Thirteen was not a good year for Alec.
His growth spurts began, for one. He felt awkward and out of place more often than not, with limbs that didn’t quite fit the rest of him. Even natural Shadowhunter grace and a balance rune could only carry him so far, and he felt himself turning bright red every time he tripped over his own feet. He started walking with his head bowed, partially to hide the blush and partially so he could watch his feet and maybe trip over them less.
He pretended not to notice his mother’s eye rolling when she passed him, and did his best to obey when his father ordered him to stand up straight. He tried to ignore his mother’s ever growing exasperation when he needed new pants every month or two because his ankles would start showing.
He bit his tongue and never complained about the growing pains, and gritted his teeth during training to make sure he didn’t lose form just because his muscles were cramping.
Thirteen was also the year he realized he was gay.
The realization came with sudden clarity, as he passed fifteen year old Caleb Youngwind on the way to the elevator one day and Caleb gave him a slight smile in greeting. A spark of pleasure at the split-second of attention flared up in Alec’s chest, and was almost immediately snuffed out by the crushing realization that he was not supposed to feel that way .
There had been no denial to himself. He'd just known, with a certainty that couldn't be shoved away. He didn’t like girls the way he was supposed to, he liked boys instead. There was no room for argument about it, not to himself. All that could be done was to make sure no one else found out about it.
He’d made it back to his room after the revelation, sat on his bed with his knees pulled up to his chest, and forced himself not to cry. His parent’s disappointment was an old song by now, but this, he thought, they didn’t have to know about this . He could keep this particular flaw hidden and do what he was supposed to despite it. This was one disappointment he could at least sort of fix, spare his parents that much shame.
At thirteen years old, Alec Lightwood carefully and meticulously resigned himself to someday marrying someone he didn’t love - although, maybe, if he was very lucky, he would like them - and spending his life going through all the motions he was expected to go through. He snuffed out any thoughts and hopes of getting to fall in love, of being able to someday look in the mirror and properly like the person looking back at him. (Someday, several years in the future, a warlock would warn him he would be lonely all his life, and Alec would almost reply that he knew that, that he had known that for a long time. He had accepted it.)
More significantly, however, thirteen was the year Jace Wayland arrived at the New York Institute.
Jace was nothing like Alec. He was younger, but he was better; stronger, faster, braver, bolder. He had more runes than anyone his age Alec had ever met or even heard of, and never flinched at the idea of more. If anything, he seemed to jump at the idea of making himself improve. He grated against not being allowed to go out in the field the way his father had apparently allowed, and Alec felt like a coward for not feeling ready to start going on missions yet.
He was talented, Alec noted, watching Jace train with Hodge. Where Alec had to work and sweat and study and try again and again and again , until he was certain his parents were fed up with dealing with his never ending shortcomings, Jace would be told once, watch it once, and then he would do it, and it would be right , and even when it was wrong it wasn’t “No, Alec, like this , pay attention,” it was “That was good work, Jace. Just watch your footwork this time, okay?”
Alec tried not to hate Jace for it. It wasn’t Jace’s fault he was such a good Shadowhunter. It wasn’t Jace’s fault that Alec wasn’t. It wasn’t Jace’s fault that Izzy looked up to him, tried to copy his every move in training. It wasn’t Jace’s fault that Maryse and Robert seemed to like their new son more than their old one.
Still, Alec had thought Jace was at least aware of all this. So it caught him off guard when Jace approached him one morning and asked, “Would you help me with my Kendo training?”
Alec stared at him, waiting for the punchline. “...Why?” he finally asked. It came out blunter than he’d meant for it to. There were plenty of other people for Jace to go. At the moment there were five different kids in the Institute that were within a few years of their ages. Alec’s only advantage over any of them was that he was almost always in the Institute, while they stayed for perhaps a month, at most, while they followed their parents as they worked.
“I need help with the new technique Hodge was teaching us,” Jace told him. “I saw you use it yesterday when you were sparring Matthew.”
“I lost that match, ” Alec reminded him.
Jace shook his head, as though that didn’t matter. “Yeah, but your form was better. My form is terrible. I thought, maybe, you could help me figure out what I’m missing.”
For a moment, the cruel, jealous part of Alec, the part that desperately wanted his parents and sister to see him before they looked at Jace, wanted to say no. Wanted to see if Jace would start slipping then, maybe become a less than perfect Shadowhunter after all.
But Jace was watching him, eyes hopeful, biting the inside of his cheek as he waited for Alec’s answer, and Alec had always liked being needed.
“Okay,” he said, almost not believing it was him speaking. “I’ll meet you in the training room in ten minutes.”
Jace lit up, nodded, and took off down the hall.
Training with Jace, Alec quickly discovered, was not like training with anyone else. His form really was terrible - actually, Alec wasn’t at all certain he even had any form. Still, whatever he was doing was effective; he could keep himself from getting hit, and usually managed to get a hit in on Alec while he was at it.
But even when he managed to get the upper hand and flip Alec onto his back, Jace didn't seem satisfied.
“What's with the look?” Alec asked, standing up and preparing to go again. “You won.”
“ Barely . And I'm not - I can't do it the same way you can.”
“The way I do it keeps ending with me on the floor, so that's probably a good thing.”
Jace seemed frustrated that Alec wasn't understanding whatever it was he was trying to say. That wasn’t unusual, Alec wasn’t very good at understanding people if they didn’t say exactly what they were thinking. What was unusual was that Jace kept trying. “But you're getting better, ” he said. “And I'm… Not.” Very suddenly, he sat down.
Not at all sure what he was going to say but knowing he had to say something , Alec sat down next to him. “Jace, you - you're probably the most talented Shadowhunter in training right now.” There was no ‘probably’ about it, Alec knew, he'd trained with enough, but the ‘probably’ made Alec feel a little less like he was admitting defeat.
Jace huffed and rested his chin on his fists. “I hate that word.”
“Talented. My father always uses - used - it too. ‘You're talented, Jonathan, but that's not enough. Your talent won't get you far if you don't learn.’” Jace sighed, looking miserable. “I'm not very good at learning. Not like you.”
Alec realized he was staring at Jace, open-mouthed. He forced his mouth closed and tried to think of something to say. It had never occurred to him that Jace might be looking up to him , of all people. “But I keep-”
“Losing, I know. But you're getting better, and I'm not. Which means you're going to start winning, and I'm going to start losing, and I'm always just going to be-” He gestured vaguely at himself. “ Talented .” He spat the word out.
Alec had never been much good with words. Slowly, he got to his feet and offered Jace his hand. “We should keep practicing then.”
And they did. An extra six hours a week, whenever they could get in the time between everything else they had to do. They were both sore and exhausted more often than not, but Alec thought they were getting somewhere.
Maryse even pulled him aside after breakfast one day. “I'm glad you've started training with Jace so much,” she told him earnestly. “I think it could really help you.”
“It's helping both of us,” Jace said from where he had materialized in the doorway, before Alec could respond. He grinned at Alec, and Alec caught himself smiling back.
At some point it stopped being just kendo training. It became a little bit of everything - one day Alec wanted to work with quarter staffs, another day Jace wanted to practice sword work.
At one point, Alec realized their solo training had merged into training together. Even when Alec was doing target practice with his bow, Jace seemed to be in the area.
“Do you want to try shooting?” Alec asked him one day, mostly because he was starting to wonder if Jace was hanging around because he wanted something.
Jace looked up from the book he was studying and shook his head. “Long range isn't really my thing,” he said, and went back to reading.
‘ Then why are you here?’ Alec thought as he went back to practicing, but found he didn't mind Jace’s quiet presence.
A few months after their training had become habit, Alec, Jace,and two other Shadowhunters were eating dinner together when the conversation turned to their futures.
“I want to end up in the Chicago Institute,” one of the others, a boy named Thomas said. “I’ve been there a few times, I really like it.”
“You’re going to stay here, right, Alec?” the other Shadowhunter, Alice, asked.
Alec nodded. “I’ll inherit control of the Institute from my parents.” Hopefully. If he could live up to what was expected of him.
“So you’ll probably leave then, won’t you, Jace?” Thomas said, and it almost didn’t sound like a question.
Jace tilted his head and squinted at him. “Why would I leave?”
Thomas shrugged. “You’re good. You could end up anywhere you want. You don’t have to stay here. You’d probably end up running an Institute yourself, if you don’t have to stand in line behind him.” He gestured at Alec.
“I like New York. I like the Lightwoods.”
“What about your parabatai ?” Alice asked.
“I don’t have a parabatai .”
“But you’ll probably get one. Anyone would want to be your parabatai . Wouldn’t you follow them to whatever Institute they wanted to go to? Since you don’t really have a reason to stay here.”
“I like New York,” Jace said stubbornly.
The conversation continued, but Alec stopped listening.
Parabatai . Not all Shadowhunters had one; in fact relatively few did, but that kind of partnership was an ultimate goal for most. It was a testament to just how impressive Jace was that everyone just assumed he’d end up with a parabatai . Anyone would be jumping at the opportunity to partner with him.
Alec had grown up hearing stories about his father’s parabatai . He knew their partnership had broken off years ago, before Jace had even been born, but it still meant a lot to Robert all the same.
Alec found himself suddenly, acutely aware of how no one ever suggested the possibility of having a parabatai to him. Not surprising, but still. The idea of having one was nice. And should probably be shut down and stifled, along with the idea of being happily married someday.
By the time Alec started making his way back to his room later that evening, he was not in a very sociable mood. Jace either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and he came racing down the hallway and shoved himself through Alec’s door before he had the chance to close it.
“I’m not really in the mood for training right now, Jace,” Alec said, and he really, really wasn’t.
Jace waved him off. “That’s not why I’m here. Talking with Thomas and Alice today just got me thinking.”
“About what? Going to other Institutes?” Alec shut his bedroom door. If he said something he’d regret, he didn’t want it to be just as his parents were walking by and overhearing.
“ No . Weren’t you listening? I like New York. And I like your family. Your parents, they - they’ve been good to me. And I - I kind of like having siblings.”
He didn’t sound as confident as he usually did. For once, it sounded like he was really having to think about what he was saying, how he wanted to say it. Something in his tone sounded almost… uncertain.
“We, uh, we like having you around too, Jace,” Alec said awkwardly. He meant the words, but they weren’t coming out quite right. “You’re family.”
Jace smiled, but it seemed a little bit strained. “Yeah?”
Alec nodded. He wanted to tell Jace that he was starting to view him as a brother, as someone just as important to him as Max and Isabelle were. That he was pretty sure Jace was the first real friend he’d ever had, unless he counted Izzy, which he wasn’t sure he could, since she’d been stuck with him her entire life, like it or not. He wanted to tell Jace that, despite how inferior he sometimes made Alec feel, especially during training or around their parents, Alec was pretty sure he was actually happier with Jace around than he had been without him.
But he couldn't figure out what words to use, so the room stayed silent.
The silence stretched on and on, and Alec began to fidget. He hadn’t really wanted company, and even spending casual time with Jace sounded like too much work right now. He didn’t know how to tell Jace that without sounding rude.
“Do you want to be my parabatai ?” Jace asked, the words coming out in a rapid jumble, as though he’d been fighting with them before they’d burst out of his mouth.
Alec stared at him, stunned. “Wha-What?”
Jace was looking at some spot on the wall behind Alec to keep from making eye contact. “Well, there was all that talk today about the future and Institutes and parabatai , and Alice mentioned that she thought I could be parabatai with anyone I wanted, and I realized I didn’t want to be parabatai with just anyone. I want to - I mean, if you want to - I think we’d make a good team. I think we do make a good team, when we’re training. I’m better when I fight with you. And you’re better when you fight with me.”
It could almost have been an insult. From anyone else, Alec would have thought it was. But the way Jace said it, it was just fact. One Alec knew to be true. He was better with Jace at his side. And, more extraordinarily, Jace was better with him .
Alec was at a loss for words again, but he held out his hand in the same way he did after particularly difficult training sessions, when they were congratulating each other. Jace beamed, clasped their hands together and pulled Alec in for a hug.
Alec smiled into Jace’s shoulder. He didn’t need to be the center of attention. Though he would like his parents’ approval, he didn’t need that either. It was enough, he thought, that there was one person in the Institute - one person in the world - who thought he was good enough. That was all he needed.