The first thing Diluc thinks when he comes to is, It’s cold.
Which is quickly followed by the thought, Someone is carrying me on their back.
And then, because the person’s back is big and warm and reminds him of home, he latches onto the first name that comes to his mind.
“Father?” Diluc asks sleepily.
The person carrying him stops in their tracks. He chuckles, the sound low and rich, languid in its tone and utterly unlike his father’s.
“Sorry to disappoint, darling,” Kaeya says, “But I’m not your dear old dad.”
Diluc stiffens. Suddenly, he feels much more awake and aware of his surroundings.
His head is pounding fiercely, as if a Ruin Guard had taken to hammer at it with its non-stop twirling arms. Each step that Kaeya took made him feel like his brain was bumping against his skull, sending thunderbolts fizzing around his brain. It made him feel dizzy and sick. But he’s had worse before.
He squints his eyes through the pain. They are, or rather, Kaeya is, currently trudging down a snowy mountain in the midst of an icy snowstorm. He can feel the harsh wind grating against his cheeks, bringing a chill that settles deep into his bones. This is… Dragonspine? Why is Diluc in Dragonspine? And more importantly, why is Kaeya, a Cryo user, in Dragonspine?
An errant snowflake lands on Diluc’s nose and he sneezes. He shivers and curls into himself. His cheek touches soft fur and he recoils in surprise, before recognising it as Kaeya’s cape, which is wrapped around his shoulders. Then it really is Kaeya. Kaeya, who is carrying him on his back, making his way down an unmarked mountain trail carefully and slowly, because a misstep could send them tumbling off the cliff just a foot away.
Wait. Why is Kaeya carrying him on his back again?
Diluc must have spoken that last part out loud, because Kaeya huffs. “You don’t remember?” He says.
“Remember what?” Diluc says icily. “Why I’m on a jolly old vacation with you in the middle of the godforsaken Dragonspine mountains? If you’re asking that, then, no. I do not.”
“And that is exactly why we are taking a jolly old vacation in the middle of the godforsaken Dragonspine mountains.” Kaeya shoots back dryly. “If not for your debilitating head injury, I would have preferred to wait out the snowstorm in a cave for a day or two before making our way down. But between watching you slowly die of internal bleeding or suffering a long walk down the mountains to get you to a healer, I find myself much preferring the latter. Much as it sounds hard for you to believe.”
Diluc flushes at the veiled accusation. Kaeya made it no secret that he still resents Diluc for what happened in the past. You’ll throw me out along with the trash, is that it? Or sell me to human traffickers if I don’t keep in line? It hurt for his brother to speak to him like that, but Diluc knew that he deserved every single ounce of venom delivered in those words.
“Let me down. I can walk by myself.” He commands.
“No can do.” Annoyingly, Kaeya says.
“I’ve suffered worse hangovers than this.”
Kaeya’s voice hardens. “You have, may I stress, a head injury. Hell, Diluc, you don’t even remember what happened to you before you passed out! You’re secured to me firmly by rope and a harness. Don’t make this harder than it already is by struggling.”
Bastard. Diluc beats his fists on Kaeya’s back, though rather weakly. When Kaeya doesn’t respond, he twists and turns in his captivity to get at his bindings. He fumbles at the knots of the rope, failing miserably with the state of his cold-numbed fingers.
Wait. He’s a dumbass, he could just burn it off!
“Do not think of burning that off,” Kaeya says tiredly. “That rope is woven from Pyro Whopperflower stems - it’s resistant to flames. You’ll only tire yourself out.”
Diluc glares at Kaeya’s nape. A feral part inside of him urges him to sink his teeth into it until Kaeya gives in, but that was just stupid because 1. Kaeya would most likely lose his balance in the confusion and fall off the cliff, taking Diluc with him and 2. Even Kaeya didn’t deserve to fall victim to his murderous tendencies.
He decides to be satisfied with just growling menacingly. “Fine. I’ll just cut it off.”
The knife in his boot is too far away for him to reach, but he knows Kaeya keeps one hidden in his belt. He stretches his hand out, fingers trailing down Kaeya’s belt to feel for the knife. When he brushes what he’s pretty sure is the hilt, Diluc extends his index and middle finger, trying to coax it out of its sheath.
Just a little more... Diluc grunts with the effort of straining his arm, and in the process, grabs Kaeya’s shoulder with his other hand to stabilise himself as he reaches for it, and-
Suddenly, Kaeya jerks to a stop. The abruptness sends Diluc’s forehead crashing into the back of Kaeya’s skull, and Diluc yelps, then curses at the intense pain spearing through his head.
“What was that for?” He demands, rubbing his forehead. “Don’t just stop suddenly like that!”
For a while, Kaeya is silent.
Then he exhales shakily, and a huff of white mist fills the frosty air.
“Diluc.” He says with gritted teeth. “Please do not move around so much.”
“What, scared that I’ll throw the both of us off the mountainside?” Diluc demands.
“No,” Kaeya says acidly. “It’s because my arm is broken, and I don’t want to move it any more than I already am.”
That shuts Diluc up.
“You’re hurt?” He says quietly.
“Same reason why you have a concussion.” Kaeya sighs. “You really don’t remember, do you? You got a tip-off from one of your informants that the Fatui were researching that massive fucking pillar that’s floating in the sky. You went to investigate, got into a fight with them, and then triggered an avalanche that sent us tumbling off the path into unmapped territory.”
“‘Us?’” Diluc echoes.
“Yes, ‘us’. I saw you walking up the path to Dragonspine alone and followed you because I was curious. Are you going to shout at me again?” Kaeya says tiredly. “You’re always like this. So-” He cuts himself off. Sighs, and rubs his eye with his good hand. “Sorry. I’m not in the mood for our usual verbal exchanges right now. You’ll have to save it until we get out of here.”
Diluc falls silent. Takes a minute to fully examine Kaeya. Sweat is trickling down Kaeya’s nape despite the cold, and the breaths that he takes sound more akin to pants.
He didn’t notice before, but Kaeya sounds… exhausted. He’s never heard Kaeya show this side of himself to Diluc before. A weak side. He sounds like he’s been walking for hours in the middle of a cold snowstorm with a deadweight on his back.
The same deadweight, who, upon waking up, acted like a concussed idiot and couldn’t sit still to save his life.
He swallows the lump in his throat, trailing a hand down Kaeya’s back in apology.
“Kaeya,” He struggles to find the words, “I’m…”
“It’s fine.” Kaeya cuts him off curtly. He must have sensed Diluc’s guilt, because his next words come out in a more cheerful (fake fake fake) tone, “It’s just a broken bone. Nothing the deaconess can’t heal. I’ve had worse.”
Like a Pyro burn? A voice in Diluc’s head whispers mockingly.
Diluc swallows. “Is that so.”
“Yes, yes.” Kaeya assures. “Thankfully, my beautiful face came out intact. Wouldn’t want to make the grannies back in Mondstadt cry. Oh - right. If you have the energy to talk, use your Vision to warm yourself up. Spares the deaconess the effort of having to cut off your toes if they get frostbite. I’m sure Jean will thank you for it.”
His... Vision. Of course. He should have done that from the moment he woke up. Diluc mentally kicks himself.
Closing his eyes, he reaches for the source of his Pyro - and frowns. Huh. His Vision is tucked into his coat pocket and not in its usual place clipped to his belt. That’s strange… but not important at the moment. Ignoring that, he draws Pyro from within, summoning just enough heat to warm up the surface of his skin and melt the snow off his clothes.
In front of him, he hears Kaeya sigh in relief, unconsciously leaning into Diluc like a cat rubbing against warm legs.
The warmth, however, also makes Diluc sleepy, and his eyelids start to flutter and droop. He fights back a yawn, then scowls and pinches himself furiously. He can’t sleep now! He has to convince Kaeya to let him down so Kaeya can rest, and-
“It’s fine, Diluc. Go to sleep.” Kaeya says softly.
“But, I can still… walk…” Diluc argues, his tongue growing leaden with every word.
“I’ll let you lead the way when you wake up.” Kaeya assures. “Just take a good rest, and leave it up to your reliable younger brother.”
Brother. It’s been a long time since Kaeya last called him - them - that. It catches him off guard, and a warm, fuzzy feeling blooms in his stomach.
It’s been five years since they fought, and Kaeya still continued to distance himself from Diluc. Even though when Diluc returned, he tried so hard to get a chance to talk to Kaeya alone - but any attempts at reconciliation were met with a cold, hard wall of shade.
Talking to Kaeya was never easy, especially when Kaeya tried to get on his nerves at any opportunity he could. Laughing with a smile that did not reach his slitted eye as he slung veiled barbs at Diluc, it was as if he was waiting for Diluc to snap, and then Kaeya would point to him and say, “See, Diluc? This is your true nature. This is the face of a man who draws his sword on his brother and burns his skin like a farmer branding his cattle.”
So Diluc assumed that Kaeya was still angry with him, and dropped it altogether. Kaeya was no longer living with him, and so they rarely saw each other in passing, much less sought each other out.
He had thought, for the longest time, that he’d been the only one to continue thinking of them as brothers.
And that Kaeya would mock him if he ever knew he still felt that way, because Diluc didn’t deserve to, after he had hurt his brother so.
Diluc wants to tell Kaeya many things. He wants to know how Kaeya truly feels about them. He wants to say for the ten thousandth time that he’s sorry for drawing his sword on his brother. He wants to say that as the older brother he is supposed to be the reliable one, and that Kaeya should be relying on him, but then… Kaeya starts to hum. It is a lullaby from their halcyon childhood days, and his voice is soothing and hypnotic. And, well, Diluc can’t very well interrupt him now, can he?
So he rests his head against Kaeya’s back, and, lulled by the low rumbles and vibrations, Diluc slowly... falls...
Diluc dreams that he is racing through a field of grass, his brother by his side.
He doesn’t remember why they were running, or where they were running to. The only thing he knows is the deep-rooted certainty that no matter where he goes, Kaeya will be there right by his side, matching him stride for stride. Not as his younger brother or subordinate, overlooked for his prodigious older brother as many of the knights did, but as equals.
Suddenly, Kaeya stumbles. Maybe it was a root, or a bump in the ground. But Diluc had been watching Kaeya, and sees it happen before it does, and he stretches out his hand and catches Kaeya by the arm before he can fall.
Kaeya looks up, and suddenly Diluc is staring at a much older Kaeya, who has switched out his stuffy uniform for a more exposed one, and is wearing an uncharacteristically sad expression on his face - present Kaeya, who opens his mouth and-
Diluc slowly opens his eyes. He rubs his eyes, blinking and yawning. Looking around, he sees that the scenery hasn’t changed much, just exchanging a cliff view for another cliff view.
“How long was I out?” He asks, guiltily.
“Oh, not long.” Kaeya says breezily, although they both know they didn’t have a way of keeping track of time in a place where the sun didn’t shine. He swipes his cheek and sniffs, like he had caught a cold. “Sorry. Did I wake you up?”
“Ah... no.” Diluc says hastily. “It was good. My sleep, I mean. I slept well.”
“That’s good. How are you feeling?” Kaeya says.
Diluc frowns. “Still a little bit of a headache, but better. Never mind that, I should be saying that to you. Are you okay?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Kaeya deflects, and Diluc’s frown deepens, because Kaeya deflecting usually means he doesn’t want to worry Diluc, which means he is definitely more injured than he is letting him in on, “A little bit more, and we’ll reach a place where we can rest for a while. Just bear it for a while, okay?”
“You know where we are?” Diluc asks, surprised. He remembers Kaeya saying something about the avalanche sending them into unmapped territory. Then again, should he really be surprised? This was Kaeya, aide to the Acting Grand Master and her right hand. Any obstacle to Mondstadt, be they in light or shadow, was dealt with swiftly and discreetly by him, contrary to general expectation. Even his backup plans had backup plans.
“Yes. Well, at first I didn’t.” Kaeya corrects. “But I figured if we kept heading north, we’d eventually hit Mondstadt. So I kept going until we eventually hit upon a trail.”
“North?” Diluc says.
“I used the stars.” Kaeya clarifies. “You know how I was pretty interested in the moon and stars when I was a kid… This was my first time using the stars as a compass, but I found it easy enough. Even from here, Noctua shines brightly.”
“Does it?” Diluc squints at the sky. To him, the stars are just stars and nothing more. “Wait. You mentioned that you know where we are. Then wouldn’t gliding down be faster than walking?”
“Sounding like Venti now, are we?” Kaeya chuckles. “Check your back.”
Diluc patted the space just below the back of his neck where his gliding device was. ......Well, should have been.
“…Then, couldn’t you create a ramp of ice for us to slide down? I know you have practice; you make ice bridges for Aether all the time.”
“Hmm,” Kaeya hums, “I can’t tell whether that was a compliment or an insult. But sadly, I cannot.”
“You can’t? Or won’t?” Diluc says.
“I cannot.” Kaeya says firmly. “As in, it is not in my ability to do so. For the same reason as why your and my gliders are not in our possessions.”
Diluc takes a while to digest that. Then he blanches.
“You lost it?” He demands. “You lost your Vision?”
Kaeya winces audibly. “Yeah, well, in my defence, it’s kind of hard to find a glowing light-blue stone among all that snow. Not everyone has a Vision like yours that shines like a fucking beacon even in the middle of a snowstorm, Diluc.”
Diluc clamps down on his tongue.
He imagines it: Kaeya digging in the snow for Diluc, realising that his Vision was gone, and then weighing his Vision against Diluc’s life and choosing the latter. Diluc closes his eyes, and feels hot tears slide down his cheeks.
Sensing Diluc’s guilt, Kaeya speaks up. “Ah… Don’t worry about it, Diluc. You’ve only lived without a Vision for three years. I’ve lived without a Vision for most of my life. I’ll be fine. You don’t need to feel bad-”
“Of course I will!” Diluc shouts. He clutches Kaeya’s sleeve in frustration. “Do you remember where we fell after the avalanche? I’ll send someone there later to search for it, use their Vision to find it with elemental tracing. Or- no, I’ll do it myself. I swear.”
Kaeya shrugs. “It’s probably buried ten feet under the snow by now, but sure… We can discuss it later when we’ve gotten out of here. Oh, look - a ruin brazier. Perfect. Let’s take a break. Do me a favour and cut the ropes yourself. My arms are killing me.”
At this point, Diluc is too afraid to ask whether Kaeya is exaggerating or not. This time when he reaches for Kaeya’s belt knife, he takes much care not to jostle Kaeya’s arm. The knife is sharp and well-maintained, and slices through the bonds in one well-practiced motion.
A moment later, Diluc slides off Kaeya’s back. He stretches the kinks in his legs and back, rolling his shoulders and affirming that he is not injured anywhere else but his head, which, by the way, is still very keen to inform him that yes, it was feeling extremely bruised.
He turns to inspect Kaeya, who is crouching down and warming his hands by the now-activated brazier. Or rather, hand. His broken arm is dangling by his side, the severity of it hidden under his billowing sleeve. He doesn’t see any blood, so he assumes the fracture is a closed one. Still, having to bear Diluc’s weight while walking in the middle of a snowstorm couldn’t be good for his injuries.
Diluc steps closer to Kaeya. When Kaeya doesn’t look up, he carefully takes Kaeya’s coat from his back and drapes it around Kaeya’s shoulders.
“Thanks,” he murmurs.
“Yeah,” Kaeya mumbles in return. He doesn’t respond further than that, staring blankly at the ebb and flow of the glowing brazier. Diluc thought he’d fallen asleep with his eyes wide open.
Then Kaeya blinks, and looks up at Diluc standing over him, as if seeing him for the first time. “Oh. Sorry. Were you talking to me?”
Diluc looks away. “It’s fine.”
Then, softer, but loud enough to be heard, “I said, ‘Thanks’.”
“Oh.” Kaeya sounds surprised. “You’re being honest, for once. That’s nice.”
Diluc feels a pang of guilt at that. Was that how Kaeya always thought of him? “I always appreciate what you do. For me… and for Mondstadt.”
“Ha!” Kaeya huffs a laugh. It sounds hollow. Pained. “It’s fine. You’ve never said such things to me before, and there’s no reason for me to trust you now. Not when you could say you love me one day and try to kill me the very next.” He huddles closer into himself. “It’s fine, really. Just- don’t lie to me any more, okay, Diluc. I’m tired of holding onto hope, waiting in fear of the day when you come along and take the fragile thing I’ve been holding in my hands and shatter it like glass until its shards dig under my skin and pierce through my heart.”
Diluc looks at the small, trembling figure of his brother, and for the first time in so many years, recognises that Kaeya is younger than him.
How long has it been, since he started to carry the weight of his home - homes - on his shoulders?
Far too long, Diluc thinks. Dammit.
He crouches down beside Kaeya, and after a moment’s thought, takes off his outer vest and puts his jacket back on.
“Come on.” He says gently. “Let me look at that arm of yours.”
With the help of a sturdy stick and much improvisation, he secures Kaeya’s arm in a splint and a sling made out of his padded vest. Kaeya lets Diluc touch him without resisting, only nodding or shaking his head when asked and remaining silent otherwise. It was, to say the least, worrying.
Once, Kaeya had taken a knife to the stomach. He had complained extremely loudly and dramatically the entire journey as he was carried to the cathedral, screaming and yowling so loud that Diluc swore the entire of Mondstadt knew that the Cavalry Captain was injured. Everyone thought he was just acting like his usual eccentric self, and was exaggerating for the stories he could tell to the tavern later.
It was only when they got to Barbara that they realised how serious his injury actually was.
Five days of non-stop intensive healing by Barbara. Another twenty stitches when she was exhausted, and two weeks of forced rest. That was the amount of time it took before Kaeya was allowed to return to duty.
From that incident, Diluc learnt that Kaeya doesn’t show weakness. To anyone, at all. Back then, even with a knife in his stomach, Kaeya was still able to crack jokes and yell dramatically to complete his facade. Now, he didn’t even have the energy to put up his facade.
Maybe if Kaeya had something to eat, he would feel better… Diluc rummages through his jacket pockets, breathing a silent laughter when he finds the packet of dried jerky, wrapped in oil paper, still safe inside. He’s surprised it hadn’t fallen out earlier in the snow.
The memories were coming back to him now: Adelinde had packed it for him earlier that day, knowing that he was planning an expedition to the Dragonspine mountains. He had left before dawn, and he had met Kaeya on the way, and then…
What are you doing here?
- I could say that to you, Diluc. The sun’s not even out yet.
It’s none of your business where I go.
- (softly: ‘None of my business’, huh…?) …Well, yes, I suppose. I’m just naturally curious like that. By the way, where’s that wonderful assistant of yours? Not following you on your trip to the most dangerous place in all of Mondstadt?
They should be in Liyue by now. Collecting Qingxin for someone called ‘Ganyu’. From the way they described it, it sounded like some kind of food.
- And so you came up here alone.
I would be, if it were not for an irritating fly buzzing around my ears. Go home, Kaeya.
- Ha ha! Endearing as ever, Diluc. Oh, don’t give me that glare. We have matching interests, for now. Before they left, the traveler left me one of their jobs to do, one of which involves venturing up to the exact same floating pillar you want to investigate.
You? Willingly taking up an assignment?
- Well, yes. Not everyone else can afford to lounge around all day because they own the entire wine industry, you know.
But it’s strange.
- Hm? What is?
That’s not like you.
- …I was under the impression that you didn’t know me at all.
He tears a strip with his mouth and chews on it, then passes the other piece to Kaeya. When he doesn’t respond, Diluc tears it into smaller strips and brings it to Kaeya’s lips. Kaeya opens his mouth and accepts the offering obediently, chewing mechanically on the jerky. When he finishes the piece, Diluc offers him another, and then another, until the oil paper is empty and he burns it into ashes.
The sight of the flames must have snapped Kaeya back to the present, because he blinks, his lone pupil constricting in the firelight, and he turns to Diluc.
“Yes. Sorry. I’m okay now. Let’s go. We’ve got a long way back.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Diluc asks suspiciously. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
Kaeya shakes his head. Ah, there was his (fake, fake, fake) smile. “Nah, nothing as serious as your head. Seriously, when I found you half-buried in the snow, the snow under your head was rapidly turning red. I couldn’t see how serious it was because the blood blended in with your hair, but you know… blood coming out of your head isn’t usually a good sign. So I kinda panicked, and,” he waves his hand. “Here we are.”
Diluc starts to ask Kaeya what he means by ‘panicked’, but then he stops, and scowls. Kaeya was deflecting again.
“Stop avoiding the question.” He strips off his glove and approaches Kaeya, who backs away from him like a skittish animal. “Come here and let me check your temperature.”
Kaeya laughs nervously, scratching his head. “That’s… really not necessary, Diluc. I’ll be fine. Whatever injuries I have, I can deal with it on my own. It’s what I’ve done all this time. You don’t need to feel guilty or whatever, because it isn’t your fault.”
Diluc rubs his aching temples. Talking to Kaeya was more exhausting than running around in circles. “Look. I’m really sorry for dragging you into this. If I had known it would have turned out this way, I really would have insisted that you turn back.”
Kaeya drops his hand. His gaze hardens and he says flatly, “Seriously, Diluc. Drop the act. Usually you don’t care about such pretences around me, but you’re acting weird all of a sudden. Unless-“ The blood drains from his face, as he realises something. “Holy shit. You- You really weren’t lying. About, fuck, caring for me or whatever.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time, but apparently you never noticed it, so I’m trying to be more direct with you, okay?” He yells. “It’s awkward for me too! I didn’t want you to follow me because Dragonspine isn’t exactly suited for Cryo allogenes. Not because I despise the thought of you even breathing in my direction, because why the fuck would I let you follow me, then? So I could keep an eye on you, obviously!”
Kaeya’s eye is wide open at this point. He looks like he wants to say something, but Diluc ignores him and barrels on. “You want to bring up past grievances? Even though I thought we were past that already? Fine! I admit it! I fucked up! I was a huge asshole to you and shouldn’t have drawn my sword like a spoiled, rich kid throwing a tantrum! I was a kid back then but as the elder brother I should have known better! Never mind the fact that I had just killed my own father, or the fact that I’d discovered that the Knights weren’t as pure or just as I thought they’d be, or the fact that my brother had just drawn his sword at me and demanded that I draw mine too and what the fuck was the world coming to -” He takes a deep breath to still himself, and peeks a glance at Kaeya, who is, for once, speechless.
He says in a quieter tone, “And maybe I’m a fool, for trying to approach you time and time again when you’ve made it clear you still hate me. Yes, I’m pathetic. Yes, I’m despicable for turning my blade on my brother. But is it so wrong for me to want us to be family again?” His voice cracks, “I just… I just want to say that I’m sorry, Kaeya.
“I’m sorry for hurting you. I was an idiot, and I fucking love you, you stupid overthinker. And I’m sorry if you’ve spent these past few years thinking otherwise.”
At some point in time, Kaeya had stopped looking at him and started to stare at the ground. His eye hidden by his bangs and his mouth twisted in a tight line. And unlike their days as children, this time, Diluc can’t tell what Kaeya is thinking.
But honestly? Diluc couldn’t care what Kaeya thought of him. Because the world could end tomorrow and he would still continue to love his stupid asshole of a brother, because it was a simple fact, just as certain as the sun rising every day and the moon shining every night.
There is nothing more to say. Diluc gets up, ready to leave Kaeya alone for a while, maybe scout the path ahead, when he feels a tug on his sleeve.
He turns around and sees Kaeya looking up at him, a look of desperation in his eye and a sort of wretched anguish in his expression.
“Diluc,” Kaeya says. So much emotion put into that one word.
There is silence, as Kaeya forms wordless shapes with his mouth, fumbling for the next thing to say. But Diluc has all the time in the world. He stands there with Kaeya’s hand on his sleeve, and he waits, patiently.
“I’m… sorry.” Kaeya finally mumbles. “That I can’t respond to your feelings right now. It’s been so long, and I thought for years that you- That we-” An errant tear slides down his cheek unnoticed. “It’s too much for me. I need time. Is that okay?”
Diluc lowers his head. He understands.
“But... Your words, and the emotions behind it,” Kaeya continues, in a softer tone, “I’ve properly received them. And…”
He slides his hand into Diluc’s upturned palm, with a determined look in his eye.
“I get that if you’re willing to try… I’ll try too.”
And fuck if that doesn’t make his heart go all smooshy inside. Diluc breaks into a smile.
“That would be nice… Kaeya.”
They both decide that the quickest way to get down the rest of the mountain is to rappel down. Diluc picks the cliffside with the gentlest slope and digs an inverted U-shaped trench in the snow a distance from the edge. Next, using the packed snow inside the U shape as the anchor, he lays down a rope in the trench. (Seriously, where did Kaeya keep all that stuff…? It was like he’d pulled the rope out of his cleavage.)
To test the snow anchor, he stands south and pulls at it with his body weight, making sure the rope held firm instead of cutting into the snow and getting loose. Once he is satisfied, he nods and hands the rope to Kaeya.
Kaeya goes first, half-rappelling, half-sliding down the slopes, one hand on the rope and the other tucked tight to his body in its sling. Diluc keeps an eye on top, ready to catch him if the anchor crumbled and the rope slipped. Thankfully, it doesn’t, and when Kaeya reaches the ground safely, Diluc quickly follows suit.
When he hits the ground, he inevitably stumbles, clutching his head and swearing.
“What’s wrong? Is it your head acting up again?” Kaeya asks worriedly.
Diluc winces. Pain is sparking from the back of his head like mini fireworks, and he feels like the world is swaying around him.
“I think I went too fast and overexerted myself,” he admits. “The whiteness of the snow is making my head spin.”
Kaeya grabs his arm. “Just close your eyes.” He commands. “I’ll lead the way.
Together, they stumble across the path. Kaeya would murmur when they made a turn, and slow down whenever a particularly harsh wind blew.
While someone had seen wisdom to pack food in the emergency supply packs by the roadside, it seemed furry winter coats were too big to fit inside. As such, they had no choice but to cope by bundling up tighter. Diluc had the incredulous wonder of witnessing Kaeya, for the first time in his life, button up his undershirt. Yeah, it was pretty ridiculous. Diluc’s Pyro Vision reduced a bit of the cold, and it helped that they did eat something earlier to keep up their strength. Still, it is not enough to keep them from shivering.
When Kaeya suddenly stops, Diluc cracks open his eyes tentatively, and then widens. Kaeya’s face is extremely pale, his one eye lidded as he clutches his arm and grimaces in visible pain.
“Is your arm hurting? Did I accidentally jostle it?” Diluc asks worriedly.
Kaeya says hurriedly, “No, no. It’s just,” he hesitates. “It’s just some old scars hurting. They don’t do well in cold weather. Or in the rain.”
“You mean your Pyro burn scars,” Diluc says softly.
There is a silence then, only punctured by the winds whistling by.
Diluc has seen the burn marks on Kaeya’s arms, once.
It had happened on one of his patrol nights. He wasn’t careful enough during his last skirmish and suffered serious injuries, and The Dawn Winery was too far away for him to seek treatment. Kaeya was the only person in Mondstadt who would take him in without asking questions like why was Diluc Ragnvindr bleeding from multiple stab wounds in the dead of the night. Kaeya had answered the door armed with nothing but the thinnest nightclothes on his body and a sword in his hand, and Diluc knew from a glance, as he knew the way fire burns intimately, that those burn scars curling around Kaeya’s arms and down to his palms weren’t scars that moved painlessly.
Diluc’s lower lip trembles. Every time he takes a step, he is reminded of the ways he and Kaeya have hurt each other so deeply, they still bleed from the wounds today. He loves Kaeya. He really does. But every time they speak, the air around them is brittle and jagged like broken glass, and it hurts just to breathe.
Kaeya lunges forward. He laces his hand in Diluc’s hair and tugs him in for a hug.
“Hey.” He whispers. “Hey. It’s fine. I told you because I wanted you to know. To get you to trust in me again. Because I’m trying. And I know you’re trying too. And I know you won’t burn me again-”
“I would rather eat a living Cryo slime.” Diluc mutters into Kaeya’s shirt.
“-You see?” Kaeya laughs. “So don’t worry about the past. We’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”
“Okay.” Diluc says in a half sob. “Okay.”
He hugs Kaeya a little harder, and Kaeya hugs him back fiercely, which surprises him, because Diluc was the one that craved physical contact, not Kaeya. Kaeya always hated it when other people touched him, but always relented when it came to Diluc. And now, in Kaeya’s arms, Diluc feels the world recenter itself, just a little bit.
“When we go back,” he says. “Let’s go out somewhere. Just the two of us, spending time together. Just being… happy.” He says the last word with a curious sort of reverence. Hah. It’s been a long time since he’s wanted anything remote to happiness.
Kaeya strokes his hair. “It’s a promise.” He says with a smile in his voice. “We can go fishing at Cider Lake like we used to, or skydiving off cliffs at Starsnatch Valley. Or we could-”
Suddenly, Kaeya breaks off, shoulders tensing.
“Diluc?” He says softly, icicles creeping into his tone.
Diluc wipes his eyes and looks up. “Yes?”
“Do me a favour.”
“Sit down and let me handle this.”
“What?” Diluc untangles himself from Kaeya, and then he hears the hillichurl cry.
He spins around, and sees the band of hillichurls in the distance. He sees where they are and almost screams in frustration. They were so close to the border to where the adventurer’s camp was - all they had to do was cross the bridge and follow the path uphill, but the hillichurls were in the way. Any cry for help would be snatched away by the unforgiving wind.
They had to do this themselves.
Diluc reaches his hand out to summon his claymore, but a flash of sunlight glinting off metal, and pain is lancing through his head. He cries out in pain and stumbles just as his claymore materialises. The world is swimming before his eyes, but he has to support Kaeya, and so he takes a step forward-
And then Kaeya punches him in the gut.
The blow is hard and painful. It takes the wind out of him and sends him collapsing to the ground, coughing and retching out his insides.
A shadow falls upon him. Diluc looks up and sees Kaeya standing in front of him, an unreadable expression on his face.
“You bastard,” Diluc rasps, clutching his stomach and doubling up in pain. He tries to stand up, but when your head is screaming at you to stay down while your body is protesting at the new injury Kaeya just gave you - thanks, Kaeya, that’s going to bruise for weeks - even Diluc finds it hard to think straight.
“Let’s face it, Diluc.” Kaeya says. “You’re in no condition to fight. You couldn’t even dodge my punch.”
“Like you can talk.” Diluc manages to get out. Breathing has never been so difficult.
Kaeya cocks his head. “I’m not that injured.”
“Bullshit.” Diluc growls. He reaches a hand out to him and all at once, like that time at the ruin brazier, he feels so, so very far away from Kaeya.
And Kaeya looks back at him, with sweat on his skin and blood on his bandages, and smiles.
“Don’t worry. I’m pretty good at wielding a sword in my left hand as well. Just take a good rest,” He hefts his sword, “And leave it up to your reliable younger brother.”
“I hate you,” Diluc shouts as Kaeya walks away. “Just so you know, I hate you so fucking much.”
“It’s my job as the younger sibling to be incredibly charming and extremely annoying, you see,” Kaeya shouts back. “And I love you too, brother!”
He rushes forward, and in the blink of an eye, vanishes and reappears behind the nearest hillichurl. It squawks in surprise, but is too slow to react - he stabs it in the neck before it can defend itself with its ice shield, and then he twirls around and decapitates its neighbour. It falls to the ground, screaming as it dies.
Kaeya’s sword sweeps low in a crescent moon arc, flinging up a cloud of snow. Blinded, the hillichurls scream and swing their weapons wildly. Kaeya takes advantage of the confusion to bring two more down. A mitachurl swings its shield at him but Kaeya dodges easily, and as he passes by he slices the back of its knees and lodges his sword into its spine.
The hillichurls numbered ten at first. Kaeya had swept through half of them in the time it took Diluc to blink.
You see, Kaeya doesn’t need his Vision to be dangerous. His greatest weapon is not his Vision, but himself. His quick wits, his silver tongue, his battle-hardened reflexes, every part of his body from his head to the tip of his toes. Like a finely honed knife dancing on its own edge, looking like it could fall with the slightest brush of a butterfly wing, beautiful, elegant, and very, very deadly. That was what made up the person called Kaeya Alberich.
Even when injured, even without his Vision, even when he is alone, Kaeya will be fine. Because Kaeya is Kaeya.
And yet, at the same time, Diluc is reminded of the figure of a small, shivering boy in the middle of a torrential rainstorm.
Who are you waiting for? Crepus had asked.
And Kaeya had dragged his gaze away from the dark horizon and said, No one.
Diluc sees Kaeya risking his life out there, and thinks, Kaeya.
Kaeya, his only living family member. Kaeya, who made a promise with him back then to defend Mondstadt together. Kaeya, who guards Mondstadt in the sun while Diluc keeps it safe from under his brother’s shadow.
Kaeya, his one and only brother, that he hated and loved in equal proportions. Standing in front of him like his father once did.
“Move it!” He screams, and his body finally, finally, listens to him. He drags his claymore forward, slowly, step by step, then breaks into a sprint towards Kaeya.
He can’t use his Pyro without worsening his headache? Fine! If Kaeya can fight without it, then so can he!
The hillichurl nearest to Kaeya was a giant mitachurl. It held its ice-shield up, ready to bash Kaeya when he had his back turned. Diluc screams a warning and it turns to him. He meets its shield with his claymore, and the force of the clash sends vibrations through his whole body, and he stumbles back a step. The mitachurl presses the advantage, but he ducks low and gets behind it, and, seizing the opportunity - Diluc roars as he plunges his claymore into its back.
The monster screams in pain, twisting to try to dislodge the blade, but Diluc stands firm, ignores the burn of his muscles, yells over the roaring in his ears, as he stubbornly drags his claymore down, down, down, down - and bisects the mitachurl from shoulder to hip.
He steps aside and lets the mitachurl fall to the ground with a groan, spilling blood and flesh onto the pure white snow. Twang! Behind him, a string snaps, and he bends backward. The arrow slices his cheek as it passes by, but Diluc doesn’t flinch, and, shifting one foot back, he clenches his claymore with his hands and hurls it. The blade hurtles through the air, spinning heavily, and cleaves into the skull of the hillichurl archer, pinning it into the ground like a fly pinned to a card.
And as for the last one… Diluc resummons his blade and turns around, but a flash of metal, and the feeling of warm blood splattering onto his face - and he is greeted with the sight of the beheaded neck of a hillichurl, as it drops its club and crumples to the ground, its ambush foiled by Kaeya.
And just like that, the fight was over.
Diluc, out of breath, leans on his blade and huffs. “Even when I’m supporting you, you still manage to save me.”
Kaeya doesn’t respond at first. That should have immediately tipped Diluc off. Then Kaeya lets go of his sword, letting it clang to the ground, and Diluc looks up in worry.
“Diluc.” Kaeya says. His eyebrows are furrowed in concentration.
“Kaeya?” Diluc asks, concerned.
“I think I’m going to pass out now.”
And then he does just that.
Diluc catches him before he falls, shouting Kaeya’s name. Now that Kaeya is in his arms, he can see that Kaeya’s face has taken a sickly gray pallor, and the clothes over his stomach are damp with what feels like blood. Previous wounds, or from their fight? Diluc swears. He presses his exposed wrist to Kaeya’s forehead, and swears again. Kaeya is feverish hot.
When did it start? When Kaeya was carrying Diluc, his body temperature was normal… but thinking about it now, for a Cryo user that meant it was unnaturally high. He’d given Diluc his cape, which meant he’d been walking around in Dragonspine in nothing but his thin undershirt, and he didn’t have the innate warmth that Diluc possessed as a Pyro allogene.
“You idiot.” He says to Kaeya’s unconscious face. “You massive, colossal, fucking idiot.”
Kaeya doesn’t respond.
Diluc continues anyway. “Once we get back, I’m going to bring out a bottle of the most vintage wine in Father’s collection. I’ll bring it to your recovery bed, uncork it, and drink the entire godsdamned bottle in front of you, all the while taking pleasure in your salty tears. And then I’ll hand you your Vision, and then we are going to talk, like we should have done the moment I came back to Mondstadt.”
He looks towards the adventurer’s camp. A few more steps to go, and he would be able to call for help. He’ll rush them back to Mondstadt and call for Barbara, who would surely be able to heal Kaeya.
Kaeya would survive this ordeal, just as the many ones he had survived in the past. And Diluc would carry Kaeya every step of the way if he had to.
Diluc brushes his hand against Kaeya's forehead, smoothening his fringe and tucking loose strands behind his ear.
“Don’t worry.” He whispers, lifting his brother and carrying him close to his chest. “We’re safe now. Let’s go home.”
Kaeya wakes up screaming.
Screaming in pain, screaming in fear, and screaming for Diluc to run, run, run.
He snaps awake. Voice hitching into jagged breaths, then quieting into soft, strangled sobs.
Kaeya turns clumsily on his side and cries out - his arm was broken, fuck, shit, fuck, but he pushes through the pain, scrabbling one-handed in the snow to push himself into a sitting position.
He wipes his tears furiously. Stupid things, blurring his vision at a time like this! Thankfully, nothing else on his body felt broken to him. The bullet wound in his stomach hurt like a bitch, but would stay cauterized if he was careful enough. He didn’t regret it, taking the hit for-
He freezes. Diluc. He looks around frantically. Where the fuck was Diluc?!
A flash of red catches his eye.
Diluc, Kaeya thinks faintly, and bullet wound and broken arm be damned, because he’s crawling to his brother - he’ll drag his body there if he has to - and digging him out of the snow as fast as he can.
Kaeya wraps his arm around Diluc’s torso and hauls him out of the snow with a grunt. His fingers are numb enough that he should probably be concerned about frostbite. Whatever, he’ll worry about that later. He’s too focused on making sure that Diluc is alive to care.
He slips two fingers under Diluc’s collar to check his pulse, and when he finds it beating steadily, he releases a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.
“Oh, thank gods.” He drops his head to Diluc’s chest. “Thank the gods for your stupidly red hair.” He pats Diluc’s head, frowning when he withdraws it and finds blood on his fingers. “Yikes. That doesn’t look good. But you’re not dead, so I’ll figure something out.”
He prods Diluc’s scalp, checking the size of the wound and nodding when he finds it already scabbing over. “You really scared me there for a bit. I’m pretty sure your life flashed before my eyes - you as a fat and ugly baby, then a cute kid who cried when I first broke my arm, then a disgustingly prim and proper knight captain who blushed at the idea of holding hands.” He snorts. “Now you’re just a grumpy old man with a penchant for arson.”
He realises that he’s talking to no one because the only other person around i.e. Diluc is knocked the fuck out, but talking has always soothed his nerves - the dumber the words that come out of his mouth, the less nervous he becomes.
He presses a gloved hand to Diluc’s sleeping face. Without frown lines wrinkling his face, Diluc looks like the handsome young man that everyone makes him out to be. Maybe it’s because the smile he shows to everyone is so charming that they fall in love with him, unknowing that they dance to his tune, manipulated to serve his own interests, be it the wine industry or his nightly activities.
Kaeya doesn’t know. Diluc drops his smiling mask when he’s around Kaeya.
“Ah… that brought up some bad memories.” Kaeya mutters. He shakes his head, as if he could rid himself of the bad thoughts. He needed to focus on the present. He reaches for Diluc’s Vision, hoping that the residual heat could warm the both of them up -
He fumbles for Diluc's belt. A broken chain hangs on the belt where Diluc's Vision is supposed to be - most likely broken during their scuffle with the Fatui. For all he knew, Vision could have been flung to the other side of the mountain, buried ten feet under the snow by now.
To most allogenes, their Vision was pretty much their lifeline - they thought of it as a gift from the gods, a mark of valour, and most importantly, a sign of unadulterated power. Sure, Diluc wasn’t wholly dependent on his Vision, and even if he lost his Vision he would still continue his nightly patrols as the Darknight Hero… But for someone like Diluc, who takes on dangerous missions on a daily basis, his Vision was pretty much the only thing keeping him alive and in one piece.
Without his Vision, Diluc could die.
Kaeya grits his teeth and reaches for his Vision. He always hated using his Elemental Sight, because the constitution of his right eye makes it so that he feels nauseous when using it, but it was for Diluc, and it - isn’t activating.
Why the hell isn’t his Sight activating?
Kaeya fumbles for his belt, and then his heart drops, because his Vision isn’t on his belt either.
Kaeya puts his hand to his face.
And then he starts to laugh.
He must have sounded like a madman, his howls echoing throughout the mountains. Oh, the sheer unluckiness of it all! To have broken his arm and lost both his brother’s Vision and his own! Kaeya laughs, and laughs, and laughs, until he can laugh no more. Then, utterly spent, he drops his head into his hand.
Unlike Diluc, he had no need for his Vision, since it served no higher purpose than an unsightly reminder of his sins. Still, losing it was troublesome. Because it would take longer to search for Diluc’s Vision now.
He has so many things he needs to do now: Check Diluc for any other injuries, find his Vision, and then carry him back to Mondstadt.
But, Kaeya thinks, at least he can thank the gods that he found Diluc. Even though they’re both stranded in the middle of who-knows-where in the most dangerous place in all of Mondstadt, even though they’re both injured… at least they’re both alive and breathing, and that’s what matters the most, to Kaeya.
“Don’t worry.” Kaeya whispers to Diluc, as he cradles his brother to his chest. “You’re safe now.”
“Let’s go home.”