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it's just like seeing her (for the first time) again

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Ten minutes. 

Keqing sighs, digging her finger into the fabric of the dinner table. She drags her nail up and down the soft silk, her other hand supporting the weight of her warming cheek as she burns a hole through the moon in the sky.

It’s a beautiful night, one painted with little specks of stars on a navy canvas that brought out the intricacy of the lanterns and the bustling people eating and mingling in Liyue’s finest outdoor restaurant. The wine set in front of her, a bottle imported from Mondstadt’s biggest winery, strung the entire scene all together. She wouldn’t blame a single soul if they were to come crouch beside her to take a snapshot of the view. 

Though, she knows what it looks like with a keener eye. 

An exquisite evening, paired with Liyue’s most expensive wine and the chatter of the citizens around her, all with a lady in waiting as the centerpiece of it all. 

Keqing isn’t one to care for what other people think of her, but she knows that it would be futile to disregard their pitiful gazes and the way they lean in to each other to murmur. She’s been stood up. She knows that’s what they think. She begins to think the same way. 

She starts to drum her fingers on the table, passing the time by letting her eyes wander to the grand infrastructure of the restaurant. Pillars of red and gold surround her from every direction, and lanterns light the way to the harbor. She thinks idly that the pillars are much too close to each other, giving the entrance a tight squeeze and a more cramped design. 

It was her few friends at the Jade Chamber who put her up to this. A blind date would do her good, they had recited to her. One of them already had a person in mind and convinced her to say yes with the promise that this would only happen once, and only once, and it would never be brought up again if (or when) it inevitably fails. 

Yet, even with the low expectations set before her like the empty plate on her table, Keqing can’t help but feel a tiny bit of remorse. Ten minutes isn’t much to most, she knew, but if she was going to even consider vying for another as a potential significant other, then time management is first and foremost the thing she should be able to gauge.

A shame, she thinks and laments, swirling the last of her first glass of wine, we could have discussed Liyue’s expanding market twenty minutes ago.

And in those twenty minutes, Keqing had assessed the restaurant’s framework twelve times, had counted ten new hot meals placed in front of drooling customers, and had seen seven different glances from worrying waiters. 

She pulls in a deep breath, pours herself another glass of wine, and sips it once more. She looks at the framework again. She watches more meals be catered to their respective customers. She sees more looks become increasingly pitying from both waiters and citizens alike. 

Thirty minutes. 

Her date is thirty minutes late.

Keqing has always been described as restless by her peers, even as a child. She’s never understood it, and she thinks she never will— she waited for all those agonizing minutes to be courteous, to give this person a benefit of the doubt, but thirty minutes late is basically a stamp of all day absence. 

She digs her nail into the table one last time, exhaling sharply. Her hand comes up without any hesitance, and her mouth opens to call a waiter.

She knows when to cut her losses. Except, maybe this time, a part of her was too lenient and too caught up with the fantasy of having a good night that she slackened those ropes for a longer period of time than she usually permits. 

Then the smell of warm, freshly-made golden shrimp balls hits her nose and neutralizes all rational thought. When she instinctively turns her head to find them, she only finds a smile that makes any remaining thought dissipate like the steam coming off the meal being placed in front of her. 

The smile is warmer than the golden shrimp balls, and its presence instantly makes her stomach feel a thousand times more pleasant. Which is odd, she thinks, because she hasn’t even taken a bite of the food. 

“I really, truly apologize for not getting here sooner, dear,” Ganyu says, and even the scrunch of her brow conveys her deepest apologies. She’s not touching Keqing, but her close proximity is enough to make Keqing wonder if the hot shrimp balls aren't the only things heating the air. “Though I do believe there’s a saying that thirty-one minutes late is better than never. Don’t you agree?”

Keqing is dumbfounded. 

She’s been put in all sorts of situations, even ones that require a lot of patience and gritting of teeth, but she’s never been in one like this. For that, she can’t seem to let out a word slip past her tongue even if she tries.

But Ganyu seems to know the predicament she’s in, and while her apologetic look is still plastered on her face, she leans in closer to speak quietly to her. “I heard the waiters speaking about you,” she whispers, and Keqing feels her shoulders square, “and I… debated on what action I should take. Would you like me to continue?”

Yes, her mind instantly snaps to say, but the working cogs of her brain instead ask, “Are you trying to pretend to be my date to save me the embarrassment?” It comes off harsher than she intends, but she doesn’t know how to take them back. Keqing scolded herself for it.

Thankfully, Ganyu removes her hand from under the plate, the one carrying Keqing’s supposed apology meal, and leans back. “You can always turn me away. The effect will still be the same. I only came to help you.” Keqing knows what she means. You’re in control of this situation. 

She also knows that Ganyu has always been one to help others in need, no matter what conditions they’re met with, but the way she’s smiling and looking down at Keqing makes her abdomen feel a little warmer than usual. But maybe it’s the wine talking. 

“Sit down,” Keqing hears herself say. She usually thought these things over, at least four times. Yet it only takes two successive seconds for her to add, “I hope you have a good reason for being late to our dinner.” She’s successful in sounding more teasing than dismissive. It makes her own lips twitch upwards.

And maybe the flickering lights of the lantern are playing tricks on her eyes, but Ganyu’s reciprocating smile becomes that much more sincere.

“If you don’t eat your food any time soon, it’ll get cold,” Ganyu chastises, and Keqing holds the quip in her mouth by taking a shrimp. Ganyu only laughs, and though her skin warms at the sound, it’s done in a way that embraces her, like sitting by a fire on the outskirts of Dragonspine. 

When Ganyu opens her mouth again, it’s not to tease her. She asks Keqing how she is with the sincerest tone, and Keqing finds herself sincerely saying, “Good. I think this is the clearest night we’ve gotten in a week.”

“And it would be a shame to spend it feeling miserable,” Ganyu finishes to her, and she nods her head thoughtfully. “I’m glad your night’s been well, then. Mine is turning out the same way.” 

A waitress comes by to take Ganyu’s order, and even she looks surprised to see a date show up after all. Ganyu recites her order, the freshest spring water and the wholest of bread, and she apologizes to their waitress in earnest. She looks so truly distraught by her tardiness that even Keqing wonders if her blind date was in front of her all along. 

The waitress smiles and takes her order with a couple scribbles on paper before disappearing off into the bustle of the busy night, and Ganyu smooths her features and returns that polite smile to Keqing. And again, for the second time in the span of the forty minutes she’s been there, Ganyu’s smile is soft and wrings that warm feeling in her belly.

It’s so prominent that it blocks the other patrons in the restaurant from her view, and she’s no longer focused on the curious stares of a sea of strangers and instead on the way Ganyu’s eyes fixed so intently on hers.

Maybe in their make-believe date she’s playing the part of an abhorrently late partner, but Ganyu’s intense focus on her words makes Keqing feel as if she should forgive her for this wrong. 

And maybe it’s the freshly cooked shrimp on her plate that sparked the fire, though a couple more exchanges of pleasantries about the atmosphere of the restaurant made her think otherwise. Even the tastiest of shrimp balls she’s ever had the pleasure of having couldn’t compare to the tinkling laughter of Ganyu’s when she made an offhand joke about architecture that she knew wouldn’t have been received so well with others. 

Keqing’s date is nearly fifty-two minutes late, and she no longer cares. Ganyu is a much better companion for dinner than any pompous diplomat could ever be. 

She learns new things about Ganyu for the next half hour. It’s surprising and unsurprising all at once, and she learns these things about the secretary even without her words. Keqing learns that Ganyu likes to garden in a teapot, but she also finds out that when teased of her mixing of flowers and vegetables, Ganyu would become as pink as the carnations she loves so much. There are stories of her old village and of people Keqing could only find in old historic records, and she studies the way Ganyu lights up like the stars behind her head whenever she’s prodded for more information. 

During her seventh story of her old village, Ganyu trails off, and Keqing lifts her chin from being propped on her hand. Ganyu asks her, in the faintest voice, “I only came here to help you. You don’t have to repay me like this. Or in any way, really.”

“Repay you?” Keqing echoes. She scrunches her brow, and she thinks hard. When she connects the dots, faster than seeing the constellations of the sky, she says, “This isn’t repayment, Ganyu. I like hearing about you.” And I like the way you light up brighter than the lanterns around this place, goes unsaid. “Please, go on.”

Ganyu regards her. She sees nothing but genuine interest (because it’s there), and her shoulders relax. That light when she speaks rekindles only a couple words into her story, and Keqing settles back into her comfortable listening position. 

Her chopsticks fiddle with the shrimp on her plate, but she makes no attempt to take one. She’s much too captivated to eat properly. 

In the back of her mind, she amuses herself with imagining the faces of her friends after they listen to her recount the events of the date. Yet, she also knows that the shock would be reflected off of her own face, because as she listens to Ganyu wave her hand around and prattle on about the differences in petal shapes, Keqing can’t believe they’re here. 

Here, on a date, that she’s thoroughly, thoroughly, enjoying. 

The bill arrives much too quickly.

Her fingers rest on top of Ganyu’s in the confusion of taking the bill. Ganyu locks eyes with her, and Keqing finds the courage to say, “I got it. I was planning to, anyway.” She bites her tongue and doesn’t tell Ganyu that it’s only because she thought the date would go awry and would end in a much bigger hurry. Clearly, the opposite has transpired, and she would do anything to preserve it. 

“I insist,” Ganyu persists. She even has the gall to tug it closer to herself. “I was late for dinner. It’s the least I could do.”

Keqing quirks an eyebrow at her. Ganyu looks back at her with amusement twinkling behind her gaze, and Keqing uses that distraction to pull the bill back. “Then pay for our next one.”

The words are out of her mouth before they could even process. Keqing refuses to make a fool of herself though, and she signs off their bill and pulls out the mora without glancing up to her date once. She really doesn’t need to— Ganyu is out of her chair once she hands off the bill to a waitress. 

She pulls back Keqing’s chair and holds out her hand, and Keqing takes it with a twitch of a smile. “If you want to be so stubborn, let me take you home,” Ganyu tells her in stride, and Keqing has to hand it to her— she knows how to be as charming as she can be. The perks of being an emissary, she supposes.

Liyue feels shunned into silence as they walk home. The scuttle of their feet on the pavement and the rustle of the leaves in the wind helps Keqing count the seconds of the day. It grounds her, just as much as Ganyu’s knuckles skimming her hand as gently as the leaves around them. 

“As much as I hate people who like to be late,” Keqing remarks, and Ganyu looks over at her in curiosity, “I should thank that guy. I… wouldn’t have gotten to know all of those things about you today.”

Ganyu tilts her head at that. “Eighty-eight minutes late and you’re thinking of sending your no-show date a gift basket. I know you’re kind and charitable, but I didn’t think you’d take it so far,” she muses.

“I never said I was going to send a gift basket,” Keqing argues, and Ganyu merely giggles, hiding her laughter behind the curtains of her fingers. “I just thought today was nice.” Don’t you? she wishes she could ask, but her bravery has run out for the night. 

“It was,” Ganyu answers, and it’s like a matter-of-fact.

Then with those words out of the way, she takes Keqing’s hand in hers, the warmth of her skin seeping into Keqing’s, and she brings those knuckles up to her lips and kisses it. There’s a playful glint in her eyes, and Keqing thinks it's a promise to something more if she decides to play her cards right. She never knew that Ganyu could be so bold when she’s mellowed by food and a long night.

Keqing thinks she’s beautiful like this.

(But isn’t she always?)

“Can we do this again sometime?” Keqing blurts. Ganyu blinks at her and drops her hand gently. She tries to find better words, and she has no idea why it’s so hard when she spent all morning writing papers. She blames it on the food in her system, sullying her thought process and making her lethargic. “On a date, I mean? Not a fake one, or one where you have to save me from the embarrassment, just— you and me. I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would, so… Well, you can pick where we can go next time, if you’d like to.”

Ganyu bites her lip, and Keqing realizes it’s to hold back a laugh. “So I get to choose where we go after saving you today?” she teases, and Keqing opens her mouth to argue. Ganyu shakes her head and laughs. She’s never seen Ganyu so relaxed. She wants to see it more. “I’m only teasing you, Keqing. I’d do it again, even if you didn’t offer me anything.”

“So, is that a…?” Keqing asks hesitantly, and she shifts her weight. 

“Yes?” Ganyu tilts her head. “I had fun today. I wouldn’t mind doing it again. If you wouldn’t?”

“Oh.” Keqing blinks. “Oh. Okay. Yes. Um—” She gestures into the darkness, floundering her words and her actions. “I’ll see you around then? Until then?” she corrects herself. 

“I’ll see you then,” Ganyu confirms, and Keqing prays to Rex Lapis for the first time in years. She hopes that this date wouldn’t be plagued with so much strife as her last. Tardiness is the worst thing she could think of, really. “Thank you for offering that.”

“I should be the one thanking you,” Keqing admits. “And I’ll be honest— I wish you were the person I was waiting for in the first place.” Because you would have been worth the wait.

Ganyu gives her a knowing smile. “I won’t keep you waiting.”

She watches Ganyu’s shadow retreat under the streetlamps, and then she tilts her head. Though she made sure to count every minute her date was absent, it’s as if Ganyu’s appearance has frozen time for her.

Every step Ganyu takes, it reverses the precious time she lost.

When the time comes, Ganyu is ten minutes early to their date.