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A thin woman glanced up from her perch at the register, dark eyes narrowing upon the pair of boys shouldering their way past the grime-caked door. Her pouty, red lips scowled around her chewing gum, and quick as a whip she drew her gun, the weapon whirring to life and filling its barrel with a dangerous, blue glow. “Cryomancers only.”

The blonde urgently nudged his friend forward, a nervous wreck of a brunette with eyes nearly as blue as the shopkeep’s gun. The latter quickly held up his hands, his right in particular. He awkwardly rotated it before him, giving her a good look of the metal brace binding his wrist and dressing his fingers and forearm with thin, metal spines. “I-I am!” he insisted, warily stepping forward. “Just graduated an hour ago.”

Another buzz from her gun stopped him dead in his tracks. Carefully, she eyed him head to toe, then finally regarded the blonde. “And you?”

He shrugged, hands raised. “Just a regular osser, I’m afraid.” Noticing her hand tense around her gun, he quickly pointed to his friend and added, “We’re partners. I’m helping him shop.”

Clearly, that alone didn’t satisfy. The brunette stepped between them, shielding his companion and fixing her with a hard frown. “He stays, or I go.”

She pursed her lips, weighing the benefits of shooting them both then and there. On the other hand, she had a lot of stock that needed selling, and business was slow. She all but dropped the weapon onto the counter. Though it died down mid-fall, leaving the taste of o-zone upon the polluted air, the boys still jumped when it hit the countertop, convinced it’d find a way to fire off anyway.

“Don’t break anything,” she warned, slouching back down and picking up where she’d left off in her magazine - some low-end periodical about the latest amateur hack trends.

They released their held breaths, then finally took in the shop. The walls were lined with old, rusting cryodolls in an array of styles and fashions, their lifeless eyes staring blankly back at them. Elsewhere, replacement parts and cases of maintenance supplies filled racks, shelves, and tables beyond capacity. Half of it looked broken, but to be honest it’d probably still be an upgrade for most of the surrounding dolls.

While his friend wandered the shop, the blonde lingered by the register. After a moment of being ignored, he put on a grin and stuck out his hand. “Jace.”

The girl kept her silence, save for blowing a bubble in her gum as she turned the page.

“My friend here is Alec,” he tried again. When still no response came, he gave up on the handshake and instead leaned over, arms folding upon the counter. “I’m guessing you’re Camille?”

“Wow, the kid can read,” she muttered out of boredom. She referred of course to the bright, neon sign flickering in the filthy window: Camille’s CryoTech. The sound of hollow, metallic rattling drew their attentions to Alec, swiftly dropping to recover a small and freshly-disheveled pile of hands. “Seriously?!” she scolded, leaning over to see if he’d broken anything. Jace swore she looked hopeful he had.

“Sorry!” Alec bashfully replied, depositing the hands back on a nearby table. Something caught his eye then, and suddenly he was bee-lining to a different area of the shop.

Camille followed his path, then sighed when she divined his destination. “Those are on clearance,” she begrudgingly informed. To her magazine, she grumbled under her breath, “I suppose he already knew that.”

It was clear she wasn’t interested in conversation. Jace fled the scene to check in with Alec, distantly interested in whatever had caught his partner’s eye. “See something you like, buddy?”

Alec glanced over his shoulder, beaming wide. “Look!” He shifted aside, giving Jace ample view of the cryodoll he’d found. One hand still holding the doll’s, he pointed at its eyes. “Isn’t that cool?”

Jace rolled his eyes and called over to Camille. “Hey! You used the wrong scanners on this one!”

They received a curt bark in reply. “Clearance.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Think they’ll still work?” he asked his friend. His own doubt was plenty evident in his careful scouring of the doll’s every feature.

“Why wouldn’t they?” Alec sounded almost offended. “Cat modules are ideal for tracking, you know.”

“Okay, but this isn’t a cat module.” Jace reached out to squeeze his hands between the doll and the one beside it, pushing them apart just enough to get a look at the shaved sides of the doll’s head. “I’d bet you 20 drizz she didn’t install the right chip for it. We’d need to get Simon to find one.”

“So then we'll do that,” Alec insisted, reaching out to unhook the doll from the wall. It was heavier than it looked, but he scooped it up into his arms easily enough with Jace’s help.

Alec carrying MG5-BN34, by KioneM

Separated from the rest, the boys now had a much better view of the doll’s limbs and dressage. Its contours were fairly slim, suggesting it’d been designed for a more agile, tactical approach to things rather than brute force. Its clothes were likewise elegant, tailored from what used to be fine silk, and if Alec held it just right the decorated silicone around the eyes seemed to glitter.

Jace was still warily eying it when they arrived at the counter. “That normal for a cryodoll?” he asked with a nod towards its eyes. Alec frowned at him, but didn’t say anything, carefully laying the doll down on the counter. He knew Jace was just trying to bring the price down, making it sound like the doll was defective or something, but he didn’t have to be so rude about it.

Camille lifted out of her article to examine the problem… then snickered. “That’ll be 30,000 drizz.”

“What?!” they gawked in unison.

Alec looked betrayed, his hands possessively clamping down on the cryodoll’s arms. Camille’s hand slammed upon its chest, the other snatching up her gun.

“That’s not fair!” he protested, ignoring the glow swelling in his face.

Jace drew his own gun now, training it upon Camille’s head. “What happened to ‘clearance,’ huh? You’re only saying that now because of the… glitter thing.”

She offered him a coy grin. “I misplaced it.” To Alec, she firmly repeated, “30,000 drizz, take it or leave it.”

His expression crumpled in defeat. “But I don’t have that much…” He gazed longingly at the doll laying upon the counter, then turned to glance quickly around the shop. The place was filled with tons of cryodolls. Few in as good condition as this one, but good enough. Problem was, Alec didn’t want “good enough.” This one in particular seemed to beckon him, as though it’d already been registered to his brace.

A knowing and victorious smile curled its way across Camille’s lips. “I tell you what, kid.” She moved her gun out of Alec’s face, pushing aside Jace’s in turn. “Why don’t you open a tab? I’ll let you run with this guy, but I get a portion of your drizz off every contract until you pay it off. Additionally…” She put down her gun and jabbed a finger in Jace’s face. “You guys or anyone you know need CryoTech, you send ‘em here. We’ll call that your interest.”

Finally, Camille took her hand off the cryodoll, leaving Alec to reflexively fix its vest and shirt. While he busied himself with that, she reached below the counter and pulled a long, thin, notched cylinder from her drawer. “We got a deal?” She held her hand out for Alec, the tiny key woven between her fingers.

Alec hesitantly eyed her hand, then looked to Jace for advice. His friend shrugged.

“I don’t like the idea of you being indebted to anyone, especially not this dump.” Camille bristled at the remark, much to Jace’s delight. “…But, this is kind of a big deal. You don’t want to register just any ol’ cryodoll. So, if you’re sure this is the one…”

He considered it carefully. He couldn’t imagine this wasn’t the perfect cryodoll. Though 30,000 drizz was nothing to sniff at, it was worth it for this kind of invaluable investment… Still, he had to be sure. He met Camille’s eyes, confident.

“Let me do a test run with a few of your crystals. If we get along well…” He sucked in a breath, then looked down at the cryodoll again. Even shut down as it was, there was something breathtakingly handsome about it. In spite of himself, he goofily smiled. “…then you’ve got a deal.”

Camille threw her shoulder into a heavy door, probably years overdue for a good oiling. It proved resistant to her relatively feeble frame, requiring three full shoves before it finally gave way. Hot, dusty air spilled out, so thick it momentarily obscured the room awaiting them. Camille didn't seem bothered by it, a hand reflexively throwing out to swipe at a switch, but it took Jace and Alec by surprise, the pair of them covering their faces to contain their coughs and shield their eyes from dust and harsh lighting alike. As he recovered, Alec looked worriedly at the limp cyrodoll in his arms, but of course it hadn't been bothered. He felt silly for even thinking it.

Jace nudged him inside, a hand on his shoulder. "You ready, buddy?"

Alec offered a small smile, but before he could say anything Camille was barking at him.

"Over here, kid!" She was pointing at a pile of rubble that'd been built up into a makeshift table, a tarp thrown over it in a lazy semblance of keeping things neat and orderly. "Sit it down on this." She watched as he obliged, testing the heap's stability a bit with his hip before fully trusting it with the doll's weight. The hesitance brought a smirk to her face, hands fumbling around her leather jacket's pockets. "You got a sync chip, right?"

He scowled, reaching into his jeans' back pocket. "Of course." He nodded pointedly to the little plastic tab she finally produced. It looked just as old and dusty as the rest of her wares. "Does yours even work still?"

Camille glanced at the silent cryodoll with a scoff, snapping the chip into a tiny slot on the underside of her brace. "Looks aren't everything, you know." He thought he caught a sly glint off her dark eyes. "It's what's under the hood that counts."

While Alec fiddled with his brace and Camille circled around to the cryodoll's back, Jace strolled idly around the musty room, fingers laced behind his head. For the most part, the room was plain and uneventful, the only exception to this being the giant ventilation fan composing one of the four walls. It was large enough, its cycle lazy enough, that a full-grown person could slip behind its sweeping blades with relative ease. Between that and the refuse piled up near its edges, Jace could guess easily enough Camille likely lived back there.

"Nice place you got here," he idly mused, finally looking back at her and Alec. His partner had finally inserted the sync chip in his brace, and Camille was messing with a panel at the back of the cryodoll's neck. His golden eyes idly looked the thing over, sitting in eerie silence. It sat in perfect stillness, its clothes neat despite their age, its eyes vacant and lifeless. That aside, it held an uncanny resemblance to a real person. Thanks to the room's flickering lights and filthy air, if he squinted or turned his head in just the right way he could almost forget it wasn't a real person.

The sudden wash of yellow light filling the cryodoll's eyes startled him out of his stare.

Camille grinned to herself, then stood up behind the doll and slapped the doll's panel shut. "That should do it," she chuckled, sliding her little metal cylinder in her back pocket. She rose her right hand to one side of the doll's head, nodding for Alec to do the same to the other side. They held their hands with their palms facing the doll, fingers splayed, as though their hands were holding a sphere around the doll's head.

"MG5-BN34," she recited. The doll's head jerkily nodded, but remained otherwise still and silent. She and Alec moved their free hands to the thick bands around their wrists, finding and holding the square protrusions holding their sync chips. "Initiate Shared Sync, duration: five minutes."

Alec felt the hair raise at the back of his neck as the doll's eyes began to rapidly flicker. Smooth, blue lines drew out from their fingertips, connecting their hands in five perfect circles interspersed around the doll's head. He could feel his brace thrumming with power as it downloaded the doll's data, its identification number scrawling along his brace's LED panel in bright red lettering. His nerves sent his stomach tumbling, though he wasn't quite sure why. It was just a test run, after all, he'd done it a million times for class.

Just... never with one he wanted to work well, he supposed...

Finally, the doll's head awkwardly twitched to look directly up at him, the blue circles of light sucking back away into nothingness. "Process complete." The doll had been outfitted with a male voicebox - Alec's eyes reflexively flickered over its body, and supposed if any notions of gender could be applied to a cryodoll it'd make sense for this one to be designated as a "male." A stray thought impulsively wondered just how thorough the craftsman had been in this regard, abruptly snuffed out when the doll spoke again. "Shared Synchronization has begun." When Alec's eyes snapped back to the doll's eyes, he found a strange warmth in their glow the room couldn't have hoped to provide. A tiny smile crossed his lips, matching the one the doll sported across his Asian features. "Greetings," he replied, his manner polite and cordial, albeit somewhat stiff. "I hope you will be pleased with the results of today's trial. How shall we begin?"

Alec's mouth hung ajar, his fascination resonating in his blue eyes. "Can you hope?" he asked, too griped with wonder to consider it might have been an offensive thing to ask a cryodoll. Could they be offended, anyway?

The doll parted his lips to reply, but Camille interrupted it with a clearing of her throat. "Just get on with it." Grumpily, she folded her arms across her chest and sat down beside the doll. "I got a store to run, you know."

He frowned, then held out his hand. "Fine. Your crystals, remember?"

It was her turn to scowl, but she didn't put up a fight. She leaned over to grab a small metal box that had been nudged into the rubble, about the size of a glasses case. She tossed it to Alec with an insincere mutter. "Knock yourself out."

Alec caught the tin and flicked it open to inspect its contents. It held a small handful of crystals, emitting an almost eager gleam. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed MG5-BN34 lean slightly, as if trying to see the crystals as well, and he smirked. "Curious?" he asked, turning around the tin with a small smile.

The cryodoll simply continued staring at him, likewise smiling.

From his lean against the back wall, Jace rolled his eyes. "It's imitating you. You're sync'd, remember?"

Alec felt his cheeks grow warm, and saw a similarly bashful state lower MG5-BN34's eyes. "Oh, right..." The realization disheartened him somewhat, but he didn't let it distract him for too long. He set the box down on the makeshift surface and plucked a crystal from its contents, his other hand slipping into his back pocket to extract a small paper square. All the while, he could feel the doll's feline eyes following him like a diligent security cam.

He tried not to think too hard on it as he removed the OS patch's protective film, then slapped the freshly exposed surface to the left side of his long neck. The rush of chemicals seeping through his skin made him wince, eyes watering from the burn that flared along his skin. Thin, black lines raced up his neck, abruptly changing directions here-and-there at right angles. A tiny circle marked each vertex and the end of each branch. When the osmosis had finally completed, the pattern of the black lines left his neck reminiscent of a chip's golden circuitry.

The actual effects of the OS patch were far more subtle, really only visible by Alec - and perhaps MG5-BN34, he considered. As he looked around the room, a digital display whirled before his left eye, helping him to identify various anomalies in the room's surface. As he focused on different elements, the display changed, highlighting and zooming in on whatever details held his interest. He regained his bearings a brief moment later, turning a smile to the cryodoll.

"Come on," he encouraged, motioning with his braced hand for him to stand up from the canvas. As the doll obeyed, he looked around the room for a suitable target, lodging one of the crystals into a slot on the back of his brace. "Let's see... how about..."

While MG5-BN34 waited patiently beside him, a sudden movement caught his eye, drawing his attention. A red square surrounded the tiny rat hunched over behind the fan, and a second later Alec threw out his hand, the fingertips of his brace glowing a dull, light blue. Without even really seeing what was there, MG5-BN34 flicked out his palm as well, a short bolt of plasma bursting forth and smashing mercilessly upon the rodent. He seemed to recognize what had happened a moment later and issued a restrained, mechanical nod, still looking at the crimson starburst that had become of the pest. "Nice catch, Sir!"

Alec's face wrinkled at the title. "You don't have to call me that."

Again, Camille spoke up before MG5-BN34 could reply, though she was still eying the was-rat. "You can reprogram him to call you whatever you want. After the deal," she added with a pointed look.

Jace stepped away from the wall to walk up to Alec and MG5-BN34, scanning the cryodoll with a scrutinizing gaze. "It's got good reflexes," he noted. Camille grew tense as Jace's look turned to the fan. "How's its speed?"

She scowled, and Alec bit his lip. "Jace, is... Is that really necessary?"

His friend nodded, folding his arms firmly across his chest. "Your life is gonna depend on this thing, Alec. And 30,000 drizz is a fortune." Mostly, he was really talking to Camille, his brow narrowed in challenge. "If the doll can't pass a basic speed test, then I say it ain't worth the risk... or the drizz."

Alec sighed, unable to reasonably argue, though he wanted to. MG5-BN34 apparently picked up on this, turning to him with that same, stagnant smile. "I do not mind, Sir. I wish for you to be completely satisfied with my capabilities." He stiffly turned to face the fan, moving aside a few paces to give himself a straight shot unimpeded by Camille and the pile she sat on.

Camille groaned, grabbing a crystal from the tin and shoving it into her brace. "You assholes had better be worth it," she snarled.

"Your doll had better be worth it!" Jace returned.

Between rotations of the giant fan, Camille punched her fist abruptly through the air, a tiny blue light shooting out from her brace. It slipped narrowly between the heavy blades, impacting what Jace and Alec presumed to be some manner of control panel on the other side of the fan. A moment later, the airy sound of energy powering through machinery filled the room, followed by an aggravated screeching of metal against metal. It was thankfully short-lived as the fan built up enough momentum to keep itself going. The fan gradually built up more and more speed, until enough wind blew through the room it took effort for Jace, Alec, and Camille to simply remain upright.

A stray thought worried for MG5-BN34, but Alec's worries were soon assuaged when the cryodoll bent his knees, readying himself for the sprint. "At your command, Sir!" he called over his shoulder.

Alec's heart raced in his chest. The cryodoll's speed was only part of the problem - as with all mancer-doll interactions, the timing and accuracy was all on him. He pursed his lips, focusing on the fan, his OS patch's display diligently monitoring the fan's velocity. He tried his best to focus on the individual blades, the display's squares flickering in and out as he caught and lost them in the blur of motion.

Behind him, he could feel Jace's presence. "You got this, Alec. Focus." It helped immeasurably.

"Now!" Alec suddenly yelled, at last finding the fan's swift rhythm.

MG5-BN34 sprinted the very moment the word left Alec's mouth. He barreled towards the fan so fast none of them could quite follow his movements - but a loud clang and sudden spark at the base of the fan betrayed enough of the situation to set them all on edge.

Alec started to yell and run for the cryodoll, but Jace's hand clamping on his shoulder quickly stopped him short. "Don't! You're sync'd, remember? Stay focused on him!"

He did as Jace said, hands clenched into tiny fists to try and mitigate his adrenaline. His left eye's HUD frenzied all about the fan, searching for MG5-BN34 on the other side but unable to detect him through the thick metal.

Camille cursed through her teeth, turning to flee the room in search of the fan's fuse box - it was the only way to cut the fan's power from this side of its blades. Before she could reach the door, however, the room began to quiet, the energy in the walls fading away. The fan slowed much faster than it'd started up. Jace couldn't hold Alec back any longer, his friend darting towards and through the fan's blades before it reached a truly safe pace.

"MG5!" he yelled, scouring the darkness now surrounding him. Camille and Jace lingered just beyond the fan, waiting for it to finish slowing down before joining him. As the fan continued slowing, the fan's blades allowed some of the room's light to spill into the dark vent, but it only reached what Alec estimated to be about half of the vent's full depth.

Finally, his HUD zeroed in upon a tiny spec of yellow light in the far back. "MG5!" he yelled again, taking to a run again, this time with Camille and Jace on his heels.

They arrived to a still and staring cryodoll, feline scanners staring blankly at the fan's control panel. Electricity sparked around his left foot, the silicone frayed and the underlying metal and wiring twisted out of form.

Alec sighed with relief, then knelt to get a better look at his foot. "What happened?" he asked, exasperation ripe in his voice. "Why isn't he responding to me?"

Camille blinked, then glanced down at her brace. She scoffed, the only hint at how stupid she felt. "Time's up, kid. He's sync'd back with me, now."

Abruptly standing up again, he wanted to yell at her - for not telling him sooner, for letting them run the rest, for not making sure MG5-BN34 was fast enough. Jace stepped in before he could, knowing full well it was Alec's fault the cryodoll had been injured and seizing the situation before Alec's emotions could sour their predicament further. "Looks like he's fast enough!" he chirped, a staying hand on Alec's chest. With a nod to the doll's foot, he added, "We're going to have to get that repaired. It'll be pretty costly, but that's on us now."

The words appeased Camille well enough, so Jace turned to Alec with lifted brows. "You do still want him, right?"

"Of course I do!" Alec blinked, as though he hadn't realized what he wanted to say until after he'd already said it. Well, there was no going back now, he supposed-  not that he wanted to. He turned to Camille, the back of his mind thanking Jace for defusing the situation before he'd pooched it. "Draw up our contract," he insisted, nodding to her brace. "An auto-transfer of a cut from my contracts, right?"

She snickered at Alec's eagerness, then turned up her braced hand and splayed her fingers, a rectangular hologram swelling into life a few inches above her fingertips. "Yeah. I get a 25% cut off the top until--"

"Whoa, hold on a sec!" Jace interjected, stepping forward with wide eyes. "He doesn't even get 25%! There's five of us!"

Her quirked brow conveyed just how little she believed him. "Oh really? Five of you?"

"My sister, Isabelle," Alec explained, "Plus Clary and Simon, Jace's lo--" A sharp elbow to his side altered his course. "...friends," he finished, still wincing from the residual pain between his ribs.

Camille stared at Jace, bored but knowing. "Right. Sure." Aiming her glare back at Alec, she continued, "Look, kid, I've got a business to run here."

"I know, I know." He looked at MG5-BN34, then back to her, eyes pleading. "Look, I'll give you three-fourths of my cut, 15% of our contracts. That's a bigger slice of my cut than you'd asked for, even though it's less of the total contract. But us working in a group like that means we can take on bigger contracts, more often." He could see from her expression he'd gotten her gears turning, at least. Time to bring it home. "It also means I'm probably going to be using a lot of crystals. Not just replacement parts and chip upgrades, I'll come to you for everything CryoTech. Mod units, crystals..." He paused to glance over MG5-BN34's attire. "...accessories... Anything I need for him, it'll be from Camille's CryoTech." His eyes flickered anxiously between hers and the HUD in her hand. "...Deal?"

She pursed her lips, thinking it over. She clearly didn't take well to a smaller cut, but he made a good point... and anyway, he'd broken her doll's foot. It was either him or, potentially, nothing. The glittering of the doll's eyes were what ultimately sealed the deal, though she kept that little tidbit of information to herself. "Fine," she finally said, free hand's fingers flying across the glowing HUD. She set the terms in a matter of seconds, then flicked her braced fingers and held out her hand, spinning the contract around and holding it out for Alec to sign. "15%, and you buy everything from me. No back-alley deals, no parts in place of drizz on your contracts..." A grin turned her bright red lips as Alec scoured the contract's terms, falling on the last little detail she'd slipped in. "...I find out you're doing business elsewhere, and it's another 5,000 drizz on your tab."

"What?!" he gawked, looking up at her in defeat. The added term made him feel slighted, but ultimately he couldn't blame her for trying to protect herself. Between his age and just how much in debt he was about to be, he imagined he looked like quite the default risk in her eyes. "Alright, alright," he groaned, eyes falling back down to the contract. He lifted his braced hand and placed it upon the HUD, letting Camille's brace scan his hand print and confirm the signing. He shifted anxiously in place, watching the screen sweep back and forth along his palm. When it finally flickered green, he quickly looked at his brace's display, then beamed at the red LED words scrolling across it. CONTRACT CONFIRMED.

"Congratulations, kid," Camille scoffed, tossing him the little metal cylindar - the key to his new cryodoll. "Enjoy your new toy." As she ducked between the fan's heavy blades, returning to her storefront, she belatedly added on, "The rest of the crystals are on the house. Take it as good faith in our future association."

Jace clapped his hand on Alec's shoulder, his friend's expression bursting with excitement. "Good job, buddy!" He threw out a finger to direct Alec's giddy attention at his new cryodoll, the pair of them watching as he turned in place to face him. "You lucked out with this one, I think."

Alec's overflowing joy prevented him from forming words, able only to anxiously watch as the subtle shimmer returned to the cryodoll's eyes the moment they met his own. "Greetings, Master. I am MG5-BN34. It is a pleasure to meet you."

The words and accompanying blank stare came as a soft blow to Alec's mood - apparently, the cryodoll hadn't retained any memory of the Shared Sync. Still, he smiled through the hurt, stepping closer to MG5 and laying his hands dotingly upon his arms. "That's a mouthful," he softly remarked, eagerly searching the cryodoll for any stray sign of recognition. To his disappointment, there were none, though he was pleased to see the return of the doll's glittering around his eyes. "Instead, let's call you..." His eyes trailed down the doll's face and neck, eventually peeking under the edge of the doll's shirt. The identification had been inked in tiny, blocky lettering across his collarbone. Alec ignored the skip in his heartbeat at seeing it, quickly looking back up to meet the doll's eyes. "Magnus Bane. How does that sound?"

"Stupid," Jace called from behind him.

Alec shot an angry glare over his shoulder, but it swiftly fizzled out when he felt a stiff hand close in his. Eyes wide, he turned back around to find the doll smiling up at him, so much like the expression he'd worn earlier during the tests. "I like it. I am Magnus Bane." His head experienced a stray twitch, and Alec swore he'd glanced past himself and Jace to the room beyond the fan. Had he recollected something?

"What shall I call you, Master?"

Alec winced again at the title, then fell into a simple smile. "My name's Alec Lightwood. You can call me that, if you like."

Magnus smiled, head stiffly but smoothly nodding. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lightwood. I look forward to working with you."

Alec smirked.

"Yeah. Me, too."

Chapter Text

"There's the diner at the corner?"

"But you do not like that diner, Mr. Lightwood."

"Yeah, but it's close. And, I told you..." He looked up from his work, a somber furrow set in his brow. "Just 'Alec' is fine, if you like."

Magnus lifted his head off the work table, meeting Alec's gaze with his odd, simplistic smile. "Of course, Alec. My apologies."

He laid back down again, staring patiently up at the ceiling - or rather, the darkness looming beyond their light's reach. They couldn't actually see the ceiling from here, so high it up was. A single bulb hung from it, flickering under a small metal cone to focus its minimal light upon the work table. His head shifted in his palms, feline eyes captivated as though trying to nail down the flickering's rhythm. "...I could probably fix that for you." His head rolled to look at Alec, the corners of his lips subtly curling again. "Or Simon. He could reach it using his hovers."

Alec looked at him fondly, almost sympathetically, the way someone might look at a child. "Reaching it isn't the problem." He sat up on his rolling stool and pushed himself away from the work table, spinning around mid-roll to face his workroom's supply drawers by the time he slid beside it. It didn't take him long to find what he needed - a couple lengths of wire and some electrical tape - and then he was sliding back to Magnus' side. The cryodoll's hand caught him in place by his shoulder, a small assist that had become second-nature after just a few maintenance sessions. Alec thanked him, as he always did, with a small squeeze of his hand before returning to work. "This place's electrical isn't what it used to be."

Magnus quietly watched as Alec continued his work. It was impossible to tell if anything was going through his CPU, or if he'd simply idled out that way. Whatever it was, Alec had long ago grown used to Magnus' strange, blank-eyed staring. Though he could still feel the cryodoll's eyes on him, it no longer sent shivers down his spine, and in fact if ever he didn't feel Magnus' gaze he began to worry. He liked to think the cryodoll was studying him, learning about what he was doing maybe, even though all of that was probably a pipe dream.

Or perhaps that wasn't too far off from the truth after all.

"Do you think it is true, Alec?"

Alec's hands fumbled at the question, dropping his tweezers in Magnus' abdominal cavity. "W-What?" he asked, quickly pulling his attention back to his work before Magnus saw too much of the anxiety in his eyes. He feigned ignorance, focusing as best he could on the rescue of his tweezers to downplay his alarm. "Do I think what's true?"

There was a brief pause, as if Magnus was deciding whether or not to call Alec's bluff. Eventually, he continued, "That story Simon told us. About why they don't make humanoid cryodolls anymore. Did the crystals really turn them into humans?"

Finally, Alec fished the slender tool out from Magnus' coils and circuits, and he was left without a distraction. At the very least, he made a point to find the wire he'd been working on before continuing their conversation. "...Never really thought about it," he lied.

He felt Magnus' eyes slide away from him, and couldn't tell if he felt guilty or relieved. "I see. Because you do not want me to be human?"

Alec's hands slowed, his vision fighting off a subconscious blur. He wiped what he told himself was sweat from his cheeks, then looked up at Magnus with a smile. "Hey," he called, summoning his cryodoll's face with that word alone. Once he could see those gleaming yellow eyes again, he replied as firmly as he could manage, "I like you just the way you are, okay? You don't need to change any just to..." He trailed off, then returned to fastening the loose wire to its circuit-board. "...I dunno, please me... or whatever..."

At first, he wasn't certain Magnus would accept the answer for what it was. Soon enough, the doll assuaged his fears with a lighthearted reply. "Well, aside from an upgraded storage drive. You've been complaining about that for months."

It got a brief laugh out of Alec, and he finished off his work with a genuine grin. "Right. Just as soon as Camille doesn't have lordship over my drizz."

Laying down his tools and scrap materials, he sat up straight and reached over Magnus' midsection to flick his abdominal panel shut. "Alright, that should do it!" he chirped, retrieving his oil rag off Magnus' legs. He found a clean section he could take to the area around the panel, diligently rubbing away the stray grime left behind from the maintenance. After a slight pause to inspect his work, he gave Magnus' abs another small prod - he'd missed a stray fleck of oil. Or perhaps it was a shadow. Or an excuse.

Whatever it was, it was gone now. He hung the rag off the work table's bar and stood up, offering Magnus a hand and a smile. "You just had a couple wires that... Well, they were probably fine for another week or so, but I went ahead and replaced them just in case." The corner of his lips angled further as Magnus took his hand and gingerly stepped down off of the table. "Can never be too careful!"

"Yes. Thank you for your diligence!" Magnus replied with a small nod. His head rotated, scanning the room for his shirt and vest.

"Oh!" Alec fumbled to the side and reached to the far end of the work table, where he'd hung Magnus' garments. "Sorry about that." He glanced bashfully at Magnus' exposed torso. "H-Here, let me... um, let me help you," he mumbled, opening Magnus' shirt and holding it out for him.

Magnus' smile was as placid as ever, but Alec swore he saw that familiar glittering around his eyes. "Thank you, Alec." He slid into the shirt first, then the vest while Alec fastened his buttons. As always, Alec finished dressing him with a small brush of his shoulders, though it was highly unlikely any dust had actually gathered upon his clothes in the short time they'd hung from the work table's hooks. "To the diner, then?"

Alec chuckled, turning to lead the way back out to the main room. "Yeah. Just something small and quick. Clary's got a job for us."

"Oh?" For once, the smile on Magnus' face seemed genuine. Or was that just Alec's imagination? His yellow eyes flickered rapidly, the tell-tale sign of calculations running through his nodes. "That is very good news! One more contract should satisfy your arrangements with Ms. Belcourt."

Alec flicked off the light and pulled the door shut behind them with a brief chuckle. "Yeah. Then we'll have both the freedom and the finances to get you some actual upgrades."

The familiar staring strayed, drifting to the middle-distance. Alec glanced curiously over his shoulder at its absence, but Magnus' blank expression betrayed nothing. "Yes. That will be quite nice."

They made their way through the short network of halls in silence, soon emerging into a small, open room. Its furnishings were scarce, only the bare minimum the group needed. Even still, they'd managed to make something of an organised chaos out of it. Piles of laundry spotted the floor between discarded food wrappings and empty cans. Used OS patches drifted here-or-there whenever one of them walked by - scattered about like that, they looked kind of like the snowflakes Simon showed them on one of his consoles once. Or flower petals, maybe.

Alec tossed his rag to the side as he passed a three-piece, heavily used couch. Even without his targeting OS, his aim was uncanny. It nailed Jace square in the back of his head, spurring a frantic scramble of limbs.

"You should come up for air every now and again," Alec snipped at him.

Jace finally found leverage enough to lift his torso and snicker over his shoulder, Clary's hand daintily plucking the cloth and discarding it to a nearby laundry pile. She hoped the pile was dirty. "You only say that cuz you don't know what it's like to suffocate."

Even with Jace's arm blocking his view, Simon could see Alec's flinch. "Ooo, nice one. That's... what? Seven-to-four, J-Man?"

Clary's eyes gleamed as she wriggled out from between the two boys. "Eight. Jace had the one about the straps yesterday."

"Oh, right!" While Jace and Clary disembarked the couch, he folded his arms on its back and winked at Magnus. "Kinky."

Magnus stared at him with a sterile smile. "I am not sure if I am. Though it is not an uncommon practice, Alec has never requested that I—"

"That's enough." Alec glared at Simon, knowing Magnus didn't require any further encouragement to keep his mouth shut.

Simon surrendered with a shrug and raised hands. "My bad. Forgot - no inhibitions." He swung his legs off the couch to a proper sitting position, his foot catching in a stray piece of clothing as he did - Jace's shirt, he soon realized as Jace's hand grabbed at the air in front of him. "I know his coils could probably use a swap-out, but his maker really did a superb job with the flexiderm." He looked back at Magnus with a furrowed brow, handing Jace his shirt. "Who was that, again?"

"AsMOD, in Idris-7. I do not believe they are in business anymore, however," he added on, curious eyes momentarily malfunctioning in Alec's direction. They regained their focus on Simon. "Due to the transfer wipes, I am uncertain how exactly it was I came to be at Camille's CryoTech here in Idris-4." He turned his plain smile to Alec. "I will say, though, that I am glad that I did."

Alec looked up from the open crystal tin in his hands, the corner of his lips pulling up into the unguarded smile only Magnus seemed able to draw from him. "Me, too."

Clary sighed, hanging on Jace's arm and leaning her head against his shoulder. "Aww. I miss the days you looked at me like that," she chided.

Jace made a face. "No you don't." He looked at Simon. "Does she?"

Simon laughed. "Not a chance."

Alec thanked the room's poor lighting for obscuring his rampant flush. "Anyway. Clary, you mentioned you found a lead?" Palming a small crystal, he closed the tin and looked up to scan the room. "Where's Izzy?"

"Already scouting the area with Raph!" she happily reported, detaching herself from Jace's arm. She reached over and retrieved a folder from a rusting mail organizer sloppily welded to the wall, then tossed it open atop their small, circular table. A few papers slid out - schematics of Idris-4's main terminal, a photocopy of an inventory list, a printout of someone's electronic communications. That someone's photo was paperclipped to the folder, though none of them really needed it. Aside from being Clary's father, every sector of Idris knew the face of Valentine Morgenstern, CEO of Idris' largest and most lucrative "defense" contractor.

MG5-BN34 enjoys a crystal while Alec briefs the team.

Alec picked up the communications printout and started reviewing its contents while Clary briefed them. Magnus hovered close by, accepting the crystal from Alec and taking to it like a small child with a stick of rock candy.

"Dad's shipment arrives from Idris-1 tonight around 1900. Civilian activity in the area should be at a minimum."

Jace moved the schematics into better view, then folded his arms across his chest, a frown set into his square features. "Still, lots of street ossers hang out there - free shelter, even if the place is a dump. We should try and hit the shipment before it reaches the terminal."

Concern wrinkled Alec's features as he regarded Magnus. Though he hadn't said anything, Magnus appeared to know what was going through his mind, momentarily pausing his nibbling to reply, "I will be fine. Your timing and Jace's driving has vastly improved over the past few contracts." He turned up his palm and regarded it fondly, fingers flexing in the air. "Presuming the transports are made of metal, I should be able to catch on easily enough. The new hands you got me have much better polarizers than my old ones!"

If nothing else, Magnus' confidence comforted him. He just hoped he lived up to his cryodoll's expectations. "Alright, if you're okay with it." He turned to Clary. "You'll be Simon's lookout, like usual. I'll reach out to Izzy and have her secure a pod for Jace." He planted a hand on Magnus' shoulder and gave it a small squeeze, though he didn't know if that kind of gesture actually did anything to assure him. "Raphael will scan for security personnel on-board the transport and alert you to any activity. We'll buy you as much time as possible to pass Jace anything you can."

At last, the subtle glittering returned to the area around Magnus' eyes. None of their crew had any idea what caused the strange phenomena, even after all this time, but they'd all come to understand it typically heralded some of Magnus' greatest work. "I will do my best, Alec!"

"I know," Alec chuckled, then looked over to where Simon was seated on the couch. "You ready to go?"

"You bet I am!" Simon called, hopping up off the couch. As he did, small orbs of green light shot out from his shoes and started circling his feet, propelling him a few feet into the air. Quick as a snap, he careened around the room to pluck his gloves and headgear from their perches upon the walls, then swirled down to rejoin the others. He passed Magnus a thumbs-up, and Clary a wink. "I gotchu, man. That transport won't see what hit 'em!"

"They better not," Alec murmured, warily eyeing Simon. Aloud, he said, "Alright, let's go grab a bite, then meet Izzy at the terminal."

Simon was the first to zip out of their unkempt hovel. Jace took the speedy retreat as a challenge and darted off after him, close on his heels. Clary turned to skitter after them, but just as Alec was about to walk Magnus out, hand-in-hand, something caught his eye and he frowned. "Hey, Clary!" he called, snatching her attention just as she'd reached the threshold.

"Yeah? What?"

Magnus leaned over curiously, watching as Alec's fingertip traced down the inventory list. It landed on a line about three-fourths of the way down:

Sec+ Holding Crate | Desc: [INSUFFICIENT CLEARANCE] | QTY: 1

"This list is from your dad's records, right?" He looked up, met with a raised brow. "What's he moving that even he can't see into?"

She shrugged, then passed him a wild grin before slipping out after Jace and Simon. "Something valuable!"

Alec sighed, then continued after her. "You'd think she'd be a little more concerned..."

"Yes," Magnus replied. He kept pace easily enough, but even still Alec couldn't shake the sense that something was off. "All will be fine, Alec. I will make sure of it."

Music blared from their cruiser's speakers. Alec still didn't really understand why Jace insisted on it, but it at least seemed to be comforting the cryodoll crouched in his lap. Magnus' head and finger tapped in perfect rhythm with the tunes, as though the driving bass line was the only thing in the world he even heard.

Isabelle chuckled from her perch in the cruiser's reversed back seat. "You two should start a band!" One hand held onto the seat's back, anchoring her against Jace's sometimes erratic maneuvering. The other cupped a tiny bat securely against her chest, its long and coiling tongue plucking minuscule crystal shards from between her fingers. "More money in that than this shit, I bet. Safer, too."

Magnus was too consumed by his tapping to have heard her. Alec scoffed, his arm holding Magnus steady like a seatbelt while his other braced over the cruiser's frame. "Now where's the fun in that?" He looked over his shoulder to meet his sister's eye, the violent wind whipping their hair back and forth across their faces. "Raph would make a pretty solid sound tech, though," he replied with a nod towards the bat.

"What do you think of that?" Isabelle cooed to her little cryodoll, metal-lined fingers wiggling before his elongated nose.

He squeaked in reply - the movement made it more difficult for him to eat.

Hey! What about me? Simon's voice crackled over their comms, filled with faux offense. I actually have experience with that, by the way. It's a lot more involved than you'd think!

"I'm not so sure about that," Jace snickered in reply. "You seemed to handle that DOSMode gig just fine, despite—."

You promised you wouldn't talk about that!!! Even through the comms, they could all hear Simon's embarrassment as clear as day.

Clary came to his rescue. Enough reminiscing, you two. I'm sure the Lightwoods aren't interested in our antics.

"I dunno," Isabelle sighed, bemused. "Reminds me of my wilder days..."

Alec rolled his eyes, then went back to monitoring Magnus. "Spare me."

Anyway, I'm in! Simon rejoiced in their ears. The Valentine Express is right on schedule. The tracks are clocking him at about 275.

Jace cursed through his teeth. "Even with all that cargo?" He shook his head, then slammed one of the cruiser's levers to give them an extra boost. "We're only coming up on 60 miles out of Idris-4. Mag's only going to have..."

Magnus' eyes lit up, his head lifting and rotating to look in Jace's direction. "Thirteen minutes and five point four five seconds." He blinked, then turned back to the wasteland rushing past them. "I would advise rounding down to ten minutes, to give Jace sufficient time to avoid impact against Idris-4's barriers."

Jace glared at him. "Gee, thanks, Magnus."

"My pleasure, Mr. Herondale!"

Whoa! Heads up, guys! Simon's voice sobered all of them, focusing on point where the tracks disappeared into the horizon. We've got incoming! You should see the train in three... two... one... !

"Got it!"

Jace's confirmation was barely enough warning as both hands shot for different controls, sending them into a skidding 180-degree spin. Alec and Isabelle grabbed whatever hold they could of the cruiser and did their best to contain their nausea. Raphael nestled between Isabelle and the seat, low enough that both blocked him from getting swept up in the draft. Magnus curled up in Alec's lap, arms wrapping around his cryomancer's midsection so tightly it made Alec wince. Belatedly, Magnus detected Alec's pain, and slowly looked up with wide, worried eyes. "I'm sor—"

"Nevermind that!" Alec quickly urged, already slapping an OS patch to his neck. A second later, the transport exploded past them, Jace expertly taking advantage of its draft to finish altering their momentum. To Alec and Isabelle's great relief, he'd waited until they were already partway through their turn before gunning it again, a meager attempt at keeping their stomachs from doing flips. The transport pulled ahead of them while they caught back up to speed, Alec already studying the sides of its cars even before he'd finished absorbing his patch. As the lines completed their traces along his face, the familiar blue HUD flickered to life before his eyes, analyzing the materials zipping by too fast for him to have registered normally.

It wasn't until a grin broke out across Alec's face that Magnus's expression finally returned to his usual, plain smile. "We're in luck, Magnus!" Alec replied with a squeeze of his shoulder. "They're using standard cars - all metal." He turned his head to look to the transport's rear. As Jace slowly fell into an even pace alongside the transport, the small panels declaring each car's number grew more discernible, Alec's HUD catching and expanding the more distant ones a moment before they entered normal perception. "Simon! Which car?!"

I mean, it depends on what you want, really... There was a pause in the comms as he scrolled through the transport's records. There's a pretty good helping of wares in each car. Rations, ores, laser cartridges... Looks like there's a small armory of top-line gear if anyone feels like a trade-in?

"TEN MINUTES, Simon!" Jace irritably barked. "Unless you and Clary want the place to yourselves tonight?"

Right, right! Sorry! Let's go with...

Clary's voice interjected, her excitement bleeding through to ring in their ears. M-47! Tag car M-47! Looks like that's the one with the restricted Sec+ crate in it!

Isabelle frowned and looked at Jace. "Restricted?" She received only a clueless shake of his head in reply.

Alec shrugged, not bothering to fill her in. "Works for me!" He reached down with his braced hand to help Magnus up onto his seat, his other hand gripping the top of the cruiser's windshield to steady them. He offered a warm smile. "You ready?"

"Yes!" Magnus chirped, feeding off Alec's excitement and reflecting it in his face. The area around his eyes were glittering more than ever, so much so it reminded Alec of what a clear, starry night sky was supposed to look like. He turned under the cover of Alec's body to face the transport, then climbed onto the cruiser's edge and crouched, ready to pounce the moment Alec gave the word. "Hydraulic stabilizers active. Polarizers charged and standing by. I am ready to engage at your call, Alec!"

"Good," Alec replied. Car M-47 pulled into view, steadily approaching their position. "Target spotted! Bring us up, Jace!"

"Roger that!"

While Jace adjusted their position, slipping around the speeding train to hover just a few feet above it, Isabelle stood up in the back seats. She beamed down at the mechanical bat in her hand, her other opening and slapping a targeting OS patch to her neck. "Okay, Raphael. It's showtime!" Her eyes sparkled wildly down at Raphael as the black lines slid along her tan skin. From the way he writhed, hopped out of her palm, and started bouncing along the seat, he apparently shared her excitement.

Isabelle turned around, fully facing the back end of car M-47 and the rest of the transport. She thoroughly scoured the metal surface until she found what she was looking for: a tiny, exterior maintenance panel, revealed through the polluted atmosphere only by virtue of the digital HUD skittering across her vision. "Bingo!"

A deft hand plucked a crystal from her hip holster and slid it into the back slot of her brace. Her fingers splayed towards the panel, and a thought later an orb of red energy shot from her fingertips. It impacted soundlessly upon the panel, fully coating it in a soft, red light. A split second later, Raphael sped off after it, his tiny wings fighting against the transport's powerful draft to stay on target. As soon as he landed, he took to the weakened metal with a terrifying fervor until he'd eaten away a hole just barely large enough for him to squeeze through. His black little body disappeared into the car, and Isabelle threw Alec a thumb's up. "Raph's in!" She lifted her palm and a holographic panel stretched before her above her fingertips, relaying everything Raphael was seeing inside the car.

Alec's HUD analyzed the roof of the car, his hands idly loading up a crystal into his brace, until he detected a small blip of denser metal. "Found him!" he confirmed, then gave Magnus a pat to his back and fired a thin, blue laser at Raphael's position. As the bolt of light left Alec's brace, Magnus leaped off the cruiser's edge, pushing off with just enough forward propulsion to counter the harsh back-draft. His hands charged their polarizers through his descent, and he landed with a loud BANG!, hands gripping the roof of the car with their supermagnets.

"Bull's eye!" Alec celebrated, stepping down off his seat to a more secure perch inside the cruiser. He sat close to the edge, leaning over to maintain as good a view as possible of Magnus. "How're you doing down there? Everything okay?"

Yes, Alec! Magnus' voice box chimed through their comms. Your shot was spot-on! I can hear Raphael beneath the surface.

"Great! I'm tracking him from here. Izzy! Steer him a little more to my right, we'll need that opening nice and big if we're gonna get any loot through it."

"You got it!" Isabelle's hand flew across her hologram, directing Raphael's vision and guiding him through the car's panels. It was tedious work, but between her steering and Alec's scanning they eventually navigated Raphael all the way around, lining the inside of the car with a corrosive secretion. "Alright, Magnus!" she signaled when the work was complete. "Give it a good kick, and you should be in!"

Jace, who'd been tracking their distance on the cruiser's displays, chimed in while Magnus did just that. "40 miles to go, guys!" He glanced over the side of the cruiser as a resounding clanging announced Magnus and Raphael's success breaching the transport. "Grab whatever you can and let's get out of here!"

Alec's leaning grew more severe as Magnus hopped down into the transport, trying to keep him in line-of-sight. "You catch that, Magnus?" He flipped his braced hand over, bringing up Magnus' view on a hologram of his own. "Grab whatever's closest. If you see that Sec+ crate—"

Alec, Magnus interrupted, though by the time he did Alec already realized what he was about to say. There's not much in here. Only a few crates... I do see the Sec+ crate. It's the largest one here.

While he and Alec assessed the crates, Jace made his discomfort well known. "Clary, this doesn't smell right. What the hell is in that crate?!"

I don't know! Dad's account can't access the contents.

"Well, what about Simon?" Isabelle suggested, sharing Jace's concern. "Can't you get around it?"

Working on it! Simon assured, distracted-sounding. Years of association had long since trained him to detect the team's concerns well in advance of anyone ever actually voicing them. The crate's provided by a third party, so its protocols are handled separately from Star Strata's. I just need to get the database to think I'm from bo—... Wait, what?

The group waited with baited breath as Simon apparently made it through. Alec and Isabelle could only half-listen, preoccupied with helping Magnus hoist the other crates up into the cruiser. Raphael, meanwhile, returned from his brief scout of the car ahead of them, flapping rapidly past to check the one behind.

"What is it?!" Jace demanded. Between the reappearance of Idris-4 on the horizon, the burden of staying aligned with the transport, and the steadily-growing pile of unknowns, "stressed" would be an understatement for his current disposition. "What did you find, Simon?!"

N... Nothing... !

Alec and Isabelle exchanged a knowing look. In a sudden panic, Isabelle turned back to her monitor, a hand pressed to her comm to make sure it picked up her voice loud and clear. "Raphael! Get back to the cruiser!!!"

"Forget the crate, Magnus!" Alec urged, frantically waving his hand. "Just get up here!"

"What do you mean, 'nothing'?!" Jace was yelling, hands beginning to sweat.

He means NOTHING! Clary yelled back. It's empty!

"What the hell?!"

Suddenly, a loud screech sounded across their comms, causing all of them to buckle in pain. Jace temporarily lost control of the cruiser, recovering just in time to keep Alec and Isabelle from toppling off the edge. Down below, they barely caught a glimpse of a tiny black ball skirting across the car - Magnus spun in alarm and caught Raphael against his chest. He gave voice to Isabelle's fears through the comms.

Raphael has been injured!

Alec's eyes widened - Magnus was looking only at the bat in his hands. "Magnus!" he cried out, and without thinking vaulted himself over the cruiser's edge.

"Alec!" Isabelle shrieked. "What are you doing?!"

She watched her brother land a split second before a bolt of green light broke the edge of the breach. Instead of Magnus' chest, it caught Alec in the back of his shoulder with enough force to send him stumbling into his cryodoll. Magnus' surprise stunned and silenced him, staring wide-eyed as they crashed backwards and tripped over the Sec+ crate still lying on the floor. Raphael broke free mid-tumble, just recovered enough to scramble his way up, out of the car, and back into Isabelle's arms.

Pain seared through his mind as Alec pushed himself up off of Magnus, eyes clenched tight and cursing through his teeth. "Get out of here!" he hissed through the comms. He let himself fall to the side, straining to look back over his shoulder to the origin of the laser blast. "We've got this. Extract Simon and Clary and get everything back home!"

Isabelle opened her mouth to protest her brother's demands, but a sharp acceleration of the cruiser sent her falling back into her seat, mouth clamping shut.

You had better fucking make it home, Alec! Jace snarled across their comms.

Alec didn't wait around for the others to lecture him over his rash decision. Figures were moving towards him and Magnus from the other car, still firing their lasers through the walls separating them. Thanking the Sec+ crate for the cover it unwittingly provided, Alec removed and crushed his comm, lest their soon-to-be-captors deign to back-trace the signal. It wasn't until he turned to do the same for Magnus that he finally saw his cryodoll's wide and terrified eyes, their feline slits thinned to hardly a sliver of black. Their crew's voices were still screaming in his ear, but something told Alec it had nothing to do with what troubled Magnus so.

His brow softened, and he tried his best to approach Magnus with care despite the urgency of their predicament. "Hey," he spoke, trying to at least confirm Magnus's processors hadn't frozen. "You okay?"

The flexiderm around Magnus' eyes shifted, like he was struggling to make an expression but unsure how to. The glittering wavered, sometimes fizzling out completely but a moment later shining brighter than neon. "I... you... hurt... !" he managed, lips moving more than they needed to in order to form the words.

Under any other circumstances, it might have been a fascinating phenomena - was Magnus trying to imitate emotions? Shock, speechlessness? Why? Alec clapped a hand to his shoulder and met Magnus' eyes directly. "Hey. It'll be alright. We'll get out of here, okay?"

"Alec... !"

Suddenly, a loud screeching resounded around them, echoing throughout the chamber. The hole in the roof didn't help that, but at least provided them with context: they'd entered the Main Terminal, brilliant lights and thick banisters flashing by overhead. They were steadily grinding to a halt, but the lasers weren't letting up.

Alec looped his unharmed arm around Magnus' shoulders and pulled him close, voice dropping to a hiss. "Stay hidden. Don't do anything until I tell you to, got it?"

"No!" Magnus softly whimpered, but it came too late and too feebly to stop Alec's hands from breaking above the edge of the Sec+ crate.

"I give in!" Alec yelled, his head soon warily following his hands to peer across to their assailants. Magnus writhed anxiously below him, hands tugging at his clothes to urge him back to safety, but it was no use - Alec stood up abruptly enough to yank himself free of Magnus' grip, and the speckling of red spots dotting Alec's chest from the gunners' sights froze him into silence. "Hold your fire!"

The sounds of heavy combat boots marching along the transport overtook the screeching as they slowly came to a halt. The gunmen filed into the car, but stayed back by the hole they'd blasted through. Alec's targeting OS spiraled into a mad explosion of geometric color, identifying an analyzing each figure. He picked up three in total, all outfitted in black combat gear. They'd be an easy enough group to fight off with Magnus as a surprise card, but something seemed off. He frowned as a fourth figure broke through the small gathering, his gait calm and almost lethargic, far more fluid than the other three. Alec finally actually looked at the data his HUD was trying to show him and realized what was wrong.

None of the three gunmen had heat signatures.

His eyes widened in disbelief. "Cryodolls... ?"

"Of a kind," Valentine's voice echoed in the slowly-descending silence. "Nothing like you're used to, of course," he boasted, hands gesturing to either side in presentation of his pride and glory. There was no metal clinging to his hands, nor even one of the new headband models of cryomancer braces.

Alec considered that perhaps the dolls' cryomancers were long-range, like Isabelle and Raphael, but such signals weren't supposed to handle human-sized cryodolls at this distance. Any final doubts he might have harbored were doused the moment his HUD detected a thin, metal bracelet adorning Valentine's right wrist. At first, it'd seemed to be just that - a piece of jewelry, innocent enough. According to his HUD, however, the thing was emitting radio waves in massive quantities. He grit his teeth in defiant disbelief. "That's... That's impossible. You're not a cryomancer. Even if you were..." His eyes glazed over all three dolls.

Valentine snickered. "Impressive, isn't it? New technology StarStrata's cooking up. Should even the playing field a bit, wouldn't you say?"

"Clary's right - you're insane. The manufacture of humanoid cryodolls is illegal! What's more, you wanna give someone - anyone - the ability to wield a small mob with no training... no discipline? What if they malfunction? What if the mancer loses their grip? What if—"

"That's not really my problem, kid." He pointed to the next car down, behind Alec. "I do have the solution, though! The people can protect themselves from crazed madmen like me with StarStrata's new line of anti-fields! Oh, and..." A wild grin broke out across his face. "Small 'mob'? Try small army. This thing can handle fifty, maybe even one hundred dolls. Easy."

Alec frowned. His gaze flickered to the hole in the roof, hoping his friends had yet again decided to completely ignore his orders. Looking back to the three cryodolls, he studied them closely, brow furrowing with suspicion. "...Why are you telling me all this?"

Valentine allowed himself one last chuckle before turning his back. "Why do you think?"

He lifted his hand, and in unison the cryodolls lifted theirs, fingers spread. Light began to swell at their fingertips.

"Good bye, Alexander Lightwood."

Valentine snapped his fingers.

Alec's eyes widened.

The light finished swelling, then burst forth from the outstretched hands.

Magnus sprung to his feet, whirling around with arms spread to each side.

Alec parted his lips to scream, but there was only the blinding, white light, and then the impenetrable numb of darkness.

Chapter Text

The cold metal pressed to the back of his hand made him start. His eyes darted to the source, half-expecting to see the end of a taser, heart still racing from the lingering memories. A sigh escaped him when all he found was the sleek sheen of a synthetic, black pelt and a pair of glowing, green eyes.

His own eyes trailed around the sterile, white room. Eventually, they found the woman standing before him, arms folded across her chest, staring expectantly at him. He parted his lips to say something, but she shook her head and tut-tutted him before he could. "Still can't get him to eat, huh Lucian?"

The large, metal wolf beside him whined, then gave his hand another nudge, this one firmer than the last.

Alec scowled and adjusted in the woman's examination chair, pulling his hand out of Lucian's reach. "I eat," he muttered, though he hardly sounded convinced of it himself. Avoiding the woman's scrutinizing glare, he wracked his brain for something more to say. "...I had a NitroBar this morning."

The woman rolled her eyes and checked the wall clock, mostly out of morbid curiosity. "You ate 'this morning,' you say? So, what... Eight?" A dark eye caught his squirm, and she frowned. "...Seven?" Though she suspected that still wasn't quite early enough, she walked over to a complicated-looking console stationed beside the chair and began tapping the screen.

Alec groaned, knowing full well what she was adding to his file. "Come on! I'm just not—"

"It's 1600, Mr. Lightwood! A single breakfast bar isn't going to keep you energized through the entire day." She looked back at him, some of her frustration displaced by an intense worry. "If you don't keep your blood sugar up, you're going to keep spacing out like that. You're going to..." She hesitated, her acute mind connecting dots before she'd finished speaking her previous mind. "...You can't spend the rest of your life reliving the past, Alec." A gentle hand reached for his arm, but he jerked away from her. She let him be, turning back to his file. "I know it hurts, but you have to move on. Jace and the others are depending on you."

He remained silent, staring into the middle-distance. Only the idle fidgeting of his fingers confirmed he hadn't drifted off again.

"...Lucian's depending on you." She turned to look down at the cryodoll with a smile, gently gliding her hand along his head. "If not for yourself, at least make an effort for him, alright?"

Though he still refused to look at either of them, Alec could feel two sets of eyes staring at him. It sent a shiver down his spine, a choke twisting his dry throat. It felt so familiar, and yet so wrong. It wasn't right, neither of them were. Not quite vibrant enough, not quite clingy enough. They didn't follow him, they didn't study him, they didn't beg or question or chide... Not the way that familiar feeling was supposed to.

It grew too much for him to bear, and he abruptly slid out of the chair. "Sure," he muttered, so half-hearted his doctor knew better than to believe him.

She turned defeatedly back to Lucian, kneeling and opening one of the storage compartments tucked within his synthetic pelt. "I'm giving him your week's supply of MediOS patches. Your burns are gone, but that shoulder's being stubborn." A stray glare studied Alec's withdrawn form, looming distantly by her door. Was he even using the patches anymore? "If you're not diligent, it'll scar." She slipped the panel securely shut and stood back up, turning to lean back against her console. "...But, you already knew that, didn't you?"

He ignored her question. "Thank you, Dr. Loss. I'll be back next week."

She scoffed, then tossed Lucian a small crystal shard. "You make sure of that, you hear?"

Lucian swallowed the shard whole with a pleased bark, then turned and padded to Alec's side, ready to accompany him back out into the turbulent streets of Idris-4.

On the whole, things had improved for Alec and his friends. Simon's foresight paid off in a big way, his recording of Valentine's confession through the transport's security system providing plenty enough evidence against the conniving CEO. Violating the Cryodoll Manufacturing Ordinance turned out to be serious enough of an offense to grant Simon and Alec full pardons for bringing Valentine and StarStrata to justice - unfortunately for Valentine, too much of the security footage leading up to the Main Event had been corrupted for the city to indict anyone else on the team.

Though the job ended up being a drizz-less venture, the contracts were steady and plentiful after that. Apparently people took a liking to the young men and women said to be responsible for dismantling the city's biggest warmonger. They became something like celebrities in the various osser circles, and even the occasional street urchin would recognize Alec's dark hair and vibrant blue eyes from the released proceedings footage. Grateful as he was for the work and resulting wealth it brought him and his friends, a part of him longed for their days of anonymity, for skittering rats and flickering lights and claustrophobic quarters.

For the streets to no longer be plagued by well-meaning declarations of recognition.

"I thought he was a humanoid... ?"

Alec blinked, staring blankly at the wide-eyed girl before him. Her hand gripped an old tabloid, its edges frayed and sparking dangerously in the day's lazy rain. Alec's picture twitched upon the fractured screen, still cut and bruised, his face lined from one too many MediOS patches. Slowly, he realized the girl had been asking him about that night, and he forced a smile across his empty expression. "He i—"

He hesitated, glancing down at Lucian. The wolf had settled down submissively upon the sidewalk, doing his best to encourage the girl's brimming curiosity. Alec whet his lips, then corrected himself, "...was. This is a different cryodoll."

"Oh," the girl replied, crouching and finally working up the courage to extend her hand. "What happened to the other one?"

It was an innocent enough question, but it still hurt, sending sharp pangs through Alec's chest. He could still remember the uncontrollable seizing, the nonsensical babbling, the erratic and unseeing blinking. His hands still felt the crystals gripped in his palms, the dig of unresponsive teeth against his fingers. The electric taste of ozone still poisoned his tongue, and though he'd never actually registered the words he still heard Isabelle's screaming. Simon and Clary's hands still clung to his arms and shoulders, Jace's gun still streaked his vision with soft, lilac light.

"He's not here anymore."

"Oh." Her detached, nonchalant manner made it clear she didn't fully grasp what he was saying. That, or she simply didn't care. She only smiled and finished bridging the distance between her hand and Lucian's brow. "Good boy!"

Lucian contained his delight to the wag of his tail, for fear anything more might startle the girl. Alec knelt beside them and joined the girl's petting, scratching Lucian behind his ears and down his spine. "...Yeah. He is."

For the first time, the girl looked up at him. A jarring, yellow gaze burned through Alec's momentary peace. "Does he take care of you?"

The overhead traffic passed along soon enough, the retreat of their lights returning the girl's eyes to a plain and unremarkable hazel, but the damage had already been done. Alec jumped to his feet, his heartbeat struggling to ease back to a normal pulse. "Yeah," he mumbled, but before the girl could say anything more he stepped passed her and onward down the street. "Sorry. Late."

Behind him, Alec distantly heard Lucian's faintly whining protest. He merely snapped his fingers in reply, knowing it'd summon his cryodoll back to his heels. A mild pang of guilt accompanied Lucian's arrival from the way the mechanical wolf brushed against his pant-leg. He tried to bury it in anger. "What do you want me to do?!" he snapped. "It's just some girl. What's it matter? All she was doing was sticking her nose in things that don't ma—"

An awful shriek pealed through Alec's ears, stopping him dead in his tracks. A pained cry fell through gritted teeth as he gripped the sides of his head, then looked worriedly at Lucian. The wolf had already whirled, his eyes glowing dangerously in the overcast gloom as he traced the origin of the scream. The very instant he had a location, he let out a triumphant howl, then took off back in the direction they'd just came.

Damn it! Alec cursed himself, combat boots splashing through shallow pools of rain as he ran after Lucian. It's that girl! What the hell happened?!

Luckily, the pair hadn't gone very far in the short time since their departure, despite Alec's best efforts otherwise. Lucian took a sharp turn and barreled down an alley not far from where they'd left her, the cling of his feet to the sidewalk kicking up water. Between the rain, his lethargy, and the piss-poor state he'd let his physical condition fall into, Alec had a bit more trouble with it, sliding a bit and having to grab hold of the surrounding buildings to keep himself steady. His eyes squinted as darkness swallowed his vision, the buildings to either side of them blocking out most of the light from the main street.

Does she live here? I can barely see anything...

Of course, Lucian didn't have any issue at all navigating the impenetrable dark. Though Alec had to use a combination of his brace's ambient light and a display of Lucian's sight, the cyrodoll needed only to switch his sensors over to their heatmap setting to acquire a fairly good idea of where he was going. Exhaust vents, scurrying pests, and power generators flooded most of the scene with yellow-orange hues - Alec provided the occasional assist to keep Lucian on track, marking various clusters on his screen as extraneous objects. Lucian's scent receptors finished the job, anchoring them to the girl's path and keeping them moving rapidly through the alley.

Finally, a small, lithe form veered into view, toppled upon the ground. "There!" Alec yelled, double-tapping the cluster on his screen to direct Lucian towards it. "That's gotta be her!"

Lucian howled once more and burst forth with renewed vigor, bounding upon the form in a sudden sprint. Alec was already moving about as fast as he could manage, his breath growing thin and his lungs heaving from the increased intake of smog. He frowned as he struggled to keep up, noticing another, similar cluster on Lucian's display. It was much larger than the girl, tall and lean, supporting itself against a wall with an outstretched hand. It appeared to jerk and stumble in the girl's general direction - whatever it wanted with her, it was clearly having difficulty doing it.

Is that what attacked her? It must be!

Both figures grew large upon the display as Lucian arrived, the girl's heatmap sliding off at the last moment and the other swelling until it consumed the vast majority of the screen. Her startled cry echoed down the alley to Alec's ears, but that wasn't what gripped him most in that moment.

"Can't you shave yourself?"

"I could give it a try, but I would risk damaging my flexiderm. I do not possess adequate enough pain sensitivity to avoid cutting myself."


"If you would like me to, I do not mind doing it myself. I do not wish to be a bother to you."

"No. No! It's... It's fine. It's not a bother. I was just wondering, is all."

He knew the contours of that face better than he'd ever known anyone's, perhaps even his own. His eyes clenched tight for a brief moment, banishing the memories from his mind.

It's not him.

He was sweating again, and had to wipe the moisture away with the soft cuff of his jacket. Just a few paces later, the light from his brace slid over the girl's cowering body. Alec skidded to an abrupt stop, collapsing to his knees and wrapping an arm around the girl's back. "I got you!" he assured her, hoping she didn't detect the slight strain in his voice.

Her tiny hands clung to him, holding him close as though her life depended on him. His body could still remember being clung to like that, could still feel the slight bruising around his waist. A shake of his head shoved it back down as he loaded a crystal into his brace, then took aim at the back of Lucian's snarling head, lingering just beyond the edge of his sight. "Give us some Light, Lucian!" he commanded, a small blue bolt firing from his brace - even when visually hindered, no one could best Alec's aim.

The crystal's energy seeped through Lucian's pelt and melded into his skull. Another howl resounded down the alley, waning as Lucian lowered his head and opened his eyes. The intensity of their glow swelled enough to bathe the whole alley in soft, green light, dispelling shroud and doubt alike from the assailant once and for all.

"N... No... It... It can't be... ?"

Terrified eyes stared out from the banished shadows, pitched into a sickly hue beneath the colored light of Lucian's eyes. The face was thin, the posture trembling, the clothes dirty and tattered... but the figure was indisputable. He shied away, withdrawing into himself with a trembling mouth trying but failing to form words.

No longer able to deny the moisture forming in his eyes, Alec filled the silence for him. "...Magnus?"

The word drew a harsh wince, the man's brow furrowing and his form crumpling into the wall. "Ma... M-Ma... ?" his mouth stuttered, voice muffled by his arm as his hand gripped his head in pain.

The sudden movement irked Lucian, but Alec stayed him with an outstretched hand. "Heel," he hissed lowly, then started gesturing towards the girl. "Stay with her."

The wolf obeyed, though his eyes remained carefully trained upon the odd stranger as he moved. He slipped in along the girl's side, encouraging her to accept him in Alec's place, and Alec was free at last to approach who couldn't but had to be Magnus.

"Magnus," he whispered again, still holding out his hand. "Magnus... Is that really you... ?"

It's a trap. I saw you die. I tried to save you and failed.

But they never found your body.

"M-Ma... Mag... " His progress was excruciatingly slow, his movements still erratic and sudden, but he managed to look up at Alec with wide eyes. Confusion soaked their muted, yellow gleam, tainted with a certain vacancy that shredded Alec's already weary heart. "Mag..." Steadily, his manner settled somewhat, and his head tilted, that confusion warping bit by bit into a cautious curiosity. "...Bane?"

"Yes!" Alec cried, belatedly remembering to keep himself restrained lest he frighten the fractured being before him. "Yes. Magnus Bane. That's..." He had to take a moment to swallow his emotion, to keep himself focused and steady. "That's your name." His throat dried, and his heart skipped a beat, wrought with anxious longing. "Do you... remember me... ?"

He almost didn't want to know the answer.

He had to know the answer.

Magnus's eyes slid over him, a feeling at once familiar and alien. It felt so much like the way he remembered it, but something was different now, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Whatever it was, the hesitant smile wavering across Magnus's thin lips swept it away. "Know... you..." Just when Alec thought they were making real progress, sorrow tinged the air, fear seeping back into those tainted eyes staring up at him. "...Why?"

Alec parted his lips to try and reply, but before he could Magnus's eyelids suddenly grew too heavy. "Magnus!" he cried out, closing the short distance between them to catch Magnus as he fell. His arms reached, wrapped, and clung in an automatic fashion that almost hurt to remember. He collapsed to the ground, holding Magnus securely against him. Lucian whined with worry behind them, but there was no cause for concern - in fact, a certain warmth had begun to spread out from the places Magnus's fainted form touched his arms, legs, and chest, one that had already begun to thaw his bitter cold. Alec's head hung forward, pressed to Magnus's, and with his eyes closed tight shut he finally released all of his pent-up emotions in a single, shuddering sigh.

"Magnus," he breathed, fingers curling into his companion's ruined clothes. Magnus's arms had more give to them than he remembered. In general, the cryodoll seemed smaller somehow - lighter, even.

That thought widened Alec's eyes, an incongruous realization bringing every faint and fleeting detail into sudden focus for just a moment before the picture changed entirely. It was now his turn to stare, fully taking in Magnus's drifting warmth, meek figure... His rising and falling chest.

"...Lucian," Alec murmured, hardly believing the words he was about to say. "He's..."

"...He's human."

Simon blinked in disbelief at the person laying on Alec's bed. "No kidding," he murmured, arms folding across his chest. The black lines of his VisOS traced his cheekbones and decorated the corners of his eyes with small circles. A long, ovular display hovered a few inches before his face, covered with tiny numbers and shifting lines. "He's got a heart rate and everything!" A single blink banished his visor so he could regard Alec unimpeded. "Don't you think we should, you know, take him to Dr. Loss?"Alec watching over a sleeping Magnus, by KioneM

Alec shook his head. His expression remained a complicated mess of excitement, weariness, relief, and pain. A small shard of his heart still refused to believe it, for fear it was all a sick ruse to eradicate his final hopes. "No, not yet. He looked like he was having trouble." His brow furrowed, and he forced himself to tear his eyes away from Magnus to meet Simon's worried look. "I think his senses overloaded. The alley we found him in was totally dark."

"The alley you found them in," Simon corrected, nodding to the little girl sitting quietly on the floor against one edge of the room. She, too, seemed a bit stressed by the room's crisp, bright aesthetic, dark eyes flickering here-and-there to steadily take in tiny details one at a time. "She got a name?"

Alec's eyes trailed back over to Magnus, unable to resist any longer. "Didn't ask," he murmured.

Simon eyed him with a peaked brow - clearly, the cryomancer was more than a little bit distracted. He shrugged, then headed for the door. "Alright, well, I'll see what I can dig up about those urban legends." He paused in the threshold to give Magnus a final look. "Clearly, at least some of it is true. If there's anything that could help us with his transition, I'll find it."

"Thanks, Simon." He finally acknowledged the girl, and instantly felt guilty for the way his preoccupation with Magnus must have affected her. Still, he was in no state to be dealing with her at this very moment, so he nodded towards Simon. "Go with Simon. He'll help get you settled in."

The girl warily climbed up to a stand, still not quite sure of herself as she inched towards Simon. He tried to assuage her worries with a wide smile, offering his hand for her to take. "I gotchu, kid! You'll like it here." Feeling her hand slip into his, he grinned, then began leading her out into the main room. "Though, is there something other than 'kid' I can call you?"

Much to Alec's relief, it sounded like the girl was finally starting to warm up to them, her voice a pleasant chirp as the door slid shut behind them. "Madzie!"

The quiet that followed their departure was suffocating. Lucian laid curled up on his cushion, eyes shut as he recharged from the day's unexpectedly exerting activities. Magnus laid upon Alec's bed in a similar fashion, taken to a fetal curl with his face turned into the plush duvet. The way his torso expanded and collapsed still looked so strange, stranger even than the way he occasionally twitched and shuddered. That, at least, had been a common enough occurrence in his days as a cryodoll.

Alec released a heavy breath, gingerly sinking to his knees beside the bed. He laid his chin upon his folded arms, staring half-lidded at Magnus's sleeping face. He couldn't quite say the expression was peaceful, what he imagined to be turbulent thoughts pursing his lips and clenching his jaw and generally pulling his muscles taut. As sympathetic as he was for a mind so plagued by nightmares, Alec couldn't help but marvel at it - cryodolls didn't dream. "You're really not a cryodoll anymore, huh?"

"...Is... okay... ?"

Surprise shot Alec's eyes wide. Slowly, Magnus's followed suit, though they never quite fully opened. "Y-You're awake?!"

Magnus's eyes clenched shut again, an agonized murmur escaping him and his face burying further into the bed's covers. "...bright..."

"Sorry," Alec whispered, anxiously standing up. "I'll shut off—"

A tug against his arm stopped him mid-step. His manner quieted as much from confusion as joy as he turned and gazed down at the place where Magnus's hand had caught his own.


The corners of Alec's lips curled upward, and he sank back down to the ground, leaving his hand tangled in Magnus's. "Of course." He had so many questions, so many things he wanted - needed - to say and express. Even if he could find the words, it all would have been for naught, as Magnus hardly seemed able to comprehend the wrap of their fingers, much less any inquiries of how this had all come to be.

A certain luminescence had returned to Magnus's eyes, though they no longer glowed the way a cryodoll's censors did, and his skin didn't glitter the way his flexiderm had. The muscles all along his face relaxed as he seemed to grow consumed with Alec's hand in his own, and finally his lips parted once more for another attempt at words. "Why... recog... ?"

"Recognize?" Alec finished for him. He carefully considered his reply, trying to keep things as simple as possible. "We... worked together, once." Would he understand what he'd once been to Alec? Did he even know what a "cryodoll" was anymore?

Slowly, Magnus's lips vied for a smile, but the flutter it sent through Alec's chest was nothing compared to what his next utterance did to the cryomancer.


Alec didn't know it, but as Magnus finally braved the light to look up at him his face broke out into a radiance all his own. "Y-Yes, yes!" he encouraged, hand subconsciously tightening around Magnus's. "That's my name. Alexander Lightwood." He searched Magnus for any sign of further recollection before cautiously venturing further. "Do you... remember anything else... ?"

He could all but see the scenes playing out behind Magnus's eyes, those handsomely bronzed features rising and falling with every joy, hurt, celebration, and setback he grasped. "Magnus... Team... Crystals..." The more he worked at it, the faster the memories seemed to surface, and his face lit up with awe at his own mental acuity. "Debt... Contracts! Re... Repairs?" His eyes locked upon Alec's, his smile swelling with a newfound confidence and certainty. "Partners!"

But just as soon as he'd remembered, another memory swept in, and a storm overtook his fleeting happiness. "Train... Ambush..." His other hand suddenly shot out from under him, reaching for Alec's shoulder. "H-Hurt! You're—"

Alec caught him by the wrist, struggling to calm him back down. "It's fine! Magnus, I'm okay. You..." He choked, breaking their gaze to feverishly take in the rest of Magnus's disheveled body. "You saved me. And I... I couldn't..."

Even through the blur that began to infiltrate his sight, Alec could see the calm way Magnus beamed up at him, hearkening back to the simple way he'd regarded Alec so long ago. "You did," he replied, giving Alec's hand a squeeze and moving his other to dotingly lay along the side of Alec's neck. "Crystals," he continued. "Bond. Human."

If any of this wasn't real, Alec no longer cared. If it were all just a prank, let him be the fool. If it were a dream, let him never wake. This moment, and the moments he prayed would follow, was far too beautiful to be squandered. Even if it were a temporary paradise, without it he feared he might very well have gone insane.

Without really noticing what he was doing, he leaned into Magnus's hand, his own gliding down to hang loosely from Magnus's arm. "We went back to try and find you," he whispered, thumb stroking Magnus's skin through his torn sleeve. Equal parts worry and guilt crumpled his manner. "You... left? Why?"

Magnus sucked in a short breath, more bizarre evidence to his newfound humanity. Much to Alec's dismay, his eyes drifted, and his hand began to slide away from Alec's neck until it hung from the collar of his shirt by hooked fingertips. "Ch... Changed..." He bit his lip, the effort it took to keep his shoulders from shaking evident in the look he cast upon the bed's sheets. "Afraid... Wouldn't like..."

I like you just the way you are, okay?

The memory hit him like a ton of bricks, and without thinking Alec threw out his caution and suddenly scooped Magnus up in his arms. "No! God, Magnus... I'm so sorry! That's..." He belatedly realized how tense Magnus had grown, his arms loosening so Magnus could relax again upon the bed. Still, he remained close, by now leaning over Magnus such that his messy brown hair filtered most of the room's light. "I'm sorry, Magnus," he repeated, only now noting how his fingers found themselves buried along the back of Magnus's head, how long the jet-black hair there had grown. "When I said that... What I meant, was..."

He stopped short. His heart was racing again. He'd witnessed enough of the same furtive glances and skirted answers between Jace, Simon, and Clary, and had seen enough of himself in his sister's interactions with her brief but no less intense companions. Looking back on all that had happened between him and Magnus, he now knew what he'd meant back then, and only wished it hadn't taken putting Magnus in such dire straits for him to finally recognize it.

Color flooded his cheeks. No combination of words floating across his tongue were adequate enough to really convey what he'd meant. Swimming in the confused, gleaming yellow pools eagerly waiting for him to make everything okay again, Alec swallowed his nerves and steeled himself against the dive in store for him, completely devoid of any certainty whether he'd sink or float.

He'd already put it off for too long. Finally, with no more excuses, no more reason to hesitate, Alec closed the final few inches still separating them, the minuscule distance that somehow seemed to last for miles. His eyes slid shut a moment before he caught Magnus's lips in his own, weeping at how dry and cracked his agonizing delay had allowed them to grow. Dreading their inevitable separation, his hand held Magnus's head to him, his grip of Magnus's shoulder begging the kiss to last just a moment longer, and another moment longer. When the moisture at last broke free from his eyes and raced down his cheeks, he knew he was done for, no longer able to hide anything his fervent embrace hadn't already betrayed.

I'm sorry.

I missed you.

I love you.

Their now-mutual need for air forced Alec to release Magnus, pulling away and at last daring to look back down into those inquisitive eyes. He didn't know what he'd thought he'd see, what he'd hoped he'd see. A smile - nay, a grin - so wide it could not be mistaken for anything but brimming joy greeted him, and filled him with an ecstasy he hadn't thought possible for his dreary and dismal life. Only then did he feel how Magnus's hand had returned to his neck, and how his other hand had slipped around to clutch the side of his jacket. Magnus's eyes drifted over him in a way wholly unique to every time he'd done the same before, fathoming the very fact he could take in Alec's appearance even as he doted upon all the tiny details he'd become able to miss, that he'd now get to enjoy in a way he couldn't have before.

Fathoming, just as Alec did in this very same moment, what it truly meant to be human.

I'm sorry.

I missed you.

I love you.

Though their thoughts were shared, or perhaps because they were, neither of them gave voice to the feelings stinging their eyes and clutching their hearts. Instead, Magnus chuckled, beckoning Alec closer with the slight pull of his hands. "Glad... you found me..."

Alec smirked, eagerly crawling onto the bed beside Magnus. His arms snaked their ways around his body to hold him close, closer than he'd ever held Magnus ever before. If he could be so lucky to have any wish in the world, it'd be that he'd never have to let go.

"Yeah. Me, too."