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Lather in the Saltless Sea

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I made a promise with the Tianquan of the Liyue Qixing.

It was years ago when we shook hands. She invited me into her office, then, having heard of me from tales floating around the harbor, offered me a proposition—my service in exchange for something I wanted.

Anything, she told me, she would grant me anything.

I was not capable of doubting her, but I was tempted to decline. What did she have to offer me? I was content with the life I had. Liyue Harbor was not subject to change anytime soon. The death of Rex Lapis was the most exciting thing that had happened in millennia. Well within my lifetime and hers, I did not expect any irregularities, save for the occasional windless afternoon or starless night.

So certain was I that I would have no complaints in the view of every yolk of dawn, some half-caught half-sun peering over the water’s edge. The tide would ebb and flow and I would ride with it, like I had done all my life.

I was simple. I did not tire of a repeating day. 

She must have sensed my hesitancy—she asked me what was wrong—I gave her the truth in full.

As I talked, she listened intently, a jeweled finger upon her cheek, motionless. Her mannerisms were unlike those of an ordinary citizen. I believed her to be something entirely else when I met her gaze.

The more I said the less I knew. She was alluring. What notion of nothing did I speak of? Something that felt like desire burned in the depths of my gut. I wanted to believe that it was not by my own doing, but I did not stop. I could not stop.

This and this and this, I said. This and this and that. I asked her about where she had heard me from. Was it the merchant and his apprentices? They traded fragrant fruit with explosive flavor and thin skin. The jade master? He once offered me his best harvested gem.

I knew everyone quite well, so I was no stranger to such stories. Some folk were even bold enough to tell me directly. But I wondered which tellings piqued her interest; I wondered what went on in that mind of hers.

Was it that she liked how people compared me to a dragon? I assumed that she wanted me for labor, so she needed someone strong. Perhaps it was this one maid’s tale that children liked retelling, though I don’t know the appeal of being portrayed as a swash-buckling mermaid. I think I hoped that she’d overheard a romantic’s schpiel. Maybe she wanted me (for my smile).

There was a pause as she waited to give her answer when my rambling stopped. Silence gave way to thought, and my eyes drifted to my surroundings.

I remember that the walls were hung with tapestries and fine art. It was as much a shame as it was an honor to witness it.

My attention returned to her when she shifted in her seat, legs crossed. Expectant, I awaited the parting of her lips, the utterance of a response.

Nothing came immediately—she just smiled, a glint of mischief in her eyes—and I felt my face flush. She seemed to delight in my embarrassment, for she prodded more.

I find you are a woman of many extremities, Crux Fleet Captain Beidou , she said. First you claim to want nothing from me, and now this. She placed both elbows on her desk and leaned in. I swallowed thickly at the sight of her.

Is my answer so important to you, that you would put it adjacent to “anything?”

She might as well have pressed my skin into cherry wine.

 


 

Our relationship got more complex, from there.

Feelings were slow to boil, but we both knew what we wanted. Through the months we’d hint at it, either too shy or too unwilling to commit fully—sometimes it was a mix of both. We still wanted our freedom, so we kept it at child’s play.

Of course it wasn’t enough, as more time slipped through our fingers. We were listless. 

A heightened sense of tension had already grown between us, told in full by the lingering glances thrown so carelessly at one another, the unnecessary chess matches, the silly requests she’d mail me so I would stay at her office for a bit longer. 

She kept me close; I kept her closer.

It worked like this for a while. We were both content with it, dangling our feet off of the cliff of possibility. I felt like a child around her. The memory of young love and idealistic crushes stricken with naivete became a close friend to me once more. 

More months flew by, and then the push-pull of whatever we had shot upwards, smashing through its glass ceiling during Lantern Rite.

Sometimes I still think back to the day—in the pagoda at the heart of Liyue, our hands resting on the railing, just close enough so that the tips of our fingers touched. It was there where she whispered her secrets to me, where she laughed when I responded with foolish sailing stories, where she regarded me as if I was the finest treasure in all of Teyvat. My eyes shined so passionately then, teary from reminiscence, alive with all the love in the world centered on one thing.

Perhaps our attention was somewhere else other than the thin veil my tales provided. She asked me what was so special about the moon, gesturing to it with a pale hand. I answered simply. It reflects the sun, I’d said. I knew it was nonsense, I didn’t need the quirk of her brow to tell me that.

I think I just wanted to get the conversation over with—admittedly, I don’t remember much of it.

But Polaris sat on her shoulder, and Venus laid just beyond her white hair. Her dress shimmered with moonshine and blended into the background. Smoke curled from her lips when she exhaled after a drag from her pipe.

I watched her, her figure outlined by the stars.

She asked me again, what was so special about the moon. A similar reply came from my lungs, and I still stared at her. Ningguang trusted me too much—she relented after this time.

Following that night she had to have thought I adored everything because of the sun.

In reality, I just liked the way she looked in the moonlight.

 


 

Somewhere along the line we (inevitably) went from business partners to girlfriends.

The details are blurred, but in the end we just realized we wanted similar things from the transaction—if it could even be called that, anymore. We’d already crossed the fine line between a trade and a relationship when I touched my lips to hers.

Gods, I’ll never forget the way she pulled me in, the softness of her skin. She slung her arms on my shoulders, eager to receive me when I wanted more, kissed her harder. It was her way of saying thank you, happy to follow when I took the leap to bridge the gap between us. 

But I digress. I have no need for a fanciful description—we’re resting side-by-side now, in each other’s arms. What more could I ever want?

She’s leaning on the curve of my bicep, ungloved fingers curled around a scarred forearm. White hair spills endlessly down the length of my body, such locks undone in the privacy of trusted company. Parts of it mingle with black tresses, a small braid conveniently formed right where the bend of her elbow begins.

The edges of my lips curl upwards when she shifts closer, an ear on my chest, her limbs looped around me, tangled with my own. Warmth blossoms in my stomach. It wasn’t carnal in any way, my desire—I want nothing more than to just hold her, feel her.

In this, I recognize how the weight of her rises and falls with every slow breath I take. Her heart beats metronomically with mine, this steady rhythm that falls out of line at some parts, then rejoins at others. I wonder if she can hear me, my thoughts—she pushes further into me, like a child seeking warmth.

I wonder if that is what we are right now—children.

My smile falters for a moment when I spot the smeared makeup underneath her eyes. Splotches of unkind darkness lie right below, bags of toil and work carried in their existence. I want to ask, to abate the itch at the back of my throat that grows like wildfire.

Maybe I don’t know who Lady Ningguang really is. I don’t move, I don’t dare to. The only reaction the notion elicits is the furrowing of my brow. Did I always assume I knew her?

Does she know me?

A curious fellow, Zhongli, told me of you when I consulted him. He said you proved your loyalty to the Liyuean people through your efforts. I found that I was in need of a figure like you.

Perhaps.

But for once I do not want to be simple, easily sated—I feel selfish. But I pretend I do not, for her sake.

My grip tightens around her shoulders.

Ignorance is a kind of mercy the gods give us.

 


 

I follow my routine in the days after. It’s the last bit of normalcy I seem to have other than my occupation, so I relish my time. 

Ningguang and I sit quietly by a crackling fire, blankets twisting around us. She’d been gone for most of the day so the burning wood is clean, ample pine just set aflame, quick to blacken. Embers jump and burst in anticipation of decay with an eagerness I don’t believe I could have emulated.

Minutes blow by, easy, until we’re left tired of staring at the simple fashion in which the fire flickers. It’s dimmer, now, fed by tired charcoal and unspiked by young logs.

Ningguang sighs with a soft rise of her shoulders and a slow breath, then peels the blankets off of both of us. 

My throat tightens. 

The absence of the cover reveals the thin satin dressage she hadn’t previously been in. When I greeted her, when we had slipped under the covers together, she wore a robe.

That article had been shucked off with our sheets—a loosely worn nightdress took its place, hanging far from her collarbone, barely covering the surface of her torso, leaving even less room for imagination below.

I watch her hands grip the blankets. Long and slender digits press the material, neatly manicured with a special sheen to her nails. Golden rings shine at the base of her fingers, one embellished with the symbol of the Liyue Qixing.

I watch her, next. There is not enough time to take in everything.

My breath hitches when her gaze meets mine.

The lady in gold hums into the silken comforter, face half-buried in the fabric, and looks at me with a mischievous glint in her ruby eyes. I swallow slowly; I ask for confirmation.

She blinks—the light in her eyes changes. I dare to inch closer when she beckons me forward with that one look.

There is no time for hesitancy—time slips through the gaps of my fingers as I sink deeper into the bed. Her hands come up, tuliping into two stems that caress each side of my face, petal-light on my cheeks. I do not protest when she lifts my eyepatch. She touches the spot underneath with her lips first and I tremble at her softness. 

Then it’s a gentle swipe of her tongue on her bottom lip that sends me reeling. She tells me her affection, our fingers now intertwined; she laughs into the crook of my shoulder at my expression; she traces all my scars and meets every one of them with a kiss and a look of sorrow.

Outside’s cold is forgotten, melted away by her flame—what remains beads on my chest and she too, kisses it away.

I did not know I could be loved like this.

I utter her name, and she stills. 

Say it again, she tells me. I do. Again. I follow. Once more. I am a simple woman.

Tell me what you want.

You, Lady Ningguang.

She swallows me entirely, as if I were the last bit of light in Liyue. Her hands travel up and down my sides, daring to touch me, to love me—electricity crackles in the wake of her fingers but she doesn’t care. I tremble in her hold as the warmth of her throat pours into mine, mouths open in fervor.

It all seems so different every time we do this together. The same motions repeat again and again yet I still find myself craving more as if it was something new. A hunger burns in my gut. She tastes like dark plum and lemongrass. She smells like the sweetness of summer.

I hold her, take her into the bend of my arms—it is all I can do. Her heart thrums against mine and I feel alive. She gasps into the air when I kiss the column of her neck, gripping tight onto my shoulders. I’ve memorized her every crater and dip, I know where to grip so that she doesn’t slip from my grasp. The sensation of salt on my tongue is maddening.

The rest of the evening blurs into a stream of passion. It flows like smoke through us, supple, letting. Her skin slides against mine as we give into one another. Something excites me about getting to see her like this—vulnerable, yet willing. I would always know her white locks, like silk as they pool in my hands, her crimson irises, burning with the will of Morax, her tenderness, what physicality that I loved dearly.

But the fire in my belly lights alive when I see her in her fullest. It’s the way her nails dig into my flesh, when she breathes words that sound like she’s calling me. Her lips crush my calluses under sweet nothings and I am reborn. She drowns my mortality in amber, the thickness of geode barely enough to contain it.

I wish to set myself on fire by the burning of her gut, by the oil of her skin.

In the morning, we have no regrets. Though our faces are puffy and the room has a strange air to it, we giggle and laugh like little girls anyways. Is that what we are? I ask myself this at the moment.

I know that I could be whatever she wants me to be.

When I go to look at her, she tells me that all she wants me to be is nothing more than myself. It is enough for her, so it is enough for me.

We stay like this for a little longer, beautiful and in love.

 


 

Weeks pass like a clap of thunder and suddenly we are thrown into the stark winter.

Liyue gets snow for the first time in three years. The air is bitingly cold—frost nips at my nose whenever the wind is too harsh. A forever-red makes a home on the surface of my knees, the outside edges of my elbows, the tops of my shoulders. My skin loses its tan, drained of all reminder of sun, cast into white in the new-scrubbed atmosphere.

The look of scarred flesh on such a pale background is unfamiliar, still, to me. It doesn’t prickle when I touch it, nerve endings having been shattered ages ago. My fingers push craters in my skin, milk velvet against worn edges, nails brushing past lines of blisters, giving.

Some semblance of discomfort boils in my stomach when I realize I don’t recognize this outlaid organ as my own.

Luckily, the breeze distracts me from the notion, whistling in the empty air. Scents of the bay, muddy and stale, flush against my face, a crash of the slushy tide echoing in the background.

The salt of the ocean tastes more acrid in this weather.

 


 

Months come, months go, and the world still spins. Celestia plunges Liyue into spring, then the cusp of summer. The breeze turns crisper, the harbor teems with new life. Rigid waves crash along the shoreline, gleaming blue shells dotting the coast; merchants, nurtured by the dormancy the coldness brought, flock to the harbor in search of prospective business.

In delegation of said business, I find myself spending more and more time on the waters. The increased commerce has been doing me well, having regained a natural tan and exposure to newer faces in the area. Though the occupation has significantly lessened the amount of time I spend with Ningguang, it’s to be expected by both of our ends—a woman such as she wouldn’t forget the increase in revenue during this time of year.

Despite our lack of presence, I still have reason to believe that we’re making it work. Yes , we’re making it work. We have chess meetings every other evening, no shared bedroom this time, but lantern-lit dinners every two weeks during the afterhours of Liyue Harbor. Sometimes she’s late, the backs of her ankles red from running in three-inch heels from her office to our spot, but I wait. 

I’d wait however long it takes for her to arrive.

 


 

If you’d told me that I would end up like this years ago, I would have laughed.

The sound would have shook my very bones, how deeply I believed I would stand to gain nothing more complicated than the tasks Lady Ningguang sent to me. My self, younger by a few ages, had no intention of soiling the relationship we had. Business was business and I thought I could best my curiosity.

Now, admiring the way the golden light frames her features, I think I’d have been a fool. 

There was never a moment in which I didn’t love her. To deny myself that in the pursuit of formality was unbecoming. 

We both had dreams, in engaging with one another. Hers was simple, I imagined, despite not knowing what it was. Perhaps it was reflected in the way she took upon the subject of us.

“Is it a choice to love me?” My attention snaps upwards at the sudden sound of her voice. “Or do you simply do it out of necessity?” I can never tell what she’s thinking upon receiving my response, even when I change it on some occasions.

“Of course it’s out of necessity,” is what I say this time. She gives a little giggle and squeezes my hand tighter, so I think I made the right decision. “I tend to follow my heart more than my mind.” This comment earns a kiss to my forehead, and I think that maybe I would like to hear her reason for doing so.

Her dream is an enigma, but I would go after it anywhere if it means being with her a little while longer. 

Ningguang’s eyes are on me now. Impenetrable ruby. But I don’t look at her, lasered-in on her gold rings.

She doesn’t say anything until I’m forced to raise my gaze.

“Would you like one?”

 


 

“You know, you’ve never really told me how you got all this.”

It’s seven on a Sunday night and we’re right next to each other on the shaded terrace of the Jade Palace. Ningguang’s head tilts in curiosity, the pair of glasses atop it shifting a little from the movement.

“What do you mean?”

I gesture around us. “Like the whole… place and stuff. Paintings and jewelry, I guess. I’ve always been wondering.”

She huffs, seemingly amused at the comment. “A woman has her ways,” she replies, taking her specs out of her hair to lay them on the bridge of her nose. “Within the web of artisans, I have my fair share of connections.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I snort lightheartedly. “C’mon, Guang. I’ve always been wondering about your rise to fame. What’s the big secret?”

The air changes, suddenly—there’s a redness lingering somewhere in the atmosphere. Something that doesn’t wish to be touched. Dusk greets us with its familiar half-sun and leaky horizon, blurry darkness giving way to ribbons of crimson.

Pandora’s box opens.

“I’d rather not talk about it, Doudou,” she replies sheepishly, looking away. Something moves in the corner of my eye but I pay it no attention.

Some feeling churns in my stomach. Is it guilt? “That’s okay,” I say. My insides twist even more. “Sorry for asking.” Or is it irritation?

I press a soft peck to her cheek to get her to look at me again. She does, smiles softly, and touches her lips to mine. It doesn’t help the swirling in my gut.

The day is July 13th and it has been 1264 days since our first Lantern Rite together.

Then what’s your favorite color? I want to ask. Easier question—surely she’d be able to answer that if not the previous. Doubt burns like acid in my core amongst the other emotions. My hands flex, once, twice, and I think about whether she’d respond with purple or yellow.

That’s okay.

It’s the question of the night why I admitted that it all was alright despite thoroughly believing the latter.

 


 

It doesn’t take long for the crew to catch on to the fact that something’s wrong. I can hear the whispers of concern, but barely pay them any attention. I’ve been discontent more often than not, and it’s starting to affect the way I usually go about my days. Jobs were always well done—it’s hard to think out in action in the waters—but my brows knit together when my soles hit the land.

“Captain Beidou!” Furong exclaims. She slings an arm around my shoulders. “How about a drink? We did pretty good out there today, no?” The other sailors nod eagerly. I can’t bring myself to smile at her attempt to cheer me up.

“Yeah! Only the best for our Dragon King!”

The phrase makes the crease near my eye deepen. I never knew why I had so many epitheticals. Or rather, I was now beginning to find them difficult to manage.

Where had my simpleness gone? Years ago were the hours in which I had no memory of ever feeling so uncomfortable because I didn't want to be anything more than myself. The air was always lax, easy to breathe in, with no pressure to bear it down.

Now I question who I am. And it always feels worse when I remember that everything seems to come back to Ningguang. What brought her closer to me? Prevented her from keeping away, maintaining her pace as a governess to a citizen?

My boots connect with the ground, heavy, as we navigate to the nearest pub, with Huixing promising the prospect of a round on him. Everyone cheers—including me, but it’s empty, somehow.

We arrive, sit, and drink. Shandies are spread around, rims fresh with curt lemon.

Conversation is quick to strike up, a natural bud of flame kindled by friendship. Talk of adventure, treasure, family, and friends is alive with the energy of the group. Sea Drake goes on a long tangent about a supposed siren sighting and we roll our eyes and nod; Mora-Grubber discloses information about an ancient book series they’ve taken from a smuggler.

The topic jumps from person to person—everyone’s dying to get their story in. Perhaps I should have expected that, in the end, attention would fall on the one person who wished not to reveal anything about their occupations.

Juza’s peering from the end of the table at me. “Captain Beidou, is everything okay?” he asks. “You’ve been awfully quiet tonight.”

“Ah, you know sometimes work gets us a little worse for wear,” I mumble, attempting a smile. “Happens to the best of us.”

Silence. Then, “Well, you know you can trust us, right? We’re here for ya. We’ve got your back through everything.”

I can feel the mood die, writhing as its liveliness sputters out like an old, creaking mast. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Well—” My throat tightens. For a moment, I actually considered saying it all. “—my… my cat died yesterday. I loved her a lot. She meant the world to me.”

Are you fucking serious? A cat? Archons, you are pathetic.

“Aw, I’m so sorry,” Furong gasps, hands cupped over her mouth. “Losing a pet is hard, I really get the feeling.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Captain Beidou. What was her name?”

“... Light.” I wince. You’re digging yourself a deeper hole right now, I hope you know that.

“A beautiful name for a beautiful cat.” My crew give each other nods of sympathy. “Well, let’s raise a toast to honor Captain Beidou’s late cat. I bet she was a soldier, just like her mother.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. “To Light.” I lie, my drink in the air. “To the best cat of all of us.” The alcohol burns in my throat as I chug it down.

I can’t do this to them.

Soon, the crew busies themselves with other matters, fully believing that my strife had come to an end. I watch as the bubbles in my alcohol fizz out as the night rolls on.

Somewhere along the line my hand comes up, feels the necklace with a golden ring Ningguang gave me after my “sudden interest in hers” hung on it. It glitters with opulence in the light, the gem in the middle the same color as her irises.

I can’t do this to myself.

 


 

There’s that familiar roundness again, coming back to haunt the pads of my fingers when Ningguang walks to the kitchen island. It’s smooth, expertly crafted, fine and sheen. The only bump comes when I loop to its insides, thumb above the chain it hangs by. Even then I know, by the symmetry of its hoops, what was demanded of its maker.

It feels like a promise, somehow.

“What do you think of your necklace?” The question comes suddenly, catches me by surprise. My eyes light up and flicker to Ningguang’s—they peer over a handleless tea cup as she drinks quietly.

I try to smile. “It reminds me of you.” I love it , I want to say next, but I bite my tongue. I have to stop lying.

“Well that’s good.” The slightest incline of her chin. Then she swallows and sets her cup down. “I was thinking that a ring worn on your finger might obstruct your duties. I see you use your hands a lot—didn’t want it to dig into anywhere and leave a bruise.”

“Thank you,” I hum, “that’s thoughtful.”

She chuckles and makes her way back to me. “I hope it was.” A small pause. “Also, I saw you eyeing a certain jade ship’s plate yesterday—”

“No. No, no, no.” It’s a protest, half-playful, half-serious. “You’ve already gotten me plenty of gifts, Guangguang. I know your pockets run deep, but I don’t need you to buy me that jade plate.” 

“Why?” she asks, frowning. “I can get you it. I’m able to. Why shouldn’t I?” At this, I take her by the hand and press a kiss to her knuckles.

“I promise I can manage myself.”

“But—”

“No ‘buts.’ I got this. I could probably trade all the gifts you’ve gotten me for all of Sumeru and half of Snezhnaya. Probably a good chunk of Mondstadtian land, too.”

She considers the thought for a moment, then smiles. “Alright.” I return the expression, and let go of her fingers. Our digits come to a rest atop the counter, though some are less content than others—a faint scratching can be heard from my right.

One look down, and I can see, in plain view, the scraping of one of Ningguang’s claws on the marble. The thought of not being able to provide brings her a sense of urgency, it seems.

I don’t wish for her to have to so discreetly suffer like this. But I hesitate upon recognizing the other alternative—there is only one thing she has yet to give me, but I’m sure it will spell the end of what we have now. For that reason I’ve been avoiding it for the last few days, keeping myself from confrontation.

Sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr . The sound persists. I imagine the steadiness of metal underneath my hands, what it must be like to feel it always, stable between my fingers, ever-present; I remember the gleam of that ruby-red gem, think about the forever contrast of it against the rough darkness of my skin.

Sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr . A tightness wraps around my throat in seconds. I want this. I want this. My hand clenches easily, having already memorized the weight, texture, and shape of the article that hangs by my throat. The nape of my neck numbs, its chain dies—all that exists is the ring.

Sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr, sssskt, shhhr . Where there’s a promise, there’s a future.

“There… there is something you can do for me, though.” The scratching stops.

Ningguang’s eyes light up—she stares at me like a kid on Christmas day. “Of course,” she says gleefully. “What do you want?”

“I…” I almost falter, almost misspeak. It’s pitiful, as if I hadn’t been quietly dreaming of this day ever since I told myself what was wrong. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Depends on the question,” she muses, “and what answer you’re expecting.” A smile plays on her lips—I think that she thinks it’ll be something harmless.

“Why are you getting me these gifts?”

She blinks. “Is it not customary to give your lover gifts?

“No, it’s just that— I just don’t think it’s… normal to give this much.”

“Is it? Hm. Perhaps my standards are higher material-wise. But if you insist on not receiving presents, I’d be happy to.”

“Guang, it’s not just that.”

“What is it, then?” She lays a hand over mine. “Tell me and I’ll do anything to supply it to you.”

I take a deep breath to save myself from faltering. “Another question, then.” She nods intently. “Why did you bring me into your office those years ago?”

Ningguang raises a brow. “Have I not told you this before? I heard about your feats from the locals on the harbor.”

“That’s not it, is it?”

The whisper blows through us like a torrent. It’s sudden. Chilling. Winter waves at us from the corridor, giggling. The air stills, free of the lax atmosphere it once housed—tension now binds it in coils that threaten to snap and suddenly the room we’re in feels less comforting. Less like a home.

Was it ever a home?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the statement isn’t the truth, is it?” I say. I remember the days in which I desperately searched for her in the jewel-toned threads of the carpet, in the blurry reflection of a jade dragon statue while in bitter regard of all those gifted riches strewn across my living quarters. “It’s what you said before. But it’s not— it’s not true.”

“What?” she echoes, in clear confusion. “What isn’t the truth, Beidou? I don’t understand.”

A pregnant pause. “Why did you pursue a further relationship if all you wanted was my services?” It comes faintly, a lick above a whisper. “Is that… is that all I am to you?”

“Beidou, where is this coming from?” She withdraws her hand. Shit. “I thought we were having a good night.”

“Ningguang, I—” I might have said ten thousand things at that moment, overcome by emotion; how I yearned for affection that extended beyond physical intimacy or material wealth; how I longed for her genuine love behind the doors of empty bedrooms, cuddled into comforters that smelled of her; how I wanted to feel like I have not spent these last years wondering whether or not she was truly there because too much of her time was spent on not knowing me. “Ningguang, what do you want out of this relationship?”

“What anyone wants out of a relationship, Beidou. Where is this coming from?”

“You’re not answering my question.”

“You’re not answering mine.”

“If you wanted me for my services alone, why did you become my girlfriend, Ningguang?”

“Your company? Your person? I truly don’t know what you want me to say,” she huffs, standing straight.

I take a few steps back. “I’m not expecting any response, just the truth.”

“Well I’ve told you my truth and it seems it isn’t enough. What is it you want from me?” There’s an edge in her voice, a swipe of sharp amber lodged within her words. “Where are you even going with this?”

“What I’m trying to say is that you can’t start this and act like— act like what we have right now is enough .” My palms are clammy and damp, red and strangely sweaty. Perhaps there was an answer that I was expecting and I just didn’t want to say it.

She’s stumbling over her words. “Well then what do you want, Beidou?” she pleads. “What do you want from this? I can— I can give you—” The confusion on her face is imminent, but I push forward, frustration pressing on my chest like a hot iron.

“I don’t want any material!” I shout. “I have never wanted anything like gold or silver or jewels, Ningguang!”

“Well then what do you want?” The noise she makes is like something breaking. “ Tell me ! Tell me so I can give it to you!”

In my frenzy I hadn’t realized the state we’ve inhabited. We’re both shaking, hair sticking to our necks with the sweat that drips in beads down our skin. The room is hot, tight with tension and a feeling I never wanted to feel again—it’s unbearable. And yet somehow I can ignore it.

Archons bless.

“All I’ve ever wanted was you !”

Silence—the only sounds, our slight pants and thick swallows. We let the break hang like cobwebs.

Then, she murmurs, “Do you not have me already?”

I don’t know what to say; I start to wonder why we’re even fighting in the first place. The words are present, in the back of my throat, but some spark of will, a flicker of grief, flushes it down. How long had we played at this with one another? Years, precious time, squandered, spent in the arms of a stranger. I’d been so foolish, then; I am still so foolish.

“Do I have you?” It is a question to myself. She knows. “Do I have you?”

Ningguang responds anyway, “Yes, yes you have me Beidou.” It comes as a gasp, something desperate that I can feel radiating off her in waves. Guilt seeps into my nerves.

I can’t look at her. “Tell me you know what my favorite color is, Ningguang. Tell me.” Silence sounds out louder than it ever has before. The dissonance gives way to the memory of her flushed cheeks and thin, rosy lips—I’d never seen them cracked and creased with bitterness, but I hate that I could imagine it.

“Tell me you know where my favorite place to sail is, or where I like to go when I’m bored.” There are no tears that I can muster. Only a face of disappointment. “Tell me you know who I am, other than the ‘help,’ or the ‘Dragon King,’ or the ‘Pirate Captain of the Crux Fleet Crew.’”

There are still so many things I want to say, scraping the edges of my larynx. How could she be so naive? I want to condemn her for not knowing what she’d gotten into when engaging with me, for so foolishly letting herself come in contact with someone that wanted more than she could give—someone that wanted her to take .

Never once have I wanted to shout like this.

But I can’t. I don’t. I just stand and stare, dry-mouthed, at her gossamer dress and her hands, bright ivory and adorned with gold. They’re red on the insides from being clenched, with deep, crescent-shaped welts on her palms.

Ningguang takes my silence as an opportunity in fervor. “You could have said something,” she breathes, voice quaking. “And don’t you dare say that I have not been as invested in this as you have. I just don’t know how to love like you, Beidou.”

Another wave of quiet. She sucks in her bottom lip and breathes in deep. “I don’t know how to love like you. But I’m not going to apologize for that. Affection in your language isn’t universal. And how am I supposed to know anything if you don’t tell me? I can’t read minds. You accepted my gifts so I assumed— I assumed that you liked them. That you liked me enough.”

Despair strikes my gut and plunges it to my feet. “Ningguang, I never said I didn’t like you.”

“Well it seems now that I… that somehow I didn’t like you enough.” Ningguang laughs and it’s more of a gasp for air. “I don’t know how to spend affection, I admit it. I never had any to spare until I met you. I did hear about you in the harbor. Zhongli-xiansheng did tell me about you—this strong Crux Fleet Captain who took out dragons—and I wondered why you still lingered on the shores. I employed you because of your prowess and your will, but I wondered why you were still here when you could’ve been chasing something greater.”

All the words that swirled in the back of my throat are suddenly gone; the frustration has forfeited my core, fleeing the emptiness. Now instead of trying to hold something back, I am left instead with entirely nothing.

Ningguang pales, her knuckles white. “You are as much of an enigma to me as I am to you, Beidou,” she says. “And you say that I should tell you that I know who you are. But if even you can’t answer that question, then how am I supposed to?” Shame embodies every word of the phrase and it feeds the crawling guilt inside of me.

Then we’re quiet again—we let the silence sweep over us like a riptide, our tongues dry and eyelids heavy. Ningguang’s words run through my mind, unrelenting.

I did hear about you in the harbor. Zhongli-xiansheng did tell me about you—this strong Crux Fleet Captain who took out dragons—and I wondered why you still lingered on the shores.

It is a miracle that there is no tale of Captain Beidou acting like a child.

The thought numbs me. I don’t like this feeling, this affliction. My gaze drags upwards to fight the exhaustion that riddles my limbs. I get a glimpse of the collar of the evening dress Ningguang wears tonight, gold lace and a curve just short of her chest, and now it’s her neck, her jaw, her cheek, stained with emotion. I look upwards still.

Something shifts in me, then, some semblance of rationale trickling into the cracks in my resolve.

“Why are we fighting?”

Is it the way her lips curve downwards, the manner in which she furrows her eyebrows? Maybe it is the fact that I’d never witnessed displeasure so imminently plastered on her features, the agony of her flushed cheeks, those remorseful eyes. Ningguang had always kept her appearance in order, tidy even in informal events. There was always an air of refinement, an intricate delicacy about her.

But that had long been washed away from the moment she told me she was mine and I denied her. I ask myself now, what exactly it was that I wanted from her.

“I don’t know.”

Ningguang had never known the life which I expected of her—she’d never known the kind of living in which she was free to take. Too much of her person was spent giving to her friends, to associates, to her people. It was a part of her, just as her hair was, or her moontouched skin.

And we both wanted the same thing from this—to be loved—the only difference being that she would not let herself be.

Tears edge at the corners of my eye. “I’m sorry.” My throat closes, fills with the beginnings of a sob. “I’m sorry, Ningguang.”

At this, she steps closer to me, gingerly, saying nothing, taking in the air closest to me. The curve of her undereye and the crinkle that connects her lids deepens. Some shine returns to her iris. She moves in, still, her dress blowing lightly by her ankles. 

We blend together like steady hands pushing into the earth.

She cups my cheek with her palm and closes her eyes. I shift my head to touch my lips with the base of it and breathe in her faded perfume. It smells like grace. My hand finds hers as she rubs over the thick fabric of my eyepatch with a thumb.

“Perhaps I should have known.” she whispers.

“You didn’t need to.” Words bubble up and out from the thickness of my throat. It’s natural, freeing. “I shouldn’t have acted so rashly. I was being selfish and stupid and idiotic—we could have talked.”

“We should have.” There’s a sadness to her smile she wears when she looks at me. “We can do it now, if you’d like.”

I swallow thickly, allow for the silence to seep into us. “Yeah.”

“Alright.” 

She kisses the tip of my nose then guides me to the nearest couch. Down we sit, and there we think—I have no idea if she’s already got her thoughts sorted, but she gives me time. When I’m done ruminating, I leave five minutes just in case she needs it.

“Can I talk?” I finally ask, uncertainty bleeding through every syllable. Ningguang nods with an earnest look, stance open and turned towards me, hands folded neatly in her lap. A half-smile curves my lips upwards.

“Look, I know I already said this, but I’m— I’m sorry for the way I acted. I don’t ever want you to feel like I’m too demanding or brash or impatient. I was… I was acting out of impulse. There’s no excuse for it and I apologize.” 

Ningguang hums. Her eyes study my face with such focus, flitting here and there, down the tired lines that streak my cheeks, curving with the sag of my under eye. She must’ve come across something that said I wasn’t done just yet—she’s waiting, silent, understanding, soft.

Then I speak my part for a while, rambling, asking her questions, to which she responds patiently to. The tension in the air eases, I feel the tears abate, and wonder why we didn’t do this earlier.

When I finish, she starts, voice level. She tells me little things about her, the reason why she never opened up, the lingering shame that lasted when confronted about her past, that same shame she felt when she thought I would resent her for it. The more she goes, the more things I notice about her—the way she twists her rings around her fingers when she’s nervous, the quirk of her brow in moments of tenseness, how tightly she holds herself, guarded, though she’s spilling all the secrets of her little, compacted world.

It takes time, like things do. She pauses sometimes, unsure, and I can only put my hand on her back for reassurance. The lines in her forehead deepen like she’s searching for something. Her grip on her arm tightens, tips of her fingers flushed yellow, palms red. Tears come slowly, leaking out, dripping down, lines etched in the fine divots of her features.

I don’t stop them.

She grasps the empty air like there’s something to hold, wearing an expression of longing as she does. I fill the gap with what I can, scarred fingers and bound muscle, trying not to think about what goes on inside that head of hers.

I never wanted to see vulnerability alive in her eyes again, pupils blown out in fright.

The rest of the night rolls through us without trouble. We talk until our throats run dry and succumb to slumber when the conversation naturally comes to a close.

When she pulls me to bed, our fingers intertwined, this is perhaps a mark of the first peaceful night for both of us in a long time.