Beidou was home.
She snapped her eye open, her chest rising and falling with hollowed breaths. The tension melted out of her limbs. Beidou was in Ningguang’s room, up in the Jade Chamber. Lit by the single lantern at the window, Beidou spied that familiar bundle in bed.
A smile grew upon Beidou’s face as she crept towards her. Ningguang was incredibly sensitive in sleep. The woman must have been exhausted. Maybe Beidou could sneak in a cuddle or two without waking her. Ningguang shifted. Quiet sniffling set off all the alarm bells in Beidou’s head.
“Ning?” Beidou grabbed at her shoulder, then stared as her hand went straight through.
Ningguang didn’t react. She faced away from the lantern, curled up on her side, both hands clutching something to her chest. Beidou reached for her wrist. Her fingertips slipped through just as before. She wasn’t drunk.
A glimpse of that greyed out vision in her hands seared itself into Beidou’s eye. Beidou felt herself begin to hyperventilate, with lungs she didn’t use. How…how did she die? Beidou jolted to the window, only to be greeted with a plethora of lanterns down in Liyue below. Those faint lights pricked at her eye, like slivers of twine that cut into her fingertips. That was the ritual used to pray for lost souls returning home. She was dead.
Maybe her bad luck finally caught up with her. Out of the many voyages she took, she couldn’t cheat death forever. What about her crew? They had to have made it back. From Ningguang’s window, the city blocked off her view to the docks. Beidou poked her head out of the window, only to have her body follow suit and fall– phase– through the wall. Beidou scrambled for purchase on the small podium outside.
The cold wind buffeted Beidou’s… spirit? Beidou clutched at the wall, even if she was relatively sure she couldn’t die twice. The vast emptiness spread out before her feet. What was supposed to be the Jade Chamber was a mere room hanging lone in the sky. Memories clicked into place. The Osial incident. Her leaving for Inazuma. Her promising Ningguang to come back.
Beidou phased back. Ningguang, concealed in her blankets for some semblance of warmth, shook with the weight of her sobs. She always tried so hard to be brave. On trembling legs, Beidou knelt back down at the side of Ningguang’s bed.
“I’m so sorry, my star.”
Unheard. Untouched. Unknown.
Myths coloured the mundane life of a sailor’s day, ghosts far from being the least of them. Ghosts lingered in the living world because of some unfulfilled wish, some unfinished business. And Beidou knew, deep in her soul, that hers was of her Lady Tianquan.
Beidou stayed with Ningguang.
Be it only an act to alleviate Beidou’s own conscience, Beidou was at Ningguang’s side. Never did she stop the whispered reassurances, the gentle touches, the soft croon of a fishermen’s shanty. Even if they didn’t reach her. Even if her hopes waned like the moon. Even if what remained of Beidou died a little more every day, with Ningguang soon to follow.
Ningguang was still the Tianquan. With dark circles under her eyes, ink staining her hands, holed up in her office, Ningguang was Liyue’s leader. A familiar cape now rested on Ningguang’s shoulders. Ningguang constantly ran her fingers over the weathered red cloth while she worked, only to break off into tears, numbly rolling down her face. Wetted scrolls stacked up on her desk.
Beidou’s damned heart snapped in half and never latched back together. She wanted to bundle up Ningguang in her arms, squeeze her to herself, tell her she was gonna be alright. Like all those times before. Beidou clenched her hands into fists. There wasn’t anything for her to do. As a kid, she’d run around looking for her next meal. As an adult, nothing couldn’t be solved with trading favours and her trusty claymore. That was how she lived. Beidou scoffed. Tears trickled down from her eye. They sunk into the carpet, seeped through it, leaving not a trace.
The gulf between the living and dead wasn’t one to cross. Beidou only watched. Closer than a hair’s breadth, farther than Celestia’s skies, farther than ever her voyages have taken her. Away from Teyvat, away from her crew, away from Ningguang, Beidou was unequivocally alone.
Beidou’s funeral was a momentous occasion.
Ningguang planned the ceremony. Hu Tao was in charge of officiating it.
A sombre atmosphere settled over Liyue Harbour, the people mourning the loss of a hero. The skies were clear. The Alcor rocked in place at Liyue’s ports; a return from its isolation at Guyun Stone Forest. A high-pitched tune whistled into the air, tumbling through Liyue’s streets, to the single room that hung beyond Mount Tianheng, until it drifted into the clouds. Kazuha’s lips parted from his leaf. He pinched the ends of his instrument, his eyes flickered open.
“Should you be trapped in a windless land, I will ring forth a song bound for the skies.”
Kazuha grasped his friend’s empty vision as he looked to the small room in the air.
“Be well, Captain.”
Legends of the late Uncrowned Dragon Lord ensnared adults and children alike. A performance by the Yun-Han Opera Troupe detailed Beidou’s heroics, from her receiving the electro vision from the slain Haishan, to leading the Crux Fleet in expeditions across Teyvat, to rescuing any and all people she came across, which inevitably led her against the Electro Archon herself, the very god that granted her the same vision.
They said the skies were ripped apart that fateful day. The Watatsumi Island Resistance breached Narukami Island, with Captain Beidou at the helm. The famed Traveller that allied Liyue against Osial had been in Tenshukaku then, besting a Harbinger from Snezhnaya. And yet, while the Traveller’s back was turned, the Electro Archon struck!
Lightning came before thunder. A flicker of violet coalesced into a blinding surge that split heaven and earth. A thunderclap of metal against metal chimed through the stricken silence.
The storm cleared.
Captain Beidou raised her claymore. Across her chest, the dark blade glowed a bright purple. A small purple orb of a shield circled Beidou and the Traveller at her back. Heavy, slow breaths left Beidou’s clenched teeth. The vision at her hip blazed, burned and cracked.
That was the Defender of Mortals. The Protector of Ambitions. The Dragon Lord of Liyue.
An indigo arc carved through Tenshukaku. This vestige of the Musou no Hitotachi left only cracked buildings in its wake. The Traveller burst forward. With invigorated spirits, the Resistance charged.
And amongst them all, the Dragon Lord finally fell.
Beidou scoffed at the tall tale. Fleeting memories surfaced. Of how the Traveller’s face twisted in horror at her collapse, how the small floating Paimon whirled around her in panic, how young Kazuha clasped her dying vision in his hands. Beidou mouthed Ningguang. The boy choked back his sobs and nodded. Her son. Her wife in name, hastily signed on a piece of paper all those years ago. All wiped from that story. Unfitting of her final triumph. There wasn’t any glory to be had. Not like this, anyway.
The people called her a hero. The Dragon Lord of the Seas. The resistance even hailed her as an electro archon in her own right. They drank in her name. The little kids cheered at her last victory in life. Better to celebrate than cry over her, honestly.
Suona blared. All over Liyue Harbour, those warbling cries rose and fell. Beidou shivered. She only wished that were for that other celebration. Beidou found herself pacing about Ningguang’s room. Those melancholic hymns constricted her chest, clawing for the grief she already buried. Ningguang, dressed completely in white, watched this all from her window.
A single ship sailed off from the harbour. With the crimson flags and symbols of the Alcor, and the dragon figurehead to boot, it was an excellent replica. Out on the open seas, a spark lit up. The brittle wood snapped and crackled. Flames rippled on the seas. That, and what was left of Beidou’s body were reduced to ashes.
Flat rafts trailed after the ship. Her crew sailed together with her, one last time. Drums thundered with a slow, burgeoning beat, joining the pitched suona. Feed for the fishes were chucked out ad nauseam such that the cloud of ashes could sink to the bottom of the ocean, without accidentally being swallowed up.
The seas were a far more fitting resting place for Beidou. The Dragon Lord of the Ocean should be returned to her place. This funeral ceremony was tailored exactly to her liking. And yet, Beidou did not pass on. Nor was she any more at peace, whatever that meant. Beidou let out a long, slow sigh. Her anxiety curbed into relief. Something within her bemoaned her being stuck here, for Archons know how long. The greater part of her found solace in that. Ningguang had always been her light. Even as a mere witness to this world, Beidou was with Ningguang, willingly, for the last time.
Ningguang didn’t make a sound. The reddened, puffy corners of her eyes were stark against pallid skin. Her face was always streaked with quiet tears. Beidou slipped her arms around her from behind, pressed a phantom kiss to the top of her head.
The crowds eventually dispersed. Those more familiar with Beidou herself huddled up in Wanmin restaurant. Yun Jin snuck away after the performance to a waiting Xinyan. Xiangling wasn’t in the kitchen for once, the kid crying along with Xingqiu and Chongyun. Ganyu sat alone, nursing a cup of beer. Even some elders from Qingce Village made their way here to see her off. Her crew didn’t fair much better, misty-eyed a few drinks in. The aloof figure above the clouds retreated from the window. Beidou couldn’t bring herself to watch either.
Ningguang stopped under a shelf. An exact replica of the previous one in the Jade Chamber; once laden with Beidou’s trinkets, now only a jade slender-necked vase sat. Faded black ink marred the aquamarine surface: ‘From the crux’. Beidou shook her head, her single eye wide in disbelief. That stupid woman saved Beidou’s vase of all things from her precious Jade Chamber? An exchange of gifts that marked their relationship, to be sure, but still. Beidou fumbled around her ghostly body. She had to have kept Ningguang’s gift on her. Hopefully even through death claiming her body and whatnot.
A handsewn golden sachet, like the perfumed ones the ladies of Liyue wore, was tied against Beidou’s waist. It was more like a pouch really, stuffed full of medicinal herbs instead of their flowery counterparts. There were no words on its surface– Ningguang was always more subtle than that– with a red patterning that resembled Ningguang’s tattoo. Ningguang’s favourite bird did promise prosperity. Beidou was probably too unlucky for that.
Ningguang tiptoed to reach for the vase. If Beidou were alive in any sense, she’d grab it for her, her arm easily stretching above Ningguang’s. Ningguang cradled the vase to herself. Her fingers traced Beidou’s rough calligraphy. She shut her eyes, unable to help her quiet sniffles.
Oh, my star.
A knock came at Ningguang’s door.
The by now familiar shadowed figure dipped in with takeout, setting it on a table. Yelan’s teal eyes glimmered in the faint candlelight. She gingerly held her hands out to take the vase from Ningguang. A teary-eyed Ningguang stared at her, uncomprehending. Yelan tilted her head to the food. The languid lull of her voice was tinged with regret.
“Ningguang, my condolences.”
“You’ve had it worse.”
Ningguang spoke with a half-hearted mumble. That was low and croaky from the sobs prior, a lack of proper use afterwards. She obliged, letting Yelan take the vase and lead her to her seat. Ningguang didn’t tear her eyes away from it. The scent of her favourite fancy cabbage soup filled the small room.
“Eat,” Yelan instructed gently.
Ningguang was slight, had always been since childhood. At least Yelan was there to look out for her. Ningguang’s knuckles whitened with her grip on Beidou’s snuffed-out vision. The golden vision at her hip flickered briefly, as if it was on the verge of joining its partner.
Yelan rested a hand on her shoulder. Beidou recoiled, still unused to people passing through her. Ningguang didn’t twitch away from Yelan. Beidou drew back. This wasn’t her place anymore. She couldn’t help Ningguang anymore. Dear Archons, Beidou caused all this, didn’t she?
For what it was worth, Beidou never thought this was how she’d end up. That was probably why she lost to Ningguang in chess. A muted chuckle escaped her. Her Ning was always right. Ningguang’s panicked cry of her being unable to drag Beidou’s corpse home. The way she clung to Beidou desperately before her leaving for Inazuma’s civil war. Ningguang on the verge of tears even as Beidou promised her to come back.
She should have listened.
“I can organize a crew to salvage the remains of the previous Jade Chamber.”
Ningguang pulled off the white hood on her head, carelessly running a hand through the tangled white strands. Ningguang swirled the broth listlessly. A string of steam rose up. Yelan eyed her, not bothering to hide her concern, patiently awaiting a response. Ningguang spooned a mouthful of the soup. Her brows pinched together as she set the spoon down shortly.
“Let them rest.” Along with Beidou.
Yelan didn’t say anything, ruminating on Ningguang’s words. She sighed.
“Very well. Are you planning to rebuild the rest of the Jade Chamber? Or are you going to leave it as is?”
Yelan gestured to the small room. Archons know how much she was working to keep this place secure. Not even a Millelith stood guard outside. Her three secretaries had to make a special trip up here multiple times a day.
“I…I don’t know.”
Ningguang swallowed a whimper. That glowing geo vision was a testament to her ambitions. The dreams that kept getting stripped from her, bit by bit. First her Jade Chamber. Then Beidou. Rex Lapis, what had she done to deserve any of this? Her living god’s impassive gaze at her fall.
All that remained was Liyue. Ever Liyue. Rex Lapis would return for the land he loved so. Ningguang didn’t know if she could muster up the strength for her homeland anymore.
“I don’t know.”
A weak, pitched cry that sounded pathetic to her own ears. Ningguang yearned to curl up in her bed again, away from Yelan’s probing, away from the duties she had to fulfil, away from the fact that Beidou was dead and never coming back.
“That’s alright, Ningguang.”
Yelan’s croon occupied nothing more than the fringes of her mind. Not the little sea shanties both her and Beidou grew up with. Something was draped over her shoulders. The lingering scent of the sea told her it was Beidou’s cape. Not the warm weight she was oh so familiar with.
She didn’t want any of it. She wanted Beidou.
Beidou grabbed at Ningguang, on the verge of screaming in frustration every time her hands passed through her. Ningguang was crying. Yelan was just standing there. Her guiding light was hurting and she couldn’t do anything about it. Again.
Faint crackles of electro gathered in her fingertips. A first since her decidedly untimely death. Disbelief at the flickering purple dispelled her anger, and the light once again faded instantly. Beidou’s eye darted towards her vision in Ningguang’s hands. Only to be greeted with Yelan’s teal eyes looking straight at her. Beidou barely swallowed her yelp.
The bracelet on Yelan’s wrist lit up. Yelan raised her brow. But she drew her gaze back to Ningguang, gave her shoulder a tender squeeze to calm her. Ningguang absentmindedly brought her knees to her chest, delicately perched on her seat. Her crimson eyes focused on Yelan once more.
“Take care of yourself. I’ll be here.”
Seen off with a mute nod, Yelan disappeared into Liyue’s night. Ningguang picked herself up from her seat, her bowl more full than empty, and tucked herself into bed. Silently, Beidou’s not quite physical form joined her at the bed’s edge. Her hands on her knees were spaced apart, palms faced upward. Maybe Beidou could summon their pets again? To somehow show Ningguang she was still here, even in this form?
The first spark of hope lit up in her. She’d go towards her light.
Beidou could master her vision again. She did it before. Beidou steeled her ambitions.
“Greetings, Lady Tianquan!”
Hu Tao’s sing-song voice announced her presence before she skipped into Ningguang’s office. Boo Tao miserably trailed after her, grabbed by its tail. The Wangsheng Funeral Parlour rarely had such a high-paying client; Hu Tao had to bring her best, even after the funeral. Boo Tao perked up for some reason or other. Its white plume self latched onto something in Lady Ningguang’s room.
“Hello, Director Hu.”
Ningguang offered a polite smile. So the Lady Tianquan couldn’t see her little pal. Hu Tao yanked Boo Tao’s tail anyway.
“I hope our services were satisfactory.”
Captain Beidou was a figure larger than life. She deserved the utmost honour in death. Even if Hu Tao partially regretted sending the Captain on so soon. Boo Tao was jerked back like a rubber band, revealing the all too familiar figure. Hu Tao’s eyes widened.
Huh, so Captain Beidou didn’t pass through the border after all.
“Very much so. Thank you, Director Hu. I wish for your assistance in other matters.”
Beidou probably should have read her calendar today. She didn’t really know how luck worked for ghosts like her but she was pretty sure this didn’t qualify as good. A ghost that looked like one of those seelies started fawning over her. Hu Tao gave her the creeps with those plum blossom eyes staring straight at her soul. There wasn’t even any electro this time round!
Ningguang noticed it too, those beautiful scarlet eyes finally looking in her direction.
“Director Hu, is something the matter?”
“Ahahaha! Lady Ningguang, I’m honoured! We offer a wide range of services, from funerals, to placating the dead, to even exorcisms! The Wangsheng Funeral Parlour will do it all!”
Was that a warning? Beidou waved a hand in the air. Hu Tao grinned at her, her eyes tracking the motion, looking almost amused by the act. Beidou jolted up. She was getting rather adept at not falling through things in general, though her body didn’t leave an impression either.
“Tell her I’m here,” Beidou pleaded.
Ningguang chuckled at Hu Tao’s eccentrics. To see the child so dedicated to her craft was reassuring. If she were not here anymore…
“Not any of the above, I’m afraid. Director Hu, would you be able to organize a yearly rite of remembrance for Captain Beidou? I can pay you in advance.”
“Of course, of course!”
Hu Tao’s eyes lit up, pointedly in Ningguang’s direction.
“The dead and living should never mix,” a slight shake of Hu Tao’s head, “But we have to always remember and honour them!”
Ningguang’s eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second, an expression only Beidou ever caught. The conjunction of her sentences was just slightly off. Ningguang paused. Her next words were measured and clipped, to hide the waver in her voice.
“Director Hu, can I take it to mean that the dead can remain in the realm of the living, similar to how Qiqi resides in Bubu Pharmacy?”
Hu Tao bowed her head, her twintails swaying along with the movement. Ah, now that was lamentable. She couldn’t quite look Beidou in the eye, nor could she meet Ningguang’s desperate, scorching gaze. Hu Tao liked speaking with the spirits, she truly did, guiding those lost forward and entertaining those that chose to remain here. Beidou seemed the latter. Reuniting the dead and the living however, was the stuff of legends. Boo Tao obediently floated alongside her.
“It isn’t something I usually approve of. The cycle of life and death should remain undisturbed. But there are exceptions.”
That was up to Beidou now. If she was like Qiqi…well, who was Hu Tao to stop her? Although spirits were not generally malevolent creatures, they still affected the living, for people unattuned to their presence.
“Lady Ningguang, if you feel unwell, do not hesitate to contact the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour!”
Hu Tao scurried away. Boo Tao bounced behind her like an Anemo slime.
“My captain?” Ningguang asked into her empty office. She retrieved Beidou’s vision from where it hung on her hip, cradled in her palms, stupidly hopeful for any semblance of an answer.
Other than the geo resonating beneath her feet, Ningguang felt nothing else.
Of course, there was none. What was she thinking?
A whimper parted her lips. Ningguang clamped a hand over her mouth, bowing her head, squeezing her eyes shut. No, no, no. Ganyu and Keqing were outside somewhere. She still had meetings with the rest of the Qixing today. Their relations with Inazuma were of the leading topics. She belatedly registered wet trails down her face. Ningguang wiped her face with her hands, scrabbling it as a child would. The cold metal of the masterless vision against her heated skin marked red lines. Her chest constricted, a savage gnawing at her hitched breaths. She stifled her sobs. A series of hiccups never made it past the coarse cloth of her sleeves.
Ningguang had to be presentable. Ningguang knew the rest of the Qixing would probably berate her for ‘taking Beidou’s side’, organizing nothing less than a hero’s funeral for her. She was, for better or worse, the face of Liyue. Nonetheless, it was her duty to stand for Beidou. Her stupid, lovable pirate captain that almost singlehandedly broke down Inazuma’s government.
“I love you, Beidou.”
A wisp from her scratchy voice to call upon the last reserves of her strength. And perhaps a blessing, to wherever Beidou was in the Underworld. Ningguang had to go now.
My dearest star.
Beidou watched some particular Qixing fall little short of screaming at her Ning. Beidou would’ve reigned hell on them if she could. Keqing was mostly silent, for once. Ganyu defended Beidou’s heroics but fell short on how Beidou decided attacking the Raiden Shogun deserved a grandiose burial. Indeed, it didn’t really. Ningguang teetered at the edge of breaking down multiple times over, Beidou’s vision clasped tight under the table.
Until now, Ningguang was atoning for Beidou’s sins. Beidou truly didn’t deserve her star. Beidou had clawed for that spark of electro, pried open all past wounds for a fraction of that cold burn; but electro couldn't be bottled and squirreled away. No, that power came from within, and how much of that Beidou had left, she didn't know. She’d screamed, in a last-ditch attempt for Ningguang to notice her. Well, crying had never worked, would never work.
Maybe Beidou shouldn’t be around Ningguang after all. What was it that Hu Tao said? The dead and the living shouldn’t mix? That girl probably knew better from working so long in the funeral parlour. And Beidou had tried, all to no avail.
Beidou withdrew from the meeting, from Yujing Terrace as a whole, into the blinding sun. She squinted at the bright light, faintly reminded of how she emerged into Ningguang’s room…right. That was her first instance in the afterlife. As a ghost, light was generally uncomfortable for her. Weakness seeped in her muscles and bones the longer she was exposed to it. Neither did she like warmth much, though she practically exuded it during her living days.
Perhaps the sea was truly the best for her. Beidou sat herself at the docks, legs dangling over the edge. Phantoms of their pets, the twin scaly creatures swirled about her feet. The bustle of Liyue Harbour was a pleasant buzzing in her ears. Glad to know she retained some aspect of herself. Beidou let her eye fall shut. There was that lingering fear that her spirit self would simply dissipate one day without warning. Even more so here, with her fatigued self under the sun. Yet something anchored her to the Harbour, like there were unseen ropes round her abdomen, tying her in place. Just let go.
A cold little thing wrapped around her waist. Soft fuzzy hairs tickled her back. A soothing presence to her ghostly being. Beidou’s eye shot wide open.
“Eyepatch. Red. Captain Beidou.”
Beidou craned her head to sweet little Qiqi, dull eyes batting at her. She caught the faint spark of joy, familiarised from the time Beidou brought coconut milk from Sumeru. Herself, reflected in those pink eyes. At first, Qiqi had stared at her cargo for so long. Among the returned stares of her crew, Beidou approached the little zombie and gifted her a large batch of coconut milk. She always kept some aboard for Qiqi afterward.
Qiqi tugged at her flying talisman on her forehead. The corners of her lips tilted upward, as much of a pleased smile as she could muster.
Dear Archons. Qiqi’s cold touch of the living eased Beidou’s regrets, if only for a little bit. With a shaking hand, Beidou ruffled Qiqi’s lavender hair, fixing the far-too-large hat. Qiqi shut her eyes, happy with the attention. Beidou felt like she was slipping into water for the first time again, the weights and constraints of the earth crumbling away.
At Beidou’s silence, Qiqi frowned.
“Does Captain Beidou forget?”
“Of course not, Qiqi. I’ll get you coconut milk next time.”
Qiqi hummed. She snuggled into Beidou’s side, under her cape. Her braid whipped in the wind. Beidou patted her back. Qiqi was so awfully small. Did she even realize Beidou had passed too?
“Captain Beidou is warm before. But cold better.”
Beidou suppressed a small laugh. No wonder Qiqi didn’t like cuddles. She squeezed her close to herself. Beidou wasn’t sure if she offered any protection from the sun anymore but she tried. She held Qiqi’s cold small hand.
“Qiqi, would you like to go somewhere else?”
“Captain Beidou is here. Will play with me. Will give coconut milk. Don’t…go.”
“It might be a little late for me, little Qiqi.”
Beidou swallowed a cry. Qiqi was so sweet. Qiqi tilted her head in a slow shake. Her eyes were lit up. She continued to grasp Beidou’s larger hand.
“Captain Beidou is here. Captain Beidou will be here. I can protect you from her too. No burial.”
Qiqi did understand. And yet Beidou couldn’t help but chuckle. Somehow tranquil, like the waters of Mondstadt’s lake. That last bit had to mean Hu Tao. Qiqi would squeeze into the smallest spaces to hide from the funeral director. Beidou pressed a kiss to the top of her forehead.
“Thank you Qiqi. I’ll protect you too.”
Qiqi bobbed her head vigorously. She clutched at the cloth of Beidou’s qipao. Beidou cradled her, let a small laugh pass by her lips. She was adorable. Maybe Kazuha would appreciate having a little sister. Ningguang would definitely adore a daughter. Wait.
“Qiqi, would you mind speaking to Lady Ningguang for me?”
Qiqi flipped open her notebook. On the pages were a set of descriptions and a little kamera portrait to help. Qiqi beamed again.
“I remember,” Qiqi paused in thought, “White and golden. Very nice. Gives coconut milk too.”
Ah, now that was a concise descriptor of her Ning.
Qiqi’s head drooped a bit.
“Have not seen her for a while.”
Ningguang hadn’t been in Liyue much after Beidou’s death. She was ferried between her office at Yujing Terrace and the Jade Chamber and little else. She didn’t take her little walks out in the city, visit her kids, or request new makes of her stupidly complicated board game. Other than Yelan dropping in every now and then, Ningguang’s tether to the city below her snapped.
“Yes, she’s very lonely too. All alone in the clouds up there.”
Beidou pointed to the Jade Chamber. The single room in the sky cast a blocky shadow down, far from the star that outshone the moon on most nights. Qiqi blinked. Her demeanour became a little sadder when she recalled the old Jade Chamber too.
“Liked the old one better.”
“You and me both, little one,” Beidou squeezed her hand, “Can you tell her Beidou is here? So she’ll be less sad?”
“Tianquan Ningguang is sad like Captain Beidou?”
“I will help Tianquan Ningguang,” Qiqi announced, very happy with herself, “Will Captain Beidou come?”
On their ascent to the Jade Chamber, on the few pieces of plaustrite remaining in the land, Beidou clutched Qiqi’s small hand, her tiny frame pressed against her. Buyun had been slightly suspicious of the zombie child but given that Qiqi was Baizhu’s apprentice and drilling Qiqi got nobody anywhere, he let her up. Qiqi had stood remarkably still throughout this whole ordeal. Beidou’s legs still quaked involuntarily when she chanced a look straight down.
Qiqi hopped off at the door. She rapped lightly on the door. In her monotone voice, she announced, “I am Qiqi. I am a zombie. Uh…”
The door opened. Ningguang had surely been crying again, if the red puffiness of her eyes was any indicator. Ningguang fostered a small smile anyway.
“Hello Qiqi. Did Dr Baizhu send you?”
A gale whipping past them swallowed the ends of her words. Qiqi gasped. Ningguang’s eyes flashed as she seized Qiqi’s hand, holding her steady. Ningguang hurried her in. Beidou slipped in behind them, giving Qiqi’s free hand a squeeze.
“Are you alright, Qiqi?”
Qiqi propped herself up, grabbed at a table’s edge. Ningguang bent down and wrapped her arms around Qiqi’s waist, setting her on top as she wished. Beidou caught the softened glint in those ruby eyes. For once, Ningguang’s thoughts were pulled away from Beidou’s death. Beidou felt her smile mirror Ningguang’s own.
Qiqi mumbled, “Thank you.”
Qiqi frowned at the long-cooled soup that rested there. She took a small sip. She tilted her head back up at Ningguang, who so far had been watching the little zombie with amusement.
“Cold. Like Tianquan Ningguang. Not good for people.”
Ah. Ningguang gently smoothed out Qiqi’s messy fringe, tucking the braid that flew over Qiqi’s shoulder behind her back. She offered another smile, hoping this was put lightly.
“Thank you for looking after me, Qiqi. But tell Dr Baizhu his services are not needed now.”
Qiqi slowly shook her head, in both disapproval and correcting Ningguang’s mistake.
“Captain Beidou told me to come. Captain Beidou is here.”
Ningguang’s movements froze. Her hastily constructed defences were breached too suddenly, such that she couldn’t even hide her face from the child. Tears dropped from her eyes. Oh fuck, Beidou miscalculated again.
Qiqi hopped up, tiny hands wiping in long, extended motions. A glare was sent in Beidou’s direction.
“Tianquan Ningguang is more sad. Captain Beidou is wrong. Apologize.”
Beidou’s voice was heavier than before, a bit more tired as she witnessed Ningguang cry because of her again.
“Ningguang can’t see or hear me like you can, Qiqi.”
Qiqi frowned as she wrapped her head around it, further adjusting the talisman on her forehead.
“I am a zombie. I am Fortune Preserver. Is that why?”
Although Beidou was pretty sure Qiqi wasn’t in the ranks of the illuminated beasts, Beidou knew an adeptus name when she heard one. Qiqi was an adeptus? Wait. Beidou grimaced. She could probably seek the divine adepti in Jueyun Karst for help. Granted if they didn’t obliterate her for being a ghost and trespassing on sacred land first.
Ningguang sought the child through teary eyes. Qiqi didn’t joke around. Qiqi wasn’t addressing her. Those appropriate pauses indicated more of a conversation than anything, one Ningguang wasn’t a part of.
“Qiqi, who are you speaking to?”
“Captain Beidou,” Qiqi chirped.
And that sent a ringing through Ningguang’s ears. Beidou was here.
“Beidou,” Ningguang gasped out, “I love you, my dear Captain.”
“I know, my star.”
Qiqi brought forth her Herald of Frost, hopping to Ningguang’s side. Ningguang let Qiqi do what she wanted, though the action startled her. Qiqi reached up to Ningguang’s forehead. The mild heat was comforting for a human.
“Not ill yet,” Qiqi confirmed, “But weak. Need food. Rest.”
Qiqi took a glance at Beidou, “Captain Beidou says ‘I know, my star’.”
Beidou barked out a surprised laugh, in line with Qiqi’s confused stare. Ningguang suppressed a weak giggle. Feeble joy flickered in her chest, the first she felt whole since hearing of that incident.
“Thank you, both of you,” a touch of fear coloured Ningguang’s voice, “How long will you be here?”
“I have to pick herbs tomorrow.”
Beidou fought to keep her voice steady, not because of Ningguang, rather that she didn’t want to scare Qiqi.
“I’ve always been here, Ning. I’ll seek the adepti for help. I’ll probably get someone to send a message too.”
Qiqi, bless her heart, also relayed that message. Ningguang nodded along. She looked out to the twinkling night view of Liyue Harbour below her. Beidou hovered behind Ningguang’s seat, hands lightly resting on her shoulders. Qiqi was sat on Ningguang’s lap, swinging her legs in a sluggish rhythm. For all that Qiqi worried for Ningguang being too cold for a human, she did prefer being held like this. Qiqi curled into Ningguang’s embrace. A slow yawn squeezed through her lips.
“Qiqi dear, would you prefer to stay the night here?”
A smile graced Ningguang’s lips, “Oh dear, the two of us must have tired you out.”
Ningguang led Qiqi to her bed. Qiqi laid her oversized hat and her large string of beads on the bedside table. Ningguang’s deft fingers undid Qiqi’s long, long braid, combing through her lavender hair. Qiqi made a small happy chirp, very much like a finch of sorts. As an afterthought, Ningguang rolled up the blankets so the little zombie would remain cool. Qiqi rolled onto her side, dull pink eyes focused on Ningguang, adamantly insisting, “Tianquan Ningguang is my patient now.”
“Yes, Qiqi but I can take care of you too.”
Qiqi pursed her lips. Her responses took a tad longer now that the child was exhausted. Eventually she nodded in acknowledgement.
“Goodnight, Tianquan Ningguang and Captain Beidou.”
Ningguang herself holed up in the chair at her desk, drawing her knees up to herself. The space which Beidou occupied for the better half of the last couple weeks. Ah well. Beidou was relatively sure she wouldn’t fall through the wooden floorboards.
Ningguang muttered, “I’ll ask for more insight from Director Hu and her consultant Zhongli xiansheng tomorrow. Perhaps Yanfei can transcribe for us next time. I don’t wish to further bother Qiqi here.”
Beidou agreed, though she couldn’t voice it to Ningguang. Either way, both settled in for the night, having the most fitful rest in weeks despite it all.
The way to Jueyun Karst was a slow one by foot. Qiqi brought out a Herald of Frost in one hand, gripped Beidou’s hand in the other. The Herald of Frost kept them both cool in the sun. Qiqi also mentioned in passing that the cold helped preserve the herbs she was carrying around all day. An eyesore of a giant bamboo basket at Qiqi’s height rested on her shoulders.
Beidou really needed a talk with Ningguang over this. Having Qiqi work like this wasn’t right, couldn’t be right. At least Qiqi was happy now. Qiqi didn’t speak much but her movements were a little more limber and energetic. That might be due to the coconut milk for breakfast though.
Beidou shook her head. Ningguang had the audacity to accuse her of spoiling kids. She had the coconut milk sent up. And braided Qiqi’s hair today. The little zombie actually smiled, the corner of her lips quirking up just a fraction. Archons, it was adorable.
“I do not like adepti. But I will come.”
As they approached Mt Aocang, Qiqi’s hand clenched Beidou’s. Beidou had a sense of trepidation herself, more likely than not of her constitution as a cursed being on sacred land. A glare of white hair in the distance had Beidou pause. Beidou craned her neck, cursing her single eye. Had that slipped into her blind spot? That couldn’t be Ningguang, who should be back in Yujing Terrace.
A deep penetrating chill spiked at her back. Beidou was about to tell Qiqi to turn it down a bit before Qiqi’s pink eyes lit up.
“Who are you? What business do you have here?”
Beidou swung back to see a white-haired woman with a blue-tipped spear pointed at the tender skin of her neck. Great, the lady could see her. Qiqi had a talisman pinched between her index and middle finger, glowering up at the unknown woman.
Her purple shield didn’t spring up. Archons damn it. Beidou stretched her arms in front of Qiqi. Qiqi hopped up and down behind her, her brows tightened.
“Let’s just… put down the weapons first?”
Beidou flashed her most charming smile. The one that worked on a very annoyed Ningguang. The mysterious woman bent down towards Qiqi, blue-gray eyes blinking slowly. By some merit, she didn’t point the spear at the little zombie.
“Are you Fortune Preserver?”
Qiqi batted her eyes before agreeing with a slow nod.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name is Shenhe. Have you come to visit my master, Cloud Retainer?”
“Yes,” Beidou hastily explained, “I’m Beidou and I need help with uh…what I am now?”
Shenhe set her spear aside. Her face remained expressionless, even as she regarded Beidou.
“My apologies, I believed you might have been a malevolent spirit. Since you travel with Fortune Preserver, I have been proved wrong. Let me lead the way.”
Shenhe quickly pulled forward ahead of them, almost like she was gliding along the path. Oh Rex Lapis, did Ganyu have a sister or something? Qiqi tugged at Beidou’s leg, her footsteps growing slower and smaller. Beidou bundled Qiqi up in her arms.
“What’s wrong kiddo?”
“I don’t want to be sealed again.”
Qiqi buried her face in Beidou’s shoulder with a slight whimper. The kid was shaking. Oh.
“Hey, hey, I’m not gonna let you be sealed away alright? If you don’t wanna meet the adeptus, you can leave now. Dr Baizhu needs his herbs. I’m sure Ningguang would love a visit too. She’s your patient after all.”
“But I want to protect Captain Beidou.”
“I’ll be safe.”
Beidou didn’t know how convincing she was, given that Shenhe just threatened to stick a spear through her. But Qiqi bobbed her head.
“Captain Beidou will remember Qiqi?”
Qiqi wrapped her arms around Beidou’s neck. At the bend in the path, Shenhe waited at the precipice of a cliff. An unreadable expression came over her; Beidou found she liked that better than the placid one akin to dead waters of a lake.
“Master, I have brought forth a guest.”
A giant crane swooped down, blue beady eyes staring down her beak at Beidou. She had the same look as Hu Tao that gave Beidou the creeps. Beidou gave a half-hearted wave. Then she realized she probably should have bowed to the adepti to not incur their wrath.
“Thank you, Shenhe. One will speak in private.”
“Of course, master.”
Shenhe left through some adepti mechanism and Beidou was stuck alone on top of islands floating on clouds. Beidou's dead heart still made an uncomfortable jolt whenever Beidou looked down through the translucent bridges connecting them. Ningguang would probably like this place a lot more than her.
“Would you prefer some tea, Captain of the Crux?”
“Y…yeah. Wait can I–”
“This is one’s domain. Have you mortals so little faith in one?”
Cloud Retainer stretched a wing out and suddenly Beidou was sitting on a stone stool, a piping hot pot of tea in front of her. Beidou took a sip. And narrowly avoided spitting the drink out at the adeptus in front of her. Archons, that burned. How does a ghost feel pain even in death?
“How is it?” The bird attentively watched her reaction.
Beidou mustered up a weak smile.
“Good. I haven’t had this in a while.”
Cloud Retainer appeared to preen. A self-satisfied smile descended upon the adeptus.
“One sees you have excellent taste. Ningguang should learn from you.”
Beidou gripped her cup with the mention of Ningguang. The last time Ningguang spoke to the adepti was…not quite on the best of terms. The adepti have begrudgingly accepted the humans’ rule over Liyue and that was simply that.
“Do not fret, Captain of the Crux. One abides by one's words.”
Beidou jolted in place. The illuminated beast seemed to be holding in a laugh.
“One has heard much from dear Ganyu. One deduces why you are among the living.”
Beidou felt her face burn. Dear Archons. Cloud Retainer looked on in amusement and some…relief?
“Spirits that linger with your particular constitution are rare. If you were malevolent, not only would one have disposed of you once you stepped foot in Jueyun Karst, the Conqueror of Demons would have sought you out himself.”
Beidou licked her lips, downing her tea. It simmered down to a more palatable warmth now. Although it was no wine, Beidou herself was soothed by the somewhat bland taste Ningguang was so fond of.
“As it stands, you currently pose no harm. One can aid you in cultivating strength alongside Shenhe. That will keep mania at bay until you move on."
“Ningguang is…the only person I can’t let go of.”
Oh, Beidou missed her already. Dear Archons just let me have this.
“Please, illuminated adepti, I don’t need anything else. I fulfilled the humans’ contract. Liyue is well. Inazuma is well.”
Cloud Retainer smoothed out her wayward feathers, the bird seemingly far more haggard with mention of the contract. Beady blue eyes stared off afar, then sharply trained back on Beidou again.
"One points you towards a path of enlightenment. Your presence within the mortal realm requires guidance to strengthen. Like how water pushes a boat forward, you shall achieve what you seek.”
A distant warmth arose in Beidou’s chest. For how Cloud Retainer embodied the air, she felt like touching down on solid ground after a treacherous voyage, a chick tucked under her wing.
“Master had tasked me with visiting Liyue on the day of your arrival,” Shenhe offhandedly mentioned, “She has since postponed my task.”
Beidou pushed her bowl of Qingxin and violetgrass back to Shenhe instead, “Huh? Why?”
Shenhe seemed to appreciate the gesture as she dug in fervently. Her brows were creased in thought. That was the most expressive Beidou got out of her at any one time, though she started picking up on Shenhe’s more subtle shifts.
“There was a great disturbance at Liyue Harbour. Master was concerned.”
“Osial? That giant sea monster?”
“No. It was…of the humans’ volition. A long-forgotten ceremony I believe.”
Beidou rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly.
“Yeah, um, that was my funeral.”
Shenhe had that indescribable look in her eyes again. Not quite sadness or pity but she did look sorry for Beidou. She set the herbs down, as if contemplating what to say next. Beidou waved her hands in front of her.
“Hey, I’m good with it. I just kinda did something stupid.”
“You would have moved on had you been at peace with your death,” Shenhe stated matter-of-factly, “Master has trained me in the art of exorcism.”
Beidou winced. Shenhe paused for a moment.
“I admire that you stay in Liyue, even in death.”
The end of Shenhe’s sentence trailed off. If Beidou didn’t know better, she’d say Shenhe sounded…forlorn. Beidou slung an arm around her shoulder. The perk of an exorcist meant Beidou could physically feel her too. Apart from a surprised blink, Shenhe didn’t jerk away, nor point her spear at Beidou again so Beidou figured she was good.
"Hey, come with me to Liyue Harbour. I'm sure you'd love it."
“I do not fit within humanity.”
Shenhe stated, like it was a fact from her exorcism training. Her expression didn't flicker from the stagnant calm she exuded. Beidou frowned. That definitely wasn't right.
“Since you’re human, I’d say you’re one of us,” Beidou laughed, “Had to tell that to Ganyu too. She’s part human but still.”
“I am cursed,” Shenhe simply added.
Beidou blinked. The first response on the tip of her tongue was ‘You too?’ Beidou shook that away.
“What, did you cause a drought too?”
“That is rather specific,” Shenhe said, “But no, I have a tendency to kill and I was sacrificed to a malevolent god.”
“Well, I did kill a dragon-fish-god-monster thing so I think you’re good.”
Shenhe eyed her with a closer appraisal. Even though Beidou itched to say something more, Shenhe was ill-adapted to whatever came out of Beidou’s mouth.
"I believe I understand why master requested for you to stay."
Shenhe cleared her bowl of herbs without another word.
A grand courtyard layered with stone tiles made up the training grounds. With arrays of weapon racks stuffed to the brim, training dummies lined up with mechanical bits sticking out of them, the layout was in Beidou assumed an auspicious fashion. There were even trees that cast shade in the perpetually sunny domain, the gurgling of water in some unseen adepti-made stream. Beidou had never been formally educated in the arts, learned on the deck of a ship, and yet she appreciated the setup. Perhaps Beidou should have invested in one on land.
"Captain of the Crux, let us begin."
Unfortunately, most of Cloud Retainer’s teachings for Beidou involved meditating with crossed legs under herself and memorizing incantations. Definitely not Beidou's strong suit. Beidou fidgeted in place. What she would give to swing her broadsword around again. Shenhe herself was no stranger to this arrangement, eyes closed and breathing even.
"Let strength flow where the words guide. Clear your mind. That is the path to enlightenment."
Beidou felt a headache building in her skull. She bowed her head with a groan, single eye opening again. Ningguang was probably far more attuned with this stuff than she was.
"Yeah uh, slight problem with that. I'm not really feeling anything?"
"Would the red ropes help? They have quelled my tangled thoughts."
Cloud Retainer glanced at Shenhe, her expression– as much as a bird could manage, anyway– troubled.
"That would not be necessary, Shenhe. She requires time to adjust on this journey. Do guide your fellow companion in the arts."
"Of course, master."
Shenhe's expression was lighter, somehow.
Beidou was, predictably, pretty bad at the adeptal arts. Beidou herself was the furthest from ‘divinity’, deep within the throes of the mortal world. Even her supposed immortality as a ghost now was borne of her decidedly human love for Ningguang.
“Most spirits devolve into mania, fixated on a single subject.”
Shenhe could tell when Beidou’s mind wandered, though her eye was closed meditating.
“To be tethered is the essential being of a ghost. Many do fall off the path of learning and become engulfed in flames. Some choose to turn to the dark arts instead. You have to break through the bindings on your soul.”
Shenhe paused, adding in an almost quiet afterthought.
“To forsake one’s humanity, along with our worries, joy and sorrow, is inevitable.”
Beidou let her head fall in a low sigh. The golden satchel shone at her hip. That pinned her to Ningguang, Liyue, Teyvat as a whole. Should Beidou remove it, what would be left of her? Beidou didn’t want to find out.
“That means letting go of Ningguang…”
“You are referencing Lady Ningguang?”
“Hey, you know her?”
The disciple of Cloud Retainer nodded solemnly.
“Master mentioned that Lady Ningguang could understand the heart of humanity, a feat the adepti are unable to achieve. I was to aid her should the need arise on my observations of Liyue Harbour.”
“She is your tether to the mortal fate.”
Shenhe was almost awed at the revelation. The icy exterior gave way to an almost childlike wonder. Shenhe wanted to blend in with humanity once more, despite her being forsaken by humanity herself.
But tethered wasn’t quite right. Their fates were weaved together by their own hands, from the threads of their fraying childhood. They bound each other to this fate, willingly, through life and death.
“Ningguang and I chose this. Despite our differing paths, we ended up walking them together.”
Beidou’s single eye was soft. The memories of her beloved, the knowledge of Ningguang still waiting, still willing to be with her made her chest warm. Her mind cleared, unlike the fanatical fervour of before. Beidou felt a little more whole. The harsh lightning’s glow there was bright enough to light up the skies, if for a brief moment.
“Cloud Retainer said her adeptal arts would bring me back to Ningguang. I’m not sure how far I’ll even get on this wayward path to the human realm. But that’s my journey, and I’ll finish it, one way or other.”
The power of electro descended upon anyone with this conviction. Upon this heaven and earth, I am one so blessed. This recognition of the gods was unneeded. After all, it was an accessory at best.
Shenhe frowned at the almost completely unfounded understanding of the adeptal arts. Beidou grinned widely. She dragged herself back up from the ground with a slight wince, her joints somehow sore from the position.
“Y’know, I was a sailor in life. With Ningguang, I found my love of Liyue Harbour. I wasn’t there most of the time but it was– eventually became home.”
Beidou reached her hand out.
“You aren’t severed from humanity. I think you’re like me, Shenhe. And, if you’d let me, I’d bring you to Liyue once more. We will have our place there.”
Shenhe gingerly took up the hand.
Cloud Retainer sent along a message to Ningguang. The letter was carried by the winds of Minlin, fluttering to new heights till it reached the Jade Chamber. The crane trained her eyes on the shrunken grandeur, almost as if she too lamented the loss.
"That child will be well."
Something in Beidou's chest twisted. That letter wasn’t enough. She wanted to be with Ningguang. Her single last ambition burned into her soul at the time of her death. The golden satchel Ningguang gifted her now hung at Beidou's hip, in place of her electro vision.
“Your ties to the mortal world have strengthened.”
Cloud Retainer observed. She fluffed her feathers out. The strength of feelings that mortals possessed was truly something. The object that acted as a conduit for such exuded it. Even Shenhe had…long before she was bound with red ropes.
Perhaps the mortals were ill-suited to the adeptal arts. The adepti had imparted their knowledge back when Liyue was being built, from there borne the roles of exorcism. Mortals molded it to suit their own means. Like that Ningguang, Beidou seemed to be finding her own path.
“Thank you for guiding Shenhe as well.”
Cloud Retainer had noticed the change in her disciple. Shenhe appeared to be truly at peace with humanity. The assignment to Liyue no longer worried the child as much. Perhaps one day, Shenhe could see the red ropes unbounded…but that would be for another day.
“Well, she’s a friend.”
“That is what one expects of you, Beidou.”
On her perch, Cloud Retainer rested sufficiently. The wind had become strong enough under her wings.
"On the eve of Zhongyuan festival, do visit Wuwang Hill. Ningguang will be there, with guidance from the Wangsheng Funeral director. Shenhe will accompany you."
Beidou, being beyond the mortal realm, was far more likely to breach the border between the living and the dead then. Even if Beidou wasn’t quite learned enough yet, that would be sufficient, for now.
Ningguang singularly trudged on. The carriage had long been left behind. Director Hu and her consultant confirmed Beidou’s presence. Even Cloud Retainer had instructed upon the meeting between Beidou and herself. But this realm was cruel. The constant nagging voice in her head warned her of betrayal, of the impossibility, of not an actual word from Beidou herself.
The desperate hope silenced them all. Ningguang was treading upon a thin layer of earth, ignoring the yawning chasm below her feet, jagged cracks splintering through the rock; stalagmites built on shaky foundations. Ningguang didn’t know what she’d do if nothing came of this. She knew she should have called upon Kazuha and even Qiqi, for they missed the Captain as well. But she didn’t need them seeing her like this. Ningguang sent in her leave of absence for the next few days.
The Qixing fixed concerned looks at her. Were they doubting her competence? This should have been no surprise to them. The Zhongyuan festival was one of mourning after all, Ningguang had the right to grieve for a past love.
Yelan watched over her in the shadows, cloaked in hydro. Yelan thankfully didn’t comment on the Qixing’s ineptitude in these affairs. Ningguang hadn’t seen eye to eye with them since Beidou’s funeral.
“Do you think this folly too, Yelan?” Ningguang asked into her empty office.
Yelan dismissed the veil with a toss of her die. She briefly glanced at the number before facing her friend again.
“Some things remain unexplained, and I seek answers. You know I love to gamble.”
Yelan grinned, with sharp teeth and glimmering teal eyes. She too knew of the slight of their dead– living– god.
Someone knocked on her door. The Yuheng, Ningguang supposed. Yelan faded away once more.
“Look Ningguang, you’re free to mourn. Just…don’t do anything stupid.”
Keqing sighed. She had started to avoid Ningguang’s eyes, a new development, to be sure.
Ningguang laughed, the sound harsh and derisive on her lips, as sour as the berries growing on the straggling shrubs near her childhood home.
“When have I ever been such, Keqing? Don’t fret.”
Perhaps Ningguang was petty. Over their disagreement of Beidou. But she’d rather besmirch Rex Lapis’ name over Beidou’s. That went tenfold for the Raiden Shogun but she wasn’t Ningguang’s god; the very one that promised to watch over his people, granted her the vision and yes, simply watched.
“You–” Keqing groaned, “Fine, do what you want, Ningguang. Just come back to work.”
Bickering with the Yuheng did not raise Ningguang’s spirits. Ningguang set her pipe aside.
“I will be there.”
Ningguang was reconsidering the promise she made to Keqing. Ningguang hiked until her head swam with fatigue. From the corner of her eye, her spy followed, keeping a respectable distance between them both. They never traded words, akin to strangers merely on the same path.
Ningguang had a secondary reason for allowing Yelan to trail her through the mountains. Should Ningguang herself find a lapse in judgement, she’d trust Yelan to drag her back to the realm of the living. Liyue needed stability, even from her as Tianquan.
Sweat pearled and rolled down her neck, staining her clothing. Her footing grew shaky. Ningguang cursed underneath her breath. Her stamina was lower than Yelan by this point. Perhaps she should have properly eaten this last month. The cold winds of Wuwang Hill did little to relieve her. Ningguang gripped at a rocky ledge. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
Ningguang shut her eyes adamantly, tears gathering at the edges. From the discomfort? From the pathetic yearning? From the hollowness in her chest that never went away?
She didn’t know what the golden vision at her hip meant anymore. Her ambitions had all but died out. A hand pressed into her shoulder, another supporting Ningguang’s side. Yelan.
The spots in her eyes were not of Ningguang’s body giving out on her. Faint will-o’-wisps hovered around them with an eerie blue glow. Ningguang would liken it to the bright blue hydro vision at Yelan’s hip. They were the only source of ‘natural’ light in the land deserted by the living. The spirits were here.
A faint red silhouette manifested, chattering to a woman with silver hair dressed in adeptal clothing. Ningguang felt herself begin to shake.
Ningguang fought to say something, anything past the heavy lump in her throat, choking down the heavy tears that are sure to be running down her face again. A weak croak escaped her.
That boisterous voice, the messy brown hair, the scarlet eye that shone at the mere mention of Ningguang, that stupid, stupid grin. The rusted gears in Ningguang’s body began to churn, to the warm, comforting embrace of her dear Captain. Beidou’s arms were open, welcoming her.
Only a chill went up her spine. Ningguang whipped her head back to an apologetic Beidou, eye lowering to her hands.
“Ah…sorry about that Ning. Guess I’m not strong enough yet.”
The other woman said something but it was drowned out by the ringing in Ningguang’s ears. Ningguang clutched her hands to her sides, coiling them into fists. The tepid tendrils of the way her nail guards raked across her skin barely returned her mind to herself.
“I love you, my Captain.”
This isn’t enough.
The forced tug of Beidou’s lips upwards, accompanied Beidou eyeing her with nothing less than love and sorrow. Ningguang didn’t fool Beidou.
“I love you, Ning.”
She wants more than that, like the greedy merchant she is.
They were worse off than that stupid legend of lovers meeting once a year on a swallow bridge. Ningguang wanted Beidou with her, even if she didn’t have that during Beidou’s life. Would offerings grant Beidou strength? Would Ningguang’s influence be enough to seek help? Would Ningguang beg their god…just for one last time?
The damp chill of Wuwang Hill had Ningguang shiver. Ningguang clenched her teeth, to stop the incessant chatter. Her limbs felt numb. The will-o’-wisps glared. The sky spun.
Something burned. The smoke of charred grass rose into the musty air. Strong arms wrapped around her waist. Beidou’s handsome face bent down towards her. A faint purple radiated off her.
Ningguang looped her arms around Beidou’s neck, dragging her down into a kiss. Her skin prickled with every point of contact but this was Beidou. Beidou’s mouth simply gaped open. Ningguang dug her nail guards into the back of Beidou’s head. Captain.
Beidou finally reciprocated and Ningguang let out a breathy whine. Ningguang curled up in the familiar embrace, made herself small, tucked herself close. Beidou was here.
“Ah, so that was you, Captain.”
“You crossed over the border.”