"Love is not written on paper, for paper can be erased.
Nor is it etched on stone, for stone can be broken.
But it is inscribed on a heart and there it shall remain forever."
When Magnus is cursed, his skin turning everything it touches to stone, his initial reaction is humor. Midas gets gold, but some warlock with a grudge turns Magnus into a second-rate Medusa? Pitiful.
The humor is a little more forced, however, after the third hour without any progress in removing the Medusa curse. Seven hours after that, Magnus’ bag of tricks has been exhausted and Catarina urges him to gather the Downworld Cabinet. New York cannot afford to lose her High Warlock with Valentine on the loose.
Magnus calls the Cabinet to emergency session late, very late, with barely half an hour of notice. This haste in convening leaves Alec scrambling to shift patrol schedules and Ops duties to ensure his and Jace’s absence won’t affect the ongoing missions of the evening. It also leaves him with barely a single moment to think about seeing Magnus in person for the first time since Magnus had told him they were over. The first time since Magnus had shut him out of his life and his heart and his home and left Alec trying desperately to piece himself back together in the aftermath.
Their replacements have barely arrived for a handover briefing when the wards ping a gentle alert on Jace and Alec’s tablets. Jace doesn’t think anyone else is looking closely enough at his parabatai to notice the slight tensing of his shoulders when he sees that Magnus and Catarina have arrived. Jace notices though, and his lips tighten in worry even as he remains silent.
Alec’s muscles gradually relax into a forced, artificial calm as Jace flanks him down the hall to the main doors. Alec greets Magnus and Catarina with the same courtesy and calm composure that he greets Luke and Raphael and Meliorn with moments later. There’s nothing in Alec’s voice or manner to hint at the sudden surge in the tide of grief that has been ebbing and waning periodically over Jace’s parabatai bond since Magnus first broke off his and Alec’s relationship.
Jace’s shoulders are already aching with echoed tension from their bond, and from the moment the meeting is called to order he knows it’s only going to get worse.
The revelation of the curse on Magnus is startling to everyone and, even more-so, his inability to break it. Few warlocks are capable of creating curses with sufficient strength to take down a High Warlock, and even fewer would be willing to risk the inevitable recompense from either Magnus himself, if he survives, or from those he claims as allies and friends if he does not.
Like most curses with a basis in fae magic, and a curse based on the medusa most definitely qualifies, there are only two options for removing it that leave the bearer unharmed- true love’s kiss or a very specific counter-spell that is proving dangerously elusive to find.
Magnus pivots the conversation almost immediately to the counter-spell, his voice rising and falling in false cheer as he describes the book he thinks may hold the key. Jace doesn’t know the warlock nearly as well as the others at the table, but if even he is noticing all the ifs in Magnus’ plan, surely the others do too. If Meliorn can find the book in the Seelie realm, if Magnus can read the dialect, if the original medusa spells are written completely and not in shorthand, if he can take that and work out the counter-curse. And, the unspoken if - if he can do all of that before the curse kills him from lack of food and drink.
“Catarina,” Alec finally speaks, breaking off Magnus’ attempt to change the topic mid-word, the warlock falling quiet unhappily at the interruption.
Alec has been unusually silent since Catarina first brought up the two possibilities as to how to break the curse, and he’d only barely managed to hide his bone-deep flinch when Magnus had breezily dismissed Catarina’s first idea, true love’s kiss, as even a glimmer of possibility.
Alec is staring down at his hands where he’s clasped them on the table in front of him. His bow-callused grip is carefully loose in direct contradiction of the white now fading from his fingertips at the sudden cessation of pressure.
Jace himself is stiff at Alec’s side, lips pressed tightly together and an iron rod in place of his spine.
His silence and somber demeanor are a distinct change to his usual sprawl. Raphael and Luke have been eyeing him oddly since the meeting began, but Jace can feel his brother’s heart shattering just a little bit further every time Magnus so blatantly ignores his presence and dismisses their former relationship as inconsequential. Alec’s face may be carefully expressionless, but the dull ache throbbing at Jace’s left hip speaks otherwise.
If all Jace can do to lighten the weight on his brother’s shoulder is make certain he doesn’t offend any of the Cabinet members present tonight, then he’ll keep his thoughts to himself. After all Alec has risked to make this Cabinet happen, to make it truly an instrument of change and not a window-dressing of equality, Jace is furious that Magnus had so little trust in his brother to let one moment ruin everything.
The words burning in his throat are certainly not kind, but Alec still loves Magnus with everything that he is and so Jace stays silent, sending a pulse of sorrow and concern to his parabatai when he feels Alec brace himself to continue speaking.
Jace knows Alec better even than he knows himself sometimes, and he knows that there is absolutely nothing that will stop Alec from helping Magnus in any way he can, no matter how much pain it causes him or how much of his pride and dignity he has to give up to do it.
There’s a deep weariness in Alec’s eyes when he finally looks up to meet Catarina’s gaze. Magnus, on the other hand, turns away to glare at the wall behind Alec’s head, the line of the warlock’s shoulders as razor-sharp as the war paint masquerading as eyeliner on his face.
Alec takes a deep inhale, pushing back the hurt and tilting his chin up ever so slightly in quiet resignation as he breathes out slowly.
“In order for true love’s kiss to break the curse,” and here Alec’s voice is carefully even against the incipient tightening of his throat, “is the love required to be mutual?”
The room stills.
Catarina keeps her gaze locked onto his own, and Alec can’t even begin to guess as to what she’s thinking as she remains silent for a long, terrible moment. Magnus is as cold and unmoving at her side as the marble statue of Raziel at Alec’s back.
“No.” There’s no inflection in her voice. “Given the depth of love required, however, it is unusual for it not to be returned. Affection so one-sided is more typically infatuation, not love.”
Alec physically can’t stop himself from glancing over at Magnus at that frosty remark, but Magnus says nothing to refute her. Something deep in Alec’s chest shatters, sending shards of ice-cold pain into his lungs, but he squares his shoulders and continues.
“I-” and Alec has to swallow past the unexpected roughness in his voice, “I understand.”
Jace’s hand finds Alec’s leg under the table and that quiet support is what lets Alec stare steadily ahead at Catarina and keep going.
“We won’t need to find another method to break the spell then.”
There’s a startled rustle of fabric from the other representatives as they sit up in their chairs, and keeping Catarina’s gaze takes every last trembling ounce of strength Alec can cling to, Jace’s hand a desperately needed anchor in keeping his chin stubbornly even and his back rigidly straight.
Alec and Magnus’ break up had not at all met the definition of quiet.
Alec would give anything to not be having this conversation at the table of his Downworld Cabinet, in front of these people he so desperately needs to hold together for the sake of the entire Shadow World, but he no longer knows how to be someone who doesn’t love Magnus Bane. He can’t hide that and it’s hardly a secret that Magnus broke up with Alec because of Alec’s lies. It wasn’t mutual and, even discounting that, Alec is a nephilim. Surely they know what that means?
Alec can see Magnus in his peripheral vision, still unmoving and staring into the middle distance, so very obviously refusing even now to lay his eyes on Alec. And if it hurts something deep inside Alec that this man, this man that he loves with his entire soul, can’t even bear to look at him? Well, if there’s anything that Alec is unquestionably good at, it’s doing what must be done no matter the cost it requires or the pain it causes him. And Magnus must be saved.
“What.” It’s Magnus who finally speaks into the silence and it isn’t a question. He still won’t meet Alec’s gaze.
Alec had never known such joy as the first time he’d blurted out his feelings to Magnus and Magnus hadn’t just accepted that Alec felt that way about him, but had returned his love. Alec had never since told Magnus he loved him without feeling that little sparkle fizz of joy run through his veins in knowing that Magnus loved him too.
He doesn’t want to say it now though. He doesn’t want to know what it feels like to tell Magnus aloud that he loves him and to know that, this time, Alec isn’t loved in return. That Alec has unsurprisingly managed to fuck up and prove just how very unworthy he is of belonging in that way to someone like Magnus.
Alec breathes in slowly. “We don’t need to continue searching for a counter-spell. We can break the curse whenever you’re ready.”
Magnus doesn’t reply for a long moment, staring at the Institute’s grey stone walls.
“I don’t love you, Alec,” he finally says, voice carefully even.
Alec doesn’t flinch. Alec very, very pointedly doesn’t flinch. He can’t stop the tremor in his hands though, and Alec knows that for as long as he lives he will never be able to forget Magnus’ voice denying everything they’ve shared. He will never be able to unhear that sentence.
Alec will love Magnus for the rest of his life, there can be no question of that, Alec doesn’t want there to be any question of that, but warlocks aren’t bound as nephilim are. If a warlock decides that someone has gone too far to be forgiven, they can change their mind.
Magnus continues, either unheeding or uncaring of Alec’s reaction, and Alec’s breath catches in his throat. “A kiss from me to you won’t break the spell.”
Jace’s hand on Alec’s leg tightens to the point of pain for a brief moment before quickly gentling and heat surges up behind Alec’s eyes. He’d known as soon as Catarina had laid out the ways to break the curse that it would hurt hearing Magnus no longer loved him, but it was an acceptable cost to ensure that the curse was broken and Magnus would be made well again.
Alec also knew it was abundantly obvious from his own question to Catarina that Magnus had cut Alec from his heart and his life after it became clear that Alec was so very unworthy of his regard. Everyone in this room was well-versed in political double-speak, and there were very few ways for Alec to have made that clearer than in the question he had asked.
Alec hadn’t thought, however, that Magnus would be angry enough, cruel enough even, to force Alec to admit so plainly in front of the entire assembled Cabinet that he himself was incapable of ever not loving Magnus. He knew it would be obvious, there would have been no point to his question otherwise, but to make Alec say the words out loud- to make him say it in his own voice when Magnus knew how much Alec struggled with speaking of his own feelings even when they were welcomed and returned?
It takes more strength than Alec knew he had to keep his voice steady and his eyes clear. “I didn’t think that it would. You’ve made it very clear how my actions have impacted your feelings towards me.”
Magnus finally turns to look at Alec and Alec is helpless against those eyes, even cold and glamoured as they are.
“And yet you claim that your kiss to me would break the curse. You claim to love me.”
And Alec’s breath is frozen in his lungs and his heartbeat radiates a deep, pulsing ache through his chest. Claim. Alec claims to love Magnus. Alec had thought hearing Magnus so flatly deny his own feelings for Alec would be the most painful part of this entire Edom damned meeting, but hearing Magnus deny Alec’s feelings for Magnus? Hearing that he had somehow failed so utterly and so completely in the short time Magnus has chosen to share his life and his heart with him that Magnus cannot believe Alec has ever loved him?
Nephilim love once and love fiercely. For Magnus to doubt him now, Magnus has to refute everything that’s come before. Alec has taken blades to the chest that have hurt less.
He swallows, attempting to speak, to find any words to address the cutting derision in Magnus’ voice, but he finds nothing.
Jace bristles next to him, fury pouring through their bond. “Nephilim love once,” he snarls, eyes bright, but Alec regains his composure and cuts Jace off. None of this is Magnus’s fault. Any failings here are Alec’s alone.
“Does it matter?”
Magnus doesn’t understand at first, and Alec continues sharply. “Does it matter if I love you or only claim to love you? The curse won’t harm you, only me, if I’m lying about my feelings. Correct, Catarina?”
She nods mutely.
And Alec is usually far better at hiding his distinct lack of concern for his own safety, but this conversation has pushed him far past his ability to care. He just wants this done. He wants Magnus cured and this entire Angel be damned mess to be over with. He’s craving the numbness of losing himself in the sting of hours of target practice, the detachment of pounding his fists against hardened leather until he bleeds the heartbreak from his skin.
Alec is clinging to the remnants of his composure by the very tips of his fingers, and Jace can feel the yawning hole of grief and guilt and shame that opened the moment Magnus asked if Alec claimed to love him.
The other Cabinet members are tense in their seats, momentarily frozen as Alec struggles to regain the dual masks of duty and obligation he wears as shield.
Raphael alone sits forward in his seat, dark eyes unreadable.
“I believe it does matter, Lightwood.” Alec’s brows raise, concern from the vampire entirely unexpected. “Magnus is a Downworlder and you are a Shadowhunter, the Head of an Institute,” he points out plainly. “If this fails and you are subject to the curse, then the High Warlock of Brooklyn has just used magic against a Shadowhunter with advance knowledge, if not true intent, of the potential to harm.”
Alec closes his eyes and covers his face with his hand, swallowing roughly. At least the concern from Santiago is for Magnus and makes sense now. Still unable to pull himself back to some semblance of equilibrium, Alec falls back on formality and the traditional frameworks he’d been taught from the moment he could speak.
“Jace Wayland, parabatai, hear me now. I, Alexander Lightwood, Acting Head of the New York Institute, undertake my next actions with full knowledge of the risk and the potential harm resulting thereof. If harm occurs, I charge you to testify fully and completely before the Clave that no other party in this room bears any portion of blame or responsibility for my considered actions. Acknowledge that you agree to this charge.”
Alec has always wielded his authority with a light hand, and it’s rare to see him directly give an order to his siblings. It’s even rarer that he requires a verbal response using the formal strictures.
Jace presses his lips together, an immeasurably sad cast to his eyes, and dips his head in acquiescence. “I so agree.”
And Alec turns to Catarina because he can feel Magnus’ gaze burning into him and he can’t bear to look into those glamoured eyes, cool and distant.
“If everyone is satisfied as to the legalities, can we do this now?”
She looks at him for a long moment before nodding silently.
Alec stands up, pushing his chair back from the table with a harsh scrape of wood against stone that unsettles his already shaky nerves.
He can’t put off looking at Magnus any longer and he crosses the room to stand in front of the man he’ll love until the day he returns to the Angel. Magnus had carefully placed himself where none of the other Cabinet members could brush against him by accident, and even with all of their stares burning into his back, Alec feels as though he and Magnus are somewhere just separate from the rest of the room.
Alec’s solid form blocks the two of them into the corner and Magnus stares up at him those few inches, his lips pursed and tight.
“You know this changes nothing.” It isn’t a question.
“I kiss plenty of people I don’t love.”
Alec’s flinch is obvious and channeling the sudden surge of absolute rage flooding down his bond from Jace is the only thing that keeps him steady until the heat behind his eyes cools down.
“I know,” he repeats simply.
And Alec absolutely cannot hear another denial, another hurt, from Magnus right now, so he leans forward without waiting, one hand automatically coming up to cradle Magnus’ cheek in a broad, callused palm.
The gentle kiss he lays on Magnus’ lips is terrible in all its brevity, an acid-bright burn on Alec’s skin, and Alec honestly isn’t certain if it’s the nature of the curse or an artifact of knowing for the first time that Magnus doesn’t welcome his touch. Doesn’t want Alec anywhere near him.
Alec steps back and watches as Magnus blinks up at him.
“Did it work?” Raphael asks when no-one else breaks the long silence.
Magnus is still looking at Alec and Alec can’t tear his eyes away from him even as Magnus absently stretches a hand out to brush it against the table at his side, the chair he was sitting having long since been turned to stone.
Nothing happens, wood remaining wood, and Alec suddenly can’t stand it any longer.
Magnus is cured, Magnus is safe, and Alec needs to leave with a sudden desperation that’s shocking in its intensity.
He turns sharply on his heel and Alec knows he has to be saying something, something thanking the other Cabinet members for coming perhaps, but the roaring in his ears is too loud and his heart is beating too fast in his chest and Jace is looking at him with alarm in his eyes, standing up too quickly for courtesy and Alec can’t.
He has no idea what he’s said, but it will have to be enough.
flees walks from the room.
Magnus watches the heavy oak door close behind Jace’s back as he follows Alec out.
After normal meetings, Alec walks the Cabinet members to the doors of the Institute before they depart, but it’s clear that this is anything but a normal Cabinet meeting.
The room is silent in a way that’s unnatural for one occupied by so many people.
Luke is the first to stand to leave, not saying a word as he walks towards the door. The former nephilim stops, however, just before he reaches it. “Magnus,” and Luke doesn’t actually turn to look at him. “I thought you knew this, it’s not exactly something we-,” he stops, “something the nephilim hide. What Jace said, that nephilim love only once - that isn’t just an old saying. Nephilim love once and love fiercely. In Alec offering publicly to break that curse, every person in this entire Institute now knows that Alec loves you- truly, deeply, fiercely- and will continue to love you until the day he dies.”
Luke finally turns his head, his dark eyes pinning Magnus in place. “Even if you choose not to return that love, I hope you hold enough respect for him not to abuse the position Alec has just put himself in to help you.”
Magnus swallows, throat tight. He nods shortly.
Luke looks at him - looks through him - a moment longer before he finally turns back around to walk through the door.
Meliorn and Raphael take their leave as well, leaving Catarina and Magnus alone in the empty Cabinet room.
Neither speak as Magnus sits back down in his chair.
Magnus waves his hand to display a small image of Jace and Alec, two tiny, magic-blue figures in the palm of his hand.
The two are clearly alone in an older area of the Institute. Alec is being held tightly in Jace’s grip, his arms wrapped around himself and his face buried in the blond nephilim’s shoulder. Jace’s head is tucked over Alec’s as he murmurs something into Alec’s hair so quietly neither Magnus nor Catarina can make out the words even though Magnus’ spell transmits sound. Alec trembles for a moment, but remains absolutely silent.
A deliberate wave of Catarina’s hand through the image disperses the two tiny nephilim into sparks that disappear before hitting the ground.
Her dark eyes are set on her friend and High Warlock. “In all the centuries since we met Magnus, I have never known you to be so deliberately cruel.”
Magnus swallows, not able to refute that statement. Neither moves to form portals and leave, so they sit in not quite comfortable silence as several Shadowhunters noisily pass the closed door of the meeting room, obviously heading out to patrol. The silence returns and Magnus shivers suddenly and opens his mouth, not able to bear it any longer.
“It would have worked even if he didn’t, Cat.” The warlock’s voice is small. “Even if he didn’t feel true love, the kiss would have worked.”
Cat doesn’t respond, her gaze focused steadily on her oldest friend. It’s rare that Magnus feels shame, but at this single admission, Magnus drops his eyes to the floor, not wanting to see the disappointment and realization dawn in his oldest friend.
Catarina doesn’t move though, doesn’t speak for a long moment. When she does, her voice is just as quiet as his. “Sometimes, Magnus, I forget just how deeply Camille scarred you.”
Magnus flinches, startled, and jerks his gaze back up to meet Catarina’s.
Her gaze isn’t exactly warm, but it is kind. “He may have broken your trust, but you broke far more than that this evening.” She pauses, flicking her fingers to begin opening a portal. “Let him put himself back together first but, if that kiss truly would have worked both ways, fix this. Tonight.”
She steps through the portal and leaves Magnus alone.