Beidou answers to nobody- not even Ningguang. At least that’s what she tells people.
She’s a pirate, and a captain, and nearly as skilled a swordsman as any of the seven archons. She’s lean and covered in muscle and scars and tattoos. She is power and death personified.
People see her towering over most men and some monsters at six feet, hair long and sword longer and think, that is someone to be feared and awed. People respect her, or step away from her when she docks her ships.
Ningguang doesn’t. Ningguang crossed her long, long legs, inspects her gloved fingers, and laughs.
And Beidou likes it. Oh gods, does she like it.
There’s something about being so disrespected- about being cast aside or treated like an underling- that makes Beidou want to press Ningguang up against a wall in the harbour and bite blue-black flowers into her soft skin.
She thinks about this as Ningguang ponders over a lengthy scroll, one forefinger tapping her lush lower lip. Beidou bites the inside of her cheek and desperately tries to keep herself in check. “You called me in here for a reason, yes?”
Ningguang looks up at her slowly, like she’s forgotten that Beidou has been standing in front of her for the past six minutes. “What? Oh, yes. I’ll be needing you to accompany me on an excursion down south. I’ve been receiving reports of a den of Abyss Mages trying to summon… something.”
“Sure,” Beidou replies, falling into the game they’ve played a thousand times. “If the coin is plentiful, and my men are fed.”
Ningguang quirks her right eyebrow. Beidou tries very hard not to find it attractive, and fails. “Have I ever underpaid you before?”
Beidou shrugs. “Not that I can recall. It’s just protocol. You know how I feel about my contracts.”
“Yes,” Ningguang murmurs-almost purrs-, “ I certainly do. You like everything all tied up, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Beidou manages. “I do. Do you want to draw the papers up or should I?”
The other woman shrugs, loose and fluid. “What do you prefer?”
A small part of Beidou’s brain suggests that perhaps this conversation is serving as a double entendre, somehow. Beidou regretfully dismisses it as wishful thinking. “You can,” she says honestly, regretting the words the moment they fall from her lips. “I trust you.”
Ningguang looks up at this- really looks, eyes slightly wide and mouth slack. Something imperceptible flickers across her face; if Beidou hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have seen it. “Don’t start getting soft with me, now.”
Beidou just smirks and ambles off, one hand resting on the worn leather of her sword belt. She’s done it again, somehow- managed not to give in to the urge that’s pushed her every day for the past six years to let Ningguang bend her over a table and- she swallows. Well. Some things just aren’t worth her pride.
See, Beidou and Ningguang have a past- and not all of it is good. Ningguang is an employer; Beidou is a mercenary-for-hire. More than once they’ve been on opposite sides of whatever heist or battle is being fought.
( “Beidou,” Ningguang says. She doesn’t sound surprised, just resigned. “Give me the fucking statue.”
Ah, Beidou thinks. She’s mad. Ningguang doesn’t often swear in front of other people. She has an image to maintain, after all. Many, many images. Beidou doesn’t know how the Tianquan manages to keep up with all her different personas.
She’s blocking the only exit out of the system of caves Beidou has just spent two and a half days running around in, trying not to die and looking for an ugly statue of a pig god or whatever. Beidou just wants a beer and her pay, and Ningguang is, as per usual, stopping her from having a good time.
Beidou frowns with mock sadness and pats the bag slung around her shoulder gently. “Can’t do that, princess. My boss would be mad. Might even try to kill me.”
One of Ningguang’s loyal grunts steps forward at that and draws his sword, but Ningguang just shakes her head. “Leave her be. You have nothing on her.”
“You’re too kind,” Beidou says, a little thrill coursing through her at the absolutely nasty look the other woman sends her. “You know, if you wanted me to give you the statue you should’ve just hired me.”
“Or I could kill you,” Ningguang offers. She spreads out her gloved hands, golden Geo energy blooming out of her fingertips slow and hot like honey. “I’ll make it quick. Promise.”
“Damn,” Beidou breathes. “You really need this statue, don’t you?”
Ningguang’s right eye twitches. “Yes.”
Beidou pretends to be deep in thought for approximately four seconds. “Too bad. Bye!”
The battle that ensues is talked about in Liyue pubs for months after. Beidou will listen to the exaggerated stories and hide her grin behind her pint glass. ]
She leaves the cave system with a heavier purse, singed hair, and a fluttering heart. She chalks the last bit up to too much brew and too little sleep, though. )
Some things just aren’t worth my pride. Ningguang isn’t worth my pride. It’s what Beidou has been telling herself for the past five years.
It’s a lie and Beidou knows it.
It’s a lie, and this one tastes almost as bad as the cheap booze she and her crew drink on the deck of their ship that night. Beidou brings one-no, two- people into her quarters and fucks them- allows them to press her against the sheets and have their way with her, too-but she still feels a little hollow afterwards.
It’ll do, she decides, watching the yellow-gold lights of the harbour flicker off the gently moving water. I can’t afford to be made the fool. Not now .
Because what she's missing- what Beidou wants- is something she can’t ever have. Not in her line of work. There’s a reason why most of her crew don’t have families, or friends, or real lovers. They’re physical weak points; flesh-and-blood bargaining chips for enemies or bosses fucked over one time too many. A burden.
A burden, Beidou thinks, sucking in a lungful of smoke from her pipe. She closes her eyes and sees Ningguang’s long silver hair, hears the bright mellow ring of her laugh.
It makes her chest ache. She exhales smoke in a translucent, wobbly ring and reaches for her flask.
Ningguang sets sail in the morning, when the sky is as red as fresh jueyun plants and the wind is strong enough to send the gulls gliding hundreds of feet in the air.
“You sure picked a great day to head off,” Beidou comments nonchalantly. She leans over the rail of the ship, unconsciously mirroring Ningguang’s posture. “My men are a superstitious bunch, you know. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.”
Ningguang turns her head the slightest amount. She’s wearing a white fur coat over her usual garb today: it looks good. Really good. “And why should I care about any of that?”
Beidou shrugs. “Usually red skies are an indicator of bad weather to come. Hope you have your sea legs all ready to go, princess.” She doesn’t mention the other half of the proverb, because it’s genuinely disturbing and hopefully untrue.
“I hope you don’t plan on irritating me the entire voyage,” Ningguang murmurs. There’s a mole just below her jaw. Beidou wants to kiss it. “This ship is large, but it may very well become too small for the both of us.”
Beidou stares at her, speechless, and is in turn granted with the barest uptick of Ningguang’s mouth: a smile so small that if one hadn’t memorized every single component of Ningguang’s face (like Beidou has) one wouldn’t see it.
But Beidou does. It shifts Ningguang’s features from cold and untouchable to something warmer: something softer. The sheer beauty of the woman sends Beidou into a rare silence, and if Ningguang notices Beidou staring, she doesn’t say anything.
The ship is too small for the two of them, but probably not in the way Ningguang meant. Beidou becomes painfully aware of Tianquan's presence-and her gaze. She’s never been self-conscious about working with her crew, never thought twice about throwing on loose trousers and an open-necked cotton shirt like the rest of them, but Ningguang’s eyes on the back of her neck have Beidou overthinking everything.
She must look weird, or something, because Juza- Juza, the man with literal bricks for brains- does his best to try and start a conversation about it. “Hey, uh. Are you okay, Captain?”
Beidou grunts and pulls at the rigging, muscles bunching underneath her thin cotton shirt. It’s surprisingly warm for late fall; sweat slides down her neck and sticks fabric against her skin. “I’m fine, Juza. I’d be more fine if someone had remembered to bring the booze on board.”
Her first mate laughs sheepishly and steps in to help. “An honest mistake, Cap. Could happen to anyone.” He balks when Beidou sends him an unamused look. “Well, definitely not to you. We all know how you are with your brew.”
“A man in a pub in Snezhnaya told me that you were born with a knife in one hand and a flask of Dragon’s Moon in the other,” Yinxing shouts from the top deck, eyes twinkling. “Was he right?”
Beidou rolls her shoulders and grins. “Can’t say. That’s confidential information.”
“Just the knife.” Ningguang’s voice is mellow and soft as ever, but it cuts above the conversation and silences the crew. The Tianquan leans her elbows against the rail and slouches every so slightly. “Her mother didn’t keep alcohol in the house until after she was born.”
There’s a shocked silence. Thirteen pairs of wide eyes swing over to Beidou, expectant. They’ve seen this scenario a hundred times, all of them ending with the tip of Beidou’s boot up someone’s ass. No doubt they’re expecting the same this time too.
What happens is, quite frankly, startling. The Captain of the Crux- The Uncrowned Lord of the Ocean- feared in just about every bay and harbour that the seven seas touch- throws her head back and laughs.
Ningguang hides a smile behind her fan.
“Oh,” Yinxing says quietly. “I see.”
Little Yue looks up at her, eyes wide. “What is it? Why isn’t the Captain dunking the lady off the side of the ship?”
Yinxing smiles at the boy, pats his head fondly. “I’ll tell you when you’re older. I think the Captain and the Tianquan are very good friends.”
“Huh,” Little Yue says, suspicious. “The blonde lady is turning red, though. Is she mad?”
Yinxing scratches the tip of her nose. “Yeah, well. Sometimes people are friends in different ways.”
“Yue, if you go find Jianqu and bring me back a roll of gauze I’ll give you a candy.”
They arrive on the outskirts of Natlan a week and a half later, woefully uninformed and grateful to see dry land again. Ningguang stays quiet about the specifics of the mission, instructing Beidou to bring her strongest fighters and quickest marksmen for the day-and-a-half trek up to the Abyss Order stronghold.
Beidou complies, because she really does trust Ningguang, despite their somewhat rocky past. They’ve gotten closer over the past little while, maybe, and Beidou can’t help but wonder- can’t help but hope- that something is about to change between them.
And then Ningguang has to go and ruin everything by endangering her crew.
“You know,” Beidou says conversationally, swinging her claymore from one hand to the other, “Did it ever occur to you to tell me that the Abyss Order was summoning a mythical quasi-demon?”
They’re standing at the entrance to a long, spiraling tunnel that leads deep underground. If Beidou strains her ears she can just make out a faint, ominous rumbling. It’s not a good sign.
“Not really,” Ningguang admits, drawing a golden-yellow protection sigil in the air with one gloved hand. “To be fair, I wasn’t entirely sure what it would be.”
“But you had an idea,” Beidou presses, something hot and angry twisting her stomach. “This isn’t something that my men could handle, and I’ve brought them with me, on your orders. Half of them don’t even have Visions. They could die.”
Ningguang looks over at her, gaze cool. “We all could. It’s a risk we all take.”
Beidou scoffs and reins in her anger, channels it. “Fuck that. You stay here and keep my crew safe, princess. I’ll take care of this myself.”
Something like an alarm flashes across Ningguang’s face. “You can’t go in there by yourself.”
Beidou shrugs. “You give me no choice.” She closes her eyes, holds out her sword. Haishan, Thunderbeast and Queen of Serpents, lend me your strength.
Lightning ignites within her, spreads up her arms in hot, tingling waves. A familiar low hiss curls under her ear and grows in volume. We burn today, little snake?
“ Yes,” Beidou replies, unable to contain the flickers of electricity that escape her mouth as she speaks. “ Today we burn bright.”
Haishan gives a delighted hiss and slides out of Beidou’s sword, transparent and made entirely out of crackling beams of purple electricity. Good. Hungry. Beidou fully activates her Vision and allows the purple undertow to pull her into a fighting state. Haishan swims around her in circles, snapping up bits of lightning with relish and growing rapidly in size.
Ningguang looks uncharacteristically shocked. “What is that?”
Beidou slides a hand over Haishan’s head, passes her fingers through it. “A friend. My creator. It doesn’t matter.” Ningguang isn’t the only person who has a couple tricks up her sleeve. Haishan is the least of hers.
“Don’t go,” Ningguang says. “Don’t go by yourself. I’ll come.”
“ No,” Beidou snaps. “I don’t want you there.”
Hurt flickers across Ningguang’s face, but there’s no time to clarify. Beidou doesn’t want the thing downstairs to break up and out of the mountain. Best to keep it contained .
Something roars low and guttural from deep within the cave. “ We go,” Beidou tells Haishan, and the two of them walk towards the unknown creature together. Beidou doesn’t look back, but she wants to.
The creature is, in fact, a mythical quasi-demon roughly the size of the Jade Palace.
“Oh, fuck me ,” Beidou says.
A Pyro-wielding Abyss Mage floating near the creature’s head points at her and cackles. “Foolish human! Not even you and your silly worm can try to conquer Ka’laisna! Your bones will gather dust in the cave for all eternity!”
“Shut the fuck up,” Beidou drawls, hoisting her sword over her shoulder. “Less talkin’, more brawling, you little red bitch.”
Am not worm, Haishan says. She sounds offended. Kill them all!
“ Ka’laisna!” The Abyss Mage screams. “ Awaken!”
And what do you know? The damn thing wakes up.
“Fuck me,” Beidou says, again, and goes up in a blaze of purple lightening.
Haishan is hungry for something more substantial than lightning, and Beidou is still angry at Ningguang, so the two of them manage to take down the demon-monster-rock creature and six Abyss Mages to boot with less damage than expected.
Beidou sniffs and wipes her mouth on her shirt. It comes away red. “Uh-oh.”
Good? Haishan asks. Beidou attempts to put weight on her right leg, and fails miserably. It’s probably broken. “Could be worse,” Beidou replies faintly. “We could be dead! Like those guys.” Haishan swirls around her waist, purple tongue flicking in and out of her spectral mouth. Bad.
“Yeah,” Beidou manages. “Yeah, that would be bad.” Using her sword as a crutch, she slowly makes her way back towards the tunnel’s entrance. “You know, I think I’m just gonna sit down over here for a bit…,”
Stupid, Haishan hisses, and it’s the last thing Beidou hears before she passes out. She floats just under the surface of consciousness, in a place that is warm and devoid of sound. Faintly she can hear voices, but they’re garbled and muffled. Someone grabs her face with light, cool fingers and ghosts them across her brow, across her cheek. It feels nice. Feels safe.
“ Stupid,” Haishan says again, but her voice is softer, and rougher, and doesn’t sound much like Haishan at all...
Beidou wakes up in someone else’s room three days later, body sore but otherwise intact. She can feel the remnants of a healer’s work on her skin- a Hydro user, perhaps. The sunlight hurts her eyes, even through the white silk curtains, so she shuts them again.
“That was very stupid of you.”
Beidou attempts to roll her eyes, but that hurts as well, so she just turns her head away. “Why are you here?”
She can hear Ningguang frown. “You’re in one of the spare rooms in the Jade Palace.”
Now that has Beidou sitting up. “What the hell did you bring me here for?”
Ningguang is sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed impeccably as per usual. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap, but there’s a slight frown at the corners of her mouth that belies her mood. There are dark circles under her eyes, like she hasn’t slept much. “None of your healers were qualified enough to heal your injuries. You almost died.”
“How unfortunate for you,” Beidou drawls. She raises her arms above her heads and stretches cautiously. Her muscles are stiff, and there’s a faint pressure behind her eyes, but she feels fine otherwise. “Get rid of two pests for the price of one! You really missed out on a deal.”
Ningguang’s mouth flattens into a thin line. Beidou still wants to kiss it, and hates herself for it. “That’s not a very tasteful joke.”
Maybe it’s the near death experience, or the three day coma, but Beidou is suddenly very tired of this entire situation. “I’m not joking. We both know how you feel about me.” She slides out of the bed, one hand resting on the headboard for support. Her boots are thankfully intact and resting next to the little wooden dresser.
“I don’t think you do,” Ningguang says. Beidou laughs, sharp and high. “I’m pretty sure I do. I’m a sailor, Tianquan. Not an idiot.” She slides her feet into the boots and starts to lace up the right one, chest tight.
Ningguang is silent for a long moment. “I know how you feel about me.”
Beidou freezes, fingers lingering on the laces of her boot. Her other one needs to be laced up, now, but she doesn’t dare move. “What?”
Ningguang swallows. There’s something new in her eyes. It’s bright. Beidou can feel the thin wire they’ve been balancing on for years start to dissolve. “You want to fuck me.” It’s a statement, not a question.
Hearing it come from Ningguang’s mouth feels like a punch and a kiss all at once. Beidou doesn’t bother with a snide remark or deflection for this once. She shrugs, licks her lips. “Yes.”
At this Ningguang growls- honest to god growls- and pulls Beidou up up up, hands tangling in her dress and hair- and kisses her full on the mouth.
It’s more than Beidou could have ever fantasized about. Ningguang is a clever kisser; she tastes like honey and anise and smoke. Beidou can’t quite help the noise that escapes her when Ningguang bites at her lip, flattens her tongue against the pulse point at her neck.
Ningguang laughs- sharp, just on the right edge of mocking- and shoves Beidou down into the chair at the desk. Something hot and good pulses just below Beidou’s abdomen.
“You’ve wanted to do this for a long time, haven’t you?” Ningguang demands. She reaches down, wraps her fingers in a fistful of Beidou’s hair, and pulls. Beidou bites back a moan and stares up at her, eyelids half closed. “You have,” Ningguang breathes. “All this time, and you didn’t tell me? You coward!”
“Hey,” Beidou says lazily, reaching out and sliding one hand between Ningguang’s legs, pressing against the heat there through the clothing. Ningguang’s face stays the same, but her thigh twitches.
Beidou grins, wolfish. “You didn’t tell me, either. How was I supposed to know?” She slides the flat of her palm up, presses a finger against where she knows it feels good, and is rewarded with a small hiss. “Look, I’m not complaining. As long as you fuck me right, I won’t make fun of you for lost time.”
“You want me to fuck you?” Ningguang says, hips rolling in a slow, fluid motion against Beidou’s hand. “I can do that. Didn’t think you’d outright ask me to be my bitch, though.”
That shouldn’t turn Beidou on as much as it does. “As long as I’m your bitch, princess.”
Ningguang’s expression darkens slightly. “I really hate it when you call me that.” She grabs Beidou’s wandering hand. “Come with me.”
“Ooh,” Beidou says, stumbling a little as Ningguang drags her out of the chair and towards her private quarters. “So bossy.”
Ningguang glares and smiles at the same time, which in turn causes Beidou to turn and slam her up against the wall, sending several very delicately mounted vases towards destruction.
“You are infuriating,” Ningguang whispers between kisses, her fingers clawing at Beidou’s shoulders and lower back. “You are the single most irritating person I have ever had the displeasure of meeting, in my entire life. ”
Beidou hums and bites a bruise into the hollow of the other woman’s throat. “Is that Ningguang-speak for you are so sexy, I am deeply, impossibly attracted to you?”
Ningguang answers Beidou- and shuts her up- with another kiss.
Word spreads the next day of two things: that the Captain of the Crux fleet broke into the Jade Palace and fought the Tianquan in combat, and that the Tianquan’s confidant sent in an order to the merchants guild the next day for fifty-six new vases to replace ones broken the night before.
“But who won?”
The bartender shrugs and slides another pint to the circle of gossipy locals. “Dunno. They haven’t come down yet.”
“It’s been four days,” another woman says. ‘What if they’ve killed each other?”
“The Tianquan wouldn’t be bested by a mere sailor!”
“Ah, but Beidou bested the great serpent Haishan without a Vision… she’s no mere sailor, or human, for that matter.”
“They sound like lovers.”
Every head in the pub turns to look at the figure in the corner. He shrugs and takes a sip of his dandelion wine. “It makes more sense than fighting to the death.”
The pub erupts into argument.
The bartender frowns and pulls the wine away from the young man. “I was trying to keep the volume down in here. Do you know how many noise complaints I’ve been served in the last month because of you, Venti?”
Venti shrugs and flicks his fingers. A miniature hurricane pushes the glass out of the bartender’s hands and into his. “Sorry, Diluc. Here’s a win-win situation for the both of us: you give me another round, on the house, and I’ll shut up for the rest of the night.”
Diluc closes his eyes. “For the next three nights.”
“How long do you think it’s going to take people to figure it out?”
Ningguang sits up, a bemused look making its way across her face. “As soon as you take a step outside, I think.”
Beidou blinks up at her. “What?” She gasps, her fingers brushing over the bruised skin of her neck and shoulders. “Oh, no. You did not. My clothing is absolutely not going to cover this. What are you, a wild animal? ” She throws off the covers and makes a dash for the bathroom, Ningguang laughing behind her.
Beidou gapes at her reflection in the mirror. She looks as though she’s been dragged through the Bishui Plains backwards and buck-naked, but she can’t say that she minds; not when Ningguang slides her hands around her waist and presses apologetic kisses to the dark bruises on her shoulder.
In the mirror there is her, and Ningguang, and it looks good. Looks right. Beidou has a feeling that it’s going to stay that way. The thought of waking up with Ningguang every morning makes something soft twist in her chest.
If this is a game to you, Beidou thinks, pulling Ningguang in for a soft, chaste kiss, I’ll gladly let you win.
This one, Beidou doesn’t mind losing.