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Chance Encounters

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“Ty, I said no. No, we’re not working together on this project and no, I’m not interested in a quick fuck either.”

Tony is about to throw something, a highly inadvisable action given the delicate lab equipment that makes up his surroundings, but it is too late and he is too busy to deal with this bullshit. He has a deadline in twenty-two hours and his code still doesn’t work. The first round of fabrication was a massive failure. And in six hours, he’s going to have to move because the Board wants to give investor tours of SI R&D and his pet projects aren’t “camera friendly” yet. He does not have time for Ty.

Ty is not getting the message.

“Tony, come on,” he’s saying, with that stupid, beautiful grin he has that Tony wants to punch off his face.

“I’m serious,” Tony reaches for his phone. “I am so serious, in fact, that I’m going to call security, or, better yet, the police. Because this is trespassing. I asked you to leave.”

Ty’s grin falters. He takes two swift steps closer and grabs Tony’s hand, just above the wrist, tight enough to make him almost drop the phone. “We both know that’d be a lie,” he says. It’s almost a growl.

Tony twists away. Ty grabs at his shoulder.

“I said—

“Is there a problem here?” calls an unfamiliar voice. Tony looks over his shoulder. There are now two tall blond guys in his lab. The newcomer is broader in the shoulders than Ty, and he walks like a panther.

He’s also carrying a four-cup travel tray of coffee and a small paper bag.

“Who is this?” Ty asks, scowling.

“He’s my boyfriend,” Tony blurts. “Why else would he be bringing me coffee at 2am? Will you take a hint now?

Ty glowers at him, then at the coffee delivery guy. Tony glowers back and hopes whatever-his-name-is doesn’t look too surprised, or worse, offended by the very suggestion.

“We’re not, done, Tony,” Ty says.

Tony opens his mouth, but coffee-guy speaks first.

“I think Tony’s made himself pretty clear that you are,” he says. He even manages to sound threatening.

Tony doesn’t take his eyes off Ty until he’s stalked all the way out of the lab and the door’s shut behind him. Then he dives for the central computer changes the lab access codes. Ty’s code? Gone. Delivery code generator? Suspended. No more visitors. Not tonight.

“Sorry about that,” he says. “I think I owe you some cash, right?” He pulls out his wallet.

Coffee-delivery-guy is standing with his elbows hugged in close to his torso, like he’s afraid to touch anything.

“You paid online.” He sounds almost unfocused now, a pretty drastic contrast to the firm authority he’d used on Ty. He’s staring up at the models hanging from the ceiling, and at the fabricator whirring and beeping in the corner. “Is there a good place to put these down?” he asks, holding up the coffee and pastry bag.

“Oh! Right. Over here.” Tony gestures at the clearest workstation. “Sorry, again. Ty’s an ass. I—really appreciate you playing along there.”

“No problem.” Coffee-guy flashes a smile, humor in his expression. “Always happy to show a jerk the door.”

“Well, thanks.” Tony scraps his initial tip estimate and hands the guy a fifty. “Here. For the help. And uh. Possible sexual harassment.”

The guy doesn’t take it.

“That’s overgenerous,” he says. “Really, I’m just glad I could help.”

“And I’m insisting,” Tony replies. He grabs the guy’s hand and shoves the bill into his palm, then closes his fingers over it. “Seriously, I’ll give you a completely different tip for the coffee. Getting Ty out of my space is worth a lot.”

The guy shoves his hands in his pockets, brow furrowing, but he does keep the money.

“Are you always this forceful?” He still looks curious, at least, rather than particularly annoyed. Maybe amused, a little.

“Only when I’m tired, hungry, or under-caffeinated. And you’ve delivered the solution, so, again, thank you.” He picks up one of the cups and takes a drink. Perfect, perfect coffee. So much better than what comes out of the tired percolator he has here.

Coffee guy is definitely amused.

“You’re welcome.” He moves his hands, making his jacket flap a little. “I’ll leave you to . . . whatever it is you’re doing in here, then. Is there a trick to the door like on the way in or—?”

“Nope,” Tony waves at him, newly distracted by flashing errors in his coding. Damn. “Out is easy. You’ll get scanned to make sure you’re not walking off with anything you shouldn’t have, but it’s painless. You’re good.”

He thinks, vaguely, he hears the guy say, “Have a good night,” or something like that, and he says, “Mhmm, you too,” still trying to track down the source of his coding problem.

When he comes up out of the realm of string lines and variables, the coffee is cold, and he’s alone.

***

The second shot at fabrication goes better. The receptors fit together without breaking, which is a massive improvement, and the finger articulation actually works when he slips his hand into the assembled glove. It’s not perfect. It’s still too heavy. And of course, the holo-interface still doesn’t load right, but hey, progress. He packs it up carefully for the move to his home lab and turns to gather up his laptop when something shiny catches his eye.

There’s machine grease on his hands. No. Not grease. He doesn’t own anything that would shine and change like this, blue and white and red and gold spreading over his palm and fingertips. His stomach flips.

Steady, he tells himself. Be sure.

He washes his hands. Once with the regular soap, then again with dish soap, then with the careful application of a pumice stone. No change. Which means it’s probably real. He’s touched his soulmate.

His stomach flips again, nausea rising this time. Not Ty. It can’t be. He’s touched Ty before, but there have been stories, haven’t there? About people learning to be each other’s soulmates. But no, no, it can’t be Ty—

Focus, Tony. If it was Ty it would match how Ty touched him. Fingers round his left wrist. A palm on his right shoulder. This is different. This is color spilling over the insides of his fingers on both hands, spreading out to pool in his left palm. Like he was holding something. Like . . .

Like the coffee guy’s hand. When he gave him the tip.

What?

That’s even less believable than Ty. Just some random guy off the street? Some guy who delivers coffee, who Tony’s literally never seen before in his life? It fits the classic frame, of course, but Tony’d always thought that was all it was. A framework. Social mythology. No one really met their soulmate by accident.

But here he is.

His phone buzzes, harsh and loud in the echoing space. Fifteen minutes until he needs to be out of here.

He pulls neoprene gloves on and gets back to work. Later. He can think about this later.

***

Later turns out to be much later. Days later. Almost a week later. But he has more deadlines to meet and board meetings to attend and the time just gets away from him. What’s he supposed to do, anyway? He doesn’t know the guy’s name, doesn’t have his phone number or email address or anything. Just an impersonal email receipt and a web survey that doesn’t have an option for “I think my coffee-delivery-person might be my soulmate.”

He’s putting it off. He knows he’s putting it off. Does he want this right now? A new relationship, if the guy would even be interested in that? On top of everything else? Was there any chance tall-blond-and-gallant would even be interested? It wasn’t as though being someone’s soulmate was a guarantee of a happy marriage or anything. It was just . . . a chance. Better than average. And special.

He has to know. He breaks on a Tuesday morning after less than three hours of sleep and more than an hour spent staring up at the ceiling wondering, what if.

It takes him another hour to find the physical shop. Then he sits in his car and stares at his fingers a bit longer while traffic passes him by. He fiddles with a piece of paper until he’s totally worn it down to soft folds, the phone number he’d printed rendered entirely illegible.

Great.

He gets out of the car. The chill wind is bracing, and he zips up his jacket and shoves his hands in his pockets. Whatever. He has a phone. Coffee-guy probably has a phone, they can exchange numbers like modern people. He’s not sure what he was thinking, writing a note.

He’s just about to cross the street and actually try the door when coffee-guy walks out with a dark-haired girl on his arm. They’re laughing. Tony watches him walk her to the subway station. The light changes, and he hurries over the crosswalk, because he still has to know.

“Have a good week, Steve,” she says, grinning at him as she takes the steps down.

Coffee-guy-apparently-Steve waves at her. It’s his left hand, gloved. The one Tony didn’t touch.

“See you Sunday,” he says. He turns once she’s disappeared into the station, and spots Tony almost immediately. There’s not much of a crowd to hide in, at this hour, and anyway, Tony’s standing pretty close.

His eyebrows move strangely. Tony can’t tell if he’s surprised or annoyed.

“Uh, hi,” Tony says, trying to forestall whatever it is. “Steve, is it?”

“Tony,” Possibly-Tony’s-soulmate says. Like a statement.

“Yeah, I uh—I realized after you’d left the other night that I . . . um.”

Steve is staring at Tony’s midsection. Where his hands are, out of his pockets, curving over each other as he tries to explain himself. He sighs and lets them fall open, showing off the color over his palms.

“I realize this is kind of weird and awkward, but would you like to maybe get cof—no, you work with coffee. Dinner. Would you like to get dinner? With me? Sometime? And we could . . . get to know each other.”

Steve stares at him. Tony’s very nearly talked himself into a strategic retreat when Steve takes his right hand out of his pocket and pulls off his glove. There’s red and gold and white and blue, all over his fingers.

“There’s a decent diner a few blocks east of here,” he says. “If you have time now?”

“I—yeah.” Tony smiles, the frantic spiking static in his brain quieting to a gentler, almost hopeful buzz. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I have time.”