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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.”

Chapter Text

Usually, he loves when it rains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one seemed alone today — everyone except him.

* * *

”So you’re… excited for it, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he hates that he means every word of it.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

from: that old sellout
It’s early afternoon.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did not tell her,” says Zhongli.

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

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

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

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

“By being a hardass.”

“If you’d like to call it that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Regarding?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your ideas?” Zhongli begins again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Who’s to say it’s false?”

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

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

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

“…More or less.”

“And that’s why you have one, too?”

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

“Depends. Where did you have in mind?”

* * *

“So… you like flowers, huh?”

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

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

“…Ah.” Venti thinks of cecilias.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Venti drinks himself to sleep that night.

The next morning, he wakes with a terrible headache, a buzzing to his limbs, and a sore throat. The incessant beeping of his phone tells him it’s both low on battery and that someone is texting him a novella. Why did he never find the energy to plug the damned thing in before crashing hard for the night?

Groaning, Venti reaches for the phone and tries not to wince when the screen brightly illuminates his face; it’s barely dawn and the sun hasn’t completely seeped in through his shoddy curtains, yet.

from: diluc
Venti. I apologize if this comes as a surprise, given how long it’s been, but I was wondering if you had the time to catch up.

from: diluc
I realize I’ve missed your birthday two years in a row… and I’m sorry for that.

from: diluc
Would coffee be a good way to start? Let me know.

from: diluc
It’s my treat.

Venti blinks quizzically at this screen. Diluc? Now, that wasn’t a name he was expecting to see on his phone ever again.

They had fallen out of contact after Venti quit school. Diluc had been a reliable friend of his, a solid companion, and while their interests had been completely different - Diluc always intrigued in business and political science and the merits of negotiation, and Venti, in the arts and the fantastical and the theatre - they had always seemed to withstand the test of time. A unique friendship that Venti genuinely felt bad for letting slip through the cracks over the years.

People got busy. Surely by now Diluc was successfully graduated, off working hard somewhere, wedded to some pretty girl. Venti still felt bad about that minor crush, too, because Diluc had been so honest and forthright with him (perhaps bluntly so at times) that harboring a secret crush felt like a very sin against their friendship.

…And besides. He wasn’t Diluc’s soulmate. Diluc’s watch said so.

Venti hesitates with his answer. For as much as he wants to see an old friend, given how much has been going on with Jean and now his weird sabotage of Celestia, he also is afraid. What if they try again, to be best friends, and that falls apart? Would it hurt even more to see Diluc disinterested and fall away for a second time?

He answers.

to: diluc
omg DILUC. i can’t believe your name is blowing up my screen at seven in the morning!

from: diluc
I wasn’t expecting you to be awake.

to: diluc
ehe. i’m usually not, but you caught me at a good time.

from: diluc
You’re hungover, aren't you?

to: diluc
maaaaybe still drunk. idk. but i’d love to get coffee or boba tea or whatever. i’m pretty free nowadays. do you want to say tomorrow?

from: diluc
Yes, that sounds good. I wouldn’t dream of dragging you into the sunlight when you’re hungover.

to: diluc
you know me too well <3 i’ll text you some place we can meet up tomorrow then?

from: diluc
Sounds good.

Venti sets his phone down and deeply exhales. That was … easy. Scarily so. He knows that with certain of his friends, like Vennessa, long periods of time without texts didn’t mean a thing; they’d easily slip back into banter and inside jokes within seconds. Frequency of contact did not mean anything for the value of a friendship. Not to Venti.

But with Diluc, it was different. Diluc was the first person Venti even dared to entertain a mild crush in since his childhood friend. And perhaps that's what made Diluc so dangerous to reconnect with. What if Venti got drunk, flirted too freely, and then messed that up, too?

What if Diluc was already married?

Venti stares up at the ceiling and throws an arm over his eyes. It does a crappy job of blocking the sunlight.

“Sorry, Mister Zhongli, but we’re gonna have to wait a few more days to talk business. Some hot guy has my number again,” he jokes to the lonely apartment, a tiny smile threatening to break through.

No, he wouldn’t get his hopes up. But he couldn’t help the idle fantasies, anyway.

* * *

Venti honestly can’t believe how his luck is going today. First, he gets a surprise series of texts from Mister Hottie, and now, he’s supposed to be meeting Jean for a low-key drink after sunset and she cancels last minute. By some saving grace, he recognizes a familiar face sitting at the other side of the bar, staring rather distantly down at the ice melting in her drink. Unable to stop himself from meddling, Venti hurries over and claims the empty barstool beside her.

“Hiya, Lisa! I’m Venti, by the way. From the other night,” he says quickly, dropping his chin down into his palms as he gives her the best smile he can muster at this hour with his hangover finally subsiding.

Lisa glances up and meets his gaze with a twinkle in her eyes. Venti can’t tell if it’s just as manufactured as his. “Well hello there, dear. Have you come to keep me company?”

“Sure have,” laughs Venti as he waves at the bartender to order another round of drinks for the pair of them. “I actually was gonna meet Jean here, but she bailed.”

“Terribly rude of her,” Lisa teases as she tucks a strand of hair over her hair. “She doesn’t seem the type to cancel last minute. Is the poor girl all right?”

“Mm. Yeah.” Venti doesn’t feel right mentioning that it's probably because Mona asked to come over or they’re sloppily making out or having a date night or — crap, he really is lonely, isn’t he? “But now we get to hang out instead.”

“My how our luck has changed,” laughs Lisa as she finishes her drink. “I didn't have the opportunity to truly pick your brain before. You’re a musician, aren’t you?”

“Mhm.” Venti smiles a bit brighter, a bit more real. “Nothing special or anything. I work with Jean at Madame Ping’s when she’s not at the library.”

“Workaholic,” Lisa says, waving a finger. “She’s truly all work and no play, that girl.”

“Oh, tell me about it!” Venti barks a laugh. “So you’re settling into Mondstadt pretty well, right? I can show you all the best places to get a drink. Oh! And the best art galleries and museums, if you like that sort of stuff, of course. I’ve been known to be quite the tour guide.”

Lisa thanks the bartender when her new drink is brought and then raises the glance to her lips. “How can a girl turn down that kind of offer?” And then after taking a sip, “I have to ask. That man from the other night. Is he your boyfriend?”

It takes Venti a hard minute to process what Lisa had asked. And then, with his arms clutching his stomach, he laughs. “Z-zhongli!? Stars, no!” A wild shake of his head. “No, no, he’s just some stuffed suit from Celestia that I met when I went with Jean to —”

Well, fuck.

Lisa’s brows lift up under her fringe. “Oh? You and Jean went to Celestia, recently? What for? I can’t imagine someone fun like you had any reason to be there. It's quite drab.”

“We…” Venti’s mind is racing in all sorts of directions. “…Just. Stuff.”

Lisa’s smile falls and she looks down to her drink. A pinky dips in to nudge an ice cube around the surface. “Allow me to tell you a secret then, dear. I already know.”

“What?”

"It's obvious, isn’t it?” Lisa closes her fingertips around the ice cube and lifts it up to inspect in the dim light of the bar. “From what you all said the other night, to the way Jean has been acting, it’s easy to put the pieces together. Though, I must ask… does Jean know?”

“No, no she doesn’t,” Venti whispers, deflating like a balloon. “Celestia wouldn’t tell her. And Zhongli told me I couldn’t, either. I shouldn't even be telling you, but he had recognized you."

“Yes, and I recognized him, as well," Lisa says with a haughty laugh and roll of her shoulders. “He does stand out in a crowd. Remarkable that a man like that is single.”

“He is?”

Venti isn't sure why hope leaks into his voice.

“Oh dear," Lisa laments and there’s something furtive in the way she turns to the side. When she continues, it's rather mischievously airy, “The way he was staring at you that night. No man that has someone at home would dare do such a thing in front of a group of proper ladies.”

“H-he what?” stammers Venti, feels his cheeks heat up, feels his heart begin to race. “T-that’s… nice?!” A squeak. “But I’d never sleep with a sellout like that! Look, I even have him in my phone as that —“

And then it's Lisa’s turn to laugh once more. "I was only joking, doll. But I do think he's interested in you."

Venti feels panicked as he clings to his phone. This was madness. No wonder Celestia decided Lisa would be a good fit for Jean - this woman was a maniac in all the best possible and terrible ways. “You’re... you're good,” Venti grumbles, trying to ward off the blush.

“Oh, it's not difficult, when you were also staring at him as if he were a piece of meat."

“No?!” Venti, affronted, starts to chug his drink. “I do not have a crush on the lawyer!”

“I never said you had a crush, deary,” Lisa says with a mirthful smile.

“A-anyway,” Venti says, forcing the conversation away from him and that stupidly hot lawyer and back to his newfound friend. “You know about Jean. Why haven't you said anything to her?”

“Oh, I don’t like to meddle,” says Lisa and Venti can just tell that’s a lie. “I also don’t believe in coercing someone. If the darling princess decides to find her way to me, so it shall be,” says Lisa dramatically, but Venti kind of respects the crux of her words. “Besides, it is a bit more entertaining this way.”

“What if she…” Never changes her mind about Mona, Venti wants to ask, but swallows it down with another chug of his drink. “She asked about you, you know. To Celestia. She wants to meet you.”

“But she has met me.” Lisa winks but then shakes her head, eyes shutting as if she’s deep in thought. “Frankly, I hadn’t intended to jump into bed, so to speak, with my soulmate immediately. This works quite well for me. Though, I do admit, she is quite cute.”

Venti snorts. “I guess that makes sense. Still… I’m sorry. I — know what it’s like.”

“Do you?” Lisa looks to him, curious. “You seem like the type to rally against this type of thing, dear.”

“I don’t have a soulmate, I mean,” Venti quickly corrects, wincing at the words. “But I know what it’s like to see someone you really care about be with someone else.” Or be in love with someone else, but it was easier to frame it this way.

“Hm.” Lisa nods. “Then shall we drink to bad timing and good memories?” she asks, eyes filling with a new light.

Venti eagerly lifts his half-consumed drink. “Yeah! I’ll drink to that any time!”

* * *

Venti is trying not to get sick at the sight of a young couple yet again meeting for the first time in Madame Ping’s. His gaze wanders to the tacky fliers on the windows and he drags a hand down his face. This truly is the breeding ground for soulmates, isn’t it? Then again, if singles knew to all congregate in the same place, didn’t that increase the probability of running into your soulmate? Venti was never good at statistics.

Jean is particularly quiet this morning as she fixes the display cases for the millionth time. She hasn’t mentioned her relationship with Mona since she drunkenly confessed to Venti at the bar days ago, and Venti is wondering if she even remembers telling him. His gut twists rather uncomfortably.

“So, I had a drink with Lisa last night,” says Venti with a tiny smile. “And I’m meeting Diluc today. I told you about Diluc once, right? Really stoic grumpy guy from when I was still in college?”

Jean perks up at the mention of Lisa, but then furrows her brows as Venti keeps talking. “… I don’t remember the name, but I’m glad you have plans,” she says, earnestly, and then seems to nervously turn back to the cases. “…How is Lisa?”

Venti wrinkles his nose. “She’s good! She misses you.”

Jean immediately bumps her head on the door to the display case. “Ow—!” she starts and then shifts back to stand up properly, rubbing at her head.

“Whoa,” says Venti, amused, as he slides his hands into his apron. “You’re really jumpy about her. What’s up?”

“She…” Jean clears her throat, checks to see that customers are not nearby or in earshot, before she uncomfortably admits, “She may have walked in on Mona and I last night. I had no idea she was coming back for the evening.”

Venti feels terrible. “Yikes.” And then he glances to the besotted couple across the way. “I forgot her and Mona were roommates.” How terribly awkward.

“She was very polite about it,” Jean says, quickly, “if not a bit ruthlessly teasing, too, but I suppose we deserved that.”

“So you and Mona are good?”

Jean flexes her hands by her side, fiddling with the tie to her apron. “…Yes. I think we are.”

“Then good.” Venti isn’t sure if he approves, disapproves, or where he stands on the matter. By all accounts, he should be glad Jean is bucking the trend of soulmates, but after having met Lisa and drank with her, he can’t help but have a soft spot for the flirty librarian. “I’m glad things worked out for you, yanno? Screw Celestia!”

“Please don’t say that so loudly!” Jean says, waving her hands quickly at him as she frantically looks around the cafe. “Aren't you working for them, now?” she asks, now in a hushed tone.

“Kinda?” Venti isn't sure how much of his masterplan he should divulge; Jean would likely try and talk him out of the sabotage. “I’m mostly just talking with that lawyer guy from the bar. He’s a real stiff. Kinda funny, though!”

Jean looks at Venti for a moment and then begins to brew more espresso. "And when are you meeting Diluc today?”

“About —“ Venti begins to say, checks the time, and then pales. “Ah crap, I told him I’d meet him down the block ten minutes ago! Can you please cover for me? Pretty please? I’ll make it up to you with allll the songs and wine you can stand!”"

Jean is suddenly assaulted by the Puppy Dog Venti Eyes (TM) and she sighs. “Go ahead. But this is the last time, Venti. Please get a planner.”

“Me? A planner? I’d lose that, too!” Venti laughs as he throws off his apron and hops over the counter. “Thank you, Jean! I owe you my life! Seriously!”

And with that, he rushes out of the cafe.

Screw Celestia and soulmates. Maybe the world was looking up after all.

* * *

Or not.

Diluc is seated on a couch just where Venti told him to. The bookstore has a small cafe in it, and he’s nursing a drink as he combs through a book. The first thing Venti sees, rather than that familiar mess of fiery hair and that handsome slope of a jawline is a briefcase at his feet. And really, that fits Diluc, considering the family he grew up in and his choice of college degree, but the emblem on it makes Venti want to wretch.

Slowly, he heads over, trying to fight back the urge to ditch and say something came up.

“Hiya there, stranger. What’re you reading? Anything good?”

Diluc glances up upon recognizing the voice. As before, those eyes are sharp around the edges, but the depths of them are soft, understanding, loyal. Venti feels like running all over around. “It’s been awhile.”

“Sure has!” Venti hates that his voice cracks as he invites himself to sit on the couch beside Diluc, leaving a respectable distance between them. Venti’s hands lace in his lap and he tries not to stare daggers into his briefcase. “So, how have you been? Tell me everything!”

Mostly everything.

Diluc is quiet for a moment but then shakes his head. He sets down the book and then begins to give Venti a ten-thousand foot overview of his life over the past years. Graduating, moving around Mondstadt, working on a thesis with their least favorite professor. By the time he gets to post-graduation, Venti braces himself. Maybe there’s still a chance for Diluc. Maybe he’s just an accountant or salesperson and Venti can show Diluc that soulmates are bonkers and that Celestia is truly a corporation of evil.

He doesn’t get the chance.

“…My father recently became the Chairperson of his company, which left a vacancy of the chief executive officer position.”

Oh no. Oh no.

Venti grits his teeth. “Did it, huh…?”

“It’s … an uphill battle, but I do believe I have gained the respect of the rest of the leadership team. As for the board, well, I am sure the son of the chairman isn’t as independent as they’d like, and that it will take a great deal of convincing our shareholders and the board that I am truly fit for the job. Still, it was offered to me, and I couldn’t turn it down.”

“S-so you’re…” Venti looks to the bag and then back to Diluc. Maybe there’s a chance he’s just mistaken? “The company, um… what company is it?”

“Celestia,” Diluc says with finality and then he notices the paleness of Venti’s face. “Is something wrong?”

“N-no! Just peachy! Just fine!” Venti wildly waves his hands around as his stomach does flip-flops.

All these years, Diluc’s father had been the President of that company. All these years, he had been close friends with the son of the person that took away — Venti tries not to let the blood rush out of his head and faint on the spot. Instead, he offers a meek smile. “I can’t believe you’re the president of anything, Diluc. Remember that time you got drunk for the first time?” he tries in an attempt to talk about anything else.

Diluc actually has the good sense to blush as he looks away. “… I don’t drink, nowadays. I much prefer juice.”

“Aw, Diluc!” Venti feels like the old days, just for a second, as he reaches out to lightly batt at his friend’s shoulder. “You drink juice at board dinners, too?”

“…Mostly.”

Venti wants to forget this new information, wants to fall back into an old friendship, but it’s hard. After all, even if Diluc wasn’t the acting president of the company Venti hated most, he was now an executive officer somewhere. He had busy plans, a busy life, and no time to be fussing and messing around with a musician who worked at a cafe and didn’t graduated. No, their lives were completely different and Venti wasn’t sure if he could ever fit into that life again. Into Diluc’s life.

Diluc’s gaze wanders, then, to Venti’s wrists that are proudly bared. “…You don’t have one?”

Venti had never told Diluc about his childhood crush. He had never told him the pain he went through and the vendetta he held against the company.

“Oh, the watch? Nah.” Venti shakes his head and then tries to salvage this, whatever this, tries for some reason to look useful in Diluc’s eyes once more. “Actually! I’m feeding one of your lawyers some awesome ideas.”

Diluc blinks in surprise. “Really?”

“Yup!” For once, Venti is happy that he met Zhongli. “But I’m giving him a run for his money. He has to be proper with me or else I’m not giving you guys any golden tickets.”

Diluc snorts a laugh and then looks away. “…You haven’t changed. I’m glad.”

Venti's tense shoulders seem to relax. “…Thanks. You either.”

Diluc purses his lips together. “I wonder if that’s true,” he murmurs before he looks back to Venti. “Which lawyer are you working with? I often have to interact with each of them.”

Venti’s gut then drops. Oh. He had truly dug his own grave, hadn’t he? “T-the…” Hot one, he almost says, but bites his tongue. “Zhongli…”

“Oh.” Diluc looks mildly surprised. Venti can’t tell if that’s because Zhongli has mentioned it to Diluc or if it’s because he hasn’t. Either way, Venti doesn’t like that look. “He usually doesn’t meet with customers or potential business partners,” he explains.

“I can see why,” says Venti with a mischievous grin before he realizes what he just said to the guy’s boss. “I mean, he’s fine, I guess! He’s really… uh, stubborn? And likes contracts? Total lawyer-type, yup!”

Diluc lifts a brow but doesn’t pry; apparently he knows Venti well enough to know there is history there.

They spend the rest of their short visit together discussing old Professors, old classes, and old memories. Diluc has enough good sense not to mention the company again and Venti tries not to mention Zhongli, either. But with each moment that passes, reuniting with Diluc, Venti knows it’ll be the last. And with each second that passes by, each minute, he wonders when he’ll get to bother Zhongli again.

(And isn’t that telling, that rather than destroy the company by taking down the president, the most powerful figure, he’d rather toy with the lawyer. Venti blames it on being old friends, but he’s never been a great liar. Not to himself.)

* * *

Venti isn’t sure why he invites Zhongli back to the bar. After their previous encounter, he knows the old man isn’t into the drinking scene all that much and probably would prefer coffee and a stroll through the park. And if Venti was trying to be civil with the man, intending to actually sign a consulting agreement, perhaps he should have compromised.

He’s just surprised Zhongli said yes.

But Venti has to perform tonight — it’s Tuesday. So he sits on the wooden stool on the stage, about half an hour before Zhongli is due to arrive. He had timed it perfectly, so that the boring corporate lawyer wouldn’t show up and hear his performance.

He doesn’t notice that Zhongli is always early for their meetings and that he's already there, lingering at the edge of the bar. He doesn’t notice that the lawyer’s eyes have never left him the second he hopped up merrily on the stage.

Venti plays a song that’s translation has been lost over the ages. It’s in ancient Mond, and the words have a soothing and almost spiritual feeling to them. The melody is smooth, Venti’s fingers strumming over his ukulele loving as he draws up pictures of rolling green hills and beautiful clear lakes far out in the country. He thinks he heard a rough translation once, of what the song is rumored to be, and he’s never played it again without those castles and mythical beasts in the countryside in mind.

Venti finishes his short setlist of three songs and then leaves the stage. Before he even has a chance to go fix his eyeliner which he’s certain he’s rubbed at earlier, he notices Zhongli approaching the stage. Ah, fuck. How much of that did he hear?

“H-hey! You’re here early,” says Venti as he takes the steps two at a time and lands at Zhongli’s feet with practiced ease.

“Yes, I got off work early today,” Zhongli answers as he tilts his head to the side. “I didn’t realize you played here. It was a wonderful setlist.”

“Thanks.” Venti quickly averts his gaze and then gestures to a booth far away from the stage. “Let’s go talk business over there. I’m dying to drink something, heh!”

So they head over to the booth that they sat in last time.

Zhongli continues to observe Venti and Venti feels hot under the collar for it. “…What is it?” he mumbles as he gets comfortable in the booth and fiddles with the end of a braid. He hasn’t made eye contact with the waitress yet and just prays that she can sense his thirst from afar.

“You’re wearing makeup. I haven’t seen you with it before,” says Zhongli.

“That’s kinda blunt,” says Venti and peeks a glance back at Zhongli’s eyes. God, they’re pretty. “Tell a girl that and you’ll probably get slapped! Do I need to teach you everything?”

Zhongli doesn’t refute it. Instead, he smiles and takes out his phone, all while saying, “I think it suits you.”

Venti’s stomach twists. He tries to calm his frantic heart by strumming his fingertips on the table. When Zhongli retrieves his phone, he has open the consulting agreement, much to Venti’s relief.

“I don’t expect you to read it all here. It’s much longer than the non-disclosure agreement you signed. I can email it to you and you can review it for as long as you’d like.” But then Zhongli summarizes the key terms of it and Venti’s jaw almost drops. “Does that sound amenable to you?”

It’s so much money. “I-I’ll think about it,” says Venti, arms stubbornly crossing over his chest. “Thanks for pulling it together so quickly. You really are efficient, huh?”

Zhongli mildly snorts at that just around the time their drinks come. “I wasn’t aware you knew our President.”

Venti chokes on his beer. “S-so he mentioned it to you, huh?”

“Indeed.” Zhongli clasps his chin rather pensively. “In fact, he threatened my job security should I be too terse with you in our dealings.”

Venti tries not to laugh. A fondness he hasn’t felt for a long time resurfaces; maybe Diluc and Celestia were still divisible. Maybe he didn’t have to lose a friend over all of this. “Are you scared of me now, Zhongli? I’m very powerful.”

“You continue to surprise and confuse me, yes,” admits Zhongli as he takes a slow sip of his beer. Venti watches him swallow it, that lightly tanned throat disappearing under that collar and — “I am glad that we were able to come to an amicable business relationship.”

“If I sign the agreement, heh…” Venti doesn’t want to show all his cards, but he wonders if Diluc had truly threatened Zhongli. It’s an amusing thought, frankly, but he gets the sense this man isn’t easily intimidated or compromises on his morals any easier. “Did he just burst into your office and tell you to bathe me in compliments and money?”

“Not at all.” But Zhongli doesn’t explain how it was done. Instead, he takes another sip of his beer and then glances to the stage. “Do you play here often?”

“Yeah. It’s super close to my apartment.” Venti rolls a shoulder. “And not too far from my other job.”

“Mm.” Zhongli’s gaze settles squarely back on Venti. “Which do you prefer? Playing music or working as a barista?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Venti barks a laugh. “I’m not really the best at customer service, but I try! Music is what I really love. It’s like a language of its own.”

“I would have to agree with that.”

“Do you play anything?” Venti is surprised, but he wonders if he was too quick to judge the enemy. It’d be useful to know more about Zhongli in the long-run if he wanted to use him to his advantage to change Celestia for the better. Either that or burn it down. Both were still very viable options.

“No. But my friend I mentioned the other day,” Zhongli starts, gaze distant, nostalgic, “she was a fan of music and our mutual friend is a great musician herself.” A soft sigh. “She also has passed, but I believe her memory lives on in music.”

“…Oh. I’m — sorry.”

Zhongli doesn’t respond but there’s a kindness to his eyes as he drinks his beer.

“It’s really loud in here. Why don’t we go somewhere else?” Venti finds himself offering as he throws down some money for the tab - and honestly, why is the musician paying for the lawyer - before he hauls himself out of the booth and stretches his arms above his head.

“Where did you have in mind?

* * *

Where Venti has in mind is fairly unconventional.

They walk to a pedestrian foot-bridge not too far from where his apartment is. The bridge crosses over the overpass and leads to the small river that cuts through Mondstadt. After crossing the bridge, Venti leads them down to an abandoned, worn-down dock that once survived as something magnificent in its prime. Now, it’s a lonely block of wood that’s weathered by time and the elements.

“I come here sometimes to think,” Venti explains and he can still hear the ringing in his ears from the bar. “So I figured a lawyer would appreciate it.”

There’s a tiny stir of a smile that Zhongli manages to disperse of with a chuckle. “Is that all you see me as?”

“What else should I see you as?”

“A business partner, to begin with,” Zhongli says calmly, and then adds, “and a resource. A coworker, as it were. We are all more than the arbitrary titles society gives us.”

“Wow, that’s pretty deep.” Venti snorts as he walks along the wooden planks and flops down at the edge. He toes off his shoes and then socks and then dips his toes in the water with a warm sigh. “Someone once told me the fish would eat my toes if I did this. Guess I’m not all that tasty!”

Zhongli's eyes linger on Venti for a moment, for two, and then the man takes a seat beside him, mindful not to dip his boots in the dark water.

“You’re not from Mondstadt,” says Venti, rather than asks. The moonlight plays in his hair, gets lost in his braids.

“Correct. I studied here after living most of my life in Liyue.”

“Hm.”

Venti doesn’t comment further on it. Instead, he rolls his shoulders to the left, then the right. “So, why Celestia? It’s not big in Liyue, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s changed over the years. What drew you to a company like that?”

Zhongli doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he takes out his phone and pulls up a picture. “My friend,” he says, offering it to Venti. Staring back at him is a pretty brunette with fiercely brown eyes and a radiant smile. “She, like yourself, did not believe in the science behind soulmates. She was an old soul, truly, and believed in the magic of spontaneity.” A chuckle and then Zhongli pulls the phone away. “However, her Father insisted she get an implant. Her family was a large investor in Celestia and it would not do them well to have their daughter not contribute.”

“Bummer…” Venti is quiet, biting at his lip, stomach churning. “What do you think is worse, though? Never meeting your supposed soulmate, or knowing that they passed away before you could?”

Zhongli’s gaze is far-off. “Are you asking my opinion, Venti, or that of Celestia?”

“Who knows.” And then Venti leans closer, bumps a shoulder, and says teasingly, “I’m asking you.”

And no, he doesn't trust Zhongli, doesn’t particularly like the man, but at least he's easier to talk to than before. At least it’ll be easier to get revenge for his friend this way when the man isn’t spouting off about contracts and lock-ups.

Zhongli doesn’t answer, and Venti doesn’t expect him to. They sit in silence, admiring the sailboats gliding along the dark water, with only the stars, city lights and the moon to guide them on their nightly cruise.

Chapter Text

“I know this goes without saying, but please refrain from making any derogatory comments about the company while you’re physically in the office.”

“Then why’d you say it?” Venti flashes a starling smile. Thankfully, they’re alone in the elevator and there are only a few floors left until the human resources department. Venti fiddles with the visitor paper pass he received at the desk down in the lobby. He makes a mental note to burn the thing later; perhaps use it in some sort of ritual sacrifice he can find online.

Venti vaguely remembers the last time he wore a dress shirt and slacks: it was the day of his best friend’s funeral. The memory leaves a sour taste in his mouth even now.

“I can still terminate, right?” asks Venti as he plays with the ends of his sleeves. It’s with a slight bit of surprise that Venti manages to notice Zhongli refraining from pulling his arm straight to cease the fiddling. A milder grin resurfaces on his lips, a bit less plastic.

“I will assume that is a sarcastic comment,” Zhongli answers as the doors open.

Similar to when he accompanied Jean here, the nerve center of Celestia is as bustling as ever. Men and women in fancy outfits flit around. Some are carrying paper, some laptops, others coffees and snacks. Noticeably lacking on any of their faces is a smile; Venti stores that away for later use, too.

Zhongli guides them to the front desk. Seated behind it is a woman a few years older than them, with large brown eyes, thick glasses and wisps of grey hair falling down in her face. She looks up, a customer-service smile not reaching her eyes, but it changes into something a bit more sincere when she realizes it’s Zhongli.

“So this is the consultant you’ve been trying to sign?” she asks, a low rumble of a laugh as her eyes land on Venti.

“Hiya,” says Venti, not missing a beat, waving his left hand with a little wiggle of his fingers after.

“Yes, this is Venti,” Zhongli answers as he pushes his hair back out of his eyes, the artificial light catching on his watch. “He will need a badge so he can access the facility daily, and he will also need to join the orientation seminars for the week.”

“You just missed the cybersecurity one,” says the receptionist with another laugh. “But I’m sure there’s a recording of it somewhere.” She turns to the computer and begins to pluck away at the keys. “I have you sitting on the —”

“He will sit outside my office,” Zhongli interjects.

The woman meets Zhongli’s gaze, one brow lifted, but she doesn’t question it. Instead, she seems to correct the information in the computer and murmur, “Of course he will.”

The urge to make a babysitter comment grows near-impossible to ignore, but somehow Venti squashes it down. “So you have a fancy office, huh?” he asks under his breath as the woman begins to print out his orientation papers.

“What of it?” Zhongli glances to him, expression unreadable. “It isn’t fancy.”

“I feel like most people share cubicles,” says Venti as he leans against the front desk, ignoring the daggers from the receptionist. “Do you make so much money that you get a room all to yourself?”

Zhongli squeezes the bridge of his nose. Ah. Got him. “Much of my work is confidential. Even to the employees. I need to be able to close my door when I am on important phone calls,” he explains, patience paper-thin.

“Some would use headphones for that, ehe,” Venti whispers back, batting his lashes.

Zhongli’s flat look is just shy of murderous.

Before Venti can think of anything else to drive his new coworker up the wall with, a familiar mess of red hair dances into the corner of his vision. Like a moth drawn to the heat of it, Venti turns his head and offers a milder, sweeter smile. Even if things would never be the same with his friend, it’s unarguably nice to see him — for a lot of reasons.

“Venti.” Diluc glances up from the stack of folders he had been picking up from the corner of the desk. That surprise in his eyes tells a very long and mysterious story. “…I wasn’t aware today was your first day.”

Venti shoots him a thousand watt smile. “Zhongli here got me to sign the paperwork much faster than I anticipated,” he says, voice a low whistle. “He’s just that good of a negotiator, I guess!”

Diluc’s gaze wanders beyond Venti to the lawyer standing as rigid as stone. Venti barely catches when their eyes meet and Zhongli’s brow pinches. “…Good work, then,” says Diluc, almost cautiously as he adjusts the folders in his grasp. “I’ll show you around. You missed the morning orientation sessions, so I’ll take it upon myself to catch you up.”

Something churns in the pit of Venti’s stomach. Before he can insist otherwise, knowing that if he flies too close to the sun his wings will burn, he catches a fissure through Zhongli’s normal guarded expression. There’s something there, something Venti doesn’t have a name for. He hardly knows the man but something in Venti’s gut, deep down, tells him that perhaps, just maybe, Zhongli has some sort of vested interest in making sure Venti succeed, likely as a result of his own hard-work.

“…I hardly mean to intrude,” says Zhongli, leveled, “but I am sure you have more important meetings today. I am happy to show him around.”

Diluc glances between them. “Don’t you have that call with external counsel later?” he counters.

“Around four,” Zhongli agrees. “We will be done well before then.”

Diluc’s gaze settles on Zhongli’s wrist, then to Venti, and he heaves out a sigh. “All right. But if you need anything or have any questions, stop by," he tells Venti with a quick sidelong glance. “My assistant will probably insist you have an appointment, but just tell her I personally sent for you.”

“Yes sir!” Venti chirps almost playfully.

There’s something nostalgic in Diluc’s eyes as he shakes his head and steps away.

It’s only then that the receptionist lets out a breath she had been holding. It also includes a hoarse laugh. “Did you just boss around the President?” she asks, looking to Zhongli.

Only then does the man seem to comprehend what he’s done. His skin pales and he looks nothing short of mortified. Heat rises in his cheeks and he quickly pivots to the side, almost nudging Venti's’ arm. “Let’s go get your desk ready,” he murmurs, grabbing the printed paperwork from the receptionist and stalking away.

“Uh?” Venti laughs, albeit nervously, as he glances to the receptionist for any sort of guidance.

She shrugs. “Beats me.”

He supposes that’s fitting enough.

* * *

“I don’t believe it.”

Venti’s arms wrap tighter around his knees. He hasn’t stopped staring out the window since he woke up, eyes still bloodshot from crying himself to sleep. His lips, raw from biting down on them to suppress the cries, sting. He feels alone. He is alone.

“He was sick, Venti. He was very, very sick. The trial did nothing to him.”

Venti squeezes his eyes shut tighter. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“You need to,” rumbles the voice of a much older man. “You can’t hold this grudge for the rest of your life. Our family’s name will—”

“I don’t care!” Venti snaps, finally looking away from the window and the tiny house that’s just a lot emptier since midday yesterday. “My best friend just died and you’re worried about your reputation!?” There’s a deafening silence that makes Venti’s ears ring. It hurts, as if he had just been at a rock concert and stepped out into the night. “He was fine before he got it! Absolutely fine!”

“I know you’re upset, son, but…”

“I hate them. I hate all of them.”

His eyes flick away, back to the window, back to the yard he’d spend hours after school, chasing a friend that had always seemed so happy, so full of life, so normal. His heart breaks all over again.

He hates Celestia for hurting him. Hates Celestia for taking him away from him. Hates Celestia for blaming some other illness when Venti knows deep down in his gut it was them.

And most selfishly, he hates them for stealing away the precious moments they had left together, leaving his best friend to pine for a nameless face when Venti had always, always been right there.

* * *

Venti pushes the stapler across his desk. His other hand, not assisting in the mindless trot of the office supply, cups his chin and palm. Bored is an understatement. There are orientation videos on the company laptop in front of him and there’s a few people chatting on phones in other cubes in the background. Perhaps if he excuses himself to the restroom he can make a run for it for the day. Oh the sacrifices one makes to overthrow a company that stole your best friend.

“Venti.”

Venti glances over his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, Zhongli is standing there with a red folder clutched to his chest. His eyes remain as intense, as unreadable, as ever, and he visibly hesitates with what he says next. “Can you come into my office for a moment?”

So Venti closes his laptop and follows.

He wishes he didn’t.

“Why are you asking me?” Venti demands, exhausted and slumping in the chair in front of Zhongli’s pretty mahogany desk. Behind him there’s a window and Venti dreams of flying amongst the clouds, far away from all of this.

“After the other night,” Zhongli begins and he casts an appraising look towards the closed door of his office. “After seeing your friend and hearing from you how happy she is, I have to wonder… is giving her the contact information of her soulmate a wise choice?”

“Well,” Venti begins and he fixes Zhongli with a petulant glare. “Maybe if Celestia wasn’t meddling in the affairs of the heart we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.”

Zhongli frowns. “Venti.”

“We’re behind a closed door, I’m keeping to my promise!” Venti huffs and crosses his arms to his chest. “If you don’t tell her, you’re taking the choice away from her. If you do tell her, you’re throwing a landmine in her relationship and now friendship with Lisa. Both seem pretty bad, huh?”

Zhongli rubs his temple against his palm, gaze fixated on something on his desk. “Yes, that is the dilemma.”

Venti’s exhale is sharp and long-suffering. “Sucks to be Celestia.”

Zhongli doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he looks down to his watch, the empty face of it. “Suppose you were in her position. And yes, I know this is an exercise of intense imagination for you,” he murmurs, not missing the roll of Venti’s eyes. “What would you prefer?”

“This seems like a cheap way to your answer,” Venti says with a mild pout. “It doesn’t matter what I want. It’s what Jean wants.”

“Should I reach out to her and give her the option of knowing?” Zhongli suggests instead.

“…You could. But do you really think she's going to pass on that?”

Zhongli watches Venti with a rather cryptic glimmer to his eyes. “If you were happy, with someone else, would you care?”

“Huh?”

“Should someone claim to know the identity and location of your soulmate, and you were happily with someone else, would you want to know?”

“No.” Because Venti didn’t believe in soulmates, not anymore, maybe not ever, and the idea of an artificial genetic bond between two souls who haven’t met, haven’t had a chance to learn the beautiful hues of each other’s hearts? It seems like such a cheap shortcut to ‘love.’

“I’m not surprised by your answer,” Zhongli says and he drops both hands down to the top of his desk. “Then I suppose the best course of action is to reach out to her. Give her the option and trust that she follow her heart.”

“You’re forgetting a really important factor,” says Venti as he plays with the end of a braid.

“Oh?”

“She’s going to feel guilty. You’ve already reached out to Lisa. Jean is going to figure as much, too. She’s going to know that if she doesn’t accept the information, her soulmate is going to think she did something wrong for the rest of her life. Do you think Jean is the type of person to let that go easily?”

Zhongli drags the pads of his fingers along his forehead again, massaging out what must be a terrible stress headache. “And you? Would you feel that guilt?”

“I’d never get a watch in the first place,” Venti says with a defiant little huff.

“It's the same principle, Venti,” Zhongli argues. “If your soulmate’s watch never turns on, they will never know why. They may presume you never want to meet them, nor that you care about them enough to get a watch. So—”

“I don’t have a soulmate,” Venti says, steadfast and flat. “Don’t try and guilt me like that. It isn’t going to work. Celestia gaslights people just as much as they claim to bring happiness to them. Making you feel like you have to stay with someone because you were destined for them? That isn’t love. That’s prison.”

Zhongli’s frown deepens. “Then why did you accept this role in the first place?”

“There’s no stopping you,” Venti points out, and the words taste like tar as he lies, lies, lies, “so I figure, might as well try and save as many people on the sinking ship as possible. I can’t go back in time and tell people not to board the ship in the first place.”

“Your analogies are awfully colorful.”

“Heh, thanks. I’m an artist.”

Zhongli meets Venti’s merciless smirk and there’s a shift in the air. Heavier. “Putting that aside,” he begins again. “The current issue we face is whether or not to tell your friend. You say that she will feel immeasurable guilt. Then what course of action is best here, to reduce the damage to all parties?”

“Lisa already knows it’s Jean,” Venti points out. “And Lisa already knows Jean’s dating her roommate. You telling Jean is just going to make Jean feel worse and feel obligated to break-up with Mona for Lisa. Do you really believe there’s any good that’ll come from telling her?”

"Perhaps she already made her decision when she chose to start that relationship,” Zhongli mumbles, more-so to himself, as if he’s realizing something for the first time. “So, perhaps, you’re more influential than you think you are, Venti.”

“How about this,” Venti starts again, shifting in the chair so he can lean forward, hands resting on the tops of his knees. “I’m actually going bowling with them later tonight. Don’t look at me like that, I hate bowling! Actually, all sports, but that’s beside the point. The point! Alas! Is that you should come with me and watch them. Lisa will be there, too. You can make your decision after you see what Celestia has done to all three of them.”

“Why do I feel as if you’re trying to punish me?” Zhongli’s frown deepens even more.

“Ehe. Now, why would I do that?”

* * *

“Fate, you see. It can't be changed. That's why it’s called such.”

“You’re really telling me that fate is the reason I can’t hit a pin?”

Jean tosses her girlfriend a look of utter defeat as Mona playfully pats her shoulder. Venti, meawnhile, tries not to laugh at the exchange. His gaze wanders over to Zhongli, who is uncomfortably sitting in the little booth in front of their lane, looking as if someone had just threatened his first born.

“Hey,” Venti whispers, a tiny grin playing at the corner of his lips. “It’s just bowling. If you suck at it, I promise I won’t tease you that much,” he lilts.

“That is a bold lie for you to tell,” Zhongli whispers back, restlessly flexing his fingers in his lap. “I’m starting to think the reason you invited me is to commiserate with you.”

“Maaaaybe.” Venti’s eyes twinkle and then he gestures to Lisa who is stepping up to the lane, fingers curled tight in a ball, assessing the state of play. Jean’s sidelong glance at her doesn’t go missed. “She can’t stop staring at her.”

“This is a mess,” Zhongli complains, quickly looking away as Mona wraps an arm around Jean’s tiny waist and pulls her in for a slow kiss. “Should they really be doing that in public?”

“Kissing?” Venti cranes his head to watch Mona’s fingers sweep locks of blonde over Jean’s ear. “There’s not even tongue. Are you a virgin or something, Mister Lawyer?” It’s said in a hum but the barbs are there, hidden under the surface.

“In Liyue,” Zhongli starts in his defense, “public displays of affection are thought of as incredibly rude. I am not used to the … free culture here, in Mondstadt.”

“Hm.” Venti considers it, watches as Mona guides her girlfriend back to sit down and wait for their turn again, the pair of them splitting some fries. “So you’d be super uncomfortable if you were on a date and someone just,” he starts but doesn’t finish. Rather expectedly, he leans closer, into Zhongli’s personal space, eyes twinkling with mayhem.

But before he can truly cause the commotion he’s angling for, Mona shouts from her nearby chair, “Keep it PG over there, now, children. Or else the stars certainly will punish you~” And she has the audacity to wink.

Zhongli rolls his eyes and rises to his feet. It’s his turn, anyway, and he brushes past Venti and the pair of women without so much as a comment. When he reaches Lisa, she turns to him, having bowled a strike. The words they exchange fall on deaf ears, and even as Venti leans off his seat to try and eavesdrop, he just can’t pick up on any of it.

Once they’re done chatting, Lisa heads directly over to him. “I didn’t know you were dating the lawyer.”

“Eh?” Venti face pales considerably. “I’m not.”

“You invited him bowling, dear.”

“S-so? You’re here, too. It's just those two over there being… gross,” Venti says rather awkwardly, because really, he doesn’t mind the kissing whatsoever. It’s kind of cute if the situation itself wasn’t so awkward in the first place.

“That sounds awfully jealous,” Lisa teases as she leans down to whisper in his ear, “he has a watch. But he’s here with you. Maybe he’s interested in a little extracurricular fun. He certainly doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying the bowling itself.”

Venti can’t tell her he’s here to observe them. And he also can’t refute the fact that Zhongli looks entirely out of his element with bowling shoes on, trying to size up the alley and the bowling pins. His heart starts to beat stupidly fast.

“Are you telling me to just… sleep with him?” Venti asks, feigning a surprised and scandalized gasp.

“Oh, love,” Lisa whispers back, lightly bopping him on the nose. “I don't think anyone needs to tell you that. I think you decided that the second you accidentally let him see you play the guitar.”

Venti laughs nervously, his heart just not in it. “Anyone can hear me play. It's not like I wrote a song or a poem for him. He’s just my annoying coworker.”

“Hm.” Lisa steps back, hands on her hips. “His watch isn’t on. Who knows. Maybe you’re the Prince in children’s clothing he’s been waiting for?”

“Booooo,” Venti responds, shaking his head but also betraying himself with a tiny smile. “How about this. I’ll kiss him the second you stop being a chicken and try to flirt with Jean.” He knows it’s a dangerous proposition, that he shouldn’t be encouraging that when he thinks Jean and Mona may be happy, but damnit, he really likes Lisa and thinks she’s a good fit for Jean and —

“I’ve been flirting with her all week, sweetheart,” Lisa says with a bored yawn. “So, I suppose you have to kiss him, now.”

“What?”

Zhongli chooses that moment to return to the little seating area. He’s wearing a bewildered expression, restlessly toying with the end of his sleeve. From the look on his face, he must not have heard much of the conversation, but Venti suspects he may not be so dense as to not have several ideas what they could have been talking about in the first place. Venti’s stomach drops, skin goes an icy cold, and he quickly jumps up to his feet. “Is it my turn?! I best go do that. Watch in wonder~!”

Lisa and Zhongli both lift a brow at him as he scampers past in a less than dignified manner.

* * *

“…I apologize if this is stepping over the line, breaking some sort of boundary,” begins Zhongli as his warm voice loftily carries through the chilly air.

Venti hugs his arms tighter to his body, not feeling quite right since that conversation with Lisa at the bowling alley. They had parted ways, the five of them, and Zhongli had insisted on walking Venti home if only because it was mostly on his way and that he didn’t necessarily think that Venti should be walking home alone after a few beers and at this hour. Venti had tried to convince him otherwise, but at the end of the day, he was tired and didn’t mind the company, even if it was a perplexing lawyer for his sworn enemy.

“What is it?” asks Venti, mentally cursing Lisa for even daring to keep pouring fuel on him. A fire would never start, he wouldn’t let it. He didn’t do attachment or crushes or anything of the like. This playful little dance with Zhongli was fun as it was, and he didn’t need to look any deeper into it.

“…Diluc,” Zhongli says, hesitating. “Well. I feel as if you ought to know,” he continues, and his voice is all sorts of uncomfortable. “…There’s a rumor started, already.”

“About Diluc?” Venti frowns, the expression completely real.

“…well, yes,” Zhongli says and he forces the next words out, albeit gravely, “and you.”

“And me.” Venti repeats it and stares up at the stars in the sky. “Do people think I got the job because I’m sleeping with him? Is that it?”

Zhongli doesn’t say anything; it's answer enough.

“Look, I don’t care about gossip or any of that,” Venti says with a weak smile. “It’s all silly to me. I'm a consultant, too. It's not like I’m trying to make a career out of this job. If people want to think that, go ahead! If it bothers Diluc, I’m sure he’ll set them straight.” And then he laughs, a bit weaker, “See what I did there? Pun totally intended.”

“Ah.” Zhongli nods, slow. “I see. I’m sorry for mentioning it.”

“No.” Venti shakes his head. “Don’t be.”

It’s impossible to admit to someone he barely knows that at one point he did have feelings for him. It feels like an entirely different lifetime, at this point. Venti hates that he ever did in the first place. It hadn’t been him. And even if the crush was fleeting, he still feels guilt for it. He isn't sure if it’ll ever fade.

Venti stops at the stoop of his building. His eyes wander back to Zhongli, who is standing in the light of the street-lamps, looking prim and proper even after just bowling and eating terribly greasy food. There he stands, some sort of corporate lawyer who is letting some nobody push him around for the sake of making a better world, a better company.

And Venti knows he’s wasting Zhongli’s time, that he’s wasting all of their time, really. Zhongli is necessary collateral damage. But…

“I didn’t get to ask you,” Venti says, hands in the pockets of his hoodie. “If you were in Jean’s position, what would you do?”

Zhongli looks to him and Venti swears his eyes almost glow. “I would trust my heart.”

“Not the watch?”

“Not the watch.”

“Hm.” Venti looks away, cheeks a soft pink. “Don’t let anyone at Celestia hear you say that.”

Zhongli looks as if he wants to say more, but he doesn’t. Instead, he checks the time on his phone and then looks back to Venti. “Will you be there in the morning?”

“Do you think I’m gonna be a no-show? Have some more faith!” Venti laughs and then can’t help the grin that flutters over his lips. “What? You want to see me in the morning or something? Would you be disappointed if I didn’t go?”

And Venti swears there’s a spark of red across Zhongli’s face. “Goodnight, Venti.”

Venti is in the middle of checking his phone, eyes widening when he sees a text from Jean that very, very much screams that she knows her soulmate is Lisa, and how, how does she know, Zhongli hadn’t told her, or Lisa, or Venti, so why, why was she suddenly, how could she…

When his eyes lift back up, Zhongli is still standing there, looking as if he has countless things left to say.

“…What is it?” Zhongli asks instead, that brief flicker of something fading and morphing into concern.

“Um. Someone at your company told Jean. She said she got an email.”

Zhongli’s expression drops. “Ah.” And then, a bit quieter, “Damnit.”

Venti swallows down the lump of nerves and he says to the quiet of the night, and maybe to Zhongli, too, “Well, fuck.”