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in a minute, there is time

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★ PROLOGUE ★

It happens way too often.

One moment, Venti will be foaming milk with the flair of an artist, and the next, a loud series of gasps and claps will pull his attention in a completely different direction. It’s usually always the girl that starts crying. She’ll usually clasp her hands over her mouth as she stares unbelieving at the wrist of the stranger she has just met. Her eyes won’t move from the 'watch'. Sometimes, if she’s wearing glasses, Venti can see the red numbers flashing in their reflection.

00:00:00

Venit doesn’t begrudge them. Not really. He supposes if he were a young woman meeting the destined love of her life, he’d be ecstatic. Surely these women have waited all their lives for this very moment. Only recently did they learn of the exact time, down to the very second.

And Venti supposes they’ve all planned their weddings and first dates and honeymoons. Probably in that order of importance. And maybe they’ve dreamed up what their soulmate would look like. That one, Venti thinks, is dangerous if reality falls flat.

Expectations in love, like most things, are bad for the heart.

Since he started working at the little bistro, Venti has seen it happen ten times. Ten times in a year and a half. Venti wonders if he should press the owner to put it on a cute poster on the window to lure in more customers; he can see it now, “SENDING YOU A WHOLE LATTE LOVE” and then in less impressive font, “come meet the one as you decide what delicious and freshly baked item to try!” and then in even smaller font “disclaimer: you are not guaranteed to meet your soul mate, and we make no representation or warranty to that effect.

Ah, love.

Venti winces as his hand slips from the cup. Steam seeps from the corner and creates a nasty burn on the tip of his index finger. Figures that’s the one he uses the most when he plays.

“Venti, are you all right?”

Venti glances over to the manager. She’s the daughter of a dear colleague of the owner and is as meticulous as they come. A warm heart, once you breakthrough her business-focused mind. Pretty, blonde and absolutely not obsessed with the wrist-implant phenomena of love.

(That one is a lie. Venti saw her watch, once, and it was unlit and, to his knowledge, hasn’t started counting down since. Perpetual oblivion.)

The numbers correspond to days, hours and then minutes. There’s a fine art to it, not being able to predict further than three months and some odd change, and Venti is not one to read the literature on it.

After all, he doesn’t believe in it.

“Heh, just a little burn! Not to worry, Jean!” says Venti as he quickly submerges his hand into the cup of cold water by his side.

(He does it enough that it warrants his own special ‘anti-burn’ glass.)

Jean’s gaze meets his and then slides over to the celebrating couple who is now embracing. As Venti expected, she’s openly sobbing, arms thrown around his neck, holding him close as if they’ve known each other their whole lives. Or, at least, longer than a few minutes.

“Didn’t this happen last month?” she asks, voice quiet.

Venti can tell it wasn’t meant for his ears, but he answers regardless, “Sure did. I think Hu Tao took a picture?”

Jean’s lips twitch into a smile, betraying her calmness. “I see.” And then she turns to him again, and in a more refined voice, “If they still place an order, you’re allowed to comp them a drink.”

“Wha?” Venti feigns a gasp, eyebrows waggling on his face. “They get love and a latte?”

Jean stifles a laugh, quickly turning to the side. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Aww, Jean. You’re a romantic at heart,” teases Venti as he retrieves his hand from the water and inspects the burn. Not too bad, this time.

“I’m not,” Jean insists, quickly, her left hand going to tug at her sleeve, ensuring that her own watch is out of sight. “It’s simply nice to see other people happy. Do you not agree, Venti?”

Venti merely smiles toothily. He isn’t touching that topic with a ten-foot pole. Not with his boss.

Jean seems to accept defeat as she turns back to the register.

* * * *

“Look at this!”

Venti tries his best not to grab for his friend’s hand that’s unceremoniously dangling in his line of vision. On his wrist is a device that looks much like a watch, implanted into his skin, displaying the numbers 99:24:60 in red. The color contrasts with his deep blue eyes, Venti thinks, and he wonders who on earth would be lucky enough to have this bundle of joy as their own.

“You got one,” Venti says, slowly, the realization hitting him like a ton of bricks. “Aren't they still in the beta program?”

“Yeah.” The boy sits back on the couch, messy black bangs hiding his eyes. He tilts his hand from side to side, admiring the glowing numbers. “But my dad works for the company, you know? So he asked if I wanted one.”

“And you said yes,” Venti supplies.

Something in his heart breaks that day. He isn't sure what to call it.

(It’s not love, can’t be love. They’re fourteen and best friends and he should be overjoyed that his best friend has a soul mate out there.)

“Since the numbers are lit-up,” says his friend, licking his lips in thought, “that means my soul mate already has one. If they didn’t, it’d just be blank.”

“If it’s blank,” Venti murmurs, ignoring the sting of the former part, “how do you even know it’s working? Seems kinda suspect to me.”

His friend turns to him, bright-eyed and full of life. “I can just feel it. I can feel them.”

“Feel them,” mumbles Venti, nose wrinkling.

“I can feel it in my heart. They’re out there somewhere, and they just got one of these, and maybe we’ll meet this year, or next, or not for a couple. But that’s okay. I’m fine with waiting.”

Venti fears the question that comes next.

“Dad says there’s still room left in the trial. Do you want one?”

Why would he even bother? Why would he even care when the one person he wants to spend the rest of his life with is already destined to be with another?

Venti grits his teeth.

“Nah. I like to live in suspense.”

(But the biggest suspense of his life has already ended; he will never end up in the arms that he’s longed for for so long.)

* * *

As the couple departs, Jean is putting away the pastries that have yet to sell today. Her hair is tied up in a messy bun and there are bags under her eyes. Venti wonders if she’s been sleeping lately, if this job and her other part-time job at the library are wearing her down. He doesn’t ask, but it’s always on the tip of his tongue. After all, she was the first one he had met when he started working at Madame Ping’s Pastries.

“Are you performing tonight?” Jean asks in the middle of removing a rack of croissants from the display case.

Venti removes the pen from behind his ear, caps it, and laughs, “Yup! But it’s a Tuesday night, so probably not a big showing.”

“Have you asked Madame Ping about playing here?” she inquires.

“Nooooot yet,” which translates into, ‘I’m never going to.’

Silence engulfs the pair, as sweet as the smell of the fresh grounds and treats. The sun is already setting and Venti can see the traffic jam beginning outside. It's rare moments like these where he appreciates taking public transportation - at least then he can space out on the long ride home and daydream. Later, he’ll grab his ukulele and head to the bar beneath his apartment building. He’ll play for a few hours and then retire to the cramped studio apartment he’s been in since he dropped out of art school a year ago.

“If I’m able to escape later tonight, I’ll stop by,” says Jean after a comfortable silence.

“You really don’t have to. But I’d appreciate it,” Venti hums, stacking up the remainder of the cups and dusting off the machines. “I have an awesome playlist tonight. The sappiest ever. I’m sure you’ll love it.”

Jean blushes despite herself. She turns away, face reddening, only for a loud ding to draw both of their attention.

“Is that your phone?” Venti wonders aloud before he can process it, can realize his own terrible transgression.

“No. That’s…”

And in a rare showing of vulnerability, Jean rolls up her sleeve.

On her wrist are flashing numbers: 02:15:50.

“They... got theirs,” Jean whispers, stunned, and Venti looks away. It feels improper to invade the moment, like an outsider looking in.

His own heart clenches. So it’s like that, then? Jean’s soulmate has been holding out on the watch just like him, and now only two days before they’re destined to meet, has it implanted.

Venti wants to be jealous, but he can’t find it in himself. Jean is one of the kindest and most selfless people he’s ever had the pleasure of knowing. And why would he be jealous? He’s never had his own watch, never had the desire to be bound to someone that wasn’t him, so why go through the headache and anxiety? He doesn't believe in soulmates. Not really.

Yet, still, when he sees the gentle glow in her eyes, that sparkle that wasn’t there before, he knows it for what it is.

Hope.

Hope, and love for a person she’s never met.

Venti will never understand it, and he prays he never will need to.

Chapter Text

“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.

* * *

“Do you think you’ll miss it?”

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.”

“Yeah.”

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.

* * *

“Elevator bay number two,” says the concierge, gesturing to the left.

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.

“Got it.”

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.

* * *

Venti isn’t sure why a fancy-pants corporation like this would have such boring magazines in their waiting room. He, along with the satisfied soulmates waiting for their partners to emerge from surgery, are all cramped in a room that’s floor-to-ceiling painted in white. Even the chairs are this fancy white plastic. The only color is the glass, reflecting light from the windows outside. It feels …sterile. Venti hates every second of it.

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?”

“…No.”

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.”

* * *

Jean bids him farewell out in front of Madame Ping’s around sunset. He has a later shift today and apparently Jean has to give an orientation to the new girl at the library. In some larger cosmic sense, Venti thinks he and his ‘boss’ have grown closer after the lackluster series of events today. He had always considered her an acquaintance, but now, he wouldn't hesitate to defend her as a friend.

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.

What then?

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.”

“…Sorry?

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.”

Venti gawks.

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.”

“Pardon?”

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.

“Keep it.”

“To burn?”

“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.

Chapter Text

“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?”

“…Sorry?”

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.

Focus.

“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.”