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in a minute, there is time

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Time passes in the blink of an eye.

Venti only remembers the day he met Zhongli because it had been circled on the calendar at Madame Ping’s: start of chestnut praline season. Venti distinctly recalls the disdain he had felt and the venom he had tasted when he met the seasoned corporate lawyer. He remembered it almost as well as the pain on Jean’s face and the way she held his hand the entire dreary cab-ride home from Celestia.

But in a month, a lot changes. Jean has gone from single, to hopeful, to dating her soulmate’s roommate, back to single; the three of them had decided to press pause for the indefinite future, lest their working relationship and friendship be tarnished from further twists and turns.

But Venti sees it, the irreversible harm that has been caused to Jean, Lisa and Mona. And he wonders if any of them can ever truly be happy again in the arms of someone, anyone.

As for Venti? Well, his game of sabotage has continued, but with lackluster results.

Zhongli and the others at Celestia don’t allow him close enough to their computers, nor does the company as a whole grant him access to archives and the type of information he needs to truly make a dent in the corporation. It’s a boring day-to-day, working minimal hours and being scrutinized by Zhongli who can see the growing controversy behind Venti’s eyes.

But it’s not all bad.

* * *

“Now, I would personally recommend the vanilla and lavender together, but if you’re looking for something a touch more masculine…”

Lisa hovers over Venti’s shoulder, admiring the piles of lavender and the vial of vanilla he’s plucked from her bin of ingredients. Venti’s concentrated expression doesn’t falter as he surveys the bubbling wax that is nearly liquified.

“That’s fine,” says Venti as he spares a cursory glance over his shoulder, “I have no issues with my masculinity, heh.”

Lisa’s snigger comes right at the time Zhongli prematurely drops the orange blossom into his own basin of melted wax. Lisa’s eyes dart over to him with a vexatious glimmer. “Careful, dearie. You’ll burn the blossom and it won’t properly infuse.”

“Yeah, Zhongli. Don’t burn it,” Venti mocks as he nonchalantly knocks shoulders with the man beside him.

The three of them are holed up in Lisa and Mona’s shared kitchen. Mona is out for the evening with a friend from school, leaving Lisa terribly bored and her friends at her mercy. Venti had been on the fence about partaking in the idle activity of candle-making, but it was proving to be both entertaining and more challenging than he had originally thought. And besides, watching a drab lawyer take a pass at something requiring creativity was laughable.

“It’s not burning. It’s hardly boiling,” Zhongli grumbles, brows cutely pinching as his shoulders stiffen.

Venti stifles a laugh into his sleeve as he feigns pushing his bangs out of his eyes. Lisa, on the other hand, is unabashed in her laughter as she leans across the table and plucks the wax-covered blossom from the shallow receptacle. “Just because something does not appear one way does not necessarily mean it is not,” she says.

Zhongli stares rather blankly at her. “That’s not…”

Zhongli exerts an admirable amount of self-restraint stopping himself. He looks back down to the wax, noticing that a fleck of now burnt-blossom is resting at the edge.

“You outsmarted the lawyer!” cheers Venti as he too notices the singed leaflet.

“It’s wax,” Zhongli deadpans.

Their eyes meet over their respective dishes of wax and Venti’s gaze is sunshine and rainbows. Zhongli visibly falters, looks to the side, murmurs something inaudible, and then reaches to collect a vial of sandalwood.

“A good choice,” Lisa says, waving a hand as if to dispel the tangibly mounting sexual frustration in the room. Rather than cut it with a knife, she much prefers to shoo it away. “Sandalwood can be very relaxing but also very stimulating. I wonder why you chose it.”

Venti’s brows wiggle and Zhongli knocks his shin under the table. Venti mouths ‘ow’ but then looks to Zhongli again with batted eyelashes and an earnest ear to what he’ll say.

“It reminds me of a friend,” Zhongli says, expression a touch nostalgic as he carefully uncaps the vial and brings it to his nose to welcome the familiar scent. “Among her favorite scents was sandalwood.”

“Glaze lilies were her favorite, right?” Venti asks before he can stop himself.

Zhongli looks to him, then, surprise tinting his eyes. He’s met with an expectant, albeit embarrassed, smile. Hesitating, he says, “…yes, they were. That was her favorite scent and flower, coincidentally.”

Lisa reaches back for the shoebox of vials and meticulously sets two down on the table from it. “If you combine these two, it will be as close to that fragrance as one can get, I humbly suggest.”

Venti wants to joke that nothing about Lisa is humble, which is one of the reasons they get along so great, in addition to her propensity to work hard but never above the bare minimum to do a good job. In the end, he simply peers in interest at the glass flasks.

“Is that so?” Zhongli does not reach for them. “I will keep that in mind, in the future.”

“Is something, or shall I say, someone else, inspiring this spell?” inquires Lisa as she gestures at the wax that is now completely liquid in the pan.

Zhongli’s lips twitch until there is an emergence of a smile. “One could say that, yes,” he says as he reaches for cecilia and wordlessly focuses on the remainder of the candle-making process.

* * *


Venti looks up from his phone. Somehow, he’s managed to open his conversation chain with Zhongli. And somehow, half-listening to Jean and Lisa discuss a new series of mystery novels from across the booth, he’s typed out and sent, ‘At dinner, Do you want to get drinks after?’ The subconscious mind truly knows what it desires.

“Daydreaming?” Lisa teases as she rests a cheek to her palm. “Is it that dreadfully handsome lawyer that you work with?”

Jean’s eyebrows rocket up her forehead. “You mean Zhongli?” she asks, glancing between the varying expressions of her friends. “Lisa, I don’t think Venti…”

A heat blossoms in Venti’s cheeks and he’s quick to lock his phone, but only after checking it again to ensure he hadn’t missed a text. “Daydreaming about teaching him to be less boring? Oh, certainly! I tried to teach him how to write poetry the other day.”

Lisa’s tittering laughter follows. “And how did that go, dear?”

“He wrote about… about rocks.”

“About rocks?” Jean looks as confused as Lisa sounds.

“Yes,” sighs Venti, grousing, “and while I really do support the arts, and it’s really a personal subject, poetry, I don't know what could be poetic about rocks!” He wrings his hands in utter defeat. “Something about sediment and … and I don’t even know what half the words meant.”

Lisa clicks her tongue immediately. “Did you happen to look them up after?”

“No?” Venti found interest in many things - poetry, music, song, but he certainly wasn’t the type to find inspiration in everything. “Should I have?”

“What if that was his, - oh, how do you call him? - blockheaded way of courting you?” Lisa twirls a piece of hair around her finger, ignoring the light kick to her shin under the table from her blonde friend. “At ease, sweet. Can’t you see that we have wayward souls to connect?” She turns to Jean, a mischievous twinkle to her eyes, and Jean straightens in her seat.

“Lisa,” she says, sterner. “Why would Venti want anything to do romantically with an employee of a company that he hates?”
Venti finds himself checking his phone again; no new messages.

“Forbidden love, sweetheart,” Lisa coos as she reaches out to tap Jean on the nose. “It’s a trope as old as time. Why, I can't help but feel invested in this budding romance.” And then she pulls back, slouching in the booth, and takes a long sip of her cocktail. “And besides, the boy is painfully obvious whenever they’re together.”

It’s truly one of those moments that Venti betrays himself and thinks that, maybe, Celestia got it right with Lisa and Jean.

Venti’s gaze lingers on the edge of the table, noticing the placement of Lisa’s hand. Her fingertips are precariously close to Jean’s. Even a slight jostle to the table would knock their hands together. It’s hard not to allow a smug grin to take shape.

“Venti,” Jean tries, reaching for her water and trying to catch her best friend’s gaze. “While I don’t wish to feed into Lisa’s… very active fantasy,” she murmurs, a tint to her cheeks, “you two were awfully close the time you spent the night.”

“I-It was a small bed,” Venti says in his own feeble defense.

“Just one bed,” says Lisa dramatically, and Venti would be grateful someone at the table got the reference if it hadn’t been for the fact the joke was at his own expense. “And you’re still single? My, you both have admirable restraint.”

“We just met,” Venti insists, shifting the topic, even if his heart starts racing at the mere mention of his completely-not-obvious crush on someone he shouldn't have any business finding so fascinating in the first place. “A-and! He has a watch.”

“We’ve heard you go on far too many times about how that doesn’t matter to you,” Lisa chides as she reaches across the table to take both of Venti’s hands in hers; they’re warm, but not as warm as Zhongli’s when he passes him a mug of coffee or a stack of papers. “The real question is, does it matter to him?”

Even if it did, the guilt gnaws at Venti’s stomach and he thinks back to earlier that morning.

* * *

“Behave yourself while I’m gone,” Zhongli is saying as he collects a mountain of red-toned folders and his mug of coffee. He shoots Venti a weary glance, glaring purposely at the way Venti’s feet are unceremoniously thrown up on the corner of Zhongli’s desk.

“What do you think I’m planning on doing?” laughs Venti as he tips his head back to stare at Zhongli’s sturdy and attractive frame in the doorway.

“With you? I’m afraid I can’t ever guess,” mumbles Zhongli but there’s a twitch of a smile and a furrow of his brows. “I’ll be back shortly.”

And he closes the door behind him.

It’s his chance, Venti realizes. It’s his chance to finally get what he came here for, what he signed his soul temporarily away for. A nervous energy vibrates in his cells and for a moment, time stands still. Every single sense is on overdrive as he rises up from the chair and makes his way behind Zhongli’s desk. To both his relief and dismay, the computer is unlocked; he can hear each heartbeat in his ears.

Before he can second-guess a month of work, Venti retrieves a small usb drive from his jeans and nudges it into the available port on the side of the laptop. It takes him a few tries, his trembling hands unable to position the device just right, but the pop-up on the window spells success.

From there, it’s remarkably easy accessing the correct drive on the computer so that he can pull the information he needs. When you have high-security clearance, files are very aptly named and terribly easy to find with a quick search.

It’s just all too easy to grab the information, drop it into a file, and then retrieve the usb. He’s back in his own chair, reclining in repose as if he hadn’t just broken several ethical violations and laws. His heart continues its mad dash and he finds himself staring at the ceiling, usb in his pocket, thumb rubbing against the edge of it.

He needed to think about this, how to use this, where to go from here. He couldn't rush this. No, he needed time to calculate the best possible plan.

He ignores the yearning in his heart that maybe, just maybe, he's not ready to say goodbye to Zhongli yet.

The world is too cruel.

* * *

Venti spends an inordinate amount of time checking his phone for the remainder of the evening. Even when he’s returned to his flat, washed his face, brushed his teeth and slipped into comfortable sweats does he still check the text chain. Nothing ever comes.

There’s an inexplicable nagging in the back of his head that either he’s fucked it up by coming on too strongly or that Zhongli realizes what he did earlier that morning. Either is a disconcerting thought and Venti closes his eyes to focus on something other than the acetous taste in his mouth.

He hadn’t used the information he stole. Not yet. Part of him wonders if he even should and what it’d mean for Zhongli if Celestia were able to trace the culprit back to Zhongli’s computer. Would they think Zhongli had gone rogue and fire him, or would they accuse him of being an improper lawyer that couldn't even protect his client’s sensitive and confidential information?

And if Zhongli hadn’t caught on yet, then maybe his silence meant he been repulsed by the request for drinks. Venti had clearly told Zhongli before leaving that day that he was having drinks with Jean and Lisa and to wish for the best, so surely the man knew Venti wasn’t desperate for company. No, his request could have only come off as borderline clingy or persistent.

Which — shouldn’t matter. Realistically speaking, the subterfuge was the least of his concerns. Zhongli had a watch, worked for a company that touted off the miracles of soulmates, and further, he was a well-adjusted adult. Venti wasn’t any of those things.

He falls asleep dreaming of sandalwood and a warm hand in his hair.

* * *

Venti wakes to a text.

from: that old sellout
Good morning. I apologize for my tardy response. I do not usually check my phone. Next time, if you would like, please feel free to call me.

Venti is honestly surprised he doesn’t sign the message with a, ‘Regards, Zhongli.’ Still, it brings a smile to his sleepy face and it’s a herculean effort to sit up and leave the safety of the blankets of his bed. It’s cold in the flat - he can’t quite afford to leave the heat on all the time - and the world is just as cold. Still, he forces himself out of bed and into the tiny bathroom, phone dangling from his hand.

from: that old sellout
If you’d like, we can plan for drinks this evening. I am free.

Today will be better. It has to be.

* * *

And it is. To some degree.

Venti stares at the glossy elevator doors in the lobby of Celestia. He’s five minutes late, coffee in hand, and wearing a scarf that’s nearly as large as him. He looks terribly out of place in a sea of suits and professional banter but he does his best to ignore it as he shuffles in like a sheep to the elevator once it reaches the ground floor.


Venti turns his head, ripping an earbud out. Only then does he notice a mess of fiery red hair and warm eyes. “Diluc!” he says, unforgivably loud for the early hour. When half the elevator winces for a laundry-list of reasons, Venti says, a bit more respectably, “Good morning. I didn’t know you took these elevators.”

Diluc lifts a brow. “How else would I get to my office?”

“Helicopter,” says Venti and then cheekily adds, “or, honestly, I just thought you had your own private elevator in the back of the building so you could sneak in and out without people bombarding you for answers on things.”

Diluc’s expression is inexplicably amused. A rare chuckle spills from the executive’s lips and several people look towards them, as if it's the first time they’ve heard it. Perhaps it is.

“I’ll keep that in mind for future renovations,” says Diluc, dryly, but with a budding smile. “How are you liking your consulting work?”

What a loaded question, Venti thinks, but then smiles anyway. “Like I said, it’s been really nice working with Zhongli. He's really passionate about the mission of the company, yanno? And while he’s as dry as the desert, he knows his stuff. He’s even teaching me what force majeure means.”

Diluc cocks a brow higher. “Why would he need to teach you that?”

“In the event there’s a wild flood that wipes out all technology and renders humanity without a reason for watches,” Venti giggles.

A woman coughs loudly, trying to hide a laugh. Venti merely beams.

“Hm.” Diluc leans back against the elevator some more. “I think that would be the least of anyone’s troubles. At any rate, I’m glad you two are getting along. You’ve never seemed the type to like rules or authority.”

Venti’s laugh is brighter, louder. “What gave it away? No, honestly, he’s great. I mean it.”

There’s a beep that signals that they’ve reached their floor. The other employees shuffle out, leaving the pair of them standing in the doors of the elevator. Venti is about to say goodbye and slink away to his office, but Diluc’s steady hand on his upper arm stops him.

“Would you like to get dinner? Tonight?”

Venti’s eyes land to the watch. “Tonight…? Um…” He wants to say that he has plans, wants to spend as much time with the blockheaded lawyer as he can, but his throat goes dry and he blinks helplessly at his friend and ultimate boss. Half-heartedly, he laughs. “Um. I actually…”

Before he can finish, Zhongli miraculously appears at the end of the hall. He looks to be in the middle of something, but that doesn’t stop Venti from loudly shouting, “Zhongli! Good morning!”

Zhongli pivots abruptly, nearly colliding with an assistant. His expression is bewildered and it looks as if he’s brewing a scolding for being late, again, but when his eyes land on Diluc, on the way the man holds on to Venti's arm, there's a flicker of something else.

“Zhongli! I was just telling Diluc we have dinner plans tonight!” he shouts for the whole reception area to hear.

Zhongli bristles and hurries over, ignoring the murmurs as his cheeks redden. “Venti, you needn’t shout,” he reprimands and then looks restlessly to Diluc. “… Good morning. I am sorry if he’s causing you any trouble.”

Diluc lets go of Venti and crosses his arms. “He’s been causing me trouble for years. It’s fine.” And then a bit more seriously, “if the two of you have plans, we can go some other time.”

Zhongli looks to Venti who merely smiles at them both. “Diluc wanted to go to dinner, too.”

“Ah,” says Zhongli, slow, unsteady. “We can always reschedule, Venti…”

“It’s fine.” Diluc shakes his head. “I’ll have Liam put something on our calendars for this week.” A nod at Venti and then his eyes rove back to Zhongli who looks as red as a tomato. “Are you all right?”

Zhongli snaps out of his daze and hurriedly stands up straighter. “I am. I was simply caught off guard by the shouting.” A poignant glance at Venti who is mercilessly grinning. “I’ll have the brief on the Littegen case to you shortly.”

“Thanks.” And then Diluc nods at them both one last time and heads down the hall to his office.

Venti watches him go, eyes for once not on the man’s ass. When he disappears around a corner, he turns his attention back to Zhongli. He expects exasperation or anger, but all he sees is conflicting emotions that don’t have a name. Venti’s smile finally falters.

“Are you okay?” he asks, gentler than Diluc had.

“If you preferred to have dinner with him, tonight, I really do not mind rescheduling. I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Zhongli answers, quieter than before, and he doesn’t meet Venti’s gaze.

Venti isn’t sure if it’s out of duty, fear of his job, or something else that makes Zhongli look so vulnerable. He both likes and hates it. So, he shuffles closer and playfully knocks their arms together, hands dangerously close. “Nu-uh. You asked me first. Fair is fair.” And then, a bit louder, “aren’t you going to yell at me for being late? Hmm, hmm?”

Zhongli’s smile is brighter this time. With a chuckle, he says, “not this time.”

* * *

Dinner turns back into drinks, as Venti steers them over to bar-seating rather than a traditional booth or table. Zhongli doesn’t need to mind, following after him without so much as a complaint. When they reach the bar stools, Zhongli pulls Venti’s out for him, which in itself is a ludicrous sight.

“Oh, look at you, mister gentleman!” laughs Venti but he happily hops onto the stool and crosses his legs down by his ankles. As Zhongli sits, Venti reaches for the drink list and proudly flourishes it. “Pick whatever you want! It’s on me, this time.”

Zhongli snorts as he goes to hold the other side of the menu so that Venti stops waving it around. “Are you certain? What if I ordered top-shelf liquor?”

“Then I would suffer the consequences of my foolhardiness, ehe. It wouldn’t be the first time,” says Venti, unfazed, as he holds the list a little tighter. “What looks good to you? Oh, I’m thinking the first one! It even has a flaming lime!”

“I’m sorry, a what?”

“Oh, Zhongli…”

* * *

It’s their second round of Ghosts of Hot Pat by the time Zhongli seems to loosen up.

“Do you even like tequila?” asks Venti as he blows out the fire in the husk of the lime floating at the top of his drink.

“Not usually,” Zhongli admits as he admires the flames for just a little while longer. “I don’t dislike it. I simply don’t drink often, is all. When I do, it is more traditionally, and often wines from Liyue.”

“Mm, so you’re as old as your law books. Got it,” teases Venti as he stares at the fire in the shell of Zhongli’s lime. “It’s going to burn all the alcohol off. That’s half the reason to get it. You’re wounding me letting this happen.”

So Zhongli lets it happen even longer.

Venti’s whine is pitiful as he chugs his own drink halfway to the bottom. “I don’t even know you!” he laments.


Zhongli smirks and then finally blows out the fire. It’s with a scary seriousness that he does it, eyes half-shut and lips pursed as he brings the glass to his lips. Scary may just be a creative word for sexy, because admitting that someone blowing on a lime is sexy is just too much for Venti’s tipsy mind to accept in that moment. But stars, is Zhongli attractive. Beautiful in a rough and rouge way. Venti finds his ankles unlocking and his left foot treading precariously closer to his coworker’s.

“Will you sing for me, sometime?” asks Zhongli, completely derailing Venti’s scandalous thoughts of fabrics on the floor and heated skin brushing against skin.

“What?” Venti blinks owlishly at him. “Why would you want that…?”

“Music is important to you,” says Zhongli with confidence. “And you seem to have an affinity for most instruments. If it wouldn’t be too much of a burden, I would greatly enjoy it if you would play for me sometime.”

“Like… in private?” asks Venti, dumbly, the words rolling around in his mouth like pebbles.


Venti’s face heats and he swears someone is fucking with the thermostat. He doesn’t remember being this giddy, this nervously excited, in years. At this rate, he’s abandoned all hope that he doesn’t have a thing for the so-called enemy, and now it’s just a matter of trying to keep it in check before it all blows up in his face. For the first time that day, he ignores the guilt for a million things gone array in his life and instead focuses on the heady look in Zhongli’s eyes as he reaches for his glass of water.

But then his eyes land on that watch that is obscured by the edge of Zhongli’s sleeve. The unlit face stares back at Venti, warningly, and Venti recoils as if he’s been burnt. His ankles lock back together and he takes a considerable chug of his drink.

“What do you think they’re like?” Venti asks to drive the stake harder into his heart, to remind himself why he can’t have this.

“Who?” Zhongli sets down his water.

Venti begs himself not to do it, but he can’t control himself, no longer in control of his own actions, “Your soulmate. The one with the watch that matches yours. What do you envision they’re like?”

Zhongli hesitates again, much like he did earlier in Celestia. He subconsciously tugs his sleeve back over the edge of his watch, completely obscuring it from view. “Those are two different questions, Venti.”

“Are they, though?” persists Venti as he feels his stomach drop as if he’s on a rollercoaster. “Have you never really given it thought? Isn’t that the point of getting that thing?”

Zhongli closes his eyes, and for a second, Venti feels both relief and agony. Good, he thinks. Good, he’s managed to upset him, deter him from any mild attraction budding between the two of them. There’s no room for a half-assed musician and part-time barista to play house with a successful lawyer for one of the biggest conglomerates in the world. There’s so much that’s different between them, so many secrets and lies, Venti tells himself, that it’d never work.

And besides, a younger part of Venti screeches, he’s not him. He’ll never be him.

He doesn’t deserve Zhongli. And Zhongli —

“The watch is off,” Zhongli says, unhurried. “It has not yet turned on.”

“I can see that.”

“The partner to this watch,” Zhongli continues, eyes reopening and staring ahead at the bottles of liquor behind the counter, “either is dead, or has not received the implant.”

Venti winces at the reminder of death. “Yeah.”

“I do not spend time imagining what the person on the other end of this technology is like,” Zhongli tells him, looking down to it and then over to Venti, finally.

Venti’s stomach lurches when he notices where Zhongli's eyes are — his lips. Venti subconsciously wets his and lets go of a shaky laugh that holds years of torment and uncertainty. He curls his hands into nervous fists in his lap. “Then what do you spend your time thinking about, silly?”

“As of late?” Zhongli asks the air, the dim light of the bar, and the smell of tequila from their mouths and drinks. He leans closer, into Venti’s personal space, and he places a hand warmly to Venti’s bare wrist where a watch will never be. “You,” he admits, fingertips pressing to skin, not metal.

Time seems to stop in a cliche way that Venti can only think has happened once before in his life. He doesn’t dwell on that moment — it’s too sad, too empty — and instead admires the slope of Zhongli’s neck and the way his hair is tipped at the very ends. He lives and grounds himself in this moment, this little blip of time that is moving slower than anything ever has.

“Me,” Venti echoes, his voice sounding far away as he leans off the edge of his stool, knees knocking with Zhongli’s, the tip of his nose just barely grazing Zhongli’s. “Are you drunk?”

“Not quite,” Zhongli whispers, each word breathed against Venti’s lips like a solemn promise. “Are you?”

“No,” Venti affirms and then allows himself the guiltiest pleasure of a first kiss.

Zhongli cradles the back of his head with both a gentleness and eagerness that Venti can’t find himself finding any fault in. Venti, on the other hand, spends his time clinging to the front of Zhongli’s blazer, feeling the fine fabric between his fingers as he learns what Zhongli’s lips feel like against his. They’re rough, in a nice way, not super soft but also not chapped. They’re warm, exceedingly warm, and his mouth is much larger than Venti’s which makes for a consuming kiss that leaves Venti weak in the knees and grateful that they’re seated for this tumultuous moment.

There’s a brush of tongue to the seam of his lips, tasting of tequila, and Venti nearly feverishly whines. It’s a lot. Maybe it’s too much. But even so, he wants it.

“I’ll get the check,” Zhongli whispers against Venti’s mouth, which sends sparks up and down his spine and heat pooling in the pit of Venti’s stomach.

“M-mmkay. Yeah, do that,” he says, stupidly, blinking open his eyes as Zhongli pulls back to calmly retrieve his wallet and set down his card. Venti doesn’t argue that he said he was going to pay this round. Instead, he just nervously, and admittedly excitedly, waits for the waiter to come by.

“Sorry for the wait,” says the bartender as he grabs for the card. “Are you seeing this shit?”

Venti wonders if he meant their kissing, and the bratty part of him wants to give him even more of a show. When Venti comes back to his senses, he notices the bartender is holding a remote and pointing at the television.

“Oh,” says Venti, slowly, gut dropping to the floor.

Zhongli’s expression pales all the same. “That…”

On the screen is a man with light blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and a royal blue suit. His eyes are cold and the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen read: