The first time Hu Tao saw her, she was surrounded by crowns of silk flowers.
It was a beautiful winter morning stroll, one beautiful enough that she had put enough conviction into her tugging and whining for her consultant, Zhongli, to accompany her on a walk. She couldn’t stop smiling at the children running past and through her legs, or at the dogs that yipped and licked her rings, incessantly looking for food. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see ghosts of people and stray dogs alike, following tentatively behind mortal loved ones. They’d be gone if she stared right ahead in the light, but she knew enough that they’d always be there. It made her morning all the more merrier.
What made it the merriest, however, was the sight of beautiful silk flowers blooming along the conjunction of her wonderful city. So beautiful that Hu Tao called for Zhongli to stop and see them with her.
She crouched in front of the flowers and touched one tentatively by the bud, marveling at the silky feeling at the tip of her finger. She had always thought them to be beautiful, especially since they reminded her so fondly of the clothes her grandfather and his friends would tailor in front of her, made from the finest silk in Liyue.
Beyond the silk flowers laid one of her future clients, Madame Ping. She was strolling by, gazing at the silk flowers across from them, just as many senior citizens had done in their finite free time. What made Hu Tao so curious, however, was the wonderfully youthful woman speaking to the lady, her lips speaking a thousand words a minute and a thick book in between her hands. If Hu Tao strained her ears enough, she could hear the woman’s voice, talking assuredly yet with an airy professionalism.
Not to mention, her beauty rivaled those of the silk flowers. Both of them wonderfully pink, like the sweetness of welcoming spring in the air.
Hu Tao sprang upwards, facing her curious consultant, who tilted his head curiously, yet unsurprisingly, at her behavior.
“Who is she?” Hu Tao asked him. “The girl beside Madame Ping.”
Zhongli’s face still held a question. Though he answered, “Ah, that would be Yanfei.”
“Yanfei,” Hu Tao repeated. Her name was even pretty. A smile crawled up onto her lips, and it must’ve seemed rather devious, because Zhongli shot her a noncommittal scolding look.
“I would refrain from bothering her if you can help it, Director Hu,” Zhongli said with a slight edge of warning. His eyebrows were tilted up in amusement, however. “She’s a half-illuminated beast, from her father’s side. She is also Liyue’s greatest legal advisor.”
Impressed, Hu Tao whistled lowly. “Double threat then,” she joked.
“Yes, which is why I feel I must warn you that she may not take to you so gently,” Zhongli observed. He bent over slightly to touch a silk flower, which shuddered at his touch. “It’s a shame she speaks of no formal contract with the gods, though her intelligence fares a great achievement to Liyue despite it.”
Hu Tao tilted her head at him. He kept his eyes on the flowers. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying,” Zhongli said, amusement sparking in his tone, “that I have a feeling you want to prank her. And I am also warning you that she may not like it. I say this as your consultant.”
Hu Tao laughed, turning her attention back onto the silk flowers. She glanced up slightly to the woman, who had her book shut and was warmly speaking to Madame Ping. “I wasn’t going to,” she insisted, and Zhongli chuckled at her antics. “I’m serious!”
The wind came by to ruffle the flowers, ever so slightly.
“I just think she’s beautiful,” Hu Tao stated certainly.
Zhongli hummed at her admission.
“The most alluring flowers tend to have the deepest thorns, Hu Tao,” he warned, though his voice was still light.
Hu Tao wasn’t listening to him. She waved at him lightly, dispelling whatever lecture he had for her on his tongue. Yanfei was stunning, that much was true, and her grandfather had always told her to appreciate anything she found half as beautiful.
It was a couple days later when Hu Tao remembered the woman she found among the silk flowers.
She was outside of Liyue, just a little ways away, judging from the flickers of lanterns she could see beyond the mountain. She was singing under her breath as she walked, gathering herbs and speaking to ghosts who wandered beside her. It was a lovely evening indeed, one filled with oddball conversations with the regretful ghosts of Liyue and directing real, lost people back to their families while she trekked by.
She was picking lotus heads along the river, her shorts doing her a service in allowing her to waddle farther into the shallow banks, when she spotted a curious one hidden behind fallen sticks and leaves.
A pink lotus, shining brightly at her as if waiting to be picked.
Grinning, Hu Tao plucked it gently from its stem and decided that she had done enough harvesting for the day. This one would serve as her olive branch to the beautiful legal advisor that Zhongli had cautioned her to, well— not stay away from, exactly, but something of the sorts.
She dropped by the parlor to set down her gathered herbs, gently telling some of her undertakers to sort them for the funeral rites to be held later that night. One asked about the pink lotus gently clutched to her chest, and Hu Tao told him that she needed it for a “special purpose”. Her smile, which she hoped seemed genuine, seemed rather dubious to the man, who backed off from her in an instant.
After telling Zhongli to watch over the parlor for her, Hu Tao was out of the door in an instant. Flower hidden in an inside breast pocket, Hu Tao weaved her way through the night crowd. The smell of street food tempted her, though she was a woman on a mission with only one goal in mind.
Perhaps she could pick up some fried fish after, she thought. As a celebration.
She wasn’t familiar with the directions to a legal advisor’s office, a testament to her nonessential need for their service. She could see why the man who she asked for directions would seem so confused. He pointed her in three different directions, which made her frown.
“Do you happen to know one with antlers?” Hu Tao asked him. He gawked at her, lowering his finger. “Or pink hair? She had a really big ridiculous hat on too, if that helps?”
He glanced upwards to her hat, then back to her eyes. He cleared his throat and chuckled a little, then answered, “You must mean Yanfei. She was my wife’s advisor. A wonderful woman, I don’t know why she escaped my mind. Her office is to the left.”
“Thank you so much!” Hu Tao beamed brightly at him, jumping up and down slightly on her heels in anticipation.
“Oh, but—” He gently tugged at her sleeve. “She doesn’t accept walk-ins, unless it’s a dire thing. Plus, it’s evening, so I think she might already be—”
“Don’t worry so much about me!” Hu Tao assured him. She started to head off in the direction he pointed at, lifting her hand in goodbye. “It’s just a quick little thing I need from her. Thanks!”
Confused, the man tentatively lifted his hand at her to part. She waved at him energetically, then she was off. The streets here were beginning to thin, only dotted with others who were already heading home or to the market for a lazy night’s meal. It made things easier on Hu Tao, who let her eyes glance back and forth from each end of the street to catch a glimpse of the legal advisor she was looking for.
She only realized halfway down the avenue that she had no idea what a legal advisor’s business would look like. She paused, taking a full 360 of her surroundings, then looked back ahead. She shrugged to herself and continued. It was too late to back out now, she supposed.
There was a light jingle of coins as a door closed shut ways ahead of her. Hu Tao’s eyes landed on Yanfei, her hand jiggling her office door and a thick book under her other arm. She perked up.
At the sound of her name, she startled and let go of her door handle. She turned around to meet Hu Tao, who was walking up to her with a pink lotus flower in hand, smile bright.
“Oh,” Yanfei said, surprise evident in her voice and face. She squinted into the darkness. “Hu Tao?”
“The 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, at your humble service,” Hu Tao said with a giggle. She presented the lotus to Yanfei, who looked between her and the flower with even greater surprise. “This is for you. It matches your hair.”
“My hair,” Yanfei echoed. She laughed then, taking Hu Tao’s offered gift with a grateful smile. She shook her head as if in disbelief. “I thought I saw you a couple days ago. I was wondering when you’d come by my office.”
“Ah, one of my friends told me you were looking for me,” Hu Tao joked. She bounced slightly on her heels, hands behind her back. “But I’m not telling you what kind of friend I mean.”
Yanfei laughed at her morbid joke. She tilted the flower towards herself and inhaled, lips quirking upwards in appreciation of the smell. Hu Tao’s chest puffed out slightly in pride. “Thank you then,” Yanfei told her. She frowned lightly, her eyebrows scrunching together. “But I hope this isn't an incentive for me to do something pro bono. I was about to go home.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, no!” Hu Tao said quickly, shaking her head from side to side. “I was just looking for you to give that to you. I thought it was really pretty.”
“Oh,” Yanfei said simply. She nodded in understanding, but her eyebrows were still together in confusion. She tilted the petals away from her face. “Is that… all?”
Hu Tao smiled at her. She hummed in agreement to Yanfei’s statement, then added, “Lotuses symbolize wisdom, you know. And you being a legal advisor and all, I thought it was fitting.”
“It is, actually. This is perfect.” The smile Yanfei tossed her way this time was softer. It made something warm and kind blossom in Hu Tao’s chest. “Thank you, I mean that.”
“And you’re so very welcome,” Hu Tao told her with a grin. She unfolded her hands behind her back. “It’s getting late though, so I should head back. I hope you have a safe walk home, Yanfei!”
She spun on her heel and made her way back down the street where she came from. She only stopped in her tracks when she heard a slightly panicked, “Wait!”
“I—” Yanfei looked flustered at Hu Tao’s questioning gaze. She held the lotus closer to her face in her hesitance. Spurred by Hu Tao’s eyes on her, she asked, “Would you maybe like to go to the market with me and grab something to eat?”
Hu Tao’s eyebrows jumped up. “You haven’t eaten yet?” she said, incredulous.
Yanfei smiled at her, looking slightly apologetic as if she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “I got a little swamped with work today,” she explained.
Hu Tao laughed. She held out her hand. Confused, Yanfei tilted her head in a silent question at her action, and Hu Tao told her, “Give me that thick book of yours. I’ll carry it.”
“Oh. You don’t have to,” Yanfei insisted. She held her book closer to her side as if she was half expecting Hu Tao to forcibly pry it from her. She would’ve, in all truth.
“Ah, but I will! Because I insist!” Hu Tao told her stubbornly. Yanfei smiled at her in mild amusement, and Hu Tao stretched her hand out farther in persistence. “Plus, you’re offering to take me out for dinner, and the least I could do for free food is carry your things.”
“Hey! I wasn’t—!” Yanfei argued, and Hu Tao laughed merrily, successfully catching her off guard enough to snatch her book. Yanfei let her, but she huffed and walked in tandem with Hu Tao. “You know what? Fine.”
Hu Tao looked over at her mirthly, waiting for her next words.
Yanfei flicked her forehead, and Hu Tao whined, nearly dropping her book. “Since you were chivalrous enough to try and woo me with a flower,” Yanfei said, sticking her tongue out childishly (which Hu Tao matched with her own), “I’ll show you that I’m the better one by treating you out.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that,” Hu Tao promised vaguely, grinning devilishly. Yanfei laughed at her look.
It was funny how easily they got along together, despite only meeting formally just mere minutes ago. Hu Tao silently compared their blossoming friendship to the vines she saw on the stairs of her parlor. Intertwining slowly into each other, becoming part of each other with each passing day.
“Ah, I was actually going to tell you— I have to tend to my garden today.”
“You have a garden?”
“Ironic, huh? You’d think a funeral director would have more, hmm, appropriate hobbies.”
“No, it isn’t that!” Yanfei said with a laugh. “I was gonna say that I’d love to come with you. If— if that’s alright, of course.”
Hu Tao smiled gently at her. “I think my plum blossoms need tending today. Care to help out?”
Hu Tao dropped by her house six days later on the only day she had off that week. She brought some homemade tofu, remembering fondly of the way Yanfei scarfed down every piece of tofu they shared on their table during their impromptu dinner. She knocked on the door twice and waited patiently for the telltale sign of life behind the other side.
She heard faraway steps and a voice calling out a muffled “One moment!”, and Hu Tao stepped back enough to greet a frazzled Yanfei.
“Hi!” Hu Tao greeted with a smile. “I’m not here to reap your soul, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Yanfei smiled at her, her shoulders drooping slightly. She was holding a thinner book, though it seemed thick still objectively. When Yanfei caught her eyeing the item, she dropped it on a nearby stand, then dusted her hands off together. Her eyes glittered when she caught a whiff of the tofu that the wind blew into her house. Hu Tao couldn’t help but giggle.
“I wasn’t expecting you for another hour,” Yanfei reprimanded gently, though she gave Hu Tao a happy smile and ushered her inside.
“It’s not everyday we both have days off,” Hu Tao argued in her defense, and it made Yanfei chuckle. “Today was begging for us to see each other again!” Hu Tao closed the door for her, and they snaked their way through the ins and outs of Yanfei’s humble abode.
Hu Tao saw her pink lotus flower in a polished vase near portraits of her family and scenery in Liyue, and her chest fluttered like a newly emerged butterfly.
“I was going to steam some buns for you after I finished reading, but I lost track of time. Sorry about that,” Yanfei said apologetically. Hu Tao made a beeline for the kitchen with her. “You could sit down and make yourself comfortable while I make it, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re way too stiff, you know that?” Hu Tao poked her side to accentuate her point. It made Yanfei yelp. “What kind of person would I be if I just sat down and lounged about while you did all the work? Let me help you! Maybe I make better buns than you do.”
“Oh, please,” Yanfei said with a laugh. She swatted Hu Tao’s arm when she reached for the pantry. “My dad taught me how to make them. You know? My dad, the adeptus, who probably has years of experience with bun making?”
“Oh, Yanyan, you know I’d never disrespect your father,” Hu Tao chirped. She pulled out the ingredients. “But for all I know, you’re the one who sucks at it.”
“Rude!” Yanfei said with an aghast gasp. “In my own house too!”
“And I’ll do it again if you don’t prove me wrong!” Hu Tao declared boldly, and Yanfei laughed and jostled their shoulders together.
Yanfei instructed her to take one side of the counter while she took the other, and they helped each other separate the ingredients to work on the respective buns. They made it into a contest, with the loser having to buy the other dinner for the entirety of next week, and Hu Tao shook her hand with a vigor that her grandfather taught her to intimidate. Instead of being intimidated, Yanfei only shot her a friendly smile, and they got to work. It made Hu Tao’s stomach feel like jelly.
It took them from the peak of the sun to sunset to finish steaming them. They kept getting distracted by tossing flour at each other, or singing random songs they heard that would float during the night when the men would get drunk and sing to their heart’s content. At some point, Hu Tao taught her how to do slam poetry, and Yanfei was weirdly good at it.
“You should become a rapper!” Hu Tao had told her with a proud smile and a clap of her hands when Yanfei bowed to her after finishing a surprisingly good string of rhythm.
Yanfei’s eyes flashed with excitement. “That’s actually my Plan B!” Yanfei told her happily, and Hu Tao couldn’t help but share in her excitement. There was a tickle in her throat when Yanfei began telling her, word for word, her roadmap on becoming a successful rapper in Liyue if no one needed her services ever again. There was something about the easy happiness in Yanfei’s words that made breathing for Hu Tao a little warm.
They ate their buns on the couch together, their mouths stuffed with each other’s cooking as they traded stories about their jobs and knees knocking together from time to time. They came to the conclusion that both buns were equally good in their own special ways, and that they would just settle by taking turns paying for food after work. (In truth, Hu Tao thought hers was superior, but Yanfei looked too proud of herself for her to crush that).
“You know,” Hu Tao observed. She paused, taking the time to swallow the food in her mouth, before pointing her chopsticks at Yanfei. “You remind me of chrysanthemum flowers.”
“Chrysan— huh?” Yanfei’s face scrunched up rather cutely.
Hu Tao giggled. “Chrysanthemum flowers! They represent longevity and joy. My grandfather would gift them to me sometimes after a funeral rite. Your life span is really long though, so I probably can’t bring some to your funeral, but maybe my grandkid will! Which is exciting.”
Yanfei shook her head. “You’re weird, Tao,” she said, but there was no bite to her words. They sounded fond, even.
“I know, but that’s why you keep me around,” Hu Tao jested, and she emphasized her words by stealing a piece from her plate. Yanfei grumbled, but she was powerless once Hu Tao was happily munching on it.
“I would’ve kicked you out a long time ago, honestly,” Yanfei said, fake exasperation in her tone. Hu Tao laughed gently. “But I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I am!” Hu Tao said proudly. Her voice was muffled slightly by the food in her mouth, and Yanfei tapped her chin with her chopsticks to remind her to swallow. She did, then continued, her throat somehow a little tight, “You love being around me. That’s why you can’t stay away.”
“You’re so bold for someone who I can probably arrest on the spot,” Yanfei mused. Hu Tao dropped a piece of shrimp into her plate as a peace offering, and Yanfei quietly smiled at her.
“But you won’t,” Hu Tao observed. “Because you likeeeee me.”
“I like your mora,” Yanfei said plainly. She rubbed her chin, pretending to think. “And your tofu. And… hmm…”
“Yowch!” Hu Tao said, placing a hand over her heart. She kneed Yanfei, making her laugh. “Is that all I am to you? A walking tofu dispenser?”
“Would you be mad if I said yes?” Yanfei said, batting her eyelashes innocently. At Hu Tao’s exaggerated hurt expression, she laughed harder and put her hand gently on Hu Tao’s knee. “I’m kidding! I promise. I like your company, Tao. And for the record, as tasty as your tofu recipe is, you still have a lot to learn from the master.”
“Teach me the next time I’m over then,” Hu Tao suggested lightly.
Yanfei hummed in agreement. “If you show me how to tend to plum blossoms by myself.”
“It’s a done deal,” Hu Tao proclaimed, echoing Yanfei’s professional words she always overheard while waiting for Yanfei to finish up.
Yanfei’s eyes twinkled joyfully. Her breath hiccupped in her chest at the sight, and she had to clear her throat and pound her chest lightly to dispel it. She lifted her nearly empty plate up. “So, seconds?”
“Absolutely. I’m in love with your cooking,” Yanfei said with a groan.
That night, Hu Tao dreamt of books and silk flowers and white chrysanthemums.
When she awoke, there was a hollow feeling in her chest, as if something was missing— or rather, something had been taken away from it. She stretched and yawned, blinking the sleep out of her eyes. Beside her pillow case was a singular petal from a chrysanthemum.
Which was fairly odd, she thought, because she could’ve sworn her undertakers had said they used up all their flowers in a ceremony yesterday.
“That does not rhyme with ghost!”
Cackling, Hu Tao almost swung herself off her bench from the indignant face Xinqiu made her at her. He was pointing at her with his old pen, his notebook cracked open between his knees, a look that said, “Preposterous!” written all over his face— as it usually did, on these fine evenings when the three of them got together for their writing sessions.
They both looked to Chongyun, who shrunk into his collar at their expectant gaze. “Well,” he said uncertainly, twiddling his fingers together, “you could make the argument that Hu Tao had creative license on… what was it— the word ‘beef roast’?”
Then Hu Tao laughed even harder, giddy at the sight of Xingqiu’s exasperated face. “Ghosts near the lamp post looking for a beef roast,” she repeated her phrase, then waved her hand over to Xingqiu’s empty book. “I told you it rhymed!”
“I suppose,” he grumbled, a little too dolefully, then scribbled her impromptu sentence. He tapped the end of the pen on his chin, then informed the two, “It’s eleven syllables long. It breaks the flow of the stanza.”
“Yikes,” Chongyun said with a chuckle while Hu Tao whined.
“You said you needed a new free verse line! Different syllables don't constitute a broken free verse,” Hu Tao insisted.
“Well, I say it does!” Xingqiu argued. His eyes were gaily lit, showing his purposeful intent on riling up his friend. Beside him, Chongyun was pulling out fresh popsicles from his bag, deftly unwrapping them from their wrappings with a concentrated frown on his face.
Hu Tao tended to humor him. “Okay, okay,” she relented, putting her hands up in surrender. She grinned. “Let’s start over then?”
Xingqiu blinked at her. “But we’re almost done!”
“Nope, not doing it. I won’t help you,” Hu Tao said with a tsk. Xingqiu made a little noise in disagreement, but he complied and turned to a new page. She swung her feet back and forth, tilting her head towards the moon to think. “Chongyun, give us a subject if you’re so kind?”
“Butterflies,” he replied instantly, his eyes glancing to the pink butterfly that had just crossed his vision. He handed over a popsicle to Xingqiu, who smiled softly at him, then he hopped over the bench to get to Hu Tao with hers.
“Butterflies?” Xingqiu said, surprise coating his words. He relaxed, twirling his pen between his fingers. “I think we can deal with that. Butterflies… butterflies… ‘A butterfly lowers and rises’, next line, ‘With the wind’s gusty breath’. How’s that?”
“Ooh,” Hu Tao said encouragingly, nodding her head along to it. Chongyun nodded thoughtfully to it. She paused, mulling over Xingqiu’s lines. She settled with, “‘As if coupled in with a dance / Of a loving tenderness.’”
Chongyun looked rather excited by that one. He clasped his hands together, popsicle in mouth, clearly pleased with the stanza. Xingqiu was impressed by her unscripted words as well, though he commented, “I was going in a rather different direction, but you made it work anyhow.”
Hu Tao shot him an inquisitive look. “Which direction? The west? The east? Was I going northeast?” she joked.
Xingqiu humored her with a laugh. After enjoying a bit more of his popsicle, he answered, “No, well, I rather presumed you’d want to write something more morbid with butterflies. Considering what they represent to you and your grandfather, that’s all.”
“Ah.” She nodded in understanding. “Butterflies are pretty delicate. They hold a reminder of our mortal lives,” she said solemnly, and the air of their pleasant atmosphere matched her tone as Chongyun and Xingqiu lowered their popsicles and pen respectively to listen to her. It wasn’t often the director allowed others to see this side of her outside of funeral preparations, after all, but she thought it was rather fitting.
“But, you know, they’re also symbols of grace and love!” she said cheerfully, dispelling the bubble of pensiveness between them. “No use in writing poetry about death when we can write it about something more… hmm… enchanting, don’t you think?”
There was a silence among the three of them. A cool breeze tickled the back of her neck, and Hu Tao decided to take the silence as an opportunity to enjoy her popsicle once more.
Xingqiu’s succinct reply made Chongyun laugh, which made Xingqiu himself laugh. The boys’ laughter turned into a crescendo, until they were knee slapping and letting their ice treats drip all over the concrete. Some people passed by to gaze at them with disapproving looks, but Hu Tao couldn’t find herself to care, or ever care really.
She stared at them in a mix of disbelief and question, looking back and forth between them. Chongyun had even started to tear up, and he hurriedly wiped his tears away on his sleeves. He stuffed his popsicle in his mouth and started to giggle, but he looked expectantly at Xingqiu to explain their laughter for them.
Xingqiu shook his head, laying his notebook flat on his bench. He looked up at Hu Tao, eyes twinkling with a friendly kind of teasing, a look that Hu Tao recognized had been on her face numerous times before. It felt odd to be on the receiving end, that was no doubt.
“Oh, my dear Hu Tao,” Xingqiu said, his voice light, “who do you have your inquisitive eye on to be so… how do I eloquently put this?”
“Love sick?” Chongyun supplied. When Hu Tao shot him a baffled look, he put his popsicle back in his mouth, rendering himself mute.
“Sure,” Xingqiu said, grinning. He leaned forward towards Hu Tao. Hu Tao leaned over as well, magnetized by his mischievous look. “It’s okay, Walnut. You can tell us who it is. We won’t judge.”
“Or tell!” Chongyun supplied as well.
Xingqiu’s use of her stupid nickname made Hu Tao lean back with a groan on her lips. She was affronted (completely mystified!) by their behaviour. “I don’t like anyone!” Hu Tao insisted. She flicked her popsicle at them to make a point, and Xingqiu complained at the feeling of the sticky droplets getting on his sleeves and knees. “Jeez, a funeral director makes one light-hearted joke and everyone thinks the world is ending.”
“You can’t blame us!” Xingqiu said with a merry laugh. She laughed with them, despite it all. “It’s not like you to not make at least one dead joke in your verses. It’s kinda your staple.”
Chongyun made a noise of agreement at that. Hu Tao huffed.
“But in all honesty,” Xingqiu added, his words taking on a tone of sincerity. His eyes softened towards Hu Tao, and he put a hand over his chest to convey his candor. “I think it would be wonderful if you did find someone you like, Tao. We don’t want you dying alone.”
His tease at the end made Hu Tao giggle. The lanterns lining along Liyue were beginning to light up, the sun finally getting its rest over the dip of the horizon. Hu Tao shrugged at her two friends. “What, so if I like someone, you’re both going to help me bury them in the same coffin as me?” Hu Tao said in mock seriousness.
Chongyun made a choked noise in response, and the three of them burst into laughter.
Then a prickling feeling overtook the base of Hu Tao’s throat. It felt a bit like bile, though not quite either— more like the taste of pasture had resided in the very back of her throat. She began to cough, then coughed harder until she had to bend over herself.
She could hear Xingqiu and Chongyun’s laughter fade away, and by the time she had looked up and wiped her mouth, her popsicle still in one hand, they were looking at her in worry. They looked blurry, their heads swirling together slightly in her confusion, and Hu Tao blinked it away.
“The popsicle was really sweet. Went down the wrong pipe,” she explained to them. She waved off the glances they threw at each other. “Don’t worry about me! But really, next time, Chongyun, please get something a bit spicier rather than sweeter.”
“You know I can’t do that!” Chongyun complained, while Xingqiu vehemently agreed with her request. While the boys argued between themselves, Hu Tao got up and threw away her half-eaten popsicle. Perhaps it really was too sweet this time. Her grandfather was known for not liking sweet treats either, after all.
“So!” She clasped her hands together. They looked over at her. She grinned at them, then said, “Shall we keep writing?”
Xingqiu smiled adroitly at her. “We shall.”
Their worries forgotten, they spent the next few hours exchanging verses and ideas. Once in a while, Hu Tao had to clear her throat, a little more than she usually did. But that was okay, she assured herself, the popsicle was still lingering its sweetness in her throat. That was all.
Hu Tao visited her every chance she got. Every time there were no funerals to prepare for during the day, or that the work was so scarce that she assumed that her undertakers and consultant could take over for her, she’d hike her way over to the other side of Liyue to visit Yanfei, tofu or flowers or hat respectfully in her hand in that teasing manner of hers, just to watch Yanfei roll her eyes and usher her inside the house or office with a giggle.
This time, she was in Yanfei’s office, the both of them squished together on the floor with her coffee table presented with a couple treats. She knew Yanfei’s break times like the back of her hand— likewise, Yanfei knew the order in which Hu Tao ate her food (fish, then dumplings, then cookies), and set the plates in order in front of her. Yanfei's tea was curled up in her fingers.
“You have a really pretty hat,” Yanfei hummed out of nowhere. Her eyes were glued above Hu Tao’s head, probably scrutinizing the talisman in front of it.
Hu Tao’s mouth was stuffed with a dumpling, but she swallowed it quickly to answer her. “Do you wanna see it?” she answered instantly.
Yanfei’s eyebrows jumped up in surprise. “Really?”
“Yeah, of course,” Hu Tao retorted. In one swift motion, she took off her grandfather’s hat and held it out to Yanfei, who took it with a gentleness that reminded Hu Tao of people handling a newborn child. It made her lips twitch in a smile.
“It’s not going to break like glass in your hands if you hold it,” she reminded her, and Yanfei shot her a soft laugh in apology.
“Sorry,” she apologized, her brow knitted together while she twisted and turned Hu Tao’s hat around her fingertips, “this is important to you, so I just wanna make sure I don’t…”
It is, but so are you.
Hu Tao blinked away her mind’s uncanny thoughts. She rested her arms on the coffee table and propped a cheek on it, watching Yanfei stick her tongue out and investigate every stitch and suture. Her thumb ran over the design, then she plucked off the red flowers from the side with a practiced ease. As if she’d been looking to take them off this whole time.
Before Hu Tao could question her, she felt warm fingers thread through the side of her face. Fingertips pressed against her high cheek bone, then carded all the way up into hair. She exhaled slowly at the feeling, leaning into the touch and closing her eyes. Something like sunbeams warmed the ache in her chest, holding it stagnant in place.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Yanfei smiling at her, softly, the soft upwards curve of her lips so enticing that Hu Tao only had half the mind to keep her cheek pressed against her arm.
“It looks nice in your hair,” Yanfei declared. “Putting it in your hat was a good idea, but I kinda like this too.”
Hu Tao squinted at her. There was a question on her lips, or a joke maybe, but it died on the tip of her tongue the moment Yanfei’s fingers were back in her hair, adjusting the flower stems to sit nicer in the threads of her locks. Hu Tao nearly preened at the feeling, and she had only the littlest of strength left to refuse to close her eyes again. Instead, she let Yanfei play with her hair, convinced that this was the first time in ages that she had been rendered into silence for so long. Had it been any other situation, Hu Tao would have piped up and told Yanfei about it.
“You know how plum blossoms thrive during winter?” Yanfei said nonchalantly, and Hu Tao hummed in agreement. “Well, they symbolize perseverance and hope. The people of Liyue tend to view plum blossoms as a motif for the cycle of life. I can see why you’re so fond of them.”
“Why do you know so much about plum blossoms?” Hu Tao finally asked. Her voice sounded delicate, even to herself. She fought the urge to clear her throat, settling instead to raising her head and forcing her voice to project better. Yanfei’s fingers discarded itself away from her hair, and Hu Tao fought the urge to mourn the loss of its touch. “I find that cultivating them is a nice pastime, away from the funeral rites and all.”
Yanfei laughed at that. She propped her elbow on the table, then set her cheek on it. “Did you know red flowers represent the celebration of life?” Yanfei said, ignoring her question with teasing eyes. “You’re really milking the whole funeral director thing, huh?”
“Ah, like you don’t carry your big law book around just for show?” Hu Tao teased, and Yanfei swatted her forearm. They giggled. “I love doing what I do. Just like you. I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating that.”
Yanfei’s facial features softened. She put a hand over the one Hu Tao laid on the table. “I know, I know,” she said with a light smile. “I was just teasing, Tao. For the record, plum blossoms make you look beautiful.”
Hu Tao tilted her head at her. She ignored the burning sensation that threatened to consume her entire chest. It made paralyzing tingles run to and from her fingertips and she squeezed everything from her body not to spill, not in front of Yanfei.
She looked away from Yanfei’s comfortable gaze, hoping that she didn’t look too eccentric, at least more than she usually did. She let her eyes rest on Yanfei’s window, letting her smile at the birds making their journey across the lilac streaked sky.
“Yanyan, peonies would look twice as beautiful on you,” she hummed, almost to herself. “The pink ones. You could argue that it would just blend with your hair, but I think it would complement your eyes.”
Yanfei considered her words. “Maybe you could return the favor and put them in my hair to see, then,” she said.
Hu Tao looked over at her. Beautiful, fascinating Yanfei— she wouldn’t look good with pink peonies. She was so utterly stupid to say the flowers would complement her.
She complemented the flowers, with her doe-like smile and the brilliance that surrounded her very being.
“I need to get back early today. Funeral and all, you know how it is.” The lie slipped through her lips easily enough. She smiled brightly at Yanfei even, who smiled back at her with a slight tinge of disappointment. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Yanfei told her. She bumped Hu Tao’s knee with her own. “I was joking about the flower thing, by the way.”
“Were you?” Hu Tao said with a grin. She got up from the floor, then helped Yanfei up, despite the aches in between her shoulder blades. “Well, message dutifully received and disregarded! I’ll braid your hair with it, you’ll see.”
“You always have to upstage me, huh?” Yanfei teased.
Hu Tao agreed with a hum. Yanfei walked her all the way to the parlor (“I insist,” Yanfei told her stubbornly, citing that Hu Tao had done so for her numerous times and she needed to return the favor, and despite Hu Tao’s growing pains spreading in her chest, she made Yanfei laugh with her jokes until they split ways).
Once she was sure that Yanfei had her back turned and was making her way down the grand stairs, Hu Tao released the tension in her body. The pain made her ribs feel like they were cracking on their own, each step made into her parlor feeling as if she was one step closer to death’s doorstep. An exaggeration, that was for sure, but she couldn’t keep the tears from springing in the corners of her eyes from the pain even if she tried.
She barely made it into her main hall of her parlor, reserved only for herself and a select few of undertakers, when she collapsed on her knees and coughed and coughed and coughed.
She held her arms in a cross over her lungs, pushing her wrists into her chest as if it would help pump out the feeling. At some point, her fingers curled into her throat, clawing downwards in a useless attempt to rip it out. Her vision blurred and faded, swirling urns and paintings together until she could barely make them out.
It hurt, so much more than usual, and she couldn’t breathe. There was something stuck in her throat, itchy and coarse and pricking the inside of her throat, as if the pain was meant to intentionally keep her awake through the whole thing.
When it had become easier to breathe, her sight returning to her in increments, Hu Tao could make out the fluffy, pink buds of a flower coated in a membrane red on the floor in front of her knees. It wasn’t large enough to be a whole flower, which she celebrated lightly in her head, but it was enough to make half.
Inhaling deeply, she pressed her palm against the cool feeling of the wall.
There was a hand clasped gently on her shoulder, and it squeezed.
“My,” Zhongli murmured, his deep voice taking on an inscrutable tone, “pink peonies. I haven’t seen those in Liyue in… years.”
There was a pause between them, his hand still clasped protectively on her shoulder. Hu Tao was quiet, even though she sought desperately to speak. She was only shunned into silence by the fear of another flower on the ground, perhaps whole this time.
“Did you know they symbolize the beauty of marriage? Or love at first sight?” he continued. His hand slipped off of her shoulders, instead offering it to her. Hu Tao took it carefully, letting him guide her to the couch across the room.
“I just thought they were pretty,” Hu Tao admitted to him.
“It tends to start out that way,” Zhongli said. His tone was clear this time. Melancholic, with a hint of bitterness.
Hu Tao let her body recover against the plushness of the couch, her hand smoothing over the hollowness of her chest. It only ached this time, but she knew that it would begin to pulse with the fullness and pain sooner or later. She took in a shaky breath, and Zhongli patiently waited for her.
“Don’t worry about me,” Hu Tao told him, and she had a feeling she’d be saying it a lot more often the next few days. Or weeks. Depending. “I’m fine with it.”
Zhongli mulled over her words. He rested an elbow on the back of the couch and stared off far away. “You know, then?” he said softly. He spoke as if he was in the middle of a funeral ceremony, mingling among the bereaved. “You know of hanahaki?”
Hu Tao swallowed the thick bile collecting in her throat. “Of course I do,” she answered simply. She laughed, despite it all. “Hanahaki disease isn’t an uncommon way to die. I’ve buried a lot more people who’ve died from it than you’d think. There’s no cure for it, so.”
Other than the obvious, anyway. Other than the one cure she knew she couldn’t have.
“There is.” Zhongli raised a hand lethargically at her when she opened her mouth to answer. “Other than having your feelings returned. Love is a— it’s not reliable. So no, I do not consider that a cure in of itself.”
“What cure then?” she asked curiously. She refused to get her hopes up. When evading death, her grandfather had always taught her that there was a “but” included with it.
Zhongli met her eyes for the first time that day. He smiled, albeit sadly. “I know an old friend who can reverse the effects of the disease. However, I mean that in the literal sense— reversing you back to the way you used to be before it plagued your life. You won’t have feelings for this person anymore, but that includes all attachment you have to them.”
Hu Tao swallowed again, but somehow it was harder this time. She looked away from Zhongli’s analytical gaze. A life without Yanfei.
That felt like a curse more than the one bestowed upon her.
“No,” Hu Tao said decidedly. She shook her head carefully, then fidgeted with a ring on her finger. “I’ve made my peace with it— or I will eventually. I don’t need it.”
She felt Zhongli’s frown before she saw it. “Child, I don’t think you understand the consequences of hanahaki,” he said, patiently and firmly. “You won’t just die, you will feel the most unbearable pain known to mankind. You spat out half a flower— could you imagine if those turned into long vines and full petals? That is the curse. Dying was never the goal of it, it is the physical suffering of an unrequited love.”
“Of course I know that!” Hu Tao said, a little irritably. She turned her eyes sharply to Zhongli, whose facial features jumped up in mild surprise to her irritation, before placating to neutrality. “I’ll make my peace with it, I’ve always done that. I know one thing for sure, and it’s that I don’t want to lose Yanfei.”
Zhongli asked her, calmly but with underlying worry, “So we are supposed to lose you, child?”
Hu Tao looked away from him, fingers still twisting and turning the rings on her hands. They were both silent, eerily so, and for the first time, Hu Tao could see why other people had always been so put off by the atmosphere of her parlor.
“You won’t lose me, just my physical form,” she said in that cryptic way of hers. “My soul will live on, Zhongli. It knows how to avoid regrets.”
“You should tell her,” Xingqiu told her. “I don’t think she’d be the type to feel obliged to do anything she didn’t want to do.”
“You don’t know her. And you know I can’t do that.” She left some words unsaid, ones she had already argued her point with days ago.
I can’t do that and make her feel responsible for shortening the short time she already has with me.
Yanfei shouldn’t be allowed to feel that way.
It’s my peace to make.
“But if you just tried—” he begged.
“No.” Her defiant tone made Xingqiu pause.
She knew that Yanfei didn’t feel the same for her. Couldn’t be. Not when Yanfei greeted her so genuinely, but almost tiredly around the edges, whenever she showed up. Not when Yanfei would greet other friends so enthusiastically when they bumped into them on their strolls together. Yanfei would let go of her hand in an instant, never once looking back at her, to envelope another friend in a tight embrace. Yanfei never took notice of the ugly, green emotions that would swarm her, until her chest would feel so tight with the shame that she’d excuse herself to cough it all out. She never noticed, even when Hu Tao’s napkin would be spotted in red flecks that she would shamelessly lie about it being paint from the parlor’s renovation.
She wasn’t special to Yanfei in the way she was to Hu Tao, but that was okay.
That was okay because at least she meant enough for Yanfei to even look at her like that in the first place. It was a gift— one she planned to never take for granted.
Hu Tao’s fingers floated delicately over the silk flowers they were misting. One, it seemed, looked rather identical to the one she vomited that morning, except the one on her bedroom floor was speckled in red.
She sighed, then faced Xingqiu. He blinked back tears, and Hu Tao smiled warmly at him. She pointed at a silk flower. “Do you think she’d like this one better or the other one?”
Xingqiu was locked in a silent battle with her. Eventually, he relented, and pointed at the one to her left with his pen. “That one.” He thought it over. “It matches your eyes. She’d like that.”
Her chest felt lighter than it did all week at that. “I think you’re right.”
It was a chilly morning when Hu Tao caught wind from one of Yanfei’s clients that she had caught the flu. He was passing by her while she ran errands, looking dejected. Hu Tao had asked what had happened, and he explained that his legal advisor looked too sick to work, and he took pity upon her to reschedule their appointment, despite her insisting.
Of course Yanfei would work herself to the bone. She was everything but selfish.
Hu Tao asked the man a bunch of questions regarding her (“Did she look pale? Did you take her temperature or something? Did she eat anything? Did—”), before deeming him to be worthless to her cause and sped down the streets of Liyue to find her. She hurriedly bought warm soup and tofu from a food vendor, telling him to keep the change, balancing them on her forearms and elbows while she weaved intricately through the crowd.
Once she arrived outside of her office door, she nearly bumped into an old woman in her hurry to stop. She planted her heels into the ground and rebalanced the food in her arms, then apologized profusely to the person she nearly barreled into.
There was a light laugh, and Hu Tao looked in between her mountain of food. “Madame Ping!” she greeted, out of breath. “What are you doing here?”
“The same reason as you, I’d reckon,” Madame Ping said with a mirthful twinkle in her eyes, eyeing the food she had gathered. “Doting on a specific legal advisor, I mean.”
Hu Tao huffed out a laugh in agreement to that. “You can’t blame me, can you?” she said.
“No, of course not,” Madame Ping agreed. She put a hand on Hu Tao’s bicep gently. Her eyes grew serious, and her youthful twinkle had evolved into something close to caution. “But, please, try not to overstay. She loves seeing you, but she’s…”
“If I’m suffocating her with my presence, I’d be the first one to know,” she joked, and Madame Ping gave her a tight smile. “Plus, I have a good immune system. You could say it’s from years of harboring death in the house, I guess.”
She let go of Hu Tao’s sleeve. “I guess you’re right,” she acquiesced, then motioned for Hu Tao to enter Yanfei’s workspace. “Well, I shouldn’t bother you for any longer. It’s nice to see you again, Hu Tao.”
“And you,” she said happily. She decided not to make any more discount jokes today, only for Yanfei. She nodded as Madame Ping walked away, hands behind her back and eyes wandering through the colors of the flowers, and she pushed her way inside Yanfei’s place with an elbow twisting the knob. Thankfully, none of the items spilled. She silently cheered.
The moment she laid her eyes on Yanfei, it was clear that she had completely run out of energy. She was groaning, her hands in her head, eyes downcast to her desk. All the lights were off in the office, only filtered sunlight shining through the blinds.
She would have joked that the place felt more like a funeral parlor than her own parlor did, but when Yanfei lifted her head to look at her, her eyes watering with tears, every joke had dissipated like saccharine on her tongue. The tea beside her looked cold to the touch.
Swiftly, Hu Tao put the food at the corner of the table and sat on the chair across from Yanfei, her hand swiftly finding Yanfei’s to squeeze it encouragingly. Something about finding this bright, honest figure of Liyue crumpled in front of her like a toppled statue made ripples in her chest, ones stronger than any flower that could dispel from her heart.
“Yan?” she said softly. Yanfei blinked owlishly at her. “How did you even walk all the way here from your house like this? How stubborn could you be?” she scolded.
Yanfei laughed, then flinched at the sudden rush of pain to her head at the action. Hu Tao squeezed her warm (very warm) hand again, and Yanfei echoed the sentiment back to her with a lighter squeeze. “It didn’t hurt this much when I woke up,” she argued stubbornly. “But then it started hurting all over again and it’s not like I can walk back home like this, so…”
Hu Tao relaxed against the chair. Her hand was still in Yanfei’s. “I walked in too quickly, uh—” She craned her neck around to look at the door, squinting. “Ah. You do have it turned to ‘Close for the day’,” she noted happily.
Yanfei cracked a smile at her, even though it seemed rather weak. It was genuine though, and that was enough for her. “I turned it about an hour ago. I know my limits, Tao,” she said, her eyes suggesting that she knew something she didn’t.
Hu Tao puffed out a breath, then moved her other hand to clasp Yanfei’s. She rubbed her hands together, hoping it would provide at least a tiny sense of comfort to her, and she hoped that it worked, judging by the droop of Yanfei’s shoulders and the steady stream of deep inhales and exhales.
“Even if it was mild, you should’ve stayed home,” Hu Tao told her. Yanfei made a low groan in agreement. She giggled. “I don’t want you to die from a common cold. I don’t want to be the one to plan your funeral— that was supposed to be my great grandkid, a thousand years from now! I still have to write them all the notes about your requests.”
“How generous of you,” Yanfei said sardonically, and Hu Tao rubbed her hand more gently in apology. Her voice sounded a little hoarse too, if Hu Tao tuned her ears to it.
“You don’t keep your window open in here when you nap, do you?” Hu Tao said worriedly. “You know open windows could let ghosts in, and they always make people sick.”
Yanfei regarded her curiously. “I mean I do,” she said carefully, watching Hu Tao’s hands rub against hers, “but it’s nothing. This is the first time I’ve been sick in a while.”
“Nothing!” Hu Tao said indignantly. Yanfei’s eyes snapped up to her in surprise. “Of course it’s nothing, Fei! I don’t want to lose you!”
The sudden admittance made Yanfei blink. Hu Tao held her eyes firm to hers.
“Okay, jeez,” Yanfei relented with a chuckle. She laid back against her office chair, slowly releasing her hand from Hu Tao’s grasp. She massaged the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes and allowing herself a moment to rest. Hu Tao merely watched. “I’ll take the day off tomorrow, would that satisfy you?”
“A done deal,” Hu Tao retorted. Yanfei laughed. “You should get some rest right now too. Sleep, if you’d like. I could get you some flowers to spruce up your place and some soup from Wanmin Restaurant.”
Yanfei looked at her inquisitively. “But you already brought me some soup?” she mused.
“Did you eat at all today?” At Yanfei’s lack of response, Hu Tao smiled at her in triumph. “I brought you lunch. I’ll buy you dinner too. You can’t recover without something flowing through your system.”
“I guess,” Yanfei grumbled. “But you’ll stay here though, right? It feels kinda sad eating alone now.”
“Ah, I tend to have that residual effect on people,” Hu Tao responded with a grin. Yanfei looked like she wanted to hit her under the desk, but she lacked the energy. Hu Tao considered that today’s win. “I’ll stay, obviously. What kind of flowers do you like?” Because she had already memorized every food that Yanfei liked from the restaurant, in order of preference too.
When she answered with a simple, “Plum blossoms would look nice here,” it looked as if Yanfei was looking through her.
Laughing, and realizing that she couldn’t stop herself from passing up the opportunity, Hu Tao plucked the fresh plum blossoms from her hat and pressed it gently against Yanfei’s lips.
Surprised, Yanfei took hold of the stems and looked at her, head tilted.
Hu Tao shrugged. “You said you wanted plum blossoms.”
She wished she could press Yanfei’s smile into her heart the same way those incessant flowers pressed painfully against hers, marking her chest and throat with the pinpricks and coarseness of flowers that could never be quite as beautiful as the pink of her beloved’s lips.
She hid behind a tall tree to double over in pain, letting herself cry silently into the soil as two twin plum blossoms sprouted out from her throat, evident by the saliva and blood still attached to its stems.
They were a painfully bright white.
It marked the color of her death, waiting for her the longer she kept loving.
She won’t stop, however. Yanfei made her feel too loved, too wanted, to ever look upon those marks of death and despise her for it.
Funeral ceremonies had always taken a toll on her. It called for her somber side, since guiding the dead was never to be taken lightly. It was an honor, first and foremost, but it was also a smack in the face that she would be the one to lead herself when the time came.
She had told her undertakers about the preparation for her funeral rites days ago, “just in case”. They had looked at her weirdly and taken her words as a joke, and Hu Tao smiled at them encouragingly as they believed so. She decided that she’d let them laugh about it for a bit. There was no use in making them more despondent than they had to be.
Then there was Zhongli.
Her right hand man, her consultant.
Whenever she spoke of her will and her personal preparations, he listened to her quietly, nodding along to her requests and sometimes making helpful additions to ease her load. Hu Tao was thankful for him, even in the beginning. She couldn’t be where she was without his intuition and experience.
Despite it all, she wished he didn’t make such a fuss over her final decision.
She was throwing up in their garden, her pruning shears thrown beside her. Zhongli had crouched beside her, rubbing soothing circles on her back as she threw up one, then two, then three separate flowers. Her vision dotted in black, the lack of oxygen making her feel light-headed and airy. She rested her shoulder against the bark of the tree, the roughness digging deeply into her skin. It helped ground her.
The ache in her chest hurt, feeling as if there was a bag of soil pressed firmly in the center of her chest. Sometimes, when she sat alone in the garden and listened to the rustle of the flowers and the leaves, she could feel the flowers growing in her chest. It felt like worms, curling deep and darkly in her body, warm and excessive in weight.
They grew faster when she thought of Yanfei.
And they dispelled longer, heavier, and harder on the days she was with Yanfei.
She didn’t regret it.
“Roses in Mondstadt mean a great deal to its citizens,” Zhongli said thoughtfully. His warm hand stayed on her back, long after she had stopped retching. “They speak of roses being emblems of secrets. Hiding things under the surface.”
“My body’s taunting me then,” Hu Tao said light-heartedly.
Zhongli frowned. “You should tell her.”
Hu Tao sighed through her nose. She slumped against the tree and Zhongli’s hand retracted itself. She pressed her back fully against the bark and turned to face him. His face was set in a solemn line, though he spoke of nothing else.
“Zhongli, I mean this in the nicest way I can say it,” Hu Tao began, taking in a shuddering breath. She let the flowers settle in her lungs before speaking hoarsely again. “You don’t know what it’s like to love someone so much that you’d die with every regret in your bones before you hurt them.”
Then something in his face shifted. Subtly, to the point that Hu Tao could’ve blinked and missed it. His eyes took on a tired look, a kind of tiredness that made her realize that he had lived far too many lives, and loved too many lives lost.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled quietly.
“You must consider your options again, Hu Tao,” he said, the weariness seeping into his voice. “Please, if not for your sake or for mine, then for Yanfei’s. If this is your truest desire to let it finish its course, then I must at least advise you to tell her.”
“And what? Make her feel guilty for the rest of her life?” Hu Tao said bitterly. “I’ve thought about it. I know what I will and won’t regret. Being with her? Never. Telling her on the selfish chance she might feel the same? I won’t ever leave Teyvat to haunt you, Zhongli.”
She was joking, mostly. Zhongli cracked a vague smile at that.
“One could only dream,” Zhongli joked. His voice sounded faraway.
Seeing Yanfei was always the highlight of her day. Even when their meetings, no matter how short, ended with her retching in her parlor with a bucket full of red tainted flowers (growing flush red by the day, she noticed).
The pain of thorns cutting through her airways and the expansion of vines curling like pythons around her lungs was nothing compared to the warmth Yanfei beamed directly into her heart. It felt like every joke, every nudge against her side, or tofu fed directly into her mouth just to try felt as if Yanfei was shearing the flowers away in her chest, little by little.
It wasn’t enough to stop it all though, but Hu Tao was silently thankful that her love had done so much to stunt it.
It was a quiet night between them, an exhausting evening that Hu Tao recognized the moment she walked into Yanfei’s house. The smell of cookies wafted in the air, leaving only three of it left on their shared plate in front of them. Yanfei had her head on Hu Tao’s shoulder, and Hu Tao was nearly certain that she had fallen asleep.
She was thankful, again, because it meant she didn’t have to pretend that the thorns didn’t hurt half as badly. Each inhale made her wince, and she let her body flinch ever so slightly, but not enough to wake the woman sleeping peacefully by her side.
“I’m sick of plum blossoms,” Yanfei murmured to her. She lazily reached out to cup her mug of tea.
Hu Tao’s chest twisted. She knew not to twist her words, not to jump to conclusions— but it was so difficult not to think that Yanfei was insinuating that she was tired of her. “Are you now?” Hu Tao said quietly.
There was a pause as Yanfei considered her words, and her head lifted from Hu Tao’s shoulder. Her eyes were wide. “That’s not what I meant!” she said quickly, and Hu Tao couldn’t help but let out a bark of a laugh. She was silently glad that Yanfei was so perceptive. “I just meant— well. The plum blossoms. Outside. You know, the ones along the painted boards and the food vendors and the clothing— honestly, fashion trends get so lame after a while,” she complained, throwing her hands up.
Hu Tao kept laughing, nodding in silent agreement, egging her on to speak more. She was afraid that if she spoke too much, the coarseness of her voice would betray the state of her lungs.
“There’s prettier things in the world, is what I mean,” Yanfei explained.
Hu Tao tilted her head. “Like what?” she inquired.
Yanfei waved her hands around. Her face was scrunched up in frustration, and Hu Tao entertained a universe where she was brave enough to hold her gently between her hands and kiss her with the same fervor of two flowers in the breeze. Maybe in another lifetime. It was a comforting thought.
“You know!” she said vehemently. “Like uh— uh— crystal flies. Tofu right out of the oven. Or the sunsets in the harbor. Or like— like you,” Yanfei stammered. Hu Tao felt her heart had stopped in her chest. Then Yanfei inhaled deeply, held it, then answered, with more conviction, “Like you.”
Her flowers bristled in her chest.
“Are you calling me the prettiest thing?” Hu Tao said, gasping. “How bold of you, Yanyan!”
She giggled, even when Yanfei hit her gently with the back of her thick book. She rubbed the spot where Yanfei hit her, though she couldn’t find herself to take back her teasing words when Yanfei flashed her a smile over that fake glare.
“I think azaleas are pretty nice too,” Yanfei commented as an afterthought.
Yanfei hummed. “They’re poisonous. But I think they look nice.”
“The pink ones remind me of you. I love you,” Hu Tao would have told her.
Except the pain in her chest became sharp and staggering, and the wind was knocked out of her in an instant. A hand flew up to massage the spot she felt the pain, inhaling sharply. Yanfei glanced over at her in alarm, but Hu Tao gave her a warm smile.
“I should go home,” she said instead.
“Already?” Yanfei whined. She dropped her book on the table. “I really wanted to see if I could beat you in chess this time.”
“And I keep telling you, no matter how many times you read the rulebooks, you’re never gonna beat the master,” Hu Tao teased, poking her gently on the tip of the nose. Yanfei pouted. Her heart pumped achingly against her ribs. “I can come by tomorrow though, if you’re that desperate.”
“Wow,” Yanfei said, mock gasping.
Laughing, Hu Tao staggered upwards. She nearly fell on her two left feet, but Yanfei caught her underneath the arms, righting the two of them.
The contact didn’t stop there. Yanfei carefully tilted her chin upwards, forcing her to meet her eyes. Once Yanfei had caught a glimpse of her, she smiled affectionately. Hu Tao didn’t know how strong she could hold herself together. She really didn’t want to find out.
Carefully, and with attentive tenderness, Yanfei brushed her hair out of her face and tucked it gently behind her ear. It was getting harder to breathe by the minute.
“Get home safe, okay?” she said softly. “I’ll kill you myself if you die on the way home before I could beat you in chess.”
“You aren’t gonna walk me home?” Hu Tao said, because she couldn’t help it. She had to ask, even if it hurt to vocalize and act out. “Psh. What kind of knight are you?”
Yanfei puffed out a laugh. “A tired one. I might fall asleep in the streets if I go with you,” she admitted. “But next time. Promise.”
Feebly, she held out her pinky and hooked it with Hu Tao’s. In a land that valued contracts above anything else, it felt more than a silly promise. There was something else to it, she knew, but her chest burned too much with acid that she couldn’t possibly concentrate on it.
She swung her arms over Yanfei in a friendly hug, one that made it slightly easier to breathe, until she was halfway down the street and flowers were beginning to litter the floor with every dozen or so steps.
It would have looked beautiful, had it not been the indication that someone was going home, flowers full in their chest, reminders of unreturned feelings at every cough and hack of the lungs. Hu Tao’s brain was becoming fuzzy in the edges, each flower stuck in her throat successfully rendering her breathless for longer and longer periods of time. She looked almost inebriated with each lazy step to her parlor, but she carried on, hoping that she could live one more day to see Yanfei.
Just one more.
She knew she couldn’t have forever with Yanfei. So what’s one more?
Please. One more.
She vomited azaleas.
Pink, like the color that reminded her so gently of Yanfei. And red, ones that looked much like her eyes. The flowers twisted over each other, taunting her, mocking her. Look, the flowers seemed to say, we’re inseparable. We are requited.
Zhongli didn’t dare utter a word to her first.
“How long do I have?” she asked faintly. Any louder and she would be chained back to her bucket of flowers, retching and vomiting all night long.
He was quick to respond to her. Reliable, as always.
“Days,” he said neutrally. “If not a week.”
A few days.
That was enough, then.
Hu Tao spent the day with her friends.
She gave a new pen to Xingqiu, who thanked her and simply read out their old poetry together. He didn’t ask any of her, or even paused to let her speak, because he knew, by her pale tone and her sluggish movements, that she was running out of time and each word had to be considered heavily. He was the only one, other than Zhongli, who was aware of her situation. It wasn’t by her choice, by any means, he had happened to stumble on her pulling tulips out of her mouth like they were a magician’s tie.
He only gave up convincing her to take Zhongli’s offer when she told him that Yanfei was her butterfly in this life.
Next, she treated Chongyun out for ice cream. He was understandably confused by her state, and even tried to convince her to get some rest, but she was diligent and knew exactly where his weak spots were. She braved the cold only for today, because as much as Chongyun despised hanging out with her alone, she knew that under all those icy layers, he would regret not spending one last day with her.
She gave fermented plum blossoms to Xiangling later in the afternoon. “No scare this time?” Xiangling said sarcastically. Hu Tao shrugged, promising impishly that there might be a next time. Xiangling rolled her eyes at that, but she hugged and thanked Hu Tao all the same and told her to come by next week for a free sample of flower cakes. Hu Tao told her that Zhongli might be the one to take it, not because she didn’t like her cakes, but because she might be busy.
Xiangling shrugged, and sent her off with a jar of prawn dumplings instead. She couldn’t thank the chef enough for it.
She never gave her food to the dogs begging and sniffing her hands as she ate along the pier, but this time she gave in. She petted them a while longer than she ever did, patting them on the stomach and scratching them behind the ears until they whined and closed their eyes to the feeling.
The ghosts of Liyue turned to her more often. Ghosts always had the intuition— they knew when one was close to death. They stared unapologetically at her, some mournfully, some in bewilderment, and some in complete understanding. Hu Tao didn’t care if she looked like a nut waving at the ones who looked at her first.
She planned to go home right after sunset. Instead, her feet carried her to that familiar route, one more distinctively memorized than the way to her own home. Each step forward made the petals in her chest rustle as if there was a biosystem living inside her, circulating wind and life that would ultimately seep her own as a consequence. She stopped in front of Yanfei’s office.
Yanfei was still hard at work, the candle beside her desk illuminating her face in a warm orange hue that danced along the curves of her face.
She looked so beautiful.
Hu Tao thought that she was the most beautiful flower she could ever have the privilege of laying her eyes on. She hoped that she at least cultivated Yanfei’s happiness enough to be meaningful in her life, even if it was only a snapshot of it.
Seeing Yanfei, content and happy being lost in her work, made her realize, truly this time, that everything was worth it. There was no regret in her heart, even if she looked in the deepest, most festered corners.
When she turned, satisfied with one last look, she felt the familiar eyes of a person staring at her in the back of the head. Another sympathetic ghost, maybe.
Her chest felt heavy with bundles of vines and stems by the time she had climbed the stairs of her parlor. The exertion mixed with the load of herbs in her body was proven to drain the very life of her, and she couldn’t possibly imagine carrying on another day like this.
She ripped open the doors with the last of her might, intending to crawl into her bed and sleep, perhaps never to wake up, but if not, then one last journey to her beautiful garden could be her last rest. She wasn’t made for the dramatics, but she did like to have her fun.
Zhongli seemed to appear before her like he was summoned. She blinked sluggishly at him, a greeting on her lips, but he raised a hand to her, sternly telling her to stop.
“Don’t speak,” he commanded, and his voice was so compelling (or that she was simply too tired) that she did as such. “Save your breath, child. Salvage your energy.”
He helped her to the couch. She was nearly leaning on him with all of her strength, though he didn’t seem to mind a single bit. Once she was laid, Zhongli sat beside her. Maybe because she was drained and overtaxed from her day, or because her mind began to play tricks on her, but Hu Tao settled her body flush against his, like a child would with a parent.
She felt so small.
And everything hurt so, so bad.
To her surprise, he chuckled, lowly, and wrapped his arms around her in a consoling manner. Hu Tao could feel his steady breaths rising and lowering against her ear, and she closed her eyes, listening to the whoosh of oxygen going in and out of his body. His easy breaths made her jealous.
“Would you like to hear a poem, Hu Tao?” Zhongli said quietly. “It reminds me a little bit of you, actually.”
Hu Tao thought it over. She nodded against his chest. She could feel a flower bloom harrowingly hard in her chest. It felt like a grapefruit with knives had begun to pulse against her lungs and heart. It took everything in her not to cry out loud. Instead, she pressed her hands to her chest and pushed down, hoping that the action would at least soothe the tiny explosions and bits of pain.
He breathed in deeply, and Hu Tao copied his action.
“When everything has faded they alone shine forth,” he said gently, and his broad voice helped Hu Tao squeeze her eyes shut to concentrate only on that, “encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens.
Their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water,
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk.
Snowbirds look again before they land,
butterflies would faint if they but knew.
Thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse,
I don't need a sounding board or winecup.”
Hu Tao breathed in.
And then she breathed out.
Tears accompanied her second breath inwards, and they fell on her second breath outwards.
She cried, silently, into Zhongli’s chest. He rubbed his hand up and down her arm soothingly, and she could feel the pained stutter of his breath whenever she inhaled particularly loudly, signifying that her hyperventilated cry was nowhere near to drawing its end. She had arranged for him to get the largest pay raise after her death, but she wished now more than ever that she could do more.
For him and for everyone else.
Yet, at the same time, she couldn’t find it in herself to want her situation to go any other way.
Then, while Zhongli rubbed her back meticulously, she croaked out, “I don’t want to get it out.”
“I know, child,” Zhongli said with a low laugh. “You’ve told me about a thousand times.”
“No,” Hu Tao said, her voice hoarse. Every syllable cut her throat open with the pain of voicing her words. “I love her so… much. I don’t want it to go away, Zhongli. I don’t—”
She cried, harder and longer, like the flowers rooting deeper in her lungs.
Zhongli let her.
Loving Yanfei was going to never be a regret in her life. And that she would truly, truly rather die than live a life without knowing and feeling that love Yanfei gave her. She was at ease now, she was convinced of it. But she was also human, and intensely mortal.
Humans were inherently selfish, she knew, and regrets always had roots in them. She just wished, in the next life or the other, that Yanfei would carry a love for her half as much as the flowers growing and twisting around her heart.
“See her one last time,” Zhongli advised. Always the consultant. “Just once more, Hu Tao. Then you can go.”
Hu Tao nodded mutely against his chest.
Thankfully, the gods found the hearts in them to give her one more day to reconcile.
She found herself a bit healthier than yesterday, at least enough to hold an auspicious conversation with Yanfei. At least, that’s what she convinced herself. If not, then she would deal with it. She always did.
To her most utmost surprise, it was Yanfei who had showed up on her doorstep when she opened her doors.
“Oh,” Hu Tao said with a blink. “I was actually going to come see you.”
“Were you?” Yanfei said, handing her a basket of warm treats that smelled deliciously of laughter and whispers over coffee tables and big books of laws. “I’m sorry I dropped by out of nowhere I… I got worried. Yesterday,” she admitted.
“What were you worried about?” Hu Tao asked her noncommittally and ushered her inside to eat. Yanfei didn’t seem even slightly bothered by the dark atmosphere of the parlor.
“Honestly? I’m not sure. I thought I saw you walking down my street yesterday but now I can’t exactly vouch for my own memory,” Yanfei said thoughtfully. Hu Tao dropped the weaved basket on a dining table. “Why do you have a dining table in a funeral parlor?”
“Why not?” Hu Tao retorted.
Yanfei shrugged, laughing. “Can’t argue against that logic.”
They settled into their chairs and began to take out the contents. A brief sweep of her cupboards and there was a ready teapot and its matching tea cups placed gently on the table like royalty. There were biscuits, dumplings, tofu, chicken skewers, and everything in between. Hu Tao would have made a last meal joke had the meal been with anyone but Yanfei.
“Where did you find the time to get all of this?” Hu Tao asked her in disbelief.
Yanfei looked bashful. “Well,” she said helplessly. “I kept going back and forth between the vendors because I didn’t know what you liked better. I know your favorites! I just didn’t know if you’d be craving something else.”
“Ah, a half adeptus after my own heart,” Hu Tao teased. She played with the tassel of Yanfei’s hat, and Yanfei swatted her hand away playfully. The burning sensations in her chest were beginning to simmer under the surface.
“You look lovely today, by the way,” Yanfei said genuinely. She handed Hu Tao a piece of bread. It made Hu Tao’s chest ruffle. Little victories, she supposed.
“You say that, but you look as dazzling as always, Yan,” Hu Tao stated firmly. She passed a tea bag to Yanfei, who smiled warmly at her. She forced herself to still her breath. “You should take up modeling some day.”
“Please,” Yanfei laughed. “These antlers are gonna get stuck in any of the stuffy outfits they give me.”
“Shame,” Hu Tao said, sighing wistfully. Yanfei kicked her ankle.
Their conversation was easy, as it always was. Being Yanfei felt as natural as rain to the soil, cultivating the roots of Teyvat’s plants with sprinkling love and yearning. Perhaps having hanahaki was a blessing after all— it forced her to look at her feelings head on and realize that perhaps, yes, there were things in life that could never be replaced, but that they’d be enough.
Knowing Yanfei in this life like this, for example. That was more than enough.
Her chest bristled with pain. She cracked a knuckle under the table subtly, forcing herself to focus on that instead of the blossoming heat spreading throughout her chest.
Oh, yes, being with Yanfei made her happy, but her disease seemed to mock her with the deepest desires of her heart.
You may be at peace knowing her like this, it seemed to whisper to her, but you are also selfish.
She wanted more. It was why the pain of flowers harvesting in her body hurt thrice as much as any kind of pain, because they served as a reminder that she will die not getting what she wanted, a selfish desire that even she, a mortal in a line of unregretful ancestors, could never resolve on her own. She will die, not once regretting the loving branch she tried to reach out with, but regretting that she never got to see it come into fruition.
Yanfei was in the middle of telling her about a meddlesome client when the pain stabbing against her chest burst into white-hot pain.
It no longer felt as if the flowers were wanting to crawl out of her throat like demons from hell, but they hammered and beat against her very heart as if they wanted to rip her human flesh open instead of waiting for the coughs and heaves that would allay them from her body.
She was conscious enough to hear the ringing in her ears, the muffled tone of concern from Yanfei’s voice. She felt herself beat her chest with a fist, as if it would scare the flowers enough to wither. Then she was coughing, and coughing, and coughing, until it burned and stuck to her throat.
Arms had wrapped over her lower abdomen and squeezed. Her vision burst back into light as the flowers stuck in her throat had been thrown out violently, all over the flower with blood and saliva and curled up buds of the petals.
She wanted to laugh, but nothing came out.
Of course they were silk flowers.
“They can’t be worth this,” Yanfei said to her.
Hu Tao blinked. She didn’t understand those words until they settled into the forefront of her mind, like a petal lying gently on a still river. She let Yanfei help her lean against the table, one arm for support on the polished wood and one hand gently wrapped around the base of her throat, expecting more. There were always more.
When the flowers had settled back into the depths of her lungs, Hu Tao breathed in deep, greedily.
“Of course they’re worth it,” she said with a dry laugh. Yanfei’s hand on her back felt like a hot glove. She didn’t know if she liked it or not. “They’re worth… all of this… and more.” It hurt so much to speak.
“This— this person that you’re vying for,” Yanfei said, the frustration and confusion growing in her tone with each syllable. She sounded angry, but also not quite. “They can’t be worth this, Tao.”
Hu Tao didn’t answer.
“Tao,” Yanfei begged. Hu Tao met her eyes. “Please. Tell me they’re not worth this.”
“You know I can’t lie.”
“How long have you been dealing with this?”
Her sudden question took Hu Tao by surprise. But, she was a lady with answers, so she replied, “Almost three months.” Enough for the winter to become spring.
“Three…” Yanfei gaped at her. There was a sadness in her eyes, so vast and profound that Hu Tao’s eyes began to tear up, both from emotion and the pain harrowing her chest. “Tao… you could die soon. You know that, don’t you? You could die.”
“I got that,” Hu Tao said with a huff for a laugh. “You act like I don’t know anything about this.”
“You might as well don’t!” Yanfei snapped, and Hu Tao was rendered into silence. “You’re dying, Tao. You’re— you haven’t even lived half of your life and you’re okay with this?”
Yes, Hu Tao wanted to tell her. Because it’s you.
“Why? Don’t you know that you could get help?” Yanfei begged her. She didn’t get any of the imploring looks that Hu Tao was giving her. It was beyond frustrating. “They don’t love you back. Why would you put yourself through this?”
There it was.
It stung and cut so much deeper than she could ever hope to anticipate.
“I don’t know,” Hu Tao croaked. “ I just know that I can’t… I can’t erase them.”
“Why?” she pressed.
“Because,” Hu Tao said simply, and she felt another flower begin to shudder in her chest. “Because you looked so beautiful around those flowers. I loved you even back then, and I love you now more than ever. And I know that if I ever tried to taint the love you gave me, I would never forgive myself.”
She didn’t mean to say those things out loud. The flowers made me do it, she wanted to yell childishly.
But all she heard was the sound of Yanfei’s sharp inhale, and the way that her world went dark.
When she awoke, she was lying in a field of fallen plum blossoms.
She jerked upwards when she realized, a hand clutched to her heart and despair clinging to her body. Had she died, already?
She never meant to tell Yanfei.
Her words came out in a whirlwind, in a selfish storm that wrecked the soil and uprooted the trees. She had made a vow to herself to never say a word, because it would only cause twice the suffering that she never meant to make. But now that it was out, now that Yanfei knew— what did it mean for her? Was she a ghost, forever chained to the land of the living in a fruitless attempt to redeem her life’s regrets? How unexpected that for seventy seven generations, regrets had been left untouched, until she gave into her own selfish whims.
She turned and blinked. And there was Yanfei, looking as beautiful as ever. The light around them signified that it was spring’s afternoon, bright and beaming light to the face of someone she loved and kept so dearly to her heart. Maybe the afterlife wasn’t so bad if it let her indulge in these dreams.
“I think you look beautiful,” she mumbled, feeling Yanfei’s hand slip gently into hers. She bumped her forehead gently against Yanfei’s, closing her eyes and letting herself drink hopelessly into her greed. “I love you.”
There were no more repercussions for this, she knew.
So why did her chest hurt so— damn— much?
“Tao,” Yanfei said softly. Then she inhaled, deep and long, and Hu Tao realized that this dream Yanfei was crying. “Tao, you idiot, you dummy…”
“Now that’s not nice,” she teased, fluttering her eyes open.
Yanfei was crying freely, sobs racking her chest so hard that Hu Tao leaned back in shock, watching her beloved cry and cry until it looked like she couldn’t breathe.
There was blood in the corner of her mouth. Hu Tao took a thumb and wiped it away for her, and Yanfei’s fingers curled around the inside of her wrist, holding it stagnant to her face. Their eyes met, and Hu Tao realized that even in agony, Yanfei could make her say or do anything.
“I have it too,” Yanfei finally said, and her words were so quiet that it almost got lost to the rustle of the flowers around them.
Hu Tao’s chest crushed with the implications.
She couldn’t leave this place then. Yanfei may not love her back, but Yanfei loved another. She couldn’t let Yanfei die without closure, or without letting her rest. What kind of person would she be if she did that? She had to stay.
“Madame Ping had been giving me this— this special kind of adepti tea for hanahaki. It’s not a permanent solution, but it helped with most of the pain,” Yanfei continued, and she continued to blink away the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “There was a permanent solution, but she said that it would— I didn’t want it. My father always told me to live my life happily, and I would never be truly happy if I just let myself forget the things you made me feel.”
Hu Tao let her words process. When she breathed it in, she felt like the flowers were beginning to dissipate. They dried up in her chest.
“Every time,” Yanfei said, her words taking on an edge of frustration, “every time you were with me, it hurt so bad, Tao. Every time you made me laugh or you held me or you were just you, I wanted so badly to lean forward and throw up. It hurt so much but you made me so happy and at— at peace, I didn’t know what else I could do besides bear it. For you."
Hu Tao blinked back her tears. The fallen plum blossoms around them were swirling together, farther and farther away from where they were on the ground. She recognized where she was, finally. Her garden, full of flowers and the nature she lost herself in. She wondered if her love for Yanfei had grown so large that the vastness of it was thanks to the expanse of her love.
“Why did you try so hard to get me to stop?” Hu Tao asked her. “When you knew you were going to die too?”
Yanfei shook her head, her eyes reflecting a silent irony. She let Hu Tao’s hand drop from her cheek, though their fingers were still intertwined, like vines on a wall. “I’m half adeptus. Adepti can’t die to hanahaki.” She took a shuddering deep breath in, and Hu Tao could almost hear her flowers beginning to wither in her lungs. She almost cried out. “But we still feel the pain of it.”
She was more than ready to bear with it for the rest of her life, for eternity.
Hu Tao was ready to die for her love, but Yanfei was ready to live with the pain for it.
She could only imagine Yanfei, nights alone by herself, tea in her hand and a trash can full of red plum blossoms. Flower after flower, a never ending stream of plum blossoms that represented the perseverance of her love. Oh, the pain and the suffering. Yanfei never once complained about it.
Because she loved Hu Tao in the same way Hu Tao loved growing the plum blossoms in her garden, tending to them with kind, gentle hands.
Perhaps this time, instead of letting those flowers destroy them from the inside, they could come into this garden and cultivate them together, letting the red and pink blossom and curl into each other like lovers that had been so graciously amended to one another.
When Hu Tao took hold of both sides of her face and kissed her with the ardor and sincerity she had all but dreamed of (and Yanfei wasn’t just kissing her back, but was kissing her with every inch of love that reflected off of her), the flowers in her chest blew away in the breeze.
She took her first easy breath in months, her forehead pressed lightly against Yanfei’s.
“I love you too,” Yanfei said, affection glazing every corner of her words, “for the record.”
When Hu Tao smiled, her laughter carrying in the wind, she could taste the faintness of plum blossoms on her lips.