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Life goes on.

With the subjugation of That Which Lies in the Deep behind them, Ningguang and the rest of the Qixing convene in Yuehai Pavilion, drawing up missives to send out to local traders and merchants, issuing temporary blockades on ships entering the Sea of Clouds, and forming task forces to retrieve the remnants of the Jade Chamber from around the Guyun Stone Forest. Ningguang asks to personally vet those who will be sent to clean the seas of the Jade Chamber, and, with pitying looks, the other members of the Qixing grant her request.

She swallows the knee-jerk reaction that comes with being pitied, and she gets to work building teams of reputable soldiers and sailors to comb the oceans. Her shortlist is filled with Milleliths of the highest caliber, soldiers who have faithfully served Liyue for years and years, soldiers who can be counted on to sail the high seas and to be able to defend themselves carrying out her will. They are all men and women she trusts, and she sets aside a fund to reward them all handsomely.

There is a name she writes in the list and then crosses out, and then she rewrites the entire list so that no one can ever see that temporary lapse of judgment. She has always prided herself on her ability to remain objective, after all.

Ningguang keeps herself busy to avoid thinking about the inevitable.

They trickle in slowly at first, but by the third day of exploration, a deluge of hand-written reports flood her makeshift office, a hastily set up room in an empty building in Yujing Terrace. Her secretaries are already hard at work trying to recover the intelligence that was lost with the Jade Chamber, so Ningguang files through the reports herself, rifling through the receipts showing that a wooden chair has been found, or that several cracked lanterns have been recovered.

She tries not to linger too deeply on the loss, the blood and the sweat and the tears she poured into the Jade Chamber for so long, only to have it end up buried at the bottom of the ocean instead of continuing to float in the sky above Liyue like she’d meant it to. It was a symbol of how far she’d come, how hard she’d worked to drag herself from selling starconches along the Yaoguang shoreline to heading the Liyue Qixing.

No matter.

Regret is a fool’s game.

 

 

 

 

Baishi is the first one who notices.

“Lady Ningguang,” she ventures, timid, “are you well?”

“I’m perfectly fine, Baishi. Thank you for your concern.” Ningguang fixes her with a steady gaze before motioning to the growing pile of small items to be inventoried. “Baishi, would you please take those trinkets and match them to the descriptions we provided of what was lost?”

Her secretary bows and scurries off with the items, chastised, and Ningguang turns her attention back to the scroll in front of her. She’s been reading the same line over and over again for five minutes, her mind unable to focus, unable to concentrate on the task at hand, and it’s destroying her work ethic. They say that trauma takes its toll on the body and on the mind, and Ningguang is loath to admit it.

Her nights are restless, her sleep plagued with nightmares— no, not nightmares, but vivid recollections of the Jade Chamber disintegrating into pieces as it smashed into the turbulent waves below. She relives that night every night, her own voice sounding like a stranger’s to her own ears as she gives the order to sink the Jade Chamber into the ocean to quell That Which Lies in the Deep again and again. She wakes up from her nightmares in a cold sweat, her hair plastered to her forehead and her hands clenched in her blankets.

Not even the softest pillows, the downiest mattress, the thickest blankets can soothe her nights, and it’s no wonder, really, that cracks are beginning to show in her facade.

 

 

 

 

Ningguang carries on like that for so long, balancing nights filled with specters of the past and days spent dredging them up from the deep.

She begins to have hope, finally, when one of the ships sent to trawl the ocean floor reports back that they’ve found the main body of the Jade Chamber. Its sheer size and the quality of its construction ensured that it remained nearly intact as it sank to the depths of the sea, and with every passing day, every additional report of good news, Ningguang feels the fog over her mind begin lift oh-so-slightly.

Then—

“Wow, you look like shit.”

It takes everything Ningguang has not to throw her bowl of soup at the other woman, who only cocks her head to the side.

“Captain,” Ningguang says. Her voice comes out sounding infinitely more welcoming than she feels. “How pleasant of you to join me for dinner after so long.”

“No, really,” Beidou says, and she scoots closer on the wooden bench. Her good eye surveys Ningguang with an alarming intensity. “You look awful. I heard what happened— I tried to get here sooner, but I got trapped in Inazuma and they wouldn’t let me leave for weeks, you know, with everything going on with their archon, so I snuck onto a patrol ship and rode a wave all the way back here.”

Beidou leans even closer, her hand coming up to lift Ningguang’s chin, and she makes a noise of disapproval at what she sees— the headpiece fastened crookedly atop her hair, the dark circles under her eyes, the dull shine of her once-lustrous hair— Ningguang already knows what Beidou sees, since she is nothing if not self-critical.

“Ningguang, I should have been here sooner. I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with this alone for so long,” whispers Beidou, and the undercurrent of pity in her voice and the gentleness of her fingers make something in Ningguang’s carefully constructed shields break. All this time spent denying it, and Beidou says what no one else dares to say to her. How dare she waltz back into Liyue like this, how dare she.

“Perhaps you should’ve been here,” Ningguang snaps. A heartbeat is enough time for the words to sink in, and then she regrets them almost immediately. “I apologize, I—”

“No,” Beidou says, her voice like steel, and she stands up. She curls a hand around Ningguang’s wrist, effortlessly dragging her up from the bench as well. “No. You don’t get to take it back. You’re coming with me, Ningguang.”

Under the cover of night, it’s easy enough for Ningguang to go unnoticed as Beidou takes her down the streets of Chihu Rock and into the harbor, where the Alcor is anchored.

“Captain, I already apologized, so let go of me.” Ningguang tries to tug her wrist away, but Beidou’s grip holds fast.

“Ningguang, if you really wanted to leave, you could’ve blasted me away at any moment, but you didn’t. Come with me.” Beidou shifts her grip, just slightly, until she’s holding Ningguang’s hand. Ningguang startles, a jade star starting to manifest behind her so she can fling Beidou away for real, and Beidou laughs. “Don’t worry, all of my crewmembers are off the ship. I told them to get out once we docked since I wanted to enjoy a night alone with my baby— ah, my ship, not you.”

Ningguang arches an eyebrow. “Am I ruining your plans for the night, Captain?”

“Not at all. If anything, this night is better with you here.” Beidou gives Ningguang an exaggerated wink, cackling when Ningguang sighs, before she reaches up to pull down the gangplank and releases her grip on Ningguang’s hand to push her forward. “I’ll be right behind you, so don’t worry about anything.”

 

 

 

 

(The first time Ningguang met Beidou— in person, not as a photograph hastily clipped to a set of reports about what the Crux Fleet had done this time— was on the Alcor, staring down the sharp end of Beidou’s greatsword.

“Tianquan Ningguang,” Beidou said, and even the way she said her name was laced with electricity. “What are you doing on my ship?”

Ningguang refused to back down. “Put down your weapon, please, Captain.”

When Beidou pulled back her greatsword, huffing as she did so, Ningguang hopped off of the desk she was told was “Captain Beidou’s, so please don’t sit on it, Lady Tianquan,” and flicked her wrist. A scroll unfolded in between them, glimmering with elemental energy.

“Captain, I was informed that your fleet crossed international waters no fewer than eight times this past week. Given that Inazuma and Liyue are currently embroiled in a trade war, I’m curious to know what you’ve been doing crossing the borders so many times,” Ningguang said. The scroll closed with a sharp snap. “Is there anything the Qixing need to know?”

Beidou rolled her eyes. “I’ve already filed the paperwork, Ningguang,” she said, and Ningguang didn’t miss the way she intentionally omitted her title. “Maybe you should check with your secretary about the regulations allowing me to cross international borders when transporting essential items, or is your own ship of operations not running as smoothly as you’d want?”

Ningguang bristled. Beidou was known for breaking the rules, and instances like these were not uncommon— after all, the fines paid by Beidou and her Crux Fleet made up a significant portion of the mora collected by Ningguang’s office. That Beidou might have had clearance for her joyride was unthinkable.

“I see,” Ningguang said instead. “I’ll have to speak to my staff about this.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Beidou called out as Ningguang brushed past her, leaving a wide berth between them. Ningguang turned, and Beidou was sitting on top of her desk. “This isn’t the end, Ningguang.”

“No,” Ningguang agreed. “I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

And with that, Ningguang stepped smoothly out of the large windows of the captain’s quarters and onto a waiting platform. The ride up to the Jade Chamber was quiet, and she mulled over Beidou’s words. Could there have been something she missed? But Ningguang didn’t miss things, especially not before going to speak to someone like Beidou in person.

Sure enough, there it was on her desk: a smartly wrapped bundle of scrolls, each detailing a particular aspect of the Crux Fleet’s operations in the Sea of Clouds. They must’ve been filed right after she left.

Ningguang made sure to shred them to pieces even finer than dust when she was done reading them over, and it was only due to how irrational Beidou made her that she steered the Jade Chamber to above the Guyun Stone Forest and threw the remnants onto the Crux Fleet below.)

 

 

 

 

Perhaps Beidou has always made Ningguang do things she otherwise wouldn’t.

Perhaps that is why Ningguang allows Beidou to take her hand again and lead her below deck and through the ship, passing the galley and sailors’ quarters, to end up in front of the door to the captain’s quarters— Beidou’s quarters.

“What are we doing here?” Ningguang asks, finally. Beidou lets go of her hand, unlocking the door and pushing Ningguang inside before closing it behind her. Ningguang walks off, trailing her fingers against the decorations on the walls. Trophies Beidou has collected throughout the years from her marine conquests are proudly displayed, iridescent scales and glittering pearls reflecting the light from the lamps in the room. “I have things to do.”

“Would you care for a game of Liyue Millennial? For old time’s sake?” Beidou asks in return, traipsing over to her desk and pulling out a familiar wooden box. It’s the box all copies of the game are packaged and sold in throughout Liyue, and Ningguang smiles, faint, despite herself. The box is decorated with small flowers, hand-pressed into the wood and covered in a layer of glaze, and it’s the cover unique to a select few copies of the newest edition.

“The eighth edition, Captain? And the limited version, no less. I certainly am surprised you had the time to look for this when you are hardly on dry land to begin with.”

“Even good law-abiding pirates like me need some downtime, Ningguang. Anyway, I asked someone to help me pick up a copy. I reserved it beforehand from the girl at Jifang,” Beidou drawls. She carries the box over to the low table in the center of the room and pulls out some cushions before unzipping her boots and shucking them off to the side. She sits down on a cushion, unlatching the case before motioning for Ningguang to sit down.

Ningguang sighs. She has always been a little weak to Beidou’s single-minded and take-no-survivors methods of getting people to do what they want, and maybe taking some time off away from inventorying the pieces of her former home wouldn’t hurt. She unlaces her heels, setting them to the side, before settling onto the cushion, her legs underneath her.

“You should really ask someone other than Yaoyao to help you run errands in the city. She already has her own duties to attend to.”

“How did you know it was Yaoyao who helped me pick up the game? And I thought I hid it so well, too!” Beidou presses a hand to her chest, feigning shock.

“Captain, despite what you may think, there’s actually no other logical option for Yaoyao showing up at Ganyu’s office to report for duty with a new tome from Inazuma, of all places,” Ningguang says, picking up a piece from the scattered mess across the board. It’s the weaver, and she watches as Beidou picks up the cowherd and grins, lopsided, at her. “Which edition of the rules do you play by?”

“Whatever you want, Ningguang. Which edition are you on now? 32.6?” Beidou asks, and Ningguang nods absently, preoccupied with putting all the pieces in their rightful places. “Let’s do that, then. It’s your game, right?”

“Yes,” Ningguang says, and she takes the six-sided and twelve-sided dice Beidou offers her and tosses them onto the table. She moves her weaver twenty spaces forward, and Beidou whistles, low. “Captain, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re looking for an easy win, you will not find one here.”

“Good,” Beidou says, and when she smiles, her teeth flash in the low light. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

 

 

 

Ningguang wins, but just barely. She ekes out victory by invoking a little-known loophole at the eleventh hour, and it’s with a smug grin on her face that she leans back and says, “It seems like today is my victory.”

“Ah damn, you’ve got me!” Beidou wails, slapping her hands onto the table so hard that the pieces rattle, and Ningguang dives forward to keep them from clattering to the floor. She fixes Beidou with a sharp glare after saving the pieces.

“Was that really necessary?”

“No, but if I wanted to see that look on your face? Absolutely.”

Ningguang huffs, and when she looks up at Beidou, the other woman is smiling again, softer this time, a little gentler around the edges.

“Ningguang, when was the last time you had any time off to yourself?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ningguang sighs. The large windows span the width of the room, giving Ningguang a view of the ocean spread out before her and the moon that hangs high in the sky. She’d completely lost track of time playing Liyue Millennial with Beidou, which was really only par for the course whenever she was with the other woman. “Listen, Captain, I really do appreciate that you played this game with me tonight, but it is getting late. I should head back to the harbor, my aides are waiting for me.”

“You should stay,” Beidou says. “It’s late. You can go back in the morning, your reports aren’t going anywhere.”

“Captain,” Ningguang says, a touch of warning in her voice. “Just because you played a game with me doesn’t mean I’ll come to your bed that easily.”

“Don’t worry, Ningguang, I won’t do anything. You can take my bed, I’ll sleep on one of the other crewmates’ beds tonight.”

Ningguang narrows her eyes at the other woman, who’s clearing the table and humming as she packs the pieces back into the box. “Why?”

“Do I need a reason to want you to sleep on a nice bed when you look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a long time?” Beidou leans forward, cupping her chin in the palm of her hand. “Because I wasn’t kidding, Ningguang. You really do look like shit. Stay awhile and sleep, the world will still be here when you wake up.”

She really should leave now. She doesn’t even need a good or even believable excuse to get out of here— she could easily just reject Beidou’s offer and go back to Yujing Terrace where it’s nice and comfortable, where she has a perfectly fine bed waiting for her, where the ground is solid beneath her feet, where she feels the safest these days, surrounded by her reports and scrolls. But is it really alright, when she’s been plagued by nightmares ever since that day, when her home is now hundreds of meters below the waves?

“The Jade Chamber won’t,” Ningguang says, the words slipping out before she can properly filter them out, and she bites her lip. The damage is already done— Beidou’s gaze softens even more, her good eye fixing on Ningguang’s face. The shame fills her, hot and ugly, the unspoken I regret that sacrifice, that night loud and clear in that admission.

Beidou, as always, has made her so irrational. “Don’t look at me like that,” Ningguang snaps, curling her hands into fists. “I hate it when you look at me like that.”

“For the record, I don’t know if I could’ve done what you did. If someone asked me to steer the Alcor into a sea monster to kill it? I’d rather you launch me at it so I could kill it myself rather than tell me to give up something I worked so hard for,” Beidou reaches over the table and covers Ningguang’s fists with her own hand. Ningguang doesn’t bother pretending to pull away anymore, doesn’t bother making a show of resisting. It’s too late for that now. “I mean, I guess if it came down to sacrificing my ship or letting the entire Liyue Harbor get destroyed, I guess I’d do it too. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be happy about it.”

Ningguang laughs. The sound tastes bitter on her own tongue.

“You’re right about that. I’m not happy about it at all. Who in their right mind would be happy after throwing away their life’s work like that? Even if I did it to protect the harbor, there are still things I wanted to do with that place. There were so many things I collected, so much artwork and pottery and poetry.” She presses her lips tightly together. “Perhaps I have previously couched my actions in a desire to save the people of Liyue, but I seem to be more selfish than I thought I was. After all, what are material possessions compared to thousands of lives?”

“I think it’s okay not to be okay with it. I’m telling you, if I were you and I had to give up the Alcor, I’d have been blacked out for days, like straight up passed out in the square at Chihu Rock for a week. You’d have to drag me out of there and handcuff me to a chair to stop me from drinking my brains out. Anything not to feel anything anymore, you know?”

“I know what you mean. I miss it. It feels like a part of me isn’t here anymore,” Ningguang whispers, and then she lets out another laugh. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you all of this. Why does being around you always lead me to make such bad decisions, Captain?”

Beidou hums. “You know what, I have a funny story to tell you. My crew and I were anchored off Yaoguang Shoal some time ago, and I met this super cute old granny there. She said there used to be a little girl who sold starconches in the cities to feed herself after her parents washed away in a storm, and that this little girl used to come and give her mora, even though she probably barely even had enough for herself.”

“Fascinating story, Captain. Truly.”

“It doesn’t end there, don’t interrupt me. This nice little granny said to me that the little girl went away after a while, and she wondered about her for a long, long time. She asked me if I’d ever seen her, since I was such a handsome and dashing pirate captain, I must’ve seen her throughout my travels.” Beidou levels a glance at Ningguang. “Tell me, Ningguang. Do you know how that little girl is doing these days?”

“I wonder,” Ningguang replies. Her hand is starting to become too warm underneath Beidou’s, and she tries to wriggle it out. Beidou’s fingers close tightly over hers in response. “She must be doing quite well for herself these days. But how would I know someone like her? I only deal with the children of Liyue Harbor. Yaoguang Shoal is on the other side of the country.”

“Ah, I forgot something. You see, this granny said the little girl was so memorable. You know why?” Beidou leans over now, releasing Ningguang’s hand to run her fingers through Ningguang’s hair. “She told me the girl had hair that faded from a silvery white at its roots to almost a dark grey at its tips, and she had eyes the color of amber. I don’t suppose you know anyone like that?”

Ningguang holds Beidou’s gaze, steady and unwavering, for a few moments before she sighs. “What good does it do you to go snooping around, Captain? Does it benefit you that much to know what happened to a little girl with no name and no parents? The past is of no importance where the present is concerned.”

“I’d say that actually, yes, it is of the utmost importance. After all, wouldn’t someone who worked her way up from nothing to become Tianquan deserve to feel just a tiny bit of selfishness for once?” Beidou argues, and she’s still so unnervingly close, so unnervingly earnest with her words. “The Jade Chamber was yours, Ningguang. It’s alright to mourn its loss. Anyway, I’m sure that being on land is strange for you, too. I’ve had my sea legs for so long that whenever I step on the ground I already feel a little queasy, no baijiu needed.”

“That does help. Thank you, Captain, for affirming that you would also be loath to part with your ship. It does help me feel better about dropping my own home into the ocean.” Ningguang cracks a smile at last, and Beidou leans forward, lightning-quick, to press a kiss to her forehead, pulling back just as rapidly and standing up like she’s greatly regretting her impulse decisions.

“Of course! She’s my baby, what did I tell you? And now, this honorable pirate captain must make her exit and will leave you to your rest,” Beidou says, and Ningguang reaches up to grab her wrist.

“Stay with me tonight,” Ningguang says, and she watches as Beidou’s eye widens, as a blush rises on her cheeks. “Stay with me.”

 

 

 

 

Beidou dutifully turns around when Ningguang changes out of her qipao and into a loaned pair of Beidou’s inner clothes. They’re soft to the touch and airy against Ningguang’s skin, and when Ningguang says, “You can turn around now,” Beidou looks like she’s been shocked. She stands stock-still on the other side of her own ridiculously large bed, her face frozen into an expression of surprise and red starting to bloom across her cheekbones again.

“What are you looking at? This is hardly the first time you’ve seen me in sleepwear.” Ningguang huffs, tightening the knot on the top and climbing to sit on top of the covers. She looks up at Beidou. Although Ningguang is just barely taller, Beidou’s frame fills the clothes out more solidly than Ningguang’s does, her body muscled and taut from years of sailing the high seas. What could Beidou possibly have to stare at? “Embarrassment isn’t a particularly good look on you, Captain.”

“No, but is the first time I’ve seen you in my clothes, though,” Beidou says, her voice practically a squeak, and seeing Beidou like that, her hands covering the flush on her face, is enough to make Ningguang’s own cheeks start to warm.

“Shut up, Captain, and go to sleep already. I’m sure we both have early days tomorrow,” Ningguang mutters, slipping underneath the covers and resolutely keeping herself on her designated side of the mattress, so close to the edge she might fall off if she isn’t careful. “And if you don’t plan on it, then I, at least, will be busy.”

“Don’t worry about me, Ningguang. Just focus on not falling off in the middle of the night, yeah?”

She feels the bed dip as Beidou climbs into bed, the warmth of the other woman’s body settling in next to hers, and she swallows. This isn’t an unfamiliar situation— this isn’t the first time she’s been in Beidou’s bed, and Beidou had kept Ningguang company aboard the Jade Chamber more times than she particularly cares to count— but the circumstances are different: this is the first time they haven’t done anything at all, the first time Ningguang hasn’t stripped Beidou of her leotard and lavished kisses onto the muscles underneath, the first time Beidou hasn’t made it her personal goal to leave just as many marks on the insides of Ningguang’s thighs where no one else can see.

It makes something unknown, something she’s determined not to put a name to, swell in her chest, threatening to overwhelm her senses. The feeling isn’t entirely unwelcome, though. She’s seen so many years through from her lofty perch in the skies, always alone, always rejecting the numerous suitors who came to woo her with promises of mora and land, promises of a large family and a happy life.

Perhaps what she’s wanted from the start has never been to settle for the ground.

Ningguang rolls over without warning, and she almost hits Beidou, who’s clearly been lying on her side facing Ningguang, watching her without a single sound. Beidou’s lips part in surprise, and Ningguang speaks before Beidou can make any half-hearted excuses.

“Thank you for tonight, Captain. Truly. I appreciate it. I don’t regret what I did, but I do regret that it had to be the Jade Chamber that I lost that night.” Ningguang smiles at Beidou, but then a thought forms, abrupt, unbidden, in the forefront of her mind. “Oh, and I should let you know that the antique vase you gifted me is likely lying at the bottom of the Guyun seafloor. My apologies. I suppose I regret losing that as well.”

“That’s alright, I can always find you another one. And it was really my pleasure, I just love to spirit away young women and force them to play chess with me. A night well worth the price of admission,” Beidou sighs, nodding her head, and some of her bangs tumble down over her face. It partially covers the silk ribbon she ties over the scar over her eye at night, and Ningguang watches that small movement, entranced, and she barely feels like she’s in control of her body when she shifts in bed again, leaning in towards Beidou.

The kiss is messy and clumsy, the angles too awkward to be comfortable and Ningguang’s forehead bumping into Beidou’s. But Ningguang tastes the sea and alcohol on Beidou’s lips and she feels Beidou smiling into the kiss, and she reaches up to cup Beidou’s jaw and tilt her closer. It’s with a sigh that Ningguang pulls away, and Beidou is still smiling.

“Maybe we could head to a bathhouse together in the morning,” Beidou ventures, oddly shy. “If you want.”

“Only as long as I can make it to my morning duties in time. If not, there’ll be hell to pay,” Ningguang warns.

“Of course,” Beidou scoffs. “Pirate’s honor, I’ll get you to Yuehai Pavilion safe and sound before Ganyu even realizes you ever left.”

“I’ll be counting on it.” Ningguang closes her eyes, shifting just a little bit closer to Beidou, to the warmth she’s been looking for, and she feels Beidou reciprocate the movement. “Goodnight, Beidou.”

“Goodnight, Ningguang. Sleep well.”

 

 

 

 

For the first time in as long as Ningguang can remember, she does.