"but he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you didn’t even have a name for"
- Richard Siken, You Are Jeff (Part 24)
Alec stares at Magnus from across the breadth of the operations room, and thirty feet feel so much like three hundred that it makes his fingers itch. Magnus has his head held high, the sharp line of his jaw cutting a striking profile against the hazy light of dawn seeping through the stained-glass windows, but he carries a weary weight in purple crescents beneath his eyes where his makeup has rubbed away. Simon and Clary are near him: Simon, gesticulating excitedly, and Clary holding tight on Simon’s hand and gazing up at him like he’s the one who hung the sun in the sky this morning, after a night so long as the one wretchedly suffered. Magnus is trying hard to remain attentive - Alec can tell by the way Magnus nods his head and purses his lips periodically, in that manner that suggests he is deep in thought - but there’s a far away look in his dark eyes.
It stirs something in Alec’s chest: a heavy, aching feeling. It’s the bruise left behind from all those frantic breaths taken in his search this morning for something terrible that never came; it took its toll on him, and he wonders how many of his ribs are cracked, not from battle, but from fear.
Alec’s fingers twitch, his thoughts drifting once more to how Magnus’ jacket felt beneath his shaking hands, how Magnus’ collar smelt when Alec buried his nose in it, how Magnus’ thumbs had rubbed reassuring circles into Alec’s shoulders as they held each other tight and swayed, side to side, on the steps out front. Alec still feels so highly-strung, his heart pounding a mile a minute inside his chest, something antsy clawing up the inside of his throat and wriggling in his gut.
Magnus is alive. He’s only across the room. It’s a mantra Alec finds himself repeating.
Still, he fidgets. He needs to do something with his hands. A phone, a pen, even his bow might do on any other day not so blood-soaked and misery-steeped; today, there’s only one thing he imagines will satiate the urge.
How many ways can you touch someone? Alec doubts it would ever be close to enough to sate this anxiety churning in his stomach. How desperate can you be to touch someone, wanting so recklessly to get as close as possible, and then after that, closer still. Is this want to climb inside another person’s skin normal? The thought is a wish, is a prayer leaving Alec’s soul on its knees, hands fisted in the rosary, in want of something that cannot be described in all its honesty.
Alec had been so unwilling to step away, before, and he thinks Magnus had probably shared in that sentiment, in the moments when they had walked back into the Institute with shoulders brushing in purposeful proximity and Alec’s pinkie stretching for Magnus’ hand. Alec wishes it had lasted longer; wishes he had been brave enough to grab Magnus’ hand in that moment, before his job and his obligation had begged necessity and separated them once more, despite the wreckage inside his tin-soldier’s chest; wishes he could have Magnus standing at his side as he tries to reconstruct the mess of everyone else .
Raj is talking to him about something important, Alec is sure. Just as Alec is sure he hasn’t heard a word of it, and given his head is angled towards Magnus, across the room, he wants to believe Raj cannot really think Alec is paying attention.
Shadowhunters clatter through the arched doors, throwing weapons down onto table tops and stomping demon ichor in on the soles of their boots. Faces hurry past, drawn and sallow, and every few seconds, Alec loses his line of sight to Magnus through the crowd. Conversation is hushed and sombre but omniscient, along with the lingering smell of burned-out magic and death.
Alec finds Magnus again through a gap in the crowd, and their eyes meet over Clary’s shoulder for a prolonged moment. Neither of them blink, but Alec holds the breath tight in his chest.
Magnus, I thought -
“Hey, Alec? Are you listening?” Raj asks, and it’s one of the harder battles Alec has fought today to pull his gaze from Magnus’ silent stare and turn back to Raj. “I think we really need a game plan here.”
Alec wants to say something snarky about Aldertree, and that being his job, but then he’s also reminded of the show he put on not hours ago, nose to nose with Victor Aldertree, informing him stiffly who was really in charge . It was a good moment; Alec doesn’t want to go back on his word.
He made his choice.
Somehow, it always ends up being a choice: what his family wants, and what he wants. What his job wants, and what he wants. What his people want, and what he wants. He wishes he could just have both.
Duty is like a tide, constantly swirling around Alec’s ankles. The morning passes by in a blur, much in the same way one never notices how far they are being swept out to sea until they blink, and the safety of the shore is far out of reach.
His responsibility is to the aftermath, and that’s always a dour thought. A part of him - a very real and almost insidious part of him - wants to leave, and that fills him with guilt. He knows he cannot, and yet he’s thinking about the Loft; he hopes no-one can read it in his eyes and call him disloyal.
He wants to go home, and he’s not sure when home stopped being here , and started being there , but it’s a resolute sort of truth that he cannot question, not now, not since it’s been sealed with three, precious words.
Magnus remains busy too, but at least he remains . He doesn’t leave, of which Alec is more glad than he can really comprehend, because he doesn’t think he will cope well letting Magnus out of his sight any time soon. Alec catches the shimmer of blue from the corner of his eye as he’s being passed from conversation to frantic conversation, and realises Magnus must be throwing up new wards. Briefly, he wonders how Magnus can have the energy, after everything that has passed, and then there’s that heavy, protective need again, pounding hard at the inside of his chest like a fist on a closed door.
Some field report is thrust into Alec’s hands, along with a pen, and he signs somewhere near a dotted line as Jace snarks on about something or another, the feigned strength in his voice something that Alec would be admiring is he weren’t so damn distracted.
His eyes fall on Magnus’ back, mapping the contours of his shoulders beneath the heavy fabric, and then tracing the shorn hair on the nape of Magnus’ neck, and then dallying to the outstretched tips of Magnus’ fingers, ringed in blue magic.
Someone else is talking now, a voice lower and harsher, tripping unartfully over what must be done with the dead that line the hallways of the Institute; who should begin dressing the Shadowhunters for funeral rights; what should be done with Downworlder bodies that cannot be smocked in white.
Across the room, Magnus turns, called upon by another Shadowhunter. Alec sees a frown flicker across Magnus’ brow, and the corners of his lips turn down, his profile severe. Alec’s feet long to move, to clear a pathway through the crowds of the down and dusty and defeated, and find solace in that feeling shared on the Institute steps, beneath the rays of a dawning sun.
He wants to be near Magnus, suspended, at least, in his gravity. It’s a divine sort of need, and in that divinity, Magnus finds him looking again, some sort of sixth sense for Alec that can only be a marvel.
The two of them stand, opposite sides of the room, in a momentary trance, and Alec doesn’t doubt the same desire taking root in Magnus’ chest as in his own.
Not touching, just staring. And wanting. Wanting so god damn badly to be away from this place, where death steeps the halls and hangs heavy in the eyes of his colleagues and weighs down the shoulders of his brother. Wanting to catch his breath, which trips and stumbles inside his own clumsy throat, as if he’s still running from room to room, fearing finding Magnus' body amidst bloody floors. Wanting to be alone, but not alone.
Magnus says something sharp to the Shadowhunter who talks to him and who then scurries away, and then his shoulders fall in a private sigh. He pinches the bridge of his nose and screws his eyes shut, the fingers of his other hand pressed into his hip, and Alec -
God, Alec just wants to not be here any more. He wants to scramble his way over there and grab Magnus’ hand and bury his face in Magnus’ shoulders and hold him close. He wants to tug Magnus by the sleeve of his jacket and head back down those steps and out into the morning, and just be Alec, a man who has not lost all that he has just found, and not be the Head of the Institute, or a Lightwood, or even a Shadowhunter anymore. He wants to feel Magnus’ mouth again, a grounding reminder of promises shared, because the world feels like shrapnel sometimes and it’s cutting him up the longer he stands here, buffeted by the pyroclastic fallout of the night suffered.
He can’t. He knows he can’t. People are depending on him to be here, and his ingrained sense of duty is not easily forgotten. In some other reality, maybe another Alec gets to run away with another Magnus; that thought has to be enough for this Alec . There are people to help here.
A hand brushes across the small of Alec’s back, and he bristles, twisting to look back over his shoulder, only to find Magnus already staring. The pen in Alec’s hand stills, the clipboard held in his hand all but forgotten, and the young Shadowhunter impatiently waiting for him to sign it, frowning ever deeper.
“Are you leaving?” are the words that escape Alec’s lips before he has time for thought. He knows he must look a little bit manic; he has only just managed to get that haggard breathing back under control, and it really has been hours now. But adrenaline still runs rampant through his veins, rummaging through him with absolutely no preamble, and he feels thrown off balance for it.
The crease between Magnus’ brows deepens ever so slightly, but he summons a soft smile for Alec.
“No,” he says, gently, “I just wanted to check on you.”
“I don’t think I’ll be done here for - for a while,” Alec says, answering a question that was not asked. “Sorry,” he adds. Magnus’ smile becomes a little more substantial.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” he says, and Alec is privy to Magnus’ fingers pressing a little firmer into the dip of his spine, before receding. The contact is instantly missed, and Alec’s shoulders long to sag. “I’ve finished with the new wards. I thought I might check up on dear Isabelle. I noticed she retired some time ago.”
Alec looks up abruptly then, scanning the room for Izzy’s familiar shock of dark hair. He finds Jace, then Clary, and even Simon, in an instant, but his sister is notably absent, and with that, comes an immense pang of guilt. He’s been so caught up that he hasn’t even stopped to check -
Magnus’ hand comes back to rest on Alec’s shoulder, squeezing lightly.
“Alec,” he says, “I’ll go check on her. I’m sure she’s fine. You have a job to do here; you’re needed.”
Alec wants to say: but Izzy might need me , and then shortly after: but I need you , but he says neither, only nodding resolutely and passing a soft “thank you” Magnus’ way, which Magnus accepts with a graceful, if weary smile. Magnus steps away, but does not withdraw his hand from Alec’s shoulder until the last possible moment, and Alec is violently torn between wanting to grab Magnus by the wrist and keep him there, and letting him go to make sure Izzy is okay.
Sometimes, it’s easier to not be . He lets Alec drift away with the riptide, sloshed and slapped around but ultimately taken out to sea, and becomes, instead, a leader . He is simultaneously himself and not himself, the acting Head of the Institute that he always longed to be, but never like this , not at the expense of drowning parts of himself to get through the day. He’s done enough of that already, in years gone by, and he made a promise to himself in a chapel not far from here, not to put himself in a position where he has to do that to himself again.
A promise is really only a word.
He’s not sure how many hours pass in a daze, how many forms he signs, how many soldiers he snaps at, how many horrible, disgusting things he has to overhear from his fellow Shadowhunters, triggered by terror and malaise, sharing no sympathy for the dead who aren’t of their blood.
Clary is not listening to Alec, and the Vampire is blathering something relentless about sunlight, and from the corner of his twitching eye, Alec sees Jace slinking into the shadows, jaw clenched, arms wrapped tight around his chest.
Regret and guilt war in his mismatched eyes, even though they fight for the same side. Alec cannot claim to know what Jace must be feeling, even if he’s the only person in the room with a direct line to the turmoil festering inside Jace’s chest, running him a sort of ragged that he will never dare let show on the surface.
Alec catches his eyes across the room: I can feel you.
Jace immediately looks away. The sorrow flares up hot and incendiary in Alec’s rune, and he tries not to wince in front of Clary and Simon, who are still talking, oblivious. It’s a particular sort of sorrow that Alec knows well: self-hatred through and through, toxic and treacherous.
At first, he thinks it’s because of the way Clary holds tight onto the Vampire’s hand, squeezing his white fingers in some sort of death grip, and Jace cannot bare to look - but then another wave comes again, and - it’s not that.
Or, maybe some part of it is, because it’s a messy, messy feeling, but it also feels too personal for that, the other part of Jace’s haggardness meant for Alec, and Alec alone.
Where’s Magnus? He wasn't here, was he?
Alec recalls the fear in Jace’s bloodshot eyes when he’d said that. He’s not sure if he said anything else in the hall surrounded by the dead, up to his knees in massacre; it matters not. What Jace might have seen on Alec’s face … that’s different.
God, Alec feels tired.
Jace leaves the ops room, and Alec follows, not even sparing an apology for Simon and Clary, who he leaves behind with little regard. Jace strikes up a rapid pace, desperate to get somewhere that probably doesn’t exist, and Alec forces his legs to move faster, even though his thighs and knees are aching terribly.
“Jace,” he calls out, “Jace, wait.”
Jace pauses on the stairs leading up towards the training room; Alec finds himself grabbing at the edge of the wall, fingers curving around hard mahogany, to try and keep himself from swaying.
“Jace,” Alec presses. He doesn’t know how to say that he knows, and that he forgives him, all in the same breath.
“Don’t, Alec,” Jace retorts, sharp. He sighs then, heavy-hearted and steadying, eyes falling closed. “Just don’t.”
He didn’t die, Alec wants to say. He wasn't there.You didn’t kill him. But it’s not enough, and will probably never be enough, because so many others did, and their blood is stained on Jace’s hands now and forever.
“Valentine’s not my father,” Jace says then, surprising Alec. “He told me, out there.” He leans back against the wall, arms still crossed over his chest, hands pawed in the sleeves of his sweater.
He doesn’t want to talk about the other part of this; he’s evading. Alec can hardly blame him. Neither of them really want to think about what could have happened when Jace activated that sword.
They both will, anyway.
The buzzing beneath Alec's skin doesn’t stop until he ducks into a quiet corridor, pinching the bridge of his nose as he squeezes his eyes shut. It’s a fight to open them again, but the victor’s prize is the sight of Magnus’ back, black-clothed and broad, some ways down the hallway, slipping from an old-oak door.
He has his hand to his ear - he’s on the phone, Alec realises, too many moments later - and is gesturing with his other, rings glinting in the artificial light where there is no stained-glass to scatter the sun into something more resplendent; here, it is a light both coarse and grainy, and it makes Alec feel dirty somehow, wishing for a lungful of cold, crisp winter air once more, even if it must be gasped again.
Alec doesn’t call out, but he quickens his pace as best he can, down the hallway. Magnus’ voice is low and curling around his words, possessive, like he doesn’t want Shadowhunters to overhear. Alec is hardly surprised. The Downworld must already know what has happened here, and the tremors of turmoil will be finding their way back to Magnus, ripples turning waves.
Magnus turns, a frown on his face as he murmurs down the line, hushed tones, dipped gaze, the trying “Catarina ” that whistles from his lips sounding a little too close to pleading for Alec to like. Magnus rubs his thumb and index finger together, as he always does when he’s pressed, as if he’s trying to spark flint from his fingertips. Maybe he is; Alec imagines there are many things he longs to burn right now.
But Magnus’ expression softens when his eyes fall upon Alec, tender and touching, and Alec cannot help but offer him an unwitting smile, summoned out of the hollow of his chest by the force Magnus always seems to bear over him as he steps closer. Magnus keeps his phone pressed up against his ear, and words continue to spill from his lips and across the line, but reaches out with his free hand to curl his fingers into the collar of Alec’s jacket, straightening out the fabric where it is rumpled and folded over upon itself. Magnus’ fingers trail down the front of Alec’s chest, wistfully, and Alec is taken back to a night on the balcony at the Loft that feels all too many moons ago, when they stood like this and touched like this and Alec’s heart still beat like this , just as frantic and just as longing.
She’s sleeping , Magnus mouths, before hurtling back into conversation with Catarina, and it takes Alec a moment to realise that he’s talking about Izzy, and that Alec is in fact upon the threshold of her room. Magnus talks animatedly, some semblance of life trickling back into the way he gestures widely with this hand and turns away from Alec to begin pacing, having what appears to be too joyful a conversation for the sombre mood of these granite halls.
Alec smiles to himself, ducking his head, before turning back to the job at hand - because there’s always a job, always a mission, always an obstacle, even if he resents calling Isabelle an obstacle . His heart aches for her, and it aches even more for how they left it after the incident at Raphael’s apartment, which, in turn, just brings back the thought that what he said there, to two of the most important people in his life, might have been the last thing he ever said to them. His heart sinks in his chest, and he knows it must show on his face as he pushes into Izzy’s room, slipping through the crack in her door.
There’s a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead; her sleep is uneasy, but deep, brought on by exhaustion and nothing else. There’s a frown excavated in her brow, pinched and a little pained, and it makes Alec’s already sunken heart hit an ocean floor. If Magnus has already shared some of his magic with her, Alec dreads to think what she might’ve looked like not ten minutes ago; the thought makes him nauseous.
He tugs the covers up around her shoulders, where she’s kicked them free and tangled herself in their constriction, and then he perches on the edge of the mattress. His hand drifts to the inside of her wrist to seek her pulse in reassurance; her skin is warm and clammy, her sickness wearing itself with the same shameful pride that Alec’s bares fatigue.
Their humanity has been out for blood tonight - today, this morning, whatever time of day it might be now. Angels are lying face-down on the hallowed ground. There's no-one holy left here.
“Izzy,” he whispers, but doesn’t want to wake her. He wants her to sleep, and keep on sleeping, and only wake when all is said and done and fixed, and their world returns to normal. She’s his baby sister, the only one he’s got and is ever going to have. He wants the world for her, always has.
He sighs, heavily, shakily, bearing down upon the broken.
It’s a far-fetched dream, if not for the fact she will probably wake in moments, worse than she was when she fell asleep, but for the fact that their world will never be normal . There is no paradigm here; no zero to return to in a perfect circle.
The battle is over for now, but Valentine still lives, the Downworld has bled for it, and a part of Jace has gone missing in the carnage. The Alpha of the New York pack suffers fever dreams in the infirmary. Isabelle, with her sure feet in six-inch heels, has lost her footing. And Alec is floundering for penance and for peace.
This is the moment where he should be telling Izzy about what happened on the Institute steps at dawn; this is the moment that they should be stealing from between the forms to fill and the bandages to wrap and the contingencies to be made, ushering away into her room, Alec embarrassed, and her eager, but both of them proud, their own brand of thick-as-thieves. This is the moment where he should be telling her, gingerly, that he’s in love, although she already knows. That Magnus loves him too - he said as much, after all - and she would probably already know that too.
This is that moment, and now, it isn’t that moment. Another battlefield casualty.
Exhaustion jumps Alec in the hallway, jimmying its knife in between his ribs without warning. Alec has just enough of his wits intact to look both ways before letting himself collapse against the wall, leaning heavily on his shoulder, still bruised from being flung into the elevator by the warlock child. His eyes are burning; he’s been awake nearly fifty hours now, and there are only so many times he can activate the stamina rune on his belly before it loses its kick.
His body is a cadaver in everything but name, and yet - Alec Lightwood, dead man walking, has a certain ring of truth to it. He could be leaving gruesome stains on the floor, blood and sweat and tears, and he wouldn’t be surprised. Nor would he have the energy to clean up after himself, he reasons, and even that thought wilts, unable to bloom into something truly poignant.
Alec’s head is swimming; sound is muffled, far-away and distant, and it’s not unlike he’s underwater. The surface feels a far stretch, and even then, he’s not sure he wants to break it, for sight of the leaden skies above. Maybe there’s peace and sanctuary to be found in a drowning pool.
It’s still lonely though. There’s still a part of him, rubbed raw and frantic, that is terrified of that, of loneliness, of being the only one left . His hand drifts to his side, out of habit, palm covering the faint pulsing of his Parabatai rune, tender and weeping as Jace suffers in a distinguishable silence; but it’s not that. The part of him that’s truly scared … that part of him is still stuck searching every square inch of the Institute, heart-in-throat, water-in-lungs, frantically forgetting how to breathe.
You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it.
That’s not entirely true, Alec reasons. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve almost lost it, and then scrabbled back from that brink, only to greet a dawn that brings with it the dreadful realisation of your own burdening morality. And Magnus’, even if one might argue the oxymoron.
Alec can already tell that paranoia is going to be an awful bed fellow. It itches his skin, a prickle he needs to scratch and scratch good, dig his blunt fingernails into his flesh and scrape until he feels it, the pinch of pain, the blood sticky in his cuticles, the rough ridge of the subsequent scars beneath his fingertips.
I almost lost him.
He glances down the corridor; there is no-one, or at least, no-one to look at him. He’s just another person hiding in the shadows of the church for a quick and quiet breakdown. Alec is sure he must be needed somewhere - someone will be looking for a leader, and that’s who he has to be - but in this moment, he’s just like everyone else, weak for a second that everyone will pretend not to see.
Agitated almosts might be worse than certainty; he's going to suffer them, nonetheless.
His mother is there. He’s not sure when she arrived, or why no-one warned him of it until he all but staggered into her in the hallway, but there’s sympathy hiding behind the shield-line of her fierce eyes, and Alec is privately thankful for it.
When she leads him to Aldertree’s office and shuts the door behind them, and pulls him into a hug, Alec remembers the last time this happened, and how she felt so fragile in his arms that time. It seems their positions have reversed; he wonders if she realises how shaken he still feels.
“Clave emissaries are on their way,” Maryse says in his ear. She threads her fingers through his hair, soothing. Alec’s not quite sure if they’ve earned this right for familiarity yet, but under the circumstances, he permits it. He thinks he might need it, still doggedly searching out the possibility of touch, in whatever form he might get his hands on. “They will deal with the clean up. And then they will choose a new Head.”
Alec doesn’t say anything right away; a low and indistinguishable murmur is enough to express his feelings. He steps back from Maryse, eyes low, on the floor.
“We can’t wait that long,” he says, “There’s still a lot to do now, and I -” He pauses, breathes in deeply, wishes for Jace’s reassurance to come flooding through the bond, or for his mom’s fingers back in his hair, treating him like he’s five again, or just the steadying hand on the small of his back that he’s craving something desperate. “I dismissed Aldertree, and now everyone’s looking at me to deal with this. I need to get back to the cleanup. Someone’s going to have to deal with the Downworld, and it won’t be the Clave.”
He takes another step back, reaching behind him for the door handle. Maryse purses her lips, frowns a little, disapproving. It’s a look Alec knows well.
Just … not in this context.
“Alec,” she says, pointedly. “Let me help.”
He wants to shake his head, ever the petulant child, determined to shoulder everything on his own and prove his worth, Atlas his detriment. He wants to tell her about the two-dozen bodies draped in white cloth lying, untended, in the great hall. He wants to tell her about how Jace is bleeding something painful, like his body is slowly tearing itself apart, and he still won’t let slip a peep of pain, his eyes steely and grey as he beats the living shit out of a punching bag in another room and cancels out the world. He wants to mention Izzy, sweating it out in a room down the corridor, but his lips are sealed shut, and he knows that’s a trust he can’t betray.
“Just a few hours,” she says, and her gentleness surprises Alec somewhat. Her tone is soft. “Come back when you’ve slept some. I haven’t forgotten how to run an Institute.”
At the end of all things, he’s always been quite good at following orders without questioning them. Maybe it’s his fatal flaw; maybe it’ll lead him down even more paths he’ll come to regret. He’ll deal with how that makes him feel another time.
He finds Magnus in the operations room again, now quietly standing by as Jace talks to Luke, who is up on his feet once more, if looking about as shaky as Alec feels. There seems to be more order in the air; grim determination shrouds the faces of his fellow Shadowhunters, in place of panic and grief and white-washed shock, and Alec knows better than most that clipping their emotions is what his kind excel at in times of crisis. Alec, himself, feels less like he’s going to snap - and more like his legs might give out on him at any moment, but he reckons that’s a given, and makes a bee-line straight for Magnus before he can find out if that moment is going to be this moment .
His hand is barely on Magnus’ elbow before Magnus has turned his whole body towards him, as if knowing he was already on his way.
“Magnus,” Alec says, defeated. He feels both Jace and Luke look at him, and then look away again, and continue their conversation, almost deliberately. That’s fine by Alec. The world around him seems to recede, until it’s just Magnus, everything else drowned out by the weight of water, or blood, or whatever it is that he’s submerged in. Things seem, for a moment, easier to bear.
“Home?” is all Magnus says, with a tilt to his head. His rings glint gun-metal silver in the light as he reaches for Alec, curling his fingers around Alec’s forearm. There’s this clarity in his eyes that seems to look straight through Alec’s skin, right into his centre.
“Please,” Alec says upon a wilted sigh, before catching himself. “I mean - if that’s alright. I’d rather - I’d rather be - uh.”
“I’d rather you there, too,” Magnus says, finishing the train of thought as Alec stumbles. The look in his eyes is kind and patient, and Alec’s world softens at its edges.
Alec deflates as he steps out of the portal and into the Loft, his eyelids heavy-hanging, the air in his lungs an amalgamation of all the last breaths taken by dear departed friends, finally released from festering. Afternoon sunlight spills through the French windows, stark, wintery, crystalline; Alec raises a hand to his face to shield his eyes on instinct. Is it the wind, or the ghosts of dead friends, that makes the wind chime on the balcony jingle? He doesn't have the energy to consider an answer, in truth.
Alec doesn’t need to be a Mundane to know a burnout, or at least, what its compatriot feels like.
His whole body aches, his muscles lagging, two steps behind what his brain is asking for. He summons a step forward; it takes him ten seconds for his feet to catch up.
A warm palm finds its way to the small of Alec’s back, quenching a dying need; on his lips, now, is a hum. Magnus’ chest brushes up against his back, Magnus’ lips at his ear. There’s an intake of breath, as if words are meant to flood the space, but even that - the thought alone - seems too loud and brackish a thing for the bone-felt weariness in both their bodies.
Magnus’ breath on the side of his neck, a sigh. Maybe a word or two pressed against his throat, secretive, sublime. Alec’s eyes flutter closed.
Home , he thinks. And then, safe .
With a flick of Magnus’ wrist, the curtains are drawn with a smattering of blue sparks, the heavy, draping fabric spilling across the floor, smothering the last streaks of sunlight. The hazy light of lanterns, or candles maybe, become whispers on Alec’s periphery, faded orange and soft yellow tones, a lullaby in wispy colour.
The outside world becomes a thing of speculation only; perhaps, it stops existing all together, and Alec finds himself okay with that. It could be the refuge of night outside, for all he knows. Everything compresses, smaller and smaller, a cocoon around his heavy legs and aching arms and still-dazed heart, fluttering with the aftershocks of the morning - all that exist is the Loft, in its intimate infinity.
The hand on Alec’s back turns him; his body follows, blindly, guided like a puppet. There’s sympathy in Magnus’ dark eyes when their gazes meet, Alec looking down at him, him looking up at Alec, an elegant tilt to his head, even now, when the makeup on his face has begun to betray the bags beneath his eyes, strung up by purple-handed worry.
Magnus cups Alec’s jaw with the palm of his hand, thumb stroking across Alec’s cheek. Alec wonders if there’s soot there; if there’s dirt, if there’s dust; if there’s ashes, because the fine sheen of death still clings to his skin like a funeral shroud, or so it feels.
A bath would help, but he’s not so sure his legs will carry him as far as the bathroom, nor his eyes stay open long enough to run the water, nor his skin tough enough to not be scalded by the white-hot water he so desperately craves. He feels rubbed raw, and has yet to begin scabbing over.
If he could just strip out of his skin, tug the zipper down his spine and wriggle free, be born anew, naked and red and tender underneath, and feel the air cold and biting where he needs it to feel present - maybe that would help. A violent thought for a violent day. He imagines Magnus wouldn’t allow it.
“Alec,” says Magnus, breaking the promise of silence. Alec knows that Magnus sees him slipping. “Alexander.” His gentle hand is still soothing Alec’s cheek; Alec closes his eyes, eyelashes a feathered shadow on his cheekbone, and leans into the touch.
Alec imagines blue behind his eyelids; glitter, bare flashes of light, the comfort of a seeping, lathing warmth felt deep within his chest - Magnus pulses his magic into Alec’s blood, and it spreads throughout his body a pleasant tingle. Alec hums, and Magnus seems to sigh, as if it’s rectification for him too, a sweet benediction to find their hearts slowing, beating together in the same sleepy rhythm.
Alec doesn’t open his eyes, the arms hanging limp at his sides becoming hands reaching for the scent of musky cologne. He guides Magnus’ face to his with all the skill of a blind man reading braille; he knows where Magnus’ lips might be without having to look.
He stops, just before a kiss. Holds Magnus’ face between his two palms. Breathes a moment.
Magnus waits. He’s good at that; Alec supposes he has many years of practice, but his body is too beat to follow that thought down the rabbit hole. Sluggishly, he blinks his eyes open, and finds Magnus already looking back, their noses an inch away from touching.
How many ways can you touch someone?
That thought again returns unbidden to the forefront of Alec’s mind, but without the urgency, without the desperation. There is no ops room to separate them now, no killing floor, no church-turned-morgue with the rising of the dawn. No fear of dreadful what ifs so visceral that the memory sears and burns.
Safe, Alec tells himself again, a reassurance. Safe .
Alec’s fingers are already moving, ghosting across Magnus’ jaw. His thumb traces Magnus’ lips, and Magnus presses his mouth into a quiet kiss against the tip. He blinks at Alec slowly, lazily, wonderfully alive, and Alec, at last, feels the tug of something pulling him back down to Earth.
In the daze of reentry, Alec is sure he feels Magnus’ deft fingers slipping beneath his jacket, pushing it from his shoulders - it ends up on the floor somewhere, Alec doesn’t know where, a crumpled pile. It feels good to be rid of.
Next, Magnus sinking to one knee, his hands gliding up the side of Alec’s left thigh, picking at the buckles on his thigh holster, gentle, worshipful, careful . Alec makes a noise of appreciation, low in his throat, lifting his foot from the floor so that Magnus can peel the holster and the seraph from his leg, and he can step free of it. There will be indentations in his thigh, he’s sure - red and criss-crossing, lacerations without the blood. Often, Magnus likes that, likes the way the holster looks on him and says as much, but today, Alec doesn’t want to look at the marks bound to be on his leg, or at the pile of leather at his feet.
He wants the most important thing on his skin to be the warmth left behind by someone else; not strap-marks on his thighs, not the bruises of war and battle, not the black ink on his white back as he lies face-down in a fear he will permit no-one to see. He just wants to be touched.
Another hum in his throat, and he’s reaching out to haul Magnus back to his feet, drawing him into his chest. Magnus knots his hands around the small of Alec’s back again, and they’re chest to chest, hips to hips, ribcage to ribcage, and it’s a small dent on the things Alec needs and on this prodigal longing in his chest to touch and be touched, but it’s a start. It sooths the hackles that are still raised all along the back of his neck.
Slowly, the cold sting of shock is slipping away.
“Bed?” Magnus asks, a lilting tone. Alec has heard nothing better.
“Yes,” he says.
Magnus’ hand slips into his, and it doesn’t leave, not when they step into the bedroom, the dark gold sheets the very same that Alec had left two mornings ago, not when Magnus holds his free hand out for Alec to tug the rings from his fingers and toss them into the pot on the bedside table, and not when Magnus begins to shirk his own jacket - only stopping when he remembers something in his pocket.
Alec watches him curiously, squeezing his fingers as Magnus dips into the pocket of his blazer and pulls out something achingly familiar, a small token of red silk embroidered with fine calligraphy in rich gold and vibrant emerald.
“You kept it,” leaves Alec’s mouth before he can check himself. His heart seizes inside his chest, a little winded. The omamori.
Magnus turns the charm over in his fingers, inspecting it, a quiet, ageless smile serene upon his lips. His eyes drift to Alec’s, and there’s potency in his gaze.
“Of course,” he says, effortless. “Luck and protection, did you not say?”
“Yes, but -”
It’s just a trinket , he wants to say. And then after, but it still worked.
Alec loses his mouth, says nothing, holds the words on his tongue as a pendulum weight. He’s not sure he knows properly how to express his gratitude with grace, with pretty or clever words, without spitting out something unpracticed and painfully honest. He swallows back the wound of it all, and smiles a tight smile.
Magnus’ expression shifts into sympathy again. He banishes the omamori to the bowl with all his jewellery, and then his jacket to the wardrobe. He knows not to divest himself of any more clothes by magic, however, because there’s therapy to be found in the slow and cathartic ritual of undressing, even moreso if it’s not his own hands fiddling with his buttons.
He drops Alec’s hand, and his fingers go to the hem of Alec’s olive-green shirt, shimmying the the shirt upwards, brushing across the taut muscle of Alec's stomach that quivers with the suggestion of something intimate.
They undress each other in a silence punctuated only by soft breathing and a phantom pulsing behind the temples, aftershocks of things not so easily shrugged from the shoulders as shirts. In a few hours, Alec will return to the Institute, unable to abandon it for his own sake, a shackle around his ankles he will never have the key for, nor want the key for, if he’s all too honest. And Magnus will be gone too, because the Downworld will need him all the more, the weeping wounded in desperate need of someone with hands of a healer and the strength of a leader to reconstruct something stronger from the remnants of this massacre. He and Magnus, they will not sleep for many days yet, Alec supposes, and his body already creaks and groans with the thought of it, loudly complaining - but in his head, it’s all still at a distance. The horizon is just that - an afterthought, better left for later, when he feels more human again - and the ground beneath him now is made of golden sheets of threads too high to count, and plush carpets tickling at the soles of his bare feet, and a mattress that he longs to sink into, body made fluid; it’s the way the tickle of Magnus’ breath against his throat makes Alec feel the most present he has since the steps of the Institute this morning.
Theirs is a quantum point in an angry world, momentary and transient, yes, but undeniable. Unflappable.
Alec needs this; he knows Magnus can read that in his eyes, as much as he can read it in Magnus’. He’s not sure he’s ever seen the look in Magnus’ eyes so laid bare before, so naked and vulnerable. There’s an unfathomable honestly therein that Alec finds almost unbearable. Another almost . He still wants it all. He wants whatever it is that pours from Magnus' eyes unapologetically to be the only thing he can feel, and the only thing he can ever feel again.
In the low light of the room, dusky and dim, Alec tugs back the covers on the bed, and relishes the feel of silken sheets against his bare skin, a luxury he was not quite sure he’d ever feel again, just a few hours ago. That, and the weight of a body sliding in next to him, the dip in the mattress, the warm curl of an arm, possessively, around his midsection. Magnus noses at his shoulder; Alec doesn’t have the heart to tell him that it’s bruised from the incident in the elevator; he wonders if it’s the tender skin itself that beckons Magnus to touch, in that morbid need for attention that bruises always have. Alec hasn’t the chance for an iratze yet; no time spared for himself until now.
He rolls towards Magnus, and then they’re face to face. The silence prevails still, wordless, descending towards devotion. It is their bubble, and the edges convulse with where they jostle with the outside world, trying to intrude on that sanctitude.
Just a little longer , Alec pleads. He has a few hours yet, before he must go back. Let him bask in this, in the insignificance, in the far-away dream of the day when their lives aren’t steeped in danger and despair. Let him dally in touches and tenderness; let him pass the hours lying on his back, focused only on the rise and fall of his lethargic chest and the only battle be the one fought with his eyelids that war for sleep before it’s even dark outside.
He crosses the chasm of space between him and Magnus with a fingertip, drawing into Magnus’ bare collarbone the shape of a rune.
Magnus quirks his eyebrows, as if to ask, what did you just draw? , even though Alec knows full-well that Magnus knows, that Magnus has old tomes in his study full to the brim with more runes than the Gray Book has to offer, that Magnus pushes to make him pull.
It doesn’t matter what Alec draws. He’s not sure he even knows himself, the touch more important than the thought, a ritual without words, to make him feel at peace. Runes hold no power when he’s not a Shadowhunter, and Magnus is not a Warlock, and they’re just two people carving out a moment in chaos, to remind themselves how to use hands to hold another person, and not string a bow or wield magic or kill or be killed.
He draws Protection into Magnus' flawless skin. And then, Longevity, and finally, trailing down Magnus’ arm, True North.
That, Alec recognises, and it slips out like ink from a pen he cannot cap. His finger stills on Magnus’ bicep.
Curious, Alec thinks, that this should be the rune he draws when he thinks about love. A frown puzzles his brow, and he considers his index finger, still pressing into Magnus’ skin, quite intensely.
Magnus laughs something soft and breathy, easing back from the cusp of sleep that Alec’s touches have led him to. He’s amused by the focus in Alec’s stare, and tries diligently to meet it, seeking Alec out deep within his thoughts.
It takes a touch to the cheek, in the end, to bring Alec back. Gentle, feather-light, but enough to remind Alec of the reality of his small and cosy universe; he blinks a few times, clearing the daze. Magnus is looking at him without charade again, and it makes his throat tighten up.
Without the pretense of life and death hanging over their heads, Alec decides there are things that have to be said properly, meant properly.
“Magnus,” he whispers. A pause, long and drawn-out and searching. Alec wonders if there has ever been anything else said in the history of humankind and Shadowhunters alike, with more certainty. With more unshakable truth. “I love you.”
The reaction is much the same as before, on the steps of the Institute at dawn. Magnus blinks, and for a moment he looks infinitely young, younger than Alec has ever seen him, this disbelief in his eyes that makes Alec wonder if that’s how he looked, the first time they met - and perhaps every moment after, between all those coy flirtations and longing glances. A little bit bewildered, this long-tended doubt that he could be on the receiving end of something so wonderful.
So many people must have told Magnus they love him, and yet he’s looking at Alec like nothing else has mattered in the world until this moment.
And maybe it hasn’t.
Alec doesn’t think that, of course. His own self-worth is still a little bruised, and it probably will be for a long time yet. The thought of someone like him changing someone like Magnus is so far-fetched, he could laugh.
He doesn’t feel like laughing now. No, laughter is the last thing he wants to do here, even as the candid surprise in Magnus’ eyes melts away into something untapped, indescribably fond, and he begins to smile. Alec’s heart flutters; he’s already said this once today, but somehow it matters more, here and now, after they’ve dragged their weary feet through the graveyard and undressed each other in silence and lain across from one another on the golden-silk pillows of Magnus’ bed.
It’s a fight not to look away as Magnus studies him, amazed; Alec's gaze wants to scamper, flightful and fearful, bashful to a fault. No-one told Alec how it can be possible to be more afraid of loving someone than of demons and devils and bloodlust in bad hands, and so he stumbles. He wants to drop his eyes, finger the bed sheets between his index finger and thumb, curl his toes into the covers.
He fought demons this morning. He fought other Shadowhunters, people who by all means could have been his kin, should've been. He fought the plummet in his gut for every door ripped off its hinges as he searched high and low through the Institute for a body on the floor he dreaded to find.
He won those battles, although they weren’t without loss. He doesn’t think he’s going to win this one.
Magnus is still smiling when he reaches across the sheets and runs his thumb down the line of Alec’s jaw, his knuckles grazing Alec’s cheek. Alec cannot help but lean into the touch once more, a habit he is swiftly nursing.
Maybe he can permit himself this little weakness.
“Forgive me,” Magnus starts, slow and gentle, and his voice could be lost to the rustle of the sheets. “If I speak out of turn.”
He rolls up onto one arm, propping himself up above Alec. His makeup is a little smudged, and his hair is falling across his forehead, and it's a vulnerability that he doesn’t have to permit Alec, but still, he chooses to. He chooses to let Alec see the bruises the day has left on him, and really, it’s only a marvel how the poppy-colourings of war-wounds can still look so beautiful on someone else.
The thumb on Alec’s jaw, running through his stubble, becomes a palm cupping Alec's face in worship. Magnus looks down on him against the pillow; Alec swallows hard. His confession still hangs in the open air, a question yet unanswered. The whispering smile tugs again at Magnus’ lips.
“It is an honour,” he continues, “To be the first person loved by you.”
“It’s not out of turn,” Alec murmurs, quick. He wants to return the touch, and it’s ironic, almost, how against the sunset need he’s been silhouetted against all day: the desperate need to be close, to touch, to feel Magnus’ skin beneath his fingers and how there’s still warm blood there, that his body won’t move - and that’s almost a scary thing, when who he is as a person is so rooted in grasping a bow in his fingers and marching his feet to a soldier’s beat and commanding his limbs to do as he wants. “‘S the truth.”
It’s so slow, the way Magnus leans in. The seconds pass as minutes pass as hours, but Alec doesn’t really breathe. Time forgets to exist, and there’s only the soft, barely-there press of Magnus lips to Alec’s, gossamer, really, and Alec would refute anyone who tries to insist he’s the one with angel blood and angel grace in this room.
The kiss is a ghost, and they’ve been haunted today enough to last them many years, so what is just one more? This is the sweetest spectre of them all; the only one that Alec wants whispering at his window in the night, something holy and sacred.
Magnus’ lips linger, the kiss fading away until all they’re doing is sharing breath. Alec likes that. Breathing is the most fundamental sign of life; each pious inhale and each sighing exhale is a reassurance, and Magnus’ weight against him is heavy and warm, some miracle and some tragedy that Alec even has to think of it that way.
“I love you too,” Magnus whispers. He searches Alec’s eyes for something impossible. Alec hardly knows how to give it, what Magnus wants, but he will still run himself into the ground as he tries, nevertheless. “Alexander. I love you.”
Magnus’ tilts his forehead to Alec’s, and the anaphora is not lost, not on Alec. His eyes flutter closed; he breathes in all that Magnus is. He can almost feel the winter chill sharp in his throat again. He sinks his fingers into Magnus’ shoulders in much the same way as he did before; this time, red marks bloom against Magnus’ bare skin, devoid of violence.
Words fail Alec, as they often do; he kisses Magnus soundly, because there are other ways to prove devotion.
It stills him in just the same way as it did the first time; maybe it will feel this way every time. Alec hasn’t considered that, but he likes the thought of it: the unbearable fullness in his chest that longs to spill, that he doubts his body is big enough to encompass in its entirety. It’s relief and it’s gratitude and it’s fear and it’s all too big for Alec to comprehend, so he calls it love. Maybe everyone defines it differently; he doesn’t know, will never know. It doesn’t matter. To him, it’s the need to be touched, reminded that they’re both still breathing, despite the odds. It’s the moment of escape, where all that’s required of him is to be present, to be Alec.
It’s the word written for the impossible prayer.
the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.