“Come back to bed,” Beidou crooned, reaching out and brushing a hand against Ningguang’s thigh as she passed.
“Can’t.” Ningguang’s hands were in her hair as she stepped forward, checking her progress in the mirror across from the bed. “Mr. Tian might be coming to my department today, and I need to be there early to prepare.”
Beidou groaned. “You’re going in early because some uppity old guy might come in?”
Ningguang met Beidou’s eyes through the mirror, her smile equal parts loving and exasperated. “Mr. Tian isn’t uppity.”
Getting up, Beidou walked over, draping her arms over Ningguang’s shoulder and nuzzling her neck. “You smell good.”
“And how do I look?” Ningguang asked, adjusting her bangs.
Beidou’s breath was hot against her ear, and Ningguang let herself lean into her girlfriend, enjoying the way Beidou’s lips, arms, and breasts all pressed against her, warm, present, and possessive. Then, with a smile, she opened her eyes, turning to loop her arms around Beidou’s neck and pull her close.
“You know I love you, right?” she asked.
With a smirk, Beidou looped her arms right back, pulling Ningguang in until their foreheads touched. “Oh, I know.”
Liyue was one of the largest, wealthiest cities in Teyvat, but not all of its inhabitants shared equal portions of its pie. This was a fact Ningguang had lived with from her days watching TV while mixing flour for Mora Meat to her nights serving tables at her parents’ diner. She’d understood it while raising her hand in class and advertising her outreach club at school, and she’d dealt with it during her college applications and lessons in packed classrooms, but now that she’d graduated, she was no longer content with just dealing with it.
“I’ll do it.”
There was an audible pause as eyes turned to look at her. Who was she, the old, aging members of the department were likely thinking. A young upstart, or a clueless sheep who’d strayed from the flock?
“Are you sure, Ningguang?” Mr. Tian’s brows were raised, and his kindly eyes, usually crinkled in the corners, had widened with surprise. “We usually assign deals like these to people with a few more years of experience under their belt.”
“I was in charge of the background research for Wangsheng, and I handled the paperwork for our previous meetings with them, sir,” Ningguang said, holding Mr. Tian’s gaze. “I’ve spoken to every member of their team, and I put together the file we’re currently using, so yes, if you’ll give me the chance, I’m ready to get more experience under my belt.”
Mr. Tian smiled, then nodded. “Sounds like you’re the best person for the job then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Though Ningguang didn’t smile, she felt a curl of satisfaction all the same. She might have started with a crumb of the pie, but she was going to get herself a slice. Even if it meant she was going to have to fight for it, tooth and nail, she’d come out on top, because there was nothing she couldn’t win with enough time and determination.
Contrasts made Beidou beautiful. The way she was hard yet soft, strong yet weak, selfless yet selfish—they came together to make her who she was, and Ningguang could go on about them for hours. She loved the way Beidou’s arms felt around her, their hold strong and unyielding yet tender and protective as she drifted off to sleep in them. She loved Beidou’s gaze, piercing yet affectionate, and she loved Beidou’s voice, which for all the to-be lieutenant’s brash, brazen statements, still managed to voice her insecurities.
“But what if I’m not ready?”
Ningguang paused her kissing, looking up at Beidou. “To be a lieutenant?”
“Yeah.” Beidou draped an arm across her face, covering her eyes. “It’s always the same thing. I’m young, I’m a woman, I don’t fit the mold.”
“Beidou, listen to me,” Ningguang said, shifting up and pushing Beidou’s arm away. Many people had compared their eyes before, saying that they were similar, but Ningguang had never thought so. Where her eyes were red with an auburn tint, if one had to specify a second color, Beidou’s were a magnificent shade of reddish magenta, bright and sharp with life even when Beidou herself didn’t feel it. “You’re ready. We both know how hard you work, and your captain knows it too. That’s why he suggested you apply for the promotion.”
The waver in Beidou’s eyes broke Ningguang’s heart, and she desperately wanted to ask Beidou who the doubters were. She wanted to track them down, corner and demand the truth from them because even the lowest, dumbest, most misogynistic of people could be cowed into submission by the obvious, and there was no world where it wasn’t obvious that Beidou was a capable aviator and leader.
But, even though she wanted to do all that and more, now was the time for reassurance. Now, when Beidou was in front of her with uncertainty clouding her gaze, dimming its light, Ningguang had few thoughts to spare on meaningless strangers, and she leaned her weight on one arm, freeing the other to brush a few stray strands out of Beidou’s face.
“Remember what you told me when I was dealing with my second manager,” she said, stroking hairs she’d already brushed back as she looked into Beidou’s eyes. “Don’t you dare doubt yourself. Not when I don’t.”
A smile curled on Beidou’s lips, and she reached a hand up to cup Ningguang’s face, rubbing a thumb along her cheek. “What did I do to deserve you.”
Ningguang mirrored her smile, then leaned down and sealed their lips. One day—when they were established, wealthy, on top of the world—taking care of doubters would be easy. For now, though, they would climb.
People always loved to ask her what her goal was. At work, what position did she want to get promoted to? In life, what did she want to achieve? They’d asked again and again—hounded her, even, when interests conflicted. The reasons they asked ranged from goodwill to jealousy, but Ningguang had never minded the questions. Her answers were constantly changing; at first she’d wanted to get hired at Qixing Group, get promoted to manager, assistant director. She’d wanted a corner office, an assistant, a secretary to take her calls and plan her meetings. But inside? Ningguang had always known exactly what she wanted because only one goal had ever been good enough: Everything.
Her phone was at her ear as soon as it buzzed, her brain on autopilot as she skimmed documents on Wangsheng’s newest acquisition. “Ningguang speaking.”
“Beidou speaking,” came the parroted reply, and Ningguang’s eyes widened.
“Beidou?” She swapped the phone to her dominant hand, rising from her seat. “I told you to call me as soon as you had service.”
“And I finally managed to get it!” Despite the irritation in Ningguang’s voice, there was none reflected back in Beidou’s, which was as boisterous as ever. “Let me tell you, signal out in our mountainous countryside is absolute shit. I could barely get my phone to load your messages for the first few days, and then it was nonstop drills, exercises, tactical maneuvers—whatever the higher-ups could pull outta their asses, because who the hell wants airmen to march in this day and age.”
Ningguang’s annoyance dissipated as Beidou regaled her with stories about the past few days, as it often did when she was annoyed at Beidou. Maintaining any form of anger against someone who lived and breathed blatancy was nigh impossible, and by the time Beidou finished telling her about a birthday prank that involved a made-up earthquake and a very concerned private hovering over their base in a plane, Ningguang had reluctantly come to accept the fact that she was smiling.
“So? How about you, little miss director? Any very important deals or acquisitions you’re willing to share about?”
“Unlike the life of a lieutenant, the life of a director is actually quite boring,” Ningguang said, finishing her circle around her desk and draping an arm over her chair. “I did, however, get the all-clear to start on the you-know-what.”
“The Jade Chamber? That’s amazing! You’re finally starting it!”
Beidou’s excitement pulled a chuckle from Ningguang, and the swell of her heart was almost enough to block the pang that accompanied knowing that she wouldn’t be seeing Beidou for another few months.
“Well? Out with it—how far along are you? Knowing you, you’ve probably already arranged a dozen meetings by now,” Beidou said, and Ningguang could almost feel her scrutiny over the phone, eyes narrowed and grin sharp as she tried to decipher Ningguang’s laughs and pauses. “No, more than that. You’ve already secured investors, haven’t you? You sly, sly woman.”
“I may or may not have already written some contracts,” Ningguang said, loosening the reins on her childlike glee. “But what can I say? The amount of planning that went into this makes finding interested parties quite easy.”
Beidou barked a laugh. “I bet those old men were just drooling over the deal. Qixing’s favorite, Ningguang, looking for investors for a nonprofit? I can’t even imagine the number of zeroes the first guy offered.”
“Do you want a hint?” Smirking was unbecoming of a businesswoman, but Beidou brought this side out of her. Ningguang’s calm, collected facade never held in front of the woman who wore smirks and grins like a second skin, and that had seldom been a problem.
“Twenty says I guess it on my first try,” Beidou sniped back, sharing the smirk, and Ningguang laughed.
Beidou’s hands were everywhere, her lips and tongue trailing lines and wetting edges. She smoothed out the corners of Ningguang’s mind, kneading knots out of her consciousness so that all Ningguang could think about was Beidou—her eyes, her teeth, her touch.
“Beidou,” she breathed, and Beidou smiled against her.
At the rapt knock on her office door, Ningguang dropped her pen, leaning back on her chair with a sigh. “Come in.”
Ganyu appeared through the doorway, smile hesitant and eyes careful. “Good morning, ma’am.”
“Good morning, Ganyu,” Ningguang said, straightening as the blue-haired girl walked over. Even after months of routine, Ganyu still seemed like a bundle of nerves, and the concentrated look she had on her face as she set down Ningguang’s coffee was only normal because it was, by now, familiar.
“These are the notes from the last meeting you asked for. Ms. Keqing has added some annotations, I believe,” Ganyu said, placing a sizable folder on the desk beside Ningguang. “Mr. Tian is still working on finalizing the documents for the Huishan deal, and Ms. Hu Tao from the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor called and rescheduled her meeting to tomorrow afternoon.”
Ningguang looked up from where she’d been scanning Keqing’s annotations. “She couldn’t make our meeting tonight?”
Ganyu hesitated. “She, um, ‘can not, will not, and shall not’ be able to make the meeting tonight, in her words.”
“Right.” Ningguang glanced at her coffee, then back at her timid secretary. “Are there any other meetings we can push up?”
“I don’t think so… Your meetings for the next week are scheduled with travel time in mind, and I think an end-of-day opening would be better than a gap between meetings…” Ganyu trailed off, then blinked. “But I can check! I’ll ask and see if there’s anyone willing to move things around.”
Ningguang exhaled, shaking her head. “It’s alright,” she said, turning back to her papers. Ganyu had a point; ending the day early was better than opening a gap between meetings, and Ningguang could always use a paperwork night.
“Is Ms. Beidou still away?” Ganyu’s gaze dropped to the ground when Ningguang turned to look at her again, and she shifted her feet awkwardly. “I, um, noticed that you’ve been booking a lot of dinnertime meetings recently.”
A wry smile found its way onto Ningguang’s face as she realized that yes, she had, and that she was so much a creature of habit that even her secretary could guess why her routine had changed. In that way, she was predictable and sad; just as Beidou’s presence filled their apartment with life, her absence drained it of it, and Ningguang could easily see their kitchen in her mind’s eye, cold and dreary, with a near-empty fridge and a half-stocked pantry. There was a time in her life when she cooked for herself, but take-out was her default these days, and the kitchen was less hers than it was Beidou’s.
“I can see if Ms. Keqing’s available tonight to discuss the notes from the meeting,” Ganyu suggested, her eyes darting rapidly between Ningguang’s face and the items on her desk. “Or, I can check with Wangsheng to see if Mr. Zhongli is free for a preliminary discussion since Ms. Hu Tao is unable to make it tonight.”
Ningguang reached out and touched Ganyu’s shoulder, her smile gentle. “It’s alright,” she said, holding the girl’s gaze. “Thank you, Ganyu. Truly.”
Ganyu froze momentarily, a deer in the headlights, then bowed, her smile nervously surprised. “Anytime, ma’am.”
“Ningguang, you’re one of the youngest directors at Qixing, and you’ve been a familiar face for the people of Liyue lately. But tell us: What is it you do?”
“That’s a good question. And one I can’t answer easily. But, in simple terms, I’m one of the bridges between our clients and the rest of our team. I meet with the clients and ascertain their goals, then relay those goals to the team so the work can begin.”
“Tell us about your recent project, the Jade Chamber. It doesn’t sound like it’s one of your responsibilities as director.”
“Actually, it isn’t. The Jade Chamber is more of a passion project of mine. As director, I have a lot of resources at my disposal that are best invested in a good project, and a museum is one I’ve had in mind for a long time. The idea is to open a nonprofit organization that is self-sufficient, relying on donations and fundraisers rather than governmental support. Qixing will be a primary investor, but the museum itself will be a separate entity that will stand on its own legs once it opens.”
“That’s great. So, what inspired this idea? Opening a public institute of this size doesn’t sound like something you think of over a coffee.”
“Definitely not. The Jade Chamber is actually the physical realization of a childhood dream of mine. As a kid, I’d always been enamored with Liyue. It’s an ancient city full of love, history, and culture, and the Jade Chamber is my ode to all that. I want to create a place where citizens can gather, learn, and bond over all that makes Liyue what it is. The relics, the history, the art—those are what individualize Liyue. I’m simply creating a platform for the city I love to express itself with.”
“Beautifully put. How long will the project take?”
“Construction’s already started, which I’m sure everyone is aware of. And according to our timeline—weather allowing—the Jade Chamber should be opening its doors by spring.”
“Tell us a little more about yourself. Where are you from? What brought you to Liyue?”
“It’s nothing unique. Everyone’s heard the story: Young girl fulfills her dream of moving to the city by finding a job there. Flash forward a few years and I’m here, no longer quite so young.”
“But you’re still very young.”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
Brief laughter rings.
“What about your home life? Does the youngest director of Qixing have a romantic interest?”
“I see you’ve been reading gossip columns.”
“Guilty as charged, but our listeners are dying to know. Are the rumors true? Is an engagement on the horizon?”
“I’ll leave that one to the gossip columns.”
“They really are obsessed with you.” Beidou’s brows were furrowed as she scanned the tabloid page. “‘Dating director too busy for marriage’—who the fuck is writing this shit?”
“I’m more surprised people read it,” Ningguang said, glancing at Beidou over her waffles. “These are really good.”
“What?” Beidou’s eyes shot up. “The waffles? Yeah. Blueberry special, courtesy of yours truly,” she said, her attention back on the tabloid. “Do you know they’re calling our relationship long-distance? How the fuck do they miss me running around town for months on end?”
“They’re just calling attention to the fact that you’re also gone for months on end,” Ningguang said, prodding idly at a loose blueberry.
“Typical, playing the narrative,” Beidou said, snorting derisively as she read on. “‘Military careers are notorious for their high divorce rates’—are you fucking kidding me? Who wrote this shit, some elementary school hack? Have they even done any research?”
“They make some points.”
Ningguang’s eyes were on her waffles, but she felt Beidou’s gaze snap up to her all the same.
“You’re gone a lot. A military career often conflicts with family life. We’re still not engaged.”
“That is not fair.”
Ningguang set down her fork, steeling herself as she met Beidou’s gaze. The lieutenant’s eyes burned a scarlet pink, simmering with emotion.
“If you have something to say, just say it,” Beidou said, her tone curt.
Ningguang folded her arms on the table before her, laying one hand on the other. “I make enough—more than enough—to support us both, yet you still choose to spend months away from home every year.”
“That’s deployment. That’s my job,” Beidou said, words slow and even.
“Then…” Ningguang willed herself not to waver. “Why continue serving in the air force? Haven’t you done enough?”
At Beidou’s silence, Ningguang continued, wanting to fill the space.
“You could do so many other things, Beidou. You could open a bar, organize events, run a boatyard—”
“I don’t want to, Ningguang. Is that so hard to understand?” Beidou burst out. “I might not have wanted a career in the air force when I joined, but I do now.”
“Why?” Ningguang’s eyes were wide as she spoke, her bewilderment genuine. “Why spend your life training soldiers to fight in a war that may never come?”
“Because it gives me a purpose! Because being a lieutenant in the air force gives me responsibilities, direction!” Her voice was raised.
“You can find a new purpose! You can find new responsibilities, new directions!” Hers was too.
“Why would I want to waste away in this city, watching you work yourself to the bone for money?”
Ningguang recoiled. “I do not.”
Beidou leaned forward. “You do. I’ve seen you. You sneak out of bed to take calls. You leave dinners for meetings, cancel plans for clients. You prioritize your work over everything.”
Ningguang scoured her brain for a response, but nothing came up. It was true. All of it. She’d just refused to admit it. Sometime during her climb to the top, she’d started to put off everything that wasn’t related to work. Calls, dates, sleep—they’d all become secondary to her job, her clients. It’d happened so naturally, so gradually, that she’d barely noticed, and Beidou pointing it out now was a slap to the face.
“This isn’t fair,” she breathed.
Beidou snorted. “When is it ever.”
“I…” What could she say? Construction on Jade Chamber was almost done, and she was busier than ever. She’d barely had time for this breakfast, yet she’d told Ganyu to push off her morning to make time for Beidou anyway.
Her phone buzzed—thirty minutes until her first meeting.
“You need to go,” Beidou guessed.
Ningguang floundered, and Beidou waved her hand dismissively, pushing her chair back and rising.
“Go. I’ll clean up,” she said, grabbing Ningguang’s barely-touched plate.
“I—” Ningguang bit her tongue. “We’ll talk about this later,” she said, getting up as well.
“No we won’t,” Beidou called after her, and as Ningguang glanced through her schedule, she realized Beidou was right.
“Trouble at home?”
Ningguang snapped her head up, eyes wide. “No! No, what made you think that?”
While his expression stayed even, Zhongli’s eyes betrayed his amusement. “You’ve been distracted, Ningguang. I’ve never seen you take so much time to think between sentences.”
Ningguang opened her mouth, then closed it, accepting her silence. She’d done her best to distract herself from the problems, burying herself in work and telling herself that she’d have more time once the Shenglu Ceramics deal was signed, once the Jade Chamber was complete, once she shifted her directorial focus from business deals into internal operations. Those were excuses, and she knew that, but they’d been tempting, believable, and they weighed less on her consciousness than thinking about Beidou’s upcoming deployment.
“I… I’ve been putting off a talk I shouldn’t be,” she admitted, rubbing a thumb over the back of her other hand. “I’m going to have to have the conversation soon, but I don’t know what to say.”
“May I offer some advice?” Zhongli’s voice was gentle, and Ningguang instinctively wanted to trust him. Something about the way the Wangsheng consultant held himself made him seem wiser than his years, and Ningguang had never heard him say anything she disagreed with in principle.
“When it comes to relationships, and especially those with people very different from ourselves, I’ve found that it is good to be understanding and allow space. Differences will always be hard to reconcile, but from another angle, they are what brought you together in the first place,” Zhongli said, his eyes soft and his voice steady. “Rather than trying to make sense of those differences, it’s better to come to terms with them. To accept them and allow space when disagreements arise.”
“How does that solve the problem?” Ningguang asked, her voice lost, childlike.
“By coming to terms with your differences, you see past the problem to the core issue, and that’s what you should be focusing on,” Zhongli said. “That is, the thing you think is the problem may not be the actual problem. It’s just what you’ve become fixated on, for one reason or another.”
Ningguang stared at him, brows knit. The man was speaking in euphemisms, but in a strange way, Ningguang understood. While she and Beidou worked very different jobs that interfered with their personal lives in different ways, that wasn’t the core issue. Ningguang had asked Beidou to give up her job, her difference, and that had never been the correct approach.
“Thank you, Zhongli. Your words were… illuminating,” Ningguang said, smiling.
Ningguang knocked on the wall beside the door of the study, offering Beidou a smile when she looked up.
“Hey,” Beidou said, closing the screen of her laptop. “What’s up?”
“I… I’ve been thinking about our argument the other week, and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. For asking you to quit your job.” Ningguang clasped her hands in front of her, holding Beidou’s gaze. “That was unfair of me, and I shouldn’t have asked that, because it’s not what I really want either.”
“What do you mean?” Beidou’s voice was free of anger, clear and confused as she waited for Ningguang to explain.
“I mean, I miss you when you’re gone, and I hate that the air force takes you away from me for months at a time,” Ningguang admitted, “but, if serving as a lieutenant makes you happy, I would never ask you to give that up.”
Beidou rose from her seat, walking over and grasping Ningguang’s hands, her eyes a velvet magenta.
“I’ve been thinking too,” she said. “I’m going to get a job at a bar. Learn how to run one, how to manage employees and mix drinks. Then I’m going to open one.”
Ningguang’s eyes widened. “But—your job…”
“I’m still going to serve. I just won’t volunteer for deployment all that much.” A sad, sheepish smile crossed Beidou’s face. “I’ve been so caught up with not having anything to do around Liyue that I’ve been signing up for extra time away. But, if I find something to do around here, I’ll have more reason to stick around.”
Ningguang hugged her, pulling her close, closer, then pulled away to look at her eyes, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I’m working on transitioning to a senior director at the company. Once I get situated, my hours should be a lot more stable.”
“Ningguang, when I said you’re too focused on money, I meant that you push yourself too hard over it. You just need to learn to balance things,” Beidou started, but Ningguang shushed her, smiling.
“I know, and that’s why I’m stepping into a more managerial role. This way, I’ll have more freedom over what sort of ventures I pursue. I’m learning from the best, I suppose,” Ningguang said, breathing a laugh as she laid her head against Beidou’s shoulder. “Have I ever told you how much I look up to you? Every time I’m at an impasse, I ask myself: What would Beidou do? Would she look past it and be the bigger person, or would she plow ahead, stubborn as a mule?”
Beidou chuckled. “I think of you too. When I have to break up arguments, or when I’m delivering reports to stuffy old men, you inspire me to be more… polite. Proper.”
“Refined,” Ningguang suggested, then laughed, Beidou’s heartbeat strong and steady under her ear. “You know, I don’t know why we even argued. Our relationship has always been more long-distance than not. Just—having you in my life, as mine, is enough.”
“Same.” Beidou kissed Ningguang’s forehead. “And, just to make sure, if I were to ask you to marry me…”
Ningguang laughed. “Isn’t that obvious?” she asked, looping her arms around Beidou’s neck. “Yes. Always, yes.”
“Ningguang! So glad to have you back on air!”
“Thank you, it’s good to be back.”
“You’ve had a busy April, with the Jade Chamber's grand opening. Tell us—how is the museum doing, apart from the long lines and trending social media posts?”
“The Jade Chamber is doing great. Our first exhibitions have been a success, and tickets are selling well. We’re so glad the city loves the museum as much as we do, and we’re hoping to use the funds from the sales to acquire new pieces to add to our collection.”
“Are there any pieces we can expect to be added to the collection soon?”
“Of course. One exhibit we’re planning to add is a collection of poetry by the famous poet Qingzhou, who penned the poems during a poetic pilgrimage around Liyue hundreds of years ago. By next month, visitors can expect to see Qingzhou’s poems about the Liyue scenery and adepti legends up for display in our new poetry wing, along with many other poems by famous Liyue poets.”
“Have you had any unexpected problems behind the scenes? Things the public wouldn’t know about unless they were involved with running the museum?”
“Yes, actually. One of our exhibits actually got stuck in transit due to unexpected weather conditions, but I was able to call in some favors and get them flown in the day before we opened. It was a tight squeeze, but it worked out in the end.”
“I’m glad to hear that. And, correct me if I’m wrong—the person who helped is your new fiance, right?”
“I see you’re still reading gossip columns.”
“You got me there. But that proposal at the museum’s opening ceremony was the most romantic thing I’ve seen in quite some time. Tell me: How is the happy couple doing now?”
“Well, we’re happily engaged, so take a guess.”