It’s problematic that Venti can’t decide what hurts more to watch: Zhongli or the news broadcast.
Zhongli watches the headline scroll across the bottom of the screen twice before he remembers he exists. His hand gropes for his phone. When he retrieves it from his pocket, the screen must show something grim, because Venti can’t remember the last time someone’s face has drained that quickly of all color.
After that, Zhongli is frantically thumbing replies to emails and texts. Venti can’t ignore the slight shake to Zhongli’s hands.
“Hey, if you need to go,” Venti starts, throat dry as his eyes flit between the screen and the man he kissed moments ago, “it’s okay. I won’t be offended. You, um. Seem pretty busy.”
Zhongli then seems to remember that Venti exists, too. He lifts his gaze from his phone and that usual stoic expression shows only panic; Zhongli’s knuckles are turning white.
“I — yes, that’s for the best,” says Zhongli.
They rise from their barstools at the same time. Zhongli pockets his wallet but his phone doesn’t leave his hands. Venti catches him dragging his fingers down repeatedly, refreshing his inbox, waiting. Venti’s stomach churns.
When they make it outside into the brisk night air, Venti hurriedly flags down a taxi. While ride-sharing may be more economical, Venti suspects that the firestorm Zhongli is handling on his phone merits the extra fare.
As the cab pulls up, Venti shifts his weight from foot to foot. Zhongli has barely spoken a word, brow pinched and occasionally exhaling through his nose in consternation. Venti begins to wonder just how many of Zhongli’s little quirks and tells Venti has managed to discover since meeting him.
“So, here’s your ride,” Venti supplies, gesturing to the cab as it splashes through a puddle and stops ahead of them.
Zhongli leaves the world inside his phone and blinks over at Venti. “Oh.” And then a bit more intelligently, “Thank you, Venti. I’ll make it up to you.”
Venti’s cheeks betray him, flushing pink. “It’s fine, dummy. Things happen.”
Zhongli’s smile is fragile. “Still. I hadn’t expected things to end like this tonight.”
Venti laughs and rubs at the back of his neck. “Same here. But if you go and ghost me after this, I know where your office is. And I have a badge that gets me near it, too!” Venti jests.
Zhongli’s expression softens. As he reaches for the door to the cab, Venti feels his world spinning backwards again. A cold fear seeps in through his skin and he grabs for Zhongli. Small fingers curl around a much stronger wrist and Venti counts to three. On two, Zhongli has turned his head to look back at him.
“I could come with you,” says Venti, in one breath. And then in a second breath, he adds, “To keep you company. I don’t mind. We can even get drunk after, to take your mind off it. I’ve been told I’m a top-notch distraction.”
So they go.
* * *
Zhongli disappears into the bedroom, answering a call as he steps through the door. His voice is low, on edge, and Venti wishes he could fix that, too, but Zhongli closes the door behind him and Venti is left to awkwardly fuss around the living area of the apartment.
Venti makes note that Zhongli keeps his apartment cold. It isn’t too much of a surprise, considering how hot Zhongli seems to run, whenever Venti can find an excuse to get his hands on him.
It doesn’t take long for Venti to find a decanter of some clear alcohol tucked away in a corner in the kitchen. He helps himself to it, pouring a splash to smell it - gin, ah - and then retrieves an unopened bottle of tonic from the fridge. The fridge, Venti learns, is stacked comprehensively and is surprisingly devoid of takeout containers.
With drink in hand, Venti collapses on Zhongli’s couch that feels much too large for one person.
Temptation gets the better of him and he begins to scroll through social media. The news is everywhere; Venti hardly has to go looking for it.
From what he can gather, the vigilante group had gained information about a large number of Celestia’s customers. The news was vague, but some questionable sources suggest that it includes contact information, birthdays, and even credit card information. Venti isn’t a lawyer, but he suspects any combination of that would be highly problematic in the wrong hands.
“Yikes,” he murmurs as he takes a sip of his drink that’s admittedly mostly gin. He can only begin to imagine the legal mess Zhongli is marching through on the other side of the door.
And then Venti’s mind wanders.
He hadn’t given the information to anyone. He hadn’t had a chance to. The usb he used was newly purchased, so the chances of it having malware on it was negligible. But the timing? Terribly uncanny. It couldn’t just be a coincidence, and the thought that things had potentially spiraled out of control without Venti being the ringleader is … daunting.
And hadn’t he been second-guessing things? Hadn’t he been willing to give Zhongli a chance, to work with him and try to improve Celestia from the inside out? While he could never forgive the corporation, he didn’t necessarily need to sabotage Zhongli — Venti could have found another way.
Zhongli appears in the doorway like a ghost. He’s loosely holding his phone between his fingers, at his side, and his eyes are devoid of color.
“Hey,” says Venti, softly, trying to meet that weary gaze. “Can I get you a drink?”
Zhongli doesn’t answer, not at first. He looks to the device nimbly held between his index and middle fingers and he says, gravely, “They sent it to outside counsel.”
Venti blinks. “What do you mean?”
“My boss,” Zhongli starts, his words for the first time seeming stilted, “sent the work that I could have done, that usually is my area of expertise, to a law firm that we usually work with on larger cases. She couldn’t reach me for over an hour, so she made the decision on my behalf to send it to the firm to begin work as soon as possible.”
Venti’s heart drops. “Zhongli, I…”
Zhongli isn’t there. “It’ll cost the company thousands. A needless expense, something avoidable had I…”
Venti sets his glass down and rises from the couch. He heads over and quickly reaches for Zhongli’s free hand. “Because you didn’t look at your phone for an hour? After your normal hours ended? Please don’t tell me you’re blaming yourself for any of this.”
Zhongli doesn’t answer, gaze avoidant.
“Zhongli,” Venti tries again, curling his fingers in the gaps between Zhongli’s. “I can tell you’re proud of what you do. That your job means a lot to you. But you can’t be mad at yourself for having a life outside of it. You weren’t being reckless. You were being human.”
“You didn’t have to come over,” Zhongli says, finally lifting his gaze to meet Venti’s. “Even I can tell that I’m terrible company right now. I wouldn’t be offended if you went home.”
Venti’s laugh is light. Gently, he brings their adjoined hands up to his lips and lays a warm kiss to each knuckle, one by one. Long lashes brush across his cheeks and he sets his eyes back on Zhongli’s that seem to be retrieving some of their amber hue.
“Do you have to monitor your phone any more tonight?” Venti asks, voice soft.
Zhongli’s laugh is self-deprecating. “No. There’s nothing more for me to do until tomorrow morning when we have a briefing in the office.”
“Then,” Venti whispers, reaching for Zhongli’s phone. He takes it, turns it off silent, and places it over on the nearby television stand. His other hand never leaves Zhongli’s. “Watch a movie with me until you get so tired you can’t keep yourself up with worry?”
Zhongli reluctantly looks from the phone and then back to Venti. “I ought to sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Venti wrinkles his nose. He lifts up on his toes and breezes their mouths together, reclaiming that same excitement and energy from the bar a mere hour ago. He’s surprised to find no hesitation. Instead, Zhongli moves his lips warmly against Venti’s, seizing his bottom lip between his as his free hand cups Venti’s hip.
“Trying to get rid of me?” Venti giggles against their mouths, heart beating faster, faster.
“Of course not,” Zhongli says and squeezes that hip, tugs Venti closer, flush against his body. “Do you realize the restraint it takes after what happened at the bar?”
Venti’s lips curl into a broader grin and he feels Zhongli’s breath hitch against his. “Who says you need to hold back, hm?” And then Venti dares to deepen the kiss, brush his tongue against the seam of Zhongli’s. Zhongli lets him, goes so easily, and Venti tastes their drinks from earlier that evening and the danger on his lips.
Everything feels right and the world and troubles feel millions of miles away. Venti has always been a fan of the cliche and romantic, even if he’s shut himself off from feeling it personally, but in this moment, he believes every single love ballad and poem he’s penned. He can feel Zhongli’s pulse, can feel every cell inside of him lighting up like stars and supernovas going off across galaxies.
“I promise we can just sleep,” Venti says between kisses, his heart fluttering up his chest and into his throat. “I won’t keep you up late.”
“It’s late,” Zhongli agrees, nips the corner of Venti’s lips curiously. “I would feel better if you stayed. It’s safer.”
“Safer, hm? In your bed?” Venti laughs, presumptuously, and when he sees a deep red spread across Zhongli's cheeks, Venti is backpedaling at the speed of light. “Um! If you’re okay with that? I can crash on the couch, or…”
Zhongli kisses him, hard, and then eases it with a gentler kiss to his mouth and then the tip of his nose. “I’d like that, if you stayed. I’ll find something for you to sleep in.”
When he pulls away, heading to the bedroom, this time there is life in his eyes and his movements. Venti watches him with a dry mouth. Sharing a bed with Zhongli, again, but this time he’s allowed to touch, to taste. To some degree, anyway, Venti thinks begrudgingly. With how long they’ve been flirting, Venti feels immensely pent-up and he wonders just what Zhongli would do with him, to him had they not been interrupted by the world burning around them. It leaves an ache in Venti’s chest and deep inside of him.
* * *
Venti slumps groggily onto his desk, trying not to fall back asleep. He still smells faintly of the shampoo and body wash he had borrowed from Zhongli, and he feels his lips still tingling from where they had shared a long good morning kiss in bed before Zhongli pulled away to take a shower first.
Last night had felt like a dream. Nothing scandalous had happened, but Venti thinks perhaps that’s what makes it even more embarrassing to recall. It had been domestic, sweet, soft. As if they had been dating for months and were comfortable enough in each other’s arms not to rush and sloppily seek sexual satisfaction and release.
… not like Venti hadn’t been interested. When Zhongli returned from the shower, Venti could make out the shape and size of him. There was a lot to admire.
Venti lifts his head and meets the confused gaze of Diluc. “Diluc?” Venti dumbly echoes.
“You’re here early,” Diluc comments, stopping in front of his desk, a file in his arms. “Are we paying you for that?” A twitch of a smirk.
Venti blinks owlishly at him. How can he possibly be in a good mood when his company is on the chopping block? And furthermore — “Shouldn’t you be at that briefing?”
Diluc lifts a brow at him. “How did you know about that?”
Venti’s mind screeches to a dead halt as he curls fists in his lap. Fuck, fuck, fuck. “I mean, I saw it on the news and everything! I figured you’d be… be really busy today!”
Diluc observes him for a moment longer before he chuckles and looks to the side. “Ningguang was furious with Zhongli this morning. I think I can fit the pieces together, now.”
Venti’s cheeks blaze red and he asks without thinking, “Is that his boss?”
“It is.” Diluc nods and meets Venti’s flustered stare. “He’s never missed an email or call in the years he’s been working here. I figured a certain bad influence had rubbed off on him.”
Venti nearly expires because of the wording. “Shhhhhh,” he says, louder than necessary despite the two of them being the only ones in the office at this hour. “It’s not… I mean… We were having a drink!”
Venti isn’t sure what’s worse: that Diluc, his former crush, is ruthlessly teasing him for his current romantic entanglement, or, if Diluc, the president of the company that pays Venti, knows about his romantic affair with a coworker and supervisor.
Diluc lifts a brow at him. “Just speculation,” he assures him and then takes a slow step away from Venti’s desk. “Go get some coffee, Venti.”
And then he leaves down the hall.
* * *
During working hours, Venti snoops around on social media for more breadcrumbs and texts Lisa, Mona and Jean about varying topics that all do not eventually lead to his romantic first kiss with a certain lawyer. Lisa is hardly surprised, Mona wonders if it was just a kiss, and Jean demands that the three of them have dinner together when Zhongli’s schedule is less chaotic.
It’s only when Zhongli clasps the back of his chair, mindful not to skim Venti’s shoulder, that Venti meets the eyes he thinks he may be inexplicably falling in love with.
“Hey you,” says Venti, softly, ignorant to the world around him as the office slowly begins to filter out. “How are you?”
It’s a loaded question but Venti feels domestic enough to ask.
“Are you certain you want the answer to that?” murmurs Zhongli as his hand falls in the space between them; it’s too far away. “I can catch you up on as much as I’m allowed to over dinner, if you don’t have any plans.”
Venti perks up, even if he’s more tired than he’s been in years. “Dinner sounds nice…!” And then, a bit shyer, “Can we meet there, though? I want to go get changed.”
Zhongli’s lips twist up in a rare smirk. “Ah… yes. Wearing the same shirt three days in a row would be noticeable.”
Three days! Venti’s ears burn red. “B-blockhead!” And he swats at the man’s arm, even after the chuckles that warm the air. “Text me a place and I’ll be there in just under an hour, ok?”
Despite the bags under his eyes and large stack of paperwork visible at the corner of Zhongli’s desk in his office, he smiles. “All right. I’ll see you soon.”
* * *
Good evening. It has come to our attention that you may be interested in joining forces. Your efforts to expose the misdeeds of Celestia have not gone unnoticed, nor unappreciated. As you have probably seen, we are one step ahead of you. That, of course, is not to say we couldn’t use a helping hand.
We know what they have taken from you.
We know what lives have been stolen and lies buried and covered up for the sake of profit.
We know that love was never the reason.
Don’t let a pretty face convince you otherwise.
After all, doesn’t he have a watch, too?
Venti drops his phone in his sink.
* * *
Venti is trying his best to be a supportive date partner. Really, he is. Asking about Zhongli’s day and his big project seems like what a considerate person would do. On the other hand…
“Put simply, the associates at the law firm are combing through our standard documents to see what limits of liability we have, as well as any potential waivers or release of claims. There’s a smaller subset of contracts that need to be reviewed for indemnification purposes, in the event we are sued by any third-parties tangentially related to the leak, but—” Zhongli pauses, meeting Venti’s gaze that is indeed glazing over. “They said they will have the full suite of documents reviewed by tomorrow morning, so we can assess what the potential cost of a lawsuit will be. There likely will be a class action, depending on the types of damages claimed.”
Venti slowly nods. “Wow.” A pause. “So is that… is that good news?”
Zhongli takes a sip of his water. “It’s too early to tell, but from my brief review of our standard templates, I think we have a good defense. There hasn’t been any reports from our vendors that the information has been used inappropriately. It’s hard to discern what exactly was released and into whose hands.”
“Huh.” Venti looks down to his menu. “Is there any chance it’s more of a publicity thing? A scare tactic?”
“It could be,” Zhongli agrees but then sighs. “Either way, it’s a public relations nightmare.”
“Sounds it.” Venti doesn’t want to say that Celestia deserves it, that the company ought to have this much bad buzzing about it. For the sake of their date, he resists being a brat. “Was your boss any nicer to you today?”
Zhongli pinches his brow, but only for a brief moment. “She isn’t pleased, but she seems less severe than she was last night.”
“Maybe you overreacted?” Venti jests, lightly knocking his foot under the table.
Zhongli rolls his eyes. “This type of mistake is career-ending at times, Venti.”
“But you’re a super lawyer!” Venti reaches for one of Zhongli’s hands. It’s so warm and Venti forgets so much about how they even met in the first place. “You convinced me, of all people, to work for you! You’re the best at negotiating, so I’m sure your contracts are air-tight, heh.”
Venti’s eyes wander to the watch on Zhongli’s wrist that is barely visible. The reminder of it makes his stomach churn; the only solace is that the face is off, that it hasn’t cut on, that there’s a chance — His cheeks stain pink at where his brain is taking him.
His mind brings him back to the email from earlier. That same sinking feeling that he had been integral in the very act that is causing Zhongli so much grief resurfaces. Had the information he stolen been hacked by the group and now he was being courted by them for his hard work? It made him feel sick.
But it also made him feel conflicted.
The grim reminder of what had been stolen from him was something he couldn’t ignore. As much as he liked Zhongli, Celestia couldn’t be forgiven, and this was all perhaps the tip of an iceberg.
“Venti? Are you all right?”
Venti looks up from his water, realizing he had been spacing out. Had Zhongli been saying something? Venti apologetically smiles and then takes a long sip of his water, wishing their wine had already been ordered and was there instead.
“I… apologize, if it’s too soon,” murmurs Zhongli, hesitant, pensive. “But after last night, this morning, I can’t help but be certain of it.”
Oh, yes. He had certainly missed something.
Zhongli clears his throat, awkwardly adjusting his sleeves. “You can take your time with an answer, of course. I won’t pressure you.”
An answer? “W-wait. Did you just ask me out?” Weren’t they already out on a date? No, this sounded more serious. Should he amend his question. “Like, to be your boyfriend?” Dumb.
Zhongli’s eyes widen. “What? Ah, no, that’s… I was saying that I spoke with the human resources group and they wanted to extend you an offer to join as a full time employee, rather than as a consultant. You’d have benefits.”
Venti pales and he chugs the rest of his water. “H-haha! Of course!” Panic. “I was just joking, of course I heard you say that, dummy. I was just — ” Being an absolute lovesick fool. Hideous.
Zhongli’s expression borders pensive again but before Venti can melt into his chair in shame, Zhongli reaches across the table and closes a hand over Venti’s. “Yours isn’t a bad idea, either. If you meant it as a proposition, I would gladly accept.”
Who says it that way? Venti blushes, his heart leaping out of him and tap-dancing on the goddamn table as he feels heat bleeding into him from where Zhongli holds him. What a way to back your crush into asking you out and making it seem like you were the one doing it. Yikes!
“This is not at all how I imagined this would go,” Venti protests, a tiny pout on his lips. He sees the light in Zhongli’s eyes and he knows he’s gone and said something again. When he realizes what, Venti’s smile is tiny, nervous, but hopeful. “Yeah. I’ve thought about it, before. You asking me out,” he whispers.
“We’ll need to disclose it,” says Zhongli who of course thinks of the practical first, but then adds, “but nothing would make me happier. Venti.”
Venti isn’t sure how he’s charmed this guy, how he’ll continue to charm him if he’s ever found out, or how to handle that troublesome email, but in this moment, all he can see is the gold flecks in Zhongli’s eyes.
“Then yeah. Yeah, I’ll be your boyfriend. Someone needs to keep you from working yourself to death.”
And that’s how Venti ended up formally dating the lawyer responsible for handling the fallout of the data leak that would eventually implicate Venti in a scandal that was years in the making.