The Hellfire club is packed to capacity, and Alec is intensely glad that he’s safe behind the bar. It’s so loud that he can barely hear the drink orders, although a lot of the people present are warlocks, and find a way to get their words across despite the noise. He’s not surprised that it’s crowded, but he is surprised it’s this crowded. They all knew that Magnus Bane’s binding ceremony was going to be a big deal, but there has to be at least five hundred people crammed into the club.
Of course, part of that is just because it’s the party of the century. It’s rumored that Asmodeus has a soft spot for his youngest son, and he’s certainly gone all out in throwing this party. There’s live music and dancing, strippers and prostitutes, and games of poker and pool. The catering crew had at least thirty people on it, and it had been easy for Alec to slip in with them unnoticed. Certainly nobody had questioned the need for a third bartender; he’s so busy that his plan to attempt to overhear conversations isn’t working in the slightest.
Every important figure in the Underworld is here, which is why he had been sent. But as far as undercover missions go, it looks like it’s going to be a bust. From what little he’s managed to ascertain, nobody’s talking business anyway. Whether that’s because they don’t feel the environment is secure enough, or just because they’re all enjoying having a good time, he doesn’t know.
Still, the night is young. It’s barely eleven, and the ceremony will take place at the strike of midnight and then the party will last until dawn. Warlocks are nocturnal by nature, and Alec’s night owl habits are one reason why his superiors had chosen him for this assignment. He can stay up until dawn with no problem. And there’s certainly still room for something to happen as the party guests get more and more drunk. A lot of the people here aren’t friendly with each other. The Underworld is huge, and Asmodeus is near the top, so the invitees include plenty of representatives from warring factions or people who hold petty grudges. Asmodeus has made it clear that acting on those while under the auspices of his hospitality will carry severe consequences. But that doesn’t mean that nobody will.
He glances up as a man comes up to the bar, and instantly recognizes him as Magnus Bane himself. They’ve never met, but he was thoroughly briefed before the assignment, so he knows at least half the party guests by face if not by name. He’s a little surprised that Magnus is at the bar; when he had arrived, he had been sitting on the equivalent of a throne, being waited on hand and foot. He supposes that might get a little grating after a while, so the last thing Magnus probably wants is to be fawned on further. “What can I get you?” he shouts.
“Do you have fresh lime juice?” Magnus asks. He’s not shouting, but his voice cuts through the noise, which has faded into a dull roar in the background. Alec nods, so he says, “I’ll have a Cosmo, then.”
“Coming right up,” Alec says, grabbing a bottle of Stoli. He’s glad he actually knows how to make drinks, although there’s been some furtive Googling here and there. He had been a bartender during his senior year of college, after his parents had cut him off financially. He makes the drink and then turns to hand it to Magnus.
“Here you are!” a bright voice says, just as he’s handing it over, and Alec watches Magnus’ smile turn from something genuine into something brittle and unhappy. The woman who sits next to him, shouldering aside another guest, is Camille Belcourt. She immediately twines her arm through Magnus’, pressing in close to him. She glances at Alec and says, “Get me a Manhattan.”
Alec nods and turns to make her drink. When he comes back with it, Camille is leaning against Magnus and nibbling on his ear. Magnus’ smile looks pasted on his face, like he’s frozen it there so he won’t give away how he’s really feeling. That surprises Alec. Every rumor he’s heard had agreed that this ceremony was basically a formality, since Magnus and Camille had been lovers for years and were basically already engaged. At the stroke of midnight, it would become formal, that was all. But in that moment, when Camille takes her drink and then gives Alec a little ‘shoo’ gesture, Magnus looks like he’s contemplating throwing himself off a bridge.
Alec notes it down but then gets back to work. If Magnus and Camille aren’t happy together, there might be an angle to play. But deciding that isn’t his job. He’s only here to observe.
At about five minutes to midnight, there’s the sudden noise of a gong, and the room falls immediately silent. Asmodeus steps out onto a dais in the middle of the room, and Alec looks up in interest. The Prince of the Underworld is tall and lean, wearing a black suit with a blood red shirt. Like Magnus, he wears dark makeup and there are traces of glitter around his eyes. He has to be pushing seventy – Magnus is his youngest child, and born late in his life – but there’s no trace of gray hairs or wrinkles. He could be Magnus’ older brother rather than his father, and they resemble each other very strongly.
“Ladies, gentlemen, non-binaries!” Asmodeus greets them. “Please put your hands together for my son, Magnus Bane!”
There’s plenty of clapping and some whistles. Magnus steps up onto the dais with his father, smiling at the audience. The crowd has coalesced into a loose circle around them, although Camille is standing several steps closer than anybody else. Asmodeus is giving a speech about the long history of the binding ceremony, how important it is to the warlock community that everyone finds the person the fates have chosen for them, and et cetera. Alec half-tunes it out, because it sounds like bullshit to him. He’s pretty sure that the fates aren’t real, and that all of this is just staged so the different factions can’t protest alliances between families.
The room, already dim, gets even darker. Magnus is now standing up on the dais by himself, his eyes closed. He’s chanting softly, in a language that Alec doesn’t know, holding his hands out in front of himself. There’s a blue glow in them, and when he moves his hands apart, it spreads and envelopes his entire body. He opens his eyes, and they’re different now, golden and beautiful with slit-pupils like a cat. Alec can’t help but stare, arrested by his beauty.
Magnus snaps his fingers, sending a shower of blue sparks out into the audience, and then points across the room and speaks decisively in the same language. Alec realizes that Magnus is pointing in his direction, and looks behind him to see who Magnus might be pointing to. There’s nobody there. When he turns back, there’s a single blue spark right at eye level. He blinks, startled, and then reaches up without thinking to close his hand around it.
The lights come back up, but the noise doesn’t. Alec realizes that everyone is staring at him, including Magnus Bane. “Shit, was I not supposed to touch the spark?” Alec says, speaking before he can really think. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize – ”
There’s some shuffling in the crowd, and he sees that they’re clearing a path between him and Magnus and that Magnus is walking towards him. He freezes like a deer caught in headlights as the reality of the situation starts to sink in. It’s not that he wasn’t supposed to touch the spark. It’s that he was.
Magnus is still walking toward him, and Alec is still frozen, wondering vaguely if he should come out from behind the bar or something. But just before Magnus can reach the bar, Camille intercepts him. “How dare you?” she demands, and Alec sees Magnus wince. “How dare you choose someone other than me? You promised me – ”
“Camille, you knew there was a chance this could happen,” Magnus says.
Camille slaps him across the face, so hard that the crack echoes in the club. “You unfaithful, ungrateful, gutless, nutless bastard! After everything I’ve done for you! You will renounce the results of this ceremony right here and now, or I will – ”
“That’s not how it works – ”
Camille draws her hand back again, and Alec reaches out and grabs her wrist. “Hey!” he snaps, and Camille turns to him with both shock and rage etched on her face. “Do not touch him again.”
Camille yanks her arm out of his grip and then flounces away, pushing through the crowd. Moments later, she’s gone, and Alec is left staring at Magnus Bane and wondering what in God’s name he’s supposed to do with this.
Fortunately, before he has to fumble through an introduction, Asmodeus has emerged from the crowd to take charge. “What’s your name?”
“I, um, Alec.” Alec realizes in dawning horror that he didn’t have an alias prepared for this mission, and that he has literally no cover. He wasn’t supposed to interact with anybody, so it hadn’t been necessary. He resists the urge to turn tail and run. “Alec Lightwood.”
“Alec Lightwood,” Asmodeus says, with a note of formality in his voice, “my son, Magnus Bane.”
Alec’s mouth works for a moment before he throws in the towel. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s clear that, that there’s something I’m supposed to say here but I-I honestly have no idea what it is.”
Asmodeus’ mouth curves into a smile. “Of course, you wouldn’t have any reason to. The correct response is ‘it’s an honor and a privilege’. Put your hands out.”
“Oh.” Alec swallows and holds both hands out in front of himself. Magnus takes them, and Alec spares a distant thought for the fact that Magnus’ skin is really soft and beautiful. “It’s an honor and a privilege.”
“The privilege is mine,” Magnus responds, squeezing his hands.
“Welcome to the family, Alec,” Asmodeus says, and then raises his voice. “My son has found a match! Let the celebration begin!”
Immediately, the music starts again and the club lights start flashing, and Alec manages to say through an increasingly numb mouth, “I should grab one of the others to replace me at the bar.”
“I’ll handle that,” Asmodeus says, and shoves them both out into the crowd. Everyone and their brother needs to congratulate Magnus on his choice, and fortunately, Alec isn’t required to talk much, or really at all. Magnus seems just as shocked as he is at what’s happened over the past ten minutes, so mostly it’s a lot of being patted on the back and shaking hands and listening to people tell them how lucky they are.
The noise and the lights give Alec a headache in no time, and he leans in to ask, “Do you want to get out of here?” He wishes he could whisper, but in this atmosphere, he all but has to shout in Magnus’ ear.
“I’d love to, but it would be a breach of etiquette.” As before, at the bar, Magnus’ voice cuts through the noise and plants itself in Alec’s mind. Alec assumes there’s some magical trick that he doesn’t know and couldn’t do if he did. “We’re not supposed to talk seriously tonight. Tonight, we party. Tomorrow is when we talk. Want to dance?”
“Uh, sure, yes,” Alec says, because dancing with Magnus honestly sounds like a level of Heaven he has not yet discovered. He’s quickly proven to be one hundred percent correct. Magnus moves like sin personified. Alec has no idea how to dance, so he just stands there and shifts from foot to foot with the beat, watching Magnus twist and spin and shimmy.
They dance for about a half an hour and then take a drink break. Alec has formulated a plan. He’s going to have a few drinks and then act a lot drunker than he is. That ought to give him an excuse to not go home with Magnus, or at least he’s hoping that it will. He needs to get the hell out of here. Maybe move to the North Pole or something.
Three drinks later, the plan seems to be working. Magnus has loosened up, too, and he’s leaning against Alec a lot and smiling at him and Alec is trying very hard not to be affected by that. Magnus has such a gorgeous smile, and he seems to genuinely be enjoying Alec’s company even though they can’t do much more than dance and get fawned over by the other party attendees.
After the fourth drink, when he’s pretending to stumble, it occurs to him that he is probably presuming way too much chivalry of a career criminal warlock. What if being drunk only provides Magnus the opportunity to get him alone, and to – well, okay, Alec has to admit that if it weren’t for the ‘career criminal warlock’ part he’d probably jump into the sack with Magnus in an instant. But he can’t exactly ignore that part.
Before he can worry too much more about it, he’s being bundled into a taxi, and Magnus is saying in patient tones, “Give him your address,” and Alec thinks ‘great, now he’ll know where I live’. He gives the driver his sister’s address instead. She’s doing her residency at med school and hasn’t been home in months, but he has a key to her place.
It’s about three AM when he gets there. He hates to wake his boss, but he doesn’t see how he has much choice. He takes out his phone and dials, and Lydia Branwell picks up on the fourth ring. “Agent Branwell,” she mumbles, clearly trying to sound awake.
“It’s Alec,” he says. “We have a problem.”
~ ~ ~ ~
After a prolonged conversation with Lydia, Alec takes a hot shower and manages to get a few hours of sleep. She’s told him to be at the office by nine and she’ll have taken care of everything by then. His sleep is understandably restless, and he’s up by seven. He works out for an hour before he makes himself a pot of coffee and drinks half of it with some toast.
When he gets to the station, it’s not just Lydia waiting for him, but Special Agent-in-Charge Herondale. “I hear you had an interesting evening, Agent Lightwood.”
“It could definitely be put that way,” Alec says.
When they had talked about the assignment, the concept of him being chosen by Magnus had never come up. It simply wasn’t a scenario they had considered possible. Everybody knew that Magnus was going to choose Camille Belcourt. That made his ceremony one that was safe to attend without that risk – or so they had thought.
He follows Herondale into her office. Lydia closes the door after them. “So,” Herondale says, “I think we can all agree that this is an unprecedented opportunity to get information on Asmodeus’ operations.”
Alec looks at her blankly for a few moments before saying, “You want me to play along with this? Ma’m, I am not qualified for a deep cover mission like that.”
“Magnus Bane just qualified you,” Herondale says. “The warlocks look at these ceremonies as sacred. Nobody, up to and including Asmodeus, can say that you don’t have the right to Magnus’ company. We will probably never get a chance like this to bring down his organization again.”
Alec squirms a little. “I understand that, but I’m not trained for this. The last time I tried to put on an act, it was in middle school, and my audition was such an abomination that they cast me as a tree.”
“We’re not asking you to act. Just be yourself. We’ve created your cover identity – or I really should say, modified your real identity, since you had to give your real name. We’ve kept as much pertinent data the same as possible – only removed all your ties to law enforcement and replaced it with the kind of job history that could have led you to being the bartender last night. All you have to do is get to know Magnus and get as close to as many of his family members as you can.”
“That’s . . .” Alec clears his throat. “I can do my best, but . . .”
“Good.” Herondale clearly considers the matter settled. “We’ve been busy while you were sleeping. We’ve set you up a new apartment. We ran some people over to your place to get your clothes and your toothbrush, et cetera. Anything else you want that we didn’t get, give Agent Branwell a list and she’ll send some people over to get it. Here’s the dossier on your cover.” She hands him a manila envelope. “Memorize it before you get back in touch with Bane. Your new phone is in there as well. Your contact will be Raj; he’s got experience in covert operations. His number is in the phone.”
Alec looks down at the folder. It seems to get heavier as she speaks. “Presuming that I manage to get enough information to bring the gang down, what will happen then?”
Herondale immediately sees the real reason for his question. “I won’t lie to you, Lightwood. You might have to go into Witness Protection. Even if this weren’t your real identity, it would be safer. The warlocks have ways of finding people, but we have ways of hiding them. But it will depend on exactly how things play out, and whether or not we think there’s a reasonable chance they might have discovered that you were a mole.”
After a moment, Alec nods. “Okay. I’ll go look through this.”
“Good,” Herondale says, and then dismisses him.
Alec goes out into the main office and sits down at his desk, opening the folder. He tucks the phone into his pocket, then looks at his current phone and puts it on his desk for now. He leafs through the packet. They’ve kept his family members the same, but changed their professions and his hometown. They’ve left Izzy as a medical student, though. It will be dangerous to keep in touch with people, but he can’t disappear from Izzy’s life without a word. She’ll come looking for him if he does. So he uses his new phone to text her, simply saying, ‘It’s Alec, had to get a new phone’. He’s glad she’s out of town, although he supposes he has no idea how long a cover mission like this could last.
The more recent data is all different. Instead of college at George Washington and getting a degree in criminal justice, he went to a community college in his hometown of Bridgeport and graduated with a degree in sociology. Alec grimaces at that, imagining what his mother would think if he had actually done such a thing. Since then, he’s apparently worked a year as a waiter, a year as a barista, and finally two years as a bartender before joining up with the catering company six months previous.
He supposes that it’s not a terrible career trajectory, but in comparison to his actual life, it feels pathetic. But he memorizes all the pertinent details. By the time he’s done with that, it’s getting on towards the afternoon. He decides to check out his new apartment and make it look lived in, just in case. There’s really nothing he needs from his old place. He’s always lived a Spartan lifestyle. As long as the new place has clothes and a couch and a television, he’ll be fine.
It’s smaller than his own apartment by a significant margin, although he supposes that makes sense. A bartender would make less than a detective, or so he would presume. It doesn’t really matter to him. The place is clean and actually pretty cozy, and there’s a bodega right on the corner. He’ll have everything he needs, and he’s ready to get to work.
Which is when it occurs to him that he has no idea how to start. Magnus had sent him home last night, but hadn’t given him a phone number or an address or anything like that. Are they going to look him up? Should he wait for Magnus to call him? His dossier hadn’t included anything in the way of social media beyond a few edits to the Facebook page he only has because Izzy signed him up for one years ago, saying it was the best way for him to keep up with her life. He signs on to see if there are any new messages, but there aren’t.
After a few minutes of debate, he heads down to the Hellfire club. It’s practically deserted at this time of day, but there’s a man behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
“Uh, I have kind of a weird question,” Alec says. “I was here last night and left without getting someone’s number.”
He realizes as soon as he says it that he sounds kind of like a stalker, but then the man looks up and his mouth twitches in a smile. “You must be Alec. Magnus told me you might be coming by. He called me this morning saying he’d been so flustered that he’d forgotten to get your number.” He pushes a napkin over the bar that he had apparently taken the message on. “Godspeed.”
“Thanks,” Alec says. He takes the napkin and drops a fiver in the tip jar before heading outside. He puts Magnus’ number in his phone and then wonders what an appropriate text message to the man you apparently got engaged to the night before would be. He settles for the most direct and simple. ‘Magnus? This is Alec.’
There’s a response almost immediately. ‘Hello, Alec. I’m glad you checked at the bar. I could find you if I wanted to but I didn’t want to cross boundaries.’
Alec eyes his phone, because between that and Magnus calling him a taxi when he was ‘drunk’, Magnus is really nothing like what he had expected. He texts back, ‘No worries. Sorry it took me this long. I was sleeping off the hangover.’
A minute later, Magnus texts, ‘Would you like to meet? I’m at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.’
‘Sure,’ Alec replies, and calculates. ‘Probably will take me about a half hour.’
‘I’m in no hurry. The cherry blossoms are lovely.’
‘Okay. I’ll see you soon.’
~ ~ ~ ~