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if love is just a game (then how come it's no fun)

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Ronan would love to say that he's paying attention when he runs into his soulmate, that his words were deliberate and well-chosen.

The truth is, he's pissed off.

Gansey's nagging him about speeding tickets, and he had a half hour phone call that morning with Declan about settling Dad's estate -- or, more precisely, he'd had five twelve second phone calls, and then one twenty-nine minute phone call after he'd gotten hanging up on Declan out of his system.

So when he slams his shoulder against some guy coming out of Gansey's favorite coffee shop, it's sheer reflex that makes him say "fuck off."

He doesn't even notice the guy, not really, and that's the worst part. That he's going to be trying to remember this moment for the rest of his life, and he wasn't even looking, not until the guy is already past him and he hears the reply, disgusted:

"Charming."

Ronan freezes.

He's paying attention now, but it's already too late: his soulmate has just walked out into the street, out of his life, and Ronan hadn't even looked at his face. By the time the shock wears off enough for him to turn around and open the door again, his soulmate has disappeared into the stream of people hurrying along the downtown sidewalks.

He's already gone.

Unless that wasn't his soulmate. Sure, Ronan has the word charming on his chest, but someone else could say that to him at some point. Even if no one ever has until now. Even if Ronan is not the kind of guy who charms people on first impression. Or second impression. Or ever.

It could happen, theoretically.

It probably won't.

He needs to run out into the street and find -- whoever it was.

But he hadn't been looking. He doesn't know what he'd be running after. He doesn't know what the hell you say to someone after telling them to fuck off.

Gansey finally notices that Ronan has fallen behind. "Everything okay?"

"Fan-fucking-tastic," Ronan says. He scans the street one more time. It isn't any more helpful than it was the first six times.

Gansey frowns. "Is there any point in reminding you that we're in public and there could be children around?"

"No." Every authority figure in the last two decades of Ronan's life has tried to reform his use of profanity, and it hasn't stuck so far. Honestly, he's surprised none of them went withwhat if you swear at your soulmate the first time you meet him. It feels like a very pressing and persuasive argument, now that it's too late to make a difference.

Or not too late. Because that wasn't his soulmate. That was a...weird coincidence.

There's no way that the love of Ronan's life is walking around with a mark on him that says fuck off.

Right?

-

The problem is, Gansey loves that goddamn coffee shop.

It's locally owned, organic, fair trade, gluten-free, grass-fed, nut-yourself-over-how-virtuous-you-are coffee, and it tastes exactly the same as Starbucks as far as Ronan is concerned, but Gansey gets some kind of high from it. Normally Ronan shuts up and goes along with the long line and staggering pretentiousness for Gansey's sake.

But going back there the day after his charming run-in feels like a bad decision. It feels...unlucky. Cursed.

If he bails on Gansey he'll have to explain why, though, and that would be a worse decision. It's a miracle that Gansey hadn't heard the exchange for himself; Ronan's not going to volunteer the information and open himself up to an excruciating conversation about soulmates and profanity and heartbreak.

And he'd miss Gansey, if he ditched. Not that he's going to volunteer that information, either.

So Ronan meets him outside the coffee shop the next morning for their usual ten o'clock hang out, Gansey on a break from his highly boring job moving money around for other rich people and Ronan on a break from his extremely taxing schedule of being a rich person who has money moved around for him.

Ronan thinks every three seconds about leaving, dragging Gansey out to the crepe place or the park or the library instead.

And then a new customer will walk through the door, and Ronan will immediately zero in on them, trying to match them to the figure he has in his mind.

Unfortunately, all he has to go off of is: male (he's virtually certain), shorter than him (he's pretty sure), wearing a jacket (as of yesterday).

At least Prince Charming had a fucking shoe size.

"Are you listening?" Gansey asks as they pick up their order.

"No," Ronan admits, and Gansey doesn't even berate him for that.

"Well, I thought it was interesting, trying to secure people's accounts against soulmate fraud," Gansey says. "But clearly I'm boring you."

"Don't try your persecuted act with me," Ronan says, "I grew up with a martyr."

It's a thought, anyway. Soulmate fraud. Maybe Mr. Charming from yesterday was some kind of gold digger. Ronan's family does have a stupid amount of money.

Ronan has been pretty careful, over the years, not to let people see him shirtless, but he's made enough bad decisions -- or, one epically bad decision -- that he can't say for sure there aren't strangers in the world who know what his soulmark says.

Not like Gansey. Only a handful of people in the entire universe know what Gansey's mark is, know that there's a tidy scrawl of words along his thigh that reads I wasn't talking to you. Ronan wishes more people did know about Gansey's soulmark, because it would make him feel like less of a fuck up, and because it would mean that Gansey had more people to talk to. Given how open Gansey is with his family about things that really matter to him, Ronan has to bear the brunt of all of Gansey's late-night thoughts about "it's a tautology, I mean, if they had been talking to me previous to telling me they weren't talking to me, then that would be what was on my soulmark instead," which is usually around the point that Ronan finds himself miraculously cured of insomnia.

"You don't really give people's soulmates access to their accounts," Ronan says.

Gansey blinks at him.

"It's not like, 'my mark says half-caf venti, can I get all of this guy's money' and you give it to them, right?"

"I shudder to think what you think my job actually entails," Gansey says. "Soulmate as a practical term and soulmate as a legal/financial term are separate things. It's not as hard as pretending to be married to someone, maybe, but there's still a process." Gansey sips his coffee meaningfully. "Should I be worried about your taking an interest in what I do for a living? Are you dying? Am I dying? Who's dying?"

"No one's dying," Ronan snaps. "I'm just trying to make some goddamn conversation. I could interrogate you about when you're going to stop being a loser and go back to grad school instead."

Gansey winces. "Please don't."

"Okay, so, on a scale of one to ten, if someone was trying to pretend to be my soulmate, how easy would that be."

Gansey puts his coffee down on the table. "This isn't a hypothetical, is it."

Ronan scowls, but he can't tell Gansey that he's wrong.

Gansey starts to say twenty different things and gives up on all of them. "Should I be worried?"

"No," Ronan says. Of that, he's sure. If there's some kind of physical threat, some financial attack, he can deal with that.

If someone's trying to -- to toy with his affections -- well, he can deal with that, too.

"Just, keep an eye open," Ronan says gruffly, and Gansey nods at him with perfect sincerity, like they're brothers-in-arms riding off to battle together.

-

-

As it turns out, Gansey only has to keep his eyes open for about twenty minutes.

They leave the coffee shop, and a very short, very angry woman comes charging up to Ronan.

"You have a lot of nerve!" She pokes him in the chest.

"Who the hell are you?" But even as he asks he knows. Mr. Charming -- he'd been with someone, hadn't he? A woman, leaving the store a step ahead of him.

It was radically unfair, to be able to recognize the woman who'd been with his soulmate and not remember anything about the love of his life.

The probable love of his life. The possible, maybe, hypothetical love of his life.

Ronan stares down at this woman and thinks -- freckles? Had his soulmate had freckles?

"I'm pissed off, that's who I am! I thought I'd have to camp out at this coffee shop for weeks waiting to spot you and you came back the next day. God, you don't have any shame, do you?"

"You're mad that I didn't waste more of your time?"

"I'm mad that you don't even care about what impact you could have," the woman says, crossing her arms under her chest. She might be five-foot-nothing, but Ronan wouldn't want to get into a fight with her, except maybe he's not going to have a choice.

"Hang on," Gansey mutters at Ronan, trying to step between him and the short woman. "Is she -- ?"

Which is when the short woman fixes Gansey with a poisonous glare and spits out, "I wasn't talking to you."

And Gansey, useless shithead that he is, just stares at her slack-jawed and says, "I wish you would."

She goes blank with shock, and Ronan has a long second to debate whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, his best friend has a shot at eternal, universe-mandated happiness, and everyone is going to be way too distracted to keep bitching about his shitty choices.

On the other hand: Gansey is going to be so fucking sappy.

But then something weird happens.

Instead of riding off into the sunset with Gansey, as she is clearly meant to, the short woman pokes Ronan once more, and then pokes Gansey in the chest for good measure.

"Who the hell are you two?" she demands. "If you're stalkers I will call the cops. My cousin is dating a police officer."

Gansey is apparently too upset for logic, because he only says, "I'm not a stalker! My name is Richard Gansey," as though that's an actual defense.

"Okay, what, is this some kind of hidden camera show?" She glares around them like someone's going to pop out from behind a piss-soaked bus stop and give her a giant novelty check, or whatever the fuck they do on hidden camera shows. "Is this a Catfish thing? A couple of cute guys trick people into thinking they've found their soulmates?"

Gansey grins, and Ronan can already hear the next four voicemails Gansey is going to leave him, she thinks I'm cute. His fingers itch to erase the messages and Gansey hasn't even left them yet.

But then Gansey starts to think about what the short angry woman is saying. And about what Ronan had said to him in the coffee shop.

And whatever else Gansey is, he isn't stupid.

"Hang on," Gansey says. "I think we need to establish what's happening here." He fixes Ronan with an expression that is so clearly trying not to be hurt that it cuts Ronan to the core. "Is she the person you meant? Did she say -- something, to you?" Gansey does have the sense not to say what Ronan's soulmark is, which is for best because at this point they have a fucking audience. People are staring.

"Jesus fucking Christ." Ronan grabs Gansey with one hand and the short woman with the other. He drags them ten feet down the alley next to the coffee shop and deposits them next to a dumpster; he'd have liked to get further off the street but the tiny woman has been digging her claws into his hand the whole way. That shit hurts. "Knock it the fuck off, would you?"

"This is kidnapping!"

"Tell it to your cousin's boyfriend," Ronan snaps.

"God, I've spent years trying to picture who would say Adam's words, and you know what? You're even worse than I imagined. Congrats, you are the actual worst human being alive."

She's trying to shame him, but all Ronan can focus on is the information he didn't have before.

Adam.

His soulmate's name is Adam.

And now Gansey has that information, too.

"Ronan," Gansey says, and he is marvelously annoyed at this point. "Kindly explain the situation. Immediately."

Ronan feels a little bit better for noticing that Gansey's high-handed tone earns him an ugly glare from his soulmate. At least if Ronan has to suffer, he won't be suffering alone.

"We were here yesterday," Ronan starts, "And this -- gremlin -- "

"Hey!"

"Was leaving with a friend of hers, and he said." Ronan is not, is not, going to say it out loud. He gestures toward his chest.

Gansey knows what he means. "And you said -- "

Ronan makes a face.

"Oh, go on," the woman mocks Ronan, "tell Richard what you said."

"Gansey."

She glares at him, but with a little confusion mixed into her hostility. "What?"

"Just Gansey. No one calls me Richard."

She blinks, and it clearly takes some effort for her to process this. "Okay. Gansey."

"Can I ask what your name is?"

"I'm not sure I should tell you," she says, but she's wavering. "This still feels like a set up."

"Then why the fuck did you track me down?" Ronan asks.

Shit, he shouldn't have said anything; now she's back on the chew out Ronan train of thought. "If you're legit, then why didn't you come after him?"

"He could have come back for me," Ronan says.

"That's different."

"Bullshit, it's different."

"It is, okay?" She recrosses her arms, like she's thinking about jabbing him again. "Adam doesn't want to meet you -- "

Ronan isn't prepared for how hard that hits. He's taken sucker punches that left him less winded. Six words from this tiny woman and it's all that he can do to stay on his feet.

Adam doesn't want to meet you.

And she's still blathering on. At least that means his poker face is intact. Or she's more of a sadist than he's giving her credit for.

" -- but I figured someone has to check up on you so you can't just pop up later and make trouble for him."

"Check up on me?" Ronan snarls. "You won't even tell Gansey your fucking name, and I'm, what, supposed to go through a background check? Just so your friend can pretend I don't exist?"

She looks mulish, like she knows this is bullshit but isn't going to admit it. "Cut me some slack, I wasn't counting on Gansey. He threw off my plans."

Gansey beams like that's a compliment. It sort of is. At least, it means that she's going to fit right into his life, because I wasn't counting on Gansey is the unofficial motto of everyone who really knows him. Ronan would feel sympathetic towards her, if she weren't his least favorite person in the entire world.

"I think there's a solution here that addresses everyone's concerns," Gansey says, and Ronan thinks no, there isn't. Because Ronan's soulmate doesn't want to meet him, and nothing can fix that, not even Gansey.

"Oh?" she says, like she has any right to be skeptical.

"Have dinner with me," Gansey says, and Ronan snorts.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" she asks him, but her righteous fury is slipping.

"Yes, I would." Gansey is perfectly earnest. "I'd like to get to know you, and I hope that you'd like to get to know me. But at the very least you'll know that I am who I say I am, and then if Ronan ever makes trouble for you, you'll know who he is, too."

She thinks this over for a minute, shooting a dire look at Ronan. He just glares back. Probably his endorsement would make her decide against getting dinner with Gansey, so he doesn't say anything.

"Fine. We can have dinner. But not tonight, my mother's in town," but she could have said not until next year or not until my divorce is finalized or not until you've been initiated into my cult by performing the blood sacrifice and Gansey's expression would not have been one bit less nauseating.

"Wonderful. I'll call you?"

She snorts. "No you won't. Give me your number."

Gansey hands over one of his business cards. She scowls at it. Ronan's not sure if she's put off by the name or the job title or just the fact that Gansey carries and distributes business cards. It's all pretty horrifying.

But she takes it, and slides it into her pocket, and she even tells him, "My name is Blue."

"Seriously?" Ronan asks.

She glares daggers at him. "I'm sorry, did you want to talk about making personal decisions that other people get stuck with for their entire lives," and no, obviously he does not.

"I'll talk to you later, Gansey." Blue pointedly does not say goodbye to Ronan before she leaves.

Gansey looks thoughtful. "That could have gone better."

"No shit."

"But it's -- open for improvement," Gansey says. "Do you really think it's some kind of scam?"

Ronan doesn't.

He knew all along, but he didn't know how to deal with screwing up so badly. He should have chased after Adam. He never should have let him out of his sight.

He never should have said fuck off.

"You're the expert."

"I'm really not," Gansey says. "How much am I going to regret asking you what you said to this Adam character, anyway?"

"Aren't you late for work?"

"This is worse than if you'd just tell me. Like a horror movie where they don't show you the monster and your imagination makes it scarier."

"My life isn't a horror movie." Ronan reconsiders. "Not because of this."

Gansey hmms, but doesn't look like he's going to let it go.

"If you spend the whole day worrying about what I said, you don't have to worry about your date."

"That's extremely unhelpful," Gansey says. "I'm capable of worrying about two different things at the same time."

Ronan just looks at him: what do you expect from me.

Gansey sighs.