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mist of grief on the river waves

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Keqing wakes to pale morning light peeking shyly through her bedroom curtains as her ringtone blares shrilly in her ears. She blinks twice and lifts her cheek from her desk. When she looks down, there’s a spot of drool where her mouth used to be. 

"Gross," she mumbles, rubbing her eyes with a fist.

Her cat, Ming, meows and wraps around her leg. Keqing feels the corners of her mouth tug up.

"Morning,” she says sleepily. She bends down and plops Ming into her lap, stroking the cat’s head absently as she presses ‘answer’ on the incoming phone call.

"Hello?" 

"Keqing?" 

It’s Yanfei. Of course it’s Yanfei. No one else is crazy enough to call Keqing at six in the morning for work purposes with the assumption that she’ll actually pick up.

(Keqing always answers, but that isn’t really the point.)

"Yeah, what’s wrong?"

"Oh, nothing," answers Yanfei airily, before her voice slips into professional mode. "I’m calling you about a job offer we received recently—can you be at the company building in fifteen minutes? It’s kind of important. Also, bring some snacks. I’m starving. Thanks!"

Three years working with Yanfei means that Keqing has learned to roll with all the eccentricities in her methods; she knows how to cut through everything Yanfei says to figure out what she truly means, and she also knows that when she’s left in the dark, there isn’t much to do but wait.

The questions she has will be answered. Eventually. On Yanfei’s timeline.

She tries to gently lift Ming off her lap and place her on the ground, but the cat just ends up slipping out of her hands like a slinky, landing perfectly and stretching. Typical.

Keqing yawns and pads through to the kitchen. 

Ming is playing with the television remote, batting it between her palms like a particularly rectangular ball of yarn. Her cat pupils are wide as the screen blinks on and off. She finds the ‘switch channel’ button and steps on it.

Keqing glances over. There’s a competition show playing; contestants with numbers on their shirts crowd together on the performance stage as a lineup of girls steps up, smiling. Keqing assumes they’re the winners of the round. The show?

The camera pans to the judging table, but Keqing looks away too quickly to see who the judges are.

It sends a chill through her bloodstream, all the way to her heart. The electricity of hope and resignation zipping down her spine, a bloodborne ache she’d almost forgotten existed. She doesn’t let herself get close to searching often. 

When it happens—well. She always regrets it.

She swallows and wrestles the remote away from Ming, turning the television off. After the screen has faded to black and her breathing patterns have returned to normal, she places the remote on a bookshelf so Ming can’t reach it.

"Don’t play with the TV remote," scolds Keqing, bending down to smooth a hand over Ming’s head. "You have other toys."

After she’s gotten ready, she swings by the convenience store to grab the snacks Yanfei asked for, and then she takes the train to work. As she passes by billboards and store standees in the station, she looks down out of habit, not making eye contact, ignoring all the advertisements.

She pushes open one of the big glass doors at the entrance of the office building, snacks gathered in one arm. 

When she steps out of the elevator to the fifth floor, a girl rushes past her. Keqing can’t hide the surprise in her voice. "Xiangling? You don’t start work until eleven."

Xiangling shoots her a hasty smile. "Well, I thought I’d get up early today," she says brightly, injecting an obviously false sense of cheer into her voice. "There’s lots to do, right? Paperwork, paperwork. I’m really excited to start…processing background checks."

Keqing narrows her eyes. "Really," she replies. A statement, not a question.

Her shoulders drooping, Xiangling bites her lip. "There’s a new cafe opening across the street," she admits. "I need to scout it out! See what the food is like, you know?"

Keqing sighs. "I know.” 

Xiangling nods excitedly. "Are those rice crackers?"

"Yes, but they’re for—"

"Thanks!" And with that, Keqing is down two packets of rice crackers. She silently mourns the loss; they were her favourite flavour, too, the shrimp ones that the convenience store only stocks once a month.

She rolls her eyes, adjusting the snacks in her arms to make sure none of them spill. There’s a wrinkle in her jacket collar, and she itches to smooth it out, but her arms are full so she leaves it be, painfully aware of the crease in the fabric.

Keqing knocks on the office door.

"Come in!"

When she enters, Yanfei is sitting behind her computer, squinting at the screen. 

She sees Keqing and her scowl eases. "Good morning," she says, gesturing at the seat next to her. "Sit down."

Keqing drops all the snacks onto the glossy wooden desk and picks out a box of strawberry Pocky. "What’s the problem?"

Yanfei ignores her, inspecting the nutrition label on the cup of microwave noodles. "Snacks should have more regulations. I don’t think the fat content in this is government-approved."

"It tastes good," points out Keqing. 

Yanfei shrugs. "You have a point. What were you asking?"

"Why did you call me at six—"

Xiangling bursts into the room. "Sorry Yanfei, am I late for the—"

Yanfei shakes her head. "Don’t worry,” she reassures Xiangling. “You’re right on time!"

The worry on Xiangling’s face melts into relief. "Oh, thank goodness. Hi Keqing," she says brightly, unwrapping another pack of rice crackers. "These crackers are great. Where did you get them?"

"There’s a convenience store near the train station,” she grits out. “I’ll text you the address later today.” She holds up her phone and opens WeChat, because she’s mad about the shrimp crackers but not mad enough to withhold valuable information.

Yanfei breaks in. "As much as I’d like to talk about snacks, there’s an important offer I have for Keqing."

"Why does Xiangling have to be here, then?" asks Keqing, snapping the Pocky stick in half. 

Yanfei sits forward. Her hair swishes over her shoulder in a cascade of pink. "There’s an extensive screening process for this job. Xiangling will help you through each step."

"Like…how extensive?"

Yanfei flaps a careless hand. "Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colours."

Keqing makes a dubious face. "If you say so."

"I do say so," Yanfei responds, grinning. "Anyway—we were contacted by an entertainment agency a few days ago. One of their most famous idols has been receiving a lot of threats recently, and it seems like whoever’s behind them might be planning to follow through. The company wants us to find a personal bodyguard, preferably one trained in martial arts and self defense. Although I’m not sure why they specified that," adds Yanfei with an offended sniff, "since everyone here is self defense-qualified."

Keqing pauses. She pulls another Pocky stick out of the box. "So you think I should do it?"

Yanfei hums. "They also asked that the person we choose isn’t too involved in idol culture. Since you’re like a grandma and you’ve never even watched a survival show—"

"What’s wrong with not watching survival shows?" Keqing says, affronted. 

"—you’re perfect for the job."

"Nothing’s wrong with not watching survival shows," supplies Xiangling. "It’s just…the company doesn’t want to hire a crazy fan as a bodyguard. Conflict of interest."

Yanfei spins a pencil between her fingers. "You’re missing out, not watching the survival shows. I started this new singing one last night and you know who they got as a guest judge?"

Keqing sighs. "I don’t care about the judge. What’s the idol’s name?"

"She’s a soloist. You’ve probably seen her face before, it’s hard to miss it if you ever turn on the TV. Her name is Ganyu."

Freezing, she turns toward Yanfei. "Ganyu?"

"So you’ve heard of her?" Yanfei asks, clapping her hands. "I’m impressed."

Keqing has heard of her, yes—but it’s more than that. It’s always been more.

(“I’m proud of you,” Ganyu said, looking at Keqing. Eyes soft, smile sparkling. "I was sure you would be accepted.")

"I’m not that familiar with her work,” Keqing mumbles, not meeting Yanfei’s gaze. "I mean, I don’t know much about her. I think Hu Tao might have mentioned her once or twice."

(She walked into the music practice room and sat down next to Ganyu. I knew you’d be here, she thought, but she didn’t say it. Instead, she pulled out her lunch and started eating. 

Ganyu’s eyes were fixed on the sheet music in front of her, graceful fingers poised over the piano.

"You don’t have to eat lunch with me, you know."

Keqing shrugged. "I like it.")

Yanfei raises her eyebrows, examining her for signs that she might be lying. 

Keqing tries not to give anything away. 

"Fine,” she relents eventually. “Listen to Xiangling, okay? She’ll get you sorted out with the paperwork and background check. If everything goes according to plan, you’ll meet Ganyu in two weeks."

Keqing swallows. "Sounds good."

(Watching Ganyu from across the classroom on their last day of school, curls tumbling around her shoulders. Sitting there helplessly, trying not to blurt out I’m going to miss you so much, knowing Ganyu was going places Keqing could never hope to see. That she should let Ganyu go now, when the wound was still fresh, so it wouldn’t hurt as much when she wasn’t there anymore.)

Xiangling stands up, papers tucked under one arm as she chews on a granola bar. "Come on, Keqing."

Keqing can do nothing but follow.

If she were weaker, Keqing might tell Yanfei to find someone else for the job. Tell her about the concert they snuck out to when they were seventeen and the long nights watching Shanghai city lights pass them by, how Ganyu had always been meant for something better; how she stuck out in a crowd, soft-spoken but shining all the same. How Keqing only ever watched her from afar. A planet in orbit of a supernova.

If she were weaker. If she were stronger. If she were anyone but Keqing, she would spill everything to Yanfei and make sure she never had to be within ten meters of Ganyu.

But Keqing doesn’t say any of this. Instead, she follows Xiangling down the hall and listens as she talks about the writer who published one of the top ten most popular books last year under a pen name and recently had his real name leaked to the press.

"And it’s such a pain, right? I mean, his private life is none of their business. He’s just a writer, not an idol."

For the first time in almost seven years, Keqing lets herself wonder what Ganyu is doing.

She wasn’t even aware that Ganyu had come back. 

But she can guess a few things. Her life is definitely more glamorous than Keqing’s could ever be, with her level of celebrity: brand sponsorships and commercials and albums and EPs and singles, of which Keqing hasn’t listened to a single one. A mansion, even though Ganyu had always seemed more than a little bothered by the vapid displays of wealth they saw in the rich gated residential complexes of Shanghai. Expensive outfits and luxury vacations and a partner, maybe.

The last thought makes Keqing’s throat tighten in guilt. She pretends it isn’t there and keeps walking.

Keqing likes her job. The pay is good and the work, generally speaking, isn’t too emotionally taxing. Yanfei assigns her to a lot of rich people and also the spoiled children of rich people, so sometimes working at a bodyguard agency is more like glorified babysitting with handheld weapons. 

She learned less than a year into the job that taking care of children wasn’t for her; one of her most memorable engagements was looking after the six-year-old son of a tech CEO at the charity dinner he was hosting with his wife. Why they didn’t just hire a babysitter and keep him at home, she still doesn’t know—but the evening was a mess, all in all, because it started with her sitting stiffly off to the side, hand resting on her thigh holster, while the boy fiddled with a couple of Legos. It then ended with her frantically stuffing haw flakes into his mouth to stave off the sobbing after he stepped on a piece of Lego and made a scene during the fundraiser auction for a trip to Phuket.

Keqing isn’t exactly a ‘caretaking’ kind of person, but that’s alright. Yanfei doesn’t give her as many jobs with young company heirs anymore. It’s clearly been substituted with celebrities.

The one and only time she ever worked on a survival show was the worst three months of her life, and she didn’t even know what the premise of the show was. The filming hours stretched long into the night. Since her duty was to guard the trainees and patrol the boundaries of the building so fans couldn’t infiltrate, she slept in snatches—on benches in the hallway, chairs backstage, the trainee cafeteria when she was especially drained.

Sometimes shooting days were twenty hours long, sometimes twenty-two. Keqing was so exhausted she fell asleep with her key in the ignition as she was preparing to drive home.

She was used to going days without rest, but this was a different beast. Stumbling blindly through, not even knowing when she’d get to sleep next. It felt like she was on the survival show herself, just struggling to keep her head above water. But she soldiered on. After the shooting period was over, she thought she might sob in relief—she drove home and fell asleep on the couch before she could even get to the bedroom. 

Then two days later, it was back to work in a longer-term position as part of the security for an insurance company’s vice-chair.

The babysitting problem and the survival show were nothing but minor blips, and she did the best she could in both situations. Other than those two incidents, her career has been largely smooth sailing, and that’s because Keqing is dedicated to what she does.

She’s good at it. She’s built the rest of her life around the large, protruding shape of work; the hours are long and irregular, and they don’t leave a lot of room for social events—if any. She spends too much time travelling or working to think about expanding her social circle, and most of her free time is consumed by sleep.

Which is all to say: Keqing’s work ethic is admired by everyone she works with. There isn’t much she won’t do for her job.

But this screening check might be the last straw. She has to fill out every detail of her work history for the past two years; whether she’s ever been to a pop concert for an artist under SevenStars Entertainment (which makes her chest tighten, because the only concert she ever went to was with Ganyu), martial arts certifications, a mile-long list of references, medical history, and once she’s completed so much paperwork her hand trembles from holding the pen too long, she’s finally booked for a face-to-face interview.

She smooths down the ruffles of her jacket and gulps as a man ushers her into the conference room.

"Miss Keqing?" a woman asks, standing up to shake her hand. Keqing suddenly feels ridiculously underdressed in her jacket and jeans across from her.

"That’s me," she says. "Sorry I’m—" she glances at the clock, wincing— "five minutes late."

The woman sits back down. "There’s no trouble," she answers calmly, but the cold tilt of her orange eyes says otherwise. "Nice to meet you. I’m Ningguang, head of SevenStars Entertainment."

"Likewise," responds Keqing. “I would introduce myself but uh. You already saw my resume.” She winces. Already off to a bad start.

"How was your trip here?"

SevenStars is a high-rise building in an affluent pocket of the city, accessible by foot traffic but not by car. Keqing tries to disguise her wince as she thinks about the multiple connecting train rides she took to get to this part of Shanghai in the first place, and the long walk after. Her first instinct is to say a pain in the ass, but she doubts that will win her any favours.

"Wonderful, thank you," she lies. 

Ningguang nods. "I’m glad to hear it. So, Miss Keqing—can you tell me a little bit about yourself?"

And the interview begins.

It goes alright, for the most part. She only trips up once or twice when she’s explaining her previous experience with clients in the music industry. Ningguang’s stare sharpens at that, but Keqing tries to control her breathing and not break down crying on the spot. It works, kind of.

"Thank you for your time, Miss Keqing," Ningguang tells her, dignified and poised as she sets down the pen she’s been writing notes with. "I just have one more question to ask: I’m sure you’ve heard her name, but do you have any previous history or interest in the singer Ganyu?"

Keqing stiffens. "I don’t," she replies automatically. "I’m not…into the idol scene much. At all, really."

Ningguang appraises her. "Is that so?"

She sits up straighter. "I didn’t actually know who Ganyu was until my employer told me," Keqing continues. It’s only half a lie. Ganyu’s name leaves a sour tang on her tongue, like there’s been salt scraped into a half-closed wound and only blood can wash it away. "But I can promise I’ll do my best to protect her at all costs."

"Are you sure?"

"I’m sure," she says. She doesn’t let her voice waver. "I’m very dedicated to my job. I won’t let you down."

("What about you?"

"What about me?" returned Keqing, frowning at Ganyu. 

"You don’t think you’re talented?"

She laughed. "Not all of us are destined for fame, Ganyu."

"Fame and talent aren’t the same thing," Ganyu said.

Keqing glanced up. Ganyu’s eyes were shiny, a shade of lilac dappled in sunlight, so myriad you could study them forever and still not memorize the patterns. She struggled to breathe for a second. "Either way. You have too much faith in me."

Ganyu swallowed visibly, mouth set in a firm line. "You don’t have enough faith in yourself.")

Ningguang raises an eyebrow. "I’m sure you won’t. I appreciate you coming to meet me. Your employer will receive information about your hours, payment, and security details in the next week. It was wonderful to speak to you today, Keqing."

"Thank you," Keqing says, returning her handshake, "and the same to you."

She walks through the double doors and out onto the street. It’s early evening, neon lights staining every inch of the rain-soaked pavement in kaleidoscopes of bright yellows and greens.

It takes two hours to get back home. Keqing sits on the floor of her living room, Ming snuggled up in her lap, and pulls up Weibo on her phone. 

She’s never done this before, no matter how much she wanted to—the risk was always too great that she might see something she didn’t want to, something she didn’t feel like she was allowed to find out. Because by the time Keqing was twenty, she had the skill of 'ignoring celebrities and idols' down to a practiced art. 

She'd blocked and muted Ganyu's name on every app she had, she scrolled quickly past the social media supertopics every day just in case something tangentially Ganyu-related arose, and every time an idol video or clip from a survival show came up on her feed, she pressed the button to indicate that she wasn't interested in this type of content and clicked away.

The hardest part, at the beginning, was not bringing her name into conversation. 

Keqing was used to telling stories about Ganyu, mentioning her casually if someone said anything about the idol industry or even music in general, pulling out her phone to text Ganyu at awkward social events—high school parties or end-of-year dinners, but suddenly Ganyu was gone, and it took Keqing a good six months to learn how to keep her name out of her mouth.

The tail end of her first year at college came and went. Ganyu was still at the forefront of her mind. Keqing still itched to dial the top contact in her 'most recent' list, but the disappearance was swift, like ripping off a bandage. She'd erased all Ganyu’s contact information from her phone, and Ganyu wouldn't have kept the same phone number anyway, so she managed to stifle the urge.

Ignoring the advertisements was more difficult. Everywhere she looked in the city, there were billboards of idols, dewy-face and teeth perfectly white, holding up face cream or toner or a pair of earrings from a sustainable fashion brand. 

At the train station, the TV screen flashed through music videos or drama trailers. The piped-in music at the stationery store was all newly-released songs. Trying to avoid it all or block it out seemed fruitless.

Every morning when Keqing passed the advertisement wall in the subway, she stared at the ground. She walked into the cafe and slipped on her headphones. If she saw a concert being held at a stadium near where she walked, she took another route to get to work. Billboards, light-up signs, loudspeaker announcements. She sidestepped all of it, blocking it out of her life so effectively that she knew absolutely nothing about what Ganyu was doing.

And maybe she hadn't become a celebrity after all; maybe Keqing's hard work was all for nothing; maybe Ganyu had given up on music, on performing, on everything she had a passion for, but Keqing couldn't quite believe that. She couldn't risk it either. 

Now here she is: risking it.

She runs her hand over Ming’s coat absent-mindedly. 

She removes the name Ganyu from all her blocking and muting lists, checks the Weibo hot search, and finds Ganyu’s name there. A magazine spread featuring a photoshoot and interview with her was released yesterday.

Five million results, four hundred thousand discussions. Ganyu’s official account boasts forty-seven million followers.

Keqing closes it and taps on the search engine app. The same term; four hundred million results. Now that she’s broken down the dam holding the river back, she realizes that Ganyu is everywhere. Everywhere. She’s an omnipresent figure in any space that has something to do with idols or the music industry, enough to have four hundred million search results.

Four hundred million people talking about Ganyu.

Keqing opens the first post that comes up and starts reading.

Ganyu is twenty-five years old. 

A singer, actress, and songwriter who first debuted under SevenStars Entertainment at nineteen with the hit single Clover Leaves, a mid-tempo ballad that’s been played in almost all of the popular C-dramas of the past half-decade and won Record of the Year at three of the four major end-of-year music awards. 

Clover Leaves was followed up with a full-length album called Heartbeat that sold over four million copies in China. The music video for the title track of the same name racked up tens of millions of views on the first day. Counted across all platforms years after release, it totalled almost one billion.

Personality-wise, Ganyu has been said to be as polite as they come, shy when the camera is on her but completely in her element onstage. There are stories from people she’s met about the severity of her work ethic, how she refuses to sleep until she feels like a chord progression works well in a song or the way she sang the first verse sounds good enough, how kind she is to everyone around her and how hard she is on herself. Several insiders call her the nicest idol they’ve ever worked with.

Keqing doesn’t doubt that they’re telling the truth.

Since the success of Clover Leaves, Ganyu has been all over the entertainment scene. 

Her list of accolades is long enough to take up a whole Baidu page: acting as the female lead in several dramas, contributing lyrics to other artists, starring in commercials for everything from baijiu to skincare masks, and releasing several more albums.

Her most recent EP—Starward Sky—came out three months ago, and has generated plenty of buzz since then. The critical response was largely positive, despite some reviews calling it overly melodramatic. In a exclusive press appearance for Tencent after the EP’s release, Ganyu said it holds special meaning because she wrote all the songs. 

Ganyu has done one world tour to promote her second album: Sweetened Rain, and two national ones, all of which sold out in a matter of hours. Her next world tour is scheduled for six months from now.

She is considered one of the most popular idols in the continent and beyond, with a significant fanbase in North America and Europe. She has been a judge for five idol survival shows, and three years ago, she was a cast member on a celebrity challenge TV show called Twenty-Four Hours that catapulted her into a household name.

Ganyu’s signature look is curly blue hair. Her favourite animal is cats, but she likes dogs too.

Keqing learns all of this in the span of one hour on the Internet.

When she receives the job file, it’s so thick it takes her and Xiangling almost an hour to sort through and read everything. 

Keqing will receive a schedule every morning of Ganyu’s activities for the day. She’ll live in the apartment complex with Ganyu for the next few months, a temporary measure while security measures are more severe.

Professionalism, privacy, and efficiency are key, especially since Ganyu is embarking on a tour in half a year. Keqing will have to coordinate with Ganyu’s manager to make sure she’s safe and shielded from any threats.

In two days, Keqing will meet Ganyu. Three days after, she’ll be her full-time bodyguard.

The initial contract is for two months. After that, a check-in is planned to review her job performance and decide whether she’s suited to continue. If Keqing is given the go-ahead to keep working for Ganyu, her contract will last another year. 

It’s a little unorthodox, but Keqing understands the wariness from Ganyu’s team about who they want to allow near her. The world is only so wide. It’s inevitable that the company runs into people just looking to take advantage of their idol.

Their idol. Ganyu being an idol. Millions of people following her, hanging onto her every word.

Keqing can barely comprehend it. The thought causes something hollow to drop in her stomach and bounce off the sides, ringing forever, getting quieter but never truly going away—just echoing on, and on, and on.

(What Keqing remembers is wondering why Ganyu took pity and made friends with her. When Ganyu was already looking towards greater things, only half-tethered to her life as a high school student. She’d already signed a contract with an entertainment company. There was nothing stopping her from taking flight.

Keqing asked Ganyu the same question the year before they graduated, sitting in the music room as she slurped up her noodles.

"Why me?" she blurted out suddenly, fiddling with her chopsticks.

Ganyu turned her head. "What do you mean?"

"I just—you can find better friends," she mutters. "I don’t want to stop you from doing that. I don’t want to…drag you down."

"Keqing," Ganyu said softly. "You’re not dragging me down. You couldn’t."

What Keqing remembers is carrying that guilt like a second skin all through high school. What she remembers is that even after Ganyu wasn’t in her life anymore, it took years to shake off the residual shame. 

That for a long while it didn’t leave her, a constant voice when she woke up and when she went to sleep, telling her over and over again: letting her go was the right thing to do.

What Keqing remembers is waking up one morning and finding out Ganyu had left already; that she’d packed her bags and headed to the airport in the middle of the night without telling her.

What Keqing remembers is knowing that she would never measure up, never be enough, not even for Ganyu. Especially not for Ganyu.)

Keqing gets home from work that night to see a girl on her couch, twin ponytails peeking out from the back and tied with red ribbons. 

She resists the urge to groan.

"Hu Tao?"

Hu Tao flashes her a thumbs-up. "Evening," she greets cheerily. She tries to pick up Keqing’s cat, but Ming twists out of her hold and patters off to Keqing’s bedroom.

"Why are you here?"

Hu Tao pouts. The effect is weakened by the grin slipping across her face, lightning-quick and gone before Keqing can be sure she even saw it. "Can’t I visit my friend without judgement? I just wanted to say hello."

Keqing shoots her a dry look. She walks over to the rice cooker and scoops out the appropriate amount of rice from the pantry before filling the pot with water. "You live on the other side of the city."

"So?"

"And you hate taking the train, Hu Tao."

"Maybe I just wanted to see you so much I took the train to do it. We all have to make sacrifices for love, Keqing. Did you think of that?"

Keqing switches on the rice cooker and ignores Hu Tao. "I’m moving into another apartment for the next few months. Work stuff," she says in lieu of a proper explanation.

Hu Tao makes an understanding sound. "Ooh. Work stuff."

"Stop saying it like that?"

"Like what?" she asks innocently.

"Like it’s some…top-secret thing. It’s just a job."

"Yeah, a job that’s top-secret," Hu Tao parrots. She twists a lock of her ponytail around one finger. 

There’s an undercurrent of exhaustion in her voice, and it makes Keqing narrow her eyes. "Is something wrong?"

Hu Tao flops over the sofa. "Your cat doesn’t like me," she whines, deflecting from the question.

Keqing lifts her shoulders. "You have a bad aura. Ming can sense that."

"Keqing!" gasps Hu Tao. "I’m offended."

"Whatever. What do you want for dinner?"

"I don’t care. I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable in your own home."

Keqing bites back you already have. Hu Tao clearly doesn’t need it right now.

Instead, she drizzles oil in the pan to fry up her vegetables. "Sure. Tell me what happened today."

Hu Tao sits at the table and folds her legs up. "Well," she begins, resting her chin in her palm, "I had an interview for a new job."

"Doing what?"

"The PR team for a company that runs an online marketplace. They sell stationery, I think."

Keqing hums. The oil is beginning to shimmer; she tosses a clove of crushed garlic in and stirs with the spatula. "Did it go well?"

"I thought it did, but in the end, they said my marketing tactics were too ‘out there’ and ‘didn’t fit their brand’ and I’d be better off selling insurance door to door! I mean, can you believe the nerve of some people? Their company would have been thriving with my help."

Keqing drops the bok choy in the pan. "They’re missing out."

"They are," agrees Hu Tao. "Anyway, enough about me. How are you doing?"

She sighs. “Alright, I guess.” This leads into a whole conversation over rice and stir-fried vegetables about work demands and looking for a job and how Keqing hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in months, really, but it’s fine, Hu Tao. She isn’t struggling. She isn’t.

She purposely doesn’t say that sometimes she sits down at her desk to work in the mornings and sees double because she’s so exhausted; that sometimes the only way she can get through the day is if she passes out for ten minutes during her lunch break before waking up and getting back to work.

After dinner, Hu Tao yawns. "Sorry for staying so long."

Keqing sighs. "Don’t worry about it. You can sleep here tonight."

Hu Tao smiles gratefully. "Thanks."

They sit together in front of the sofa as Ming naps in Keqing’s arms. The TV plays some random new drama. Hu Tao is rapt with attention, eyes reflecting the blue light of the screen.

"Hu Tao," Keqing says out of the blue. "Have you heard of a singer named Ganyu?"

Hu Tao nearly shrieks. "Yes," she replies excitedly. "Who hasn’t? She’s all over the Internet. You know, I saw one of her dance videos recently, and she’s so cool. I swear I would love to meet her someday even just to ask why she’s so talented, and her fan club was talking about opening a store for—wait.” Hu Tao’s eyes narrow. “Why are you asking?”

Keqing scratches the back of Ming’s neck and the cat purrs, the sound vibrating through the air. "I heard her name recently and wondered if you knew her."

"Oh my god," says Hu Tao, eyes round as saucers. "Keqing, are you learning about idols? Are you going to become a fan? Has the day come?"

"What? No." Keqing scowls and jabs Hu Tao in the stomach with a sharp elbow. "Xiangling mentioned her."

"But you want to find out more," Hu Tao fills in for her. "And you want me to help you."

She grits her teeth. "Sure. Tell me about Ganyu."

"What do you want to know?" Hu Tao leans over and tries to scoop Ming into her lap, but the cat meows and pads out of the room.

Keqing stares at the woolly carpet fibers. "Why do people like her? Like, why does she have so many fans?"

"She makes great music," answers Hu Tao thoughtfully. One of the ribbons in her hair comes loose and she tucks it into her pocket. "But she also just seems like a genuine person."

"Genuine how?"

"She doesn’t look like she’s putting on an act for the camera. Wait, I saw an interview the other day and you have to watch it—"

Everything Keqing didn’t learn about Ganyu from trawling online forums, Hu Tao tells her. She shoves social media pages in her face and swipes through them at light speed, talking a mile a minute as Keqing starts to go cross-eyed.

In the next hour, the two of them watch so many interviews of Ganyu that it begins to clog up Keqing’s ‘recommended videos.’ 

What Keqing didn’t understand earlier—from the airport paparazzi photos and the magazine spreads—was how little Ganyu had changed. 

The shy dimple that appears when she smiles, the nervous habit of biting her lip. The way her cheeks smudge pale pink when someone compliments her. It’s the same Ganyu that Keqing used to know, once upon a time, and that’s…almost terrifying.

Ganyu has always been pretty. As long as Keqing has known her, Ganyu’s beauty has been an irrevocable, immutable fact of life. She supposes that seeing her in music videos and face cream commercials only puts it in perspective.

The last interview ends with Ganyu telling the host a story about her most recent EP and smiling at the audience as she says, "My next album will be coming out in November. Previews will be shown during the first few stops of the world tour. Please look forward to it."

Hu Tao turns off the phone. "So? What do you think?"

Keqing blinks. "What am I supposed to think?"

"I don’t know, something. Isn’t she pretty?" Hu Tao sighs. "She’s beautiful. And talented, too."

Keqing makes an affirmative sound. "Yeah," she responds quietly. "She is."

Hu Tao squints. "Is she your idol crush?"

"My what?"

"Idol crush," she repeats patiently. "Everyone has one. It’s like your favourite artist, or the one you have the biggest crush on."

“She isn’t my…‘idol crush,’” she says, the words like sawdust on her tongue, stilted. They leave a bad taste in her mouth.

"Aw, come on. You don’t have to feel shy about it."

"I’m not," answers Keqing, louder. She stands up. "Good night, Hu Tao. I have work tomorrow. Let me know if the couch isn’t comfortable, okay? And good luck with your job interviews." She turns on her heel to look back at Hu Tao. "You’re going to nail the next one, I promise."

Hu Tao smiles bravely. "Night, Keqing."

Xiangling drops a file folder in front of her. It’s almost four inches thick and the thunk it makes as it hits the desk is a bad sign for how much work awaits Keqing today.

"What’s this?" asks Keqing, one brow quirked.

Xiangling opens the folder. "Yanfei did most of it. This is your explainer to idol culture—everything you need to know to do your job well."

Keqing frowns. "Is it really a big deal? I’ve guarded celebrities before. The survival show,” she says. “And that music awards show last year," she goes on, scowling slightly as she recalls having to look after a boy group that day—around seventeen years old on average. All they did was stand awkwardly in suits on the red carpet while Keqing hovered in the background trying to block out the sound of teenage fans screaming. 

They also polished off the appetizers within two minutes.

Keqing can’t really blame them, since they were just kids and all, but it was annoying regardless. She spent the entire night watching a couple of teenage boys toss peanuts into the air and try to catch them in their mouths.

"This is different," replies Xiangling, organizing the papers into several piles. "This is hardcore. Your whole life will rotate around Ganyu’s schedule. To know what kind of danger she’s in, you need to understand the culture around idols. At least that’s what Yanfei says," Xiangling continues. "There’s a chance she just wants you to start watching those survival shows with her."

Keqing groans. "Obviously."

Xiangling laughs. "Don’t worry about it. Just shut her down if the topic ever comes up and you should be fine." Once all the papers are separated into tidy stacks, she waves. "Bye! I’m taking my lunch break now, so call me if you need help sorting something out.”

"It’s ten in the morning."

She doesn’t look bothered. "I’m taking my ten-in-the-morning break, then."

Keqing rubs her forehead. "Okay. Have fun."

"I will!"

Keqing’s knowledge of the idol industry is slim to none. She’s heard about some of it from Hu Tao, who spends half her (irregular) salary on fruit-flavoured candy and the other half on concert tickets whenever her favourite girl group is in Shanghai.

But for the most part, she hasn’t thought about idols since Yanfei wanted the competition show contestant she likes to win and made all of them download the app on their phone to vote.

Armed with this previous knowledge, Keqing spends almost the whole day poring over the documents Xiangling gave her, making notes when she discovers something particularly important.

Yanfei finds her at eight pm, sitting by the window, brow creased as she scribbles on a piece of paper. 

"Why are you still here?" she asks, but she doesn’t sound surprised.

Keqing sets down the pen. "It’s only eight."

"Your work hours end at five."

She hesitates. "Technically, but it’s not like anyone actually—"

"Nope," Yanfei interrupts. "Go home, Keqing. Everyone else has already left. And you’re meeting Ganyu tomorrow. You need to give her and her team a good first impression." She crosses her arms. "Especially Ningguang."

Keqing tries not to shiver. "Yeah."

"She scares me a little," Yanfei says conversationally.

Keqing chooses not to mention that plenty of people also find Yanfei scary when they first meet her. Yanfei would probably try even harder to intimidate them. "Me too."

“We have to put our best foot forward tomorrow."

Keqing sets her pen down on the table. "Right."

"Which means," Yanfei says pointedly, "you go home and get some sleep, yes?"

"…Okay. Good night."

"Sleep well," she calls over her shoulder as she walks out of the room. "You’re going to need it."

When Keqing wakes up, it’s raining. "Ugh," she groans, rolling over. Ming is stretched out on the pillow next to her, fluffy tail high in the air as she yawns.

She fumbles helplessly for her phone. It takes three tries to find it, and when she manages to turn it on, the only message is from Yanfei: good luck today!!! ^^

Thanks, she types.

On the train to the building where she’d first had her interview with Ningguang, Keqing rests her cheek against the window and thinks.

("Why weren’t you at school today?"

Keqing sneezed. "Sorry. I’m kind of sick right now," she replied, grimacing. 

Ganyu made a noise of curiosity. "How sick?"

Looking around her room at the stacks of used tissues, Keqing coughed. "Uh, it’s pretty bad. Seasonal allergies and stuff."

"Do you want me to come over?"

Keqing buried her face in the sweat-soaked sheets. "You don’t have to! Really, I’m fine on my own."

"I’d like to come." 

Keqing picked at her cuticles. "I mean, I don’t think you want to. I—"

"I do want to." Ganyu’s voice was gentle but firm. That was that.

Keqing fell asleep not long after putting down the phone, but she felt a cool hand ghost over her forehead, brushing back her bangs, and a voice whispering tenderly, "Go to sleep, Keqing. I’ll still be here when you wake up.")

She pushes open the door to SevenStars Entertainment warily. The receptionist looks up. "Miss Keqing?"

Keqing gives her an awkward thumbs-up. "That’s me."

She smiles. "Wonderful. Miss Ningguang and Miss Ganyu are waiting for you on the sixth floor. Just take the elevator up and turn right."

"Thanks."

She’s beginning to sweat, the denim of her jeans sticking to her skin. Maybe these pants were the wrong choice.

With more apprehension than reasonable, Keqing steps out of the elevator and heads down the hallway to the right.

The door to the end of the hall is ajar. Through the crack, Keqing notices the walls are covered in mirrors and there’s a side table in the corner. 

She knocks lightly. 

Ningguang’s voice echoes through the room. "Miss Keqing? You can come in."

Keqing pushes the door open.

Ningguang inclines her head when she sees Keqing. "Nice to see you again."

Keqing tries to inconspicuously wipe her sweaty palms against her jeans. "You too."

"Ganyu should be here soon. Take a seat."

She obeys.

Ningguang sits down opposite her. She’s wearing a pressed blazer and pencil skirt, hair pinned up neatly. "Did you have time to look through all the information?"

"I did."

"Were there any issues with the terms outlined? It’s best if you tell me now and we can negotiate new conditions as soon as possible."

"I don’t think so, no."

"That’s good to hear. I look forward to seeing how you do in this position."

The conversation stalls, stilted in its silence and almost unnerving. Ningguang doesn’t seem to care.

Keqing briefly considers asking her how her day is going, but Ningguang might turn her to dust if she even dares to mention anything vaguely personal. She refrains.

Five minutes pass. The silence is so stiff it feels like it’s closing in on Keqing.

"There she is," Ningguang says all of a sudden, standing up.

The door creaks open.

Ganyu, hair loose around her shoulders, face half-covered by a mask and lashes framing downward-cast eyes.

Keqing’s lungs seize up. Her fingers curl into fists and Ganyu tilts her head up to meet her eyes and—

"Ganyu, this is Keqing. Your bodyguard."

Ganyu pulls down her mask. "Keqing?" she repeats, mouth slightly parted.

She tries to smile. It comes out more like a grimace. "Hi."

Ningguang purses her lips. "Do you know each other?"

"No," says Keqing quickly. "No. We don’t."

Ganyu’s eyes glisten, pools of…hurt, maybe. Hurt and surprise, stinging so sharp that Keqing can barely make eye contact without feeling like it will rip her apart.

Ningguang’s phone buzzes and she pulls it out of her pocket, sparing a glance at the screen before putting it away. "Good. I have to go—my wife has run into some trouble and she needs help. I’ll leave you here to get acquainted. Ganyu, if you have any issues, just send a message."

She swishes out of the door, leaving a trail of flowery perfume behind her.

Keqing struggles to find her voice. "Where’s your manager?"

"Zhongli had to leave," she says after a moment. "He’ll be back in the evening."

"Okay," Keqing replies. "Sounds good. I’ll just be here while you…practice or whatever. Don’t mind me."

They lapse into silence. Ganyu is writing something on blank music score paper, humming under her breath every once in a while. Keqing scrolls through her phone absently.

"Hey," Ganyu begins, voice soft and tentative. "I didn’t expect you here."

Keqing laughs a little, despite herself. "I didn’t expect to be here."

Ganyu taps the end of her pen against the table. "Did you mean it? When you said we didn’t know each other? Because it’s okay," she adds. "It’s okay if you want to forget." A beat. "I wouldn’t blame you."

"…Do you want to?" 

She doesn’t know which would be easier to work with: pretending that she’s never met Ganyu before, closing up all the old wounds and relearning her habits, her manners, her quirks. 

The other option is this: starting from here, where they are now. Saying hello after the goodbye.

Ganyu pauses. "I don’t think so," she replies quietly. "It’ll make this whole thing easier if you know me already, right?"

"I guess." Keqing sets down her phone. "So. Second-most followed idol on Weibo, huh?"

Ganyu flinches. "It’s not a big deal."

"It is to everyone else. I always knew you would be famous.”

Ganyu licks her lips. "Have you been—keeping up with my career?"

If Keqing didn’t know better, she would think Ganyu sounded…hopeful, almost. "Not really," she answers. "I’m not really into the celebrity scene. I only found out you were…famous a few days ago."

Ganyu nods. "That makes sense."

Neither of them speak.

Ganyu looks up at her and opens her mouth. "…Have you ever pulled a gun on someone?"

"That’s strictly classified information."

"So yes?"

"Sorry. I can’t tell you," she replies, keeping her face neutral.

"Keqing…" Ganyu says. Her lower lip sticks out in a semblance of a pout and Keqing has to grip onto the seat so she doesn’t do something she’ll regret.

"I shouldn’t be distracting you," she says quickly. "Keep writing. Or rehearsing. Whatever. Is there a cafeteria here? Or vending machines?"

Ganyu nods. "One floor down, turn left at the end of the hall."

Keqing takes the stairs to the fifth floor and starts to walk down the corridor. Before making it to the end, she hears pounding music come from a room on the right. Her curiosity is piqued; there’s a large room that’s almost identical to the one Ganyu is practicing in and a girl stands in the middle.

Keqing means to peek into the room and then leave, but the girl spots her before she can turn around.

"Hey," she calls. "What’s wrong?"

"Sorry, I just meant to take a look, I can—"

"Who are you?" 

She steps into the room hesitantly. "I’m Ganyu’s new…bodyguard."

The girl’s eyes spark, flames snapping in her pale irises. "Ganyu’s bodyguard?"

Keqing wonders if this is a test of some kind. "Yes?"

"Oh, come in! I’ve been meaning to take a break, we can sit and talk for a while."

The girl gestures toward the sofa pressed up against the wall. Keqing sits down.

"I’m Yunjin," she introduces herself. "It’s great to meet you."

"Yunjin?" asks Keqing.

"Yunjin," she responds, nodding several times. "I used to be in a group but now I perform solo. What about you?"

"Oh, uh—I’m Keqing."

"Keqing," Yunjin repeats, eyes wide. "The Keqing?"

"What do you mean—the Keqing?" She’s clearly missing something.

"Don’t worry," says Yunjin hastily. You didn’t hear that from me. Anyway!” she claps her hands. “How do you like working with Ganyu?" 

"I just started today. I’m really new—I mean, not to this line of work, but to working with Ganyu. It seems fine so far. She’s…nice."

"That’s good. You know," Yunjin whispers conspiratorially, "I’m happy Ganyu has someone to lean on. She doesn’t show it often, but she’s—lonely a lot of the time. I really care about her, so it’s nice that you can keep her company. Thank you." The last sentence is painfully honest, the celebrity airs and pretensions stripped back until all that remains is a girl who wants the best for her friend.

Too bad Keqing is almost certainly unable to give her that. She settles for a short: "You’re welcome." The snacks, she remembers. She scrambles to stand up. "Sorry Yunjin, I just—I have to go. I was supposed to bring food back to Ganyu," she explains. "I’ll see you. Goodbye!"

"See you around!" calls Yunjin. 

Keqing finally makes it to the cafeteria, where she picks up an assortment of snacks: rice crackers and yogurt and Haw flakes, plus a few fruits. The cafeteria is almost empty, and she’s grateful that no one there seems to spare a glance at her.

"I’m back," she announces, dropping the snacks onto the table. "Sorry I took so long. I got distracted."

"It’s okay," Ganyu tells her, turning off the music. She wipes her forehead with a towel. Keqing tries not to look at the sweat dampening the front of her tank top and unwraps a package of Haw flakes instead.

("Keqing?"

The voice made Keqing stop, her shoes squeaking against linoleum tile. "Yes?"

Footsteps approached behind her. 

And thinking back on it: Ganyu looked something like an angel in the fluorescent-lantern hallway, pale yellow light forming a halo around her head. "Are you…busy this afternoon? I know you don’t know me that well, but I—"

"Yes. I mean, no, I’m not busy. Not at all. Why?"

Ganyu looked relieved, and it made Keqing’s heart squeeze pathetically. "There’s a special event at the music store down the street," she said. "I thought you might like to come with me. I’ll text you the address."

So that was the first of three stages. Ganyu arrived. 

Secondly, Ganyu stayed. 

Then finally, she left. Keqing wouldn’t have minded if she at least said goodbye, but their friendship wasn’t built for that. They weren’t built for that. Impermanence was all they were good at; time limits and deadlines and lunch conversations about dreams that would never become reality.)