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just a little ol' little bit (every day)

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They first meet when she’s pulled out of the deep end of a pool:

Ningguang doesn’t recognise the girl at first when she finally opens her eyes. This thought comes even as she coughs and splutters and realises that perhaps closing her eyes as her head and lungs burned white was a terrible, terrible idea.

The next second, she registers that she’s freezing, and her – loath as she is to admit it – saviour must be too now that they’re both soaked to the bone.

“Dude, what the… are you okay?”

The stranger shakes her head as she asks her question. That action causes some of the water from her long, dark hair to splash onto Ningguang, who also realises that she’s still lying flat against the cold tiles of the swimming complex. She is thankful that most of the lights are switched off, save for the lone fluorescent at one end of the hall.

Ningguang coughs again even as she tries to push herself up. She feels so heavy. So tired. More tired than she was to begin with. Has she ever felt this exhausted? The stranger helps her, supporting her back as Ningguang pushes herself to a sitting position. Her limbs tremble as she pulls herself together, shivering.

She only manages to nod in response.

“Shit. Great. Thank heavens. Dude, if you’re going to swim alone at this hour at least make sure you’ve got someone with you! Unless you really were trying to drown—”

Fury rises in her at the very suggestion. “No,” she grits out, firmly, even as she quashes the rising sense of embarrassment because her voice cracks from her recent near-drowning experience. “I was not.”

She fixes a glare at the stranger, daring her to challenge her statement.

The stranger watches her warily. Two sets of red eyes assess each other, trying to pry the other apart. Even as she sits on the ground, her hair wet and clinging onto her skin, something on Ningguang’s face probably convinces her audience to relent. After a long moment, the stranger’s shoulders slump.

“Yeah okay. You weren’t. I could—”

Ningguang grips the stranger’s wrist, as tightly as she could. Which is to say, not very. This stranger is pretty muscular, built like she does some sort of sport. She could’ve easily pulled away.

“You won’t tell anyone about this?”

Her question is met with furrowed brows. “No, unless you want me to. Who would I tell?”

Most people would want to call her parents, or some emergency contact, but Ningguang hopes that she doesn’t do that. And the school management, for another. Ningguang’s presence here, at this hour, is a violation of the rules. But the stranger… she is violating the rules too. Unless…

“You swim for the school team?”

“Oh. Oh yeah, I do that.”

Ningguang’s teeth chooses that moment to chatter as she shivers again. Alarm registers on the stranger’s face. She dashes off towards the benches, pulling a sports bag with her when she returns. She hears her unzip the bag and pull out a varsity team jacket.

The stranger doesn’t even ask her to put it on. Instead, the jacket is unceremoniously draped across Ningguang’s shoulders. Ordinarily, she would have reacted with some indignation, or something, but for now, she only slips it on without complaint. The jacket is far broader than Ningguang is, but it wraps around her warmly. It still smells strongly like one of those blue bottles of laundry detergent – ocean breeze? That makes her feel somewhat guilty, ruining a stranger’s newly washed clothes.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here, alright?” Her voice is surprisingly gentle now, like she’s trying to coax a baby animal to do something.

And Ningguang, like a new-born deer trying to walk, struggles: her legs almost give out entirely beneath her. She almost curses. Letting someone see her this vulnerable is completely unacceptable.

She hears the stranger sling her duffel bag on one shoulder and before she can even begin to protest, she’s scooped up from the ground.

And when she fixes a glare on the stranger, she only receives a grin, softening the planes of her face.

“Well, we need to get you home. So… where to?”

 

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For a variety of reasons, Ningguang usually counts herself as a fairly lucky person.

However, that night, she wonders if her luck has run itself dry.

Walking at an admirably fast pace for someone carrying an entire human in their arms, their trek back to Ningguang’s rooms is a short one.

Somewhere along the way, Ningguang realises that the girl lives on her floor.

She had, apparently, been away on the first two weeks of school for some swim meet and had missed all the Back2Sku!! nonsense. Not that Ningguang will ever outwardly admit that some of those activities are, in her honest opinion, rubbish. The whole slogan that some old bat came up with is complete rubbish though.

And when Beidou finds out that RA Ningguang is the person she just pulled out of a pool at midnight on a Wednesday, surprise flashes across her features.

Ningguang could only guess at the reasons for Beidou reaction.

Even in her current state, Ningguang recalls that Beidou’s enrolled in the law faculty. Which also means that the swimmer is one of her juniors.

Archons.

She really, really, really hopes that Beidou isn’t a rat. Ningguang had only just been elected as the Law Soc’s president, and she would rather not let any ludicrous rumours, like one where did you hear that Ningguang tried drowning herself, reach the snake pit.

But, perhaps worse still, is that Ningguang’s stomach twists oddly when Beidou laughs as she assures her that she won’t tell a soul. It’s a bright, easy sound, free of artifice. Ningguang only wishes that she can trust her.

And, after Beidou bids her goodnight: as exhausted as she may be, she tosses for at least another hour before sleep finds her.

 

--------

 

To her immense relief and bewilderment, Ningguang does not hear anything about the incident for the rest of the week.

Ningguang doesn’t understand why Beidou doesn’t start any rumours about it. Surely, dirt about herself can earn Beidou some social favours, even if she had no aspirations for the Law Society.

But Ningguang doesn’t even see Beidou much for the next few days. She catches occasional glimpses of the girl late at night, slipping back into her room after a long day of what she presumes is filled with classes and training.

Their rooms are found along the same corridor. As the residential assistant, Ningguang’s room is the one all the way at the end, putting her two doors down from Beidou. The girl doesn’t quite slam the doors when she enters or exits it. But Ganyu is the occupant in the room in between theirs and Ganyu treats her doors like they’re her treasured flowerpots. Ningguang sorely wishes Beidou would stop leaving her shoes outside the door: she has had to catch herself from tripping over Beidou’s slippers at least twice by now.

Ningguang is pulled away from her laptop to answer a knock on the door. Did someone need something? Who?

Her floor is composed of a mix of first and second years. At least it’s the second semester of the year: last semester, she was harangued by all the freshmen for the first three weeks, all needing some help or to borrow something miscellaneous. All of which had frankly been frustrating: there are links in the floor groupchat for the repairman’s hotline for their needs, et cetera. But clueless freshies are clueless freshies. Helping them out isn’t that much of a hassle.

The bigger hassle lay in all those letters. Ningguang has entertained no shortage of people trying to confess their crushes. She is flattered, of course. But there are only so many rejections she can politely give in a single week. It would likely get worse this semester, what with Valentine’s Day in the way.

When she opens the door, Beidou is standing there, laundry basket in tow. She’s dressed only in a pair of shorts with her tank top. Altogether, it’s a distracting amount of muscle that has suddenly appeared in front of her. 

Ningguang holds a sigh back. “I don’t have coins to exchange, if that’s what you’re going to ask.”

Beidou shakes her head, smiling. “And good morning to you, madame RA lady. I’m just here to borrow some detergent. I er, ran out, you see.”

“You’ve run out of it?” Ningguang repeats, questioningly. It’s only the start of the semester. “Well… hang on.” She pads to her bed to take her detergent out from under the bed. “It’s a two-in-one. That’ll be okay with you?”

“Yeah, of course! Thanks.” Beidou takes the pod from her but doesn’t make to leave. “How has your week been?”

“Fine. And yours?”

“Honestly? It’s been a little rough – missing two weeks of classes is kinda shitty. But I’ll catch up. There aren’t that many swim meets left for the rest of this sem, which, I guess, will be good for my grades?” She scratches the back of her head. “You… Have you had breakfast?”

Ningguang shakes her head slowly. “No, I don’t really do breakfast.” She drinks an entire pot of tea instead. Politely, Ningguang also asks, “Have you eaten?”

“Me neither.” Beidou seems to pause, as if considering something, but shakes her head. “Well, thanks for the detergent!”

Ningguang hums. “You’re welcome. Is there anything else?”

Beidou seems to hold back a snort. “Nope.” The p sound pops. “I’ll be out of your hair then!”

Ningguang tries not to watch as Beidou walks away, whistling loudly. Ningguang doesn’t recognise the tune. Each step she takes has a declared confidence that Ningguang can admire. But there’s nothing more pathetic than staring at someone’s calf muscles flexing, for the love of the Archons.    

Minutes later, when Ningguang opens her closet to retrieve an outfit to head out, the college team’s white and maroon jacket stares back at her. She sighs internally, realising that she has forgotten to return Beidou’s jacket, again.

 

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If it was up to Ningguang, she would prefer to stick to her usual routine of getting up at eight am, going through the motions of the day, and then returning to her bed at one-ish am to prepare her body for the next day. Her usual routine rarely factors in disturbances. Outside of routine RA duties, there aren’t a lot of people who interrupted her workflow when she’s back in her room.

Beidou emerges as a disturbance to her otherwise flawless schedule. Like a summer storm that catches her unawares, she appears with little warning – loud, and suddenly she is all around her. Her energy is equally electric, demanding her full attention. 

It starts when she opens her door on a Monday morning to find a bag of kale chips by her door, a bright yellow post-it note stuck on it. The note for her is scratched in an inky scrawl, the Liyuen words running across the tiny piece of paper. It’s written in a running style, but somehow remains perfectly legible.

  • Didn’t know what you liked eating. Ehhh, you seem to be the kind that eats rabbit food. Thanks for saving my laundry!

Beidou doesn’t even bother to sign her name on the note. It’s obvious that it’s from her anyway.

Jean comments on her snack during one of their midday society meetings. Ningguang is known to miss meals and eschew well-meaning coaxing from her peers to eat something. She’s still alive and perfectly well, or so claims the university’s free annual health screening for their students. She has seen no reason to change her habits.

At Jean’s comment, Ningguang stares at the offensive kale chip in her hand, but shrugs and finishes the remainder of the bag anyway. Beidou had already gone to the trouble of buying it for her.

It doesn’t end there. Beidou continues to pop up in her life.

Beidou has her number, and Ningguang gets the occasional text from her throughout the week regarding their common major. Ningguang patiently replies to all inquiries concerning their academics, providing comprehensive reviews of some of the general education modules that they will have to take at Some Point in their university life; Ningguang has approximately two of those classes she still has to take, to her eternal dismay. To Beidou’s texts inquiring after her meal schedules, her replies are far curter, only giving short, factual replies. An ordinary person might take those inquiries as subtler ways of asking someone out for a meal. Ningguang refuses to interpret such questions as such.

Beidou also doesn’t seem to think that Clif bars from the co-op make for actual meals. Which prompts her to knock on Ningguang’s door before she has dinner one day, containers of food in hand. Ningguang only lets herself be dragged to the pantry and starts opening the containers with her. Beidou shrugs when Ningguang gapes at the sheer volume of food Beidou has, stating that she doesn’t actually know what Ningguang eats. After recovering from her surprise, she’s grateful that their only options aren’t limited to Jueyun chili chicken, because she knows very well that their campus’s Li-style food truck is very liberal with both the peppercorns and chilis. Beidou is also perfectly able to finish the portions of food that would probably have taken Ningguang two days to finish.

These spontaneous meal invites happen again. And again.

“You know, you don’t have to do this for me,” Ningguang says after swallowing the last of the bao.

Beidou’s right eye fixes on her. Her left eye is currently comically covered by a taped bandage. Beidou had sheepishly explained that a frisbee flew right at her eye during a casual game at the quadrangle.

As Beidou makes to speak, Ningguang stops her. “No, don’t reply until you’re done chewing. It’s gross.”

Beidou’s eye rolls, but she swallows her food first anyway. “I don’t, yeah,” she agrees. “But you’re good company.”

They leave it at that. Ningguang hardly wants to admit that she too, finds Beidou’s company actually tolerable

 

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Okay, Beidou’s only sometimes tolerable.

Beidou virtually accosts her before she can exit the corridor, barring her from leaving for her next meeting. She’ll be late if Beidou keeps her for too long.

“Move,” she demands, scowling as Beidou stands in her place. “What do you want? I’m late.”

Beidou shakes her head. “Jean sent me to say that your meeting’s going to be cancelled. Apparently, the Culture Club’s president is ill?”

Ningguang exhales, relaxing her grip on her laptop case. “She sent you?”

“You don’t have to sound so suspicious. She saw me and she knew I was heading back here. Oh, yeah, she also relays, ‘do tell Ningguang to check her phone more often’… Well that concludes my job as the messenger.” 

Ningguang pulls her phone out to see a few texts and a missed call from Jean. “Fine. Thanks.”

Her evening schedule on some other weekday will have to be reshuffled then, what an annoyance. What’s she going to do in the next two hours? She’s about to start heading back to her own room when Beidou calls after her, stopping her in her tracks.

“What do you want?” Then, she softens her tone, realising she was lashing her impatience out at her floormate. “Sorry, that came out more curtly than it should have.”

Beidou doesn’t seem offended, and Ningguang thanks her silently for letting it slide. But Beidou then asks, “Say, if you have a moment?”

“Well, keep it short.”

“You’re thinking of going into corporate law, right?”

“Yes, I am. Why?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Only that our prof asked us why we were doing our majors in one of those general seminars today.” Ningguang knows that professor; she had to sit through that class too. “‘Why are we here?’ The law kids got a lot of flack from the social work kids today, is all.”

Ningguang turns around to look at Beidou, eyeing her perplexed expression. “If I told you I’d rather do corporate law for the money, will you think less of me?”

Beidou considers the question, then nods, resolutely. “Yes, a little.” Ningguang appreciates the candour, at least.

Ningguang only shrugs, slightly. “And do I suppose you’re going to dream of becoming a public defendant or some human rights lawyer?” Ningguang makes a noise, somewhat derisive. “Everyone wants different things. I’m sure you’re capable of understanding that.”

It’s not like anyone can get anything done without Mora to their name. She knows that well. Who is going to listen to a penniless kid scrounging for scraps?

 

--------

 

Ningguang is returning from one of the late-night conversations that she occasionally has with Jean after their council meetings when she finds that the light of the common room is still on. It’s rare for someone to still be slogging this early in the semester. If it’s a senior hogging their study area, she has the prerogative to kick them out.

But when she draws closer, she recognises Beidou’s somewhat slumped silhouette. The girl is obviously frustrated by something. She’s been in the study room at the same late hour for the past few days now, always wearing the jacket Ningguang finally got around to returning earlier that week. It’s probably just as well that she did. In the current weather, the common areas get a little chilly each night. The thought makes Ningguang roll her eyes a little: Teyvat U is certainly rich enough to afford overnight heating power bill; the Morax Group had just made headlines for a record donation last month.

Ningguang stops at the door. Hesitates. Beidou’s absences from classes are obviously tough on her. Each class at their faculty packs a lot of new information.

Ningguang returns a few moments later, kicking the glass door open with her foot.     

“Hi. Here are some notes that I used last year.”

Beidou looks up, her bleary eyes widening at the sight of an entire stack of ring-bound papers being dumped on her desk.

“Do you get your arm muscles from carrying all your notes around?” Beidou asks after recovering from gawking openly at the notes.

Ningguang can’t stop herself from rolling her eyes. “Maybe. But really, I should thank my pilates trainer.”

She hesitates, wondering if she really should make her offer. Beidou will probably do perfectly well in her classes with or without Ningguang’s aid. She’s heard that Beidou impressed the seniors in the practice moots from Jean, whose reviews about Beidou had been positively glowing. Not that she has been asking after Beidou; Jean volunteered the information, which only signified how impressed she had been. Few people meet Jean’s exacting standards.

In the end, she says, “if you need any help, I am free on Tuesday nights and on weekends.”

“I could give you a hug right now.”

Ningguang freezes. She can’t really remember the last time that she has been hugged by someone else. Those awkward grabs at the shoulders some men make as greetings with Ningguang do not count.

Ningguang’s unease must be obvious, because Beidou backtracks. “It’s just a figure of speech! I mean, I could hug you…” There’s an awkward grimace on her face, which looks so out of place on Beidou that it occurs to Ningguang that there are few occasions in life that Beidou has cause to feel awkward in.

(Beidou does look like she’s a good hugger.)

“I suppose… it is suitable a suitable exchange,” Ningguang finally allows, her words coming out more haltingly than any law student’s ever should.

Beidou seems to brighten. Her red eyes shine as she stands up, her smile stretching as she quickly engulfs Ningguang in a hug.

Her arms hang limply at her side for a long moment before she remembers that she’s supposed to return the action. At her delay, Beidou chuckles, her breath warm against Ningguang’s neck. Absently, she notes that Beidou’s hair smells faintly like citruses, and her jacket smells a lot like Ningguang’s own clothes.

 

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For some reason, Ningguang finds herself with Beidou in her room on Valentine’s Day.

As expected, Ningguang has received a good number of presents. Some of them are from her society mates and her juniors, given as simple expressions of camaraderie, friendship, or admiration. Sometimes a mix of all of these things. Those are fine: they are given without expectations. Expectations of things that Ningguang is unable, or unwilling, to give.

Beidou knocks on Ningguang’s door that evening, a tottering pile of presents and flowers in her hands. They have, apparently, clogged the dorm manager’s desk downstairs. Ningguang has to make a mental note to remind herself to buy their manager a gift for having to put up with this for another year.

Ningguang presumes that Beidou would leave immediately, but when she sets down all of Ningguang’s presents, she whistles and remarks, “Looks like I have competition, huh.”

That statement makes Ningguang tense for a moment before she decides to treat it as a joke. Against her will, she’s starting to regard Beidou as a friend. A friend who has a penchant for stupid jokes like this one.

“That you do,” Ningguang returns with a small smile. The gifts are likely to contain chocolate. Maybe Beidou would like some of them? “Do you want to help me open these things? It’ll be a waste to just throw them away.”

Beidou grins. “Finders keepers?”

“You can have all of the food, if you’d like,” she offers. “It’ll take me forever to get through all of this. Take it as… recompense for your time.”

That offer makes Beidou snort. “Are you thinking of billable hours already, lady? Seriously, lighten up. Do I have to repeat myself? Your company’s no chore.”

Ningguang shrugs, but she tilts her head slightly to show she accepts the statement, and her smile remains.

“You can start…” She picks out a particularly large present. “Maybe with this one?”

She learns that Beidou does an excellent impression of those boys who have left her notes.

Some of them are terrible confessions. It’s almost like they copied the letters line-by-line from some high school movie that Ningguang firmly believes are produced strictly for teens. And even as a teenager, she never touched those rags.

Some of them compliment her looks. Fair, Ningguang determines. She doesn’t leave her room with her hair in a mess for a reason.

One of them gets borderline creepy, however, when the anonymous sender remarks on how long her legs are and how her top flatters her chest and I could stare at them forever. Beidou doesn’t actually finish reading that note aloud and only glares at the paper, like she could incinerate it from her gaze alone. It’s an expression that’s kind of cute.

“Hey, if you frown like that, it’s going to be permanent.”

Beidou huffs. “Have you seen this? Urgh. Your suitors are creeps.”

“Just the one,” Ningguang acknowledges. “They sent something similar last year.”

“What?” Beidou repeats, aghast.

“Yeah,” Ningguang confirms. “I don’t think it’s really anything to worry about, really. It’s been a whole year. I’m fine. Wait, are you concerned?”

“Dude, of course I am. This guy’s a creep!”

Beidou is still frowning. Acting on a whim, Ningguang reaches out to press her fingers against Beidou’s forehead, brushing her fingers gently against the furrow. The frown fades somewhat, but her bottom lip is still jutted out so slightly in the beginnings of something Ningguang might identify as a pout.

Finally, Beidou lets out a sigh when Ningguang withdraws her hand.

“Say, you’ll tell me if someone harasses you, right?”

Ningguang laughs, surprised. “What?”

“Hey, I’m serious. If someone makes you uncomfortable, you can tell them that a national swimmer would come after them, alright?”

Ningguang laughs again. “I can take care of myself, don’t worry.”

Beidou’s expression softens. “I know you can probably sue them to hell and your heels are excellent weapons but… the offer’s open anyway.” She clears her throat, perhaps realising the air between them has gotten too delicate for everyday conversation. “Would you like one of your chocolates, presidente?” 

“I’ve told you not to call me that. And it’s presidenta.”

“Whatever you say, princesa.”

 

--------

 

Ningguang is a good chess player.

Everyone on campus knows this for a fact after she won the chess club’s tournament last year. It stuns all the kids from the chess club, given that they actually play chess at their weekly meetings. For a newcomer to upset their easy wins made the chess club’s leader demand a taped rematch to ensure that Ningguang wasn’t cheating. As if she’ll ever resort to something so base. The chess club clearly hosted the tournament thinking that no one but themselves would turn up, and that they’d just win and split the prizes among themselves.

Three days ago, Beidou found out that Ningguang intended to wreck those poor chess kids again. She promptly signs up just an hour before the deadline to play too.

And so, they’re practising. She is losing by two matches to Beidou. Never mind that she really shouldn’t spend her entire Saturday playing chess, but here they are. She’s also sure that she is going to lose a good amount of Mora to her now. But maybe she can still win this?

“Again,” Ningguang demands after recovering from the momentary shock that losing in chess has left in her.

In response to her politely worded request, Beidou only raises a jaunty brow. “Aren’t you going to cut your losses?”

Ningguang wants to slap that look off Beidou’s face. Smug bastard. Ningguang recognises the look: Beidou is utterly confident that she’ll win yet again.

But to her great chagrin, Beidou has some basis for that cockiness.

“No.” She will win this. “Black or white?”

“Hmm.” Beidou chuckles. Ningguang glares at her. Beidou’s eyes just twinkle merrily. “As the winner, I will extend my magnanimity to you again. You may make the first move.”

She has to stop her teeth from gnashing together in frustration. Just smile. Breathe. “Alright.” Her other hand clenches under the table. She’ll win this time.

(She doesn’t win that round. By the end of the night, Beidou wins an entire week’s worth of Ningguang’s grocery money.)

(They play again the next week anyway. Beidou starts to convert her winnings into proper hour-long lunches with Ningguang. As the losing party, she takes the offer graciously to reduce her debts.)

 

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It’s when Ningguang withdraws the last Tide Pod from the tub that it occurs to her that Beidou has been borrowing her laundry detergent since the first week they met.

That’s odd. Beidou certainly has enough money to drink on Friday nights. So why doesn’t she just buy her own detergent?

She doesn’t bring it up to Beidou until they bump into each other in the corridor that night. Beidou’s obviously just gotten back from the pool: her hair is wrapped in a towel and she’s hauling the bag Ningguang has come to recognise as her pool bag with her.

Beidou waves at her in greeting. “You just got back?”

“Yeah, from the supermarket.” She lifts the stuffed linen bags in her hands. “Anyway, are you going to buy some detergent?”

Beidou blinks. Then, she coughs. Ningguang shrinks back a little. She won’t want to catch the flu bug going around the building with an exam coming up soon.

Beidou hedges, “Okay. Yeah. I can do that. But... it’s easier to use yours?”

“Is that a statement or a question?”

“Both?” Beidou dips her head before she seems to deflate, somewhat, to Ningguang’s bemusement. “Look, I can pay you back or something for borrowing all of your detergent like that, if you want.”

Ningguang studies her for a while. Truly, she doesn’t really mind being robbed of a Tide Pod every week. Beidou more than pays her fair share back by buying her food all the time; the other girl loses more money than Ningguang. She can let this slide.

“No, it’s fine. You can keep stealing them from me.”

“Really?” Her head raises, the usual smirk-smile returning to her features.

“Mmhmm.” Losing a few Mora won’t hurt her.

                                                   

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It is a rare day for Ningguang and Jean to be hanging out at a café, chatting, without a single piece of paperwork on the table. Jean has opted for a latte, in an effort to pretend she doesn’t need multiple shots of espresso to keep herself alive.

Jean hadn’t wanted to do this. However, Jean’s girlfriend had apparently taken it upon itself to negotiate a deal with Jean last week when her friend was too sick to protest; in exchange for being taken care of by one Lisa Minci while on her sickbed, Jean would have to take mandatory breaks, starting immediately. Ningguang’s name somehow came up in that conversation, so here they are. (Jean paid for Ningguang’s tea in thanks for dragging her away from her work.)

“You look like you want to murder your latte,” Ningguang observes while trying to hide her smile. “What, are you regretting hanging out with me? Pity. It’s such a lovely afternoon.”

Jean runs a hand through her hair, scowling. As usual, her blonde hair has been pulled back into a ponytail. “You can be so… ugh, never mind. But yes, a little. Have you seen our workload this semester?” Jean groans at the very thought. “But never let it be said that Lisa Minci doesn’t know how to negotiate.”

Ningguang makes an amused sound through her nose. “And never let your enemies know that you’re so easily compromised. Tell me, how many concessions have you made when she asks you to do anything?”

Jean groans again, letting her face fall into her hands. “Can you not remind me?”

She feigns innocence. “I’m just being concerned for a friend of mine. Is that not allowed now?” Ningguang leans forward to pat Jean’s golden head lightly. “Cheer up. I’m just glad you’ve found someone to be happy with, alright?”

Jean looks up to level a half-hearted glare at her. “You’ve got some way of showing it.”

Ningguang smiles. “But really, I am. I must say, someone who’s been able to get you to start delegating must truly be someone special.”

Jean watches her serious expression carefully. It is a pity that Jean and herself didn’t work out, but they weren’t ever serious about trying to date. They are still mostly only serious about work. Lisa is a good foil for her: anyone who is able to pull Jean towards some semblance of a work-life balance deserves Ningguang's full respect, even if she had reservations about Jean's crush on the PhD student just a semester ago. And in truth, Jean is probably too much of a hopeless romantic for Ningguang’s tastes, not that her friend would ever admit it in so many words.

Jean sets her latte down on the table again. “Fine, thanks. But, if I may?” When Ningguang hums her assent, she continues, “I’ve noticed that you seem happier these days. It’s a nice development.”

Ningguang frowns over her teacup, and motions for Jean to explain her statement.

Jean seems to consider her words for a moment, sipping her latte as she does so. “What I mean is…” She frowns, like she isn’t quite sure how to phrase her observation. “You seem… less tense? Less… stressed? Hmm… that’s not quite it… you’ve always been good at handling stress – I envy you.”

Ningguang frowns. “Hey, you’re no pushover yourself.”

Jean leans back against the wooden chair, looking out towards the gardens. “But really, your eyes – right under there – they’re erm, less puffy nowadays.” Jean squeaks as she finishes her sentence. “Not that you ever looked bad, don’t get me wrong, but…”

Ningguang only chuckles quietly at Jean’s discomfort, letting Jean squirm in her place for a while more.

“See? That’s what I mean. You’re less closed off now. Less untouchable? I don’t know.” Then, Jean recovers enough of herself to probe, “Is there a reason for it?”

Ningguang falls silent, unsure how to proceed. Her fingers toy with the edges of her teacup.

Ningguang understands what Jean means, somewhat. She has been sleeping marginally better nowadays and has even kept to an externally enforced semi-regular food consumption schedule.

Jean recognises that her friend isn’t likely to offer any explanation, so their conversation shifts to other things. Life updates for Jean and Ningguang take a while for them to run through because their conversations of late mainly centre on work.

Naturally, Ningguang is always curious about Jean’s dating life; Lisa Minci is stupidly pretty, and her hair is always styled in gorgeous brown waves. When they first met Lisa at outside the library the previous summer, she even wore over-the-top hats. Who does that?

Ningguang would’ve been jealous of Jean’s crush, except that Jean didn’t recognise the crush for what it is. And when Jean found out that she lost sleep over PhD candidate Lisa Minci, Jean spent the next two hours on that particular Tuesday evening in the gym, boxing a punching bag to work the inconvenient crush out of her system. Ningguang had also derived an exceptional amount of enjoyment teasing Jean about it, who flustered and squeaked whenever Ningguang brought it up.

And when Kaeya found out, he delightedly stalked Lisa on social media, thought there really wasn’t much to be found. Lisa graduated from Sumeru Academia’s science faculty: even Diluc didn’t have any mutual friends with her, and the man somehow has thousands of mutuals on Instagram when he barely posted anything. They had more success with digging information up on her through LinkedIn, of all things, though Jean also activated the Premium anonymous mode to check out her profile.

Ningguang had also been the one to steal Jean’s phone to drop Lisa a LinkedIn message. Jean didn’t speak to her for a week. But hey, Jean was also so grateful afterwards that she bought Ningguang a handcarved chess set for Christmas with the Gunnhildr family money. (The gift was really rather unnecessary, though the thought was appreciated.)

Their conversation is interrupted by a frisbee nearly homing onto Jean’s head, who ducks at the last second and it clatters harmlessly against the reinforced glass windowpane next to them. She hears the apologies from Beidou before she actually sees her run over.

“I am so sorry Jean!” Beidou shouts as she dashes across the grass. “I— Eh, Ningguang?”

“Hello Beidou. I would prefer it if you didn’t try to murder the vice-president. A record for homicide doesn’t look very good on an undergraduate’s transcript.”

Beidou dips her head, abashed. “Sorry, sorry. I was teaching one of them,” Beidou gestures in the distance at one of her friends, “to throw a frisbee. Guess they got it in their heads to just…”

“Fling it with all their might?” Ningguang finishes, raising a brow.

Jean shrugs. “It would be terribly ironic if I died on my day off. Say, Ningguang, do you think Lisa would drag me out of my grave to murder me again?”

“Nothing quite so dramatic, I’m sure.” Ningguang reaches over to pick the frisbee up. “You can have this back. Take this elsewhere, will you? If you’re to commit manslaughter, maybe you’ll get lucky and hit one of the subpar profs around instead.”

Beidou takes the frisbee back as she grins at the idea. “Aye aye, captain.”

“Ugh, none of that, please.”

“Hey, but seriously, sorry about that Jean.” As she begins to jog off, she calls back, “See you later!”

Ningguang watches as Beidou returns to her friends; one of the girls she is with immediately begins to fawn over her. It’s either that (1) Beidou is oblivious, (2) or that she doesn’t care. Ningguang has learned enough about her to know it’s probably the latter. But the beginnings of a frown still appear on her face.

“Oh wow,” Jean finally murmurs. “She’s that floormate, isn’t she?”

A foreign warmth reaches Ningguang’s cheeks. Jean is too smart for her own good. “No. We’re not discussing that.”

“Really? I am sure—”

No.”

“You’re still watching her.”

Jean’s right. Ningguang’s still looking at them even as Beidou and her friends disappear as they walk past the archway.

When Ningguang returns her gaze to Jean, she’s doing a perfect imitation of a golden retriever. She’s all wide sky-coloured eyes and frowning just so that it makes Ningguang feel a little bad for denying Jean some of her fun.

So she relents. “Fine. She’s fit, and I have eyes. Is that what you want to hear?”

Jean’s eyes are twinkling with mischief. “It’s a start! So, tell me about her.”

Ningguang pushes her teacup away, making to stand. “I think that we’ve had a good break. It’s time we head back to work, yes?” Jean pouts all the way back to their workspace.

 

--------

 

She likes Beidou’s presence too much. That in itself is not the issue.

The problem emerges when Ningguang finds herself idly thinking about what time Beidou would end her swim practice that Thursday so they could go get dinner together. She catches herself thinking of Beidou’s easy laughter, of her sunny smiles, and those cocky smirks (one brow raised, lip quirked to a side in a way that makes Ningguang’s heartbeat flutter.)

This revelation stops her cold.

An erratic heartbeat in front of someone else warns of feelings Ningguang has preferred to avoid/quash/destroy most of her life.

Liking someone is a dangerous notion: it’s something that puts one at an immediate disadvantage.

If she was the kind of person to live in denial, she could tell herself that she doesn’t like Beidou and then, absolutely nothing would have to be done, then all is well. They’ll remain friends, as they are, quibbling over a dozen different things.

If she draws a table of the possible realities, there are only two real scenarios that can play out, which limits the steps she can take.

Under conditions where Ningguang likes Beidou (which, she admits, are already present):

  • The first scenario is that Beidou doesn’t like her back.

Rejection brings hurt. Everyone wants to be wanted, in some way or another. Ningguang doesn’t like it when she doesn’t win, but she knows that affections can’t be won even if she wills it. It’s one of those things that doesn’t quite work that way.

  • The second scenario is that Beidou somehow returns her feelings. Feelings which can unfortunately be classified as romantic.

In both cases, she will have to assess the nature and the extent of Beidou’s feelings. If she understands the first scenario to better fit their current reality, then fine.

And the second?

If her assessment returns data that both of their feelings aren’t fleeting. She’ll have to do something about it. She can always choose to ignore it. But both of them act, neither content to let things lie. She would prefer to wait for an opportune moment, whenever that might be, to extend any lofty confessions.

However, if the second scenario is true, and either party’s feelings are fleeting, then what?

If her own feelings about the matter are shallow, she can choose to ignore it.

But what if she’s the one with more to lose? Archons. The idea terrifies her.

(The issue is that the payoff seems so tempting that her fading grasp on the rational course of action makes her fingers itch to grab her pipe. Too bad she locked it in Jean’s room.) 

 

--------

 

Ningguang opens her door to see Beidou and Ganyu heading into Beidou’s room, the smaller girl tucked snugly in Beidou’s arms. They’ve obviously been drinking. Ganyu is slurring a sad string of sentences about someone while Beidou murmurs comforting words in response.

“Should you really be drinking?” She calls out after them, her voice comes out harsher than she means it to.

Seconds later, Beidou re-emerges from her room, shrugging. “I only had a bit of booze. She… was upset about something. I, well, she needed the company.”

Ningguang pinches her nose. Something unpleasant tugs at her. It’s not the first time that Ganyu has slept over in Beidou’s room; Ganyu is prone to forgetting her key card and gets locked out at night more often than not.

She crosses her arms, feeling her head throb a little. “You know that you can’t just let Ganyu sleep over like this.”

Beidou shrugs again, a frown appearing on her face now. “Hey, what am I supposed to do? Wake the manager up just because she can’t take my bed for the night? C’mon, Ningguang. That makes no sense.”

Ningguang purses her lips. “It’s against the rules.”

“So are many things. Hey, if you don’t tell anyone, I won’t.”

Ningguang wills herself not to shrink back, her knees suddenly weak. She schools her face to not betray any of her feelings. Was that a threat?

Beidou knows too many things about her now.

It’s not just that Ningguang really doesn’t need anyone reporting her for breaking into the swimming complex at night. It’s not just that she was content to let gravity sink her firmly under water. Those things are minor, in hindsight. Unless Beidou actually goes to the higher-ups, which, Ningguang has learned is something unlikely to occur, her ailing grandparents are unlikely to ever hear of her momentary folly.

But fear coils in Ningguang’s throat anyway.

She is 90-percent sure that Beidou knows she's not that interested in men. She can’t possibly lose an advantage that she has learned to dangle in front of those weak enough to think she might be interested in them.

Minor things, like how Beidou knows she smokes on the occasion when she gets stressed. It’s not so much the smoking that’s the problem. More of the notion that the ever-unflappable president can be more human than what people might envision. (She’s trying to quit, alright?)

But the fact that she’s really not as rich as most people somehow think she is troubles her most. She knows that Beidou definitely saw the pile of papers confirming her scholarship, but also the financial aid documents that she carelessly left on the table on one of Beidou’s visits to her room. Her faculty mates can spin anything out of nothing. Anyone without a mountain of money in their family’s figurative vaults are easy targets.

No. That’s… that’s not what Beidou’s like as a person. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and re-evaluates the information she has on hand.

She doesn’t have much leverage over Beidou. They’re friends, or so she has dared to call them. But she doesn’t like how she hasn’t even known Beidou for a semester before calling her a friend. (That… that has to be rectified.) It’s…

In the next second, she shakes her head. Never mind that her throat is tight as she murmurs, “I have no reason to trust that you won’t.” 

Beidou cocks her head to the side, clearly confused, and also clearly somewhat hurt by the statement. “Wait… have I done anything to betray your trust?” And when Ningguang bites her lip and shakes her head, Beidou’s forehead scrunches further as she asks, “Hey, hey, hey, I don’t get it. What’s the problem here?”

What comes out of her mouth makes her feel extremely petulant, but she spits it out anyway, “Maybe, my problem is you.”

She turns away before she can watch Beidou gape at her, unsure of what to make of her words. Ningguang knows fully well that she’s being unfair. And it’s not Beidou’s fault in any manner. Nothing that has played out provides any evidence whatsoever that Beidou is guilty of anything bad. But what if. What if she betrays your trust? You don’t even know her. She knows you too well.

(In truth, she knows enough to understand that that won’t happen.)

(But how can she possibly just give, and receive, her trust with such ease? Nothing in this world comes easily. There has to be a catch somewhere.)

 

--------

 

A rumour circulates about how she’s sleeping with her profs for her As.

It’s a very elaborate lie.

From what several freshmen she’s well-acquainted with tell her, there are a few whispers and loud jeers about it, on how Ningguang’s only earned the favour of their professors because she spreads her legs to fuck her superiors for her grades. The lie doesn’t quite end there. It goes on to elaborate about how her trip to Liyue was paid for by a sugar daddy. And that she sleeps with multiple people at any given period.

Ningguang only scoffs at this notion. It’s all blatantly untrue, of course. Getting an A simply because she pulled a sexual favour wouldn’t be satisfying. It wouldn’t be judging her academics based on her academics. While looking for advantages is something she deems important, cheating, altering the rules of a game that aren’t hers, is too much.

No matter. It’s not like she has not had inane rumours of the same variety circulating amongst the student population before. It’s one of the first few that has bothered her enough to take some action, but the instigator isn’t even very creative about their tale.

She suspects that the rumour has probably started by one of the other sophomores, in effort to pressure Ningguang to resign, or something.

Or perhaps, someone is simply… jealous of her? There was a rumour about how some business major… her name could’ve been Sisi? Thought her boyfriend was cheating on her with Ningguang because she met him once for a meeting for one of her general modules. (Ningguang was curious enough to dig for that sliver of gossip. He was indeed two-timing Sisi with a clueless mathematics major.)

Ningguang stops mulling over the problem. Even if her intuition is right, she’ll need to get more intel on this. Anyone could’ve thrown a careless jest out in the wind. Jests are but jokes until someone with less than well-meaning intentions twists them for their own ends.

Ningguang herself isn’t exactly unburdened by the weight of her occasional lie, so she doesn’t feel particularly fit to hold any moral high ground. Her only goal is to emerge in a stronger position after resolving the issue.

(While she is perfectly aware that the rumour cannot possibly have originated from Beidou – knowing that she despises any sort of behaviour even close to slut-shaming, Ningguang feels vindicated anyway. Clawing her way to the top of the snake pit, to devour, instead of being devoured, requires all cards to be kept close to your chest. No one is allowed to see any of them.)

 

--------

 

They’ve not spoken to each other in more than a week. Even when they pass each other in the corridor, there’s an awkward shuffle. Sometimes, Ningguang tells herself it’s okay to linger by the corner as she waits for Beidou to finish her walk back to her room.

She presses the heels of her palm against her eyes, phosphenes splashing across her eyelids.

Ningguang doesn’t usually have trouble with sleeping. But Beidou seems to constantly provide a reason for her to lose some of her much-needed sleep. It’s absurd. It’s completely ridiculous. Why is she even investing any energy into her neighbour? It’s not like she has to deal with Beidou forever. The semester should end soon enough. Even if she continues as RA, she can always take another floor.

She opens her eyes and pulls back. Her joints pop. What’s bothering her so? How can she be so bothered by a single person? And said person won’t even impact any of her future prospects—

The thought of Beidou not being in her future makes her tongue taste oddly bitter. She pushes that thought away from her mind as she gets up from her bed. If she can’t sleep, she’ll get more of her paper done.

 

--------

 

Ningguang’s exhaustion tugs at her like an old ache in her limbs.

Outside, it’s drizzling.

She is 100 percent sure that she doesn’t have early-onset rheumatism, if that’s even a thing. But all the same, something gnaws at the edge of her mind. The rain makes everything in the air smell a lot stronger than it usually does, what with spring coaxing the flowers across campus to finally bloom. They would be characterised as pleasant.

Everyone else across campus is rejoicing at the warmth that has seeped into the air. That’s to be expected. Not having to wear four different layers just to not have your toes freeze off from stepping outside is a definite improvement. But it’s almost a fact that her peers are more enthused about picnic dates under flowering trees.

This council meeting has dragged for far longer than it really should. The agenda items that the Law Society is chiefly interested in have long elapsed. Ningguang could leave, if she really wanted to. But she’s stuck here, tapping away at her laptop to stave off an early return to her dormitory.

During one of the recesses, she notices one of the junior members of the Business Society walking over in her direction. Tired as she is, she struggles to place the name. It’s one of the Liyuens around… Ah, it’s Hutao.

Hutao practically prances as she moves. Ningguang wishes that she has that kind of energy. Recess is usually a good time to finish up work on the side, but Hutao has taken to chatting to some of her fellow freshmen in the Law Society, who are here taking notes. Even as she’s engaged in conversation, Hutao’s gaze doesn’t leave Ningguang the whole time, which unsettles her.

Ningguang elects to speak first. “Do you need help with something, Hutao?” She is polite, as always.

Jean looks up from her own work, casting a quizzical gaze at her councilmate before shrugging and returning to working out an argument for what Ningguang presumes is the assigned case of Ragnvindr V. Lee.  

Hutao smirks, even though she looks like she’s still trying to size Ningguang up. There’s an expression of infinite curiosity on her face, which, Ningguang can’t quite understand. Why is she trying to pry her apart? Can’t the girl leave her alone?

The girl closes the distance between them and leans into the wooden desk. Ningguang wants to lean back, to put space between them, but doesn’t concede any ground.

“You’re Ningguang.”

“Yes, I am.” She still can’t figure out why Hutao is bothering her, of all people.

“I just have a message for you: I don’t think it’s right to hurt other people’s feelings.” Her eyes harden in a way that would unnerve a lesser person. “I don’t care what issues you have. Fix it.”

Jean looks up again, concern in her eyes. But Hutao only frowns at her, all traces of the smirk wiped off her face before she walks away.

 

--------

 

Letting out the truth sets you free, or something:

Jean confronts her about it after they walk out of the council hall. Her words are sharp, and Ningguang fesses up within the first few lines of Jean’s brand of quiet disappointment.

She doesn’t need much self-reflection to arrive at the conclusion that she had been thoroughly unreasonable. Pushing people away is something she’s well-versed in but going to the extent of being hurtful? That’s low, even for her.

 

--------

 

“Wait!”

Beidou turns around, and Ningguang stares at her sharp jaw, those closed-off red eyes (her fault). Her gaze dips down to see where Ningguang has gripped her wrist tightly.

Ningguang murmurs an apology. The two words come out so softly that Ningguang herself isn’t quite sure she has said it. She doesn’t have a habit of apologising – hasn’t had the need to, for much of her life.

She repeats herself, scared that Beidou doesn’t hear her. “I’m sorry. Can I make it up to you?”

 

--------

 

Two things:

  • Ningguang is completely relieved when Beidou nods and lets Ningguang pull her into her room.
  • Ningguang’s apology involved food.

Specifically, Ningguang buys a few tubs of food that she knows Beidou likes.

It’s the spiciest thing she has ever eaten; she opted for the Level 10 spice, fearing for her tongue when she paid for it just fifteen minutes ago. Ningguang doesn’t want to cry as she apologises, but she does anyway. Archons. The spice.

She isn’t bad at eating spicy food, but she’s used up half her tissue box sniffling into a tissue that Beidou takes pity on her and tells her to stop even though she’s not even halfway through a single portion yet. Ningguang’s apology doesn’t need to involve self-torture. Really.

“You like this,” Ningguang accuses. “How do you like this.” Ningguang refuses to stop. She’ll see this through to the very end, even if she keels over and dies in the attempt. Her lips have started to hurt by now. Her nostrils too. Archons help her. 

Beidou’s nose is hardly even pink. “I grew up eating Jueyun chilis,” she offers, mildly, but the sides of her lips twitch. Her chopsticks reach for a peanut and she crunches loudly on it. “The canteen at my first… training centre had a cook from my hometown.”

That bit of information about Beidou piques her interest. But Ningguang is too busy sniffling again even as she gulps down the last of her soya milk. When she finally recovers enough sensation in her mouth, she asks, “How old were you when they first brought you there?”

“Hmm… I must have been around seven? The officials came to my school and measured my arms, legs, everything. They nearly didn’t pick me apparently, because my legs weren’t quite short enough.” Ningguang’s interest is evident even though most of her face is really just hideous from all the crying.

So Beidou elaborates, “But I guess it helped that I knew how to swim already.” She pauses, the corners of her mouth turning up in faint nostalgia. “I used to run off to swim in the lake. Auntie used to hit me all the time for that! I think she didn’t like me, having an extra mouth – a girl at that – to feed and all, but I think she would’ve been upset if I drowned.”

“It has paid off, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Beidou shrugs. “I’m here, no?” Beidou leans back against her chair, crossing her arms as she does so. “To be honest, I don’t know if I’d have left my village if they hadn’t plucked me out of it.”

(Ningguang chooses to not look down at her arms, and watches Beidou's stupidly pretty face instead. If only Beidou was ugly, or something. Then she’d have a negative counterweight in her evaluations about her.)

She clears her throat, pulling her attention back to the conversation. “I can’t imagine that you’ll ever be content to just be stuck somewhere.”

Beidou snorts. “Neither can I. But poor village children rarely have a choice. I suppose there are kids who strike it big on some Douyin thing nowadays, but… anyway, thanks for the food. You really didn’t have to do this.”

Ningguang makes a noise of protest. “I did. I can’t believe I was such a fucking asshole.”

“Is that a swear word? Wait, no. Two swear words?”

“You didn’t hear them.” She refrains from sticking her tongue out. “And you’ll never get it on record.”

(In the end, she sticks her tongue out anyway. Not to tease Beidou, she doesn’t quite have the capacity for that after biting on a chili. It’s more because of the spice. It is undignified, but Beidou laughs freely in front of her again. Maybe burning her tongue off isn't a wasted effort after all.)

 

--------

 

Jean resumes teasing Ningguang about her apparent crush.

When Ningguang shows up in the society room after classes that day, Jean practically jumps on her. Ningguang waves her off.

“I’ve apologised, alright?”

Jean’s cheeks puff slightly, like she’s resisting the urge to say something. But her exasperation is evident on her open face. Ningguang feels the urge to flick Jean’s forehead. No. Violence isn’t the answer. But Jean’s expression then morphs into something that, if Ningguang is less charitable about it, would said to be comprised of a shit-eating grin.

“What’s with that face, Gunnhildr?”

“Resorting to my family name now, Ningguang?” Her lips twitch for a moment as she stops herself from grinning more widely. “Come on, you obviously like-like her. I’m not blind.”

Ningguang sinks into the chair opposite Jean’s. She pulls her laptop and thermos out, but Jean’s still staring expectantly at her, the pizza collecting grease in its box at the side as Jean opts to focus her attention on Ningguang and not her food. What a waste of perfectly good pizza. She imagines Beidou’s probably a pizza fan, perhaps especially so because she’s supposed to not eat as much of the junk.

“Baby steps, Gunnhildr.”

Jean groans, falling back onto her chair. “Noooo… that’s not what you said when it came to Lisa! I mean yes, well done on the apology, but…” Jean eyes her meaningfully. “Surely, it won’t hurt to just go out on a date?”

Ningguang cradles her face in her hands. Jean is one of the few people allowed to see her like this, despairing. “You of all people know perfectly well I don’t have any dating experience.”

Jean makes a noise, pouting. “Do I not count?”

“No, please. But really, what am I to do, walk up to her and ask her out? Jean, we have finals.” She gestures, helplessly, disliking this feeling.

Jean stares back at her before realising that Ningguang’s serious about her concerns. “So do I, but Lisa’s heading off to Fontaine for some research exchange and I’m trying to spend some time with her before we commit to long distance. Come on, it’s just… a conversation. You’ve given speeches in front of hundreds, thousands of people. Surely, you can ask a girl out?”

Not knowing the potential outcomes of a potential conversation with Beidou makes her squirm. Or at least, she’d squirm, if she was the kind of person to squirm. But Beidou’s become an exception to quite a few things in Ningguang’s personal framework for life. Frameworks are just that, a guide, but Beidou has upset the assumptions she’s tried to keep for herself.

She shouldn’t be thinking about how her rather distractingly gorgeous floormate’s arms look stupidly muscular and that her eyes have captured the sunset. But she would admit that she has caught herself wondering how it would be like to trace her fingers along lines of muscle definition, thoughts which are too distracting for an afternoon work session.

The inevitable moment she slips up and blurts out an untimely confession is a day she dreads with all her being. She has thought about it, really, she has – even before she was compelled to make her apologies to Beidou. But the past two weeks of agonising over the person has involved some candid moments of truth-finding.

Avoidance is no longer a viable solution. She was doomed to drown the second Beidou pulled her out of a pool, her head fighting a losing battle with her poor heart. Something about the way Beidou’s dark hair clung to her frame, the ways in which she was kind even though she hadn’t had to, and was just Beidou?

Hook, line, and sinker. There’s no way to wrestle her wayward heart back into submission.

In the end, Ningguang only grouses, “You’ve definitely been reading too many romance novels.”

Jean only smiles back at her in her characteristically open, but still somewhat enigmatic way, neither admitting nor denying it.

 

--------

 

A routine of normalcy resumes.

Ningguang doesn’t say anything when Beidou appears beside her while she’s studying for her finals in their dorm’s study room. She simply picks up the bag that hogged the chair next to her and lets Beidou slide into it.

She blinks rapidly at the sight of Beidou in full mock trial attire. Beidou, dressed formally in the full regalia of penguin black and white? Alongside the standard black blazer and a white, long-sleeved blouse that she imagines Beidou unbuttoned the moment she stepped out of the venue, Beidou has opted for close-fitting black pants with those heels… hmm.

Beidou notices her almost gawping and grins, holding back a laugh to not disturb poor Ganyu, who’s buried under a pile of paper from a mock test. Never will Ningguang understand why Ganyu’s professors require computing majors to write code by hand for exams.

“Done looking?” she whispers, smirking.

It’s still rather loud for a whisper, but Ningguang nods, flushing ever so slightly. Her blush deepens when Beidou remarks, “You’re… wearing shorts?” Beidou just… stares her up and down, her mouth agape. 

Ningguang glances down at her attire self-consciously. Is her lip tint still intact? She’s not wearing her usual dress/blouse-skirt/pantsuit options for once: her usual clothes lie unwashed in the laundry basket, and the two clean dresses that still hang in her closet are meant for her eventual appearance in the exam halls, not for a study session away from most of her fellow lawyers-to-be.

Beidou chuckles, noticing Ningguang’s obvious discomfort. “Heh, you’re pretty like this.”  

Please—”

“—Continue? I mean, not that I don’t think you’re gorgeous every day—”

Ningguang’s ears have started to burn now. She’s unused to being so flustered. She does not get flustered. More firmly, she tells Beidou to stop, Ganyu has a paper. That does get Beidou to shut up, but not before she reaches over to brush something off Ningguang’s hair. Beidou will truly be the death of her.

Not wanting to give her the satisfaction of showing that yes, Beidou has managed to make her bb-cream-free cheeks reach a rosy shade of pink, she tears her gaze away to type a text instead.

Ningguang [17:44]: You should have dinner with Lisa. Enjoy your date!

To which, Jean doesn’t send a reply until dinnertime, after Beidou returns from running downstairs to get them dinner.

Lisa’s the one that sends the message – a video recording of Jean pretending to be unhappy that her girlfriend stole her phone, and who is also trying to reach across the table, only for Lisa to pull the phone back and giggle. They’re cute.

She shows the video to Beidou, who marvels at how the vice-president seems so at ease around Lisa. Ningguang’s breath catches just a little when Beidou also says: I kinda want that.   

 

--------

Ningguang jumps when someone stumbles against her door. Their exams are over and everyone on campus has made the collective decision to get so absolutely wasted that they won’t see the light of tomorrow. She doesn’t envy their hangovers: a pounding head, a dry throat, nausea…

Yeah, that’s not for her.

Her exams may be over, but her work does not end. There are always emails to send, paperwork to look through, proposals to confirm…

“Ningguang-ah! Open up!”

Beidou is grinning broadly when she just barges in, her cheeks ever so slightly red from her obvious drink. “Ningguang, you’re here!”

Ningguang simply flicks her notepad at Beidou. It bounces harmlessly off her shoulders but elicits a pout anyway.  

“Ouch,” Beidou protests as she just… plonks onto the ground next to Ningguang’s position on the bed before she helps Ningguang retrieve her notebook. “Why is this the kind of welcome I receive, ol’ great RA?”

“You just came in. I could’ve been changing, or something—oh, never mind.” 

From her spot, Beidou has to crane her head back to peer up at Ningguang. “But hey, see?” She raises her arms to crow, “I brought wine!”  

She raises a brow, sceptical. “And… what do you expect we do with it?”

Beidou cranes her neck harder, staring for a long moment before she guffaws. Ningguang doesn’t see what’s funny. Ten seconds later, Beidou sobers, realising that Ningguang’s still frowning at her.

“Ningguang, what do you do with alcohol? Why did our ancestors pick up fruits to ferment them? You drink it, of course!”

Ningguang shoves Beidou’s shoulder lightly. Beidou’s shoulders are solid, and she only chuckles at the action. “You know you’re not allowed to drink on campus.”

Beidou scrunches her nose up, shaking her head. “The school can kick all the hundreds of kids out there then!”

She shifts so she’s no longer craning her head and no longer on her way to giving her neck a bad cramp. “I didn’t know what you’d enjoy, but hey, it’s red, like your eyes?” That obviously earns her a flick on her forehead because who says such things, which Beidou accepts with a good-natured grin.

“Fine. I assume you brought something to open the bottle with?”

Beidou cheers. “I knew you’d come around.” Then, she points out, sounding slightly offended, “Ningguang, do you think I don’t carry bottle openers around campus?”

Ningguang should’ve expected this. She holds back something that sounds suspiciously like a nag even to her in her head. Instead of commenting on Beidou’s general alcoholism-adjacent habits, she gives in and pulls Beidou to sit beside her.

“Just… make yourself comfortable.” the offer feels odd on her tongue. She hasn’t ever actually spent time with anyone in her room like this. Hanging out. It feels so pedestrian. Not that she’s above that, but she has never shed her responsibilities for long enough to want to spend time with a friend.

She hears Jean’s complaint in her head. (Lisa makes me take breaks now.)

Beidou’s smile spreads across her face. “Say, do you have any glasses…” Seeing Ningguang shake her head, she continues as she opens the bottle, she suggests, “…We can drink from the bottle?”

Ningguang stares at Beidou. Then looks down at the bottle. Then back up at Beidou’s face. Her smile is… somewhat shy? Shy isn’t quite the word, per se, but it looks like she’s holding herself from saying something else, which is entirely unlike what Ningguang knows about Beidou, who is usually so unrestrained about just saying things.

“Sure,” she says. “Cheers.”

Foolishly, she clinks her knuckles against the glass, then winces. Beidou frowns, tossing the bottle opening to the side and using her free hand to rub against Ningguang’s knuckles. Her hands are warm.

“Eh, what did you even do that for? Punching a wine bottle like that…”

Ningguang doesn’t pull her hand away as Beidou continues rubbing at it. Her hand is pale, her fingers somewhat longer and thinner than Beidou’s tanner skin. She likes how they look together like this.

Well, alright. Admittedly, she hasn’t been as focused on catching up on her post-finals work as she should have been. The night before, Ningguang dragged Jean, yes, the poor, I-have-not-slept-in-thirty-two-hours-and-finals-just-ended Jean to the 24-hour coffee joint for a talk. Jean usually avoids these chains because the coffee is shit, but Jean is desperate. Still, even though her eyes were on the verge of shutting on themselves even after some espresso shot, Jean shot awake when Ningguang admits freely that she’s entertained the idea of well, Beidou and I.

Needless to say, Jean’s tiredness evaporated instantly. She’s probably more excited than Ningguang is about the possibility of Ningguang asking Beidou out. You admit it, you like her! Ningguang!

For Ningguang, it’s simply a certainty that words like I like you will eventually leave her mouth. She has spent a good part of the night weighing certain pros and cons, but Jean helpfully shreds her weak arguments against trying to ask Beidou out. They are both in agreement that Beidou’s treated her a touch too nicely even though well, Ningguang hasn’t always been the best of friends for her.

(At that, Ningguang protested that she had been tutoring Beidou at least once a week, and she knows exactly what Beidou likes and hates to eat. Jean only sighed when she heard that.)

Ningguang would have liked to come up with plans about what she’ll do next, but she has scrapped all of the ones she tried jotting down earlier. She didn’t quite anticipate that she’d be seeing Beidou tonight and hasn’t quite envisioned doing it in her own room, with Beidou nestled next to her as Ningguang gives her the power to choose whatever they might watch on Netflix. Still, a small smile plays on the edge of Ningguang’s lips; Beidou still smells like her laundry detergent, but still strongly Beidou that it makes her head spin just a little.

But she can’t just drown in her thoughts forever. This won’t do. Ningguang is not a thirteen-year-old that gets dizzy over her first crush, never mind the technicalities of her dating history.

She plucks up her courage by taking a sip of the wine before she sets the bottle down. Then she squeezes Beidou’s hand, meaningfully. Beidou turns to look at her, her attention not fully on her as she’s preoccupied over the lousy choices on the movies tab. Beidou is so very seriously trying to pick a film, even as she mutters about how Netflix sucks. But well, neither of them want to deal with the hassle of making a VPN work on the dorms’ spotty Wi-Fi. No matter.

They are ten minutes into some film (and Ningguang is also already halfway through the wine, to Beidou’s momentary concern when Ningguang takes entire swigs from it) when she figures that it’s as good a time as any.

There aren’t any negative factors working against her, other than the fact she only has a thin layer of coloured lip balm on her right now.

But she is perhaps, past those insecurities around Beidou.

Ningguang doesn’t say it immediately. Instead, she continues to watch Beidou more than the film they’ve picked out and notices a small scar underneath Beidou’s left eye for the first time. The faint white line stands out against her otherwise wheat-gold skin.

Impulsively, she reaches a hand up to slowly trace her scar. Beidou jumps, jerking backward and nearly hits her head before she catches herself. She stills, her mouth opening and closing, gazing at Ningguang questioningly. Ningguang can see that she’s not breathing, her neck stiff and pulled taut.

She doesn’t break eye contact as she simply says, “I want to kiss you.”

Beidou blinks, slowly, the repeated languid flutter of her lips the only movement she makes for a long moment. For once, she’s struck speechless. But she’s not saying no. Ningguang pulls closer, sliding her hand slowly down the lines of Beidou’s cheekbones so it rests against the back of Beidou’s neck. She notices Beidou put Ningguang’s laptop away carefully, and she also raises her hand to run it against Ningguang’s own cheeks, perfectly mirroring her actions. The action makes Ningguang’s heart stutter.

“Lucky for you, so do I.”

Beidou’s so close to her that she briefly wonders if the wine she smells if from herself, or from Beidou. But the wine, or more accurately, the proximity of Beidou makes her feel lightheaded and she steels herself to press her weight against Beidou to capture her lips with hers. Beidou makes a surprised sound, and Ningguang pulls back to smirk at her.

She knows very well that Beidou’s probably slightly affronted that Ningguang beat her to this. But Beidou recovers quickly enough to steal a second kiss from her, the movement initially quick before it grows insistent in ways that makes Ningguang question why she’s waited all semester to do this.

 

--------------------------------

 

An epilogue/outtake:

After that, Ningguang and Beidou draw up a contractual agreement, of sorts. They put the attempt at watching a movie aside and spend three hours outlining a few terms and conditions of what their relationship was. At the end of those three hours, it comes with a nicely formatted list of the parties, alongside a variety of clauses and subclauses on what they are expected to deliver and not do within the terms of their agreement. Article 1 makes out in black and white that they are, for now, bound in a closed relationship. To their mutual surprise, they do agree on a lot of things, but the devil’s in the details.

When they are done, they name the file “Agreement 1.0” on Ningguang and Beidou’s new shared cloud drive, but they print two copies of it and sign it with their names and the date. It’s subject to further revisions anyway, but only upon agreement by the two parties. If nothing else, Beidou casually remarks, it’s at least a nice reminder of when their anniversary might fall.  

Beidou sneaks a photo of Ningguang while they’re out near the school pond (it’s such a pretty spring day, she can’t let it go to waste!). Ningguang realises Beidou has her as her lockscreen and fights Beidou for her phone. Neither of them quite win. They compromise and take a few photos together that Beidou immediately sets as both her lockscreen and homescreen.

Before they disappear for summer, Ningguang steals Beidou’s jacket again. Beidou definitely notices that her varsity jacket’s missing, but she lets Ningguang take it with her. Both of them definitely poke fun at Teyvat U’s ad astra abyssosque motto, which is printed on the emblem over the chest pocket.

Ningguang spends all summer not-pining. She doesn’t pine. It’s at least 97 percent true. She’s too busy doing things like preparing for the next semester’s agenda and also preparing for her eventual handover to a hopefully competent junior (far too early for the semester two elections) or slaving away for those various law firms that she hopes eventually offers her a training contract after she graduates. Printing papers and stapling them and fetching coffee and researching cases in the role of a grunt… okay it isn’t very riveting. She does unlock her phone from time to time to glance at a photo of them as her homescreen from time to time though.

Ningguang definitely forgets to eat from time to time until Beidou notices Ningguang’s cheekbones/collarbones have sharpened over the 1.5 months they hadn’t seen each other on one of their video calls. Ningguang doesn’t protest too much when she finds out Beidou gets Ganyu to programme a bot on their shared messaging app to remind Ningguang to eat lunch and dinner, at a minimum. She doesn’t mute the bot.

For the first time in a while, Ningguang goes home and visits her grandparents. The van driver who picks her up looks at the sharply dressed youth with curiosity. Why’s she heading back to the old mining town? But he’s been paid to drive her anyway, so he’s not going to ask too many questions when his passenger has already opted to take a nap. When she finishes the steep climb to their little house in Mingyun Village, they’re absolutely stunned to see their granddaughter.

Ningguang almost cries during her visit but stops herself from doing so. She can buy them something nice to eat, no? It’s okay, she tells herself. Ningguang tells Beidou about going back during their next call and cries. Will her grandparents live long enough to see her succeed – move into a penthouse and stuff before they die?

Static. Beidou can’t answer that question. Beidou tries her best to listen but doesn’t quite know what losing family is like. Ningguang thanks her for listening anyway. At least she can now remember how her grandmother’s cooking tastes like, and how it’s like for her grandfather’s shaky hands to slowly braid her white hair.

(On a cheerier note,) Beidou also decides to print Ningguang’s lawsoc presidential campaign photo (the one with her looking all professional, serious, but also somehow charming), onto a badge she pins on her swim bag. Which she brings when she goes for all things swimming-related. (Furong almost cries when she sees it but is fully aware that Beidou views her as family. Which is a sentiment good enough for her.)

Ningguang only realises that Beidou printed the badge after summer because they don’t see each other for all those months. (And Ningguang will find a thousand ways to ruin you if you say that she shrieked at the sight of the badge because Archons, why, Beidou!) Beidou only shrugs, laughing playfully, and defends her prized badge from Ningguang’s sudden grabs at it. Like, hey, you looked good, it’s on the website, don’t blame me! Ningguang doesn’t particularly like or dislike the photo, but really, why that one? And why a badge? You’re impossible. (The complaints are received by a cheeky grin and a not-quite apologetic forehead kiss.)