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quick

catch him before he falls

send our missives to the wind

lest the shadows echo their call

--

The Traveler was in tears.

Good things did not happen when the Traveler was upset.

The first and foremost appeared to be the fact that the Traveler became a horrid gossip. ZhongLi had a meal with them and Paimon, courtesy of the Traveler's wallet. They were supposed to be enjoying an after dinner walk, but the Traveler's mood had taken a nosedive.

"It's just so sad," wailed the blond curled up in ZhongLi's arms. "It's horrible and not fair. They are both still near each other, they are both still alive, but they can barely even talk. I miss my twin so much. I hate them for doing this to each other."

A few sympathetic looks were shot towards Mr. ZhongLi as he tried to calm the adventurer down. They sat on a bench at the docks and ZhongLi softly patted the blond locks, silent. The conversation was initially about Mondstadt's wine and how it compared to the rice wines that LiYue Harbour seemed to favour. When you talk about Mondstadt's wine, the Dawn Winery was eventually bound to show up in the conversation. According to Paimon, one can not talk about the Dawn Winery without accounting for the youthful and enigmatic owner, Diluc Ragnvindr.

What set off the Traveler was the fact that the new Ragnvindr didn't seem to have much input into the Winery's business or recipes. ZhongLi had initially shot the accompanying elf a desperate look for an explanation, but Paimon just shrugged and said, "Does it look like I understand how Outlander brains work?"

"It's just not fair. Diluc could have so much more to do with Kaeya, but he genuinely doesn't talk or think about him about his lore."

"His… lore?"

"Yeah," sniffed the strange child. "I got Diluc's friendship level to six recently. I actually got Kaeya's up to six before him, because Kaeya is actually willing to help me look for my twin. Diluc took a bit longer because he's constantly trying to pawn me off to the Knights of Favonious when I'm idle."

"Friendship level." In all of his 6000 plus years, Morax had never heard of a concept of levels for friendship. Yes, people had differing relationships with each other, but never had he heard them referred to as levels as if it were a part of a tabletop roleplaying game. "What are friendship levels?"

Paimon placed her small hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it."

"I regret giving Diluc all of those purple experience books and levelling him up to 90. Do you know how HARD it is to farm for them? It's a drought in 1.2, a DROUGHT. Fucking cubes. Damn U*er Food deliveries. I have no money either because of artifact grinding."

ZhongLi shot Paimon with an absolutely unconvinced look. He barely understood what this borderline hysterical child was saying. The fairy laughed nervously. "Really. Trust me. Don't worry about it."

"Mr. ZhongLi. What the hell did you do to the Traveler." An annoyed voice entered the conversation. Childe, the Eleventh Harbinger, stood before him with his arms crossed against his chest. The boy seemed to be concerned for the wellbeing of the adventurer.

ZhongLi warmly greeted the Scheznayan delegate. "Ah hello, Tartaglia. What brings you here to LiYue?"

The boy with no light in his eyes was unimpressed. ZhongLi was mildly amused. It appeared that the young Harbinger still held a grudge against him for handing Morax' gnosis to Signora. His expression was borderline murderous in the light of the sunset. "Don't change the subject on me, old man. What happened to my rival. I want them to be well so I can fight them again."

Paimon floated in between them, constellations tickling behind her. "Ah, Childe, don't worry about it. Mr. ZhongLi isn't at fault here. The Traveler just got a little sad because they miss their sibling."

"Oh." The eyes softened quite a bit. "Yeah, I know the feeling of missing family. I miss everyone, especially on long missions."

With a sigh, Tartaglia sat down next to the Traveler. The blond acknowledged his presence with a, "See? Even the war criminal, our Token Evil Teammate™, talks about his entire family."

The strawberry redhead blankly gave ZhongLi and Paimon. "I'm obviously missing a few pages here."

Amber eyes met with ocean blue. "As am I, Childe. As am I."

The Traveler hiccuped. "It's just easier to just show you."

They grabbed ZhongLi and Targalia's hands, one in each hand and looked resolutely at Paimon. "Let them in."

"Are you sure? Some of this stuff is pretty personal."

"Just the characters menu. I'm not giving Tartaglia access to the story archives, that's honestly too much power."

Paimon didn't look convinced. "Okay, if you say so…"

The world was suddenly washed away in a bright light. A warm amber wrapped around them. ZhongLi hummed in approval. Geo aspects energy pulsed around them.

The Traveler was no longer holding their hands. They were waving at them from what appeared to be the middle of the screen. "Hello. Welcome to the Character Menu."

"Where are we? What are we doing? I literally just arrived from my ship-"

"Doesn't matter," echoed Paimon's voice from somewhere as she answered Childe.

Both Tartaglia and ZhongLi looked around in confusion. There seemed to be nothing around them save for geo energy and text. In the uppermost left corner, text in the common tongue stated a simple fact: Geo/Traveler_Name.

Under the text, there was a ribbon with three green circles with portraits facing left. ZhongLi recognized the faces. The Traveler was first, he was next, and Targalia was last. Several faces of other people were lined up under them, but they weren't lit up in green.

"Look to the right, guys. See the menu option? Can one of you select the profile option?" The Traveler pointed to the left, completely ignoring the fact that they were surrounded by text.

Both men ignored them for a little bit, a little too awed at their new surroundings
Tartaglia was slightly offended, pointing at the Traveler's data. "How did you beat me with such crap stats."

"Look, I know I have horrid artifacts, I had to use lots and lots of hashbrowns to make up for it. You kicked my ass, especially the first time, alright? Click profile already."

"First time? I've fought you more than once?"

"Just move on, please," moaned Paimon. "We don't have time for this."

ZhongLi politely did as the creature asked. The text immediately changed. This time describing the voice actor, birthday, allegiances, and other miscellaneous details. The main body text said, "A traveler from another world who had their only kin taken away, forcing them to embark on a journey to find the Seven."

"Did you even get answers out of Mr. ZhongLi?"

"No and yes. He knows way too much and is utterly tight-lipped about everything."

Morax smiled cordially. "What's the fun in adventure if you had everything given to you? Every journey has a final day. Don't rush."

"True. The game would probably have ended and Mihoyo will have to flounder for another ten years to provide content if they just let you and Barbatos blab." The Traveler nodded sagely. "Gacha games and their ploys. At least the funding ensures that development and the plot is decent."

ZhongLi and Tartaglia blinked. ""What.""

Paimon sighed again. "It doesn't matter again. Look, you see the two buttons down there? The one that says 'Story' is the one you want to click. We'll use the Traveler as an example."

Tartaglia happily selected the button. A new menu showed up and the Traveler had slightly changed angles. The Character details menu appeared and this time the text said, "The keeper is fading; the creator has not come. But the world shall burn no more, for you shall ascend."

Morax frowned. Tartaglia was confused. "The hell does that mean?"

The traveler stared at ZhongLi, "Gee, I don't know, what does it mean Mr. Morax."

Morax' mouth was pressed into a firm line. "The author has a few theories, but doesn't want to bore us all with them considering how we still have to meet the criteria and prompt for this fic. We will have to move on for the sake of the word count or else the author will happily spit out another 44k words of nonsense."

The occupants of the weird domain could somehow hear Paimon nod, "Yes, let's move on. The menu to the left indicates how many stories about the character that we have unlocked. The Traveler only has 4 options available at this time. More stories are unlocked the higher the friendship level is."

ZhongLi blinked. Again, with this friendship level. "Is the Traveler not friends with themselves? Why aren't all the options available to read? Do we need to intervene on their self-esteem's behalf?"

The adventurer hissed, "Oh come on, it's only 1.2. Be more patient, I'm a walking spoiler. Look, this isn't the important part. You can exit out of this menu and click on other characters to look at their stories."

ZhongLi exited the menu and Tartaglia was already scrambling to click on another person. The world whirled and ZhongLi found himself looking at a very devious Childe and the Traveler opposite to him.

"Hey, it worked!"

"Of course it did, Dummy Harbinger," Paimon said from somewhere. "Look, we shouldn't waste more time, but once you get up to level 6, we can read all of the character's stories. Once you hit level 10, we get a shiny new plaque to brag about to our online friends. ZhongLi is at level 8 right now, so his available stories are unlocked-"

Tartaglia lunged for the story button and ZhongLi swatted the young man away. He was not letting the Harbinger into his personal profile. He barely trusted the Traveler with his information at this point. "No."

The great pout covered the youth's face. "That's no fun."

The Traveler placed their hand on their combat rival's shoulder. "It's okay. The only thing that is probably useful to us at this point is that ZhongLi hates seafood, is depressed and tired, and misses Venti-"

ZhongLi threw the toy monolith fragment, the one that floated around him when he was idle, at the Traveler. The young blond lunged to the left and slapped a character on the screen, instantly deleting the incoming meteor.

The world spun and the warm geo energy was replaced with ice.

The Traveler and Paimon let out a sigh of relief. The latter snapped, "Are you trying to kill the Traveler Mr. ZhongLi? I don't even know what would happen if the Traveler died. I don't even know if Mihoyo's support can recover the data if the Traveler died. The game just might-"

"No, I aimed so it would miss them. It was a warning shot." No one could tell if the geo adeptus was lying or not. Morax let out a great sigh. There was no point denying it. "I miss my friends. Most of them are dead. I'd much rather prefer it if we didn't dig around in my memories."

He glared the slightly sheepish Traveler. "As you gave Tartaglia three pieces of information regarding me, I only ask for three facts on him as well, for equivalent exchange."

"Wait a minute-"

"Yeah sure. His real name is Ajax, he trained in the Abyss at 14 under Skirk, his master. He used to be a super cute kid. Skirk ruined a perfectly good child and made him into the bloodthirsty monster that we all love today."

Tartaglia spluttered. "Was that a pun? Thanks. I hate it."

"Thank you." ZhongLi ignored him as he looked at the knight before them. "This must be Kaeya, Cavalry Captain and Quartermaster of the Knights of Favonious."

The man in question didn't respond to the three in front of him. He was beautiful with smooth brown skin and long peacock blue hair. An eyepatch hid an eye whilst the other was bright and glittered in the light blue lighting. Warm tones of gold elegantly contrasted against the blue, black and white. Morax narrowed his eyes as he focused on the star shaped pupil. This did not bode well for the child before them.

"Wow. He's pretty. Why isn't he responding to us like how ZhongLi and you did?" Tartaglia seemed unaware of the implications for the exotic young man.

"Probably because he's not in my party right now." The Traveler shrugged and slapped the story button. "Read all this."

They read the articles given to them.

ZhongLi closed his amber eyes and sighed. This child had a long path before him, especially with how unselfish he was for both Khaenri'ah and the Ragnvindr family. Ragnvindr tried to kill his sworn brother. Many LiYuens specifically made trips to altars to him to declare their found family and renew their vows. This was a broken contract in all forms.

"He tried to kill his little brother?" Childe was equally aghast. "Diluc still cares about him, right? He's not totally alone, right?"

The traveler bit back a sob and slapped the portrait of a redhead and the story button "that's the WORST part. Diluc didn't even mention him ONCE in his story. It's horrible that his dad died in such a manner, but Kaeya is still alive and he just threw away everything they had together just because Kaeya tried to be honest. I'm not saying that the truth isn't scary, but Kaeya didn't deserve an attempted murder by the last person he has."

The odd quartet invaded Diluc Ragnvindr's privacy. Once they were done, Tartaglia hesitantly reclicked on Kaeya's profile.

They reviewed the data again.

Tartaglia's eyes narrowed. "Daddy's boy doesn't acknowledge the fact that he didn't climb to where he was without help. Daddy's little boy is in fact a little too focused on his daddy, actually. Does he even pay attention to anything else other than his father's wishes or does he just let it define him?"

ZhongLi wearily looked at the young man before them. It was a terrible idea to leave him unattended in such an emotional state. A Khaenri'an left alone in this foreign world was volatile and obviously they had lost all mental support since that fateful night. Any further attempts at bonding will be difficult as Alberich rejects the very idea his Vision was based off of. The boy was evidently waiting to die. Venti definitely had his hands full. "Are all of the stories, or lore as you put it, like this?"

"No, not really. Some are also depressing, but Kaeya's the worst because it sounds like he just gave up. Other people have a bit of hope in their stories." The Traveler began to get teary eyed and pulled out an image from who-knows-where. "I screenshotted Kaeya's birthday note. He spent it in the tavern with me because he really didn't know who else to invite because in the end we are the only true outsiders that he is aware of. People kick him off their teams all the time because he's a starter Pokémon. It's horrible because they just abandoned him in the character box. Besides intimidate Inciniroar and protean Greninja, before it was nerfed, no one uses the starters competitively"

""They? What's Pokémon?""

Paimon spoke for the first time in a while. "Let's not get into parallel universes and the fact that we are characters in a widely popular free to play video game, okay? This story is already unnecessarily complicated for a crackfic. Paimon can't even believe that the author is using the mascot as one of the voices of reason. This isn't Paimon's job! Paimon demands a Sticky Honey Roast in compensation!"

Morax looked up at Paimon, who's disembodied embodiment was now happily snarfing down an absurd amount of Sticky Honey Roasts. This domain was bizarre. No one could see Paimon or her food, but it was as distinct as Tartaglia sneaking over to the character menu in an attempt to dig up more information on others. ZhongLi reached over and pulled the Harbinger back by his red scarf. "Are the stories consistent throughout the parallel universes?"

"Yeah. Kaeya's fucked overall on the board." Paimon noisily smacked her lips. "There may be a few translation discrepancies due to cultural differences, but the general angst is still- HEY! I thought we weren't getting into this discussion! You are being bad like Childe! Stop it, you two."

""Okay,"" agreed the two apparent troublemakers for the sake of simplicity.

"I think I have someone to adopt," mused ZhongLi. "Barbatos doesn't like to intervene personally in these matters and I can see why, but leaving Alberich like this, without any concrete tethers to this world, is incredibly risky."

"I think I have to adopt someone too." Childe grumbled, as if he wasn't sold on the idea the minute it was mentioned. "Who the hell abandons their kid in the middle of a thunderstorm where they could have died? Who fucking throws away found family just because they have something about them that you disagree with? I need to teach him the real meaning of familial love, this is an insult to the Tsarista."

"You… you two want to help him too?" The Traveler was wide eyed.

Tartaglia nodded. "To honour your lost twin. Family is very important. I'll still help look for them, of course. Your little friend XingQiu would say it would be unchivalrous to turn a blind eye to those in need: he's helped me a lot with his Constellation 2. I should also do this as thanks to the 15% hydro debuff he puts on enemies for me."

"I'll do it to piss Venti off for not visiting me anymore and for the sole condition that you don't let anyone else into this dimension and abuse the privacy of others."

"Paimon agrees with Rex Lapis. This world can be easily abused, especially with the fact that I can stop time with it."

The Harbinger's head shot up to stare at the disembodied voice. The implications were not lost upon the orange haired boy. ZhongLi's lips pressed together as he pretended to not know anything about the situation.

The Traveler thankfully didn't seem to notice. "Can I at least clear a few individuals with you? I don't know if we can just pull this off with three and a half people."

"Hey! Paimon isn't half a person!"

"Fine."

"I agree to your terms! For my lost kin and Kaeya!"

The bizarre realm dissolved.

"The sun really didn't move after all this time." Tartaglia narrowed his eyes at the sunset. The Harbinger stood up, stretched, and let out a great big yawn. Mentally ZhongLi agreed. The domain was mentally taxing. Childe reached over, offering a gloved hand. "Truce?"

ZhongLi smiled slightly and accepted the handshake. "Truce."

All the events of 1.0 and 1.1, particularly Childe's bitterness, were conveniently forgotten for the sake of their newfound ambition. ZhongLi and Tartaglia shook hands in the light of the dying sun.

Today was a grand moment in the history of Genshin Impact. It was the day that ZhongLi, Tartaglia, the Traveler, and Paimon said fuck to you the infinite possibilities (and non possibilities) of Kaeya and took fate into their own hands.

They had a man to kidnap.

--

Tartaglia had to go do his work first, lest his underlings got suspicious. The Traveler pouted but understood. Training the new recruits and directing them to cause trouble shouldn't take too long.

HuTao spun, flaring her skirt, and pointed angrily at the incognito and retired archon. "You! You emotionally constipated old man, ZhongLi. How dare you show your face to the 77th Director of the WangSheng Funeral Parlor after siccing the QiXing on her!"

ZhongLi shrugged. "It's fine. You are enmity based, the lower your HP is, the stronger you get. NingGuang and her interrogators stand no chance against you."

"What."

"What I meant was that I had faith in your capabilities and that this was just a prank. I was hoping that you would understand what you put me and others through on the regular."

HuTao stared at him as if he grew five feet and antlers. ZhongLi looked up to check. No dragon horns. He was still a human sized mortal. Things were alright for now. Being in the domain seemed to have altered ZhongLi in some sort of manner. He noticed what the Traveler called the UI, his health bar, and the stranger staring at the screen right now. He tried to not think too hard about it. As Paimon said, it didn't really matter in the end.

The Traveler smiled sweetly. "We need your help."

"No thanks. If the old fart is planning it, it'll be boring and stuffy. Tradition this. Tradition that."

"We are planning to drive Mondstadt's equivalent to a prince insane by kidnapping his estranged brother and taunting him by showering said sibling with affection. It's completely up your alley." ZhongLi deadpanned.

"Who are you and what did you do to my no nonsense funeral consultant?"

"Priorities change and this needs to be done fast. Are you in or not?"

"Oh, I am so in. Why did you need me anyways?" The little girl turned to face the Traveler. "I know you are the person that helped save LiYue Harbour, surely you don't have a need for little old me for my strength."

"As of 1.2, you haven't been released. This means two things. You are infinitely strong and infinitely weak. The truth of the matter is that we won't know and nothing we do now will change your release information. This means that the idiot slapping the digital keyboard on the word processor side of the screen can bullshit some of your abilities."

The young girl narrowed her eyes at the Traveler. "Look, most people call me insane, but this is a whole new level of "I have no idea what you are talking about". Mr. ZhongLi, are you sure we can trust this person?"

"Yes. Traveler, you'll need to run interference with the Acting Grandmaster. HuTao, I need you to pretend to be Batman of the wine industry. Tartaglia will corner the mark and I will ensure the escape route."

"What's a Batman."

"The mark's brother pretends to be a vigilante of justice to satiate his own ego. I would greatly appreciate it if you could ruin his reputation. He has a pyro vision, much like you." ZhongLi patiently explained. "His moniker is the "Darknight Hero" and we need to keep him busy. He's very similar to a story in the Outlander's home world, so we call him Batman to avoid bringing attention in case he accesses his underground network."

"A pyro vision? Why didn't you ask XinYan to help? I know she really looks up to the Traveler."

The traveler nodded sagely, "XinYan is a good girl. You, on the other hand, are capable of being a bad girl and enjoy causing trouble. You also are a little harder to identify than the only girl that plays rock music. We want trouble and lots of it."

HuTao gave them a feral smile. "I can definitely do trouble. Old man, you got a strategy, right? I want to hear it."

--

Mondstadt was on fire by the time the four and the emergency rations left it.

A job well done, if Paimon had to say so herself. The annoyed yells from the sealed coffin could be dealt with at a later time, when they were in a secure location. The Traveler had remained behind in Mondstadt to ensure that their escape was fully realized.

"That was easier than I thought. Good thing we requested for XingQiu to make us a dummy outfit. It burned quite nicely." Childe spun the cryo vision in his palms. He turned to place a palm against the cool wood in the middle of the cart. "Kaeya, it's okay. You are safe now."

The pounding against the sturdy wood was unconvinced.

ZhongLi spurred their horses onwards as they slowly pulled their cart towards LiYue. "Gas him. We aren't out of the woods yet and we'll be hitting multiple Millelith checkpoints. Paimon, hide."

HuTao cackled. "I didn't know you had it in you, old man."

"Me? Forging a single Mond death certificate? Surely it's not as horrid as Barbatos' falsification of his people being sold to Morax. I'd say it's fair game."

--

A small girl wailed from inside the Ordo Headquarters' solitary confinement. "It's not Klee's fault! Klee was a good girl and stayed inside all day!"

"Spark Knight, I know it's not you-"

"Acting Grand Master Jean! The only remains of Cavalry Captain Kaeya are the charred remains of his cape and outer coat! Even his boots are… His sword has been recovered." Huffman rushed in, panting heavily and slightly green. "Who do we inform? The emergency contacts on his file were last updated when he joined the Knights of Favonious. Master Crepus is no longer with us and Diluc wants nothing to do with our Cavalry Captain. Who do we inform that he's possibly dead?"

"Not in front of Klee!" Jean was horrified and completely missed the fact that the main doors swung open.

"Kaeya gēgē is dead?" was the horrified little voice.

"Kaeya is dead?" Parroted another horrified voice. Jean spun on her heels to face the newcomers.

"Mona… Mona, Barbara, and Diona have control over the fires now," gasped the Honourary Knight as they stumbled into the atrium. "Mondstadt should stabilize in a few hours. Rosaria is doing her investigations with Bennett; we don't think he's at fault either."

Behind the Honourary Knight, stood Diluc Ragnvindr. He was the owner of the second question. Even though he was covered in soot, Jean could tell that the man was pale. His hands shook, unable to keep his great claymore still. "Is Kaeya really dead?"

"Klee dear, can you come out of confinement? I think we all need to talk. I'll ask Lisa to make us some tea. Huffman, please send for her. We'll all talk in my office."

--

Wangsheng Funeral Parlor was not made to be a prison, but here they were, trying to calm down a very foreign and very confused knight. HuTao manned the first floor with the Ferrylady. ZhongLi and Tartaglia were carefully hidden away in one of Paimon's dimensional pockets.

"Wakey wakey, Kaeya. The storm is over now!"

"Paimon. What's the meaning of this?"

"Paimon should be asking you that. What do you think you are doing, Kaeya? What are you doing in Mondstadt? What is it that you really want to do? Have you done anything in your life that isn't for Master Crepus or Diluc's sake?"

"I'm not in Mondstadt right now, Paimon. Let me go. I have a duty to-"

"Yeah sure, you have a duty to Mondstadt's people, but you are constantly bored and drink away your memories and time. Are you happy? You've never properly answered the Traveler or Paimon if you were really lonely or not."

"Paimon, I belong to Mond. Does the Traveler know about this arrangement of yours?"

"They suggested it, actually. They were tired of your self destructive tendencies. We thought it might be better if you were in an environment where you were surrounded by people who genuinely care about you."

"I was surrounded by people who care about me!"

"Like who?" Paimon stared the man down. The small spirit floated menacingly in front of him. "Name one that you LET them help you emotionally."

"Jean."

"We all know that the Acting Grandmaster is too busy for any personal relationship. You have a working relationship, but I doubt she has time for drinks considering how you had to practically con her to attend her own party. Next."

"Klee."

"You take care of her and the child loves everyone except grumpy people. Dependents don't count, especially since she has so many guardians."

"Amber."

"She's technically a dependent too and you are her superior officer."

"Noelle."

"Dependent."

"Albedo?" This one was more a question, as if Kaeya himself wasn't sure.

"Look, Mr. Anti-social MIGHT be fond of you because you do all the leg work in the social aspect and that you both can only stomach tiny meals. But is it enough for your emotional needs? The boy barely understands his OWN needs."

"Look, I shouldn't be wasting time playing "Answer-a-Question" with you, Paimon, especially since you are unwilling to accept any of my answers. I should go home." Kaeya stood up to leave.

"Sit down." Ordered Paimon in a voice that even she didn't recognize.

Kaeya sat down.

Paimon put her arms on her hips. "I'm still waiting for an answer."

"Adelinde."

"We all know that you can't see her anymore, along with Elzer."

"Diluc."

"And what has he done for you?"

Kaeya looked down. "He's willing to hold a conversation with me for more than 20 seconds now. You saw us that evening with Pallad and Silio. We were having drinks together-"

"Where he completely missed half of the conversation and practically told you that if you weren't useful, he'd throw you out."

"He hasn't tried to kill me again since he has returned. He no longer tries to throw me out of the tavern when I want to see how he's doing. Diluc doesn't try to fight every time I see him now. I don't know how you and the Traveler found out about that night, but it's an improvement."

"Kaeya, normal people would consider the benchmark of "not being killed" something out of an abusive relationship."

Kaeya looked at Paimon in absolute horror. "He's not like that. He's not-"

"How does Paimon know that you aren't brainwashed because he's one of the first people who showed you genuine love?"

A slight cough echoed from Paimon's pocket dimension. ZhongLi's voice was smooth and gentle. "Paimon, it may be us that is brainwashed. They are controlling the narrative at this point. I will admit that the information we received may be biased and that we may not have the full picture."

"We don't have the full picture despite breaking the fourth wall?" Childe asked. Kaeya looked increasingly confused at the situation.

"As proven by the Traveler, we may not have all the information. Diluc's lore may not mention Kaeya, but we don't have access to their personal thoughts."

"Oh. So you mean they might have a tendency to jump to conclusions and blow things out of proportion."

"Yes. Herd mentality can be very dangerous. Critical thinking is vital."

"How about us? I know I feel different after that domain. I'm also doing things that I'm not normally inclined to do."

"We're probably doomed. The author is already in this hell hole of a fic with us." ZhongLi just shrugged, as if he just didn't declare death upon their personalities.

"Paimon is pulling you two out of my pocket soon. Less talking about the morality of characterizations and more about Kaeya. He's more confused than a hilichurl placed at a fancy dinner in the Tsaritsa's palace."

Paimon turned her attention back to Kaeya.

"When was the last time that you did something for you? Paimon knows that you asked the Traveler to spend your birthday with you so Diluc didn't pity you. He was the one that reminded you about it in the first place, didn't he?"

"No, don't be ridiculous. It was Jean who reminded me."

Paimon gave Kaeya her best disappointed look. "You would have mentioned her by name in your birthday invite if it was her. I know you can lie better than this. "

Kaeya refused to look at Paimon in the eyes.

"Look. You'll be fine. The author is forcing you into a "confused young man" role, so just let them do their thing and refrain from trying to scheme, okay? Paimon and the Traveler got you a new dad."

"What."

The small spirit yanked at something and ZhongLi gracefully stepped out of thin air. Paimon nodded proudly, "This is a crackfic and it's getting too angsty with your denial of how lonely you are. We need a change of pace; accept the new reality."

ZhongLi gently placed his hands on Kaeya's shoulders. "I seem to be often referred to as a father figure. I can be yours too, if you'd like."

"Who are you?"

A soothing smile crossed over the LiYuen's face as he let go of Kaeya. "I'm ZhongLi. I will provide you with support, despite my 1.2 kit being slightly lacking for a five star. Constellation 1, for reference."

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow."

"It's alright. 1.3 is releasing soon with my and geo buffs. Predownloading the update is already available. We can figure it out together."

"And Paimon and the Traveler also got you a new big brother."

Paimon tugged at thin air again.

Tartaglia did not have the same amount of reservation as ZhongLi, opting to immediately dash forward, breaking into Kaeya's guard and pulling him into a hug. The Harbinger rested his cheek against Kaeya's silky locks. "How about I fight your asshole brother to the death and you can become my little bro instead."

"Seriously, who are you people?" Kaeya pulled away slightly to stare at this new stranger. "Aren't you YOUNGER than me? Wait. You are the jerk that knocked me out-"

"Doesn't matter. I'm your big brother now. It's my job to help you out of potentially dangerous situations." Tartaglia pulled Kaeya back in and hushed him. A gloved hand began to pat Kaeya's nape at a pace reminiscent of a calm heartbeat. "You'll thrive. Don't worry."

"Tartaglia. Your aggressive nature may scare him." ZhongLi politely pointed out.

Paimon floated over to pat the wide eyed bluenette. "It's okay Kaeya. Tartaglia doesn't mean you harm. Accept the fact that we are saying fuck you to every pessimistic theory about you and that we want to dote on you. Let us."

"I'm very confused right now."

"It's okay. You're ours now." The ginger soothed as he continued to pet Kaeya's head. "They'll make sure of it."

"That doesn't make me feel any better!"

--

Not surprisingly, Kaeya tried to bolt at every chance he had.

The team ended up working in shifts.

Tartaglia had the fastest reflexes and was assigned to keep Kaeya safe when everyone was the most vulnerable: when everyone was asleep. The Harbinger worked most days, so it wasn't uncommon to find Tartaglia curled up against Kaeya in bed at night.

His opinion? "Yeah, no problem. If the winters are too cold in Snezhnaya, we always huddle up. It'll be just like my childhood, brother!"

Kaeya's opinion? "You are making me share a bed with the man who knocked me out and thinks I'm his younger brother? Are you insane?"

As a result, it was obvious that Kaeya did not sleep for the first few days. In these moments, Tartaglia pulled the insomniac up onto the roof and the two men quietly watched the clouds or stars. Other nights were filled with street food or playing with the local cats and dogs. Sometimes though, Tartaglia just wanted to play, Kaeya's precious beauty sleep be damned.

"Are we sure that we are allowed on top of the Northland Bank?"

"Eh, it's practically my place at this point. Alright, Mr. Muffins is here. Hello kitty! How are you? I brought you a fish stick!"

"You own a bank?"

"Eh. No. I'm one of the Eleven Harbingers, I might as well own this branch for visiting so often though. Surely you have heard Paimon or Mr. ZhongLi calling me Childe by now."

"I was under the impression that you were being teased for your immaturity, not the fact that you were the Eleventh Harbinger of the Fatui." Kaeya suddenly felt less badly about being taken off guard in Mondstadt.

"Yeah. Want shaomai and crystal shrimp? I also got curry tofu-fish balls, lotus wrapped sticky rice, and booze for us. I've been craving dimsum for ages, but Pulcinella's idiots made a mess of Dottore's old lab, so I've been too busy to even stop by the stalls."

"Did your Tsaritsa order this?"

"The dimsum? No."

"I meant the kidnapping and keeping me here."

"Uh. No. If Her Majesty knew about you, you'd be in Snezhnaya right now. I think there is another fic being written right now about that exact circumstance. At the cost of sounding disloyal to Her Majesty-- which I am not-- no, the orders came from higher up."

Someone higher than the authority of the Seven exists on Teyvat? Who could it be? Celestia herself? Gold? The Creator? The people holding him hostage did mention a "they" repeatedly. Kaeya wasn't sure if it meant that the entity was gender neutral or if there were more than one.

"Ohhh, selling out to promote the other story was totally worth it. Look, I can split chopsticks evenly now with no splinters!" Tartaglia's genuine enthusiasm caught Kaeya off guard. The Harbinger looked completely harmless with an orange cat in his lap. The ginger tested the LiYuen eating utensils tentatively. "Ha, forget harnessing the abyss for power, I should just start using the fourth wall. Look Kaeya! I can use them now too. Stuff it, Mr. ZhongLi, your overpriced chopsticks didn't do shit! Kaeya, say aaaaah!"

Kaeya expected Tartaglia to drop the food, but Tartaglia successfully stuffed a chilli oil covered dumpling into his mouth. LiYuen food was pretty damn good, if the Knight had to admit it. Watching the ginger unabashedly play with his food and happily eat it was endearing. It was a stark contrast to last night, where he struggled to keep the take out food in the bowl or in his mouth.

The Khaenri'an let out a small laugh under his breath.

Tartaglia blinked and offered a can of rice wine. "Too spicy?"

"No." He accepted the can anyways. The can popped open and the bitter liquid was a refreshing contrast to the umami of their food. "I was just thinking. Besides your slightly chaotic and destructive outlook, you really are genuine about this."

"Thanks. I hope I'm a damn good brother, otherwise I wouldn't know why the Traveler and they would even trust me with you. I'm still banned from raising young kids. I dunno why, I think I do an okay job."

They. Kaeya still wondered about who this mystery "they" was and why they seemed so insistent in flipping Kaeya's life upside down.

"When we have time, we should go visit my family in Snezhnaya. My siblings, both older and younger, would love you; you are pretty relaxed and lots of fun. Although-" Tartaglia gave Kaeya a small contemplative glance and pressed a warm crystal shrimp against Kaeya's lips. "Mother already hates that I'm all muscle and bones. We'll need to get some more food into you unless you don't mind being smothered. If you think I'm bad, wait untill you meet momma bear."

Kaeya rolled his eyes and took the juicy rice parcel into his mouth in one motion. The dumpling burst into flavour and Kaeya wondered if he could possibly utilize the crayfish that adored Mondstadt's rivers and creeks to a similar advantage. That was definitely an underutilized resource and a business opportunity. Crayfish was a lot closer to lobster or crab in taste, but shellfish's flavour was pretty hard to beat.

LiYue's food was fantastic. He still wanted to go home.

Tartaglia picked up a curry ball threateningly. Kaeya shook his head and picked up the other pair of unopened chopsticks. "I can feed myself."

The harbinger shrugged and popped the fish ball into his mouth. Kaeya cracked the bamboo sticks apart.

He stared at the mess in his hands.

"You know whatever deity that you were talking about? The one that let you split chopsticks normally? Can you hook me up and put in a good word for me?"

Tartaglia laughed and Kaeya couldn't help but reactively smile. He was a cute kid.

"Sure, but I think they already adore you."

--

The state funeral was held. There was no body to bury. They'll have to make due with Kaeya's sword.

Attendance was not mandatory. It was raining heavily, and many didn't show up. The city was still understaffed and most of the Knights were unable to make it as they had to pick and put the city back together.

Diluc's hands gripped the calla lilies in his hand. He thought that Kaeya was well loved by Mondstadt.

Despite everything that Kaeya has done for Mondstadt, only the Honourary Knight, Amber, Venti, Klee, Albedo, Noelle, and Jean showed up. Lisa was there too, but Diluc silently thought that she was most likely dragged out of the library from a nap to attend. Adelinde and Elzer stood silently beside him. The former was silently dabbing at her tears and Elzer looked slightly lost.

Grandma Giesbrecht sat on her walker, huddled under her heavy shawls. The Honourary Knight was politely holding an umbrella over the grandmother shielding her from the worst of the rain.

Only twelve people showed up to the funeral and four of them didn't even live in the city.

It's hard to imagine someone as mischievous, amiable, and wine-loving as Kaeya to be unloved.

"Why do you like calla lilies so much? They aren't exactly the prettiest flowers around."

"I just think they are a lot like me."

Diluc frowned, "but you're pretty. You are very pretty, like a Cecilia bloom."

Red flushed across Kaeya's face and Diluc couldn't help but tuck the small lamp grass flower in his hand behind Kaeya's ear. He just wanted an excuse to touch him.

Kaeya looked away, slightly abashed. "It's a flower that grows near water sources. When cooked the petals have a chunky texture, yet are sweet and a little bitter. Modern medicine recognizes Calla Lily's antidotal properties, but its astringent flavor is repulsive to many people. They also play a vital role in the watershed, but farmers tend to uproot them to make way their crops."

"That sounds nothing like you." Kaeya looked at him with great melancholy in his eye. Diluc hated it when Kaeya looked like this, so he pressed his forehead against Kaeya's and rested the tip of his nose against the younger boy's. "It sounds nothing like you at all."

Diluc was wrong.

Diluc was wrong about many things about life.

Diluc was also wrong about many things about Kaeya.

Perhaps Kaeya was just very well liked. He was held in high esteem and tolerated for his ability to filter out bad water, the bad people from Mondstadt's populace; but, when he was gone, most people wouldn't miss him.

--

ZhongLi was much less clingy, or at least he was less physically clingy. The older man was generally in charge of the day shifts and had a more gentler touch, allowing him to weave Kaeya through the crowds without much notice.

Kaeya should have ran to the nearest Millelith and asked for help, but gentle hand always guided him away and the soft baritone filled his ears and mind with tidbits of trivia and facts.

The first order of things was to get Kaeya a new wardrobe. Apparently he stuck out like a sore thumb with his confiscated cape.

Tailors whizzed around Kaeya, barely letting him get a word in. The second son of the FeiYun fashion tycoon, XingQiu, entered the room and the artisans all bowed in respect. XingQiu nodded politely. "Please, do not mind me. I'm here to chat with Mr. ZhongLi while you work on the guest."

"Little XingQiu, how are you?" The LiYuen gentleman smiled and poured a cup of tea for the approaching boy. "Are you in good health and spirits?"

"I am. I am glad to see that you are well as well. Why did you need a private booking so urgently? I don't mind pushing a few appointments around, but let's just say my curiosity got the better of me."

Kaeya looked away from the conversation. ZhongLi looked too much like Crepus from his memories where he quietly answered questions from an over eager Diluc.

The tailors were swift and Kaeya was clothed in silk that would cost him at least several years of his salary. That wasn't the scary part.

"May I ask how you know of my heritage and the crests associated with it?" Khaenri'an knots were tastefully hidden in the hems and patterned wings slanted to make his waist appear even smaller. Navy blue and greys were the main colours of the fabric, but accents of gold and silver brought about a hint of dignity and nobility. They didn't bother with ruffles like young XingQiu's outfit, opting for a more mature pleating and threadwork. This was not a traditional cheongsam or hanfu but it was tasteful enough that no one would really notice unless they took the time to dissect the outfit. They even made hidden pockets for all of his knives. Kaeya's hand traced a Khaenri'an star. He hadn't even noticed it in his first inspection.

"You don't have to worry about it. Your secrets are safe with me."

"And they are safe by making me wear them in public?"

ZhongLi smiled and gently patted his head. "Your old outfit also had many secrets woven into them. If they hadn't noticed by now, I think you will be safe."

Kaeya blinked. It was true. His uniform that he wore in Mondstadt did scream "Khaenri'ah and Celestia".

"You look very handsome," the man continued as he gently tied a ribbon around his long hair. "It makes my heart at ease that one of you had flourished, despite what had been done to your kind "

Kaeya's breath hitched.

That tone of voice was one that Crepus reserved for Diluc. It wasn't intentional on the wine lord's part, but Kaeya had given up on having a close paternal relationship with anyone since being abandoned in Teyvat.

This wasn't real, Kaeya told himself. These people and Traveler literally kidnapped him out of Mondstadt and burnt about a sixth of it down.

The warmth in the amber eyes, however, were very real. "It's alright. It's a new environment and I understand if you are uncomfortable. If you want to tour more of the city or explore more of LiYue, all you have to do is just ask."

Kaeya blinked. "Alright."

"It's midday and we both skipped breakfast. Little XingQiu, would you like to join us for lunch?"

"I'd be honoured to. I'm billing this and the rest of the clothes to the Northland Bank right?"

"No. To Tartaglia himself, this time. It's not a work expense."

"Are you bullying him again?"

"Ah, the young soldier is perfectly fine. He offered, actually."

"Alright." Seemingly satisfied with the answer the young LiYuen boy turned to face the foreigner. "Mr. Kaeya?"

"Yes?"

"How long have you known Mr. ZhongLi?"

"I-"

"He has been recently entrusted to my care by the Traveler. He's on work leave and will be residing in LiYue for the next bit. What is it?"

Work leave. Is that what they were calling this? Is Jean in on this plot as well? No. He couldn't see her doing something as underhanded as this or even think about burning her precious city.

XingQiu nodded and held Kaeya's hands in his. "You'll need to know a few survival tips around Mr. ZhongLi. I've learnt this directly from the Traveler and Paimon. Rule number one: take his wallet away."

"I don't think that's quite necessary, XingQiu."

"Uncle ZhongLi, with all the respect and love for your help in battle, I've seen you shop in person. It's necessary. Rule number two: don't let him negotiate prices. Ever. I'll come shopping with you two this afternoon, just so you can get a hang of bartering yourself."

Kaeya watched ZhongLi sigh as he reluctantly handed his heavy purse over to XingQiu. The boy nodded in approval. "That's step one. Mr. ZhongLi, are you sure you aren't bullying Mr. Tartaglia? This is a lot of money.

"I am not," sighed the gentleman. "Let's just get lunch first, shall we?"

"Rule number three: don't let Mr. ZhongLi order everything on the menu unless we have the blackholes known as Paimon and the Traveler with us."

"XingQiu. He's skinny and needs food-"

"Only order the entire menu if we can afford it and if the blackholes are with us."

--

Diluc found himself staring at the spot where Kaeya would normally haunt in the bar.

A stranger was sitting in it now. Most of the regulars were polite enough to leave it empty for the time being.

As a tavern owner, he couldn't kick out a perfectly polite and paying customer just because they were sitting in a chair.

Charles placed a handkerchief into his hand.

Diluc blinked at him in confusion.

"For your tears."

Diluc shakily brought the fabric up and wiped. He… he was definitely out of it.

"Take the rest of the week off, Master Diluc. We understand."

--

When ZhongLi or Tartaglia were unable to stop Kaeya in time, it became Paimon's job to teleport over and stop him.

Most of the time, this entailed Paimon screaming at the top of her lungs and complaining about how Uncle Kaeya was a meanie for not buying her candy. If she looked like a small toddler, she can definitely act like one.

This would attract attention from both civilians and the local police force.

The attention from pitying aunties and uncles also bought time for ZhongLi (and by proxy, XingQiu) and or Tartaglia to swoop in and redirect Kaeya.

This ALSO meant that Paimon gets lots of chances to score free candy. The arrangement comes to an end when the Traveler comes back. It's a little easier to herd Kaeya back with two people and when you aren't the size of Klee.

Speaking of Klee, the small girl was now sobbing in Kaeya's arms.

"I've never been more terrified or confused in my life and you brought Klee over." The "What is wrong with you" was left unsaid. "If she gets hurt by these people, I will murder you" was also left unsaid.

The Traveler had returned to LiYue, evidently successful at throwing the Ordo Knights off their trail. The only knight that they didn't lose was apparently the Spark Knight. "Look, Klee was absolutely ruined and Albedo was a wreck. Jean's too busy cleaning up and learning how to stand without you. I thought it would be better to take her on a roadtrip and explain the circle of life to her slowly."

"The circle of life?"

"Yeah. You're dead."

"Kaeya is NOT dead," wailed the small child. "He's right here!"

"Klee, it's alright. See? I'm breathing and have a heartbeat."

Little red eyes widened as she stared at Kaeya. "Albedo doesn't breathe or have a heartbeat. Is he dead? Do we have to bury him too? I don't like burying people. It makes everyone sad and Klee hates that."

"I-" Kaeya didn't often have the chance to finish his sentences anymore.

HuTao shouted from the front desk, "Did I hear that I have another zombie to bury?"

"Qiqi is off limits and so is Albedo!" snapped the Traveler. "Look, Kaeya. Mr. ZhongLi's a little strict, but he really does have a lot of experience. He isn't a bad person. I… I can't say the same about Tartaglia, but he's really sweet when he's in his big brother mode. Are they treating you well?"

Kaeya refused to make eye contact with the Traveler. It was completely petty, but the man was literally at the mercy of the Outlander's whims.

"Kaeya. I know you are mad at me for faking your death and arranging your kidnapping, but it's for a good cause. Diluc will realize how much you mean to him and you get to be spoiled for once in your life."

Klee looked up in confusion. "Kidnapped? What does that mean?"

"Klee, it means that someone was taken away from their home and family. Normally this is a bad thing." Explained XingQiu who was sitting beside them. He narrowed his bright eyes. With the subtlety of an elephant in a Snezhnayan courtroom, XingQiu leaned over to whisper to Kaeya, "Blink twice if you need help."

Klee was more upfront with her worry. "Does Kaeya want Klee to blow this place up?"

"Can I actually take you up on that offer, sunshine?" Kaeya said while obviously blinking twice.

"Paimon, EMERGENCY MEETING! Mr. ZhongLi, I'm recruiting the kids!" The Traveler reached over and grabbed XingQiu and Klee each by the hand.

ZhongLi's lazy wave of his hand didn't even finish before the two worried children were in tears.

"Kaeya, your daddy is mean! He didn't promise to come back."

"A sworn brotherhood lost to the fires of fate… what cruel nights that you have had to endure. I can't imagine your pain."

Kaeya paled as he pulled Klee into his arms. He awkwardly also pulled XingQiu in as well. The two children sobbed into today's hanfu, well hidden in the soft sleeves as he embraced them. "What did you do to them."

"All I did was give them access to the Character Menu. It's okay. The only known side effects to them are minor like having access to the fourth wall. No big deal."

"What's the fourth wall?" Was Kaeya's slightly hysterical response. Nothing about this situation made sense. The affection that these people showed was genuine, but this all felt like a really bad fever dream.

--

Diluc stared at the odd duo in front of him. "What do you mean that Kaeya is still alive."

XingQiu hissed, giving the empty alleyway a nervous look. "Not so loudly! They might be mad that we are telling you."

Klee nodded in agreement. "Yeah! They might get mad! Be quiet."

Trapping the Darknight Hero was harder than what the LiYuen anticipated. It took the two children a bit of time to safely corner Diluc and even longer to ensure that no one followed them.

How did HuTao pass off as him? The world may never know. The tavernkeep didn't even bother to hide his red hair.

"They?"

"Klee will explain. The people who took Kaeya aren't bad. They just want the best for him. Kaeya needs more friends and family, so they gave him some."

"Where did they take him? I swear, they will pay for all the pain they have caused-"

Klee's hand snapped forward and pulled at the long hem of Diluc's long coat. Her crimson eyes glowed unnaturally in the night, "Klee's not done explaining."

"He might be in danger!"

"He's very safe," groaned XingQiu. He knew that the man was reactive, but he had hoped the teamwork skills that Diluc had collected over three years of his absence would kick in. "Look, we are already risking a lot to tell you. You are very important to Kaeya and it's not fair to just cut you out like that, even though you unsuccessfully have tried to do so for the past few years. He still misses you."

Diluc narrowed his eyes. "Who told you this."

"The character stories menu did!" Klee helpfully explained.

It made perfect sense to XingQiu and Klee.

It did not make perfect sense to Diluc.

"Are you two mad? Have I gone mad in grief?" Diluc pressed his hand against his own forehead. "I'm hallucinating. It's the only possible explanation. Kaeya is dead. Klee isn't supposed to be out this late and is being escorted by a LiYuen boy. Klee's supposed to be with the Honourary Knight in LiYue."

"Klee's supposed to come home tomorrow, that's when Jean is expecting me. Klee gave up a day with Kaeya just so she can tell you, but Dummy Diluc is too dummy. XingQiu, let's just give up on him and go to Jean or Albedo. Tarta-gēgē is right, Diluc is a bad older brother." The small girl sniffled, "He doesn't want to see Kaeya."

That was not true in the slightest.

Yellow and red eyes widened. Klee spoke for them both, "It's not?"

Horror dawned on Diluc's face. He had said that out loud. He couldn't stop the words that came out next either. "There are so many things I still want to say to Kaeya, but I thought that I had lost my chances to do so. I miss him."

"Then go see him and tell him, Dummy Diluc."

"I…"

"After I drop Klee off at the knight headquarters, would you like to come with me? It would be oh so terrible to let a young boy like myself travel in the dark all the way back to LiYue. We might run into a man with beautiful blue hair and a penchant for alcohol on the way," winked XingQiu.

"Klee wants to come with you."

"No," as Diluc's immediate and adamant response.

"B-but-"

"It's very late. Your big brother Albedo needs you too. Jean will be worried if you don't show up tomorrow. We don't want Jean to be worried, do we? We know she can get scary when she's worried." XingQiu knelt down to look at the small girl in the eye. "I promise to bring you to go visit Kaeya again when he feels a bit better, okay? Pinky promise?"

"Okay, XingQiu gēgē. Pinky promise." Klee turned in all seriousness to Diluc. "You were sad at Kaeya's funeral, but were you really sad? It's not Kaeya gēgē's pretend sad, is it?"

"It's not. They say the Darknight Hero killed him in a bout of pyromania, but I could never hurt him the way I tried to that night. He's mine and I am his. Losing him is like losing a lung. I can't breathe easily without him." Hallucinations be damned, Diluc was taking any thread of hope he could get.

Klee looked at XingQiu thoughtfully. "I think they are saying that he passed. You don't have to stab him in the dark like Tarta-gēgē suggested."

"Yeah. I'm not stabbing anyone in the back, even if they asked."

Diluc blinked. He still didn't know who "they" were.

--

The two did not leave Mondstadt alone, as planned. A bard dressed in green followed them out and past Stone Gate.

Venti happily strummed a tune. "So things aren't as they seem, I wonder how their plan was so clean."

The fact that the Archon of Mondstadt was trailing them did nothing to prove or disprove if XingQiu was a hallucination or not. Dropping Klee off with a very sleepy Noelle seemed realistic enough, but Diluc couldn't strike out all possibilities at this time. "Venti, this has nothing to do with you. Go home."

"This has a lot to do with me. I still don't know how they eluded my attention."

"You don't notice a lot of things."

"Like what?"

"Like your extensive bill at the tavern."

Barbatos flatly ignored him. "Yes, your brother is very much a person of interest. It is very alarming that I managed to lose trace of him at all."

"He's not my brother! I haven't seen him as my brother in years," admitted Diluc.

Their guide stopped in his tracks. "Then I'm afraid this is as far as I can take you, Master Diluc."

"XingQiu?"

"Sworn brotherhood isn't something to be taken lightly. If you are abandoning your oath, then I will have to leave you here." The boy was adamant. "What is he to you?"

Diluc looked down, reluctant to say anything.

Venti smirked, "It's alright. Say it. I know we stopped to pick something up from the winery for a reason."

XingQiu stood patiently. Venti was too clever for his own good.

"I… Kaeya…" Diluc groaned and rummaged through an inner pocket. "I've spent my entire childhood learning how to speak eloquently and how to mind my manners, but when it matters the most, it never seems to be helpful."

"I refuse to lose him again." He pulled a small box and held it in between both hands, face flushing pink. Diluc held the jewelry box that protected the engagement ring tightly. "Father had it made for me when I was younger. I had always wondered why he chose these colours, but my infatuation must have been obvious since childhood. I've always been looking away from him, taking for granted that he would always be by my side or that he has my back from a distance. I need to see him."

Understanding dawned on the two short men in front of Diluc. XingQiu in particular seemed to be deep in thought. "Oh, this explains a bit. Not a lot. But enough. You're just an idiot."

Diluc choked on air.

"Come on. Kaeya's waiting." The boy waved at the two Mond civilians to follow him.

"That's it?"

XingQiu stopped. "Look. Everyone is stupid. The only advice I have is to not pop the question the minute you see Kaeya."

"Why is that?" Venti's eyes glittered in amusement.

"With the way that the story is set up, even they can't stop Tartaglia from flat out murdering you. We'll need to iron out the wrinkles and get the story straight before anything else. I still suggest not proposing to Kaeya within a fifty kilometre radius of Tartaglia."

"Who is Tartaglia?" Diluc was both aghast and concerned.

"That's Kaeya's new little big bro. He's really sticking to the overprotective older brother role."

"His what?"

"Eh, it'll be faster to just meet him. You can't really describe him in just words."

--

"The little shit."

Venti raised an eyebrow. "Calling XingQiu names isn't very nice, especially when he's doing so much to help you."

"He didn't mention that Tartaglia was a Fatui." Diluc's eyes narrowed onto the mask on top of the ginger's head. "He definitely didn't mention that the bastard was a Harbinger. Tartaglia is not a common name, I should have known it was the Harbinger."

Venti was unimpressed and happily stuffed a rice crepe in his mouth. "It's not the kid that you should be worried about. You don't want to piss off the one in the brown suit. Want some of this? The peanut and soy sauce is a divine combination."

The plan was for XingQiu to drag everyone out for lunch and for Diluc and Venti to meet up with everyone in a public location. This is to ensure that Tartaglia and Diluc were both less likely to murder each other on the spot when there were numerous witnesses.

That was the plan.

Things weren't going to plan. The LiYuen side of the team were loitering in front of the WanSheng Funeral Parlor for some unknown reason.

"Why is he touching him."

Venti looked up from his snack. "ZhongLi is adjusting Kaeya's hair tie. The idiot hates it if bows aren't perfectly symmetrical. He's readjusted my outfits numerous times, it's fine. ZhongLi's just particular about almost everything."

The next question should have been, "why has the apparent mortal ZhongLi adjusted Barbatos' outfits", but Diluc was far too distracted. "Why is he touching him?"

Venti looked up again. "They're elbowing each other and sitting on a bench. Tartaglia is teasing him about something. Kaeya looks happy. Relax."

"Why are they near him?"

Venti looked up again. "Paimon and the Traveler are talking to him. When speaking normally to friends, not that you would be aware of the concept, you would want to be around at arm's length to hear each other."

"Why did he sit next to him?"

Venti's head snapped to Diluc, "For the love of the Seven, XingQiu has been helping you get back to Kaeya this entire time. He's not going to steal your man. They are all just waiting for someone. Be patient."

"They aren't expecting an ambush. I'm going in."

"That is not the plan. You know you are smarter than this! Diluc-" Venti stood up, hot on Diluc's heels in a futile attempt to stop him.

Ragnvindr ignored the bard's warning, "Kaeya!"

"Diluc?" It's been a long time since Diluc had seen Kaeya so surprised. How long has it been? The last time that Kaeya unknowlingly let his emotions show through that icy mask was on his twelfth birthday. His face was vulnerable with emotion. Longing. Contentment. Joy. Fear?

"The hell is he doing here? XingQiu, I thought I told you to stab him in the back in the dark!"

"Uh, change of plans? Murder is bad? We should really work on the fact that your first instinct to anything is to kill-" XingQiu didn't finish as Diluc shoved XingQiu into Tartaglia. As anticipated by Diluc, the Harbinger didn't let the boy stumble. Diluc pivoted, reaching over to pick Venti by the collar and threw him into the tall brown suited gentleman. The Traveler and Paimon were both in shock. Kaeya was within reach.

Diluc closed the distance, grabbing Kaeya by the collar, to press his lips against Kaeya's soft and glossy. His one eye widened and Kaeya's lips parted in slight shock, letting Diluc deepen the kiss. Hands loosened their grip on the hanfu, one cradled Kaeya's jaw as if he were afraid of losing him again and the other slipped down to Kaeya's waist, settling in the small of his back.

They pulled apart for air and Diluc licked at the string of saliva that connected them. Diluc pressed his forehead against the other panting man. Sevens, he missed him so badly, "Kaeya… let's get you out of here-"

The WangSheng Funeral Parlor doors slammed open and HuTao burst out. "Get your hands off his ass!"

"Aaaaand there it is!" singsonged Venti as a great burst of pyro blasted the Ragnvindr clear into the air. ZhongLi carefully placed the green bard back on the ground as Diluc bounced off the cliff and landed in the harbour water with a great splash. The small bard whistled at the impact. "Ooh, that's gotta hurt."

The Traveler just shook their head in disappointment. "Surely he must have known that kissing isn't a free action. He didn't even animation cancel his attacks to buy time."

HuTao clasped Kaeya's hands in hers, letting Tartaglia move into a more prime position to defend. "Kaeya, I've only known you for a short while, but you can do so much better than him. Paimon told me everything she knows. He has a bad habit of neglecting you. You are pretty, fun, and very smart. There are better fish to fry."

"But I like him."

The commotion in front of the funeral parlor fell into a deathly silence. Paimon and the Traveler groaned. ZhongLi rubbed his brow as if there was an incoming headache.

Tartaglia was unphased, "What part of him do you like? I can probably chop it off. I probably know a guy or three who are into stuff like taxidermy. What do you want? His hair? Heart? I don't suggest the feet, blood pools down in the legs too quickly and draining it is a pain without mauling-"

"Don't hurt him. Diluc's nice."

"Damn. Abstract concepts are a lot harder to cut out. Doesn't mean that I shouldn't try; there's a first time for everything, right? Hey Mr. ZhongLi, what was that technique that Xiao used?"

Tartaglia summoned his hydroblades and snapped it into a lance form. Kaeya immediately locked his arms around the ginger's waist, placing himself in between the flailing Diluc and the trigger happy Harbinger.

ZhongLi and the Traveler summoned their stone stoas to slowly climb down. Shouts can be heard, amplified by the calm sea water below.

HuTao narrowed her eyes, suspicious of the claim. "He's nice? Diluc Ragnvindr is nice? Is ignoring you for three years and then suddenly putting his hands all over you going to make up for everything? Paimon said that he tried to kill you!"

"Diluc excels at everything but his own feelings. Go easy on him!"

"You spoil him," growled Tartaglia as he summoned his bow.

A slightly universal groan at the hypocrisy escaped the group. Paimon floated over to scold the Harbinger babysitting Kaeya at the moment. "Tartaglia, put down the bow. Do. Not. Throw. The. Arrow. Young. Man. We already went over this. They prefer it if Diluc is alive."

"He won't be for long if the dick keeps on hurting him."

"I'm not trying to hurt him!" Hissed the redhead as the two geo aligned allies hauled him out of the harbour water. The winery owner was currently hanging off of Mr. ZhongLi's lance, his ornate collar hooked onto the end of the polearm. He looked miserable. "I'm really not trying to hurt him on purpose now."

"In that case, you are just stupid. Get smarter with words and actions or something."

"I don't want to hear that from you, Fatui scum."

"This Fatui scum is doing a better job at being a big brother and showing familial affection than you at this moment."

"Are you trying to start something?"

"Damn right I am, thanks for finally noticing, asshole! Does it normally take you this long to notice that someone is picking a fight with you or are you just that daft when it comes down to my little Kaeya-"

Bickering started again, with Kaeya pinning Tartaglia away (again) and ZhongLi waving Diluc around when the flames or Dawn licked a little too closely to the group.

"Since you seem to be the only slightly normal person around here, do you have any idea what the Traveler is?" HuTao shuffled over to speak with Venti.

"What the Traveler is? As far as I know, they are just an Outlander."

"Really now, surely you must know something." HuTao was not convinced. "Because whatever they did, they turned a Harbinger into a teddy bear. XingQiu knows exactly where I am at all times now and I can't even bully him. The worst change is Mr. ZhongLi. He's-"

"He's?" The bard looked at the young lady with scrutiny, evidently worried about Mr. ZhongLi.

"He didn't change much actually. I just don't understand what he's saying 90% of the time now, instead of 50%."

"Mr. ZhongLi? Is it okay if I bring Venti and HuTao into the fold. They're pretty confused and we know what they are capable of."

"Venti yes. HuTao no. Replace her with Kaeya so he can just stop resisting so much and go with the flow."

"Wait, why can't I get the information that you all seem to have. Shouldn't you bring in Diluc in so he would stop fighting us all as well? Is this pyro prejudice?"

"No, we let Klee in."

"So what's the issue, old man?"

"You are too chaotic and unpredictable at this time. Talk to me after 1.4. Better yet, talk to us after you've been released so we can gauge the risk assessment. From what we understand of Diluc's current emotional state, he will not be able to responsibly handle all of the fanart and fanpieces, such as Mob!Kae."

"What's mob!Kae?" XingQiu looked quizzically up. "It sounds different from the classic names for pairings."

"Do not look it up, for the love of the Tsarista, XingQiu, do not look it up," snapped Tartaglia. "It probably won't get through the porn filters we've installed for you and Klee, but do not look it up."

"Eh. Porn. Boring with atrocious structure and development. I still can't believe my brother thought that I have a stash under my bed-"

"Why is my brother's name bastardized with something and why are you mentioning pornography at this time." Diluc was stressed. ZhongLi still hadn't let him down.

Paimon floated up and gently placed her small hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Really."

"That's just going to make me worry even more!"

The Traveler reached and loosened one of Kaeya's hands from Tartaglia, lacing their fingers together in a tight hold. The other beckoned Venti to come over. "This won't take any time at all."

Venti narrowed his eyes and accepted the offer.

The second hand of a clock shifted once and the Traveler let go of the men's hands. "So… how are you two handling this?"

Venti smiled brightly, "This is fantastic, think of all the inspiration for songs hidden in here."

"Good. Kaeya?"

The man looked slightly ill and Tartaglia immediately redirected his attention from Diluc. Kaeya for some reason sounded completely defeated, as if someone drained all energy out of him. The Harbinger pulled Kaeya in and rested his head against Kaeya again.

Angry noises could be heard from Diluc.

Tartaglia ignored him, "Hey. You'll be alright. They and we'll make sure of it."

"But this is all just a crackfic. None of this is real."

"That's great!" Venti chirped, perspective on a completely different plane of existence.

One could hear the despair in Alberich's voice. "What do you mean it's great? Is the only semblance of peace and happiness I'm ever going to receive in the form of a non-canonical story written by some delirious idiot that drank too much tea?"

A gentle and soothing melody entered the air as Barbatos worked his magic. "No, you misunderstand me. Yes, this is a crackfic. It's one but of the many stories out there written. It's written by someone who has put in a lot of effort and energy into creating something to share. That time and effort is real. The energy put into making a world where you can be safe and happy is real."

A few moments passed as Barbatos let the words sink in. His words were softly punctuated by luxurious notes as he continued, "It's not just one person either. People love you in different media and forms from all around the world. The variety is endless; the barriers of language are merely inconvenience. There is art. There are stories and songs. There are videos, live streams and reactions, and mmds! There's a lot of … porn, but there is lots of fluff too! Even for the pieces that don't seem to be positive, they are cathartic releases of emotions, ideas, and escapism. There are discussions on your lore and family, or how to optimize you! People spend money and time on official and fan merchandise or in game. Commissions for art and pieces of writing of you are not unheard of. They are all messages just for you."

Emerald eyes opened and warmly watched the knight. They glowed slightly as he spoke. "We may not know what the future holds for you, but know that we want you to know that you aren't alone and that you are truly loved. We wish for the best for you, for you to be happy and content with your life. These are our love letters to you."

"But why? What do they gain from it? I'm literally a piece of code downloaded from an app store or something." Alberich was still scared, utterly unsure of what appears to be new grounds for him. Tartaglia barely loosened his clamp on the skittish man, letting him unconsciously curl into his embrace. Kaeya, despite what his mind and voice is saying, is still craving comfort.

ZhongLi dropped Diluc and walked forward. He gently brushed the hair out of the young man's face. Soft amber eyes met with the vulnerable azure. "Don't try to find a reason or the margins of losses and profit for someone's love. It's love. It's real and genuine. It's alright to accept it."

Tartaglia let go of Alberich, letting ZhongLi take the reins for this conversation. It was unlikely that Kaeya would try to bolt at this time. Someone needed to keep an eye on Diluc. The former Geo Archon rested a firm hand on the young man's shoulder. "Despite what the stars or the abyss have in store for you, it's not a sin to be happy and to exist."

"My duty-"

ZhongLi politely didn't comment on Kaeya's unease, pulling the younger man over to hide in his shoulder. His dark suit would hide any evidence of tears, if there were any. "That can be shared, if you will let us help. They and we are all willing to rewrite the stars for you. If their light doesn't reach us fast enough, then we will rewrite the worlds."

Childe, impulsive as always, pulled the Traveler, XingQiu, and Diluc in for a group hug in between Kaeya and ZhongLi. Ragnvindr was torn between looking disgusted at being touched by a Harbinger and being worried about Kaeya.

HuTao and Venti did not have the same reservation. They clambered up ZhongLi's back to join in the fun. Impish but fond smiles graced their faces. Paimon floated over and clung to Kaeya's head like a koala.

"We'll help. I promise. That's what family is for, isn't it?" The Traveler rested their cheek against the only part of Kaeya that they had access to, his arm. Golden eyes glittering brightly in the setting sun. "Will you accept their messages? Their silly little love letters?"

"There are a lot more people counting on me than I thought." Kaeya relaxed slightly at the earnestness of the question. "I'll try."

"That's all we ask for. Try. If not, we will all catch you when you fall."

--

the end

--

bonus start:

--

"This is poopy! Klee doesn't like this at all!" She stubbornly sat on her haunches on the library floor. Albedo had brought her with him to pick up a few books, but was now trapped trying to convince the small girl to leave. "Klee wants to hug Kaeya too. Klee missed out on the finale."

Lisa took pity on Albedo and made her way to them. "Oh Klee sweetie. Kaeya's not coming home."

"No. I want to hug Kaeya. They will listen. They love Klee too." The small girl sniffled. "There is empirical evidence that they all love Klee. Mihoyo's profits surged when Klee was released. People broke out real money for Klee."

Lisa gave Albedo a nervous look. Was the stress too much for the little girl? They thought that she had calmed down a bit on her road trip to LiYue with the Traveler. Did the child develop schizophrenia?

Albedo reached over and held her hand. "Klee. Do the voices tell you anything? To do things? When did they start?"

"No more than when Lisa's brain tells her to slack off or to nap. I just started to understand more things, that's all. They won't hurt me or at least most of them won't."

Lisa swallowed. This did not bode well.

"We can't fight them, not really. But they LOVE Klee. Klee will get her hug from Kaeya for the true finale."

"Klee, darling, sweetest sunshine of Mondstadt, Kaeya can't come home."

"Why not? Mr. ZhongLi said he can."

"We had a funeral for Kaeya. You were there with us, remember? We all had to say goodbye to him. Kaeya is dead."

Screaming punctuated from the ground floor. Amber could be heard shouting, "A G-G-G-GGHOOOOOOOST!"

"Begone foul creature! You will not taint our memories with your cruelty!" Noelle.

"Klee!" Shouted a voice that sounded a bit like Bennett, but was not Bennett because Bennett and Fischl were camping out and mining rocks for the Traveler. "Klee mèimei! Where are you?"

A vase or two crashed against the ground and the shouting intensified. Lisa, Albedo, and Klee scrambled up the library stairs. Diluc could be heard through heavy wooden doors. "What if he wants to stay here?"

"I'm not letting my lil bro unsupervised around you," snapped a voice that was definitely not Diluc. "Give us temporary residency visas, I'm not leaving him alone. If they refuse, Traveler please kick Diluc out of the party and teleport us back to LiYue."

"That sounds okay to me." The Traveler shrugged as the library doors swung open.

The foyer was in chaos. For one, Wood was out cold on the floor.

"How is that okay?" Diluc was swinging his claymore at a grey suited young man. The ginger youth was easily dodging the wide swings. Diluc's frustration was mounting, "When will I get the chance to- Ugh! Kaeya say something to them!"

"I don't know. I kind of like watching you squirm. Now, girls. What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Amber and Noelle were in obeisance on their knees to what appeared to be a dead man walking. ""We're sorry for eating your cake and pudding that was clearly labeled as yours before you died. Please don't haunt us.""

Jean stood in shock in her office doorway. "Kaeya?"

"Kaeya gēgē!" hollered Klee as she bolted past her shocked guardians. The Traveler and XingQiu just stepped aside and smiled at the bundle of joy. "You are back! You're back! Don't go away for so long again. I missed you!"

The small red child leapt towards Kaeya, arms outstretched and with complete faith that the ghost (?) would catch her. The knight swiftly picked up the little girl and tossed her up into the air. A screech of delight filled the halls as Kaeya caught her on the way down, spinning her around in a circle for good measure. "Are you satisfied now, sunshine?"

Klee clung to Kaeya's neck. "Yeah! XingQiu remembered his promise and they listened! I got my hug!"

--

bonus end