★ PROLOGUE ★
It happens way too often.
One moment, Venti will be foaming milk with the flair of an artist, and the next, a loud series of gasps and claps will pull his attention in a completely different direction. It’s usually always the girl that starts crying. She’ll usually clasp her hands over her mouth as she stares unbelieving at the wrist of the stranger she has just met. Her eyes won’t move from the 'watch'. Sometimes, if she’s wearing glasses, Venti can see the red numbers flashing in their reflection.
Venit doesn’t begrudge them. Not really. He supposes if he were a young woman meeting the destined love of her life, he’d be ecstatic. Surely these women have waited all their lives for this very moment. Only recently did they learn of the exact time, down to the very second.
And Venti supposes they’ve all planned their weddings and first dates and honeymoons. Probably in that order of importance. And maybe they’ve dreamed up what their soulmate would look like. That one, Venti thinks, is dangerous if reality falls flat.
Expectations in love, like most things, are bad for the heart.
Since he started working at the little bistro, Venti has seen it happen ten times. Ten times in a year and a half. Venti wonders if he should press the owner to put it on a cute poster on the window to lure in more customers; he can see it now, “SENDING YOU A WHOLE LATTE LOVE” and then in less impressive font, “come meet the one as you decide what delicious and freshly baked item to try!” and then in even smaller font “disclaimer: you are not guaranteed to meet your soul mate, and we make no representation or warranty to that effect.”
Venti winces as his hand slips from the cup. Steam seeps from the corner and creates a nasty burn on the tip of his index finger. Figures that’s the one he uses the most when he plays.
“Venti, are you all right?”
Venti glances over to the manager. She’s the daughter of a dear colleague of the owner and is as meticulous as they come. A warm heart, once you breakthrough her business-focused mind. Pretty, blonde and absolutely not obsessed with the wrist-implant phenomena of love.
(That one is a lie. Venti saw her watch, once, and it was unlit and, to his knowledge, hasn’t started counting down since. Perpetual oblivion.)
The numbers correspond to days, hours and then minutes. There’s a fine art to it, not being able to predict further than three months and some odd change, and Venti is not one to read the literature on it.
After all, he doesn’t believe in it.
“Heh, just a little burn! Not to worry, Jean!” says Venti as he quickly submerges his hand into the cup of cold water by his side.
(He does it enough that it warrants his own special ‘anti-burn’ glass.)
Jean’s gaze meets his and then slides over to the celebrating couple who is now embracing. As Venti expected, she’s openly sobbing, arms thrown around his neck, holding him close as if they’ve known each other their whole lives. Or, at least, longer than a few minutes.
“Didn’t this happen last month?” she asks, voice quiet.
Venti can tell it wasn’t meant for his ears, but he answers regardless, “Sure did. I think Hu Tao took a picture?”
Jean’s lips twitch into a smile, betraying her calmness. “I see.” And then she turns to him again, and in a more refined voice, “If they still place an order, you’re allowed to comp them a drink.”
“Wha?” Venti feigns a gasp, eyebrows waggling on his face. “They get love and a latte?”
Jean stifles a laugh, quickly turning to the side. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Aww, Jean. You’re a romantic at heart,” teases Venti as he retrieves his hand from the water and inspects the burn. Not too bad, this time.
“I’m not,” Jean insists, quickly, her left hand going to tug at her sleeve, ensuring that her own watch is out of sight. “It’s simply nice to see other people happy. Do you not agree, Venti?”
Venti merely smiles toothily. He isn’t touching that topic with a ten-foot pole. Not with his boss.
Jean seems to accept defeat as she turns back to the register.
* * * *
Venti tries his best not to grab for his friend’s hand that’s unceremoniously dangling in his line of vision. On his wrist is a device that looks much like a watch, implanted into his skin, displaying the numbers 99:24:60 in red. The color contrasts with his deep blue eyes, Venti thinks, and he wonders who on earth would be lucky enough to have this bundle of joy as their own.
“You got one,” Venti says, slowly, the realization hitting him like a ton of bricks. “Aren't they still in the beta program?”
“Yeah.” The boy sits back on the couch, messy black bangs hiding his eyes. He tilts his hand from side to side, admiring the glowing numbers. “But my dad works for the company, you know? So he asked if I wanted one.”
“And you said yes,” Venti supplies.
Something in his heart breaks that day. He isn't sure what to call it.
(It’s not love, can’t be love. They’re fourteen and best friends and he should be overjoyed that his best friend has a soul mate out there.)
“Since the numbers are lit-up,” says his friend, licking his lips in thought, “that means my soul mate already has one. If they didn’t, it’d just be blank.”
“If it’s blank,” Venti murmurs, ignoring the sting of the former part, “how do you even know it’s working? Seems kinda suspect to me.”
His friend turns to him, bright-eyed and full of life. “I can just feel it. I can feel them.”
“Feel them,” mumbles Venti, nose wrinkling.
“I can feel it in my heart. They’re out there somewhere, and they just got one of these, and maybe we’ll meet this year, or next, or not for a couple. But that’s okay. I’m fine with waiting.”
Venti fears the question that comes next.
“Dad says there’s still room left in the trial. Do you want one?”
Why would he even bother? Why would he even care when the one person he wants to spend the rest of his life with is already destined to be with another?
Venti grits his teeth.
“Nah. I like to live in suspense.”
(But the biggest suspense of his life has already ended; he will never end up in the arms that he’s longed for for so long.)
* * *
“Are you performing tonight?” Jean asks in the middle of removing a rack of croissants from the display case.
Venti removes the pen from behind his ear, caps it, and laughs, “Yup! But it’s a Tuesday night, so probably not a big showing.”
“Have you asked Madame Ping about playing here?” she inquires.
“Nooooot yet,” which translates into, ‘I’m never going to.’
Silence engulfs the pair, as sweet as the smell of the fresh grounds and treats. The sun is already setting and Venti can see the traffic jam beginning outside. It's rare moments like these where he appreciates taking public transportation - at least then he can space out on the long ride home and daydream. Later, he’ll grab his ukulele and head to the bar beneath his apartment building. He’ll play for a few hours and then retire to the cramped studio apartment he’s been in since he dropped out of art school a year ago.
“If I’m able to escape later tonight, I’ll stop by,” says Jean after a comfortable silence.
“You really don’t have to. But I’d appreciate it,” Venti hums, stacking up the remainder of the cups and dusting off the machines. “I have an awesome playlist tonight. The sappiest ever. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
Jean blushes despite herself. She turns away, face reddening, only for a loud ding to draw both of their attention.
“Is that your phone?” Venti wonders aloud before he can process it, can realize his own terrible transgression.
And in a rare showing of vulnerability, Jean rolls up her sleeve.
On her wrist are flashing numbers: 02:15:50.
“They... got theirs,” Jean whispers, stunned, and Venti looks away. It feels improper to invade the moment, like an outsider looking in.
His own heart clenches. So it’s like that, then? Jean’s soulmate has been holding out on the watch just like him, and now only two days before they’re destined to meet, has it implanted.
Venti wants to be jealous, but he can’t find it in himself. Jean is one of the kindest and most selfless people he’s ever had the pleasure of knowing. And why would he be jealous? He’s never had his own watch, never had the desire to be bound to someone that wasn’t him, so why go through the headache and anxiety? He doesn't believe in soulmates. Not really.
Yet, still, when he sees the gentle glow in her eyes, that sparkle that wasn’t there before, he knows it for what it is.
Hope, and love for a person she’s never met.
Venti will never understand it, and he prays he never will need to.