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chelation, and companion planting

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(in the garden.)


"Hey," a voice calls out to her. There's an insistent tugging at her sleeve. 

"Hey! What's wrong, Lumine?" 

The traveler startles, glancing downwards. Her drifting thoughts have caused her to pour too much water on one of the cecilia patches she's been caring for in the teapot's tiny gardens. One cecilia patch, in particular, seems determined to wilt - the petals droop, and the stem is yellowing.

Her friend's concerned expression floats into her line of vision. Her grip on the watering can loosens; she's subconsciously put too much strength into it (to the point of whitened knuckles). 

A week after the incident at Dragonspine, while thawing in the warmth and familiarity of Mondstadt, a persistent doubt grows in the pit of her stomach.      

"I don't know if we've uncovered everything about what happened back on the mountain. It feels like we're missing a piece of a puzzle. What if..." Her voice, uncertain, trails off. She fiddles with the hem of her dress, trying to figure out how to word it.

Albedo, when she'd encountered him last, had confessed that he'd taken it into his hands to find the imposter.

 

"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate them." The alchemist had informed her. "Or perhaps, they do not wish for me to find them."

There was a thoughtful expression upon his countenance, and he sipped the freshly-brewed mug of mint tea. Paimon, who was presently stocking up on enough fluffy pancakes to last a full month on Dragonspine, made a sound of mild discontent. 

After Albedo had played that brief trick with his mark which raised her hackles and countless goosebumps on her arms, he'd given her one of his rare, teasing smiles and offered to treat them both to a meal at Good Hunter as an apology. 

"I expect they've fled into the mountain's depths, anticipating the next best opportunity to be rid of me," he said, pouring himself tea. "And you as well, traveler."

He leaned across the table to neatly serve her a few pancake slices (it was then she realized her plate was empty, her usual appetite replaced with apprehension), before doing the same for himself. 

She pushed around a piece of pancake on her plate. The story he'd told her earlier - what would she have felt, what would she have done - if she was given the gift of life, only to be cast aside because of her imperfections? 

 

"Do you feel pity for them?" 

 

His question startled the young woman. He offered her a tentative and sad smile then, one that made her heart clench a little painfully. Yet there was something expectant in that curious shade of blue, a tiny seed of hope palpable even with his usually stoic features. But she was getting better at reading his thoughts.

"I do." She admitted. "What you said earlier - it just doesn't seem right to leave things like this." 

He watched her, and maybe they were both thinking along the same lines (and he was getting better at reading her thoughts, too) because he leaned over, clasping her hand tightly in affirmation. She felt warmth seeping through his gloves, as well as the tinge of geo energy that she associated with him.

"Whatever you decide to do, Lumine, please take care," he told her. "And should you require my assistance, let me know. You are a true friend of mine, and I care very much for you."

 


(a few days later)

She rubs her arms to rid herself of goosebumps. Though she prefers cooler temperatures, the base of Dragonspine is a tad chilly even for her.

They've just finished their final commission for the day (she'd taken on an extra one, per request). She puts away her sword in a flourish of sparks, and her friend yawns. 

"Ready to head back to Katherine? Paimon's tired! C'mon, let's get going!"

But the young woman glances up at the summit, takes in the stormy weather. She recalls their encounter with the imposter - the stringent bitterness, the simmering anger, the desperation lacing each word. She turns each phrase over in her head. 

 

"Useless things should be disposed of at the outset." 

 

Their conversation clings persistently, as if laden with wolfhook burrs, to her forefront of her thoughts.

"Paimon," the young woman says. "I'm going to look for them."

The pixie gives her a look (a concerned one, usually reserved for dire situations such as conflicts with Harbingers or dwindling food supplies) and opens her mouth to protest.

But even she sees the traveler brush her fingertips against the travel satchel she carries around. A longing song in a feather, a mask to mark farewells, a neatly pressed and folded uniform that would never find use. So instead she draws closer to her friend, reaches out and squeezes the other's hand comfortingly. 

"Then, Paimon's coming too."  

 


(elsewhere, on the mountain).

The blizzard worsens.

Yet it remains undeterred, biding its time in the depths of the icy mountaintops. The wildlife shy away from its presence. Perhaps they sense Durin's venomous blood coursing through its vasculature. Or perhaps it's their unnatural, incomplete composition of being that creatures are averse to. 

There is an emptiness in its chest - a gnawing, festering wound that has persevered ever since its creation. Once it eliminates its counterpart and the traveler, it will feel whole. It must

But a sound draws it out of hiding. Its ears, sharp by design and honed with caution, catch the subdued crunching of powdered snow, the swift footsteps and conversation a few hundreds of meters beneath him that continue to grow in volume as they approach.

"We've been walking for ages," A high-pitched, plaintive voice is muffled by the snowdrifts. The voice continues to lament the situation, and their companion responds. This one has a clear, soft tone that placates the other.

That voice. The sensation of star-light upon skin, windwheel asters idly twirling in a mild breeze. 

It was the traveler, and huddled in her arms was the tiny, floating creature who it had found rather unpleasant. The traveler, whose earlier perceptive abilities had caught onto the difference between itself and its counterpart based on instinct alone, was a dangerous one and needed to be swiftly removed.

But there are no others with them, it notices while observing the two. Not even its perfect counterpart has joined them. That one had left the mountaintops for a while, and had not yet returned.

But, it wonders, for what purpose has the traveler come?

The discord it had orchestrated several days ago had been resolved as far as the traveler was aware.

It finds no answer, though there's a part of it that hopes -

The gnawing pain in its chest returns, sending adrenaline coursing through its cursed veins and overshadowing its thoughts. It entwines soil and atoms in intricate patterns to summon sharpened steel. A blade comes into being, a mocking imitation of the sword that had rendered Durin's venom useless.

It pursues her.

 

---

 

"We've been walking for ages," Paimon bemoans, shivering. "It's getting so cold!" 

The young woman gathers her tiny friend into a warm hug (Paimon's not a stuffed animal for you to cuddle, her friend complains, but snuggles closer regardless with some degree of relief).

Her skin prickles. There's that sensation again - the feeling they're being watched, even though as she casts her eyes around with discretion, there's no one to be found. That was the most telling of all. 

There were no Fatui about (she owed this to a particular Harbinger, who, upon her request, agreed to temporarily reign in their presence in exchange for a spar with her newfound electro powers), and even stray monsters were taking shelter in the heavy snowstorm.

What better way to draw someone out by setting up a large campfire? And it was good timing, too. There was a small clearing nearby, persistent snow buffered by tall pines and mountainous crags.

"Let's take a break," the traveler announces into the air. Just loudly enough. "I brought ingredients for cream stew and bread. There's a decent place to rest here."

She pauses, smiles. "Though, I can't make stools or chairs."

"Paimon will have to make do," The pixie huffs, then leans in to whisper in Lumine's ear. "Just be careful. Who'll cook if you're gone?"

 

---

 

She lays the thick, downy jacket over her little friend (who is now sleeping away contentedly with a full belly and warmed by the fire). 

The traveler places kindling into the flames, watches the orange sparks float upwards before petering out. Around them are snowbanks and pines, the scent of sap and frost tickling her nose. There's a beauty to Dragonspine that's appreciable, in spite of its dangers. Or because of it.

She senses them. 

With deathly silence they approach from behind - almost as if they're part of the mountain. 

"So you're here after all," she says aloud, watching the flames. The warmth upon her face makes the cold steel of a blade (just barely pricking the back of her neck) more noticeable, but she's undeterred. Her own blade is within a quarter of a thought's reach, and she's confident she can fend off their attacks should they come to blows. 

"Why did you return?" His voice is so familiar. It's Albedo's voice after all - soothing and cool. But just as before, there's something off about it. Like a harp that's been tuned too closely, played with perfect precision.

It would send chills down the traveler's spine. But there's a quiet anger roiling under that calm and perfect veneer.

How very human, she thinks to herself a little sadly.

"I wanted to talk with you," she admits, hoping the raw honesty would be apparent to him. "And I figured the best way would be to wait and see if you'd come find me on your own."

She turns to face the newcomer, conscious of the sword that remains just a hair's breadth away from breaking skin.

The resemblance to the Chief Alchemist is uncanny, if not for the way this one's lips press together tightly, and the drawn out, haunted expression in his face closes off as he returns her scrutiny. Every lock of tawny-brown hair is neatly placed, and his outfit is exactly the same - down to the fine seams of indigo thread and golden trimmings. Their neck is, she confirms, bare.

If someone had told her Albedo had just had a bad day, she supposed he would look like this.

It's then that an idea sprouts in her mind. It's a radical plan - and not one she thinks more than a few of her friends would look favorably upon without effortful persuasion (though she thinks the younger ones would be more than eager to have a new friend). 

If Albedo and this being were similar, then they would both share the same drive for knowledge, the same intellectual curiosity about Teyvat and its residents. That was why it had approached her outside the cave, and why it had paused to speak with her now instead of striking her down without warning.

And there's that feeling again (it's never led her astray) that if she were to leave them here now and return on her own - they would be lost forever. 

---

 

"Would you like to leave the mountain with me?"

The traveler's question makes it jerk backwards, bewildered - the sword at her throat nicks her skin slightly as it shifts, and there's a shallow cut now. But she doesn't wince, keeps looking at it with that strange expression.

It's not used to interpreting human expressions, insofar as its foundational knowledge extends to basic facial changes and nothing more. Nothing...complicated, like this. The way her eyes return its gaze searchingly, and while she appears tense - her body language is open. She hasn't even summoned her weapon.

It doesn't understand.

It is aware that her other companions, its counterpart included, would not look favorably upon it. After all, it was but a failed creation, a thief - one that had sought their demise several times over.

This was a trick, it decided, and yet there's an unflinching clarity in the traveler's expression that makes it wonder if there's more to it. 

"Only if you want to," the traveler before him continues, interrupting its thoughts. She is fiddling with the hem of her dress now, looking to the side. "There's a spare room in the teapot with a nice view of the waterfalls. You could stay there if you wanted. It's spacious and really quiet, too."

She pauses for a moment. "Most of the time," she corrects herself.

She laughs, and the clear sound is strangely pleasant. Makes it lower its sword. It notices that the little companion at her side is awake now, watching their exchange from behind the traveler's back. Their expression, it knows well (wariness, fear). But its gaze returns to the young woman looking at him expectantly.

It mulls over her offer. The original plan had been dashed several days ago, and it had been at a loss as to what next steps to take. If it could get into her good graces, surround itself with humans - it would be simpler to learn the workings of humans and to find the best time to strike.

"Yes," it agrees. "Take me there."

Her eyes brighten (it's remotely reminded of molten gold), and there's a brief, tiny smile that graces her face. Like a moonbeam illuminating the nighttime.

That gnawing in its chest lessens - and it presses a hand to the site, wondering.

 


(in the teapot)

The teapot the traveler brings him to is a curious place.

It's been beyond Dragonspine before, experienced different climes. But here, there's a certain aura which makes it all too easy to be lulled into a sense of security. The rolling green hills, the bubbling brooks, the small homes that line the islands - there is a lot to take in.

There's a meow.

It glances down to see a cat (berry-orange and rather rotund), rubbing a furry cheek against its leg. 

The traveler's turned away. She rifles through her satchel for a moment before finding a few pieces of dried fish that several cats snatch up with delight.

She stands up again, catches its gaze. The cat's forehead bumps against its leg insistently, and it staggers for a moment.

"For better or worse, there's no one here at the moment - aside from the cats and dogs, I mean." For some reason, it can detect a smile in her voice. "Let me show you the spare room." 

It follows her to the largest building, the architecture reminiscent of Mondstadt. The first floor she guides it through is richly decorated. There are scenic paintings, wooden bookshelves filled with ancient tomes, tables with scattered notes and foodstuffs. They pass by a few closed doors. 'Kitchen,' it reads. One reads, 'Bennett!!' in messy, large font. 'Klee's room' marks another. There are scribbles of forest animals all over the polished wood. 

They make their way to the second floor. 

"Here's yours," the traveler says, as they reach the end of the hall. She opens the door with a neat click - and gestures for it to enter. With caution, it steps into the room.

It's fully furnished. 

There's a large closet, a writing desk beside it, and a bed next to a window. A window that looks out to a waterfall. There's no dust on the room's surfaces and the bedding seems freshly washed.

"This room hasn't been used at all. Sometimes, Noe- a friend comes by and insists on cleaning the entire house, despite me telling her she really doesn't have to," she gives a resigned laugh, as it inspects the room. "Anyway, take your time. If you need anything, feel free to give my door a knock. It's down the hall."

It clears its throat. "I appreciate your help," it says, the words unfamiliar upon its lips. She gives it a smile (there's that indescribable warmth unfurling in its chest again, what is that sensation, it wonders), and leaves the room.

The next half hour is spent pacing back and forth. It thinks of how to deal with the traveler and its counterpart. This would be a suitable environment, closed off from the world as it were. 

But it hesitates - maybe it should prioritize learning. For now. There was no need to act too swiftly.

It lays upon the bed, thinking. And while it doesn't require sleep, the softness of the mattress, the blankets that are tinged with the fragrance of windwheel asters and mint, the lazy atmosphere -

It drifts into a deep sleep, and dreams of stars.

---

 

There’s an uncomfortable weight upon its chest, restricting its breathing.
It awakens with a gasp, eyes darting open to find - 

A child peering over it, crimson eyes sparkling with delight. There's an inconceivably over-sized hat upon her tiny head.

“Big brother's finally awake!” The child proclaims to no one in particular. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want to eat some fried fish? I just had some. Wait - I gotta tell everyone!” She sits up and darts out of the room before it can gather its thoughts. 

Big brother?

It feels strangely alert as it sits up, mind clear.

A thud - some items have fallen off the bed onto the ground. 

An assortment of coloring tools are rolling across the wooden flooring. There's a sheet of paper on the blanket that it picks it up to inspect closer. It's an illustration - a crude rendition of individuals joining hands. The red child from earlier. The traveler. The perfect counterpart. And...itself, made distinct in comparison by the lack of a star upon its neck.

It touches its neck, fingertips tracing over the smooth surface where the mark would have been (had it been perfectly flawed).

It takes the drawing.

 

---


After finding the traveler's room empty (it had knocked thrice to be sure with no success, and even called out), it makes its way outdoors. The warm breezes combs through its hair, and the sunlight is pleasant.

"Hey! Watch out-" 

It neatly steps out of the way (just in time) to avoid a collision. The other party yelps, tripping over itself onto the grass in an ungraceful heap. There's a pained groan. 

The unlucky adventurer, it recalls. The one who had been caught by the Fatui. The boy reaches out towards it, palm upwards. What did they want?

It stares at the hand, unmoving, and the boy pauses for a moment.

"Oh. Er," the adventurer manages. His face grows pink, and the outstretched hand now reaches behind him. He rubs the back of his head. Embarrassment, it realizes. Whatever for? 

"S-sorry about that. You okay?" 

It stares impassively, and to some degree of its satisfaction, the boy pales, looking increasingly nervous with each growing second. It decides this is an appropriate time to respond.

"I am fine," it replies after a while, and even the sliver of dialogue makes the boy's tense shoulders sag in relief.

"Oh, that's good to hear," the boy is nearly glowing with enthusiasm. "I gotta say, when Lumine told us you'd been staying here for a while, I wasn't really sure about all of this. But she's got real good gut instincts, you know? If she's put her confidence into you, then so do I. And I trust her - "

It receives a tiny grin from the boy (like sunlight).

"So I'll trust you as well," he finishes, rubbing his nose. "Besides, I think I've gathered enough bad luck for the last few days. There was an incident with the flower shop yesterday, and the day before that - uh, anyways," the boy clears his throat, "that means the next few days should balance out, right?"

There's that tugging in its chest, again. After a moment's pause, it slowly reaches out its hand, imitating the boy's earlier action.

And the boy's tiny grin from earlier grows and grows into a blinding smile, as he reaches out to clasp its hand. His grip, even through both their gloves, is warm.

---

 

Shortly after the boy (Bennett, it reminds itself) bids his farewells, it feels a tiny hand tug insistently at its coat.

"Big brother!" It's the young child from earlier. She's clutching a stuffed rabbit tightly in her hands.

"Don't call me that," it responds without heat, and she looks up at it with glistening, watery eyes.

"I've always wanted another brother! If you say yes, I can have two cool big brothers, and one awesome big sister," she gushes brightly.

"Besides," and her tone drops a little, quavering, "big sister's real tired lately." Her eyes droop downwards, and now she tugs on its sleeve firmly. It bends down, curious. The child whispers into its ear.

"She's been looking for her big brother, and she misses him a lot. Having another big brother like you would make her happier," she confides in it, and then adds. "I know it makes me happier. Even though you're a little scarier than big brother Albedo."

The child leans in, and it's taken by surprise as she wraps her tiny arms around it into an embrace. There's a faint scent of burnt sugar that tickles its nose, before she steps back and shares a wide, toothy smile.

It reaches out hesitantly - she's standing there, almost expectant. And it pats her on the head.

"What does being a big brother entail?" It wonders aloud, and the girl is all too eager to answer. It spends the next two hours listening to her talk about everything and anything from new bombs to Dodoco to crabs. 

It takes out the drawing in its pocket (the one she'd left in its room earlier, and she shakes her head fervently; the action nearly makes her hat fall off.)

"That's for you," she tells it, beaming. And - it senses someone's eyes on them.

It looks up to find him.

The perfect homunculus. Gold's masterpiece, the most noble and flawless of creations, walking over (and trailed by several cats, all meowing insistently). 

It wants no part in conversing with him, hadn't planned for this encounter so soon.

"Ah," the counterpart says. "So you're here." His voice is calm, politely amiable. "I heard you'd finally awoken. How are you faring?"

"Big brother Albedo!" Klee waves, and the counterpart smiles. 

"Klee," he greets. "Hello. Would you mind asking the traveler if she has any extra flower blossoms on hand? She might be in the kitchen." There's an amused glint in his eyes now. "I understand she's just returned from a quick trip to Inazuma, and brought some desserts back with her."

The young child nearly trips over herself in her hurry (but not before giving the two quick hugs - it stiffly accepts this time, glaring at the alchemist). 

 

A moment of tense silence, a string pulling taut -

"It's your fault," the words tear from its throat as it all but hisses, standing - the sword shimmers forth in its hand, though it makes no move to lunge forward. The words spew forth like unfiltered venom. "If you didn't exist, then I- "

Then I would have a place in this world.

 

The alchemist remains still.

"If I were in your position, I would feel the same," his voice light. "You came to this place to get rid of the traveler and me, did you not? I can't fault you for that, not truly."

It freezes.  

"The traveler's both kind and perceptive," its counterpart continues, eyes warm. "It's a rare set of traits, and only a part of what I truly admire about her." 

"I hadn't expected her to find and bring you here so soon - she really is full of surprises. But I suppose the timing couldn't be better. We've never gotten the chance to meet one another. But I always wanted to talk with you, should the opportunity arise."

"What for?" It returns, bitingly. There could only be space for one of them to exist.

"Well, you are your own creation," the alchemist notes thoughtfully. "Rhinedottir has left us both with the gift of independent thought. Whether we are born from alchemy, from soil - we all have our flaws, and it would be remiss of me to exclude our creator."

But his counterpart's eyes turn sharp for the briefest of moments. It tenses, feeling a weight in the air and goosebumps upon its arms. It clenches the hilt of the sword tightly.

"But, a warning. If you were to forgo the traveler's trust and bring harm to any person here, that would not be without repercussions. I did warn her about you, after all - she chose to bring you here even after taking that into consideration."

The contemplative look returns.

"But if the traveler wishes to give you a chance to shape your own identity in this world, then who am I to disagree?" He pauses. 

"And if you were to do so," he murmurs. "I would be glad to offer you my assistance, as well."

It...doesn't know how to respond. It had always pictured their first interaction to be in the throes of violence - one defeating the other, surrounded by frost, not standing in a sea of tall grass, as a crisp wind flew by. Not with cats insistently trying to seek their attention. Not a peaceful conversation, among wildflowers and tranquil sunlight.

It turns to leave.

"Ah," the counterpart calls out to its back. "If you need any assistance with interpreting my notes, please don't hesitate to ask."

 

---

 

Its stomach growls.

An aspect of being human, it had realized early on, was the need for sustenance. It had subsisted off of plants (sweetflowers were preferable) and wild boar in the mountains. Often cold, uncooked, as to draw as little attention as possible to its presence on the mountain.

So the lingering aromatic scents of spices and cooked food lures it to the kitchen.

Where it finds her.

 

---

 

She's in the middle of frying shrimp in a light tempura batter (Paimon had insisted they try out the new recipe) when she hears footsteps. Graceful, swift and nearly silent if not for the wooden floorboards that creaked if one so much as dropped a sliver of grass upon it. 

Lumine turns around and sees him looking out of place among the kitchen tools and ingredients.

“I'm glad to see you're awake - you were sleeping for a few days. I guess you must have been pretty tired." She greets him. "Would you like hashbrowns?” The young woman offers, and gestures to a pan filled with said food. “Or some braised meat? It's falling off the bone - it's been simmering for a few hours. Oh, and try this tempura. It's still crispy."

"Why are you doing this? Is it pity?" He asks her, and her chopsticks, armed with tempura, stop mid-way to him. "You knew why I accepted your offer to come here."

"It's...It's not just that," she responds immediately. "It's..."

She falters. 

"Then what?" He challenges her, tone cold with anger. "I'm...not him."

“You’re neither Albedo, nor anyone else,” she agrees, and there's a wounded expression on his face. She wonders if he realizes it. But she continues. “And that's exactly why.” 

She gives him a sad smile, seeing his puzzled expression. Despite outwardly appearing like Albedo, he really was quite different (she's getting better at reading this one's expressions, too). 

"I just - I just want to help, if I can. If someone I care about is in trouble, I can't just let them be." She's felt enough grief for a few lifetimes over. Had enough of watching helplessly as her friends and loved ones were lost. Her grip on the chopsticks tightens. 

He watches her, eyes briefly looking towards her tightened grip, as his cold anger melts into something mild and inquisitive.

It's a topic she doesn't want to talk about today. She's talked about it before, with Paimon (who's at present enjoying dango with a delighted Klee). But it hadn't really felt like closure. It felt like she was always chasing something - she shakes her head to cast away the thoughts.

"How about helping me with dinner?" She asks, holding out an apron as a peace offering, and he blinks at her. "Let's find something that suits your palate." 

He inspects the pink, floral pattern with a dubious expression, before accepting it.

 

---

 

After a few trials, it's concocted a simple dish (a goulash, comprised of peppers, carrots, tomatoes, and meat). A goulash which is now resting on the dining table, surrounded by other dishes. Klee's run around to fetch the other residents; before long, everyone's seated at the dining table on the first floor. It takes a seat between Klee and the traveler, finding itself facing the counterpart whose attention is presently drawn to the dish it's created. There's an indiscernible expression on his face.

"So...time to eat, right?" Bennett ladles a hefty amount of goulash over his rice. He unceremoniously shoves a spoonful into his mouth, chews, and swallows.

"I made that," it says, awaiting the boy's reaction. "With a few modifications to the original recipe."

Bennett glances at him thoughtfully before scooping another spoonful into his mouth without a moment's hesitation.

"It's, uh. It's really good," the boy coughs. His voice is hoarser than usual. He coughs again and takes a sip of water. There are beads of perspiration running down his forehead.

How interesting, it thinks.

"I think it's delicious!" The girl enthusiastically adds another serving to her bowl (which is decorated with small depictions of rabbits). "And there's fish in it, too."

Its counterpart is eating quietly, a soft smile on his face. 

And the traveler leans over. There's a brief and now familiar, comforting scent of asters and stars that drifts by.

"Here," she offers. "Try this tempura. Oh, and this dango milk. I bought it in Inazuma - it's surprisingly good."

It learns useless things over dinner - how Bennett prefers milder foods, how its counterpart is good at cooking (there's a sudden surge of competition that stirs within it). How the traveler enjoys the goulash. 

"Feel free to use the kitchen whenever you like," she says. "This is really good. It is a little spicy, but I don't mind." 

The food warms its stomach comfortably right up to its fingertips. It decides it enjoys tempura.

 

---

 

The next two weeks are uneventful.

Its days are composed of hours creating in the laboratory with Albedo stopping by every so often to offer guidance (I am grateful to have another to share in this discourse with me, the alchemist admits at one point), afternoons fishing in the rivers with Klee and Paimon (that fish looks super delicious - big brother, get that one, the child encourages, tugging at its sleeve insistently), cooking with Bennett (how about sandwiches? and apple cider? the boy offers. It finds itself salvaging the remains and all but renovating the kitchen during each instance). 

There are others, too - the traveler's companions who stopped by on occasion. The two humans it had caught sight of on the mountain - one clad in blue, the other in red. One who proclaimed himself as a Harbinger (and had challenged it to a fight, to which it flatly declined for what was the purpose?). A librarian. Adepti, exorcists. And even archons that invite it to tea and song.  

The traveler's presence, it notes, has been scarce. It caught sight of her here and there - but she always appeared busy, whether it be completing an errand or venturing elsewhere to gather ingredients. The other day, she had returned with a few bundles of seagrass (I thought you could use them, she had said brightly, and it had noticed shadows under her eyes then).

 

It encounters Albedo outdoors after a meal of said sandwiches and cider. The alchemist is finishing up a painting, and there's a cat on his shoulder. The completed piece resembles both their likeness - but, there's no mark. 

"A portrait of you," its counterpart states. There's an inquisitive expression, a slight upturn of its lips. Was that truly how it appeared? It presses its fingertips to its neck again.

"The mark is one of many things that differentiates us," it observes. 

"Mark or not," the alchemist offers a smile. "I would say you're already your own person." He looks ahead, and it follows his gaze to catch sight of the traveler, who's being swarmed by cats pawing at her legs as she tries to make her way to the gardens.

 

 

"Perhaps you're right," he muses, voice soft.

 

---

 

The cecilias are flourishing. 

It had taken time, care, and strategic placement of fertilizer - but each plot is faring well. Even that one patch of cecilias had caught up, she thinks fondly. The petals had a new sheen, green stems straight and strong. The trick was, she had realized, growing a few companion flowers around it (asters, sweetflowers, silkflowers) - to help with nourishing the soil, maintaining the right amount of shade and wind, and preventing aphids.

So she sits on the grass, takes a moment to breathe. Whether it be commission work, her travels through Inazuma and the friends she's met along the way, bringing him to the teapot, or having hardly progressed in her search for her brother - she rubs her eyes in exhaustion and yawns.

"Lumine," a voice calls beside her (and she knows it's his voice, despite how similar it sounds to Albedo's), and she glances over, eyes wide. It's the first time he's addressed her by name. He's taken a seat next to her, and is now gazing at the cecilias with an indescribable expression. 

"Klee told me you were having difficulty with growing these," he muses. "They've all bloomed well." 

His thumb brushes against a petal (it's the one patch that's taken her more effort).

"I'd like to stay here longer," he admits, his tone almost wistful. There's a subtle layer of uncertainty over it - he glances over at her, and she can tell he's nervous. "With you."

"As long as you'd like," she says, and not a second too soon, because there's the faint scent of cecilias and winter that clings to him, surrounding her - she feels his arms wrap around her ever so tightly.

The shock (he's actually hugging her; did he learn that from Klee?) melts into surprised delight, and she hesitantly returns the gesture.

He pulls her ever closer, there's a faint thank you murmured into her hair. 
She can feel his heartbeat. It's a steady, soothing rhythm that makes her a little drowsy. 

The moment ends as he leans back and speaks.

"This aside, Albedo and I have talked briefly. We've agreed. You're overworking yourself," he tells her, and she blinks at him.

He continues.

"So we decided to take commissions in your stead for the next few days. A few of your companions have stopped by earlier, to drop off some dishes for you." There's a quirk of his lips upwards (a charming, impish smile; is...is that a dimple?).

She stares, dumbfounded.

"I - you - what?" 

"Go rest," he repeats, a hint of a laugh in his voice. The young woman begins to protest, but pauses as he reaches out and -

He places a cecilia in her hair. She catches a brief glimpse of Albedo in the distance, inclining his head towards her (there's a similarly sly smile on his face, before he turns away innocently).

 

And her attention is drawn back to him - he gently places his hands on her shoulders, turning her around, and briefly pulls her closer (there's that sensation of cecilias and crisp winter air again) before nudging her in the direction of the main house.