Just go have dinner. It’s a neutral place. That way, we won’t look like gold-diggers.
Even though we are?
Her sister had shoved her then, causing her to stumble halfway out the door. Keqing spun in place to glower at her, but all she got in return was a simpering little smile. The look of someone who didn’t have the entire family’s hopes and dreams dropped on her shoulders, who didn’t need to marry for reasons outside of love.
An uncomfortable heat pricked the corner of her eyes, but Keqing did her utmost not to break.
Oh, don’t start with the waterworks. Who knows. You might hit it off!
Keqing doubts it. Keqing seriously, seriously doubts it.
For starters, the asshole is late.
Keqing waits for maybe twenty minutes on a table at the terrace, under the night sky, nursing what would be her first drink of the night. The only information her demented family had deemed fit to give her was that, apparently, this person smoked like a chimney, so the open space was preferable over dining indoors.
Not even a fucking name. Keqing had been too agitated, they said, so she would have to content herself with a sort of “blind date”. Learning this individuals name didn’t sound like the fun icebreaker they probably thought it was; more like, complete torture. It feels like communication is already hindered between them, as Keqing was at a disadvantage.
Mom gave a description of your outfit, it’ll be fine.
How considerate. Keqing tugs down the hem of her stupidly short dress, cursing her sister’s name with every pull of fabric. It was the kind of outfit that had a price tag in the quadruple numbers. A tailored piece that Keqing wouldn’t even have blinked at before buying, but those shopping indulgences were long over. This was one of the last nice outfits she owned, that she refused to part with.
Nowadays, every penny counted until she could secure her family’s future.
When the wait becomes intolerable and the waiter starts shooting her pitiful looks that make her grind her teeth, Keqing picks up the basket with the breadsticks. She storms over to the empty bar.
Smooth piano music fills what otherwise would be a boring, but lavishly decorated space. It’s mostly older people keeping to themselves; not necessarily the hotspot of the city. The place reeks exclusiveness, if the very few patrons are anything to go by. Her family had provided her with some sort of QR code that she showed at the entrance in order to be granted access.
After years of questionable financial decisions, Keqing’s family was in a tight spot. They kept up appearances for a long time, until eventually, they couldn’t do so anymore. What eventually tipped the scales completely against them was her father’s oldest trading partner, who faked his death. His thoughtless actions shook the very foundation of their business, leaving Keqing’s parents on the verge of ruin.
Luckily for them --and Keqing used that word very loosely-- her mother found someone that was interested in a mutual agreement.
That is, an arranged marriage.
Her parent's union had been a similar affair, and they had grown to love one another, but Keqing found little comfort in the fact. She had never envisioned something similar for herself, hadn’t really wished for it.
Apparently, this person could shit gold, but they came from nothing. One could only climb the social ladder so far without an important family name and decades-old connections. Hell, some doors would never open for some because of their origins. So, Keqing could see how this was mutually beneficial.
Her family would get access to fat bank accounts through her, and in return, this guy would marry right into one of the oldest families in Liyue, basically buying into every single perk that came with that.
Her belly rolls with revulsion at the idea-- or it could be the alcohol. Sweet and colorful as they are, the couple of Mai Tai’s that she ordered contain a significant amount of booze. Keqing is sure counting on her mystery date showing up to cover the tab as an apology for their tardiness.
Speaking of-- who the hell did he think he was, making her wait? Did he hold no respect for other people’s time?
She’s only dragged out of her murderous thoughts when a new presence makes every single head turn in the depressing little room.
Two very tall women saunter in. They must be important, Keqing thinks, because the burly man at the entrance doesn’t ask to see the QR access code. The first, a brunette, broad-shouldered and in a sharp suit, holds the door open for the second. Keqing’s mouth misses her straw as she stares, and she almost pokes herself in the eye.
This second woman, now, she’s the one that immediately monopolizes Keqing’s attention, that draws her gaze. Long white hair flows over her shoulders, with some of it tied into an elegant knot at the top of her head. She’s wearing a pretty black dress with lace accents and a boob window that Keqing had actually eyed for this very occasion. However, she promptly fled what used to be her favorite store when she saw the price tag.
The newcomer is tall, yet it does not stop her from wearing heels that make her a little taller than even the brunette at her side. She’s got the kind of presence that commands attention with ease, even wears it like a second skin.
For a split second, Keqing thinks they’re here together together, and something in her chest tightens. They would certainly make a hot couple. Her initial assumption is quickly proven wrong when the brunette gives a two-finger salute and immediately drifts away to join a blue-haired woman on the far right. Her companion, now all alone, rolls her eyes, and to Keqing’s horror, makes a beeline for the bar.
The young woman’s shoulders rise to her ears in a defensive maneuver, and she ducks her head to focus on her drink-- gods, on looks alone, she was exactly Keqing’s type. Legs for days, high cheekbones, the imposing presence…
Keqing is in danger.
She does her utmost to ignore the newcomer, even as she takes the seat to her right, leaving only one empty stool between them. She says something, but Keqing can’t make out the words, she just assumes the woman is talking to the bartender with the fluffy red hair. He actually seems to know her, and they exchange a few quiet words.
Of course, she picks the red wine, the pricey imported kind that the waiter recommended to Keqing upon her arrival. Again, it had been but a bitter reminder of the life she once had, and hoped to get back.
For her part, Keqing finishes the last of the breadsticks. She’s tempted to call her sister to demand to know what happened to her supposed date, or just tell her to fuck off entirely, because her sights are now set on the gorgeous woman with moonlight in her hair. Before she can pick an option, the decision is pretty much made for her.
Keqing wrinkles her nose as the smell of tobacco suddenly hits her. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the stranger lit a cigarette. She clears her throat softly at the bartender, hoping he’d say something, but he looks beyond uninterested.
He mistakes her inquisitive look for another type of request; he slides over a shot of dark alcohol this time. Keqing makes a face, feeling a little miffed that he had that one at the ready, but accepts it with a nod.
She’d probably need it.
And need it she will. Keqing lasts all of ten seconds before she speaks.
“Is that allowed indoors?” Keqing wonders aloud, already knowing the answer. She knows it’s an obnoxious way to call her out, one that could backfire easily, but the thinly-veiled complaint is out of her mouth before she can stop it.
But it works. The woman’s pretty eyes narrow in her direction, “Pardon?”
“You know that’s a health hazard, right?” The words are out before they can pass through all the proper filters inside her head, but the alcohol zooms past them all.
Keqing cringes inwardly; why did nobody ever teach her that immediately antagonizing people she found attractive was not the optimal strategy?
To her shock, her behavior is not met with the usual --and deserved-- contempt. The woman’s lips curve into a smile around it, “Sorry, bad habit. Do you want me to put it out?”
“I…” Keqing falters, her righteous energy plummeting. A new idea worms its way into her brain. “Actually. Can I take a drag?”
After her little debacle, she expects the other woman to, rightfully, sneer at her, but she does not. Wordlessly, she scoots one place over --sits directly beside Keqing-- and offers the cigarette. Belatedly, she notices that the part of the filter is stained burgundy with the woman’s lipstick.
“Thanks,” Keqing tries not to think about the fact that she’s about to place her lips where the other woman’s had been. She hasn’t smoked since caving to the peer pressure of high school parties, so she’s grateful when the deep puff she takes goes down smoothly and she doesn’t hack up a lung in the process.
Smoking wasn’t the point, though. Her real mission has been accomplished. The woman’s attention is on her, to Keqing’s delight.
When the stranger takes it back, she actually presses it against the glass ashtray, putting it out with a soft hiss. The older woman slides her elbow to rest it against the bar and places her chin in her upturned palm, “Are you here alone?”
“You either are or you aren’t,” the woman laughs, the sound deep and rich. “Who are you expecting?”
“Oh, no one important,” Keqing could and should leave it at that, but the rage brewing up inside bubbles right out of her throat as she adds, “just the old geezer my mother wants me to marry.”
The woman arches her eyebrows, the pretty smile doesn’t budge from her face, “Is that so?”
Too much information, some far-off place in her own mind scolds her, but Keqing can’t help it. She can’t think about anything else, can’t conjure up any mundane subjects that are safe and normal to talk about instead.
Besides, she honestly doesn’t care about confiding in a stranger. While living through this mostly makes her miserable --it was her life, after all-- maybe this woman would find it entertaining. Keqing would love to hear her laugh again, even if it’s at her expense.
“Just… it’s just some rich guy that… that I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with,” Keqing’s fingers tighten on her glass, threatening to break the stem. She puts it down and trades it for the stumpy one that contains a dark liquid instead. “That’s… all I was told.”
“You… do not know anything else? A name, perhaps?”
“No. Only… he’s older than me. Oh, and loaded.”
“Loaded, eh? Why are you moping, then?” The woman’s tone is light, teasing in a way that feels almost too-familiar. Keqing finds that she doesn’t dislike it. “Sounds like quite the catch, if you ask me.”
“It’s the principle of the thing! They’re basically buying their way into high society. I know they’re only in on it for my family name, the connections, the history…” Keqing trails off, noticing for the first time that her companion seems to be holding back a bout of laughter. “Ugh. You seem awfully amused!”
“Apologies. Let us start over, hm?” The woman’s eyes are the exact same dark shade as her wine. “My name is Ningguang.”
She looks expectantly at Keqing, like the name is supposed to mean something to her. And… while there is something vaguely familiar about her, Keqing thinks it’s just her brain being excited about every single physical trait she finds attractive being nicely presented to her in just one person.
Even though that’s probably it, Keqing makes an effort to place this woman’s name, her deep voice, maybe even her uncommon shade of hair—
And then it hits her.
“Oh. I know who you are.”
Ningguang’s mouth quirks into a pleased smirk, and she straightens a little in place. Keqing sets back her own shoulders, proud that she could recall such a detail.
“You’re the Ningguang from Jade Group. You were on that one magazine a couple of weeks ago!”
For some reason, the older woman’s face falls, and she looks disappointed, even though Keqing didn’t say anything that was objectively untrue. Keqing actually owns a copy of said magazine. Well-- she borrowed it from her coworker, Yanfei, under the guise that she liked the makeup used and wanted to keep it for reference.
On the cover, Liyue’s top businesswoman had been wearing a much more ‘editorial look’. The clothes picked for Ningguang had looked a little impractical for someone that spent most days holed up in an office, all flowy sleeves and fancy furs, but since it was a magazine cover, the choice was totally understandable. Her makeup, too, had been greatly exaggerated-- bold shades of red and gold brought out the pretty flecks of the same colors already in Ningguang’s eyes.
It made for a striking look that had stuck with the younger woman for days. Not to mention, the lengthy piece on Ningguang’s various accomplishments. Her story of hardship, of rags-to-riches… all of it had left a deep impression on Keqing.
Yeah, so. She kept the magazine. She’d really, really admired that makeup look.
“Yes, that’s me. Yae Publishing interviewed me last month for their forty under forty section.” Ningguang laces her hands under her chin, dipping her head in Keqing’s direction. “Sharp memory.”
“Cheers,” Keqing raises the glass, downs the stronger drink in one burning gulp. While she avoided making a fool of herself with the cigarette, something goes wrong now, and she’s left teary-eyed and choking when the sharp taste takes a wrong turn as it travels down to settle in her gut.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by Ningguang. “Hmph. Are you drunk?” The older woman asks, looking a little put-off.
The question suddenly makes Keqing all-too-aware of the flush coloring her cheeks, the pleasant buzz in her head that’s making her feel pretty good. She flags down the moody bartender to order plain water; it was time to slow down.
“I may be short, but I’ve got good tolerance. Law school will do that to you.” Keqing waves her off, and she feels the corner of her lips tug up into a smile. “I’m fine, honest. I could even do a handstand and everything.”
The older woman still looks a little skeptical, but accepts her answer with a small nod. She takes a much more dignified sip from her fancy drink, “So, you’re a lawyer,” Ningguang hums, as that scarlet gaze intensifies, appraising her.
“Yeah. If you want another fancy building in the city, let me know. I do bulletproof contracts,” Keqing says, unable to resist a little plug-in. She leaves out the part where she’s also deeply involved in labor rights. “I’m good at getting the permits, too, so no bribery to high city officials needed.” Before she can think better of it, she produces a business card, like the dork that she is.
“Good to know,” Ningguang accepts it, flips it over to read the contact info. “Ms. Keqing, is it?”
Gods, she loved the way she said her name. “Oh! I didn’t introduce myself. That was rude. Sorry. Just Keqing is fine!”
Ningguang carefully enounces her last name before pocketing the card, “Oh… I actually know your parents.”
It’s not… unusual. They were an affluent couple, and once upon a time, they had been stupidly wealthy. Their bank accounts may be in peril, but their connections to the powerful and elite were intact. It made sense that Ningguang would be acquainted, despite her humble origins.
“That so?” Before she can stop herself, Keqing’s sharp tongue flares up again, “Then you probably know about the fiasco that went down with their business partner?”
“I… am aware that their infamous consultant passed away, yes.” Ningguang’s tone lets her know the businesswoman is perfectly aware that it’s bullshit.
Zhongli faked his death, ruined half the economy in the process, then left to live his best life somewhere in the countryside to drink osmanthus wine. Lucky bastard.
Once more, Ningguang seems charmed by her blunt manner, rather than irritated, as many others would be by now. “You don’t mince words, hm, Keqing?”
“I don’t see the point of it,” Keqing mutters. The redhead places down a glass of water in front of her, and Keqing takes a few greedy gulps before continuing, “They got into this mess, and now it’s up to me to bail them out. I may be unhappy about it, but… you know. Maybe it won’t be so bad. My parents didn’t choose each other either, and they make a great team. Minus the almost-bankruptcy.”
Now, that’s too much info to divulge to a stranger. Keqing’s shoulders bunch up around her ears, and she downs the last of the water. With a wave of her hand, she asks for another. Even Ningguang seems to agree that she’s being a little loose-lipped, for she lets out a small hiss between her teeth, a warning. “I may take you up on that offer to do a handstand,” she murmurs.
“I told you I’m not drunk!” Quickly realizing that that’s exactly what a drunk would say, Keqing shrugs, “I just… needed some liquid courage. I… I’m nervous enough. I’m not…” her voice gets very small then, “… the marriage thing wasn’t my idea.”
“I see,” Ningguang frowns, looking more troubled than she should. “I suppose, if worse comes to worst, you could just call it off.”
“I know. But I would’ve at least liked to meet them,” she surprises even herself at the admission. “Who knows? Maybe it was a good match,” Keqing hates that she’s basically repeating what her sister had said, but it did kind of ring true.
What if fate did have this in store for her?
Ningguang opens her mouth, her frown deepening, but whatever she was about to say gets interrupted by the waiter from before approaching the two women. He clicks his heels together to get their attention, a tray tucked under one arm.
When he speaks, he looks sheepish as he addresses Keqing. “Excuse me, ma’am. Should we stop holding that table for you?”
Her eyes drift over to the table meant for two people, with its flickering candle at the center. The wick’s barely visible; the cheap light source has almost been consumed into a pool of wax. It startles Keqing, just how much time had passed. The candle had been brand-new when she sat down.
“… I think I’m okay right here. Thank you for asking, though.”
He bobs his head in acknowledgement and takes his leave. As he goes to inform another couple that the table is available, Keqing releases a seething breath, blinking hard. She had been told on multiple occasions that alcohol tended to loosen her tongue. It made her more chatty, agreeable, less prone to anger.
One of her hands balls into a fist, and she wonders about her date’s whereabouts for the first time in a while. “Maybe he fell asleep?” Keqing glances down at her smartwatch; 11:14 PM. She taps on the screen to darken it again, “Well. It’s understandable. It is getting kinda late for gramps.”
Oh, and mean. Alcohol tended to slightly enhance her mean streak.
Her friends didn’t particularly enjoy her slightly tipsy side --Keqing couldn’t blame them, honestly-- but Ningguang hides a smile behind her hand, seemingly amused. “What do you have against older people, huh?” She asks, that playful glimmer back in her eye. “Are you ageist?”
Keqing splutters for a second, her tongue refusing to cooperate. She eventually realizes that Ningguang is joking when her grin turns crooked. She can’t stop the wave of heat that envelops her cheeks when she retorts, “You… can’t be that much older than me. No skincare routine is that miraculous.”
Her heart stutters in her chest when Ningguang chuckles, still not tired of her shitty attempt at humor. “I will be thirty-four this year.”
Eight years older, Keqing tries not to swoon. She is not religious --quite the opposite, actually-- but this just convinces her that some higher power truly saw the terrible things her family intended for her, and put Ningguang in her path.
The white-haired woman mistakes her silence for an admission. Her smile widens, “So, you are ageist. Anything else you’d like to disclose?”
Keqing makes an indignant sound in the back of her throat, her blush intensifying. She picks up her glass of water and occupies herself that way, taking a few sips to avoid answering. For a split second, she fears the older woman finally grew tired of her antics. Keqing watches as Ningguang pulls out her phone --it has one of those wallet cases, the kind with a flap cover-- and starts going through her messages.
Although it’s understandable, given the slight lull in conversation, Keqing can’t help but crave Ningguang’s attention, even when it made her flustered. There was something addictive about it. She suspects she picked up these needs at home. Keqing’s cat, Rex, couldn’t go five minutes without demanding her attention… this feels kind of like that, and it’s supremely embarrassing. She doesn’t even know this person, even if it feels like it.
When she senses Keqing watching her, Ningguang’s scarlet gaze snaps up, intense and on her once more. She puts her phone away before she drums her nails against the counter, doesn’t miss a beat when she says, “What is that old geezer of yours going to think when he finds out you raided half the bar?”
She’s known this woman for less than a few hours and Keqing can already tell she’s being teased. Even though she’s aware of it, yet another blush settles over her cheeks, “I don’t care what he thinks. He should’ve thought about that before he stood me up.”
“Hm. It does seem that he’s a no-show,” Ningguang says, and Keqing grunts in agreement.
She eyes the bartender at the far corner, wondering if she should get one last drink before she heads home. Keqing would probably be set back several paychecks at the mounting tab, but she feels it was justified.
She’d have to call her stupid sister to get a ride home, and she wanted the pleasant buzz inside her head once more for that conversation.
Somehow, someway, Ningguang must sense her exact train of thought, because the older woman snaps her fingers under her nose, “Are you sure you’re not impaired by all the alcohol—”
“I promise you, I’m a lot more annoying when I’m actually drunk.” Keqing knows there’s a joke to be made there, somewhere, but Ningguang makes the wise choice to keep quiet. There’s a tick in the older woman’s jaw that tells her Ningguang is holding back.
A hearty laugh makes Keqing’s head turn. Ningguang’s companion from before approaches them, the grin on her face impossibly wide. Her pressed suit jacket is missing. The crisp shirt underneath has the sleeves rolled up, leaving heavily tattooed arms on full display. She’s not alone-- a woman, who can surprisingly rock a mullet, clings to her muscled arm, shy smile hidden behind her hand.
“Hey, boss. Got your message. Ganyu and I were thinking about heading out for the night,” the woman says. Her single crimson eye shifts over to Keqing, but quickly flits back to her employer. “You doin’ okay over here?”
“Nothing to report, Beidou.” Ningguang sighs. Although it’s now clear who Ningguang had been texting moments prior, she still seems a little annoyed at the interruption. She gestures at the occupied seat beside her, “This is Keqing.”
Keqing awkwardly raises a hand, suddenly nervous as the woman’s wolf-like grin goes wider. “Huh. This may be the first time I see you… ya know, not-smoking,” her eye narrows in the direction of her employer, “have you decided you like your lungs after all?”
Ningguang’s lips pull into a snarl, somehow managing to convey irritation and fondness in one scathing look. The familiarity between them is palpable, and it’s easy to tell they’ve known one another for years and years.
The brunette ignores the heated glare, choosing to address Keqing, “You told her to stop, didn’t you?” At Keqing’s nod, the woman --Beidou-- lets out a small scoff of disbelief, “And she listened?”
“I mean. There’s a sign on the wall, plus all the federal regulations… smoking’s prohibited indoors.”
Beidou barks out a laugh, loud and uncaring that she startles more than one person in the vicinity, Keqing included. “By-the-book, eh?” Given her missing eye, Beidou has to turn her entire head just to continue to guffaw at Ningguang, “And you. Wonders never cease! How accommodating,” she reaches out a hand as if to pat down the elegant bun at the top of Ningguang’s head.
Ningguang tilts her head away, teeth still bared. She playfully tries to bite her, but Beidou is very fast. She snatches her hand away, pulling it just out of reach. The woman clutching her arm giggles.
“Yo! I have enough on my plate with the whole eye situation,” Beidou wiggles the offended digit near Ningguang’s nose, “don’t need a stump for a finger, too.”
“Hmph.” Ningguang’s cold look doesn’t last long. In a few seconds, her composure cracks, and the fondness spills out of her in waves, “Go with Ganyu, take the weekend off. I can drive myself back.”
“Now, now, hold on a second, boss. How much did you have to drink?”
Apparently, her word is enough, because Beidou brightens, her shoulders slumping. “Okay! See you Monday.” What Keqing assumes are car keys get dumped on the bar with a soft thump. Ningguang grabs them. “Be responsible. Have fun.” As she starts to walk off, Ganyu in arm, Beidou throws one last taunt over her shoulder, “Make good choices, sweetie!”
Ningguang’s hand tightens around the keys, and she looks like she wants to toss them back at the brunette’s head.
As soon as the couple is out of earshot, Keqing’s questions flood out like a burst dam. “Who was that? Your butler?”
And why can she talk to you that way?
“My bodyguard,” Ningguang sighs, eyeing the keys in her hand like she suddenly doesn’t know what to do with them. The anchor-shaped keychain is a cute touch. “At this point, she’s more like family. Beidou… probably thinks herself funny calling me that.”
“Oh. So you’re rich rich,” Keqing teases. Even at their prime, her family never had the need for bodyguards; those were another league entirely. She can’t help but tack on her first impression of the couple. “You know… when you walked in together, I thought she was your girlfriend.”
“And were you sad?”
“Oh, absolutely heartbroken.”
“Well, then. You’ll be pleased to learn I’m single and very much interested.”
It’s enticing in a way she can’t explain. The words are disarming, and they make Keqing’s heart do a series of dangerous cartwheels inside her chest.
“Ohh--uh, I… I, too, am interested,” Keqing stammers, her idiocy bleeding through, her own heartbeat loud and insistent to her own ears.
Was this really happening?
Keqing’s so elated that she almost misses it when the older woman slides a sleek black card across the counter, then mouths something to the disgruntled-looking bartender.
So, Ningguang picks up the tab, which is honestly kind of a huge relief. Before she can even thank her, the white-haired woman stands, tall enough that she has to lower her head to reach Keqing in her stool.
“Looks like your hot date stood you up,” Ningguang leans impossibly close, so much so that her hot breath tickles the baby hairs in Keqing’s nape.
“Want to come home with me?”
The tension continues to simmer between them, and Keqing’s blood thrums hot with anticipation. It’s no wonder Ningguang’s bodyguard doubled as a driver… it’s not long before she grows impatient at Ningguang’s driving skills-- seriously, when’s the last time she sat behind the wheel? Why was she so afraid to toe the speed limit? Several cars pass them before Keqing decides to comment on it.
The infuriatingly hot woman beside her doesn’t even spare a glance in her direction --eyes remain glued ahead, neck straight, hands firmly placed at 9 and 4 o'clock-- all she murmurs is, slow and steady wins the race, wouldn’t you agree?
It drives her mad. It was almost a prophecy of things to come.
When they arrive at Ningguang’s home, Keqing doesn’t mention that she used to live nearby with her family until tragedy struck. Living at the exclusive neighborhood eventually became something they simply could not afford, and the house Keqing grew up in was sold. Her father cried that day.
Instead of reminiscing their misfortune, she focuses on the gorgeous archways and tall windows that adorn Ningguang’s home-- in the daylight, the manor was sure to be all the more impressive. If things went as Keqing hoped, and she stayed the night, maybe she could ask for a tour come morning.
Her fascination with the beautiful home is not enough to distract Keqing from her horny thoughts. Before she can pounce, however, the older woman seems to have other ideas. Ningguang does make her do a handstand to prove she’s sober.
Keqing huffs, deeming it ridiculous --not to mention unnecessary-- but she agrees to humor her.
By some miracle, the skirt of her dress is tucked in a way that doesn’t grant the older woman a view of her undergarments. At least Keqing had the good sense to wear a nice matching set.
It goes well-- for about three seconds. Skipping the gym in favor of working overtime to save some money was taking its toll on her arm muscles, because Keqing is unable to support her own weight for long. They buckle, her eyes go wide, and she’s toppling forward, legs kicking out-- but, luckily, Ningguang is there to grab her by the ankles to steady her.
From her upside-down perspective, the woman looked even prettier when she laughed. Or maybe it was just the blood rushing to Keqing’s head. Either way, as Ningguang gently sets her down on the kitchen floor, Keqing can’t take her eyes off her, even as her chest heaves with exertion and the cold ceramic tiles chill her.
The words fly out of her mouth before Keqing can stop them. She’d wanted to appear aloof, but the forwardness escapes her because Keqing simply cannot help herself. Instead of teasing her, Ningguang sinks down to straddle her, those scarlet eyes glowing like embers.
And, finally. Finally, Ningguang kisses her.
Any form of coherent thought gets vaporized from Keqing’s brain as the older woman’s warm lips press against her own, soft and caressing. It’s so achingly sweet that Keqing can’t help but hum against her.
You’re so pretty.
The words send liquid heat directly to her belly. One of Ningguang’s hands tugs the strap of her dress down, revealing a pale shoulder.
W-what happened to slow and steady?
Ningguang laughs against Keqing’s skin, but it’s also a dismissive sound. Her gaze flicks up briefly. The hunger in her eyes and the careful affection that comes with the press of those lips against Keqing’s flushed skin leaves her breathless, even more so when the other woman finally asks,
Can I go down on you?
The next morning, Keqing wakes to find herself alone, with only a raging headache for company.
Two notifications greet her on a phone that’s about to die; a thin red line that urges her to hurry.
The first, from an unknown number: I had to board a plane to Sumeru for urgent business. Help yourself to whatever from the kitchen. The one with the glasses is called Baishi, let her know if you need anything. xx
Keqing blinks owlishly. They ended the last message with a smiley cat emoji… the boomer kind. Only Keqing’s grandma used that one.
And the second message, from her sister: How’d it go with Ningguang? Should I tell Dad we’re not gonna be poor anymore?
At first, Keqing is confused. She even wipes at her eyes, convinced her brain glitched. She must still have alcohol in her system from last night, she thinks.
As she reads the message over and over, and the words don’t change, and the meaning doesn’t change, a heavy ball of lead starts to sink down her stomach.
Did they spy on her last night? No, impossible. They didn’t have a code to get in the restaurant. She didn’t see anyone with the lavender hair that runs in the family.
As the screen goes dark, her phone finally dead, Keqing’s own reflection stares back at her-- and she gets to see the mounting horror that stretches her features as realization dawns on her.
A hand flies to her mouth, and she can’t stifle the gasp that escapes her slowly constricting throat.
It’s no surprise that the businesswoman that’s been plaguing her mind for two days also happens to own the tallest building in the entire city.
The architectural masterpiece spans over a hundred floors, modern and sleek. It eclipses Liyue’s main avenue, forever shrouding the tree-lined road in semi-darkness. Its modern design allowed for more and more floors to be added over time, until one day, it was sure to block out the sun.
Ningguang tried to reach out several times during her trip, but all Keqing replied with was We need to talk, and Ningguang went quiet after that. The older woman sent her the address to the infamous building, along with her schedule. Keqing had two days to gather her thoughts, two days to grill her family until they came clean about everything.
Keqing was too embarrassed and too angry --mostly at herself-- to continue the small talk with Ningguang through text. Originally, she wanted to rage at her family, but she couldn’t give them the verbal lashing she thought they deserved. In the end, she was partly to blame for not putting her foot down and demand the complete information. The assumption that it was a man was also Keqing’s own fault.
After easily bypassing the initial filters to the building, she makes it to the grand penthouse. Keqing recognizes the woman with the blue hair at the reception, softly humming to herself.
Ganyu, right. After her most recent fight with her family, Keqing learned Ganyu was actually Ningguang’s personal secretary.
She’d been a sort of scout that had arrived before Ningguang at the restaurant, probably at the latter’s instruction. It was no coincidence that she’d been there that night.
Uncomfortable as that idea is, she doesn’t let it unnerve her. Keqing marches up to the desk and says, “I have a meeting with Ningguang.”
“Hello, Keqing. Yes, she’s expecting you,” Ganyu chirps, completely unbothered by the storm in her eyes and the tightness of her jaw. “Follow me this way, please!”
The second she’s shown to the door, Keqing musters up her manners to thank the secretary. This wasn’t her fault, after all. Ganyu’s easy smile never falters, and after asking if she needs anything else --Keqing shakes her head-- she leaves her to gather her nerve.
Okay, okay, okay.
Instead of knocking, Keqing barrels right in, and any thoughts of civility and proper greetings fly out of her head as her eyes land on Ningguang. The older woman is impeccably dressed, wearing a dark business suit with a black turtleneck, a stark contrast to her light hair. She’s traded the cheap pack of cigarettes from the bar for one of those classic pipes that has a mouthpiece and everything.
Ningguang looks up, startled at the intrusion, the pipe left almost comically dangling from the corner of her mouth. She quickly adjusts it, and Keqing seizes the element of surprise before her courage can leave her.
“You knew who I was,” Keqing blurts out, a pointed hurt behind it, and she can’t fight the heat that crawls up her neck, that makes her face into an inferno.
“I did know.” Ningguang acknowledges, a mask of perfect calm. She taps her pipe, letting the ash drop into a little ceramic bowl. “I mean, I gave you my name. If your family didn’t disclose it to you, well… that’s not my fault.”
The younger woman reins in the urge to throttle her entire family once more. They could’ve saved her a lot of grief if only they told her Ningguang’s fucking name from the very beginning. Or even better, they could have mentioned that it wasn’t some creepy old man, but the literal woman of her dreams.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“When I spotted you, you looked… unapproachable, and you were not sitting at the table I reserved. I thought it safer if you were to speak first,” Ningguang says, taking one final drag of her pipe before setting it down. Her eyes flicker between Keqing’s face and the pricey object, “Besides, in the end… my caution was not without merit. When you did not recognize me, I saw it as a unique opportunity.”
Unorthodox as Ningguang’s approach was, Keqing had to admit that it was probably for the best. Things had flowed in a very natural way, despite Ningguang knowing the truth all along. If the older woman had liked that genuine, messy version of herself, then Keqing should count herself lucky.
“Hmph. Fair enough. Point number two…” Keqing releases a shuddering breath, expelling some of the anger, and her voice comes out very, very small. “Why did… why did last night even happen the way it did?”
“I wasn’t about to blindly marry someone I wasn’t compatible with, social status or no.” Ningguang’s wine-colored eyes size her up, exactly like they did back at the bar. “I needed to see for myself.”
“And there weren’t other ways for you to gauge this?”
“Hardly,” Ningguang huffs. When Keqing levels her with a confused look, she regrets it the second the other woman begins to elaborate, “I meant sexually compatible,” she says, even as Keqing’s face flames again. “It would be a dealbreaker for me, if I were to lack that sort of chemistry with my wife.”
Keqing’s head spins, miffed by this master plan that she apparently was not aware of. So, when Ningguang noticed Keqing had no idea who she was, she decided to run with it, treat their meeting like a random encounter when it was anything but.
It kind of feels like lying, but, at the same time, no it does not?
She quickly goes through the possible scenario that could’ve played out if her meeting with Ningguang had been purely by chance, like she originally thought.
She would’ve answered her morning text with some witty joke. Then, after some back-and-forth, Keqing’s next step would have been to subtly ask when they could meet again. She imagines her family fucking off with their plan, because she met someone; a beautiful lady who seemed to complement her personality well.
And that’s when Keqing realizes that she probably would have pursued the stranger from the bar anyway.
Things had been more organic this way. Ningguang even got a --albeit brutally honest-- slice of Keqing’s innermost thoughts… and been completely okay with her feelings regarding the situation. Hell, at one point, she even said it was valid if she wanted to call the whole thing off.
Even as she works out the logical aspects in her mind, she’s still clouded by hurt.
“So, you… what? Made it your mission to seduce and fuck me?”
Ningguang doesn’t even hesitate, “Yes.”
The younger woman draws in a sharp breath, half disbelief, half admiration.
She presses on, “… and are we?”
“Are we what?”
Keqing doesn’t know her well enough to know whether she’s being messed with. Ningguang’s face is carefully blank, passive. She grits her teeth, her words drip venom, “Did you find us to be sexually compatible?”
The way Ningguang’s lips tug up into a smirk lets her know; yes, she was being messed with. “I don’t know, Keqing. You tell me.”
She still has that sweet ache from the marks on her neck, her chest, her thighs. For the last couple of days, Keqing has been unable to look at herself in the mirror without thinking of wine-colored eyes and a deep, perfect voice.
“It was… good,” Keqing allows. She drops her gaze, stares at her clammy pair of hands, “Maybe even better than good.”
“I suppose I’ll take better than good.”
“I already told you it was okay,” Keqing’s eyes snap back up, her voice razor-thin, “no need to be even more of an asshole.”
Sensing the vulnerable undertone to her voice, Ningguang’s face softens. The older woman stands, towering over everything else in the room, Keqing included. She approaches her slowly, like she’s afraid she’ll be spooked. It gives Keqing plenty of time to either draw back or say something, but she doesn’t, her feet frozen in place. The now-familiar scent of glaze lilies and tobacco doesn’t fail to make Keqing’s heartrate speed up in her ribcage.
When she speaks, her voice is very soft. “Of course I liked it. I genuinely had a good time.” Ningguang says, standing very close all of a sudden. “Otherwise, the wedding would have been called off, and you would not have been allowed into this building.”
It… sounds like a compliment, but Keqing can’t help but feel slightly offended. It was like being compared to a car, in the sense that one would take it ‘for a spin’ before actually buying it. In this demented metaphor, the test drive went well, but it still makes her blood boil.
Keqing only realizes she’s glaring at the ground when Ningguang places a finger under her chin, tilts her head up for their eyes to meet. “Are you always this needy?”
The younger woman’s lips threaten to quiver, and Keqing has to bite them, her face flaming even more. She doesn’t trust herself to speak, so Ningguang continues.
“It’s okay if you are. I like that.”
Ningguang’s thumb drags past her chin to rest against Keqing’s bottom lip, a not-so silent request, “May I?”
Keqing gives her acquiesce by standing on her tiptoes, and Ningguang’s kiss immediately grounds her. It’s meant to calm her, she realizes, as Ningguang’s lips gently massage hers and slowly make her lightheaded. Keqing’s lips part under hers, unbidden, but Ningguang decides not to deepen it. Instead, she just holds Keqing by the waist, tucking her head under her chin, as the smaller woman tries to control the slight tremble of her shoulders.
Gods, how embarrassing.
And yet… it works.
Once she’s somewhat regained control of her emotions, Ningguang steps back, satisfied that Keqing managed to piece herself back together with just one touch. The static in her head seems to clear, and the younger woman takes a deep, shuddering breath.
There was one more thing left to clear up.
“And… you were not angry over the stuff I said?” Keqing asks.
Old geezer. They’re only in on it for my family name, the connections. Keqing’s words from last night bounce around her skull, terrible and foul, ever single slight she directed at her mystery date. Ningguang sat there and took it, knowing full well Keqing was talking about her.
“Hm. You mean the part where you saw me as a walking ATM?” Ningguang is smiling as she says it, clearly her idea of a joke, but Keqing desperately wishes that she could melt into a puddle. The shame burning within was starting to become too much.
“That’s not-- entirely true,” Keqing completely deflates halfway through, wondering if there was even a point in denying it. She peeks at Ningguang through her lashes, sounding sheepish, her voice small, “Now that I met you, I also really like your legs.”
“It’s quite alright,” Ningguang’s laugh is exactly the same as two days ago, rich and stupidly alluring. Keqing tries not lose herself to it as the older woman elaborates, “I, too, saw you as an investment of sorts-- my ticket to the hearts and ears of very powerful people, that otherwise would not look past the circumstances of my birth. No matter where I am now, someone’s family --or lack thereof-- is a brand that sticks.”
Somewhere along the last turbulent couple of days, Keqing had kind of lost sight of that. She forgot the other party --now revealed to be Ningguang-- had something to gain from the union was well. Their marriage would benefit both of them in different ways.
Still not done, Ningguang folds her hands over her chest, tone still warm, “I care very little for flattery, and I’ve no time for suck-ups. Your frustration was real, and it was honest. But so was the rest, I think.”
“Yes… as in, who you are. The little snippets of yourself you let me see as the conversation evolved,” Ningguang says, “I didn’t see some fake, polished version of yourself, if that makes sense…” Ningguang averts her eyes, “See, if things had gone as intended, your goal would have been to win me over, no matter if you hated my guts.” The older woman takes a deep breath, her gaze suddenly unfocused over Keqing’s head, “I don’t care to surround myself with people who are not honest.”
It was true. Consciously or not, she did open up to Ningguang, thinking she was some stranger that she would never have to see again. Their contract was simple; one Ningguang seemed to be perfectly okay with: access to high society, in exchange for providing Keqing and her family with financial security. What she would not be okay with, is if Keqing pretended otherwise, if she hid her emotions.
And that was fine.
Another matter continues to gnaw and jab at Keqing’s insides. She can’t meet Ningguang’s eyes when she blurts out, “I… I didn’t want you to get that-- that sort of impression of me.”
“Um. What, exactly, do you mean?”
“That I’m… easy.” Keqing’s face reddens again, the last word a squeak. The last time she followed a pretty stranger home, had been during Law school-- she swore to stop that, until Ningguang came along.
It takes the older woman a second to pinpoint her meaning, but when she does, her eyebrows shoot up to her hairline.
She put out on the first meeting.
“Keqing,” the way she says her name holds a mix of care and exasperation, “obviously I’m not going to fault you for enjoying your sexuality in the way you see fit. That sort of thinking is archaic.” Her hand comes to rest on the underside of Keqing’s jaw, tugging up, “Besides-- it would be hypocritical of me if I did, wouldn’t it?” Ningguang leans down, so close her warm breath tickles Keqing’s lips, “I was just as eager as you.”
Another sweet kiss, this one a little steamier than the last. This time, it’s Ningguang who lowers her face to Keqing’s level, to capture her lips in an indulgent kiss. Keqing sighs into it, thinking she could get used to this… get used to the idea of a life together with Ningguang.
Look at you now, all excited for the future.
Keqing breaks it abruptly enough that Ningguang makes a slight noise of displeasure in the back of her throat. As they hold each other in the middle of an office that almost touches the sky, Ningguang’s gaze is warm, and it silently encourages her to speak her mind.
So Keqing does.
“S-so… so you don’t care that my family are basically gold-diggers?”
“Do you care that I’m a social climber?”
Keqing shrugs, “Not really, no.”
“I don’t, either. How our arrangement came to be is of little importance to me. I see potential in this, in us,” Ningguang’s eyes are calculating, bright with a candor that Keqing very much likes. “What matters are results, and the future. What we do moving forward.”
“So the wedding is on?”
The corner of Ningguang’s mouth twitches upwards into a barely-restrained smile.
“The wedding is on.”