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Seashells, Snowflakes and Sweet Flowers

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5. Sand

Falcon Coast, Mondstadt

"Whoever finds the most seashells can decide where we'll go next time."

There were some challenges that should never have been issued. Not to two rowdy, overly competitive boys, both of whom were also sore losers. And especially not during summer vacation when said boys were already high on the excitement of spending time away from home, on the beach (emphasis important, as this was the only way Kaeya was allowing them all to say it).

Crepus, naturally, realised this folly far too late.

He stared down at the two faces before him — different as night and day in appearance, but both wearing the exact same pout. Diluc's eyes were watery (not from crying — Kaeya had splashed seawater on his face earlier). Kaeya was completely covered in sand, from head to toe (Diluc had given him a sand burial in revenge after one too many splashes).

That was fine. It wasn't as if Crepus had expected them to stay clean. Diluc was making more of an effort nowadays, but it seemed like the change of setting and lack of anyone else around who recognized him had set his attempts at acting mature back by at least a few years. And Kaeya... honestly, Crepus was just happy to see him acting his age for once.

Well, mostly.

"Alright, let's hear it," he said with a sigh, putting down his book.

Naturally, both Diluc and Kaeya took that as their cue to speak up at the same time, their voices overlapping perfectly into a blend of background noise.

"Kaeya cheated!"

"Diluc doesn't want to admit that he lost!"

There was a moment of silence, and then,

"No I didn't!"

"I won, but you cheated!"

"Boys," Crepus interrupted, feeling the start of a headache creep up in his temples already. He loved them both to bits, but vacations were truly a trial. "What's this about cheating?" How did one even cheat at picking up seashells? Crepus knew them both well enough to trust that they wouldn't steal each other's 'loot'. He held up a hand when he saw both boys open their mouth at the same time again, and they both settled down. He looked at Diluc expectantly.

"We agreed before we started that we'd only count whole seashells. Broken ones don't count. So I didn't pick up any of the broken ones that I found." Diluc crossed his arms, giving Kaeya a sulky glare. "But when time was up and we got together to count them, I found out that Kaeya had picked up all the broken ones that I'd thrown out. And he's saying that they count!"

"Well, it's not my fault that 'whole' means 'completely perfect' to you!" Kaeya protested. "I didn't pick up any of the really broken ones, like the shells that only had half left. A shell is still whole even if it has a tiny chip on the side!"

...Barbatos above.

"We'd already agreed on the rules! And if you didn't mean to cheat, then why were you following behind me picking up the ones that you saw me throw out?"

"I didn't follow you! I just happened to pick up some of the seashells you'd decided weren't perfect enough for you, that's all."

"Oh, so you just happened to pick up every single one that I'd thrown out?"

"Well, yes! It's a small beach!"

Why had Crepus decided that a vacation was a good idea, again?

"Alright, let me sum this up," he said, looking between the two piles of shells placed before him — the prizes of his children's afternoon conquests. Kaeya did indeed have the larger pile, but Diluc's were definitely more... well, whole. "When you agreed on the rules, it didn't occur to either of you to determine how to deal with shells that were mostly whole but with some chips or broken edges. Diluc, you assumed that they needed to be completely whole. Kaeya, you then took advantage of Diluc's mistaken assumption to pick up the shells that he'd thrown out, without bothering to correct him. How am I doing so far?"

The chorus of shameful "yes's" Crepus received was fairly gratifying.

"Alright. This challenge was clearly a failure and is therefore cancelled. You'll both just have to agree on where we'll go next time." Crepus paused, and before both Diluc and Kaeya could start protesting again, he added, "That, or settle it among yourselves somehow." Hopefully in a way that wouldn't end in a disaster like this one, although Crepus wasn't holding out much hope.

Both Diluc's and Kaeya's eyes lit up. "How about swimming out to that rock in the middle of the ocean? We could see who gets there first," Kaeya suggested brightly.

"Nothing that would result in either of you dying, please," Crepus said, looking at the rock Kaeya was pointing at — it was so small that it was practically nothing but a speck in the distance.

"Then maybe we could try sneaking into the Hilichurl camp nearby and..."

"No."

"Slime catching? The little ones..."

"No!" Barbatos grant him strength.

Diluc and Kaeya exchanged another look, and Crepus was starting to get the feeling that they were just messing with him now. He sighed heavily. "I'm trusting the both of you not to do anything stupid. If either of you comes back bloody from anything other than a completely accidental fall in a safe place, then this vacation is cancelled, and so is the next."

"Understood." There, it was so much better when both kids said the same thing together.

"Sandcastles," Kaeya declared, grabbing Diluc's hand and tugging at it eagerly. Crepus shook his head with another affectionate sigh, and then picked up his book again. He probably wouldn't be able to get through the whole thing at this rate, but maybe he'd manage at least a few chapters.

His eyes fell upon the two piles of seashells still laid out before him. "You don't want the shells anymore?"

Diluc turned around at Crepus's reminder, backtracking to Crepus while Kaeya hung back a few paces away. "Diluc, hurry up, we're losing daylight!"

"If you're so impatient then just go ahead," Diluc called back, rooting through his pile of shells until he found what he was looking for. A large conch, completely perfect — no chips, blemishes or scratches. He offered it to Crepus. "This one's nice — you can use it as a paperweight."

Crepus laughed. "Thank you. It'll be perfect in my study," he said. Diluc brightened immediately after his gift was accepted, and he stood up, running back to Kaeya's side — and it was only then that Crepus realised that Diluc hadn't just picked out one seashell, but two.

"This one's yours," he heard Diluc say as he pressed it into Kaeya's hands. "Don't break it."

"It's a seashell. They're not that easy to break." Kaeya still cradled the seashell carefully in his hands, as though Diluc had just offered him something far more valuable than something he had just found on the beach. "And don't think I didn't see you give away the best one already."

"At least I gave you one. You didn't even bother."

"You can have all of mine, if you want."

"No, I don't. I found half of them anyway."

"I'll pick out the whole ones for you."

"So now you're admitting that you understood what 'whole' meant?"

Crepus just laughed, listening in on their banter until their voices faded off in the distance. They lasted at their sandcastle-building endeavours for all of ten minutes before they both ended up wrestling each other into the sand. Crepus didn't know how they'd gotten there; he'd taken his eyes off of them for a second.

Still, Crepus couldn't hear any screaming from this distance (yet), so he decided that it was safe to ignore them for now.

This vacation wasn't really that bad an idea. Some of the time.

4. Snow

Snowlands, Snezhnaya

"You're shivering," Diluc said.

"Yes, I am. It's cold here." Kaeya stopped just short of whining, but there had definitely been no shortage of sulky comments from him since Diluc had selected their vacation destination and adamantly refused to change his mind. And as if on cue, "Summer is supposed to be about sunlight and warm places, not snow."

"We always go somewhere warm. I wanted something different," Diluc defended his decision for the umpteenth time. His father had voiced the same doubts, even though he'd ultimately relented and brought them here. He reached up around his neck, unwinding his scarf and then wrapping it around Kaeya instead. Kaeya had already been wearing one so it looked a little silly, but maybe the double scarves would get him to shut up.

Kaeya, of course, didn't appreciate the gesture at all. He stared at Diluc petulantly. "My hands are cold."

"Then put on your gloves," Diluc said flatly.

"I'm already wearing them."

Diluc glanced down at Kaeya's hands — it was true. He sighed. "Alright, then take them off."

"...And that's supposed to help?" Despite Kaeya's clear doubt, he still obligingly tugged off his gloves, shoving them inside his coat. "Oh, look — my hands are now colder."

"Baby," Diluc muttered as he tugged off his own gloves, and then wrapped his hands around Kaeya's. He half-expected Kaeya's hands to be the same temperature as his own and for Kaeya to have been whining about absolutely nothing, but in actual fact, Kaeya's hands were far colder. Diluc frowned, rubbing his palms over Kaeya's and then lifting them to his lips, his breath misting up the air as he used it to warm up their hands. "Does that help?"

"Not as much as some actual sun would," Kaeya said.

Alright, it was just flat out whining now. Diluc decided to be the bigger person and ignore him. He squeezed Kaeya's hands again, and then dropped them. "You can put your gloves back on now."

"Yes, Master Diluc." Kaeya then proceeded to just hurriedly shove his hands back into his pockets, without attempting to put his gloves back on.

Diluc left him alone. He wasn't Kaeya's babysitter. If Kaeya wanted to let his hands get cold again, it was on him.

"Do you want to go back to the tent?" he asked, not without some reluctance. It was cold out, but it was also beautiful, with pure white stretching out across the fields before them for as far as their eyes could see. They never got snow in Mondstadt — the closest they had was Dragonspine, hardly a safe or relaxing destination.

With the fuss Kaeya had been kicking up, Diluc expected an immediate yes, but now that the suggestion had actually been thrown out there, Kaeya, too, looked a little reluctant. "In a bit."

Diluc glanced up at the sky, lifting his arm to shield them from the glare of the setting sun. "We'll need to head back soon in any event. It's almost nightfall." He turned to look at Kaeya, who, like him earlier, was staring off in the distance. There was a small dusting of snowflakes caught in Kaeya's dark hair, and Diluc reached out to brush them away absently, drawing Kaeya's attention back to himself.

"I think we have time for a snowman," Kaeya said suddenly. Diluc frowned. He was getting too old for things like this.

But Kaeya was already running off in the distance again, towards a patch of freshly fallen snow, and Diluc sighed and gave chase.

He realised his mistake in trusting Kaeya's words a little too late, and barely managed to get out of the way of the large snowball that had been abruptly pelted towards his face. Even then, the cold ice grazed his cheeks, some of it trickling down his neck and getting into his collar without his scarf to catch it — because his scarf was still with Kaeya, that brat — and causing him to shiver.

Kaeya was grinning at him challengingly, one hand resting lightly on his hip as the other tossed another densely packed ball of snow into the air. Diluc narrowed his eyes.

This, he could make an exception for, if only because Kaeya clearly needed to be taught a lesson in not attacking his elders.

In the end, nothing much had changed by nightfall.

"Stop using them. Do you want to go through our entire supply by the first day?" Diluc asked, exasperation bleeding into his voice as he snatched the warming bottle out of Kaeya's hands before Kaeya could open it. He'd given Kaeya more leeway outside, but now that they were back in their tent, there was really no reason for Kaeya to be running through the bottles at his current rate.

"Well, maybe if there was an actual source of warmth in here..." At least Kaeya didn't try to take the bottle back, instead asking, "Can't you use that, then?"

It took Diluc a moment to realise that Kaeya was looking down at Diluc's belt, Diluc's newly granted glowing red Pyro Vision hanging from the belt loop. Diluc still felt a flare of delight whenever he looked at it, along with his recollection of his father's proud words — that's my son — but he shook it off quickly in an attempt to focus on Kaeya's question.

"We're inside a tent. I don't think making fire is a good idea," he said.

"Just a little one," Kaeya wheedled. "I like seeing you use it."

Well, if Kaeya insisted... "Just for a second." Diluc stretched out his hand, palm facing upwards, and summoned forth some energy from the limitless pool that now seemed forever accessible to him. His fingertips burned as flames flickered upwards in his hand, but without a source of fuel, it lasted for only as long as Diluc continued channelling energy through his palm, the embers dying down after a few seconds.

"Well, that was quick," Kaeya said in disappointment.

"I was trying not to burn the tent down," Diluc said. His control over his fire wasn't so refined that he felt confident using it when surrounded by actual fuel sources, none of which he wanted to ignite. He sighed quietly as he saw Kaeya shiver again. "...Are you still cold?"

Kaeya's slightly petulant look was all the answer he needed, and Diluc held out his hand, which still burned hotly from his earlier usage of Pyro energy. Kaeya removed his hands from his pockets and wrapped them around Diluc's, the coolness feeling like a balm against Diluc's overheated skin.

"Let's just go to sleep. Then you won't be cold," Diluc said. Honestly, he didn't know why it took him this long to say it. His father had technically sent them to bed an hour ago.

"My bed is cold too."

Why was Diluc not even surprised?

He didn't answer — he just threw open his blanket and got into the bedding, and then folded his arms and looked at Kaeya expectantly. Kaeya grinned at him, his lone good eye shining brightly as he promptly abandoned his side of the tent to crawl in next to Diluc. Diluc tossed the blanket over him and then lay down, waiting for Kaeya to follow suit.

It really should have been the end of the matter, but of course it wasn't. "Stop fidgeting," Diluc mumbled, forcing his heavy eyelids back open to glare at Kaeya.

"But I'm cold!"

Diluc closed his eyes and breathed. He couldn't kick Kaeya out of his tent. He was older, and had a Vision, and was a Knight-in-Training. He couldn't kick a little kid out of his tent, no matter how bratty said little kid was being.

Was this how Diluc used to act as well? His father had the patience of a saint.

"Just... go to sleep." Diluc reached out, grabbing Kaeya and pulling him in firmly — if he couldn't kick Kaeya out, then the next best thing he could do to stop Kaeya from moving around constantly was to bodily restrain him. Oddly enough, Kaeya settled down.

Kaeya's body really was cold. Not in a creepy way, but just... cool, like he'd been left out in the snow for too long. Diluc's temperature had started running hotter ever since he'd acquired his Pyro Vision, but even before that, he'd always tended more towards the hot end as well. Maybe if Kaeya were to receive a Vision one day, it would be Cryo or Hydro.

That would certainly be interesting, at any rate.

With Kaeya now quiet, Diluc found drowsiness taking over again. Of course, he had barely closed his eyes before he felt movement against him, and tightened his arms in irritation. "Stay still, and I'll give you something nice tomorrow." He didn't actually have any kind of present prepared, of course, but he could come up with something. Kaeya was still a kid, and kids were easy to please.

Kaeya stilled properly this time, and Diluc didn't feel any further movement up until the moment when he finally fell asleep.

Outside their tent, the snow continued drifting silently to the ground.

3. Lights

Lantern Rite, Liyue

"The left side is supposed to go over the right one first."

"It doesn't make a difference," Diluc said, although he did pause briefly in his attempt at weaving the fibres together. Kaeya looked down at the half-woven sheet, his attention more focused on Diluc's hands than he was on the actual making of the lantern. The angry red welts streaking the pale skin, all in various stages of healing, caught Kaeya's eye every time he so much as looked down. It was incredibly distracting.

"Maybe I should just make yours too. You might bleed on it," Kaeya said, still looking at Diluc's hands.

Diluc's eyes followed Kaeya's train of sight back to his own hands. "They're mostly healed, and I'm used to them by now," he said.

The first half was fine, but what was with the second? Was that supposed to make Kaeya feel better, to be reminded that part of Diluc's training as a Knight involved such heavy use of his Vision that he practically burned away all the skin on his hands after every session?

Not that there was anything Kaeya could do about it, which made it all the more frustrating. "Just... give it to me," he said, reaching for the stack of lantern fibres next to Diluc.

Diluc shifted his half-made lantern cover out of reach. "I want to do it myself. There's no sincerity if I didn't even put any effort into weaving the lantern," he said.

Kaeya laughed. "Aren't you confusing your traditions? This isn't the Windblume Festival," he said. "Or did you miss the thousand and one vendors selling premade lanterns when we walked down the harbour earlier?"

"It's a matter of principle," Diluc insisted stubbornly. "Go make your own. Especially since you look like you've made even less progress than me."

"How's the lantern-weaving going?" A third voice interrupted their conversation as Crepus materialised behind them, and both Diluc and Kaeya looked up. Crepus was holding a steaming hot box of food, just purchased from the street vendors lining the pavement. "Take a break — there's a lot to eat here that we'd never be able to find back in Mondstadt." He handed a stick of what looked to be some kind of deep-fried dough balls to Kaeya, and then Diluc.

"Gloves," Kaeya said as Diluc reached out, causing Diluc to still. Diluc sighed, dropping his hand and pulling his gloves back on so that the open wounds on his fingers didn't directly come into contact with the oil and whatever else was on the greasy stick when he took it.

Kaeya's eye fell upon the other item Crepus was holding. "You bought a lantern," he said, unable to help giving Diluc a pointed look. Diluc, naturally, just ignored him entirely.

"My hands are too clumsy for this kind of work, especially at night," Crepus answered easily. "Though the both of you seem to be making good headway."

"Kaeya might go faster if he paid attention to his own instead of trying to take mine," Diluc said calmly.

Kaeya held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, point taken," he said in amusement. "I still think you'll bleed on it."

Diluc, once again, decided to ignore him. Kaeya suppressed a sigh — it had been a lot easier to get a rise out of Diluc back when they were younger. What happened to the competitive brat who always needed to have the last word?

True to his word, Kaeya didn't press Diluc about his own lantern after that — although he couldn't resist the urge to quip, "I told you so," when at some point Diluc hissed and lifted a bleeding finger, the fibre in his hand stained red.

By the time Kaeya had a fully formed lantern in his hands, the evening had long since faded into night. The bustle in the background, however, hadn't reduced one bit; in fact, the activity only seemed to increase the later it got. There were busy times in Mondstadt, too, but not like this. Food vendors pushing their carts and hollering their sales taglines at the top of their voices, visitors old and young alike stopping at various stalls to haggle, children weaving in and out of the crowd while harried parents chased behind them. The entire area was lit up with a bright orange glow from the countless lanterns hanging everywhere — from the eaves of the buildings to being strung across temporary canvas canopies — and further in the background where the sea faded into the horizon, a massive Mingxiao Lantern in the shape of one of Liyue's Adepti sat on a platform, waiting to be released into the sky.

Kaeya turned when he felt a nudge against his arm. Diluc was looking at him, holding out an ink brush which he used to point towards Kaeya's blank lantern. "You're not going to write something?"

The sea of lights in the background were reflected in Diluc's warm eyes, glimmering gold and orange. Kaeya felt something stir in his chest as he took the brush, an odd sense of loss and confusion washing over him as he stared down at the blank canvas of his lantern.

"You are our last hope." Words so heavy that Kaeya often felt like he was suffocating, spoken in a cold voice that no longer felt familiar to him, and which only ever came to him now in his nightmares.

He thought that he, too, may have wished desperately for the same thing as that voice, once upon a time.

Kaeya lifted the brush, but his hand was shaky, and he moved it away before he could smear ink over the lantern's surface. "...You've already written yours?" he asked, forcing the cheer back into his tone.

"Yes — we both have. It's just you now." From the look in Diluc's eyes, it was clear that Kaeya's pathetic attempt at disguising his sudden uneasiness hadn't escaped his notice, although Diluc didn't comment on it directly. "You can write it in private if you'd prefer, although we might still see it when we release them... unless you'd rather do that alone as well."

"...It's fine." Kaeya drew in a breath, his heart rate settling back to something more resembling his usual state. This time, when he lifted the brush again, his hand was steady. He smiled at Diluc, making an effort to have the brightness reach his eye. "I have nothing to hide."

"Really? From my experience, kids your age always have something to hide," Crepus said nonchalantly.

Kaeya took a page from Diluc's book and let Crepus's comment slide into silence. Despite everything, he still turned away from Crepus and Diluc when writing on the lantern, every brush stroke light and careful. If the edges were a little shaky... well, no one would see it once it was released, anyway.

"It's starting." Hearing Crepus's voice, Kaeya lifted his head to look towards the harbour — the normally dark sea glowed bright from the lights of the lanterns starting to float up into the sky, dotting the horizon and mixing in among the stars. "Diluc, would you do the honours?"

"Of course." Diluc took Kaeya's lantern from his hands, placing them alongside the other two already on the table.

Kaeya stared at the three lanterns, placed neatly side by side. The first was clearly crafted by a professional hand and more elaborate than the other two, a simple wish written across its surface in crisp, confident brushstrokes. "May we enjoy many more years of peace." The second was more personal, a small stain of blood on an unnoticeable corner, the writing across it flowing and elegant, with a clear attempt to imitate the script of the first. "May I walk the path as a Knight of Favonius smoothly, so that my family will always be proud."

The third lantern, despite being crafted from mostly similar material as the second, boasted far messier writing. Nothing like the first two. "For your eternal happiness and safety."

"A beautiful wish," Crepus said. It took Kaeya a moment to realise that Crepus was speaking to him, and he turned his head in acknowledgment. Crepus smiled at him. "Is it meant for anyone specific?"

Kaeya's eyes flickered back to the lanterns, watching gloved hands gently handle them as Diluc lit their wicks carefully with a controlled flare of Pyro energy. Crepus's was first, floating slowly up into the air; Kaeya's joined his after a moment, and then finally Diluc's last.

"...Yes," Kaeya said, his voice so soft that he barely heard it above the noise of the festivities himself.

Diluc returned to their sides after that, sitting down in between Crepus and Kaeya, but Kaeya didn't turn to look at him. He lifted his gaze to follow the trail of lanterns, not daring to blink for fear of losing sight of them among the masses rising up towards the sky. He watched them until his eyes burned and he was no longer sure that the one he was looking at was indeed the correct one, and prayed.

2. Warmth

Hot Springs Inn, Mondstadt

"The hot springs here probably aren't comparable to a natural source, but you'd just say no if I proposed a trip to Natlan, so they'll have to do," Kaeya said.

Diluc didn't answer him, or even bother acknowledging that he'd heard Kaeya. Kaeya knew that it wasn't personal — Diluc had generally been in low spirits ever since Grand Master Varka had pulled him aside and told him in no uncertain terms to take this vacation before he worked himself to death.

Honestly, Kaeya didn't understand the fuss. It wasn't as if Diluc was being disciplined. In fact, the last thing that Diluc had been granted before his mandated leave was a commendation for his exceptional performance in his capacity as the Knights' newest (and youngest) Cavalry Captain. But Diluc, of course, insisted on seeing this forced vacation as a sign of his own failings.

Kaeya slid his gaze uncomfortably away from the bare skin that was being revealed as Diluc stripped off his shirt, keeping his voice light. "Only you would be so unhappy about being told to take literal paid time off work. Don't you think you deserve it, after these past few months?" Ever since Diluc's promotion, they barely ever saw Diluc back home — he was always in his office at the Knights' headquarters, working tirelessly on matters relating to Mondstadt's security well past midnight. Every single day.

"I still have a lot to do," Diluc finally said — even his voice was so tense that Kaeya's muscles almost ached in sympathy. He sighed, watching as Diluc lifted his hands to tie his hair up in a high ponytail.

"Yes, yes. I know, and the people of Mondstadt appreciate it. But no one is infallible." He reached out hurriedly as he noticed Diluc sway faintly on his feet when he straightened, catching Diluc by the arm and holding him steady. "Careful. Don't want you fainting again."

"...I didn't faint," Diluc said, stiffening even further at the reminder of the incident that had finally resulted in him being here, against his will. He tugged his arm away from Kaeya. "I just... closed my eyes for a second."

"You were on the floor," Kaeya said bluntly, because there were many things where he was willing to indulge Diluc, but Diluc's wellbeing was not one of them. Even now, the memory of finding Diluc collapsed in his office caused a hollow fear to rise in Kaeya's chest that he refused to think about too closely. Kaeya sighed. "Just... take a break, alright? Think of it as keeping me company, if you must."

Diluc sighed. "Don't you have your own training to attend to?" he asked. Kaeya wasn't quite a Knight yet, but he was close, and they all fully expected him to pass in the next round of selections.

"Don't be such a spoilsport. Unlike you, I know how to balance work and leisure," Kaeya said lightly. Somewhere along the way, his gaze had slid back to Diluc's mostly bare form — while all the training in the past few years had filled out his muscles, Diluc's physique remained slender, and Kaeya swallowed past the tight lump in his throat as he looked away again hurriedly. "Let's go."

The open-air baths — or "hot springs" as the proprietor had branded them, despite them all being fully aware that the water temperature was being artificially maintained — were completely empty when they entered, because Kaeya knew better than to invite Diluc to a public bath. Kaeya waited for Diluc to enter the large rock pool before following suit, letting out a sigh of contentment as the heat from the surrounding water seeped into his body and his muscles relaxed naturally in response.

The treatment, it seemed, wasn't quite as immediately successful for Diluc. "Archons above, I have never seen anyone else as tense as you," Kaeya said with a sigh. "Turn around."

He was rewarded with a suspicious look — the things he put up with for Diluc, really — but at least Diluc didn't protest. Diluc obligingly turned his back towards Kaeya, and Kaeya reached out, pressing his hands to Diluc's shoulders and feeling nothing but tightly coiled muscles, thrumming with so much tension that he was surprised they hadn’t all fused together permanently.

"Well, I've certainly got my work cut out for me," Kaeya remarked idly as he squeezed what felt like a solid hunk of metal under his palms. Massages were supposed to be pleasurable, but with the state Diluc was in, he just winced in pain at the application of pressure. Kaeya wasn't surprised.

"At least try to relax?" he suggested with a sigh as he settled his hands around the curves of Diluc's neck and started to knead the tight muscles there slowly. It was slow-going, but eventually, Kaeya did detect Diluc's breathing start to ease, and his shoulders slump forward slightly in relief. He couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since Diluc had allowed himself even a moment to unwind.

It was no wonder that he had collapsed; if anything, Kaeya was surprised that it hadn't happened sooner. But perhaps it had, and this was merely the first time that someone had actually found him before he could pick himself back up and continue working as though nothing had happened.

The thought left a bitter taste in Kaeya's mouth and an odd heaviness in his stomach that he was starting to become more and more accustomed to ignoring these days. So, as usual, he turned his thoughts elsewhere. "...I'll be signing up for the next selection test," he said, leaving the rest unspoken — I'll join your ranks soon, and you can leave your back to me.

"You should have signed up two seasons ago," Diluc murmured. Somewhere along the way, he had shifted so that his arms now rested against the rocks at the edge of the pool, his head pillowed atop them.

Kaeya chuckled. "Well, not everyone is as driven as you are," he said, moving his hands further down Diluc's back and kneading at the mess of knotted muscles until he felt them loosen beneath his touch. With Diluc somewhat more relaxed now, the hot water was finally working its magic, the remaining tension melting away from Diluc. By now, Kaeya's arms were aching fiercely — this had been more of a challenge than a full sword fighting session. Not that he'd let Diluc know, of course.

"Feeling better?" he asked casually as he dropped his hands and sank back into the water. Diluc made a faint affirmative noise, turning around and leaning back against the rocks next to Kaeya.

"...Thank you." His voice was soft, but Kaeya heard it anyway.

"Anytime. Though I'd prefer that you not need it next time, if possible," he said, looking at Diluc through the steam rising up from the water. The heat had caused a faint flush to rise to Diluc's cheeks, but that only accentuated how pale the rest of him was — unhealthily so, giving away the amount of stress and exhaustion he must be experiencing, constantly. "Just putting this out there now — the next time this happens, I'm tattling."

Diluc frowned. "We're not children anymore," he said, although he sounded just a little wary. Good. He should be.

"Then you shouldn't care, right?" Kaeya shot back. "Anyway, I think a parent deserves to know if his son is consistently overworking himself to the point of fainting in his office."

There was a long moment of silence, and just when Kaeya thought that Diluc wasn't going to respond, Diluc finally murmured, "I'm sorry."

"What?" The word had left Kaeya's lips before he could stop it.

"...I'm sorry," Diluc repeated awkwardly. "For causing you worry. I'll make an effort to have more care next time."

Kaeya opened his mouth — but for the first time, he realised that he was genuinely at a loss for words. "...Okay," he finally said. "Good."

They fell back into silence after that, both of them lost to their own thoughts. Kaeya only stirred out of his wandering mind when he felt a faint pressure against his shoulder, and turned around. Diluc was slumped against him, his breathing slow and eyes closed, long eyelashes quivering faintly against his cheekbones with every soft inhalation. His face was still pale, but there was a little more colour to his lips now, and at least the rest of him didn't look to be made entirely from tightly coiled wire.

Kaeya just laughed helplessly, shaking his head. "What the hell am I going to do with you?" he whispered, as he reached out to stabilise Diluc against him and prevent Diluc from slipping further into the water.

His heart was beating far too quickly, but at least in here, he could pretend that it was just from the heat.

1. Flowers

Windblume Festival, Mondstadt

"Popular, aren't we?"

Diluc turned around at the familiar voice. "It's a little uncomfortable, actually," he admitted, looking down at the small bouquet that he had just been forced to accept. He glanced down towards the street, in the direction towards which his admirer had just escaped, inadvertently catching her eyes. Even from this distance, he could see the blush spread across her face. He hurriedly looked away, not wanting to give her the wrong impression.

Beside him, Kaeya snorted. "I'd call you out for leading the poor girl on, but you don't even realise you're doing it, do you?" he commented, a vaguely undecipherable note in his voice. Diluc almost wanted to call it jealousy, but that made no sense — Kaeya had more than his fair share of his own admirers, and in any event, he had shown as much interest in any of them as Diluc himself had towards his own.

"Should I be doing something differently?" he asked, because Kaeya was indeed better at dealing with this than he was — Diluc had long since realised that matters of the heart, so to speak, required a defter touch than just the flawless decorum and politeness with which he had been raised.

"Stop being so nice to them, for one." Kaeya's tone, however, already told Diluc that he knew that it was not an approach which Diluc would accept.

"A more constructive suggestion would be appreciated," Diluc answered dryly. He glanced down at the flowers again, resisting the urge to hold them away from him — that would be rude, especially as the person who gifted them to him might still be watching.

Kaeya sighed. "Give them to me, and don't breathe them in," he said, reaching out and taking the bouquet away from Diluc, to Diluc's relief. Kaeya took a step back and held the bouquet up to his lips, smirking at Diluc past the fluffy stalks. "What would all those poor girls and boys think if they knew that Captain Diluc Ragnvindr, whom they sigh over so often, is in fact allergic to the most popular Windblume candidate for romance — and that all he wants to do when receiving their dratted dandelions is to throw them away as soon as he can?"

"...You don't have to say it in quite those words," Diluc said, although deep down, he knew that the only issue he took with Kaeya's words was the teasing manner in which they were phrased. "Also, why are you away from your post? Or are you off duty now?"

"This is my current post, Captain. I've been sent to deliver a non-urgent message to you," Kaeya said with a laugh, falling into step beside Diluc — but always making sure to remain a few paces away while the dandelions remained in his hands. When he didn't immediately tell Diluc what the message was, Diluc opened his mouth to question him, but fell silent when Kaeya paused in his steps and swept down in a bow before a young lady whom Diluc recognised as the new proprietor of a local flower shop. "Lady Flora, if you may." He presented the dandelion bouquet he was still holding to her, earning a giggle in response.

Something about the way in which Flora accepted the flowers so casually pinged as suspicious to Diluc's senses. "Are you... reselling the flowers that we receive?" he asked after a moment, aghast. Not that he wanted to keep the flowers himself, or that he even saw a use for any of them, but still...!

"Well... we may as well find a use for them, no?" Kaeya responded, his single eye curved upwards in an unapologetic crescent as he straightened and turned back towards Diluc.

"I'm fairly certain that our accounts have more than enough Mora to sustain your lifestyle," Diluc said, still not quite able to believe the offensive transaction that he had just witnessed.

"We're not reselling them, hehe." Flora's voice drew Diluc's attention towards herself. "There are many people who would like to make offerings during the festival, but aren't able to afford any flowers nor have the time to pick fresh ones themselves. When Vice-Captain Kaeya approached me with the idea of regifting the flowers he received to these people via my shop, I thought it was a wonderful proposal." She smiled at him as she undid the paper holding the bouquet together and then turned around to place the dandelions in a vase. "Would you like to contribute some flowers to our 'fund' as well, Captain Diluc?"

Oh. That was actually... a genuinely thoughtful gesture. Especially as the feelings of those who gifted the flowers were otherwise doomed to be unreciprocated. By regifting them in this manner so that they might reach Barbatos, it at least wouldn't feel like complete disregard of their sentiments.

Diluc glanced over at Kaeya, who was smirking smugly at him as if he had somehow one-upped Diluc with the temporary misunderstanding. "See, this is irrefutable proof that all those people who think we can read each other's minds are horribly wrong," he teased. "I'm shocked that you would think so badly of me, Diluc."

"No, you're not." Diluc's direct response drew out another bright laugh from Kaeya.

"Go on ahead. I'll catch up in a minute," Kaeya said, motioning towards the busy street. Diluc glanced between Kaeya and Flora, and then nodded.

"Don't take too long," he said, waiting for an affirmative before turning to leave Kaeya to discuss whatever other business he had with Flora.

Kaeya indeed didn't take more than a minute, and when he returned to Diluc's side, he was holding another bundle of flowers in his hands. Diluc frowned back at the flower stall, a little perplexed — Kaeya hadn't been gone long enough to have received that from someone else, surely.

"Before I get around to that message from the Knights," Kaeya said, leading Diluc to drop the matter of the flowers momentarily, "Just out of curiosity — what is the Windblume, to you? And I know that it's not dandelions."

Diluc looked at him in confusion; it wasn't as if Kaeya didn't understand what the Windblume signified. "The Windblume is whatever each person wishes it to be," he said.

"I know — so what do you wish it to be?" Kaeya asked lightly.

Diluc opened his mouth, and then closed it again, momentarily stumped. It had never really been something he had given much thought to, despite having celebrated countless Windblume Festivals in Mondstadt. He had made offerings over the years, of course, alongside his father and Kaeya, and then together with his peers after joining the Knights. The flowers varied from year to year, largely following the preferences of whomever he accompanied... but he had never truly thought about what the Windblume was to him.

Though he supposed Kaeya was right, to an extent. It certainly wasn't dandelions.

Kaeya laughed, his voice soft. "I knew it — you've never really thought about it, have you?"

There was the faint sound of rustling paper as Kaeya raised the bouquet he was holding. Diluc instinctively lifted his hands as Kaeya reached out, pressing the bouquet into Diluc's hands gently. "Well, you might want to start thinking about it now — because my message is that you've been selected as this year's Windblume Star to make the formal offering of Windblume to Barbatos on behalf of Mondstadt, in honour of your services in defending the city and her surrounding territories." Kaeya allowed his hands to fall back to his side, giving Diluc a teasing wink. "I've brought you some candidates to reference, as a start. And don't worry, I didn't include dandelions."

Diluc stared down at the small bundle of flowers in his hands. It was a truly comprehensive collection, from windwheel asters to small lamp grass and sweet flowers, even a bundle of prickly wolfhook berries nestled between the green stems. And, like Kaeya had promised — no dandelions.

"I still have a few things to deal with in preparation for the Windblume Ceremony, but the Grand Master has also asked me to inform you that you have been granted a temporary leave of absence until then." Kaeya paused briefly, giving Diluc a faint smile when Diluc raised his eyes to look at him. "Congratulations. You deserve it."

"...Thank you." Diluc didn't know if it was from the surprise that Kaeya had just sprung upon him, but his hands felt oddly warm within the confines of his gloves, and he could feel his heart racing.

"I'll see you at the ceremony, Captain." Kaeya took a step back and then turned around, strolling away as casually as he had approached. Diluc watched Kaeya until he turned a corner out of sight, and then looked back down at the flowers in his hands.

He tentatively lifted the bundle to his lips, inhaling lightly. On the tip of his tongue, the mixture of floral scents tasted just a little sweet.

0. Present

Golden Apple Archipelago

Diluc didn't bother turning his head as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. There was only one other person on this island right now; Diluc (frustratingly) could still recognise his footfalls on hearing alone, and he was not at all actually eager to see that person's face at the moment.

Kaeya dropped down onto the ground next to him, letting out a sigh as he stretched out beside Diluc on the warm rock. His breathing was a little faster than usual, evidence of his unnecessary exertion splashing around in the water earlier. He shifted, and a hand holding out a seashell came into Diluc's view. "This is a nice one, hmm?"

Diluc found himself looking down at it. Objectively speaking, it was aesthetically pleasing. The shell was curved in a perfect spiral with several loops, the stripes evenly distributed with deeper blue fading into white and then back again.

It was also chipped, and not even anywhere unobtrusive — the star in the centre of the shell was conspicuously missing a point, the slightly jagged remnants where it should have been making it clear that it had indeed existed once upon a time.

"...It's flawed," Diluc finally said when the silence stretched out between them for far too long. It was unquestionably weak of him, but even after all these years, he still disliked the silences that trailed off into awkwardness, when they should have been so easy to fill. They had been, once upon a time; and still were, if only he — they...

"Still as picky as always," Kaeya said with a long, exaggerated sigh. "I'd like to see you find me a perfect one. You seemed good at it back then."

He was being goaded. Diluc knew it, but as always, his weakness simply rose to the forefront again to overwhelm his resolve that seemed far easier to hold onto everywhere (anywhere) else.

Kaeya Alberich would be his downfall. This, he already knew as well.

And even then, he still found himself reaching into his pocket, pulling out the seashell he had picked up earlier, on a whim. He didn't bother looking at it again, simply tossing it onto the ground in front of Kaeya carelessly.

Kaeya hissed in disapproval. "Careful — even if it'd been whole before, that might've just broken it."

"It's a shell. It won't break that easily." Something stirred faintly at the back of Diluc's mind — echoes of conversations long past, of laughter and innocence that they could never return to. Beside him, Kaeya was equally still, his breaths coming in even, deliberately measured intervals.

Diluc didn't bother wondering if they were thinking of (remembering) the same thing. He simply lifted his gaze and stared out towards the horizon, where the shimmering blue of the sea blended into the sky above. The sight truly was beautiful, and was one that Diluc hadn't seen in several years. Far too easy for one to let their guard down — to reminisce of better times until they drowned in their own memories.

It was a long time before Kaeya finally moved, picking up the seashell that lay in front of him, half-buried in the sand from where Diluc had discarded it. His fingers were gentle as he brushed the sand off its surface and out of its crevices, and then turned it around to examine it.

He didn't comment on whether Diluc's rough treatment of it earlier had, indeed, resulted in any form of damage to it. Instead, he simply asked, "Is it for me?"

He sounded like he always did. Flippant, teasing. Hollow.

Diluc still didn't look him in the eye. "Take it if you want. I have no use for it."

"Suppose I will, then." Diluc didn't see what Kaeya did with it, but when Kaeya finally pushed himself to his feet again, the shell was gone. "You wouldn't happen to have dinner plans, would you?"

Diluc suppressed a frustrated sigh. They were on an empty island; did Kaeya expect a restaurant to spring up around the corner? "Get to the point," he said. Kaeya had always been like this — dancing around everything he wanted to say, drawing out conversations with teasing jokes and sideways questions, and Diluc had tired of this game a long time ago.

"I spied some rather stupid seabirds around the other side of the cliff earlier. Didn't even notice me when I crept up on them." Kaeya paused briefly, and then added, "I think they should have just about defrosted by now."

"Meaning they would be fresh, but for the fact that you turned their texture into preserved rubber?" Diluc's remark left his lips before he had the time to censor it.

It was too easy to fall back into old habits here. The sand, the sea. Kaeya by his side, smiling and laughing as though not a day had passed, and they were still the unbreakable duo everyone in Mondstadt knew them as.

If Kaeya noticed, he didn't react; likely he, too, had been affected by the surroundings that felt all too familiar, for all that this was the first time they had been here. "Hey, at least they wouldn't be crispy and black on the outside, and raw and bloody on the inside." Kaeya turned around, walking away towards the location where he had presumably left the seabirds to 'defrost'.

It took Kaeya a long time before returning — long enough that Diluc had started to think that perhaps some other new, shiny thing had caught his fancy and he had already departed in pursuit of it. But the reason for Kaeya's prolonged disappearance became clear the moment Diluc saw him again, along with two fully defeathered, bloodless fowl carcasses — both already neatly speared on a long stick that Kaeya clearly intended to use as a barbeque spit.

"Would you do the honours?" Kaeya asked brightly, holding the 'spit' out towards Diluc. His grin was really more of a smirk. "By that, I mean that since I caught and cleaned them while you just sat here and brooded, I fully expect you to do the cooking."

Diluc suppressed a sigh, but didn't protest — Kaeya had a fair point. "Then leave it here," he said, pushing himself to his feet and walking back to where they had left their camping equipment.

"Perfect. I'm going to get a little more sun while I can. If you eat it all without me, I'll make your life hell for the rest of our time here," Kaeya said cheerily, causing Diluc to stop in his tracks and look back at Kaeya with the most unimpressed look he could muster.

"You brought back two whole birds," he said. And they weren't even small birds — it would be a miracle if they could manage to finish one between them, much less two.

"I did, didn't I?"

Diluc started seriously considering retrieving his claymore instead of their cooking equipment.

Kaeya just laughed, completely unfazed by the threat he must have seen blazing in Diluc's glare. "Alright, I'll correct it — if you start eating without me, I'll make your life hell for the rest of our time here."

"Get out," Diluc said flatly, barely holding back from snapping the words out.

"Alright, alright." Kaeya took a few placating steps back. "I'll leave you alone. Archons above, you're so touchy."

Diluc didn't answer, simply watching Kaeya with a narrow-eyed glare until he departed. He didn't even realise that he had been holding his breath until his chest started to burn from lack of air, long after Kaeya had completely faded from sight.

As expected, they couldn't even finish one bird between them, much less two. "We can give the other one to the Traveller when we see him. I'm sure his little companion would be able to polish the rest of it off," Kaeya said casually.

Diluc didn't bother to respond to him beyond a grunt. He adjusted the position of his folded coat beneath his head absently, his gaze growing distant as he stared up at the night sky. The stars were scattered across in formations that he had never seen before, reminding him of just how far away they must have been from Mondstadt.

He detected movement to his right, and a few moments later, a familiar weight sank down next to him, Kaeya lying down as well and mirroring his position in looking up at the sky.

"Now that I think about it... it must have been more than ten years since we've done this, right?" Kaeya said. In the cover of night, his voice was softer. Quieter, less flamboyant. Kaeya chuckled softly — but Diluc detected no traces of true mirth to the sound. He generally sounded like that nowadays. "We used to stay up all night trying to identify all the constellations in the sky, and arguing over which ones we thought were there. Of course, neither of us really knew what we were talking about at the time."

"Is that so," Diluc said. It was more difficult than he thought it would be to keep his voice level and impassive.

"You don't remember?" Diluc did, but he didn't say anything. Kaeya shifted a little beside Diluc, and an arm came into view, point up towards the northern corner of the sky. "That's Noctua."

Diluc didn't even have to look in the direction Kaeya was pointing in to know that he was just talking out of his ass. "Noctua isn't visible in the sky from our location." He had studied the positions of the stars extensively during his journeys across Teyvat — for many areas in which he travelled, possessing such knowledge was a matter of survival — and knew simply from the position of the other constellations in the sky that Noctua would, in fact, not be visible from here.

"Alright, you caught me." Kaeya didn't sound surprised as he dropped his arm. Knowing him, he'd probably needed to pick up similar skills across the years as well and knew perfectly well where all the constellations were.

Silence fell once again, but in the darkness, it somehow felt less oppressive, and more just... calm. When Diluc closed his eyes, he could still hear the sounds of their surroundings — insects chirping, waves washing onto the shore in the distance. Kaeya breathing next to him, for once not saying anything and just... being there.

Diluc opened his eyes again before he could lose himself to the illusion of utter tranquillity.

Kaeya shifted as well, clearly having detected Diluc's restlessness. "Hmm? Diluc?"

Diluc didn't answer, and Kaeya didn't press him. Eventually, Diluc spoke again, if only to shatter the terrifying sense of calm. "Pavo Ocellus is bright tonight."

"Is it?" Diluc felt Kaeya move again beside him. "I don't know where it is, though."

Diluc slowly lifted his hand to point towards the constellation, shining brightly in the sky — but he changed his mind at the last moment, pointing towards Lupus Minor instead.

Kaeya remained quiet for a moment longer, and then laughed quietly. "Liar," Kaeya breathed. For some reason, the sound of his voice now caused something to squeeze inside Diluc's chest.

"I thought you said you didn't know where it was," Diluc said, dismissing the odd feeling which no longer had any place in their relationship now — and never really had, if he were to be brutally honest with himself.

"Well, I guess you caught me again." Kaeya moved once again, and Diluc felt their arms press together. Kaeya didn't say anything, and Diluc pretended not to notice. "...Good night, Diluc."

"..." The responding platitude was such a simple one, but for some reason, it still stuck in Diluc's throat, and he ended up saying nothing. Diluc didn't know if Kaeya was waiting for a response, but he supposed that by now, Kaeya should be used to it.

Sleep didn't come easily. It should have, with the monotonous sound of waves in the background, but Diluc was far too used to moving alone by now, and every sound Kaeya made — every slow breath, every shift — persistently dragged Diluc back to wakefulness whenever he was about to drift off.

And Kaeya was hardly a quiet companion, either. Through the fog of drowsiness that was clouding Diluc's mind, it took him far too long to realise what the problem was, and he sighed.

All these years, and it seemed like everything had changed — but some things would always stay the same.

Kaeya turned around when he heard Diluc move, just in time to catch the coat thrown at him carelessly, all but landing on top of his head. "What...?"

"Take it, stop moving and go to sleep," Diluc muttered, folding his arm beneath his head to replace the coat he had been using as a makeshift pillow. It was summer; one would think that Kaeya would have grown more resilient by now, especially with the acquisition of his Cryo Vision.

"What makes you think I want your coat? You've been sweating in it all day — it probably smells."

Diluc didn't have the energy for this. He held out his hand in Kaeya's general direction, not bothering to open his eyes. "Then give it back."

"...Nah, I think I'll keep it after all."

"Tch." Diluc turned his back towards Kaeya, allowing the sound of the waves washing against the shore lull him to sleep now that Kaeya was finally still.

That night, he dreamed of sand and snow. Of a bright, happy smile and a smaller hand slipped into his, holding on tightly.

***

...The hand in his wasn't small, but it was definitely there.

Diluc held his breath as he silently tried to pry the fingers tangled around his apart, but wasn't even halfway successful by the time Kaeya started waking up. Diluc immediately stiffened, going completely still as Kaeya stirred.

"..." There was a long moment of silence as Kaeya opened his eye and stared down at their entwined hands.

He opened his mouth.

"Not a word," Diluc said pre-emptively.

Kaeya obligingly shut his mouth, but the amusement dancing in his bright gaze was hard to miss.

Now that the damage had already been done anyway, Diluc yanked his hand out of Kaeya's hurriedly. They had clearly shifted closer to each other sometime during the night — the hands aside, even their bodies were pressed flush against each other, with barely any spare space between them. Kaeya stayed where he was as Diluc backed away; there was something odd about the tension in his shoulders, but Diluc was too busy trying to ignore the way his heart was hammering in his chest to care.

Kaeya opened his mouth again, and this time Diluc didn't manage to stop him. "So where's my present?"

"..." The generic retort died at the tip of Diluc's tongue, and he finally lifted his gaze to look at Kaeya in confusion. What present? Kaeya was smiling at him, nonchalant as always, but there was something in the edges of his expression that almost seemed... hurt.

Diluc would have liked to say he was unfamiliar with the look, but he wasn't. He saw it every time Kaeya reached out and Diluc rebuffed him; every time Diluc delivered a particularly stinging remark or simply ignored Kaeya completely. It wasn't one-sided, of course, and Diluc had often wondered if he, too, looked like that sometimes when Kaeya pushed Diluc too far, or threw salt into wounds that still hurt so badly Diluc couldn't breathe.

It was usually a sign that their forced camaraderie had about reached its end; that they had best cut their losses and go their separate ways before they truly broke any tenuous connections they still had remaining beyond repair.

But something about where they were — the bright sun overhead, the seawater sparkling in the background — had Diluc taking a step back this time.

"...What present?" he asked, picking what seemed to be the safest route to pursue.

Kaeya folded his arms — a sign that he intended to force the issue, though Diluc still didn't even know what the issue was. "The one you promised me last night." He shrugged carelessly. "Though I'm not surprised that you don't remember. You still owe me the one all the way back from when we were kids, too."

Diluc was just about to ask Kaeya whether he'd ingested some kind of hallucinogenic substance when he froze, a faint, blurry memory tugging at him from last night.

Kaeya moving again — why was he always like that, couldn't he have some consideration for the person next to him who was trying to sleep...

Arms locking around him, holding him tightly in place, because if Diluc couldn't get rid of him then he could at least stop him from moving. Stay still. I'll give you something nice tomorrow.

...Fuck.

Diluc didn't need a mirror to feel the heat rising to his cheeks, and Kaeya laughed, sounding genuinely amused this time. "Well? Do you want to start a tab?"

"...I'm fairly certain your tab in Angel's Share could offset it with plenty left to spare," Diluc finally managed.

"I suppose." Kaeya's single eye gleamed wickedly. "But what if I don't want to offset it?"

Diluc didn't know what came over him. Maybe it was all the frustration that had built up over the years reaching a boiling point. Maybe it was last night's dreams that had chased him into the early morning, of Kaeya's soft smiles and his hands against Diluc's shoulders and how safe Diluc had once felt with his back pressed firmly up against Kaeya's in battle, because he knew Kaeya would never let anything happen to him. Maybe it was waking with Kaeya's hand in his and thinking of how warm it was, still so human and vulnerable no matter how many layers of cold artificiality Kaeya draped over himself.

Or maybe it was just Kaeya being Kaeya, because Diluc had always known that would eventually be his downfall, but it was only now that he was realising what it truly meant.

He took a step forward, and then another, crowding into Kaeya's space. Kaeya's single eye went wide — no longer joking with that hint of forced cheer as it lit up in genuine shock.

The kiss wasn't rough, because if Diluc was going to do this at all, then he had to make sure that it was done right. Kaeya's lips were dry and soft against his, and slightly chapped; Diluc swept his tongue across them, moistening the skin and then slipping it into Kaeya's mouth, taking it deeper and swallowing Kaeya's soft gasp. And then Kaeya was kissing back — and there was the aggression that Diluc had been avoiding, devouring Diluc's lips with a hunger that left Diluc completely breathless and his heart racing.

They didn't stop at one. As with the battle instincts that they still hadn't lost, even after all these years apart, they were completely in sync when they drew apart for air, taking only a few seconds before Kaeya leaned in again, their lips once again meeting in another desperate kiss — and then another, until they were both gasping for air. It wasn't a confrontation, but neither was it reconciliation. It just... was.

Diluc didn't know where they would go from here. But then again, hadn't that always been how they had functioned all these years, ever since Kaeya had turned up at Diluc's door, rain dripping from his hair and a confession on his lips?

By the time they finally parted, Diluc's lips ached faintly, and Kaeya's, too, looked remarkably swollen. Diluc felt Kaeya's arm press down against his waist firmly, and squeezed Kaeya's shoulder in response. Kaeya laughed, leaning in again. This time, their lips didn't meet, only their foreheads, pressing together until all Diluc could see was Kaeya's single eye, bright in a way that he hadn't seen for a long time.

"...Well, I suppose that was worth the decade-long wait," Kaeya murmured, his breath washing over Diluc's moist lips and causing Diluc to shiver. "What's the other present, then?"

"I don't know," Diluc said. "I suppose you'll just have to wait another decade."

He felt Kaeya's body vibrate against his in laughter. "...I think I'm okay with that," Kaeya said.

His arm remained around Diluc's waist, cool and steady. His single eye sparkled with light, and when he finally stepped back, it matched the endless expanse of sea behind him.