It wasn’t that Alec didn’t like Raj.
It wasn’t even that Alec didn’t love Raj, with an exasperated, frustrated, sometimes irritated sort of fondness that his siblings thought was adorable and his mother narrowed her eyes at.
It was just—
“How do I look?”
Alec glanced up from his position reading on Raj’s sofa. Marine blue suit. Purple tie that clashed, positioned slightly askew. Hair damp from the shower.
“Will it do for a work dinner?” Raj asked, picking at his lapels.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, it’s—fine.”
Raj arched an eyebrow. “That good, huh?”
Alec winced, but didn’t say anything else. It had been a year since they’d quite literally run into each other that fateful day at a café, and Raj would have sloshed coffee all over himself were it not for Alec grabbing his forearm to steady him. A year since they’d realised they bore each other’s words. A year since this thing had begun. And Alec still couldn’t tell Raj that he really, desperately needed a different tie with his suit without worrying that it would break something between them.
Perhaps they were fragile. Perhaps Alec was. Perhaps it was merely the illusion that was fragile. Perhaps there was no they at all, really.
Because that was it.
It was just that Alec wasn’t in love with Raj.
Raj turned to look over his shoulder from where he’d been heading back into his bedroom. “Yeah?”
“I’m gonna head home. I’ll text you.”
As always, when they had a date night - which was every Thursday, at seven o’clock, and always involved an excruciating amount of slightly awkward flirting that felt, at least to Alec, horribly forced - Raj walked him to the door, and leant up to kiss him on the cheek.
It was probably really fucking weird, but Alec preferred that to how they’d started. Trying to force things. Trying to force intimacy. Trying to force sex. At least they’d left the latter behind, by silent, mutual agreement.
“I’ll see you soon,” Alec said, offering him a smile.
He didn’t look back as he left, and he practically sagged with relief the moment he heard Raj’s front door click shut behind him.
If he knew Raj at all - which, after a year, he was sure he did - then he’d be doing exactly the same on the other side of the door.
The third time Alec caught his mother frowning in his and Raj’s direction during their weekly Sunday get-togethers, he decided to corner her in the kitchen, whilst Luke had left to break up a spat brewing between Isabelle and Jace. He’d dealt with enough shit from his father when Raj had come into his life. He didn’t expect it from her.
“What?” he demanded, folding his arms across his chest.
Maryse fixed him with an admonishing sort of look, and shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Mom. It’s something. You keep looking at us.”
She exhaled, and glanced down at her wrist, where Robert’s words sat, inked into her skin forever. A phenomenon that no science had yet been able to explain.
“Are you happy?” Maryse asked, tipping her head up to meet his gaze.
He blinked in surprise. “Uh, yeah. Sure.”
She pressed her lips together. “Are you? Really?”
“Yeah, Mom. I got a promotion last week, of course I’m happy.”
A faint smile twitched at the corners of her lips. “I’m talking about Raj, sweetheart.”
Unbidden, Alec looked over his shoulder as his expression of forced cheer dropped away. Nobody stood lingering outside. His siblings and their partners, their perfect soulmates, his mother’s convention-shattering partner, his own decidedly imperfect soulmate—they were all in the living room, probably still bickering over chocolate.
His teeth sunk into his lower lip as he looked back at his mother, who’d lowered herself into a chair at the kitchen table and was watching him with a careful, tentatively knowing sort of sadness in her eyes.
“I’m not...unhappy,” he ventured, and wondered whether his answer did, in fact, say more than admitting that he was completely fucking devastated.
He wasn’t unhappy. He wasn’t happy. He was entirely apathetic to his relationship with Raj.
“But?” she prompted.
“But I’m not really happy, either.”
“Do you want to talk about why?”
He didn’t. Not really. He’d never been good at opening up. Sharing his feelings. He’d lamented his inability to communicate to Isabelle, once, and she’d smiled, wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and told him that the right person would fit him, somehow.
The right person. His soulmate. Raj.
But Raj didn’t fit him. They both knew it. They just didn’t fit.
“I—” He exhaled. “Being with Raj feels like pretending to date a friend. There’s– there’s nothing. I don’t feel anything...” He gestured vaguely, hoping to get his meaning across without having to tell his mother that there was no sexual or romantic chemistry between him and his boyfriend at all.
God knew he didn’t want to talk about sex. He was fairly sure he was scarred. Raj too, probably.
“Have you talked to him about it?”
Alec snorted. “No. Of course I haven’t. I can’t talk to people, Mom, remember?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Not even Raj?”
“Definitely not Raj.”
They were quiet for a moment. Alec glanced down, avoiding her gaze as he felt shame grace his cheeks with an embarrassed flush of pink. It wasn’t normal. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be perfect. Easy.
He was supposed to want it. He was supposed to want Raj. He wasn’t supposed to want something else. He wasn’t supposed to feel like he wanted more.
He certainly wasn’t supposed to feel like he wanted someone else.
When he’d dreamed of his soulmate, as an excitable, fantastical kid, and then later, as a worried, closeted teenager, he’d dreamt of warmth, and love, and comfort. He’d dreamt of a man who made his heart race and his breath catch.
“Don’t do what I did, Alec,” Maryse said, breaking the quiet. “Don’t throw away your life because of what you’re supposed to do.”
“Forty years ago it wasn’t even legal to marry someone who wasn’t your soulmate. How can I just...ignore it?”
Maryse leant back in her chair and tipped her chin up. “Because it’s more important to be happy than to do what other people say you should.”
“Do you regret being with Dad?”
Maryse shook her head. “No. Because without that, I would never have had the there of you. Or Jace, probably. But I don’t think I left your father for the same reason you’re unhappy now.”
“What does that mean?”
“I did love Robert,” Maryse said, a small, sad smile twitching at the corners of her lips. “I left him because he searched for love elsewhere, behind my back.”
And that—that was exactly why Alec’s situation was different. That was exactly why, however much he admired his mother for leaving a broken marriage, he couldn’t do the same in good conscience. Raj hadn’t done anything wrong.
Alec simply didn’t love him.
By the time Alec left work on Friday, he felt ready to quit his job at the news outlet and live as a hermit in some faraway land where the closest human beings lived across the ocean. Sometimes, his intense hatred of conceding defeat was a problem.
As he forced himself onto the subway among the other commuters, nobody willing to pull any punches in the intense fight for a space in the carriage, he pulled out his phone. He navigated through to his text thread with Raj, and felt something in his chest pull tight enough to constrict his next breath. The last time they’d texted had been Monday. Really, after a crap week and an ever crapper day, shouldn’t it have been Raj he wanted to text? Raj he wanted to go to? Talk to?
He had the distinct desire to cry, and, honestly, he didn’t know whether it was because of his day, or because Raj was the very last person he wanted to see.
So, instead of getting off at his own stop, Alec did the mature thing: he got off the stop before, and headed straight to a bar.
As per usual on a Friday night, the building was packed when Alec walked in. He managed to shove through the hot mass of bodies smelling like an unpleasant cocktail of sweat and alcohol, and found himself a spot at the end of the bar, between an large guy with over-gelled hair and two women giving each other looks that didn’t belong outside of a bedroom.
One of the two bartenders on duty wrinkled her nose, and plastered an expression of neutrality across her face as she approached Alec.
“Could I get a rum and coke, please?” Alec said, a little distracted by the sudden influx of emails appearing in his inbox. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to admit he’d lost, after all.
A rum and coke quickly became two, promptly followed by several beers when he caught sight of the soulmarks on the wrists of the two women beside him.
The bar had emptied out considerably by the time a text notification buzzed on his phone. It was from Isabelle. He’d look at it in the morning.
“We’re closing in half an hour,” a voice said, making Alec glance up. The bartender who’d been working mostly at the other end of the bar stood in front of him, wiping down the counter. “Have you got a ride home?”
“I’ll get a taxi,” Alec mumbled, rubbing at his temple with his knuckles. He looked down into his empty beer glass, and wondered how much he’d regret his little drinking escapade by the morning.
The bartender paused in his work, leant one hip against the beer-stained wood, and shot Alec a curious look. “Are you alright?”
Alec waved a hand unconvincingly. “Yeah, I’m brilliant.”
The guy shrugged elegantly. “If you say so, pretty boy.”
That made Alec snap his head up, brow furrowing in confusion. Pretty boy? What the hell? He was pushing thirty, for crying out loud. He hadn’t been a boy for a fucking long time.
Apparently, the comment wasn’t out of the ordinary for the bartender. He looked decidedly unconcerned as he continued wiping up spilt drinks and dropped snacks and all the general shit that managed to get everywhere.
He didn’t look any older than Alec. He also looked far too refined to be a bartender, in a pair of smart black jeans, a fitted maroon shirt and an array of rings scattered across his fingers. When he turned his head, Alec caught sight of an ear cuff hooked over his helix.
Really, Alec thought, if anyone was pretty, it was him.
The guy looked up, apparently feeling Alec’s gaze, and arched an eyebrow at him.
“Sorry.” Alec dropped his gaze, and laughed self-deprecatingly. “I think I’m drunk.”
“Oh, really?” He rolled his eyes, but a smile curled at the corners of his lips. “I had no idea.”
“I don’t think I’ve been this drunk since my twenty-first birthday.”
The bartender snorted. “Well, you haven’t thrown up everywhere yet, so I think that’s a fairly good track record. I spent more time drunk than sober between the age of twenty and twenty-five.”
“Bet your friends loved you.”
A laugh of surprise escaped from between the man’s lips, and he glanced over at Alec. “Perhaps not my greatest fans, for a while.”
Alec didn’t say anything else while the guy carried on working. A woman with long, dark hair that reminded him somewhat of Isabelle sat at the other end of the bar, chatting and laughing with the female bartender who’d been serving Alec earlier. Other than that, the bar was empty.
“Are you sure you’re alright, darling?”
The guy was in front of him again. He’d put down the cloth, and had a jacket on. He had nice hair, Alec thought, absently. And nice eyeliner. And really nice hands.
Was it weird to think someone’s hands were nice?
“Yeah. Is it kicking out time?”
The guy inhaled deeply and titled his head to one side, regarding Alec with an inscrutable expression. “It is, but if you want to get whatever it is off your chest, the only person expecting me home is my cat. And my research paper.”
“Why do you care?” Alec asked, because apparently drunk Alec was a bit of a dick.
He shrugged. “I don’t like seeing people moping at bars alone. And sometimes talking to a perfect stranger is the best therapy. I speak from experience.”
“I’m not very good at talking,” Alec ventured, glancing up from where he’d been staring down at his hands.
The guy hummed, and dragged a stool out to sit down on the other side of the counter, right across from Alec. He rested the elbows of his jacket on the dubiously clean bar, and lent forwards.
“I—” A noise of frustration caught in the back of his throat. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up. “Why’s that?”
“Because I’m not in love with my soulmate.”
He frowned. “You’re in love with someone else?”
“No. No, I met him a year ago, and we were both single, and it was supposed to be perfect, but it’s not. We’re not in love with each other, and we both know it, and we never will be, and it’s just shit. It’s so shit.”
“Ah.” He inhaled, and folded his hands beneath his chin. “May I ask why you’re still together, if you don’t love each other?”
There was something hard in the man’s voice. It was the first time he’d sounded anything but warm and amused all evening.
Alec shook his head. “It’s not like that. Raj isn’t bad. I do- I do love him, but I love him like I love my friends. Not like I’m supposed to love my soulmate. I guess that’s why. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“Maybe he’s doing the same thing. Maybe he’s not entirely happy either.”
“But it doesn’t matter, does it? If I’m not– If I’m not in love with the one person I’m supposed to love more than anything, there’s never going to be anyone who fits me better, is there? And it’s not like I can dump my soulmate. He’s my person. I’m just—fucked. I’m fucked.”
The bartender regarded him for a long, heavy moment. Alec couldn’t look away. Brown eyes held his, searching, silent and careful and oddly reassuring.
“Have you ever been in love before?”
The question caught Alec off guard. He stuttered a little, before he managed to choke out, “Um. Once. A long time ago.”
“Only the once just because that was how things worked out? Or because you were waiting for him?”
Alec looked down at the bar. “My first relationship sort of put me off the whole thing. It was a messy break-up. It seemed like a better idea to wait for my perfect person, rather than try to force it with someone else.”
“Maybe you’re just putting too much pressure on this relationship,” he suggested, gently.
“I don’t think it’s that.” A wry smile twisted at his lips. “I’ve never once looked at Raj and felt...chemistry? I was thrilled when we met. Giddy. At first it was...good. But then I realised that it was the thought of my soulmate that made me excited, not...him. God, I sound like an asshole.”
“No,” the man said, softly. “No, you don’t.”
“It’s weird though, right?”
He made a noncommittal sound. “It’s probably more common than people would like to admit. We’re all conditioned to think that soulmates are perfect, but, really, we don’t know anything about these marks. They could mean anything at all. We’ve just decided that they’re infallible proof that we should be with someone forever.”
It was Alec’s turn to raise his eyebrows. The way the guy spoke sounded like he had his own opinions about soulmates. Or experiences that didn’t quite fit the status quo. But he wasn’t going to ask. It seemed too intrusive.
“Sorry.” The bartender grinned sheepishly. “I’m actually working on a research paper about soulmarks. I’m supposed to be a scientist, but I’m spending half of my time rooting through philosophical and theological theories. It’s very frustrating. I suddenly understand why psychiatrists hate Freud so much.”
“Right.” Alec had never been very good at science. “I should probably go home.”
“I’ll call you a cab.” He stood. “I don’t want you toppling over and needing a trip to the ER.”
Five minutes later, Alec stumbled his way out of the bar and into the taxi, under the disapproving eye of the driver. The bartender offered him a smile.
“Have a good night, darling. Drink water.”
Alec laughed tiredly. “Thanks.”
“You’re very welcome.” The man’s fingers caught the edge of the door, and he leant in a little. Alec could smell his cologne. Something was making his head spin—something other than the alcohol. “Follow your heart. Not what other people tell you.”
Then the door slammed shut, the man lifted a hand in farewell, and the driver pulled out into the stream of traffic.
Alec wondered what the man’s name was.
Isabelle stuck out her hand with a fierce look in her eyes. “Give me the fucking money, Jace, or so help me—”
“It’s not yours! You did something! With the cards!” Jace exclaimed, pointing to the stack of chance cards sat atop the Monopoly board in a neat pile by Isabelle’s knee.
Isabelle rolled her eyes. “You’re the one who always cheats, not me.”
Across from each other, Simon and Clary exchanged an amused look as their partners bickered back and forth. Clary had the hand Isabelle wasn’t gesturing wildly at Jace with clasped in her lap, and was fiddling with the silver ring Maryse had given her for her sixteenth birthday. Simon had his thigh pressed comfortably against Jace’s, knees overlapping.
It was an easy sort of closeness. The kind Alec had envied, when Isabelle had met Clary and Jace had met Simon, when Clary introduced him to the Lightwoods as her best friend, entirely unaware that he’d turn out to be Jace’s soulmate, and would fulfil the hilarious comment about dyed blondes that Jace had been simultaneously scathing and fond of ever since it had appeared on his skin. It was exactly what Alec had always dreamed of, on nights alone, desperately, horribly aware of the fact that his soulmate, whoever he was, would be a he.
And, now, Alec had his he. The nameless, faceless man who’d always been the promised light at the end of the eternally dark tunnel of his teens, the man whose words he had branded into his skin—he had him. He’d found him.
“You okay?” Simon asked, nudging Alec’s shin with his toes.
“Yeah, sorry. Just...thinking.”
Simon grinned. “Don’t think too hard. It’s bad for you.”
Alec rolled his eyes, but a smile twitched at his lips as he picked up the dice and had his turn, Jace and Isabelle’s argument apparently settled. He could feel Raj watching him from where he sat a few feet away. He wondered, as he so often did, what Raj was thinking. Whether he thought as many awful, sacrilegious things as Alec did.
He wondered what his siblings thought. They’d never brought it up, not like Maryse had. They’d never pointed out that he and Raj hardly ever touched in public. Rarely held hands, or cuddled, or looped arms over shoulders and around waists. Never kissed. Never flirted.
Never acted like soulmates in love.
By the time they left Isabelle and Clary’s apartment, darkness had long since enveloped the city. Further up the street, Alec could see through to the main road, where car horns blared loudly and the ever-present light generated by the sleepless inhabitants of New York shone from every which corner.
Simon and Jace waved goodbye, Jace a touch unsteady, much to Simon’s amusement. Simon guided him carefully into the passenger seat of his car, rolled his eyes, and leant in to press a kiss to Jace’s cheek. Jace tried to grab at Simon’s sleeve when he pulled away, but missed by about a mile, and pouted at him through the window.
The sight made Alec’s stomach twist. He wanted that. He wanted that sort of easy, selfless love. The kind that came across in the small moments. He wasn’t opposed to effort, but he knew it wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.
“Will you come back to mine?” Raj asked suddenly, breaking the silence between them as they walked down the street to the subway, side by side but not touching.
Alec frowned. “It’s pretty late. I was gonna go home.”
“I—” Raj exhaled. “It can wait until tomorrow, if you like. It’s not urgent. Just...I feel like we need to talk. And I’m exactly the right side of tipsy to be brave enough to say what needs to be said and coherent enough to hold a conversation.”
Alec smiled faintly, stomach twisting into knots of anxiety and nausea. “Right. Can we just...find a bench, or something?”
He didn’t want to be at Raj’s apartment when his soulmate laid out everything about their relationship that was wrong and shit and not what it was fucking supposed to be. He wanted to be somewhere neutral.
They sat down together on a bench at the corner of a quieter side street. For a long, heavy moment that seemed to stretch out into an excruciating infinity, neither of them spoke. Alec could feel the tension rolling off Raj in waves. It made him want to squirm.
“Do you love me?” Raj asked abruptly, turning to look at him with a furrowed brow.
God, Alec was going to be sick. He could feel his insides twisting and churning, and everything he’d eaten in the last six hours was ready to make a reappearance on the sidewalk.
But Raj was waiting, looking at him with steady brown eyes that he was supposed to adore, and Alec could do nothing but be honest.
“Yes,” Alec murmured, “but not the way I’m supposed to.”
“What does that mean?”
Alec choked out a bitter laugh; nothing had ever been less humorous.
“I love you like I’d love an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, and didn’t really know anymore, but felt fond of all the same. I know I’m supposed to love you, and I care about you, and I want you to be happy, but I’m not in love with you.”
A breath left Raj in a rush. His shoulders sagged with something that looked an awful look like relief.
“I thought it was just me,” Raj said, raking a hand through his hair. He laughed nervously. “I thought I was the one fucking all this up. I thought– I don’t know. God. It’s not just me.”
The fact that it was mutual should have made Alec feel better. But somehow, it didn’t.
Alec swallowed. “So what do you want?”
Raj shrugged. “Not much point trying to force this if it’s not going anywhere with happy sunsets and daisies, is there? We’ve been together for a year. We’re not in love with each other. We’re not attracted to each other. Every time we’ve tried to have sex has made it to the top ten worst experiences of my life.”
“You mean you want to...break up?” Alec asked, feeling abruptly and unexpectedly cold.
“Well, don’t you?” Raj asked, raising his eyebrows. “Don’t you want to go and find something better? Because - no offence - I do. I’m not in love with you, either. I like you, but like you said, not like I should.”
“Yeah. I guess so,” Alec said, and it was true. Raj was right. Of course he was. Except—
If he couldn’t fall in love with his soulmate, his perfect person, then how the fuck was he ever supposed to fall in love with anyone else?
“I know it’s kind of weird,” Raj said, not unkindly, “but it’s best, if we’re both unhappy. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, of course it is.”
It was. It had to be.
But, when they parted, nearly an hour later, when Raj stood up and gave Alec a hug and walked off down the street, hands tucked into his pockets, Alec sunk back down on the bench and lifted trembling fingers to his face. Shame coursed through him, hot and mortifying and clutching at his heart, tightening around his lungs, until he had to duck his head and focus all of his conscious mind on breathing.
He stayed on the bench, the world going about its business around him. He tried to breathe. He tried not to think about his failure.
How the fuck could he be so incompetent that he couldn’t even fall in love with his perfect somebody?
Law had never been Alec’s calling.
All through high school, Alec had expected to go into law. He’d been expected to go into law, mostly by his parents—by his father. And he had. He’d started off on his journey of shitty hours and immense stress and the golden prospect of the fantastical pay scale he could climb in corporate law.
He’d despised every minute of it.
Sometimes, though, like when he was sitting in a library wondering how anybody could survive in a world where something as basic as a shitty coffee machine was so damn expensive, he wondered whether he might have been better off sticking it out.
He glanced down at the interview he was supposed to type up by the end of the day, and felt his lips quirk at the corners. No. Fuck law. Interrogating the assholes at the top and exposing their fraudulent, tax-evading shit was much more fun. Even if the pay was a joke.
Someone kicked him under the table. A frown crossed his face as he looked up at Maia, sitting opposite him with one eyebrow lifted and a pen dangling from between her fingers.
“What? What was that for?”
“You were smiling.”
Alec rolled his eyes. “So? Why does that warrant being kicked in the shin?”
She pulled a pad of post-it notes towards her and scribbled something down. “Because you never smile.”
Maia screwed up the post-it note and tossed it at Alec’s head. Tempted to kick her back, but determined to be the more mature person, Alec flattened it out on the table.
I’m lying. I kicked you because the guy on the table to your left keeps staring at you. Do you know him?
Alec pulled a face, and shook his head at her. Maia shrugged, and went back to her work.
Covertly, Alec darted his eyes to the side, following Maia’s direction. There was something familiar about the man sitting with his ankles crossed and headphones in, a frown on his face as he looked between his laptop and a thick, open folder. The sharp lines of his jacket against his torso tugged at Alec’s memory, and—
“Are you okay?” Maia asked, as Alec felt the colour drain from his face.
“Yeah. Look, I’d better go. I’ve got...things.”
He stood up sharply, bashing his knee against the table. Pain shot through him, but he ignored it as resolutely as he was ignoring the lovely bartender who’d listened to his drunken angst and helped him into a cab and been embarrassingly patient and mortifyingly kind.
“Ah, yes, things.” Maia’s eyebrows hit her hairline, and she looked pointedly over at the guy at the next table. “You are well known for having things on a Thursday night.”
“Shut up,” Alec muttered, gathering his crap as quickly as he could. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Palms raised, Maia shook her head. “Hey, I don’t want to hear about it. See you tomorrow, yeah?”
If I don’t die of mortification first, Alec thought, but he said his goodbyes, and booked it out of the library, desperately praying that he could get home without having to confront his drunken miseries of the month before.
Of course, having offered God nothing whatsoever in his entire, miserable life, whatever deity did or did not exist up in the clouds failed to grant him any luck.
“Shit, sorry! I’m sorry,” Alec said, taking a step back and reaching out to grab whichever poor soul he’d crashed into in his haste to escape with his dignity in tact, and—
Fuck. Fucking fuckity fuck fuck.
The bartender-come-soulmate-scientist, or whatever he was, shot him a smile, and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. No harm done.”
“Um, after you,” Alec said, and rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck. “Sorry. Again.”
“It’s fine. Really.”
For one shining, beautiful moment, Alec thought that perhaps the guy didn’t remember him. After all, he probably saw multiple drunk, moping assholes like Alec every week. There was no reason he should remember Alec. It seemed unlikely that Alec had made any memorable sort of first impression.
But, as ever, luck was not on Alec’s side.
The guy shot him a sideways glance, curious and friendly. “Do you remember me, or were you too drunk?”
Alec let out a half laugh of embarrassment, and dragged a hand down his face. “No, I– I remember. I’m sorry about...that. Probably not my finest hour.”
The man raised his eyebrows in amusement. “Not at all. As drunk patrons in suits go, you were far from the worst I’ve seen. You didn’t even try to make a pass at me.”
Inelegantly, Alec choked on his own saliva, and looked quickly across. “No, well. I was having an existential crisis at the time. I have to say, the thought didn’t really cross my mind. Not that you’re not–” he gestured awkwardly “–handsome, or whatever.”
Abruptly, the guy threw his head back and laughed. It sounded bright and clear in the dying light of the evening, cutting through the ever-present sound of impatient cab drivers and irritated New Yorkers that always permeated every corner of the city.
Alec caught himself staring at the shameless display. His eyes raked over the crinkles at the corners of the man’s eyes, and the long line of his neck, and the prominent jut of his Adam’s apple, and—
God, what was he doing?
The guy quieted, and turned to smile at Alec, eyes warm and expression unrestrained.
“How is the existential crisis coming along?” he asked, and, when Alec felt himself tense, added, “I shouldn’t have asked that. My apologies.”
“It’s okay. It’s... I don’t know.” He shook his head. “It’s over, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
“I’m sorry,” the guy said, softly, because apparently he understood what Alec meant. His relationship was over. Not his existential crisis. “Would you like to get a drink?”
Alec glanced over at him from where he’d had his gaze trained on the dirty sidewalk. “Yeah, okay. Now?”
“Unless you have, ah, things.”
The grin on his face made it more than obvious that he’d overheard Alec and Maia’s conversation, back in the library. Alec groaned his shame, and the guy laughed.
“No, I don’t,” Alec said, shaking his head.
“Alright.” He tilted his head to one side. “Can I get your name?”
“Alec,” Alec said, and held out his name.
“Magnus,” the guy said, and took Alec’s hand firmly. Alec could feel the cool press of rings between the warmth of his fingers, and, when they dropped hands, he noticed that Magnus’ fingernails were decorated with a deep crimson varnish.
The heavy sensation of eyes on him made Alec break away from his staring at Magnus’ hands. He found Magnus watching him with something inscrutable dancing in the dark brown of his eyes. It made Alec feel uncharacteristically self-conscious.
“Lead the way,” Alec said, voice sounding far steadier than he felt.
Magnus’ lips turned up. “Don’t give me ideas, darling.”
“Do you have siblings?”
“Three. All younger. All a nightmare.”
“None. Never have.”
“How old are you?”
“And you’re not a lawyer anymore, you’re a— What kind of journalist?”
“Investigative. Do you always ask this many questions?”
Beside him at the bar, Magnus let out a laugh, and shook his head in apology as he took a delicate sip of his margarita. They’d turned their barstools to face towards each other, and they were angled so that their knees brushed every time one of them shifted.
“Sorry,” Magnus said, a smile of amused self-depreciation twisting at his lips. “When we went out for drinks, I felt like I didn’t actually find out anything about you.”
Alec raised his eyebrows. “We spent the whole night talking about me being a familial disappointment and my failed relationship.”
“That’s not quite how I remember it.” Magnus twirled a hand through the air, and leant forwards conspiratorially. “I seem to recall you spending rather a lot of time digging for information about me. Which is why I’m now digging for information about you.”
A flush crawled up Alec’s neck, warm pink diffusing across his cheeks. “I don’t like talking about myself.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Magnus said.
They clinked glasses - Magnus’ making a decidedly prettier ching against the dull clack of Alec’s beer - and exchanged grins. It was odd, Alec thought. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d met someone he got on so easily with. Socialising with strangers tended to take copious quantities of effort. It usually left him wanting to pass out on his bed and not speak to anybody for at least a day.
Somehow, he didn’t feel like that with Magnus. Possibly, that was just because, on the three occasions they’d spent time talking, Alec had had alcohol numbing his blood. But possibly it was also just because he and Magnus worked.
Some people did, after all. For no discernible reason. Certainly, on the outside, they couldn’t have appeared much more different.
“Want to see a photo of my cat?” Magnus said, pulling his phone out of the pocket on his slim-cut suit pants before Alec could open his mouth to respond.
“That is not a cat,” Alec said immediately upon seeing the photo, and slapped a hand over his mouth, eyes going wide as he looked up at Magnus, who seemed mildly surprised and infinitely amused and just a tad defensive, with both eyes slightly narrowed.
“In what way is that anything but a cat?”
“It’s tiny! Look at it in comparison to your hand!”
Magnus rolled his eyes. “Chairman Meow is a kitten there. He’s bigger now. Although I’ll admit he’s still...petite.”
Alec choked on his beer. “Chairman Meow? You named your tiny adorable cat after a malevolent dictator?”
Magnus’ eyes narrowed further, the sharp, teasing edges of warning glinting in the dark of his pupils. “It’s called irony. I’m sure that’s something journalists are supposed to be familiar with.”
It was a dig, but Alec couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. Soon, Magnus was laughing too, and they fell into that endless circle of laughing harder every time they locked eyes, until Alec had to cross his arms on the bar and bury his face in the crooks of his elbows to gasp in a breath.
“Would you like another drink?” Magnus asked, once they’d both regained some semblance of decorum.
“Uh, yeah, that would be nice. Thank you.”
“I figured it’s my turn to buy.” Magnus smiled as he stood. “Another beer?”
“You know what, surprise me.”
“Any hard nos?”
Alec shook his head. “No. I’m open-minded.”
It was a blatant lie. Alec was many things, but open-minded wasn’t really one of them. He liked things the way he liked them. He was stubborn. Rarely prone to fits of fickleness.
But something about the way Magnus smiled at him made him want to be.
Something hit the back of Alec’s head. When Alec looked up, annoyance playing across his face, it was to the sight of Jace standing with a basket of laundry in his hands.
“That better be clean,” Alec said, picking up the sock and throwing it back at Jace. “And it better have been Simon’s. What do you want?”
“What’s got you smiling at your phone?” Jace asked, suspicion heavy in his voice.
“Nothing.” Alec clicked his screen off, turning it black before Jace could steal his phone and read his texts. “Instagram.”
“Right.” Jace looked deeply unconvinced. “And Simon doesn’t fancy Captain America.”
Alec rolled his eyes. “God, Jace, I’m an adult, stop being so nosey.”
“Hey, I’m just asking! You’ve been miserable for weeks. Is it Raj? Are you talking again?”
A long, heavy exhale left Alec, and, with it, every lingering feeling of happiness that had been coursing through him as he and Magnus exchanged stupid, sarcastic messages poking fun at some ridiculous meme Magnus had sent him.
“No,” Alec said shortly. “We’re not. We’re not going to. We broke up, Jace.”
Jace shifted the basket onto his other hip. “Yeah, man, I know, but he’s your soulmate. Surely—”
“We’re not like you and Simon,” Alec snapped. “Alright? We’re not in love with each other. We don’t fit. Maybe that’s just because there’s something fucked up about us, but it doesn’t really matter why. We were making each other miserable.”
“You seemed pretty miserable when he ended it, too,” Jace pointed out gently, coming to sit beside Alec on the sofa. “Look, Alec you know I’m always gonna be on your side, but is this really what you want?”
A bitter laugh forced its way past Alec’s lips. “No. Of course it’s not. I wanted to have what you and Simon have. What Isabelle and Clary have. But I can’t. So that’s that.”
Jace frowned. “Alec, that’s not true.”
Alec found himself laughing so hard his sides ached and tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, as he and Magnus sat across from each other in a coffee shop, telling stories of their ridiculous university days.
He tried to speak, tried to tell Magnus that he’d never heard anything more ridiculous in his life, but the moment he opened his mouth, he caught sight of Magnus’ face, lips stretched impossibly wide and eyes bright, and it would only make him laugh harder.
“God,” Alec said, after they’d both calmed down, having gained some rather puzzled looks from the elderly couple sitting at the table next to them. “I haven’t laughed that hard in years.”
Magnus grinned at him. “Me neither.”
Magnus turned to look outside. The heavens had opened, and rained poured from the sky in loud, splattering droplets that hit the ground like a million tiny explosions. People were scurrying through the streets with their hoods up, battling with umbrellas and holding whatever makeshift shelters they could find over their heads.
Something mischievous flashed in Magnus’ eyes as he turned back to look at Alec, brighter than the lightening that had streaked through the sky moments before.
“How do you feel about the rain?”
Alec raised his eyebrows. “Apathetic?”
“Apathetic,” Magnus repeated, deadpan, and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Lightwood. Live a little.”
Magnus stuck out his hand, rising up from his chair with all the grace of a dancer, and stared at Alec with challenge glinting in the black of his pupils. He cocked an eyebrow when Alec merely looked at him blankly, and wiggled his fingers, rings catching the light.
“You’re insane,” Alec told him, but he found himself rising to his feet and reaching for Magnus’ hand without a second thought. “Let’s go.”
His fingers slid between Magnus’, and, for a split second, Alec felt his entire world stop and still and focus in on the sensation of Magnus’ skin against his. He’d touched Magnus once, outside the library, when they’d shaken hands, but it wasn’t– It hadn’t been like this. It hadn’t made his pulse trip.
Magnus tugged him towards the door, and Alec could do nothing but follow.
He gasped at the first splash of rain on his shoulders, cold and forceful. Within seconds, it had drenched him, making his clothes stick to him and slicking his hair to his head. Beside him, Magnus let out a laugh, and turned his face up towards the rolling clouds seated high in the sky. He spread his arms out, letting go of Alec’s hand, and Alec—
Because Magnus Bane was beautiful. Stunning. The most gorgeous man Alec had ever set eyes on.
The realisation knocked the breath out of him, as he stood frozen, lips parted as he watched Magnus turn in a circle, eyes closed and head thrown back, letting the rain slide down his face, droplets running down his neck in tempting, tantalising rivulets.
Magnus was so very beautiful. So very alive. Vital and vibrant and visceral, and Alec wanted to take his face between his palms and kiss him, until his lips were tingling and neither of them could breathe and they were gasping and laughing, and—
And Alec caught sight of Magnus’ soulmark.
He’d never seen it before. He’d never looked for it. But there it was, neat black lettering stark against the bronze skin of his forearm, just poking out from beneath his sleeve. You look like you could use a drink, sugar, it read.
Almost instantly, Alec sobered. Because he knew Magnus was single, and he knew he didn’t hold precisely traditional views about soulmates, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to be with his soulmate. Of course he did. Everybody did. That was the whole point. Of course you would. They were your person. Your perfect fit. Nobody in their right mind wouldn’t want to be with their soulmate.
Just because Alec and Raj had fucked it up, just because the sight of Magnus looking so carefree in the rain made Alec feel things he’d never felt before, just because Magnus was kind to him about his ruined relationship with Raj—none of that meant that Magnus didn’t want his perfect relationship with his soulmate. None of that meant that Magnus would want Alec.
Why the hell would he? Alec had to be the least appealing man on the planet. He hadn’t even been able to make things work with the one person who was supposed to make everything seem easy.
Alec’s heart twisted in his chest, sharp and painful enough to make tears sting at his eyes. A mere metre or two away, Magnus stood with a serene expression on his face, utterly oblivious to the turmoil he’d just cast Alec into.
I want you, Alec thought, with a strange sort of longing. But I know I can never have you. Because you’re not mine. You’re for somebody else.
Abruptly, Magnus spun on his heel and opened his eyes. He looked right at Alec with a laser-like focus that made Alec feel like the greatest depths of his soul was exposed, and beckoned him closer.
Helpless, Alec went. Magnus held out his hands; Alec stared at them in confusion.
“Music,” Magnus said, nodding down the street to where a busker had taken out a guitar, and was sheltering beneath the awning of a café as he began to play, strumming softly.
Alec looked back at Magnus, who had a smile stretched across his face, and shook his head, taking a half step back. “Magnus, I can’t dance.”
“Anybody can dance,” Magnus said, not dropping his hands. “Besides, there’s nobody here. We’re the only people insane enough to still be outside.”
“Just us and the busker.”
“Exactly.” Magnus looked at him pointedly, ducking his head a little and staring at Alec with a warm intensity. “Come on. I’ve always wanted to dance in the rain. I’ve never managed to persuade anyone to do it before.”
“Have you ever wondered why that might be?” Alec said teasingly, but he found himself taking Magnus’ hands anyway.
“Nope.” Magnus grinned, and started to lead Alec in a swaying circle. Perhaps Magnus had enough grace for both of them. “Never.”
Alec rolled his eyes, but Magnus’ cheer was infectious, and he found himself forgetting about how decidedly inelegant he was, letting Magnus spin them around to the rhythmic lull of the music. By the time the busker finished the song, and Magnus let their hands drop, he’d forgotten it was raining at all.
“Is something bothering you?”
The soft sound of Magnus’ voice ringing through from the kitchen where Magnus had been clearing away the remnants of their take-out snapped Alec from his musings. He blinked several times, trying to drag his thoughts back into the realms of propriety, and caught the tail end of fond amusement in Magnus’ gaze, just as it morphed into concern.
“No,” Alec lied, reaching for his coke while Magnus came to join him on the sofa. “No, nothing.”
Magnus arched an eyebrow at him. “Sure?”
“Sure.” Alec offered him a smile in lieu of the truth. “Just tired, I guess.”
Magnus hummed as he seated himself beside Alec on the sofa, folding his limbs elegantly. He turned to face Alec, resting one elbow against the back of the sofa and propping his head up on his hand. Up close, Alec could see the minute smudges where his eyeliner had felt the wrath of a long day.
“Work?” Magnus asked, and took a sip of his wine, the long stem of the glass dangling between his fingers.
Alec shrugged. “No, just...life. I’m just tired.”
Tired of how incapable I am of doing all the things I’m supposed to do, Alec thought, but he didn’t dare say it aloud. He wasn’t ready to open that Pandora’s Box. Admitting to Magnus that he still felt guilt and shame over his failed relationship with Raj was one thing. Confessing that he felt for Magnus things he should have felt for his soulmate was another entirely.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Alec shook his head. “No. I just... I just want to forget about how complicated the world is.”
A look of understanding flashed across Magnus’ face. The corners of his lips turned up in sympathy, and he reached out to lay a comforting hand on Alec’s knee.
At least, Alec thought it was supposed to be comforting. In actuality, it made him tense, all too aware of the warmth of Magnus’ palm, even through the thick layer of his jeans.
“How about a shitty movie?” Magnus suggested, and leant forward, away from Alec, to grab the remote off the coffee table.
Halfway through the film, the sensation of Magnus shifting beside him made Alec look away from the screen. Magnus moved closer, tucking his legs up on the sofa, and rested his head against Alec’s shoulder like he’d done it a hundred times before.
Something jumped and jolted in the cage of Alec’s ribs. He swallowed, and then turned his head to look down at Magnus. He couldn’t make out his face properly, but he could see the soft strands of hair that had been pulled out of place over the course of the day, and he could feel the tiredness weighing Magnus against him. Indescribable fondness welled in him, threatening to spill over in a rush of sheer disaster.
Magnus titled his head to look up at him. He smiled, a small thing with vulnerability tugging at its edges, and Alec found himself smiling back. He was helpless in the face of that look.
As Magnus turned his attention back to the film, Alec lifted his arm to drape it across the back of the sofa. He didn’t dare to settle it around Magnus’ shoulders: that would have been too much like flirting. This—this wasn’t. He’d had Jace fall asleep against him while they watched movies plenty of times. Only in Alec’s mind was any of this intimate enough to make his heart thud double-time.
(The fact that Jace was his brother, and Magnus a friend he’d known for a mere couple of months, was irrelevant. Obviously.)
When the credits rolled, Alec realised that Magnus had fallen asleep, warm breaths hitting Alec’s neck in little puffs. It made him shiver. But it also made his heart clench.
God, he wasn’t supposed to feel like that. Magnus wasn’t supposed to make him feel like that.
It was supposed to be Raj.
Shit, I’m so sorry! the words on the inside of his forearm read. The words Raj had said to him when they’d crashed into each other in a coffee shop.
What was the first thing Magnus had said to him? He didn’t have a clue. But he knew it wasn’t that. That would have caught his attention, even if he had been a little tipsy at the time.
For a while, Alec sat still, fingertips hovering a hairsbreadth away from Magnus’ shoulder, Magnus’ hair tickling the skin of his throat.
He knew he should wake Magnus up. He had to go home. He was supposed to be at work early the next morning, and it was already later than he’d intended to stay. But he couldn’t bring himself to disturb Magnus.
Carefully, he slipped his hand beneath Magnus’ head and shifted away. Magnus’ eyelids fluttered, and, for a heart-stopping moment, Alec thought Magnus would wake up, and he’d be faced with a sleepy, rumpled Magnus Bane, and fuck knew he wouldn’t be able to cope with that. But Magnus merely made a snuffling noise that Alec absolutely did not find adorable, and settled with his head against the top of the sofa.
“Fuck,” he murmured, into the quiet of Magnus’ apartment.
He left a minute later, having scrawled an awkward, rambling note on a scrap of paper, and wondered desperately whether he’d ever be able to do anything in life the way he was supposed to.
Alec hated being sick.
He hated not being able to concentrate. He hated having to sit around at home. He hated that he couldn’t go to work, or cook, or read, or answer emails, or do anything that was even vaguely useful. He hated feeling like he was wasting his time.
Isabelle had been around to annoy him and bring him soup that would probably poison him on Tuesday, and Maia had called him that morning to complain about how much more boring work was when she couldn’t spend half her day laughing at him and the other half subtly exchanging looks of despair. Which, Alec felt, was a little insulting, but also weirdly nice.
The most upsetting part about being ill, though, was having to cancel seeing Magnus on Friday. Which, over the last few months, had become Alec’s favourite part of the week.
Whether he should have been worried or terrified by that, he hadn’t decided.
He didn’t look at his phone screen when it rang. He stuck a hand out from under the pile of blankets he’d been debating chucking on the floor for a lack of anything better to do, and hit accept. It was probably Jace, calling to bully him into not using his doubtless-fatal sickness as an excuse to miss Sunday lunch with Maryse and Luke.
“Yeah?” he said, wincing when the syllable came out as a croak that scratched at his vocal chords. God, he’d had enough of being sick. He was bored out of his mind and in pain.
“Oh, darling,” said a voice that decidedly did not belong to Jace. “You really do sound sick.”
“Magnus,” Alec rasped, and dragged a hand across his face. “Hi. Sorry I had to cancel on you.”
“Don’t be silly,” Magnus said. “Are you feeling any better?”
“Better than I did on Tuesday,” Alec admitted. He didn’t say that he’d woken up then feeling like death was standing over him with a scythe. “I’ll be fine by Monday.”
“That’s good. Feel free to say no, if you’re not up it, but I was wondering whether you’d like me to bring you something? I was going to stop off and get a take-out on my way home. I could get you some.”
“That sounds nice,” Alec said. “But I don’t want you to get sick, so don’t feel obliged to stay. I’ll probably be crap company for a Friday night.”
“You’re never crap company,” Magnus said, firmly. “I’m leaving in about an hour, so I’ll see you at half seven?”
Alec looked around at the piles of used tissues, the blankets he’d tossed on the floor when they got too sweaty, and the bottle of bleach sitting outside the bathroom, which was significantly emptier than it had been when he’d first thrown up on Tuesday morning. He winced. God, being sick was so gross.
“I’ll try to make my apartment look less disgusting by then.”
“Don’t you dare. You’re sick, I don’t care how disgusting your apartment is.”
“You’ll care about this,” Alec said, because frankly, anybody normal, with functioning nasal receptors, would. “I’ll see you later. I’ll wear one of those surgical masks so you don’t catch it.”
Magnus laughed, warm and low and lovely enough to make emotions flutter in Alec’s stomach.
Alec was way too sick for this shit.
When he’d told Magnus he could come over, he hadn’t meant that Magnus could come over, still dressed in a suit, and send Alec’s fuzzy, fever-ridden brain into overdrive with how absolutely delectable he looked.
Magnus held up a paper bag, smiled, and generally acted like he wasn’t dressed for the soul purpose of finishing Alec off.
“As soon as you want me to piss off and leave you in peace, say the word,” Magnus said, after insisting that Alec stay on the sofa and not lift a finger to help. “Where do you keep your– No, I remember.”
Magnus talked about his week, and Alec got away with making the odd humming noise to show that he was listening. He let the soft, familiar lilt of Magnus’ voice wash over him. It was bizarrely comforting, being sprawled out inelegantly on his sofa, looking and feeling like absolute shit, but able to see Magnus in his kitchen. He had his sleeves rolled up, exposing the smooth brown stretch of his forearms, and he’d discarded his jacket and shoes, and, frankly, he looked like every one of teenage Alec’s fantasies.
Not the sexual ones. (Although, on another day, probably those too). The fantasies he’d used for comfort, after a crappy, lonely week. The fantasies where he’d looked down at the words on his skin, and imagined being able to come home to a kind, handsome man who’d kiss him and smile and make him feel better.
The fantasies he’d had of his soulmate.
Alec sobered at the thought. His soulmate. Raj. Not Magnus.
“Here,” Magnus said, appearing in front of Alec and holding out a bowl of something that smelt of ginger.
“Thank you.” Alec sat up, attempting to make space for Magnus on the other end of the sofa while he took the bowl. “Uh, you know, you might be better sitting as far away from me as you can.”
Magnus rolled his eyes. “You’ve been sick for days. I think you’ve probably passed the infectious stage.”
Alec squinted one eye at him. “That’s your professional, medical opinion, is it?”
“Exactly.” Magnus grinned unrepentantly. “Now, move those stupidly long legs of yours.”
By the time it got to eleven o’clock, Alec almost felt like a human being again. Whatever secret extras Magnus had unsubtly put in the food he’d bought had made Alec feel like he was going to projectile vomit only twenty percent of the time, rather than eighty, and Magnus had managed to drag reluctant laughter out of him every time he started feeling too sorry for himself.
“I should probably let you get some rest,” Magnus said, when Alec yawned for the third time in as many minutes.
Alec sighed. “I’ve been resting since Tuesday. I’m bored with resting.”
Magnus’ expression turned soft, the deep brown of his irises melting into liquid warmth, and god, Alec was so screwed.
“Being sick is shit,” Magnus acknowledged, reaching out to rest his palm on Alec’s thigh, “but the more you rest, the quicker you’ll get better. And the quicker you can go back to doing far too much.”
Alec’s lips twitched up. “You sound like my sister.”
“I’m sure she’s a very wise woman,” Magnus said, smiling.
“You’d probably get on well. You’re similar. But not too similar.”
“Well, here’s to hoping I meet her someday. But you have to get better for that to happen.” Magnus lifted his hand, leaving Alec’s leg feeling cold, and rose up from the sofa with a feline-like grace that Alec couldn’t help but be entranced by. “Goodnight, Alexander. I hope you feel better.”
“Night, Magnus. Thanks, for–” he gestured vaguely “–all this.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Magnus bent to press his lips to Alec’s hair, squeezed his shoulder, and slipped out without a word, leaving Alec frozen to the spot. By the time he had the sense of mind to turn and stare after Magnus, he was long gone.