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The strangest thing about the Liyue job isn't the ending, after all, though the way the old man played him is still a hell of a thing. No, the strangest part is that Tartaglia seems to have come out of it with a whole load of new friends.

Technically they're the traveler's friends, he supposes, and some of them may not trust him much—Kaeya, for instance, looks at him with the kind of expression that would absolutely be accompanied by pinned ears and lashing tail if he still had them. Tartaglia doesn't take it personally; Kaeya's a hunter and recognizes dangerous creatures when he sees them.

They're good company, is the point. Even Kaeya. Tartaglia comes along on a bunch of missions with them, clearing out domains and tracking down bounties, trying Xiangling's weird cooking and prodding Fischl for stories he can put in his letters home. It's fun! And the Fatui may technically have his allegiance but what he's really doing here, the point of going out on missions, is actually to enjoy all the beauty the world has to offer.

He's mostly been going along with outings the traveler arranges, but this morning there's nothing planned apart from a few food delivery runs that sound incredibly boring, so Tartaglia skipped out. Instead of going to deliver meals to people who are almost guaranteed to be rude about it, he wanders down to the Adventurers' Guild outpost to see if there's anything more fun going on.

It turns out he's not the only one to have that idea. One of the traveler's other friends, the boy with the tattered ears and the kinked tail and all the scars, is already there talking to Katheryne. Tartaglia slows his steps, listening.

"But why not?" the boy is saying. Bennett, that's his name. "I can handle it! I've done plenty of—"

"This is not a simple mission," Katheryne says. "The targets are more dangerous than hilichurls or ordinary Treasure Hoarders." Well, that sounds promising! "They're attacking travelers and merchants as a matched pair, quite likely thanks to possessing a Delusion."

Interesting indeed. Tartaglia stops just a step behind Bennett, but before he can say anything Bennett goes on, "I can fight by myself! I've done it before, when somebody was supposed to partner with me and... things happened... I've figured out how to get by..."

He trails off as Katheryne shakes her head. "The guildmaster required an absolute minimum of two adventurers for this commission. Benny's Adventure Team may have a full roster on the books but none of the listed members are available to join you at this time."

"But I am," Tartaglia says brightly.

Bennett jumps, his tail puffing up at least twice normal size. "You," he says when he sees Tartaglia, which isn't really a surprise. Lots of people do that.

"Me," Tartaglia agrees. He looks at Katheryne. "I'll be his partner. I'm not in the Adventurers' Guild, but I've been working with one of your higher-ranked members and if you like I can have some documentation sent over from the Snezhnayan Embassy to certify my," he taps his mask, "personal credentials."

"That won't be necessary," Katheryne says. "We have records of our own. Bennett—is this all right with you?"

Bennett's eyes go wide as he looks at Tartaglia. They're a really nice shade of green, like peridot, like the new tender foliage that springs up so easily around here. He nods sharply, once, and gives Tartaglia a big determined smile and a thumbs up. "Yeah. Benny's Adventure Team is back in business!"

Tartaglia just wants to fuzzle his scruffy ears.

They set out as soon as they've gotten their mission briefing. The Adventurers' Guild is pretty hit-or-miss with their field personnel, but their information gathering is solid. It's a beautiful day, long grass waving green-golden in the breeze, and the little slimes and hilichurls—the ones that are mostly just sad to fight—steer clear of them as they hike through the fields. Bennett trips in a weasel burrow once and falls in a creek they cross where there's no bridge, but he shakes himself off and insists it's fine.

The domain where their targets are hiding out is tucked into a cliff by the seashore, through a narrow crevice that's just barely passable. Tartaglia eyes it skeptically. "You going to be okay getting through there?"

"Definitely! Almost definitely." Bennett puts his hands on his hips, frowning at the crevice. "It doesn't seem likely that I'd get stuck at the entrance when there are much more unlucky things that could happen once I'm inside."

That seems like terrible logic, but Tartaglia can't argue that trouble finds Bennett more often than is normal. Tartaglia takes point as they slip into the domain, and there is a brief moment where it looks like Bennett's going to get stuck, but then he shoves his way past the last sticking point and stumbles into Tartaglia's chest. He smells like scorched grass and that ointment he uses for scrapes, and maybe Tartaglia's a little slow getting him back on his feet and letting go.

Is Bennett blushing? Cute. "Right," Tartaglia says with a grin, "let's see if we can find these dangerous criminals—they'd better put up an entertaining fight!"

"Yeah, let's go!" His enthusiasm is great.

As usual, the first few rooms of the domain are home to lesser prey. Quick and easy to take down, but fun with Bennett's help—the fire of his blade is a good balance for the water that is the easiest element for Tartaglia to use. In one room he knocks over a pot as they're sneaking in, making all the assembled hilichurls rush them at once, and when they're done with that delightful little brawl, he looks over at Tartaglia like a puppy who expects a scolding.

"A proper melee like that gets your blood pumping, doesn't it?" Tartaglia says. Bennett beams at him.

When they get to the thorny gate that stands outside the inner sanctum of the domain, Bennett stops and takes a deep breath. There are voices in the next room, bickering about something from the sound of it. That's no way to bond with your partner.

"We're going to have to fight them as a pair, right?"

It'd be tempting to not bother, and see if they can win anyway, but spell battles are different from ordinary combat. It wouldn't be fair to put Bennett at a disadvantage like that when this was his job first. "Sounds like it," Tartaglia agrees. He has plenty of stamina to offer up, and if Bennett can cast spells as quickly as he charges elements—

"So I'll be your Sacrifice," Bennett says as if it's obvious.

"What?" Tartaglia gives him a sharp look. "Why would you think that?"

"It's... what I've always done before, when I was trying to partner with someone from the Guild," Bennett says, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly. His ears are flat with embarrassment. "I mean, I'm unlucky and I'm used to pain, so it just made sense."

Tartaglia grabs Bennett by the shoulders and leans down to look him in the eyes. "My friend," he says, soft and intent. "I promise you, they will not lay a word on you in this fight."

Bennett stares at him, wide-eyed, ears slowly and tentatively unfolding. It would be a perfect moment to kiss him.

Instead Tartaglia steps back with a decisive nod. "Victory is ours for the taking, remember that!" He unclips his Vision from his belt and holds it out.

Bennett fumbles for his own and raises it to touch Tartaglia's. "A well of unquenchable flame," he says.

The steady heat of his power seems to flow into Tartaglia's veins, a heartbeat made of light and determination. "A raging torrent of water," he answers, watching the faint swirl of light surround Bennett's form in return.

"Dauntless," Bennett says, chin held high, tail lashing. It resonates like no temporary pair name Tartaglia has tried on before.

"Dauntless," he agrees. "Let's get 'em."

Tartaglia hasn't had a tail since he was Bennett's size himself, but it sure would be nice to be able to lash one in anticipation at times like this. He squares his shoulders and steps through the door.

The second he steps into the room, the air temperature plummets so sharply it's almost like being at home. Their targets scramble to their feet on the other side of the room. "What are you doing here?" the man demands, almost at the same time that the woman says, "Don't you know it isn't safe?"

"Nowhere I go is ever safe," Tartaglia says, and feels Bennett's little shiver through their connection. "I would offer you a chance to surrender, but I'm afraid I did come here to have a good time." He draws his blades, twin daggers of—currently—pure water, stretching his arms wide. "Crossroads of the elements, heart of Irminsul, sanctify this place for battle: Ley Line Disruption Field!"

Reality wobbles and snaps as this little pocket of it cuts off from the rest. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see pale flames rise in a circle around Bennett, while the opposing Sacrifice is half-hidden by a rising stone wall.

"That'll be hard to break down," Bennett says dubiously.

"We won't need to," Tartaglia says. He can't elaborate now, though, because the opposing Fighter is gathering ice around herself to cast.

"Spear of winter," she intones, "pure sharpened chill: Icicle Strike!" The missiles fly straight toward Bennett.

"A rushing stream through snow," Tartaglia answers. "Cutting Torrent!" The waterfall he conjures knocks two of the three missiles from the air, and the third hisses and melts when it hits Bennett's shield. He flashes Tartaglia a thumbs up.

Tartaglia grins back and draws power through the connection between them. "Hunger and chaos to knock you from your feet: Vortex of Turmoil!"

The water that answers his call is hot, steam rising from the surface as it churns and curls around the field, the current pulling at clothes and limbs. "Buoyancy, stability: Rising Floe," the other Fighter retorts, raising herself clear of the water on a platform of jagged ice. She's gripping something tight in her fist, probably the Delusion she's using to fight. "Freeze the very breath in your lungs: Diamond Dust!"

A gust of wind blows through the field, sparkling with fine suspended flakes of snow. They must be more dangerous than they look. A spell to call rain would probably neutralize it, or—

Before he can formulate the words he hears Bennett murmur something that sounds like Fear not, and a faint shield of flickering flame surrounds him. Tartaglia glances over and Bennett's ears are pinned nervously. "Sorry," he says, probably because he's not "playing by the rules," but the diamond snow is melting harmlessly against the shield.

And who needs rules when the point is to win? Tartaglia reaches into his shirt to touch his Delusion. The thing their opponent doesn't seem to know is that in a pair battle, a Delusion can split and recombine elemental energy in all kinds of exciting ways.

"Raging storm in the darkness," Tartaglia says as he draws an arm back, his dagger elongating into a lance. "Havoc: Obliteration!"

The lance crackles and sparks as it flies through the air. The Fighter's eyes go wide and she braces herself, clearly expecting her Sacrifice to ground the energy and keep her safe—but the impact is still enough to knock her from her ice platform into the water that hasn't fully receded, and the lightning races hungrily through it. Tartaglia and Bennett get knocked backward when it reaches them and bursts Bennett's shields, but the other team don't even have that much protection.

The Sacrifice screams. His stone fortress crumbles. The Fighter scrambles to her feet, pushing through the water toward him.

One more shot.

"Formless blade!" He throws it as he names it, flinging his second blade across the arena as the Fighter struggles to reach her downed partner. The bolt strikes her wrist. She cries out, dropping the Delusion, and as it hits the floor through the receding water it cracks. The field dissipates as fast as it formed, snapping them back into contact with the rest of the world, the elemental energy of their battle bleeding away into the stone around them. The defeated Fighter is helping her Sacrifice to his feet, both of them glaring.

"Round two?" Tartaglia suggests, unslinging his bow and smiling at the whistle in the air as Bennett brandishes his sword.

The defeated pair bolt. Tartaglia lets them go; without the Delusion they won't be trouble for ordinary adventurers, and without their fighting spirit they won't be fun anymore. He tucks his bow away and turns back to Bennett instead—

And gets ambushed by a hug so hard it almost knocks him off his feet. "That was awesome!" Bennett says into his shoulder.

"We make a pretty good team," Tartaglia agrees, hugging back. Bennett's tail rises into a happy curl and his ears are right there and Tartaglia nuzzles between them so he can breathe in the sweet kitten-fur warmth.

"Oh," Bennett says, softly, like returned affection took him by surprise and he doesn't want to scare it off. He feels nice to hold, skinny but strong and radiating heat. He leans back just far enough to look up and meet Tartaglia's eyes, curious and hopeful. This would be a perfect moment to kiss him too.

Or, it turns out, a perfect moment for him to kiss Tartaglia, going up on tiptoes and mashing their lips together with absolutely no grace but plenty of enthusiasm. It's charming. Tartaglia threads one hand into Bennett's hair, rubbing the base of one ear and pressing deeper into the kiss when that distracts him.

"Oh, wow," Bennett mumbles against his mouth, hands kneading in the back of Tartaglia's jacket as he arches closer. He picks up kissing fast, tongue playing with Tartaglia's and little pleasure noises rising in his throat when Tartaglia's other hand slips up under the back of his shirt.

Tartaglia pushes him back toward the wall without breaking the kiss, steering him closer—and Bennett stumbles over something right before they get there, hitting the wall had and pulling Tartaglia with him. Their teeth click together awkwardly and Tartaglia huffs a soft laugh into the kiss.

Bennett clings tighter, maybe emboldened by Tartaglia not minding an awkward moment here or there, and shifts his stance so one of Tartaglia's thighs slips between his. Tartaglia cants his hips up to press closer, taking that invitation, and rubs against the hard bulge in Bennett's shorts.

"Please," Bennett moans, "yes, please, more," rutting up against Tartaglia's thigh.

Tartaglia's been half hard since Obliteration landed, because victory's hot no matter how it happens, and it feels like Bennett might be a kindred spirit there. "More, hmm? How much more?"

He feels Bennett take a deep breath. "How much is okay?"

Tartaglia shrugs, tugging Bennett's shirt untied so he can reach in and tease the tiny hard bud of a nipple. Bennett arches into him, tail lashing. "You tell me. Is this where you want to lose your ears?"

"In—In the heart of a domain, after a successful adventure?" Bennett says breathlessly. His eyes are bright and his ears pricked forward. "You bet it is!"

He's really just too cute to be allowed. Tartaglia kisses him again, hands skating down over his stomach—Bennett squeaks at that, ticklish—to unbuckle his belt and get his shorts open. The weight of all those pouches drags his shorts right down once they're unfastened, so Tartaglia pushes his underwear down after them, Bennett's cock slapping against his wrist as it springs free. Bennett whimpers, his kisses getting sloppier and more distracted, but when one of his exploring hands finds the outline of Tartaglia's hard-on he doesn't hesitate to give it a good, enthusiastic squeeze.

"Mm, found some treasure?" Tartaglia asks, and Bennett laughs. It's a good laugh. "Get those the rest of the way off for me, yeah?"

One of Bennett's ears flicks a few times. "Wow, yeah." He sounds like he really has found something he was searching for. That kind of thing makes a guy feel pretty good!

Tartaglia steps back enough to give him room to move and gets to work on his own belt. What a great idea it was to try the Adventurers' Guild this morning, after all. He unbuttons his pants and frees his cock, giving it a quick stroke as he watches. Bennett's lean and wiry, bones just a little too close to the surface in a way Tartaglia remembers all too well from before he enlisted with the Fatui. He's got more ragged scars like those ones on his arms—

But investigating will have to wait, as Bennett trips getting his shorts the rest of the way off and stumbles sideways into the wall. "Ow!" he yelps, even as Tartaglia is catching him to keep him from falling further.

"You all right?" Tartaglia asks, taking hold of his wrist and turning his arm to see—there's a big raw abrasion on the outside of his elbow, torn skin starting to fill up with blood.

"It's fine," Bennett says, tugging at Tartaglia's grip. "Please don't worry about it. It barely hurts. Stuff like that happens all the time. Please, I don't want to stop." The words tumble out in a nervous rush, like this of all things is the first thing that's really worried him today.

Tartaglia nods. "Hold onto my shoulders, then." He reaches down to wrap his hands around the backs of Bennett's thighs, and once Bennett's holding on tight he lifts, wrapping those skinny legs around his waist and pressing Bennett back against the wall. "Now you can hold on like this, too."

"Oh," Bennett says, looking down between them where Tartaglia's cock rubs up against his. He doesn't sound afraid—the only thing Tartaglia's seen him afraid of is being shut out of trying something.

Well, he won't have to worry about that here. Bennett's thighs tighten around Tartaglia's waist, holding on tight enough for him to let go with one hand. He tugs his glove off with his teeth and stuffs it in a pocket, then nabs the first vial of oil he can reach. "Gonna make it feel good, promise," he says, hitching Bennett a little higher up the wall so he can get his hands under him, slick his bare fingers, and stroke his way into the crack of Bennett's ass.

Bennett makes another surprised little sound, his hands tightening in the back of Tartaglia's jacket. "I'm fine," he says immediately. "Tingles a little but I'm fffiiaah—" the words trailing into helpless noise as Tartaglia presses a fingertip in. His tail lashes against the back of Tartaglia's hand.

"I'll take you at your word, then." Tartaglia pushes deeper, rubbing at Bennett's rim with his thumb and coaxing the muscle to surrender. Bennett's tail keeps lashing but his ears are pricked forward and the little noises he makes don't sound distressed at all.

By the time Tartaglia has two fingers in him and they're moving easily, his head is tipped back and he's panting. Shouldn't keep him waiting too much longer, to judge by the flush to his cheeks. Tartaglia curls his fingers forward and Bennett yowls, his cock twitching between them. "Yes, please," he gasps out, "yes, please," so Tartaglia strokes that spot again, and Bennett writhes against the wall.

"You're a natural," Tartaglia says with a smile. "Now hold still for just a minute." His fingers slide out easily. When he presses the head of his cock to that sweet little hole he slips, the oil just a bit too slick, and for a second he's rubbing the soft fur at the base of Bennett's tail. Fuck, he just wants to get in there so bad. He lines up again, cants his hips forward, and pushes—and this time the head of his cock pushes just past that tight rim, and Bennett sucks in a sharp, audible breath.

"Oh, fff—it's—this is really happening," Bennett whispers. He catches his lip between his teeth as Tartaglia straightens up and presses his cock further in.

"It really is," Tartaglia agrees. He pauses for a moment to let them both adjust; Bennett's tight around him and so hot, like an echo of that energy he was using when they fought. It feels amazing.

He leans in to bury his face in the warm hollow of Bennett's shoulder as he starts to thrust, tasting stone and ash and sweat as he sucks on the skin there. Bennett makes soft, needy sounds, thighs flexing as he tries to match Tartaglia's rhythm.

"It feels so big," Bennett says. "Not in a bad way, I just, I didn't know I could feel this full, it's so much..."

Tartaglia kisses his mouth, reaching down to take hold of his cock, and Bennett gives him a full-body shiver for that. He's just so sweet, and he's put himself in Tartaglia's hands in more ways than one today, and that kind of faith ought to be rewarded. Tartaglia keeps his rhythm steady and relentless as the waves against the shore, as Bennett holds on tighter and trembles as his muscles tense up. It's like holding a bow drawn against the perfect moment, taut and ready—and then Bennett cries out into his mouth, the tension whiplashing out of him as his ass clenches down and his cock spurts over his belly and Tartaglia's hand.

He sags in relief afterward, struggling to keep holding on, so Tartaglia hurries: just a few more strokes, holding Bennett pinned and driving in deep, and then he's loosing his own shot too, moaning as the heat washes through him.

Bennett is already starting to flush with heat, looking overwhelmed as the change starts. "Hold on just a bit longer," Tartaglia says. Bennett nods, and Tartaglia holds on tight to him, turning them around to put his own back to the wall. He sinks down slowly to sit there, against the stone, Bennett still in his lap. "This is going to feel weird, but don't worry. You're doing great."

"Yeah," Bennett says. He puts his head on Tartaglia's shoulder, so Tartaglia reaches up to rub those soft ears a little longer while he still can. "I'm doing great."

He really is.

They make it back to the city just as the lanterns are being lit, and head straight for the Adventurer's Guild to report their success. Once they turn in their winnings, Tartaglia is going to take Bennett to the nicest restaurant in town to celebrate the job and everything else.

Bennett marches up to the guild kiosk, plunks the shattered Delusion down on the counter, and says proudly, "Mission accomplished!"

"Thank you," Katheryne says. Then she takes a closer look at Bennett and looks sharply from him to Tartaglia and back again. "Bennett, your ears—"

Bennett doesn't even bat an eye, just gives her that huge, wonderful, dauntless smile and two thumbs up. "It was a great adventure!"