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The Guest

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There was an unmistakable air of anticipation early in the evening. Zhongli was in the kitchen, ensuring that his Slow-Cooked Bamboo Shoot Soup was cooked to perfection. Ganyu, meanwhile, was on the other end of the kitchen, making her version of Universal Peace, adding the rice, berries, pre-sliced baby carrots, and lotus flower seeds with careful precision. It was a dish she had learned to make in class. Xiao was sitting on the living room floor, watching a TV show, holding his dragon plushie. He was too young to be allowed inside the kitchen, especially considering his poor son was known for scraping himself in some manner every other day.

“Papa, do we have to eat the soup?” Ganyu asked. Usually, children were picky eaters, particularly with vegetables. Zhongli and Guizhong were fully prepared for that outcome. But what was unexpected was that both of his children had a dislike of meat, preferring to eat their vegetables if given the choice. He noticed Ganyu was making extra portions in an effort to avoid eating his meal (not to mention, she was a pretty big eater). The last thing he wanted to do was upset his children in any such way, especially Xiao.

“The soup is for myself and my friend, but if you and Xiao do wish to only eat your preferred meals, I will not mind.”

Time was slipping away and soon, Xiao’s afternoon cartoons would be replaced by the evening news and their guest would arrive. There was never enough time in the late afternoons after Zhongli picked the kids up from school. He could have scheduled this for the weekend, but he didn’t want to take away from their uninterrupted free time together with someone else-- someone new-- potentially seen as intruding on their time.

“You seem kinda nervous today,” Ganyu said. Even though she was only nine years old, she was as observant as she was kind. “We have guests all the time.” That was certainly true. Hu Tao often visited, and so did Xiangling, Baizhu and Qiqi, Alice and Klee, and the many other friends and associates that came with them as well.

Zhongli turned to her. He could afford a few minutes of looking away from his soup. “This one is...a bit different than the usual sort.”

“Is it a new person?” Ganyu asked. “It’s gotta be. I am wearing my nicest dress today.” She smoothed out the creases in her glaze lily colored skirt.

“Indeed you are,” he said. “Might I add, you look very pretty today, my dear.” He bent down and gave her a kiss on the crown of her head. It was moments like right now where she resembled Guizhong the most. She did inherit most of her features, after all, and had only but a handful of his. Ganyu blushed at the compliment before turning towards the fridge and taking the pitcher of water for the table. It was a small moment of respite for his nerves. Zhongli usually wasn’t considered to be an anxious person, he was far from it, but this situation was a bit more precarious than most.

His attention fell back to the soup right before the bell rang.

His insides began to boil and bubble over as if it were the soup itself. Xiao didn’t even react, his brown eyes glued to the TV screen. Zhongli rushed to the door. His guest stood at the door, holding a large paper bag. She looked beautiful as ever this evening in her white dress. Thoughts and feelings that remained dormant began to arise. Then he remembered he needed to speak.

“Lumine.”

“Hey there!”

They stood awkwardly face to face. Zhongli hesitated as to how to greet her before giving up and letting her inside. “It’s always nice to see you.”

“Good evening,” Ganyu said pleasantly from the kitchen. She had been portioning the plates for their meal. The soup soon boiled over. 

“Excuse me.” He turned the dial down on the soup, silently lamenting it wasn’t close to being done yet. If only he had time. “Ganyu, please keep Lumine company while I get everything in order?” 

Xiao’s TV show would be reaching its climax soon and once the news was on, he’d be grumpy again if not engaged.

“I like your horns,” Lumine said to Ganyu. “They’re very pretty.”

“Thank you,” Ganyu said. “They look just like Coco’s.” Zhongli saw Ganyu pointing to the TV, more specifically, to Coco the part-human, part-goat, and part-quilin girl quest to become an adeptus. Zhongli recalled how he spent hours and hours doing research on an adequate pair of horns for his daughter. Ones that were perfectly balanced in their accuracy and their comfort. Ganyu rarely took them off, only to shower or when she went to bed. It was well worth the unexpectedly steep price he paid for them.

“I see! They’re so much like hers!”

“It’s our favorite show and our friend Qiqi is the biggest fan ever,” she said. “But I’ve seen this episode too many times and papa seemed like he needed help.” 

“You volunteered, my dear,” Zhongli said in a feeble attempt to mask his true anxieties. Based on her wry gaze, it was clear Lumine saw right through him.

“Shh!” Xiao said, turning around and placing his index finger between his lips. It was clear they were too loud for him. Xiao was always sensitive to noises, but sometimes made the most noise himself.

“Sorry about that!” There was a lull in the conversation before he heard Lumine speak again. “I brought some things for us, by the way. I picked up some almond cookies for dessert.”

Xiao’s interest had been piqued. “Almond?”

Zhongli poked at the bamboo one more time, feeling thankful it had finally softened enough to be fully edible. 

Ganyu had mostly set up the table so all he did was pour enough for two plates.

“Yes, almond,” she said. Zhongli saw her smiling wide. “Do you like almonds?”

Xiao nodded, holding his dragon plushie tight. The credits began to roll onscreen and the day’s top headlines began to play. Just in time. Xiao’s various moods were of concern. Both of his children were reserved and quite introverted, but Xiao didn’t get along with people despite being a polite child most of the time. “I can give you one cookie right now.”

“You’ll spoil his dinner,” Zhongli said.

Lumine winked at Xiao, slipping him a cookie anyway. “Do you want one, Miss Ganyu?”

“No, thank you,” she said. “I’d like to wait until after dinner.”

Xiao was perfectly content to munch on the cookie. It most certainly meant that for the time being, he was in Lumine’s pocket. He was only in preschool after all. Sweets were the easiest way to bribe them. That, and if the child already did not mind your presence.

“Lumine, this is Ganyu, my eldest, and this right here is Xiao,” he said, giving them an awkward introduction. He already showed her the dozens of pictures he had stored of his little ones, just a small fraction of what was actually taking up most of his storage.

“It’s nice to finally meet you!” Lumine blew on the soup before taking a bite. “I also grew up with a brother. His name’s Aether.”

“Is he older or younger than you?” Ganyu asked.

“Older...but only by an hour! I never hear the end of it!” The two of them chattered about. Zhongli’s favorite thing about Lumine was that she was never probing and showed a genuine interest in everything Ganyu had to say.

It had been going well, thankfully. 

“Xiao, why don’t you show Lumine your legendary adeptibeasts?”

He had taken care of the dishes as Xiao showed her Coco, Mountain Shaper, Moon Carver, and Cloud Retainer. Zhongli recalled obtaining them was just about as difficult of a feat as obtaining Ganyu’s horns. The so-called “official merchandise” was not made of the best materials. While mass production indeed helped in the distribution of toys to the many children who loved the adeptibeasts, the materials were often lacking, especially to Xiao, who was sensitive to textures. The hard, scratchy texture did nothing for children and Zhongli wanted to provide the best experience possible for them. He watched as Ganyu did most of the explaining for him. Xiao wasn’t much for talking and he had informed Lumine of that in advance.

Lumine held the birdlike adeptus. Ganyu spoke. “And this is Cloud Retainer who lives on Mount Aozang. She’s really grumpy and doesn’t like others but when Coco and her friends need her help, she’ll help them. She’s also a really good builder!”

“Her feathers are so soft. Not one you’d expect from such a prickly bird!”

A smile escaped Zhongli, knowing that he made the right choice in buying his children nothing but the best toys for them.

The children’s bedtimes were readily approaching not longer after their adeptibeast showcase and while it was rude to keep their guest outside in the living area, Lumine was a special exception for him. “Excuse us while I make certain these two go to bed,” he said.

Xiao was already tired. He was, after all, high energy at school, often running and playing games with the other children. As a result, he went to bed on time during school days, holding his brown dragon plushie close to his heart. Weekends were another matter entirely.

Ganyu took off her horns and set them aside on her nightstand. “Miss Lumine is different from our other guests. Is she going to be our new mama?” she asked. 

He more or less expected that question. “No one is going to replace your mother,” he said. They had lost Guizhong over three years ago. Xiao was barely but a year old. Ganyu still had the memory of her, in comparison and was able to recall her presence--and the lack thereof. But he wanted to be honest with his daughter. “But I do like Lumine. Quite a lot, in fact.”

“She is a really nice lady, and I think Xiao likes her, too.”

“I will let her know. She likes you as well. Would you like to meet Lumine again in the future?”

Ganyu nodded, then yawned. “Yes. Night papa.”

Lumine was sitting on the couch and on her phone, clearly exchanging messages with someone, likely Aether. Moon Carver was on her lap. “Hey, you.” 

Zhongli sat right next to her. 

“I’m starting to understand the real reason why you’re so broke all the time,” she said, her hands finding his. His heart raced at the touch of her hands. Lumine was warmth, was the light in the darkness. The feelings he had for Lumine couldn’t be more different than the way he came to know Guizhong.

Guizhong was always a presence in his life. There was never a time in his life where she wasn’t there. They spent their childhoods together and married not long after they became adults. And one day, Guizhong never came home. Death was cruel and unforgiving, robbing them of the time they had left. 

Lumine was sudden, a gust of air, or perhaps an explosion. She came into everyone’s lives and seemed to shed a light on every person. When Zhongli told her of this, she laughed, her laughter ringing like bells. “Well, Lumine does mean light, after all!” she joked moments before noticing he was serious. “Oh.”

Seconds later, Zhongli initiated their first kiss. For the first time since his wife passed, he felt a part of himself return again. The way his feet were planted on the ground. The way her body felt so small next to his. The way he leaned over as though he only existed for her to absorb his essence, wishing this moment would never end. All of the angst and the feelings of guilt he had prior to that single moment had vanished, never to resurface again.

He was back on the sofa with her, leaving the memory of their first kiss. His thumb stroked her hand. Lumine set the plushie aside and moved back, allowing herself to be cuddled by Zhongli, who was more than eager to wrap his arms around her. Her body fit perfectly in front of his. “And why do you say that?” he asked. He wasn’t always broke. He made sure to budget properly for food, clothes, and housing, even though nearly one hundred percent of his free budget went to the kids.

“You spend everything on them. It all makes so much sense now. Aether and I would have killed to have all the toys they have.”

“They deserve a chance to enjoy themselves,” he said. “They’re only children once and they grow up so quickly. When they grow up, all they’ll have is their memories.”

“Ganyu’s kind of a grown-up already,” Lumine said. 

Zhongli couldn’t help but agree. It was already in her personality to be helpful and mature, but her mother’s death only accelerated this. In her own child-like way, she and Zhongli were the ones who kept each other in balance, and they made sure Xiao, in turn, was happy. “It would be foolish of me not to admit the turmoil of losing her mother so young matured her in some ways.”

Lumine nodded. “I get it. It doesn’t change the fact that she’s such a sweetheart. I hope she liked me.”

“She did. And Xiao isn’t as expressive as us, but he took well to you, too.”

Lumine turned her body towards him, facing him. “He looks like you. Xiao, I mean. Ahh, I can’t wait to see them again.”

“That can easily be arranged. How about we have dinner at Heyu Tea House? I can make reservations.”

Lumine swatted him. “I remember the last time we went there! You ended up overspending again!”

Zhongli recalled being impressed by their offerings and it wasn’t like they were planning to go out with one of their...financially endowed acquaintances. “Indeed, I did. Perhaps another place at your suggestion?”

“Why not Wanmin? Xiangling’s a good friend of ours, anyway and if anyone knows how to feed kids, it’s her.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea, Lumine.” 

There was a pause in the conversation. Not much needed to be said after. They enjoyed each other’s presence and he especially loved the feeling of holding someone who held him in return. Their relationship, although still in the early, yet serious stages, was one that came unexpectedly and at the right time for him. There was a future with her and tonight, if anything, solidified it.

“I never thought I’d be with someone who has kids already. But with you…” Lumine said, breaking the comfortable silence.

“Yes?”

“I’m happy here. I’m happy with you and that I met them.”

“Me too.”

Lumine left not long after their cuddle session, grabbing her belongings and taking her leave. It was getting late, after all, and he wanted to make sure she would go home safely. Zhongli saw her out at the front yard, watching her car speed away and turn around the bend. When he turned around, he saw the light in Ganyu’s room was on, and a pair of familiar horns peeking from the reflection of the window. 

It seemed she too, wanted to see Lumine off. 

But it was safe to say that Lumine would soon be back another day.