The shiny black and red business card laid on Yanfei’s lap as the cab zig-zagged through the streets of Liyue. She had her hand propped up next to the window, the buzz of the engine shaking her awake and forcing her to keep her mind lassoed in.
Once the cab driver announced that their arrival was only around the corner, Yanfei adjusted herself on her seat, dusted off her skirt, and took one last look at the business card. She squinted at it.
The Wangsheng Funeral Parlor was printed in all black font on the matte red slip of paper, and their address and business contact was found just underneath.
The cab pulled up to the curb. After a quick flick from the building and the card in her hand, Yanfei slipped it into a pocket and thanked the driver before opening the car door to meet her client.
Instantly, the smell of fresh air and citrus filled her nose, and she looked back and forth to realize that subtle rainbows had formed in the sky due to the open grass sprinklers. Its homey atmosphere was clashed by the antique-looking building she stood in front of. Its namesake was painted in big letters above its double doors, and pillars held up the roof in a way that reminded Yanfei of pictures in her high school history class.
She took a deep breath and psyched herself up, then walked through the doors with the steady click of her heels.
There was no other way to describe the inside of the funeral home other than cold. She could hear the air conditioner running somewhere in the background, and there were two ladies sitting in waiting chairs in a reception area that both looked as if they didn’t want to be there.
Yanfei did a full 360 of her area, looking back and forth between every door. There wasn’t another soul there except for her and the obvious grieving ladies, and she wondered if she had come during bad hours. Or, horrifically, she realized, during a funeral.
“Yo!” called a cheery voice, and Yanfei turned her head enough to see a young lady appear by her side. She almost yelped. “Are you a new client? Or are you here just to look at our new selection of coffins? We got a new batch just yesterday!”
Immediately, Yanfei dismissed her as the funeral director of the building. No one would talk to potential clients in that way, she reasoned, all cheery and eccentric.
But then she noticed that this woman fit her client’s description perfectly, not to mention that her voice was quite familiar from over the phone. If that wasn’t enough to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, the woman had a name tag on her coat that spelled out Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor in broad strokes.
“Oh! You must be Hu Tao,” Yanfei said eagerly. She stuck out her hand in greeting, and Hu Tao took it without another word. “My name is Yanfei, top criminal defense lawyer in Liyue. We spoke over the phone the other day?”
“I definitely remember,” Hu Tao said with a grin, and she bobbed her head in agreement. Her hand was incredibly warm. “Your voice matches your looks,” she added.
Yanfei laughed a little at that, if not a bit in confusion. “Do I?”
“Yep.” Hu Tao bobbed her head again. “Pretty and nice.”
She was used to getting compliments from her clients before. They usually sweet-talked her every chance they could, all in hopes that perhaps getting into her good graces meant she would give them a discount on her services. They never worked though, but Yanfei never said anything, just to keep the steady flow of chocolates and compliments and gifts in her office going. As, well, just as a little tip for herself.
But somehow Hu Tao’s big smile told her that her intention wasn’t anything of the sort.
It made her smile back.
“You aren’t too shabby yourself,” Yanfei teased, and the remark made Hu Tao laugh. “Do you have somewhere more private we can chat in? I think you’d be more comfortable if we talked about this somewhere else.”
Or, in other words: Those ladies have been glaring at us from the corner of their eyes ever since you came up to me, and I think we should probably go before they think we’re crazy.
“Sure! I have an office just down the hall where clients, future or not, aren’t allowed to come in,” Hu Tao told her proudly. She nodded to the hallway where it lied and led the both of them towards it. It was generously lit, reminding Yanfei of gothic households that relied only on candlelight. She had to admit, though, that the lighting fit the atmosphere of the funeral home.
Once they entered, Yanfei set down her leather briefcase on the table, opening the latch and sorting through the papers within. Hu Tao sat across from her, getting herself comfortable and watching Yanfei thumb through her things with a curious eye. Yanfei could see her fiddling with her thumbs on the table.
“No need to be nervous, you know,” she spoke up conversationally. She spread the papers on the desk, and then looked up at Hu Tao to smile at her encouragingly. “I’m confident you’ll win this case.”
“Oh, I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs because I was nervous,” Hu Tao insisted. She kept fidgeting as she spoke. “It’s just something I do to pass the time.”
“You’re an interesting person,” Yanfei said to her. Not to insult her, not in any way, but to point out what had been in her mind the entire five minutes they were together— Hu Tao was an eccentric individual, even just from her presence alone, and Yanfei found herself somehow liking that.
Hu Tao smiled, then shrugged, at that. “I tend to get that a lot.”
“In any case,” Yanfei said, clearing her throat. She paused, holding up her papers, then laughed a little to herself and added, “No pun intended.”
“Smart, pretty, and funny,” Hu Tao exclaimed. “You really are a triple threat!”
Yanfei shook her head at that. “I haven’t even gone over your case and you’re charming your lawyer. You really know your way around a business.”
“I didn’t inherit this place at thirteen to be subpar at it, Miss Yanfei,” Hu Tao told her with a grin.
Yanfei couldn’t tell if that was a joke or not. As much as she wanted to ask, she knew she had to continue, or risk herself coming in late to her next appointment. “First off, have you ever done this before?”
“You mean be convicted of a crime?” Hu Tao asked her. Before Yanfei could confirm, she said, “I mean, you’ve probably heard allegations and rumors about the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor and its ‘shady’ business on the side, but that’s as close as I’ll ever get to this.” She waved her hand vaguely at Yanfei’s papers.
Yanfei nodded along to that, running a finger through the names on her reports. She’s heard of those rumors, of course. Being the biggest funeral home in the nation was bound to have its jealous, gossip-spreading competitors. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she could somehow get Hu Tao to hire again to defend her against allegations like that, but that was for another day, she supposed. One thing at a time.
“I meant if you were counseled by a defense lawyer before,” Yanfei said in amusement, and Hu Tao’s mouth opened in a little ‘o’. “But you pretty much answered my question anyhow. I’ll just give you a quick rundown of what your situation looks like, and I’ll give you your options on how you want us to proceed.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hu Tao chirped.
Yanfei nodded at that, and she tucked her chair closer to the desk to speak. “You’re being charged with negligence. Or, more specifically, willful blindness or ignorance of law— it’s pretty much like saying you, my client, was ‘turning a blind eye’ to the crime.”
“The crime being murder, right?” Hu Tao asked her. “They think I just let one of my guys murder someone in the preparation room and didn’t tell anyone else about it. Eugh.”
She would have been put off by how easily those words came out of her mouth had it not been for the smile on Hu Tao’s face. She was only asking. “First degree murder by one of your undertakers here, yes. Because I believe your charge can be dropped due to an insufficient amount of evidence, I really don’t think you have to worry about anything. At the very least, I could help you plead for a smaller fine, but I don’t think you’d be facing jail time for the things you’ve allegedly done. Or, in this case, technically, not done.”
Hu Tao tilted her head at her, seeming to be a little confused.
“Is something wrong?” Yanfei asked her. “If you’re confused about anything, I’m more than happy to elaborate.”
“You explained everything perfectly,” Hu Tao assured her. “But do I seem that worried to you?”
Yanfei paused at that. “Well, not especially. But I understand that these situations could stress people out, so if you need me to refer to you to someone you can talk to, or—”
“I’m not worried,” Hu Tao told her simply.
Yanfei blinked. “You— you aren’t?” She didn't know why she was so surprised. Hu Tao didn’t look bothered by anything she was saying in the slightes, which was honestly more impressive than anything else. If she were in Hu Tao’s shoes, she would’ve been freaking out and tossing and turning all night long.
“Why would I be?” Hu Tao asked her. She flashed her a smile. “I have a pretty lady for a lawyer who’s probably going to charm everyone in the courtroom before she even says anything.”
The warmth that crept underneath her collar spread faster than she could stop it. “You’re a lot flirtier than what I imagined a funeral director to be, Hu Tao,” she joked. She adjusted her collar under the guise that it wasn’t sitting right, but mostly it was to let out the heat.
“People imagine me to be lots of things I’m not,” Hu Tao responded. She was fiddling with her thumbs again. “So! You were saying.”
“What was I—? Oh, right!” Yanfei shook her head to clear it of the jumbled thoughts. She was at work— she needed to be more professional. “I’ll have more details about your case in the upcoming week, but for now, I really don’t have much to say to you other than that I’m positive you’ll get out of this without a criminal record on your hands. Do you want to meet me in my office next time, or should I come back here?”
Hu Tao merely smiled at that. “Actually… how do you feel about coffee? We could grab some the next time we meet.”
Yanfei didn’t really like coffee as much. Plus, she was almost certain that meeting in other places besides licensed enterprises was unprofessional.
But, instead of vocalizing that, her lips formed the words, “I love coffee.”
Exactly two days after that exchange, Yanfei found herself sitting outside next to a coffee shop about fifteen minutes away from her office. She was scrolling through her texts and refreshing them every now and then in case she missed one, sighing as stirred her iced coffee. Hu Tao wasn’t there yet.
Granted, she was ten minutes early and the shop had just opened, but still.
When her drink was three-quarters drained the sun was almost beating itself directly into her eyes despite the long shade above her, flowers were shoved into her face.
She almost sneezed, and Hu Tao laughed while she retracted them away from her face. Pulling out the chair across from her, she said, “I hope I haven’t been keeping you long.”
“Not really,” Yanfei assured her, then her eyes landed on the things Hu Tao put on the table. A bouquet, for one thing, with assortments of hyacinths and lisianthuses and other colorful assortments that she vaguely recognized from seeing them in her grandmother’s garden. All she knew was that it looked quite beautiful. In fact, it was much more dazzling than any kind of bouquet anyone has ever given her, and that went for any of her dates or clients. “Are you going on a date after this?” she asked kindly. “They’re pretty lucky if that’s the bouquet you’re giving them.”
“Silly, they’re for you!” Hu Tao pushed the bunched flowers closer to her side and grinned. The iced coffee in her stomach was making it feel all tumbly. “It’s a thank you gift, for helping me out with this and all. And before you ask— they’re not bargaining chips. A token of my appreciation is all it is.”
Yanfei pinched one of the petals. They still felt smooth underneath the pads of her fingers. “Well, thank you for the heads up,” she said with a giggle. The pink flowers caught her eyes the most, and it made her feel all warm inside at the sight of them. If this was Hu Tao’s ploy to get a discount or a cheaper rate, she was on the right track, in all honesty. “Where did you even get these? They’re more beautiful than any bouquet I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“You think so?” Hu Tao preened at that. She leaned over to look at the flowers Yanfei was admiring. “Being a funeral director means more than just dressing up the dead. We’re in charge of handling financials, merchandise— if you’ll believe me— and most importantly, organization and presentation. I’m pretty sure I know more than anyone else where to get the best flowers and gifts in town.”
“That didn’t really answer my question,” she said with a huff.
Hu Tao laughed at that. She does that thing when she laughed— scrunched up her shoulders and closed her eyes. It made her seem less mortician-y and more… human. More than human, maybe. Whatever it was, it made Yanfei conscious of the heart beating in her chest.
“I can’t tell you that, Yan,” she said vaguely. She put a finger up to her lips. “How else am I going to surprise you with other things?”
Smooth, she commented in her head.
“Did you have any questions you wanted to ask me before we start?” she said, and the words came out of her mouth without really thinking about it. She must have said them about a thousand times by now. And, she really didn’t know what else to say in response to Hu Tao. She was afraid she would’ve embarrassed herself.
Hu Tao looked like she was about to shake her head. She paused, then rethought about it. “Have you tried the tofu here? They put it on their menu recently.”
Yanfei blinked at that. “They have tofu?” She tried to keep her voice neutral, even if some of the excitement seeped into it.
Hu Tao knew she had her hook, line, and sinker with that. She smiled, then twisted her body around to wave over a waitress. She ordered some tofu and a drink to pair with it before Yanfei could begin to open her mouth, then thanked the waitress.
“The tofu’s for you,” Hu Tao told her. “I like playing pranks on people, but not when it comes to food. That’s off-limits for me.”
Yanfei suppressed a smile at that. “Good to know that even prankster morticians have their moral high horses,” she teased, and Hu Tao did nothing but lift her hands up in surrender. “I’m still paying for it, though.”
“Nu-uh.” Hu Tao clicked her tongue. “I come here often. They’ll just put it on my tab. So, thankfully for you, we don’t have to brawl it out for the check.”
“You’re so weird, Hu Tao,” she said, and again, as an observation.
“Oh, you think so now, but wait until I tell you about the time I was embalming this guy after three am and there was only me and this one other employee,” Hu Tao began, seeming to perk up after Yanfei’s comment.
Yanfei’s interest was piqued. However, she also knew that they weren’t just here to chat. “I’d love to hear more about it, but I’m only here to talk to you about your case,” she said, a little mournfully.
Hu Tao didn’t seem to deflate at that in the slightest. “Talk my ear off then,” she invited. “There’s plenty more chances I’ll get to tell you about it. Plus, the sooner we get this case wrapped up, the sooner people stop thinking I was the second murderer.”
Even though she laughed, Yanfei couldn’t help but be put off by that. “What do you mean?”
“Eh, conspiracy theories and all,” Hu Tao said dismissively. She provided no other details.
Still, Yanfei was a bit perturbed. Hu Tao didn’t seem to want to talk further about it, so she respected her silent wishes and gestured as she spoke about the new developments in her case. Thankfully, none of it was enough to shake her confidence about getting her client out of there without a scratch.
Other people were turning to look at them as they passed by on the street. They whispered to one another, and she noticed that some were shooting them, or her specifically, envious looks.
They all probably thought that she and Hu Tao were on a coffee date, not meeting up to talk about murder and criminal charges.
It was nice to think it was the other way around, though.
Two hours and two servings of iced coffee in her veins, Yanfei was finally back at her office.
She sat down at her desk and began typing away, until she got a silent tap on her shoulder and was pulled out of her daydreams.
Ganyu, one of her friends, looked down at where she sat with a smile. “You seemed to have a good morning,” she mused.
“Tell me about it.” Yanfei said, grinning at her words. “I went out to get some coffee.”
Ganyu tilted her head in confusion. “But you don’t like coffee?”
“And I thought you were supposed to meet with that mortician this morning? The guilty one?”
“Well, I did,” she answered cryptidly. “And she’s not guilty. She’s just a bit eccentric on the side, but she’s actually very—”
“Who are these from?” Ganyu’s attention was quickly averted to the flowers on the corner of her desk, and Yanfei was quick to swat her hands away. It was probably a ploy in making sure she didn’t ramble on again. “They’re a lot prettier than any of the bouquets I’ve seen your clients give you.”
“They’re just from a friend,” Yanfei told her quickly. She didn’t know why Ganyu was being so nosey all of a sudden.
She seemed more interested now than ever. “Friend? Not a client? Or date?”
“Ganyu,” she groaned.
“I’m just looking out for you,” Ganyu insisted. She leaned to look at the flowers again, smiling at the sight of them. “But, it seems like I don’t really have to. They must really want to be with you if they’re this intricate. You know, Keqing got me something similar to this last week, and it cost nearly half her paycheck.
Ganyu laughed, pulling away from the flowers.
Once she left, and Yanfei verified that with a quick look around her office area, she slumped in her seat and touched the flowers.
She smiled at them.
Just then, her phone vibrated with a text.
She dreamt of kissing Hu Tao that night.
She’d pull back, only to see red spots at the corner of her lover’s mouth, one that looked too familiar from decades of looking at crime scenes and studying blood marks. Yanfei would wipe it away, and kiss her again.
Hu Tao would thank her in her dream in between their kisses about a dozen times that night, declaring her gratefulness for Yanfei’s willingness to cover for her.
To protect her.
She didn’t know why she was so eager to say yes to visiting the funeral home with Hu Tao.
Maybe it was because it gave her a chance to better know her client (counterpoint: she didn’t really need to know her clients), or because she didn’t have any plans (counterpoint: she most definitely did, and it was an awkward conversation with her friends to cancel), or simply because she wanted to (counterpoint: and her motive was?).
She pursed her lips while Hu Tao gestured around the display room. She should really stop arguing with herself in her own head.
She really had no reason to be in the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. It wasn’t to talk about their case or so she could shop a casket for Granny (though, well, she could argue that she was getting ahead), but only simply because Hu Tao wanted to know if she was free so she could show her around.
Looking back on it, she didn’t really understand why Hu Tao wanted her to see the funeral home so much, considering it was just a funeral home, but it was a little too late to back out now.
“You’ve probably seen this place out on display in the windows,” Hu Tao told her. She pointed at the caskets advertised all around the room. There were shelves and shelves full of them, as well as flower arrangements and liners. Yanfei came up to a mahogany casket to look at it closer.
Hu Tao came up beside her. The proximity was enough to make her shiver, but she didn’t know if it was due to Hu Tao herself or the complex atmosphere of the room.
“If you really wanted to take a look at a casket, I probably wouldn’t suggest these,” Hu Tao hummed. Her hands were behind her back, and perhaps from a distance, it would look as if the funeral director was showing around a client. But, then again, how close they were seemed to indicate a more obscure tint to the vision. “The caskets on display are our most expensive ones. If you wanted something cheaper, you could take a look at our catalog online, or order one through the front desk.”
“I can’t just ask you for a discount?” Yanfei asked her jokingly. She walked slowly up to another casket, one that was polished into a natural wooden color. “I mean, I’m saving your butt and your career out there. The least you can do is give me like thirty percent off on a casket. Or, forty, as a tip.”
“Well, that wouldn’t be fair now, wouldn’t it?” Hu Tao retorted, and she stuck out her tongue. “I can’t get a discount with you, so you can’t get one with me.”
Yanfei rolled her eyes. “I won’t be needing one for a while, anyway.”
Hu Tao’s playful demeanor almost seemed to extinguish with that, very, very slowly. “You never know,” she said carefully, and the smoothness of her tone made Yanfei turn to look at her in curiosity. “I’ve buried more young folk than people realize, and they’re usually the ones who had the most to be looking forward to.”
“I guess you’re right,” Yanfei agreed.
It was like getting cold water poured over her head. Hu Tao’s cheerful disposition and her tendency to joke while she led Yanfei through the hallways of the funeral home didn’t make her understand the true gravity of where she was.
She was in a funeral home. There was a big chance that across from them, there was a family in mourning while Hu Tao’s employees comforted them and helped them prepare to say goodbye.
She’d be here one day too. Cheery, bright Hu Tao would be as well.
As if sensing her shift in mood, Hu Tao poked her side, making her jump. “Don’t look so glum, Yanyan,” she said, and it was as if her demeanor had done a full 180. She was joking around again. “It’s just a part of life! I’m sure the ghosts here wouldn't want you to look so sad about it.”
Yanfei’s eyebrows jumped up. “There’s ghosts here?”
Hu Tao looked at her a little weirdly. “It’s a funeral home. There’s ghosts everywhere, even outside of this place.” Not elaborating further, she took hold of Yanfei’s hand and tugged her into another room. “I should show you the reception room. We got it renovated last year, so we have audio systems all around the room, plus some new things installed that I almost wish we could exhume the people we buried to see it so they wouldn't be jealous of the newer clients.”
Yanfei almost didn’t catch the last half of her sentence. She was too busy looking at a closed door, one that was painted white and stuck out like a sore thumb from around the rest of the interior.
It was slightly ajar, and she mistook some of Hu Tao’s lively words as an invitation to open it, but once her fingers wrapped around the clean, pristine-looking knob, the door clicked shut.
Slightly above her was Hu Tao’s hand, still pressed firmly against the door.
“That’s the preparation room,” Hu Tao said, and her voice was a coating of calmness. Yanfei took a step back from it in apology. “They’re preparing someone in it right now.”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize,” Yanfei told her sincerely. She racked her mind for a while to apologize.
Hu Tao’s hand came off the door, and she jutted her head away from it so they could walk away. She continued to lead them out of the hallway while she spoke, and a ghostly smile was on her face. It comforted her, somehow.
Again, her more serious behavior came out. There was really no visible change to her, and she still spoke to Yanfei lightly with bright eyes, but Yanfei could almost feel how much her demeanor changed. It wasn’t cold, nor unnerving— it was soothing, in a way.
“I’m not mad at you, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Hu Tao said with a giggle. “I just didn’t want you to see anything in there, in case you were a wimp.”
“I’m not—” Yanfei argued weakly. She exhaled, and Hu Tao laughed a bit more.
“Mostly, I wanted to give the dead some respect. I make sure to knock it into all of my undertakers’ heads that they have to be considerate when handling any of our clients, both the ones who are dead and alive.” Hu Tao looked into the mirrored wall, displaying the private body viewing of a person who looked comfortable and serene. “The least I can do is give them privacy and time to be cleaned up before anyone else can see them.”
Yanfei didn’t know what else to say to that.
“Oh!” Hu Tao turned her head to look at her, her bright eyes glittering with something akin to joy. “Did you know the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor only used to bury and dress people with important names?”
Yanfei was proud to tell her, “I did, actually. I read it in your brochure.”
Her afternoon spent looking at the funeral home’s brochure in public wasn’t left in vain when Hu Tao’s smile got that much wider. “Then you know we don’t do that anymore,” Hu Tao, and there was a wisp of pride in her voice, “and if a person didn’t have the expenses needed to cover the cost of a loved one’s funeral, there were more often than not, an anonymous donation made to the funeral home in their name.”
And Hu Tao winked at her.
She looked so at peace in her funeral home. It was clear that she loved her job as much as anyone could. While Yanfei strove to counsel the lives of the innocent and to help them lead lives that were greater than the ones being accused upon them, Hu Tao helped the aftermath, no matter what form they came in.
“Why did you invite me here?” Yanfei blurted.
Hu Tao looked over her shoulder at her. “I thought it was obvious?”
There were many reasons for things like this, ones that were most likely not obvious. Did Hu Tao want to show her the beauty of death? Did Hu Tao want to show her that a funeral home was more than a taboo place to stay in? Did Hu Tao bring her here so she could emphasize with her line of work, and realize that morticians weren’t morbid people who were desensitized to death, and were rather the opposite?
Maybe somehow she knew that Yanfei was defending her even outside of the courtroom, when she’d pass by her coworkers and friends who whispered with rumors about the funeral director who was more involved in a heartless murder than anyone thought. So—
“Not… exactly?” Yanfei said uncertainly.
Hu Tao’s lips curled at that. “I just wanted to spend time with you.”
“Is that really your type?” Eula asked her, almost in disbelief. “You told me quite the opposite the last time you told me about the kind of women you liked.”
“I mean,” Yanfei said with a laugh. She twirled her straw around in her smoothie. “It’s the complete opposite. I still like women with a sense of humor and who can have fun with me, but I also like it if they have a… funereal side.”
“Is that even a word?” Eula remarked.
Ignoring her, Yanfei waved her hand. “You know, as in serious. Thoughtful. Someone who can probably write me poetry in a night and show it to me the next morning.”
Eula shook her head at that. “Where would you ever find a woman like that?” she asked. “If you want someone who could joke around with you, date a clown. If you want someone who’s all gloomy, then date a mortician. You can’t have both.”
Yanfei laughed at that. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll be late for work.”
“I’ll come with you,” Eula said. She cleared her throat and said again, “For vengeance over buying me my tea.”
“Sure, Eula,” Yanfei replied happily.
They walked down the streets of Liyue together, and again were the whispers of the funeral director’s upcoming case passing by her like a ghost in the wind.
She squeezed her cup so hard she made an indent, and Eula chided her for it.
“I just don’t get it!” Yanfei hissed. “They’re all making it harder than it has to be for her. She’s innocent.”
“You think everyone is innocent unless proven,” Eula pointed out. “That’s your whole—” She waved her hand around, “—shtick.”
“Well, yeah, but she’s doubly innocent,” Yanfei said proudly.
Eula raised a perfectly arched eyebrow at her. “And how would you know that? You have hardly enough substance for her case as of now.”
Yanfei fumbled for a word. “She just is!”
Even Eula was taken aback by her defensiveness. She had anything to say about it, she rethought it, and just shut her mouth to shake her head. “If you say so.”
At her desk, with her thoughts finally filing themselves into organized lines, Yanfei felt a little embarrassed. She didn’t know why she was so defensive over it.
In fact, the emails being sent to her were piling against Hu Tao more and more. Some even insulated new charges, ones that made her skin crawl and her fingertips feel as if they were dipped in cold water. Accessory to murder and first degree were popular keywords on her monitor.
But every time she saw them, she merely clicked out of her window, slumped against her seat, and wrote a quick text to say hello to Hu Tao, citing that it was her break.
Ironic, wasn’t it, to be turning a blind eye to the client who was purportedly turning a blind eye herself?
“Hu Tao,” she said.
Hu Tao turned to look at her, tilting her head and assessing the way Yanfei fidgeted with her fingernails. “Did I do something?” she asked curiously. “You sound like you’re about to tell me you accidentally blew up the cemetery.”
Yanfei laughed at that. It sounded despondent, even to her. “Not exactly.”
“What’s wrong?” Hu Tao asked, and she walked up to Yanfei and hopped up on the railing she was leaning against. They were in the middle of the park, taking a walk under the pretense of taking a break together, but Yanfei couldn’t even lie to herself about that.
“They’re not just accusing you of negligence, Hu Tao,” Yanfei told her. She didn’t know how else to break it to her other than straight out. “They think that you’re an accessory to murder. Or that you helped murder the man too.”
Hu Tao scrunched her nose. “I thought those were just rumors from old ladies who got too bored during tea time?”
“I thought so too. I still do!” Yanfei said quickly. “But they’re citing new evidence found at the crime scene. And with his autopsy.”
Hu Tao, much to her complete surprise, didn’t look as panicked as she thought she would be. “So, what do I do?”
Yanfei gaped at her.
“What?” Hu Tao looked behind her, then back at her. “Did I do something?”
“Nothing, just—” Yanfei inhaled, then tilted her chin up to the sky. Then back at Hu Tao. “I thought you’d be a bit more… stressed, with this? I know I would. I mean, I already am.”
Hu Tao made a vague gesture. “Well,” she began, and she worried her lip to think of something to say. “I trust you,” she then said simply, and looked up to look Yanfei in the eyes. “You know the best way to go about this, so I trust you. What do I have to do?”
Yanfei felt her heart hammer. She wished someone could take a sledgehammer now and hit her right in the chest. “You should confess,” Yanfei told her. “We can take a plea bargain if you do. At least that way, you don’t have to go through—”
“I like you.”
“Tao, this isn’t a joke,” Yanfei said impatiently. “If you plead guilty, and confess, even if—”
“And I am. Right now,” Hu Tao told her. She hopped off the railing to look at her. “I like you.”
“Tao,” she begged. “You can’t be joking right now. If you just—”
“I’m not joking. Do you really think I’d joke about that?” Hu Tao asked her. Her hand relaxed on the railing next to Yanfei. She was so close that Yanfei could count the tiny petal-like shines in her eyes. “I really like you.”
Yanfei felt like she couldn’t breathe. “Repeat that?”
And Hu Tao merely smiled. “I like you.”
That was how she found herself in Hu Tao’s office later in the afternoon, missed calls from her friends buzzing in her pocket and a prototype casket lid smooth on her back. The air conditioner bit her skin, she was cold, the smell of awful embalming fluid was still up her nose, but Hu Tao’s kiss couldn’t be any more perfect.
Her lips were warm, and vitalized every part of her skin where Hu Tao’s hands laid.
She felt more alive in the back of the funeral home than any day of her life.
“I hope you know that kissing your defense lawyer doesn’t mean you get a discount,” Yanfei teased, and her head still felt light from being kissed right out of her soul.
Hu Tao laughed at that, then pouted, and said, “Well, if that’s right, you’re still getting a discount here. You can call it insurance.”
Yanfei furrowed her brow. “What for?”
“For stealing my heart!” Hu Tao exclaimed. “Do you know how hard those are to sew up for a funeral?”
Yanfei kissed her again, just to keep her from talking.
If cloud nine was a real place, she was sure she was on it. And if she was dead, then so be it.
Every part of her body was giddy as ever, and not even the disputes she had to go through the week was enough to tamper with her good mood. Her friends grilled her for details about her sudden glee, but Yanfei’s lips were sealed tighter than they ever were before.
Though they mutually agreed to keep their relationships under wraps and professional until Hu Tao’s proceedings were over, just knowing that dates and late night calls and bouquets on her front porch were waiting for her on the other side was enough for her to march on those clouds.
She’s heard of everyone dying with regrets before, but she bet that this was the closest she would ever get to be content with everything in life.
Well. Not until she fulfilled her spa day itinerary with Hu Tao the day after her proceedings.
She typed away at her computer, humming to herself and bringing her coffee to her lips. Hu Tao had treated her to the coffee shop that was near her office, and the caffeine and her giddiness clashed to make the happiest she could be. Not even the distinct arguments in the other room could dampen how much her mind swirled with Hu Tao.
Who was currently being charged with second degree murder.
She stared at her screen.
Second degree murder. Robbery. Fraud. Negligence causing bodily harm. Negligence causing death.
How could so many charges be stacked like that, one by one, as if Hu Tao hadn’t been massaging her hand over breakfast and kissing it with the gentlest of looks. Could a person with the most delicate way of loving be capable of things like this?
She thought back to everyone around her who had been telling her that Hu Tao was giving them weird vibes. She thought back to the looks, the glares, the whispers of the others, the way Hu Tao kissed her goodnight before bringing her home after a particularly late meeting, the way her voice would scratch after rambling on about how kind the funeral director could be, despite every rumor and thing stacked against her.
Who was she kidding?
She made a vow to Liyue that she would never lie before the eyes of the law, and a promise to her parents that she would never lie to herself.
Yanfei leaned back from her monitor, looked at it one more time, and picked up the phone.
Another dream of Hu Tao plagued her that night.
She helped wash off the blood from Hu Tao’s hands, scrubbing hard and staining her fingernails with hues of red. Her fingers ached with the hard pressure she put on Hu Tao’s palms to scrub it away from all evidence.
And Hu Tao would grab both sides of her face and kiss her senseless afterwards, thanking her for everything she’s done to protect her from the law.
When Yanfei gazed into the mirror, red handprints were on both sides of her face.
She only agreed to meet Hu Tao at her funeral home as a courtesy. Nothing else.
The sprinklers and the rainbows greeted her the moment she stepped foot out of her vehicle, but even the familiar, frozen greeting did nothing to quelch the unease in her stomach. For once, the sight of the funeral home made her queasy, and it almost made her feel guilty, somehow.
Once Hu Tao had caught sight of her, her grin had vanished on her face. As oddball she let herself be, funeral directors knew grief on a person’s face when they saw it.
She led them into her office without another word. There was no comment, jab, or joke she could make while taking them there, and not even the warm tofu sitting on the corner of her desk would let Yanfei crack a smile.
When Yanfei took a deep breath and told her of those charges, Hu Tao bore no shock.
She didn’t know why it rubbed her in such a wrong way. “Hu Tao,” she said stiffly, and began to shuffle through her papers. “I know this may seem like a joke to you, but you could lose everything if you don’t cooperate with me. Guilty or not, I’m not the one who’s holding the gavel, so I don’t care if you want to confess that to me or—”
“But I’m not.” Hu Tao blinked. Her facial features morphed into something close to surprise, for once. “Guilty, I mean. Yan, you know that right?”
Yanfei swallowed the burn in her throat. “As I said, I’m here to counsel you through the legal portions of your trial. I’m not at the liberty to—”
“Yan.” Hu Tao looked almost bewildered by her words. Yanfei had never seen her look so confused before— not even when she’d gone off the deep end and rambled off at least a thesaurus worth of legal terms, or when she spent hours talking to Hu Tao about the complexities of her favorite detective films on a rock solid bed that Tao was convinced was good for their back. “You know that I’m innocent. Right?”
Yanfei put her hand on her lap, out of her sight. Her nail dug painfully into her palm. “I’m your defense lawyer, Hu Tao. I’m your legal counsel, your advisor, nothing more. You can’t ask me things like that. It won’t mean anything to the case.”
“To the case,” Hu Tao repeated. “But how about you?”
Yanfei took a deep breath. She hoped it didn’t sound as shuddered as she felt. “A plea bargain is the best we can hope for right now. If you want, we can try to get it as low as possible, but I can’t guarantee if you—”
“I don’t care.” Hu Tao’s face scrunched up. She looked disgusted. “If you want me to tell them I’m guilty, okay. I’ll tell them everything you want me to say to them, word for word, but— do you really think that I did it, Yanfei?”
“Does it matter?” she shot back. “Your lawyer doesn’t need to know if you did it or not. What we need to know, Hu Tao, is if you’ll choose to cooperate and make my job easier for me.”
“And I will. I told you I will.” Hu Tao’s brow knitted together, and it occurred to Yanfei that this was the first time she’d ever seen her look so distraught. “But if you think that I’m guilty, Yanfei, that’s not something I want. The entire system can think whatever the hell they want with me, but you can’t.”
“I thought it was obvious?”
Yanfei’s nail broke her skin.
“Your opinion is the only thing that will ever matter to me.”
Yanfei didn’t know how to respond to that. It seemed that Hu Tao had a way of making her speechless, in all sorts of ways, but getting out of this one wasn’t as easy as the others.
So, she pulled out her papers, cleared her throat, and droned on and on about their new processes and her bargains and everything in between. The words came out of her mouth like a printer would with ink. In the back of her mind, she thought it was ironic how this was the first time Hu Tao had ever gotten to truly see her work.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Hu Tao looking at her, nodding her head here and now to show that she was listening. She, too, was back to being only acquainted with her legal advisor.
But even then, Hu Tao wasn’t the only perceptive person in the room. Yanfei could feel her guilt radiating off of her in waves, even if it wasn’t the kind of guilt that was for the killers.
She had an inkling that it wasn’t due to the heavy processes she was reading out.
Hu Tao didn’t text her for the rest of the week, unless they were short, clipped responses to her inquiries about their next meetings.
Yanfei missed her ardently, even if her dreams were full of blood stains on the wall and kisses that stained her lips in red.
She supposed it was the universe’s way of getting back at her, for falling for a mortician who was too kind and gentle to be a harbinger of death.
At three in the morning, she got a call from her office.
She sat there staring at the barrage of missed emails and phone calls coming through her cell phone, even ones from people she barely knew.
For a moment, she wished she was still dreaming again, back to when she dreamt of Hu Tao’s clean hands roaming her body and cradling her face and kissing her in every spot to steer away any impurities from her skin.
But then as she kept going down the list of her contacts, ones who congratulated her and offered her drinks and vacations and mini golf coupons and everything in between, she wondered if her dream was just a dream.
She caught sight of an email from her boss, celebrating her trust in the system and many jokes of how she would have been employee of the month for the nth time in the row if they made such frivolous awards in the office.
Yanfei had never gotten into her car so fast in her life, driving through the midnight stress of Liyue and not minding one bit of the honks and yells she got on the way. The streetlights that blinked past her felt like blinks of a clock, counting each heartbeat in tandem.
She opened the funeral home’s door. Without even having to look, her legs carried her all the way to the very back, where she knew Hu Tao would taking calls and paperwork in a white pristine looking office that didn’t flicker a single speckle of red.
She knocked on it twice.
Hu Tao opened it wordlessly. She only raised her eyebrows at Yanfei. Her heart ached. “I thought we were meeting tomorrow?”
“They dropped your charges,” Yanfei rushed out, before Hu Tao could even get the last syllable out of her mouth. “All of them.”
Hu Tao looked at her. There wasn’t surprise on her face again. Yanfei almost fell into her arms. “I told you that I wasn’t guilty.”
And Yanfei laughed, broken and with a hint of a sob, and Hu Tao caught her just in time to hold her. “You’re not guilty.”
“I told you I wasn’t.” Her words rumbled against Yanfei’s ear, fingers carding through her hair in the same gentle, loving manner that Yanfei craved so much for weeks. “You know that I’m not, right?”
Yanfei ripped herself out of her arms faster than she could imagine. “You’re not guilty!” she said haughtily, and Hu Tao laughed at the defensiveness in her tone. “I kept telling everyone that you weren’t. I mean, granted, I’m not supposed to, but I was so sure you weren’t, and—”
“So you never believed it?” Hu Tao asked her, and she tilted her head. Even if it sounded genuinely curious, Yanfei could hear the slight fringe of apprehension in it.
Yanfei held her face .“Let’s… not talk about that right now.”
And Hu Tao laughed, again and again, while they kissed throughout the night. Even Hu Tao’s cold hands seeping into her skin and the feeling of things watching them beyond the realm and Hu Tao’s joking whispers of ghosts and dead people coming alive to scare her wasn’t enough to stop her from apologizing to this mortician with kisses and hands clinging onto her coat like she had just about died yesterday.
“You know why you know you’ll never see me guilty of a crime from now on?” Hu Tao hummed against her skin.
“What?” she called out groggily.
“I can’t exactly kiss you from behind those prison bars.”
“You’re an idiot,” Yanfei told her, laughing gently with hands through Tao’s hair and on the patch of warm skin on her side.
Hu Tao grinned. “Guilty as charged.”