“—going to———if you don’t———need to———listening, Alexander?”
Alec straightens, blinking heavily. His head is spinning, the last of the adrenaline in his system spiraling as if down a drain inside of him, leaving him with nothing to grasp at to keep himself standing.
“…Go over it again, Alexander,” his mother says. Her back is ramrod straight, her ponytail severe.
Alec nods. It takes him a moment to find his voice, but soon enough he does, going over the events of the mission—his very first mission in the field—all over again. From the beginning, the briefing, where he’d sat with silent, nervous jitters working their way through his bones—all the way to the end, when he and his team came back to the institute, sated and buzzing from the high of chasing and catching and devouring.
It’s been hours since then. Since his parents pulled him aside for a private debrief. Hours since they informed him that his performance was acceptable, but that he could do so much better. Jace wouldn’t have done it this way, they had said. A better tactic would have been to do that. Out in the field his team had said he’d done good for a first mission, but now he’s not sure—he made so many little mistakes that he didn’t catch at first that he wants to scream, and still his parents are finding more, more and more and more, tearing the entire mission apart like flesh from bone.
“Again,” his mother says, and Alec wants to cry, he’s so tired. His head is spinning ever harder, and he wants to sleep so badly that it’s like a splinter in his chest, but still he takes a deep breath and finds his voice once again and goes through the entire mission from top to bottom, stacking all his mistakes on top of each other and drilling what he should have done instead until it’s ringing in his head.
And his head spins.
And the should have’s ring.
And the sour taste of failure creeps up the back of his throat.
And Alec shudders, from the crown of his head all the way down to his toes, knowing that he’s not free to go until he has it perfect, perfect, perfect, knowing that he will never measure up, knowing that he will always come up short, knowing that his parents expect so much more than he can give and he has to, he HAS to give it, and if he can’t—and he knows he can’t—then he has to give everything he has in a desperate bid to keep up.
His parents look down on him in disappointment, and Alec ignores his spinning head and straightens his back and tries not to break.
Alec heads home the next day, after passing Izzy at the door to the loft. He doesn’t want to go to the Institute, not after what happened last night, but he was raised to face things head-on. He’s not going to back down from this.
…That doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it, though.
He gets to the door of the Institute some time after the morning patrols have finished their sweep, coming into the OPS center to find Jace stabbing at one of the monitors like it’s done him a personal disservice.
“Where’s Clary?” Alec asks, frowning. If she’s out there getting in trouble again, he swears to God—
But no. Jace tells him that she’s in her designated room, sleeping off the emotional night. Then he sighs, running a hand through his blond curls.
Alec raises an eyebrow.
“I caught Izzy talking to dad,” Jace says at the look. “He heard what happened and he was, uh… pretty upset about it. I’d expect a call from mom and dad if I were you.”
“…Of course,” Alec sighs, because of course the news has gotten back to their parents and the rest of the Clave in Alicante. “Anything else I should know about?”
Jace puckers up his face. “Nah, just that. And look, about the mundane…”
Oh, this should be good. Alec crosses his arms, looking down at his parabatai as he bites his lip and sucks up his pride. He looks pained—serves him right, honestly.
“Look, just… I didn’t plan on Simon becoming a rat at that party and ingesting vamp blood, but that’s what happened and looking back, it was, uh… pretty dumb.”
It takes a moment for Alec to place what Jace is talking about. The party… ah. The party where Alec scared the shit out of Magnus. Right. It seems like so long ago, honestly, he’d forgotten that had even happened. But of course that was where the mundane got vampire blood in his system, and of course there were consequences, because when are there ever not?
Alec sighs. “Yeah. It was pretty dumb,” he agrees, feeling exhausted down to his bones.
Jace winces at his tone. “I… just… you were right. We don’t listen to you enough. We don’t follow the rules, and I’m sorry that you have to deal with the repercussions,” he says.
Alec nods slowly, wondering vaguely how much energy Jace had to put into pushing down his pride to get that out.
…No, that’s unkind. Jace has a good heart. He knows when he’s gone about things the wrong way, knows that he doesn’t always think before he acts, and he does try to be better. Alec loves that about his brother—he loves that despite Jace’s cavalier attitude he cares deeply about protecting people, and feels bad when he doesn’t. He might have a hard time admitting it, but he is a good shadowhunter—a good person.
Alec can’t fault him for making a few bad decisions. Heaven knows that he’s made some mistakes, himself.
“Thanks,” he says softly, and he knows Jace can feel his forgiveness through the parabatai bond, same as he can feel Jace’s relief. They clasp hands, pulling each other into a hug…
…only to break apart a moment later when Alec’s phone begins to ring.
“That’ll be mom and dad,” Jace says, and Alec sighs. Even though they’ve made up, it’s too late to undo what they’ve done—too late to avoid the consequences.
He straightens his back, and faces them head-on.
It goes about as well as can be expected. The Clave has had enough of the New York Institute in general and the Lightwood family in particular, and they’ve decided to send a representative to investigate the inner workings of the New York jurisdiction.
“Your father and I would be coming home to oversee the Institute during this time, but we’re tied up in business here,” Maryse says, and Alec can tell from her tone that she is not pleased. “You must do everything the Clave representative asks, to the letter. None of the nonsense that has been going on there in recent times. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Mother,” Alec says. He hears his father muttering in the background and tenses slightly, but Maryse cuts across him, now urging Alec to go over the most recent missions, sanctioned and unsanctioned, that the Nephilim in their jurisdiction have been on.
He’s just talking about the most recent group of demons that Asmodeus sent when his father’s barks a laugh, sharp over speakerphone. “That damn warlock… he’s been a thorn in our side for longer than you’ve been alive.”
“What do you mean?” Alec asks, warily.
He can imagine his father, stern and taciturn, frowning. “Just know that he’s never been fond of Nephilim. He’s probably in league with his father—I wouldn’t put it past him to concoct a ploy like this to split up the shadowhunters, weaken their numbers.”
Alec bristles, his blood running cold with anger. That’s his soulmate his father is talking about. Even if the man doesn’t know it, doesn’t have any idea how much Magnus means to him, to be so needlessly callous… it’s infuriating.
“Either way,” Maryse says, “you’ve been paying an awful lot of attention to problems in the downworld. How much of that energy could have been focused on finding the soul sword? Maybe think on that before the Clave representative arrives.”
Alec manages to fight the emotions back down, swallowing them as his mother, ever the tactician, goes on about how to balance Nephilim business with downworld politics, but he knows he’s not going to forget the disgust his father’s voice held for Magnus, the casually dismissive tone his mother had, any time soon.
They finish up the call soon after that. Robert has to leave to tend to some business or other, meaning that Maryse and Alec are alone on the line for the last few moments.
She sighs, a bit of her brisk professionalism slipping just slightly. “You know we do this because we want you to succeed,” she says, “don’t you?”
Alec swallows. “I know,” he says. And he does—his parents have always wanted success for him. To become head of the institute, to claim a Clave position, to work his way up to Consul eventually… he’s grown up with that ambition embedded in his very being. Who would he be without it, without the strength they carved into him?
His mom sounds tired as she sighs again. “Keep your chin up,” she says. “You’re a Lightwood—it’s time to make us proud.”
“Understood,” he says, and tries to hold onto her confidence as the line goes dead.
A few minutes later, Alec strides down the hall, tablet in hand as he writes up a warning to send to Hodge. He’s not sure if his parents were technically allowed to give him warning that the Clave representative was coming, but the least he can do is pass along the message to the actual head of the Institute. After that he’ll go tell Jace and Clary, so that they can start planning how to deal with everything that’s going on right now without drawing any more of the Clave’s ire. At least, not for a good long while.
He’s heading through the OPS center, lost in thought about Asmodeus and his demons—and Magnus’s dreams, and the murderer, and the soul sword—when the front doors open and Valentine freaking Morgenstern, recognizable from the photos that Alec knows from his criminal file if not from the circle rune on his neck, walks right through.
Time comes to a stop. Alec doesn’t think—he just reacts, the only one in the room to do so, summoning his bow to his hand. It doesn’t matter that this man should be dead, doesn’t matter that there were no proximity alarms, doesn’t matter that he wasn’t planning to head into battle. He has an arrow notched and fired in seconds.
…And yet even that seems to be too slow, as Valentine catches it in midair.
And then… then he flickers.
Alec pauses. “Who are you?” he demands.
The shadowhunter who is not Valentine tilts their head. They drop the arrow to the floor and instead reach for a stele, drawing the tip over a rune on their arm—a glamour rune. The glamour drops to reveal a young, blond, unamused-looking shadowhunter. She tuts, striding forward.
“A whole room of shadowhunters and only one reacted,” she says, raising a tablet and tapping swiftly at it. A moment later she raises her head, quirking an eyebrow. “Well? Have you put it together yet?”
“The Clave sent you,” Alec says, and is rewarded by a nod and the slightest hint of a smile. He rocks back on his feet, lowering his bow as the young woman then turns to one of the OPS monitors.
“My name is Lydia Branwell, and I will be examining the inner workings of this Institute,” she says, brisk. “I will need full access to your database.”
Alec shifts. He doesn’t want to outright refuse—his parents said to follow the orders of the Clave representative to the letter, after all—but he has a feeling that just granting her access is not what she wants. He swallows, debating, before going with his gut.
“Just give me confirmation from the Clave that you are actually who you say you are and I will get you set right up,” he says.
Another hint of a smile. “Good job, Alec Lightwood—that’s two tests you’ve passed.” She then strides over to him, pulling out a sealed envelope from the pocket of her coat. She hands it over, then turns on her heel to look around the room at the rest of the gathered shadowhunters. “Where is Hodge Starkweather?” she asks.
Alec hums, opening the envelope. It’s a missive straight from Inquisitor Herondale, just as he expected. “I just messaged him. He should be on his way down,” he says.
She nods. “Very good. At this rate we’ll get to the bottom of this Institute’s various problems in no time at all.”
True to her word, Lydia works fast and precise, breaking down the operation of the OPS center in no time at all. In minutes she’s dissected the patrol schedule, the current mission log, and the list of training lessons that Hodge had written up before Alec was born and that the entire Institute had been following for years, comparing and contrasting them all with the current gold standard, Alicante’s Shadowhunter Academy. Her assessment is quick and precise, and finds the Institute lacking, because of course it does.
“I’ve sent along a list of updated practices for you to incorporate in your training sessions,” she says, eyes on her tablet. Hodge, at Alec’s side, seems to be barely containing a heavy sigh. His frown only deepens as Lydia then turns to him, an eyebrow raised, and says, “I’ll now be interviewing you and your entire force, from the top down. I expect your full cooperation.”
“Yes, of course,” Hodge says, and gestures her toward his office.
Alec sighs, taking a few moments to text Magnus. Hodge is technically the head of the Institute, yes, but he’s barely done more than provide guidance to Alec for years now. The man is ornamental by his own design—he can’t leave the Institute due to the curse on him, and because of this he’s pushed more and more of the active duties onto Alec as Alec has grown up. Alec has no idea what Lydia will make of that—especially if she’s as much of Inquisitor Herondale’s lackey as she appears to be.
Magnus texts him back in seconds. Should I be worried? he asks.
Alec considers for a moment before he responds, no, I’ve got this under control.
And he does. Mostly. Until she gets to the bit about Simon, anyway.
It begins with a simple question. “Are you aware that subjugates must sign a writ of transmutation, knowingly and without influence of encanto, before they can legally pursue the transformation?”
Alec straightens his back. “I’m aware,” he says.
“Then can you tell me how Simon Lewis, a mundane who should not have known about the shadow world at all, came to become a vampire without said documentation?”
Damnit. Alec knew this would come to bite him in the ass. Just not so soon. He thought he’d have enough time to come up with a suitable cover story—one that preferably didn’t implicate his sister, his parabatai, or his parabatai’s soulmate.
“Do you not know how Simon Lewis came to be a vampire?” Lydia asks as he opens and closes his mouth, voice growing more pointed.
“I know,” Alec says, and tries not to sweat in his seat. “There was no writ of transmutation because it was not an intentional transformation. Everything about it was accidental.”
“So Raphael Santiago ‘accidentally’ brought a fledgling vampire to the Institute’s doors?”
“That isn’t what I said,” Alec says. He tries to school his voice. “I said the transformation was unintentional. The mundane in question—Simon—ingested vampire blood accidentally. If he hadn’t died, the blood would have worked its way out of his system naturally.”
Lydia hums. “This still leaves two questions unanswered, Mr. Lightwood. How did Simon Lewis come to die when, all things considered, he should have been under the protection of the Institute if not fully ignorant of the shadow world—and what transpired to allow a mundane to ingest vampire blood in the first place?”
Alec swallows. He has a feeling he’s not getting out of this one.
By the time the interrogation is done, Alec has taken the blame for the entire incident and has been thoroughly put in his place. Allowing a mundane to view the shadow world is a misdemeanor at best—it’s a lot of paperwork to commission and utilize a memory spell—but when that viewing results in said mundane’s undead transformation, well… things get dicey.
Alec has a feeling that his official installment as head of the Institute just got put back another hundred years.
He finally gets a break from dealing with the Clave representative not long after that, and it’s with an annoyed twitch to his eye that he goes to the kitchens for some food—
—only to run into Clary, looking like the exact epitome of the grime that accumulates at the bottom of a dumpster. Her hair is unbrushed, tangled around her face, which is red and blotchy from crying. She is, in short, a mess.
And then, to make matters worse, she comes to sit beside Alec.
“This is my fault,” she says, before Alec has even gotten a single bite of his meat into his mouth. He sighs, setting his fork down.
“What is your fault,” he says, glaring across the room.
“Simon. Simon is my fault.” She turns her red eyes on Alec, her lip quivering a little. “I chose this for him, I chose—he was a vegetarian, did you know that? And now he’s going to have to drink blood for the rest of eternity.”
Alec huffs. “And you eat demons, so what.”
For a long moment Clary stares at him, her mouth hanging open. Alec is convinced that he’s said the exact wrong thing when she barks out a laugh, sharp and pointed. “I forget how emotionless you are,” she says.
“Emotions get you killed in the field,” Alec says, and Clary snorts, an unattractive noise.
“I don’t know why I thought you’d make me feel better,” she mutters, and turns away again. “You don’t understand things like this. Do you even care about anyone?”
Her words are like a drill bit, driving into the nerve that Lydia spent all morning exposing. Instead of exploding on her, however, he takes a deep breath, his short fingernails digging into his palms for a long moment before he relaxes them again.
“Look,” he says. “I’m not good with words. You’re looking for someone who can tell you that you didn’t ruin everything, that it’s all going to be okay in the end—but I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of person.”
“Yeah, clearly,” she says.
He sucks in a breath, turning to face her head on. “You fucked up,” he says, bluntly. “But so did Jace. And so did Izzy, and so did I. What happened should never have happened.”
He thinks back, drags up all the memories that Lydia had pointedly rifled through, exposing all his mistakes, all his faults, as she went. If he had done his job like he was supposed to—if he’d kept a better eye on his companions rather than watching Magnus from across the room… maybe Simon wouldn’t have had to dig himself from his own grave.
Or maybe it was always meant to happen this way. Maybe they couldn’t have stopped it, not with all the preventative measures in all the world.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter what could have been, what should have been, what might have, would have, been. Not in this reality.
“We should have done better, but we didn’t,” Alec says. Then he claps a hand on Clary’s shoulder, as comfortingly as he can, as she starts to cry, because this is apparently what his life has come to.
It takes some time for Lydia to work her way through the ranks and begin approving missions once again. Nearly a week, in fact—and when she does grant permission for the Fae Child mission to move forward, she insists on accompanying them. After, of course, letting it be known how little she approves of Jace signing a Fae contract in his own blood. He can’t unsign it after the fact, but he can get chewed out about it, which she gladly does.
All in all, things are not going well at the Institute. They only get worse when the mission goes, predictably, absolutely horrendously wrong.
Alec cuts down a Forsaken and turns just in time to watch in horror as the barrier goes up and the Fae child walks, in a trance, straight through it. Jace, the closest to the girl, tries to grab her—only to hit the barrier and be flung backwards, away from the hooded figure waiting on the other side.
“Magnus—” Alec says, as the Fae girl walks, step after airy step, straight up to the murderer.
Magnus grunts. “Working on it!” he shouts, sparks flying from his fingers. They build into a frenzy, striking the magical barrier with a sound like a lightning strike—
—but they’re already too late as the hooded figure raises a dagger in a black-gloved hand and slits the girl’s throat in one smooth motion. Her blank eyes go wide as blood bubbles up and over the rent flesh, drawn out by an incantation that gathers it all, red and viscous, in a jar that the hooded figure holds out. She is dead before she hits the ground, entirely drained.
Magnus cries out, and with an explosive boom the barrier falls—but the figure is already gone, having stepped backwards into a golden portal, his precious cargo stowed away in the depths of his black robes.
Alec lets out a mouthful of curses, taking out the last of the Forsaken with a ferocity that leaves him trembling. He barely hears Lydia calling him back to debrief, his blood thundering in his ears as he tries to make sense of the fact that they failed. Once again, they just—fucking—failed.
The girl is dead.
Jace will be taken away.
The soul sword will be converted.
And there isn’t a damn thing they can do.