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Perfectly Seasoned

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"Barbaraaaa~! Miss Barbaraaaa~!"

The call echoes through the wood and Barbara winces. She knows that voice, and she knows she should be polite, be generous with her time, be a proper idol who encourages and supports people—but oh, she wanted a day off today so badly. She shrinks back behind a tree, trying to summon the willpower to greet Albert properly... or the nerve to make a run for it.

And then someone says, "Psst!" from much closer by.

Barbara's head snaps up, eyes wide, and on the other side of the pathway she sees a young woman about her own age, dark haired and dressed in red, with a short, tubby bear at her side. One of the Traveler's friends, she remembers their paths crossing before—the aspiring chef.

"Xiangling?" she whispers, and she's not sure she pronounced that right but it's at least close enough that Xiangling smiles.

"You want to make a break for it?" Xiangling asks. "You don't look excited about that guy's company."

It's so much easier to admit it as an answer to someone else's suggestion. "Yes, please," Barbara says.

"Thought so," Xiangling says. She grabs Barbara's hand as Albert calls again, closer this time. "Come on! Guoba, put down a barrier for him!"

They take off running as the little bear takes a deep breath and breathes fire across the path. Barbara might squeak a little—it's so sudden—but her heart races and she feels like laughing as she tears through the woods at Xiangling's side. She did it! She stole back her free time.

Eventually, breathless, they collapse in a clearing where they can't hear anyone calling anymore. Guoba has caught up with them somehow, but, well, he can breathe fire, it stands to reason he's not bound by ordinary rules as much as humans are.

"So," Xiangling says, and Barbara's afraid for a moment that she's going to ask about Albert, about the fan club, everything—"what were you doing out here?"

"Oh... Just going for a walk, really," Barbara says. She leans back on her hands, her skirt poofed out around her. "When I have a day off, I like to come out and enjoy a little peace and quiet. Get away from the city for a little while." She doesn't want to sound too much like she doesn't like the current company, though. "How about you? What brings you out here?"

"Lamp grass!" Xiangling's eyes dance with excitement. "I want to try it as a seasoning in this skewer recipe I've been working on."

"That sounds lovely," Barbara says. Xiangling's smile is wonderful, so warm and easy. "Would you like help gathering ingredients?"

"If you don't mind, sure! I bet you know more good spots anyway, if you come to these woods a lot."

Barbara jumps to her feet and dusts off her skirt. "Then let's do our best!"

They comb the entire length of the Whispering Woods over the course of the afternoon, collecting lamp grass and a few mushrooms and apples as well—and even the remains of a few slimes that surprise them near a pond, though Barbara isn't certain about those as cooking ingredients. Her shoes are scuffed and muddy, her hair keeps falling in her face, and she's torn a run in one of her stockings climbing over rocks, but she can't remember the last time she had this much fun. Xiangling is sweet and cheerful, Guoba is silly and kind, and they both make it so easy for Barbara to be herself.

Near sunset, Xiangling calls a halt to the gathering. She stacks some wood at an adventurer's firepit and Guoba sets it alight with his breath. "Now we get to see how this combination turns out!" she says. "I'm guessing since you're from Mondstadt you'd rather I go easy on the chilies."

It's Barbara's turn to grin. "Actually, I love spicy food! And it's so hard to find around here."

"Well, in that case..." Xiangling whips out a ladle and brandishes it. "Watch me work my magic!"

"Gladly." Barbara sits down with Guoba and watches as Xiangling whips up her skewers: a familiar base of fowl and mushrooms, but then seasoned with the lamp grass they picked, a few other varieties of dried flower, and chopped Jueyun chilies—all bound together into a sauce by that slime condensate.

Still, it smells delicious over the fire, slime or no, and Barbara's stomach growls in anticipation. "Sorry," she says, putting her hands over her belly, but Xiangling laughs.

"For a chef, that's a compliment! Here, the first one should be just about done. Give it a try." She takes a skewer off the fire, steaming in the evening air and dripping with savory juices, and hands it to Barbara.

Barbara takes a bite. The bright spicy pop of the chilies is balanced by an almost sweet flavor from the flowers, and the meat is still so juicy despite the heat of the fire. "It's delicious," she says. She's not exaggerating; the food is wonderful. But the way Xiangling smiles at her?

That's even better.