The other kids on the street used to think your eyes were weird.
You never really minded them much, just shrugged off their words as you'd always did.
"Does that mean you won't play with me?" You asked boldly, hands on your hips, standing up as straight as your little six-year-old self had been able.
They'd stared at you.
You'd stared back.
"Nah." They'd shrugged, and one had beckoned you over as another ran to retrieve the ball that had rolled into a nearby waterway. "Wanna play catch?"
It was easier back then, and you'd quickly learned to cherish those times when you'd been allowed to roam the streets, carefree like one of Liyue's many alley cats. Because before you'd known it, you were eight years old and moving into the parlor. Lessons with grandfather were alright, but they'd been important and time-consuming— general etiquette had always been whatever, and you'd much rather fall asleep in a coffin.
Nevertheless, the etiquette of funeral ceremonies had been fascinating, and you'd learned it well— it had come as easy to you as making friends with the kids on the street. Perhaps it was your sheer audacity?
You, your sheer audacity, and your weird, weird eyes.
Gradually, the seasons had changed, autumn eventually turning to winter and the cycle beginning again. Suddenly, it was the end of summer, and you were barely a teenager when you performed a funeral ceremony for your grandfather.
With a silent prayer, your eyes had closed as your hands settled into the familiar sign for decease.
The hat on your head had felt heavy. You would go on to cherish it with your life.
The ghost friends that you'd been seeing all your life had flocked around you, nudging you gently, and you'd hoped you would make your grandfather proud.
Fly, flutter by, butterfly.
You rise on a warm breeze and sing.
Your wings beat golden dust,
You soar through never-ending skies.
Hu Tao, Fiddlesticks.
You are older when you meet Xingqiu and Chongyun, the former of whom had a love for poetry that rivaled yours, the latter of whom cause your ghost friends to flee in his presence. (You think it's hilarious, and when you tell your spirit comrades such, they cry out in melodramatic agony.)
Not thinking much of your meetings with them, you hadn’t realized you’d been adopted into the friend group until Zhongli had remarked one day that you’d been spending more and more time away from the parlor.
“I hadn’t realized,” you’d admitted with a shrug. “It’s fine, I’ll just work a bit more over the weekend, and—”
“No, no,” the older man had said, chuckling to himself. “It’s good for you— spend more time with your friends.”
Friends. That’s right, that’s what Xingqiu and Chongyun had become. Your smiles come effortlessly around them; you love the way Xingqiu challenges you intellectually, and the way Chongyun’s presence calms down the both of you.
“Hey,” Xingqiu says one winter afternoon, as the sky starts turning orange and you’ve been happily conversing with the two boys over poetry verses under the late day sun. It's chilly out, so you cherish it whenever the rays manage to warm your back. “Want to get dinner with Chongyun and me? We’ve got a friend who works at this amazing restaurant— she’s on her way to being a world-famous chef, let me tell you!”
“The food she makes is too spicy,” Chongyun adds, not missing the spark of mischief you share in a single look with Xingqiu. The light blue-haired boy sighs but wisely chooses not to comment. “At least the company's good. You’ll like her.”
And that’s how you’re introduced to Xiangling.
Chongyun had been right, but only to an extent—
Because you love her instantly.
From the very moment you first see her, you know that Xiangling is life, vibrant and colorful as you'd spotted her bouncing around the kitchen, the sizzling sounds and delicious smells of food emanating through the restaurant. Outside, the air is cold and frigid, but inside, Wanmin and Xiangling seem to pulse with warmth. And when she steps out of the back area, garbed in reds and golds and oranges like a sunset, you cannot take your eyes off of her, even as she tosses an apron over her shoulder; evidence of a long day worked hard.
You are entranced.
She skips over to meet you with glittering, eager golden orbs.
“Your eyes are flowers!”
Startled, you giggle and tilt your head. That's not something that happens often— more often than not, you are the one doing the startling.
But then you look at Xiangling and she is a breath of fresh air, the best parts of summer and autumn in one pretty package, tied up with a bow and everything.
So you grin.
"Aren't they?" You, your audacity, and your weird, weird eyes — you tilt your chin up proudly, because Xiangling has made you take pride in your features.
"They're so pretty," Xiangling gushes and steps forward to observe them more closely.
Somewhere in the back of your mind, you register Xingqiu and Chongyun chatting with Chef Mao, placing their orders – and you suppose yours too – with the older man. (Without a doubt, Xingqiu is ordering something blazing spicy for you, but the joke's on him, you have a Pyro vision; of course you can take the heat.)
"Your eyes remind me of plum blossoms," Xiangling murmurs, and it brings you back to the present.
"Plum blossoms?" You echo. Having never taken too long to stare at yourself in the mirror, you'd never stopped to question it, but now that Xiangling brings up the topic, you recognize the resemblance. Blinking, a smile blooms across your lips. "I never thought about that! Funny, because I live near plum blossom trees."
"Really? How lucky!" Xiangling marvels. "I want to make flower cakes, but they're always out at the market."
"I can bring you some next time?" You offer, because you want to be closer; you want to be friends with this girl, and you want it to last. You know about flower cakes too— your mother used to make them when you were small before you'd moved into the parlor. "We have fermented plum blossoms and everything. I even know how to make them myself!"
"Can you?" Just like that, Xiangling's eyes are glimmering again, and you decide then and there that you want to pluck every emotion from this girl— you want to see it all. "That would be amazing!"
"Of course!" You say boastfully, hands on your hips. "I can do anything!"
Zhongli teaches you how to ferment the plum blossoms.
"I thought you told her you knew how to do this," he says in amusement.
"Listen, I thought I did, but it's been a few years," you say defensively. It's true— once upon a time, you had watched your mother begin the months-long process of fermenting blossoms with great interest. Nowadays though, it's Zhongli who keeps up the practice, lining the storeroom walls with jars of blossoms to sell on the side to the marketplaces.
It's a decent side business, and he's already told you that you're free to give some to Xiangling, but now you're motivated— even if you can't give Xiangling the first jar you've prepared yourself until months down the line, you want to gift her something you made eventually.
"Right." Zhongli pointedly stares up at the ceiling of the parlor's kitchen so you can't see the way his lips curl up onto a smirk.
It's useless because you can tell anyway.
"Just teach me how so I can do it myself already!" You whine, wriggling in place impatiently. The moment you'd realized you weren't as knowledgeable as you once thought you were, you'd asked Zhongli immediately. What possessed you to think he'd let your slip of tongue slide without consequence, you have no idea.
Around you, your ghost friends hover like usual. One of them nudges over a bowl, and you pick it up and stare at Zhongli expectantly.
"Yes, yes." He chuckles, finally turning his attention away from the rafters. Gingerly, he ties his apron, and motions for you to do the same before rolling up his sleeves. "You've already picked the flowers, correct? Let's start by washing the blossoms clean."
He gently teases you several more times over the next hour, but it's all worth it for the look of sheer glee on Xiangling's face when you appear in Wanmin's side entrance early that evening, a jar of goods in hand and new plum blossoms decorating your hat.
Somehow, the hug she gives you is even better.
You stay past closing hours, hovering over Xiangling's shoulder in the kitchen as you watch her busy herself with making the flower cakes, and it is the first of many, many more times to come— this isn't the only time you'll find yourself staying way past dark.
But for now, you bite into the freshly out-of-the-oven flower cake, and it's just the right amount of moist and sweet. Your stomach flutters at how broad Xiangling smiles when you let out a groan of content.
"I'm going to bring more fermented plum blossoms in the future," you tell her. "And they'll be fermented by me, okay? So make me more?"
"Well, of course!" Xiangling says, enthusiastic. But then her brow scrunches and she frowns. "You can't just keep giving these blossoms to me for free, though. At least let me pay for them—"
"With Mora? Pshh, no way!" You wave her off. Nonsense, really! "We're friends, aren't we? Think of it as a gift."
Xiangling continues to look uncertain. "But, still…"
"If you're that insistent, then I'm sure I'll think of something." You shrug and bump your shoulder against hers good-naturally. "But keep your Mora. You want to be a world-famous chef, right? You'll need the money more on your travels than you ever will when dealing with me."
She can't argue against that, and you snicker because you're right as she huffs.
"You're sure you'll think of something?"
"On my honor as the 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor!"
And so that's how your pranks start.
The seasons shift, and you go through your first spring with Xiangling.
What had begun as an off-hand jumpscare from behind a wall turns into a trade of yours— you make Xiangling's heart race from increasingly unorthodox methods, but the moment she starts complaining, you hand her yet another jar of fermented plum blossoms and she shuts her mouth, pouts, and you go yet another day without being torched by Guoba.
You find it absolutely adorable how Xiangling's Pyro Vision has manifested in her bear companion's ability to breathe fire via hot chili peppers. Given how the both of you favor the polearm as your weapon of choice, as well as your matching Visions, you've come to recognize Guoba as a welcome presence, even during your friendly spars against your friend.
Your styles differ greatly, and that's why it's so thrilling. You had never been one to enjoy genuine, violent fighting – it's always either been a workout or a means to an end – but Xiangling makes you realize how much you love working with your polearm; how much you've grown to adore the ache in your arms after a day of training.
Xiangling, you think, has the most beautiful fighting style you've ever witnessed— even among the noteworthy fellow Vision-wielders you've encountered throughout Liyue.
Xingqiu's blades of water are fascinating, and Chongyun's hefty claymore is powerful. Zhongli took part in your training when you were younger, and his abilities are not anything to scoff at either. You've even witnessed the prowess of the sole remaining Yaksha, Xiao, during a visit to Wangshu Inn. (You had offered him a one-way ticket to the next life, even offering him a discount on a funeral. He had huffed and said his suffering was eternal. You'd shrugged and simply told him to find you if he ever wanted it to end.)
The Liyue Qixing are also powerful in their own right— Lady Ningguang is elegant, Lady Keqing is agile, and even their secretary, Ganyu, is adept with a bow. They're a trio of beautiful women with beautiful Visions, and yet to you (perhaps you're biased, but you don't really care), no one tops Xiangling's simplistically intricate way of dancing with her polearm.
One late spring afternoon, right when the skies had cleared after rainfall and the grass was still drying under the late-day sun, you are sparring with her when an idea hits.
The blades of your polearms clash, and Xiangling's smile is full of determination as you laugh, ducking beneath a parrying blow before disappearing into thin air with nothing but a trail of golden butterflies in your wake.
You take shelter behind the safety of a nearby boulder, ducking low.
Oh, how satisfying it is to watch Xiangling frown, whisks away her polearm when it's clear that you're not reappearing. She jogs around the grassy clearing, bewilderingly looking around in confusion.
"Hu Tao?" She calls, brow furrowed and a tinge of worry in her tone. "Where'd you go?"
She doesn't notice you sneaking up on her.
The shriek of terror the other girl lets out sounds like something out of the Ruin Guards that traipse around Teyvat's wilderness, and you grip your stomach in laughter as you keel over to the ground in hilarity, desperately wiping tears from your eyes as Xiangling immediately pouts and lightly kicks your leg with her foot.
"You're so mean!" Xiangling scolds indignantly.
"I'll have a new jar of plum blossoms at Wanmin by tomorrow afternoon." You grin toothily, and she puffs out a cheek.
"You better," she threatens, but you know that her words hold no weight, so you continue to smile foolishly her way. "It's late spring, you know, right? Soon the blossoms will be all gone and you'll have to stop scaring me."
"I've stockpiled more than enough jars to last until next winter," you tell her earnestly.
"Of course you have." Although she tries not to, Xiangling sounds amused, and almost impressed.
"Of course I have," you agree. With a bit of effort, you stand up, hoisting yourself onto the boulder with an oof. "What would I do without my favorite scare subject?"
"What will you do if I'm not here?" Xiangling almost laughs but manages to restrain herself by biting down on her bottom lip as she attempts to remain stern. "I'll be traveling around more now that the rainy season is nearly over."
"Then I will wait for you!" You say easily, humming as you kick your legs back and forth on the boulder. Then you smirk. "I am busy too, Xiangling. I'm the 77th Director of Wangsheng, after all."
"Well, you never act busy!" The chef girl says, rolling her eyes playfully and crossing her arms. "If your schedule’s really so jam-packed, why are you always with me?”
“Ah, all of the meetings are scheduled for earlier in the day, of course!” You stand once more and twirl around, arms spread out like wings, and from where she sits in the grass, Xiangling giggles at your antics. “Can’t be busy during magic hour in case an emergency happens, after all!”
At that, the chef girl perks up, latching onto that one specific term that had so nonchalantly left your lips.
“Magic hour?” She repeats, innocuously tilting her head. “What’s that?”
Dramatically, you gasp.
“Xiangling! Don’t tell me you don’t know about magic hour?!”
“O Great and Powerful Bridge Between Life and Death!” Xiangling shifts onto her knees, bowing her head low, and you cross your arms, smug as she peers up at you with perfect puppy dog eyes. “Please bestow your vast wisdom on me!”
“Of course, my pupil,” you reply sagely, and you beckon for her to climb up as your friend scrambles to join you.
And so you tell her about magic hour, that special time at twilight when the realms of the living and the deceased are at their closest, even overlapping in certain areas. You tell her about your grandfather, and how he had taken you to Wuwang Hill as a child; how you had spent your first magic hour there, and how you’d been able to see the spirits ever since.
As you tell Xiangling all of this, your ghost friends slowly begin appearing, almost curiously. They hover around you and circle Xiangling in interest, as if wondering who your new companion is. They’d never appeared around Xingqiu and Chongyun, and you observe them with a growing smile, chuckling under your breath as one of them prods a braid, while another pokes at the Guoba sash around her waist.
Noticing your amusement, Xiangling stifles her own laugh, nudging your knee with her index finger.
“What’s so funny?”
Right on cue, a ghost whooshes through Xiangling’s stomach, and the other girl shivers, arms coming to hug herself.
“Whoa, did you feel that? That was some weird wind.”
“Yeah,” you say, grinning widely.
You’ll tell her of the way your ghost friends have taken a liking to her one day, probably when she's less prone to your scares.
The sinking sun and you,
Overlapped on the horizon.
Wrapped in that fragile time, I wondered
When I would see your silhouette.
Hu Tao, overheard at Wanmin Restaurant.
Sometimes, Xiangling goes away for weeks at a time.
She's a chef whose growing fame continues to spread with the ferocity of a fire across Teyvat, and secretly, you love hearing Xiangling's name being praised in passing during your walks around the Harbor. While Xingqiu and Chongyun often travel around for their occupations and hobbies as well, their trips are typically shorter, and they hardly ever leave Liyue.
You love the boys dearly, but you have to admit that you feel Xiangling's absence more.
Meanwhile, you stick the closest to home out of the four of you— you're Wangsheng's director, of course. While there are other trustworthy employees, Zhongli included, you are the sole person to receive your grandfather's training, and it wouldn't do for you to shirk your duties.
"You're filing paperwork this late?" The first time Xiangling is gone for an extended period, Zhongli asks you this in surprise, peering into your office. "Are you sure you don't want to meet up with your friends?"
"I always want to meet up with my friends, silly," you chide, and he chuckles.
"Of course, of course. So I take it that they're not in the area?"
"Right on the nose!" You hum, head bobbing from side to side. A ghost friend drifts by at that very moment, and you giggle, waving its way as you continue singing your impromptu tune beneath your breath.
When the sun comes out, bask in the sunlight.
When the moon comes out, bask in the moonlight.
"If I finish my work early, then I'll have more time with my friends when they return, no?" The reasoning is solid, you think, and from where he stands, Zhongli nods in approval.
"Very diligent of you. I will admit, I'm a bit surprised."
"Well, I just figured." You shrug, and your thoughts shift to Xiangling. Last you'd heard, she'd traveled to Fontaine to try their cuisine. "Xiangling's out in the world, doing her best. I can't travel as she does, but I can do my best here in the Harbor, right?"
"You definitely can," Zhongli affirms.
"I'm glad I'm director," you tell him, and he makes a rumbling noise of agreement. But then you pause, and your smile turns slightly sheepish. "I will admit, I do miss her terribly, though."
"I'm sure she misses you, too," Zhongli comforts. He doesn't really know Xiangling that well, only meeting her briefly a few times, but you appreciate his efforts for trying.
"I hope she does, but not too much!" You cross your arms.
"I can't imagine that she does, what with how you scare her so often." The older man chuckles.
"I wonder if I'll ever scare her away for real," you ponder aloud. You wring your arms out behind you, kicking up your legs as you usually do. Yet the moment the words leave your lips, you frown, as if gravity itself is tugging the mood down with it.
"Do you suppose that you ever could?" Zhongli asks from behind, his deep voice ringing through your ears. His timbre is warm, and his wisdom reminds you of a tree whose bark has many rings— ever-lasting, eternal, sturdy.
When Zhongli speaks, you listen.
"No," you tell him haughtily, trying for your usual confidence. "Xiangling would never let me do something like that to her."
"Would she not?" He questions, and your frown deepens. "Or do you just dislike the notion?"
You say nothing, but of course you "dislike the notion." You love your pranks, but you love Xiangling even more— never once have you ever meant anything malicious. It's why you remedy your constant antics with fermented plum blossoms; why you present them to her yourself and continue striving forward with reckless abandon.
You hate the idea of Xiangling walking out of your life with a passion.
"She has a kind soul," Zhongli continues to rumble, ignoring your inner plight. "That child is much like you, wouldn't you say?"
"Xiangling isn't a child," you correct him immediately, stubbornly, because she's not.
Zhongli has called you child for as long as you can remember, and you've accepted it— that a child is forever what you'll be in his eyes, and it doesn't bother you. On the other hand, Xiangling did not lose her youth to her craft, dedicate her years to creating the perfect blend of Li and Yue cuisine, and bridge gaps that those far more experienced than her could never bridge, all to be called a child.
Xiangling is nothing like you, and you think that's the best.
So you tell Zhongli such, a cheek puffed out in indignation and your arms crossed.
Surprise flickers across his features, but then the older man is breaking out into a hearty laugh as he regards you fondly. Gingerly, he plucks off your treasured hat with one hand, and you grunt out a noise of complaint as he pats your head in a fatherly manner.
"Don't touch," you mutter, swatting his large hand away.
"Apologies," he chortles, and carefully places your hat back; impeccable, as though it hadn't been removed, to begin with. "I simply found it adorable that you think so highly of her."
You blink slowly, churning over his words.
"Of course I do!" You exclaim a heartbeat later, reasonably affronted. "Xiangling is the best chef in the whole world!"
"Ah, you are not incorrect," Zhongli relents with a chuckle, crossing his arms. "Perhaps you just like the food she serves you."
That's not quite right either, but you echo his sentiment as the position of the sun in the sky catches your attention, which means you have a client to meet soon, and you don't have time to refute him.
"Maybe I just like the food."
It's not just the food, not by a long shot, but Xiangling sure uses it to her advantage.
"Xiang—ling—!" You singsong as you let yourself in through Wanmin Restaurant's side entrance the very next day. You'd scared her more than enough yesterday, so you opt to take it easy on your friend as you announce your presence and stride into the kitchen.
"Mind pushing all the handles out of the way as you come by?" Xiangling calls in response, used to you appearing out of the blue.
You simply hum and do as you're told, carefully nudging the handles of skillets with sizzling food still being cooked. It is a late afternoon on a Thursday, after all of Wanmin's other chefs have already gone home. The only remaining customers are a few tourists and a pair of Millileth officers, and Xiangling is somehow skilled enough to handle all of the work on her own.
You've always admired her independence— unlike Xingqiu and Chongyun, who seem to constantly seek each other's company, Xiangling has always been surprisingly competent, even in isolation. It's something you can admire because while you love your solitude as well, you're well aware of how you come across to others as you crack jokes under your breath and giggle to yourself. Xiangling's isolation seems graceful in comparison.
Whether in a crowd, attending to the work week's lunch rush, or while adventuring on her own in a foreign nation, Xiangling has always been so mature, so charming. Then again, perhaps Guoba's constant companionship is all she needs?
You like to think that you make her happy, just being near. You don't know how much truth that holds, but it's better than believing that you're otherwise.
"Xiang— ling—!" You sing again as you draw even closer, and you throw your arms around Xiangling's neck. With a hug from behind, you drape your body over hers without warning.
For her part, Xiangling doesn't jump or startle, not like when you purposefully scare her. Instead, she grunts out the softest oof! as you drop your weight onto her.
You hum in content, nuzzling your face against the back of her neck, and Xiangling stifles a laugh, choosing to let out a long, excessive groan instead that would give even Xingqiu and his flair for theatrics a run for his money.
"You're so heavy," she complains, wriggling around in your grasp as she tries to keep control over her wok, and you huff.
"Take that back!" You jab your fingers onto the side of her stomach, and Xiangling lets out a loud laugh, nearly buckling to her knees before fixing you with an overdramatic look of exasperation.
"You're such a nuisance!" Xiangling exclaims, loud and haughty as you finally step away, and you grin easily at the way she quirks up a smirk. She shakes her head and steps over to check on another skillet. "You should leave and never come back, Hu Tao. "
"Awww." You pout, slinking over to where she's transferring some Jueyun chili chicken over to a clean plate. "But I'd miss your food!"
"You should've thought about that before breaking and entering." Xiangling sighs, shoulders heaving exaggeratedly. "I can't be friends with a thief, Master Hu Tao, it's against the law."
That's bullshit and both of you know it, given how the Lady Tianquan breaks that alleged unspoken rule herself every time she invites Captain Beidou onto her private property. (Frankly, you think the entire arrangement is simultaneously hilarious yet fitting— of course Liyue's primary law enforcer would fall for the most notorious pirate in Liyue's thousands of years of history.)
Thankfully, you and Xiangling are not Liyue's worst kept secret, and you groan, flashing towards Xiangling's back in a shower of golden butterflies as you wrap your arms around her waist this time.
"Can I at least have a prawn dumpling before I go?" It's funny because you both know you'll be there until closing.
"Well," Xiangling sighs again, picking up a dumpling and holding it to your lips. "If you insist."
You've eaten countless prawn dumplings in your near two decades of life— without fail, Xiangling's taste the best, always.
Outside, the sun starts its decline across the city you hold so dearly to your heart, and as the waning sunlight trickles in from the nearby windows, you watch as Xiangling's hair gets dyed a warm, honeyed brown.
The walk home that night isn't nearly as fun.
In fact, you rather hate it.
Instead of creeping into your bedroom through your window as you so often do, you opt to actually enter through the front door for once, and perhaps that's what alerts Zhongli that something is wrong.
His brow is tinged with worry as he sees the way you shuffle in silently, not even bothering to make a proper entrance. Your ghost friends are equally concerned, and you sigh as they tug at the corners of your clothing insistently, making small noises of apprehension the more you ignore their antics.
Sighing once more, you flick away one of them and the rest halt in place—
—only for them to swarm Zhongli a heartbeat later, pushing at his long limbs and motioning to you in some attempt to get him to do something.
You know he can't see them, but the sight of the ghosts' concern makes you smile weakly.
"Are you okay, child?" Zhongli finally asks after he's assessed you up and down, a deep frown overtaking his features. You can already imagine his thought process— most likely a thinly veiled panic, because he's never seen you like this before, and it's much like how you've never felt like this before either.
"I don't know," you say, and it's half a lie because this is strange. There's a churning in your stomach that you've never felt before, a chasm running deeper than guilt and swirling with apprehension. Hardly anything phases you, but tonight had been different.
"Did something happen when you went to visit Xiangling?"
"No," you say instinctively, defensively, but then you pause, and your shoulders droop, and Zhongli's frown deepens.
He doesn't believe you. You wouldn't either.
"Zhongli?" You ask, and suddenly you're a child again, clumsily asking your grandfather to explain all about life and death again, sheepishly asking him to explain the cycle all over because you'd been distracted and far too fascinated by the ghosts. "Do you think I'm a nuisance?"
His eyes widen.
A stone gets thrown and it sinks into the depths of your stomach.
"Oh," you murmur, eyes downcast. Around you, the ghosts flutter nervously. You continue to ignore them. "I'm sorry, I hadn't realized before. I'm sorry—"
"No, that's not it," Zhongli immediately says, stooping low onto one knee, looking up at into your eyes. He smiles, warm and reassuring, and against your will, something hopeful rises in your chest. "You most definitely have your quirks, Hu Tao, and I cannot always keep up with how fast your mind works, but I promise you this: you are no nuisance."
"...Are you sure?" You almost feel ashamed to ask. Your grandfather had always told you to have confidence in yourself, but then tonight had happened and, well—
"Of course I'm sure." Zhongli reaches out, takes your hat off. This time, you let him, and your eyes close as he pats your head comfortingly. "What occurred tonight to make you question such things, child?"
You chew on your bottom lip, biting nearly hard enough to draw blood. You don't want to think about it, but then again, whenever else would you open up to someone like this again?
"Was stopped by the Milleleth on the way home today," you mutter, and Zhongli's jaw sets into a hard line. "There were two of them, and they said I was a nuisance, and that Xiangling thought so too. They told me to stop going to Wanmin, and that Xiangling said she wanted me to leave too. I—"
Ow. Whoops, hadn't meant to do that.
Gingerly, you lick your bottom lip and taste copper. Zhongli produces a handkerchief from somewhere within his suit and hands it to you, and you hold it to your lower lip as you continue.
"I didn't know she felt that way…" You trail off, ducking your head, fingers twisting into fabric. "I'd been with her for so long today— I didn't know I'd done something wrong."
"Are you sure that's what she meant?"
"What else could she mean? Those two men said they'd heard her themselves."
"How about instead of speculating, you go and ask Xiangling herself?" His suggestion comes gently, and there's a butterfly in your chest that flutters at the sound of your friend's name. "It won't do either of you any good if no one tries to communicate."
"You really think I should?" Sullen, you don't particularly want to bother her more than you already have.
"It's clear that you treasure your friendship with that child—" Zhongli cuts himself off as you shoot him a glare, and he quickly corrects himself, "—with Xiangling, greatly. I do not speak lightly when I say that it would be a tragedy if your friendship ended over something like this, without even a chance to hear out her side of the story."
You don't stay home after the conversation, and instead, you opt to roam around beyond the Harbor for longer— your thoughts are restless, and so you are too.
Perhaps the silent hills will do you some good.
On a night that was different from all others,
I purposefully chose to return on the mountain path.
As the summer sky embraced its companions with open arms,
I am a cowardly sun.
Hu Tao, Of Common Lives.
You have to work up the courage to visit her the next day.
Despite your carefree nature, you hate procrastinating— and even more than that, you hate leaving threads hanging; hate leaving conversations unfinished, especially before they'd even had the chance to happen.
Still, for the first time, you find yourself afraid.
Your audacity isn't enough anymore, your eyes are not enough— Xiangling can see through both with such ease that it almost scares you. Just how tight of a hold does this other girl have over you? Does she even know the way she makes your heart race to the point where you worry that it'll give out?
Is she even aware of the way you look at her, and suddenly all the poems come rushing to you, yet at the same time, absolutely none at all? Because just as you have seen beyond this world, somewhere down the line, you'd come to realize that Xiangling's infectious presence could never be adequately described by such limited language.
You don't know what you'd do without her.
It is late summer, and you cannot imagine a season like summer without Xiangling in your life.
You appear by the side entrance later than usual, awkwardly shifting on your feet. Whether Xiangling notices or not, you don't know because she mercifully doesn't comment, opting to smile at you like she's been expecting your arrival this entire time.
"I was wondering when you were going to show up!" She chirps, giggling as she skips over to you. Suddenly, Xiangling is standing right in front of you, shining in all her brilliance, and you can't help it— you crack a smile at her brightness in turn. "I'm trying out this new dish, and I need you to—"
"Xiangling?" Abruptly, you call for her, your arms moving on their own accord to loop themselves around her shoulders. Without hesitance, you feel her own arms wind around your waist to complete the embrace, and you will yourself not to cry because this one-sided awkwardness you feel around her is suffocating.
"What is it?" She asks, quiet and matching you beat for beat as she speaks into the crook of your neck.
"Do you hate me?" Your voice is uncharacteristically small.
"What? Why would you ever think that?" Xiangling pulls back ever-so-slightly, frowning deeply. Guilt gnaws at your stomach, and you duck your head.
"Sorry, sorry," you mumble, peering up at her remorsefully. A frown… as if yesterday wasn't bad enough, today is not your day either. You open your mouth to apologize again, but suddenly the look in your friend's eyes is softening, and Xiangling's frown disappears as fast as it had come.
"No, no—" And then she's shaking her head, breathing out a laugh that causes your stomach to leap into your throat. She squeezes your waist reassuringly. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I don't hate you, Hu Tao— I could never, no matter how annoyed I might sound in the moment . I'm sorry if I ever made you feel that way."
"Ah." You feel your cheeks alight with heat not unlike your own Pyro flames. "It's just—"
Abruptly, you tip your head forward, signature hat going askew, covering your eyes.
"These two Milleleth men, Cai Xun and Cai Le, approached me after I left Wanmin yesterday and said I was causing too much trouble for you." You swallow. Normally, you have no problem telling the truth— what kind of funeral director guides souls to the other life without honesty? There's something about Xiangling, though; something about her clear, wide eyes that make you want her to be proud of you, that makes you afraid of her disliking you.
If Xiangling wants you out of her presence, you'd obviously have no choice but to comply— even if it hurts you to go without her brightness.
"They said you were complaining about me," you mutter, quieter this time, and Xiangling's eyes widen in horror.
"Oh, Hu Tao, no!" She whispers, golden eyes quickly becoming teary. Her fingers grip on your arm, her thumb rubbing circles onto the inside of your wrist, comforting. "You were with me until closing, so they must've heard me when we were in the kitchen and I raised my voice too loud."
You blink, not quite understanding.
"You were complaining about me back then?"
"That's the thing, I wasn't!" Xiangling's resulting giggle is hoarse. She reaches up, fixes your hat, but a stray tear accidentally escapes the corner of her eye, and you quickly use a thumb to wipe it away, a hand cupping her cheek. Once again she latches to your wrist and holds you there— you hope she can't feel the way your pulse rises. "Not everyone understands the way we speak with each other— they don't get that this is just how we are. We joke around all the time, but other people might not get us."
Xiangling pauses, eyeing you nervously.
"Does that… make sense?"
You pause. Then—
"Oh," you whisper, because suddenly all the numbers add up.
Momentarily, you rewind back to yesterday, replaying the conversation that had ensued between the two of you after your usual sneak attack— "You're such a nuisance!" Xiangling had said, dramatic exasperation in her tone, and to anyone else, that would've sounded harsh.
But at that moment, no one except you had had privy to the fond glimmer in Xiangling's eyes. No one else had been able to see the playful quirk of Xiangling's mouth as she'd plucked up a prawn dumpling and fed it straight to your mouth anyway.
"I'm sorry," Xiangling murmurs, subconsciously running her fingers across your skin. "You were cornered yesterday and it was all my fault." She shoots you a small, regretful smile. "I'm sorry. I won’t say those things anymore, and I'll make sure to be quieter next time."
Words can't even begin to express the flood of relief that washes over you in waves as you realize that yes, Xiangling still wants you here; you haven't lost your place over her right shoulder.
"No, it's fine!" You say, tone brighter, more eager than before. Slowly, you feel yourself returning back to normal. "There's no need for that!"
Xiangling's eyes widen, surprised. "But—"
"Who cares what they think?" Huffing, you puff out your cheek, and Xiangling breaks into startled laughter, her eyes rising into perfect crescent moons. "They don't understand us, so what? We don't need to change ourselves for something like this! You understand me, I understand you. Isn't that the only thing that matters?"
"I—" Xiangling's mouth parts, but the words die on her tongue as she takes in your eager expression, the way your grin keeps growing the more the light returns to her eyes; you build with her in this way, you've come to realize.
"You're so weird," she finally says, affectionate, and it's at moments like this that you wonder who's cuter— Guoba or his master.
"Someone has to keep you in check," you simply tell her, proud, and Xiangling playfully rolls her eyes.
"Shouldn't I be telling that to you?"
You open your mouth to reply, but she cuts you off with an index finger to your lips.
"Actually, don't answer that. I need you to try this new dish I'm experimenting with. It uses these philanemo mushrooms that I found while in Mondstadt, and—"
You let yourself get whisked away in her excitement.
And so, you bring her flowers the following evening, right near closing time.
Real ones this time.
But you're out of breath when you show up and your cheeks are flushed both from how your heart audibly pounds in your chest, and from how you'd dashed over all the way from Yujing Terrace, a trail of your glimmering golden butterflies poignant against the darkening summer sky.
At your late and haggard appearance, Xiangling immediately drops the wooden spoon she’d been washing to dash over, flitting around you like a worried hummingbird, and there are a million questions bubbling from her lips, and—
You thrust the bouquet of silk flowers into Xiangling's arms, and for once, she is stunned into silence, wordlessly gaping at you as her gaze flickers from you to the blossoms in her arms, and then back to you.
"What are these for?" She asks softly.
"I scared you yesterday, right?" You say, scuffing the tip of your shoe against the floor. "I wanted to apologize since it wasn't your fault either, and I jumped to conclusions."
“I thought we agreed that this was a misunderstanding.” Xiangling chuckles, but she cradles the flowers tenderly in her arms nonetheless, stepping forward to press her forehead against yours for a moment. You’re slightly taller— Xiangling tilts her chin up. “These silk flowers are beautiful, though— thank you so very much, Hu Tao!”
“Sorry you can’t use them for cooking.” You smile sheepishly as she pulls away. “I would’ve brought plum blossoms but they’re kinda not really in season.”
(You had actually been panicking earlier, because somewhere along the way, plum blossoms had become a thing between the two of you, but summer is not plum blossom season, and fermented blossoms wouldn’t cut it, so it had taken a lot of consoling from your ghost friends to get the message that yes, Hu Tao, she’ll love anything you bring her to sink in.)
“That’s more than fine!” She laughs, and although the sun has already set outside, Xiangling remains your own little sun here within arm’s reach.
Delicately, she pulls out a single silk flower from the bouquet and tucks it behind her ear. You watch in fascination as she gently pulls out another before standing on her tiptoes, threading it through the ribbon tied to the side of your hat.
“We match!” Xiangling bounces on the tips of her feet eagerly, and you reach up to gently touch the pale pink blossom atop your head before a genuine, wider smile blooms across your own lips. Silk flowers aren’t your favorite, they could never replace plum blossoms, but they’re pretty and Xiangling thinks they’re beautiful, and that means they must be special as well, right?
“What’s your favorite flower, Xiangling?” You ask, rocking back and forth on your heels.
“My favorite flower?” Xiangling contemplates. Then she laughs. “The ones in your eyes, of course!”
Well. You hadn’t expected that at all.
“Hu Blossoms?” The other girl continues. Xiangling giggles to herself, twirling around in place, somehow managing to avoid hitting the many pots and pans hanging around the premises. “Tao Flowers?”
You feel your face start to heat up.
“Wait, wait, that shouldn’t count—”
“But if that’s the case,” Xiangling tips her head considerately, fixing you with a brilliant smile. “Then I guess any flowers you give me are my favorites too!”
“No, no,” you groan as Xiangling breaks into a peal of laughter, the sound of a summer day embodied in a single person; the way every single day would sound if you had anything to do with it. “I’m supposed to be the poetic one!”
“Maybe I picked some things up from you,” Xiangling teases, hands on her hips. “Maybe you’ve been rubbing off on me.”
“I lose all my cool-sounding words when I’m with you,” you complain, making grabby hands as Xiangling dances out of your immediate reach, further into the kitchen. “Give them back!”
You don’t mind chasing after Xiangling, all things considered. It’s pretty fun, actually.
Under the gentle sunlight,
The flower that blossomed delicately
Sways back and forth on a warm breeze,
On a different planet, beyond dreams.
Hu Tao, overheard on the street.
The days continue to pass, and you feel the summer days dwindling, a curious sensation in your bones. Somewhere along the way, the days had started shortening and you quite can't pinpoint when, especially not when each day has fallen into a binary of sorts— either a Xiangling day, or a be productive because Xiangling’s traveling day.
She still hasn't given your words back. Instead, you find yourself more and more tongue-tied the longer you're in her presence.
The weirdest part is that you don't even mind.
Frankly, it's hard to think too deeply about it all when Xiangling seems to understand despite everything. Just one look and it's as though she's peered through a stained-glass window into your soul, figuring you out with crystal clarity despite your own how you do your best to keep playing around like usual.
“ ‘A lengthy stroll’?” Xiangling repeats your words, the corner of her lip quirking up in amusement even as her shoulders heave heavily and she whisks her polearm away. “You mean you want to go on an adventure?”
You join her where she sits in the grass of your usual training place, shrugging with a grin as the length of your arm brushes against hers.
“An adventure!” You bounce in place; Xiangling laughs at your enthusiasm. “So I figured that with all the traveling you do, you must be a master at adventuring by now—”
“I’m self-proclaimed,” Xiangling corrects.
“—A self-proclaimed master at adventuring!” You cheer, Xiangling erupting into giggles once more. “And I mean, I’m definitely not nearly as experienced as you at adventuring, but I’d say I’m no pushover either—”
“Self-proclaimed?” Xiangling asks.
“—A tried and true novice, is what I am!” You cry, and Xiangling has to bury her head in your shoulder to stifle her giggles. “But anyway, I figured I would ask you to accompany me since it’s late summer, which is the perfect time for adventuring, and I want to go somewhere… unconventional.”
The other girl raises a wary eyebrow.
“Where exactly are we going?”
You grin wickedly.
“When you said unconventional, I didn’t think you meant above Qingyun Peak!” Xiangling gasps, flopping atop the floating island, hovering right above the aforementioned mountain. “I didn’t even know this place existed!”
"I just wanted some fresh air!" Hopping from foot to foot, you dance your way to Xiangling and tug insistently on the ribbon of her bell, the jingling sound resonating through the quiet space. “Come on, you can catch your breath under the pavilion with me! It’s almost time!”
“Time for what?” Xiangling inquires as you tow her over to take a seat.
“Magic hour,” you reply, and she blinks in confusion. But then you’re nudging her with your shoulder, and Xiangling is turning her head, and something tugs at your heartstrings the moment she gasps, finally taking in the scenery.
All around you, pink clouds as far as the eye can see. The endless sky surrounding stains a warm orange, mixing with the pinks into a gradient of color, stemming from the fading blue of a late summer day. You point into the distance, and Xiangling inhales at the sight of a flock of cranes, dipping in and out of the cloud sea like jumping fish— for a moment, Teyvat stops turning, and something else does too, and the air is still.
“Oh,” Xiangling whispers, and she clutches your hand.
“I wanted to bring you here,” you say, quiet. You grip at her hand in return. “I wanted to show you to my grandfather.”
“Your—” The already gentle look in Xiangling’s eye somehow manages to soften even more. “Oh, Hu Tao.”
“I’ll tell you this secret, since I trust you a lot.” You bump your shoulder against hers. “Wuwang Hill is special, because at that place, there is a particular line that separates life and death. When my grandfather died, I went to that place, because I thought I would have the chance to see him one more time before he departed forever.”
Xiangling leans forward imploringly.
“Did you get to see him?”
“No.” You shake your head, but you’re smiling. “When souls linger in our world instead of departing for the next, it’s because they’re held down by regrets. And so, it was foolish of me to think he would be stuck at a place like that— not when he had lived such an open and honest life. When grandfather died, he had passed fulfilled, without any dangling threads. There was no need for him to linger somewhere so dreary.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Xiangling enthuses, golden eyes shimmering like sunstones. “I’m glad he was able to pass with no regrets.”
“I’m glad too,” you say, open and honest, and with that, you stand. Sending the other girl a grin over your shoulder, you shrug. “I dunno… I wanted my grandfather to meet you somehow, you know? And this place… well, we can see all of Liyue from here.”
“No matter where he is, in this world or the next, I bet that he can see us now.” Xiangling’s voice is solemn. “I’m sure of it.”
Walking towards the edge of the floating island, you stoop to pick a Qingxin that, against all odds, had managed to blossom in such a place. You cradle it in your hands as you toss a grateful look towards Xiangling.
“I hope so too!” You beam.
Then, you face the horizon and snap your fingers. In an instant, a flurry of golden butterflies appears, flapping their wings as you send them off into the sunset. You feel Xiangling’s transfixed gaze on your back the whole time, and your smile takes on something soft.
“He would’ve loved you,” you say, quieter. You turn on your heel, heading back to the pavilion.
“You think?” Xiangling scoots to the edge of the bench as you return to your seat.
“I know it,” you proclaim boldly.
“How can you tell?” She asks.
It’s that that gets you to stop and think.
“Because?” She prods.
"Because I loved you instantly," you finally tell her, soft as you run a finger over the petals of the Qingxin, the waning summer sunlight behind you— magic hour, as fleeting as it already was, already dwindling as a night of stars star peeking from beyond the great beyond. "From the very first moment I saw you— you were summer and autumn even in a late winter, and I loved you."
"Really?" Xiangling hums as if knowing your words were true, resting her head on your shoulder. She takes your free hand within her own two, outlining blossoms into your palm. "That's funny actually— I saw you, and I thought of the coming spring."
"Did you love me?"
"Yeah." The other girl giggles, light as air, and maybe you were physically above the clouds before, but you're pretty sure your soul has ascended too. "I think I did— love you, I mean. I just didn't know it at the time. I'm still a bit awkward even now."
"That's okay," you tell her with a decisive nod, hiding your grin as you press your lips into her hair. "I'm ridiculous too."
“Maybe it was your eyes,” Xiangling muses.
“What about my audacity?” You suggest jokingly. “Or the way I make your heart race to the point of a near heart attack!”
“I don’t think jumpscares make my heart race in quite the same way!” Xiangling laughs, and you join her easily because these things have always come effortlessly with Xiangling; because you love her, you’ve loved her for a while.
“Is your heart racing right now?”
“Of course it is.”
“So what’s the difference?” You ask her innocently, batting your eyelashes. Xiangling rolls her eyes playfully, already knowing what you’re going for.
“The difference,” Xiangling says with emphasis, her head coming off your shoulder to look you in the eyes, “is that my heart is racing right now, not in a brief ' scared for my life' type of way, but in an 'I want you to always be there to taste my cooking' kind of way.” She pauses. “In an ' I wouldn’t mind seeing your face first thing in the morning every day, even if it’s to yell boo!’ kind of way.”
“Is it an 'I want to see you first thing when I come home' sort of way?” You question. “Or a ' let’s ferment our plum blossoms together' kind of way?”
“Exactly that sort of way.” Xiangling grins. “And then some.”
“What about in an 'I’d like to kiss you' kind of way?”
“Is that the kind of way your heart is racing?”
“It’s the kind of way my heart has been racing.”
“Oh, really now? Just when did that start?”
“Dunno. Maybe from the moment you called me a nuisance and fed me a prawn dumpling.”
“I brought some with me, by the way. I brought a whole bunch of food.”
“You did?! Xiangling, I love you—”
“I’ll feed you in exchange for a kiss.”
You end up discovering something that tastes better than prawn dumplings; than flower cakes.
And so you press the Qingxin into her hair and smile into Xiangling’s kiss and find that you don’t even mind that the food’s probably getting cold.
Zhongli greets you the following morning when you finally return to the funeral parlor and you’re yawning into your hand, tired but happy— so ridiculously happy.
“I take it your trip to the floating island went well?” He asks, deep voice rumbling through the room as you smile sleepily at him.
“It went great!” You enthuse, because it had. Following your confessions, you’d stayed with Xiangling under the pavilion through the night. You’d reheated the food, eating and talking and laughing and basking in each other’s presence as you’d internally counted your blessings and thanked the Archons (and Xingqiu and Chongyun, by extension) for bringing this girl into your life.
Around the both of you, your little ghost friends come out of hiding, tugging at your clothes, nudging you, passing through your body. They’re curious, you know they are, and you’ll be sure to fill them all in later after you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep.
“And Xiangling enjoyed herself?” Zhongli asks, not knowing of the way the ghosts swarm him too.
“She did,” you affirm, and you think about the promise you’d made with her just as you’d dropped her off at Wanmin— apparently, Mondstadt is holding a festival next month, and Xiangling wants you to attend.
Another adventure with Xiangling? There’s no way you’re turning down that!
“I’m gonna see the world with her,” you tell Zhongli, and a brief hint of surprise flashes across his features, but it’s gone as soon as it comes, replaced by kind amusement.
“And I suppose you’ll be leaving Wangsheng’s responsibilities to me during your absences?” He teases.
“But of course!” You exclaim. “Who better to trust the funeral parlor with than someone as old as you!”
“You flatter me,” he says dryly, but the Wangsheng consultant’s words carry no weight, and he smiles at you in a way that almost reminds you of your grandfather. “Tell me how everything tastes when you run off to try out the best cuisine Teyvat has to offer.”
“Oh, I will!” You call over your shoulder, heading towards your bedroom, your mind abuzz with thoughts of Xiangling and how cute she’ll look, showing you around all the nations she’s already visited. “And I’m going to love every second of it!”
“It was never just the food, was it?” Zhongli considers.
And you think of Xiangling, and her sunshine, and dedication, and maturity, and how much you just adore every ounce of her.
“No,” you say, grinning. “It wasn’t.”
You’re already brainstorming what flowers to bring her tomorrow.