By now, Kaeya has learned to wake silently from his nightmares.
He forces himself to sit up as best as he can, unable to shake the feeling that he’s still being pursued, as if the leftover shadows might drag him back into sleep. It takes almost everything he has to keep himself still, to try to forget that his waking world is just as dark as his dreams had been, little to none of the moonlight able to reach this place where he sleeps.
Normally, he’d have chosen a different spot to rest in the first place, somewhere with open walls and lots of light, bright enough for Kaeya to see the things that skitter about in the darkness beside him. He’s made an effort to ignore the noises of his unwilling companions, of the patter of little claws from the rats behind him or flutter of delicate wings buzzing by his ear, but even then, it had taken him until he was exhausted beyond all reason to eventually succumb to sleep.
One small hand presses itself involuntarily against his chest, seeking out the rapid beat of his heart beneath his fingers--it’s just his nerves, he always tries to tell himself, but sometimes he thinks his chest feels unnaturally tight in moments like these, like something within him strains to escape.
A hard swallow pushes these thoughts down, and after a few more tense moments, he casts a cautious glance at his surroundings, in case he’s accidentally drawn attention to himself. He’s not supposed to be here, he knows, and if any of the guards at the gate catch sight of him, he’s not sure what might happen to him.
Most certainly, he would have to relocate--he doubts that the owner of this establishment would be particularly thrilled about discovering a strange child beneath his tavern.
Not that Kaeya is exactly pleased with his current situation either, but he doesn’t really have many options. He tries to sleep in a different place every night, to avoid drawing attention to himself, but there are really only so many hidden corners and crevices he can sleep in without being encountered by an unsuspecting passerby.
He lets another few seconds pass, until the tightness in his chest finally loosens enough to allow him to move, then carefully pokes his head out around the gap in the wooden frame that makes up the entrance of his little cave.
It’s late enough that the guards who usually patrol the streets at night have stopped doing so altogether. Kaeya can hear them now, the lot of them cooped up in the building right above his head and engaged in their other favorite activity that Kaeya’s often observed since first stumbling into Mondstadt--drinking.
This is good news for him, actually. When the late-night crowd gathers like this, the lights in the tavern stay on for hours after the usual closing time, and while none of it reaches Kaeya in his current position, the constant sound above him is enough to chase away some of his ever-present fear. As an added benefit, the owner of the place usually has more than enough half-eaten scraps to deposit into the trash, some of which Kaeya can take for his own.
He has to be careful not to take too much--after his first few weeks of scavenging around places like these, the tavern owners had started to suspect racoon invasions--but it’s a hard thing to control his hunger, as infrequent and unreliable as his meals are.
Out of all the unpleasant sensations that living on the streets has acquainted him with, the hunger is mostly definitely the worst of them, clawing unpleasantly at his stomach in painful reminder whenever he dares to think of anything else.
Not that he has much else to think about, since he still hasn’t managed to remember anything more than his name.
All other details about himself--his age, his family, how he’d ended up here in the first place, things that should almost certainly be automatic--are completely missing from his mind. He hadn’t even known where to go in order to get here, having wandered into Mondstadt completely by accident.
Even without his memories, it isn’t hard to guess that this area isn’t where he’d come from. In the few times he’s attempted to actually slip in with the rest of the crowds during the day, no one that passes him by bears even a hint of recognition upon seeing his face, and the reverse holds equally true.
At first, he’d planted himself here with the vague sort of hope that he might find even a scrap of his identity here--with so many people around, someone was bound to know something about him. But now, a few, fruitless weeks down the line, he’s been forced to face the fact that he’s really only sticking around because he has nowhere else to go.
He could try a few other cities, he always tells himself, but he doesn’t even know for sure that there are cities aside from this one, or what direction they might be in. And beyond any of that, he can’t even survive a few nights without relying on the table scraps of others. How would he possibly make the trip?
How did he make the trip, from wherever his homeland was, to here?
Kaeya bites his lip, shaking his head slightly to clear the thought. Questions like these are dangerous, leave him stranded in a loop of circular thought while the rest of the world passes him by. He’s often found himself drifting, in moments like these, like his mind is recalling the very same memories he’s not allowed to see, and sometimes when he blinks once, twice, back into the present, minutes or sometimes hours have slipped away.
He can’t afford to do so now, not when the window of time he has to forage for scraps is so short.
As if on cue, the muffled noise in the tavern suddenly heightens in volume, light spilling out from the inside of the building as the back door cracks open. Kaeya bites back a startled gasp, pulling back into the unseen shelter of home, but keeping himself pressed close to the wooden grate.
To his disappointment, it doesn’t seem to be the arrival of the food he’d expected--instead, two men make their way onto the back porch, one of them shutting the door with a lazy nudge of his boot before turning to lean against the railing.
“Finally,” the man murmurs underneath his breath, some of his red locks of hair slipping free from its ties as he tilts his head up towards the moonlight. “Business must be better than I thought--don’t quite remember the Share being so crowded.”
“Ah, well. It’s been a while since the esteemed owner of the business was in town, right? Most of them came to see you. And your son, I suppose.”
The second speaker, Kaeya recognizes--it’s who he’d thought was the owner of this tavern all along. But if his admittedly muddled comprehension of the spoken language here is correct, the title belongs to his companion, a man that Kaeya’s never seen in the month or so he’s spent here.
“That part will be a bit difficult,” the man answers, and Kaeya hears the way that his voice melts, then, his words turning so suddenly soft it tugs at something strange and painful in Kaeya’s chest. “Diluc fell asleep as soon as we got here. I doubt he would wake even if Barbatos himself descended to play him a song.”
“Really? I thought he would have been too excited to sleep. It’s his first time being properly in the city, isn’t it? You haven’t taken him here since, ah…”
The hesitation receives little more than a shrug from the other man, but Kaeya’s sharp eyes catch how tense the motion is.
“He’s almost eight now. I thought he should see the place where his mother is buried.”
Kaeya shifts uncomfortably at that last part, the edge of another dangerous thought lurking at the back of his mind. It isn’t as if he hasn’t thought about it before--that perhaps his mother and father are elusive to him simply because they are much the same position, gone and buried from view.
But if that were the case, if such a thing were true, then Kaeya really isn’t certain how or where he would move onto from that. His hope of finding his parents is useless at best, maybe, but at least it’s something.
He has no possessions, no memories, no place to call his home--he can’t allow himself to have nothing at all.
He bites at his lip, curling his fingers into the dirt beneath him, which he abruptly realizes is a mistake when the motion of it sends the shadows behind him into an anxious skittering of noises.
In some very small part of his brain, he recognizes that the creatures he shares his home with are much smaller than he is, with no real way or intent of hurting him unless he acts against them first. But the rest of his mind, the same part of him that wakes him up every night with his heart in his throat and his muscles locked into rigid fear, twists that knowledge into something else, something bigger and sharper until his breaths stutter in his throat.
It’s only when he realizes that the conversation has stopped that he manages to stop himself as well, pressing one of his sleeve-covered hands against his mouth to muffle his sharp, shallow breaths. He edges away and back into the shadows, even as his skin crawls in the dark, shutting his eyes and hoping he hasn’t accidentally given himself away.
“What is it?” the more familiar voice finally asks, and the wood beneath the men’s feet creaks as Kaeya imagines the bartender leaning curiously over to peer in Kaeya’s direction.
As much as Kaeya has always disliked the impenetrable shadow of his makeshift home, he’s grateful for it now, the way it cloaks him entirely from view.
“It’s nothing. I thought I heard something.”
A soft chuckle drifts through the air, followed by the rustle of fabric and footsteps on wood--away from Kaeya, not towards him. Kaeya lets out the softest of exhales, but strangely feels no relief, the tightness in his stomach refusing to relent.
“Fatherhood certainly has made you attentive, Master Crepus. I still remember the days when you would drift off in the middle of your own celebrations. Little wonder your son is now doing the same.”
“It’s a trait that will serve him well, I hope. He won’t worry about things too much--he won’t have to worry. For as long as I’m here to protect him, at least.”
Something about that makes Kaeya cast his gaze downwards, his next swallow nearly burning with how tight his throat has suddenly become. He bites at his lip and fights the sensation down, deciding that listening to this conversation any longer isn’t productive for him.
Clearly, this Crepus has no ties with Kaeya whatsoever, if seeing him properly and even hearing him speak brings no sort of recognition to Kaeya’s mind.
But even as he tells himself this, he finds his gaze trained on Crepus anyways, their words filtering absently through his mind, his comprehension of them largely lost to the painful ache in his chest. He touches the spot over his heart carefully, peering downwards to ensure he hasn’t damaged anything, but as far as he can tell, the skin is unbroken and unblemished
His investigation only lasts for the briefest of seconds, anyways, because the scrape of the men’s boots against the wood recaptures his attention, the bartender reopening the door, a sliver of light piercing the dark. Kaeya inches forwards against, his heart fluttering almost frantically as he struggles to catch a better look of Crepus’ face--the kindness in his eyes and the soft fondness of his expression, and he--
Would his father look like that, too?
Kaeya feels himself grow very still, and before he can help it, he’s being pulled away on a thread, a hundred different images of a hundred different people flickering across his mind, faces he’s studied again and again and compared to the blurry nothing he has as a reference to his father.
Not for the first time, frustration wells up inside of him, his lip stinging as his teeth sink hard enough into it to break the skin, a slow shudder crawling its way down his spine.
In moments like these, it’s hard not to imagine the other possibility, the one that Kaeya has never wanted to think about--that perhaps it’s not an accident that he’s been left here. It’s not an accident that he has no one to turn to now, that he’s been robbed of the ability to even think of his old life.
And if it isn’t an accident, then Kaeya can really only think one reason why he was left here at all.
Above him, the tavern shakes with the low rumble of laughter, but the sound does nothing to comfort Kaeya as it usually does. Somehow, the warmth of it scrapes a hollow pit somewhere inside of him, and he curls in on himself, dimly realizing that he’s trembling and not quite sure how to stop it.
He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes as soon as he feels them burn, but he isn’t fast enough to stop what comes next, the smallest of noises escaping him as he chokes on his next hitched breath. Kaeya tries shaking his head, tries forcing back the wave of emotion welling in his throat--he doesn’t have so much spare energy that he can afford to waste it in tears.
There can’t be that many hours of nightfall left--if the tavern isn’t going to provide him with anything, he needs to go out and find food for himself. Maybe he can find another place to sleep, too, one that isn’t so dark and cramped and uncomfortably tight.
Another shudder wracks his small frame, passing through his whole body this time in an involuntary hiccup, and suddenly Kaeya just feels a bone-deep ache, a soreness so strong it just feels like exhaustion.
He allows himself a slow, carefully controlled exhale, sniffling slightly to clear his senses before laying himself back down, each of his movements measured and controlled, as if he’s afraid he might fall apart if he goes too quickly.
Even as he curls in on himself, he knows that he can’t fall asleep so soon after a nightmare. Closing his eyes in the dark makes him think of hands from the shadows, of things slithering out to grab at him from where he can’t see, and his heart is already starting to quicken in his chest, his own fear vaguely acidic in his dry mouth.
So he won’t sleep--he’ll just close his eyes, for now, and wait for the dawn.
Over the next couple of weeks, Kaeya tries to adjust to what might now possibly be his permanent home.
He falls into a routine of sorts, finding a more stable source of food in the alleys behind the Good Hunter and occasionally daring to sneak out of the city gates every so often. He finds that he likes going to the lake--it’s a good opportunity to get clean, mostly, but also he likes to perch himself at the very edge, watching families of ducks waddle into the water in a line.
While his appearance isn’t exactly that of Mondstadt’s usual residents, it’s much easier for him to blend in when more people are about. Out in the daylight, Kaeya can simply pretend to be someone’s runaway son, another’s brother, a grandson wandering about from boredom.
Occasionally, he gets the concerned question or two, but Kaeya has become good at playing these off, even without speaking.
This last part is crucial, actually, because Kaeya really hasn’t managed to figure out if he can speak in the first place. He’d assumed he could, at first, but when his first attempt at doing so had resulted in little more than confused silence and looks of concern, he’d retreated into his own mind to solve the problem.
He doesn’t think it’s a lack of knowledge. After all, he understands the language when he’s spoken to well enough, with the exception of some of the bigger words he hasn’t quite managed to grasp yet. And he’s definitely capable of thinking words in the same language.
He’s heard himself make sounds, too, not much aside from the softest of reactions, but enough to know that his voice must be working fine.
So what is it?
He frowns to himself, his feet coming to a sudden stop without his permission, his body unmoving in the middle of the steps leading away from one of the souvenir shops. Part of him is halfway aware that this really isn’t a good place to be drifting, but it’s the part that holds little to no sway over what the rest of him does.
A second later, he’s proven completely correct as something strangely soft--but still heavy--collides into his back. The suddenness of the impact draws a yelp from him, and then another as he and the weight go tumbling down the thankfully shallow steps, landing at the bottom with little more than a few scratches.
It hadn’t been a very long fall, but even still, Kaeya cradles his bruised head with one hand warily, the rest of him focused on shoving down the wave of instinctual--and rather embarrassing--tears of pain as his stunned body catches up with the present. He squeezes his eyes shut against the throbbing in his head, his other hand scrubbing at his eyes.
“Ah! My...my apologies!” he hears a worried, frantic voice hovering somewhere near his right ear, and then there are gentle, but clumsy hands on his wrist, doing their best to pry Kaeya’s hand away from his head.
It’s this that finally makes him look up at his would-be assailant, even as the sunlight brings another wave of tears to his already irritated eyes. Kaeya hasn’t been touched since the moment he’d woken up all those weeks ago, and the sudden warmth of it makes his skin prickle where the other’s hand is, his entire self leaning unconsciously into the sensation.
He blinks hard, then tries to focus his gaze on the other, first catching sight of a blur of red--a mop of messy, short red falling into concerned eyes.
The boy before him is undeniably the son that he’d overheard Master Crepus speaking about--Diluc, if Kaeya remembers correctly. As he flicks through the perfect pictures in his mind’s eye, he can’t recall anyone in Mondstadt bearing this exact shade of crimson in their colorings.
He isn’t quite sure how to feel about this chance meeting--perhaps the Seven are laughing at him? Even the mere sight of the boy strikes at something deep within Kaeya, rekindles that ache of longing he’d hoped so badly to put out.
He settles for averting his gaze instead, which is quite hard to do, considering that Diluc is actively trying to make eye contact with him.
“I really am sorry,” Diluc repeats, leaving Kaeya to wonder how many times the boy has apologized to him in the span of this first minute. “I didn’t hurt you, right?”
It takes Kaeya entirely too long to realize that Diluc is actually expecting a response, his hand still wrapped carefully around Kaeya’s own and his expression expectant, even as the passerby begin to give them strange looks.
Kaeya swallows hard, then makes another attempt at speaking, opening his mouth for a silent moment before giving up, dropping his gaze back down to the ground, shaking his head as an afterthought.
If Diluc is put off by Kaeya’s lack of communication, he doesn’t show it, positively perking up at the reassurance with a smile so bright that Kaeya finds himself secretly studying it. He peeks up at Diluc’s face through his bangs, biting his lip as he wonders if he could ever get himself to look like that, too.
Diluc pauses, then looks around himself, his expression turning somewhat troubled as he sweeps the area around them with a searching gaze.
“Um. I’m looking for a cat,” the boy informs him, without any prompting from Kaeya’s end--not that he could do much prompting in the first place.
Kaeya blinks, then flips hurriedly through his mental catalogue for some sort of reference, only to find himself coming up short. From the way Diluc speaks, though, the “cat” should be common knowledge, and Kaeya’s memory--apart from the obvious--has yet to fail him.
“His name is Prince--or something. I don’t know, he’s not my cat, but earlier today I ran into someone else and scared her cat away, and she looked upset and now I have to find him because I did it, you know?”
Kaeya doesn’t think he knows, but it certainly sounds reasonable enough for him to nod in agreement.
He’s still puzzling over the mystery creature when Diluc stands up, brushing off his clothes, then brushing off Kaeya’s, too, for good measure, which is a bit of a lost cause considering where Kaeya sleeps. It’s fairly obvious, too, when he compares his own state of dress to the relatively pristine condition that Diluc’s clothes are in. But Diluc is either not very observant or simply very determined not to see it, and the honesty in his gestures is oddly warming, something soft creeping into the hollowness in Kaeya’s chest.
“Well, I need to keep looking,” Diluc starts, turning on his heel and walking back up the steps--in the exact same direction he’d come from.
Kaeya hesitates as he watches Diluc’s turned back, not wanting to interfere if he isn’t needed. Perhaps the boy intended on backtracking? But his earlier attempts at examining their surroundings had given the impression that he hadn’t yet searched this area and beyond.
Diluc takes another few steps until he reaches the top of the stairs, then pauses, looking somewhat helplessly around him.
I thought he would have been too excited to sleep. It’s his first time being properly in the city, isn’t it?
Kaeya swallows hard, trying his best to settle his nerves, curling his fingers into his palm as he forces himself to walk forwards, his trembling hand reaching out to shyly tug at Diluc’s sleeve. When the boy starts, turning to him curiously, Kaeya points hesitantly in the other direction, hoping that the sight of the uncharted territory might speak for Kaeya’s intentions.
“Oh. Oh, right!”
Diluc starts forwards in the correct direction this time, the detour having done nothing to curb his seemingly boundless enthusiasm. He hasn’t even seemed to notice that Kaeya is still clinging to his sleeve, taking hesitant steps after him before he can think better of it.
After all, he still isn’t too sure how Diluc feels about having company--
His hand is forcibly dislodged from Diluc’s sleeve, but Kaeya barely has the chance to be disappointed before a familiar touch closes around his wrist and Diluc is practically dragging him along, filling up the space between them with excited chatter all the while.
This is the most human interaction Kaeya’s ever had up until today, but even still, he thinks that Diluc must be an exception, with how naturally he includes Kaeya into his life, with almost no effort on Kaeya’s part. The boy hasn’t even introduced himself--he doesn’t know Kaeya’s name, and he certainly doesn’t know that Kaeya knows his--but he’s entirely too quick to place his entire trust in Kaeya.
Perhaps the boy simply recognized his need for Kaeya’s aid, though, which becomes astonishingly clear the longer the search continues. Despite having been here for at least two weeks now, Diluc shows no indication of understanding Mondstadt’s structure, pausing before every intersection before looking to Kaeya for assistance.
They fall into a rhythm, of sorts--Kaeya spends most of the time staring hard at the back of Diluc’s head, at the mess of red locks that bounce slightly when the boy moves, oddly reminding Kaeya of the baby ducks at the lake. Whenever the movement stops, Kaeya makes sure to refocus his attention on gently steering the other in the right direction.
By the time he finally sees Diluc perk up with recognition, hurrying forwards to a very small blob hiding in the shadow of the wall, it’s nearly nightfall.
This startles Kaeya more than he wants to admit--he’s never been comfortable with the way he tends to lose track of time like this, but more surprising is how unaffected he’d been by the darkening sky. He looks down at himself uncertainly, but no sudden flash of terror sees fit to creep into his stomach, not even when he looks at the shadows clinging to the stone walls.
Kaeya takes a few cautious steps forwards to peer at its small body as the furry lump cautiously pokes its head out from the shadows, eyeing Diluc warily as the boy kneels before it, extending his hand patiently. After a lengthy pause, it carefully inches forwards, giving Diluc’s hand a tentative lick.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” Diluc says softly, giving the kitten gentle pet between its soft looking ears.
It takes a few more moments of uncertain communication before Diluc finally encourages the kitten to creep into his arms, where it snuggles happily against his chest with a soft purr. Once his bundle is safely secured, Diluc brings it over to Kaeya, who tries not to look as interested in the kitten as he really is.
“Do you want to pet him too?”
Kaeya looks hesitantly at the purring ball in Diluc’s arms--shouldn’t it be up to the cat?
But Diluc gives him an encouraging sort of look, warm enough to force Kaeya’s hand slowly forwards. The cat cracks open an eye to investigate him as his hand approaches, but other than a swish of its tail, it makes no move to deter Kaeya’s movements.
As Kaeya feels his fingers sink into the soft down of the cat’s fur, Diluc smiles approvingly at him, tipping his head in Kaeya’s direction.
“It really is lucky I ran into you, you know. It’s so cool that you know how to get around. You have to show me next time, okay?”
Before Kaeya can think better of the action, he nods shyly in silent agreement, ducking his head as he feels a strange heat pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Kaeya lingers in the background as Diluc returns the cat to its owner, peeking out from behind the edge of a building as he watches the natural ease with which Diluc talks to the girl. One hand comes up to rub absently at his neck--maybe he can learn to talk this way, too, as freely as Diluc does.
Maybe Diluc can show him, next time.
Kaeya tucks the implication close to his heart, the warmth of Diluc’s unspoken promise chasing away the nervous buzz of the dark, and slips away. By the time Diluc turns back around, his red gaze growing confused as he searches for his most recent companion, Kaeya makes sure that he’s long gone.