It was late when the tavern door finally creaked open and Kaeya stepped inside.
It wasn’t as though Diluc had been waiting for him, though he had stayed long after closing to ‘tidy up’. It was just that he was curious if Kaeya would show up at all. Until tonight, Kaeya hadn’t missed a single one of Diluc’s shifts. Not a single one in three whole years, no matter how many times Diluc changed the schedule around. Yet, he hadn’t come tonight. Not until now, nearly two hours after the tavern officially closed its doors.
So, maybe he was just the slightest bit concerned.
He listened carefully as Kaeya walked across the tavern floor. Kaeya’s soft leather soles muffled his footsteps and made his exact distance difficult to pinpoint, but the scraping of one of his bar stools dutifully informed Diluc when Kaeya had taken his usual seat.
Diluc’s back was turned to Kaeya. It hadn’t been intentional, but Kaeya happened to finally show up just as Diluc began cleaning behind the counter. Now, he had to finish polishing the sterling cocktail spoon in his hands before he could allow himself to acknowledge Kaeya’s presence. To do otherwise would be to misstep in the strange little dance they’d been doing around one another.
Besides, if whatever was clearly troubling Kaeya was so time sensitive, then his brother could break the silence first. He, as the self-appointed wildcard of the two, was allowed to break their rules like that. He could misstep in a way that Diluc could not. If he really wanted to, he could even go so far as to change the nature of their dance entirely with a single word.
But he didn’t. Kaeya stayed perfectly silent as Diluc finished polishing his spoon. He continued his silence even as Diluc returned it to its rightful place and began to tidy up his station. The sound of him screwing the lid to the silver polish back on was the loudest and most obtrusive sound Diluc had ever heard in his life, he was sure, but even then, Kaeya didn’t comment or laugh. He waited patiently as Diluc cleared his space and finally turned to address him.
Diluc’s eyes met Kaeya's, and he, too, was momentarily struck for words.
His brother looked worse than he had in a while. In fact, Diluc was sure that the last time he had seen Kaeya’s hair look so unpresentable was when they still lived together. He had dirt smeared on his face, and he seemed to have lost the feathered shoulder wrap he liked to wear so much.
Diluc took a step forward to get a closer look. No blood, it seemed, but Kaeya had clear tear tracks cutting lines down his cheeks. Though his eyes were dry and calm now, he had clearly been crying not too long ago. That was very alarming. Kaeya, even as a child, had to be pushed very far to cry without first being injured. Diluc could count every single occasion he had ever witnessed his brother in his vulnerability on a single hand.
“What happened?” Diluc asked. He was a little surprised when his voice came out no louder than a low whisper, as though he was afraid of spooking Kaeya off. Which, admittedly, he was. Any time Diluc had ever caught him crying in the past had ended poorly for the both of them. Even now, the fact that Kaeya was willing to show his face to Diluc told him that Kaeya hadn’t seen a mirror in quite some time.
Kaeya chuckled and shook his head. The sound came out wrong and obviously forced, but Diluc chose not to point it out. Even though Kaeya wasn’t even putting in the effort to pretend to smile.
“It’s… a long story.” Kaeya said. “I ran into a little trouble, is all.”
“You clearly ran into more than a little trouble.” Diluc frowned and crossed his arms. “You look terrible.”
Kaeya laughed again. It sounded a little more genuine that time, but Diluc couldn’t tell if it actually was.
“Do you really want that to be the last thing you say to me?” He asked, slightly raising an eyebrow. “I knew we were on rocky footing, but that’s hardly a goodbye.”
“What? A goodbye?” Diluc said. Kaeya smiled a little and shrugged. He leaned his elbows on the table as though he hadn’t a care in the world. Suspicious, Diluc’s gaze hardened into a glare. “Why? Are you finally sick of Father’s blends? Are you switching to Cat’s Tail permanently?”
“Easy!” Kaeya chuckled, sitting up straight and holding his palms up innocently. “Jeez, ‘Luc, you sounded almost jealous or something.”
Diluc stopped. He uncrossed his arms and studied Kaeya’s face intently. He was searching for any possible indicator that Kaeya was playing a trick on him, but all he was finding was startlingly sincere.
“Um… Diluc?” Kaeya’s smile grew a little awkward. “Hello? Diluc?”
“Something’s really wrong.” Diluc realized. “Isn’t it?”
“Woah, Diluc,” Kaeya’s eye widened. He waved his hands between them. “What are you talking about?”
“When you say goodbye,” Diluc continued, slowly. “You mean goodbye.”
“What happened?” Diluc asked again.
“Diluc,” Kaeya lowered his hands and slumped his shoulders. He smiled softly. “You’re overthinking things. Nothing happened.”
“You called me ‘Luc.”
“I-,” He blinked. “I what?”
Diluc stepped forward again, so that he was just an inch from the counter.
“You called me ‘Luc.” He repeated. “You said ‘Jeez, ‘Luc, you sounded almost jealous’. Not Diluc. Not one of the cutesy little insults you like to use. ‘Luc . You called me ‘Luc .”
“Well…,” Kaeya shifted his gaze to the counter top. He began to tap a little tuneless rhythm with his fingers against the wood. “I guess I did. So what?”
“Kaeya,” Diluc lowered himself to a crouch so that he could meet Kaeya’s averted eye. “You haven’t called me that since we turned fifteen. You said, and I quote , that it was ‘an embarrassing term of endearment’, and that I ‘needed to be respected if I wanted to make it as a knight’. After that, you always called me by my first name- my full first name. Always Diluc, occasionally Master Diluc.”
It had been a long time since Kaeya had used his nickname. It had been back when he and Kaeya were still an inseparable duo. Kaeya had always done whatever was necessary to help Diluc attain the social standing they had deemed vital. It must have been hard work. Kaeya had always been quite skilled with his words, but that wasn’t something that came naturally to Diluc. Still, he very much used to enjoy climbing the social ladder despite his inadequacy, and Kaeya was more than happy to assist. He definitely could never have gotten as far as he’d managed, to being Mondstadt’s number one bachelor, without Kaeya there to smooth every awkward interaction over.
And now, Kaeya was the one stuttering and slipping over his words.
“Please tell me what happened.” Diluc tried again, more gently this time. “You’re obviously not okay.”
Kaeya let out a heavy breath.
“Diluc,” He said, pressing his fingertips hard against the counter, ceasing the rhythm. “They know.”
Kaeya lifted his head, and Diluc’s breath hitched. Huge, watery tears broke away from Kaeya’s lashes and dribbled down his face, carving new tracks in the dirt as they went.
“Oh.” Diluc whispered. He looked down and chewed the inside of his cheek. When he looked back, Kaeya was already scrubbing the heel of his palm furiously at his tears. “How… did they find out?”
Kaeya huffed out another laugh. It was a short, bitter thing.
“It was my fault.” The tail end of his sentence had a noticeable uptick in pitch as Kaeya tried and failed to speak around what must have been quite the lump in his throat. “I got caught speaking to an abyss mage by a patrolling knight.”
“You were speaking to an abyss mage?” Diluc asked, standing back upright. He hadn’t meant it as an attack, but Kaeya’s rush of words indicated that it had come across as one anyway.
“I wasn’t helping it!” He slammed his palms on the counter top and shot out of his stool. “I swear!”
“I know.” Diluc promised. Kaeya’s mouth drew into a thin line and his shoulders slumped. “But what were you doing?”
“I was… playing double agent.” He confessed with a loose shrug. “I was trading almost useless information for something hopefully a little more valuable. It should have been fine.”
“But… I was speaking Khaenri'ahn.” Kaeya said. “And the knight heard me. I tried to stop him, but the mage turned on me and I had to fight it off. It was pyro, so it took me a little while. By the time I got back to the city, he’d already told the entire headquarters.”
“I see.” Diluc said. “So, Jean?”
“Knows, yeah.” Kaeya confirmed with a small nod. “She, uh. Let me go.”
“She said that she wanted to trust me, but that she couldn’t expect the others to. The Knights of Favonius can’t have a captain that nobody will follow, and… they won’t follow me. Not anymore.”
“But why fire you?” Diluc asked. “Couldn’t she have just demoted you?”
“She could have,” He said, “But, by then, word had already spread. The knights told their families, who told their friends, who told anyone who would listen. All of Mond knows now.” His lower lip quivered the slightest bit, and Diluc watched as Kaeya took it between his teeth to still it.
“They’re angry.” He said. “I don’t blame them. My lie was going to catch up to me sooner or later. I just… I wish the truth could have come from me. Or, at least, from you. At least then you wouldn’t have kept my secret all this time for nothing.”
“It wasn’t for nothing, Kaeya.” Diluc said. “It was to prevent this exact situation. It doesn’t matter if the truth came from you, me, or someone else. This reaction was unavoidable.”
“Yeah.” Kaeya whispered. He looked down. “In any case, I have to leave. I’m not welcome in Mondstadt anymore. It’s not safe. Some of the knights, they- I won’t say jumped me but….”
Diluc had a grim suspicion that whatever fight the other knights had instigated had not been an even match. They had likely attacked Kaeya as though he was a soldier of the abyss, and not their former captain. Which was to say, without mercy or compassion. Knowing his brother, Kaeya probably hadn’t even properly fought back.
“I just hope this doesn't affect how everyone remembers Dad. Especially since he didn’t know.” Kaeya admitted softly. “I know it’s wrong to say, but I’m kind of glad he isn’t here right now. I wouldn’t want him to have to see this.”
“If he were,” Diluc said, “You know he would do everything in his power to stop this from happening to you.”
“Maybe.” Kaeya shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. What's done is done. I just… wanted to say goodbye.”
“Okay,” Diluc said. “So, when are we leaving?”
“When are we leaving?” He repeated, reaching behind his back to untie his apron. “My affairs are tied up, though I do need to stop at the winery first. I need to gather my things and leave instructions to Adelaide.” He unwrapped the apron’s long ties from around his waist and lifted the heavy square of fabric over his head. “Elzer may want to come. I don’t think he would take any more kindly to the ostracization of his brother than I do. It’s his choice, of course, but if he does choose to come it won’t be a problem. I’ll just have to factor his expenses in when calculating how much mora to take with us.”
“Diluc, wait,” Kaeya cut in, reaching his hand over the counter to stop Diluc from folding the apron. “You do not have to do this. It’s okay!”
“It’s not okay.” Diluc refused. Kaeya frowned. “I love Mondstadt, but I’m not married to it. I’ve left before, and I’m not afraid to do it again. Especially knowing that it is in much more capable hands this time around.”
“But nothing.” He said. “Mondstadt will be fine without me. When do we leave, Kaeya?”
“Um,” Kaeya blinked. “Now. Right now would be best. While they’re still distracted.”
“Alright.” Diluc set the folded apron on the counter. He led the way to the door, and held it open for Kaeya to pass through first.
The night air outside was cold, and the city was barren. In the highest part of the city, the Cathedral bells were chiming loudly into the night. They were signalling the commence of a city meeting, likely to discuss what they had just learned about their Cavalry Captain. Diluc disregarded it, and locked the tavern doors tightly behind them.
Kaeya still looked like a mess, but his eyes were wide and hopeful and he wasn’t crying anymore. That was better, at least. That was good.
“Ready?” He asked him.
Kaeya set his jaw and nodded.
“Then let’s get out of here.” Diluc said, starting down the path to the side gate. Guy wasn’t there to guard it, likely having abandoned his post to attend the meeting. Ironic that he should miss what very well could be the first time anyone had ever used the side gate in earnest. “I hear Liyue is nice this time of year. We could start there, and make our way through the rest of the nations, if you’d like?”
“I- Yeah.” Kaeya agreed, matching Diluc’s step. “But it might take a while for us to travel through all six.”
“Five.” Diluc corrected. Kaeya raised an eyebrow in question. “Let’s just say that you’re not the only one who’s, well, unwelcome in a nation.” He said. “It’s fine. Snezhnaya is too cold for you, anyway.”
“You’re banned from Snezhnaya?” Kaeya asked. Diluc chuckled at his shocked expression and supposed that, no. He hadn’t ever told Kaeya about that, had he? “How did you even manage that?”
“I’ll tell you another time.” Diluc promised. “We’re about to have a lot of time to catch up.”