Hu Tao had never been one to dwell on the past. While she respected its existence; tradition being a fundamental role in her work and therefore her whole life— The past had a cruel way of sneaking into your heart, reopening closed wounds just to make you suffer for its own selfish pleasure. She had seen it do so time and time again, the patrons of Wangsheng funeral parlour all fell victim to the cage that was the past, their memories of fallen loved ones, always haunting them, always causing them a cold, bitter grief. Thus, Hu Tao focused her attention onto the present instead.
The same could not be said for the people around her, however.
Zhongli, a rather old soul (both literally and figuratively), could be caught with drifting thoughts, eyes blank and expressionless, staring at nothing. He attempted to hide this habit from her, but Hu Tao was well-versed in distant expressions such as those, but as much as she wanted to, she always suppressed the urge to pry.
Xiao, a rather secretive, mysterious fellow struggled with his past as well. Though he mostly spoke with Zhongli, he had been over to the parlour enough recently that they’d become well enough acquainted, sharing conversations over a nice cup of tea. But other times his expression darkened greatly, and he whispered to himself. It was rather off-putting, but in the sense you don’t quite know what to do or say to help, so you end up just observing quietly.
Her good friends, Chongyun, Xinqiu, and Xiangling were also quite rooted in their pasts. Their leisurely conversations over a nice serving of wildly-flavoured tea (courtesy of whatever Xiangling would whip up that day) would trail off the path into the topic of, if I could have done this better, or, if I could change one thing… but Hu Tao had found that foolish. You cannot change your past. No matter how much you may want to, so why dwell on it? So she bit her tongue and listened. Though she never understood.
Perhaps she never would.
And then… she came into her life.
And Hu Tao remembered that day perfectly. Down to every last detail.
It had been an admittedly long day; Hu Tao letting her mind drift off as she felt the familiar summer breeze run through her pigtails. The day was dry, grass still yellow from recovering from their winter slumber. In the distance, a loud crack of thunder echoed, a signal of a distant rainstorm, with dark purple clouds in the distance to match. She scowled at the whirling clouds, if only today would stay as beautiful as it looked now, she complained with a hum.
“Director! Director! There’s a ghost after me!”
Meng, an apprentice newly taken on by Hu Tao suddenly cried from a pathway a little ways ahead of her. Puzzled and curious, (mixed with slight disbelief) Hu Tao whipped her head around, straining her neck to see beyond him.
And up walked a stranger. A girl barely taller than she, with fair but tanned skin, short blonde hair that perfectly framed her face, her eyes a dazzling, glimmering, gold, practically shining with such luminosity and brilliance they rivaled the stars above.
Hu Tao could not remember a time when words were caught in her throat before, but yet here she was, gawking at the enticing stranger— who was she? A merchant? An adventurer? She couldn’t place the girl’s strange clothes. She definitely didn’t come from Liyue, that’s for sure.
She was speechless, but only for a wisp of a moment. She cleared her throat and smiled widely, waiting to hear an explanation.
The girl introduced herself— well, her travelling companion, a floating sprite of sorts, did, anyway, revealing their ties to Zhongli, a dear friend of Hu Tao’s. Though the traveler barely spoke, Hu Tao found herself compelled by her— her focus somehow always trailing back to her, oddly encaptured.
“Ah… not here for a consultation... All the same! I trust That Old Soul’s taste in people. I will assist you on your quest, travelers.” And the traveler— no, the sprite called her Lumine, nodded warmly.
Lumine… a name befitting of a princess. A name befitting of the sky.
A loud snap of thunder roared in the distance, but Hu Tao was focused on something else, curiosity gripping her soul. This girl… I must know more about her.
It is said that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane.
A butterfly lands leisurely on her cup of tea in front of her. She gazes at the creature solemnly, before waving her hand at it to shoo it away, as she notices Lumine enter the wooded pathway.
“Ah, traveler, you made it! For a minute I was beginning to think you wouldn’t show!” She admits with her signature wink, a flourish of the hand to accentuate her tone.
“Yes. Sorry. I ran into some… trouble on the way.” Lumine exhales, as she tries to balance her heavy breathing.
“All in a day's work, for the famed honorary knight of favonious?” She teases, recalling the brag Paimon would bring up in conversation in order to get what she wanted sometimes, and speaking of that darned pixie— “Where is that flying friend of yours?”
“She went to go help Xiangling. Didn’t tell me what exactly, so I’m assuming that’s just an excuse to eat some of her food.” Lumine chuckled, as she took the seat in front of her. “It’s just me today, if that’s alright.”
Hu Tao adorns her face with a wide grin. “Nothing would make me happier than to enjoy a nice afternoon tea with you, traveler.”
Lumine lets a small smile creep up on her face. Hu Tao greedily sneaks a chance to see it, and she feels a light fluttering in her chest. She averts her gaze towards the teapot when their gaze meets.
“So, please. Tell me about yourself.”
With a melodic sigh Lumine slowly begins to tell her tale. Or at least as far as she can remember, she claims, and barely touches her tea. Her vernacular is very blunt and clumsy, she stumbles through her words, though Hu Tao can’t quite discern if that’s an attribute from the language gap or if that’s another glimpse into the traveler's true nature.
Hu Tao notices the way her eyes slightly light up when she talks about her fonder memories. She also notices grief flicker in those same eyes anytime she mentions her brother.
But if a butterfly really has the power to do that, then…
“Traveler, I want to join you on your quest.” Hu Tao pledges. It was a decision made on a whim, and she wasn’t quite sure what compelled her to switch ambitions so suddenly, but Hu Tao had always but one to trust her instincts. She was secure in the knowledge that she would return to her duties at Wangsheng eventually, but for now, she wanted to have a little fun. Surely that’s not so bad?
Lumine, currently standing looking away from her, almost drops the sword in her hand, surprised by the sudden suggestion.
“Wh-? You? Join us?” The sprite next to her gapes, her eyes as wide as saucers.
Lumine says nothing, she simply turns to meet her eyes, not bothering to hide the surprise on her face.
“Well, yeah! Duh, who else, silly?” Hu Tao begins to feel a wave of embarrassment rise up within her. Of course she’d turn her away, Hu Tao may have some skills in fighting and utilizing her vision, but she must be nowhere near the dedication or strength level to—
“Sure.” Lumine says simply, “Welcome to the team.”
“You’re gonna let her join so easily?!” Paimon interjects.
“Really, traveler?” Hu Tao clasps her hands together in gleeful excitement. “Oh, thank you!” Instinctively, she runs up to Lumine and grabs her hands tightly. Lumine’s face pinkens just a tad and she turns away sourly.
“On one condition!” She states, raising her voice. Hu Tao only blinks in anticipation.
“You train with us every day… and give us a place to spend the night! At least, while we’re in Liyue.”
There’s a beat of silence.
“traveler… if you wanted to get into my bed, you could’ve just asked.” Hu Tao cocks one eyebrow.
“She didn’t mean it like that! Pervert!” Paimon yells, and hits her on the head with a nearby twig she finds.
Butterflies… are soft creatures. So surely…
“We will have to return soon.” Says an exhausted Lumine. She stretches out her arms, swinging her legs over the edge of the mountain cliffs disregarding any caution. The cool breeze travels past them, leaving behind the airy scent of qinxin flowers.
“Aww… Don’t say that,” Hu Tao sighs, gazing at the sky which was now painted a conglomerate of yellows, pinks, and dark blues. “Let me stay in this dream a while longer.” But her wish is hardly a whisper, not even Lumine hears.
Hu Tao gazes at her smile. It’s not a sight that’s very common these days—the little flecks of hope you would always see in her eyes becoming more faded as of late— so she takes the second to bathe in its glory, it’s warmth and beauty, just for the moment.
Back in Liyue, the adventurer’s guild is waiting to hear news about their latest tricky commission. There are others who need her help, others who need saving. Hell, maybe even some archons who need saving.
Back in Liyue harbour, there are people needing Lumine to make change. Back in Liyue harbour, they wait for Hu Tao’s return so she can maintain tradition.
As much as she adores tradition. It can only take you so far. It’s much too constricting.
“Have you ever thought of what life would be like if you were a butterfly?” Hu Tao asks out of the blue. She twirls her fingers around in the soft summer breeze.
Lumine pauses, puzzled, but then she begins to think, as if you can see the cogwheels in her head begin to spin. “I can’t say I have. I’ve never had to envy them, in fact, I’m quite like them in some ways— just moving from one place to another.” But she gazes at Hu Tao with an indescribable warm look on her face that ties Hu Tao’s stomach in knots and makes her feel like melting. “In a way, they remind me of you.” She admits.
“Well… other than the fact your constellation is a butterfly, you spawn flame butterflies, and that real butterflies have an odd connection with you…”
Hu Tao raises an eyebrow. “Go on…” she edges.
“...But there’s more than that. You both… ugh. Forgive me. I’ve never been good with words. And your language doesn’t make sense.”
Hu Tao lets a small silvery laugh escape her lips, but she moves in closer to bridge the chilly gap between them. Lumine continues.
“I feel as if… you and the butterfly both try to fend off predators— or, people who will hurt them— by scaring them away, but… you have a good heart. I know.”
Hu Tao can’t tell if it’s the drowsiness of a long day getting to the girl, but her heart craves to hear more. She had a point: Hu Tao had been labeled all sorts of things growing up, “troublesome” or “insensitive” being the common phrases thrown at her, so indirectly, she’d turned those sticky labels into a wall of thorns, keeping others away. But as of late things had been changing; first meeting Zhongli, then Xiao, and maybe even most important to her was Lumine. Sneakily, she moves her hand atop Lumine’s, to which there is no resistance.
“...You know?” Hu Tao presses on.
“Also… I don’t think I’ve ever told you this before, but you’re really, really pretty, Hu Tao.”
Oh archons above, she can feel the blood rushing to her face, and quickly tries to hide it, burying her face in her hands. She hears a soft giggle from the girl across from her, voice light and airy and carefree. What is this? She’s never acted so foolishly before in her life!
“Don’t tease me like that.” Hu Tao whines, voice muffled behind her interlaced figure, creating a sort of wall between herself and the outside world. “It’s not fair.”
“Oh?” Lumine challenges a smug expression adorning her stunningly beautiful face, “How do you know I’m teasing?”
Hu Tao rolls her eyes, removing her hands from her face to hold them in her lap. “You’ve journeyed across hundreds of worlds,” she explains, recalling Lumine’s comments of her past, “I’m sure there are much prettier ladies out there than I.”
“...I’ve never seen one as pretty as you.” She sighs, and leans forward suddenly, propping herself so close to the other girl that Hu Tao can feel her breath on her skin. The sensation tingles, and it lingers, she tries desperately to ignore the nervousness spreading from her heart to the rest of her limbs.
Lumine smiles smugly, and stares up at Hu Tao. She notices, bewildered, how Lumine smells like fresh spring grass, dandelions, and something like a fresh citrus fruit. It’s almost intoxicating.
Archons, please don’t let her blushing be visible to her, Hu Tao begs silently.
“What, you’ve been flirting with me all this time— you can dish flirts but can’t take them?” Lumine places her hand on Hu Tao’s neckline. “What a shame.” Absentmindedly, she tucks a stray hair on her neck to join it back with one of her ponytails.
“I mean— you’ve never teased me before, so—“ Hu Tao stumbles, tripping over her words. Her eyes look out to the distant mountains surrounding them, a last-ditch effort to maintain some composure.
“What if I’m not teasing?” Lumine then asks with a lilt of seriousness in her voice. Hu Tao’s heart stops beating for a moment.
“What if… I’m not teasing. And… I am flirting with you. What would you say then?”
Oh god she wasn’t prepared for this— but this is what she yearned for— please don’t be joking please don’t be teasing please, please—
“I-I’d be overjoyed.” She stammers, honestly. Lumine’s eyebrows raise in response, but she says nothing.
“Hu Tao… Can I… Can I kiss you?” Lumine asks, after a pause.
Taken aback by the bluntness, Hu Tao’s eyes widen, but she nods quickly, moving her hands to pull Lumine closer.
“Director Hu,” Zhongli greets, in his usual warm yet distant tone when Hu Tao enters the parlour. It’s been a few days, a longer excursion for Lumine and Hu Tao among the many they had been on recently. Lumine needed to take care of some errands in the far outskirts of Liyue, and Hu Tao needed adventure. They made a nice pairing.
“Zhongli! Long time no see! I missed you, gramps.” She sticks out her tongue, and uses the nickname she gave him to get under his skin. He sighs in reply.
“Yes… Now, Director Hu, if you would just take a seat, I need to have a discussion with you.”
“Oh?” Hu Tao sits down on a nearby sofa and toys with the bracelet on her wrist.
“It’s about… The traveler…”
Her breath hitches. “What about her?” She swings her legs while she sits and cocks her head to the side, before continuing, “You think she’s a bad influence on me, or something? If it bothers you, I won’t go out travelling with her much anymore, or at least on such short notice like last time.”
He raises his hand, and Hu Tao silences herself. “No, not like that… though I do wish you would take your job more seriously sometimes…” he mumbles, but shakes his head. “You… you harbour feelings for her, do you not?”
Hu Tao closes her eyes.
She thinks of the days they’d recently spent together. The one day under an old oak tree where Hu Tao had fallen asleep on her shoulder, and Lumine fell as well not long after. When Lumine had pushed herself a little too hard fighting against a horde of hilichurls and an abyss mage, Hu Tao had to nurse her for a day despite being extremely inexperienced. She thinks of her smile, the way soft wind caresses her hair, making her seem ethereal, and her stunning honey gold eyes.
The way she always had a plan, never once backing down from a fight, she was stubbornly strong willed.
On their way back to the parlour, Hu Tao had interlaced their hands together. Her hand was still warm, and her chest felt even warmer.
It wasn’t meant to last.
She knew that. Lumine was a traveler, of course, and the second she was free she would fly away, away from Teyvat, away from her. Hu Tao couldn’t blame her, she knew how hard it was on her mentally— late night confessions and lost gazes she had seen multiple times, and although she would try to help, be there for her mentally and physically, she knew she couldn’t do anything more. Her heart felt like it shriveled up like a ball of paper, those times.
Hu Tao knows she’ll have to let her go. After all, Hu Tao’s home is the parlour, in Teyvat, no matter where she travels. But Lumine’s home will always be among the stars.
Hu Tao comes to, back in the parlour’s study where nothing has changed. Her gaze is distant, her mind wanting to both return to the good memories of her and reject them all completely. She feels unnaturally hollow, and in a daze she reaches her hand up to her cheek, where she feels the damp trails of warm tears left behind.
“Yes… I do.”
Zhongli looks as if he’s about to say something more, but he shuts his mouth, as he himself recognizes the harrowing solemness Hu Tao harbours.
She despises this.
This feeling. This guilt. It’s painful.
She can see the same pain in the traveler, feel the same, bitter despair that plagues her psyche. Sometimes Lumine’s eyes, her beautiful, glittering gold eyes lose their spark, and become as dark and distant as a swirling abyss.
But she’s stubborn. Stubborn as the mountains, the storm-carrying winds, the will of gods. “I’m fine.” She insists plainly, drifting away from Hu Tao’s side to gaze out at the horizon, searching for something that isn’t there.
Both know that’s a lie. Still, Hu Tao extends her hand, she doesn’t need words, she doesn’t need anything to understand. She wants to understand. But Lumine eyes the empty hand solemnly, before walking away, where the sun is already dipping below the tree line.
The helplessness Hu Tao feels in this moment chills her more than a lightning storm ever could. She watches Lumine’s figure become smaller and smaller, but she does nothing to stop it, not that she’d have any place to do so anyway.
Shaking her head, she turns away, maybe foolishly believing that the problem will solve itself with time, as many do, and she can focus on the present again.
But she doesn’t want to.
Butterflies fend off other creatures by scaring them away. If I’m like that, then… Why...
Hu Tao sits on her bed, gaze cast down to the floor, feeling herself sink, sink and hold no resistance to letting herself drift away, like unwanted driftwood at sea. She’s alone, which wasn’t abnormal for the young inheritant of the Wangsheng Funeral parlour, but this was the first time in years where she had felt utterly lonely.
“Aiya… But that’s what happens when you open up to people and get attached, isn’t it?” She asks no one in particular. Her only audience is a dead, silent room. She laughs shrilly, daring the tears in her eyes to fall instead of clouding her vision.
How long has it been? How many hours? She doesn’t know, but the sun disappeared a while ago, leaving a chill in the air.
She hears movement in the room downstairs. Quietly she rubs at her face to clear the water stinging her eyes, preparing herself to throw on her mask of a smile, as she usually would, so she can move forward.
Then she hears the soft creek of her chamber door, and looks up, to find the distant, starry eyes she both admired and couldn’t stand.
Upon closer examination, Lumine’s eyes, too, are glossy, and something about her expression seems more… mature. Wise. Exhausted.
“I’m sorry.” She breathes, and in the silent room the apology echoes, waiting for a reply.
Hu Tao bites her lip and nods, closing her eyes so she can pretend to drift away from here.
“I shouldn’t have left. I hurt you. I—“ Lumine’s voice cracks. Each wall she perfectly built to shield herself shatter into a million pieces, and she lets out a heart-wrenching sob.
Hu Tao again says nothing, seeing Lumine like this— it’s… wrong. She can’t stand it, like she can’t stand pouring rain or slime condensate. So she does what she knows best, and stands up holding her arms wide, inviting. Lumine immediately runs into them, still sobbing, clutching onto the other girl tightly.
“I don’t want to leave you.” She admits, voice barely a whisper, “I don’t want to lose you like I lost him.”
Hu Tao stiffens before she rests one hand in Lumine’s sun-kissed hair and another onto her back where she begins to lightly draw circles to soothe her. She absent-mindedly notices how perfectly Lumine fits into her arms, and a part of her wants to stay here forever.
“I know.” Hu Tao whispers again after a few seconds. “And you won’t.”
The promise hangs in the air, even though it feels like fate is determined to tear it in twain. Lumine clutches Hu Tao even tighter.
“You mean… the world to me.” Lumine admits breathlessly. Hu Tao closes her eyes. What does that mean to a girl that’s walked across a thousand universes?
Hu Tao knows she will have to set her free, for as of right now, she’s as free as a butterfly mounted in a frame. Lumine doesn’t belong here, in Teyvat, in Liyue with Hu Tao. She deserves a life more beautiful— or rewarding, amongst the constellations and galaxies. Hu Tao can’t bear to see the torn loneliness she feels in herself be present in her. She’s tired of wishing for a miracle to fix Lumine’s problem so she can be truly happy again, free of guilt. She wants Lumine to find her brother. But then again…
When she does, she’ll leave Hu Tao’s side for good.
It’s just a matter of time.
And in one second, Hu Tao finds herself wishing for an eternity like this moment, while simultaneously wishing that she had never met the star-borne traveler at all.
Hu Tao halts drawing circles into Lumine’s back. The future will come when it comes, and until then, she will turn her back on it, reject it, to ground herself in the now.
Ignoring the inevitable heartbreak that awaits her down this road, Hu Tao confesses,
“I love you, Lumine.”
Lumine’s breath hitches, and she smiles, painting a sweet but melancholic picture. She buries her head into the crook of Hu Tao’s neck.
Silently and guiltily, Hu Tao thanks the stars.
Thank you for the path that led her to me. She thinks, but I really wish she’d never had to walk down this path at all.
And somewhere in the distant, hazy, future, a hurricane begins to form.