“We have work early in the morning.”
Venti loses count of the dots on the ceiling of the bar. He had been on a quest to catalogue the useless information in his head when Jean tugs on his sleeve. They’re sharing the same side of the booth as two other women cackle manically after throwing back shots that look to be some greenish hue. Venti suspects they may be pickle-backs and he shudders at the mere thought; some alcohol is not worth going near.
“Mhmm. But we work with coffee,” says Venti with a mild grin as he looks to Jean. His chin remains rested in the cup of his palm and his eyes twinkle in the dim bar lighting. “So, no problem! Live in the moment!”
Jean exhales restlessly, her hands threading in her lap under the table. “You know my hangovers aren’t the best,” she says, hushed.
“Hm.” Venti tries not to dwell on the possibility of a hangover. Instead, he looks across the booth at the women.
One is familiar: Mona, the head librarian who would sometimes drop by the coffeehouse to visit Jean and gossip. The woman beside her, a pretty young brunette with sharp eyes, is a newcomer. Venti vaguely remembers her name, Lisa, was it, and that she had started working at the library not too long ago. He supposes any straight man would be foaming at the mouth at the tantalizing opportunity to sit at a table full of hot librarians.
“You have a safe ride home later, right?” asks Venti as he pleasantly takes a sip of his whiskey sour. His question is really more for the table rather than anyone in particular.
Mona’s gaze sweeps over to Venti and for some reason, it’s enough to cause her to clutch her stomach and burst into another fit of laughter. “Oh, please, of course we do. The Great Mona will make sure this delicate flower returns to her bed safe and sound,” says Mona as she drapes an arm around Lisa’s shoulders.
“Oh dear, what an honor,” hums Lisa with a sort of mischievous airiness that Venti admires.
“They’re roommates,” Jean quickly explains with another absentminded tug of her sleeve.
“A formidable pair!” Mona exclaims happily before her eyes land on Jean. “Deary, why aren’t you having fun, hm? The stars are perfectly aligned for tonight, you know.”
“Ah… that’s…” Jean hesitates, sitting up straighter, stiffer.
Venti frowns. Before he can say something he feels is positively genius, Mona is leaping out of the booth. Somehow still with some grace about her, she reaches for Lisa’s arm and drags the petite woman onto her feet.
“Dance with me,” Mona insists as she beckons to the dance floor. “The stars demand it!”
Venti’s gaze wanders down to Lisa’s wrist, barely visible through ruffles of white fabric.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the cosmos,” Lisa agrees almost playfully as she allows her roommate to drag her out to the crowded dance floor in front of the stage.
Once alone, Jean finally reaches for her water. She chugs it with remarkable speed, cheeks a warm red from the scotch she had been sipping earlier. Unfortunately, Venti notices the tense line of her shoulders, the light droop of her eyes, and the overall haze that’s befallen the booth.
“Sooo,” he says, not at all carefully, “which one are you in love with?”
Jean chokes on her water. Quickly, she sets the glass down and brings an arm up to cough into, cheeks flaming a deeper crimson. “Venti,” she says, exasperated.
“Kidding!” Venti giggles, not at all joking, but seeming to favor diffusing the situation rather than causing more grief for one of his closest friends.
Honestly, it isn’t hard to see. Venti has watched many of souls fall in love in this very bar, and even more come to dramatic ends. To him, the look of love is a unique one — a sort of pining, distant stare that wishes the body would take a hint and act on its own. When Venti looks at Jean, into her eyes, he can tell that she’s imagining herself on the dance floor with her friends, possibly with a crush, and Venti feels his stomach knot. He can’t even begin to wade through the conflict Jean must be feeling now that she knows her “soulmate” is in Mondstadt and that she is likely waiting to meet her, too.
It’s all bullshit.
But Venti holds his tongue and reaches across the table to grab the cherry that Lisa had neglected to consume from her drink. “Did you know I can tie these with my tongue?”
Jean looks at him, confused for a second, before she sighs. The edges of her smile are fond and she says, a bit skeptically, “I didn't know that. Is that on your dating profile?”
Venti beams rather ecstatically. “Ehe, maybe it is!”
It’s good to see her distracted, after all. And admittedly, it’s nice to gloat about his own special skillset. Avoiding any heavy topics is very much in the cards after the copious amount of ‘real-talk’ they had the last few days. It was too… much for Venti, admittedly. Too suffocating and a painful reminder of the company that informed him at a very young age that the person he cared for most would never be his.
He downs his whiskey.
“So, about night,” Venti starts again, words like tar and he cringes at his own quivering tone. “I actually am meeting someone here.”
“Like a date?”
“Fuck no!” Venti’s laugh is barbaric and he wildly shakes his head to the side. He accidentally hits Jean with one of his braids, but he thinks she can forgive him just this once. “It’s actually a really, really funny story. So the other day…” he starts, but isn’t allowed to finish.
“Ah. There you are. It’s… rather crowded here.”
Jean looks up in surprise. It takes her a moment to place him, but when she does, her gaze flicks to Venti almost accusingly. If nothing else, it’s protective, and she holds her tongue while Venti clears his throat and steels his gaze into something indifferently chipper.
“Hiya, Zhongli! You made it!”
The man in question isn’t clad in a suit this time, thankfully, but he’s still wearing a dress-shirt under a sweater and nice slacks that all together cost more than a month’s rent for Venti. He’s wearing these thick, black-framed glasses that make his stupidly handsome face even more stupidly handsome and Venti selfishly wishes he hadn’t met this imbecile at Celestia.
“I’m going to check on the others,” Jean says slowly, rising from the booth. She pats Venti on the shoulder, whispering, “come get me if anything goes wrong,” and then disappears to join her librarian friends.
Venti knows he owes her the world, considering how very much of a dancer she is not.
“I can barely hear you,” Zhongli sighs, adjusting his sleeves before he takes a seat across from Venti at the booth. His gaze drops to the empty shot glasses and his nose wrinkles. “…Are you with a group?”
“Yup!” Venti leans back in the booth, arms folding to his chest, guarded but paradoxically carefree all at once. “They’re out dancing the night away. As the saying goes~”
Zhongli’s nose wrinkles again but he doesn’t question it. Instead, he laces his hands together on the table and fixes Venti with a curious stare. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. …Even if the venue is a bit ill-fitting.”
“All the best business deals are done at bars,” Venti corrects him, smacking his lips together shamelessly. “Just think of this as the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”
Zhongli’s brow lifts just around the time Venti giggles. “So I see.” And then, a bit more seriously, “Before we begin, it’s customary that you sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
Venti watches in abject horror as Zhongli pulls his phone from his pocket, unlocks it, and then brings up a document in some sort of application. He sets the device down on the table and stares expectantly. When Venti doesn’t lean forward to take it, Zhongli clears his throat and adds, “You’re welcome to read it, first. Before electronically signing it.”
Venti bites back a howl of a laugh. As preposterous as this is, laughing straight into the lawyer’s face seems contrary to his overall plan. He needs this guy to like him, trust him, think he’s invested in this, if Venti is going to tear Celestia down from the inside.
“I would hope so,” says Venti playfully as he finally leans off the back of his seat and peers down at the phone. He begins to idly scroll, skimming moreso than reading, giving it long enough per page for Zhongli to hopefully think he’s taking all of this very seriously — “Hey, wait a second. Why is this one-way?”
Venti’s index finger lingers on the screen. His eyes shoot up and it’s an accusatory look. “The agreement. It’s a one-way street. Only I’m agreeing to keep things you tell me confidential. What about what I have to say?”
“It’s… not proprietary. There would be no harm,” Zhongli says slowly, calculated almost, as if he isn’t entirely believing himself.
Venti lifts a brow back at him. “Just because I don’t have a fancy patent or whatever doesn’t mean it’s not my idea,” he says and then pulls his hand away and leans back. “If it’s not mutual, I’m not signing it.”
Zhongli’s face is entirely displeased. “I was not aware you were well-versed in business,” he says, stiffly, as if realizing for the first time that perhaps this little arrangement of theirs wasn’t going to go as swimmingly as he had naively hoped.
Venti’s shoulders roll into a shrug. He doesn’t divulge that the only reason he knows these things is because he used to listen to Diluc studying for hours and some things just stuck. Mostly because at that point of his life, he had maybe, perhaps, sort of had the tinniest crush on the young business tycoon. But that’s ancient history—
“Do you always try to take advantage of your potential business partners?” Venti hums. “Sounds kinda scummy to me!”
“You aren't taking this seriously.”
“Of course I am! If I wasn’t, I’d have blindly signed.” Quickly, Venti leans forward and drops his chin to his upturned palms. He sets his bright eyes squarely on the man ahead of him, trying not to get distracted by the flecks of gold he sees in his eyes. “While I may prefer poetry to contracts, I won't just go signing my life away.”
“A non-disclosure agreement is hardly one’s life,” Zhongli grumbles, looking to the side, brows pinching. “…But all right. I will have one drafted that’s mutual, if that’s what you desire.”
“Aw, thanks!” Venti’s smile is radiant despite being absolutely feigned. He kicks his feet under the booth back and forth, barely missing hitting Zhongli’s knees because damn is this guy tall. “…You’re not going to just draft it now?”
“What?” Zhongli looks from Venti, then to his phone, and then back to Venti yet again. “No. I do not draft contracts on my phone. It requires a laptop, or pen and paper.”
Venti’s smile is dangerously cute, then. “Guess we’ll just have to reschedule, then, Zhongli! Say, do you like scotch? I was just going to order another round.”
“I don’t drink,” Zhongli answers bluntly, but then amends almost hesitantly, “… not often, that is. I will pass, but thank you for the offer.”
“Heh. Your funeral,” murmurs Venti as he flags down a waitress to put in an order for another glass. When she disappears, he fixes Zhongli with another thousand-watt smile. “I’m free tomorrow afternoon, if you want to meet back up here.”
“I feel as if the cafe would be a better choice,” Zhongli retorts, locking his phone and pocketing it.
“Nope! Like I said, all the best deals are done in bars. You’re not talking me out of this one,” says Venti as his fingers drop from his chin so that he can half-heartedly finger gun across the table.
“…What was that?”
“What was what?”
“What… you just did? Just now?”
For the first time since meeting him, Venti almost feels genuinely amused. The man’s expression is one of utter confusion, and those almost-golden eyes are transfixed in bewilderment. He looks far less plastic this way, far more like a human than a cog in a machine, and Venti tries not to get distracted by the nice shape of Zhongli’s lips.
“It’s called a finger gun,” says Venti through a mild snort of a laugh. “Do you really never get out? Is this the first time Celestia is setting you free from the shackles of your office?”
Zhongli’s nose wrinkles and this time, Venti almost thinks it’s charming. Almost. Before Zhongli can answer, he hears a loud round of cheering from across the bar. It’s hard to discern the source, but something else manages to catch the man’s eye. Venti cranes to try and see it over Zhongli’s stupidly large head, but eventually gives up.
“What’re you staring at?” Venti mumbles as his scotch is brought over to him. He flashes the waitress with a cheeky smile before he takes a sip, glad to feel the relief that instantly floods his veins at the familiar burn. If he was going to be dealing with a lawyer from Celestia, he was going to need all the liquid courage in the world.
Zhongli looks back at him, and that focused expression from earlier temporarily fades. “That woman, out there. The one in purple.”
Venti tilts his head comically to the side. He shifts in the booth, onto his knees, and leans halfway over the table to try and see past Zhongli and the other booths. Venti barely catches the way Zhongli’s arm shifts to hover under Venti, as if ready to catch him if he were to lose his balance and fall on the table.
“Which…? Oh! You mean Lisa? What about her?” And then Venti looks to Zhongli, mindful not to lose that balance of his, and whispers, “Oh man, do I have to tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Zhongli’s frown is almost as strangely appealing as when he wiggles his nose.
“She’s gay,” says Venti with sinister delight at hopefully crushing this man’s hopes and dreams. Serves him right for working for a soulless corporation! “And I think she has a huge crush on my friend’s coworker.”
Zhongli leans further away from Venti and clears his throat. A wild shake of his head and he dispels the notion quickly, “No. That isn’t what I was going to say.”
“Oh.” Venti sits back in the booth proper and goes back to nursing his scotch. “What about her?”
“She was in Celestia the other day,” he says, slow, and then smooths a hand through his hair. “Ah… I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Celestia…” Venti repeats and then it clicks. “Holy shit, it’s her.”
And it all makes sense. Lisa had recently moved to Mondstadt, Lisa was cleverly hiding her wrists just like Jean, and they both seemed to be weirdly into books. What were the chances?! Venti springs forward, feet hitting the ground as he tries to lunge from the booth, but a strong arm catches him before he can leave the table.
“Forget what I said,” Zhongli says, voice low and assertive and a chill runs down Venti’s spine for unspecified reasons. “It was not proper for me to tell you. Neither of them can know.”
“Oh my gods,” groans Venti as he shoots a darker look at the man who is now uncomfortably close to him. “Is this about your whole privacy thing again? They both clearly want to meet each other, and you’re holding it up for stupid, selfish reasons.”
"Celestia could be sued.”
“Boo-hoo,” Venti drones as he drops his gaze down to the large hand curled around his arm, holding him in place. “Do you really think two happy people are going to sue you because you helped them out?”
“And if they are not happy? If they are not a suitable pair?”
“Then your company failed and deserves to be sued, anyway,” says Venti without missing a beat.
Zhongli slowly lets go of Venti’s arm. While the musician is still close, he murmurs, voice a heavy, lofting rumble, “You are a brat.”
Venti figures he’s won the battle, but reminds himself that the war is far from over. For now, he flashes Zhongli the brattiest smile he can as the man rises from the booth and adjusts his glasses. It’s around that time that the women return to the booth, Zhongli catching Lisa’s eye first. For some reason, that recognition does not reach her lips. Venti cringes at whatever documents must have her and Jean tied-up.
“Well, hello handsome,” says Lisa instead, waving a hand playfully in his general direction. “Are you keeping our chronically single friend company?”
Venti balks. “H-hey!” Had Jean told her that? Mona? Lisa just moved here and she was already picking on him! His face flares a hot red and he can’t help but admire her, truly.
There’s a dangerous, almost predatory glint in Zhongli’s eyes as he looks from Lisa back to Venti. Venti meets his gaze and ignores the twist in his stomach.
“No, I was just going. Have a nice evening, all of you,” Zhongli says, as prim and proper as a lawsuit before he takes his leave.
“Are you all right?” Jean asks as she takes a seat next to him as Mona and Lisa disappear over to the bar to grab another round of drinks.
“Y-yeah…” And then the reminder that Lisa is Jean’s soulmate crashes into him like a truck. He tosses a glance over his shoulder at the two women, and his gut drops even further. Is it his place to say? Is it —
“All right.” And then Jean says, almost nervously, “… There’s something I need to tell you, then.”
Venti wonders if they figured it out. Perhaps Celestia isn’t needed at all. Perhaps Lisa and Jean found each other naturally and Celestia was never an integral part of it after all. Oh what Venti would give to shove that in the stupid lawyer’s handsome face. What a delight that would be!
“Yeah?” asks Venti, hopeful, as he finishes his scotch and ignores the blurring around the edges of the world and the way he can still faintly smell Zhongli’s stupid cologne.
“…Mona and I are, well, there’s no other way to put this, but it’s awfully shocking, so… we're actually dating.”