Looking back, Magnus should have known that he would meet Alec when he was soaking wet and half-frozen, hiking in the dark in the middle of nowhere.
Magnus wasn't sure if he really believed in things like fate and destiny, but the number of coincidences and decisions, both good and bad, that had led to this point was enough to make a person wonder. He had been aware that there were no public buses over the weekend in the quiet Tuscan countryside where he had rented his Airbnb cottage - the isolation had probably been part of the reason why it had been so damned cheap - but that had never been a problem before. Magnus travelled alone to far-flung and unusual places all the time for his travel video blog, and he usually either rented a bicycle or scooter, hitchhiked, or simply walked. He'd been lucky enough to hitch a ride with a couple of Canadian tourists in the morning on the way to the beautiful hilltop town of San Gimignano, a UNESCO world heritage site with its original 13th-century architecture still intact, and had rented a scooter for the day so he could zoom down the cobblestone streets to the medieval bell towers and quaint shops in the town, as well as visit the nearby vineyards and olive oil estates. He'd ended the day back at San Gimignano with a hearty dinner of local cheese and freshly-made pasta just as the sun was setting, his camera full of photos and video clips, and returned his scooter despite the shop owner's assurances that he could return it on Monday instead because he'd planned to head somewhere else and San Gimignano was too far in the wrong direction.
Maybe he'd left the town when it was a little too dark, but while it had taken him ten minutes to hitch a ride the first time, he'd been walking for almost an hour now and none of the cars that had passed him had stopped, even if the drivers and passengers had turned to look curiously at him as they went by. A couple of them had actually laughed at him. He had been a little annoyed, but he'd taken it in stride and kept on walking. It was at least a three-hour walk back to his rented cottage up some pretty steep hills and it'd been a very long day considering he'd been up since sunrise, but although the nights were a little chilly this late in the year, he had a good sturdy jacket and the walking was keeping him warm.
It wasn't a great situation, but it certainly got a lot worse when Magnus heard thunder rumbling ominously overhead, then the sky cracked open and dumped what felt like Tuscany's entire annual rainfall on him.
Magnus' jacket was usually good enough against a light drizzle, but he hadn't been prepared for a blinding thunderstorm. He usually kept his camera and other electronic gear in waterproof ziplock bags so thankfully he didn't have to worry about that, but the roads were narrow and steep, and visibility was bad in the dark and the violent downpour. There were no lights anywhere around to indicate the presence of a farmhouse, but Magnus was just about to take his chances and move away from the side of the road to find shelter somewhere when the headlights of an oncoming car cut through the gloom.
He stuck his thumb out and waved his arm up and down, hoping his light brown jacket would make him a little bit more visible in the endless black all around him. To his immense relief, the car stopped and the driver pushed open the passenger-side door.
"What the hell are you doing? People don't pick up hitchhikers in Italy. Get in the car," the driver called out. Magnus didn't need to be asked twice.
"Thank you, you're a lifesaver," Magnus said as he got in, trying his best to let as little of the rain and wind in as possible. "I'm Magnus."
"I'm Alec," his knight-in-a-shining-Alfa-Romeo replied. "Where're you from?"
"Oh, everywhere. But home is Brooklyn, for now," Magnus said. Now that he was out of the storm, he'd had the opportunity to take a better look at the man who had stopped for him, and he had to say he liked what he saw - and he had seen Alec checking him out not-so-subtly as well. "You're from New York too, aren't you?"
"Yeah, here for a work thing. Where're you headed?"
Magnus' rented cottage was very much out of the way for Alec, but he turned the car around carefully on the slippery, narrow road without complaint. Alec clearly wasn't much of a talker, but the surprise of meeting someone from home all the way out here had such an air of serendipity that Magnus wondered if Alec was also thinking the same thing that he was. It usually wasn't polite to ask when you'd barely exchanged a few sentences though, so they both skirted around the topic, keeping the conversation light. Magnus found out that Alec had been on his way to his hotel, arriving in the area just as Magnus was preparing to leave, and was here to find suppliers for saffron and Vernaccia white wine for his restaurant in New York. Unfortunately, Magnus recognised the name of his restaurant immediately - The Institute was one of those really expensive places with a waitlist a mile long which served fusion molecular gastronomy stuff Magnus' didn't really think qualified as food, since you'd probably leave still hungry even after you forked out a few hundred dollars for a five-course meal. But Magnus kept his opinions to himself, for now at least. Alec's fingers were bare, and from their conversation he'd figured out that Alec hadn't found his soulmate either.
Even before Magnus' soulmate mark had appeared when he was thirteen, he'd assumed that he'd just know, when he met his soulmate. He'd assumed it with Camille, Imasu, Etta, and George, and each time he'd been so sure that this time would be the right one, but each time both their marks had remained unchanged three days after they'd been together, the longest most experts said one should expect to wait to see a change in the soul-mark. Camille had insisted that it was because he hadn't tried hard enough, and because she'd been his first girlfriend, he'd stayed with her for almost a month before coming to his senses and dumping her. Imasu had dumped him when the three days were up. But even though Etta had said that she didn't care, and George had claimed that he didn't care that they weren't soulmates, those relationships had eventually fizzled out after a year or so; it was hard to stay with someone when it was always at the back of their mind that there was someone out there who was "meant" for them, and Magnus knew that he was as much to blame for the way those relationships had fallen apart. Of course there was always the chance that he was that unlucky one in five of the population who never found their soulmates, but he couldn't help hoping anyway.
And this time... well. There was certainly something different about Alec, maybe even more so than the rest, but it could just as easily be wishful thinking.
Too soon, Alec's GPS showed that they'd arrived at Magnus' cottage. Magnus glanced at the clock on the dashboard of the car as Alec pulled up as close as he could to the front door - it was almost midnight, and the rain didn't look like it was letting up any time soon. The question left unsaid between them lingered, a possibility. They could always exchange numbers and catch up when they were both back in New York, but...
"Do you want to spend the night here instead of driving another four hours to your hotel in this storm?" Magnus offered. "There's only one bed, but I could take the couch."
Alec licked his lips. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. You're stuck out here because of me, after all."
"Yeah, it's kind of a freak storm, isn't it? I've never seen it rain like this all the times I've been in the area," Alec said.
Magnus made a dash to the front door in the rain to fumble with the unfamiliar lock, insisting that Alec should stay in the warmth of the car until he finally got the door open. Then, while Magnus grabbed a couple of towels for them to dry off, Alec got the kettle boiling so they could each have a mug of hot tea.
"Were you serious about me staying?" Alec asked. "What if I'm a serial killer or something?"
"Maybe I'm the serial killer, preying on good samaritans who'll pick up a guy trying to hitchhike in a place where they don't pick up hitchhikers," Magnus suggested, and Alec flashed an adorable lopsided grin at Magnus over the rim of his mug. Magnus cleared his throat. "Ok, I'm just going to bite the bullet and ask - you haven't found your soulmate yet, have you?"
Alec shook his head. "You neither, huh?"
"I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours," Magnus said with a teasing smile.
Alec shrugged, then turned so that his back was facing Magnus and pulled up his sweater. "Mine's a circle. A little to the left."
"I see it," Magnus murmured. It was smaller than his palm, an empty circle.
So Alec had a pretty generic starting soul-mark, which was common enough. Some people had very distinctive ones, the kind that matched their soulmate's mark perfectly once you saw them, but most people had simple soul-marks, a geometric shape or sometimes just a line, which was why there was such a big industry built around soul-mark "consultants", soul-mark databases and computer programmes that claimed to be able to suggest the most likely matches for marks based on complex algorithms. There was no scientific basis for these claims, though, and Magnus was inclined to agree that it was all nonsense. He had seen elderly couples who had been together for so long that their soul-marks had grown into full sleeves from their shoulders to their wrists, and most of the time there was a connecting theme - forests and skyscrapers, or waves and musical notations - but some of their starting marks must have seemed completely unrelated.
Alec tugged his sweater down as he turned around, and Magnus put his mug of tea down so that he could pop open the button of his jeans.
Alec's eyes went wide. "Um, what...?"
"Sorry, my jeans are too tight," Magnus explained, struggling to pull down the waistband enough to reveal his mark - the outline of a small triangle on his right hip, all its three sides of different lengths.
Alec swallowed hard. "Oh." He drained his mug in one gulp.
Alec insisted that Magnus should take a hot bath first since he was soaked to the bone, and normally Magnus would have taken his time after the exhausting day he'd had, but he was mindful of using up all the hot water. By the time Alec came out of the bath dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants from his rucksack, Magnus had already made a little nest of blankets on the couch.
"Magnus, this is your place, you should take the bed."
"No, I owe you for giving me a lift. Besides, I don't think you'll fit."
"You hardly fit on the couch either," Alec pointed out. "We could just share the bed, it's huge. I mean... we're just gonna sleep. Right?"
Magnus grinned mischievously. "Of course. I can't imagine what else we could do in bed."
Alec huffed and rolled his eyes at him, well aware that he was being teased, and they both got ready for bed, navigating the tiny bathroom without getting in each other's way too much. The bed was big enough for both of them to lie side by side without touching, so for a while they just lay in the dark, looking up at the ceiling and listening to the storm outside. Magnus knew that Alec was awake and he couldn't sleep either despite the long day. It was probably just because Alec was technically a stranger, but Magnus was hyperaware of the inches of space between them, as if it was tingling with static electricity. Magnus closed his eyes resolutely, trying to think of anything else other than the fact that Alec was lying right next to him. The thing was, there had been multiple studies done on what triggered the change in a soul-mark when soulmates finally met, but the results had all been inconclusive. It seemed to be different for everyone, but a few things were widely accepted as triggering factors - prolonged proximity, and meaningful physical contact.
"Are you waiting for your soulmate? I mean, I know some people don't want to get involved with anybody else."
Magnus grinned in the dark. "Alexander, are you trying to ask me if I'm willing to have sex with you?"
"Actually, I thought we could hold hands," Alec said drily, and Magnus laughed.
"I've been in relationships with other people, but I don't do one-night stands," Magnus admitted, but he reached out to place one hand in the space between them, palm up.
"Fair enough," Alec replied, taking his hand with a smile. "Goodnight, Magnus."
Magnus woke up the next morning to bright sunlight streaming in through a gap in the curtains and Alec's hand still in his. Alec was still asleep, snoring gently. The first thing Magnus did was to surreptitiously pull down the waistband of his sweatpants to check his mark, but much to his disappointment it was still a blank triangle. He extricated his hand from Alec's, and although he'd tried to be careful not to wake him, Alec began to stir.
"Morning," Alec said, then must have read the expression on Magnus' face.
"Stay for breakfast? I have bread and cheese that I should probably finish before I move on anyway," Magnus offered.
Magnus tried not to get his hopes while Alec was washing up - sometimes, very rarely, one partner's mark would change faster than the other partner's - but when Alec walked into the kitchen he could tell that Alec's mark hadn't changed either. They ate in relative silence. Sure, sometimes it took longer for a mark to change, but most people saw changes within a few hours, and they both knew that.
"Where are you headed to after this? I could give you a lift," Alec offered when they were clearing up after breakfast.
"Oh no, you really don't have to, Alexander. I've already taken up so much of your time as it is," Magnus protested.
"It's fine, I don't mind," Alec said with a shrug. "Besides, it's Sunday and nobody picks up hitchhikers around here, remember?"
Magnus packed quickly, leaving a note of thanks and a small gift for his host, and found Alec already waiting out in the car. Despite everything, Magnus found the awkwardness and disappointment from the morning starting to wear off as they talked. Alec really was very sweet, and there was a clear attraction between them - clear enough that Magnus was tempted to throw the whole soulmate business out of the window and just take a chance to see where this went. Magnus was turning thirty in a few weeks, and he was starting to think that maybe he was part of that 20 percent who never found their soulmates. If Alec happened to be part of that 20 percent as well, wasn't it kind of poetic if they chose each other?
"Hey, we should meet up when we're back in New York. Give me a call, I'll get you a free VIP table at The Institute," Alec said when they finally pulled up in front of Magnus' hostel.
"Thanks, I'll be sure to take you up on that," Magnus said with a smile.
He stood there watching Alec's car until it went out of sight, then got his check-in paperwork settled and trudged up to his room. He should put his bags down and get started on the many places he'd been planning to cover today, but his heart was heavy and he kind of missed Alec's company already. Instead, like a fucking masochist he ended up trying to take a look at his soul-mark again in the bathroom mirror, and his heart skipped a beat. He stared at the reflection, then down at his mark, and in the end he resorted to using his phone to take a photo of his mark so he could see it more clearly. There was no doubt about it - the faint lines of a second triangle were forming, a mirror image of the starting mark.
"Oh my god," Magnus whispered.
He was out of the door and racing down the stairs in an instant, already dialling Alec's number. Alec was probably quite a distance away by now, and he was driving so he wouldn't be able to read a message but he might be able to answer a call with his Bluetooth headset. Magnus ran out to the street, looking around for Alec's car, but it wasn't a very distinctive vehicle, and Alec wasn't answering the phone, so Magnus started typing out a message and attached the photo he had taken of his own mark. Magnus knew that logically there wasn't any real urgency since they had each other's numbers, but there was no way he was just going to sit around patiently waiting for Alec to notice and come back to find Magnus - and because Alec's mark was on his back he probably wouldn't even notice that it had changed for hours yet.
Magnus had just hit 'send' when a car horn blared at him. He looked up to see Alec's car zooming down the street towards him, and Alec got out of the car with a blinding smile on his face.
"I just had a hunch. Stopped by at the gas station so I could look in the mirror," Alec explained a little breathlessly.
"It's really you. I knew it was you," Magnus said, laughter bubbling out of him in an uncontrollable surge of joy, and when he cupped Alec's face and finally kissed his soulmate for the first time, it felt like coming home.