Thunder breaks the solemn sky.
In the woods, just beyond the great city of Mond, Kaeya travels along a scraggly, flooded path beneath the looming trees and their low-hanging, weeping branches.
Mud squelches underfoot his boots.
His hood is lowered.
His cloak is drenched.
He feels the rain on his face, and allows it to soak him to the bone, so that its frigid chill and harshness is felt.
Lizards seek new shelter under rocks.
He'd been following up on a minor situation in Springvale, and having gathered the information needed, had grown diverted by an unnatural gathering of hilichurls building a camp in the high cliffs and waterfalls a distance behind the village.
They'd been handled; the Abyss Mages leading them, driven away- but not without a fight- because though they recognized him, and though he recognized them the same, their causes were different, and Kaeya had new people of a wind-blessed home to see safe.
'You forget us', they say.
'You betray us', they say.
'You forget who you are. But home still welcomes you. Home still waits for your return'.
His steps are sluggish.
Cryo thrived in rain.
Cryo didn't thrive against Cryo.
It thrived less around Pyro that sought to melt its defenses, and Electro that sought to shatter shields, and hadn't it been a fun, party-bash of elemental surgence across the storm-swept fields high on top the valley's ridge?
It's the fourth day of rainfall, his fourth long battle in the rains and high winds in a never-ending dance among scorching flames and singeing lightning, the fourth time he's taken hard hits and been downed to his knees from a waving staff of an ice far more dangerous and mastered than his own.
He's sick of it.
He's sick of the strange inability he'd found himself dealing with in the last day and a half of a hand that couldn't keep a proper grip on his blade; sick of the mind that blanked and lost focus in the middle of vital, mortal combat with too much at stake to lose in unexplainable bouts of distraction.
He's slept little.
He's eaten less.
He had set out today before the detour to Springvale in the black, wet hours before dawn to investigate the patrol routes closest to the city where hilichurls had crept their way too near; where an influx of bandit activity against cargo balloons and wagons had emerged, where he had sunk in puddles and sloshed through muck for miles with a body that hadn't wanted to rise from bed- much less leave it for the rumbling pouring outdoors.
However, Jean needed his support and she needed her rest.
What would Mondstadt benefit from an Acting Grand Master that fell too ill to work?
He had taken note of problematic routes.
He had walked the perimeter of the city and its outer-lying roads in the storm, thinking of how many knights they could dispatch; how many they needed for the rising issues of defense to be resolved.
It had been enough. It had been enough, but-
A flush burns behind his ears and in the blood of his cheeks.
He falls against the nearest tree, and takes the time to gather the breath that has left him too shortly, too tightly, with an aching head and itching throat since the night before.
He shivers in a cold sweat.
His feet sink in to the earth.
His mind threatens to depart.
Perhaps he's floating. Maybe he's drowning.
He stares at the earth of the rich soil and rich, dark grass under his boots, trying to figure out which it is.
Cryo fractures underfoot.
A Vision antsy, attempting to heed a call.
Shield him from harm?
Ice was born from unshakable resolve; from the desire to protect oneself and others from the harsher elements of the world.
But there was nothing to protect here.
He had only been walking.
You're sick, something tells him.
'I'm sick', a voice echoes, that sounds like himself, coming from distantly outside his head.
'You're not', says another voice; a different one, older, familiar, unyielding. 'You do not grow sick.'
' But I don't feel-'
'You do not grow weak. You are a warrior. You are strong. Our nation was forged from steel and blood. You do not fall to idle nature like the rain.'
There had been a reason Kaeya had never fallen sick before.
When his exhaustion on certain days were just that: exhaustion- and nothing more.
When his headaches were just that: headaches- and nothing more.
Even when his father had left him, strategically on a road to be found far enough from any village, close enough on a wayward route traveled often by a businessman when storms flooded the paths of the valley-
Even back then, Kaeya hadn't been sick.
He had just sat cold for several days in a new house, a mansion, by a crackling hearth, surrounded by new faces and new people who looked nothing like his own, who made a great deal of a fuss over his muteness and rain-caused shaking.
'Are you feeling better?' that man, the man who would become his new father, with welcoming arms and love, had asked, as an older boy- with a head of hair as red as the man's- nudged a tray with a bowl of soup onto his lap from the bed he had been placed in.
Kaeya had gazed into his soup, a bit blankly, back then.
'I was never unwell.'
He doesn't get sick.
He has moments of passing weakness, that he curbs and squashes to the back of his mind, as he ventures from the city on newly-taken missions to drive the weakness away.
And now is no different than any other moment of such 'weaknesses'.
It'll soon come to pass.
So he goes, with a bout of nausea, with heat beneath his skin, with cotton in his ears and fuzz in his brain, through the rest of the woods, until he breaks onto the road, with a willpower like steel, and treks towards Mondstadt.
"-new patrols along the mountains. Encampments seem to be focused closest to our mining resources and heavy forests. They must be looking for supplies to bolster their own camps. But hilichurls often aren't wise enough to know the strategic value behind these new locations they've wandered towards. I believe they're being led by a higher-rank among their forces. Likely mages."
Kaeya speaks with a muted mind to Jean in the office of their wayward Grand Master, looking absently at a quarter-folded map he had picked up off the desk she was seated at when he arrived.
He had made a brief stop by his home to shrug off his battle-scorched, filthy and torn cloak before shrugging on another and heading to the Knight Headquarters to divulge the events of the endlessly long day.
The tapping of rain against the bleak windows behind Jean does little to rouse Kaeya's drifting inattentiveness, even as he further goes over the observations from his early morning patrol.
The map he's looking at is normally supposed to hold some sort of recognizable meaning, but the notations on it Jean had marked days prior are nonsensical.
"-suggest we change rotations and assign veterans to here-"
Wherever 'here' is he's looking at on the map-
He stops and lifts his gaze.
The shadows of the office are gray and dismal in the downpour.
They make the otherwise welcoming features of Jean into something somber.
"Is something the matter?" he questions, if not lackluster, and dull.
There's no need for make-believe pretense when it's just them.
He doesn't remember when he had lowered his masquerade of tomfoolery around her, but he imagines it must've happened a time ago after Diluc had left the city and after Kaeya had been cast from clan and home, and spent weeks in the household Jean claimed as her own before he had moved to the Dormitories of the Knights, unable to swallow the notion of a third home, the warmth of a third family.
Weeks he had suffocated in the kindness she offered, still half a spy, as he sat on the edge of an unfamiliar bed for the second time, with everything he had known, taken from him and gone.
Jean's eyes on him are careful, discerning and still, somehow despite the storm, sky-blue.
"You don't look well."
"It's just the rain," he responds. "What do you think about the assessment? Should we redirect the knights?"
"I think your assessment is fine. The knights should be redirected, yes, but I can look at that myself."
"No need. I've already started thinking of who best belongs where."
If only he could figure out where he best belonged himself.
"...I'll write it for you tonight and submit it tomorrow."
Jean's voice is incredibly soft.
"Your eye has fallen closed."
He opens it, unsure of why he hadn't noticed there'd been absolute darkness around him.
Likely due to the rising, echoing roar of nothingness churning in the back of his pounding skull and aching ears.
He looks at her with a languidness, and dismissiveness that hides the true distortion of sensory perception folding in onto his shoulders.
Jean's hands are clasped before her, lightly, but in a gesture done-so when she seeks to diplomatically discuss things with others.
"...Are you sick?" she asks. "Why don't you take the rest of the day off? And tomorrow?"
"That's unnecessary." He lowers the map he holds and waves his other hand in calm dismissal. "I assure you, Acting Grand Master, if I felt ill, I'd tell you."
His blitheness halts a bit roughly at her inquiry.
He's not sure why it brings the smallest twinge of irritation in him.
"I would," he says, "but since I don't, there's not much more to say. My report is given. I'll take my leave."
He's not able to curb the bite in his tone that follows.
"If you'll allow it."
Her eyebrows lower. She dismisses him, not with words, but with a gesture of her hand.
She must've taken some tiny measure of personal offense, given the sharp way her eyes settle on him.
He turns, oddly bitter, to go.
No helping that.
He's one foot through the door when she says his name for the third time since their meeting had begun.
He stops and looks over his shoulder.
She's standing, a hand braced on the desk, as if she had only just risen.
She searches his face intently.
"I'm not upset with you," she says.
As if it was something he needed to hear.
How strange. It hadn't been on his mind.
A knot in his chest, however, one he hadn't been aware existed until then, loosens, marginally.
He imagines the measly relief that follows after is due to where he stands, halfway in the hall- where the air is colder, distinctly different than the unbearable, stuffed warmth within the Grand Master's office where the heater runs the strongest.
"I didn't think you were," he replies.
In the patter of the rainfall outdoors, the murky night settles with graying clouds.
In the murmured chatter of washed-out Mondstadters, in the dimly, glowing lights of the lamp posts that decorate the winding cobbled streets, Kaeya walks in the downhill direction of the lower city, where the least-expensive homes of the city are built; where apartments are most rented by landlords to travelers-from-afar staying long-term.
He doesn't live too far off from Mona.
She's often brewing tea.
Though its purpose is to read the leaves, it's never stopped her from inviting him when she sees him to join her for the drink.
It's a rare, rare night when he thinks to himself, skull hammering, that he wouldn't mind sitting inside her library-of-a-living-room she had created in her small alcove of a residence.
Mona was quiet.
She worked quieter. She worked with thought.
She knew things of Kaeya he had no control over, and she said nothing of it, and had no judgement.
She saw too many stars. She knew too many fates.
What was his in the grand scheme of the world?
A sad tale.
But not uncommon.
Centuries and centuries and centuries ago, before the existence of false 'gods', there had been people and Children of the Sun with Oathsworn Eyes not so unlike his own, manipulated for reasons of power, sacrifice and reign.
Khaenri'ah wasn't the same.
But they had gotten a little too inspired. Hadn't they?
The migraine is no longer buried in his skull, but behind his eyes.
His father- 'a little too inspired'.
His people- 'a little too inspired'.
But they weren't his father and they weren't his people anymore.
They were just-
He stumbles into an ally.
He leans against the wall with a hand; holds his aching head with the other.
The parchment of the map he holds slips from his fingers to the wet, puddled stone beneath his feet.
The knocking in his brain is tremendous.
The pain crippling.
There's a thought, for a moment, as noise bends in one ear and disappears entirely out the other- as darkness spots his vision- as his lungs forget to breathe- that he's going to, remarkably, die.
'There is no weakness. You're a warrior'.
He doesn't die.
The pain abates.
After a moment where he can't be sure if he had blacked out while standing up, he lowers to an unsteady knee with eyesight that doubles and hands that shake, gathering the map from the puddle in which it had fallen.
The ink bleeds, blemished by the rain.
He rolls the map carefully.
He holds it secure in a paler-than-usual hand.
He sets foot out from the alley and into the streets, with a head fixed temporarily back securely onto his shoulders.
There are strangely those who stop as they pass him and ask if he's okay; if he needs someplace to sit and wait out the dredges of the storm; if he'd like to have a drink of something warm.
They question where he's headed.
He smiles small and assures them that he's alright; why wouldn't he be?
'Your kindness is appreciated, but the rain's quite lovely, don't you think? I'll be on my way home soon enough.'
But home feels a newfound, incredible distance away, and his mouth fills with nausea as he speaks and his head blanks with thoughts moments after sidling around those who stop him in concern.
'Home' he had said.
But he can't reach it.
He seeks out the shelter of it all the same.
The tavern is busy enough that his presence goes largely unnoticed as he sets foot inside.
The eyes that linger, don't stay.
After lighthearted, drunken greetings are tossed Kaeya's way, those who gave them go back to their stories and games, and don't notice that their greetings aren't acknowledged by Kaeya, much less returned.
The eyes that do stay, are a pair of familiar, unreadable, reticent ones from behind the counter.
Eyes that had been far more amicable to the patrons seated at the bar before Kaeya had appeared, dragging in the lingering storm.
But Kaeya pays no attention to them; pays no attention and holds no care- for once- for the visible changes that come to Diluc's countenance if only when Kaeya appears in his presence, because the noise in the tavern is overwhelmingly enormous compared to the rained streets outdoors where Mondstadters scurry from the pour, and the feeling of suffocation has nearly reached its peak in a chest that has momentarily lost its ability to breathe again.
He heads for his usual spot, the darkest one, in the most out-of-sight-corner, by a window, far from the door, far from the bar, away from the blazing, glowing lanterns, the screeching chairs dragged openly across wooden floors, away from the boisterous laughter from those merry and full of carefree life.
He finds his spot preoccupied.
Taken- by several members of the Adventurers' Guild, too sloshed and busy spilling tales over spilling ale to notice him paused mid-step, halfway there.
The pain in his head creeps.
He stands, at a loss, for seconds that feel like minutes, and for minutes that feel like hours, damp and crinkled Map of Favonius- of duty- in his hand; wet behind his ears, hair curling at the back of a freezing, chilled neck despite the warmth that brims within the tavern's four walls.
Drenched in his clothes, as rain slides down the curve of his boots to drop and break and seep into the floor, he thinks about leaving and making the longer journey to his house after all.
Except the walk is too far.
And he doesn't have it in him.
He goes back to the front of the tavern, and goes to the stairs, and the trip to the second floor takes longer than it should with steps that threaten to give way beneath him, with steps that are difficult, so difficult to climb.
By the time he sets foot on the higher level, his mind spins dizzying as the spiraling stairwell that had brought him up.
The second floor is just as loud and crowded as the first.
But there is a third floor to the tavern, inaccessible to anyone but staff before-and-after-hours, where extra barrels, crates of glassware and spare tables and chairs are kept; and in the clamor of evening, alcohol-induced shenanigans, there are none who pay attention as Kaeya picks the lock with fumbling hands and slips inside.
The door shutting behind him mutes the rambunctious noise beyond.
This time the climb to the highest floor is a quiet one of locked away darkness and curling dust.
It's a mercy and a relief in a way he doesn't expect.
He pushes through a clutter of crates.
He navigates through upright, tied and bound, barrels.
He pulls a table off from where it's set against the furthest wall in another corner- because corners are the only place he can hide- finding a spare chair, and spends a lethargic ten minutes lighting a candelabra until all three candles stuck in it flicker strong enough to sweep a shroud of golden light in the cloak of dark.
He spreads the map on the table.
He sits, and sits, and sits, and gazes at it, and sits some more until he realizes he doesn't have a pen; that he'll have to go downstairs and entertain a question towards the owner of the bar for one. Or try his luck with the ale-merry customers.
He doesn't want to do either.
For a good minute, Kaeya holds his head in his hand, and rubs his brow with weakened fingers, before reluctantly resigning to memorizing the best routes to redirect their knights in an extraordinary mental effort instead.
Mondstadt's mountainous valleys and flourishing, deep woods.
He knows them, intimately, like he knows the characteristics of his able knights.
Yet his mind refuses to think.
The names of the knights are jumbled.
The places on the map don't seem to be where he remembered.
He tries to sort it out without a writing pen; without ink to mark his thoughts.
Time drags on.
He tries harder still when no progress has been made.
But everything is illegible.
Everything is smeared.
Damaged from the fall in the ally onto the wet street.
Kaeya smooths his hands over the parchment, trying to uncrinkle it, trying to make it make sense.
Trying his best to keep away the invisible hands bearing immeasurable pressure on both sides of his head, doing their best to render him unconscious where he sits and fights to stay present.
He can't do it.
He is not built unbreakable; there is no steel in his blood like the warriors of Khaenri'ah, like the motto of the nation deep beneath the earth.
His body trembles.
His breath draws short.
He squashes the burning in his lungs; blinks the blurriness and heated warmth from his eye- because he is an agent and a spy of Khaenri'ah, and he doesn't get sick, and he doesn't cry- because pain is a small thing, and small things like pain go away with resilience and willpower and time.
But it's scattered drops of wet that falls to the map, and splatters the ink, staining it, the parchment of his inescapable duty more.
A glass sets down on the map between his hands, loud and abrupt, stilling his disjointed efforts to smooth it out.
Kaeya looks at the glass, uncomprehending.
The liquid in it clearer.
In the candle-lit hue, gold curves the rim, reflecting amber, crimson and brown.
He follows the shine of the gold to the cuff of the dark jacket that's placed it; to the arm; to the shoulder; to the impassive face- and to the once-brother that owns it.
You're not supposed to be here, is what a part of Kaeya thinks.
It's exactly what Diluc says aloud.
His voice is unusually sedated and without ire.
"This is a storeroom for staff," is what Diluc adds afterwards.
As if Kaeya doesn't already know.
As if Kaeya had never been a part of the business or the lessons; as if Kaeya had never been taught how to run one just as intimately as Diluc had, and had been shown the Angel's Share's establishment the same way Diluc had by their father when they had hit the age of seventeen and were deemed old enough to start juggling the duties of the Knights with their duties as sons to the businessman of Mondstadt's largest, economic industry.
"You don't have to tell me that," says Kaeya.
The chill that had been following him, crawling along his skin, draping across his shoulders, heavy as the soaked fur of his cape, is momentarily staved away in the lingering presence of Diluc who had never once stopped being a natural furnace of unquenchable heat and flame since being blessed with his righteous, justice-seeking Vision.
It takes everything in Kaeya not to lean towards it. Not to seek it out as he had done in their youth.
They're no longer kids.
They're no longer teens.
They're adults and they're no longer brothers.
He leaves the glass of water.
He leaves the map.
He leaves Diluc, who has made it clear once more Kaeya is somewhere he doesn't belong, and makes his way for the other side of the crowded storeroom with hands that seek out stacked crates for balance and feet that stumble over unseen dips in the wood of the floor.
"Where are you going?"
"Somewhere else," says Kaeya.
Why is Diluc asking?
So he can follow him there too and find a way to tell him he can't stay there either?
The murky viciousness of the thought broiling in the depths of his head is enough; enough to make him feel like he was drunk without having drunken, removed from his mind, removed from his surroundings, filters dropped.
Dropped enough, he says aloud in answer-
"Don't worry. You won't have to take out any 'trash' tonight. I'll go somewhere where I'm welcome."
There isn't a single response that follows the words, and that's a good thing, because Kaeya isn't sure he could've mustered up much else anything to say.
Because as soon as he reaches the door to take him downstairs, the world turns frighteningly black, and the ground pitches out from under him.
When his sight comes to him again- he's for some reason still standing.
There are arms around him and a shoulder pressing into half his face.
He gazes past Diluc over it.
To the abandoned table. To the flickering candlelight.
He has no idea how Diluc got to him so quickly.
There seems to be nothing out of place.
It’s as if Diluc had approached him slowly instead, with a care, like he had picked his way through the stowed-away clutter keeping them apart and had gathered Kaeya from the floor up into his arms during the split second of unconsciousness suffered.
But that would have been impossible.
Because Kaeya had never fallen.
Maybe he was hallucinating.
Maybe what was keeping him standing was a ghost of a brother from a different time, a different year, a different storm before that 'fateful night'- the only storm Kaeya had let himself 'be sick' from after- hoping vindictively that it'd let him die.
His eye burns at the memory; at the angry thought nature should have just done away with him then.
Someone's shaking against Diluc, annoyingly rough, breaking down in pain.
He hates the sound it makes.
He doesn't know where it's coming from and he doesn't know how to make it stop.
Yet there's a hand in his hair and a chin firmly on his head, and an arm that still keeps him standing, as the ghost of that brother he lost, tells him, again,
"That's enough. You don't need to go."
It's a hallucination.
Kaeya wakes in the shadows on a freezing, cold floor, barrels knocked over, face pressed to the ground.
There is no brother.
There is no sound of chatter.
The window of the attic above him reveals galaxy-spun darkness and night stars.
Kaeya picks himself up, rattled.
He looks behind his shoulder.
There is no glass on the table.
There are burnt-out wicks of a candelabra; a limp map and a table and a chair abandoned.
He isn't sure what sends the hollow, chill of fright through him more.
That he had lived out an entire false experience of repressed wants and squandered feelings- or that he couldn't remember what he had been doing, and for how long, before he'd hit the floor and blacked out.
When he descends from the third floor, to the swept and cleared-out second, to the half-cleaned first, empty-handed, map forgotten in the wake of his fear, unable to place dreams from reality, he finds Diluc behind the bar, cleaning out a glass, slowly; unhurriedly.
He hadn't come up to tell Kaeya to leave.
He hadn't come up to tell Kaeya 'It's okay to stay'.
But Diluc glances up from his inane cleaning of a sparkling-clean glass and sets his eyes on Kaeya by the stairs- and pauses.
The glass is set down.
Kaeya follows the direction of it as it hits the wood of the counter, reflecting gold.
Tightness in his throat; the incessant feeling that this is another illusion, another hallucination.
As Diluc moves from around the bar to reach him, Kaeya moves to the door of the tavern to get away.
"Hold one minute-" he hears Diluc sternly say.
But the tavern door is open and the wind of the night blows clarity and alertness across Kaeya's face as he sets out into it.
He isn't followed.
In the aftermath of rain and storm and thunder, in the eclipsing dark, he walks in the briskness, without further stumble, towards his rented home.
He'd been tired from a long day of work.
Dehydrated, sleepy, slightly delirious, sore.
The blinding headache was a headache. They were common from work.
That was why he hadn't been able to read the map. That was why his body had hurt.
That was exactly why.
"Captain Kaeya, are you feeling okay? You look a little sick."
Kaeya stands in the next morning's early-light, at the break of dawn with a handful of knights.
He had spent the night redrawing Jean's map from pulled memory at his kitchen table, accompanied by a bottle of wine, grouping off their knights in a descending order of least-experienced to most-ventured, assigning patrols that'd suit each company best.
He had handed several pages of neat script to Jean while the horizon sat dark and blue, and dismissed her re-appearing concerns over his health; a subject she didn't seem keen on dropping.
'I slept well. More than well. So deeply, I had a hard time waking," he had lied.
Besides, he had gotten dressed perfectly all right, hadn't he?
He had shown up to the gates when he was supposed to, meeting with the bandit-hunting party of younger knights, hadn't he?
"I feel fine," he answers the newly-inducted knight who had asked the question.
Alex, bright and smart; a standout with a sword, observant.
"Let's get a move on," Kaeya says, taking point out the gate as the city stirs in wake behind them. "No need for slacking."
There are six knights aside from himself, perfectly-matched to walk in pairs, yet they form around him on every side but the front he leads from.
Alex keeps by his right- at Kaeya's perceived 'blindspot' among the Knights.
The knights talk as usual as Kaeya listens- of the day to come, of the past night, of how great it would be to apprehend the bandits terrorizing their land and see 'justice served'.
But their voices are soft, their chatter a lulling sound, and their consideration in how loud they shift their gear and share soft laughter is for a reason Kaeya can't place.
Perhaps they all have yet to wake themselves.
They had been quiet upon seeing him at the gate; quieter still while listening to him talk.
Or perhaps Kaeya had been speaking the plans to take care of the bandits too softly to hear, and that had been the reason their eyes had been focused on him, and that had been the reason why they had stood closer in his briefing.
The travel from Windrise to the shoals of the Falcon Coast is a lengthy but necessary one.
It was the location Kaeya had heard a party of no-good-doers would be attempting to smuggle stolen wares from Springvale into underground tunnels. A tip he had heard in a different tavern of the city from a drunken 'acquaintance' a week prior.
They take out numerous hilichurl camps along the way.
The knights move before Kaeya gives the order, sweeping through the threats with uncanny ease.
Had they always worked so efficient and well together?
The 'enemies' are gone before Kaeya can ever call his blade to hand.
The ice sitting in his veins has no need to spring forth to attack or defend.
"You can leave it to us, Captain," Alex says, smiling kindly, after the sixth camp is utterly cleared. "Just point us where to go for the bandits when we reach the beach, and we'll handle that too. It's alright if you take it easy. You can stay where you are. Er- if that's not too out-of-place to say."
It's out-of-place, but not for any reasons of insubordination Alex might be thinking of.
Mondstadt is lax in their hierarchy.
Kaeya has never been particular about it.
What did titles mean to someone who falsely made a city not theirs, their home?
It's out-of-place because it dredges the memory of a disillusionment; of an echo in a tavern the night before from a brother, of similar words he had and hadn't heard.
He smiles at Alex.
He thanks him.
And as they draw from the hills and near the rocky stone and sands close to the sea, Kaeya directs all six knights in his company to wind around the back path of the cliffs for hidden routes of escape.
"Captain Kaeya?" another knight seems to ask, alarmed.
"Are you saying you'll apprehend them alone?"
"Yes," he answers, unconcerned, blade falling into hand.
He swings it experimentally, committing the feel of it to memory.
"I'll draw them out and push them towards your direction. Don't let them get away."
The knights hesitate.
Kaeya looks from his sword, trembling the barest degree in his grasp in what must have been the passing breeze, and fixes his gaze upon them.
"That's an order."
Kaeya waits thirty minutes.
Not because of the dizziness in his head.
Not because of the climbing sense of unease.
Not because of the returned migraine from the lack of sleep and carried-over exhaustion from the previous night and early, pre-dawn hours spent writing pages for Jean-
But because he needs to wait for signs of the bandits to emerge from whatever hidden cellar exists beneath the sands beneath the ground.
They're soon seen.
An opening underground door in the midst of the coast by the tumbling waves.
Kaeya watches them with a narrowed eye, counting nine, as he stops resting against the tree he'd slumped against, and moves from the last of the trees and grass to the open beachfront.
That's nothing the trained blade of a warrior can't handle.
It's nothing Cryo can't frighten off into the hands of his knights lying in wait elsewhere.
As he greets them amicably.
As he taunts them from afar.
As he swings his sword, smiling, frigid, and moves into the throng-
There is sand beneath his neck.
Wet beneath his hands.
Warmth that seeps beneath him slow.
A shadow looms overhead.
It's joined by three more.
Out-of-breath, annoyed, skin touched by frost and cut by glacial cold.
"Stab him again," one says.
Kaeya registers it distantly.
The salt of the nearby sea stings at his nose. It stings at his eye. Gulls cry overhead.
From the shadows of the men comes the shadow of a jagged blade.
It stabs him through the gut.
There is not a single bandit his Cryo thereafter thus leaves alive.
He meets with the knights stationed uneasily at staggered posts behind the cliffs, a hand to his stomach, ice sealing the wound temporarily shut.
A warrior built like steel.
"A change in directive," he says as they blink at his arrival, startle in alarm.
For one reason or another, they start to swarm around him, even as he carries on speaking.
"The bandits have been dealt with. Best you venture to Springvale and ensure that there isn't a second party of 'friends' that have gone there. It might have been a diversion here."
"Captain Kaeya," says another knight swiftly.
She's one step away, hands outstretched.
"Captain Kaeya," she says again.
There's another knight behind him.
Alex and Gerald.
"Captain, you're bleeding. You have to sit down."
"Your destination is Springvale," Kaeya says mildly once more.
He moves from the hands of Alex and Gerald that seek to lower him to the ground.
"I'll return to the city on my own. Move out. And don't have me tell you again."
He picks his way through the woods.
He staggers along the hills.
He sinks by the river and blooming, verdant tree of Windrise.
Cheek to soil, folding grass softly underneath.
Water gurgles in his ears.
The gentleness of Mondstadt, the peace born from resistance, sinks deep into his bones.
And he doesn't wake.
Then he does.
The road to Mondstadt is as familiar as the back of his hand.
So are the arms that tuck beneath his legs; the shoulder his chin rests on, the head of red, his own leans against slightly.
A hallucination. Another one.
Same as yesterday- it has to be.
Because the man that carries Kaeya, is a man who is dead.
"Why are you here?" he asks his father.
Crepus says nothing.
He says nothing, and continues to say nothing, walking without stopping, walking without listening even as Kaeya tells him he shouldn't have come, and tells him to put him down.
"I'm grown. I don't need this."
I don’t deserve this.
His arms tighten around his father's neck.
He hadn't wrung the life from it like he had been ordered to back then.
But he hadn't saved him either.
He had looked at the dead body; not fast enough to protect it.
And he hadn't shed any tears.
Spies had no right to hold remorse.
They died in the failure of their missions.
Or they suffered the consequences of having failed.
Kaeya bows his forehead against his father's shoulder.
The ache in him is more than the creeping, deserved death from a deep-punctured wound.
It's more than the throbbing in his head.
More than the exhaustion and weakened awareness and will to cling to consciousness and live.
"I'm sorry," he says, into his father's jacket, voice muffled, weak and soft. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
The arms hooked under his legs tighten. "Stop talking."
Yes. Of course.
No father wants to hear words from a traitorous son.
Kaeya smiles into the shoulder that bears the burden of his weight.
He thinks of another father deep beneath the earth, who abandoned him; who taught him that soldiers didn't apologize for their missions, nor did they hold regret or cry.
He thinks of how that father too would never want to hear words from a son who had betrayed him and their home.
Betrayed them for what?
Freedom? Family? Love?
The gales of the wind?
His breath heaves.
His sight is blackening, rapidly, again, and he wants to eject what's left in his stomach out of him in a final act of purge- what's left that hadn't been gouged out of him with a sword.
This is it.
And it's his father, the one too kind to leave him behind in raining thunderstorms, the one too kind to leave him even as he dies alone, carrying him towards 'Mondstadt'- the final resting place.
But he can't go.
Not just yet.
There's a brother he needs to speak to first.
He struggles slightly, growing moderately alert.
"Go to him. I have to tell him. He has to know-"
The voice is curt.
Kaeya blinks, confused.
His arms around the neck of the one carrying him squeeze even more.
"I told you to stop talking. You're injured and ill."
"Where did our father go?"
The hallucination of his father who had become his brother is silent for a minute.
Silent until he answers:
So that was where this illusion of his brother was taking him.
To visit their father at home, where family had once blossomed and had been born anew in Kaeya's deceit-stained hands.
He chuckles to himself small.
He nods off.
For a long, long time, he falls into a slumber.
And does not stir lucidly again.
There's a jumbled, delusion of ghosts and spirits that visit him in a place he feels could be called 'home'.
Ghosts of a father.
Echoes of a brother.
They change at whim, without warning, moving across his floor from bathroom to bedroom to kitchen, back-and-forth along the halls.
A father who searches for things in his cupboards and cabinets and closets with an indiscernible face.
A brother that grows frustrated at not finding what he's looking for.
Both who leave as one person, and return as one person, with the closing of a door and added voices.
Voices soft and frightened and determined and furious.
Bags wrinkle and crinkle on top of his kitchen counter out of sight.
Soon it's the false illusion of his brother that comes into his bedroom, salves and medicines in hand, accompanied by two spirits of the water and wind who look uncannily like Barbara and Jean- which is strange.
Because Kaeya doesn't recall asking them to visit him on his trip to the netherworld; doesn't recall them being a part of the ones who had left him behind.
Unless things have changed, time in Teyvat had gone, and Mondstadt has fallen.
Hands on him heal.
Teary eyes on him scold.
The winds of Mondstadt he desires to live freely along, the oceans of Mondstadt he yearns for more than anything to carry his sins away, guide him towards rest, and tell him it's okay.
The next time he rouses, the sisters who care for one another, and love one another dearly, are gone.
There is a brother sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a rag in hand, and Kaeya's face feels wet from it.
But it's not quite right.
The rag is dry, and it feels like the wet is curving down his face, spilled from eyes, revealed, to his cheeks, to the sheets underneath.
And he shakes and shakes in a wretched, feverish daze that refuses to break, that refuses to acknowledge it's there, until the sobbing breaths leave from a throat burned raw with illness, with a wound in him carved deep, that bleeds and bleeds, despite being looked at, covered and deemed healed.
The haze of finally pronounced sickness in his head is so strong, he finds the ghost of the brother beside him, looking down at him with features twisted, furrowed, hurting for him as Kaeya too hurts, before that brother leans down and cradles his head, and presses their brows together, inhaling tightly with hands that tremor and a voice that teeters stubbornly between quaking emotion and immovable stone.
Kaeya thinks he says things to the brother that holds him about his Oathsworn Eye.
He thinks he spills apologies and secrets he had already told once before.
He thinks his brother listens, unlike the first time.
He thinks- his brother leans away- brushing a hand down Kaeya's face and closing his eyes from the unreal hallucinations of the world that pain him.
He hears his brother leave.
He hears silence fall.
There's a ghost then, that comes after, a real ghost- with a whisper of a touch- across his hair and brow.
That murmurs of unforgotten fatherhood and love.
A sunlit room.
Consciousness returns to Kaeya calmly, with ease.
He opens his eye with the barest hints of discomfort and only mild confusion and disorientation.
The temporary one he had invested in years ago, when the Dormitories of the Knights and the stares and whispers of those in them murmured in his removal from the Ragnvindr Clan had been too loud; had buried themselves too easily in his ears.
Jean had gone with him, way back then, and negotiated with the landlord, stern, chin raised, wielding her status of a noble, heroic clan, not with words, but with set eyes and a jaw in a manner she ordinarily disliked to use.
He had been given a price under half of its normal cost.
He had filled it in the years of Diluc's absence with... very little.
His 'home' was largely bare.
More of a place to think and eat and rest and carry on with the remainder of his day outside the wall.
A vase of lilies on the dresser beside his bed, regularly swapped for new blooms.
Knick-knacks from minor travels and wayward adventures by himself, with knights, and with Aether.
An extra three sets of boots against the wall, accompanied by the sheath of a sword, a personal shelf of daggers never used- and an untouched bow.
The bow had been a gift passed through Aether from another.
For our next challenge, knight. Dare you meet it. Perhaps work on your aim.
Kaeya had only been messing around at the time.
He remembers it while gazing fondly at the bow- as he had picked up another, once ages ago, in the hills of Liyue, half buried in the earth- and had aimed it at a certain Harbinger that had been loitering suspiciously around the machines of Khaenri'ah in investigative disruption.
Carefree and amicable as he was, the battle-hungry lieutenant of Snezhnaya- by far- held the most persistent grudges out of anyone Kaeya had encountered when it came to getting shot in the backside.
"Sorry, I was aiming for the Ruin Guard."
"It couldn't have been farther away from where I'm standing."
"Then I have poor eyesight-"
"No, you don't-"
The memory is a good one that brings a smile to Kaeya's face.
And yet his head pounds dull.
The muscles in him feel tense and sore.
His recollection of prior and present events don't come as easily as they should. Rather- they never come.
A brief touch to his forehead reveals it's wrapped in thin gauze.
It certainly wasn't something he had done to himself.
He sits himself up against his pillows and the headboard, and carefully peels the white sheet pulled over his body to look down at himself.
There are pants on him, different than what he wears out on the field, softer leggings meant for bed.
His torso is bare.
His gut has been thoroughly wound in white bandages, clipped neatly by pins.
It doesn't look like the work of anyone he's familiar with treating him.
What had happened?
He recalls bandits... and knights...and a beach and the tossing of waves; the lulling breeze in tall, flowered grass beneath a tree.
He recalls some sort of fever that had seized his head in migraine and brought insufferable pain.
He must've gotten into some sort of tussle. Or been struck with a severe concussion.
But now his body feels calm and rested.
He pokes at the bandages on his stomach.
He curls forward in pain.
There are footsteps in the hallway then, and they turn into his room at the sound of the noise.
"Anyone with an ounce of sense would know not to touch a healing wound."
Kaeya unfurls in bewilderment. "Diluc!" he says surprised.
He glances around like there's a sudden joke happening he isn't being let in on.
His once-brother is approaching with a bowl in his gloveless hands, jacketless, white sleeves rolled to the cuffs and pushed to the elbow with hair tied-up as if he'd been cooking in Kaeya's kitchen like some sort of personal maid.
"How did you get in here?" Kaeya asks, alarmed and suspicious.
The bowl is set on the dresser beside his vase of flowers and the bed, and Kaeya spares it a glance- a liquid, a broth, that steams piping hot.
There's something that smells like the healthiest of healthy vegetables inside of it and Kaeya's mouth and nose curls in instinctive distaste before he hears Diluc say-
"You're eating it, regardless."
It's not uncanny for Diluc to know his thoughts. They'd once been seen as twins.
"Torture," Kaeya murmurs, thoughts on the soup, before sense of the nonsensical situation returns and his eye too returns to Diluc.
He's... unsure why it feels like his right one had been exposed.
It's securely covered beneath the familiar weight of a silken patch he only wears at home.
"How did you get in here?" he asks again.
Diluc's arms are folded and his weight rests heavier more on one foot than the other. "I've been here," he says with a tone that also says he thinks Kaeya is already erring on the side of being intolerable.
"What do you mean, 'doing what'? Making sure you don't die."
Kaeya looks at him, bamboozled and silent for long enough that Diluc's eyes narrow and his arms unfold, and the back of a hand settles against Kaeya's cheek, before moving to his neck, and then to his forehead.
Kaeya leans into the touch, soothing warmth bleeding through the bandages, speaking of comfort- and then leans away from it.
The hand follows his retreat anyway, and stays for a moment longer.
It lowers soon after.
"You were out for two weeks," Diluc says, like Kaeya should know what he's talking about. "This is the first time you're sitting awake on your own, speaking clear. How do you feel?"
"Fine. I guess. Er-"
Kaeya watches, disturbed, as Diluc takes a seat on the edge of his bedside.
As if his once-upon-a-time brother had been sitting on the edge of his bed comfortably for a good, long while.
He can't stop staring as Diluc grabs the bowl off the dresser and pushes it into his hands.
Oddly, it isn't too hot to hold- and he goes on staring into the bowl, confused by it severely, even more confused by the one who had given it to him.
He can't look away from the floating, half-visible radish inside it.
"What's with you?" he hears himself ask. "Have you been possessed by something? A demon? A ghost? You look extra pasty. When's the last time you saw the sun?"
"You're unbelievable," is what Diluc says, like he wants to mildly strangle Kaeya to death.
And hadn't Diluc said something not too long ago about dying and two weeks?
It would explain the bandages, he supposed- and startling lack of memory.
Not a concussion then.
"A fight and I was injured," he comments. "Is that what happened?"
"Your knights were beside themselves. They caused a ruckus in the streets, saying you couldn't be found."
Kaeya's not sure what about the words suddenly makes him giggle on a laugh, but he does.
"I guess you came 'snooping' out the gates after to see if I had finally kicked the bucket."
The floating radish in his soup is joined by a floating asparagus, a vegetable he loathes most of all, as if it had been waiting for the perfect timing of his comment to spring from the depths of the bowl and mock him about its poor taste.
He tears his eye from it, disgusted, when Diluc takes too long to answer back.
Diluc is regarding him as if seeing Kaeya in a different light than before.
It sends uneasiness down the nape of Kaeya's neck; a breaking of uncomfortable goosebumps along his skin.
There is a window at Kaeya's back, behind his bed, and the sun shining through it is shunting through awfully bright.
Maybe it's giving Kaeya some sort of strange, high-noon glow.
"What," he says.
Diluc's gaze stays. "I was already outside the city," he tells Kaeya. "I heard your knights freaking out only after I arrived back with you in tow."
"...You were searching for me before that?"
"I was on a walk."
"You were bleeding to death."
Kaeya's next insult withers in his mouth.
Diluc hasn't stopped looking at him.
"You came to the tavern the night before that day. You sat upstairs, not hearing my arrival, ignoring my words until I left and returned and placed a glass on the map you were looking at. Does any of that sound familiar to you?"
Kaeya recalls the moment vividly.
Memories slot into place where they had been absent before.
"That wasn't real," he says, baffled.
"You fell," says Diluc. "And when I helped you up, eventually, you stopped being upset and grew angry, pushing me off before kicking me down the stairs."
"I didn't do that."
"Yes." Diluc is unimpressed. "You did. You said, and I quote: This time you can be the trash that sees itself out; you're unwanted, I'm busy and I'm working."
Kaeya really can't help but stare. "...Well that doesn't sound like me, now does it?"
"Well it was," says Diluc back. "You retrieved the glass I brought thereafter, threw the water at my face and then threw the glass at my head before re-slamming the door."
"...Did it at least make contact?"
Diluc's gaze flattens.
He averts his eye.
It's not something he does often, but he’s possessed by the sudden urge to sheepishly scratch the back of his head.
Because his body aches, he doesn't.
"I... likely wasn't in the right state of mind. It could've been the alcohol."
"You weren't drunk. You were sick."
Kaeya's mouth curves downwards, disapproving.
"I don't get sick."
Diluc looks at him like he's an idiot.
"You were sick," he tells Kaeya once more, "and in poor condition. You should've never went 'bandit-hunting' with the knights. There are multiple eyewitnesses in the city you'd been off not just on that day, but in the handful of days before."
"Multiple eyewitnesses? You make it sound like a crime-scene."
"It almost was," Diluc snaps, ire for once, coming to his tone.
He doesn't rise from the bed at first.
His crossed arms, cross further, and he gazes at Kaeya with a resentment and irritation before the mottled anger brims too much to stay settled in place.
He stands and walks six paces away- before turning and walking six paces back.
"Your cabinets are empty. There are only bottles of wine. Half of them drunk through. You hold no medical supplies; you have no personal belongings. Where are your things?"
"What things?" says Kaeya.
"The things you're supposed to have in a home."
Diluc is wound-up, abruptly tight-strung, so sudden in its debut, it gives Kaeya a quarter of a whiplash.
Maybe it's the aftermath of 'being sick' that has Kaeya speaking.
Maybe it's the raw, open anger burning in his once-brother's eyes that demands Kaeya gives his honesty.
"I don't keep things here," he confesses.
"Why not?" Diluc demands.
"Why would I? They'd be difficult to carry with me if I ever need to leave."
Diluc's glare is inches shy of some sort of unbridled hellfire.
He departs from Kaeya's bedroom.
Kaeya sits, confuddled.
Was Diluc leaving?
That... wouldn't be a particularly bad thing.
Kaeya needs time to sort and process what exactly was going on; to remember in fullness the events that occurred.
To get away from the strange situation of Diluc squatting in a home of Kaeya's he never once visited before, cooking meals in his pots and sitting on his bed like they were kids chatting late through the night again.
The floors of his room look cleaner as well.
Had Diluc mopped?
Diluc comes back minutes later with a spoon and sticks that spoon in Kaeya's bowl with a non-argumentative tone as he orders:
"Eat it and go back to sleep."
It slips from Kaeya before he realizes its come out.
He and Diluc look at one another, startled.
They look at one another, stunned.
Kaeya drops his eye to his bowl and starts to eat, mechanically- never once raising his gaze.
In the evening, as Kaeya stands and pokes at himself some more, as Kaeya stretches lightly, testing the bounds of his mobility and flexibility, as he does so and figures out he has another two weeks of healing before he doesn't run the risk of splitting his stomach- that's when Diluc truly departs.
There's a full pot of the horrid, vegetable stew on the stove.
The wine had been tossed from his cabinets and replaced with medicinal drinks that nearly cause Kaeya to hurl as he fearfully pops off their corks to get a whiff.
When Diluc's footsteps retreat from outside his door, when he's gone for good, there's an emptiness in the house Kaeya has made a 'home'.
For a moment, he stands in the half-cast shadows of the sinking, blood-red orange eve, gazing towards the door, as if Diluc will return.
Yet Diluc does not.
He's welcomed weeks later back to the force with gifts and flowers from the knights, a number of concoctions from Lisa somehow worse than the medicine Diluc had stuffed into his cupboards, nagging concerns from Amber who pretends she's older than him, and stern reprimands from Jean.
Who doesn't seem to realize she's acting less like a superior and more like a mother or overbearing elder sister.
"When you're sick," she tells him, sternly from behind Varka's desk that suits her all-too-well, "or when you're feeling unwell, you need to take time off. You were incredibly ill."
"I didn't notice," says Kaeya in response.
Jean looks at him a little incredulously.
Kaeya shifts under her stare.
To appease her, he further amends, "Alright. If I notice, I'll... do something I suppose."
"If 'we' notice," Jean replies, as if she were speaking on behalf of the Knight Order, "we'll do something if you don't. The same things goes if you're having difficulties. Kaeya. Don't forget you can come to me. You can come to a great deal many of us. I'm the Acting Grand Master, and the knights are fellow guardians of the city, but before we were any of that, a majority of us trained together as friends. I'm here for you. You don't need to hide your troubles."
He doesn't know what to say to that.
He doesn't have troubles and he has little difficulties to tell others about because small things like pain can be overcome, and small things mean little, because there is no need for sickness or true worries in the mind of an agent and a spy.
Kaeya has stopped being a spy years ago. Hasn't he?
Or does that part still slumber inside of him, a sleeper?
There are times he doesn't know. Like now.
But there is a look Jean is giving him, and it speaks to him, volumes louder than the voice of the father who swept him from Khaenri'ah with a purpose, and a duty, and a job- when he wasn't old enough to think about the things he wanted for himself, and when he wasn't old enough to properly think about the life he wanted to live, except a life that was 'free'.
So he looks at Jean, as her silent voice overpowers the ones from deep underground ruminating on ancient plots and revivals- and he says with all the meager truthfulness he can give-
"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks."
He goes to the Angel's Share and to the bar.
It's not common for Diluc to be working this many days in the city, but neither he or Kaeya address the reasons for it.
What he does address is the glass of water sat before him when he's asked for wine.
"This isn't Dandelion Wine."
"No, it's not."
Diluc mixes a heavily alcoholic drink right before him for another customer, unfazed.
"You can drink water instead."
"Is this because I threw the other glass at you?"
"No. Drink it and be quiet."
But Diluc doesn't tell Kaeya to leave after their small bickering.
It's a bit reminiscent of the time Kaeya had shown up with a hideously gaudy vase- with a design chosen solely for the purpose of annoying Diluc with its unnecessary largeness and color.
The time Kaeya had given his brother back the Vision that held the aspirations, dreams and beliefs Diluc had left behind in his justice-driven vengeance and grief.
Kaeya had enjoyed a cup of exquisite wine back then, for the case they had solved, and something in their split brotherhood had shifted.
A binding, loop of a thread poking tentatively in place, to replace the woven bonds of titanium that had been born and forged in the name of family- and been broken in the loss of it.
He squints into his glass of water.
He squints into it, and thinks he feels- in the unhurried moment between himself and Diluc, without fight and without grief- another loop of the hesitant thread winding around their hands.
If he continues to squint hard enough, certainly he can convince himself, the water is the same drink of wine from the past.
That there still exists a different steel within his blood.