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at the end of a vague memory

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Ningguang is a long way from home.

She is used to dwelling among the undergrowth but this forest is not the one she knows, the nearby village is not the one she would frequent. And so Ningguang is far, far away from home when the thought of dying in an unknown place flickers to the forefront of her mind as the fringes of her own magic desperately try to patch the bleeding gash in her side and quell the throbbing in her skull.

What hurts more? The inescapable sharp pain of a fresh wound, or the unending, familiar ache of never knowing rest?

She might not have long to ponder her options.

After many long days of escaping the grasp of the Fatui, the truly greedy group being out for the renowned fur of a fox, the last thing Ningguang had wanted to stumble across was yet another human.

And yet—

"You dare lay your hands on me, pest, and I will devour you," Ningguang spits.

"My name is Beidou," the eye-patched woman supplies helpfully. She continues kneeling by Ningguang’s side nonetheless.

"I don't care."

One glance at this woman's attire and Ningguang can tell that she's a pirate. Her crimson clothes are darker than the blood that escapes from the cracks of Ningguang's fingers— crimson clothes, crimson eyes, and were Ningguang to rip this woman's soul straight from its vessel, she's sure that Beidou's soul would be crimson too.

(And yet her eyes see electricity sparking from the depths, and there is a shimmer of a purple glass ball from Beidou’s side. Wisely, Ningguang does not comment on this.)

"I know what you are, and I am not afraid of you, huli jing." Beidou chuckles, holding her hands out to her, palms up. 

I am not a threat, those bare hands say, although the fox woman is the furthest from inclined to believe her.

"You should be," Ningguang growls, baring sharp, fanged teeth. Ears pressing down atop her head and tail curling around her leg, her arms tighten around herself as angry tears threaten to spill from the corners of her eyes— she despises being vulnerable like this. How many times have humans told her this exact lie before attempting to lure her prone, canine form into their traps?

"Please," Beidou tries again, her countenance and tone shifting to something softer. "You're badly hurt, and you'll surely pass out if the bleeding isn't tended to."

"I am a fox," the white-haired woman manages to grind out through grit teeth. "My magic will do the healing for me."

"If that was the case, then you would've healed yourself by now," Beidou replies patiently, and oh, how Ningguang hates the gentle look in the woman's uncovered eye, hates the way there's no sense of pride or superiority to be found. "I just want to help you, please."

"I could rip you to shreds."

"But you won't." Damn this woman and her audacity. "I know you won't."

For a moment, they simply remain there, silent as Ningguang's eyes continue shifting over the sturdy, powerful form of Beidou despite the downpour. The air is freezing, each drop of water sending frozen shocks down her spine, and Ningguang herself is still bleeding; she catches the way her blood, infused with shimmering magic, trickles out of her wounds, washing away with the rain.

It hurts. I could die right here, a fitting end— alone to the finale, a stranger the last thing I'd ever see.

And yet something clenches achingly within her chest, the fear of the gaping unknown threatening to nearly taking her whole. She doesn't want to die, not yet.

"...I refuse to be near other humans."

Beidou startles at the sudden sound of Ningguang's voice, low and threatening and clearly an attempt at keeping a hold of the situation— this isn't about you; I am the one permitting you to do this.

"That's okay," Beidou says quickly. "That's fine, we won't be going near the village or anything." Slowly, she inches forward with her arms outstretched, and Ningguang regards her warily. "I'll take you back to my place. No one will be there, it's just you and me— and I swear on the stars above that should any further harm come to you, you can take my life as you see fit."

--

Beidou brings her back to a boat docked at the fringes of a nearby village, because of course she did— a pirate could never be separated from water for too long, after all. How could Ningguang expect anything different? And while certainly not the size of a grand pirate ship, the boat is spacious enough for several people to comfortably live on.

"The main ship is anchored near the Guyun Stone Forest," Beidou informs her as she escorts a limping Ningguang onboard. Her hands hover near the fox woman concernedly, as though afraid that her new guest could collapse at any moment. Still, she does not touch; will not touch, if Ningguang has anything to do about it.

"We're halting all activities until the spring," the captain further explains, taking Ningguang below deck to the living quarters. "Word has it that the legendary adepti if Jueyun Karst have predicted a harsher, colder winter this year, and I don't plan on getting caught in any storms. Liyue might not get much snow, but the water does freeze."

"And what of your crew, Captain?" Ningguang asks warily. Her ears flatten as she cautiously glances around the premises, almost afraid that someone new could spring up at any moment.

"Most have families that they stay with during the winter," Beidou explains, cheerily grabbing spare, clean blankets and sheets for her new guest. She kicks the door to the closet closed, briefly deposits the linens in a room they pass before beckoning Ningguang further. "Those that don't have families are offered places to stay by those that do— my crew looks out for each other. Thus, everyone's been dropped off at their homes for the remainder of the cold months."

"How heart-warming," Ningguang says dryly. She follows Beidou down the hall, her wounded tail trailing behind her pathetically. Rounding a corner, she finds herself in the kitchen, being gently pushed onto a stool before Beidou busies herself with digging through a cabinet, presumably for first aid.

“You really know how to brighten the room, Jingling,” the captain comments over her shoulder. She sets down a roll of bandages before whipping out a towel from Archons-knows-where.

Ningguang stiffens.

“What did you just call me?”

"I don't know your name," Beidou says proudly, like that's all the explanation the world could ever need, "so I'm going to call you Jingling, since huli jing is a mouthful. Cute, right?"

"I don't think cute is a word you'd want to attribute to me," Ningguang replies, a short but terse warning. "I'm a demon, Captain, not a pet."

"I bet your fox form is equally adorable."

"Oh, wouldn't you love to find out," Ningguang hisses, and Beidou tips her head back for a hearty laugh.

Grinning wordlessly, that same daring smile that Ningguang’s seen from those who scoff in the face of danger, Beidou shakes her head once and begins wrapping bandages like lifelines around Ningguang's wounds.

--

Patched up with Beidou's “personal seal of pirate approval,” which was completely unnecessary, in Ningguang's opinion, the captain hurries her vulpine guest out of the kitchen, telling her to make herself acquainted with her new home.

"If you try to leave, I'll just find you again," Beidou says in jovial lieu of warning, and Ningguang stifles a groan because she gets the feeling that this strange, strange woman isn't bluffing.

Her larger fox ears still pressed protectively to her head, the huli jing carefully makes her way around the boat. If she’s going to be trapped here for the next few days, she might as well learn her surroundings.

There is a cat sitting atop a crate, staring right at her as she ascends to the deck.

Ningguang stares at it, unamused.

"You're not from here," the cat mews pointedly, and Ningguang sighs.

"Does Beidou know that there's another demon living on her boat?"

The cat's mouth pulls back in a grin, all razor-sharp teeth and wicked glint in its eye. It flicks its two tails in opposite directions before intertwining them back seamlessly into one as if they had never been separate to begin with.

"What that woman doesn't know won't hurt her."

"Sure," Ningguang says, arid. Shifting in place, she leans one arm over the edge of the ship, resting her cheek against the length of her forearm. Her own wine-colored eyes blink lazily at the feline demon. "Alright, mao, what's your name?"

"Keqing," the creature replies, nose twitching.

Keqing proceeds to leap onto the boat’s railing, gracefully balancing on the wooden rim.

"Keqing," Ningguang repeats, and Keqing's amethyst orbs seem to bore holes into her. How Beidou had not suspected anything of this strange cat, Ningguang doesn't know. "So what was it? Drank some lantern oil? Or perhaps did you merely slice your tail by accident?"

"Would you believe me if I said both?" Keqing snickers, which sounds vaguely like a hiss. She shrugs one small, fur-covered shoulder. "One night the family youngest had left out a lantern, and my curiosity got the best of me. I pushed the flame off the table and sliced my tail into two on the broken glass— it all happened so fast, so who's to say which one was the real catalyst? Maybe I just wanted to be more than some animal.” She shrugs again. “Regardless, the child's father wasn't very happy and chased me out. Next thing I knew, I was the most powerful cat on the street."

Humming, Ningguang reaches out, casually running her fingers through Keqing's soft, velvetine fur. She feels a soft rumbling beneath her touch; purring.

"Has Beidou been taking care of you, maotan?"

At the nickname, Keqing bares her sharp teeth, snaps them.

"She's clearly very kind towards strays."

Ningguang scoffs.

"I am no stray." The fox woman pulls her hand back. "It would do her good to remember that."

"Whatever you say." Keqing seems unbothered, her twined tails swishing about her as she balances easily, padding back and forth along the railing.

Ningguang chuckles beneath her breath, turning to retreat into the warmth of the boat, and opts to leave Keqing as she'd found her.

--

“What are your thoughts on animals?” Ningguang asks casually as they’re eating dinner. She continues to cut into the chicken her host had prepared, giving away nothing.

“Hm?” Beidou blinks, setting down her cup of water. “Love ‘em. Why?”

“No reason,” Ningguang replies smoothly, and Beidou huffs but drops the topic, moving on to share a detailed tale of a sea monster she’d battled out at sea.

“I’m the one who ended Haishan, y’know?” Beidou puffs out her chest proudly.

(And Ningguang keeps her thoughts to herself, for the second time in her long, long life. Still, the inkling does occur to her, though, that maybe Beidou had extended her hospitality because she was lonely.)

“Oh, is that so?” A corner of the fox woman’s mouth quirks up instead. “I was wondering where that egotistical old man went. The seas have gotten much quieter recently.”

“That’s right.” Beidou nods, a sudden understanding dawning. She leans back in her seat, something akin to awe in her single red eye. “You’re technically an adeptus too.”

And Ningguang snorts. “I’m hardly an adeptus, just long-lived. I have no contract with the Lord of Geo, but for some reason, he likes to keep my dreams updated with Liyue’s happenings nonetheless. I don’t know what gave him the impression that I’d feel left out— it can be rather bothersome, actually.”

--

She's recovering steadily, her magic rapidly enhancing the entire experience, and yet Ningguang cannot decide whether her days are long or short.

The hours seem to pass by at a snail’s pace, but somehow, between occupying herself with simple cleaning and small talk with Keqing, somehow the sun is already setting and Beidou is back from helping out around the nearby village.

“You should come with me tomorrow,” Beidou says on Ningguang’s third night, friendly and accommodating as per usual. “I need to restock on food, and I don’t know what you like. Come and pick out what you’d like to eat.”

Ningguang instinctively backs away, wary at the idea of being near any other humans.

“I’ll eat whatever.”

“Oh, come on, Jingling!” Beidou whines, sinking into the chair beside Ningguang and gently prodding the other woman’s uninjured side. “The boat’s great, I know, but your joints will get stiff if you stay all huddled up here. Come with me?”

In retrospect, she should’ve protested harder. Ningguang thinks this as she cloaks herself in illusions with a sigh, masking her fox ears and hiding her tail. Standing closer to Beidou’s side than she’d like to admit, she’s on edge during the entire trip into the village, just barely schooling her expression into something more neutral.

“Looking a little stiff, Jingling,” Beidou murmurs into her ear as they leave the fish seller, who waves them off in good cheer despite the nip of winter. Still, the captain shoots her a worried look. “Really though, are you alright? I’m sorry if this is too much.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Ningguang mutters, hiding the way her fingers anxiously tap against each other behind her back. Her claws extend, pressing into her palms sharply, and then retract. No one’s spoken to her yet, but she’s felt the villagers’ curious eyes on her the entire time. She doesn’t know their opinions, doesn’t want to know. One or two humans on their own? She can handle that, she knows she has the upper ground there. But an entire village? “I have to get over this.”

Beidou chews on her bottom lip, frowning. “If you’re sure.”

“Beidou!”

Stiffening, Ningguang averts her eyes as an older, friendly man with a wide-brimmed straw hat sidles up to them with a grin.

“Ah, Donghai!” Beidou greets, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “You’re back for the winter from the mines?”

“Just as you’re back from the sea.” Donghai chuckles, before glancing at Ningguang. He smirks, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at the captain, and Ningguang arches a surprised brow at the action. “Is this a new lady friend, Beidou? You never did bring anyone home!”

Barking out a shocked laugh, Beidou bumps her shoulder against Ningguang’s, a wordless hand coming to hover almost protectively at Ningguang’s hip.

“Something like that,” Beidou expresses with a chortle. “She’ll be staying on my boat for a while, so you might be seeing her around.”

“Ah, I see.” The friendly smile never leaving his face, Donghai tips his hat courteously at Ningguang before winking. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma’am! Looking forward to seeing you around— everyone knows Beidou needs the company.”

Finally finding her voice again, Ningguang nods, allowing for the smallest of smiles to grace her lips.

“Likewise. I’ll be seeing you.”

Later on, when Donghai and Beidou have said their goodbyes and the two woman begin their walk back to the boat, arms full of provisions for the upcoming week, Beidou bumps their shoulders together again. Ningguang feels the small action sear through her body like an earthquake, and yet Beidou somehow keeps her steady.

“So? How’d you think the market trip went?” Beidou prods encouragingly.

“It wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined,” Ningguang has to admit, her grip on the basket of fruit in her hold loosening and tightening.

Beidou speaks nothing more on the matter— she simply smiles, and extends a hand to help Ningguang aboard, just as she had on that very first day.

--

Beidou finds her observing the sky on a late afternoon, as gray clouds are rolling in and the last remnants of the sun dip down to hide beyond the horizon.

"The days are getting shorter," she comments, and Ningguang acknowledges her with a noise of discontent. "Something wrong?"

"Well, I was planning on taking my leave, one of these days." Ningguang keeps her eyes trained on the darkening sky, not sure how her emotions will be affected if she turns to see Beidou's expression. She maintains her typical casually lofty tone, above it all, beyond thought. "My wound is nearly completely healed, and surely it is harder to provide for two people."

Three, if you count that cat we've been feeding.

"Don't rush yourself," Beidou tells her.

"I already owe you too much."

"Nonsense."

Ningguang shakes her head at the stubbornness of it all. "The weather is worsening. I should get going."

"But isn't that more of a reason to stay?" The captain counters.

"I—"

"Stay with me until spring," Beidou says with a steady, languid grin. "Even newly recovered, the cold won't be kind to your wounds. Stay with me, and I can provide for you. Then, when the weather is warmer and my crew can set sail again, we can part ways. You'll be safe, and I'll get your hands around my boat." And company. It goes unsaid.

Ningguang stares at her unamused. "Then I'd owe you more than I already do."

"Jingling," the captain merely tsks, huffing out a low laugh under her breath, "I don't know how to get it through your pretty head that I'm not expecting anything in return for this."

"You'd be a fool to not demand compensation," Ningguang retorts, and she crosses her arms. How Beidou manages to provide for both of them already, Ningguang doesn't know, either. 

"My compensation is your sunny demeanor," Beidou replies smoothly, the smile on her lips buttery smooth. "But really. Do I look like I'm in that desperate of a situation to require compensation? Monetarily, I have more than enough. But look around. What is it that I really need right now?"

Immediately, Ningguang rolls her eyes. She hates these types of rhetorical questions, hates how the answer is too obvious.

"You're terrible. Absolutely the worst."

Ningguang is right. It is the absolute worst, how Beidou manages to see right through her with that single, piercing red eye of hers. On occasion, Ningguang wonders if there's something about that Electro Vision she's seen Beidou fasten to her waist in the mornings, before setting out to help around the village. Other times, she's pondered the idea that maybe, perhaps Beidou is an adepti of her own— perhaps an all-knowing sea creature sent to test Ningguang, or a Yaksha sent by Rex Lapis to end her life.

And it's also the absolute worst, how Beidou can simply throw her head back and laugh, all of Ningguang's efforts to dig under her skin deflecting like water running off a duck's back.

"And there's the Jingling I've grown to know and love." Beidou grins, reaching forward to swipe her thumb across Ningguang's cheek.

The huli jing just shakes her head once more.

"The absolute worst," she repeats, muttering under her breath, because now it's official— Ningguang's staying until spring, because terribly, annoyingly, realistically, Beidou wouldn't let her leave even if she wanted to.

--

"Even if I left," Ningguang says pointedly, casually sweeping the deck as Beidou ties knots with thick cords of rope nearby, "I'm hardly the only other person on this boat." Overcome with the sudden need to tease her companion, the fox woman smirks. "Why, with your charm, I bet you could even get our cat friend to have a lovely conversation with you."

She summons a gust of magic-infused wind on her fingertips, scatters away the last remnants of autumn's dyed leaves from the boat.

Beidou snorts. "Don't be like that. I know you're an all-powerful huli jing, but even I know that cats can talk in the same way humans do."

(Ningguang hardly has to strain her ears to hear the yelp of protest from Keqing as she slips from atop her usual crate.)

--

“So where do you keep your other eight tails?” Beidou asks one day, when there’s no maintenance to do around the boat and Ningguang has begrudgingly begun to call this new waterborne prison some semblance of home. Instead, they lounge in the kitchen area, where Ningguang cooks them an early dinner with the fish Beidou had brought back the day prior, and Beidou nurses a casual bottle of beer.

It's raining outside, and they've let Keqing below deck, the lavender cat running around the rooms and hallways as the two women relax to the pattering sounds of water droplets against the wood.

Slightly caught off guard by the question, Ningguang does her best not to show it.

“What makes you think I don’t just have one?” She asks in return, her single visible tail swishing.

Beidou shrugs. “You seem too long-lived to just have one. There’s no way you’re a regular huli jing.

“And what if I have just two?”

Keqing pokes her head in, meows. Ningguang ignores her.

The captain’s grin is sharp. “There are legends from Qingce Village of a beautiful, powerful jiuweihu who roams near Wuwang Hill, occasionally straying towards the Stone Gate and enchanting travelers who have lost their way.”

Ningguang hums, a pointed ear flicking. “Is that so?”

Keqing scowls and leaves the room.

“Rumor has it," Beidou continues, "that hunters would kill for a chance at her golden pelt, or even a single one of her nine tails.”

“Yes, well.” The fox woman scoffs. “Unfortunately, despite driving her far, far away from her usual territory, they’ve failed to snag even one of them.”

Those damn Fatui.

“And thank Rex Lapis for that,” Beidou says, low and serious, all joking suddenly devoid from her tone. “The fact that you could’ve died… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Ningguang heaves out a breath, images of her bleeding gash in her side causing her to shudder.

“That makes two of us.”

--

It's startling to realize that she can feel the weight of a life other than her own.

Ningguang hears it before she sees it— two sets of footsteps, one more hobbled than the other, the groan of someone in pain, the chattering of chilled teeth.

Alarm surges through her body, coursing through her veins like the crack of thunder following the slaying of Haishan, and Ningguang is sprinting to get to the deck before she even registers the pair of low voices talking. She only barely manages to conceal her tail and ears when she spots Beidou leaning heavily on the young man she'd met at the market, not so long ago.

Donghai immediately straightens when he sees her, motioning to the grunting Beidou he's been helping stagger back to the boat.

"The captain's freezing," he tells her hurriedly, right as Ningguang's arms fall around the other woman's to support her weight. "Can you warm her? I don't— at least, I don't think I should be the—"

"Don't worry," Ningguang interrupts, desperately trying to quell the loud pounding in her ears as she tugs a mumbling Beidou into her arms, already starting to help her companion below deck. Then she pauses momentarily, only to flash Donghai a nervous smile. "Thank you, Donghai. For bringing her home."

Beidou herself is worse for wear. She's shivering, absolutely soaked to the bone with clothes dripping all over the wood, but the fox woman could not care less. Ningguang presses her body against Beidou's without hesitation, hoping she could even grant a moment's reprieve.

"Of course," he tells her graciously. Bowing, he turns to leave the boat, nervously lingering near the boardwalk. "Please take care of her, ma'am. Beidou might not be an official member of our village, but she's a valued member of our family nonetheless."

Wordlessly, Ningguang nods, and then Donghai is off, leaving the two women alone on their boat once more.

--

"What happened?" Ningguang demands once they're below deck, panic flurrying throughout her body as she grabs a nearby towel and darts closer to help Beidou out of her wet clothes.

"Just wanted to take a swim," the pirate woman jokes weakly, earning herself a glare from her fox companion.

"You said it yourself— Liyue might not get much snow, but the water does freeze," Ningguang hisses. She wraps a now bare Beidou in the towel, trying to ignore how her chest aches at the way Beidou's teeth chatter. "Even I know that you're not stupid enough to go swimming in the dead of winter. What happened?"

"There was a fight at the harbor," Beidou finally admits, pulling the towel closer around herself. Heaving a breath, Ningguang turns away to retrieve some clothes from the nearby closet as the pirate woman continues her tale. "Some local fishermen were arguing with a merchant.” The captain snorts, shaking her head. “That man had been trading their fish for less and less mora each week, the bastard. Anyway, all of them misjudged the ice. The merchant fell through, and he was stuck under the ice. The fishermen were in too much of a panic to be of much help."

"You idiot," Ningguang seethes.

"I couldn't just leave him to die," Beidou says, shrugging.

"Well, now you might die from freezing to death!"

"I won't." Even in her pathetic state, Beidou still somehow managed to grin at her toothily. "You won't let me."

"You better be grateful I owe you," Ningguang near hisses, tossing Beidou her clothing and turning away to give the woman some sense of privacy, as if they'd ever cared about that sort of thing to begin with, and although the fox woman schools her expression, the anxious flicking of her tails give her away. "If you die, I'll go to hell and drag you back."

"You don't leave your debts open-ended, that's for sure." Beidou chuckles before pausing. "Can you help me with my shirt? I can't… it's hard to lift my arms up…"

With a sigh, Ningguang turns back around, stepping close to the woman with her shirt only halfway on.

"To think even the Queen of the Crux Fleet, the Uncrowned Queen of the Ocean, is still susceptible to the cold," she muses, helping the other woman tug on the fabric.

"That water was not cold, it was bone-chillingly glacial."

"Ooh, big words." Ningguang steps back, avoiding Beidou's eyes as she pads beyond the bedroom threshold, off to the small kitchen to make some tea on the stove. Beidou is not far behind when she summons a small, magical flame at her fingertips. "How rare, coming from you. Did the water have magical properties too?"

"That depends." A pair of arms encircle themselves around the fox woman's waist, and she inhales sharply as Beidou's chin finds itself resting on her shoulder. "Can it get the all-powerful, fabled jiuweihu to warm me in my bed?"

Ningguang barks out an incredulous laugh. She lights the stove.

"Can't you see I'm busy with something?"

"Please, Jingling," Beidou begs, insistent. "I don't need any tea, I need you."

The fox woman rolls her eyes.

"As charming as you may be, you do need this tea. Not only will it warm you, but the hot liquid will fight off any potential ailments, and your body is still weak from the cold." She hesitates, and an ear flicks indignantly. "I refuse to let you die of sickness, Beidou, especially because of me. You will not leave me alone."

"I don't want to leave you," Beidou says solemnly. "Never."

She must be delirious from the cold. Ningguang shakes her head, swallowing.

"I'm serious," Beidou insists.

"I know you are," Ningguang murmurs. "But don't make promises you can't keep."

Beidou's mouth clamps shut, sadness creeping into a crimson eye.

Ningguang finishes making the tea in silence. Beidou's arms don't leave her waist.

--

Even a sleepy, exhausted Beidou manages to be insistent, and unfortunately, an adrenaline-induced Ningguang is more prone to caving.

So when Beidou pulls her by the hand into her own white sheets, Ningguang doesn't fight her; doesn't have the heart to. Instead, she pulls the blankets up to their chins and huddles as close to the pirate woman as possible, lightning and foxfire tingling where the bare skin of her arms press against Beidou's.

Ningguang shudders involuntarily, curling around Beidou's damp, shivering body. In one fluid motion, her nine tails materialize and unfurl, heat radiating off of them in waves as she presses closer, desperate to make Beidou's shivering finally cease.

"You're so cold," she whispers, having buried her head against the captain's neck, lips pressing against Beidou's collarbone. Her ears meekly press flat atop her head as she closes her eyes, feeling Beidou's fingers thread themselves through white locks of silky hair.

"And you're very warm yourself, Jingling, " Beidou murmurs in return. They continue to hold onto each other, unaware of the passing time, of the setting sun outside.

"I have to be. I don't want you to freeze to death."

"I've imagined what it would be like to hug you to sleep, before." Beidou's words come out slurred, sleep heavy on her tired, uncovered eye. She is nothing but mere flashes in the distance right now, but Ningguang is willing to supply her with the light from her foxfire, just this once.

Because Beidou did well, and because Beidou has always done well. Things work out around Beidou, and Ningguang is only slightly jealous.

More than that, though, Ningguang is just glad that her companion is home safe.

At some point, after Beidou’s breathing has begun to even out on the cusp of sleep and the worst has come to pass, Ningguang closes her eyes.

“It’s Ningguang.”

She feels Beidou inhale sharply, shock radiating off of the pirate captain’s body.

“What?” Beidou whispers, suddenly wide awake.

Ningguang allows herself the smallest of smiles, hidden against the curve of Beidou’s skin, cheek pressed against the soft fabric of the pillow they share.

“My name is Ningguang.” Her tails flick.

“Ningguang,” Beidou says, awestruck and probably wondering if she had entered the realm of dreams.

“Go to sleep, Beidou.” Ningguang splays her fingers out, dancing along the captain’s jawline with just a touch of magic. Really, as much as she would love to play the name game, she can’t have the captain dying from exhaustion any time soon.

Beidou’s eyes droop. “Goodnight, Ningguang.”

“Goodnight, Beidou.”

--

There are gifts being left on the deck of their boat.

“We’re going to have to start throwing these overboard if you get any more ‘get well’ presents,” Ningguang tells her, setting down the umpteenth container of steaming hot food on their kitchen table.

“Don’t do that,” Beidou scolds from her bedroom, a few rooms over, but her words are playful and her eyes brighten as Ningguang pads over, all nine tails swishing behind her. “You’ll be wasting perfectly good food.”

“And what about the flowers?” Ningguang asks drily. She wrinkles her nose as she steps into the bedroom, the pungent smell of over a dozen bouquets of flowers overtaking her senses all at once. It’s nearly overwhelming, and she groans, eyes glowing as she levitates the pots of flora and whisks them into the hallway.

“Hey, I liked those!” Beidou jokes, but she scooches over and Ningguang is across the room in an instant, crawling into bed, because all pretenses of personal space have been breached and neither of them could care less about tact anymore. “We’re going to have to keep the flowers alive until winter. Can’t plant them until growing season.”

Ningguang feels her eyes roll to the back of her head. This woman continues to be too soft.

“How about we just toss them out now?”

“But then I would be sad.” The captain pouts, and Ningguang groans.

“You’re too much.”

And then Beidou is grinning like she’s just achieved checkmate.

“Like you should be talking.”

Well, fair.

“Beidou?”

“Yes, Ningguang?”

“Why did you save that merchant? You said that he’d been wronging others long before.” Frowning, Ningguang’s tails curl protectively around her, her ears flicking anxiously in different directions. She finds herself speaking quieter than usual, as though she’d break the fragile moment were she to be too loud. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you live the way you do.”

Beidou chuckles. “Am I that puzzling to you?”

Not knowing what to say, Ningguang stares at her, and Beidou huffs out a laugh. She reaches out, rubs behind the fox woman’s ears.

"I dunno really. I guess it just feels like life's too short to be full of hatred." Beidou shrugs. "There are so many people in this world who are miserable; who want to make others miserable too, because they want the easy way out. Instead of rising to meet those happier than them, they'd rather drag everyone else down to their level. Personally, I think that's bullshit." 

There's something flickering in her single visible red eye, and Ningguang stares at her, entranced.

"So my reasoning for living the way I do isn't anything special," the captain continues. Another helpless shrug, and Beidou props herself up with an elbow beneath her pillow. With her free hand, she tugs Ningguang closer, and the fox woman closes her eyes. "I just didn't want to be grouped with those other miserable people. You can't find real happiness surrounded by two-legged sob stories who refuse to step forward— I didn't want to be a part of that hateful cycle. I never know when I'll be the next to keel over, after all, so might as well not exhaust whatever energy I have left in anger."

--

Days pass, and then one morning, Ningguang pushes out the door into cold, misty early air. She steps onto the main deck with the usual plate of raw fish in her hand, headed towards the bow to seek out Keqing as per usual.

What she finds instead is no cat.

“Um,” the lavender-haired girl crouching behind a nearby barrel says awkwardly. She’s clothed (thankfully) in expensive shades of purples and blues, the same color as her amethyst eyes. Even if she didn’t have the telltale cat ears atop her head, nor if she hadn’t had the swishing forked tail, there is absolutely no mistaking who this girl is; not one bit.

Ningguang stares blankly at the newcomer before turning her attention back to the raw fish in her hand.

“I don’t suppose you can eat this now, can you?”

Keqing’s smile is forced and sheepish, ducking her head in embarrassment as she tugs one of her twin-tails.

“Would you mind cooking it…?”

Sighing dramatically, Ningguang turns on her heel, beckoning for the cat demon to follow.

“I’ll cook it for you, but you’re explaining everything to Beidou. Come, these portions are for a cat’s body, not a human’s, so let’s see to it that you don’t starve.”

--

“Wait, so I’ve had two demons living on this ship this whole time?!” Beidou gapes, and Ningguang takes the time to turn around from where she stands at the stove to pat Beidou on the shoulder, snickering.

“You’re taking this better than I thought you would, Captain.”

Beidou snorts, crossing her arms. “Some captain I am, not knowing that someone on my vessel needed help!”

From where she sits meekly on a stool - the very same stool Beidou had patched Ningguang up on, on that fateful day - Keqing’s mouth parts wordlessly, stunned. She glances at Ningguang, who merely shrugs helplessly, allowing for a rare smile to grace her lips as she chances a quick glance over her shoulder.

“She’s kind to people too,” she says, deftly manipulating her chopsticks, flipping a piece of fish over in the wok. It sizzles in the oil, and Ningguang hesitates for just a moment before adding more. Enough for three.

Keqing laughs shortly. “I guess I’m not a stray anymore.”

“You never were,” Ningguang simply says.

Meanwhile, Beidou frowns, having walked over to stand beside Keqing. Curiously, she reaches out a finger, casually running the pad of her index over one of Keqing’s cat ears. The smallest of the trio squeaks at the contact, but otherwise doesn’t protest, letting Beidou do as she wishes.

“You’re more than just some animal,” Beidou says, looking troubled, and she pokes Keqing’s ear once more. “Can’t really blame you for not saying anything, but I wish I had known. I would’ve gladly helped you out.”

Meanwhile, Keqing turns several shades of red in a matter of seconds, desperately trying to hide her face as she mutters something under her breath about oh Archons, of all the times to not be able to turn back to a cat...

How amusing, Ningguang thinks, smirking to herself as she transfers their breakfast to a plate and goes to fetch the rice from the other pot. Somehow, Keqing manages to look even smaller next to Beidou’s taller, more defined figure.

In the back of her mind, she wonders how she appears, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Beidou. She thinks back to the time she had accompanied Beidou to the fish market, when she had never strayed from Beidou’s side. Had she looked small next to Beidou as well? Back then, she had felt pathetic— she’d had all the magic in the world, yet she had been overconfident and exposed by the way her attackers had treated her like a feral animal, and that walk through the village had her warily waiting for judging eyes to pry her apart.

A hatred for humans, a hatred for her own fox. What had she not hated?

“Beidou, can you set the table?” Ningguang asks.

“Yes, ma’am!”

Well, at some point, you stopped hating Beidou, the small voice in Ningguang’s head reminds her.

She rolls her eyes at it because she can’t let Beidou know that, ever.

--

"You look distracted." Beidou's voice is mumbled, her mouth pressed against Ningguang's back, right below the nape of her neck. These types of bedtime conversations have grown ever more common as the moon rises and falls each night, when Ningguang chooses to occupy Beidou's bed instead of returning to her own room.

Keqing now inhabits the bed Ningguang had slept in before. The cat demon girl likes to run her mouth and tease Ningguang endlessly about many things, but for some reason, Keqing had held her tongue, not even bothering to ask why Ningguang had started craving Beidou's constant company.

"I'm just thinking." Ningguang hums, her nine tails twining into one as she lets Beidou's arms wrap around her waist.

"Mora for your thoughts?"

“I merely find it amusing how I hid for centuries as a human, while the first thing Keqing did after gaining a human form was to hide as a cat.” Ningguang continues to muse to herself as Beidou steps into the room and hands her the freshly washed blanket, still warm from where it had been drying by the fire. “As soon as I was able, I took on my human form and used it to my advantage. On the other hand, Keqing had been fearful and chose to remain as what she knew best. Two different reactions, and yet we both ended up here, on your boat.”

Beidou laughs, and the sound rumbles through even Ningguang's chest, chimes in tune with the earthquake in her own heart— the inner fox running in rapid circles.

"Hey," Beidou says, interrupting Ningguang's thoughts. "About Keqing… She mentioned something to me. I realized that I don't actually know much about demons, or those who become adepti."

"Not an adeptus," Ningguang interjects.

"And she told me about feeding." Behind her, Beidou's tone takes on something confused but trying to understand. "I wondered how old you were, and she said you'd achieved immortality. She also said that jiuweihu only achieved such power through eating the souls of humans."

Ningguang stiffens. She can't see her, but she knows that Beidou must be frowning.

"This is true," she says slowly. It's a creeping problem that she's chosen to shove to the back of her mind— she hasn't fed in months, since before the start of winter. “In order to achieve this form and receive power, I had to devour human souls. Now, the memories of those I stole from swirl in my mind, mixing with my own memories. I try not to look too far into the past, because the further I reflect, the muddled my mind becomes.”

She sighs. “And yet, in order to sustain my sanity, I had to keep feeding.”

A pause.

Then—

"You can feed off me," Beidou offers, uncharacteristically quiet.

Immediately, Ningguang sits up, glares incredulously at the other woman.

"You could die, Beidou."

"And I did tell you that you could kill me, should any more harm come to you." The pirate woman shrugs helplessly. She rises as well, something unreadable in her eye. "That conversation with Keqing had me thinking. I don't know how your whole life energy deal works or how often you need to do the whole thing, but I do know that you haven't… Partaken in such actions since I found you. If it's hurting you, staying in such a state, then—"

"Don't be a fool." Ningguang looks away, heaving a breath, arms wrapping around herself as she hides her frown behind a curtain of long hair. Her tails curl around herself protectively. "If you don't know the intricacies of such things, don't speak of them. And if you really wish to help me, don't talk so lightly about toeing the line of death."

There's a silence between them that resounds, festering in the space between them, less than an arm's length away. Somehow, the distance feels greater to Ningguang.

Her ears droop ever-so-slightly. How lonely.

"I'm sorry, Jingling ," Beidou finally whispers, just before Ningguang can turn away. Her hand creeps forward subconsciously across the bed, searching. "I wasn't thinking clearly."

It's far too easy for Ningguang to close the distance, to twine their fingers together— and so she does, her hand finds Beidou's atop white sheets, like two magnets seeking their opposite pole.

"It's alright," she murmurs. It's not— not really. It's true it's been a while since she'd last fed, but she would never subject Beidou to such an act. "My captain, please believe me when I say that such things are unimportant. I am well, I promise you."

"Then why do you look so sad these days?"

"I am… conflicted," she admits. She can't hold off on the need to feed forever, and yet still. "But that is because I am having thoughts about things I have not pondered over in many years."

“If it helps, these days I’m awfully conflicted as well.”

“Really?” One of Ningguang’s ears twitches curiously. “How so?”

"It's strange," Beidou says, trying for something nonchalant. She settles back against the pillows, looking up at Ningguang fondly, a sheepish smile on her lips. "Usually I can't wait for the ice to melt, I can't wait to set sail. This time… it's weird, but I almost don't want spring to arrive."

--

Winter begins to loosen its frozen grip on the earth, and the days with Beidou pass by rather swimmingly. Ningguang hovers by Beidou’s side more often than not these days, strangely eager to help wherever she can. Ever since the captain’s life-saving dive into the harbor, she’s felt more protective— almost territorial.

She finds it awfully hard to keep a train of thought as the urge to bare her teeth at shifty individuals who so much as look at Beidou the wrong way overtakes her more often than she’d prefer.

So Ningguang settles for instinctive, sharp glares instead.

“You’re rather on edge these days.”

It’s like a light switch is flicked.

Ningguang blinks, her facial features immediately relaxing at the sound of Beidou’s amused tone, cutting through her own messy thoughts, slicing past the bustling cacophony of the village marketplace while she’s at it.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Beidou chuckles, bumping a shoulder against Ningguang’s, who prays to the Archons that Beidou doesn’t notice her quiet, sharp inhale at the contact. She doesn’t know who closes the distance, but suddenly the lengths of their arms are brushing, and Beidou has a casual hand hovering lazily near the fox woman’s hip. “Is it the way they look at you?”

“Me?” Truth be told, Ningguang had not even noticed. That’s dangerous, she realizes with a frown. Since when had she cared about Beidou’s safety over her own? Not even that long ago she had been far too aware of every lingering gaze, every predatory glint— not long ago, Ningguang had taken those looks to her advantage, luring in shifting shadows and stealing away their souls.

“Too high up on your pedestal of beauty to even recognize when other people revere you, huh?” Beidou teases.

Like you should be talking.

“Please,” Ningguang scoffs instead. “No one in this place would revere me if they knew who I was.”

“Perhaps not,” Beidou muses, and Ningguang rolls her eyes.

“They would not, I know it.”

“Still, they don’t know, correct?” The captain grins. “When’s a better opportunity for a fresh start than now?”

Not knowing what to say to that, Ningguang says nothing, only continuing to wordlessly follow her captain past the docks.

The thought of starting afresh is a tantalizing one, and Beidou unknowingly dangles it in front of her like a fresh piece of meat. What would it be like, she wonders, to carve herself a place by Beidou's side? To live with the woman forever?

Dreamlike, and the furthest thing Ningguang could possibly be worrying about right now. There are more pressing issues at the forefront of her mind—

Like how she hasn't fed for several months. Like how the tips of fox fangs prick at her bottom lip. Soon enough, they will be sharp enough to draw blood; sharp enough to kill a human without any effort. Ningguang isn't stupid. She hasn't experienced withdrawal in several centuries, but she can recall the terrible, disgusting emotions associated with it all the same. Her possessive behavior around Beidou is only the start, and quite frankly, she's terrified of what will happen when she finally loses control.

"You should just feed," Keqing tells her as Ningguang waits for Beidou to return with fresh vegetables. The demon is back in her cat form and prowling around the seaside marketplace, her lavender fur somehow blending in with the liveliness of the vendors. "There are plenty of shady people here who nobody would miss. Or would you prefer an enemy of Beidou herself? Because I can point out a few jealous sailors for you right now. Perfect souls for the taking."

And for the second time today, Ningguang feels tempted. It would be so, so easy to kill a man, steal his soul and eat his memories. 

"I can't."

“Why not?” Keqing asks immediately, but from the knowing look in the cat demon’s eye, it’s clear that she’s well aware, she’s just waiting for Ningguang to admit it to herself.

And so the huli jing pointedly looks away, suddenly finding the trodden paths at her feet incredibly interesting. When did this road become so familiar? She runs her tongue over her right canine tooth, wincing at how sharp it’s become.

“I don’t want to disappoint her.” Only the truth could ever pass through Ningguang’s lips now, Beidou’s words from before ringing through her mind. Life's too short to be full of hatred. “I don’t think I deserve happiness, I’ve been far too terrible of a person for that. So if it’s for my sake, if it comes at the expense of others - at the cost of lives - then I don’t want it. I’m tired of falling back on my own excuses, of telling myself that there’s no choice when in reality I’m just too scared to look for another way around.”

One of Keqing’s ears twitches, her feline features pulled into a smile as her forked tail flicks to and fro. “Can you do it?”

“Am I not a jiuweihu of legend?” Ningguang demands in response, allowing just her fox tails to flash through her human disguise for a brief moment, nine tails flickering like a mirage in sunlight.

And Ningguang’s never seen a cat laugh before, but Keqing somehow pulls off the feat, mirth sparkling like starlight in amethyst feline eyes.

“Then we have nothing to worry about.”

And so it’s strange, how this moment feels triumphant. She hasn’t done anything yet, but the mere admission of her revelation feels groundbreaking, earthshaking. The feeling that she can overcome this— Ningguang wonders if this is what it’s truly like, being truly human instead of simply looking the part.

--

They are not allowed to bask in the moment for long, because it’s funny and terrible how the world can change so drastically in a mere minute.

One moment, Ningguang is reveling in the companionship of a new friend. In the next, her inner fox is yelping at the seams, and there’s a terrible, terrible rush of fear that courses through as a distant snap of a twig in the woods reveals an unseen enemy that does not belong here.

“Keqing,” she whispers. “Do you hear that?”

Beside her, the lavender cat’s hackles are raised.

“Yes,” Keqing hisses, claws extending.

Ningguang raises her head, sniffs the air with keen senses.

Gunpowder. Steel.

Fatui.

The very ones who had chased her from her home to begin with, all those months ago.

"Warn the village, Keqing! Now!"  Ningguang’s words are sharp as she barks out an order to the startled cat demon. "You must help them."

“Yes!” Keqing stammers, and with the fluidity and grace that only a cat of supernatural origins would possess, Keqing swiftly transforms into her human form, lavender twin-tails trailing behind her as she dashes off into the crowd—

Screams break out from the other side of the village, and Ningguang’s blood runs cold.

“Give us the fox and all of your belongings!” One masked man yells.

Fences are broken as more masked men breach the village perimeter. Beidou is in the village. Beidou is there. The villagers are screaming, swarming around Ningguang. Beidou left her claymore at the boat. There are children crying, getting swooped into their parents’ arms as they scramble to not get caught in the crossfire. Beidou is there.

Ningguang hasn’t fed in months.

The smell of blood is in the air.

Ningguang has been feeling less and less human for months.

Or has she? Because she was human for a moment there, she swears.

The cycle of hatred, the anger that someone had been so tired of. Who had it been again?

The Fatui are here for her. She was the one who did this.

Beidou is in the village.

Oh. Oh.

“I’m sorry,” Ningguang whispers. Because she wants to save this place. Because she’s mistrusted the fox part of her for so long that she can only pray she still remembers how to do this. Because if there’s any time to let loose, it’s going to have to be now.

Because she trusts Beidou enough to bring her back, now Ningguang just has to find her.

And so she closes her eyes, finds the inner animal, and lets the flames of her own immortality consume her.

--

She can’t remember the last time she’d fought this hard, the desperation and adrenaline searing through her very being like lightning striking the ground. There is anger there too, because how dare these evil people enter this place, tearing it apart to shreds for their own gain. And so Ningguang festers off of it, her nine tails flaring behind her as she summons spirit flames from the tips of her fingers.

No more hiding.

Her claws are sharp, her senses have never been more heightened, and her power has never been so carnivorous, singing for her for more; to take more.

With just the flick of her fingers, she lets the earth move.

She doesn’t know how long the fighting goes on. In the back of her mind, she registers the lack of civilians— at the very least, Keqing had done her job. Beidou is nowhere to be seen either, and Ningguang prays that Beidou is far away from here now; nowhere close to even fathom this side of her.

The men around her fall unconscious, slumping to the ground on the brink of oblivion, and Ningguang’s eyes gleam as she spies their souls hovering just above their bodies, ripe for the taking.

She doesn’t think— can’t think. Not anymore.

Before she knows it, clawed hands are enveloping around the nearest soul. She lowers her mouth to it, a moth to a flame.

The taste of human essence is familiar; invigorating. Just a drop and it feels like a drug— Ningguang craves more. The urge courses through her veins, passing through what's left of her still-beating heart. And it would be easy - so very, very easy - to sink her teeth in and devour the entire soul. Her magic-infused blood sings at its call, and she devours her meal with the hunger of a starving woman in a Sumeru desert, desperate and visceral and—

"Ningguang!"

Her breath hitches, eyes snapping open.

Beidou stares at her silently now, mouth ajar.

No.

No, no, no! Not like this.

Pulling back, Ningguang heaves a shuddering breath, releases her grip on the soul in question. She hadn’t consumed it, not entirely. It’s still intact, much smaller than before, but alive.

And Ningguang—

It is with dawning clarity, coupled with Beidou’s speechless figure, that pulls her out of the deep end with an abruptness that has her reeling.

"I'm— I'm sorry," Ningguang utters, ears pressing down as she smothers back a whimper, and then she's turning on her heel, dashing back into the forest with nothing but the call of her name falling from Beidou's lips at her back with the wind.

--

When Beidou finally finds her, it is hours later, after the forest has silenced and the villagers have tentatively made their way back to their ransacked homes. It’s a mess— vendors had their stands knocked over, windows have been broken, roofs need repairing. And yet they are alive and their village is broken but not gone; they can fix this.

Ningguang sits beneath a tree in a field of moonlight. Beidou seeks her there, no worse for wear, eyepatch gleaming and electricity sizzling. The fox woman doesn’t even need to ask to know that Beidou had spent the rest of the afternoon helping start repairs in the village— she’d always given Ningguang the time she needed to contemplate on her own.

"How is your head?"

"Tragically clear." Ningguang sighs.

Tentatively stepping closer, Beidou regards her patiently.

“That’s bad?”

"I don’t know Beidou. Truthfully, I hate myself." Ningguang chuckles humorlessly, and it's ironic, the way the new buds on the trees flutter about her as they bask in the moonlight. It's springtime, and she hates herself. What a pathetic life she's lived. "I've lost all purpose, and I don't know what to do."

Beidou's mouth parts, and the fox woman can't help but think that even with her broad shoulders and steady frame, even Beidou looks fragile here; delicate and fleeting in a way that all humans are. And it's a strange thought, because this whole time, Ningguang's regarded Beidou as something special herself— an ocean deity perhaps.

It's yet another shocking slap back to reality.

One day in the future, Beidou would cease to roam this earth, just like any other human.

Ningguang doesn't want to believe it.

"Why?" Beidou asks, quiet.

The other woman smiles wryly, fox ears twitching.

"I thought I hated humans," she says, huffing out a laugh under her breath. "And perhaps I still do hate some of them, but you and this village have made me unfortunately soft." She sighs. "And you've also made things terribly, terribly clear.

"I've always been alone," the fox woman hums. "I never knew my parents. I was hunted for my fur, for my powers, escaping death by the skin of my teeth more times than I could count. And when I took on the form of a human to lure my enemies closer, I told myself I killed them in defense. When I kept killing, I rationalized that I needed their spirits to survive. But I'd been lying to myself, I see that now.

"So I told myself it was an addiction!" Ningguang full-on laughs, taking on a dazed look in her eyes. "I told myself that I was addicted to the memories of the humans whose lives I'd take— the foreign lands I'd see that I'd never truly witness myself, the people I'd meet, the emotions I'd feel. The love… It was an addiction, right? But even that might've been a lie too— oh, Beidou!"  

She giggles, nine tails unfurling, waving in the nighttime on a gentle breeze.

"Ningguang…?" Beidou asks quietly.

Ningguang closes her eyes, heaving a shuddering breath.

"I am a hypocrite. I hated humans, yet I chose this human form over my fox spirit. I hated my fox form because I was constantly in danger from humans, and yet I took the form of the very beings I hated the most. I was a horrible, horrible person, and yet I staved off life energy and gave myself immortality because I didn't want to be alone in death." She smiles, wry and devoid of humor. "What a pathetic excuse for an existence."

"You were lonely," Beidou says. She takes a step closer, approaching the moonlit rock. “Lonely, and angry at the world who wronged you for so, so long.”

Ningguang stares at the other woman sharply.

"Those are no excuses for my sins."

"I didn't say that," Beidou replies evenly, as patient as ever— and then she draws near, coming to kneel at the foot of the rock, the pirate woman's single red eye glimmering knowingly. "But could it be that you fed off those memories because they were the only form of company you had while alive?"

"I—" Ningguang inhales. "It's true that they made me feel… companionship, even though companions were the exact opposite of what I had. But… I never thought of it that way."

"I can't imagine you would." Beidou chuckles. With ease, she reaches up, warmly enveloping one of Ningguang's hands within her own as the white-haired woman's ears perk. "I can't imagine many approached you with the intention of friendship."

"Thanks," Ningguang says drily, narrowing her eyes, tails twitching.

"You know I didn't mean it that way— you're lovelier than anyone could ever know, Jingling!" Beidou laughs, raising to sweep Ningguang into her arms.

The fox woman yelps as Beidou effortlessly twirls them around the cherry blossom clearing, but before she knows it, Ningguang finds herself joining in on the laughter, pressing her temple to the underside of Beidou's jaw as they come to a halt.

"I shouldn't be laughing," Ningguang says, smiling sadly after their merriment has died down to the mere shake of their shoulders, the occasional hiccup. "This isn't the type of happiness I deserve."

"Excuse my language when I say that's horseshit," Beidou tells her frankly, and Ningguang can't help herself— she grins against her will, flattening her ears atop her head as she buries her face into the crook of Beidou's neck. It's unfair, how easily this woman can coax a smile out of her.

"Do you think I deserve happiness?" Beidou asks while off-handedly shifting her arms so as to cradle Ningguang with greater ease.

"Of course you do," Ningguang says instantly. If anything, these past few months have been nothing but proof of the pirate woman's warmth and good nature. She tightens her arms around Beidou's neck, pressing closer. "You deserve it more than anyone. You saved me."

"And you saved me too," Beidou reminds her cheekily. "More than once, if I recall correctly. You kept me warm and prevented my illness, you saved me and the entire village from those Fatui bandits. You can’t tell me that doesn’t count for anything."

Ningguang flushes, pointedly looking away as memories of the many times she'd worried over Beidou flash through her mind.

"I'm a pirate, Ningguang," the captain murmurs, bumping her head against the fox's. "I'm not faultless either. My actions have been the demise of many, both intentionally and unintentionally, and the gravity of those lives follows me everywhere I go.

"But I cannot let them weigh me down. I can't just stop functioning because there are people alive who need me, and I can't disappoint them any more than I already have." Surprisingly soft lips land on Ningguang's temple, fingers threading through platinum hair. "Now, you have someone who needs you too. All we can do is atone, live each new day better than the last, and maybe even become better people along the way."

--

“I changed their memories, by the way,” Keqing says as she and Ningguang help a fisherman collect his wares as Beidou is a short distance away, helping repair the boat mast. “Everyone knows that a white fox lady came to this village to save them. No one knows what her face looks like.”

Overcome with gratitude, Ningguang reaches out to touch the cat demon’s shoulder.

“Keqing… I don’t know how to thank you enough.”

Keqing chuckles. “I’m just paying it forward from all those times you fed me, one former stray to another.”

Ningguang laughs, and it almost makes her want to cry. “Let’s be happy, Keqing.”

And Keqing hums.

“Let’s be happy, indeed.”

--

“I’m sorry I didn’t realize how you’d been slipping,” Beidou tells her that night, as they sit in their bedroom nursing glasses of wine, and the captain stares in fascination as Ningguang summons her spirit flames to casually dance around them. “I knew that you’d been snappier than usual, but I hadn’t realized it was because you hadn’t fed.”

“Nonsense.” Ningguang waves off the apology. “I was purposefully being careful around you, and I didn’t want to believe I was slipping either.” Absently, she strokes a hand through one of her own tails, the white fur silky smooth per usual. “After all, I’d scorned my fox side for such a long time that I didn’t want to think about caving. I couldn’t run from it forever, but my mind has always been clearest because of you. And at the very least, I was able to satiate myself today.”

“I didn’t know there was another way,” Beidou comments, curiously watching as Ningguang’s foxfire bobs up and down in the space around them. “You ate their soul, but not the whole soul?”

“I drank the essence,” Ningguang corrects. “Think of a whole soul as a full meal, while the essence is merely a snack.” She smiles grimly. “It was my first time drinking only the essence. Before, I had consumed my foes entirely out of anger.”

“Is there any functional difference?”

Ningguang shrugs, swirling around her wine in its glass. “For us huli jing, the full soul grants an extension to our lifespan, while the essence does not. Immortality requires us to consume the person’s entire spiritual being— a life for more life. As someone who had been seeking eternity in my anger, I had never seen the need to drink only the essence before. Of course, you made me reconsider that the other day.”

“I see…”

Beneath her, Ningguang deftly feels the soft texture of the linens at her fingertips. The blankets are soft against her legs. This is the part of the fox that she loves— the enhanced senses, the additional sensations that she would experience; the perceptions that she had taken for granted for so long now.

"So how would I go about achieving immortality, Ningguang?" Beidou asks casually, as if she's inquiring about the weather, and immediately, Ningguang chokes on her wine.

"I'm sorry— what?" Ningguang gasps between coughs, her furled tail stiffening as the burning sensation of alcohol sears down her throat. "You're asking about what?"

"Immortality," Beidou repeats, nonchalant.

"I gathered," the fox woman says dryly as she finally regains her bearings. Her tails unfurl, swishing anxiously about her, and she frowns. She doesn't like this question— she doesn't want Beidou to ever walk down such a lonesome path.

So Ningguang tells her such, shaking her head somewhat desperately as she sets her half-empty wine glass on her side table before reaching out for Beidou, trying to calm her racing heart as the captain draws near.

"Immortality is lonely," she says quietly, shuddering as Beidou slips into the bed next to her, drawing Ningguang into strong, toned arms. "If I ever let you walk down the same path as me, my captain, I would never forgive myself." Her ears twitch as she smiles, forlorn. "I had to be drunk on the memories of the dead in order to cope with my own actions— immortality and the baggage that comes with it, unfortunately, cannot be pacified with just a bit of alcohol."

"But does it help?" Beidou asks, nodding her head in the direction of Ningguang's glass.

"My glass is now half-empty." Ningguang chuckles, shifting to lean her head on Beidou's shoulder.

"No, you left it half-full," Beidou counters, to which Ningguang's right ear flicks as the corner of her mouth quirks into a smile.

"Always the optimist."

"I have to be since we're still working on your unfortunate pessimism!" The captain presses a warm kiss to Ningguang's forehead before sighing. "I'm sorry for bringing up the topic, it's just that I don't want you to ever be alone again. Never."

"I don't want to be, either," Ningguang confesses, soft.

"There has to be some other way." Beidou is near begging now, arm protectively tightening around Ningguang's lithe frame. 

“I’ve been thinking…” The huli jing heaves a breath. “Mortality doesn’t actually seem that bad now.”

Understandably, Beidou’s jaw drops. “You would give it up? The immortality you’d worked for?”

“The very same immortality I so very desperately clung to,” Ningguang confirms, smiling wistfully. “You wanted immortality so I wouldn’t be alone, yes? I think the safer alternative would be for me to do the opposite.”

“Are you really okay with that?” Beidou warns, and she cups Ningguang’s face within her hands. “You’d have to prepare yourself, because I’m really not planning on letting you go. You’re stuck with me.”

“That doesn’t seem like the worst punishment in the world.” Ningguang smiles, and she gently raises a hand, places it atop Beidou’s more calloused, roughened one. “There’s just one problem.”

“And what’s that?”

“It was the souls that kept my human form intact, you could say.” Ningguang sighs. “The soul essence I had received from the Fatui thieves had been enough to keep the more animalistic, primal side at bay and save me from the withdrawal I had feared, but that had been a temporary solution to a long-term problem.”

“So as time goes on—”

“—I will eventually become more fox than human.” Swallowing, Ningguang crawls atop of Beidou, situating herself onto the captain’s lap before sinking into Beidou’s embrace. Her tails swish anxiously as she heaves out a deep breath. “I don't want to consume the essence of others, so I suppose I should be thinking of how to best spend the remainder of my sanity.”

“Wait.” Beidou frowns. “But isn’t there an easy solution for this?”

Absently, Ningguang traces circles with her index finger across Beidou’s bicep.

“What are your thoughts?”

"You can drink essence from my soul," Beidou tells her, and Ningguang freezes, feels the muscles in her jaw tighten as her face pales.

“Beidou,” she says warningly. “We talked about this. Not yours—”

"But it won’t even be all of it," Beidou protests, her single, uncovered crimson eye sparking with something akin to the lightning that flashes from her broadsword. "Just some, like you said. I’ve seen the way you show restraint, Ningguang, and I know you can do it, so—"

“Need I remind you that it was you, yourself, who stopped me from razing those bandits where they stood? They were thieves who were this close to plundering the village .

"You still left them alive, Ningguang,” Beidou reminds her.

“Barely,” Ningguang hisses. “They were thieves.”

“And I'm the pirate who managed to plunder your heart!" Beidou doesn't even flinch at Ningguang's pointed glare. Her sturdy hands around the huli jing's hips keep the platinum blonde-haired woman seated in place on her lap, and Beidou grins wide. "You love me,” it’s an admission that Ningguang cannot even deny, “and your human half thrives on essence. Plus, you won't even accidentally kill me because you'll be too careful."

"But this is your soul," Ningguang objects weakly. “Simply essence or not, it’s still yours.”

"You always said that humans are too resilient for their own good. It'll grow back.”

"Why do you want this so badly?"

"I… don't know, honestly. But maybe if I'm really being truthful, it's because I just want someone to understand me completely." Beidou grins toothily, as if she isn’t speaking to a demon whose power rivals that of adepti. “I don’t mind if you get it a bit wrong the first time or accidentally take my memories. As long as one of us has them, then I don’t mind at all.”

“You’re insane.”

“Always have been.”

“We should practice.”

“Practice?” Beidou raises an eyebrow, smile turning sly. “What, do you have to knock me out?”

Ningguang rolls her eyes, moving to crawl into Beidou’s lap. She looks down at the other woman fondly, her tails swishing as Beidou reverently drags a hand across Ningguang’s hip.  “No, you idiot. There are other ways.”

“Teach me,” Beidou breathes.

“I will,” Ningguang murmurs.

And so she lowers her lips to Beidou’s, feels the fire and electricity, the weight of the earth shifting; Beidou’s mouth is warm beneath her own, and she feels like home. Outside the world keeps turning, and down the river in a certain village, the children are telling stories of the fox lady with brilliant fire, who could move the earth itself, who arrived to save their home. Their boat continues floating.

The taste of human essence is addicting but somehow, Beidou’s lips are even more so.

 

End.