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for those who flutter by

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Hu Tao was no stranger to the world behind the veil, and that came as no surprise to the people closest to her. She grew up sleeping in caskets and writing her strange poetry surrounded by bundles of incense, it was only natural that she be attuned to the spiritual.

“Who’s that guest behind you?” she would sometimes ask the clients, causing them to pale and break out in cold sweat.

Her grandfather, the 75th Director, would then pull her aside and chide her gently about scaring their paying customers.

“You must remember, Tao Er, the dead cannot pay for their own funerals. We have to make sure the living ones stay.” he would say with a fond pat on the head.

“But there’s really someone there! And she looks so sad that he cannot hear her.”

“I know, dear one, but that is our little secret.”

In Liyue where gods walked among men and sweetflowers grow on old battlefields, the dead were as populous as the living. They were the old Millelith spear bearer still patrolling Yuehai Pavillion, the young boy chasing his paper ball into the sea, and the sad departed that lingered in the sitting room while her grandfather entertained their living guests.

“There is a line between the living and the dead, a boundary between worlds,” her grandfather told her as he tucked her into bed. “If you know where to go, you might even be able to touch that boundary.

“We serve the living, as well as the dead. So you must always remember, to toe the edge of that line, but never cross it.”

Hu Tao was still too young to understand, but she nodded her head anyway and snuggled into her pillow.

Days later she trotted into her grandfather’s office with his hat on her head and asked, “What about the adepti? They don’t get to cross the boundary. How should we arrange their funeral then?”

Her grandfather had laughed good-naturedly and lifted his hat, still too wide at the brim, off her head.

“That, I will teach you in time.”

*

The Adepti were as real as ghosts. That much was true for Hu Tao. She was never a zealot for old teachings, but she took pride in her work, and so she poured as much time and energy as she could into researching them so that she could provide them with a funeral befitting their service.

That was easier said than done.

The accounts of Liyue’s immortals were varied and frequently based on eye-witness testimonies or myth. There was little actual fact to be gleaned from the books she borrowed from her grandfather’s personal collection, and few experts wanted to entertain the whims of a young child. So she decided to piece together her own list of criteria for identifying an immortal:

-They are near immortal.
-They are older than they appear.
-They are closer to ghosts than to people

The last point was up for debate, but she was certain she was starting from a good place.

Now she had to put her theory to the test.

She heard there was a Yaksha living at Wangshu Inn, but she couldn’t beg her grandfather to bring her there just to satisfy her curiosity. Nor could she venture into Jueyun Karst on her own, especially without a vision. She knew of a half-illuminated beast who ran a legal office somewhere in Liyue Harbour as well, but she couldn't just waltz into uninvited their office uninvited. Dejected, she was resigned to never being able to meet an immortal.

Until her grandfather decided to bring her along to meet an old friend at Third Round Knockout.

He was tall, handsome, and elegant and he listened to the Iron Tongue Tian’s stories with rapt attention, though his food remained untouched. She could not describe what about that gentleman drew her attention. She just knew, as she knew the living from the dead, that this man was neither. Alive, but not one of the living, and cloaked in death that clung to him like dew on a glaze lily. She couldn’t help but ask.

“Excuse me, sir, have you considered how you would like your last rites?”

The man’s attention snapped to her, Cor Lapis eyes searching her face until they suddenly widened in recognition. “Ah, the young miss of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, I presume? I’m afraid it’s too early for me to consider such things. I still have much work to do.” he responded politely, but firmly, turning back to the storyteller. Giving no indication that he wished for this conversation to continue.

Hu Tao grinned and sat herself down at his table. He turned back to her, eyebrows knitted together ever so slightly on his inscrutable face. “Do you… need something from me?” he asked slowly.

“Nope! I can hear Iron Tongue Tian’s better from here, that’s all.”

The man blinked twice and looked away again. Hu Tao kept her eyes on him, despite claiming to listen to the story. And she could tell that he knew she was watching him. For not once did he relax his shoulders from their stiff posture, or lower his head to drink his soup.

It was amusing, though the ten year-old could not explain why. He had made quite a show of listening to the storyteller -- today recounting the tale of Rex Lapis’ triumph over Osial -- even as he was obviously being very vigilant around her. She took delight in the small discomfort she caused him, and she nearly burst with glee when she asked him a question and he jumped in his seat.

“What do you think happened next?”

“Pardon?”

“After Rex Lapis sealed Osial away in the depths of the sea, did he just...leave it there?”

“Yes, that is the legend as I understand it.”

“Why couldn’t he just-” Hu Tao makes a plunging motion with her hands, “kill it?”

“Kill? The Lord of the Vortex?”

Hu Tao nodded vigorously. The man brought a gloved hand to his chin, seriously pondering the question.

“It would have been unwise,” He said finally. “The battle took place too close to Liyue Harbour. Rex Lapis would not have wanted the aftershocks to rock the city.”

“Then what if, after weakening Osial, Rex Lapis instead…” Hu Tao paused for dramatic effect, “had tea with it?”

The man’s brows knitted together in a frown, but he continued to listen patiently as she launched into an elaborate theory, where two gods could meet for a cup of tea and a game of chess and leave as friends after nearly beating each other to death. He did not interrupt her, but the smallest hints of exasperation were starting to slip onto his immutable face.

He could have sighed in relief when Old Hu came calling for Hu Tao.

She gave him a small bow before skipping away to join her grandfather, humming a tune as she went. She was feeling good about that encounter, and if luck would have it, she hoped she would be able to see him again.

*

“Hello, mister.”

“Hello...Miss Hu. Here for another story?”

Hu Tao sits across from him without invitation, eyes already gleaming with mischief. The man already looked tired at the sight of her but his posture remains immaculate.

“I’m starving. Any suggestions?” Hu Tao says, waving over a waiter.

“I would recommend the Stir-Fried Filet. Although Third-Round could stand to use fresher Jueyun chillies, it far surpasses many of their seafood dishes and-”

“I’ll have some abalone.”

The waiter left them and soon returned with a plate of abalone and a fresh pot of tea. Hu Tao dug into the dish with gusto, chewing loudly on the tender shellfish.

“Dis ish sho good,” she said with her mouth full of food. “I thought it would be slimy and rubbery but it’s really easy to chew! Here, try some.” she pushes her plate across the table towards the man.

He recoils slightly at the sight of it and pushes it back across the table with the tips of his fingers saying, “No thank you, I do not have the appetite for seafood right now.”

Hu Tao shrugs at that, continuing to scarf down her dish much more quietly as the storyteller began his tale.

Today he weaves a tale of Azdaha, the great earth dragon. Like before, her companion listens attentively, drinking in every word of the well spun tale. Hu Tao decided to listen quietly too, to see what the big deal was. Surely there was a reason why this definitely-human-man would choose to patronise this restaurant so regularly.

It was...disappointing. Iron-Tongue Tian certainly brought the story to life with his gestures and expressions, but the content of his tale was almost exactly the same as that of the fairy tales she had grown up reading. Nothing new or exciting in the slightest.

“I don’t see the point of it,” she huffs.

“Storytelling is simply a way to pass the time,” her companion replied, pouring himself a new cup of tea, “or did you intend to say something else?”

“If I wanted to learn about how Rex Lapis sealed Azdaha away, I could read it in a book. I don’t understand why anyone would come here day after day to listen to the same few stories retold over and over again.”

The man’s eyes narrow. He regards her, expression unreadable, and with a measured voice he said, “That is where we are in disagreement, Miss Hu.

“Now, storytelling is a way to pass the time, but in the past, it was a means of remembering our history.” The man looks back towards Iron-Tongue Tian, his expression distant. “If it were not for storytellers passing down their tradition, so much of Liyue’s storied history would be lost to time. Do not disregard their significance.”

Hu Tao shrank a little at the gentle scolding, but she was far too smart for her own good to end the conversation before saying her piece.

“But that was in the past, when the oral tradition was the only way to record history,” she rebutted, drawing from her readings. “What really matters isn’t what has passed, but what we have to do right now.”

Her companion raises an eyebrow, waiting for her to elaborate.

“You see,” she begins. “We grow up hearing nothing but stories of the past. How there was a great war, and Rex Lapis felled many demons and led us to this land. We know all about his exploits, but what about the achievements we have made in the present? I’m sure that someone out there is doing something amazing, but we aren’t talking about it because we keep talking about the past.

“I don’t want to downplay the ways Rex Lapis has helped Liyue, but all we have in the past is war and all we have to look forward to in the future is death.” Hu Tao thought of weeping spirits she had seen, still clinging on to their loved ones. “Maybe we should think more about what we have now, when there’s still peace.”

Her companion fixed her with his gem-like stare. She could see him weighing her words in his mind.

“Your concerns are indeed valid. However, as long as Rex Lapis still walks the streets of Liyue Harbour in the guise of his people, you need not worry about the future.” he turns away thoughtfully. “Interesting. I haven’t considered that perspective before.”

Hu Tao brightened a little. An adult besides her grandfather? Who was willing to seriously listen to her? She might have struck gold.

“Have you shared your views with anyone else?”

“No,” Hu Tao says, jutting her lower lip out, “Everyone’s always ‘Go back to your room, Tao’ or ‘We’ll talk about it later Tao, we’re in the middle of a funeral.’ My grandfather listens to me, but he never tells me what he thinks about any of it!”

“Perhaps you should focus on your training first. Worrying about the future can come after you have mastered your trade.”

Hu Tao puffed out her cheeks in annoyance. “I’ll have you know, I already have every funeral tradition from the last century memorised and perfected. If you don’t believe me, I could get an invitation to our next funeral service for you. You can see for yourself then.”

Her companion, friend? Fake-coughed politely into his hand. “Ah, please don’t. That would be highly inappropriate.”

*

The next time Hu Tao runs into her very-human-friend, he actually comes to her.

She was throwing out old incense when a familiar figure in dark hanfu steps into the funeral parlour, admiring the detail on the painted screens.

“Welcome to Wangsheng Funeral Parlour! Ready to die? Give our service a try!”

“I didn’t know the funeral parlour had a slogan.”

“Mister!” Hu Tao exclaims. She drops the sticks of incense she was holding and runs up to him, tugging on his robes. “Have you finally started thinking about how you want your funeral?”

“Actually-”

“Is that Mr. Zhongli I hear?” The seventy-fifth director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour says, poking his head out his office door. He walks out and gives him a firm handshake. “Thank you for coming. I see you’re well acquainted with our Tao.”

“Yes. We’ve had some interesting conversations in the past.” Zhongli replies, voice tinged with amusement.

“Haha, so it would seem. Ah Tao, could you brew us a pot of osmanthus tea? There’s a lot I have to discuss with Mr. Zhongli.”

Hu Tao nods and races for the kitchen as quickly as her short legs could carry her.

The two men shoo her away once the tea is delivered, locking the office door behind her. She tries to eavesdrop anyway, pressing her ear to the keyhole to catch the smatterings of a conversation. She hears “beast”, “contract” and “last will”, at which her ears prick up. The conversation trails off afterwards and the scratching of chairs across the floor sends her scurrying back to her boxes of incense.

“Tao Er, I’m waiting on a few other appointments at the moment, could you show Mr. Zhongli out?”

“Right away!” Hu Tao throws the remaining sticks into a box and runs up to Zhongli who has already made his way to the door.

“What were you and yeye talking about?” she asks him outside the funeral parlour.

Zhongli turns a discerning eye towards her. “This and that. We were finalising an agreement we have made many years ago.”

Hu Tao let out a low whistle. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew my yeye? I thought we were friends!”

“Friends?” Zhongli raised a brow.

“Yes! We’ve had two meals together, that means we’re friends now.”

If Zhongli found an issue with her idea of ‘having meals together’, he didn’t verbalise it. Instead his gaze softened just a fraction. A smile might have even played on his lips. “If that is what you wish to call our arrangement, then I shall gladly call you my friend as well.”

Hu Tao beamed. She let out a low whoop, pumping her fist in the air. “Friends with Mr. Zhongli! I have to tell the rest.”

“‘The rest’?” Zhongli repeats.

“Oh! We’re friends now. That means you should meet them.” Hu Tao’s smile grew, setting her full range of baby teeth on display. “Come with me.”

She grabs him by the sleeve before hearing his response, with a grip too strong to belong to a ten year old and she leads him through the city, up the stairs to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. She stops behind a street corner, looking around furtively.

“Why are we at the Ministry of Civil Affairs?” Zhongli asks but Hu Tao shushes him.

“Quiet! What if the guards hear us?”

“The guards?”

Hu Tao turns around the corner again. Someone has left a wooden cart full of produce in front of the Ministry building and it has drawn the attention of the onlookers. The usual guards were preoccupied with dispensing the crowd, too preoccupied to see a small girl drag a man twice her height up the stone steps to the stone lions that stood watch on either side.

“Okay, we don’t have much time until the millelith return so I’ll make this quick. This is Whiskers, and this is Mittens. Whiskers, Mittens, this is Mr. Zhongli.” she says, slapping the paws of each lion.

“The people you wanted me to meet, are these stone lions?” Zhongli asks incredulously.

Hu Tao looked at him as if he were one not making any sense. “Their names are Whiskers and Mittens. Do try and remember Mr. Zhongli, you’re making quite a bad first impression.” Hu Tao stroked the top of Whiskers’ head, purring at the statue.
“Aiya, Whiskers, you’re getting dusty again.” she says brushing the dust off her hand. “Really, no one at the Ministry knows how to take care of two growing kids.”

Zhongli had been quiet for a while, and Hu Tao was almost afraid Whiskers and Mittens had scared him off. But he was still standing there, a pensive look drawn over his features. She would have to use a more hands-on approach

“Don’t be scared, they’re good kitties. They won’t bite.” Hu Tao tugs Zhongli’s hand towards the statue and rests it on his head.

“See? They’re sweet and fluffy and they love headpats and belly rubs.”

“I see…” Zhongli strokes the cool stone through his silk glove. “I wouldn’t have called stone statues cute and fluffy. I suppose this shows the importance of keeping an open mind.”

“Hmph! Just think about how much better Liyue Harbour would be if grown-ups were as creative as Whiskers and Mittens.” Hu Tao puffs her chest out proudly. “If Rex Lapis can boast of having a Geo Whale, then I can boast of calling Whiskers and Mittens two of my closest friends.”

“That isn’t how- nevermind.”

“Anyway, now that everyone’s friends with each other, you have to take care of them, okay Mr. Zhongli? You have to wash them three times a week so they won’t get dusty. If you want to know when the millelith change their rotation, you can always ask me. I’m an expert at avoiding them.”

“I will...take note of that.”

“Great! Now the next stop is…”

*

Hu Tao returns to the funeral parlour long after sundown. Her grandfather waits for her in the reception room, reading an old book of poetry.

“Ah, Tao Er, welcome back. Did you send Mr. Zhongli off?”

“I showed him Whiskers and Mittens.” she proclaims proudly. “I think he’s taken a liking to them.”

Old Hu chuckles. “Is that so? I assume they’ve become acquainted with each other?”

“They’re the best of friends now. I made sure he knows how to take care of them when I’m not around.”

“Good, good.” Old Hu takes a sip from his tea cup, and with one shaky hand turns the page of his book.
Hu Tao sits beside him, peering at pages worn with love.

“Do you want to recite some poetry with me, Tao Er? Let’s say the last one to finish a verse has to clean the mausoleum. I’ll start.”

“Hey! This poem only has six lines.”

“Are you afraid of losing?” Old Hu challenges with a waggle of eyebrows.

“I’m not afraid!”

“Then I’ll start. ‘A butterfly, amongst silk flowers, flies about’...”

Hu Tao reads the line after, her voice clear and high. Her grandfather returns with the next, in husky tones, trembling slightly on his delivery. Hu Tao counters with the following and they continue their back and forth until the candles have burned to stubs and she’s fallen asleep with her head on her grandfather’s side.

Old Hu shuffles out from underneath her and returns with her favourite blanket, a gift from her parents on her third birthday. He wraps it around her, tucking it in so that she resembles a silk cocoon. The similarity draws another hearty chuckle from him.

“One day this little cocoon will become a beautiful butterfly.” he says fondly, moving her fringe off her face. “This old man hopes he’ll be able to see it.”

*

Hu Tao is no stranger to death. She practices her lancework amongst the silkflowers and plays hide and seek in empty tombs.

But death does not come all at once. There are times when its march is a stroll -- slow and leisurely but never ceasing. It trails behind like a procession of ants, always growing closer to its certain destination.

Old Hu was not a young man when he first became the 75th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. He was older still when he came out of retirement to don the harmony hexagram hat once more, and raised his smoky joss sticks to the sky to send off his only son.

He was not young, but he has always been old to Hu Tao. The shaking of his hands, the wavering way he read her to sleep were as sure to her as the sun rising on each new day. She held his shaking hands as he walked through their garden, every step slow and deliberate. He gasps at the sight before him, the special silkflowers she’s been nurturing have finally bloomed and their mellow scent wafts over them in waves.

He gives her a pat on the head, praising her for a job well done. Then he asks for a chair, so that he can admire her handiwork for a while longer.

Old Hu gets sick more easily, and he stays in his office for longer hours everyday. He no longer officiates funerals directly, leaving the work to his senior undertakers while he settles the paperwork. His eyesight gradually fades over time, but he also turns this into a game. Hu Tao reads his contracts to him in different voices.

“Do a dock worker at the end of his shift. Now, a young lady who’s found out her lover is allergic to dogs.”

Hu Tao plays these games with him. As shrewd as she is, she fails to see the obvious.

It was a clear day, and Old Hu wanted to read in the garden, hoping the fresh air would do some good for his ailing health. So Hu Tao set his chair and a small pot of osmanthus tea outside and returns to the parlour to settle some paperwork.

She comes back later to find him sleeping in his seat. She fetches a blanket, and drapes it around his shoulders. Her motion startles a small yellow butterfly that takes off from the crown of her grandfather’s head. She laughs, watching it fly further and further until the tiny yellow speck is swallowed by the blue of the sky.

“He was at peace when he passed.”

“He was surrounded by his favourite things, with his favourite people by his side.”

“He was content.”

“How do you know that?” Hu Tao cried. “How do you know for sure how he felt when he died?”

Was he cold? Was he lonely? Did he get to finish his book? Did he like the tea? She asked the sky, the earth, the flowers and the wind, but none of them could give her a reply.

Hu Tao was too young when she became the 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. The harmony hexagram hat still slipped down her forehead to cover her eyes, and the sleeves of her jacket were baggy and loose.

Ten days later she leads the procession down the streets of Liyue Harbour, followed by six pallbearers and a train of weeping relatives. She walks past the Ministry of Civil Affairs, watched by Whiskers and Mittens’ faithful eyes. She brings her grandfather to the family crematorium where he had once sent off her parents. She whispers a prayer. She lights the furnace.

Her grandfather dances through the sky with her parents, with steps that leave a trail of embers in his wake. They fly up, and away. So far away that Hu Tao can no longer see them.

*

In the middle of the night, Hu Tao climbs out through her bedroom window with nothing but a small canvas bag of rations and old poetry books over her shoulders. She jumps down to the street with ease, having used this route many times to sneak out to play with her stony friends.

She casts a glance behind her, making sure her escape did not alert her grieving relatives. Then, without a second glance back, she leaves Liyue Harbour and begins her long trek towards Wuwang Hill.

She traveled without rest for two days, drinking from streams when she ran out of water, and picking sweetflowers and wildberries to chew on when her rations started to run low.

She counts herself lucky that the worst she encountered was a dendro slime lured in by her berries. She throws them as hard as she can in the opposite direction and makes a break for it.

On the dawn of the third day, she arrives at the border. It was as Old Hu described to her, yet it was also different. Rather, it was more accurate to say, Old Hu described it as best he could for a person who only understood death from the position of the living.

Hu Tao expected the border to be just that, a literal curtain that kept the living and dead separated. She had not foreseen the sprawling ruins that floated in a sea of clouds, with tall golden trees rustling gently in the non-existent wind. The dead milled about. Looking at her curiously when they see the rise and fall of her shoulders as she catches her breath.

Hu Tao carries her bag higher on her shoulders and asks for directions.

They point her to the ceremony site, just up a long flight of stairs. It is here that she finally places her bag down on the dusty ground and falls asleep.

When she wakes up, it is night once again. Spirits have gathered around her, looking down at her where she lay. She was hoping to see a familiar face. Maybe one of her grandfather’s final clients, or a distant relative who had passed on before her. But all around her were strangers, whispering to each other about the living girl who had stumbled into the border.

“Have any of you seen my yeye? He’s big and buff and he wears a hat like this,” she asks.

They shake their heads. “Maybe he hasn’t arrived yet,” some offer helpfully. This was within the realm of possibility, Hu Tao thinks. The mourning period lasted seven weeks, maybe her grandfather was taking his time to cross to the other side. If she waited long enough, she might be able to see him.

With that thought in mind, she rummages through her bag for some berries to eat and begins her lone vigil.

The novelty of her arrival faded after a while, and soon the spirits wandered off to carry on whatever it was that spirits did in the border between life and death. A few, dressed in ancient robes she recognised from paintings lingered on the corner of her vision. They laughed jovially, making not so subtle gestures towards her as she stood watch.
She got fed up with their sneaky looks and quickly averted eyes after a while and demanded, “Do you have something to say to me?”

“Silly girl,” a woman with long silver sleeves says, the fabric catches in the wind and billows about like a flag. “Why would Old Hu be here of all places? What were you thinking, looking for your relatives here?”

“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t he be here?”

The woman shook her head, and her companions too departed, leaving Hu Tao alone.

She continued to wait. One day becoming two, and two becoming three. She was glad that she had the foresight to fill her bag with berries, but after three days they were starting to become soft and tarty. Her water supply on the other hand, was in a less than desirable state. She alternated between drinking the berry juice and water to make the latter last. She reads poetry to pass the time.

It was the fourth day of her vigil, and she had not yet seen hide nor hair of Old Hu. She was down to her last berry and her last drop of water. If she did not leave to find food, she could have very well crossed the border right then and there.

Hu Tao fights back the tears lining the bottom of her eyes. Old Hu has never once abandoned her, not when she got in trouble with the millelith for feeding cake to the stone lions, nor when she wandered away from her classes to catch carp with her bare hands. He would always pick her up like she was a bouquet of flowers, and read the teachings of old philosophers to her as she fell asleep in his arms. He would come for her now. She was sure of it.

In the end, a little old woman hobbled up to her as she nibbled on her last berry. She took a seat beside her, under golden boughs, and said softly with a smile, “Look at your stubbornness, you’re exactly like Old Hu. It’s a shame but none of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour Directors would ever linger here.” The woman sighs contentedly enjoying the gentle breeze. “You come from a family of plain speakers, so let me return the favour...Go back. Go back to where you came from.”

With that, the old woman rose from her seat, and hobbled up the stairway leading into the sea of clouds. She turns, gives Hu Tao a little wave, then passes on.

Hu Tao snaps out of her daze. She wipes her fingers on the corner of her coat, checks to see her poetry books are in place, and with a hesitant glance towards where she last saw the woman, she leaves the border.

“None of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour Directors ever linger here,” that could only mean that she came too late to send him off... right? Or was it something else entirely. Maybe, she never had to make the journey to see him. She remembered what her grandfather was like in life -- honest and open, always good-spirited and kind. A man like him did not leave behind regrets.

He might have been smiling, when she found him in the garden that day.

Her large hat felt a little lighter on her head, her footsteps felt more free. She skipped out of the border laughing and crying in equal measure. How silly! She had become so caught up in her own worries, that she’d forgotten her yeye’s favourite saying, “Live in life, die in death. Follow your heart, do what you can.” If her grandfather wanted to move on without any regrets, who was she to weigh him down with hers?

Hu Tao set off on her return journey under dawn’s golden glow. A tall man, dressed in dark hanfu with the most striking amber eyes watches as she departs. He senses a new presence, burning red and hot from her bag, one that possesses the same divine radiance as he. It seems that she’s caught her attention. He allows himself a rare smile.

“You were right after all, Mr. Hu. There was no need for my interference.”

*

Hu Tao runs into Zhongli again once the paperwork had been finalised and she was officially appointed the 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour.

He was at his usual table at Third-Round Knockout, listening as attentively as ever to Iron-Tongue Tian’s tales of Beidou’s exploits.

“Mr. Zhongli! Long time no see.” Hu Tao sits herself down at his table without invitation, her pyro vision glowing warmly on the back of her coat and calls a waiter over to order her usual.

“Miss Hu, or rather, Director Hu now, was it?” he greets, expression controlled, revealing nothing. “I believe we met last week, during the wake?”

“Has it been a week?” Hu Tao gasps in mock surprise. “It feels like a lifetime has passed since then.”

“How are you doing, Director?” Zhongli asks, the smallest hint of concern lining his brow.

“I’m doing alright. Whew, who knew yeye left behind so much paperwork,” she laughs. A waiter brings her dish and she heartily digs in.

“You should grieve if you have to-” Zhongli begins but Hu Tao cuts him off.

“I’m really okay. Yeye has safely crossed the border to the other side, I don’t want him to worry about me. He’s been working through his twilight years, you know? He deserves a proper rest.”

“Indeed he does,” Zhongli agrees, and they both turn their attention back to the story.

Iron-Tongue Tian is as dramatic as always, and he punctuates each scene with a different gesture. The abalone is still mediocre and far too salty for her taste. Zhongli drinks his tea sparingly, thoroughly absorbed in the story as he is. Hu Tao sees a yellow butterfly flitting about the petals of a glaze lily.

It was a totally normal day.