— The 77th director of the Wangshen Funeral Parlor was by no means an unpopular figure in Liyue. Whenever the current young lady of the funeral parlor was to be mentioned by a curious traveler, the citizens of Liyue would grow weary and find it hard to navigate the conversation to the right direction.
Hu Tao, upholds quite the reputation in Liyue. The young girl was widely praised for her wit and beguiling charm – but the girl had a rather uncanny eccentric behavior, and if left unsupervised, her bizarre and wild ideas would run amok the streets of their peaceful nation.
As a child, her more than questionable mischief was brought to the awareness of the 75th director of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, but Mr. Hu merely shrugged off the peculiar behavior of his young granddaughter.
Now at sixteen, Hu Tao was left to fend for herself without the ever patient guidance of her grandfather – the cloak of the funeral parlor was laid upon her shoulder. Everyone thought for a moment that she'd run the parlor into ruin, but much to everyone's surprise – even if the young girl seemed all play, her leadership and guide brought years of prosperity to the establishment.
But all business aside, Hu Tao's quaint behavior grew more erratic with no one to anchor her to her place. The young jester of the nation would constantly pull out crazy pranks that would make even the calmest archon grow bright red in irritation. It was already a feat that the young director made the normally stoic child zombie of BuBu Pharmacy loathe her very existence, let alone have the level-headed Zhongli give out a tired sigh every time her name was asked.
Xiangling was no exception to Hu Tao's idiosyncrasies, hell, the young chef sometimes even thought that the ghostly girl was out to get her. It was just no surprise to many – even Chongyun would often berate the food lover with his aloof voice, to stop falling into Hu Tao's trap. It was widely known in Liyue that Xiangling was easy to scare, thus it made her the perfect victim to Hu Tao's foolish pranks.
Sometimes the devious pranks Hu Tao does would drive her into tears, and during these times – Xiangling was tempted to throw her Guoba at the girl so she'd burn to ashes, but alas, Hu Tao was a pyro vision holder like herself and the flames would do nothing but just cover the young lady with ashes and grime.
Though it doesn't mean that Xiangling never tried that idea, unfortunately her poor Guoba was treated as a mere stuff toy by the mirthful Hu Tao...
Xiangling broke her gaze off the Silk Flowers perched on the window sill of their restaurant, her musings were cut short when she heard the chime of a bell on the door that indicates a new guest has come to their small establishment. With the brightest smile she could muster, Xiangling energetically greets the customer and guides them to their table.
It was just another day for Xiangling in their restaurant, her father was working in the kitchen while she was left to accommodate the customers present in their tiny abode. If given the free rein, she'd have already left the vicinity to scour new ingredients for another odd dish she came up that night – but her father needed a helping hand at the store, and so, she decided to move her plans at another time when she has the free time.
"Well, this is a downer – here I was hoping I'd eat a delicable dish made by you Xiangling." said one of their regulars in restaurant.
Xiangling offered the man a toothy grin, "I'm honored to hear that you enjoy them, but don't let my father hear it or else he'd start sulking."
The man laughed, "Ah yes, your father's dishes are still out of this world. I dare say that your food here are one of the best dishes in Teyvat. But, your exotic choices of ingredients for your cuisine makes them a rather... odd but satisfying taste to the mouth."
Xiangling felt flattered of the praise, this was not the first time she was showered with compliments though – as for some reason, she somehow earnt the title of a chef prodigy with an eccentric choice of ingredients throughout the nations of Liyue and Mondstadt. She had no idea if her reputation exceeds the two nations' borders, but it seemed highly unlikely as they rarely got a travelling adventurer from the neighboring Inazuma.
Speaking of traveler, it had been so long since Xiangling last saw the stoic and odd traveler that had a small flying child companion – ah, how Xiangling wished she was still given the leeway to cook the bizarre creature and see how it tastes like. But the young traveler, Lumine as she recalls, was fairly fond of the flying creature amidst her jest of making it as the 'Emergency Food'.
Xiangling quietly laughed as she remembers the fun adventures she had with those two. Going back at the task in hand, she finalized the order given by the customer and sent it to her father. She only received a nod of acknowledgement from her father before he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, never removing his attention to the boiling pot of broth he was making.
A frown tugs on Xiangling's lips, she wanted to help her father in the kitchen as there were no new customers present in the restaurant – but she does not wish to irritate her father or spoil his concentration, and so she returns to the front with a despondent sigh leaving her lips.
Her attention shifted to where she heard Guoba's endearing voice, and there she saw her friend entertaining a little kid – bringing out bouts of laughter from his lips. This wholesome sight made Xiangling crack a smile and her blue aura grew gold with excitement.
But it did not take her more than a couple of giddy steps before she felt the ever looming presence of death that'd make any normal human's skin crawl – a sense of dread filled her stomach as a wave of chill air washed through her.
An undignified squeal left Xiangling's lips that made all the patrons on their restaurant turn their full undivided attention at where she stood – and Xiangling felt her ears burn in embarrassment.
With her right hand clasping her ear, she twirls around to glare at her offender. Hu Tao stood in front of Xiangling her all her glory, and a satisfied smirk painted on her lips.
"Hu Tao!" Xiangling cannot help but raise her voice, which was brought about by the mixture of anger and humiliation.
The patrons of the small restaurant returned their attention to whatever they were doing as the scene in front of them had already become a normal reoccurence.
Hu Tao laughs at Xiangling's adorable scowl, it always amused her how the girl jumped like a frightened bunny whenever Hu Tao would just so as much surprise her out of the blue. It had become one of her daily dose of entertainment, and the different ranges of expression and emotion Xiangling threw her was a sight to behold.
But this did not please Xiangling one bit.
"What do you want Hu Tao?" Normally Xiangling was not this short with people and she liked to think that she had a long patience – but when it comes to Hu Tao, her patience seems like it is only being supported by a thin and wavering thread.
Xiangling rubbed the ear that Hu Tao blew a raspberry on – the cold air that she felt still left goosebumps on her skin. It was a wonder that Hu Tao is even alive considering her body temperature felt more like a dead corpse. Xiangling had a first hand experience of how chilling the girl's skin was when Hu Tao would cling to her whenever she deems fit.
How Hu Tao received a pyro vision rather than a cryo, was beyond Xiangling's comprehension.
Xiangling likes to think that it's because Hu Tao works with corpses everyday – to the point that the pyro wielder adapted the chilling environment. Moreover, Hu Tao likes to socialize with ghosts – roaming ghosts that hasn't left their lands yet. The girl even has a familiar ghost that follows her every where, which she calls Walnut.
Why the hell did Hu Tao name her ghost Walnut when the literal translation of her own name is Walnut. It's like saying, 'Walnut is traveling with her ghost companion Walnut'... Though, Xiangling would never voice out that she found it to be the slightest bit cute.
"Is that how you greet your customers?" Hu Tao innocently tilts her head in question, but the mischief running through her bright red starry-eyes was far from innocent.
Xiangling felt another wave of annoyance pass through her heart, the temptation to drive out the funeral director out of their store was strong – but her will and pride as a chef that caters to other people's wants, overpowered her need to maim the girl with her polearm.
(Another thing that irks Xiangling is the fact, that not only do Hu Tao and her share the pyro vision ability, but both also wields the same weapon which is the polearm.)
With a strained smile, Xiangling guided Hu Tao to a unoccupied table far to the corner – Xiangling does not want to place Hu Tao near their customers as for some unexplainable reason, Hu Tao had the tendency to drive customers out of the place with her off hand and outlandish remarks.
"So," Xiangling cleared her throat as she saw that Hu Tao finally took a seat. "What can I get you?"
Hu Tao perched her elbow on the table as she leans her chin on her open palm, her eyes narrow at the impatient Xiangling. A slow smile grew on her pale face as she languidly answers, "...Nothing."
Hu Tao's impish behavior rewards her with another round of Xiangling's scowl.
"Hu Tao," Xiangling stressed, "This is a restaurant..."
Hu Tao strokes her chin in quiet contemplation, "I'm aware."
"And... It's not a place you can loiter in. There are customers that I have to attend and there will be customers that would need to take your spot, so it's best that—" Xiangling's ramblings went to deaf ears as Hu Tao clearly did not look like she was listening.
Hu Tao roams her eyes around the half-full establishment, the number of customers present wasn't that bad – but it was not crowded either, and by the looks of it, customers would still not roll in a couple of hours later as it was still hours before dusk.
"Eh..." Hu Tao half-heartedly responds, "You don't even have that much customers here."
Xiangling visibly bristled and took offense in that – okay, anything Hu Tao utters sound offending in her ears, but still–
In the end, rather than biting back on Hu Tao's words and play herself at the palm of the girl's hand – Xiangling crossed her arms over her chest and let out a huff, turning to her heel to stomp out of Hu Tao's presence and just ignore the girl entirely.
Hu Tao was unperturbed, this was not the first time that Xiangling would storm out due to her endless teasing. The girl's poignant reactions was just far too endearing for the young director and she held no restraint with the frivolous acts she'd do to the chef.
With a plan forming on her head, Hu Tao calls out to the retreating girl bearing a coy smile.
"Xiangling, do you dislike me that much? I can stop bothering you if you want..."
This made Xiangling stop on her tracks and hastily turn around to face Hu Tao – her amber eyes were wide in shock as she stares at the bemused girl. Out of all the outlandish things Hu Tao would say, this had never crossed Xiangling's mind.
Hu Tao? Stop bothering you? That thought made Xiangling snort. The 77th director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor was like a leech or more preferably – an annoying buzzing mosquito that would not leave you alone, and you're left fuming till you get the chance to kill the damn mosquito.
But as she stared at Hu Tao to determine what the girl was trying to do – Xiangling thought Hu Tao should have looked more remorseful, but that cocky smirk on the starry-eyed girls lips state otherwise.
Still, Xiangling opted to be honest.
"You do a lot of mean pranks to me..." Xiangling points out, her brows furrow thoughtfully. Hu Tao inclines her head to look at the uncomfortable girl.
"Sometimes you make me cry because of this..." Xiangling grumbles as she looks down on her feet whilst fumbling on her gloves.
"But..." Hesitation was evident on her voice, Xiangling took a breather before she looks up to continue her words.
"I don't dislike you, I just dislike your teasing and pranks." Xiangling states the truth as she recalls a memory not too long ago.
Xiangling did not have a good day.
It started with an argument between her and her father about the perfect ingredient to use on one of their dishes – her father was exasperated that Xiangling even thought of using lizard tails as a meat alternative, and Xiangling was stubbornly insisting that the exotic ingredient would give the dish a more superb taste.
But of course her father met her bullheadedness when it came to cooking, and they were still not on speaking terms except when they had to run the restaurant.
Next came when a new ramen shop opened up a few blocks away from their restaurant. This was normally not a problem for them, competitors were always emerging left and right after all – but because her father was also in a down pour mood, he was miffed when there were not a lot of customers present on their establishment and it made him bark out angry words at his daughter when she'd mess up or if she was too slow in service – this in turn, lowered Xiangling's mood further.
The last straw was when Hu Tao came unannounced – stating that she learnt a new pyro move and wanting to show it to Xiangling first. It came to no surprise when Hu Tao lost control of what the hell she was doing and 'accidentally' burnt the food Xiangling painstakingly cooked at that time with the last of her scavenged ingredients.
Therefore, the bubbling stress that she had accumulated since early in the morning – made Xiangling unconsciously weep on the spot. She didn't even notice the tears rolling down her cheeks until a sob tore out of her throat and the smile on Hu Tao's lips disappeared.
It was a painstaking long minutes of Xiangling bawling her eyes out, Guoba looking confused, and Hu Tao trying but failing to comfort the girl. Offering kind words to someone in grief should have not been that hard for Hu Tao as she always did it with her clients in the funeral parlor, but that was business and this was far more different – so comforting an emotional teenager was not Hu Tao's forté.
The awkwardness prevailed for a bit longer than necessary – Hu Tao fussed around the weeping girl like a bumbling mess of nerves and Xiangling felt even tired from the young director's hovering.
"I'm sorry," she stopped her tears with a final sniff as she dries her cheeks with the palm of her hand, "I'm just not in the mood." Xiangling continues, her voice filled with dejection when her amber eyes glanced at her burnt food.
The slimes she had worked hard collecting the previous days were now turned to dust. Xiangling was excited to finally cook and relieve her stress with the last batch of exotic ingredients she saved up, but it looks like she has to go out scouring for them again – but she was tired, and all she wants to do now is slump down her mattress and snore heart away.
"I'm tired," Xiangling mumbles while rubbing her sore eyes.
"Oh... Yes, okay..." Hu Tao smiled, though stiff. "Rest well Xiangling."
Xiangling simply grumbles under her breath as she half-heartedly waves her hand at the girl – she never bothered looking back to escort Hu Tao out of the place. She knows the young imp had the decency to lock the doors on her way out.
Xiangling could feel Hu Tao's unwavering gaze follow her every move, but she's too worn to comment about it.
The next day comes and Xiangling disturbed in her tranquil state by an incessant knocking on their restaurant's door.
A frown graces Xiangling's feature and she groggily leaves the chair she was relaxing at when she heard her father call out to answer the door. Xiangling willed herself to remove the frown on her face, and an almost blank stare replaces it.
Once she opens the door, a greeting almost left the tip of her tongue – but she froze on her place when Hu Tao greets her by the door. Xiangling suddenly felt a tug of embarrassment when she remembers how she bawled like a baby on Hu Tao's arms yesterday.
"Hu Tao...?" Xiangling looked rather unsure as she did the girl a once over.
Hu Tao looked like she just went out of a stove, she was littered with grime and ashes – her dark clothes were ruffled and her hair unkept, but the girl's treasured hat still remains pristine clean.
"Yahoo~" Hu Tao merrily greets as she fixed the bulky hat on her head.
"What–" Xiangling clears her throat, "Is there something you needed?" her grip on the door tightens.
"Hmm..." Hu Tao rumages her black overcoat to look for something.
Xiangling's indigo brows furrow when her eyes caught glimpse of Hu Tao's face – now visible as her brown bangs did not obscure the view as she was looking down. Her pristine white cheeks were blemished with what looks like scorch marks.
Xiangling's starting was cut short when Hu Tao abruptly thrusted something towards her, "Uh, here."
Xiangling stared at the small brown pouch about the size of her palm that's currently residing on Hu Tao's hand. It looks plump, or full – and Xiangling felt curiosity gnaw her as she tried guessing what could be inside the small thing. But still, she felt weary as this could be another one of Hu Tao's tricks.
Hu Tao restrained a sigh when she saw the reluctance on Xiangling's eyes so she took it upon herself to grab the girl's hand – amidst her protest – and placed it on Xiangling's palm.
"Don't act like it's a bomb."
"When it comes to you, I wouldn't be surprised." Xiangling counters and Hu Tao just smirks.
Now feeling the weight of the pouch on her hand, Xiangling could not help but ask, "What's inside it?"
"Why not take a peek?" Hu Tao's gaze was expectant.
Mustering up the courage and praying to Rex that this whole ordeal was not a prank for Hu Tao's entertainment – Xiangling slowly opens the small pouch and she grew stupefied when she saw the contents inside.
"Condensed slimes?" Xiangling gasps as her eyes snap up to meet Hu Tao's.
Hu Tao shrugged her shoulder as she fiddled with her brown locks, looking almost bashful from her actions, "I encountered mobs of them near the shoal, so I thought I'd collect their drops."
"I-Is that why you're filled with scorch marks?" Xiangling was tempted to touch the marred face, though she knows that she should not worry as the statue of blessing would heal Hu Tao in no time.
Hu Tao looked unbothered, "They were a bunch of electro slimes so there was a lot of explosion going on considering they're susceptible to my flames. But it's nothing I can't handle–"
Hu Tao was too deep in her presumptuous monologue that she did not notice Xiangling leap towards her which knocked her breath away as the girl was taller than her.
"Thank you Hu Tao! You're the best!" Xiangling squeals out as she squeezed Hu Tao to death.
Xiangling smiled at the memory, Hu Tao can be considerate if she wants to. Back in the present, Hu Tao was looking at her with a dubious stare dripping in her starry red eyes.
"I don't dislike you Hu Tao," Xiangling repeats herself. "Because in the end, you always make it up to me." she accompanies it with a bright grin.
Xiagling expected Hu Tao to burst out in laughter or start another bout of endless teasing from her words – she did not expect to see Hu Tao stare at her with a blank expression as if her words had not sunk in yet.
What surprised her more was when Hu Tao stared long enough to make her fidget in her place – before a raging blush adorns the prankster's face.
Xiangling gapes at the sight, but she flinched out of her incredulous stare when Hu Tao shot out of her chair in haste – the tiny speck of blush still adorns her pale face.
"I've decided on my order!" Hu Tao slaps the base of her palm on the table, making a loud sound that brought the attention of the customers eating in peace.
"And I demand you to cook it." Hu Tao points at the perplexed Xiangling, a smirk now painted on her lips as her eyes flashes stubbornly.
"No way!" Xiangling crossed her arms, just as stubborn as Hu Tao, "My father is the one managing the kitchen right now–"
Hu Tao slapped her hands to cover her ears and sang, "I don't care~"
Xiangling was ticked at this childish behavior, "Hu Tao!"
"Xiangling!" The said girl winced when she heard her father's booming voice from the kitchen.
"Stop dilly-dallying and give these orders to the customers!" Xiangling's father peers out of the kitchen to give his daughter a indignant stare.
Xiangling's shoulders drop and her mood turns surly – once her father was out of sight, she gives Hu Tao a menacing glare – to which the young director responds with a smug smirk, all trace of blush from before was no longer apparent.
Her father would not mind if she fed Hu Tao poison right...?
The next day...
"Xiangling~ it's me again! I came to visit~"
Xiangling almost choked on the fried fowl she was mauling – an unrestrained groan escaped her throat when she felt a cold hand pass through her warm skin, arms slithering around her neck, and a heavy weight fall behind her back.
Xiangling should have just accepted Hu Tao's words to leave her alone...
...but she'd be lying if she said she can handle the girl's absence...
As Xiangling heard her stomach growl in protest, urging her to continue in eating – she also heard Hu Tao let out an impish giggle near her ear.
...seems like Xiangling should just learn to tolerate Hu Tao's presence, after all, the girl does give her exotic ingredients she finds whenever she was out lurking on the mountains near Liyue.
It was a win-win situation even if it meant Xiangling had to suffer in Hu Tao's hand. The ingredients were worth it.
(Stupid Walnut, Xiangling childishly pouts.)