Diluc is back in Mondstadt. He’s known all along that he can’t avoid it forever, run as he might from the memories of his father’s death and his brother’s betrayal. Regardless, he lays awake at night for weeks once he decides it’s time to return. Each step of the journey has felt like trekking directly into an icy blowing wind, pushing him back and threatening to shatter him if he continues. Even as he feels like there’s nothing left for him there, Diluc knows that everything he has left is there. His city, his people, his father’s legacy and worldly possessions. There can be no putting it off any longer.
Despite setting off on his own, the first leg of his journey those three years ago had been drowned in grief and rage. There was no time or space within him to feel lonely or homesick. But as time drags on, and Diluc ranges further and further from the place he thinks of as home, he finds himself catching glimpses of things that remind him of Mondstadt and wishing. Wishing he was there, but also wishing for the people he’s left behind.
Even with his father gone, there are still plenty of loved ones left in Mondstadt for Diluc to return to. The first people he reunites with are his (and his father’s) household staff. Adelinde dabs tears from her eyes when she sees him step through the door of the Dawn Winery, and hurries to pull him into a hug he hadn’t known he wanted. Elzer shakes his hand vigorously, marveling at how tall he’s grown in the years he was away.
Jean is next when he shows up unannounced at her office the following day. When he’d left Mondstadt, she was just a Lieutenant in the Favonius Order, but he’s learned through his networks that she has since risen to the rank of Acting Grand Master. He’s pleased that it’s her now filling the seat that the snake who killed his father once occupied. Diluc and Jean have been fond friends since they were the height of the desk that Jean now sits behind, and Diluc knows she has more integrity in her pinky than Eroch ever had.
Jean grins when she sees him, getting up to give her old friend a hug that’s got more camaraderie and less mothering than the one Adelinde had given him. She ushers him to sit at her table, pouring him a cup of tea while he tells her about his journey. Diluc shares many of the details of the Fatui networks that he’s gleaned over the years, but reserves his most sensitive intel. He still doesn’t trust the Order, even if Jean now sits as its acting head. When she starts inquiring gently whether he’d like to return to the Knights, he tells her he’s glad to see her, then excuses himself from her office.
And then, there’s him. His wayward, scheming backstabbing Khaenri’an spy of a brother. Diluc wouldn’t admit it even at the razor edge of a blade, but the reason he’s spent this most recent year away from Mondstadt is to avoid Kaeya. Diluc knows he’s still with the Knights in Mond, and his own efforts have occasionally overlapped with the other man’s when he strays too close to the region around the city. On the rare instance that he encounters Knights when he goes to raid a Fatui stronghold, they always tell him they’re acting on Cavalry Captain Kaeya’s orders. Diluc doesn’t understand how his brother can stand to be a part of the same order that handily played out the death of the man who raised them both. He guesses it must be the same instinct that drove Kaeya to play at being family despite lying their entire childhood about being a Khaenri’an plant.
Diluc has spent years now trying not to crave his presence. The death of his father had felt like having his heart torn out, but Kaeya’s betrayal had felt like losing a limb. For many months after his departure, Diluc would turn eagerly to tell his brother something as he had for years, only to realize he would never do so again. The phantom pain where Kaeya used to be plagues him to this day, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. There’s no going back from the rift between them now.
Grumbling about Jean’s stubbornness, Diluc bumps headfirst into what feels like a wall on the stoop of the Knights Headquarters. Rubbing his forehead where it’s smarting, Diluc fumbles out the beginning of an apology, “Sorry, I wasn’t-” before realizing what he’s looking at. A blue and grey uniform, stretched tightly across a gaping swathe of golden brown skin. His gaze travels up. And up.
“Diluc?” Kaeya blurts out in an unexpectedly deep voice, sapphire eye wide as he stares back stunned. Diluc feels his neurons short-circuiting. Oh, he was not prepared for this encounter, not yet. Kaeya is no longer the smaller boy he remembers from before he left Mond. The man now towers inches above him, and his voice has settled into a low fullness Diluc hadn’t expected. Archons help him.
“Um, Diluc...listen…” Kaeya murmurs, clearly equally unprepared. “We should talk. I want to talk to you.”
“Well, I don’t,” Diluc replies impulsively, without thinking. Fumbling, he adds, “I’m busy. I have to get to the bar.”
Kaeya cocks his head in confusion. “Isn’t it closed now?” he points out tentatively. Diluc can’t stop looking at his chest, so he forces himself to tear his eyes away and briskly step down the street away from Kaeya.
“Luc, wait-” Kaeya calls after him, reaching out too late with a hand. “I need to go,” Diluc spits out, still not thinking. “And don’t call me that.” It reminds me of before, and I don’t want to think of you that way when you’re making my heart try to bash out of my fucking chest, what the hell!?
Diluc makes it to the top of the stairs, and fires a glance over his shoulder back at Kaeya. The man is standing still, a forlorn and hurt expression on his face. Diluc feels a flush crawling up his skin, and whips his head forward away from Kaeya so hard that his ponytail smacks him in the face. Miraculously, he makes it the short distance to Angel’s Share without faceplanting into the cobblestones. He slams the door behind him, locking it as quickly as possible.
Knocking his head into the closed door, Diluc clutches at his pounding heart in horror. What the fuck, what the fuck was that? he wonders. It’s just Kaeya! Why is he acting like a blushing maiden getting complimented by a beau for the first time? On the other hand, what had happened to Kaeya while he was gone? The sweet quiet boy he used to know has been replaced by some sort of dazzling handsome playboy.
Kaeya’s melodic voice saying his name replays in his mind and Diluc shivers involuntarily. “Fuck,” he repeats since it’s apparently the only word he still knows. “Now things are going to be...awkward.”