There were two pivotal moments in Diluc's life that defined the person he would become — two moments that shifted his life so dramatically, he was entirely reshaped by them. They formed him into someone hard, disillusioned, and far more isolated than the child he once was.
One was the death of his father.
The other was the confession Kaeya offered the night of his father's death, and the subsequent fissure that would divide them thereafter.
On a chilly morning in Mondstadt, fresh from working another night under the "Darknight Hero" moniker, Diluc adds another moment to the list.
After a long night spent protecting Mondstadt from wayward treasure hoarders, the last place Diluc wants to be is the Knights of Favonius Headquarters. He'd much rather turn in for what remains of the morning, so he can snag at least a couple of hours of sleep before having to attend the meetings that await him in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, he cannot leave the group of treasure hoarders tied up along the city walls for just anyone to find, nor does he have any interest in pocketing the treasure he recovered from them. He therefore has no choice but to make the detour and head into Jean's office.
"Oh, good morning, Sir," Jean greets him as he enters her office. Despite the early hour, she's already sitting at her desk looking over paperwork. "Do you have something to report?"
Diluc places the bag of confiscated Mora and gems on her desk. "Five treasure hoarders just outside the walls. All of them tied up and ready to be brought in. I happened to encounter them on my way home last night," he explains, a thin excuse to cover for his nightly patrols, "so I decided to take care of them myself."
Jean looks surprised. "Five of them, so close to Mondstadt? That's unusual."
"I questioned them already," Diluc explains, though he knows that the knights will have to put them through their own formal, albeit less effective, interrogation. "It seems they are close to defaulting on a loan for a procedure they received somewhere on Dragonspine." They had been desperate, and that desperation had caused them to make stupid mistakes. "I believe it is an isolated incident."
"I see," Jean replies.
Her lack of surprise at the explanation — and lack of follow-up questions regarding the procedure in question — are telling. Diluc intends on asking how much she knows about illicit magical procedures being conducted in cold and dark places, but before he can, Kaeya enters the office.
"You were asking for me?" he asks Jean as he approaches her desk.
Diluc preemptively folds his arms, preparing himself for a round of poking and prodding from Kaeya. He's in no mood for it, but he does not intend to allow Kaeya to get under his skin.
Instead of his usual smiles and quips, Kaeya only offers Diluc a brief glance. "Oh, am I interrupting?"
"I was leaving," Diluc says firmly, though he doesn't move, waiting for Kaeya's inevitable commentary — his cajoling way of keeping Diluc around longer than Diluc intends to stay.
Kaeya simply offers him a polite nod, devoid of all his usual antics. "Have a good morning."
Jean looks between them, clearly uncomfortable. "Why don't I come by Angel's Share tonight? We can talk then."
"I'll be there." Diluc eyes Kaeya as he turns, but Kaeya remains blank — far more difficult to read than he is when attempting to get under Diluc's skin.
There's something wrong with this situation. Diluc is compelled to question it, a mixture of annoyance and concern brewing within him, but he reminds himself that this is Kaeya — a man who cares more for results than he does methods. Whatever the reason behind Kaeya's newly established disinterest in Diluc's affairs, it is intentional, and likely meant to push him into a reaction.
Instead of giving that to him, Diluc leaves, deciding he'd rather be well-rested before working out Kaeya's angle.
He goes home to catch what rest he can.
That night, Charles is working the bar, leaving Diluc free to bring Jean to the back room so they can talk. He positions himself against a tall shelf, while she remains standing by the door, her demeanor formal despite the setting.
"That procedure you mentioned," she says. "We're aware of it."
"I expected as much. I also assume that it involves top secret information and that you cannot tell civilians by order of the Grand Master." His tone is bitter.
Jean frowns, looking a little conflicted. "That is the order. But —"
Diluc interrupts. "You know I can find out without your intel."
"I know," Jean sighs. "And that would normally be fine, considering it is out of my control, but in this case, I have to tell you."
This is concerning. Jean wouldn't normally make a decision that goes against an order, meaning the situation must be dire. "Go on."
"Two weeks ago, we received a report out of Dragonspine regarding a group of individuals seeking to popularize a new method of power — something we have never heard of anyone using before." She looks solemn as she adds, "One of the members of their group has learned how to remove a person's memories."
"How? That should be impossible." After a moment of consideration, Diluc asks, "With a Delusion?"
"We thought that was the case, so we sent the knights to look into it. Kaeya led the mission and discovered that it wasn't a Delusion at all, but rather, a Hydro Vision. The member in question has the ability to extract a corporeal form of a memory from a person's mind so that they forget it entirely." She shakes her head. "He was blessed with gifts beyond most Vision users, but rather than join a worthy cause and use those powers for good —" She seems to remember that Diluc does not share her idea of knighthood being worthy any longer, and cuts herself off. "They are trying to make a profit out of it. Legitimize it. And we are trying to determine if we should regulate the practice or cut them off entirely."
"Of course. The knights immediately jump to thoughts of control and regulation, instead of considering simply wiping out the practice entirely." Diluc shakes his head. "I highly doubt they are able to truly remove a person's memories. The reports must be false."
"They're true. We verified them, and on top of that —" She hesitates.
"This is what I needed to tell you — why I've decided to go against the order." She takes a breath. "Kaeya underwent the procedure."
Diluc allows those words to hang between them for a moment, doing his best to process them calmly. "He wouldn't."
"He volunteered," Jean continues. "We needed to test the process to confirm our reports."
Diluc feels dread begin to pool in his stomach, which angers him. This is none of his business; he has no reason to concern himself with Kaeya and his reckless ways of dealing with the Knights' various problems. Yet the dread is there — and it elicits a protest of, "Kaeya's smarter than that."
Kaeya schemes in various unknightly ways, but he wouldn't be so foolish as to remove his memories — thereby risking gaps in his understanding, which could backfire on him severely.
But even as he says it, Diluc's mind shifts toward doubt, because he remembers Kaeya as a child — quiet, conflicted Kaeya, who would put on a brave face during the day and then weep late at night when he believed everyone was asleep. He thinks of Kaeya growing into himself, flourishing once he had a family and felt safe enough to believe it would last — or rather, to want it to last. And he remembers that even then, Kaeya was guarded. Even when they were happy, Kaeya existed behind a wall that Diluc could never quite breach in full.
"He actually said that if it worked, he believed it would make him less clouded in his judgement," Jean explains.
"And you let him?" Diluc asks, feeling emotion simmer within him once again. It has been a long time since anger and frustration battled within him like this; he did not return to Mondstadt until he had control over himself — until he could trust himself to act without the flare of anger setting the backdrop of his every move. He does his best to keep it forced down.
"It wasn't my choice," Jean replies quietly. Then, reluctantly, she adds, "There's one more thing..."
Diluc braces himself, knowing that Jean is about to deliver the real blow. After his encounter with Kaeya that morning, he has an idea of what she is about to say.
"The memories he had extracted...they were of you. Kaeya doesn't know who you are anymore."
Diluc's Vision makes a sound akin to the wafting of a flame; his body flashes with heat. For one startling moment, he feels like the Diluc of years prior — ruled by his grief, unable to keep himself in check.
He takes a deep breath, willing his Vision to calm and bringing his mind back into control. He maintains his mask of stoicism and simply replies, "I see."
Jean says, in a tone heavy with sympathy, "I'm sorry."
Diluc sends Charles home that evening, telling him to take an early night. He stands behind the bar and serves drinks, waiting to see if Kaeya will make his nightly visit. As the night grows late and his patrons filter out, it becomes clear that Kaeya isn't coming.
Despite his best efforts, he keeps ruminating over what Jean said to him — over the knowledge that Kaeya has eliminated their time together from his mind. Perhaps, on the surface, it should be a relief — without knowledge of their past, Kaeya will finally leave him in peace. But that thought isn't the comfort that Diluc wants it to be.
Diluc has carried the burdens of their past all this time without faltering under its weight. He lives every day with the knowledge of what happened to his father, of the wool that Kaeya had pulled over his eyes, and of his own descent into darkness. Not a day goes by that he doesn't remember. Every time he wields Pyro, every time he faces an enemy, Diluc thinks of the cost of his successes — of the shadows it cast upon his father, of the desperation his father must have felt by being so powerless next to his son — and he thinks about the ruin that was brought upon both his family and his faith in justice.
He walks a solitary path; he faces his memories without confiding in others. And yet, in the back of his mind, there was always the knowledge that they were not his memories alone. Kaeya was there on the night his father died; Kaeya knew what Diluc could not — would not — say to anyone about that night. The burden, while his to carry, was not simply his to carry on his own.
And somehow, despite everything they've been through, that knowledge had been a small, barely acknowledged comfort within his otherwise barren heart.
Now, as he closes up the tavern and walks through the streets of the city, Diluc feels truly alone — perhaps for the first time.
He attempts to push that feeling down, just as he does with most of his emotions, so as to remain in control of himself, rather than swallowed by anger and pain. But as he comes upon the Cat's Tail and sees Kaeya walking out of the door, it becomes clear that the feeling will not be so easily snuffed out.
"Oh, it's you," Kaeya says with a slight slur. "I don't believe you told me your name earlier."
Diluc looks him up and down, seeking a sign that this is an act. "Do you truly not remember?"
"Your name?" Kaeya smiles, though his expression lacks its usual sharpness. "How could I remember what you haven't shared? Though if you tell me now, I promise I will not forget."
The words sting more than they should, seeing how Kaeya has already forgotten. Diluc shakes his head. "Never mind. Please excuse me. I have somewhere I need to be."
"Of course," Kaeya replies. "Please don't let me keep you. As for your name...well, I will do a little research on my own." He winks dramatically, half-joking, and perhaps half-flirtatious.
Diluc ignores it. He walks away, leaving Kaeya behind.
It doesn't take long for Diluc to find the underground cavern that houses the man who supposedly can remove memories at will. He isn't doing much to stay hidden. In fact, it seems he wants to be found, with people spreading rumors about the strange procedure throughout all of Mondstadt and the surrounding areas.
Diluc travels alone in search of them. He hadn't trusted the knights to adequately dispense justice before this, but now with Kaeya's situation, he trusts them even less. The fact that they are considering regulating the procedure, rather than simply shutting it down, is deplorable. He will have to handle it himself — as usual.
The deeper into the cavern he walks, the warmer the air grows, until it is almost stifling. Unbidden, he thinks of Kaeya — of a time several years ago, when they were still young and the weather was sticky and humid. Kaeya had whined, It's so hot, let's go for a swim in the lake. He had dragged Diluc to a spot that was chilled by some Cryo slimes and splashed him with water so cold that Diluc had gasped with the shock of it.
Kaeya had laughed, and Diluc —
— is now the only one with that memory. And is it even a memory, if he is the only one who holds it? It feels more like a longing.
He imagines the memory without Kaeya: himself, a lone boy, dipping his toe into the cold lake, and shivering.
"So. You have come," says a voice, pulling Diluc out of his thoughts. Diluc steps into a wide section of the cavern to find a campfire, a series of bedrolls, and a young man with dark, braided hair, who rises from the fire when he sees Diluc. He wears his Hydro Vision on his hip. He is alone — at least at first appearance. Diluc assumes that the cavern's various tunnels house other members of the group, lying in wait until the first sign of conflict.
"You've been expecting me," Diluc acknowledges, tugging at his glove as he prepares for a fight.
"I received word that someone was looking for me. It was only a matter of time before you arrived."
"Do you know why I am here?"
The man spreads his arms. "The same reason everyone comes here. You are pained by your memories. It is written on your face."
"I know for a fact there is nothing written on my face."
The man smiles. "Please, have a seat. Would you like some tea?"
"I do not wish to sit, nor do I want tea." He calls upon his Pyro and the flames leap across his hand. "I am here to put an end to this."
The man does not cower. "There is no need for violence. How about you ask me what you want to know? I can tell you about the procedure if you'd like. Or explain our plans for it in the future. Or even conduct a demonstration. I will tell you anything you'd like."
Diluc begrudgingly pulls back on his Pyro. "This is unethical."
"To some, yes. But to those who we have helped, this procedure is invaluable. It has saved lives."
Diluc tries to imagine Kaeya, lying on a bedroll, offering his mind up to be prodded. He struggles to hold the image in his mind.
"Ah," the man says, as though he can read Diluc's expressionless face. "You know someone who had the procedure. And I presume they chose to forget you?"
Diluc rests his hand on his claymore but maintains his even tone. "Do not presume."
"I may have that person's memories here. I store them for those who do not wish to keep or destroy them. Who is he?"
Diluc's anger freezes within him. The possibility of restoring Kaeya's memories subdues his desire to fight, and he considers the question carefully before he answers. "A man named Kaeya."
The man's jovial expression hardens. "Oh. Mr. Alberich. I do not have his memories here, I am afraid, and that is for the better. He was a handful. I sent them back with him. Whether or not he still has them, I cannot say."
Diluc's chest involuntarily tightens at the consideration that Kaeya may have discarded or even destroyed his memories. He shouldn't be this affected by what is ultimately a thought-exercise, and yet his body betrays him.
The man presses his hands together, as though pleading. "Consider what you are experiencing right now. That pain that you undoubtedly feel in knowing that someone erased you from their memory is nothing but a hindrance for you. Think about how easy it would be for you to make a decision about my fate without it hanging over you, clouding your judgement. I can give you that. Just as I gave it to Mr. Alberich."
"I don't want you in my head."
"I will not be 'in your head.' I will simply reach in, find the chemicals that are associated with your memories — all memories are chemicals, you know, and chemicals are easy to extract as a form of vapor, if you know what you are doing in there — and capture them for you. I don't get to see those memories. Your private life will still be private, I assure you."
Diluc shouldn't hesitate to turn him down, and yet he thinks of Kaeya — Kaeya crying, Kaeya laughing, Kaeya looking at him with so much pain in his eye on a rainy evening, the night that changed everything — and he does.
He thinks about how easy the last few years would have been, without Kaeya's betrayal stacked upon the tragedy of the night that changed his life forever. He thinks about how even the simplest daily tasks, such as attending to his bar or patrolling the streets at night, would be easier to manage without the thought of Kaeya sauntering into his bar — and his life.
He thinks about looking at Kaeya without the reminder of pain — and the burden of history.
"How about this," the man says. "You give it a try, and if you're satisfied, you walk out of here with your memories in a nice jar and leave me to live another day. If you're unsatisfied, you can strike me down where I stand and breathe all your memories back in as though they were never gone in the first place."
Diluc is not foolish. He knows this is reckless. He knows Kaeya was foolish for going through with it. He knows he would be stupid to do the same.
And yet, Kaeya now seems so unburdened now — so content to drink at new taverns, free of the tether that used to bind him to Diluc.
Diluc has a choice — carry these joint memories on his own, living with the knowledge that Kaeya was so burdened by them, he chose to eradicate them from his mind —
Or join him in forgetting.
For a brief, fleeting moment, he thinks of his father wielding a Delusion in search of power and control of his own.
And as Diluc answers, "Remove him from my mind," he wonders if perhaps he is the same.
"Lie down," the man says in a soft tone after Diluc has downed a sedative potion. "Memories are not linear, but we will start at the beginning because that is the best way to find all traces of him in your mind. Think about the first time you met Kaeya, and remember for the very last time."
Diluc lies on a bedroll. He closes his eyes and remembers.
(There was a time when Kaeya loved to tell the story of how he and Diluc first met.
Before one fateful birthday, when their lives were still intertwined and Diluc still believed in knighthood, Kaeya would indulge anyone who asked.
His story went like this:
"It was storming that night. My father left me to go buy grape juice. I waited for him, huddled against the manor, as the weather grew worse. He never came back. I was wet, cold, and scared. I thought I was going to die alone out there. Then Master Crepus found me and brought me inside. He had to make arrangements for the knights to search for my father, so he left me with his son.
"I still remember the very first words Diluc said to me. He took my hand, looked me in the eye, and promised me I would always have a home. He told me I wouldn't be alone anymore."
This version of events would always paint Diluc as a selfless child, considerate in ways beyond his years. Listeners would exclaim, "So kind at such a young age! Your father raised you well," assigning credit to Master Crepus as one who bestowed such values in his son.
And Kaeya, sitting there and watching these reactions unfold, would accept the murmurs of, "Poor child, you're so lucky you found Diluc and Master Crepus," with a nod of agreement and praising words of his own.
He would catch Diluc's eye and smile, and Diluc would find it difficult to smile back.
Because within that story was a lie, so earnestly delivered, it was difficult for anyone to doubt — save for the only other person who had been there for that fateful first meeting.)
The night that Diluc's father arrived home with a young, shivering boy in tow, Diluc was on edge. He finished his studies late that evening, which meant that his newly scheduled Vision training was going to overlap with dinner. That, in turn, meant he would be lucky if he managed to catch father at the table before he retreated to his study for his usual late-night work. His father was always busy, and Diluc understood why. But ever since he was granted with a Vision, Diluc was also very busy. They rarely spent time together anymore.
So when his father returned to the manor later than expected that evening, Diluc thought they might be able to have dinner together after all. That is, until his father stepped aside to reveal that he wasn't alone and said, "Diluc, this is Kaeya. He's going to stay here for the evening. Please show him around."
His father then waved over a maid. "Will you please get him some of Diluc's clothing? I need to contact the knights to arrange a search party."
They both walked away, leaving Diluc alone with Kaeya in the foyer.
Kaeya tried to smile. Diluc didn't know why he bothered. His one exposed eye was watery and his lower lip quivered, which made it very clear that he wanted to cry. It seemed stupid to try to pretend he was happy.
Diluc just stood there, thinking about how this was another evening he wouldn't get to spend with his father. He immediately resented Kaeya and his family problems.
"Where are your parents?" Diluc asked, knowing full well he was being rude and failing to follow his father's instructions.
Kaeya's smile fell. For a moment, Diluc thought he would break down in tears. But then he breathed in deeply and said with forced bravery, "My father went to get grape juice."
"And?" Diluc asked.
Kaeya looked down. "A-and...he..." He began wringing the bottom of his wet shirt. "He's...gone."
"My father will find your father," Diluc told him. "You can't stay here long."
Kaeya took another shaky breath. He seemed to hold it for a moment, then he exhaled slowly. "Oh. Okay."
The maid returned, holding a pair of Diluc's pajamas. "Come here," she said to Kaeya. "Let me show you where you can change.
Diluc went to his room. Instead of showing Kaeya around, he decided to get a head start on his studies for the next day.
He ignored Kaeya's presence for the rest of the evening, up until bedtime, when his father summoned him to his office.
"Father," Diluc said excitedly as he took a seat across from him. "I already started my studies for tomorrow." Now that Diluc had a Vision, his father was always talking about how important it was for him to study hard and work even harder — to live up to the legacy that had been handed to him. He thought his father would be proud to hear he was taking his instruction so seriously.
"Good," his father said, then dropped the subject entirely. "Listen, Diluc. You have a very important choice to make. That boy I brought home today — Kaeya. We were unable to locate his father. Legally speaking, he's currently an orphan."
With a voice heavy with disappointment, Diluc said, "Oh."
"He will need a family."
Diluc felt his heart sink. "Yes."
"We have the means to care for him, and he would be better off here than placed in an orphanage. However, it would be your responsibility to help him get used to life here. I am very busy, as you know. But if his presence in our home will distract you from your studies and training, then I will find him somewhere else to stay."
Diluc squirmed uncomfortably in the chair. "I —" he began, then faltered.
"This is a big choice for you, but you will need to make many more big choices throughout your life, now that you have a Vision. Before long, you will be a knight, responsible for people just like you could be responsible for Kaeya. The decision is therefore up to you."
Rather than thinking about his future or the responsibilities of knighthood, Diluc was only thinking of one thing: his father, and how more than anything, he wanted to make him proud. When he considered Kaeya's presence in his life, he thought of him as one more potential barrier to his father's attention.
He curled his hands in his lap and said, "Please find him somewhere else to stay."
His father nodded. If he was disappointed, he didn't let it show. "I will make arrangements tomorrow."
As Diluc left the office, he didn't feel relieved. He felt guilty, unsettled, and like he made the wrong choice. He disliked Kaeya even more for placing him into that situation.
On his way back to his room, he had to pass the guest room where Kaeya was staying. The door was closed, but Diluc could hear his sobs as he passed. When he cracked open the door to peek inside, he saw Kaeya was huddled in a corner, not even on the bed, crying into his arms.
Diluc pushed the door open slowly. It creaked in protest, which caused Kaeya to look up quickly, his one eye wide with fear. His face was a mess — red, puffy, and streaked with tears and snot.
Diluc walked over to him and asked, "Why are you on the floor?"
Kaeya sniffled and tried to smile. He looked even worse like that, the smile covering none of his real emotion.
Diluc was angry with him, even though none of this was Kaeya's fault. He said with disgust, "Wipe your face."
Kaeya did. Using the sleeve of his pajamas — Diluc's pajamas — he wiped his nose.
"Ugh, gross!" Diluc exclaimed. "You have no manners at all. Use a handkerchief, not your sleeve."
That fragile, ridiculous smile that Kaeya tried to keep on his face instantly fell. New tears spilled over his cheek. He buried his head in his arms and began to cry again.
And in that moment, Diluc realized — Kaeya didn't have a handkerchief.
Kaeya didn't have anything.
He knew that already, of course. Logically, he understood that Kaeya's parents were gone and he had nothing but the clothes on his back when he arrived. Yet, somehow, realizing that Kaeya had nothing with which to wipe his face, when Diluc always had a handkerchief on him, because that was just proper manners — somehow that made Kaeya's situation feel so real.
Kaeya had nothing, and Diluc had everything — a father, a home, a Vision, and a handkerchief, tucked into his pocket.
"I'm sorry," he said, dropping to his knees before Kaeya. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. "Kaeya, please don't cry. I'm sorry."
And he was sorry — for being so selfish, for thinking only of himself, and most of all, for reminding Kaeya that he had nothing.
"Look at me."
Kaeya raised his head. Diluc attempted to wipe his face, as gently as possible. Kaeya tensed under his touch but held still. Diluc did his best to wipe away all the tears. He was careful not to disturb the oversized eyepatch.
When he was done, he said, "You can keep this," and offered him the handkerchief.
Kaeya reached out and took it, handling it carefully.
"I'm sorry I was rude," Diluc said. "Do you want me to help you to bed?"
Kaeya inhaled shakily, then held his breath, trying to get his crying under control. "O-okay."
Diluc helped him up. He led him to the bed, then tucked him in the way the maids used to do for him.
Kaeya kept the handkerchief in his hand, holding it as though it was something precious — as though it were a stuffed toy, instead of a simple piece of embroidered fabric.
"Do you want me to stay?" Diluc asked quietly.
Diluc laid beside him and stayed until Kaeya's breathing evened out — until he was sure Kaeya wouldn't cry any longer.
Then he walked back to his father's office, took a seat across from him, and said, "I changed my mind. I want him to stay. He will not distract me from my studies."
And then Kaeya was his.
(One day, after yet another false story about how they first met, Diluc tried to tell Kaeya that his version of events was incorrect.
As soon as he began to describe what really happened the night that his father brought Kaeya into their home, Kaeya placed his finger on his lips to silence him.
"All the best stories are built around lies," he said. "Why ruin it?")
"Good," the man says in a low, soothing voice. "I found it." Something cool brushes against Diluc's head.
Found what? Diluc wonders. He can't seem to remember what he was just thinking about.
"I want you to think of another early memory. A pleasant experience you had with Kaeya. Can you try?"
Diluc thinks, Kaeya and is struck by the realization that the name suddenly feels a little further away.
On the day that Kaeya was supposed to begin joining Diluc for his studies, he was nowhere to be found. This was not unusual. Over the couple of weeks since Diluc's father brought him home, Kaeya had revealed that he had some strange habits. He liked to hide in small, dark places if the manor got to be too overwhelming. Maids would occasionally find him in cupboards or closets, and once, Diluc discovered him trying to sleep under the bed.
Diluc was getting pretty good at finding him.
This time, however, Diluc was having trouble tracking Kaeya down, as he didn't seem to be in any of his usual hiding spots. Diluc was starting to grow anxious, because it took some convincing to get his father to allow Kaeya to join him for lessons — He's really smart, father, he's just too shy to let anyone see! — and if Kaeya missed his first day, his father would likely be disappointed in them both.
Eventually, his search brought him to the kitchens, and he found Kaeya with his hands in a jar, pockets stuffed full of pastries as though he were stocking up for a long journey.
"Kaeya," he called.
Kaeya jumped back, nearly dropping the jar in the process. "S-sorry! I won't do it again."
Diluc looked behind him, making sure that none of the maids were coming. Then he looked back at Kaeya. "Are you hungry?" They had breakfast not too long ago, so Kaeya really shouldn't still be hungry — certainly not enough to stuff his pockets full.
"I'm sorry," Kaeya said again. He began to empty his pockets out on the counter.
"Wait." Diluc walked over to him. They really weren't supposed to be in the kitchens like this, and they really had to get to their studies, but Diluc was slowly beginning to understand Kaeya. He didn't know where he came from or what he had been through, but he did know that Kaeya was used to a very different life than the one at the manor. And he understood that the best way to approach Kaeya was to be patient with some of his strange habits.
Instead of chiding him, Diluc reached for another jar, opened it, and then held it out so Kaeya could see the spiced cookies inside. "Try these, too. They're my favorite."
Kaeya's eye widened. "Really?"
"We have to be quick though. If the maids see us —"
Right at that moment, Adelinde walked into the kitchen. "Children! What are you doing?"
Diluc scooped out a bunch of the cookies and yelled, "Hurry!" He ran through the kitchens, toward the back exit.
Kaeya gasped, quickly stuffing his pockets again. Then he ran after him. Kaeya was small and probably didn't get to eat much wherever he came from, but he was surprisingly fast on his feet, and managed to catch up with Diluc despite his head start.
They ran outside together, through the vineyard, until Adelinde's calls sounded far away. Then they ducked under a tangle of grapevines. They were both out of breath but grinning.
For the very first time since his arrival, Kaeya laughed. It was a short, breathless laugh, but it was a happy sound. His laughter made Diluc — a boy who never broke the rules and always did what was expected of him — laugh too.
Before long, they were both giggling as they stuffed their faces with pastries. Diluc wasn't even hungry, but they were the best treats he ever tasted.
They were late for their studies that day. They showed up sticky and too full to pay close attention. The tutor was displeased, which normally would have bothered Diluc, but that day, he decided it was okay.
Because Kaeya was happy, and Diluc was happy too.
Wait, Diluc tries to say. His fingers twitch, but he's unable to move — unable to speak. It's as though he's half-asleep, half-awake, and paralyzed in place.
"Very good. I should be able to locate most of your memories now. But just to be sure — and I'm sorry to ask this — but can you remember a bad memory? I need a strong memory to make sure I can locate all traces..."
Wait, Diluc tries to say again, but his mind wanders again.
"Again," Diluc seethed, kicking a rock. "Again!"
"Diluc," Kaeya said patiently. "Take a break." He was sitting on a boulder, watching as Diluc attempted to give shape to a burst of flames and control its direction of attack.
"I'm supposed to be good at this. I'm supposed to be knight material." It had been two years since he was granted his Vision, and he had trained almost every single day since; he shouldn't have been struggling with his elemental burst. Yet every time Diluc released the flames, he burned everything around him — except his target, a straw creature that he and Kaeya put together a few hours earlier.
"You are," Kaeya insisted. "You're just worked up right now. If you sit down —"
"No," Diluc snapped. "I'm trying again."
"You're out of energy. If you just take a break —"
Diluc ignored Kaeya's words and the fatigue that mounted as soon as he called upon his Vision again, searching for the elemental power that had dwindled down to a negligible amount. He seized it, then released his burst —
And this time, the flames encircled him, instead of his target. They whipped up his legs, catching his pants and quickly climbing up toward his torso.
Before he could react, Kaeya was barreling into him, knocking him to the ground and rolling over the singed grass with him, until the flames were snuffed out. Then Kaeya was on top of him, looking at his face with concern, asking, "Are you alright? Did you burn yourself?"
Diluc felt the prickling of tears in his eyes. "Why can't I do it? Why do I keep failing?"
"You're tired," Kaeya said. "You put too much pressure on yourself. You think you need to be able to do everything perfectly from the beginning, but that's not how —"
"That is how it needs to be. I'm expected to join the knights, but I can't even do this..."
Kaeya placed his hand on Diluc's cheek. "It's hard to do anything when you're upset. I know. Let's try something else."
"What else is there to try?"
"Breathe in and count to four."
Diluc glared at him. "No."
"Come on, give it a chance. Breathe in and count to four."
Diluc sighed with frustration but closed his eyes. He inhaled, counting to himself, One, two, three, four.
"Good. Now hold it and count to seven."
He silently counted to seven.
"Now breathe out and count to eight."
Diluc exhaled and counted to eight.
Kaeya had him go through the steps several times, until Diluc felt calmer, less exhausted, and more in control of himself. Then Kaeya grinned down at him. "See? You feel better, don't you? Now try your burst again."
"You have to get off of me," Diluc said. "I don't want to burn you."
"You won't. Go on, you'll see."
Diluc was doubtful, but Kaeya smiled confidently, completely unafraid. So Diluc inhaled, held his breath, and exhaled one more time to clear his mind. Then he called upon his Vision and sent a burst of flames into the sky.
They took the shape of a phoenix. As it flared to life, it illuminated Kaeya above him.
The phoenix soared toward the straw creature, then engulfed it with a roar.
Kaeya beamed down at him.
("Where did you learn that?" Diluc would ask later. "That breathing technique."
"Around," Kaeya would say.
"I think I remember you doing that on the night you —"
"The night I what?" Kaeya would ask.
"I — I can't remember. Why can't I —")
"No, no, that won't do. Was that even a bad memory? You must try harder. I know it is painful, but you must try to remember something that hurt."
(It was raining. Diluc raised his hand. He sent a burst of flames at Kaeya; they took the shape of a phoenix and flew true to their target. Then, suddenly, a flash of ice cold blue —)
No, Diluc thinks — I don't want to remember this.
"What were you thinking?" Diluc asked as soon as Kaeya stepped into his office.
Diluc was fifteen, already decorated and promoted up the ranks of the Knights of Favonius. Kaeya was a relatively new recruit — an up-and-comer despite his lack of a Vision, thanks to his impressive skill with a blade. Kaeya was currently assigned to guard duty, but he had a habit of working above his station. Usually, this wasn't a problem, as Kaeya was an asset, smart and able to handle himself in the field — and because he usually involved Diluc in his plans.
But this time, Kaeya had gone too far.
He had gone too far without Diluc.
"I was thinking about protecting the city," Kaeya replied in a cool tone.
"You dragged a new recruit with you to take on two Abyss Mages. That poor girl — she could have been severely injured."
"But she wasn't," Kaeya pointed out.
"You should have informed us before running off on your own."
"Why?" Kaeya asked, tone tightening. "So I could sit around and twiddle my thumbs while waiting for the proper paperwork to grant me approval to hop on a horse and eliminate a threat that was, quite literally, right in front of me?"
"Yes." Diluc kept his voice free of emotion. "So we could dispatch more than two green recruits to handle the threat. So neither of you would be at risk of getting injured, or worse."
"Everything worked out. She's fine, the threat has been eliminated, and Mondstadt is safe."
"The ends don't justify the means, Kaeya."
Kaeya laughed. There was no mirth in it. "You're so idealistic."
"Call it what you want," Diluc replied. "A knight should uphold order and keep his men in line."
Kaeya smiled. Diluc recognized it as the smile he wore whenever he was guarded; it was the smile that hid what he truly felt. "The world isn't as clean as you think it is. I'm surprised you haven't realized that yet."
Diluc ignored the comment. "I'm pulling you from your post. Desk duty for the next week. You're dismissed."
Kaeya didn't move right away. He waited, then took a step forward, as though wanting to say something more.
Diluc ignored him, and Kaeya ultimately turned on his heel and left.
("Why is that a bad memory?" Kaeya would ask him — if he could. "You remember what happened after that, don't you?"
Diluc was injured later that evening, due to a mishap with a hilichurl chieftain. He would have been able to handle it on his own, but he was with a group of newly promoted knights and they were unprepared for the force of its attacks. Diluc had protected them and ended up taking the brunt of a charge as a result. Though he had been healed before returning to the city, he had a lingering headache and his ankle was too sore to bear his weight for an extended period of time. He was confined to a chair by the window in his quarters — watching as people made their way home from a night at the tavern.
There was a knock on the door. Kaeya let himself in without waiting for a response. In his hand was wet cloth, frosted over with Cryo.
"I heard you were hurting, so I called in a little favor," Kaeya said, holding up the cloth.
Diluc replied, "A day of rest and I'll be fine."
"Yes, but I can help ease the pain." Without waiting for a response, he walked over to Diluc's chair and kneeled before it. Taking Diluc's boot in his hand, he slowly unlaced it. Then he tugged it off in one gentle, skilled motion, as though he had practiced for this moment.
He pulled away Diluc's sock next, his fingertips glancing over the tender, swollen skin of his ankle. He made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded too close to sympathy — to regret. Then he bowed his head against Diluc's knee as he cradled his foot like it was something precious.
"I'm sorry," he spoke against Diluc's leg. His fingertips were cold against Diluc's ankle.
Diluc rested his hand on Kaeya's head. He said, "I am too."
Kaeya looked up, his one eye startlingly bright in the moonlight that seeped through the window.
"I have to tell you something, Diluc."
Diluc shook his head. "Not now. Not yet."
Kaeya's hands traveled from his ankle upward as he raised himself on his knees. His fingers skirted over Diluc's shins, his knees, and his thighs. Kaeya then planted his hands on either side of the chair.
Diluc touched his cheek. It felt cold, just like his fingers.
Kaeya had entered Diluc's life on a brisk, stormy night, and ever since then, Kaeya was ice to his fire, darkness to his light, the balance that Diluc needed — the contrast that he craved.
Would his lips be cold, Diluc wondered. Would he taste like a promise frozen, unspoken, captured on his lips before Diluc could allow himself to hear it?
Diluc leaned forward. Kaeya parted his lips. They kissed, and all Diluc felt was warmth between them.
"See?" Kaeya would say, "This memory is good."
"No," Diluc would answer to the tune of his own beating heart. "It's the worst.")
"This should go a bit quicker now," the man says. "You may experience some unpleasant flashes of memory. Please do not be alarmed."
First: Kaeya's first Ludi Harpestrum; the awe on his face as he indulged in food, played games, and watched the shows.
Years later: Kaeya leaning over the bar, asking for some Death After Noon.
Kaeya's voice, half-delirious: "It isn't every day the Darknight Hero swoops in to save me from a tiny mistake. Don't worry, it's just a little blood. If I didn't know better, I'd say you look a little...concerned? No, it can't be.."
Kaeya's voice, from a much earlier time: "Don't move — Diluc, don't move. That's a lot of blood. Didn't you lecture me about going out on my own? What were you thinking? Wait, don't answer that. Just lie still. Here, hold my hand."
Then: The traveler dragging Diluc and Kaeya to Dragonspine; the three of them huddling together as they defrosted in front of a fire Diluc lit. Kaeya offering, between chattering teeth: "I can cook us some fruity skewers."
Brief moments, suspended in time: A kiss under the stars. Two hands, finding each other under a table. A dance in the dark, with no one to witness, with no music to guide them, only the sound of their quickened breathing as they drew closer together.
And finally: the moment after the flash of blue. The memory of a tear. Of rain wetting a cheek. Diluc can't tell whose —
"We're almost done here," the man says. "There are a few — stubborn memories, so to speak. Your mind seems reluctant to let them go. That happens sometimes, not to worry...not to worry at all. Just allow your mind to lead you to the most precious moment you can remember spending with Kaeya. Can you do that?"
Diluc's cheeks feel strangely wet.
In the blissful darkness that fills the space that was once his memory: three words.
Diluc said them in the quiet of night. Kaeya was straddling him, looking down at him, his hair undone, his eyepatch slightly askew. Diluc's hands were on his hips; they roamed over Kaeya's back, touching him, feeling him, committing all of him to memory.
Diluc said them then, a whisper in the darkness, spoken against Kaeya's neck. "I love you."
Kaeya pulled back to look at him. In the glow of the moonlight filtering through the window, he smiled. It wasn't his usual smile — this smile revealed everything. It looked fragile — somehow sad.
Diluc touched his face. He brushed his fingers along his cheek.
"You say that now," Kaeya whispered, "But will you still love me in the morning?"
Kaeya, who would never say it back — no matter how much Diluc insisted he would still love him in the morning, and the next morning too, and every morning thereafter.
Kaeya, who wouldn't let himself believe —
And Diluc, who would kiss him for the last time, and make promises that he would burn away the moment he learned the truth.
Kaeya, whispering as Diluc fell asleep, "Hearing that made me happy. Thank you."
And Diluc, about to turn eighteen, blissfully unaware of the future.
("Do you wish we had done things differently?" Diluc might ask.
"Of course I do," Kaeya would reply. "You know me well enough to know that, don't you? You've always been able to see beneath my smile."
"It isn't a smile at all. It's a mask."
"See? You know."
Diluc is talking to a void. He is talking to a Kaeya-shaped blank spot within his mind. Soon, this will be gone too.
"Can we at least say goodbye?" the Kaeya-shaped darkness asks.
"Why did I do this?" Diluc wonders out loud.
"You made an emotional decision," Kaeya says.
"I don't do that. Not anymore."
"You forgot to breathe and count like I taught you."
Diluc thinks about this — and wonders if it's true. He considers that he has somehow been undone.
"Kaeya," he begins, the name feeling foreign on his tongue. "What did you do while I was gone those years in between. After I left, where did you go?"
"I don't know," Kaeya replies. "I'm a broken memory. In a way, I'm you. I can't know what I did outside of your mind. But maybe...maybe I can guess. You do know me better than anyone else does. Hmm..."
A silence stretches between them. For a moment, Diluc thinks he's lost for good.
Then Kaeya speaks. "I went to the lake. I dipped my toe in the cold water. I thought of you. It felt like a longing."
"No," Diluc argues. "That's not right."
"You're right. It's a lie. All the best stories are built around a lie."
He's fading. Diluc reaches out to grasp him but touches nothing.
"I shouldn't have forgotten you," Diluc says to no one.
"No, you shouldn't have," a voice says. "But I bet you can remember. Find me when you wake up. I'll know what to do."
"You don't remember me. You won't be able to help."
"Of course I remember you."
Then nothing at all.
Diluc awakens feeling light and unburdened. This comes as a shock. He's so accustomed to carrying the weight of the past everywhere he goes; feeling as though it has somehow lessened is unusual and mildly startling. He sits up, realizing he is on a bedroll in the middle of a cavern. The memories of how he got here — and what he is doing here — slowly return to him.
He looks at the man with braided hair.
"Do you feel better?" the man asks.
Diluc remembers the heaviness that used to exist within his heart. It's still there, but weakened, less of an imprint on his mind. He may not remember that which he has chosen to forget, but he remembers how he felt before, and he knows how he feels now.
This is better. It is an irrefutable fact.
Diluc does not say as much, but perhaps his expression appears more open; perhaps his mask is no longer so tight, because the man then says, "I hope that means you no longer plan on killing me."
"Not today," Diluc answers as he stands. He's a little unsteady on his feet. "The knights are in the process of deciding how to proceed with your group."
"I would appreciate it if you relay good things about the procedure to them."
The man nods. "Of course. Take your time to decide. In the meantime, though — this is yours." He picks a jar up off the ground and holds it out.
Diluc takes it from him. Inside the jar are glowing wisps of a vapor-like substance that, at first glance, could be mistaken for a Seelie.
"These are the memories you had removed. You can destroy them or hand them over to someone for safekeeping. If you ever decide you want them back, you simply breathe them in. Though I wouldn't recommend it. It can be quite a shock, from what I have heard."
Diluc will give them to Adelinde. She can hold them until he decides whether or not he wants to destroy them.
"Good luck with your new life, Master Diluc." The man smiles at him.
Master Diluc, Diluc repeats to himself. The words feel strange in his mind.
He carries the jar out of the cavern, then out of Dragonspine entirely. He brings them home to Adelinde, then greets the day, feeling unusually energetic.
After a long night spent protecting Mondstadt from wayward hilichurls, the last place Diluc wants to be is the Knights of Favonius Headquarters. Even after all this time, walking into the office to hold an informal meeting leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and not even his newfound sense of inner quiet can quell his distaste for the knights.
The building is surprisingly busy for the time of morning. Small crowds of people stand in the hall, clustered before doors, discussing an upcoming mission. Diluc listens to pieces of conversation. He commits to memory the locations mentioned in passing so he can check them out later that night and make sure the knights did their jobs effectively.
As he nears Jean's door, someone catches his eye: a man in an eyepatch, who glances at him and then smiles. Diluc has the sense that he may have seen him before, perhaps at Angel's Share, though he can't remember any details about their encounter. The man waves cheerfully, maybe a little cheekily.
Diluc offers him a slight nod.
For some reason, that makes the man frown.
But that's no concern of Diluc's; it's hardly worth dwelling on. He walks into Jean's office without sparing another look at the man.
"Twice in one week," Jean remarks as he enters, looking down at her paperwork. "That's unusual for you."
"It is," Diluc agrees. "However, we have to discuss the hilichurl encampment I discovered last night."
Jean looks up at him in surprise. "Oh. Did you run into something strange again?"
"No. I took care of it," Diluc says, struck by the realization that he actually has nothing of importance to report. There is no reason for him to be here right now; in fact, he isn't sure what compelled him to come in the first place.
Jean gives him a strange look. "I see." A little awkwardly, she adds, "Well. Thank you for handling it."
At that moment, the man with the eyepatch enters the office. "Hello, Jean," he says cheerfully. Then, to Diluc, he smiles and says, "Diluc Ragnvindr. I learned your name, as promised."
Diluc frowns at him. "I don't believe we've met."
An expression of surprise flits across the man's face but is quickly replaced with another smile. "I did not think myself so forgettable."
Jean looks between them, eyes wide. Her attention settles on Diluc, morphing from surprise to unmistakeable sympathy. "Oh, Diluc," she breathes. "You didn't..."
The man is looking at him too, his one eye narrowed. It makes Diluc think of the cold, somehow — of the sharpness of ice.
"I see I was wrong," the man says bitterly, and for some reason, Diluc's chest tightens.
Jean and Kaeya leave him in the office to have a hushed conversation outside. Diluc grows more impatient with each passing moment. Clearly, he had no business coming here, and though the lapse was unfortunate, he could easily remedy it by leaving. But Jean had been solemn when she asked him to wait a moment, and so Diluc stifles his impatience and waits.
When Jean returns, she is alone. Instead of sitting across from Diluc, she stands beside the desk. "I am going to preface this by saying I accept full responsibility for what has happened. I made a judgement call, and it was the wrong one."
Diluc is tired from a long night fighting hilichurls, and he's irritated by everything that has occured in this office so far. He says, "Just tell me what is going on."
She sighs. "A couple of nights ago, I visited you at Angel's Share. Do you remember that?"
Diluc nods, recalling their conversation about the memory removal procedure.
"I lied to you. I told you what I was instructed to say, by order of the Grand Master, but — if I had known how much it would have hurt you, I would have told you the truth. I know you can be trusted. I should have been upfront and requested your discretion."
Diluc doesn't know what she is talking about, but he is still unsurprised. Jean's dedication to her role has always been her biggest shortcoming. She is talented but consumed by her responsibility to the knights. He knows that deep down, she always wants to do the right thing, but her judgement is often clouded and her hands are often tied.
"What did you tell me?" he asks.
"I told you that the man who was in here earlier, Kaeya, erased his memories of you."
"We knew each other?" Diluc asks. "That is impossible." But even as he says it, he knows it is not impossible at all. After all, he carried a jar of unknown memories home from Dragonspine. Presumably, Kaeya is inside that jar. Which means that Diluc elected to have him removed from his mind — likely for good reason.
"You did," Jean replies.
She clearly wants to explain further, so Diluc asks, "And?"
"Kaeya did not have his memories removed. It was a trick — a ruse that we put together to infiltrate the group responsible and find out who's pulling the strings. Kaeya dug up some dirt on the Hydro user who can remove memories and used that to make him agree to lie about having performed the procedure on him. Our orders are to pretend that we are interested in regulating the practice, but in reality, we need to capture the person at the top of the chain."
Diluc feels nothing about this revelation. He says simply, "I see."
"You must understand, our goal wasn't to hurt you. We need to figure out who's behind this, because memory erasure is only scratching the surface. They are setting the stage for mind control, and we need to stop it before it goes that far."
"Mind control," Diluc repeats. "It seems a far leap from simple memory removal." He's irritated all over again, but not because of the situation with Kaeya; rather, if Jean had simply been up front, he could have put an end to this in a much more streamlined fashion, without all the lies and bureaucratic nonsense getting in the way.
"It does, but all of the evidence points to it being possible. If a memory can be removed, it can also be manipulated."
Diluc decides that he needs to pay Dragonspine another visit and use his own methods to work his way to the top of the group behind all of this. But for now, he focuses on the more pressing matter at hand: "So Kaeya knows who I am, but I have no idea who he is."
"It seems so." Jean bows her head. "Again, I'm sorry."
"Considering your lie, I assume that Kaeya may have had good reason to erase me from his memory."
Jean pales. "Yes," she says quietly. "It was...the most believable lie."
Diluc doesn't respond right away. He considers the void in his mind where Kaeya once existed; he attempts to prod at it with his thoughts, but finds nothing, save for annoyance over this situation.
"I am not surprised to hear that the knights made another poor judgement call, at my expense yet again."
"Diluc —" Jean attempts to say.
He stands. "However, though you made a poor judgement call, you are not to blame for this situation. My...personal affairs with Kaeya have nothing to do with you."
"He was following orders, just as I was," Jean protests weakly.
Diluc turns to leave, but before exiting the office, he turns to reply.
"Then perhaps I miss nothing in having no memories of him."
Kaeya is leaning against the wall when Diluc steps out of the office. "I admit, that does sting a little," he says with a smile. It looks strange — like it could be feigned.
"As established, I have no idea who you are," Diluc says, idly rubbing at his chest, which still feels a little tight. Likely, the ache is from lack of sleep; it's time for him to return home. "So I will be on my way."
"Hang on," Kaeya replies, stepping into his path. "Aren't you even a little curious about me? Don't you want to ask me some questions? Or yell at me about lying to you?"
"No," Diluc says. "I have no feelings about you at all. All I want is to be on my way."
"Wait, wait," Kaeya calls as Diluc steps around him. Once again, Kaeya intrudes upon his path. "Let me try again."
Diluc regards him with disinterest.
Kaeya stops smiling. He sighs, glancing upward as though gathering himself. Then he looks Diluc in the eye and asks, "Can we talk? Please?"
Diluc looks beyond him, at the door that will finally lead him out of this building and all its accumulating annoyances. Then he looks at Kaeya — really looks at him, and remembers, suddenly, an ice cold lake, and the feeling of frigid water on his skin. And beyond that, a vague promise, like a whisper in the back of his mind: I'll know what to do.
"Make it quick," Diluc says.
He allows Kaeya to lead him to his office.
Kaeya is irritating, Diluc decides immediately.
He's currently sitting on his desk, rather than in a chair like a civilized person, and flicking a coin over and over again. The sound and habitual movement is quickly getting under Diluc's skin, as it is exacerbating his headache and doing very little to alleviate the growing tension in his chest.
"There's no point in hiding now, is there?" Kaeya finally asks, swiping his coin in mid-flick and placing it in his pocket. "You could always see underneath, anyway, and now that you don't even remember, it all feels a little pointless."
"What do you want?" Diluc asks him.
"It's a little eerie, how you still sound the same. You're saying the same things to me, in that same tone. I don't know if I should find that relieving or hurtful." He laughs. The sound is empty. "What do you think?"
Diluc thinks that this conversation is futile. He thinks that he's tired, that his body is nagging him for rest, and that Kaeya means nothing to him beyond annoyance. He thinks that his breath feels caught in his chest, labored, entangled with some unknown feeling that must be a new, uncomfortable level of fatigue.
Kaeya, apparently, requires no response to continue talking. "I am offended you found it so easy to erase me, when it never entered into my mind to truly erase you." Kaeya doesn't look at him. He looks up at the ceiling and asks, "Is having me around truly that upsetting for you?"
"I can't say. You know that."
"You're right. I do."
"Then why ask? This is hardly a conversation at all. It's a monologue."
"You've said something similar to me before. One night at Angel's Share. Does that sound familiar?" There is no hope in the eye that stares him down; the question feels as empty as his earlier laugh.
"No," Diluc answers, though as he speaks the word, he wonders if that's entirely true. There is a vague memory of him saying something like that to a man leaning against the bar, asking for a glass of wine. And within that memory, a nagging feeling — something similar to irritation, but more somehow. Deeper, and difficult to pinpoint.
"Why did you do it?" Kaeya asks. "This isn't like you. I thought for sure that you would see right through me, as you always do." He pauses to reach in his other pocket, taking out a square of fabric.
I made an emotional decision, Diluc thinks unbidden, his mind supplying the answer without any prompting. I forgot to breathe. He doesn't know why the words enter his head, only that he has to stop himself from speaking them as though they are the truth.
"Was it an easy decision?" Kaeya continues, looking down at the square of fabric, as though it could hold the answers that Diluc cannot give him himself. "Did you really want me gone that badly?"
"I couldn't say."
Without warning, Kaeya tosses the square of fabric at him. Diluc reacts instinctively and catches it. He examines it, turning it over in his hand, and notices an embroidered DR in the corner of the square.
It is a handkerchief. It was his handkerchief once, many years ago, but then —
The ache in Diluc's chest grows. Diluc frowns, asking, "What is this?" His voice comes out weaker, less authoritative, tinged with some unknown emotion dug up from his core, indiscernible to his mind.
He shouldn't chase that feeling; he shouldn't attempt to unearth the place from which it came. And yet, as he runs his fingers over the embroidered lettering, his mind reaches for it, the ghost of a forgotten memory.
"You gave that to me once," Kaeya explains. "It's technically yours. I see no point in holding on to it now."
Diluc remembers trying to catch tears as they spilled over a cheek. He remembers being careful — he remembers the sense of regret.
"Why?" Diluc tries to put his scattered thoughts into words. "Why do you still have this?"
"Maybe I'm sentimental," Kaeya replies. "Or maybe I was simply waiting for the right moment to return it." He pauses. "Perhaps I waited too long."
An image enters into his mind: a nameless, faceless child clutching the handkerchief in his hand as he falls asleep.
"Enough about that old thing," Kaeya says. "My understanding is that the procedure is reversible. Who has your memories? Adelinde? We can get them back." He pauses. "But do you want them back? What is the right choice here?"
Outside of the window, the sun is rising. The sky is slowly unveiling an explosion of color — pink and orange hues stretch until they reach the office.
"It's morning," Diluc realizes out loud, clutching the handkerchief tightly in his hand.
Kaeya glances back at the window. "So it is. The passage of time, and with it, everything that once mattered."
It's morning, Diluc thinks, and that thought feels important. It makes him forget his annoyance, the ache in his chest, the headache pounding against his skull. A sense of clarity is offered by the new light of the day, and within it, the glimmer of something that matters.
Kaeya sighs. "I suppose that's my answer then." He gets to his feet, his smile back in place. "I will leave you to your ignorance, and carry all these —" he taps his head, "for the both of us."
It's morning, Diluc thinks to himself again, reaching for the fleeting feeling that flares within his heart. It's morning, and they're here, and even though he doesn't know this man, even though he doesn't understand why he looks so ruined beneath that smile of his, why he stares at Diluc as if he needs something from him —
Even though Diluc is exhausted, irritated, done with conversations that make little sense and questions that seek answers that Diluc cannot offer —
"It's morning," Diluc repeats. Though he doesn't know what compels him to say it, the words are there — in his chest, in his throat, on his tongue. "And I still —"
As he speaks, the feeling swells just enough to be acknowledged, touched, given voice. It hurts as though it is barbed, stings like salt in a wound, but is too all-encompassing to shove down and ignore. So Diluc chases it, attempts to recover what has been lost — tries to seize it so he can understand it.
Kaeya shakes his head. His smile is gone. He eye is cold, angry — sad. "You say that now."
Diluc stands. He holds out the handkerchief. "Now is all there is."
"For you." Kaeya's voice is barely a whisper as he takes the handkerchief and looks down at it, a remnant of the past, a tangible memory.
Diluc touches Kaeya's face. He brushes his fingers against his cheek. He tries to recall what he once committed to memory.
Memories are never truly gone. They leave traces everywhere, staining the mind, so that even the best cleaning fails to remove them all. When Diluc kisses Kaeya and Kaeya tenses, Diluc remembers bits and pieces: the pain, the joy, the regret, and beneath it all:
Raw and unrelenting love.
It isn't about the fissure that awaits in the jar he gave Adelinde — it isn't about the arguments, the lies, the anger.
It's that this feeling persists even now — even this far away from his memory.
Kaeya trembles against him. He parts his lips marginally, as though afraid to fully give in. Diluc holds him close and tries to communicate this new understanding.
Kaeya breaks the kiss to rest his head against Diluc's shoulder. His arms move around Diluc slowly, less sure, but eventually, he holds Diluc back.
"Who knew you could be so scary when trying to be nice," Kaeya says against his neck.
"Come with me," Diluc says. He chose to forget Kaeya for a reason, and he understands that the reason was pain. But it's clear that even by wiping his memories, he has not forgotten this feeling and what it means to him. Or, perhaps by having the distance from his memories, he can examine the emotion objectively for once, and accept it for what it is. Regardless, he now understands that this reprieve is no reprieve at all — not for himself, and certainly not for Kaeya. There is little to gain from staying in the dark. "We'll do it together."
"Sure," Kaeya laughs. "Why not? I'll sign my death warrant today."
As they pull away, Kaeya pockets the handkerchief.
The process of returning his memories is painfully simple. They simply open the jar and Diluc breathes them in.
One moment they are gone from his mind, and the next they are there.
Kaeya watches with rapt attention that betrays how on edge he feels. He seeks the moment of recognition.
When it hits, Diluc has to turn away. He is unprepared for the onslaught of intense emotion after years of keeping himself in check. Anger makes him ball his fist. Pain makes tears gather in his eyes. It's too much at once, and he shakes under the weight of it all as his mind seeks to put everything back in its proper spot.
"Well," Kaeya says from behind him. "The upside of all of this is that I do so enjoy saying, 'I told you so." He sounds unnerved.
Diluc tries to take a steadying breath. He counts to four. He holds it in his chest and counts to seven. Then he exhales and counts to eight.
"I'll take my leave now," Kaeya says, "before you decide I'd look better beaten to a pulp."
"Wait," Diluc forces himself to say.
Kaeya pauses. Diluc turns around.
Diluc tries to process everything he feels, but it is a hopeless task. There's so much — and looking at Kaeya makes everything all the more painful. He can't stand him for what he did — for the lies built up over so many years, and for the truth he offered at the one moment he shouldn't have. Diluc feels betrayed and alone, even facing him now.
And Kaeya knows it. Kaeya can read it in his face just as easily as Diluc can see the fear in his. And Kaeya, having been rejected twice in his life by people he loved, is preparing for rejection all over again.
Diluc wants to reject him — wants to take him in his arms again — wants to grip him, shove him, yell at him, and keep him close.
"Still," is all he manages to say.
Because despite it all, there has always been one undercurrent of truth beneath everything Diluc has ever felt — everything he has ever scorned and hated, everything he has tried to escape, and everything for which he has ever cared.
There, beneath it all, that raw and unrelenting feeling.
Kaeya exhales audibly. "Okay." He says it again: "Okay."
They don't touch. Not yet. It's too soon, too uncertain, and there's still so much damage to repair.
But when Kaeya takes a seat on the sofa, Diluc sits beside him.
In the silence, Diluc calms. Kaeya relaxes. Something settles between them.
Eventually, Kaeya says, "We haven't eaten breakfast."
"It's still morning," Diluc replies.
And still they sit together, with the weight of their history between them.
Diluc reaches across it and touches Kaeya's wrist. Kaeya looks down at the contact and opens his hand: an offering of something old, but also something new — an acknowledgement of the past, and with it, a hope for the future.
Slowly, Diluc rests his hand atop Kaeya's palm.
It's still morning. Outside, the sun is still fresh; the day is still new.
There is still time.