“So, what do you think they’re like?”
It takes Venti approximately three drinks and five hours, ten minutes and twenty seconds to cave. The potent combination of a gin martini followed by rounds of mai tais was always going to win out over his limited sense of decorum. Strangely, Jean doesn’t seem to mind.
The bistro manager is staring pensively down into her drink. While Venti is very much on his way towards a fourth, she’s barely touched her first; the layer of melted ice at the top of the glass suggests as much.
“I… don’t see any point in guessing,” Jean murmurs, rolling the words around in her mouth, tasting them like candy. “I’m going to meet them in just over two days, as it is.”
“Come on,” urges Venti, leaning off the bar stool and closer into his boss’ personal space. “You have to have some theories. Please? Please, please?”
“I didn’t know you were so interested in soulmates. You seem … rather indifferent at work,” Jean says. She phrases it delicately and Venti almost reaches out to pinch her cheeks for the effort. Truly a one-of-a-kind lady, Jean is.
“Just because I don’t really believe in them,” Venti drawls as he takes another sip of his vibrantly colored drink, “doesn’t mean I can’t want other people to be happy. Who knows! Maybe it’s real and you’re actually going to fall madly, deeply, unequivocally in love with the guy.”
A moment passes, maybe two. Venti waits for a response, verbal or nonverbal, but none arrives. Instead, he’s left to peer over his glass at the reddening face of his boss.
“…Or girl?” he suggests.
Jean lifts her head up quickly. “It — would not matter, either way, for me. I would love them just the same,” she insists, finally lifting her glass off the counter to throw back its contents. She downs it in one go.
“H-hey Jean, that’s a lot of alcohol,” mumbles Venti, unable to stop her before the glass has been drained. Oh well. “Maybe get some water after this?”
Jean’s face only darkens. She sets down the empty glass and rubs at her cheek and then the sleeve that hides her now-functioning watch. “Venti—” she begins.
However, she is unable to finish, because the guitarist on stage is calling out Venti’s name. Venti hops off his stool and lightly gives his boss a playful shove to her right arm.
“We can finish this later. Or not! Up to you! But whoever it is, they’re gonna be one super lucky guy or lady.”
And then Venti ascends the stage.
There’s a small stool situated center stage. A few inches in front of it is a mic with an adjustable stand, currently upturned. Venti gathers his ukulele from stage left, slinging the fabric strap over his shoulder before he walks out into the shimmering lights.
It’s a small bar, really. The bar itself can seat perhaps twenty and there are six or seven old-fashioned, red leather booths lining the walls. In the center are wooden tables, rundown over time, sticky and showing their age. The floor is remarkably clean for a bar, a nice granite tile that was cleverly purchased by the owner to hide the evidence of spills long gone and thankfully forgotten.
It’s a small bar, but it’s under his apartment and it’s kind of like a second home. The bartenders know his name, the other performers know of him, and maybe even a few regulars toss him looks from time to time.
But Venti’s never taken anyone home; you just don’t ruin ‘your bar’ that way.
So Venti plays, like he always does. He plays songs of love, of a simpler world where you would meet someone, get to know them, and then fall so hopelessly in love. And, as usual, as the crowd cheers and claps, watches gleaming in the dim light, he thinks, They’ve all really missed the point.
* * *
Jean’s gaze is anything but present. She hasn’t stopped staring at her watch implant since they shuffled into the cab. The rain presses on outside and the splash of water hitting tires is strangely fitting for such a bittersweet day. Venti has the urge to write, to pluck at strings, but he keeps his hands in his lap, idly tapping out melodies for which there are no names.
“It may feel a bit strange for a few days,” Jean says, glumly. She closes her eyes, inhales, and then finally, “I’m ready to talk about it. If that’s all right with you.”
Venti barely checks the urge to instead respond, ‘Is it ever!’ because Jean seems deeply upset over whatever has transpired. His eyes wander back to the implant on her wrist: 00:00:00. It no longer flashes.
“I was running an errand for my boss,” she explains, adjusting her sleeve to try and hide the useless chunk of metal imbedded in her, “so I wasn’t in the right state of mind. I had, admittedly, completely forgotten that today was supposed to be the day.” She means to say she was rattled, Venti is certain, but Jean is too prideful to admit such a basic, human flaw. He can’t quite blame her.
“By the time I realized what time it was, the numbers were like this. They weren’t flashing. It had to have been five minutes after the fact,” Jean concludes, finally bringing her wrist out in front of her and Venti.
The cab drives through a puddle, water splashes, and Venti frowns.
“That’s… I’m sorry,” Venti mumbles.
For all he rallies against this superficial lifestyle people live, he hates to see when people he knows, people he’s grown fond of, hurt. Even if Venti doesn’t believe in soulmates, he doesn’t have the right to tell other people what to think. And worst of all, he doesn’t know what to say when the fabrication blows up around them.
“Whoever it is,” Jean sighs, “was on that train platform. They may not have even noticed me or their own watch.”
Venti leans further back in the seat. His head hits the seat cushion and he stares up at the fading fabric of the ceiling of the cab.
Is it worse to never have a soulmate, or to be this close to them and then lose it at the last possible second? That fated connection?
“Hey, maybe they did see you and were blinded by your beauty and are playing a long-game,” Venti suggests, forcing a smile as he looks back over to his boss.
Jean’s lips twitch into the tinniest of smiles. “… I appreciate what you're doing, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
Venti flexes his hands in his laps, tries to push down the annoyance he feels for the implants. “Well, you know they’re in Mondstadt. And you know that they were at the train station today. And you also know they had a watch, so they must be wondering the same about you.”
“What if…” Jeans begins, then hesitates. She shakes her head and looks back out the window.
Venti knows what she’s going to say. It’s so plainly in her faraway gaze.
What if they saw me and decided it wasn’t worth it after all?
Venti bites down hard on his bottom lip. There’s a pain in his chest and he wonders what cruel fate had decided any of this was worth it? Suppose Jean had met whoever it was and it hadn’t worked out? Would she never love again? Would she push through and stay with the person even if it wasn’t an ideal match, just because some stupid device said so?
“How about we lodge some complaints,” Venti says, and then flashes her a brighter smile. “And we can ask them when you’re getting it removed to be on the lookout for anyone else? They’re the only shop in town that can remove it. What if your person,” he refuses to call it what it is, “goes to get theirs removed and they recount the same story, the same frustrations? Worth a shot?”
Jean slowly turns away from the window. For the first time since Venti met her at her apartment to begin this journey, there’s renewed hope in her eyes. It burns like a tiny ember.
“…Yes. That could be true.”
The cab drives on through the storm.
* * *
Indeed, a bay of six elevators awaits Jean and Venti. As they walk, Venti can hear his feet squeak against the freshly polished floor. The building itself is regal, affluent, the kind of place you’d expect the most cutting-edge and cash-flush corporation to have. The skyscraper is around forty floors, and Venti thinks they own all except for maybe two or three that belong to a law firm or accounting firm. He didn’t bother to look too closely at the freshly polished metal plaques outside the building.
“What floor again?” Venti asks, glancing over at Jean who is running her thumb against the edge of the visitor pass. She balances her coffee from their earlier trip to Madam Ping’s in her other hand as an afterthought.
“Twenty-three,” she says, distractedly continuing to pluck at the edge.
Venti pivots to press the number on the digital keypad embedded in the wall. A warm, welcoming voice tells him to wait by elevator number three, and he’s quick to usher Jean over to stand in front of the glossy doors.
The elevator arrives shortly thereafter. A few people exit, all dressed in the sharpest of suits, the freshest of hair styles, each with bags under their eyes. Some are concealed with makeup and some are proudly on display under thick-rimmed glasses. Venti doesn’t make eye contact with any of them.
As they enter the elevator, mirrors lining each of the walls and a little screen up on the right showing ads, a few other people shuffle in, too. On the display screen in the far left corner are the numbers the elevator plans to stop at: 18, 20, 21, 22, 23. Ugh. What’s the point of having six elevators and two bays, honestly?
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” Jean murmurs to him as she leans back against the far right corner.
Venti joins her side, a tiny frown overtaking his face. “We got this far. The procedure only takes thirty minutes, right? You got this!”
“I don’t know…”
“You can give them a piece of your mind, too!” Venti says, unabashedly. “Tell them it’s kinda shitty they can’t just give you the name of the person, if they know which two watches are set to go off at the same time.”
“Venti,” Jean says, hastily. “We’re…”
In a crowded elevator filled with Celestia employees. Is now really the time to badmouth a multi-billion dollar corporation?
“If you don’t do it, I will,” says Venti as he folds his arms and leans back further against the wall of the elevator. “It’s just silly. If they’re going to charge you that much to get the thing, there should be a warranty. A guarantee!”
The elevator dings at 18, a man steps out.
“That would be ideal,” Jean admits, keeping her voice down, avoiding sideway, judgmental glances from the other riders.
The elevator dings at 20, a woman shuffles out.
“Maybe we can get some of your money back. Yanno, say we’ll leave a nasty Yelp review if they don’t. No one likes bad Yelp reviews. Especially companies that run on ‘love’,” Venti snorts and a woman in the elevator clears her throat uncomfortably.
“Venti, really,” Jean says again, reaching for his arm.
The elevator dings at 21, another woman leaves.
“What? They can’t stop me from saying the truth.” Venti rolls his eyes. “I’m not even a customer of theirs! They have no control over me.” Extremely simplified, perhaps overly so, but he seems steadfast about it. Resolved.
“So you’re not getting one today?” Jean jokes, if only to just try and steer him away from more loud complaining.
“Oh hell no! Over my dead body!” Venti laughs, barks really, as he throws his head back. “I’d rather clean the sewers than get a stupid watch from Celestia!”
The elevator dings at 22, and a tall gentleman steps out, avoiding all possible eye contact.
Now alone, Venti shoots Jean a near shit-eating grin. “Think I pissed any of them off?” he asks, sweet as the summer rain.
“You’re a menace,” Jean exhales, loud, but with a twitch of a smile.
* * *
So he starts doom-scrolling on his phone. Or, at least, that’s what it feels like nowadays. So many wars, power struggles. Mondstadt has always keep out of the nitty-gritty of it all, but he wonders how long that will last. Without a formal ruler, and instead a body of legislators that are appointed by the people, will they be thrust under the control of a neighboring nation?
He tries not to dwell on it.
Jean reappears a few seconds after he’s delved into the bunny tag on the social media platform Seelie. Her wrist is bandaged and there’s — a small twinkle in her eye.
“What’s up?” asks Venti, locking his phone and pocketing it hastily. He rises to his feet and bounces over to her, hands neatly threaded behind his back. “You look happy!”
“Supposedly my … “ She trails off and then shakes her head with a fondly tired laugh. “They were here earlier, and recounted a very similar story. They’re not allowed to give me her name, but they did say they will try and see what they can do.”
“They didn’t tell you her name?!” Venti shouts and Jean is quick to grab him by the arm and steer him over to the elevators. “Oh my god, Jean! They know the girl’s name, you both are curious about each other, and they won’t tell you?! Are they looking for even more money?!”
Jean laughs, a bit uneasily. “I suppose this situation doesn’t come up too often. They need to consult their privacy and legal departments about next steps. They said they’d be in touch.”
“Archons…” Venti groans, shaking his head. Grumpily, he slams the down button on the elevator’s display.
Of all the inane reasons to be kept from something, from someone, it’s a technicality? If both parties are willing to exchange personal information, shouldn’t that consent count for anything? Venti scowls. Leave it to a corporation to be overly nit-picky on the particulars. Likely the reason why they haven’t been sued from the moon and back, yet.
“Did they tell you anything about her?” Venti asks, trying to calm himself and focus on the positives. At least Jean seems hopeful again. At least they seem willing to try to help her.
No blacklisted yelp review yet. But they’re on so very thin of ice.
“They weren’t allowed to tell me too many details,” Jean says and she plays with the end of her ponytail, a wistful smile on her face. “But she’s new to Mondstadt. She moved here a few months ago. She’s a year older than me.”
“But no name. No picture?”
“No. But I hope they’ll reach out to her, soon.”
“Did they tell you if she was excited to meet you, too?”
Venti closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “I’m sure she is. If she wasn’t, they wouldn’t know all this about her and wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots. You’re going to absolutely blow her mind, Jean.”
“…Thank you, Venti.”
* * *
The bistro is empty. Venti waves off Hu Tao as she leaves for tutoring, throwing her apron haphazardly at him, muttering something that Venti vaguely realizes an hour later was a meme. What a quirky, clever girl. He wishes they had more shifts together.
The quiet is … nice.
Which gives Venti time to unpack the tumultuous feelings swirling in the pit of his stomach.
Suppose Celestia doesn’t tell Jean anything about her soulmate. Suppose they’re so money hungry they demand more money. Suppose that Jean’s soulmate doesn’t even have the money to spend and they never meet.
Venti frowns. When did corporations begin to think, to believe, they could dictate love? When did reading and processing genetic code and applied physics suddenly become the green light to run people’s lives?
And sure, there was no mandate to get watches. And yeah, there was no physical proof that the person you met was your soulmate. Supposedly that was still all in post-approval confirmatory clinical trials. Yet so many couples firmly believed in the magic of the science. Enough that kids were getting watches implanted on their tenth birthdays.
The regular dating scene had taken a wild hit ever since. Nowadays, the number of people without a watch was the minority. Nowadays, most people shied away from harmless flirting and spontaneous relationships. No, they were all so concerned about meeting ‘the one.’ Hook-ups were prevalent, if only for the sexual gratification side of things, but relationships that were built on risk, faith, instant chemistry? Nearly extinct.
Which … was fine, personally, Venti has to admit. Because there would never be a day that he’d allow anyone, fictional soulmate or not, to replace him in his heart.
The door to the bistro opens, the bell above it jingling.
Venti glances up from his phone. It’s rather late for anyone to be here, and really, he only gets a couple of customers during these shifts. The man in question tonight fits the profile — a businessman likely getting a late dinner or last-minute pick-me-up for the slog of hours he’s inevitably going to book for the remainder of the evening.
“How can I help you?” Venti asks, sunshine in his smile, as he reaches for a pen to take the order on his flowery little notepad that has doodles from his last shift.
“…Ah. So it is you.”
Venti flicks his gaze up from the man’s neck where he had been focusing to finally meet his eyes. The stranger’s gaze, amber and intense, seems to pierce through him, inquisitive and far too knowing. Venti wrinkles his nose and is unable to suppress his own frown.
“You were at Celestia earlier today,” the man says more helpfully. Venti’s eyes drop back down and he notices an employee badge clipped to the man’s belt-loop, just barely in sight under his jacket. The name is obscured from vision. “With your friend that was having her watch removed.”
Venti’s eyes drift up. And then he scowls. “So you followed me here? Is that it?”
“…Not quite,” the man says after a poignant pause, clearing his throat. “Your friend had a cup with this logo on it. It was an easy search to find this place.”
Venti drops his elbows down on the counter, displeased, and affixes this tall stranger with another scowl. “So you ran an internet search on the place to do what, exactly?”
Definitely stalker vibes.
“Forgive me, I should have started with this,” sighs the man and he stands up even straighter. Fuck, he’s tall, is what Venti thinks with a quick blink. “My name is Zhongli, and I am part of the legal team at Celestia.”
A cold shiver slips down Venti’s spine. His hands, mildly numb and losing even more sensation from the blip of anxiety that surges through him like a hose on max, curl into little fists and he checks the urge to run. “H-hah, is that so?”
Did he piss them off that badly? That they sent one of their lawyers to come harass a displeased civilian? Was this some attempt to stop his so-called ‘slander’?
Venti swallows a lump of nerves despite himself.
“What you were saying in the elevator,” Zhongli says, and then Venti remembers the same long brown hair and stuffy jacket, and fuck, he was there, wasn’t he, “is what I came to discuss with you.”
“Listen,” Venti says quickly, “I really don’t care, okay? I was joking about badmouthing you guys on social media. I could hardly care less. I have wayyyy more important things to be thinking about then your little … business.” He barely bites back the word ‘scheme’, but manages to in the last second in order to avoid any more potential legal trouble. “I was just doing a favor for my friend and that’s it.”
Zhongli’s brows furrow together. Venti waits.
And he waits.
After an uncomfortably long twenty seconds have passed, Zhongli is reaching into his jacket. He removes a business card and gently sets it down on the counter.
“Your ideas,” Zhongli tries again. “I would like to discuss them with you, at your earliest convenience. We are always looking for ways to improve our product, and you’ve managed to discern a weakness in our contracts. I’m most interested to hear more about the solutions you were talking about.”
In no universe is this happening. There is absolutely no way that the money-hungry Celestia is asking for his help.
Venti is unable to suppress a laugh. Quickly, he swivels his head to the side and coughs into his fist. Unconvincing, but he tries his best.
“Of course, you’d be compensated for your time and would receive a larger payment should we decide to move forward on any of your—“
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Venti finally looks back to Zhongli, a ridiculous smile plastered on his face. “You don't get it, do you? I don’t like your company. I don’t believe in what you’re doing. There’s no way I’d sell my soul to you guys. What made you think that dangling money in front of me would change how I felt in the elevator?”
Zhongli doesn’t seem to fully process the argument. His head tilts to the side and he asks, slowly, “But are you not frustrated with the flaws? Wouldn’t you be glad to be an instrumental part of making a better world?”
“A better… world?” Venti laughs even louder. “Okay, you guys really are drinking your own kool-aid way too much.”
And then finally, Zhongli frowns. “… I see. I apologize for wasting your time, then.” He turns away, stiff as a rail, and Venti’s expression lapses into something a bit wilder, angry, frustrated.
The nerve of this man, this company, this conglomerate.
“Aren’t you forgetting this?” asks Venti, lifting the business card up and twirling it around between his fingers.
“Do as you please.”
And then he leaves, in the same stiff and unexciting manner from which he came.
Venti exhales louder than is strictly necessary. Gloomily, he turns his gaze to the card bouncing between his fingers. Guilt, for just a brief second, weighs heavy on him. What if he was able to help people that really did fall for this scam? What if his ideas prevented people like Jean from being heartbroken? What if he helped the enemy and tried to tame the evil all at the same time?
… No. He wouldn’t be a sellout.
Still, the money would be nice, and again, he’d finally be able to help people.
Yet. Yet, that’d go against everything he ever believed in. It’d go against his very sense of self.
“Okay, Zhongli,” Venti mumbles, taking the card between his index and forefinger to tap it aggressively against the counter, click, click, “if you want my ideas so badly, you’re going to have to fight for them.”
If he wasn’t going to help Celestia, he was going to make their lives as difficult as possible. A little friendly fire. Or, perhaps, a bit more in the way of sabotage. Because if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them, right?
Or, at least, pretend to until you can stab them in their heartless backs.