It is a bright and balmy morning at the Dawn Winery, and Diluc Ragnvindr wakes with a start.
There is a strange prickling in his throat that feels like it's rooted all the way back in his chest, and he takes a small, tentative breath. It ends up hurting more than helping, and he feels the gentle itch turn into something of a cross between a cough and a sneeze, threatening to rise like a cresting wave the more he tries to keep it down—
Adelinde comes knocking at the sound of the young master's distress and promptly lets herself in as the sneezing gets more violent, wide-eyed concern openly displayed across her features as Diluc, sniffling, stares at a handful of small, delicately rumpled calla lily petals scattered into his palm and across the sheets.
A few moments pass as Adelinde’s worried gaze sweeps across the scene; first to Diluc, who looks more bewildered than teetering on the brink of respiratory collapse (thank Barbatos), and to the petals scattered about, which are definitely not something she’s ever encountered in her years of service to the Ragnvindr estate or even outside of it.
"What is going on? Should I send for a doctor? I—"
"Don’t tell anyone," Diluc finally breathes after a shocked silence, still staring at the petals in his hand like he’s grown an extra limb. "Please. I'm okay."
Adelinde hesitates—nobody sneezes up a storm of plant matter and thinks that's fine, she wants to say—but nods and takes her leave once she’s fairly sure he isn’t in any immediate danger. Master Diluc has always preferred to do things his way, and she’s not about to force the issue now.
Diluc watches his bedroom door click shut and closes his eyes tiredly, burrowing back into the sheets after a cursory swipe at the peach-tinged petals still littering the linens. He'll figure out it later, but right now he is so, so tired—his throat no longer feels like it’s trying to collapse inwards, but the mild prickling sensation is still there.
He's going to ignore the fact that the extremely vivid dream he was having before he was rudely awakened was that of happier days and the charming, unguarded laughter of a dark-haired young man with sun-kissed skin and the stars in his eyes.
Three more hours of a fitful, dreamless sleep go by, and Diluc is no closer to an answer by the time he wakes.
He's only been back in Mondstadt for less than a week; his initial suspicion is that he picked something up during the very last leg of his trip away, but he isn't sure if it's Fatui design or something decidedly less malignant. Perhaps a mutated reaction from a particularly nasty Dendro slime, because flowers, he thinks absently, but he doesn’t quite understand what’s happening enough to make any further educated guesses, and what he doesn’t understand makes him highly uncomfortable.
Diluc rolls over with a gentle huff. There are no longer any petals strewn across the bedsheets. It all feels like he just had a bad dream, and he doesn’t quite feel like he’s on the verge of some life-threatening physical breakdown, but the very real worry on Adelinde's face upon seeing him in his earlier state is etched indelibly in his mind. He resolves to try and make some headway on what's ailing him as soon as he can manage, if only to offer her some reassurance that he won't drop dead mere days after returning from a four-year absence. He owes Adelinde that much, at least, especially after everything she’s done for him and seeing to the affairs of the estate in his absence.
She doesn't bring it up again. The only indication of her quiet worry—and a confirmation that Diluc indeed did not dream about coughing up flower petals—is the still-warm cup of soothing ginger tea that he wakes up to on his bedside table.
He decides to make his way to the Mondstadt library that same day, tamping down the lingering bitterness that normally accompanies the thought of having to involve himself with anything associated with the Knights. Four years away did little to stem the reflexive rise of bile that comes with the mention of the Ordo Favonius, but it is what it is, and Diluc has—moreso than ever before—always been a man who does what he must. The slow, seeping discomfort of being completely out of his element and not being able to make heads or tails of what is currently happening to his body is far stronger than his unwillingness to set foot in the Knights’ headquarters, so he composes himself and purposefully makes his way over to the library.
Lisa Minci is sitting at her desk, lost in thought with a cup of tea in hand. Diluc gives the librarian a polite nod of acknowledgment and proceeds to peruse the shelves, eager to find his mark and spend as little time as possible in the area. All he needs is a few tomes on botanical maladies to start, maybe a handful of volumes of folklore and fairy tales as well (purely for research purposes, he tells himself), and then it’s back to the Winery to try and get to the bottom of this… this mysterious affliction.
The less time he spends at the Ordo headquarters, the less chances there are of him bumping into anyone else he knows, too—
What about Kaeya, Kaeya, Kaeya, his traitorous brain whispers, don’t you want to know how he’s been?
—He exhales with a huff, doing his level best to crush the intrusive thought underfoot as he picks a few books off the shelves. It’s in his best interest to make his visit short.
It doesn’t take long for him to find what he needs. Satisfied with his selection, Diluc makes his way over to Lisa’s desk to check out his selection of books and is mentally patting himself on the back for getting through his little errand at the Ordo in as little time as possible and without fuss, or incident, or unwanted encounters—
That is, until Kaeya Alberich enters the room.
Diluc takes one look at him, makes eye contact, and starts sneezing violently.
Well, so much for telling no one.
Lisa has an infuriatingly knowing smile on her face, Diluc thinks sourly. She'd quickly shooed Kaeya out of the library after the Cavalry Captain had instinctively moved to aid Diluc during the latter's sneezing and coughing fit, only turning to address him again once she made sure Kaeya was on the other side of the library door.
"I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I have a feeling I’ve seen this before," the librarian begins, a gentle twinkle in her eye as her gaze sweeps over the assortment of tomes now stacked in an orderly pile before Diluc, who is trying to remain poised despite the unfortunate combination of his sniffling and the earlier indignity of dropping an armful of books all over the floor. She smiles and slides him a cup of tea. "Master Diluc, may I have a word?"
Diluc, despite his misgivings with the way Lisa's countenance appears nothing less than smug, accepts the warm beverage and nods. He had hoped to keep word of his strange predicament a secret, but, well, you know what they say about best-laid plans, and he still has no inkling of what’s happening at all.
It would be folly to turn down help from Sumeru Academia’s finest scholar, even if she is affiliated with the Ordo. "Go ahead, Miss Minci."
"Call me Lisa, please. Now, about these,” she gestures to the neat pile of rumpled calla lily petals on the table in front of them; Diluc hastily tried to sweep them out of sight during the commotion, but Lisa had lightning-fast reflexes for someone whose most conspicuous trait was her unwillingness to put in any more effort than was absolutely necessary. “Have you ever heard of the concept of blumenkrankheit?"
“I beg your pardon?”
“Blumenkrankheit,” Lisa repeats, with the patience of a schoolteacher. “A rough translation in Mond for sure, but one that will fit our purposes well enough. I first came across a mention of this during my studies in Sumeru. It’s a rarely-seen phenomenon in which unvoiced or unaccepted immense emotional turmoil manifests itself in the manner of a recurring allergy, often with the unfortunate side effect of coughing or sneezing up plant matter.”
Diluc just stares at her and blinks.
“As for why it’s plants in particular, I’m not quite sure,” Lisa continues. “Not even Sumerian scholars know how the mechanism of the affliction works, as far as I can tell, and Dendro phenomena are entirely within their purview. It remains a mystery to this day.”
Lisa can see the wheels turning in Diluc’s head as he takes a slow sip of his tea, a frown forming on his features.
She chooses not to wait for him to ask the follow-up question that she knows is on his tongue. “It’s not life-threatening in any way, but it can be quite an inconvenience, especially when you’re face to face with whoever triggers these occurrences. Which appears to be Sir Kaeya, in this case.”
That gets Diluc choking on his tea. “Excuse me?”
Lisa brings a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh. “I believe I did not stutter, Master Diluc. I think you made it very clear earlier today that the Cavalry Captain’s presence is what triggers the sneezing and coughing you’re currently experiencing—”
“That doesn’t seem right,” Diluc coughs after a beat, refusing to make eye contact. “I am absolutely sure your vast reserves of knowledge run truly deep and I mean no offense, Lisa, but this is absurd. I also resent the— the implication that this malady somehow has anything to do with whatever little is left of my regard for Kaeya, of all people, which, by the way, if it wasn’t clear, is effectively nonexistent at this p—”
“I’m just saying, Master Diluc,” Lisa interrupts in kind, gentler, “that this might be something worth giving a little thought. Unless, of course, you’ve already found an explanation for this phenomenon manifesting so readily in your person? I’d be quite interested in hearing it, if you would be so kind.”
Lisa smiles at him again, serene and unflappable and almost daring him to rise to her challenge, and whatever is left of Diluc’s (increasingly agitated) response splutters and dies at the back of his throat. Her patent insinuation that Kaeya still means something to Diluc—enough to cause something as out of left field as an obscure disease—unsettles him greatly, and he, well.
He doesn’t want to think about Kaeya.
He’s spent the last four years trying to scrub every trace of him out of his life, out of his mind, out of his heart—
Diluc cuts the thought off right there. He stands up, hastily thanks Lisa for her assistance and her time, and all but darts out of the library with his books in hand, making a beeline for the Cavalry Captain’s office.
He’s going to take matters into his own hands and prove that this has absolutely nothing to do with Kaeya Alberich.
There is a knock on the wooden office doors, and Kaeya absently calls out, “Come in,” gaze not leaving his paperwork.
He doesn’t need to look up to recognize the person striding into his office—his office, once—and exhales quietly, looking up from his paperwork to see Diluc Ragnvindr in all his radiant glory, red hair a flaming halo around him, looking mostly unruffled but slightly red in the face (most likely from that strange coughing fit he had, Kaeya muses). Speaking of…
“Master Diluc,” Kaeya begins, smile not quite reaching his eyes, “I know we’re not on the best of terms, but really, acting like the mere sight of me sends you into respiratory distress is a little too much, don’t you think?”
Diluc just glares at him. Kaeya’s expression does not budge.
“Sir Kaeya,” he grits out, the formality of the title sitting unfamiliar on his tongue, “I assure you I have better things to do than trade pleasantries with you, much less pretend like your presence actually affects me so—”
“Please,” Kaeya intones, grin sharpening at the edges. “Diluc. We both know that between the two of us, I’m the one who’s better at lying, so why don’t you leave that to me?”
Diluc has the grace to look nonplussed at Kaeya’s pointed candor and opens his mouth to retort, but starts sneezing instead. Kaeya barely resists the urge to roll his eyes at the other man’s insistence at keeping up this charade. Diluc was always the prouder one of the two, but even this, Kaeya thought, was quite the childish pretense.
Kaeya ignores this and elects to beam at his erstwhile brother instead. “Anyway. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine d—”
He barely manages to get the entire question out before Diluc turns on his heel and positively books it outside his office, library tomes and all, still coughing and sneezing up a storm.
Kaeya blinks, uncharacteristically speechless for once. He knows Diluc is a bad liar, but he couldn’t help but tease him a little—old habits die hard, after all.
Especially the fonder ones.
If this is all a farce, he thinks, Diluc is nothing if not impressively dedicated to the act.
Lisa does not often get many visitors in the Mondstadt library, but today is already turning out to be very interesting.
“Why, I seem to be quite popular today,” she titters as Kaeya saunters through the library doors and heads straight for her desk. “Dearest Cavalry Captain, what can I help you with?”
Kaeya grins, leaning against the edge of the desk. “Nothing of grave import, dear Lisa. I just wanted an explanation as to why you so unceremoniously ushered me out the doors when our lovely Master Ragnvindr came to visit today.”
Lisa shoots him a knowing smile of her own. “Sir Kaeya, we’re both perfectly aware you’re sharper than you let on. What do you think?”
“That Diluc can’t stand the sight of me so he chooses to act as if he’s allergic to me?”
“My goodness. Is that really what you truly think?”
Kaeya pulls out a coin and absently rolls it up and down along his fingers, expression unchanging. “It’s been four years since I’ve last seen hide or hair of him. Who’s to say he isn’t actually physically repulsed at the sight of me at this point? Stranger things have happened.”
Lisa hums thoughtfully. She isn’t privy to all the details of the rift that occurred between the Ragnvindr heir and the Cavalry Captain four years ago; she only knows what little Jean has shared with her, and even on this matter Jean has been reluctant to talk about the falling-out between her childhood companions more than absolutely necessary. She knows it’s a sore spot, but... “If you must know, Master Diluc wasn’t lying entirely about his affliction.”
“Affliction?” Kaeya’s visible eye sharpens, and the subtle change is not lost on Lisa. “Has he taken ill?”
“In a way,” she responds, and there is a minute but distinct shift in Kaeya’s posture, “but certainly nothing that is truly debilitating or dangerous in any way. I would consider it more of an annoyance than anything, but Master Diluc ran off before I could finish explaining it to him in any significant detail.”
“So he is allergic to me, then?” Kaeya laughs, baritone rich and humorless. “That’s hilarious. I don’t think I’d have been able to think that one up even if I tried.”
He doesn’t quite buy it, but Lisa isn’t really giving him any more material to work with here.
The librarian just looks at him in response, smile steady on her delicate features. Kaeya is absolutely sure at this point that she knows more than she lets on—Lisa Minci has always kept her cards close to her chest. With that being said, however, he’s never known her to withhold truly vital information for any reason; if Diluc has his secrets, he’s happy to respect them. He certainly can’t blame the man for being reticent, especially after the events of four years ago.
It’s truly unfortunate that Kaeya’s revealing of his secrets led Diluc to start keeping his own, but what’s done is done—and if there’s anything Kaeya doesn’t want to linger on any more than he absolutely has to, it’s the past.
Lisa’s expression softens, and she pats his arm gently. “Master Diluc is in no danger in your presence, nor is he in any peril outside of it, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“All right, then,” Kaeya finally says after a few moments, gently pushing himself off Lisa’s desk. “That’s all I wanted to know, really. Can’t have the newly returned prodigal princeling of Mondstadt dying on my watch or anything, right?”
He chuckles to himself and gives her a jaunty little salute as he makes his way back to his office. Lisa watches his retreating back thoughtfully, taking a sip of her tea.
Some matters are best left not meddled with, but this one is a particularly interesting sleeping dog that she just can’t let lie.
She idly wonders if Jean will have anything interesting to say about this at teatime.
Diluc basically storms back to the Winery, berating himself for two things:
One, for being reckless enough to let his increasingly foul mood make decisions for him and almost revealing his predicament entirely in front of the one person he does not want witnessing it as a result;
Two, for walking out on what could be the best (and, if he’s being honest with himself, only) lead he’s ever gotten on whatever the hell is happening to his body.
He’s always known he has a temper; he runs hot and passionate, fully in tune with the Pyro Vision that hangs at his hip, and it’s been the root of his undoing at least once or twice in recent memory. He regrets indulging the impulse to stand up and leave when he very well recognizes Lisa is merely stating what she knows, but he doesn’t like the way the librarian’s knowing gaze sees right through his carefully constructed veneer of calm.
Diluc is perfectly aware that it’s highly likely all of Mondstadt knows about what happened between him and Kaeya, if only at surface level, and the reminder of this burned bridge was something he was loath to confront no matter how gentle or unintentional. There’s a reason he dealt with everything by fucking off to Archons knows where for the last four years.
Four years since that terrible night, since the sight of Crepus’ broken and battered body in the rain, since Kaeya decided he would come clean about his heritage on what was arguably the single worst day he could ever have picked to do it—
(He thinks about Kaeya back then, hurt written plain across his features and the flash of real fear in his starlight eye beneath the sudden sheet of ice—the only thing standing between Diluc’s claymore and Kaeya’s defensive stance.
A Cryo Vision, granted to Kaeya on the day he seemingly made a mockery of all the love Diluc ever held for him.
Love, huh, Diluc remembers snarling, all fury and teeth. Some love this is.)
His feelings for Kaeya at present are… complicated, at best.
Case in point: he normally already doesn’t like to think about the other man, but he especially doesn’t want to think about this new version of Kaeya he ran into earlier today, the one who now calls himself the Cavalry Captain after Diluc’s absence of four years; taller than he remembers, all pointed smiles and broad shoulders draped in flamboyant garb, well-defined chest glowing copper in the sunlight streaming in through the windows—
Stop, Diluc thinks almost mournfully, shaking his head as if to banish the offending thought. You’re not accomplishing anything of import here. Focus.
He approaches the hill cresting the Dawn Winery, and it’s then that his brain chooses to remember something Lisa said:
A rarely-seen phenomenon in which unvoiced or unaccepted immense emotional turmoil manifests itself.
Well, that’s no surprise. He’s self-aware enough to know he’s got that in spades, all lying just beneath the mask of calm he’s learned to rearrange his once-soft features into out of necessity.
It’s easy to cover up crippling guilt with volatile anger. It’s easier to act like someone doesn’t exist unless you absolutely have to so you don’t need to think about it any more than necessary.
(What do you say to the love of your life when you drive him away with nothing else but the clothes on his back for the sin of telling the truth at the wrong time?)
Diluc blinks, and he knows he is dreaming.
He is in a familiar scene—he remembers this one well.
He remembers because he has played this memory in this head over and over, and he scans the room, taking it all in:
A bright, cloudless sky.
The dull lustre of well-worn, familiar wooden floorboards.
Sheer curtains fluttering by the open bay windows.
Spilling over the windowsill and into the bedroom—
“Sunshine!” A peal of laughter, carefree and light and familiar. “Do try to keep up—you’ll never beat me to the lake if you keep slacking off like that!”
Diluc huffs, pulling on his boots with a careless tug. “I am not slacking off, Kae. And stop calling me that!”
“Calling you what?” Kaeya turns to him, grin brilliant and beautiful. “Sunshine?”
Diluc feels a flush spreading up his collarbones and into his cheeks, and he looks away abruptly, embarrassed.
He is all of seventeen and, oh, Archons above, he is so, so smitten.
“Luc,” Kaeya begins, hooking a finger under Diluc’s chin and gently turning his gaze toward him. “You okay? I can’t tell where your face ends and where your hair starts!”
Diluc turns away again, face impossibly warm and horribly incapable of making eye contact. “I’m fine!”
He’s fairly positive Kaeya can hear his heart hammering against his ribs like a bomb in a birdcage. Kaeya just beams at him, reaching out to cup his face.
“I’m sorry for flustering you, sunshine,” Kaeya murmurs fondly, stroking a cool thumb across Diluc’s burning skin. “Weren’t you all confidence and bravado when you told me you liked me, hmm, gē?”
Diluc splutters at the nickname. “I didn’t think you’d be so shameless after the fact!”
Kaeya only laughs in response, clear and bright, his star-shaped pupil gleaming in the morning light.
Diluc loves him more and more with each passing moment, and the weight of it all makes his heart feel like it's filled to bursting.
“I’m going to kiss you now,” he huffs, trying to muster up what little vain pride Kaeya hasn’t yet carved away with his sweet words and his deft hands, and impatiently yanks the other boy down towards him.
The rest of Kaeya's spirited laughter dies down beneath his lips—
—and Diluc wakes with a start, gasping for air like his lungs are full of water.
His throat betrays him once more—he sits up, the feeling of being unable to breathe overwhelming him entirely just like it did the first day it happened—and like clockwork, he hacks and coughs, and the incriminating peach petals are scattered across his lap and in his palm once more.
Diluc blinks at the wrinkled petals again in half-asleep irritation, sniffling, until his brain faintly registers that oh, right, calla lilies are Kaeya’s favourite flower, and the dawning realization hits him with all the subtlety of a mitachurl shield to the head.
Lisa was right. Kaeya is the trigger.
There’s no helping it. He is going to have to avoid running into Kaeya entirely at all costs until he can strongarm his body into submission through force of sheer will or something.
It’s not like it should be any harder than what he’s been doing for the last four years, at any rate. All he has to do is to keep it up.
Archons, he’s getting tired of the taste of calla lilies in his mouth.
“So,” Lisa begins casually, picking up a finger sandwich. “Did Master Diluc and Sir Kaeya ever come clean about their feelings for each other?”
Jean blushes, teacup stopping halfway to her mouth. “Hm. I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, Lisa.”
Lisa laughs, leaning back in her seat languidly. “I’m positive you know what I mean, dear. I know the three of you were friends in childhood. Sir Kaeya confides in you, too, and I’ve seen the way he looks at that photo of them on his desk.”
Jean knows exactly what picture she’s talking about. It’s no secret that the only photo on Kaeya’s office desk is that of him and Diluc in their younger years, arms around each other and beaming into the camera. It’s the only thing in his workspace that doesn’t get buried under piles of paperwork and his own stacks of notes—a reminder of better days.
“Lisa, dear heart, you know full well I’m not one to betray whatever a friend tells me in confidence,” Jean murmurs. “Sir Kaeya is one such dear friend of mine, and I hope you’re not asking me to divulge any of his secrets.”
Lisa smiles at her, all warmth and fondness. “I intend to do no such thing, Jean, don’t worry. I was only curious because of something that happened recently—Master Diluc came to visit the Ordo headquarters a few days ago, actually.”
That gets Jean’s attention; she knows Diluc is back in town, and she understands his reasons for not dropping by, but it doesn’t make it sting any less knowing he was in the Headquarters and couldn’t bring himself to say hello to an old friend. “Did he now? What was he here for?”
“He came to the library looking for some research material, and I found out something interesting in turn,” Lisa replies. “Apparently there’s something bothering him greatly that he can’t reconcile within himself, and it’s manifested itself in quite an interesting way—to put it simply, being in Sir Kaeya’s presence makes him sneeze out flower petals. Calla lilies, to be precise.”
Jean’s eyes widen. “Why, that’s Sir Kaeya’s favourite flower.”
“Precisely. I made the connection soon enough after I realized that’s what the room always smells like when the Cavalry Captain is in it.”
There is a beat of silence in which Jean absorbs this information, and then, suddenly: “Wait, you said Master Diluc coughs up plant material? Is he in any danger? Lisa!”
Lisa laughs. “That’s how Sir Kaeya responded, too, but no, Master Diluc isn’t in any real peril,” she responds. “Although I will say that it is probably going to remain a big inconvenience, seeing as the only real known solution is for him to accept or voice out whatever feelings have been bothering him to this extent.”
Jean closes her eyes. She doesn’t have to explain to Lisa why this is a tall order, considering the parties involved. “Is this why you asked me about their relationship?”
“Indeed. I’m certainly not one to pry too deeply into personal matters that don’t involve me, but with Sir Kaeya’s frankly legendary dancing around anything he doesn’t want to talk about, and with Master Diluc very clearly suffering from an annoying but nonlethal condition, I figure maybe all it takes to help things along is a little push?”
“It’s… quite complicated. Knowing them, nothing about their relationship is untroubled at this point in time,” Jean sighs. “It was certainly easier before the Ursa incident—Diluc and Kaeya loved each other clearly and dearly, and I’m not sure how much of that remains.”
That is as much as Jean will let herself say about the nature of the bond between her childhood companions. She doesn’t mention all the nights Kaeya has sat in her office in anguish, seeking the comfort of her presence and her company over the last four years of Diluc’s absence. She thinks Lisa knows well enough that there are just some things even the clever, silver-tongued Cavalry Captain cannot entirely tuck away from view, and that will have to do. She isn’t one to reveal Kaeya’s regrets and weaknesses whispered in confidence.
Although, Jean will admit, she’s not averse to finding a way to help in as unintrusive a manner as possible if she can help it, especially after hearing that Diluc is clearly physically affected in the way Lisa describes.
She just wants the two of them to be happy again, just like they once were, even if it’s no longer in the same capacity or high regard they used to hold each other in.
Lisa takes a sip of her tea and smiles at Jean in way of reassurance, running her thumb gently along the back of the other woman’s hand. “Let’s hope they find themselves in a situation where they’re in a good place to confront these feelings, then. I can’t imagine Master Diluc will be happy to spend the rest of his life expectorating calla lilies every time Sir Kaeya so much as breathes the same air he does.”
A mysterious traveler arrives in Mondstadt, Stormterror continues to wreak havoc on the local populace, the Knights of Favonius prove to be entirely ineffectual in the face of Stormterror’s rampage once again as expected, and Diluc forgets about his predicament entirely for the next couple weeks.
Between the near-discovery of his identity as the mysterious Darknight Hero at the hands of the traveler Aether and his diminutive companion Paimon, and the ever-looming spectre of Stormterror casting a shadow over Mondstadt, he has had little time to think about his “allergies”, as Adelinde has started calling them.
It also helps that he hasn’t seen much of Kaeya lately, which means he hasn’t had an opportunity to disgrace himself in public with his coughing and sneezing fits just yet, and so the matter naturally pushes itself from his mind entirely.
Days later, he discovers that Stormterror is actually Dvalin, one of the mighty Four Winds of legend, and Jean and Aether ask for his assistance in subduing the frenzied dragon. (The flighty little bard in green who drinks up half his tavern’s supply of dandelion wine in a single night with nary a mora to show for it is revealed to be Barbatos in the flesh, too. Diluc has to summon a large amount of self-control to keep his eyes from boggling at the revelation.) Having to deal with the matter of calming the erstwhile guardian of Mondstadt as well as managing the aftermath of said guardian’s destructive rampage all around the city environs keeps Diluc busy and on his toes, and he finds he vastly prefers it when he has so much on his plate he has little time to think about anything else.
Thus occupied, Diluc spends the next few weeks throwing himself into the affairs of the Winery and aggressively making sure he doesn’t let his mind wander when he finds a bit of respite. It is exhausting, but he’d rather work himself to the bone than confront any of the myriad reasons as to why Kaeya of all people has somehow managed to make manifest this strange physical condition in him.
He knows the answer to this question perfectly well, but being aware of something doesn’t always mean you have to like it.
(If he still wakes up from dreams that seem all too real, sniffling and wheezing to the sight of flower petals in the crook of his elbow at an ungodly hour every now and then, that’s nobody's business but his.)
The Acting Grand Master’s office is abuzz with conversation over the heavy, gilded envelope addressed to Jean that arrived earlier that morning.
“The Liyue Qixing have extended the Knights of Favonius an official invitation to the Lantern Rite Festival opening ceremony happening a few days from now,” Jean murmurs, running her finger over the delicate golden stationery. “Apparently we have the Honorary Knight to thank for this invitation—after the events surrounding the Descension Rite and the incident in the harbour, the Qixing have come to hold Aether and his companions in high regard indeed.”
“You must have put in a good word for us too, Aether, sweetheart,” Lisa chimes in, peering over Jean’s shoulder at the intricate script on the parchment. “The Knights have always been cordial with the Liyue Qixing, but this is probably the first time we’ve personally been extended an invitation to the biggest festival of the harbour, and from the Tianquan herself, too!”
“That’s right!” Paimon pipes up, doing a little flip from where she’s currently perched on the arm of Aether’s chair. “Since Aether and I did most of the hard work, it’s only right that they invite us back to try all their festival food! We are going, right, Aether?”
Aether nods at his companion. “Our hand in things certainly wasn’t as dramatic as Paimon likes to describe it,” he laughs, scratching the back of his head bashfully, “but I did tell them about my involvement with the Ordo Favonius when they asked me about my journey so far. Will you be accepting their invitation, Acting Grand Master?”
Jean hesitates. Lisa shoots her a glance. (This is a good opportunity, Lisa’s glance says. Jean nods, imperceptible.)
“I would love nothing more than to attend,” Jean begins, “but the opening ceremony falls squarely on the same day we receive visitors from Fontaine on official business…”
“We can send someone else on Jean’s behalf to represent the Knights,” Lisa proposes. “Aether will be there, but it won’t do if we can’t have at least one of the Captains in attendance as well.”
All eyes in the room turn to Kaeya and Albedo, who are silently playing a game of chess in the background.
“I’ll be in Liyue on my own errands around that date, so I can be visible if needed,” Albedo says mildly without looking up from the board as he pushes his rook into place. “I’m not quite sure I can spare the time to mingle with the Qixing at the festivities, however. I have a business meeting with the author of the novels I’m illustrating, and our schedule hasn’t been ironed out quite yet. Check.”
Kaeya waves a hand vaguely in Jean’s direction, attention trained on his pieces as well. “I’ll do it, Jean. Someone has to keep an eye on our intrepid Honorary Knight and his floating companion here, after all,” he laughs, picking up his king and moving it somewhere decidedly less dangerous. “I’m certainly not one to turn down the idea of a good time, either. Try again, Albedo—I do believe that’s checkmate.”
(Albedo lets out a soft “tsk” in the background, barely perceptible. Kaeya preens, victorious.)
“That settles it, then,” Lisa beams, looking for all the world like a cat that got the cream. “I’m sure Jean and I can find time to visit Liyue ourselves for a spot of festival fun and say hello, but we unfortunately won’t be able to make it to the opening ceremony.”
Jean nods, smiling warmly. “That is all for today. Thank you, everyone.”
Paimon opens her mouth to comment on how Lisa keeps saying “we” like she and Jean are an inseparable unit, but Aether clamps a hand over her mouth in time.
“Sounds good,” Aether quickly says, hand still pressed firmly over Paimon’s mouth. “I guess we’ll see you at the Lantern Rite Festival, everyone!”
The Honorary Knight and his protesting companion make their way out of Jean’s office, followed by Kaeya and Albedo, until only Jean and Lisa are left in the room.
Lisa takes this opportunity to close the doors behind her, grinning. “Masterfully done, darling.”
Jean beams at her, the faint flush of pride on her cheeks. “The opportunity simply presented itself to me in the moment. I couldn’t let it pass me by, now, could I?”
“How did you know Sir Kaeya would be amenable to being sent to Liyue on your behalf?”
“If there’s one thing you must know about that man,” Jean begins, laughing as she takes her seat at her desk, “it's that he loves taking every opportunity he can to travel, especially if it’s ‘for business’. It wasn’t a difficult bet to make at all!”
Lisa taps a finger against her chin thoughtfully. “My, a festival outside of Mondstadt definitely sounds like the perfect stage for a chance encounter. Does Master Diluc like festivities at all?”
Jean thinks back to a vivid childhood memory of Diluc and Kaeya at Ludi Harpastum, stuffing their faces full of fried radish balls and watching the fireworks in open awe. “I’m sure he does.”
“How are we going to get Master Diluc in Liyue at the same time? He doesn’t seem like the type to venture too far out of Mondstadt unless absolutely necessary, especially considering he’s just returned from a long absence from the city,” Lisa wonders, leaning against Jean’s desk.
Jean just smiles up at her, reaching for a sheet of parchment and dipping her pen into the inkwell.
“It’s been a while since I’ve said hello to Miss Adelinde at the Dawn Winery, and I can’t think of anyone more willing to help out in this regard…”
Liyue Harbour is awash with light and laughter and the lively chatter of its citizens milling around all the different stalls and shops, each accentuated by the glow of paper lanterns strung up in the spirit of the festivities.
Diluc is no stranger to Liyue, but he’s never seen the Lantern Rite Festival in person before. The sight of the harbour illuminated in the night is incredible, and it’s been a while since Diluc’s cast his gaze upon breathtaking vistas purely for the sake of enjoying them.
He’s still here on strictly business, of course. He’s meeting with a local restaurateur interested in expanding their selection of liquors to include dandelion wine in their offerings, and Adelinde suggested scheduling the trip to coincide with the big yearly festival.
“You might as well take some time to enjoy the festival in full swing while you’re conducting your business in Liyue, Master Diluc,” Adelinde had said with a smile. “When was the last time you went sightseeing outside of Mondstadt?”
Adelinde’s words were said half in jest, but Diluc knows she always means it whenever she gently tells him to give himself some room to breathe. Adelinde is like a mother to him, and he knows she’s always looking out for his welfare first and foremost—she and Elzer are probably the only two people in all of Teyvat who know him best.
Right after Kaeya, anyway, his brain helpfully supplies. But Kaeya isn’t here, so.
Diluc closes his eyes tiredly. If there’s one big upside to this Liyue trip, it’s that there’s practically no chance he’s going to run into the Cavalry Captain at all, being in a different city and everything. That alone takes a little bit out of the tension in his shoulders he didn’t know he’d been holding, and he lets out an exhale. He’s done really well at avoiding Kaeya or even thinking about Kaeya so far (it came almost naturally at this point), and his weird allergies haven’t flared up since as a result of his efforts.
Shaking the thought out of his head, he looks up at the night sky. The fireworks are in full display, and Diluc allows himself to marvel at the vibrant show of colours and patterns—so different from the ones at Ludi Harpastum, he thinks—as he makes his way to Third-Round Knockout to meet with his business contact.
Paimon is already halfway through her fifth bowl of tangyuan when she spots a familiar face in the crowd.
“Aether, look!” She tugs at Aether’s sleeve and points. “It’s Mister Zhongli!”
Sure enough, Zhongli’s elegant figure cuts through the crowd with practiced ease, long hair trailing in his wake. He sees Paimon waving frantically and smiles back, making his way over to the table full of food that the two are currently stationed at.
“It is wonderful to see you here tonight, friend. How are you enjoying the festivities?”
Aether grins, setting down his plate of almond tofu. “It’s been amazing so far! Our companions are a bit all over the place right now, but Paimon and I have been making our way through the game stalls, and we’ve had a really good variety of the festival food on offer! We just came from watching the lion dance, too.”
“Excellent,” Zhongli replies, visibly pleased. “I am glad to hear it. The lion dance in particular is truly a performance not to be missed; the people of Liyue regard the lion as a symbol of bravery and strength, and the lion dance is performed to ward off evil spirits and pray for good fortune and s—”
“Wait, isn’t that Diluc?” Paimon gasps, tangyuan momentarily forgotten. Aether is about to chide Paimon for interrupting Zhongli’s commentary when Diluc comes into view right beside the taller man.
“Indeed,” Zhongli responds, nodding to the man beside him in acknowledgment. “Diluc is here on a business visit—he had an appointment with the proprietor of Third-Round Knockout earlier this evening, and I happened to be enjoying a light meal with Degui himself when Diluc arrived early.”
“Oh, yeah,” Aether replies, remembering the old man’s commission from a while back. “Was it about the dandelion wine?”
Diluc nods. “It was a fairly straightforward visit, in fact, after I informed Sir Degui I was happy to supply the restaurant with a small batch to start. It certainly is a much better alternative to his early attempts to recreate the brew in his own facilities, and Zhongli offered to show me around the festival as a small gesture of thanks for doing business with his favourite establishment in the city.”
“That’s awesome!” Paimon trills, digging right back into her dessert. “Have you guys run into anyone else so far? Albedo is here, too, but he’s meeting up with this novelist he’s working with so we haven’t actually bumped into him here yet, and Kaeya—”
“—is right here with even more delicious new treats in hand, at your service,” a very familiar voice laughs a short distance away. “I can hear your excitement from all the way here, Paimon.”
Archons, I have the worst luck in the world.
Paimon squeals in excitement, flitting over impatiently. Kaeya is carrying an armful of snacks and assorted food items to the table, having made the rounds at the cluster of food stalls the group hadn’t had the opportunity to sample yet.
Diluc wants to scream.
First: Kaeya is in Liyue. (A grave miscalculation on his part, but how was he to know?)
Second: Kaeya is rapidly approaching, and Diluc is still in the vicinity.
Shit, Diluc thinks in alarm, I can’t just up and leave Zhongli and Aether without an explanation, it’s rude and it’ll raise questions. Shit. I’ll be fine, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Kaeya in person anyway, surely this allergy nonsense must have passed by now—
He holds his breath, casually stepping behind Zhongli in a last-ditch effort to delay the inevitable, and wills his body into obedience with all his might just for this one moment. Please, Barbatos, I have never asked you for anything in my life other than that one time I prayed for a snow day in the middle of July so our cranky old music tutor couldn’t come in, but if you’re listening, please let me have this.
For a few, blessed moments, he feels nothing, and he almost relaxes.
It is short-lived.
Kaeya comes into view, perfectly constructed smile on his face and snacks in tow, and Diluc’s throat seizes.
He has the presence of mind to turn away from the group before the first few petals can make it out of his mouth in his renewed fit of sneezing, but there’s no helping it. He needs to leave.
“Diluc?” Zhongli’s gentle voice cuts through the haze, concerned. “Are you feeling all right?”
Oh, he definitely isn’t ready to have this conversation with strangers.
Diluc can see Kaeya swiftly putting down all the food he’s holding out of the corner of his eye just as Zhongli puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, and he breaks into a run. He’ll apologize to Zhongli and Aether (and Paimon) later.
Right now, he needs to put as much distance as possible between him and Kaeya until he can safely retreat into the privacy of his inn room.
Predictably, Kaeya runs after him, and the combination of respiratory discomfort and the overwhelming tightness in his chest that he’s come to associate with Kaeya at this point makes for a very short chase.
Diluc comes to a stop at a mostly deserted part of the harbour docks, doubled over and wheezing, and Kaeya slows down behind him, taking a tentative step or two towards him but otherwise giving him space.
“Listen, Diluc,” Kaeya sighs. “I know you’ve made it clear you don’t want anything to do with me, and I get it, but really? Avoiding me entirely is one thing, but acting for all the world like you’re physically sickened by the mere sight of me isn’t something I ever thought you capable of doing.”
Diluc can’t find it in him to turn around and respond. The prickling in his throat only grows and grows, and he’s sneezing and coughing up even more of these blasted calla lilies. He is so sick of the taste of them at this point, fuck, he’s never going to be able to eat anything with them in it again.
“I guess you’re still keeping this act up, huh?” Kaeya laughs, humorless but without bite. “Can you really no longer even look me in the eye, Diluc?”
The resignation in Kaeya’s voice is palpable. Diluc realizes that the hammering in his chest isn’t so much anger as it is pain at the way he can recognize the genuine hurt in the other man’s words, which is rich, because it’s almost as if Kaeya himself wasn’t the one that betrayed his trust and his love four years ago—
Wrong, a voice in his head snarls. You were the one who tried to cut him down, you were the one that drove him out in your fury, the worst thing he did was commit the crime of telling the truth because you know he knows you deserve nothing less, and you’ve been carrying the guilt of it like a millstone around your neck ever since.
Frustrated, Diluc whirls around to face Kaeya, sending a flurry of petals airborne with the motion. He might as well come clean about it if he’s been backed into a corner like this.
Kaeya forgets his words for a few moments, brow furrowed, and just stares at the gently floating petals like they’re the most interesting thing in the world.
“Calla lilies,” Kaeya whispers, both disbelief and open concern written plain on his features, and Diluc thinks he would laugh at the absurdity of Kaeya’s carefully calculated mask slipping if this entire mess he was in wasn’t currently happening. “Wait— Lisa said— She said you weren’t lying about being sick, but I didn’t think— Diluc, am I the cause of this?”
“Archons, Kaeya, could you please just stop talking for once in your life?”
Kaeya, to his surprise, does what he’s told. He just looks sad and worried and small, which is not a word Diluc has ever used to describe Kaeya as in all the years they’ve been in each other’s company, and the sheer gut punch of guilt that hits him is nauseating.
Diluc thinks he’s had just about enough of this.
He takes a deep breath, steps forward, and drags Kaeya down by the lapels of his stupid, frivolous jacket—Kaeya makes a strangled, funny little noise—and kisses him, hard.
Time comes to a screeching halt, Diluc thinks.
The world stops spinning on its axis for a brief moment.
The gentle glow of the paper lanterns envelops everything in a warmth that Diluc feels in his chest, sticky sweet and slowly spreading, and he’s not sure if it’s his Pyro affinity or just the way Kaeya’s hands slowly, tentatively come to settle on either side of his waist like he’s not sure he’s allowed to touch him.
He dimly registers the heat of Kaeya’s gloved palms through his shirt, now finding purchase on his hips and holding him close and steady, and Diluc realizes in this moment just how much he’s missed this, all of this, all of Kaeya—all of his sharp smiles and worn edges and soft words and the impossible warmth that radiates from his normally cool fingers. Diluc has never felt clarity like this in what seems like an eternity.
Kaeya is gravity, pure and simple, and Diluc finally, finally feels like his feet are back on terra firma.
“Wow,” Kaeya finally murmurs as they break apart, breathless, and Diluc cannot stop looking at his stupid, beautiful mouth. “You kiss me even better than I remember, sunshine.”
Diluc holds his head up high in mock offense, cheeks aflame at the old, familiar nickname, and scoffs. “Bold of you to expect anything less from a Ragnvindr, Sir Kaeya.”
Kaeya’s expression softens at the retort. He positively beams at Diluc after a moment, smile sincere and unguarded in a way he hasn’t seen in so damn long, and Diluc swears he can almost hear angels singing.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting this,” Kaeya begins. Diluc squints at him. “Not that I’m complaining about you kissing me, of course,” he quickly adds, bringing his hand up to run his thumb across Diluc’s cheek, mapping constellations in the freckles dusting his cheeks in the evening light. “I was referring to the calla lilies.”
“Oh,” Diluc mumbles. That was a conversation they would need to have later, along with everything he’s ever left unsaid over the last four years. “Lisa was right.”
“All she told me was that you had some sort of non-life-threatening condition or something, but that’s barely any information compared to all of this!”
Diluc closes his eyes tiredly. “Something about ‘big emotional turmoil’ being the cause or whatever, with you as the trigger. I left before Lisa could give me a full explanation because I couldn’t handle the insinuations she was making. Can we please talk about this later?”
Kaeya laughs. “Can you blame me for being curious? I really did just assume you couldn’t stand being around me so much you decided to pretend you were allergic to me this entire time out of sheer spite. Just like, you know, the sort of thing a child would come up with.”
Diluc elects to hit Kaeya’s (toned, beautiful) chest with a soft thump in protest. “You are a menace, Kaeya Alberich.”
“And yet you love me for it,” Kaeya’s grinning now, running his tongue over the words like they’re the best wine he’s ever tasted. “Don’t you?”
Diluc can feel the telltale heat creeping up his face again, and he buries his face in the warm, inviting curve of Kaeya’s collarbone to hide the way he flushes sweetly at the other’s words. “Yes, I do.”
Kaeya laughs—a bright, clear sound, free of strain or artifice—and holds him tighter. Diluc does not see the way Kaeya’s eye shines almost incandescent in the warm glow of the lanterns, all soft starlight and no hard edges, but the way Kaeya is pressing him so close to his chest it aches speaks louder than the traitorous thundering of his heart ever has, especially on the days he wakes up and realizes that the only thing that has ever stopped him from reaching out to the other half of his soul is the weight of his own crushing guilt.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Diluc Ragnvindr has always loved Kaeya Alberich.
Kaeya loves him back just as strongly, despite everything. Diluc can’t believe he ever had the audacity to try and convince himself otherwise.
“I’ve missed you so much, Luc.”
As Kaeya leans down to kiss him again, Diluc realizes, faintly, that the stinging sensation in his throat is no longer there, and he sighs in relief for what feels like the first time in ages.
He and Kaeya both have a long way to go before things can truly be okay again, but just knowing that Kaeya isn’t pushing him away like he fully expected him to thrills him like nothing else.
The thought fills Diluc with nothing short of sheer elation, and he holds Kaeya tighter, smiling into the kiss.
He finally feels like he can breathe again.
As luck would have it, Aether and present company (and all food items accounted for) witness the entire thing from a distance.
They’re happy Diluc and Kaeya have stopped dancing on eggshells around each other long enough to make up somewhat, but they don’t quite know what’s happening with the coughing and the mess of petals.
Except for Zhongli, anyway.
“Huā tǔ bìng,” Zhongli murmurs thoughtfully, more to himself than anything else, but Paimon’s hearing is nothing if not sharp, especially when it comes to conversations that aren’t meant for her ears.
“What’s that mean, Mister Zhongli?” she quips, attention diverted away from her tangyuan for the time being.
Zhongli smiles at her. “It’s a fairly obscure condition that happens when someone has very strong feelings they can’t quite accept or voice, and these feelings come out in the form of the affected person coughing up some sort of organic material, usually leaves or flowers. I sensed Diluc had something to hide, but I did not quite know the extent of it until I saw the first few petals falling from in between his fingers when your companion Kaeya arrived.”
Paimon wrinkles her nose. “That sounds disgusting,” she mutters. “I hope I never have to deal with that, ever. I vastly prefer putting food in my mouth, not the other way around!”
Aether scratches his cheek absently. “It seems like the two have come to an understanding, but there’s something I’m not quite sure about,” he says. “Why is it only Diluc that has the whole coughing up flowers thing going on?”
“It’s because Sir Kaeya has long accepted his feelings and hasn’t tried to act like they don’t exist,” a familiar voice says behind them. “Even I’ve spent enough time around the man to know this is one thing he can’t hide behind his hollow smiles and smooth words.”
Paimon whirls around in shock. “Albedo!”
Sure enough, Albedo is right behind them, accompanied by a young man with blue hair and a regal countenance.
“This is Xingqiu, the novelist whose works I’m illustrating,” Albedo begins, gesturing to his companion. Xingqiu bows with a smile. “Xingqiu, these are my colleagues from the Knights of Favonius.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Xingqiu beams. His eyes immediately dart to the scene in front of them, and he takes out a notebook from his sleeve pocket.
Zhongli laughs. Paimon looks at Xingqiu, then at Diluc and Kaeya, who are oblivious to their presence.
“Is this going to be the plot of your next big novel?” Paimon asks excitedly. “Ooh, is Albedo going to be drawing for this one, too?”
Xingqiu nods, engrossed in his furious scribbling. “I’m very sure this is going to make for an interesting plotline to work into our next book…”