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in a minute, there is time

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Usually, he loves when it rains.

Gigs are harder to come by on the streets and the patrons to the cafe are smaller in number. If Madame Ping or Jean call him to tell him he won’t be needed for that particular shift, then all the better. It’d be with a good book that he’d curl up by the window in his small apartment and escape to a world faraway. Although he does not have wings nor the money to travel the world, through books he could pretend and happily dig deep into the fantastical landscapes he could only dream of.

Today, it's raining. And today, Venti isn’t happy about it.

Jean hasn’t texted him for days; his hours have been cut from the cafe; and he’s been ignoring the persistent texts of the lawyer from Celestia.

Venti can’t begrudge the fact that Jean is busy. After all, she’s suddenly acquired a girlfriend and isn't that all sorts of wild? For as long as Venti has known her, she has been single: the true image of a strong and independent woman, if not a bit shy. Yet, here she was, with a girlfriend who wasn’t even her soulmate.

And Venti supposes this was all inevitable. Jean and Mona had been growing closer ever since Jean’s hours at the library ramped-up when they lost a librarian. Mona brought out a playful and adventurous side of Jean that Venti had previously only been able to. And Mona made Jean smile.

But Venti couldn’t help but wonder about the timing. Hadn’t Jean been excited about her watch, about her soulmate, about the further information Celestia promised they would try and gather for her?

Looking back at each and every of those interactions, Venti can’t help but wonder if he had misread it all. Had Jean been dreading getting a soulmate because she was falling in love with a friend? Had the missed connection at the train station been a true blessing, relieving Jean of the weight of a decision?

But no… Jean had seemed disappointed that her soulmate hadn’t met her.

Venti rests his forehead against the murky glass of his window. His eyes roam the little street below, watching couples huddle together as they make their ways through the city.

No one seemed alone today — everyone except him.

* * *

”So you’re… excited for it, huh?”

Venti plays with an old pocket-watch. It’s the only memento he has from his late grandfather who had been more of a father to him than his own flesh and blood. The second-hand ticks by steadily, tracking the time between his loaded questions and his friend’s easy answers.

“I am,” says Venti’s friend as he continues to play his video game.

Venti’s brows pinch together and there’s a tension in his shoulders that has been there for weeks now. “Hmm, hmmm,” he forces out as he tilts the watch to the side, watching the rays of the sun reflect off its shiny surface. “So you believe that the person you’ll meet at the end of this will be the one?”

“Oh, Venti,” laughs his friend, sunshine that clears away the clouds after a rainstorm, “you’re the romantic one of us! You should know how exciting this is!”

“Maybe,” admits Venti as he ignores the long hours of poems at the expense of an unrequited love. “Do I have to give you lessons, then? Flowers and poems and the like?” It all tastes so bitter in his mouth.

“Maybe,” laughs his friend again. “Or maybe that’s the thing about soulmates. You don’t need to impress them. They just fall in love with your soul.”

Venti’s teeth grind together. “And you say I’m the romantic…”

“Which is why I’ll wait for them,” his friend says again as he clears a boss on his game. “I’ll wait to fall in love with them. I can’t stand the idea of being with someone else, knowing they’re out there waiting for me. It’s probably really silly, but I … that’s just how I feel.”

Venti winces as he closes the pocket-watch. “Nah, makes complete sense,” lies Venti. “Ah! To be young and in love! You’re making me feel old, dear friend!”

“Shut up, you’re a year older than me!” barks his friend as he playfully throws the controller at him. “Do this next round, okay? You know I hate sneaky missions.”

“Ah, your knight in shining armor is here, ehe.”

And he hates that he means every word of it.

* * *

So Venti doesn’t get it, why Jean wants to be with someone else when she supposedly believes in what Celestia is doing. Venti doesn’t understand why she’d hurt her soulmate, if she believes in it. And Venti doesn’t get why she just can’t see that it’s Lisa, right in front of her.

Maybe it’s all a bunch of bullshit like Venti always thought it was.

Out of frustration, Venti reaches for his cellphone. He knows what he has to do.

to: that old sellout
hey. sorry for not responding earlier. was busy with work.
do you want to get coffee?
that’s what old boring lawyers like, yeah?

from: that old sellout
Hello, Venti. Yes, coffee would be fine. Where shall I meet you?

to: that old sellout
wow that’s a quick response. were you waiting up for me lol?

from: that old sellout
It’s early afternoon.

to: that old sellout
ok mister literal. i’ll send you the address of somewhere i like. meet me there in 40 mins.
if you’re late i’m leaving.

Perhaps taking out his rage on Zhongli and subsequently Celestia with his “Master Plan” (TM) would be enough of a distraction from the storm in his heart.

* * *

Venti waits outside a bustling coffeeshop. His earphones are in and he’s listening to something befitting the rainy atmosphere of the day. Occasionally, his gaze wanders from the cozy shop inside to the people skittering about the street and the cars kicking up the puddles. His hands shuffle deeper into the pocket of his hoodie, curling in on himself even more. He hadn’t bothered to dig his raincoat out of the closet, long forgotten, and he hadn’t bothered with an umbrella, either. Mostly because he didn’t own one. No, his hood was sufficient.

With an umbrella, long raincoat and boots, Zhongli appears in Venti's line of vision. As always, he’s something out of a movie, clean lines and probably wearing cologne that costs more money than Venti has ever seen. The sharp lines of his face ruin the picturesque scene of a blurry, rainy day.

“Venti,” Zhongli greets as he steps closer, shielding them both with his umbrella.

“Did you clear your schedule for me?” jests Venti as he tries not to inch more under the relief the umbrella brings from the cool rain.

“It’s a Sunday,” Zhongli retorts in deadpan.

Venti snorts a laugh and coyly looks to the side. “You could have let me have that one. You’re so quick to be so literal.”

“Being factual is my job,” insists Zhongli as he inclines his head to the side. “Am I to take it that you’ve reconsidered and wish to pursue our arrangement?”

“Depends. Did you bring a mutual agreement with you this time?” asks Venti as he peers up through his messy bangs.

“…I did, yes,” says Zhongli, looking mildly uncomfortable. Venti hopes it’s from being defeatedly a musician without a lick of legal training. “We can discuss it inside, if you’d like. You’ll get sick if you stand out in the rain any longer.”

“Maybe I will,” laughs Venti as he flicks his gaze quickly to meet eyes that remind him of the long-lost cor lapis.

They head inside, order two coffees and make their way to a corner booth. It’s a larger cafe than the one Venti works at, and there’s live music on the second floor. Venti admits to coming here sometimes when he wants to get lost in a book or his own thoughts. Sometimes, his apartment is a grim reminder of just how alone he is, despite having an endless array of friends and acquaintances.

Zhongli settles in and takes out his phone. He makes no effort to hide the haste in which he pulls up the contract and then sets the device down on the phone. “I assure you, this one should have all the terms you would be interested in,” he says, slowly.

“What did your boss say when you told him I wanted a mutual one?” asks Venti as he starts to skim the contract again, leaning a cheek into his palm.

“I did not tell her,” says Zhongli.

Venti's gaze drifts back up as a single brow curves higher. “Hm?”

“It's within my power to negotiate that,” explains Zhongli as he pushes a lock of hair out of his face. As he does it, his sleeve falls just enough to reveal a watch. Venti acutely observes that it does not have any time displayed.

“So you were being a hardass to me on purpose!” guffaws Venti.

The volume of his playful comment has Zhongli tensing. When he notices his watch is in sight, he hurriedly fixes his sleeve and then affixes Venti with a stern look. “It is my fiduciary duty to get the best deal for my client,” he retorts.

“By being a hardass.”

“If you’d like to call it that.”

“Celestia isn't going to suffer from a mutual agreement, geez,” says Venti as he reaches for his coffee and takes a lazy sip. He blows on the surface after he burns the tip of his tongue. It’s a lot of effort not to wince from it; he never makes coffee this hot for his customers for this very reason.

“Technically speaking,” Zhongli says and his brows are furrowing together, “the shareholders of Celestia are my clients.”

“Oh, okay,” says Venti, sounding just as bored as he is. He finally signs his name on the device and then looks up to Zhongli with a cheeky grin. “Well! You’ve done it! You’ve signed me. Now you’re stuck with me, ehe.”

“There’s no term to this,” grumbles Zhongli as he retrieves his phone, checks that Venti did indeed sign, and then pockets the device. “Now, I’d like to begin with the idea that has me most intrigued.”

“Actually, before we dig into the nuts and bolts,” hums Venti, tentatively taking a second sip of his coffee; much better. “I think I’ve earned the right to complain to you, don’t you think?”

“Regarding?”

“Because your stupid company wouldn’t just tell my friend who her soulmate was, my friend is dating someone else,” Venti explains, voice and eyes sharper at the edges. His stomach knots. “And she seems happy. What does that say about your whole watch thing, huh?”

Zhongli sighs, long-suffering. “We get this argument quite often,” he says, tone remaining calm. “Our product does not purport to be a love potion. It is human nature to slowly develop and recognize feelings.”

“If feelings have to develop, doesn't that defeat the purpose of a soulmate?”

“You misunderstand. Just because two souls are destined to meet and complement one another does not mean that they are pre-programmed to know one another from the outset,” says Zhongli and there's something different in his tone. That formality from before wavers, the swells before a storm. Venti can see it, that flicker of disapproval, that flicker of disbelief, because he knows it all too well, himself.

“That sounds more like two people meeting and falling in love,” says Venti, leading, and he drags his thumb along the edge of the rim of his cup. “Yanno, the old way.”

Zhongli doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches into the small bag he brought with him and retrieves a pad-folio. He opens it with grace and removes a pen from the inside lip and puts it to the paper waiting inside.

“Your ideas?” Zhongli begins again.

“Don’t you think I should have a consulting agreement?” Venti rebuts as he cups both hands around his coffee cup. He leans against the back of the booth and fixes Zhongli with a more curious stare. “If I'm going be compensated for my wonderful ideas.”

“You’re…” Zhongli’s lips tighten into a fine line. “We are not yet at that stage. This is exploratory, to see if your ideas are even compatible with Celestia.”

“C’mon, admit it, you guys are foaming at the mouth, eager beavers to have my specular ideas!” says Venti cheekily.

“Am I to understand,” begins Zhongli, the tip of his pen pressing harder to the pad of paper, “that you're going to withhold information, again, until you have a consulting agreement in place?”

“You betcha.” Venti’s smile is radiant, plastic and not at all full of himself. “Aren't you glad that your future consultant is so business savvy? That should make you feel great! I know how to handle myself and that some other company won't just run away with your secrets!”

The pen scratches, hard, to the left. It’s a fine black line that Zhongli likely hadn’t meant to make. A stray mark on an otherwise blank canvas. “Why did you not ask for one the last time we met? Are you aiming to waste my time and not provide Celestia with anything of value?”

“That’s combative,” says Venti with a little tut. “I wouldn’t speak so lowly to your future business partner.”

“Perhaps this was a bad idea after all,” grumbles Zhongli as he closes the pad-folio, reaches for his umbrella and coffee.

He’s halfway out of the booth when Venti sits up a bit straighter, eyes widen, and his heart skips several beats. “H-hey, what are you doing?”

“Calling your bluff, Venti,” says Zhongli, slow, steady, powerful, as he fixes a gaze as hard as stone down at Venti.

“How about this,” begins Venti, speaking quicker than before, “I tell you more about the idea you already know, and then we can assess if we’re moving forward.”

There’s a weariness to his tone that he can’t quite mask. Working with Celestia is necessary for enacting his bitter and spiteful revenge, and he knows it’s petty, but he needs Zhongli on his side. Perhaps he had pushed the businessman too hard. Perhaps he had stalled one too many times, made one too many jokes at the expense of the company he’s supposed to be helping.

Venti exhales and tries at a smile — it’s weak. “Really, I do want to make this work. I’m sorry. I — had a friend that things didn’t work out for him.”

Venti isn't sure why he says that, why he treads too close to the truth.

Zhongli blinks owlishly at him. Those last few words seem to catch on something because Zhongli takes a seat once more. He does not retrieve his pen and paper but he does reach for his coffee to take a leisurely sip.

“Then perhaps we should treat this as a true business relationship,” decides Zhongli. “It is not uncommon for business partners to get to know one another over coffee. So, perhaps let us dispense with the formalities.”

Venti’s shoulders relax, but only by a bit. As he’s busy trying to unwind that confusing mess of words, he finds himself unable to look away from Zhongli’s stupidly handsome face. This lawyer is truly an enigma, and as much as Venti hates Celestia, he can’t quite say he hates Zhongli; hate is just too strong of a word.

“So you wanna… just small-talk? About the weather? It’s pretty shitty,” says Venti, tone beginning to regain some of its warm levity.

“It is,” agrees Zhongli and he looks to Venti without as much vitriol as before. “You mentioned that your friend is now romantically pursuing someone else. I take it she is still unaware that her soulmate is her new coworker. Is that correct?”

“Yeah.”

“You realize that there is nothing I can do to know if you told her or not,” murmurs Zhongli, nose wrinkling.

“And take advantage of your little slip?” giggles Venti and he shakes his head, a playful glint still in his eyes despite it all. “Maybe I want Jean to decide what she wants to do. Is that so bad?”

“…I suppose not. Do you think your friend would choose her current partner over her soulmate, if presented with the option?”

“Honestly?” Venti imagines a world where Jean would have to choose. However, it’s fool-hardly, because, “She’s probably already sick at the thought of it, knowing her soulmate is in Mondstadt. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy choice for her. And I blame your company for that. If you had just told her about Lisa, or hadn't even given her that false hope…”

“Who’s to say it’s false?”

“And who’s to say someone just stays with their soulmate out of duty? What if they just think they’re in love but they aren’t?" Venti shakes his head with a louder sigh. “That’s the core problem I see with the company. How do you prove someone is your soulmate?”

“It's science,” says Zhongli with a deeper frown.

“So all matters of the heart and mind come down to science?” challenges Venti.

“…More or less.”

“And that’s why you have one, too?”

“Pardon?”

“You have one, too,” says Venti as he points across the booth at Zhongli’s left wrist. “I saw it earlier, and I assume all employees have one. Do you believe that when you meet that person, you’ll love them unconditionally? That they’ll be the person for you for the rest of your life?”

Zhongli is quieter than before. He does not answer immediately. Instead, he checks his phone, presumably the time, and then, “The next time we meet, I will have a consulting agreement for your review. Until then, would you mind accompanying me somewhere?”

Venti isn’t sure why he’s able to claim victory so easily, why bullying one of Celestia’s lawyers comes so easily. There’s a deep-rooted fear that perhaps he isn’t the only one playing games, toying the other party around, but Venti pushes that down for the time-being. For now, he forces another smile and tilts his head to the side.

“Depends. Where did you have in mind?”

* * *

“So… you like flowers, huh?”

Zhongli stares quietly ahead at the patch of glaze lilies. He holds the handle of the umbrella tightly, shielding the pair of them from the downpour that is otherwise going on around them. The park they’re in is small, but there are a few nicely maintained flower gardens along the walking paths. The ironwork protecting the lilies is just one of the many displays of flowers from Mondstadt and Liyue that is on display, here.

“A late friend of mine was particularly fond of these,” explains Zhongli, his voice barely discernible over the rumbling of thunder.

“…Ah.” Venti thinks of cecilias.

“She never had the opportunity to meet her soulmate,” Zhongli explains, lips lowering into a pensive frown as he keeps his gaze on the long petals and not Venti, “but she encouraged me to follow my heart.”

“And your heart says to work at Celestia?” Venti pries, knowing that he’s treading too close on a second business meeting but he can’t help it; something feels so familiar about Zhongli, something real that isn’t a suit or artificial.

Zhongli glances to the side, then. Amber eyes meet Venti and Venti tenses all over again. “Your friend, the one that things didn’t work out for. I don’t know the particulars, but … I am sorry that happened to you, and to him.”

Venti’s gaze falls to the raindrops falling from the edges of the umbrella. “Shit happens,” says Venti and he feels his heart clench tighter at how utterly blasphemous those words are. No, Celestia deserved to pay for what it did to him, to Venti

“Today would have been her birthday,” Zhongli says as he looks back to the lilies. “So, I think our meeting is serendipitous. She always challenged the world around her. Perhaps she sent you to that office to remind me to always question the world, too.”

Venti ignores the swirl of emotions in his chest and the tornado in his stomach. His hands fist at his sides and he tries not to remember nights spent crying at the loss of a friend, of a first love, of lost hopes and dreams and —

“We got off on the wrong foot,” admits Zhongli and when he speaks, there’s less formality than ever before. “I would genuinely like to work with you on this. I think it will do the world good. I truly believe that.”

Venti takes a breath, counts to five, and then says, more hesitantly, “Thanks for giving me a chance. Not many people do.”

They stand in silence after that, as the rain falls, admiring the glaze lilies.