Diluc is certain that what he’s looking at is a corpse.
It’s only Barbara’s presence at the bedside, huddled in prayer, that hints that the figure in the bed might actually have the barest flicker of life. The room is small, but it has a fireplace. Even the red light of the flames can’t seem to cast the man in a life-like hue.
Kaeya’s normally caramel skin is a frosted gray; his breathing so shallow Diluc can’t track it.
He’d almost doubled back when he’d finally gotten out of Jean just where she was taking him. But she had clamped down and threatened to fight him right where they stood if he didn’t come. It was then that the smallest tendrils of unease had started to slither past the wall of his anger. The old despair.
In the end, he’d let her drag him here. To see what was once his brother, one more time before…
He looks down at Barbara, whose Vision is just as ineffective as her prayers at this point.
She gasps, eyes filling with tears but she understands there’s nothing she can do for him that she can’t do out in the hall. Or in the Cathedral. She bobs her head and leaves, silent save for the hitching breaths she barely holds in.
In the doorway, Jean turns her body so she can pass. Her face is angry but her voice is low, respectful.
“When this is over, you are going to apologize to my sister.”
Her emphasis on their relationship is not lost on him but he’s too numb to feel the jab. She closes the door carefully but speaks once more outside.
“And don’t just send wine. -She’s underage.”
He hears the sound of her boots recede but his eyes never leave the body in front of him. The huge chasm that separates them is the distance between him and the bed.
He’s across it in two steps.
People tend to think that those with Visions have a natural affinity for whatever element they were given.
Diluc knows this is bullshit. Before he’d gotten his, he’d never been considered a ‘hot-head.’ Had never been rash or impulsive. Even his temper was under careful wraps. Beyond his coloring, he’d never affiliated himself with fire. He had passion once, before his father died—before the Knight’s betrayal, but that was long gone. What was left was conviction, cold and absolute.
He’s heard the whispers. No one likens his personality to element of his Vision—they say he is frigid. Aloof.
It was Kaeya who was warm and friendly, like a campfire on a cold night. Bright and dancing on the wind. Unintentionally destructive and all-consuming. Whether that just was a layer of him or part of his true self, Diluc couldn’t say anymore but there is one thing he knows for certain.
Kaeya hates being cold.
He builds the fire in the small fireplace as large as it will go; strips down to just his shirt and pants. He pulls the blankets back, or tries to. They stick to him; like dry cloth on caked snow. He doesn’t relent and finds Kaeya is still in his clothes. They haven’t even removed his boots.
When he moves to do so, he hisses. His body is radiating ice.
The slow bank of his temper flares up and he does the one thing that would have Kaeya up and swinging in any other circumstances. With his bare hands he slides his nails under the eyepatch and wrenches it off; some skin and hair coming off with it.
Diluc is probably the only person in Teyvat beyond the man who abandoned Kaeya at the Winery (he refuses to refer to that wretch as a father) and Kaeya himself, that knows what’s under that bit of leather and cloth. Carefully, he pushes back the eyelid.
The eye, which is just like it’s twin only with a black sclera, is a frosted over—frozen in its socket just like he’d seen on some of the corpses they’d brought back from Dragonspine.
He turns away, heaving. He wills himself not to be sick.
Anger is an old friend and he embraces it. Let’s it burn away the nausea. Kaeya can’t die. Not yet. They haven’t reconciled. Haven’t sorted through the lies he laid at his feet that horrible night. He still doesn’t know if Kaeya is just laying in wait or if he has turned over a new leaf. Despite not sharing actual blood, Diluc’s heart still beats oddly whenever his once-brother is around and he hates it.
But what can he do? As the bards are so fond of singing, the heart does as it wonts.
He returns to his task. The stone denoting his Vision is a frosted white, just like his eye. Diluc can’t touch it, so he removes a knife from his own discarded boot and cuts the strap that keeps it attached to the other’s hip. He contemplates throwing into the fire. He knows Kaeya’s state is because of her. The rightful owner of that power.
He doesn’t know the circumstances and normally wouldn’t care, but he doesn’t want an elemental reaction of untold proportions to literally blow up in his face, so he tosses the stone to a corner of the room. He’ll have it looked at later—maybe by a certain cheeky bard who’s really their absentee Archon.
Buying his complicity will be as easy as plying him with alcohol, which seems to be his preferred type of offering.
He grunts as he tries to remove his boots again. After a lot of awkward tugging they come off, but Diluc realizes that anything touching his actual skin will likely be frozen to said skin. Especially his gloves or any other leather bits. He’ll have to… thaw before he can be safely disrobed.
Diluc looks at the pitiful fireplace and remembers the size of the one in Kaeya’s actual rooms in the Winery. Takes a moment to wonder if these are his quarters because if they are, his closet at the manor is twice as big.
That makes a sliver of hurt get past the burning anger and resentment. He’d assumed this was a sickroom but he can see now that it’s not. His trunk is here, still missing a handle where Diluc had broken it off by throwing it out onto the muddy ground with all his might. There are a few other trinkets scattered about but he doesn’t look too closely at any of it.
It’s not his right. They both made their choices. Whatever life his—Kaeya has scraped together is his, and his alone. If he chooses to live in this pathetic shoebox, that’s his prerogative.
He untucks the fitted sheet from the mattress and decides getting Kaeya as close to the fire as possible will be his best bet. He lays the pillows and blankets next to the bed and slowly, carefully pulls the sheet so the dense mostly frozen body falls into them, then drags the whole mess as close to the open flames as he dares.
He grabs his own Vision, wraps the blankets and sheets around the person who had once meant more to him than anything and curls around Kaeya from behind; pressing the stone of his Vision to the other’s chest.
He wakes an indeterminate amount of time later.
It’s dark. The fire has burned down to embers but the lingering heat in the room is stifling. He adds more wood even though he’s wet with sweat. He can’t tell with only the fire as a backdrop but he thinks Kaeya looks better. He winces at the shining raw patches on his face where he pried the eyepatch off.
If the other man survives, he’s sure he’ll get an earful for that.
Dizzy in the heat, he presses a finger to those superficial wounds and is heartened when the flesh gives under his touch. He uses the blankets and sheets to drag Kaeya back from the fire a bit then casts them aside to get at his clothing. It comes off only slightly easier than before considering the wearer is unconscious and can’t assist.
Once he’s down to his underwear, Diluc drags him close to the fire again but this time adds himself to the cocoon of bedclothes. This close, he can feel the slight rise and fall of the other’s chest, a tangible proof of life.
He’s too uncomfortable to fall asleep right away, though the heat steals the air from his lungs.
Diluc tries to slow his panting breaths, tries to concentrate on only that, but the thoughts still creep to the fore. In his mind’s eye he sees the future he had once imagined for them. Kaeya, with his love of spirits, running the Winery and Diluc with the Vision and the title; a member of the Knights of Favonius like their father wanted.
His breath catches as sorrow, as deep and wide as the Abyss, squeezes his heart in its merciless grip.
That’s just a fantasy now. He needs to stop torturing himself with things that will never be. But his heart aches with how wrong everything is now. How backwards. Diluc protects these lands from the shadows, like the forsaken son while Kaeya walks in the light as a proper, if unconventional knight.
He would laugh if he had the breath. How their roles have been reversed.
There is a light knock at the door. He ignores it. He locked it on the heels of the Acting Grandmaster and he’s certain it’s a courtesy knock. It will be a while before anyone comes to try and extricate him. Jean will have fielded any inquiries as to his whereabouts and it hasn’t been long enough to worry anyone, beyond the obvious. Not yet.
After a moment, he hears Lisa’s voice through the wood.
“Diluc. Do you need anything?”
He should probably ask for water at least. He’s been sweating a lot and he knows he’ll eventually get dehydrated. There’s a wash basin with some water in it next to the bed, but he’s not nearly desperate enough to drink that. He has no intention of getting up right now however, so he says, loud enough for her to hear:
“No. I’m fine. Water later, though. -And more wood.”
She gives him an affirmative and over the flames he can hear the click of her heels against the floor as she leaves. He sighs against the back of Kaeya’s neck, who is still unnaturally chilled but not the barely-living block of ice he was.
Curling around the only cool spot in the room, he finally slips into a doze.
Later comes sooner than he expects, though it’s probably just that he fell asleep.
Kaeya’s temperature has improved to the point where he has begun to shiver. When Diluc hears the knock and finally Lisa’s voice, he wraps the warmed blankets tightly around the other before stumbling upright.
The stare he gets when he opens the door confirms his suspicions that he currently looks like something that crawled out of the gutter. -And probably smells like it too.
He takes the wood from the nameless peon she’s brought first, putting some on the dwindling fire then comes back for the carafe. He can see Lisa eyeing the empty bed but he doesn’t move to let anyone enter. He gives her a conciliatory nod before asking for some mulled cider to be brought by in roughly four hours. He’s not sure how long he’s been here at this point, but that should at least give him a better gauge of Kaeya’s recovery time.
Thankfully the librarian doesn’t bat an eye at the request, just tugs the wide-eyed peon away and promises the cider will be delivered as requested.
As much as the thought of a hot beverage repulses him, it’s not actually for him. And considering it was Lisa who took the request, she’ll likely bring him the alcoholic version which was what he was really asking for.
It’s strange to be grateful that Kaeya has people in his life that know him almost as well as Diluc does. He wishes he could say the same. Those few that know him as good as Kaeya are ones they share in that respect. Adelinde, Jean, Charles. People that have known them both a long time.
Diluc hasn’t made any friends that he didn’t already have before everything went to hell. Not even from his travels.
He’s pretty sure he has a couple of warrants out for his arrest, in fact.
Sighing at his own nostalgia, he sorts out the bedding and wedges himself against Kaeya’s back once more. Wraps himself around him in an attempt to soothe the tremors that wrack his frame.
Holds on like he’d wanted to when Kaeya had been a wet, pathetic stranger in his father’s arms.
“C’mon. Take a little more…”
He sighs when the lukewarm cider dribbles down the other’s chin, sliding out of the unresponsive mouth. Kaeya has finally opened his eyes, but there’s no recognition in them. His shivers have died down to occasional tremors and Diluc has him propped against his chest as he tries to get him to drink. To warm him from the inside.
He knows it’s probably dangerous to give someone in this state alcohol, but this particular drink had been like mother’s milk to Kaeya; especially around the holidays.
Besides, in the case that he doesn’t survive, at the very least the last taste on his tongue won’t be that of his own sickness.
He spreads a hand over the other’s neck and chin, tilting his head back. Carefully he lines up another sip; fingers massaging his throat and murmuring words of encouragement as he swallows. He does this until the drink is tepid.
And if he takes comfort in the closeness they once had, even if it’s a stolen moment like this, that’s no one’s business but his own.
He’s woken with a kick.
He jerks awake, disoriented. He must have fallen into a hard sleep after all the short, interrupted naps. The fire is mostly guttered out and he can feel the itch of old sweat all over. He peers around for the source of his wakefulness but the much-subdued fireplace gives off only the barest glow.
“Where is my Vision?”
Kaeya stands over him, looking as disheveled as he’s ever seen him in the waning light. He apparently retained enough articulation to pull on a pair of pants for modesty, but the rest of him looks just as messy as Diluc feels. He doesn’t sound particularly incensed but it’s obvious that he’s not exactly pleased, either.
It takes him a minute to remember that he asked a question.
“Diluc, where is my Vision? What did you do with it?”
Kaeya looks like he might kick him again if he doesn’t answer. He blinks around the room before he remembers that he cut off the stone and flung it to some unknown corner. Away. Because it might have been killing him. Or maybe it’s what kept him alive. He’ll likely never know.
He croaks out the answer, and he hears Kaeya stumble in the direction where he indicates. Can hear him pawing around on the floor.
Diluc figures this is his cue to leave.
He lists slightly when he stands up and he has to lean against the wall to put on his boots. Doesn’t bother with the rest of it, just gathers his coat and other bits. He pauses before opening the door, unsure of what’s waiting just beyond but suddenly Kaeya is there; opening the door and shuffling him out.
He turns just in time to watch the door shut in his face.
All Diluc wants to do is to go somewhere and drop, but he remembers Jean’s words and Barabara’s hurt and goes to the Cathedral instead.
As he walks, he knows he’s drawing stares but he’s numb to it. All he can hear is Kaeya asking for his Vision. The same power that had nearly killed him; that was his concern. He tries to get angry about it, but there’s nothing. Just… emptiness.
Quiet gasps erupt from behind as the assembled nuns and parishioners get a good look at him, but he only has eyes for the head of blond curls; kneeling exactly as she had been at Kaeya’s bedside.
Red rimmed eyes in a tired face look at him. A sliver of guilt worms past the ennui. He did this. The deaconess is far too young to look so old.
He puts what he hopes is a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“He was up when I left, but you might want to check on him later. He was okay enough to kick me out of his room, so I assume-”
A cough of air leaves his lungs as Barbara latches around his middle. He pats her awkwardly as she sniffles into his gross shirt, which makes him wince on her behalf. After a moment, she lets him go and it’s a small relief to see some of that tension disappear.
“Thank you. For… staying with him.” For caring, he wants to say. But he doesn’t need to.
Beaming, Barbara wipes the tears from he eyes and promises to look in on the recovering Cavalry Captain. Diluc, obligation fulfilled, gives her a weary nod and takes his leave.
He didn’t say he was sorry, but this would have to do.
Diluc is pretty sure he can’t make it home, so he stops at Angel’s Share. It takes him squeezing his coat to his chest to realize he’s shivering now. Being in the stifling heat so long makes being out of it feel almost like winter. The chill of it has settled into his bones.
Charles stammers at the sight of him when he walks in. He waves off the concern.
“I’m going to do inventory. Let me know when it gets busy.”
Thankfully, Charles knows that ‘inventory’ is generally code for ‘I want to be alone for a while.’ He still tries to protest, because Diluc looks (and feels) like something scraped off someone’s boot but ultimately respects the unspoken request and doesn’t follow.
In the store room, he sits on a stack of crates with a kind of finality; wedging himself between the ones stacked behind. He drapes his coat over his shaking limbs and tells himself that he’ll just hunker down here until he gets warm. Just until then.
It’s the last coherent thought he has for a while.
“-wouldn’t have called you, but I… don’t know what to do. He’s never been like this before.”
Diluc blinks, his vision fuzzy. He realizes partially that it’s due to the low light. It must already be the next evening. Considering it had been the previous afternoon when Jean had led him to Kaeya’s door, and late morning when he’d been kicked out of it, he figures he’s slept close to twelve hours.
Which is unfair because it doesn’t feel like he’s slept at all. Exhaustion sits heavy in his chest like a stone.
It isn’t until he squints and the multicolored blur focuses into a person, does he realize who it is. He barely stifles a grimace. Charles should know better than to call him. Kaeya peers down at him like he’s a particularly hopeless pile of human garbage. Now that he can see Diluc is awake, he speaks at a normal volume.
“Don’t worry yourself, Charles. As you can see, Master Diluc is fine, if a little… unkempt.”
He can feel the familiar sting of annoyance at that backhanded comment until he remembers exactly why he’s in his current state. He sits up so fast, his vision wavers. Shaking it off, he levels a glare at the other man.
“What… are you doing here? How are you even… -Did Jean actually let you go back work?”
Diluc has the utmost respect for Jean but if she knowingly let Kaeya return to his duties less than twenty-four hours after he was basically dead… He’s not sure what he’s going to do, but he’s pretty sure no one is going to like it—least of all the Knights of Favonius.
He can tell by Kaeya’s very slight shift in posture that this is not the case.
“I don’t see why the business of the Knights of Favonius would be any of yours, Master Diluc. -You’ve made your stance quite clear on that account.”
He tries. He really tries to scrape up enough anger, enough righteous indignation but all he can remember is looking down and seeing a dead body wearing that same face. Feeling a deep, yawning despair at the realization that it was too late. His brother was gone and he’d never know just how much Diluc still loved him.
Something gives inside him and he lets out a breathless, helpless laugh. Then another. Then another.
“M-master Diluc. You’re unwell, let me contact someone at the manor-“
He doesn’t hear the rest of it; gasping chuckles wracking his body. Diluc isn’t sure how long the episode lasts—only when it ends; the force of Kaeya’s slap snapping his head almost painfully to the side.
Charles exclaims but Kaeya only says, in a voice that sounds deceptively calm:
And wisely, after a token protest, he does.
Diluc puts a hand to his throbbing face. He’s still smiling; can still feel the laugher bubbling just beneath the surface. He hiccups on air and Kaeya is quick to issue a warning.
“Start up again and I swear it’ll be my fist. -What is wrong with you? Did my previous state affect you so much? As you can see, I’m fine. Whole and hale from your efforts.”
He crosses his arms over his chest with a huff.
“Honestly. You’re just tired. Go home and sleep this off, whatever it is. -And stop making it my problem.”
Diluc wants to scream at him, wants to grab the other by the ridiculous shirt and shake. But the words, the strength to do it, won’t come. What does is a wordless croak as the laughter in his chest turns into something else entirely. He can feel the heat gather in his face, the swell of water turning Kaeya into a smear of color once more.
The choking grief holding him captive finally blessedly loosens as the first tears fall.
As the tears become hitching sobs, he expects the promised fist that will have him waking up later; hopefully in his rooms at the manor, but it doesn’t come. Instead, Kaeya just looks stricken; like doesn’t know what to do. Diluc would laugh again, if he could.
What a pair they are.
Eventually he notices that Kaeya is crouched next to his bed of crates. He looks more perplexed than angry, which is good news for his face, he supposes. Eventually Kaeya sighs.
“What do you want from me, Diluc? I stay away as much as I can, except for here and when I’m here, it’s work. I haven’t gone to the Winery since you threw me out, even though I’m pretty sure I’m still legally entitled to it. I have given you time and space and this-” He motions to their immediate vicinity, “-is what we have to show for it.”
It takes a few moments of just breathing, before he can answer.
“I want… you to have quarters that befit your rank. -Not some pathetic unused broom closet.”
It’s such a non-sequitur that it startles a laugh out of the other man. He shakes his head.
“You are a piece of work, Lord Ragnvindr. -For your information, I requested that room because the smaller the space, the less places for someone to hide.”
That makes Diluc frown.
“That’s your logic? Subterfuge in the Knights of Favonius Headquarters? Who do you think is going to attempt that particular break in? Who is that desperate to get to you?”
Kaeya just stares back at him, mask firmly in place.
He chuckles mirthlessly as he runs a hand through the disaster that is his hair; pulls at it, close to the roots.
“I can’t… do this anymore.”
Diluc feels a few more fat tears slide down his face, but he is so past the point of mortification that it barely registers.
“I’m… Do you know how many times, after patrolling or shaking down whatever criminals I happen to find, I’ve considered just… walking way? From all of this. Just keep walking until I can’t anymore. -The only thing that stops me from doing it is how disappointed my father would be; and Adelinde, Charles. Their livelihoods are tied into the Winery. I can’t just…”
He trails off with a sigh.
“I have all the things he ever wanted in life and I don’t give a damn about any of them. -I am such a great son.”
Silently, almost apologetically Kaeya holds out his Vision stone. He must have left it in the other’s rooms in his haste to vacate the premises. Diluc takes it from his hand. Can feel the laughter bubbling up again. He forgot it. Its existence is so inconsequential that he forgot it in what he once would have considered enemy territory.
It feels like things are falling to pieces. Again. Just like on that night, almost ten years ago now.
A firm hand winds around his wrist.
“Diluc, look at me. -Look at me.”
He complies and Kaeya is looking at him intently. Not with contempt or pity but with something urgent. Something he can’t quite parse or understand.
“The reason you feel like this, is because you built your whole life on other people’s expectations. Father’s, The Knight’s—Mondstadt’s. It’s noble, certainly but ultimately untenable. I’ve always maintained that a bit of selfishness would go a long way with you, and I think that’s especially true now.”
The hand on his wrist moves to where he holds his Vision; curls his slack fingers around it.
“Just this once, I want you to think about what you want. -Not what you should want; not what’s right or what’s best. What you, Diluc Ragnvindr wants. -Think hard. If you had no obligations, no expectations, just whatever you wanted right now—what would it be?”
He closes his eyes. Cuts through the ingrained process of always taking the high road. Of putting others before himself. Of carefully maintaining the façade of Lord Ragnvindr—a caricature of a man who does no wrong. It’s hard. He’s never considered his own needs important, let alone his wants.
But he knows when he’s found the right one because the shackles, the choking tightness unravel and fall away.
“I want… you to come home.”
At Kaeya’s stunned blink, he chuffs. It’s not the breathless, sickly sound from before but a quiet laugh of genuine amusement. After a moment’s thought, he adds:
“-To the Manor, I mean. I guess I don’t know what home is to you now, but that’s what I meant.”
It’s strange, how the calm settles over him. Minutes ago, he’d been on the verge of a breakdown, if not in the middle of one. But cutting through the hubris to the heart of his own desires has steadied him in a way that his vigilante justice never could.
Eventually Kaeya sighs, shaking his head at the proverbial cards Diluc has laid before him.
“You never do anything by halves, do you? -I’m… I know it’s been a decade already but I need time to think about this.” He peers at Diluc like he might burst into hysterics again. “You’re not going to crack up if I don’t say yes right now, are you?”
He should probably feel insulted but Kaeya is just working on empirical evidence. He cocks his head.
“I think I can keep it together long enough for you to think it over. But I might do something drastic if it takes more than a year. -Unfair, but it’s the truth.”
He winces as he finally stands up. He can feel the indents from the unforgiving wood slats on his back and thighs. Kaeya gives him space, but lunges forward to catch his arm when he wobbles a bit. Diluc starts to move to go back into the tavern proper but Kaeya doesn’t let go and tugs him further into the store room.
“What are you doing? Why are we going back here?”
Kaeya looks at him like he’s an idiot. There’s no polite tilt of brow or quirk of the lips, just a glance that clearly says ‘you are a dumbass.’ It had been a common occurrence when they were younger; before the wall of civility had gone up.
The nostalgia hits him hard.
“First of all, there’s no way you’re walking through Angel’s Share looking like that. You’ve already scandalized the day-time citizens of Mondstadt, you’re not giving the night crowd something to talk about. -I’ve sent a flyer1 to the manor, they’re sending a carriage for you.”
The look the other man gives him brooks no argument.
“You can wait for it here. They’ve been instructed to knock three times.”
Kaeya has led him to the back entrance, where the deliveries come in. Diluc squints at him in defiance.
“And if I’d rather help Charles, than hide back here?”
The Cavalry Captain spins around and crosses his arms over his chest, arch look in place.
“You’ll be helping him more by tending to your tattered image than by doing menial tasks he doesn’t even need you to do. You’ve lost enough customers to Cat’s Tail. Do you really want to send more away by sheer power of your stench?”
He scoffs but has to tilt his head to hide his grin.
“Fine. I’ll stay here. -Happy?”
He starts when Kaeya is suddenly right there, hands on his face. The press of lips to his cheek is brief but so cold it burns. Diluc hisses slightly as he recoils but Kaeya’s grip doesn’t relent.
His words are almost a whisper against the side of his face.
“Never touch my eyepatch again.”
Then he releases him. Waves a careless hand as he disappears out of the deliveries door. Diluc touches the tender skin where Kaeya has most definitely left a mark.
He smiles so hard it hurts.
1Flyer=Bird. Kaeya sent a message bird. Not sure how they do long-distance communication in Genshin so I improvised. XD