.

“You don’t find me boring?”

Kaeya blinks, trapped suddenly - how much can he say before his feelings become obvious, before Diluc realizes?

A dangerous thrill runs through him, daring him to test it. To see how much he can say, how much he can admit without Diluc recognizing what he truly means. He did promise himself that he wouldn't manipulate Diluc any more, surely that’d include being honest, wouldn't it?

“You do put up a rather uninteresting exterior,” Kaeya acknowledges with a tip of his head, and already, his body flushes with warmth at the way Diluc watches him. “But at every turn, you manage to surprise me.”

The truth, he reminds himself - but the truth is impossibly hard to say, with Diluc watching him like this.

“You’re easy to provoke,” Diluc’s expression twitches, and Kaeya lets his curl up in a smirk. “But you do not rise to the bait and provoke me in turn,” he adds with a tip of his head. “Even with the easiest of ways to get under my skin.” Here, he lifts a hand, waves it toward his face. His eye, for Diluc must recognize how touchy a subject that is.

“There are lines that should not be crossed,” Diluc says simply, and Kaeya lifts his brow in silent acknowledgment. “Besides, I see no reason to start fights with you.”

“Oh, but you can certainly finish them,” Kaeya adds with a laugh, caught up in the memory of the wild, heavy swing of Diluc’s greatsword in his direction, the fierce power behind it. Diluc’s eyes narrow in mild confusion. “Your skills with a sword,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc hums.

A moment of silence falls, and Kaeya steps ever-closer to the edge, to the point of no return.

“And...it is so very apparent that you care,” he says cautiously, and Diluc’s eyes flick up.

“For you?”

“For your people, and Mondstadt. And yes,” Kaeya says, stomach twisting in knots. “For me. As a political ally,” he adds quickly, when Diluc’s eyes widen. He blows out a breath, and Kaeya wonders how near he’d come to revealing the truth of his feelings. Best steer the conversation away from himself sooner rather than later.

“It’s clear you have people you care dearly for,” Kaeya adds, “like Venti and Zhongli. But beyond that, you’re kind and thoughtful toward those outside your inner circle of trusted friends as well.” Diluc shifts back into the sofa, a hint of relaxation touching his tense muscles.

Kaeya fights valiantly against the urge to mention anything relating to those muscles, how much he’d appreciated the view of them. How much he’d like to drag his hands across Diluc’s skin and-

“Of course I care for my people,” Diluc says, pointed and cautious. Kaeya inhales slowly. “As you care for yours, or I suspect you wouldn’t be here.”

“We are princes, are we not? Whatever it takes,” he says easily, lightly. A tone that belies the dark guilt and pain in his chest at being unable to do more. He wonders if Diluc hears that pain anyway, for the way his gaze drifts down.

“And I must say, your acting skills have been unexpectedly convincing,” Kaeya adds, in part to draw attention away from that pain and in part to continue on this destructive path of seeing just how far he can push before Diluc realizes-

“Acting skills? Ah, right.” He nods, and Kaeya watches with a heartbreaking kind of appreciation for the way a blush crawls across his face. Would that they were in public, that he could brush a kiss to Diluc’s cheeks - no acting involved on his part. “You’re quite...convincing as well,” Diluc adds after a moment, and Kaeya’s brows lift.

“Oh? Not planning to drag me into a corner during the banquet and chastise me for my inadequate performance?” He wonders if Diluc remembers what’d happened next, if he aches for it the same way that Kaeya does.

He doesn’t, of course, but that doesn’t prevent Kaeya from wondering all the same.

In place of a response, Diluc just rolls his eyes - they stop, then, and focus with intent on the clock on the wall. Kaeya follows his gaze, then turns back when Diluc stands suddenly.

“Dinner,” he grumbles. “We’re late.”

Chapter Text

“Late again, I know,” Diluc says with a wave of his hand as they step inside. It’s the same room that they’d shared breakfast in on the morning after the wedding, and Kaeya follows Diluc’s guidance to sit at his side. Crepus just bellows out a laugh, then gestures at an employee to bring their food.

“It’s of no consequence, son. Kaeya.” He nods at the both of them, and Kaeya offers a smile and nod in return. Diluc remains still, and Kaeya wonders if their earlier discussion had set off his irritation with his father again.

“Kaeya,” Crepus says with a warm smile. Either he didn’t notice Diluc’s slight or chose to ignore it, but Kaeya does not see the benefit of putting himself at odds with the king. “How have you been finding Mondstadt?”

“It’s been quite pleasant,” Kaeya says amicably, intentional in his vagueness. “Diluc has been an excellent guide in showing me around, and I certainly feel at home.” The things that the king would want to hear from his new son in law, especially one who’s meant to be acting the part of infatuated lovebird.

It draws a laugh from Crepus, genuine and deep, and Kaeya suspects he’s done enough to ingratiate himself for the moment.

“Ah, my somber son.” He turns his smile to Diluc, and Diluc does not return it. Pokes at the food that’s just been set before them and takes a bite. “It’s refreshing to know he’s not spending every hour locked away in his library or battering my poor guards during a sparring session.”

“Oh, I do not envy your guards,” Kaeya quips with a smirk. “Diluc is certainly not a force to be reckoned with.” Another laugh from Crepus, louder and more boisterous. Kaeya takes a sip of wine, finds it rather comforting.

“Ah, so you’ve sparred with him, too!” Crepus shakes his head, turns a genuinely warm smile toward Diluc. Diluc does not brush it off so flippantly this time - he meets his father’s gaze, then drops it to his plate.

“Yes. Kaeya’s quite a formidable opponent in his own right,” Diluc says, the first he’s spoken since they arrived. Kaeya will admit, the praise does wonders for his ego.

“A high compliment,” Crepus adds, brows lifted in surprise. “Perhaps I could do with inviting you to join my army. If you can stand up against my son, you’d put half my commanders to shame!”

To this, Kaeya only hums, bares a grin and takes another sip of wine - true, fighting has always been a silly desire of his, but not fighting for Mondstadt. Fighting alongside his people, with his magic, against the Abyss Order and to protect Khaenri’ah.

“Unfortunately, I suspect it’d be rather hard to keep up this ruse with Kaeya not at my side,” Diluc interjects before Kaeya has to think of some clever response to avoid insulting the king.

Crepus hums and nods, swallows whatever bite he’d been chewing, and points his fork in Diluc’s direction.

“No, no, you’re absolutely right, son. And, as a matter of fact, now that you’ve brought it up…” Kaeya lifts a brow at his words, almost certain that whatever he intends to say, it is actually the key reason for his invitation to dinner.

“As you both know,” Crepus glances between them, “the summer banquet is fast approaching.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve already commissioned our outfits for the evening,” Diluc says, and Kaeya wonders if he can tell that Crepus intends to discuss something else or if he’s merely guessing.

“No, no. Ah, I’m glad, of course. Venti?” Diluc nods, and Crepus returns the gesture. “I’ll be sure he’s well compensated. But no, this is with regards to the matter of, ah…” Here, his gaze flicks to the side, away from both Diluc and Kaeya.

Avoiding something, then. Interesting. Kaeya takes another sip of the wine.

“Each year, Mondstadt invites nobles, delegates and diplomats from all corners of Teyvat for a celebration of summer’s approach, and-”

“Get to the point, father.”

And,” he adds, sharper in his tone, but only for a moment. “There will be many eyes on the crown prince and his new husband.” Ah. The implication alone is enough for Kaeya to see where this is going.

“Of course they will,” Diluc says simply, dismissively. Crepus clears his throat.

“I would appreciate you giving this situation the gravity it deserves, Diluc.” Diluc’s lips press into a line, but he does not say a word, and Crepus glances between him and Kaeya. “Can I trust you both to play your part convincingly?”

In the corner of his eye, Diluc’s jaw tics with unspoken annoyance.

Suddenly, a hand grabs the front of Kaeya’s shirt, and Diluc pulls Kaeya toward him without pretense. His lips crash hard into Kaeya’s, hot and harsh for the obvious irritation behind his actions, and Kaeya catches on quickly.

Leans in, selfish in his desires and glad to take whatever Diluc will give him, no matter the circumstances. Their lips slide together with practiced ease, familiar and warm, and Kaeya melts into it, into the kiss. Lets his tongue flick out against Diluc’s lips, sucks in a breath when Diluc nips at his in turn.

He is achingly aware of the hand still fisted in his shirt, wishes that it were for other reasons, but he will not complain. Certainly not when Crepus clears his throat, when Diluc pulls back with a sharp exhale and pink-tinted cheeks and the kind of stare that makes Kaeya desperate for more.

But Diluc turns away, then, and glares at Crepus.

“Will that be convincing enough, father?”

A tight sort of smile touches the corner of Crepus’ mouth, evident in his desire to hide his irritation at his son’s disrespect. Kaeya keeps his own expression pointedly neutral, and wonders how they’ll actually get through the rest of this rather awkward dinner.

And then Diluc’s chair shifts back with a harsh scrape, and Diluc stands.

“I’ve lost my appetite.” No further explanation, and only the briefest glance at Kaeya, and then he’s out the door.

Logic dictates that he remain here, do damage control in the same way he would after his father’d gotten into his cups and made a mess of some diplomatic relation. However…

Crepus opens his mouth, and Kaeya knows immediately where he’d rather be. Who he’d rather be with. He dips his head to the king, stands from his chair, and follows Diluc out the door.

----------

“Well, that was-”

Save it.”

“I was going to say that it was rather interesting, but I’ll refrain,” Kaeya says with a smirk, hands held in the air in surrender as he nudges the door shut behind him. Diluc’s already sitting on the sofa, head in his hands, though he leans back and drops them to his lap a moment later. Exhales a heavy sigh, then glances for a brief moment at Kaeya before turning away again.

“I apologize for my behavior,” he says quietly, and Kaeya’s brows lift as he makes his way over. Settles on the sofa beside Diluc - not too close, of course. They’re alone, after all.

“Why? I found it rather entertaining.” And- gods, Diluc did not have to kiss him, certainly not like that. Kaeya found it far more than just entertaining.

Diluc glances over, clearly uncertain.

“If it’s any consolation, you most definitely proved your point,” Kaeya adds, and Diluc blows out another sigh, drops his head back into his hands. Kaeya grins wide at the flush that crawls up Diluc’s cheeks, allows himself to admire it for a few moments.

I acted irrationally,” Diluc grumbles into his hands, and Kaeya bites back the comment that he’d like to know what else Diluc considers irrational. Would like to see it, experience it firsthand.

“Perhaps you did,” Kaeya concedes, “but I certainly won’t complain.”

At this, Diluc turns his head just enough to fix a single red eye on Kaeya, and it sets his heart racing.

Ah, perhaps he could do with being slightly less reckless in his words.

Diluc straightens up, then, gaze fixed carefully on Kaeya. For several long, terrifying moments, they sit in silence - Kaeya cannot imagine what he could say at this juncture to take his words back, but he will certainly not further his own demise by saying anything else incriminating.

His heart hammers as Diluc watches him, as he waits for that moment of realization to dawn - and it will, won’t it? He’s gone too far, as was always inevitable. When Diluc turns away, Kaeya squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, laments whatever is about to come next.

“I’m relieved to know that I have not put you through any...undue discomfort,” Diluc says quietly to the hands he has clasped carefully in his lap, and Kaeya blinks for a moment in shock. That is what Diluc took away from his words?

Gods, he’s either the luckiest person alive for dodging that terrifying potential fallout or the unluckiest - if Diluc had deduced his feelings from that statement, at least they’d be out on the table. It takes every last ounce of Kaeya’s self control not to burst into laughter at the absurdity of it.

A grin tugs persistently at his lips, though, and he can’t quite keep it at bay.

“Certainly no discomfort,” Kaeya gets out, barely holding off his amusement, and Diluc glances over. Seems endearingly sincere in his concern, and Kaeya rolls his eyes. “If kissing you was truly that horrible, I’d find ways to avoid it.”

Instead, he thinks to himself, I seek out any excuse to taste your lips.

Still, his words seem to set Diluc at ease - he exhales a slow breath as he leans further back into the sofa, tips his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“I suppose my father will not be particularly pleased by that...performance.”

Kaeya coughs out a laugh, unable to hold it back now, and Diluc glances over.

“How could he not be?” Kaeya prompts. “He got exactly what he asked for,” he adds at the slight furrowing of Diluc’s brows. “Had he been anyone else, he could not doubt our infatuation.”

Diluc’s gaze flicks back to the ceiling, and his cheeks turn that lovely shade of pink again. Kaeya wishes, suddenly and desperately, that things were different. That he could grin and lean in and tuck his head into the crook of Diluc’s neck. Say things like do you doubt that I care for you? Then how could anyone else? and let me show you how I feel and all I want is you. Words whispered against Diluc’s skin as Kaeya presses close, as he chases those promises with the taste of Diluc’s tongue.

But he does not have that, that is not his reality, and he leans away from Diluc to prevent any chance of giving into his wilder desires. Folds his hands together to prevent them wandering - he and Diluc are alone, and their relationship is all a ruse.

“You’re not terribly hard to feign infatuation with,” Diluc says with hardly any intonation, words directed at the ceiling. Cheeks tinted red still, and Kaeya swallows, glances to the side for a moment in an attempt to clear his head.

Finding Kaeya tolerable is not the same as finding Kaeya desirable. Diluc does not mean to say that he is infatuated with Kaeya, only that he does not find it impossible to fake it. And still, Kaeya chooses to be recklessly flippant with his words.

“You’re rather easy to be infatuated with yourself,” he adds with a tip of his head, hopes that his nonchalance is believable even as his heart hammers in his chest. He’s said it, plain and clear, and does not know if the conversation’s context will be enough to obscure the meaning of his words.

In truth, he does not know if he wants it to be enough.

“Well,” Diluc says, glances to Kaeya for a moment, “at least that is one less worry to occupy my mind during the banquet.”

“What, my distress?” Kaeya coughs out a breath of amusement, and does not think about the banquet, nor about the fact that it is Diluc who is in danger.

“Yes.” So deadpan, does he really think himself so burdensome? Kaeya laughs again, genuinely this time. It takes every ounce of his self control not to crawl into Diluc’s lap, kiss him senseless and breathless and prove just how little distress he’s in when he has Diluc.

“What?” Diluc prompts, brows furrowed in genuine lack of understanding, and it only serves to push Kaeya’s amusement further, to make him lean back against the sofa and stifle his laugh with the back of his hand pressed to his lips. Diluc sits up, frown bordering on irritation now, and Kaeya can only shake his head.

“You think yourself so horrible?” Kaeya asks, disbelief flooding his tone. He does not bother to move his hand, half afraid that doing so would eliminate the last barrier between his lips and Diluc’s, and that he might not be able to stop himself from kissing them. So gone is his common sense, so far has he drifted into the territory of hilarity that kissing Diluc seems reasonable.

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

Kaeya leans forward, his hand finds Diluc’s cheek with ease, cups his jaw as though made to fit there, and he lets his lips brush Diluc’s - not harshly, not with the heat that he desires, but just enough, just to prove that he does this of his own volition.

Would do so again and again and again without a thought, if Diluc wanted it.

But not now, not here, because Diluc has not asked for it and Kaeya already toes the line of very very bad ideas, so he leans away after hardly a moment.

Diluc stares with wide eyes, lips parted and cheeks warm when Kaeya pulls his hand back. This was certainly a mistake, but he’ll own it, at least.

“Stop acting the villain,” he says as he leans back into the sofa. “I’m not being forced.”

His heart races in spite of the calm he forces into his words, and it only gets worse with each passing second of silence - Diluc just stares, and Kaeya watches with a rising panic as he inhales slowly.

Seems to return to himself after a moment, then, as he swallows and blinks and pulls away from Kaeya - of course he does, of course, because Kaeya could’ve simply said those words aloud and banished Diluc’s worries, but he had to-

Gods, he had to kiss him instead. He sets his jaw, hardens his heart against whatever Diluc intends to say now. Diluc’s tongue flicks out over his lips, and Kaeya’s stomach twists in both appreciation and trepidation.

“That’s...good to know. That you don’t feel forced. But...” His voice is too calm, and Kaeya’s heart breaks - of course, of course he’d taken it too far. “You don’t have to do that.” I don’t want you to do that, Kaeya hears.

He bares a grin, hates the way it feels on his lips.

“Apologies, but you seemed to have quite a one-track mind on the matter. I thought it the fastest way to assuage your concerns.” He even goes as far as to wave a hand in nonchalance, though he squeezes his eyes shut for a brief moment when Diluc turns away from him.

What a mess. What a mess he’s made of this possible, tentative...thing. He almost - almost, but not quite - laughs to himself. As though this was ever possible. As though he and Diluc were ever going to be anything more than political allies.

“I need to go meet with Zhongli,” Diluc says suddenly, stands quickly and skirts around the end of the sofa. Kaeya exhales a resigned sort of breath, though he hopes Diluc doesn’t hear it. Doubtful, by the way he rushes past Kaeya without a word.

“Do you need an alibi?” Kaeya offers at the sound of the door opening, hopeful in spite of himself.

“I’m fine.”

The door shuts, and Kaeya is alone. He lifts a hand to his head, rubs absently at his eye. Lets self-pity seep in for a long, indulgent moment before climbing from the sofa and heading out the door.

He hadn’t really eaten much, and he could use a distraction.

Chapter Text

Kaeya takes his time making his way to the kitchen. Perhaps because his heart urges him to follow after Diluc, and it takes quite a lot of effort and reasoning to keep his feet pointed away from the guest wing, but who’s to say for certain.

It is, therefore, rather dark by the time he makes it to the kitchen - and yet, in spite of the hour, laughter echoes from the open doorway, and Kaeya draws to a stop just outside.

It’s raucous and genuine, and Kaeya shies away. Regardless of who’s in there, his mood is not particularly pleasant right now, and he’d hate to sour anyone’s good time.

Razor, you can’t- Xiangling will be so angry!” Said with more laughter, and in a voice he recognizes. Kaeya tips his head, lets a small smile touch his lips as he steps around the corner and inside.

“Wh- ah! Ah, uh, um...” Bennett scrambles around a large table, sticks his arms out wide in a rather pathetic attempt to block Kaeya’s view of a collection of miscellaneous food items - bread, apples, some jerky, based on smell and what Bennett’s not able to obscure from view. Behind Bennett - and far more interesting than the food - is another kid about his age.

“Uh, hi! Prince Kaeya!” Bennett grins wide, his whole face red with embarrassment, or perhaps nerves at being caught. “This- um, this is- well, Xiangling, she said we could...take some stuff…” He trails off, glancing around at the otherwise empty kitchen as though it’ll provide some support. Kaeya just tips his head, leans against the doorway.

“Did she? Well, then, you’d best take what you need and be on your way,” he says easily, and Bennett’s eyes go wide. With one big, heavy breath, he almost deflates, then grins - more genuinely, this time - at Kaeya.

“Thanks, Prince Kaeya. You’re the best.” Kaeya tips his head.

“Better than Diluc?”

“Um...hah, uh, well…” He turns to glance at his friend- oh, or perhaps more than a friend. Kaeya wonders if this is the aforementioned crush. The guy blinks back at him, either at a loss or simply allowing Bennett to dig his own grave. Kaeya purses his lips, tries not to grin too widely.

“Like you said! We have to be-” Bennett cuts himself off with a forced sort of laugh, then rushes around the side of the table to gather all their food in a cloth and sling it over his shoulder. He nudges the other kid, then grins back at Kaeya. “Uh, nice seeing you, Prince Kaeya! C’mon Razor,” he adds quietly.

Kaeya dips his head in silent acknowledgment, watches with mild amusement as Bennett - still quite red in the face - wraps his hand around this Razor kid’s wrist and drags him out the door at the other end of the kitchen.

At least his - and, he supposes, Diluc’s - advice had not gone to waste. He hopes the two of them are having an easier time of the whole relationship thing than Kaeya is.

Gods, again he wishes desperately for simplicity. For the ease of finding someone he cares for and earning their affection. For none of the politics, just-

“Well, if it isn’t hot stuff himself.”

Kaeya spins at the voice, brow quirked - Childe stands at the end of the hall, a grin on his lips that sets Kaeya immediately on edge.

“Down here for a late-night snack?” Childe prompts as he waltzes past Kaeya and into the kitchen, and Kaeya follows his progress with wary attention. Diluc had gone to speak to Zhongli not that long ago...was Childe there as well, or has he been elsewhere?

“It’s hardly that late, but yes. And what brings you to the kitchen at this hour?” Kaeya quips back, and manages - just barely - to catch whatever it is that Childe suddenly throws in his direction. He turns it in his hand, then glances up.

“Bread.” Childe lifts his own roll in his hand, a bite already missing. Kaeya attributes the muffled tone of voice to said missing bite.

“Bread,” Kaeya repeats, brow quirked. Childe just nods emphatically down at the roll he’d tossed to Kaeya, and he takes a bite.

“Xiansheng said if I’m going to raid the wine cellar, I’d better put something in my stomach first,” Childe adds after he’s swallowed, and he tosses a smirk in Kaeya’s direction. “Don’t suppose you’d care to join me?”

Kaeya’s brows lift, and he can sense, very strongly, that this is yet another of his very bad ideas. But he’s already royally fucked his relationship with Diluc, hasn’t he? Why bother stopping before he’s had some of his new family’s famous wine?

In place of a response, he waves a hand toward the door - the one leading down to the cellar - and takes a bite of his own bread. Childe’s grin widens, bordering on feral, and he coughs out a laugh as he pulls the door open.

-----------

“Do you have no class?” Kaeya says as he lowers the bottle, grimaces at the sour taste coating his tongue. Childe rolls his eyes, overdramatic, and leans over to yank the wine away.

“If you don’t like it, you pick one then.” He grins, though, as he takes a sip.

“Snezhnayans…” Kaeya says with just enough false judgment to get Childe’s attention, though he does nothing more than stick his tongue out at Kaeya. He settles back in his chair, then, and takes another sip, and Kaeya shakes his head. Stands with a heavy breath of irritation - really, Childe could’ve picked something slightly better - and wanders back toward the racks of wine.

He lets his fingers run across the collection of cool glass, lets the damp air cling to his skin and pretends it’s fine. That he is fine. That he never had Diluc to begin with, so what does it matter if he messed everything up?

For one - one - moment, he allows himself to regret it. To press his hand flat to the wood of the wine rack and truly, genuinely regret his idiocy. And then he grabs a bottle at random, scans the label for hardly a second before determining it better than the sour crap that Childe had chosen, and marches back to the entrance of the cellar.

Childe watches him as he returns, brow quirked in silent and obvious interest, but Kaeya says nothing, and Childe only extends the bottle opener to him. Remarkable, Kaeya thinks - he didn’t know the guy had it in him to not offer some unrequested and undesired comment.

“You look miserable.”

“And there it is,” Kaeya says more to himself than to Childe. He takes a sip of the wine, finds it far superior to Childe’s choice, and downs a bit more. Points the lip of the bottle in Childe’s direction. “And you have rather awful manners for being a guest in this castle.”

“Says the one married for politics and chugging Mondstadt’s finest wine like it’s grape juice,” Childe quips back with a grin. Kaeya graciously ignores the falsehood of those words. More graciously hands over the bottle when Chidle gestures for it. “And here I was worried you’d just mope.”

“And why on Teyvat would I be moping?” He affects his most unbothered, nonchalant tone, a smirk he does not feel and a laugh he does not want when Childe’s brows lift in surprise.

“Right, right right. You’re totally loving it here, aren’t you?”

“I have access to the finest wine in all of Teyvat, I really don’t see how I could complain.” To prove his point, he leans over to yank the bottle from Childe’s loose grip, and Childe’s grin widens.

“And how are you finding the dear crown prince?” Kaeya’s jaw clenches, and he takes a long sip of the wine. He has no interest in being sober for a conversation like this.

“That bad a kisser, is he?” Childe prods, twists his lips in false pity. “What a shame…” Here, Childe trails off with a shake of his head, and Kaeya shrugs.

“He’s a perfectly fine kisser,” he lies blatantly, and tries not to think too hard about how good it feels to kiss Diluc. How much he wants to, how much he thinks about it, how much-

“Wow, a glowing commendation. I’ll have to be sure to test that myself,” Childe says with a laugh, sharp and loud as it echoes around the cellar and into Kaeya’s ears. He bites his tongue, tries to center his focus a little.

“You want to kiss Diluc?” He’ll admit, a spark of jealousy pricks in his chest, something hot and bad, and he takes another sip of the wine in some misguided attempt to get rid of it. It doesn’t really work, but the wine tastes okay, at least.

“‘S that bother you?” Childe asks, eyes bright and grin still twisted up in amusement. Kaeya scoffs. Shrugs. Leans back in his chair, pointed in his nonchalance.

“He’s not mine, I’d just be shocked if he had any interest in kissing you.” The idea of it vibrates through his skin in the most unsettling way - but if that’s what Diluc wants, he can have it, can’t he? Except-

Childe’s hand in his line of sight, grabbing for the bottle, and Kaeya lets it go easily.

“Aren’t you and Zhongli…” Kaeya waves his hand, freed from its task of holding the bottle. Childe tips his head back as he takes a long sip.

“‘Course we are,” he says once he’s lowered it. “Doesn’t mean I can’t kiss who I want. And I don’t,” he adds, finger pointed directly at Kaeya, “want to kiss your boring husband.”

“He’s not boring,” Kaeya says on reflex, but also because it’s true. Childe makes a show of his disbelief, a scoff and raised brows and something mumbled under his breath that’s probably insulting. Kaeya sits up straighter.

“Alright, alright,” Childe says before Kaeya can so much as open his mouth. “Either way, not into him,” he says with a shake of his head as he passes the wine unprompted back to Kaeya. “Have him all to yourself.”

“He’s not mine,” Kaeya repeats, quieter this time as he takes the bottle. Slumps back and lets his gaze drift to the side as he lifts it to his lips for a short sip. In the corner of his vision, Childe rolls his eyes, mumbles something again.

“Oh, don’t get all miserable on me, hot stuff.” A foot pokes into Kaeya’s leg, startles him back to focus. He turns an unamused glare on Childe. “Gods, I thought getting you drunk would be a little more entertaining…”

“Well, you picked a particularly bad time for it,” Kaeya says, surprised he’s able to keep any casual humor in his tone.

“What, was it the bad wine?” Childe asks, lifting the open bottle he’d set at his feet and waving it vaguely at Kaeya. “Or did Diluc’s sudden appearance at our door earlier have something to do with it?”

In spite of himself, Kaeya’s gaze flicks sharply over to Childe, and Childe’s brows lift.

“Ah, it did. Well that’s a little more interesting, isn’t it?” He hums to himself, and Kaeya’s brows furrow. He sticks a foot out, pokes Childe’s leg the way he’d done to Kaeya earlier. Childe ignores it in favor of reaching for the bottle.

“What’d he say?” Kaeya prompts as he hands it over, and Childe hums in confusion as he takes a sip. Takes his time swallowing and letting out an annoyingly long ‘oh’. Kaeya waits, impatience and fear warring in his chest and turning him warm. Or maybe that’s the wine, hard to say. Well, maybe not so hard to say, but he’d like to believe he hasn’t had that much-

“I have no idea, he kicked me out,” Childe says with a shrug. “Wanted to talk to Xiansheng alone.” He puts a particularly irritated emphasis on the word, and Kaeya wonders if he’s jealous or just annoyed that he hadn’t been included. Hard to say, when his gaze shifts back to Kaeya a moment later.

“So, tell me what happened,” he prompts, eyes wide and intrigued and a smirk on his lips that says he does not care in the slightest for Kaeya, only for the story he’d been denied.

Perhaps that’s the real reason he’d invited Kaeya to the wine cellar. Get him drunk, get the gossip. Kaeya exhales a weary sigh.

“Go bother your boyfriend about it,” he grumbles aloud, does not bother with the pretense of his usual nonchalance. He jolts upright when Childe’s foot connects quite hard with his shin, and he bares his teeth at the nuisance in question.

Childe, for his part, just quirks a brow.

“We can fight, if that’d make you feel better. You’re probably just as fun to fight drunk,” he says with a tip of his head, like he’s actually considering it. Kaeya sits back, blows out another breath, and it draws Childe’s attention again. “Or we can make out for a bit?”

His gaze drags down Kaeya’s chest at his own suggestion, and Kaeya’s body warms with the attention. But he is not Diluc, and yes, sure, fine, he’s attractive, but-

“But I’m not the pretty redhead you’re hoping to get between your legs, am I?”

Kaeya coughs, chokes on nothing at Childe’s implication, and stares with wide, panicked eyes as Childe grins at him. Just grins, a little maniacal and a lot like he’s already figured out the gossip that he’d dragged Kaeya down here for.

“Ooh, very fun,” Childe says as he takes another sip of the wine, bottle clearly almost drained now. Kaeya’s heart races wild and out of control, and he puts every ounce of his effort into controlling his expression, reigning it in and making it seem normal, casual.

“I have no idea what you’re implying,” he says, all nonchalant flippancy, but Childe coughs out a laugh. So much for trying to get him to believe it.

“Relax, hot stuff. What am I gonna do, tell Diluc that you’re actually head over heels for him?” Kaeya’s stomach twists, and he presses his lips into a line even as Childe waves a hand in dismissal, shoves the bottle in Kaeya’s direction.

“Nah, your relationship problems are yours to figure out. I just like to know what’s going on,” he adds as he tips his head, wicked smirk and a bright glint in his eye. But what the hell can Kaeya do about it? The guy is Diluc’s closest confidant’s boyfriend, or whatever he is, it’s not like Kaeya can arrange for some mysterious disappearance.

“Just drink the rest of your fancy wine,” Childe says, wiggling the bottle for emphasis. “I’m not about to ruin all my fun watching you make moon-eyes at Diluc when you think he’s not looking.”

“I don’t make moon-eyes at him,” Kaeya grumbles as he takes the wine, feels resignation settle uncomfortably in his chest.

“Mhm, sure you don’t,” Childe says on a breath of laughter, and Kaeya groans. Accepts this horrible twist of fate.

“Tell me I don’t,” he says, half a lament to Childe and half to himself. Damn this near-empty bottle.

“No, no, you do it well. It’s all part of, uh…” Childe snaps his fingers as though searching for the right words. “Ah, the act.” Another wicked grin. “All part of the act, right? Infatuated lovebirds?” He breaks into hysterical laughter, then, and Kaeya groans, drags a hand down his face.

“I imagine the actual infatuation makes the acting a lot easier, huh?” Childe continues, and Kaeya kicks a leg out, lets a self-satisfied smirk touch his lips when it connects with Childe’s shin.

“Okay, okay!” He holds hands up in surrender, and Kaeya blows out a heavy breath, sets his basically-empty bottle aside and tips his head back.

“The actual infatuation makes playing my part easy, and makes everything else immensely complicated,” he says to the lantern hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room. Even just...sort of admitting this out loud makes his entire body flush with embarrassed warmth, and his stomach twists into knots at the huffed breath of laughter Childe blows out.

“So what’d you do?” Kaeya tips his head down just enough to frown at Childe. Childe, for his part, leans back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head and a knowing sort of look scrawled across his face. Kaeya dislikes it, he decides on principle.

“What?”

“You did something, or you wouldn’t be sulking. What happened?” He prompts Kaeya’s attention with another poke to his leg, not nearly as violent as Kaeya’s last kick to his shin. Kaeya’s face warms further, and he wants to blame the alcohol. His lips twist, but what’s the point in not saying it? At least he can tell someone. Not like he’s going to go vent all of this to Crepus.

“Kissed him.”

“You’re supposed to do that.”

“We were alone.”

Ah.”

A heavy silence settles, then, and Kaeya wishes he could make the room spin a little more. As it stands, it’s hardly enough to set him off balance, and he’d really prefer a distraction right now. Anything to get his mind off Diluc’s ‘you don’t have to do that’, the drop in the pit of Kaeya’s stomach as he’d watched Diluc run off.

He leans forward, props his elbows on his thighs and his head in his hands, disappears into an ether of blackness behind his closed eyes.

“You’d better not pass out on me, I can’t drag you up those stairs,” Childe warns, half amused and definitely half cautious. What does he care, though, if Kaeya’s suffering?

“‘M not a lightweight,” he grumbles into his hands, then blows out a hard breath. When he stands, it’s with a remarkable amount of balance, even for him, and he blinks tiredly down at Childe.

Childe grins up at him, then extends a hand. Kaeya narrows his eyes at it.

“Perfect, cause I am, and there’s no way I’m getting all the way back to Xiansheng without some help.”

Chapter Text

Childe does a suspiciously decent job at supporting his own weight, Kaeya finds - if anything, he’s directionally challenged at worst, and prone to leaning heavily against Kaeya’s side or stumbling off and away from him if he doesn’t remain focused on walking.

Please tell me this is the hall,” he groans when they turn, and Kaeya rolls his eyes.

“Yes, it is. Right at the-” He points, but Childe just yanks him forward, and Kaeya blows out a long-suffering sigh. At least he can hand the guy off to Zhongli once-

Xiansheng!” Childe sing-songs as they get close, and Kaeya’s face scrunches up in irritation - both at the loud noise, which only serves to irritate his growing headache, and at the entirely unnecessary shout. At least they’re in an otherwise unoccupied hall. He shoots a glare in Childe’s direction, not that he’s paying any attention, then raps his knuckles against the door.

It swings in hardly a second later, and Zhongli nods once, amicably, at Kaeya before untangling Childe from his side and all but carrying him into the room. If Childe says something particularly inappropriate for the fact that Kaeya’s still within earshot, Kaeya pretends very ardently not to hear it.

Mostly because his attention has turned to something far more important, in the form of flame-red hair and furrowed brows pointed in his direction.

“Kaeya?”

“Diluc.” He wants to say Luc, but he’s not supposed to - there’s no pretense of their false relationship to hide behind here. You don’t have to do that, Diluc had said, so Kaeya won’t do anything like it again. Shouldn’t, no matter how much he wants to.

Diluc steps out from Zhongli’s room and inches the door shut behind him, cutting off the muffled grumbling from Childe that might’ve contained some complaint about Kaeya being mopey when he’s drunk.

“Raiding my wine cellars, I see,” Diluc says, and Kaeya can’t tell if he’s pointedly avoiding any mention of the earlier...situation, or if he really cares so much about Kaeya drinking some wine.

“One of the many perks of our marriage.” He’s as careful as he can manage with his tone, casual to a fault in the event that Diluc wants to just...move past what happened. Of course he would, and so Kaeya will give him that, at least. Diluc does not owe him an explanation.

“One of many?”

Kaeya glances sideways at Diluc, but he’s already set off and walking down the hall, and Kaeya has to remind his feet to move if he wants to catch up.

“And what might these other benefits be?” Diluc adds as Kaeya reaches his side, then slows to match his pace. Still, a confused sort of thrill runs through Kaeya’s veins, and he has half a mind to blame it on the alcohol. He blinks a couple times, but he’s relatively certain that Diluc is still the same Diluc he’d been when he raced out of his room earlier. Perhaps a little less pink.

So he thinks about the question Diluc’s asked him, which in itself is yet another very bad idea of his, and wonders if he can rewind time and shove Childe through the door and run back to their rooms without talking to Diluc at all.

Because the benefits, as far as Kaeya is concerned, can basically be summarized as his almost unlimited access to Diluc. And the wine, of course, but that genuinely pales in comparison.

“It would set me at ease to know you find life here amenable,” Diluc adds, then, and turns just enough to catch Kaeya’s eye.

Amenable. Kaeya wants to laugh.

“I have wine and entertainment, what more could I ask for?” Kaeya finds his words smooth and easy, casual as ever in the face of Diluc’s stare. What he does not expect, however, is the tick in Diluc’s jaw as he turns to look forward again.

“Entertainment.” Kaeya’s brows lift at the hardness in his tone. “I do hope that Childe kept you...entertained.” Were it anyone else, anyone but Diluc, Kaeya might think him jealous.

“He has horrendous taste in wine,” Kaeya says for lack of anything else - what to say, that Childe is now mortifyingly aware of Kaeya’s genuine infatuation with Diluc?

Diluc glances over with a softer sort of look, less of a glare this time, and Kaeya thinks he’s exhaled a breath.

“Is that how you judge your suitors? Based on their taste in wine?”

Kaeya coughs out a laugh, genuine and unexpected, and it makes him stumble into Diluc’s side. Diluc, much to his surprise, loops an arm through his and steadies him. Right, of course - they’re newlywed lovebirds on their way back to their room. They must play the part.

Still, Kaeya sobers at Diluc’s touch, but his grin does not fade.

“He did proposition me,” Kaeya says with a touch of humor and a tip of his head.

“Did he.” Not a question, and an unexpected thrill zips through Kaeya’s core at his harsh tone. Oh, Kaeya has never been particularly fond of the idea of belonging to anyone, but still...Diluc wanting him all to himself-

Except he doesn’t, does he? Certainly not like that. The wine must be addling his thoughts, twisting his perception of Diluc’s words.

“I don’t think he meant it.” Can’t have, with the way he’d followed it up. But I’m not the pretty redhead you’re hoping to get between your legs, am I?

Even now, warmth floods his cheeks at the reminder.

“Did you want him to?”

“To…” Kaeya scrambles, trying to focus on something other than the idea of Diluc between his legs.

“Mean it?”

Kaeya scoffs - he can’t say he doesn’t find Childe attractive, but...well, Childe hadn’t exactly been wrong in his assessment of who Kaeya is actually interested in.

“No.”

He wants to say more, but he knows his tongue is loose from wine and he’s just as likely to say something he really shouldn’t, to dig his grave even deeper and prevent any chance of...well, maybe not a relationship, but perhaps at least a friendship with Diluc.

Beside him, Diluc hums, and Kaeya glances from the corner of his eye to find his lips pressed into a line. They’re tilted up at the corner, though, and Kaeya tries not to think about that too much.

“If you want to-”

“I don’t.” He doesn’t actually know how that sentence ends, but they’re talking about Childe right now, and Kaeya can say with a fairly strong amount of certainty that he does not want whatever Diluc had been about to suggest.

“He’s that insufferable?” Diluc prompts, and Kaeya smirks at the humor that tints his tone. “Or is his taste in wine just that atrocious?” Kaeya laughs fully this time, then clamps a hand over his mouth - they’re nearly back at Diluc’s rooms, but it’d be rude of him to wake anyone along the way.

When he glances over in silent apology, Diluc is already watching him. Smiling. Kaeya wants to melt.

“His wine preference is bad,” Kaeya agrees with a nod just as Diluc pushes through the door and into their rooms. “But he isn’t exactly my type.” He’s playing with fire, he knows, and still, it draws him closer. He swallows as he inches the door shut behind him, as he watches Diluc for any sign of his interest.

Yes, yes - he shushes the voice in the back of his head that says Diluc can’t possibly want him. He can dream, can’t he? Diluc keeps his back turned for a moment.

“And what is your type, then?”

You. He aches to say it, to reach forward and wrap his arms around Diluc’s waist, mumble that against the warm skin of his throat and kiss him until he can’t think straight. Until they’re both aching and breathless and-

Diluc watches him - gods, when had he turned around? - with the subtlest hint of interest, like they’re making casual conversation and Kaeya isn’t just one bad decision away from admitting how he feels.

“Trying to get me out of your hair for a bit?” he says instead. Deflect, distance himself. Pretend that he doesn’t ache to run his fingers through Diluc’s hair and pull him close, taste his lips and find them better than all of Mondstadt’s finest wine.

Diluc’s face scrunches just a little - confusion, Kaeya thinks. Maybe he’s not trying to get rid of Kaeya. But his expression closes off, then, and Kaeya’s stomach twists.

“Of course not. Forget I asked.” Quiet, dismissive, and he turns away. Pulls his jacket from his shoulders. “We should get some rest.”

Kaeya should say something. Something, anything. His nails dig into his palms, and he inhales slowly, forces himself to focus.

“Has something upset you?” he tries, which sounds wrong in his head but it’s better than I’m sorry I was too terrified to admit that you are, unexpectedly, my type. It’ll have to do.

“Why would you think that?” Diluc asks, quiet and even. Kaeya huffs out a breath that he attempts to pass for amusement.

“Two minutes ago, you actually smiled. Now you’re…” He waves a hand in Diluc’s direction, and Diluc’s jaw twitches as he turns away from Kaeya.

“I smile.”

Kaeya’s brows lift at the assertion. In spite of himself, a smirk tugs at his lips.

“Do you?” Kaeya scoffs, and Diluc lifts his head, but does not turn around.

“Of course I do.”

Kaeya just hums at that, forcing a bit of disbelief. Of course, he’s seen Diluc smile, but this is safer territory for their conversation and he’s perfectly happy to remain here for the time being.

Diluc turns, then, a neutral sort of expression on his face as he stares pointedly at Kaeya, and Kaeya’s brows lift.

A smile tugs at the corners of Diluc’s lips, then, very much in the way that a flower blossoms: slow, gentle, beautiful. Rare to have caught the moment that it happens, and Kaeya’s chest feels light and warm at the sight of it.

Diluc exhales a slow breath and glances down, though the smile doesn’t quite leave his lips. Kaeya wonders if he’s imagining the barest hint of pink coloring Diluc’s cheeks - probably is, he decides, though he has no proof one way or the other.

“Dare I ask what caused such a rare sight?” Kaeya prompts gently, carefully. Desperately, too, because he wants nothing more than to know what’d been going on in Diluc’s head, how Kaeya might recreate such a thing to earn that smile for himself.

“By all means,” Diluc says with a wave of his hand as he turns away again. Kaeya lets his gaze drift appreciatively across the expanse of Diluc’s back when he pulls his shirt off.

“Well, do tell.” Kaeya’s heart hammers in direct contrast to his casual tone, anticipation dripping through every inch of his body. But Diluc just glances back over his shoulder, hums an unexplained noise to himself.

“I don’t recall actually agreeing to provide an answer,” he says as he brushes past the sofa and heads toward the bathroom, and Kaeya scoffs in surprise. And amusement, actually. That Diluc has it in him to play games...he wouldn’t have expected it.

“If I can do nothing else for you,” Kaeya rushes the words out in some misguided attempt to play off their earlier discussion, and feels his heart race as he does, “at least let me know how to make you smile.”

This makes Diluc pause, a hand resting on the doorway and his back still turned, and Kaeya holds his breath.

“You don’t have to do anything.” Diluc’s voice is quiet, gentle. Tired, perhaps, but not in an unkind way. Kaeya takes a step forward. Stops himself - he has not been invited to wrap his arms around Diluc, hold him close and press his lips to that soft skin.

“You are just as forced into this as I am,” Kaeya says with a moment of crystal clarity. “How did you put it...it would set me at ease to know you find life here amenable.” He quirks a brow, crosses his arms over his chest in silent defiance.

Diluc’s shoulders shake with a huffed breath of laughter, and he turns for just a moment to glance back at Kaeya. A smile touches his lips, and Kaeya returns it tenfold, a bright grin at his use of Diluc’s own words against him.

“You asked what made me smile,” Diluc says, not quite to Kaeya, though his gaze flicks over for a brief moment. Kaeya hangs on his words, breath held so as not to miss them. “It was something…” Kaeya shakes his head at the pause, knows already that Diluc will not hand over his thoughts so easily.

“Something unexpectedly endearing,” Diluc says as another smile touches his lips. His gaze remains unfocused for a moment longer, then flicks to Kaeya. “I meant when I said that you do not have to do anything in order to make me smile.”

With that, he disappears into the bathroom, shuts the door behind him. Kaeya stares with wide eyes and lips parted and heart racing and thoughts spinning and it takes every ounce of his self control not to rush into the bathroom and demand that Diluc explain exactly what he’d meant by that.

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

He can’t mean it the way that Kaeya wants him to. He’d just had too much wine and thought for far too long about those words. Spent far too long staring at the dark ceiling of his sitting-room-bedroom feeling too warm under the covers and too cold without them. Diluc does not mean what Kaeya wishes he meant.

He doesn’t find Kaeya unexpectedly endearing. Doesn’t smile because of any feelings for Kaeya.

Of course not, Kaeya thinks as he pulls his blanket up to his chin, curls in on himself and tucks his face into the pillow. Pretends that it could be Diluc’s chest, and knows that it isn’t. Wishes for it anyway. Gods, what has he gotten himself into? This is infinitely worse than he could’ve possibly imagined.

Diluc can’t like him. If he did, why run as he had yesterday, after the kiss? Why-

Why ask his taste in partners, though? Why act the part of the jealous husband when nobody was around to see?

And why can’t Kaeya stop considering the idea that Diluc might have feelings for him? He knows the truth of it, has seen clearly the immediate drop of Diluc’s facade when they step inside the doors of his bedroom. He does not want Kaeya, does not have interest in him in that way. He would do well to just forget the entirety of last night.

As though it will let go of him so easily.

A sharp knock startles him, then, and does him the service of chasing away his thoughts for the moment.

Kaeya?” Kaeya props himself up on his elbow at Diluc’s voice. Glances toward the window to find pale morning light peeking around the curtains.

You’re not skipping the state of affairs meeting today.”

Kaeya flops back down.

“I don’t think you can stop me, actually,” he calls back, grins wide at the exasperated sigh from the other side of the door. Startles when the handle turns, when Diluc steps inside and fixes an unamused glare on where Kaeya still lays in bed.

“I will drag you there if need be.” No room for argument. Kaeya presses his lips into a line, fights back his laughter. Instead, he quirks a brow.

“You’re more than welcome, although I suspect some might be displeased with my current state of undress.”

His words do wonders for turning Diluc’s face a shade of pale pink, and he waves a hand in an indication that Diluc should, by all means, continue with his original plan. He won’t, of course, but Kaeya’s very much enjoying getting Diluc flustered.

For several very long seconds, Diluc remains entirely silent, arms crossed over his chest and a frown tugging at his lips. Kaeya quirks a brow, lives for the shade of red that colors Diluc’s cheeks as he turns away.

“Get dressed. Ten minutes.” With that, Diluc turns, marches stiffly out the door and shuts it behind him. Kaeya grins after him, amused and...and settled. They have returned to this safe, distanced thing. Diluc does not have interest in him, Kaeya can continue to hide his own feelings until they disappear.

He hopes that day will come sooner rather than later - as he crawls from his bed and pulls something presentable on, he wonders at length what he could do to keep Diluc in bed. Well, to get him in bed to begin with, but to keep him there the morning after. What would it take to prevent his attendance at the state of affairs meeting?

Kaeya’s lips? His hands, his tongue? Or is Diluc so dedicated that no amount of persuasion could stop him from seeing to his duties? Somehow, Kaeya suspects it’s the latter, and yet, that thought does nothing to stem his desire to try.

As though such a world exists, where he has Diluc in his bed. Where he has even a chance of keeping him there.

He steps out into Diluc’s bedroom to find him standing near the door to the hall, arms crossed and lips pressed into an unreadable line. In place of words, he just gestures toward the door, and Kaeya slips his eyepatch into place before joining him.

They walk arm in arm, and it is easy to pretend - in this moment - that things are normal. Or, rather, as normal as they can be, given the absurdity of their situation. A smirk touches Kaeya’s lips - what a fine, wonderful mess he’s found himself in the middle of.

“Something amusing?” Diluc’s voice is low, gentle. An act, Kaeya reminds himself - if Diluc asks out of genuine interest, it is not because he cares for Kaeya. Certainly not beyond some form of amicable companionship. Certainly not because he feels something for Kaeya.

“Hm? No, noth-” He cuts himself off, a twinge in his chest serving to remind him - he’d vowed it to himself, hadn’t he? Not to manipulate, not to hide behind a pretense. Diluc glances over, brow raised in silent question.

“How long have we been married?” he asks without really expecting an answer. Diluc’s lips part, but Kaeya just blows out an amused breath. “I wonder if I will ever quite get used to the idea of it.”

“Of being married to me?”

Kaeya hums a noncommittal sound, uncertain whether speaking plainly will push them both back into that unfamiliar territory where Kaeya loses himself in daydreams again.

“Is it the ‘married’ part that bothers you, or the ‘married to me’ part?” Diluc prompts, and Kaeya glances to the side. Finds Diluc’s focus fixed rather ardently on the hallway ahead of them, though he knows they’re not far from the state of affairs meeting room. Diluc’s steps slow.

“Neither bothers me,” Kaeya says easily, for that is the truth. What Diluc had not thought to ask is which of those things sends a thrill up his spine, makes him ache with unfounded hope and unrequited desire. To which, of course, the answer would be the ‘married to Diluc’ part.

And Diluc does not get his chance to ask, because they draw to a stop outside the meeting room, and Kaeya glances over.

“You don’t truly need me in this meeting, do you?” he tries, not expecting to escape but making the effort nonetheless. Diluc gives him an oddly neutral sort of look, though, and it catches Kaeya’s attention.

“I hope that with both of us listening to the reports, we might have a better chance of catching some important information.” He does not elaborate on that, and doesn’t need to - Kaeya understands him well enough.

They are still on a deadline to find out anything they can with regards to the banquet and whatever nefarious forces have planned for it. For Diluc, who is most likely the one in danger here. Kaeya’s grip on Diluc’s arm tightens just a fraction, but if Diluc notices, he says nothing.

Just catches Kaeya’s eye, and Kaeya nods, and they step into the room without another word.

Chapter Text

“Well, that was entirely pointless,” Kaeya grumbles as he shuts the door to Diluc’s bedroom - a waste of over an hour, not that he had other things to do. But he certainly could’ve come up with some, and they’d have been far more productive.

“Perhaps. But we can’t say for certain until I chat with-” A pause, and Kaeya glances over to find his face scrunched in thought, hand at his chin and lips pursed. Red eyes flick over to Kaeya, then, and he nods.

“Care to share with the class?” Kaeya asks as he pulls his eyepatch off and tosses it on the table. Rubs absently at his temple, then below his eye. Would that he didn’t have to wear the thing so much, or would that Diluc had never expressed his indifference toward Kaeya removing it in the first place.

“I need to speak to Zhongli-”

“Couldn’t he have attended that meeting with you?” Kaeya grumbles, and Diluc casts him an irritated glance.

“Politically speaking, no. I need to relay this information to him as well as Venti.” Here, he pauses, and Kaeya’s brows lift. “Would you mind speaking with Venti? Our banquet clothing should be prepared as well, if I recall correctly?”

Kaeya rearranges his thoughts carefully, pulls the events of the state of affairs meeting back to the forefront of his mind - as much as he’d found nothing of relevance, he knows well enough that, in the context of anything Venti’s managed to dig up from his own reconnaissance, there could be some vital clues to their mystery attackers, or at least the nature of the attack.

“I’ll speak to him,” Kaeya says after a moment of silence, and Diluc nods. “In a bit,” Kaeya adds as he drops down onto the sofa, tips his head back and lets his eyes drift shut.

“Your urgency around the matter is greatly appreciated,” Diluc deadpans, though his voice sounds closer now. The cushion beside Kaeya sinks with his weight, but Kaeya does not open his eyes. “Hangover that bad?”

“I am not hungover,” Kaeya quips, lets his eyes flick open just enough to give Diluc a disbelieving stare. “As if I’m such a lightweight,” he grumbles as he returns to the calming blackness behind his eyes.

“So something is the matter, then?”

Kaeya’s stomach twists, and he can feel his body go still. Whether Diluc notices, he doesn’t say, but Kaeya can feel his presence now like a weight.

“I can’t simply desire a moment of rest?” Gods, his casual tone sounds forced even to his ears. Diluc hums beside him.

“Of course you can. But in the event that something is actually bothering you, I would appreciate if you told me.” A pause, heavy for the way that Kaeya’s heart hammers in his chest. “I would like to help, if possible.”

You can help, Kaeya thinks rather flippantly, by climbing into my lap, kissing my lips and telling me that you do care, you do want me, beyond what act we’ve been forced to play in public.

He won’t say that aloud, of course. The thought alone sends panic prickling across his skin, and he searches desperately for a truth that will-

“My eyepatch. It’s nice to have it off for a while.” Safe, much safer, he thinks.True, and a perfectly reasonable explanation for wanting to stay here, easily applicable to his earlier mood, if Diluc wishes to draw some kind of connection there.

“Oh.”

He’s silent, then, and Kaeya lets his eyes squint open just a bit. Diluc watches him, a pensive sort of expression shifting his features just slightly away from neutrality.

“I didn’t realize,” he says quietly, after a moment, and Kaeya glances back up at the ceiling. Can’t quite bring himself to close his eyes again, uncertain what Diluc is expecting of him. Silence stretches between them, long and filled with a buzzing sort of energy that Kaeya can’t quite put a name to, and he watches Diluc only vaguely from the corner of his eye as he waits for Diluc to break it.

“It is not my place to pry…” And he does break the silence, of course, because Kaeya was certainly not going to be the one to do so. Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner. “But if I might ask-”

“Why keep it covered to begin with?” Kaeya supplies, though Diluc’s lips remain parted for a moment longer. The palest shade of pink brushes across his cheeks, then, and Kaeya sets his false nonchalance aside in favor of turning to face Diluc properly, to appreciate that faint blush in its entirety.

Would that he could kiss it, feel it warm beneath his fingertips, but he’ll take what he is allowed.

“If it causes you discomfort…” Diluc adds, the clear piece he wishes Kaeya to fill in for him. Kaeya hums, lets a painfully sharp smile touch his lips.

“How much do you know of the Abyss Order? How they came to be?” Diluc’s brows furrow, but he straightens up.

“A corruption of Khaenri’ahn magic, if what I’ve read can be believed.”

Kaeya lifts his brows, tips his head in silent acknowledgment of Diluc’s clear openness to being corrected. Not that he is, in fact, incorrect, but it’s nice to know he’s not making assumptions or intends to refute anything Kaeya has to say on the matter.

“Essentially.” He does not particularly feel the need to dive into the more sordid details. “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.”

A frown touches Diluc’s lips, then, and Kaeya waits for his thoughts on the matter.

“And seeing your eye...because it is the source of your magic, that makes others uncomfortable.” Not a question, but Kaeya nods, spreads his hands in acknowledgment of Diluc’s correct - if irritating - deduction.

“That’s…” Diluc’s jaw twitches, and Kaeya’s brows lift at the rather obvious display of his feelings on the subject. “Atrocious.”

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

“You shouldn’t be.” Diluc’s words hold a deep, unspoken sort of rage. Rage on Kaeya’s behalf, for a thing that Diluc has never experienced himself. For something he knew nothing about until just now, for something that affects only Kaeya.

Diluc turns a sharp stare on Kaeya, then, though it softens after a moment.

“If you don’t desire to wear it, don’t,” he says, and Kaeya coughs out a laugh - as though it’s truly so simple.

“I would rather deal with a mild headache than the entirety of Teyvat’s heightened suspicion of me,” he says back easily. Diluc’s lips purse, and Kaeya can see that he understands well enough. Dislikes Kaeya’s response, but knows that there is no easy solution - he is just as much subject to the whims of Teyvat’s politics as Kaeya is, if in different ways.

“We can speak to the healers, at the very least. They might have something for-”

“Diluc.” Diluc’s gaze focuses, though it remains pinched in a frown, and Kaeya itches to reach forward and smooth it out with his fingertips. He won’t, but the urge settles beneath his skin all the same. “I’m not on my deathbed, I’ll survive a thing I’ve coped with my entire life.”

Somehow, this does not seem to set Diluc at ease, and he casts an endearingly irritated glance over at the eyepatch still resting on the table. As though it is the offender here, and not the entirety of Teyvat.

“Then please stay here as long as you’d like,” Diluc says quietly as he turns back to Kaeya. “I’ll speak to Venti after I meet with Zhongli, and-”

“Diluc.” Luc. He wants to say it, to laugh and brush a kiss to Diluc’s lips to shut him up, but ‘Diluc’ will have to do for now. “I’m perfectly capable of speaking to Venti myself, the eyepatch will not cause me some irreparable harm.”

As if to prove his point, he picks up the eyepatch and fastens it back in place, and Diluc frowns at it for a moment. Then his gaze shifts ever so slightly, catches Kaeya’s uncovered eye, and his expression relaxes.

“If it is not of consequence-”

“It’s not. I appreciate the opportunity to help,” he adds, and earnestly means it. Whatever threat lurks in the shadows for Diluc, Kaeya wants a hand in finding it, in protecting him. A selfish thing to want, in some ways, but he does nonetheless.

It is these words that seem to set Diluc at ease, or perhaps something unsaid, but either way, Diluc nods. Stands, then, and Kaeya does the same. Follows Diluc from the room, and they walk together in silence until they reach the branching corridor. Diluc nods at him again, now, and makes to pull away.

Doesn’t, not immediately, and Kaeya’s brows furrow just a bit.

Then he’s pressed against Diluc in a warm kiss, one that he melts into easily - it’s over before he’s quite recognized that it’d been happening, though, and he watches with parted lips and a shaky exhale as Diluc marches off down the hall in the other direction, toward Zhongli’s room.

Kaeya turns before he can get any irrational, dangerous ideas about following him. He shouldn’t, he has a task to complete.

Still, his fingers lift to brush his lips as he makes his way through the front gate and out into the castle town, and he lets his feet move on instinct to take him to Venti’s shop.

-----------

“Venti around?” Kaeya asks upon entering the shop, after several long moments of standing in the doorway and staring down at Beidou. She lifts her gaze at Kaeya’s voice, blinks disinterestedly before returning to studying the dagger in her hand.

“He’s out. You here for your banquet clothes?” Kaeya’s lip ticks down - this is not ideal.

“Among other things,” he says carefully, and Beidou shoves her chair back and stands.

“Well, anything else will have to wait.” With that, she stalks off toward the back room, and Kaeya crosses his arms over his chest. That does not bode well, although perhaps it won’t matter in the end anyway. As much as he’d like to believe that Venti could somehow prove otherwise, Kaeya would be rather hard-pressed to find a grain of something useful among the boring information he’d had to sit through.

But still, he should-

“Here.” Beidou returns with two packages, neatly wrapped, and shoves them into Kaeya’s chest. “Come back another time if you wanna bug Venti,” she adds as she settles back into her seat. On the corner of the desk in front of her sits a piece of parchment, and Kaeya tucks the clothes under one arm and taps it.

“Mind if I leave a note? It’s rather urgent.”

In place of a response and without looking up, Beidou shoves an ink pot across the desk, and Kaeya huffs out a breath. Taps a finger on the paper for a moment, then decides better of leaving the entirety of the meeting’s contents in an easily-stolen format like this.

Venti - questions about the banquet attire. Please visit ASAP - Kaeya and Diluc

He adds Diluc’s name in the hopes of presenting the urgency without mentioning it outright, and hopes that Venti will receive this sooner rather than later. With a few quick breaths to dry the ink, he folds the page and slides it to Beidou.

“Again, this is rather urgent,” he adds. Beidou glances up, and Kaeya lifts his brows in silent implication. To his surprise, Beidou blows out a heavy breath, then nods.

“He’ll get it first thing, and I’ll bug him to…” She lifts the paper, waves it around absently. “Do whatever you need.”

“I greatly appreciate it.” Kaeya dips his head, then turns and heads out the door, sets his feet in the direction of the castle. If nothing else, he can at least take a look at what Venti’s designed for them, as well as take off this eyepatch again. Really, how frustrating that he notices it now more than he ever has before.

Chapter Text

The parcels are both clearly labeled with his and Diluc’s names and tied neatly with pale green satin ribbons. He sets them side by side on the table, purses his lips. Tugs gently at the ribbon holding his package closed.

It falls away, and Kaeya unwraps the paper from the clothing carefully - and is eternally grateful for his caution.

The moment he pulls the paper wrapping aside, he’s met with a glittering night sky in fabric form. He brushes a finger across the pattern, finds it rough beneath his touch, a frankly ridiculous number of tiny gemstones stitched into the fabric to form-

I’d like to design a few pieces with respect to what I’ve seen of Khaenri’ahn magic, if that’s alright?

Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner, heart aching as he unfolds the jacket properly. More stitching - both with and without the gems - decorates the fabric in beautiful swirls. Some blend neatly into the dark navy of the jacket, a couple stand out, glittering with every subtle shift. All beautiful hues of blue, deep indigo and a few accents of silver and white. Silver clasps adorn the front, and it’s lined with a satin fabric so soft to the touch that Kaeya wants to melt into it.

All in all, without seeing it up close, Kaeya might actually find it quite subtle. A dark night’s sky, dotted with stars on a particularly clear evening. The image of a cool breeze swirling, just intangible enough that it can’t be seen, only felt. He tips his head, allows himself a moment of conceit - oh, he’ll look rather lovely in this.

Carefully, he folds the jacket back up with its less stunning shirt and pants - clearly not the items that’d taken up most of Venti’s time and energy - and tucks his fingers beneath them with the intent to lay them out in his room, but…

But Diluc’s banquet attire is right there. If Venti had taken such care and put such meticulous effort into his clothing, how much more must he have done for the crown prince himself?

Granted, he supposes he’ll find out tomorrow, but curiosity pairs with Diluc’s absence, twisting into his head and causing his lips to curl up into a smirk.

He undoes the ribbon on Diluc’s package carefully, notes the manner in which it was tied so that he can replicate it closely enough. Unfolds the wrapping, and is met with a rather unexpectedly stark white-

Ah. A note. Kaeya lifts the paper, tips his head at the name scribbled at the top. Not Diluc’s.

Kaeya - don’t you DARE spoil the surprise. Wrap this back up THIS INSTANT. No peeking! - Venti

Kaeya blows out an amused breath - intriguing that Venti had, what, anticipated Kaeya’s curiosity? His lip ticks up at the corner. What the hell is Venti going to do, manifest in his room and chastise him for it? Wouldn’t that be convenient - at least he’d have the chance to speak to him.

Kaeya sets the note atop his own attire, then turns back toward the midnight-black fabric beneath the note - Diluc’s jacket does not sparkle in quite the same way that Kaeya’s does, though it’s well-woven with a thin gold thread that draws Kaeya’s eye along the fabric, up the waist and around to the back.

The back, stitched through with the most wonderful combination of golds, dark reds and maroons that almost melt into the fabric except that he’s holding it right in front of him. Kaeya’s fingers follow the lines of a gold pattern, something soft and gentle, though it does not quite hold the same motion as the wild swirls that adorn Kaeya’s jacket. In true form, Venti has opted for gold clasps and accents to match the stitching.

Kaeya tips his head, lets an unexpected smile touch his lips as the image of Diluc in this jacket flicks through his head.

It’s replaced almost immediately by the very same image, but Diluc in Kaeya’s attire, and Kaeya sucks in a breath. Blows it out in amusement at the wicked thrill that zips through his chest.

With the utmost care, Kaeya removes Diluc’s clothes from their packaging, sets them on the other side of the table. Checks the door on his way back, then shifts his own outfit into the packaging meant for Diluc. Folds the paper around it carefully, as neatly and professionally as he can, and ties the ribbon as best he can recall.

Diluc’s name stares back at him, and Kaeya’s grin widens near to the point of hilarity - not because he suspects Diluc will look silly, or bad, only because…

Gods, it’s infinitely self-indulgent of him, isn’t it? To want to see Diluc in the clothing meant for Kaeya. Made for Kaeya, made to represent his magic, to flash and sparkle in the most eye-catching way, but without seeming overbearing. To glow instead of shine, unexpected beauty in a dark night.

And to wear the clothing made for Diluc, in turn...well, they’ll look rather stunning, the matching pair. What better way to remind everyone around them of their love?

It’s just as he’s slipping into his own room, Diluc’s actual outfit in hand, that the sound of a door opening behind him startles him. He rushes to tuck the clothing carefully beneath a few others that Venti’s provided, and-

Ah, he could probably do with a stop by the carpentry to check on the progress of his dresser.

“Kaeya?”

Afterward, afterward. Diluc first, of course.

He turns at the sound of Diluc’s footsteps, finds him stopped in Kaeya’s doorway with a neutral expression on his face. It’s the kind that begs Kaeya to get under his skin, to draw out Diluc’s actual personality. To Kaeya’s surprise, he finds that Diluc does actually have one beneath the ever-stoic exterior.

“I take it your trip to Venti’s went well?”

Ah, but Kaeya won’t do anything just yet - or, rather, the effects of his actions won’t quite be implemented until tomorrow night. He wonders how Diluc finds the color blue. Whether he likes it, or if he associates it with Kaeya.

Wonders if Diluc would find that association to be a positive one, if he had it.

“Kaeya?”

“Ah, it was fine. Not entirely productive, unfortunately,” he adds after a moment, and Diluc’s brows furrow. Kaeya steps forward, then, and Diluc back, and they make their way out into Diluc’s bedroom.

“Venti didn’t find anything?” Diluc prompts after a moment, and Kaeya watches his gaze flick over to the package on the table. His banquet attire - or rather, Kaeya’s - but it does not seem to hold his interest.

“I’d love to know that myself,” Kaeya says with a tip of his head, tries to reign his focus in to the task at hand. “But he wasn’t there when I arrived.” He forces his gaze to fix on Diluc, and finds it very easy to remain focused on him.

“Ah…the day before the banquet, of course...” A heavy sigh and no further explanation for his comment, and Diluc runs his hand across his face. “I’m afraid Zhongli was of little help as well,” he adds with a shake of his head, and he leans back to rest against the arm of the sofa. “So we’re back at square one, it seems.”

Kaeya’s stomach twists at that - true, he himself has been of little assistance to this point, but not for lack of trying.

“I left a note for Venti to come chat with us when he returns,” Kaeya adds, but this only makes Diluc blow out a sharp breath, then tip his head back. Rather suddenly, Kaeya thinks of all the times he’s seen Diluc do that. Wonders if it doesn’t wear on his muscles, make them ache. Wonders at the idea of relieving that tension, working it out from Diluc’s neck, his shoulders.

“I’d forgotten…” Diluc says with a shake of his head, a low breath. “I’m afraid we may have missed him entirely.” Kaeya’s brows furrow, and Diluc glances over. Must correctly interpret the look as his confusion. “He has other obligations to attend before events like this, we may not get the chance to speak with him until it’s too late.”

Kaeya might applaud the careful skirting of the truth were he not so focused on the fact that they are, indeed, back at square one - and that Diluc remains very much in danger, if Venti’s assessment is to be believed.

He does not particularly like the idea of whatever ‘too late’ might mean for Diluc.

But Kaeya has spent far too long standing aside while the people he cares for fight and die on the battlefront against the Abyss Order. He will not allow anything to happen to Diluc, whether they manage to find the source of this attack or not.

“You look upset.”

Kaeya’s brows furrow, then he pointedly relaxes his expression. Blinks over at Diluc, offers a neutral - if perhaps forced - smile.

“Well, it’d certainly be a shame to lose my husband so shortly after we’d wed.” He’s not sure that he’s imbued the words with enough humor, but Diluc’s lip ticks up at the corner, and he supposes it must’ve been convincing enough.

“There’s no need to worry for me, it’s certainly not the first time my life has been at risk.” He says it so casually, and Kaeya’s composure breaks for a moment. But Diluc has turned away already, so he can’t have seen.

“Oh, well, in that case…” Kaeya shrugs in pure nonchalance, a thing he does not feel in the slightest, then drops down onto the sofa and stretches his leg out on the low table. Diluc follows his progress, quirks a brow once he’s settled.

“If I have no need to worry, then I suppose I can enjoy the banquet to its fullest.” And oh, he does mean fullest. Barring the rather bothersome idea of stressing over Diluc’s safety all night, he will certainly enjoy getting to play the part of the infatuated husband.

As though it’ll be anything but genuine, sincere infatuation. Diluc scoffs, turns away just enough to give Kaeya a lovely view of the expanse of his neck. Gods, he’d like to trace his fingers down, rest them at his shoulder, follow the same trail with his lips.

“Well, I appreciate your sudden lack of concern,” Diluc deadpans, “but please try to refrain from getting too drunk.” Kaeya blows out a sharp, bitter breath of amusement - naturally, Diluc would assume that was his intent in saying what he said.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” A pause, and silence settles heavily. Kaeya’s stomach twists, makes his jaw twitch with discomfort. He keeps his gaze fixed on the other side of the room, does not turn to Diluc when he speaks.

“I do worry.” I do care. He’d thought to say that, but it sounded like too much, and so shortly after the last time he’d nearly ruined everything by going too far. If nothing else, Diluc seems not to have changed his attitude toward Kaeya. The least he can do is ensure that it stays that way.

“I know.”

This makes Kaeya blink, and his gaze flicks over to find Diluc’s focus elsewhere, a little distant. His expression remains irritatingly neutral, though, and Kaeya forces his heartbeat to remain steady. Diluc blows out a slow, heavy breath.

“Every time this kind of thing happens, Zhongli and Venti remind me that people care, that they worry for me.” Certainly Kaeya did not say that he cared out loud, did he? His lungs forget to work as he waits for Diluc to continue.

He does not expect Diluc’s gaze to flick to him, red eyes entirely serious.

“I will be fine.”

Kaeya exhales, then, lungs empty of words and air and anything else. They do not walk onto a battlefield tomorrow, but Kaeya almost wishes that they would - enemies that he can see, that he can fight. It is the same desire he’s held onto for years, to quit wandering from kingdom to kingdom playing politician in favor of fighting with his people, fighting the real enemy.

Protecting those he cares for.

Would that he could reach forward, grab Diluc and pull him down to the sofa. Press his lips against Diluc’s, forget the world for a while. Show him just how much he cares.

But he cannot, because their relationship is a ruse - an allyship at best, though he doesn’t mind hearing that Diluc knows that he cares.

“Still,” Kaeya says as he leans back, away from the temptation of Diluc, “I would much prefer to spend the banquet without any worries at all.” In spite of himself, he can’t quite keep the sincerity from his tone, and he clenches his jaw to fight off any other unwarranted comments.

A few moments pass, then, and Kaeya wonders if they’re done with this conversation now - no word from Venti, and no help from Zhongli, leaving them right back where they started and no better off. Still, he will not be the first to walk away from Diluc.

“You did not spend much time in Khaenri’ah growing up,” Diluc says, and it sounds like it should be a question, but the intonation doesn’t quite match. Kaeya hums his agreement anyway, more out of curiosity than anything. He is…perhaps slightly less uninclined to speak about Khaenri’ah with Diluc than most others.

“I imagine this situation would not wear on you quite so heavily if you’d grown up in a typical kingdom.” Kaeya’s jaw twitches.

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

The words leave his tongue before he can think through them, and they taste like acid when he clamps his jaw shut. Blows out a sharp breath, one that he fails miserably to pass off as amusement.

“I didn’t realize-”

“Of course you didn’t.” They’re not harsh, these words, though Kaeya wishes he could find it in himself to make them that way. But he can’t bring himself to blame Diluc, for how could Diluc possibly understand? How could he know what goes on in Kaeya’s head, what weighs on him every time he thinks of Khaenri’ah? Beyond the burden of bearing hard stares and mumbled insults behind his back, Kaeya cannot even claim that he’s done anything to actually help his people.

Until Diluc, of course.

“I will truthfully say that I cannot imagine how you must feel.”

Of course he can’t. When has Kaeya ever spoken of this burden, either out of anger or out of trust? Certainly not the latter, though he’s always known well enough not to give into the former in the presence of those he does not know well.

And when has Kaeya ever known anyone well enough to trust them with his anger? With the rawest parts of himself, the ones that he fears giving to anyone?

Kaeya fights against himself for several long, horrible moments, grasping tight to the things he would like to say, the things that burn in his chest like wildfire. He pulls them back, twists them up into his head and tucks them away. Inhales a slow, shaky breath before lifting his gaze to meet Diluc’s.

“The sentiment is appreciated,” he says, tone flat and a tight, thin smile affixed to his lips. To his surprise, Diluc’s expression does not hold the same careful neutrality. Instead, he watches Kaeya with furrowed brows and lips parted just slightly, and Kaeya’s eyes widen for half a second before he turns away again.

His heart hammers at that look, and he wants to laugh - that look? One of...of genuine concern for Kaeya? That is what makes his head spin, makes his breathing turn shallow and fast? Would that Diluc could look at Kaeya with desire instead - that is something that Kaeya can pretend to know how to handle.

This, however…

Kaeya stands quickly, casts a brief glance to where Diluc still watches him. Clears his throat, then grabs his eyepatch and affixes it carefully.

“I had planned to go check on the progress of my dresser,” he says vaguely in Diluc’s direction before he steps around the sofa and heads for the door. Tries desperately not to seem as though he’s running away, in spite of the fact that he is doing exactly that.

“Would you like some company?” Kaeya grits his teeth, swallows. His lips part to respond, but- “It would probably be wise for us to be seen together,” Diluc adds before Kaeya can protest, and he hates that Diluc is right.

Hates more that he does not particularly want Diluc’s presence right now, because such a thing feels horribly counterintuitive. Horribly contradictory, because he can think of nothing he’d like more than to have Diluc at his side.

“We do have a part to play,” he says aloud, though perhaps a bit more quietly than he’d intended. Still, he glances over to find Diluc at his side, and a flicker of a genuine smile touches his lips. It does not quite remain when Kaeya turns back to the door, but settles into something...something okay.

Perhaps Diluc does care for him, even if it is not in the way that he’d like.

Chapter Text

“I’m so sorry! It should be done the day after the banquet, I hope that’s not too long to wait?” Bennett’s been rambling for the past several minutes about all the issues they’d run into - splitting wood and a saw breaking and something to do with the lacquer that Kaeya hasn’t the slightest clue how to decipher.

“It’s really no trouble,” he repeats for the twelfth time, a genuine smile on his lips. “It isn’t so urgent that I can’t wait a couple more days.” Bennett exhales a sharp, sad sort of breath, lips twisted into a frown.

“I know, but I feel bad, it’s mostly my fault. And after all your nice advice, too…” he laments, and Kaeya’s grin widens just a bit in amusement.

“Really, kid, don’t worry. As long as it holds clothes by the time it’s done, I’ll be grateful.”

“Will you be attending the banquet tomorrow, Bennett?” Diluc has been mostly silent at his side since they arrived, and Kaeya flashes him a quirked brow when he speaks now.

“Oh! Uh, well, I was- I mean, I think so?” He coughs out a laugh, and his hand finds the back of his neck. “I have to see if my fancy clothes still fit. Haven’t worn ‘em since last year, and dad says I grew a lot. My luck, they’re probably way too small…” he mutters to himself, then his eyes go wide and he stares back up at Diluc. “Oh, uh, was that- I mean, I don’t wanna be rude, thank you as always for inviting us to attend!”

Diluc’s lips soften into a smile, one that makes Kaeya’s heart flutter in his chest.

“Of course. And certainly no pressure to attend, but if you do stop by, please come say hello?”

To this, Bennett just nods fervently, and Diluc dips his head and claims they need to be off.

“Banquet preparations of our own, I’m afraid,” he adds, and either does not catch or chooses to ignore Kaeya’s inquisitive look as they turn away and head out the door.

Kaeya waits patiently, until they’ve managed to get halfway through the garden maze - Kaeya’s recently determined that the midpoint of their journey is actually marked by the Khaenri’ahn plant bed.

“Banquet preparations?” he says aloud, a little amused. Diluc hums his agreement, but does not glance over.

“I am expected to socialize with a frankly inordinate number of people tomorrow evening, and I would like to take some time for myself today.” A pause, and he glances over briefly. “So yes, preparations.”

“You find it so draining?” Kaeya prompts, and ignores the fact that he will likely be kicked out of Diluc’s presence once they return to their rooms. He supposes he can find some kind of entertainment…

“I find it undesirable, but necessary. Manageable in small doses, but the banquets are certainly not...small.”

Kaeya hums at this - he hasn’t actually ever been permitted to attend one, his father always insisted they had other places to be, and certainly not at a party. Anyone there might think they weren’t in as much danger as they claimed, or that their needs were not urgent if they had the time to waste at such an event.

“You find nothing about the banquet enjoyable?” He wonders if it’s selfish, still, to want to enjoy himself. For his people, twenty thousand soldiers might - if they are very lucky - mean that they will no longer have to fight. Twenty thousand soldiers to Kaeya means that he lives a life of luxury, attends parties with diplomats and fancy handmade clothing and a very attractive husband hanging on his arm the entire evening.

Is it fair of him to want happiness in such circumstances?

“It is a nice opportunity to see people I might otherwise visit with only rarely,” Diluc says, a bit like it’s a concession to admit it. His gaze seems unfocused when Kaeya glances over, and he wonders if Diluc is thinking of someone specific. Reminds himself that he is allowed whoever he wants, whenever he wants. That Kaeya does not - and would never want to - hold him captive.

“Hm. That does sound nice.” He cannot think of any such person that he’d like to spend additional time with - most everyone he’s met is a scheming diplomat, someone playing nice while playing at politics, or frankly too incompetent to even be a part of the conversation. He imagines most - if not all - of the banquet’s attendants fall into one of those categories.

No one he’d like to spend so much time around, with the eternal exception of Diluc.

“Yes, I’m rather convinced you think so,” Diluc deadpans as they turn a corner - ah, Diluc’s room. Kaeya hums at the tone, watches the door as they approach. “Don’t worry, Mondstadt’s finest wine will be available in excess.”

“Is that all you think of me?” Kaeya did not consider those words appropriately. They come out sharp, a little bitter, a little amused. He forces a laugh, forces a lightness he doesn’t feel. How is it that the negative feelings all manage to bleed into each other? One moment, he’d been disappointed at the thought of Diluc wanting time to himself, now he’s snapping at him?

Diluc comes to a stop in front of their door, fixes a hard sort of frown on him. But his eyes go wide a moment later, and Kaeya sucks in a sharp breath when Diluc’s lips crash into his.

It is entirely unfair how quickly that melts him, how warm Diluc’s lips are, to break down the shards of ice that Kaeya’s built around his heart. He presses easily against Diluc’s chest, wraps a hand around the back of his neck to hold him here. Whoever’s presence had spurred Diluc into kissing him, he hopes rather desperately - rather selfishly - that they take their time leaving.

When Diluc pulls away - too quickly, in Kaeya’s opinion - he remains close, forehead pressed to Kaeya’s and fast breaths exchanged in the space between them, and Kaeya-

Gods help him, Kaeya’s heart races with unfounded hope. But Diluc does not watch him - his gaze flicks behind Kaeya, must determine it safe, and he pulls away. Pushes the door open and steps inside, and Kaeya follows without a word.

What would he have even said? Please don’t stop, Luc, I need this like air. Need you like air. How desperate can he sound? How naive. He blows out a short breath and shuts the door, lets the sound of it cover his bitter amusement.

“It isn’t.”

Kaeya blinks at the words, tips his head at Diluc. Diluc, who stands with his back still turned, though he’s glanced over his shoulder.

“It’s not all I think of you.”

Kaeya exhales another breath, shakier now.

“Oh, you don’t just consider me a wine aficionado?” He can feel the desperation clawing at his throat like it intends to shred him from the inside. “True, I suppose you must also consider me a means to an end.”

He said he wouldn’t, and here he is. Manipulating Diluc for his own personal gain, just with the naivest of hopes that Diluc might like him in some capacity. He’d shown that he cared somewhat, hadn’t he? Earlier, his concern at Kaeya’s agitation. And here Kaeya is, demanding more of him. How hopelessly selfish.

Diluc blows out a breath, turns away again. Inhales slowly, deeply. Enough that Kaeya can watch the rise and fall of his shoulders.

“I consider you a means to an end, yes.” Kaeya bites back a wince. “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.”

Here, Diluc pauses, makes his way over to his wardrobe and sets about undoing the buttons of the shirt he’s wearing. Kaeya finds it unexpectedly hard to focus on that, so lost he is in Diluc’s words.

“I consider you irritating and amusing, and kind in spite of both of those things.” He glances back just briefly, and Kaeya’s heart races at the faint flush on his cheek before he returns his attention to his clothing.

“And I consider you a partner.”

Not in that way, not in that way, Kaeya repeats to himself, though it does little to stop the smile that tugs at his lips.

“We are in this situation together,” Diluc says as he turns, chest bare where he’s pulled his shirt aside, and Kaeya’s thoughts go hazy for a moment. “Please trust that I-” He stops, then, inhales slowly as he glances to the side, and Kaeya blinks, hangs desperately onto his words.

When he looks back, he holds Kaeya’s stare, ardent.

“Please trust that I- how did you put it...that I am not being forced.” Kaeya’s heart stops beating. “To marry you, perhaps,” he tips his head, “but not to like you nor to trust you.”

Kaeya runs through the phrase ‘he does not mean he likes you like that’ in his mind until the words lose meaning, and Diluc’s brows furrow for a moment.

“I-”

“Thank you.” The words fall from Kaeya’s tongue, hoarse and a bit sudden, and he wonders if it’s too late to take them back, so that he might hear whatever it is Diluc had intended to say next. But Diluc’s mouth closes, shifts up into a subtle smile - a careful one, almost uncertain, but Kaeya lets it bring him a moment of peace.

“I assume,” Kaeya starts, embodies some hope that he might bring a sense of normalcy back to this conversation before it can run away with him again. “That this does not negate the fact that you would still prefer your solitude this evening.”

Diluc tips his head, hums to himself.

“I suppose if you can manage to remain quiet…” Here, he quirks a brow at Kaeya, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath, grateful for the lightness that fills his chest.

“You won’t even notice my presence,” he says with a grin, hand over his heart for the added drama. Diluc rolls his eyes, but that careful smile remains on his lips.

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

He must notice Kaeya’s presence, Kaeya decides - how could he not, when his arm brushes against Kaeya’s each and every time he turns a page? And, after the first hour or so of his own book leaving him rather bored, has Diluc not yet noticed Kaeya reading over his shoulder?

But he says nothing, gives no indication that he’s bothered by Kaeya’s presence or his actions, and Kaeya fights valiantly against the urge to curl up against Diluc’s side, rest his head on Diluc’s shoulder and pay little attention to the book in his hand.

It isn’t particularly late, yet, but Diluc had requested food be delivered to their room, had only set his book down to eat in relative silence - Kaeya is genuinely making an effort not to bother him with conversation, though it does tempt him.

Or, rather, did tempt him. But he now feels warm, tired. Darkness creeps in from the window, stretches languid fingers out to where Kaeya sits beside Diluc on the sofa. He’d lit a candle some time ago, and it shoves gently at the darkness, keeps it at bay for the moment.

But it reaches Kaeya, still, and settles beneath his skin. Reminds him of the long day he’s had, the whiplash of highs and lows that’ve left his head spinning with intangible thoughts. He should sort them out at some point, but right now, the most he can do is recognize the warmth that radiates from one side, melts into him and makes his eyes drift shut. Makes his breathing slow and gentle, makes his heart calm.

He loses track of time, if it passes - his thoughts remain soft and abstract, swirls of colors inside his head more than actual concrete things. It is only once something shifts at his side - or perhaps beneath him? - that he stirs, that he returns to reality.

Kaeya.” Quiet, gentle. Warm and soft. Kaeya’s eyes blink open, take a few moments to focus. They fix on the tiny flame, still flickering on the table in front of him. A bit sideways, though, he thinks distantly.

“Kaeya.” Louder now, though not abrasive. Diluc’s voice, he realizes with a start, and the realization sparks in his chest. He sits up - sits up, and he glances down to see the crumpled shoulder of Diluc’s- gods, he’d half-fallen asleep on Diluc’s shoulder. Kaeya could laugh were he not so terrified of Diluc’s reaction.

“Sincerest apologies,” he mumbles, finds his voice hoarse with sleep. He inhales slowly, then lifts his gaze. Diluc, to his mild surprise, does not look particularly irritated.

“There is nothing to apologize for.” Kaeya tips his head at the tone - is Diluc amused? “I only thought you might prefer to sleep in a bed.”

Not Diluc’s, Kaeya reminds himself ardently. Diluc does not mean to invite me into his own bed.

“Your shoulder does make for a rather uncomfortable pillow,” he says with a lazy smirk, and Diluc huffs out a quiet, amused breath. It’s a warm sort of thing, this moment - either from the heat on Kaeya’s cheeks or the latent warmth of being pressed against Diluc, he isn’t sure, but he is loath to break the moment, to end it.

And so he remains impossibly still, and Diluc only goes as far as turning his head to the side, letting his gaze fall on his hands where they rest on the closed book in his lap. If he is inclined to end this moment himself, he does not show it.

“Your book was enjoyable?” Kaeya prompts quietly, carefully. Diluc’s finger lifts, taps the cover gently.

“It was.” He still does not look at Kaeya, and concern begins to curl in his stomach. Perhaps he’d been too quick to assume that Diluc was not bothered by Kaeya’s unexpected nap.

“I hope you found what little you managed to read over my shoulder entertaining,” Diluc adds after a moment, and Kaeya’s brows lift - half at the realization that he had, in fact, noticed, and half because of the subtle smile on Diluc’s lips. Quiet, soft, a candle in a dark night.

Gods, what Kaeya wouldn’t do to be able to kiss him right now.

“So enrapturing that I could not even begin to tell you what the story was about,” Kaeya says with a huffed breath of laughter, one that makes Diluc’s smile widen just a fraction. “You’re finished?” He nods down at the book, and Diluc shifts his hands to flip it open to a page not far from the end.

“Nearly.” He glances up, meets Kaeya’s stare. “It occurred to me that you might want to rest more comfortably, if you planned to sleep anyway.”

Here, Kaeya dips his head - yes, a bed sounds nice, he can already feel the crick in his neck from the angle at which he’d been laying on Diluc, but…

“No need to stop reading on my account,” he says quietly, because this is a quiet thing, his own daring recklessness. It is not unreasonable to assume that Diluc had used this as an excuse to get Kaeya to leave him alone, but his eyes are tired and cold seeps into his skin from so long spent away from Diluc’s side.

Perhaps it is worth testing this boundary, if for no reason other than to see what comes of it.

He casts Diluc a brief glance as he leans closer, and Diluc watches but does not intervene. Remains entirely still as Kaeya lowers his head to Diluc’s shoulder again, rests it there gently. For several long, impossibly terrifying moments, Kaeya’s rapid heartbeat is the only sign of life between them.

And then Diluc shifts just slightly, leans a bit further back into the sofa cushion and takes a slow, deep breath. Though he cannot see from here, Kaeya assumes that he’s reading again, based solely on the way he tips the book up at an angle. If he is bothered by this development, by Kaeya here on his shoulder, he does not say so.

“You’re comfortable?” he does say, after he’s flipped to the next page. In place of words - which, in all honesty, would be something along the lines of no, not really - Kaeya just hums an agreement. No, Diluc’s shoulder is certainly no pillow, but he is warm and Kaeya would like nothing more than to melt into him.

Will more than gladly take this, given that Diluc has not pushed him away. Perhaps a product of the late hour, perhaps a product of their conversations earlier...in any event, Kaeya wants this, wants Diluc in whatever way he can have him.

He lets his eyes drift shut just as Diluc turns another page, and he remembers little else after that.

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

He wakes to the latent smell of candle smoke and a pitch-black room. And, rather unfortunately, an ache in his neck. But he does not move just yet, instead focuses on the slow, deep breaths coming from Diluc.

His head rests against the top of Kaeya’s, and he leans just a bit into Kaeya’s side, and gods, Kaeya wants nothing more than to fall back to sleep here. Or perhaps to wake Diluc, drag him to bed and curl up with him in a far more comfortable environment.

Kaeya tries, he really does, to remain as still as possible, but Diluc shifts beneath him after a moment, and Kaeya resigns himself to the end of this lovely little daydream when Diluc inhales a deep breath that signals his awakeness.

“Kaeya?”

Mumbled so quietly, and Diluc turns just a bit, hums into Kaeya’s hair. Kaeya’s heart twists and aches, demands reckless things of him.

“We should head to bed,” he says instead, because if he does not say something to stop himself, he risks the chance of- well, of very dangerous things. Things that it would not help to consider right now.

In place of a response, Diluc just hums again and extracts himself carefully from Kaeya’s side. Kaeya does his best not to mourn his loss as he straightens up himself, follows with his gaze Diluc’s progress over to where he stops beside his bed. He must deem the clothing he’d changed into upon their return to the bedroom comfortable enough, as he crawls beneath the covers without bothering to remove anything.

Kaeya forces himself to inhale, to exhale, and to stand. Finds the effort of walking toward his own room rather momentous, though he manages it anyway.

“Good night, Kaeya.”

He pauses, hand against the doorway to support his still-lethargic body, and glances back. Finds Diluc propped up in his own bed, though it’s too dark to see any expression beyond the fact that he’s watching Kaeya.

A small smile tugs at Kaeya’s lips.

“Good night, Diluc.”

Chapter Text

Though Diluc insists that preparations have been ongoing for days now, Kaeya only really notices the change in atmosphere this afternoon - the halls are flooded with employees busting around, carrying floral arrangements and cleaning supplies and all manner of things that Kaeya hardly gets a glance at for how quickly they move.

“Is the banquet truly such a grandiose occasion?” he prompts, and Diluc glances over. If he’s surprised by the question, he doesn’t look it, though Kaeya feels a sudden need to defend his words. His lips part, but Zhongli hums before he can think of what to say.

“It is one of Mondstadt’s largest events, and they do not spare any expense,” he adds aloud, and Kaeya turns from Diluc to glance over at Zhongli. Childe walks beside him, but apart, and Kaeya finds it intriguing that - unlike he and Diluc - the two of them do not give any indication of their relationship.

He’ll have to ask Diluc about that at some point, assuming that Diluc knows any more than Kaeya does.

“Indeed.” Diluc nods in the corner of Kaeya’s vision. “And, on top of that, many of the castle’s employees will choose to attend this evening at some point as well, so they’re taking care of their usual duties now.”

Kaeya considers Diluc’s invitation to Bennett, that it hadn’t come as much of a surprise to the kid. Interesting indeed.

“Is it particularly common for your royal events to include common citizens?” Childe is the one to ask the question, but Kaeya can’t quite say he hadn’t had a similar thought. Zhongli tips his head in Diluc’s direction, and Diluc hums.

“Mondstadt has long been proud of its heritage of freedom and equality.” Kaeya watches with rapt interest as Diluc’s gaze takes on a far-away sort of look. “While we are the ruling class, we take our job as governors of the people very seriously. That includes,” his gaze focuses on Kaeya quite suddenly, “listening to and acting as required upon each seemingly-mundane complaint,” it flicks over to Childe now, “as well as sharing in revelry with our people.”

“How very noble,” Childe says, a little bit like he finds the idea quaint and amusing. To this, however, Diluc only nods - if he finds the comment insulting, he hides it well.

Kaeya considers this with more focus as they walk on through the castle in silence - headed back from lunch, though they’ve yet to reach the split in corridors where they’ll part from Zhongli and Childe.

What little Kaeya remembers of Khaenri’ah’s ruling policies has long since been set aside in favor of ensuring the safety of their people above all else. Mundane complaints, as Diluc had called them, were of little priority in comparison to decisions required to hold the Abyss Order at bay, to fund their healers and ensure that their soldiers and magicians remained fed and housed.

If this works - if the twenty thousand soldiers that Kaeya’s hand in marriage has bought Khaenri’ah can actually turn the tides in their favor - he wonders how things will change. Will his father want to listen attentively to their people, as Crepus and Diluc do? Or will he, as many other kingdoms have done, prefer to rule with strength and control?

He admittedly knows very little of Snezhnayan politics, aside from the fact that they do, in fact, have a clear divide between those of the ruling class and those of the ruled. Kaeya’s father had learned early on that the woman who reigns over them, the Tsaritsa, is not particularly fond of handing over her resources without ample compensation.

They did not spend very long in the cold northern land outside the few visits to maintain their existing trade agreements.

Still, the clear divide between ruling and ruled in Snezhnaya does explain Childe’s reaction to Mondstadt’s less segregated political structure.

“Is this your first time attending one of Mondstadt’s banquets?” Zhongli, the every-vigilant one, and ever-polite. What a remarkably polar opposite to Childe’s rather aggravating personality. Kaeya’s lip ticks up at the corner - he wonders if this question stems from genuine curiosity or from Zhongli’s desire to confirm his suspicions.

“It is,” he says with a nod, and gives nothing more. “Will the two of you be attending as well, I presume?”

“We will.” Equally short with his words, Kaeya notes. Either he has little to say or is very adept at holding his cards close when necessary. And, Kaeya supposes as employees bustle around them, perhaps there is good reason for that.

“Need to keep an eye on your prince,” Childe says, very clearly directed at Kaeya. Kaeya flashes him a hard stare, but Childe only grins wider. “Hey,” he adds with a shrug, “at least he’s pretty to look at.”

“I’m right here,” Diluc grumbles, and Kaeya glances over to find his jaw tight, an endearing blush spreading across his cheeks.

“And we’re among strangers,” Zhongli says quietly, a warning. Childe just lifts his hands in surrender, but the grin does not leave his lips. Kaeya exhales a slow, steadying breath. Wishes that it did, in fact, steady him.

This evening will not be the fun, lighthearted event that he’d like it to be - that they’d all probably prefer it to be. Already, a wariness seeps into Kaeya’s thoughts that leaves him watching each passersby with a new caution and suspicion.

“I believe this is where we part.” Zhongli interrupts Kaeya’s distracted, concerned observing with an entirely neutral, if even light sort of tone. Diluc nods, and Kaeya does the same on instinct as Childe offers a lazy salute and spins on a heel. Zhongli gives a deeper nod, then turns to follow.

Beside him, as they head in their own direction, Diluc exhales a slow breath.

“Something the matter?” Kaeya prompts, as though Diluc might actually say ‘no’ to that. But he does hum and tip his head, then fixes Kaeya with a hard sort of look.

“I am not at all looking forward to the upcoming social interactions,” he says, and Kaeya might believe him were it not for the way his lips purse, the way they smooth out into a subtle smile. No, Kaeya can guess at what truly worries him. “Perhaps you could...distract me for a while?”

Gods, will he ever get used to Diluc’s frankly incredible acting skills? He nearly falls for it himself, the way Diluc steps closer, the hand he lifts to rest on Kaeya’s arm as they approach Diluc’s room.

Still, it is only a momentary lapse in his memory, and he affixes an easy, seductive sort of smirk on his lips.

“Anything for you, Luc.”

And oh, he means it. A shame that he will not get the chance to act on all of his true desires.

Diluc just hums as he pushes through the door and into his room, and Kaeya follows and tries not to feel too disappointed at the way that Diluc’s facade falls away.

Concern sweeps in, though, with the tight expression that takes over his features. Diluc stalks over to the edge of the sofa, leans up against the armrest and exhales a sharp breath.

“Is there anything I can do to distract you for a while?” Kaeya prompts genuinely once he’s shut the door. Perhaps it’s a bit selfish, but warmth spreads through his veins at the blush that crawls up Diluc’s cheeks as he lifts his gaze.

He stares hard for a moment, but his expression relaxes, and he must realize that Kaeya does not mean it like that.

Well, he does, but reality is a cage that forces his desires into place.

“Would that there were,” Diluc says quietly. Inhales a slow breath, and Kaeya watches his grip tighten where his fingers dig into the arm of the sofa. And perhaps it makes Kaeya bold, or reckless, or he’s out of line entirely, but seeing Diluc so obviously concerned...he would like to comfort him somehow.

And so he skirts the end of the sofa and Diluc, sets a hand lightly on Diluc’s shoulder as he settles on his knees on the cushion behind him. Diluc remains impossibly still, muscles taut beneath Kaeya’s fingertips, and Kaeya leans in close.

“Let me do something for you?” He forces his tone to remain entirely serious, entirely innocent, with no implication or suggestion beyond easing some of Diluc’s tension. Because, in all honestly, that is all he wants. If he could accomplish that in less innocent ways, he’d certainly take the opportunity to do so, but he will not push boundaries.

Diluc must find his words agreeable enough, at least - he exhales slowly, dips his head just a bit. Leans almost imperceptibly back into Kaeya’s touch, and Kaeya lets a smile tug at his lips. Warmth radiates from Diluc, a thing he can feel again, now that he’s closer, and he wonders at how deeply the cold seeps in when they’re apart.

He starts gently, light pressure at the backs of Diluc’s shoulders in small, short strokes of his thumbs. It is Diluc that leans into his hands even further, a thing that Kaeya acknowledges with a huffed breath of amusement before pushing him away.

“Jacket off,” he demands, and Diluc removes it without question. Melts easily back into Kaeya’s touch, and Kaeya digs the pads of his fingers into tense muscle.

Nearly collapses when a low, approving hum escapes Diluc’s throat, vibrates through Kaeya’s hands and burrows itself under Kaeya’s skin. Suddenly, desperately, he wonders at how he might hear that again. Might be the cause of it again, and with no pretense between them.

But there is a pretense - there will always be, of course. Kaeya inhales slowly, focuses his thoughts for a moment on his task of loosening the tight muscles at the base of Diluc’s neck. It does not help that Diluc leans further into him, into his touch.

Tips his head back, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath as his fingers catch and tangle in red waves.

“Your hair is making this rather challenging,” he says quietly, as though speaking too loud might break this moment, or make Diluc change his mind. Diluc - either oblivious to the manner by which he’d gotten his hair stuck beneath Kaeya’s fingers or in spite of it - tips his head back further, until he’s staring up at Kaeya and- gods, and he is dangerously close. Kaeya could so very easily lean down-

“Will you tie it up?” Diluc asks, blinks up at him, and Kaeya thinks he’d do pretty much anything in Teyvat with Diluc looking at him like that. But those words are perhaps not the best ones to say, in spite of how ardently he means them, so he only nods.

Diluc leans forward again, and Kaeya tugs gently at the black ribbon holding his hair together just above the base of his neck. It unravels easily, and Diluc tips his head back again, waits for Kaeya to-

Oh. Oh, this is quite a lot for his overburdened heart to handle, running his hands through Diluc’s hair, combing it all into a higher ponytail. It’s smooth, soft to the touch, and he has to resist the urge to spend a few minutes longer just...brushing his fingers through it.

He ties it in place carefully, and Diluc blinks up at him before sitting back up - the ends of it reach just above the line of his shoulders, now, and Kaeya sweeps his hands from the base of Diluc’s neck out to his upper arms experimentally.

The hair stays clear this time, and Diluc leans into his palms when he returns them to his shoulder blades. Kaeya wants, very desperately, to press against Diluc’s back, wrap his arms around his chest and trail his lips down every one of the spots he’s soothed with his fingers.

But he does not, because Diluc remains insistent when Kaeya’s hands haven’t yet moved, and he glances back over his shoulder with an almost petulant sort of frown.

“Alright your majesty,” Kaeya quips at Diluc’s impatience, which earns him an eye roll and a very intriguing touch of pink on his cheeks, and Kaeya files that away for-

Not for another time. For never. For his fantasies, at best.

He works his way lower on Diluc’s back, takes his time when he encounters a particularly tense muscle or a knot that requires special attention. Diluc flinches at those, sucks in a sharp breath but otherwise remains remarkably still. And, on very rare occasions, he lets out a contented sort of sigh. One that sends sparks through Kaeya’s body, makes him feel light and set on fire.

After some time - how much, he can’t quite say - Kaeya reluctantly rests his hands on Diluc’s shoulders. Diluc has not asked him to stop, but his muscles feel warm and loose beneath Kaeya’s fingers and he is not entirely sure how much longer he can find excuses to keep his hands on Diluc’s body.

“Thank you.” Diluc’s voice, quiet, gentle. Careful. Kaeya pulls his hands away, settles back onto the cushion.

“I do sincerely hope that helped.” He does his best to imbue his tone with equal gentleness, to ensure that Diluc will hear it and know that he means it. That there are no pretenses between them here - not in this, at least. Not in the fact that he cares, though Diluc could not possibly know how much.

“It...did.” Still quiet, and Diluc tips his head down just a bit. Sends his ponytail falling over one shoulder, exposing the back of his neck. Kaeya squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, fights the urge to lean forward and press lips to the patch of skin above his collar.

“I’d like to take a bath before the banquet,” Diluc adds quickly, almost sharp, and Kaeya blinks his eyes open just as Diluc leans away, stands and stalks around the back of the sofa toward the bathroom. The door thuds shut before Kaeya’s lips have even parted to speak.

He falls back on his heels and leans into the sofa cushion, props an elbow on the back of the sofa and sets his chin in his hand. Carries the futile and desperate hope in his chest that he hasn’t made some mistake.

Chapter Text

If he hadn’t made a mistake before, he’s certainly made one now. Or, rather, he’d made it yesterday, upon switching his and Diluc’s banquet outfits. Not because either of them looks bad, but-

Gods, Diluc looks incredible. A bonfire in the middle of the night, the red of his hair standing out brilliantly from the dark navy of his jacket. If he questions the clothing that Venti had made ‘for him’, he doesn’t show it, just fastens the clasps and tugs at a sleeve and turns on a heel with his chin tilted up.

His brows furrow, though, and Kaeya quickly adjusts his expression - undoubtedly too wide-eyed, too obvious in his appreciation - but Diluc presses his lips into a line. A faint blush dusts his cheeks, and he glances to the side. Tugs again at the sleeve of his jacket - is he self-conscious?

“You look breathtaking,” Kaeya says without thinking, before Diluc can even begin to doubt it. Gods damn him for his loose tongue, but the idea that Diluc might worry about his appearance…

“I- ah, thank you.” Diluc clears his throat. “You look…” A brief glance, then he looks away again. Kaeya looks frankly incredible, and had spent an inordinate amount of time staring at himself in the mirror, but he hangs onto the words Diluc has yet to say as though they’re water and he’s been lost in a desert for months.

“You look good,” Diluc says finally, quietly, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath - mostly at himself. Of course Diluc would return the compliment, even if he did not find Kaeya especially attractive. He waves a hand loosely toward the door, then, and Kaeya forces himself to inhale.

To remember, of course - this is not a game, what they’re about to walk into. It is a battlefield, if one that’s masquerading as a party. He tips his chin up.

“Shall we?” Diluc prompts, and Kaeya nods.

They have a banquet to attend.

He loops his arm easily through Diluc’s when they step out into the hall, and Kaeya swears for a moment that they’ve drifted into an alternate reality altogether - the corridors remain eerily empty as they walk, as Diluc leads him through the castle and toward the door that leads to the gardens.

“It’s outdoors?” Kaeya’s not sure why this, of all things, surprises him - perhaps it’s more the uneasy atmosphere that’s only been exacerbated by the sudden disappearance of all the bustling staff, perhaps he’d just expected some grand ballroom to be the location of this banquet.

“We’re welcoming summer,” Diluc says simply, and Kaeya glances over to catch his eye. “And it’s lovely weather for it. We’re quite lucky this year.” With that, he pulls the door open, and Kaeya freezes for a brief moment.

He’s met with a sight not entirely unlike Diluc, fires blazing on torches and candles on tables that cast beautiful, red-orange light across the gardens. They stretch into the hedge maze, but Kaeya suspects that the majority of the banquet-goers are stationed out here, among the patios and short flower beds.

Above them, with perfect weather as Diluc had said, a dimming early-evening sky dips into shades of blue, the sun already set well beyond the horizon, and it is only once Diluc tugs gently at his arm that he realizes he’s been staring.

He glances over to find Diluc’s expression unexpectedly open, a little inquisitive and uncertain.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. It reminds me of you, he does not say. Perhaps he doesn’t have to - Diluc’s lips tick up in a soft smile, and Kaeya hopes that it’s a real one.

“Come, I’ll let the quartet know that we’re here. My father will want them to begin playing sooner rather than later, to get everyone dancing.” A deep exhale, but Diluc’s smile does not fade entirely. “And, as I’m sure you recall, we are expected to have the first dance.”

With that, he pulls away from Kaeya, and Kaeya watches him wade with grace through the gathered crowds. Just beyond them, he can see a few people with instruments on what must be a raised platform - it’s surrounded by torches as well, glowing bright in a sea of dim evening light.

He loses Diluc the moment another head of red-orange hair catches his attention.

Kaeya!” Childe half-shouts, and Kaeya might be bothered by the volume were it not for the fact that he can only barely hear him over the chattering of the other banquet attendees. Zhongli weaves through the crowd behind him, an ever-neutral expression on his face.

“Childe,” Kaeya says cooly as Childe approaches. Zhongli’s hand is tucked into his, a thing he notices only tangentially before Childe lets go to grasp Kaeya’s shoulders.

“My my, don’t you look the rather fetching prince,” he says with a smirk. Kaeya quirks a brow, but Childe just laughs. “Calm down, I’m not here to steal you away.”

As if on cue, Zhongli steps closer to Childe, wraps an arm around his waist and mumbles something into his ear. Childe’s grin widens further, and his hand skates across Zhongli’s arm. Kaeya gets the distinct and sudden feeling that, just by watching, he’s intruding on something private.

“You do have quite a pretty blush, though,” Childe adds aloud, and Kaeya forces out a breath of laughter, pretends to be unbothered by the two of them.

“Leave the poor thing alone,” Zhongli says, a hint of a smile touching his lips. He pulls away then, too, and steps up to stand at Childe’s side. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Kaeya.” His smile, subtle though it is, feels genuine, and Kaeya finds it easier to return it.

“Likewise. I assume we have nothing more than we did before?” He’s aware of his cryptic question, but Zhongli does not appear confused by it.

“Unfortunately. Although I believe Venti is around here somewhere…” With that, he glances around, though he does not seem to find him. Kaeya hums, and Childe tips his head.

“Where’s your prince, by the way? He get lost?”

“Kaeya- oh,” Diluc stops just short of them, apparently having made his way back through the crowds. “Zhongli, Childe.” He nods to each in turn, and Zhongli refocuses from his search to return the gesture. Childe just grins wide at him.

“Right on time,” he says with no small hint of amusement. “I was considering stealing your-” A pause, and he glances over at Kaeya. Winks, the smug bastard. “Ah, forget it. Don’t you two have-”

“A dance, yes,” Diluc says with a shake of his head, hopefully to dismiss Childe’s nonsense. His attention returns to Kaeya, and he extends a hand. A smile touches his lips, too, and Kaeya returns it with ease as he lifts his own hand.

The citizens and diplomats alike must know what happens now, as they part for Diluc and Kaeya with little prompting, forming a wide circle in the middle of one of the garden’s patios. Diluc stops in the center, turns his gaze to the side and waves in what Kaeya quickly determines is a signal to the quartet.

The crowds around them hush, and in the silence, gentle music begins. Before Kaeya’s quite had time to assess all this, Diluc is pressed to his chest, a hand in his and the other wrapped around his waist.

Kaeya.” Quiet, but it focuses him suddenly, and Kaeya moves with ease when the music picks up, when Diluc takes a step.

He’s unfairly beautiful up close, hair still pulled up exactly the way Kaeya had done it for him earlier, and wayward strands frame his face. Fire dances in his eyes, both a reflection of the torches that light the garden and of the genuine warmth that is Diluc. Always so warm, even when he is not. Even when Diluc is acting, Kaeya finds warmth.

Diluc leans in close, then, and Kaeya can feel him handing the lead of the dance over to him, letting him choose their steps, though Kaeya keeps it simple for his own sake. He finds it near impossible to focus with Diluc pressed against him, breath warm against the crook of his neck. A smile tugs relentlessly at his lips, and he’d outright laugh were they not the subject of focus at the moment.

He may not have Diluc, but Diluc has given him...something. This, if nothing else - this rare and gentle moment, pressed against him without any clear discomfort. Earlier, without any pretense, letting him work the tension from his muscles. It is not everything Kaeya wants, but it is so very much more than he thought he’d have.

“Everything alright?” Diluc half-whispers, and Kaeya sucks in a sharp breath. Focuses intently on his next step, and cannot quite recall if he’d missed any prior to this moment.

“Why do you ask?” Does he feel the too-rapid beat of Kaeya’s heart in his chest? Can he somehow sense Kaeya’s radical desire to lean in, bury his face in Diluc’s shoulder and sway with him as they had in the garden the other day? Pull away just enough to press a warm kiss to his lips, to-

“That’s not an answer,” Diluc says quietly. “Have you noticed something?”

Aside from how devastating you look in my clothing? How warm you are pressed against me, how incredible you look with your hair tied up like that?

“I haven’t.”

“Then relax,” Diluc mumbles into the skin of his neck, and Kaeya thinks he could fall apart right there in the middle of a crowd of hundreds. He would not mind it, with Diluc’s arm around his waist, his hand in Kaeya’s, whispering warm words against his skin.

He tries to obey Diluc’s words, but his heart hammers away, ignoring his attempts. If Diluc notices, however, he makes no further comment. They sway on, Kaeya still leading but with far less movement than at first. They are infatuated lovebirds, Kaeya most ardently, and he doubts anyone will begrudge them the excuse to stay close together.

The music drifts off as he’s had the thought, fading as it ends and giving way to applause and cheers. Diluc pulls back, then, and Kaeya lifts a hand to his cheek purely on instinct. Purely to feel the warmth he can see there, and his lip ticks up in a smirk.

“Shut up and kiss me,” Diluc grumbles before Kaeya’s even gotten a word out, and who is he to deny Diluc that request?

He lets his grin widen before leaning in, and Diluc rolls his eyes in the short second before they drift shut. Before Diluc melts into him, before Kaeya forgets his own damn name in an attempt to burn this into his memory.

Diluc pressed against him, hand no longer in his but cupped at the back of his neck, holding him here with his lips crushed to Kaeya’s like he needs it. Like he wants nothing more than to forget their audience and take Kaeya apart right here.

Kaeya’d let him in a heartbeat, gods help him. Anything for you, Luc.

But Diluc pulls away, and Kaeya lets him go. Lets Diluc’s hand drift down his arm and twine with his fingers, lets him drag Kaeya away from the encroaching crowd, all taking to their own partners as music begins anew. Diluc leads him off, weaving between guests with nods and smiles until they’ve reached-

“Well,” Childe starts, gives a slow clap and a sardonic smirk. “Wasn’t that quite the performance.”

Kaeya considers how much of a scene it’d cause if his fist just happened to connect with Childe’s irritatingly loose lips.

“Anything to report?” Diluc says before Kaeya can do anything too damning, and Zhongli exhales a short breath.

“Still nothing. No Venti yet, either,” he adds with a subtle shake of his head. Diluc just waves a hand.

“You know him. He’ll show up half-drunk and an hour late and claim it’s fashionable.”

“Yes, but I’d have expected him to take this a little more-”

Zhongli?

Kaeya whirls around at the voice, coincidentally belonging to none other than Venti himself. He’s wide-eyed and blinking wildly as he rushes over, mumbles excuses to the people he nearly bowls over in his haste.

“Venti,” Zhongli says - perhaps with a hint of relief, though he keeps a tight lid on any further emotions he has on the matter. Why relief, of all-

A tight sort of guilt hits Kaeya, then - this is not a carefree event for any of them, in spite of how they're meant to be acting. Of course Zhongli would be relieved that they have another set of eyes watching for whatever attack might be coming for Diluc.

“Kaeya. Diluc,” Venti adds almost as an afterthought, though Kaeya notes the lift of his brows as he glances at them. It is then that Kaeya recalls what he’d done, what Venti would certainly be noticing about their attire right now.

But, much to Kaeya’s relief, he doesn’t say anything aloud. A smirk touches his lips, though, before he turns back to Zhongli.

“So, what’s the deal? Are we allowed to have fun, or-”

“No fun, I’m afraid.” It’s Childe that says this, and with a rather childish pout, and Zhongli rolls his eyes. Kaeya has to stifle a laugh at the exchange - this is a serious matter, regardless of how Childe seems to be treating it. Venti, for his part, huffs out an irritated breath.

“Bummer. Alright, I’ll make the rounds. Find me if you learn anything!” he adds, mostly over his shoulder as he shoves between Childe and Zhongli and through the crowds. Kaeya watches with brows raised, and Zhongli pinches the bridge of his nose.

“I suppose that’s our cue,” Childe says with a shrug and a grin. He loops an arm through Zhongli’s, then, and drags him off in another direction. Beside Kaeya, Diluc exhales a long, slow breath.

“Shall we?” he asks, as though Kaeya has any choice but to agree.

As though he would even consider leaving Diluc’s side, what with the heavy reminder of the danger he’s in hanging over Kaeya’s head.

Chapter Text

Not unlike the wedding’s afterparty, they drift from circle to circle of guests from all walks of life and all parts of Teyvat - some, Kaeya recognizes this time around, whether from his own political dealings or from the wedding itself, and he greets them all with the same amicable grin he’s worn for most of his life.

One that hides the latent concern.

It’s easier, though, with Diluc at his side. Warm, gentle. He laughs at jokes no matter their quality, inquires about the lives of the diplomats and the lords and the regular citizens alike with genuine interest, interacts with an ease that Kaeya has not seen since their wedding night - and even then, he’d seemed a bit warier, less inclined to socialize.

Perhaps it’s a product of the atmosphere, or his growing comfort with Kaeya by his side. Kaeya supposes he can hope it’s the latter, but either way, his own smile comes quite easily.

“Prince Diluc! Prince Kaeya!” And far more easily with that voice - Kaeya turns to find Bennett rushing up to them, a bright grin on his lips. He cleans up quite nicely, and Diluc laughs amicably.

“Bennett, I’m glad to see your banquet attire still fits. Are you enjoying the festivities?” Diluc prompts easily, gestures vaguely to the garden.

“Yeah! The food is so good this year. Uh, not that it wasn’t good last year! Or the year before, just-”

“We’ll be sure to try it,” Kaeya interrupts with a grin, and Bennett falls back into a bright smile.

“Great! I, uh-” His hand finds the back of his neck, and a sudden blush touches his cheeks. Kaeya’s brows lift in amusement. “I promised Razor I wouldn’t be long, but I saw you and wanted to say hi. I should get back, though. Thanks again!”

With that, he rushes off, and Kaeya watches him disappear through the crowds. He’s just a bit too short to keep track of, but Kaeya hopes he’s found his way with little issue.

Without warning, then, Diluc leans into Kaeya’s side.

“This is exhausting.” No intonation, and Kaeya coughs out a laugh at the marked difference between this voice and the one he’d just used when speaking to Bennett.

“And how much longer do you anticipate we’ll need to stay?” How much longer do I get to have you hanging on my arm, warm at my side?

To this, Diluc just exhales a too-heavy breath.

“Come on. We have appearances to keep up.”

Kaeya glances over at Diluc’s words as he sets them into motion, surprised to find a flicker of a smile on his lips. It breaks into a wider grin at the sound of Diluc’s name called over the chatter of the crowd, and Diluc directs their steps toward the source of the voice. Kaeya goes easily, finds his own smile is not hard to call up.

“Prince Diluc, looking dapper as ever!” The woman presses a hand to his shoulder, the one not currently pressed to Kaeya’s side. “And our wonderful Khaenri’ahn prince.” Kaeya’s not entirely sure he recognizes this woman, but he huffs out a breath of laughter.

“It’s a pleasure.” Diplomacy comes as easily as breathing, after all, if a far sight more irritating.

“Kaeya, this is our neighboring country Liyue’s Tianquan, the lady Ningguang.” Ah, she’s come into power rather recently. And, if he recalls correctly, she had not provided much in the way of aid for Khaenri’ah. Granted, Kaeya’s father had rarely been able to get a hearing with the Qixing, the leading council in Liyue, so perhaps it’s less a matter of her stance on Khaenri’ah and more of their finding other matters of greater import.

In any event, he takes her offered hand and kisses the back of it with a smooth smile.

“Ah, the lovely lady Ningguang. Most definitely a pleasure,” he says with a dip of his head. This draws a laugh, though Ningguang directs her attention to Diluc.

“Be careful, he’s a charmer,” she says with a wink, and Diluc hums an amused sort of noise. His grip, much to Kaeya’s surprise, tightens ever so slightly on Kaeya’s arm.

“I have to say,” she adds. “I’d have hardly expected the two of you to fall for each other.”

“Is that so?” Kaeya prompts with perhaps a bit too much eagerness. He wonders if he’ll get the chance to put into practice his ideas of showing everyone just how enamored they are.

“Quite! Diluc, you’re so reserved, and Kaeya…” She trails off, waves a hand as though proving her point. “But I suppose what they say is true, opposites must indeed-”

“Lady Ningguang?” Kaeya blinks at the new voice, finds a blue-haired woman standing just behind Ningguang. “Keqing is- well, she’s attempting to negotiate our trade contracts with Inazuma, but-”

She interrupts with a deep sigh, then nods at the woman.

“Say no more, I’ll speak with her. Gentlemen, it was a pleasure. My gratitude as always for your invitation and hospitality.” She dips her head to them each in turn, then follows the other woman away through the crowd. Almost imperceptibly, Diluc’s grip loosens just a fraction on Kaeya’s arm.

“Do you dislike her?” he asks quietly, then pointedly turns them away lest any prying ears decide they’re somehow scheming against her or the Qixing or Liyue.

“Dislike her? Of course not. Did I do something to suggest otherwise?” Diluc’s expression remains even and pleasant, a hint of a smile on his lips even as Kaeya notices the subtle twitch of his brows furrowing for a moment. And then they smooth out, and Kaeya hums.

“No, you-”

Kaeya stops short, recalls with a twinge his earlier vow to himself.

“You seemed tenser than usual when we spoke to her.” He pauses, glances over to find Diluc’s gaze fixed ahead of them. “Did she say something that bothered you, then?” Like, perhaps, that Kaeya is a charmer? That unsubtle implication that, what, he might not actually stick around, or that he does not actually want Diluc more than as...as perhaps a trophy of some kind?

To Kaeya’s surprise, Diluc draws to a stop, extracts his arm from Kaeya’s.

“Of course not.” A quick glance in Kaeya’s direction. “I just find socializing at this scale exhausting. And parching, excuse me while I get something to drink.”

With that and nothing more, he’s turned and disappeared into the crowd, and Kaeya hardly has a moment to recognize what’s happening, let alone to request that Diluc return with something to drink for him as well. Something with alcohol, ideally.

But he’s alone, now, in a sea of strangers, and he’s not sure whether to wander or wait for Diluc to return first.

He does not, as it turns out, need to make the choice - someone bumps into his back, and he turns with a tight smile to find a wide-grinning tailor staring up at him.

Kaeya!” Venti slings arms around his waist and squishes him in a hug, and Kaeya coughs out a laugh if only because he has no idea what else to do at this juncture. He pats Venti’s head, and Venti pulls away with a bright grin.

“Kaeya!” Now his face twists, though, into something like an angry caricature, and Kaeya lifts his brows in silent question. Venti tugs at his jacket and pulls him down a bit, leans in close. “You stole Diluc’s clothes!” he whisper-shouts, and Kaeya can smell wine on his breath. Still, when he leans back, his eyes seem unexpectedly clear.

And unexpectedly angry.

“I made those very specifically for each of you, where on Teyvat do you get off thinking you’re more adept at fashion than I am. I mean, the audacity! Just because you’re a prince-”

He rambles on, but Kaeya lets his focus drift in search of flame-red hair. Perhaps there’s a wait for drinks, or- well, he has no idea where the drinks even are, for that matter. Maybe-

Are you even listening to me?” Venti accuses, poking a finger into Kaeya’s chest. “Where in Teyvat is that dumb prince of yours, I’ll-”

“He’s not my prince,” Kaeya interrupts, and Venti’s mouth remains open, mid-word, for a second longer before he snaps it shut. And a grin curls his lips, and Kaeya’s cheeks flush with warmth at the quirked brow he gives Kaeya.

“Oh, sure he’s not. What, is he waiting on you to whisk him away to your rooms, or meet him in some secluded alcove, or-”

No, no,” Kaeya grits out, embarrassment flooding his chest - mostly at yet another person- what, accusing him of actually liking Diluc? Accusing them of being in some secret relationship that isn’t actually secret because they’re supposed to be together anyway? Gods, he has no idea.

“He’s just getting a drink,” Kaeya says finally, and Venti squints at him. Purses his lips, crosses his arms over his chest, generally makes a show of his already-obvious disbelief.

It all fades in a split second, then, and Venti’s eyes go wide in shock.

“Kaeya. Diluc, get him, get out. Now.”

Kaeya sucks in a breath, whirls on a heel to find Diluc - empty-handed, no drink in sight - stumbling rather dazedly toward him. His pulse skyrockets as he rushes forward, catches Diluc as he trips over his own feet and nearly falls.

“K-Kaeya? Wha’s hap’n…”

Panic sears through Kaeya’s veins like lightning, burns with fire when he pulls Diluc to his side, glances anxiously around them - but the other partygoers seem not to have noticed Diluc’s state, or perhaps just assume him drunk. Venti’s disappeared already, and Kaeya breathes rapidly as he attempts to reign in his panic.

Get him, get out. Now.

Right, out - away from whoever had done...something to Diluc. He can do that.

Just as he sets Diluc in the right direction - wide double doors swung open to allow guests and staff in and out as needed - Zhongli steps in front of them. His lips are pressed tight into a line, and Kaeya’s panic flares again - surely he didn’t have something to do with this, did he?

Diluc’s friend? If he did, Kaeya will gladly-

“Please act as normally as you can. Get somewhere safe, we will handle the rest.”

With those words, he disappears through the crowds, and Kaeya squeezes his eyes shut for a single, terrified moment.

Then he lets ice drip into his veins.

With a single smooth movement, he loops Diluc’s arm over his shoulder, uses it as leverage to keep him upright and pressed to Kaeya’s side. He wraps the other hand around Diluc’s waist to support his stumbled steps, then plasters his most convincing grin over his lips.

Mumbles loudly enough that anyone nearby might overhear, teasing Diluc for drinking too much and making vague mention of how he’ll be so very hungover tomorrow morning, and he’ll just have to sleep it off.

It gets them to the door without any interruption, though Kaeya’s now acutely aware of the heat rolling off Diluc’s body, the sweat at his brow and the paleness of his skin. The moment they’re out of sight down the hall to Diluc’s private wing, Kaeya scoops Diluc up and outright carries him.

“Diluc, I need you to say something, okay? Anything?” he prompts, jaw tight and arms straining more than he’d like for how far they have yet to go. “Hey,” he adds when he’s received nothing more than a groan, and he jostles Diluc for good measure in spite of the way it makes his tensed muscles protest.

“You’re- mm,” Diluc’s brows furrow. “Carrying...me?” He blinks, then, gaze flicking lethargically between the ceiling and Kaeya, and Kaeya coughs out a terrified, hysterical sort of laugh.

“Yes, and-”

And this hall is not unoccupied.

Kaeya slides to a stop, bares his teeth at the figures materializing from the shadows. Wicked blades add sharp viciousness to their frames, flashing in the dim light from nearby flickering torches.

“Alright, here’s the deal,” one of them grits out, voice gravelly and harsh. Kaeya takes a step back, stiffens at the unkind press of a blade’s tip between his shoulders.

“You drop the prince, walk away, and we won’t cut you to ribbons. How’s that sound?” A wicked laugh, and the one who’d been talking steps out from the shadows. Kaeya forces his breathing to steady, tips his chin up just a fraction.

“We don’t care about you,” the person behind Kaeya adds, “just the crown prince. You say we knocked you out, nobody’ll be the wiser.”

“Alright, alright,” Kaeya relents, “will you allow me to…” He tips his head toward the wall. “Just set him down there? Whatever you may think of me, I don’t intend to literally drop him,” Kaeya adds for good measure.

If they’re suspicious of how easily he’d given in, they don’t show it - the one in front of him even goes as far as to lower their weapon when they tip their head in agreement with his request.

“Kae...ya?” Diluc mumbles as Kaeya lowers him to the ground, props him up so he’s leaning upright against the wall. His arms tremble when he sits back on his heels, and his hand brushes against the hilt of the dagger strapped to his thigh.

It’s not much, but he’d let the Abyss Order take him before he allows anyone near Diluc.

“Alright, step away, we’ll-”

He unsheaths the dagger and swings wide, grins with a feral sort of feeling in his chest when his blade meets resistance. Someone growls in either anger or pain, and Kaeya holds the dagger out at arm’s length. Stands in front of Diluc, lets his gaze sweep across the three- no, four attackers. Dares them to take a step closer.

“You idiot,” someone grits out, and Kaeya suspects that it isn’t directed at him. “Now look what you’ve done, this was supposed to be easy.”

“Well it ain’t my fault the husband cares so damn much, is it?”

Leave,” Kaeya growls, “or I will gladly carve you up.”

“Tough talk from a man outnumbered.” Someone else, neither of the two previous voices. Kaeya laughs, lets his adrenaline-fueled heart hammer wildly in his chest and spur him on.

“If you think you will leave here with him, you are very sorely mistaken. How many times will my blade find your bodies before you give up? I assure you...” Fire blazes in his chest, calls on his magic even though it has no use here. Not yet anyway. “I will die before you lay a hand on him.”

“That’s enough, Kaeya. There’s no need for your magic.”

Kaeya blinks rapidly, caught off guard by a voice that he does recognize. One that echoes down the halls, though he can see only darkness when he glances in that direction. The words are followed by laughter, as wild and unhinged as Kaeya had felt up until a moment ago.

No need for your magic...Kaeya inhales a sharp breath, finds galaxies swirling around him. More surprising still, the attackers have all moved back a step, and seem more tentative now - though whether that’s a product of Kaeya’s rather harmless display or Zhongli’s voice, he can’t say for sure.

They approach calmly, Zhongli and Childe, though each with weapons in hand - Zhongli holds a vicious-looking spear, while Childe twirls twin blades that look far sharper than the one’s he’d sparred against Kaeya with.

“Take Diluc and go somewhere safe,” Zhongli says again, directed at Kaeya though he’s watching the attackers intently. The corner of his lip ticks up into a smirk, then, a look not too dissimilar to Childe’s feral grin. “We will handle these intruders.”

Childe laughs again, louder than before, and flashes Kaeya a wink before returning his attention to the attackers.

“Xiansheng, will you let me have a little fun with them, please?”

“Kaeya, go.” A command, and it frees Kaeya from his stunned paralysis. He fumbles to sheathe his dagger, then stumbles back and against the wall and scoops Diluc up again. His eyes are closed, sending a spark of panic through Kaeya’s veins, but the jostling makes him blink them open again.

His brows furrow minutely at Kaeya, lips part and close without any words said, and Kaeya sucks in a breath. Behind him, he can hear the sound of weapons clashing, but his feet have already started to move. They’re steady, to Kaeya’s grateful surprise, and carry him in the direction of Diluc’s rooms.

“Diluc. Hey, hey?” He shakes Diluc again, hard. “Luc, please, just hold on. Don’t you dare die on me, I’ll never forgive you.” He mutters on and on, relieved and terrified in vicious cycles as he watches Diluc’s eyes flicker open and closed.

He doesn’t speak, doesn’t move, and Kaeya holds tightly onto the fact that he is still breathing, still blinking. He is not dead, not yet. Not at all, if Kaeya has anything to say about it.

And he absolutely does. He will, the moment he gets Diluc safely into their rooms. Tears nearly leak from the corners of his eyes at the sight of the door at the end of the hall, and he ignores the rampant ache spreading through his body in response to all this damned stress.

How he manages to get the door open with hardly any effort, he’s not entirely sure, but he gets Diluc inside and slams the door behind him, all but throws him onto the bed and shoves the sofa bodily against the door. Not that he doubts Zhongli’s and Childe’s combat skills - certainly not Childe’s, that’s for sure - but he’d rather avoid any surprises.

Especially while using his magic.

“Diluc, hey, Luc? Look at me,” he half commands as he rushes back over to the bed. Diluc hasn’t moved from where Kaeya’d set him down, not a single inch, and Kaeya rolls him flat on his back and presses a hand to his forehead.

Warm, warmer than he should be, but not terrifyingly feverish as Kaeya had expected. And he blinks when told, eyes roving a little before settling on Kaeya. Again, that minute furrowing of his brows, some rapid blinking.

Then his eyes go wide, his breathing faster, and he glances around a bit frantically. Kaeya shakes his head, attempts to focus.

“I’m- fuck, I’m going to do something, okay? I’m gonna fix it, whatever happened to you. Please don’t be afraid.”

Why he says that, he can’t be sure - because the attackers had feared his magic? Because everyone fears Khaenri’ahn magic? He tosses his eyepatch on the floor and does not care if he ever finds it again. Cares for nothing, right now, except healing Diluc.

“It shouldn’t hurt, just...gods, stay with me, Luc, okay? Please stay with me.” He says the words like a prayer, and maybe they are. Maybe he has never cared much for the gods until this moment, but he begs them - if they do exist - not to fail him.

He begs himself not to fail Diluc. To put his magic to good use, for once. The best use - the only one that matters.

He presses his hands flat to Diluc’s chest, watches ink-dark magic swirl from them. Glances up at Diluc’s face, terrified to find his eyes closed and viciously grateful when they blink open again. Gods...he’ll do it. He’ll tell Diluc, the second this is over, the second he’s safe. He’ll say it and he won’t regret it, no matter the outcome.

“Luc, stay with me, yeah? I have something to tell you, but I can’t-” He sucks in a breath, and it comes out as a choked sort of laugh. Magic pours still from his hands and into Diluc’s chest, and Diluc coughs weakly. “I can’t tell you yet, not right now. When you’re okay, I promise I will.”

He can’t say it now, refuses to. Because then he’d be saying it out of cowardice, with the heartbreaking comfort that Diluc might never be able to react to it. Might never be able to reject him. Diluc does not deserve that, and Kaeya does not deserve to avoid his own fears like that. How selfish of him, to have waited this long to begin with.

Diluc groans, eyes squeezed shut as he coughs again, and something horrifically black and ugly drips from the corner of his mouth.

With one hand still pressed to Diluc’s chest, Kaeya drags at his shoulder, pulls him to his side so he does not choke on whatever-

Kaeya winces as Diluc vomits properly, regrets quite suddenly that he’d laid Diluc down on his bed. At least there’s another in Kaeya’s room - based on the color and stench of the foul black stuff, he suspects Diluc will want to burn this bed in its entirety.

Assuming, of course, that he survives this.

But when Diluc blinks this time, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, his gaze seems sharper. Solid, if still a bit panicked, when he stares at Kaeya. His blinking is no longer rapid and frenzied, but steady and intentional, and his hand twitches where it’s draped over his stomach.

“K-Kaeya…” Croaked, and Diluc grimaces. “Water?” He pulls away from the grip Kaeya’s using to hold him on his side, and Kaeya lets him fall back. He does not, however, allow his hand to leave Diluc’s chest. Not yet, not until he’s certain that Diluc is fine.

“I can’t- can you wait? Just a minute or two?” His own words are shaky, as is his hand when he moves it to rest with the other on Diluc’s chest. “Healing magic,” he says, then, and realizes just how belated the comment is.

To this, or perhaps just to Kaeya’s initial question, Diluc only hums, and his eyes flutter shut again. Kaeya sucks in a sharp breath, about to demand he keep them open, but they flick open at the sound of Kaeya’s almost-gasp.

“‘M ‘kay,” he croaks out, and Kaeya exhales slowly. It does not steady him in any capacity. Diluc keeps his eyes open now, though, and Kaeya’s breathing gradually slows and evens out. His panic does not recede entirely, but it fades a bit as Diluc seems to remain both alive and coherent, focused where he keeps his gaze on Kaeya.

“Kaeya.” Quiet, gentle. A little hoarse, but steady. Kaeya lifts his hands, shaking, from Diluc’s chest. Focuses intently on the red eyes that Diluc fixes on him. “I’m okay.”

Kaeya’s knees hit the floor with a heavy thud, and it’s only that spark of pain that makes him realize that he’s no longer standing. Diluc sits up, brows furrowed in concern, then squeezes his eyes shut for a long moment.

“Headache,” he grits out when Kaeya sucks in a sharp, panicked breath. “I’m okay, Kaeya, I’m okay.” A hand finds his where it rests on the bed, and Diluc squeezes it hard. “Water please?” he adds after a moment, and Kaeya blinks at him.

The request registers after several long seconds, and Kaeya nods as he climbs to his feet. Waits for a moment for his balance to return, then stalks off across the bedroom toward the bathroom. Knows in passing that he fills the glass that he finds beside the sink, returns to Diluc’s side with it in hand, but does not feel anything except an exhausted sort of relief.

Diluc takes the glass without a word, downs the whole thing - slowly, but not so slowly that Kaeya has time to quite return to himself before Diluc hands him the glass back.

“More?” Kaeya asks, or intends it as a question, though his tone comes out quite flat. Diluc frowns at him, then takes the glass back from Kaeya’s loose grip. Crawls off the other side of the bed and stands himself, only to half-collapse back onto the mattress with a wince.

It’s this that spurs Kaeya back into the moment, drops him into lucid clarity, and he stumbles around to the other side of the bed.

“Stay here.” Not a request. Diluc exhales a slow breath, but hands the glass over when Kaeya reaches for it. The world feels clearer this time - he’s more aware of the splash of the water in the glass, has the thought to bring a damp cloth back with him. His awareness remains, too, when he steps back into the bedroom, takes a moment to stare at the stark contrast of Diluc’s hair and jacket against his crisp white bedsheets.

Mostly white. He grimaces as he returns, gaze flicking from Diluc - who, to his relief, does actually appear to be feeling better - and the black stain seeping into the far corner.

“Do you think you can stand?” he asks, surprised to find his voice steadier now. Diluc takes a slow sip of the water and rubs the cloth against his lips, then hands both it and the glass back to Kaeya. Kaeya sets them aside, returns his focus to Diluc and Diluc alone.

“With help?” He phrases it like a question, as though Kaeya intends to laugh him off and make him walk on his own. Kaeya ignores that possible implication, loops an arm under Diluc’s and helps him climb from the bed.

He leans into Kaeya’s side, but walks with slow, confident steps when Kaeya directs him toward his bedroom. He must realize where they’re headed, moving in the right direction without Kaeya’s adjustments. Just inside the doorway, though, Kaeya pauses, holds Diluc back when he tries to step forward.

Is met with an endearingly irritated frown, and Kaeya could collapse right there from how light he feels suddenly.

“You’re not going to ruin my bed too, are you?” he prompts, and Diluc’s frown deepens.

“I’m fine, Kaeya.”

“Cause the sofa is not nearly big enough-”

Kaeya,” he groans. “Please, my head hurts and I’m exhausted. Can we argue tomorrow?” There’s such a sudden tired sincerity to his words, and Kaeya’s objections dissolve.

“At least take the jacket off,” he says carefully, and Diluc almost deflates against his side. “I can’t imagine it’ll be comfortable to sleep in.”

He helps Diluc over to the bed, and Diluc makes a very valiant effort to undo the clasps - he does successfully get one undone - before exhaling a heavy sigh and glancing up at Kaeya.

And Kaeya falls to his knees in front of him without a word, because he is still terrified and shattered a little and Diluc is alive but he does not know how close he’d been to losing him. So he takes his time, arms resting gently on Diluc’s thighs as he undoes each clasp.

When he’s finished, he glances up to find Diluc watching him, a tentative sort of smile on his lips. Diluc lifts his hand, then, and it brushes gently against Kaeya’s cheek - it renders him so utterly still that he is not certain he could blink even if he wanted to.

He does not, though. He wants nothing more, in this moment, than to memorize every single inch of Diluc’s face, every minute expression. That gentle curve of the corner of his lip, the sincerity in his eyes. The achingly warm hand pressed gently to his jaw, the thumb that skates across his cheek just once.

“Kaeya…” Kaeya could melt, he could melt right into the floor at the way Diluc says his name. Holds it as carefully as he holds Kaeya’s cheek, and Kaeya lets his eyes drift shut for a moment. Lets a terrified smile touch his lips, and inhales a slow breath.

“Diluc, I-”

Three sharp knocks, and Kaeya’s on his feet, hand on the hilt of his dagger and halfway to the bedroom door. Panic sparks like a fire, catching all Kaeya’s upturned emotions and setting them ablaze again.

“Who-”

“Don’t move,” Kaeya orders, only loud enough that Diluc can hear it. He would rather not alert anyone to their presence in this room, or at the very least, lead them to believe that Kaeya is alone.

Another sharp knock, and it reverberates through Kaeya’s head. He pulls his dagger from its sheath, grips the hilt with a deceptive looseness for the taut coil of his muscles, ready to strike.

Kaeya, Diluc, open the door.

Tension bleeds from him like water sluicing from a roof in a rainstorm, and he nearly collapses for relief at hearing Zhongli’s voice.

“Hold on,” he calls back, and it takes a horrendous amount of effort to move the sofa out of the way again, now that he’s no longer amped up on adrenaline. He pulls the door open just an inch, wary still for Diluc’s safety, but is relieved to find only Zhongli standing there.

He pushes inside with urgency, slams the door shut behind him and shoves past Kaeya, gold eyes darting through the space in search of-

“Diluc. Where is he.” Not a question, and Kaeya exhales a heavy breath as he leans back against the closed door.

“He’s fine.” He’s okay. He’s fine. He’s alive. Kaeya repeats the words in his head like a mantra, only startled out of it by Zhongli’s hand suddenly gripping the collar of his jacket.

Where is he.”

Kaeya blinks wide at the harsh tone, at the tightness in Zhongli’s jaw and the hard stare.

“I healed him,” Kaeya adds as it occurs to him - Zhongli would assume he’s still sick or hurt or- or dying. “He’s okay, he’s fine.”

A spark of realization flickers in Zhongli’s eyes, then, as he releases his grip on Kaeya and steps back. At the corner of his lip, a relieved smile tugs gently, and he meets Kaeya’s stare with a gentler look.

“It is exceptionally fortunate that you have healing magic.”

Something terrifyingly heavy settles after his words, something that he has not said but that leaves a deep pit in Kaeya’s stomach. Something, Kaeya suspects, about Diluc’s chance of survival had Kaeya not been here, or had his magic been of a different nature.

Kaeya inhales a slow, shaky breath.

“May I speak with him, then?” Zhongli asks, glances pointedly toward the empty bed. Kaeya exhales, straightens up.

“He’s exhausted. Can it wait?”

“No.” Kaeya grits his teeth. “We disabled the attackers, but we need more information-”

“Please.” Inside Kaeya’s head, he can hear Diluc’s own exhausted plea. “He needs rest. My magic can only do so much.” Like bring Diluc back from the brink of death, evidently. But to push his magic to do more, that could so easily twist into something Abyssal.

Something in Zhongli’s expression softens, and his brows furrow in what appears to be genuine concern. It must be, for how ardently he’d been searching for Diluc just a few moments ago. For how quick he was to threaten Kaeya if he did not provide his location immediately.

He cares, of course he does. Childe and Diluc have both indicated as much, haven’t they? Kaeya exhales.

“Be quick about it,” he says quietly, then nods at the door to the sitting-room-turned-bedroom. Zhongli nods in return, mumbles something that might be ‘of course’, and stalks off. Kaeya pushes away from the door, follows with weary steps.

Sleep tugs at every bone in his body, threatens to reroute his course to the sofa so that he might-

“Ah.”

Kaeya’s eyes go wide, and he sucks in a sharp breath as he rushes over to where Zhongli stands just inside the doorway. He does not look panicked, though, and Kaeya turns to find-

“Ah,” he repeats Zhongli’s earlier sentiment. Diluc is curled up around a pillow, face soft and relaxed in sleep and breathing slow and even. Kaeya exhales deeply, relief sending a fresh wave of exhaustion through his veins.

“It would be rather counterproductive of me to wake him,” Zhongli observes in a quiet voice. His attention turns to Kaeya, though Kaeya notices this only from the corner of his vision. He cannot bring himself to look away from Diluc. “Will you let him know we need to speak first thing tomorrow?”

In place of a real response, Kaeya just nods, and he is aware peripherally of Zhongli’s footsteps, the sound of the door opening, clicking shut.

His eyes drift shut for a moment, and he has to catch himself on the doorway to prevent the sudden collapse of his legs beneath him. Diluc is safe. He is alive, he is okay. He’s fast asleep, and Kaeya wants nothing more than to join him.

The sofa calls his name in practical tones, though, demanding he be logical - but would it not be more pertinent to remain somewhere nearby in the event that Diluc wakes and needs something? Or, in the far more panic-inducing scenario, that Diluc is not as well as he seems, and needs more healing?

Even his own rationality cannot quite eliminate the terror that spikes in his body at the idea of taking such a risk, and he skirts the end of the bed to the other side. Removes his own jacket with shaking hands, sets it alongside Diluc’s. Crawls carefully onto the bed, settles himself upright against the headboard so as to keep himself awake.

So as to watch over Diluc.

Chapter Text

He does not recall his eyes drifting shut, and they flick open with a wave of panic and guilt at his own exhaustion.

“Kaeya?” Diluc’s voice, soft and gentle and oh, he’s right here. He’s alright, he’s alive. Relief floods in like a tidal wave when Kaeya finally manages to catalogue the faint flush on Diluc’s cheeks, the sleep-messed hair and slight smile that tugs at the corner of his lip.

He is okay.

“Diluc.” Kaeya’s voice crackles with sleep, hoarse and rough from his panic last night. His heart hammers, but it is not with fear this time. Only the desperation to reach out, to hold Diluc close. Remind himself until it’s seared into his brain: Diluc is alive. Kaeya had not lost him.

“I-” Diluc cuts himself off, brows furrowed just slightly as his gaze drifts to the bed. He’s still tucked into the pillow, but he props himself up on an elbow now. Lifts his gaze to meet Kaeya’s. “I believe...you saved my life. Please, allow me to express-”

He stops short, then, lips parted and gaze suddenly distant in thought. And then, with no warning, he’s pressed to Kaeya’s chest, arms wrapped around him and squeezing him rather tight for someone who’d been on the brink of death not twelve hours ago.

And then it registers properly that Diluc is hugging him, and Kaeya’s arms move on instinct to pull him in closer, as close as he can. Diluc buries his face in the crook of Kaeya’s neck, a thing that makes tears prick at the back of Kaeya’s eyes.

I thought I was going to lose you.

Thank you,” Diluc mumbles against his skin, achingly quiet and sincere in a way that does indeed make a tear leak from the corner of Kaeya’s eyes. He blinks rapidly, presses his lips to the top of Diluc’s head.

The breath he inhales is too shaky, still, and he can feel the prick of more tears wanting to fall, but Diluc pulls back anyway, leaves Kaeya cold as he tips his chin up to meet Kaeya’s gaze.

They’re close, closer than before. Diluc has not left him entirely - he sits within arm’s reach, and Kaeya has to resist the urge to drag him back, to insist that he was not quite finished yet. But Diluc watches him, looks at him, and it makes Kaeya feel stripped bare.

He cannot quite guess at what Diluc sees, whether Kaeya’s feelings are so obvious now or still skillfully hidden. A selfish, terrified part of him hopes that Diluc can see them so clearly that he does not ever have to say the words aloud, and another selfish part hopes that Diluc wants to hear them said anyway.

“Luc, I-”

Something sparks in Diluc’s eyes, a sudden flash, and then he’s there, right there, with his lips pressed to Kaeya’s and Kaeya sucks in a breath, feels his heart ache even as he pulls away from Diluc.

Finds wide red eyes and warm lips and flushed-pink cheeks and a fire of red hair falling over Diluc’s shoulder, and he does not lean back. Just watches Kaeya, waits.

“We’re...alone,” Kaeya says quietly, though he can’t bring himself to lean any further away. There’s nobody around to put on the act for, nobody to convince of their infatuation. Perhaps Diluc is just confused, or still half-asleep, or-

“I know.”

Kaeya does not pull away when Diluc leans into him this time - couldn’t if he tried, he thinks, as Diluc’s lips meet his. His heart beats too fast, too wildly, and he barely registers the shift of the mattress when Diluc moves closer. When his chest presses again to Kaeya’s, when a hand finds the back of his neck, when his lips part a little further, and-

“Gods,” Kaeya pulls back this time with a laugh, though not nearly as far as the last time. He makes a point of wrapping his arm around Diluc’s waist, grinning into the very short space between them. “You taste like death.”

“I did nearly die,” Diluc says, a little breathless, and Kaeya’s whole body warms at the smile that touches his lips. “But I do apologize.”

“Don’t, gods,” Kaeya breathes another laugh, presses his lips to Diluc’s cheek this time, to his jaw, and Diluc hums as he tips his head, provides Kaeya better access to the warm skin of his neck.

“So you…” Diluc starts, and Kaeya trails his tongue across Diluc’s skin, uses his grip on Diluc to pull him into his lap. Forgets for a moment that Diluc had been about to say something, until he starts to fiddle absently with a lock of Kaeya’s hair.

“Hm? I…” he prompts, mostly into Diluc’s shoulder, now, and Diluc pauses. Shifts carefully where he remains in Kaeya’s lap, remains warm and pressed to Kaeya and gods, he could melt. He already feels impossibly overwhelmed by- by whatever this implies.

We’re alone.

I know.

And yet, he can tell already that he will not ever have enough of Diluc, that he will melt over and over by Diluc’s hand and still desire more.

“You want...this?” Me? Kaeya hears the unspoken question, blows out an amused breath against Diluc’s skin and pulls back. Shifts his hand to cup Diluc’s jaw exactly as Diluc had done to him last night. Grins wide, because he cannot help but smile with Diluc here, like this. Alive, and vibrantly so.

“I want you, Luc,” he says, surprised at his own sudden breathlessness. “I want you, gods, I want you…” His words end in a breath of laughter, a bit hysterical and a lot more hopeful than he has any right being. “If you'll have me?”

For several long, impossible seconds, Diluc just watches him, blinks and breathes and stares, and Kaeya wonders if he’s taken it too far, said something that was too much. But gods, to say it out loud, to know that Diluc is listening...it’s a heady feeling in its own right, and it takes quite a lot of willpower to remain still, not to lean into Diluc and take more.

Not without his reaction, Kaeya needs that first. Needs-

“Have I made myself unclear?” Diluc’s voice is quiet but steady, warm as his body pressed against Kaeya, and his gaze flicks down to Kaeya’s lips before returning to hold Kaeya’s stare.

“No,” Kaeya says with a laugh - no, certainly not this morning, at least. Perhaps he’d been clear in other ways, but Kaeya can’t be bothered to consider his own obliviousness right now. “But I still want to hear you say it,” he adds, perhaps a little daring as he leans in closer, brushes his lips to the spot just above Diluc’s jaw.

Silence follows his words, and Kaeya wonders if Diluc is being obstinate on purpose or if Kaeya has somehow wildly misread this situation. Logic dictates otherwise, as does Diluc’s hum when Kaeya trails kisses lower on his neck, but that spark of doubt still flares in the back of his mind.

“Please, Luc?”

“Yes, of course. Of course I want you.” No hesitation this time. Kaeya wonders at it, if Luc had been the cause. He grins into Diluc’s skin.

“Tell me how you want me, Luc.” Oh, he is testing his limits now, but it’s intoxicating. Better than the best of Mondstadt’s wine, the way that Diluc presses closer against him, the way he grips at Kaeya’s shirt and hums low in the back of his throat.

Kaeya lifts his head to find Diluc’s gaze darker, now, breathing faster, shallower. His tongue flicks out over his lip, and Kaeya chases it in spite of the taste. Finds that it is not so bad as to discourage his desires.

“Tell me, Luc,” Kaeya prompts again at Diluc’s clear distraction, and he pulls away to fix a hard stare on Kaeya. The deep red flush on his cheeks does not help his intimidation much, and Kaeya tips his head and lets a smirk tug at his lips.

“If you don’t shut up and kiss me, I’m divorcing you,” Diluc grits out, jaw tight, and Kaeya laughs fully, a mix of relief and desire and overwhelming-

Something. Something light and wildfire-bright and warm, and it glows in his chest when Diluc’s gritted teeth soften into a hint of a smile.

“Anything for you, Luc.”

----------

Diluc does not stumble on his way to the bathroom, and Kaeya relents when he waves him off.

“I’m fine, Kaeya.”

Between that and a door in his face, Kaeya had let him bathe in peace. Still, he sits rather restlessly on the sofa as he waits, listens for any sign that Diluc is not, in fact, fine. When the door swings open again, finally, Kaeya stands abruptly.

Nearly collapses at the sight of Diluc in only a towel, hair still dripping and-

Gods.” The word escapes on a breath from Kaeya’s lips, and Diluc’s entire body flushes a frankly unfair shade of pink. Kaeya’s caught between his acknowledgment that this is still so very new and the overwhelming desire to close the distance between them anyway and press his hands and lips anywhere that Diluc will allow him.

Diluc avoids his gaze, runs a hand through his hair and twists it around two fingers. Kaeya stays immeasurably still, waits again for Diluc to choose how this goes. If it goes anywhere at all.

“Reign in your drooling, we have to meet with Zhongli.” Ah, nowhere at all, then. Kaeya huffs out an amused breath.

“You intend to torture me.”

“With the meeting? Or by withholding-” He clears his throat, leaves the rest implied. Kaeya’s grin widens as Diluc rushes over to his wardrobe. “Didn’t you want to get cleaned up?” he adds to the clothing as he pulls out a shirt and pants. Kaeya laughs fully now.

“Alright, alright. Put some clothes on,” he teases. “You’re too much like this.” Kaeya watches Diluc fumble to pull his shirt on, glimpses just a hint of red cheeks as Diluc glances over at him on his way to the bathroom.

Slumps against the door when he’s closed it, a grin that hurts his cheeks for how it refuses to go away. He has to force himself to inhale slowly, to focus on the warmth that clings to his skin from the latent steam in the air.

It centers him for long enough to straighten up, to turn the faucet on and refill the bath. He does not - cannot - think too much on the fact that Diluc had just been here, nor on the idea of Diluc here again, with Kaeya.

Steam rises to brush Kaeya’s cheeks, and he imagines it’s Diluc’s thumb again, gentle and soft and warm.

Shakes his head sharply, and turns the faucet cold. He’ll regret it, probably, but if he allows himself to sink into a warm bath with thoughts of Diluc in his head...it could very well be a while before he finds the motivation to get out.

And he’d actually like to take part in a meeting with Zhongli - and whoever else - on the subject of these attackers that’d nearly murdered his husband.

It’s this hot rage coiled in his stomach that fuels him to bathe quickly, ignore the lukewarm temperature of the water in favor of getting clean and getting out, toweling off and joining Diluc out in their-

“Ah.” Kaeya pauses in the doorway, and his hand drifts down to the towel at his waist. Diluc stands with arms crossed as a team of people Kaeya’s never seen before drag his mattress out through the propped-open doors and into the hall.

“Oh, Kaeya. Apologies, Zhongli sent them,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. A few of them glance over, but do not give Kaeya more than a moment of their attention before continuing on their way. Kaeya just nods a little absently, then turns toward the sitting room. Shuts the door behind him once he’s inside.

His gaze lands on his own bed - will they have another mattress supplied by the end of the day for Diluc to sleep in? Or will he join Kaeya-

Perhaps he’s jumping a bit ahead of himself here. Just because he is very much on board with the idea of sharing a bed with Diluc does not mean that Diluc feels the same. He shakes his head sharply, then turns his attention to the table currently serving as his dresser.

He picks at random, whatever he knows he hasn’t worn and will probably look fine together, then returns to Diluc’s room to find it empty save for Diluc himself.

“Apologies,” Diluc says again, but gentler this time. “It made no sense to send them away, and I thought you’d be longer.” He steps closer, around the end of the sofa, and tips his head. “Are you alright?”

Cautiously - cooled from his earlier warm desire - Kaeya reaches forward, presses a hand to the flat of Diluc’s back and nudges him closer. He goes easily, so easily, and his arms pull Kaeya into his chest.

“I’m fine,” he says, half laughing through his words at the incredulity of it - Diluc, of his own volition, pulling Kaeya closer like this. Pressed against him like this. The barest hint of a smile touches his lips, and Kaeya lifts a hand to brush a finger along the corner of his mouth.

“Shouldn’t I be the one fretting over you instead?” he adds almost as an afterthought, and Diluc huffs out a breath.

“I feel fine, Kaeya. You-” Here, he pauses, and something unexpectedly gentle comes over his expression. His hand lifts to cup Kaeya’s cheek again, and his thumb brushes just under Kaeya’s-

His eye.

“You saved me. I know I thanked you already, but I will do so again. Your magic is beautiful.”

Kaeya huffs out a breath, though it’s not as amused as he’d like it to be. That glow returns in his chest, warm and light and all too much.

“Only want me for my usefulness, is that it?” he chides, half joking, but Diluc’s brows furrow.

“I wanted you long before I knew anything about the nature of your magic.” Diluc sucks in a breath at his own words, then glances away, and oh, Kaeya could melt from the heat radiating from his cheeks now. Endlessly endearing, even as his own heart spirals out of control.

“Did you?” he prompts, fills his tone with teasing and only the barest hint of his very sincere curiosity. “Dare I ask what did it for you?”

Diluc’s lips turn down in a- oh, he’s pouting. Kaeya coughs out a breath of laughter.

“Was it last night, with my magnificent dancing? Or,” he adds at Diluc’s eye roll, “perhaps my devastatingly handsome attire. Ah, was it the massage just before? Quite romantic, if I do say so myself. Or-”

“The kiss.”

Kaeya blinks, takes a moment just to appreciate the petulant sort of frown on Diluc’s lips, the deep blush on his cheeks that blends into still-drying red hair.

“We’ve had quite a few of those. Care to elaborate?” He lifts a hand, tucks a wayward strand of that wild hair behind Diluc’s ear. Finds it warm to the touch as well, and Diluc glances at him from the corner of his eye. He exhales, then, a slow and resigned sort of sound.

“The first one.”

Kiss me like you mean it.

Kaeya sucks in a breath, awe repainting his prior brash boldness in new colors. Reds and golds and oranges like the sunset, the colors of Diluc’s cheeks and lips and the eyes he flicks over again to watch Kaeya with.

Slowly, he goes exceptionally slowly so as not to startle Diluc. So as not to make him pull away. Kaeya turns his chin gently, leans in and brushes his lips to Diluc’s. Warm, slow and soft, and Diluc relents his embarrassed irritation to press himself further into Kaeya’s chest.

The first one, gods. He’s wanted this for just as long as Kaeya has? Oh, what a fantastic mess they’d made along the way, but-

Diluc pulls back just a bit, rests his forehead against Kaeya’s and exhales a soft breath between them.

“Don’t distract me,” he chastises in direct contrast to his hands still pressed into Kaeya’s shirt, his fast breaths between them. “Or Zhongli will replicate last night’s murder attempt, and he will succeed.”

Kaeya just exhales a shaky breath of laughter - too much comes swirling up in his chest at the mention of last night, and he holds it at bay for the moment as Diluc pulls away. Slips his hand down Kaeya’s arm, though, and twines his fingers with Kaeya’s.

They head out the door, and Diluc directs him down the halls toward the guest wing. It’s only as they arrive at Zhongli’s door that Kaeya pulls at Diluc’s hand, stops him from knocking. Diluc glances back, brows furrowed.

“Me too.”

“You-”

“The first kiss. I’ve wanted you since then as well.”

Finally.”

It is not Diluc that speaks, and Kaeya blinks in panic at the door that’s pulled open to reveal-

“Childe.” Diluc’s tone holds all the latent hostility that Kaeya would like to imbue his expression with.

“Alright, lovebirds, we have work to do,” he adds, ignoring Diluc’s irritation. He does, however, wink at Kaeya once Diluc has stepped past him and into Zhongli’s room. Kaeya elbows him in the ribs as he passes.

Ow, you wound me, hot stuff! Xiansheng!” he calls then, and Kaeya wonders if he’d actually been bothered by the blow or not. Zhongli appears in another doorway, and Kaeya’s brows lift just a bit at the way he seems to...relax. Shoulders lose a hint of tension, and his chest deflates with a loosed breath.

His gaze stays fixed on Diluc for several long moments, and Kaeya thinks of last night, of the vice grip on his collar and the fire blazing in Zhongli’s eyes and voice.

He does care, and deeply.

“Diluc, I’m so glad to see you alive and well.” A glance cast in Kaeya’s direction, and a nod of thanks. Kaeya returns it.

“Equally glad to be alive.” Diluc turns to Kaeya as well, far more obviously, and Kaeya’s lip ticks up in a small smile. He does not think too hard on the events of last night.

“I believe we have some things to discuss?” Zhongli prompts, then, and Diluc nods sharply as he follows Zhongli over to the sofa. Childe follows, settles easily in at Zhongli’s side, and Kaeya makes his way over last. Hesitates for only a moment, until Diluc catches his eye.

He slips into the spot at Diluc’s side, waits for one of the others to start this conversation. He would rather not participate unless-

“Kaeya,” Kaeya winces at his name in Zhongli’s voice, “you were not with Diluc when he was poisoned?”

“I wasn’t.” Guilt swirls in his stomach, and he does not look up.

“I left to get something to drink,” Diluc chimes in. “I didn’t recognize the person who gave me the glass, before you ask,” he adds. “And nothing tasted off about it.”

“That tracks with what we got from the attackers.” Childe shifts forward, lips twisted. “Something totally flavorless, but they didn’t know the origin.”

“They were able to describe it, though,” Zhongli adds, “enough that I narrowed it down in the hopes of finding some kind of antidote, but-” Gold eyes meet Kaeya’s, and Kaeya exhales a shaky breath. “Regardless. Diluc, do you recall anything else about the person who handed you the drink?”

Diluc shakes his head once, sharply.

“I’ve been trying to recall, but I hardly looked at them. I was-” He pauses, clears his throat. “I was...distracted.” Here, to Kaeya’s surprise, Diluc glances at him, and an unexpected warmth crawls up Kaeya’s cheeks.

“Ooh, were you two-”

Anyway,” Diluc interrupts, cheeks red and tone tight. “I was distracted. Didn’t see anything unusual, and I felt totally fine until a few sips in,” he adds, and Childe laughs under his breath. Zhongli sets a hand on his knee, and that seems to calm him. “I set the drink down somewhere, but no,” he glances at Zhongli, “I couldn’t remember where, then tried to make my way back to Kaeya.”

“And Kaeya, that is when you found him?” Kaeya nods. “And you saw nothing unusual, nobody out of the ordinary either?”

“Not until we got inside, and…” Kaeya shrugs, keeps his thoughts at a safe distance. “You saw the rest.”

Zhongli sighs, but nods, and Kaeya sits back a bit. Sets his hand in his lap, but lets his fingers brush gently against Diluc’s leg. He is still here, he’s still alive. Kaeya had kept him safe, had healed him. He is okay.

“I had hoped we might have more, but it seems we may have to take this attack at face value,” Zhongli says quietly, disappointed. “The attackers claimed they were the only ones involved, and seemed rather proud of themselves.”

“By which he means that they spent twenty minutes bragging that they’d have gotten away with kidnapping the prince if not for you, hot stuff,” Childe adds, along with a smirk in Kaeya’s direction. Kaeya’s stomach drops at the implication.

“They had no experience with the poison used,” Zhongli turns to Diluc, “and I suspect they overdosed you unintentionally. Their only goal was to render you unconscious and kidnap you. To disrupt Mondstadt’s king, to encourage him to rehire them and others as mercenaries.”

At this, Diluc exhales a harsh breath, squeezes his eyes shut and leans back into the sofa, and Kaeya’s brows furrow. His hand shifts, and he presses the back of his fingers against Diluc’s thigh.

“What my father did, after my mother died,” he says by way of explanation, and Kaeya hears Venti’s voice.

The king has been known to make...questionable decisions when he believes he is under threat.

“They did all of this for a job?” Kaeya interjects into the silence. “I find that hard to believe.”

“As do we.” Zhongli nods. “Which is why we’d hoped to find some thread tying this to a grander scheme…” Here, he exhales a heavy sigh. “I will speak with Venti on our way out of Mondstadt and send word back if he’s found anything himself,” Zhongli adds, then stands. Childe does the same.

“You’re leaving so soon?” Not that Kaeya particularly cares one way or another, but...he’ll admit, having allies is not a bad feeling.

That feeling gets worse when Childe’s lip ticks up in a smirk.

“Gonna miss me, hot stuff? Promise I’ll be back for you,” he adds with a wink. Diluc kicks his leg out, and it connects hard with Childe’s shin. He barks out a ‘hey!’ as he stumbles back, and Zhongli steps between them.

“We need to handle these attackers sooner rather than later, and in a place that we have more freedom to track down any leads that come up. Diluc.” Zhongli dips his head low, and Diluc stands, sets a hand on his shoulder.

“I cannot thank you enough,” he says, a deep sincerity in his tone. “The carriage will be waiting at the back stables, I trust you can transport our prisoners without any assistance?”

It is then that Kaeya realizes he hasn’t seen the attackers since he’d run with Diluc, and he has to resist the urge to glance around Zhongli’s rooms for evidence of their...current location.

“Of course. We’ll send word as soon as we have anything to report.”

Diluc nods again, and Kaeya stands when he turns toward the door.

“It’s been a pleasure making your acquaintance, Prince Kaeya.” Zhongli’s voice, low and equally as sincere as he’s been with Diluc. Kaeya nods, and wonders again at Zhongli’s actual position. He seems as well-spoken as any nobleman Kaeya’s met, on par with royalty, even. And yet, he holds no title that Kaeya’s aware of, and Diluc had claimed him politically unaffiliated…

“Thank you,” he adds, and Kaeya blinks for a moment before he realizes that Zhongli is still addressing him.

“And thank you,” Kaeya returns - he’d rather not think about what might’ve happened had Zhongli and Childe not showed up when they did. “And you,” he adds, perhaps a bit begrudgingly, in Childe’s direction.

Childe just beams at him.

“We will meet again soon.”

Zhongli’s words follow them out of the room, and - to Kaeya’s mild surprise - he finds that they leave a smile on his lips.

He rushes to catch up with Diluc, to slip his arm through Diluc’s in that familiar way that’s suddenly become so terrifyingly new. Diluc glances over, and his lip ticks up at the corner.

“You’re not wearing your eyepatch.”

Kaeya blinks. Lifts a hand, but lowers it before it ever reaches his face - how had he not realized?

Neither Zhongli nor Childe had seemed to notice, or to care. Not a single passersby has caught his attention for their staring or whispering. Kaeya huffs out a surprised breath.

“No, it seems I’m not.”

----------

[Two Weeks Later]

“You’re not leaving Mondstadt.” They don’t need to have this discussion again - Diluc is the crown prince, and the king has just made his announcement to step down. It’s not up for debate.

“Of course I am.”

“Then who do you plan to name as the new king? Me?” Diluc tips his head, infuriatingly unmoved by Kaeya’s arguments. “You have to rule your people.”

“I don’t. That’s the point,” Diluc adds, and Kaeya’s brows furrow. He drops to the sofa, lets Diluc wander over to him. Lets him get at explaining what on Teyvat he’s talking about - Kaeya will pack later. Eventually.

“Alright, Luc. Talk.” In direct opposition to his demand, Kaeya grabs Diluc’s wrist and pulls him down onto his lap. Lets his hands slide down Diluc’s sides to rest at his thighs, and Diluc arches down into him, makes Kaeya’s stomach twist with a sudden spark of desire.

“I’ve spoken with my advisory council.” His hands drift up to Kaeya’s chest, fiddle absently with a button. “Handed over the king’s duties to them, as of…” He tips his head, purses his lips. “Tomorrow.”

Kaeya blows out a sharp breath.

“What happened to me being involved in all your affairs?” He’s heard nothing about this, or perhaps just been too caught up in his own-

“You had your own matters to handle. We are, on occasion, two individual people,” Diluc says even as he presses closer to Kaeya’s chest. “I apologize that I did not inform you until now.”

He could probably be upset about it, but something tight loosens in his chest instead.

“You’re certain about this? You don’t want the throne?” His hands drift up, skate over Diluc’s sides and circle around to his back. He presses his palms flat, and Diluc hums as he dips his head into Kaeya’s shoulder.

“I have never found the idea of becoming king very appealing.”

“Says the uncrowned king himself.”

“I did what needed to be done.” A darker time, Kaeya’s since learned. Diluc had created his spy network for the purpose of undoing the damage done by his father’s panic.

“And what of Zhongli and Venti, and the rest of them?” His spy network, not the kingdom’s. Not a single person on Diluc’s advisory council is a part of that underground operation. Diluc undoes another button of Kaeya’s shirt.

“They’ll still work for me.”

“You don’t give up control easily,” Kaeya says with a laugh, knows that he is no longer speaking strictly about Diluc’s dissolution of the throne. Diluc’s palm flattens against Kaeya’s chest, and he hums an amused sort of sound.

“Only to you.” Quiet, those words, but they make that glow return to Kaeya’s chest, warm and bright. Diluc’s hands find another button, undo it. “We set off tomorrow?” he asks, then, and Kaeya huffs out an amused breath.

“I suppose we do.”

Back to Khaenri’ah, where the troops bought with his hand in marriage have finally defeated the Abyss Order. Where his country lies in shambles, where his father has tasked him with managing repairs and restoration. Where Diluc will accompany him, and Kaeya cannot say that he’s ungrateful for this turn of events.

“Will you take me to the lake?” Diluc asks against the warm skin of Kaeya’s neck. “The one with the silver trees?”

Kaeya looses a breath of laughter, though it’s caught in the back of his throat when Diluc’s lips graze his shoulder.

“I’ll take you anywhere you want, everywhere. Anything for you, Luc.”

Chapter Text

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.