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a cold night for good deeds

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Qui dedit benificium taceat; narrat qui accepit ( let him who has done a good deed be silent; let him who has received it tell it ).

 

 


 

 

This is a blood-on-the-sidewalk sort of city; Alec has always believed that much. A grey and moody city, steeped in constant cloud and rain and dirty nighttime, hanging on to politically-tinged Cold War feelings, even twenty years after the fact.

 

Alec seeks cover from the downpour on a fire escape that could be any other fire escape, but the rain drips through the metal grates, cold and shivering. On his tongue, he tastes rust and iron, and it matches the purpling bruises that spread like oil up his ribcage.

 

He’s at least five stories up, and the alley below is filtered through white noise. The sheets of rain make it hard to see the pot-holed asphalt, even for someone with as keen a sense of sight as Alec. The wind, too, is unforgiving, funneled through city streets, wild and unpredictable enough that each gust catches Alec by surprise. He grits his teeth against it.

 

It’s a cold night for crime. Alec hopes the weather might put a damper on the chatter of the police radio, but he’s been in this gig long enough to know that’s not the case. The city sleeps and wakes in restlessness. He’s already had to intervene in one knife fight more than he would’ve liked, tonight. There’s a bruise blooming on the point of his elbow that is giving him particularly grief. Sometimes, he thinks it’s almost like people know exactly where to hit him to get through his armour.

 

Someone’s left their washing out, strung across the width of the alleyway on a telephone wire, sodden and flapping around in the wind like sheets of newspaper. Alec wonders if he should tell a neighbour - have it be his good deed for the night - but he glances up and there must be fifty apartments alone crammed into the grey-stone building opposite him, and he wouldn’t know where to start knocking on doors.

 

Instead, he curls into the poor shelter of the fire escape and busies himself with prodding at his side, black gloved hands poking at black Kevlar armour, where his body is tender. He might have broken a rib; he digs his fingers in just below his armpit and winces. It’s not the worst harm he’s ever done to himself, but it still hurts.

 

His sharp intake of breath registers across the communications bud implanted in his ear.

 

Alec? ” comes a familiar voice. It’s Isabelle; it always is; it’s never been anyone else. “ Are you alright?

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, and he wonders how well Izzy might hear him over the thunder of driving rain beating the streets into submission. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

 

You almost home? ” Izzy asks, even though Alec knows full well that she has a screen in front of her that flashes with his location on a map of the city’s veins. She could pinpoint his position down to this very fire escape, if she so wished. It’s not why she asks.

 

“Almost,” replies Alec, “I’ll start heading back. There’s going to be … paperwork.”

 

Don’t worry about that ,” Izzy says. Alec hasn’t tried to hide the fatigue in his voice, and she can probably hear it. He’s transparent when it comes to her, and no mask he wears across his eyes will ever stop her seeing straight through him, even when she’s little more than a voice in his ear. “ Mom and dad won’t even be thinking about that tonight. Debriefing will be tomorrow instead. Jace just got back, and he’s … made a typical Jace mess.

 

Alec tsks , unfurling himself from his crouched position. The rain feels like it’s softened, but he can still hear it pounding into the concrete, a snare drum beat on the armour on his shoulders and on the black polycarbon of the quiver on his back - but it’s the drilling rain upon his mask that doesn’t quite match what he’s seeing, so he stands up, scanning the alleyway.

 

“A ‘typical Jace mess’ always becomes my mess,” Alec grumbles, but then he adds, a little more gently, “Is he alright?”

 

Fine ,” Izzy says, and he imagines her with her heels up on her desk, rolling her eyes. “Not a scratch on him and grinning like he just won the Superbowl. And he won’t shut up about it, of course. I’ve locked him out of the office because there’s not enough room in here for both me and his ego.

 

“Was Muse out with him?”

 

She has a name, Alec ,” Izzy laments with a exasperated sigh. “ But no, she wasn’t. It was her night off tonight, so it’s just a Jace mess, and not a Jace-and-Clary mess, thank God. Mom and dad will go easy on him if it’s just him .”

 

“I almost wish they wouldn’t,” Alec mutters, but his attention is elsewhere, and in his ear, he hears Izzy shift, aware of the tiny change in his tone. He imagines her sitting up straight in her chair.

 

The rain has stopped, but Alec can still feel it on the sliver of bare skin along his jaw, like a distant memory. He can taste it, beneath the wrought iron and blood on his tongue: the city’s petrichor, not born of grass, but made of sodden newspapers and fast food and an aging sewer system. It’s not pleasant, but it’s familiar.

 

It’s still raining; he just can’t see it. His skin prickles and his stomach clenches around something nauseous.

 

Alec? ” Izzy asks in his ear, concerned. Alec scans the alleyway with hawk-sharp eyes, but sees nothing. He presses on his mask at the point between his eyebrows and fiddles with his compound bow with itching fingers.

 

“It’s Veil. She’s nearby,” he explains.

 

I’ll switch our radio frequency ,” says Izzy; he hears her typing frantically on her end, fingers flying over her keyboard with effortless ease as she takes them off-the-record. “ Okay, hermano. We’re good.

 

If Izzy were anybody else, they wouldn’t get away with this, Alec knows. Everything he does, every arrow he nocks, every stutter in his heartbeat, every street he steals down is catalogued, from the moment he puts on his suit to the moment he takes his mask off at the end of a heavy night. Those are the rules; they’ve never not been the rules, not when the person paying his bills wears a three-piece suit and sits in Congress all day, passing laws for people he’s never met.

 

Alec Lightwood is a Corporate. It should really be the first line of his resume, seeing as it all but defines him. It certainly explains the bruises and the broken rib.

 

Alec Lightwood is a Corporate . And so is Izzy, and Jace, and Clary, and his parents too. Corporate heroes with government sponsorship, doing Congress’ dirty work in the places where the long arm the law just won’t reach. Keeping records of their activity is paramount; no senator wants to be caught out by the illicit activity of what his constituents’ tax dollars are paying for.

 

There are, of course, ways around the record-keeping, especially when you’re Izzy. It’s easy enough to turn Alec’s tracker on and off, to switch the frequency of their radio channel, and have it appear on the end-of-the-night paperwork as a blip in the system. They’ve been doing it for months now, if not years.

 

If Alec has been blessed - or cursed - with superpowers, then he’s going to do good with them when he can. It’s not as often as he would like, but under the cover of dark, hiding him from prying eyes … he can entertain a knife fight or two to retrieve a woman’s purse, every now and again.  

 

“Thanks, Iz,” says Alec. He strains to listen for the sound of footsteps, but he hears nothing beyond the distant hum of invisible rain and wailing sirens far away. There is no commotion nearby. It settles the twitch in his nerves, but he doesn’t quite relax. He’s not a fool. “I don’t think she’s in trouble. I can’t hear anything. I’m going to see if I can find her.”

 

“Find who?” says someone on the level of the fire-escape above Alec’s head. His hand lunges for his quiver in a split second, fingertips on an arrow, bow prone in his grip - but he relents when he looks up.

 

There’s a woman and a man standing on the grate above his head: she’s in a dark blue leather jacket, and he’s in a cowl and a supersuit, looking far more the vigilante part than her.

 

But they’re both in masks, just like Alec.

 

“Veil,” says Alec. He lets the hand clutching his bow fall to his side, but he doesn’t let it go. The man and the woman make their way down the fire-escape stairs to Alec’s level, looking slightly better for wear than him. “Wolfsbane.”

 

“Sentinel,” says the man, a lopsided grin splitting his face. Alec gives him the once over, but he’s just a man in a mask this evening, nothing more. “How’s it going?”

 

Sentinel . That’s Alec. Or - it isn’t Alec, because Alec and Sentinel are not the same person, and Alec knows this. They do, however, inhabit the same skin and the same armour, and Veil and Wolfsbane don’t know anyone called Alec; they only know the archer in a black mask.

 

“Fine,” replies Alec. He likes Wolfsbane, and he thinks Wolfsbane likes him too, because he’s always cordial and friendly, even when he’s limping along rooftops and dripping blood after one-too-many close calls. He’s a bit older than Alec - a bit older than most of the people Alec knows who don masks and sneak out into the night to try and do good deeds - but the weather he has worn has not made him cold and hard and unforgiving. His powers may be impressive, but his jokes are always terrible.

 

Veil, on the other hand, is the pricklier of the two of them, but Alec can never really blame her.

 

She’s not a Corporate, not like Alec. Wolfsbane isn’t either.

 

It’s complicated.

 

“Anything exciting tonight?” asks Wolfsbane, leaning back against the railings of the fire escape with ease. His smile is cheery, a sharp white and against his brown skin, but he folds his strong arms across his chest, muscles rippling beneath his jacket, and Alec knows he’s not nearly as laid-back as he seems. “Or can you still not talk to us about it?”

 

“You know I can’t,” says Alec, used to this line of teasing. “Against the rules.”

 

“Against the rules,” parrots Veil, rolling her dark eyes. “You Corporates are all the same. Buzzkills.”

 

“And how many Corporates do you know?”

 

Veil fixes him with a sharp look.

 

“You, for starters,” she says, flat, “And we just saw Arkangel down by the river. Making a mess, as usual. Didn’t let us help.”

 

Alec grits his teeth, but it’s more out of despair over Jace - Arkangel - and his nonsense than anything Veil might say.

 

“Arkangel’s on record, you know that,” Alec frowns, “Anything you say or do when you’re around him gets put on paper. It’s … just safer if we don’t get involved with y-”

 

“And yet here we are,” grins Wolfsbane, gesturing at Alec. “Against the rules.”

 

“Yeah, well …” Alec starts, but there’s light in Wolfsbane’s eyes, beneath his cowl. He seems genuinely amused at Alec’s fluster, his teasing fond. “This is different.”

 

“What do you think would happen if your bosses found out you were fraternising with vigilantes?” Veil says, her lips quirking up at the corners. “You’d be out of the job, huh?”

 

Mom would have your balls mounted on the wall ,” says Izzy, in his ear. “ And Dad would give you that look. The neutral face of disappointment. You know the one .”

 

Alec scowls, Wolfsbane throws his head back and laughs, and Veil cannot hide her smirk.

 

“Your man in the chair giving you grief?” asks Wolfsbane with a spry nod of his head.

 

Woman in the chair !” Izzy protests loudly. Alec winces, closing one eye as he tries turns his head away from her voice in his ear.

 

“... Something like that,” he mutters. The sound of rain creeps closer and the cold is beginning to slither beneath his suit, even if he still can’t see it; only for so long can Izzy’s gear can keep him warm when the city is trying its damnedest to force him off the streets.

 

“Is it still raining?” Alec asks then, nodding towards the black and rumbling sky. He can hear the downpour, but still his eyes - or someone else - are playing tricks on him. His stomach feels tight, but Veil’s powers aren’t only to make him nauseous.

 

“Yeah,” Veil smirks. She tugs the leather glove from her hand and holds her palm out to Alec. Her nails are nicely manicured and she has a pretty ring on her finger. Her brown skin is smooth and not callous-worn like his. Alec always notes what he can about her, but he knows it’s of little point. She’ll never be foolish enough to reveal her identity to him.

 

And so, Alec does the same, tugging off his glove and pressing his fingers into her proffered palm for a split second of contact. It’s not like a spark, but he does feel it in his stomach, dropping out from within him, all that dizzying pressure empting from his insides as soon as skin touches skin.

 

In a second, he is soaked to the bone.

 

The clouds seem to give way to all the rain at once, and Alec has to blink back the water that streams into his eyes. Veil’s curly hair is wet now, her jacket slick with the shine of rainwater. Wolfsbane looks much the same, absolutely drenched with raindrops pearling in his dark beard, but with streaks of watery red covering his knuckles and his knees.

 

It’s been a rough night for both of them too.

 

And they both look tired now, and they might look more tired still; Alec never quite knows if he’s seeing the full picture around them, or if it’s just what Veil wants him to see. He can count the number of people he knows with powers on his two hands, but he’s read a lot of files, and still Veil might be the most dangerous one. The thought of someone playing with the things that he can see without him ever realising makes him nervous.

 

Alec’s just grateful that she doesn’t completely hate him, even if she might hate all the rest of the Corporates out there. Best to be on her good side. Best to be on the good side of anyone who can cast illusions without even having to snap their fingers.

 

You can trust me , he wants to tell her then, but he knows it would be wrong. He doesn’t like making promises he cannot keep. They might be two sides of the same coin, but they’re still at odds: he’s a Corporate and she’s not, she’s a vigilante hero, and however much Alec might insist things are changing and he’s not like his parents, she has no obligation to believe him. It’s smart; she’s smart; Alec is glad of it.

 

He doesn’t want to see either of them hurt, and he knows what happens when people like Veil and Wolfsbane trip up and make mistakes that they cannot come back from.

 

It’s enough to settle for what they have now: a camaraderie balanced on a knife-edge, upon which the whole city exists that they would be Hell-bent to escape. They know that Alec won’t report them to the authorities. Alec knows that they give him more time than he deserves. He doesn’t know either of their names or either of their faces, and they don’t know his, and it doesn’t matter. They all fight to keep people safe on the streets; they all share the responsibility of powers .

 

One day, perhaps, they will be on the same team. That’s one of Alec’s far-fetched dreams.

 

“You done for the night, Sentinel?” asks Wolfsbane then, studying Alec.

 

Alec hunches his shoulders beneath his roaming eyes. He hoists his quiver up on his back, feeling heavier than it did before, despite being near-empty of arrows.

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, “I was … waiting for the rain to stop.”

 

Wolfsbane has many gifts, and Alec knows that one of them means he can smell the blood that Alec tastes in his mouth and that blooms as bruises beneath the cocoon of his armour. Hell, Alec wouldn’t be surprised if Wolfsbane could hear his fractured ribs creaking and groaning.

 

He’s thankful that Wolfsbane says nothing. It’s not the sort of relationship they have, even if Alec thinks that the person Wolfsbane is beneath the mask might really care. He has always seemed like that sort of person, a kind person , and Alec has known him a while now.

 

“We won’t keep you then,” says Wolfsbane. He cranes his head back, out from the shelter offered by the fire escape. He closes his eyes behind his mask and takes a deep breath and Alec watches, intensely. “It’ll stop soon.”

 

“Can you … smell that?” Alec asks.

 

Veil snickers and Wolfsbane grins, broad and white and blinding. It cuts through the gloom.

 

“No,” he says, “Just checked the weather forecast this morning, is all. Don’t need your powers for everything, son.”

 

Alec flushes, glad that his mask conceals some of his face. He clears his throat promptly and makes a show of adjusting his gear, shortening his bow and clipping it back on his hip.

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, pushing away from the brick wall he has been hiding against. He moves to slip past Wolfsbane and jump down into the alleyway below, but is stopped by the man’s broad hand clapping him on his shoulder. Even through his armour, the touch feels warm.

 

“Take care, Sentinel,” says Wolfsbane, “Stay safe.”

 

“Say hi to Arkangel from me,” says Veil, “Tell him to stop hogging the limelight, huh? He’s putting us all out of business.”

 

“I’ll try,” says Alec. He manages a barely-there smile, but he means it. He steps up onto the railing of the fire escape and drops down into the night.

 


 

Alec doesn’t get much sleep that night, but he expected it. By the time he’s been debriefed by his parents back at headquarters, by the time he’s allowed Izzy to stitch him back together where punches have broken his skin, and by the time he’s cleaned up Jace’s mess, it’s dawn, even if the city would protest otherwise. The sun rises low and tardy in the sky, like a man begging not to wake on a Monday morning, and the light it casts is filtered through a veil of smog and smoke and grime,somehow dirty as it dapples Alec’s skin through his curtains.

 

He finds an hour or two of restless sleep before his alarm clock goes off around eight, but he feels worse after waking than before he collapsed into bed. His body aches and every step is agony on his cracked rib; he can almost imagine it scratching against his lungs, pinching each breath he tries to take, rubbing him raw.

 

The worst part is: it’s nothing new. He’s dragged himself to work in worse shape than this; he’s well-practiced in gritting his teeth and not letting anyone know something’s wrong.

 

In the daytime, he works for a paper: the Daily Tribunal, one of the broadsheets, not one of the tabloids, and that’s an important distinction to make. It’s not the hardest job in the world - he’s not a journalist; he just works in finance and analytics, which is rarely more than a 9-to-5 commitment - but it’s still fast-paced in a city that never relents. They go to print at four every morning, and if not everything is at the press by then, it can be Hell to pay.

 

Five minutes just to breathe is a hard thing to find. Alec already feels exhausted and the week hasn’t even begun.

 

Coffee doesn’t help, even when he makes it as black as he can manage and the burn is near acrid down his throat. He tries to eat, but his stomach protests and he cannot manage more than a bite of some pastries Izzy must’ve left on his kitchen counter sometime late last night or early this morning. There’s this pressure in his temples too, bulging against the front of his skull that feels like the worst hangover he’s ever had, multiplied by a thousand; it’s a side effect from Veil’s illusions, but probably not made much better by the lack of sleep and the exhaustion slithering through his bones. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.

 

It would be easier if he didn’t have a job, Alec knows this. If he didn’t have a job, maybe he would get more than two hours of sleep a night. He doesn’t need to have one: Jace doesn’t. Clary has school part-time and Izzy works full-time at headquarters. He gets a paycheck once a month that is not terrible , even if it bares the signatures of both his parents and the stamp of Idris at the top. He has a nice apartment in the middle of the city. He lives comfortably. The hard skin on his hands is, now, just simply interesting.

 

But the thought of spending his days, as well as his nights, on missions he never knows the benefactor of, unable to ask questions, always on the record , is somehow quietly sickening. When he first started - longer ago than he’d care to admit - it didn’t bother him so much. That was before he met Veil and Wolfsbane, before Clary started at Idris, before he learned what the people were saying on the streets about supers - be they Corporate or vigilante heroes, it doesn’t matter.

 

Sentinel gets the night. Alec gets the day. That’s the deal he made with his parents, even if it involved a great deal of bloodshed. Alec gets the day; Alec puts on a button-down and takes off the mask; Alec rides the subway to an office in midtown; Alec gets to sit down at a computer and take coffee breaks and strategically use up his twenty-one days of vacation a year; Alec pretends to be normal. Alec is used to it.

 

It never quite works. He’s on the subway and he wonders if people can see right through him; he wonders if he’s limping too much or if there are bruises blooming like Rorschach marks where people can see or if he just exudes exhaustion, and it’s obvious why. He tries not to meet anyone’s eyes, and that’s a hard task in a city of millions, but Alec has grown rather good at it. He might not have the power to be invisible, but he’s perfected it in every other way.

 

People hate superheroes.

 

Hell, Alec can’t remember the last time that word was even used to describe what he does; it was probably before his time, when people still wrote comic books about supers, and didn’t post placards for their arrest and murder on every streetlamp on every block. People hate superheroes: Corporates, vigilantes, anyone who wears a mask. And who wouldn’t - how much trust can you place in people who operate outside the law; in people who hide their faces; in people who could kill with the snap of their fingers, and sometimes less.

 

The subway car rumbles; Alec pretends to lose his balance like everybody else. The woman in the seat across from him has a broadsheet in her hands that Alec knows the guy two-desks-over at work did the editorial spread for; on the front page, there’s another terrible headline, another blurry photograph of someone who is probably Jace.

 

CORPORATE VIGILANTE CAUSES CHAOS IN MIDTOWN CAR CHASE, LEAVING TWELVE HOSPITALISED AND THREE DEAD

 

Alec is used to the slander. He’s good at keeping Sentinel out of the public eye.

 

It doesn’t really matter.

 

Newspapers in the city are slanderous. The TV runs segments about unmasking vigilantes alongside the election primaries on the news at six. On the radio, President Bush talks about banning HIV and banning supers in the same God-awful breath. Effigies of Alec’s colleagues, of Alec’s family , get burned in the street, and the people higher up the food chain have the nerve to ask Alec to run point when the riots get out of hand, even when those rioters want him dead.

 

Last night, Jace – as Arkangel – stopped a high-speed car chase, rescuing a girl from the back of an SUV and killing her three kidnappers in the process, yet all that matters is the cost on the city council to fill in the resulting potholes.

 

It’s a messy thing for a messy city: protecting people who don’t want your protection. Trying to do good when it only makes people nervous. Sometimes, Alec thinks, it’s not quite worth it.

 

The subway rumbles to a halt at Alec’s stop. He jostles through the crowds, shoulder-first, offering quiet apologies to the people he squeezes past. Every nudge is winding on his ribs, still twinging from last night’s knife fight, but the scowl knitted into his brow is no different to anyone else battling the underground this early in the morning. He blends easily into the background.

 


 

“Rough night?”

 

Alec’s eyes fly up from his computer screen - and for a moment, he thinks someone knows about his late night dalliances - but it’s only Simon Lewis leaning over the top of his office cubicle with the most obnoxious grin on his face, but a cup of coffee held out to Alec in his hand.

 

“No,” says Alec curtly, taking the coffee anyway. He sniffs it wearily - Simon has a tendency for overloading his peace offerings with milk and that hazelnut syrup that he likes - but it just smells like sugary jet fuel, which is fine by Alec. “... Why?”

 

“You look terrible,” Simon says, folding his arms on top of Alec’s partition and cocking his head, “I mean - I’m sorry, I mean, you always look great , you’re a good-looking guy, don’t get me wrong, I just - y’know, you just look - you always look a little angry, but today you look like you’re just extra pissed and - I’ll just shut up now, right?”

 

“Please do,” says Alec, fixing him with a flat look, but returning his gaze to his computer screen. He types a few words, but Simon doesn’t budge. “Thanks for the coffee,” he says, in a hope to make him leave. No such luck.

 

“Not a problem,” Simon smiles. “So … you’re not going to tell me what happened?”

 

Alec blinks slowly.

 

“No.”

 

“Not even if I bat my eyelashes?”

 

“Definitely not.”

 

“Well, damn, Alec, I guess I’ll just have to take that coffee back. Here, I thought we were friends.”

 

Simon reaches for the coffee cup, but Alec slaps his hand away with reflexes that make Simon start. It’s a routine of theirs, of which Alec is not sure when - or why - it started. Simon opens his mouth to say something, but Alec gets there first.

 

“Fine,” he says, keeping his fingers curled tightly and protectively around the Styrofoam cup. “It was Jace. He got in trouble with the police and I had to … bail him out.”

 

“D aaa mn,” Simon sings, nodding his head as if he understands perfectly, “Did he get arrested again? That’s insane - actually, no, you know what? I don’t even think I’m surprised. I’ve only met your brother, like, what, twice? But I totally see it. His head is so far up his own ass, it serves him right - no offense, of course.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Alec mutters, “Didn’t do much to deflate his ego.”

 

“Hmph,” Simon snorts, “Well, I’m glad. Not about Jace, obviously - he needs to be taken down a peg or two - but like … you’ve been walking around like a zombie for the last forever , like you haven’t been getting any sleep or whatever, and I was wondering if maybe you’d started seeing someone? But no, it’s only Jace - not that I’m glad you’re not seeing someone! ‘Cus you like, deserve to be happy, but -” Simon drops his voice to a stage whisper, “-well, it would’ve totally broken Magnus’ heart.”

 

Alec is good at a lot of things: he’s an expert marksman, he’s almost unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat, and his reflexes are so sharp that he’s dodged his fair share of bullets with his name on in the past. He’s good at not being noticed; he’s good at blending in; he’s good at pretending he doesn’t live a double life, a different person, once the sun goes down, to who he is the day.

 

Alec is not good at keeping a neutral face whenever Magnus Bane’s name is brought up. It’s a weakness. He knows it. He keeps it under wraps.

 

He tries to hide the way his face wants to contort behind the rim of the coffee cup, more into a grimace that anything; he takes a sip, but it’s still way too hot. He swallows it anyway.

 

Simon grins, tongue poking out between his teeth.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alec says gruffly.

 

“You might be dense, but you’re not blind, Alec,” Simon retorts with a mischievous grin, “C’mon, Alec, this is me, you can talk to me about this. I’m not gonna say anything! I don’t know why you’re sleeping on this, dude.”

 

Alec spares a glance around the office, but no-one’s paying attention to this particular conversation; tuning Simon out is a well-practiced art amongst his colleagues. It does little to settle him.

 

“You see how he is,” Simon whispers dramatically, “ I see how he is.”

 

“It’s not like that,” Alec grumbles, “It’s just how Magnus is. He’s being friendly.”

 

“Friendly,” says Simon, rolling his eyes. “Right, right. And you’re not grumpy, you’re just perpetually misunderstood.”

 

“No, I’m definitely grumpy when you’re here. Maybe you should try not being here.”

 

“I am hurt and wounded,” Simon says, pressing a hand to his chest dramatically. Alec fixes him with another flat, unimpressed stare, one which has been honed far too well. Simon is oblivious to it.

 

Unlike Alec, Simon is a journalist. Not your traditional guy-with-a-notebook, flinging microphones into people’s faces as they leave courtrooms sort of reporter - Simon definitely doesn’t have the gall or the eloquence for that - but he’s a photojournalist. He takes a lot of photos, especially of the supers, which always puts Alec a little on edge; the camera that is too often slung around his neck is a pressing reminder of the knife-edge Alec runs along. It’s hard to let his guard down around Simon, even if Simon has done nothing wrong.

 

It’s easier to present a cold shoulder and be a little abrasive. Simon seems to take it in good humour.

 

He never needs to know that the super with the titanium wings he photographed not even last week is the very same Jace he laughs about now. He doesn’t need to know that it was Arkangel that Alec was bailing out of police custody again last night. The dark is always a better place to be.

 

The telltale sound of well-soled shoes on the carpet has Alec looking up from his monitor once more, his patience running far too thin for it being before nine in the morning. Simon looks too, and where Alec’s expression softens, Simon’s flits rapidly through cheer, dread, and panic, in very quick succession.

 

“Magnus!” Simon squawks, leaping back from being sprawled across Alec’s partition, “Hey! Good morning!”

 

Alec is not the only one in the office looking tired, but Magnus Bane hides it far, far better than Alec. Today, it’s hidden behind tall hair and a crisp button-up and a beautiful black-and-red waistcoat that carves out the fine shape of his back.

 

He has a pencil tucked behind his ear and a stack of manilla folders under his arm, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. It’s an effortless look, save for the way Alec’s gaze briefly passes over the darker circles beneath Magnus’ eyes.

 

“Good morning,” Magnus says, raising his eyebrows. His mouth is drawn into a terse line, and Alec imagines his morning so far must’ve been akin to how Alec himself is feeling. “I don’t see much work going on here, Simon.”

 

“Whatever you’re seeing here is an illusion,” Simon says, waving his hands around in front of Magnus, mimicking magic as he backs away from Alec’s desk. “I’m at my desk. I’m working hard. Your editorial will be on time. The work day is a government-made conspiracy designed to break the American proletariat into submission. Capitalism is hell.”

 

“I almost agree with you there,” says Magnus. There’s a slight tug in his expression, and the look in his eyes becomes amused. “Doesn’t mean the work doesn’t have to be done. Sadly, we do have a deadline.”

 

“As if you would let me forget!” Simon calls back.

 

“Who hires these people?” Magnus laughs lightly. He nods his head at Alec. “Alexander, good morning.”

 

“Magnus,” Alec offers, a little awkwardly.

 

Magnus smiles, some warmth creeping into his eyes. He leans into Alec’s partition, as natural as anything.

 

“How was your weekend, Alexander?” he asks. His thumb and forefinger move to his ear, fiddling with the silver cuff that catches the light.

 

“Nothing special,” he says with a shrug. He doesn’t really know what else to say, and he can tell by the twitch in Magnus’ face that Magnus might have been hoping for a little more. Alec usually flounders when it comes to this sort of small talk; he’s reached the point where he might hope Magnus knows it as routine. Alec does better with routine. “Uh … you?”

 

“Oh, me?” Magnus says, preening at being asked. Alec finds it a little endearing. “Not much to write home about, I must say. Had a late dinner with Captain Garroway on Saturday night, which turned into me staying out far past my bedtime.”

 

Alec snorts, unable to help himself, and Magnus seems pleased to have made him laugh. It lessens the severity of those purple-dark circles making his face seem hollow.

 

“But other than that,” Magnus continues breezily, “Recovering from the night before, a couple movies with my cat, a little home cooking … what can I say, I’m a simple man.”

 

His smile is coy as Alec shakes his head.

 

“Sure,” Alec acquiesces. An email pops up on his screen from his manager, asking for updates on a report due at the end of the week that Alec hasn’t even had the time to start preparing yet. He sighs, shoulders sagging. The look he shoots Magnus is apologetic. “I’m sorry, I should - I gotta-”

 

“No worries,” Magnus smiles, stepping back from Alec’s desk. “I shouldn’t be keeping you from work, especially when I’m so hard on Simon. You’re a busy man. I’m also a busy man. Papers don’t publish themselves.”

 

“I’ll see you around,” says Alec, a little pathetically.

 

“Yes,” says Magnus, already walking away, but backwards, so that he doesn’t have to look away until he almost walks into another person’s desk, only to expertly avoid it at the last second. “Have a good day, Alexander.”

 

Alec huffs, but there’s a despairing smile on his lips as he turns back to his computer, rapidly firing off an email to his boss. It takes about thirty seconds for an email from Simon to appear.

 

From: LewisS@tribunal.org

Subject: not saying I told you but ...

 

Alec rolls his eyes and closes the email without replying. He has a lot of work to do today, and he doesn’t want to stay late. He has to call in to headquarters tonight, before he heads out on patrol. There’s probably a lot of Jace’s mess still to sort out. His mother will want to call a press conference. Alec - or Sentinel - probably won’t be home ‘til the sunrise. He already feels exhausted, the buoyancy left by Magnus’ friendly smile quickly deflating.

 

Magnus Bane is a lot of things: he’s the subject of all the office gossip; he’s the sort man that commands attention the moment he walks into a room; he has this way of walking that makes Alec wonder if he can bend the world around him as he pleases. He always has a curious smile and something mischievous in his eyes, as if he’s privy to a joke no-one else has earned the right to share.

 

Alec doesn’t know him well. He’s beautiful and witty and scathing at times - which Alec can certainly appreciate - but a little bit impossible. He walks in different circles to Alec, and it seems a fleeting chance that whatever life he might lead should cross with Alec’s, maybe once or twice a day, passing each other by in corridors, swapping friendly greetings, Alec trying to suppress a not-quite-professional smile at a subtle innuendo slid easily into conversation. He flirts - and that’s a bravery in itself, the sort that bewilders Alec, because you don’t just get to be a man who likes other men in the workplace these day - not if Reagan and Bush have had anything to say about it.

 

But Magnus ... Magnus has not been in the city long - a few months at most - and had arrived in the office from out of the blue and amidst a string of senior management firings, the subject of rampant speculation. He had slid right in to his role as a senior editor, effortless and capable, a brilliant journalist with an eye for a great story, and that’s enough to let people turn a blind eye to his extravagance.

 

It’s something that Alec envies about him: the ease with which Magnus carries himself, talks to people, makes others laugh. He seems like the sort of person who knows his place in the universe and would gallantly present a middle finger to anyone who tried to challenge that, possessing a sure-footedness both admirable and enviable.

 

He’s also asked Alec out seven times since he started working here. Not that Alec is counting (although Simon might be). Alec has politely - and awkwardly - declined every time and Magnus has taken it in stride, neither offended nor discouraged, his smile always charming, and his next attempt to invite Alec for drinks always just as disarming.

 

Despite what Simon says, and despite Alec’s seven declinations to dinner, Alec does like Magnus. And maybe a little bit in the way that Simon likes to pretend he does, but, more than that, Magnus is -

 

Magnus is something normal. A little pleasure that Alec finds in the day-to-day of his life, something that is far and away detached from his night-time endeavours. He doesn’t know Magnus or much about him, and in turn, Magnus doesn’t really know him either, and Alec likes that, the thought that his conversations with Magnus are something that the superpowers he was born with do not get a say in.

 

Magnus is Alec’s . A friendly face and a distraction, a dalliance on those worse days. Someone who doesn’t know, and will never know, that Alec Lightwood is a superhero .

 


 

No-one has called them superheroes for years. If they’re lucky, they’ll get supers ; more often than not, it’s Corporates and vigilantes , even if the distinction is rarely made. Alec is Corporate: he works for Idris, an agency for those gifted with abilities, backed and funded by the government and politicians with deep pockets and big-business sponsors. Institutions like Idris have been around for a long time - all the way through the Cold War, dating back further, probably, to the turn of the century when the thought of militarising superpowers for war became an idea presented on the tables of wartime cabinets. At first, it had seemed like a good idea to keep a wrangle on dangerous, empowered people, to have them working for the right side, not for the Germans or the Russians or whoever the country might have hated at the time.

 

Now -

 

Well, things have not been the same for a while. The world Alec has grown up in does not spare time for Corporates, and for good reason.

 

Trust, once broken, often remains shattered.

 

The Circle saw to that. Corporates that went rogue - not becoming vigilantes, like Veil and Wolfsbane - with itches in their fingers to test powers and test limits and ignore sanctions.

 

It was before Alec’s time, but the bloody aftermath still remains quite potent. All supers in this city are the same supers. All dangerous. All deadly. All beyond the law. That’s the only public consensus that matters now.

 


 

There’s graffiti on the walls of Idris’ headquarters that Alec can make out from half a block away: it’s red and violent and angry, and there are protesters milling around on the front steps with paint-covered hands, chanting hateful things. It’s not like anyone will arrest them for petty vandalism: not here. Not in this city. They’re a regular feature on the front porch, but as long as they don’t come in the door, Idris is more than happy to ignore their screaming and political demands.

 

Something threatening rumbles overhead, possibly the thunder, but probably Alec’s dour mood. He slips down an alleyway before he can be intercepted walking up the street; there’s a hatch, leading down into a basement, that he knows well. He’s not foolish enough to walk into headquarters through the front door, especially when he’s not yet in his suit, and there are plenty of back entrances to sneak in, unseen.

 

The basement is dark and dingy and smells of damp and mould, so Alec doesn’t linger. He scans his biometrics on a keypad hidden by an electrical box, and a door slides open in the wall, revealing a tunnel lit with harsh, white light and the smell of something chemically clean.

 

It used to be home. He grew up here. He still can’t shake the habit of ducking his head when he passes beneath the all-seeing eye of a security camera, even though Jace and Isabelle long since figured out all the blind spots of Idris’ security.

 

Alec doesn’t try to sneak in. Idris were probably aware of him approaching halfway down the street; someone, somewhere, sitting behind a computer, has probably been watching the tracker in his suit – stuffed into his holdall – bleep since he left the office.

 

If Idris wants to know where he is, they’ll know.

 

Alec hoists his bag up on his shoulder and it makes his ribs twinge. He should probably stop and see the physio before he suits up for the night, but there’s always been a part of him that clings to the dull pain of healing wounds: bruises, blisters, burn-marks, his hands rubbed red raw from stringing his bow in the training hall, finding his mark and in target after target until there’s windburn in a stripe along his cheek where his arrows flew.

 

The hallways are surprisingly empty. He’s still below ground level, and down here, there are only the labs and the tech department, as well as a few training halls for testing out new gadgets. Upstairs, in the stately and imposing grey-stone building that holds vigil over the streets above, the rooms are oak-panelled and his mother and father’s penthouse office is lit with sconces and a fireplace, rather than sterile electric lights.

 

Upstairs is the public face: where press conferences are held, where politicians are entertained, where people think Idris keeps a room full of supers, letting them out one at a time on a rota into the streets, perhaps.

 

Downstairs is the place Alec knows far better. There’s a dark mark in the centre of the hallway that has yet to be cleaned up – it might be mud or it might be dried blood. From the way it’s smeared, Alec suspects it’s the result of someone staggering in late last night.

 

He knows Jace wasn’t hurt after yesterday’s escapade, and he’s been told time and time again that his worry over the other supers on their roster is unwarranted and not his jurisdiction, but Alec has always been the sort of person to fret about other people’s safety, especially when he could do something about it.

 

And what can you do about it? he can imagine his mother asking him. You have work to do. You can’t be at everyone’s beck and call, Alec. Watching their backs is not your problem. You’re Jace’s partner. He’s the only one you should be watching.

 

It’s not that simple. It’s never been that simple. There are so many more people out there who need his help, even if they’ll never thank him for it.

 

Alec wrinkles his nose, stepping around the blood stain in the hallway. Izzy’s laboratory is at the end of the corridor and he makes a beeline for it, but it’s then that one of the doors opens behind him, and Underhill pops his head out.

 

“Hey, Alec,” he calls, and Alec’s shoulders tense before he wills himself to turn around. He likes Underhill. The man has never been anything but pleasant to him, exchanging knowing looks with Alec whenever his father suggests something particularly uncouth or unfair, but he still works at Alec’s parents feet, doing their dirty work.

 

Alec turns to look at Underhill, so excruciatingly close to the safety of Izzy’s lab.

 

“Hey,” he says, “What’s the matter? Do you need me?”

 

“Not me,” says Underhill, having the grace to look guilty at catching Alec, “There’s another debrief about last night in ten minutes, and your father asked me to grab you when you came in. So – I’m sorry.”

 

Alec flattens his mouth into a firm line and offers up his best shrug. He’s not entirely sure how convincing it is.

 

“’S alright,” he says, “Is Jace going?”

 

“Yeah, I just saw him on his way up in the elevator with Clary,” says Underhill. He pauses. “I’d say I haven’t seen you yet, but –“ He gestures behind Alec at the security camera winking on the wall. “All-seeing eye sees all.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Alec sighs, turning around and starting back the way he came. He cannot help but hunch his shoulders as he passes Underhill, whose eyebrows pinch sympathetically. “Someone has to keep Jace from actively hanging himself out to dry. I better go.”

 

Alec knows how this will go. Jace caused a ruckus last night, but Jace causes ruckuses most nights. It’s nothing that his parents aren’t used to; Robert will chew him out but let him off the hook, and Maryse will call a press conference and spin the story to sweep everything Jace did under the rug. Neither of them will mention how Jace saved someone’s life.

They’ll both probably rip into Alec about how he wasn’t there to keep control of the situation and stop any of it from happening in the first place. Somehow, it’ll be his fault, because they know Jace is reckless, but Alec – Alec should be better. It’s what they expect of him. How could he let them down.

 

He knows the spiel like the back of his hand or the inside of his mask. He’ll even feel guilty about it, because he knows he was disarming a man with a knife halfway across the city whilst Jace was chasing that car, and he was with Veil and Wolfsbane when Jace was being questioned by the police, and Alec knows he shouldn’t have been .

 

It’ll be fine. His parents will be disappointed. Both he and Jace will receive a warning, one which will be conveniently forgotten by everyone the next time Jace reoffends. Maryse will take Alec aside after the briefing and tell him that he needs to have a word with his brother. Alec will stay silent, a good soldier, and nod, but -

 

As if Jace has ever listened to anything Alec has said.

 

Alec sighs wearily as he steps into the elevator, stabbing the button for the penthouse with more force than necessary. The doors are about to close when a hand flies between them with a shout.

 

“Alec, hold the doors!”

 

And then, there’s Isabelle, her dark eyes bright, her heels eye-wateringly tall, and her arms laden with ring binders and case files. Alec frowns, reaching out without saying anything to take the top three folders off the pile before it falls out of her hands.

 

“Penthouse?” Alec asks, raising an eyebrow at Izzy balancing her paperwork dangerously in one hand and smooths down her skirt against her thigh. Alec looks down at the folders in his hands, but all of the are stamped with aggressive red <confidential> in big, blocky letters. He wonders if that includes or precludes him.

 

“Yep, mom and dad called me up to the gavel too,” she says, with a fed-up sort of sigh. She rounds her mouth and inspects her lipstick in her reflection in the elevator as the doors close again and the whole thing stutters as they rise towards the top floor.

 

“So, it’s serious then,” Alec mutters. “Are they mad?”

 

“No more than usual,” Izzy replies, “Dad is more pissed about it being off-duty than anything else. He doesn’t really care what Jace did, just that he did it, and we’re not getting paid for it. Mom is – well, mom . She’ll want to know where you were and why you weren’t watching Jace’s back and keeping him from being an idiot.”

 

“I don’t think anyone can keep him from being an idiot.”

 

“Trust me, I’ve tried telling her that many, many times. Have you decided what you’re going to tell her?”

 

“The usual,” says Alec, “Veil and Wolfsbane stay off the record, that’s the deal. I’ll tell them Jace ran off and I couldn’t keep up with him. It’s mostly the truth.”

 

“In your defence, he can fly,” Izzy says, her red mouth twitching at the corners. “I think you have a pretty solid excuse for being left behind.”

 

Alec grumbles in response and Izzy just smiles, returning her eyes to the door and shifting her stack of paperwork in her arms again. The elevator hisses to a halt at their floor: a wide corridor, carpeted with thick, expensive rugs, and low, far-friendlier light. Izzy shoots a look at Alec over her shoulder as she takes the lead.

 

Alec rolls his eyes and sighs, but follows in her footsteps, his chin pressed against his chest and his shoulders hitched.

 


 

 

The debriefing goes exactly as he expected, and Alec’s not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. Jace is his usual scathing self, meeting Robert’s every criticism with a scoff or a stony expression, and Clary – who had found Jace last night, when it should’ve been Alec – tries her best to get a word in edgeways in Jace’s defense, but is quickly silenced by Robert’s harsh shout.

 

Maryse schedules a press conference for the morning – neither Arkangel or Sentinel will have to attend; they’ll have someone from the publicity department host it – but the way she glares at Alec makes him feel remarkably guilty anyway, somehow wondering if she’s mad at him for not being able to attend and having a secret identity to keep.

 

Isabelle sits at Maryse’s desk and diligently types up a transcript of the debriefing and says nothing, but she does meet Alec’s eyes once or twice – once, to smirk at something Jace says, an I-told-you-so sort of look, and the second, a look of pity when Maryse hands Alec a nondescript manilla envelope, informing him that it’s their next mission, the closest thing to human contact he gets from her these days.

 

Alec doesn’t open the envelope in the office. He knows better than that. He just stands soldier-stiff until he’s dismissed, and then walks out of there as swiftly as he can, not waiting for Jace or Clary to rush after him.

 

They catch up with him in the elevator anyway.

 

“Man,” says Jace, palming his hand through his hair and slicking it back against his head. He leans back against the wall of the elevator, the back of his skull clunking against the mirrors. “Will they ever get off my back?”

 

“Will you ever stop running off into danger?” asks Alec, not looking up from the ground. He hears Jace suck in a sharp breath.

 

“Woah, okay, pot calling kettle,” says Jace, turning to Alec, “You were totally okay with us splitting up last night, don’t try pretending that this was all my fault.”

 

“It was mostly your fault,” remarks Clary. Alec doesn’t look at her either. “But, if we hadn’t have gone, well – it would’ve ended a lot worse for a lot of people, I’m sure. I think we got off pretty lightly.”

 

A sharp retort arrives on Alec’s tongue, something like: you two did get off lightly , but he doesn’t open his mouth to let it out. He fiddles with the envelope in his hands instead, turning it over in his fingers. He can only imagine something terrible is inside, and he’s not sure if that’s Maryse’s idea of a punishment or not. Terrible probably doesn’t even cross her mind when doling out duties.

 

“Yeah, well,” grumbles Jace, “It’d be nice if we didn’t all get called up to the principal’s office every time something like this happens.” He folds his arms across his chest, but he looks less like he’s angling for a fight and more like he’s mulling over a sour taste in his mouth, realising that Alec has a point.

 

“Like –” he continues, gesturing with his hand, “What do they expect? We can hold our own out there, they don’t need to worry all the damn time. We’re gonna be fine. Who cares that it’s off-mission or whatever – it’s gotta be done.”

 

Clary murmurs her agreement with Jace, as the elevator dings and they bustle their way out, on their way towards the training hall for some warm-ups before night patrol. But Alec lingers in the back of the elevator, until the doors close again. He doesn’t move.

 

Jace isn’t wrong, but he’s not right either. He just – he just never sees things as Alec sees them, has no reason to. It doesn’t ever occur to him that things might be different for Alec – and they are – and Jace never tries to put himself in Alec’s shoes.

 

He probably can’t.

 

Jace is a natural. When he says that he can hold his own, he means it, he knows it, it’s as easy as breathing. He has every reason to be confident. When he says that he’s going to be fine, he will be. Alec believes that. Alec knows that.

 

Jace’s power is adoptive muscle memory. He can see something done once – whether it be stitching up a gunshot wound or disassembling an assault rifle or scaling a building with his bare hands – and then his body will know how to do it.

 

Everything that Alec has had to work for, his entire twenty-something years, through blood and sweat and tears and servitude, has been innate for Jace. It’s why he’s Idris’ golden boy, and not Alec. It’s why he gets away with murder, sometimes quite literally.

 

It’s probably why his parents give Jace such leeway and hold Alec to such high standards in comparison. Sometimes, it feels unfair: for every step Jace takes, Alec has to take four, and then, at the end of the day, he gets scolded for not taking five, even when his body is on the brink of giving out beneath him.

 

Alec presses the button to open the elevator doors again, shaking his head on a derisive sort of smile, something entirely self-deprecating.

 

And as if the muscle memory wasn’t enough, on Jace’s eighteenth birthday - which is too many years ago to count now - Maryse and Robert had gifted Jace with a set of hydraulic titanium wings.

 

Jace doesn’t even have to take steps any more - Jace flies .

 

Alec steps out of the elevator and makes his way towards the locker room. It’s already coming on eight o’clock and the sun is on its way down; before night falls, he needs to have forgotten all this. He needs to open the envelope and brief himself on whatever deed Maryse has signed his name away for. He needs to suit up and lock Alec away and become Sentinel.

 

Sentinel doesn’t mope about how much easier it is for Jace, for Arkangel. Sentinel just puts his head down and gets on with it.

 


 

 

Patrol is fine. Clary tags along, Alec rolls his eyes, but Jace is on his best behaviour and nothing goes wrong. Some visiting politician from the west coast with a particularly torrid media presence had requested a security detail, and so they spend the night camped out in a three block radius around the man’s apartment, earning their pay packets. They’re not relieved until two in the morning, when Aline and Helen show up, who are always lumped with the graveyard shift ‘til dawn.

 

Alec rarely heads back to headquarters after patrol, and so he says a gruff goodbye to Jace and Clary at an intersection. They shoot off into the dark like a silver comet, Clary with her arms looped around Jace’s neck, and Jace’s great silver wings spread out wide.

 

It begins to rain; droplets pitter-patter against Alec’s mask, and it’s a long walk home for someone who only has their feet to carry them. Around him, the city melts in the encroaching downpour, with neon light spilling out of storefronts and becoming oil in the puddles. Car headlights score through the dark in an endless cascade of yellow and red across Alec’s face in the bare moments when he leaves the shadows of the city to cross the street.

 

His supersuit is thick and heavy-duty, but the chill always sets in after a while. The Kevlar chafes and the armour across his chest cuts into his skin when he walks, all because of the limp from two nights ago that he hasn’t yet been able to shake. In his quiver, the fletching of his arrows gather rain, glinting with dew that pearls in the pinks and the purples of flashing billboards overhead.

 

Alec keeps a grip on his bow, not returning it to his holster, even though the rain slicks his gloved fingers upon the grip. It’s only habit, when he’s alone. Sentinel won’t ever be caught unaware or unarmed, he makes sure of it.

 

He’s home by three that morning, rain-damp and sniffly. Once his front door is locked, he peels himself out of his suit and discards it in a trail to his bathroom, which would probably make Izzy gasp if she knew how he treated her gear at the end of a long shift.

 

His mask is always last to go, a slip of black leather that sticks to the bridge of his nose and loops around the back of his head like a second skin, and it slaps against the porcelain of his sink basin as he drops it. Alec curls his fingers around the rim of the basin, shoulders hunched, and lets his head just hang for a moment, eyes tightly closed.

 

Breathe in, and breathe out. There’s always a little ritual, peeling back Sentinel and becoming Alec again, raw and naked. It always requires acclimatisation, always requires the gritting of his teeth, because somehow bruises always sting a little bit more when he’s out of his suit and Alec again.

 

He has to be up in four hours. He feels his chest deflate, he steadies his breathing. He’s tired. Very tired. And it’s normal, because this is how every night ends, with Alec weary in his bones, staring at his scrubbed-bare face in the mirror, a hostage in a mask, wondering what it’s like to be Alec and not feel anything that isn’t slightly grey or lethargic.

 

Alec doesn’t get to feel many things. Sentinel will always see to that.

 


 

 

The thing about his job is that Alec can always do it in his sleep. He’s always been good with numbers – before Izzy took over as his and Jace’s handler, Alec used to have to file damage and expense forms at Idris himself – and so doing his day job when he’s exhausted is surprisingly possible.

 

A long time ago, Alec persuaded his parents to let him go to college – he studied accounting, which was awfully droll, but it was at least a normal droll experience, shared with normal people in a normal setting – and he’s always been comforted by the thought that he has other skills beyond scurrying around in the dark of the night.

 

Sitting at his desk and faced with an audit that needs to be completed by the end of the week is probably not something that Alec should find relaxing, but –

 

It is. He can’t help himself. Checking spreadsheets and typing away on his calculator is easy and mundane and entirely trivial, and for the fact that he gets to switch off between nine-and-five every day, he’s thankful.

 

He’s not sure he conceivably has the brain power left for much else. Slumped in his desk chair, it’s too often a task to get his fingers to even move across his keyboard.  

 

Simon Lewis, of course, does enjoy testing him. Dealing with Jace and Clary does mean that Alec has a lot of experience in handling children , but Simon’s brand of obnoxious enthusiasm has always been particularly draining.

 

“So, there I was, with barbecue sauce all over my hands and face,” Simon is saying, perched on the edge of Alec’s desk for some reason, “Minding my own business at this great burger place in East Village – which we should go to together, by the way, because I reckon you’d really like it – and then suddenly people start pointing and yelling out on the street, and Arkangel just – zooms past, right down low in the street, right past the window – and of course, what do I do? Gotta try and get a photo, but my hands were super sticky so I couldn’t exactly just grab my camera –“

 

“Is there a point to this story?”

 

“What? Yes, of course! I was just saying – it’s so weird to see a super in the daylight, and then I stupidly told Magnus all about it, and he wanted to know if I had any photos of it, and for some reason I said yes? Even though I don’t, and now I feel really bad about lying to Magnus, but really I was just panicking, but now he thinks I have these photos and I don’t and I don’t know what I should do? Move to Timbuktu, maybe? Can I ever show my face here again -?”

 

Alec sighs heavily, closing his eyes and pinching at the bridge of his nose. There’s a fatigue migraine forming just above his eyebrows, pulsing and twitching, and he tries to will it away. No such luck.

 

Maybe he can will Simon away. Might as well try.

 

“Have you tried just telling Magnus the truth?” he asks. Simon’s eyes go wide, as if this is the most ludicrous thing he has ever heard.

 

“What? Are you kidding? That would be humiliating, I can’t – and Magnus would –”

 

Behind them, someone clears their throat. Alec realises belatedly that he hadn’t even sensed anyone approach, but – it just goes to show how tired he is. He twists around in his desk chair just as Simon’s face pales extraordinarily, and looks pretty much like he’s just stuck his foot in it.

 

Today, Magnus Bane is dressed in a blessing of a grey three-piece suit, the sharply pressed fabric patterned with black plaid. He’s wearing a tie, sleek and black, the knot pressed up against the divot of his throat, which draws Alec’s eyes. Maybe he has a board meeting today. Maybe he just wanted to dress up. Alec wouldn’t be able to guess which, but … well, he’s not adversed to the view.

 

“And Magnus would what?” Magnus asks, eyes flicking to Simon, his eyebrows raised expectantly.

 

“Magnus!” Simon squawks, flailing off the edge of Alec’s desk. “I didn’t see you there, how long have you been standing there–”

 

Magnus scowls, but his lips upturn at the corners. He curls his fingers over the back of Alec’s desk chair, leaning his weight on the back. It brings him close enough for Alec to get a taste of his cologne, a soft and woody smell, somehow quite intimate. He can’t place it, but he doesn’t have the nose for these things.

 

“Now, Simon,” Magnus says, “In my experience, when people ask things like that, they almost always have said something remarkably incriminating that they don’t want someone else to hear.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Simon says, standing to attention. “Alec and I were just – we were just – we were just talking about this burger place I like in East Village, and I told him he should go, and maybe he should ask you if you wanted to go –“

 

Alec shoots Simon a look that translates as shut up or I’m going to kill you . It goes over Simon’s head.

 

“Oh?” asks Magnus, blinking in surprise. His smile doesn’t falter, but it shifts, if only minutely, into something a little different. A little more genuine. The back of Alec’s neck burns. “Is that so?”

 

Alec doesn’t really know what to say. He could have Simon’s back and say yes , but God only knows what Magnus’ reaction would be to that, and an uncomfortable niggle in Alec’s gut tells him that he’s not sure he wants to find out. Alternatively, he could throw Simon under the bus and say no , but he fears Magnus’ face falling in disappointment, and he doesn’t want that either.

 

So, instead, he just says, “uhh,” like an idiot.

 

Luckily – or perhaps unluckily – Simon interrupts.

 

“Well, this has been a great chat, everyone!” he exclaims, clapping his hands together in what is definitely mild panic. “But – you know how it is, places to see, people to go – uh, fuck, I mean – I didn’t just swear, please don’t tell HR!”

 

He hurries back to his desk, almost tripping over the legs of Alec’s neighbour’s desk chair in his haste. Alec and Magnus watch him go in an abject silence, which is only broken by Magnus’ breathy laugh.

 

“He likes to tease you, doesn’t he?” Magnus huffs, fondly amused. It takes Alec a moment to process that he’s being talked to, and he twists in his chair fully to look at Magnus.

 

“He – what?”

 

Magnus turns back to face him, a light in his eyes quite jovial.

 

“Simon,” he explains, gesturing with his hands, “Embarrassing you. Although, I can’t quite tell if he realises he’s doing it. I don’t think he has a malicious bone in his body.”

 

“He doesn’t embarrass me, I just –” Alec doesn’t have an end to that sentence. It makes Magnus smile, and he shakes his head softly.

 

“So,” he says, “Were you going to ask me, or was that just a hyperbole on Simon’s part?”

 

Alec blinks.

 

“I was …” Alec begins, “I was going to ask you what?”

 

Magnus says nothing, but he does laugh again, a breezy sound as his eyes flick to the ceiling in something Alec might later come to call fond despair. For now, however, the nuance passes Alec by.

 

He scowls, confused, but it doesn’t last; not when Magnus’ eyes rake up and down Alec’s body, from Alec’s hairline, to his toes, and then back to his eyes again, Alec feeling a pinch in his chest.

 

Truth be told, Magnus must see a state : Alec’s crumpled suit, his unbuttoned and crooked shirt collar, the stark grey colour beneath his eyes and the gaunt colour in his face. Alec could berate himself for it, if he really had the energy to care. Instead, he just accepts it, because there’s very little he can do about how he looks and how Magnus sees him, and it’s not about to change.

 

Besides – it’s not as if Magnus is someone who would look at Alec seriously like that. Not in the way Jace checks Clary out every time they both suit up for patrol, and Alec has to bite his teeth not to groan and roll his eyes in disgust.

 

Magnus is an observant man. His eyes roam Alec’s face for no other reason than habit. Playful habit, sure, but habit nonetheless. Magnus doesn’t really mean anything by it. It’s harmless.

 

Still – Alec cannot quash the small flutter in his chest. That spark, that barest of tickles amongst his slowly-healing ribs, is something he depends upon. It’s something that isn’t fatigue, that isn’t grey and dreadful, and it’s a feeling of something else, something different to what he knows day in and day out. It breaks the monotony. It’s something that Sentinel doesn’t get to have, and something that Sentinel cannot take away from him.

 

Magnus’ eyes meet Alec’s again, and then he smiles that brilliant, beautiful smile of his, the one that has people bending over backwards at his every whim, and Alec cannot help but feel warm. It’s not real, not significant, not something that will last beyond these walls, but it’s enough to melt him. It will make a pleasant memory for the nights when he’s stuck on a rooftop by himself, clutching a rain-drenched bow between his fingers and trying to blink his way through the downpour.

 

Alec’s mouth twitches, almost returning a smile back to Magnus.

 

Magnus definitely notices; his shoulders settle, as if basking in the attention. His smile broadens into a delighted sort of grin, and Alec catches a flash of white teeth.

 

For a moment, Alec’s innate numbness abates. The well-scripted and lovingly-rehearsed pain in his ribs is quietened, and, in the time it takes for that smile to reach Magnus’ eyes, Alec is able to forget how much of this is only a performance.   

 

He’s a normal man, and he’s having a normal conversation with someone decidedly quite beautiful, someone who’s smiling at him, flirty and cavalier, someone who doesn’t know any better, and it’s just so easy to forget about everything else.

 

Later, he’ll cling to this moment. He knows he will.

 

“Well, Alexander,” Magnus says then, his voice dropped low. He straightens out of the cuffs of his blazer, his long fingers ever so dexterous. He makes Alec look. “If you ever decide there is something you do want to ask me, you know where to find me.”

 

His eyes flick up to Alec’s.

 

“My office has an open door policy, as you know,” he continues, “Although, it can, of course, be closed. And locked behind us, if the need should arise.”

 

Alec opens his mouth to reply, but the colour in his face probably speaks loud enough. Magnus laughs, bright and unabashed, tossing his head back and opening up the column of his throat, and he throws Alec a whimsical goodbye, Alexander over his shoulder as he weaves his way back across the office.

 

Alec’s eyes follow him until he disappears from view. The beep of a new email arriving in his inbox almost makes him leap out of skin. It’s all so very out of character. His mother would be disappointed.

 


 

Alec has been wearing his mask for a long time now - and the one made of leather that ties across his eyes, just slightly less than that. It’s a world he’s grown up in: blood and loyalty; campaign slogans and slanderous headlines; crime scene tape fluttering high above the city.

 

He’s experienced a lot - more than he’d like, if he’s honest. He expected most of it: the ever-present ache in his legs, the spit on the ground, the feeling of pushing his body until it burns, and then some.

 

However, he never expected the waiting.

 

Alec is not an antsy person; he doesn’t get frustrated sitting still, he knows the value of scoping out the terrain, he has an archer’s eye. But - he doesn’t like wasting time, even if he is being paid by the hour.

 

If his parents had told thirteen-year-old Alec that most of his nights would be spent perched on cranes or hanging from scaffolding or sitting in trees, maybe he would’ve said no - said no to the family business then and there, saving himself a lot of hassle.

 

He’s on a rooftop now, and he’s just thankful it’s not raining. Jace is off somewhere, soaring through narrow city streets on wings of steel, and Alec’s job tonight is to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble , Maryse’s exact words. There is, of course, more he could be doing, and he doesn’t mean it in terms of looking out for Jace and cleaning up his messes. There’s more he could be doing for the city at large . It’s a constant thought, a nag, a twitch in his fingers resting on his bow every time he hears a siren far away and has to ask Izzy if someone has that covered. He doesn’t like not being in control.

 

Sometimes, he thinks that she lies just to stop him worrying. Who is Alec to know if Aline and Helen are really taking care of it?

 

Tonight, he busies himself counting the arrows in his quiver - despite the fact that he did it before he left headquarters and he hasn’t shot a single one tonight. So he knows how many are there - but it’s something to keep his mind occupied. There’s catharsis to be found in running his fingers up the feathers, even if, in gloves, he misses the sensation against his skin.

 

The wind is picking up, another storm brewing on the horizon that will never quite break, but will soak the city nonetheless. It dulls Alec’s senses and he never likes shooting blind. The rain also gets into Jace’s wings and slows him down, and it’s not the thought of Jace’s gear malfunctioning mid-flight that he dreads the most, it’s the knowledge that Alec would never hear the end of it .

 

You cold? ” asks Izzy in his ear, somewhere warm and dry.

 

“I’m fine,” Alec murmurs. He scans the nearby rooftops, black silhouettes struck with pin-pricks of white light against a darker sky. It’s habit. It’s hard not to be on edge. “Where’s Jace?”

 

Still en route ,” Izzy replies, “ I’ll tell you when he gets in and rendezvouses with Clary. Hold tight.

 

She fizzles out, leaving Alec to the swan-like song of the wind rattling through the maze of skyscrapers. The whistle is shrill and he can feel the building beneath him shivering with it. It feels like anticipation.

 

He counts his arrows a second time. The number remains the same. Alec sighs heavily, entertaining the cruel thought of his lumpy mattress and threadbare pillows awaiting him at the end of the night; he longs to pass out cold for longer than six hours, but that certainly is a pipedream.

 

He slings his quiver over his shoulders, clipping it into place on his suit. The weight is familiar, but not all that comforting. He can feel something stirring in the air, a charge, the sort of electricity that always sparks at the skin before rain or a storm, and it wriggles its way under his skin, forcing unnatural spaces between his flesh and his muscle.

 

Alec clenches his hand around his bow and surveys the streets again. Nothing moves. Nothing has changed. The only water on the ground is still that collecting around the gutters.

 

And then, much to his abject horror and surprise, someone steps down from out of the sky to land next to him.

 

It’s not Jace. Not Clary either, not Aline or Helen, or Lydia or Raj, or even fucking Victor. It’s someone he doesn’t know, and that electricity in the air that he thought preluded rain, suddenly bites .  

 

Alec doesn’t know how to react; when you’re in this business, it isn’t a question of turning around and just saying a polite hello . His whole body tenses, fingers gripping his compound bow in a vice fist, but he doesn’t even turn his head to look. He is looking of course - from the corner of his eye, intense and wary - and the breath pauses in his throat. He doesn’t know many of the other supers in the city, but it’s rare that he meets new ones. He’s not easy to follow. (Or at least - he hopes. He hoped .)

 

“You’ve been up here a while,” says the stranger, a man with a rich, disarming voice. “Have you been stood up?”

 

And oh, the static runs wild up and down Alec’s arms, scattering beneath his bracers and up and down his spine. He stands slowly from his crouch, his knuckles white beneath his gloves, but he doesn’t raise his bow. He knows better as he turns to face his rooftop stranger. He’s not going to make the first move. He’s not going to pull a Jace .

 

The stranger stands several feet away from him, tall and graceful and tanned. Alec clocks the strength in his arms and the broad shoulders. He wears an impressive coat, heavy, expensive, undoubtedly bulletproof , in a dark and muted red, and there’s a black mask sculpted to his features that draws Alec immediately to the shadow of stubble along his prominent jaw and then, to the unsettling gleam of his eyes, and the flash of dangerous colour slick through the forelock of his dark hair.

 

Alec has never seen him before. Not even in passing, not even in the papers – not that he checks the papers religiously, but surely, surely, he’d have seen –

 

This .

 

Alec clicks his tongue and taps the device in the neck of his suit that changes the tone of his voice. He’s been less cautious lately - he doesn’t need it around Jace and Clary, and there’s a foolish part of him that has come to trust Wolfsbane and Veil enough to talk to them without it - and so it’s strange to hear his words come out deeper and rougher than expected.

 

“No,” says Alec gruffly, “He’s on his way.”

 

Alec knows he bristles, but it’s also the smart thing to do: keep his wits about him, tell the stranger that there’s backup on the way, show some of his cards but not all of them, never all of them. Not all vigilantes mean trouble, but some do. You never know until it’s too late.

 

“I’m glad,” says the stranger, his eyes bright as they flit over Alec, cataloguing his Kevlar armour, his heavy-duty boots, his lithe silver bow. His voice is smooth, but it sounds a little forced too, like he’s faking it as well. Smart. “It’s too cold a night for waiting around.”

 

“Do you want something?” Alec asks then, curt. The stranger blinks quickly but then smiles, and it’s a little crooked. Alec knows well enough to call it dangerous.

 

“Call it … curiosity,” the stranger says, waving a hand in the air casually. He doesn’t step towards Alec, but Alec cannot move. Call it an impasse.

 

The stranger snaps his fingers. The direction of the wind changes.

 

Not so casual.

 

“I’ve been watching you for a while now, but you haven’t moved,” he continues, “I was hoping you weren’t up to something terrible, but given at least four police cars have come by since you’ve been here, I’d say it’s something worse.”

 

That makes Alec’s eyes shoot up to the stranger’s face. His composure slips.

 

“Worse?”

 

“Oh, Corporates, of course,” says the stranger, still smiling, even if it doesn’t reach his eyes. His wafts his fingers again and the wind blows south once more. “Is there something worse than that?”

 

Alec knows he betrays himself with a frown.

 

“Are you an elemental?” he asks.

 

“Nope,” says the stranger, popping the p . He waves his hand again, and this time, one of Alec’s arrows begins to rise slowly from the quiver upon his back. Alec flinches, watching it levitate into the air and then rotate slowly, until he’s looking directly down the point, a hair’s breadth from the tip of his nose. “I suppose I’m sort of a telekinetic. Amongst my many other talents.” He doesn’t let the arrow fall, guiding it carefully back into the quiver. Alec grits his teeth; he will not be using that arrow tonight. “So, are you?”

 

“Am I?” Alec hisses.

 

“A Corporate.”

 

Alec doesn’t reply, lips tightening into a firm line. He’s used to this sort of treatment, and he can’t say he doesn’t deserve it. If he were a vigilante, he wouldn’t trust Corporates either. It’s not a smart man’s move to rely on those who are paid for good deeds.

 

The stranger huffs on a laugh.

 

“An answer in itself,” he muses. “I haven’t seen you before. Fresh blood?”

 

“No.”

 

“Ah. Just like to stay out of the spotlight, then?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

The stranger purses his lips and, beneath his scrutiny, Alec fidgets. He knows he cannot move until this man moves. He daren’t turn his back and flee over the edge of the building into the counterfeit light; he doesn’t know what powers this man has, but his skin still feels like a livewire, and the shift of the wind is no trick of the mind. Something about it breathes and moves, winding its way, even now, around Alec’s forearms, binding his shins.

 

He doesn’t like it: that inability to move. When flight is taken away from you, the other option is to fight, and well, Alec doesn’t rank his odds.

 

Telekinetic . This man is probably a telekinetic. Hell, he might be inside Alec’s head and messing his perception, and Alec would never know the difference: the lights on the horizon are already bleary and strange; the weight of rain already drags the air down; Alec’s gut already churns with unease and vagrant knots.

 

He doesn’t know many telekinetics. He’s read about a few, in the case files back at Idris, but he’s never met one in person.  

 

He does know however, against an enhanced power like Alec’s, telekinesis is very dangerous. An arrow can’t do much against something who can snap arrows with the click of their fingers.

 

“Who are you?” Alec asks. Jace is meant to be here soon, but there’s no way Alec can depend on that. He only hopes Izzy can hear this instead - but she remains worryingly silent over the coms. She might not even be there. What a great time to take a coffee break .

 

The stranger smiles wryly; the sharpness of it might cut. He rubs his hands together, and then spreads his palms out, towards the sky, open-armed. It does little to make him look any less intimidating.

 

Alec braces for something he has no idea if coming. His fingers twitch, tightening around his bow, but it’s like his muscles have seized - some sharp shard of electricity lancing through them, locking his joints in place - and he can’t reach for an arrow, he can’t press hs finger to his ear and call Izzy.

 

“Who am I?” the stranger asks, raising an eyebrow behind his mask. There peculiar wilderness of the city is found in his face, and his expression moves, a constant fluidity that Alec doesn’t expect - not when it’s half hidden by the leather. “That’s a loaded question, don’t you think? I can’t say you would answer me if I were to ask you.”

 

“Are you a vigilante?” Alec frowns. In contrast, he feels concrete.

 

“What do you think?”

 

“I haven’t seen you around here before.”

 

“Well, that is a shame.”

 

Alec grits his teeth again, working his jaw. God damnit, Izzy, why won’t you pick up -

 

Vigilantes don’t just walk up to a Corporate unless they want something. When Alec met Veil and Wolfsbane – a few years ago now – it wasn’t because they came looking for him. He had arrived at a bank robbery at the same time as them, and when someone is swinging around a gun and holding civilians hostage, there’s not much time to debate whose side you’re on. You deal with that afterwards, and petty disputes can be shoved to the side for an adrenaline moment.

 

Wolfsbane had jumped in front of a bullet for Veil, and it might have found its mark in his shoulder had Alec’s arrow not been swifter, piercing the glock out of the robber’s hands just in time.

 

They’d fought well together that night, even though Veil had glared daggers at Alec afterwards, and not offered him a single word.

 

This isn’t like that. Not in the slightest.  

 

“If you’re here for a fight,” Alec says slowly, working each word through his teeth, “That’s not going to end well for you.”

 

Infuriatingly, the stranger smiles, as if Alec is hardly more intimidating than a dog on a leash, yapping at his boots. Which, Alec supposes, he almost is, but -

 

“Fight?” scoffs the stranger, “Me, fight you? Heavens, are all Corporates trained to assume the worst? Not all your problems can be solved with violence – have you ever considered polite conversation as a means to an end?”

 

Alec narrows his eyes.

 

“Is this polite conversation?”

 

“Well, that’s up to you,” says the stranger, clearly entertained by Alec’s wariness. “You are awfully tense.”

 

“Tends to happen when strangers sneak up on you in the dead of night without warning,” Alec retorts. “Forgive me for not letting my guard down.”

 

It’s then that the stranger moves, not taking a step towards Alec, but taking a step sideways, as if he intends to circle Alec at a predatory distance. Alec shifts sharply, and he berates himself for it, his caginess too obvious.  

 

He needs to hold off. Jace will be here any minute – not that Alec needs Jace to deal with this, he can deal with it fine by himself –

 

“Saying that suggests you’re doing something you don’t want to be caught doing,” says the stranger. His smile is sharp and dangerous as his eyes narrow.  

 

Alec’s eyes track him as he walks, his shoulders dappled in pale white light, illuminating him from behind, casting his face into comparative shadow. The deep colour of his coat is rich like wine, or maybe blood, the thick folds of it heavy but liquid as the stranger moves with cat-like grace, his footsteps silent on the rooftop. Around him, the air seems to shimmer, like there’s a force field, invisible and prickling, that clings to his hands, to his epaulettes, to the strong line of his neck, to his mask.

 

Alec’s heart thumps. He won’t let it show in his face.

 

“I’m not doing anything,” he says gruffly, and Hell, it’s the truth too. He was just waiting here for Jace, wondering how long it would take until he either gets trench foot or hyperthermia from spending so many nights out in the cold and wet. “I’m waiting for my partner. Like I said. And even if I was doing something –”

 

That’s not any of your business .

 

The stranger waves his hand dismissively.

 

“Too many hypotheticals,” he says, “I don’t like dealing in ifs and maybes , so let’s not. You clearly don’t deal with many supers who aren’t from your neck of the woods, so let me be straight with you before you give yourself an aneurysm. That expression of yours is painful to look at.”

 

“Please do ,” Alec presses. The stranger is almost at his three o’clock now, close to the edge of the building, and so Alec turns on the spot to face him.

 

The stranger’s eyes flick down past the roof edge and he considers the dark for a curious moment, a purse to his lips. He seems so relaxed, so at ease, but Alec – Alec is clenching his jaw so tight he thinks he might shatter his teeth.

 

It would take him half a second to draw an arrow. Notch it in his bow. Pierce through this stranger’s sleeve and pin him to the rooftop.

 

Is half a second enough? Is that too slow?

 

Would this man react faster?

 

The stranger waves his hand again.

 

“Say you’re on patrol,” he says, and the way he talks with his hands, Alec’s eyes lock onto that. He knows his stare is wide, wary. This man’s hands are dangerous. “A normal night. You take your normal route. You know the twelve block radius like the back of your hand – indeed, this is your twelve blocks and you know for a fact that there are a number of enhanced individuals who are looking to you to keep their neighbourhood safe.”

 

He pauses, looking at Alec deliberately. It’s surprisingly hard for Alec to maintain the stare, something unnerving about the dark colour smeared around his eyes, the blackness of his pupils, the shards of light that catch and show just how little this man is blinking.

 

He’s scrutinising Alec too. He’s probably counted the number of arrows in Alec’s quiver. He’s probably figured out Alec’s reach. He’s probably calculating how he has to move to miss an arrow to the shoulder, should it come to that.

 

The air crackles with that tension. It’s sharp against Alec’s cheek - something elastic and cutting - and it’s real. Not a figment of his imagination. He can feel it digging into his skin, the pressure, the burn.

 

It’s real. It’s deliberate. A threat?

 

“But,” the stranger continues, and the corner of his mouth twitches, as do his fingertips, like he knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly how Alec would be one flinch away from jumping out of his skin, if his resolve weren’t so mettled.“What happens when you see a suspicious fellow dressed all in black perched on the top of one of your buildings, someone you’ve never seen before, and who doesn’t move for nigh on three hours, but is clearly looking for – or waiting for – someone. What would you do in that instance? Let him be and risk him causing upset to your carefully-cultivated peace, or would you go and investigate?”

 

Alec frowns, but the man’s words do something to pierce his prickling defences, some tension in his shoulders deflating. He wonders if it shows upon his face, if his frown softens enough to be seen in the twilight.

 

“I’m not here to hurt anyone,” he says honestly. He lowers his bow hand. “I’m not here to disrupt the peace. I really am just waiting for someone.”

 

“And I should believe you?” asks the stranger.

 

“You have my word.”

 

The stranger scoffs, his twitch of a smile disbelieving and curt. His eyebrows jump behind his mask.

 

“Oh, the word of a Corporate? I can’t say there’s much value in that.”

 

“Not the word of a Corporate,” says Alec, a little more sharply than he intends. “The … the word of another super. That should mean something.”

 

The stranger looks at him then – really, truly looks at him. His stare is knife-like and Alec can feel the slow lance of it through his armour, through his suit, through his chest, and out the other side, as if his body is little more than made of light. It’s invasive. Violating. Strangely … intimate , and as his skin prickles, he feels something come over him that he doesn’t know.

 

The stranger’s gaze dips to his bow, and whilst Alec is not about to let it go and drop it to the ground, he loosens his hold on it, and half-considers sliding it back into the holster on his thigh. There’s a breath, held pert in his his chest, the strain of it aching, that is quietly burst. His stance, he relaxes, shifting his weight from his forward foot.

 

What … what is that feeling? The anticipation of who will move first. This unease and this transparency - a moment of strange existence.

 

He doesn’t understand it, but then the stranger seems to mimic him. The man’s shoulders fall; he stops rubbing his thumb and forefinger together like an anxious tell. A breath Alec cannot hear passing softly over his lips.

 

Perhaps Alec’s truth is loud enough to be heard over distant sirens and city rumbling. Perhaps this man is stringing Alec along for a naive fool who would willingly drop his guard in a situation such as this.

 

It’s a stalemate, but no-one gets the chance to say anything.

 

Alec’s com starts beeping in his ear and he flinches, the sound so sudden and loud, piercing the hypnotic moment. Somewhere overhead, he hears Jace’s telltale whirring.

 

The stranger looks up, face to the sky, and he scowls, and then – Alec is not sure he’s seen a man move so fast.

 

The man swipes his hand in an upward arc and Alec feels the electricity in the air rush from his skin, fleeing upwards into the dark. The wind swerves, and it carries the sound of Jace’s circling away, buffeted by a sudden gust.

 

Alec clenches his teeth, reaching back for an arrow in his quiver, but the stranger does not turn to attack. He’s not even looking skyward anymore, his eyes focused solely on the rooftop edge, and Alec realises just quick enough that he intends to jump over and disappear, turning tail and running before Alec’s backup can arrive.

 

“Wait!” Alec calls out, before he can stop himself. The stranger pauses, right on the brink, his foot suspended in the dark by an unseen force. “What - what’s your name ?”

 

The stranger smiles over his shoulder, the hard line of his jaw lit up by the city beyond. There’s something about him that makes Alec wonder if he’s under a spell. It’s this glint in his eyes that exists in the moments between seconds, and Alec can only scrabble before it falls through the gaps in his fingers.

 

“Nightlock,” says the stranger, just before he steps out into the night. “And you?”

 

“I’m Sentinel.”

 

“Sentinel,” says Nightlock, rolling the name around on his tongue. He seems to like it; it fits. Something amused lights up his eyes, beneath his mask. “It suits you.”

 

And in a blink – he’s gone.

 


 

 

Alec tells Jace about the encounter. There’s some part of him that almost doesn’t, that wants to hold his tongue and keep the secret until he can at least make head or tail of it himself, but when Jace lands on the rooftop amidst a gust of rain-wet wind, he takes one look at Alec’s face and asks what’s wrong, buddy ?

 

He doesn’t mind keeping certain truths from him, for his benefit, but if they’re dealing with a potentially dangerous and nosey vigilante, who has no qualms about creeping up on Corporates, it’s best for Jace that he knows what they might be up against.

 

“Telekinesis?” Jace whistles, “Damn, that’s pretty cool, you gotta admit.”

 

“It might be cool, but it’s also dangerous,” Alec remarks gruffly. “We don’t know the extent of what he can do, but judging by what I saw – it’s probably not something we want to find out.”

 

“I dunno,” shrugs Jace, “If we could persuade Victor to try and face up against a guy who can move stuff with his mind … Hell, I’d pay any sum of money to watch Victor get his ass kicked by some guy who doesn’t have to lift a finger.”

 

Why are we talking about Victor getting his ass kicked, and how can I get in on that? ” comes Izzy’s voice across the coms in both their ears. “ Can we kick Raj’s ass too, whilst we’re at it? I have a lot of grievances about Raj .”

 

“Nice to hear from you too,” Alec grumbles. “Where have you been?”

 

Oh, Meliorn stopped by with some new surveillance equipment and I got distracted. Did I miss something?

 

“Distracted,” Jace snorts, “Nice.”

 

“Iz,” Alec presses, “I had a run-in with a new vigilante. Can you do a record check for me?”

 

Fuck, are you alright?

 

“I’m fine,” Alec replies, “He … didn’t want to fight, I don’t think. Just talk.”

 

“A telekinetic,” Jace supplies helpfully, “So, naturally, I was asking if we could get him to kick Victor’s ass. I bet it would be funny.”

 

Alec fixes Jace with a glare, but Jace just rolls his eyes and mimes locking up his mouth and throwing away the key.

 

A telekinetic? ” Izzy asks then, “ Did he confirm that, or are you just assuming?

 

Alec tells Izzy everything - but that doesn’t surmount to much. He recalls the change in the direction of the wind, he retells how the arrow was lifted from his quiver, he describes the weird energy in the air … like electricity, but somehow not like electricity, all prickly and static but with some sort of heavy pressure.

 

Okay ,” says Izzy, and Alec can hear her typing furiously on her end. “ And did you get a name?

 

“Nightlock,” says Alec, before adding, “Iz … no-one can trace your search, right?”

 

Not unless they know what they’re doing ,” Izzy replies, “ Which excludes pretty much everyone at Idris, but most importantly, mum and dad – oh, I have a match in records.

 

“What does it say?” asks Jace. He’s started to fidget, his wings curling and uncurling around him, like he’s antsy to get moving. He’s probably going to suggest that he and Alec try tracking their mysterious friend.

 

Alec already knows his answer - it’s going to be a resounding no.

 

Looks like there’s definitely a vigilante called Nightlock in the city ,” says Izzy, “ There’s not much detail, but it looks like there’s a more complete file in the records room, it just hasn’t been digitised yet. It, uh – it says he hasn’t been active for about five years … there was significant activity between 1980 and 1986, but nothing since then.

 

“Okay,” says Alec, “I’m on my way back to headquarters. Think you can meet me at records?”

 

Underhill’s on duty tonight, so he won’t ask any questions ,” Izzy confirms. “ I’ll see you in half an hour, Alec. Is Jace coming or going?

 

Alec doesn’t need to look at Jace to know his answer.

 

“Going,” Jace says, “Where’s Muse? Is she nearby?”

 

Clary had dinner with Luke tonight, but she’s on her way out the door, apparently. Jace, you can meet her on the roof of her building .”

 

“You got it, chief,” says Jace, “Let me know what you guys find out about Nightlock. I’m invested now.”

 

Your personal vendetta against Victor Aldertree does not count as being invested ,” says Izzy, “ Stay on channel four, Jace. Let’s keep this away from prying ears for a little while, okay ?”

 

 


 

 

Jace soars off into the dark, but Alec doesn’t leave the rooftop for a moment. He pauses, flexing and unflexes his palm before his eyes, wondering if he can somehow summon back that strange energy that danced across his skin. He has no luck; he may have keener senses than most, but it doesn’t include sensing energy signals, and there is no trace of Nightlock on the rooftop or on the street below.

 

Alec has no idea where he went, but there is certainly a part of him – and not the cautious and law-abiding part – that wants to know.

 

He makes it back to headquarters shortly after midnight, slipping through one of the back doors and ducking his way past the security camera. He feels a lot like teenage Jace and Isabelle, when they would so often scrimp on training to steal away to bars and clubs, right under their mother’s nose.

 

As promised, Underhill is stationed outside the records room, clearly waiting for him. He raises his eyebrow at Alec still in his suit, but just tips his head towards the door without saying anything aloud. His eyes say enough: Izzy is already there; I’ll keep watch .

 

Alec nods his head. Thanks .

 

The records room itself is, in stark comparison to the crisp white corridors of headquarters, absolute chaos. Rows and rows of filing cabinets are overflowing with paperwork and manila folders, and the desk at the front of the room has long since been abandoned, piled high with unsorted documents.

 

For an organisation that can provide its employees with voice modifiers and hydraulic wings, Alec cannot help but think that Idris is ridiculously behind the times when it comes to keeping up with the computer age. Mobile telephones and desktop computers have quietly become fixtures of every family home, yet here he is, standing in a room of old school files that have yet to be transcribed over to their digital systems.

 

His mother would probably say it’s because they have better things to do. His father would complain that they lack the manpower to divulge work hours to this sort of administrative meniality.

 

Alec sighs, lifting his mask from his eyes and letting it hang around his neck. Just looking at the mess gives him a headache, but there is one good thing about paper records that he appreciates tonight.

 

No-one will know that he’s looked at them. The same cannot be said for reading things online.

 

“Iz?” he calls out into the room. His pauses to listen, and faintly, he can hear someone shuffling around, probably buried by their weight in paper. Alec begins picking his way through the boxes, wading through paper up to his knees where a row of cabinets has been toppled over.

 

“Iz?” he calls again, “Iz, you here?”

 

Mmmph , Alec!” she says, popping up from behind a nearby row of cabinets, waving a slim folder in her hand, “I found it! Nightlock!”

 

“Bring it over here,” says Alec, wading his way towards her. They meet in the middle, either side of a filing cabinet, upon which Izzy splays the folder.

 

“God, I am going to have words with our records department later,” Izzy says, flicking her long hair over her shoulder. “This is in no way a fathomable filing system, it’s just … uncontrolled entropy at its worst.”

 

“You know that I know that you talk science jargon when you’re angry?” Alec supplies unhelpfully. Izzy fixes him with a no-nonsense look, much like the one Jace is so often on the receiving end of.

 

“That’s enough of you,” she says, flipping open the folder. It’s pretty sparse, a few sheets of paper, filled with someone’s chicken-scratch handwriting, faded with the years. But it’s what is paper-clipped to the top that attracts Alec’s attention in an instant - photographs.

 

They’re all old and blurry, taken either at speed or from a distance, but the figure in the photographs does seem to be the man Alec met on the rooftop tonight. The coat is different, and his hair has changed, but Alec rarely forgets a face.

 

“This is him,” Alec supplies, looking up at Izzy as she leafs through the paperwork. “What does it say?”

 

“Not much,” she says, “It says telekinesis, maybe, with a question mark. Someone’s also crossed out energy manipulation underneath, same with electrical interference and gravitational control. That’s … definitely something.”

 

Alec swallows thickly. Izzy’s not wrong: it’s definitely something , powers like that. Idris boasts some impressive resumes - flight, super strength, teleportation, just to name a few - but telekinesis is something they sorely lack amongst their roster.

 

And what his parents wouldn’t give -

 

“ … Any of those could fit what I saw,” he says eventually, “Anything else?”

 

“Pretty much what I said on the phone,” Izzy replies, “Estimated age range puts him at about … thirty, give or take. Main period of activity was the early eighties, and then nothing. Standard vigilante stuff … responding to armed robberies and domestic disturbances … tailing police … unsanctioned private radio interference … he’s got a few cats-saved-from-trees in here too, looking at this police report. But I don’t think anyone’s updated this in a while … it was pretty buried.”

 

A frown appears on her face and she presses her red lips into a pout.

 

“I wonder,” she continues, “If someone higher up has some sort of deal with him, so that we haven’t crossed paths before.”

 

“You’d be able to find something if that was the case?”

 

“Of course,” says Izzy. “I’ll have a look tonight. No firewall can keep me out these days.”

 


 

 

Izzy finds nothing.

 

It’s not as if there’s some locked files in the database that she cannot access; there’s just nothing. And Alec even asks her if she can snoop through their parents personal files, but even then – not a mention of the name Nightlock .

 

Perhaps, Nightlock’s really just that good at avoiding Corporates. Perhaps, he knows someone on the inside, left unwritten so no one might find it.

 

It wouldn’t have made any sense. He had looked at Alec with such disdain when he realised he was Corporate that Alec doubts the man has any dealings with Idris.

 

Perhaps, he’s just been lucky. Or unlucky, as it were, to stumble across Alec tonight.

 

Alec spends a long time in front of his bathroom mirror later that night. Nightlock’s folder is abandoned on his coffee table in the living room, having been smuggled far too easily out of headquarters, but he’s read through it three times now, and has learned nothing more than what he deduced on that rooftop.

 

Instead, he stares at his reflection over the sink, holding tight to the edges of the basin, and tries to recreate the look he imagines must’ve been on his face when he asked if his word as a fellow super was enough to confirm he was telling the truth.

 

He remembers with vivid clarity how Nightlock’s expression had changed when he said that. The momentary pause, the subtle shift of muscles in his jaw, the way surprise had flickered in his eyes.

 

At least, Alec thinks it was surprise. A good surprise, or a bad surprise, he’s not sure; but it’s stuck with him, just like the phantom tickle of that strange energy across his bare skin.  

 

He turns the shower on scalding hot, even though he knows his downstairs neighbour will complain about the noise the boiler makes, which is fair, considering it’s approaching three in the morning. Beneath the blast of water, Alec allows his skin to redden, the scorch of it stripping the remnants of the day from his body, now grime and dirt spinning away down the drain, his thighs and chest stinging in the heat.

 

He stands beneath the water until his body can literally stand it no longer, and shuts the shower off with a sharp twist of the faucet. The bathroom is quickly silent, steam swirling all around him, making the air thick and soupy.  

 

Alec scrubs the condensation away from part of the mirror and studies his reflection again. His skin is pinker, and the faint scars of old wounds on his chest and collar appear whiter than normal, fine whiskers criss-crossing his clavicle and blooming in strange flowers upon his ribs. His shoulders look strong, but weary, and that’s not new, but it’s the look in his eyes that’s most curious.

 

He’s naked, save for the towel knotted around his hips. He’s Alec, scrubbed clean of Sentinel, but the look in his eyes isn’t one Alec has worn before. There’s intensity in his stare, some strange focus, a little bit of Sentinel’s adrenaline still simmering there, an energy Alec doesn’t usually associate with … well, with Alec.

 

Alec is always just tired , and sure, his body feels exhausted, but his mind –

 

His mind is a livewire.

 

He doesn’t sleep easily that night. But when he does manage to close his eyes, he thinks about the man on the rooftop. He cannot shake it.

 


 

 

Alec returns to that rooftop the next night, but no-one comes floating out of the sky to mock him. Jace, at first, is heavily disappointed that his plan to set up some sort of botched encounter between Victor Aldertree and Nightlock is out the window, but after the third night of Alec returning to the same spot, Jace is no longer miffed, and just straight fed up.

 

“Alec, c’mon, man,” he complains, “This is overkill. It was probably a fluke that you met him here in the first place. He probably has better things to do – Hell, we have better things to do. You heard the police scanner, there’s an armed chase about to cross the bridge, and I wanna get in on that –”

 

Jace is probably not wrong, and that’s saying something. There’s nothing concrete tying Nightlock to this rooftop, other than his word, and Alec has no reason to trust that either.

 

It was probably just a blip on the radar. Just a small wave in the day-to-day ebb and flow that Alec follows each and every day. He shouldn’t try to swim against it. It’s not part of his routine.

 

He should stick to his routine.

 


 

 

Alec’s routine is a fairly simple thing.

 

He wakes with the shards of grey sunrise; he drags himself to the office on the subway and a pale four hours of sleep; he hunches over at his desk and loses himself in numbers until he really cannot stay any longer in the office without someone asking questions about what he might be avoiding at home.

 

His kit bag, full of his Sentinel gear and his bow and quiver, he keeps in a locker downstairs, along with an out-of-issue police scanner, which he always checks sunset on the dot.

 

When dark falls, he hangs Alec up in that locker and slips out into the night as Sentinel. Patrol lasts as long as it lasts – if they have a mission, sometimes Alec won’t see his bed at all. But usually, he and Jace, and sometimes Clary, will tour the city looking for trouble, which they more often than not will find.  

 

They’re not meant to work later than one in the morning – that’s when Aline and Helen take over – but Arkangel has a habit of chasing rabbits down rabbit holes, and Sentinel …

 

Sentinel never likes to leave things unfinished. And nor does Alec. Especially when there’s something he could be doing to help.

 

Too often, he stays out late – after his shift ends, after his debriefing, after Jace and Clary have headed home for the night, because his mind just won’t settle, but that’s routine too. It always takes a long and lonely walk to wind down, and it’s not like the underbelly of this city refrains from mayhem and murder when Sentinel is off-the-clock.

 

Sometimes, he’ll run into Aline and Helen on their patrol, and he might stick around for a while. Other times, when he’s up in the north, Veil and Wolfsbane will seek him out, always finding him, although Alec never stumbles across them.

 

Mostly, though, he’s alone.

 

He’s not sure if he likes it that way. Sure, the peace is nice, and being able to hear his own thoughts is better without Jace moaning in his ear about this or that. But – the wind feels so much colder alone, and when it rains, coming on three AM, it pours.

 

Izzy’s always with him. She never clocks out until Alec does, even if that means staying up all night until he’s satisfied. She’ll complain; she’ll tell him hotly that he’s a workaholic, or a control-freak, or has no off-switch, but she’ll never dream of not being on the other end of the line if he needs her.

 

Eventually though, his eyes grow too heavy; his body, however well-trained and well-honed, will begin to ache; and instead of watching cars whiz by from a perch high on a rooftop, Alec’s mind will wander to his bed. It’s then when he’ll turn in, hoping that no-one in his apartment building notices the same shadow landing on his balcony every night.

 

Most days are the same. He’ll have a day off every once in a while, but he always finds he’s unsure what to do with himself on those occasions, because he’s not sure what he likes – and that’s a pretty tragic thing, he’s long since realised. He’ll read, maybe watch some mundane TV, but by the end of the day, he’ll be sat on his sofa with his head in his hands and his eyes tightly closed, impatient to get back out there.

 

It’s all he knows.

 

The routine brings him peace.

 

And, in a city like this, Alec thinks you should seize the chance for any sort of peace, no matter how twisted and turbid, because Lord only knows when you’ll find it again.

 


 

 

There is only one thing that doesn’t fit in with Alec’s routine – well, not a thing, per say, but a person– and that’s Magnus Bane.

 

Okay, well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

 

It’s not that Alec is surprised to see Magnus every day. They might work in different departments, but they do work in the same building, and Magnus is Simon’s boss, so Alec can just about understand why they cross paths as often as they do, but –

 

It’s the fact that Magnus always seeks him out to talk to him that always takes Alec by surprise, every time. Which is not particularly great, because whilst Alec is more than happy to appreciate Magnus from afar, he’s not so adept at being caught out – and Magnus, seemingly possessing some sort of sixth sense as to when he’s being studied from across the room, will always turn around and shoot Alec a devious smile, which has made Alec almost knock his coffee off his desk multiple times.

 

His hand-eye coordination likes to take a vacation whilst he’s at work. His parents would berate him for it, he’s sure.

 

The teasing and the banter – and the playful flirting, as Simon likes to insist – maybe Alec could call that a routine. It happens most days.

 

It’s just – it’s never quite the same. Alec’s never quite sure what Magnus is going to say, and that only makes him trip over his tongue in his haste to get words out, any words, which, in turn, always end up being far too blunt or far too honest. Something about Magnus causes a short-circuit between Alec’s brain and mouth.

 

Sometimes, Alec wonders what might happen is he was a functioning human being.

 

If he were normal human being, is what he means. If he could actually respond to Magnus’ teasing that teeters on the edge of workplace-appropriate and not sound like a clumsy fool or perpetually grumpy. If he could – oh, he doesn’t know – see what might happen if he allowed this to seep beyond the rigid confines of nine-to-five.

 

It’s a daydream. Alec daydreams a lot. About his office job being his only job; about spending his evenings going out to bars with friends or having dinner with someone special or drinking wine on his couch, rather than licking the boots of politicians and chasing criminals down dark alleyways.

 

About what ifs .

 

This evening however, while Alec is staring at a particularly trite spreadsheet on his monitor that needs to be finished before he clocks out, a thought comes to him, something someone said to him recently.

 

“I don’t like dealing in ifs and maybes, so let’s not.”

 

And it makes him pause, his hand stilling on his mouth, and his eyes glazing over as the empty cell on his spreadsheet flashes at him.

 

Who said that? It certainly wasn’t Jace, and although it could be his parents, it doesn’t sound like the way they’d say it –

 

From the corner of his eye, Alec sees someone approaching, weaving their way through the desks – the tall, sharp silhouette is definitely Magnus –

 

Oh, it was that man on the roof. Nightlock.

 

“Alexander!” says Magnus, stepping up to Alec’s cubicle, a bright and lively smile upon his face. He seems in particularly jubilant spirits today, and his blazer seems to match: a beautiful, navy blue, inlaid with silver thread that glints and winks at Alec under the fluorescent office light.

 

Magnus claps his hands together; his rings clink together too. It draws Alec’s attention immediately, and he snaps out of his daze.

 

“Magnus – hey,” he says, blinking back to reality. “Uh – what can I – what can I do for you?”

 

Magnus smile only grows. He makes a show of folding his arms and resting his thumb against his lower lip as he looks down at Alec in thought.

 

The back of Alec’s neck grows warm – once again, he waits to see what Magnus might say, and finds that it makes him … nervous? Is this nervousness?

 

Magnus doesn’t disappoint.

 

“So, I was thinking,” Magnus says, still watching Alec, “That burger place in the East Village that Simon mentioned the other week –”

 

Alec feels a frown forming.

 

“What about it?”

 

Magnus reaches up to run his finger along the shell of his ear, tugging at the small silver piercing there. It’s a habit of his that Alec has noticed more and more lately, although he’s not quite sure what it means.

 

“I had a chat with Simon to get the address,” says Magnus, “And I spoke with a couple friends of mine, and it sounds like it’s received some great reviews. And then, this morning, as luck would have it, I was reading the paper and I spotted an advertisement – and do you believe in fate , Alexander?”

 

Alec knows he’s being teased, but he’s not sure how. His tongue feels fat in his mouth.

 

“Do I … believe in fate?” Alec scrunches up his brow. “Why?”

 

Magnus glances down at the watch on his wrist, and then leans heavily on Alec’s partition, ducking down into Alec’s space, so that his voice won’t carry across the office.

 

Alec blinks.

 

“Dinner, Alexander,” he says, hushed, “It seems like someone up there is sending me a sign, and – perhaps burgers in East Village might be my lucky charm.”

 

Alec knows he’s still scowling – and wishes that he wasn’t. His ears must be red.

 

Magnus is nothing if not insistent.

 

“I, uh –“ Alec starts, before clearing his throat. “Tonight?”

 

Magnus’ smile broadens, and Alec really wishes that it didn’t, because he feels that small flicker in his chest again, burning away grey feelings. He’s slightly addicted to it, and one day, that’s going to be a problem.

 

Hell, it’s already a problem. He’s going to have to let Magnus down for the eighth time.

 

“Only if you’re free,” says Magnus, “You get off in, what – fifteen minutes? And me, I can get off any time.” He grins, but probably doesn’t get the reaction he was hoping for from Alec. His tone changes, a little more professional as he straightens up again. His finger returns to the cuff on his ear. “That is to say – I have a rare evening off tonight, and I thought I should do something nice, with company. And Simon did raise such a grand idea, after all -”

 

“I can’t,” says Alec abruptly. It’s true. He can’t. He has patrol tonight, and he and Jace have been tipped off to a large narcotics deal on the bayside and they really have to be there – because otherwise the mayor won’t pay them .

 

Magnus’ smile doesn’t even shift. Really, it’s a testament to his good humor, and Alec hates having to test it so often. But – it’s for the best.

 

“It’s no bother,” says Magnus, “Just an idea, and a very last-minute one at that.”

 

“I’m sorry,” says Alec, “I, uh – I’m just busy, and I can’t …”

 

“You don’t have to apologise, Alec,” he says, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Perhaps the ninth time will be the charm.”

 


 

 

The whole thing leaves Alec in a particularly sour mood that night – which he invariably takes out on Jace. It doesn’t interfere with their mission – because Alec is a professional – but afterwards, as they’re cooling down on a rooftop and Alec is cleaning all the arrows he’s retrieved, Jace decides he has something to say.

 

“You’re in a terrible mood tonight.”

 

Jace doesn’t beat around the bush. Sometimes, it’s a blessing. Usually, it’s a pain in the neck.

 

Tonight, Alec isn’t in the mood to talk, let alone talk about things like Magnus and work, which Jace would never understand anyway. Jace’s entire life is the Corporate job and he literally stumbled into his relationship with Clary without having to navigate any of the usual pitfalls. Honestly, it’s highly unfair.  

 

“Have you ever thought that you put me in a terrible mood?” Alec grumbles, below his breath.

 

“What was that?”

 

“Nothing,” says Alec, “I’m just tired.”

 

Jace shrugs back into his wings, having checked them over for damages, and stands up tall, his wings unfurling dramatically in the dark. It’s always an impressive sight, his stance powerful as the silver titanium catches all the vagrant light of the city in pools of pale lilacs, startling white, and rainy blues.

 

Izzy likes to call him a walking disco ball.

 

“You’re always tired,” Jace sighs, rolling his shoulders as he readjusts to the weight on his back. Something clicks satisfyingly, and he lets out a low whistle, before looking back at Alec. “Is it work? Other work, I mean.”

 

“Something like that.”

 

Jace frowns. Alec knows that look – it’s his look when he’s about to give an opinion that Alec didn’t ask for.

 

“Look, buddy,” Jace begins, “You know I don’t understand why you drag yourself to that office every day and play house with that obnoxious Simon guy. It’s not like you have to do it. You could just call it quits and move back into HQ.”

 

“We’re not having this conversation again, Jace. You know why,” says Alec, diligently inspecting his arrows.

 

Jace scrunches up his nose - which is something Clary does when she’s peeved.

 

“No,” Jace says slowly, “No, Alec, I don’t know why. Maryse and Robert have a point, y’know – you can’t balance being a super and that job at the same time. You’re exhausted all the damn time. I’m just worried about you.”

 

It softens Alec’s heart a little, but not enough. Instead, his shoulders just droop, and he proves Jace right with just how weary his next words sound.

 

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine. Honestly. I’d … I would tell you if I wasn’t.”

 

“Would you?” Jace asks. Jace’s tone implies they both know the answer to that question.

 

“Yeah. ‘Course.”

 

That’s a lie.

 

They part ways after that – it’s late and Jace needs to head back to headquarters to file his field report, and Alec has a long walk home.

 

He won’t go home immediately. They spent most of tonight camped out on the quayside watching cars come and go, apprehending a number of people the police never would’ve caught given how late they rocked up. As such, Alec hasn’t really done his rounds - not that his parents know or care about that -  and there are a couple places he wants to check before he calls it a night.

 

It’s habit. Maybe paranoia. He’ll sleep better if he just looks.

 

He’s deep in the financial district when Izzy’s voice crackles across the coms in his ear.

 

Jace says you’re in a mood .”

 

“I’m not in a mood. Jace is just being a pain.”

 

You know him being a pain usually means he’s worried about you? It’s his way of showing his mushy feelings.

 

“I wish he wouldn’t.”

 

Izzy doesn’t say anything for a while, so Alec wonders if that’s the end of the conversation. Maybe she’s just going to let him get on with his night, only talking to him if she’s needed.

 

No such luck.

 

Alec is on top of a hotel, lining up his sights through the scope of his zipline to the next rooftop, when she speaks again, making him pause.

 

Do you want to talk about it?

 

“Talk about what?”

 

Alec … ” she sighs, and he can imagine her pinching the bridge of her nose, like he often does when he’s exasperated. “ Come on, Alec, you can’t lie to me. Something’s bothering you, I know it.

 

He could keep denying it. He could give her the silent treatment – he’s awfully good at it too.

 

But – he doesn’t like lying to Izzy. She can always see straight through him and it will only make him feel terrible.

 

“It’s … really dumb,” he says, lowering his bow. “Magnus … Magnus asked me out again. I said no. Again.”

 

On Izzy’s end of the line, something clatters to the ground, and Alec imagines her bolting upright in her chair at the mention of Magnus’ name. She is insufferably invested in this saga, and Alec wishes he had never told her about it.

 

And this is the same Magnus who asked you out for dinner the other month? ” she asks.

 

“How many Magnuses do you think I know?” Alec replies with a scowl, but Izzy’s not listening to him.

 

And you didn’t say yes? ” she implores. “ Alec!

 

“Why would I say yes, I don’t have t- I don’t know anything about him,” Alec sighs, running a hand through his hair, dragging it all up on end. He looks around and finds an air vent to perch upon, and it’s like his legs turn to jelly the moment he sits down.

 

“Iz …”

 

That’s why you say yes! So you can learn stuff about him. That’s generally how dating works.

 

“Yeah, well,” Alec grumbles, “You know it’s not that easy. I can’t just … you can’t just go around asking other men if - not now . You know what people think. And besides - what happens if I said yes and we went out and he asked about me? I can’t tell him the truth. It’s just easier if I say no every time he asks. Maybe he’ll stop asking.”

 

God, you really know how to suck the fun out of a situation, ” Izzy pouts, but Alec can tell by her tone that she’s not going to push it. She knows that he’s right. It doesn’t fill Alec with a great amount of self-satisfaction.

 

“I prefer it this way, Iz,” he mutters, “It’s simpler. Makes … more sense.”

 

It makes more sense, because nobody gets hurt. Nobody gets hurt, nobody gets whispered about in the office, nobody becomes a pariah on the street because how do you be a gay man in a barely-post-Reagan world and not get shunned the moment someone finds out who you prefer to sleep with -

 

Nobody would tell his parents -

 

The silence across the coms extends into something deliberate. The millenium might be eight years away, but it’s like they’re living in the fifties. Izzy’s probably thinking about the same thing: the headlines in the broadsheets, the propaganda on the late night news, the number of AIDS crisis shelters that have been torched or graffitied in the dark of the night by people blinded by a ridiculous fear of the unknown … the same fear with which they accuse superheroes.

 

Alec shakes himself free of the thought. It’s nothing new. This has been the way of the world for as long as he can remember, and whilst he shouldn’t have to say that he’s used to it, having to keep a low profile and not let his eyes linger too long on another man in passing, he’s … he’s used to it .

 

And besides - Magnus doesn’t really mean any of it. He only asks Alec because Alec is easy to tease, because Alec is amusing when his face turns splotchy and his words get caught like a record player on a continued uhh . Magnus doesn’t actually feel bad when Alec keeps saying no.

 

Alec knows this. It’s all just a distraction.

 

Alec ,” says Izzy, dragging out the vowels in his name in that way she does when she’s tired, bone-tired, of hearing his excuses. “ If this is … if this is about mom and dad finding out, I swear they won’t-

 

“It’s not,” Alec quickly corrects. “It’s not about them, Iz. It’s just not - something I want right now, okay?”

 

There’s a moment of silence before Izzy speaks again, where Alec is acutely aware of the lump in his throat.

 

You’re allowed to admit you’re scared, y’know.

 

Alec scoffs. “Iz. Come on.”

 

Alec.

 

She doesn’t have to say anything else; his name holds enough weight, even over the crackle of the coms. It speaks of a truth Alec doesn’t want to address.

 

There’s a dichotomy between his two lives. Alec and Sentinel aren’t two sides of the same coin – they’re completely different people, striving for two completely different realities. Alec knows this, but more often that not, it’s easier to bury his head in the sand and not think about any of it.

 

Sometimes, he wonders if can even call the life he lives in the day a life at all. He doesn’t get to do what he wants, when he wants; he doesn’t get to say yes to drinks after work with his colleagues; he doesn’t get to look at another man and wonder what if without thinking of all the other what ifs . Instead, he spends hours thinking about what could have been his if he’d been able to make another choice in his childhood years.

 

Being Alec sometimes just feels like a placeholder. Something to fill the time between sunrise and sunset, a bizarre state of purgatory that Alec has just accepted as norm.

 

It’s numb. That’s what it is. It’s just numb, and maybe Alec has grown used to it, the vagrant buzz in all his muscles, the way his fingers notch an arrow on autopilot, but he can’t really feel it.

 

Next time he asks … maybe you should say yes ,” says Izzy, but her voice is gentle now, less teasing. When Alec tries to protest, she interrupts. “ Just try it, Alec. Just once. Nothing’s going to change unless you do something about it. You’re willing to jump off buildings and wrestle guns out of people’s hands and follow Jace down the rabbit hole - I don’t see how this is worse than that.

 

“I’ll think about it.”

 

That’s not a no.

 

“It’s not a yes, either.”

 


 

 

Magnus is his usual self the next day, as if Alec’s rejection last night was little more than water off a duck’s back. Alec’s not surprised. Maybe it was.

 

But still - he cannot help but feel a little guilty when Magnus pulls himself out of a particularly tense-looking conversation with another editor to shoot Alec a smile when Alec drags himself into the office, wearing his late night escapades in his dreadful bed hair and glassy stare.

 

Alec blushes, looking away quickly. Simon raises his eyebrows at Alec over the top of his monitor. He mouths: did you see that? I saw that.

 

It ties Alec’s insides up in knots; he doesn’t know which thread to pull for it to all unravel, so he doesn’t try at all.

 

If he leaves it be, it’ll pass. It always does. Simon will pester him about it, and Magnus will probably ask Alec again in about a month, and Izzy will roll her eyes in fond despair when Alec tells her about it down the line.

 

And Alec -

 

Alec will work hard to cultivate the little flame inside of himself, the one that Magnus’ attention fans, taking care to not let it go out and not let it grow too big, because he finds himself afraid of both.

 

Izzy is right. He is scared. He’s scared of a lot of things, but being a super? Having superpowers?

 

You don’t get to afford yourself things like fear. Not in this line of work.

 

So, he tells himself not to feel it. It’s going to bite him in the ass.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”


― Alan Moore, Watchmen

 


 

If Alec were a switch, someone seems to have left him in the on position.

 

It’s something Izzy likes to remind him about – how he doesn’t have a dial, and he’s either flipped on or flipped off - so dedicated to Sentinel that he’ll either wear himself to the bone going above and beyond his regular patrol, or be so completely out of it that no-one will be able to get a word out of him for days on end.

 

Sometimes, it’s better if questions aren’t asked. Alec long ago learned that asking questions of himself and analysing his own behaviour only leads to misery, and that applies to a lot of things in his life, it seems.

 

Corporate superheroes do not get to ask questions. That’s been drilled into Alec as long as he can remember. But it was weird, when Clary first joined them as Muse last year, how much it pissed him off to have her asking so many questions about what they were doing and why they were doing it … it was only later that he realised he was angry because she was right.

 

Alec is used to being asked by his parents to do bad things. He’s not in the mind of pretending that everything he does is for the greater good, is morally sound, is something he could live with having done.

 

The government used Corporate soldiers during Vietnam, on the ground amongst the rest of the troops, and they used them after, the perfect weapon for espionage against the Russians. They were the perfect weapons, and they continue to be – because there’s no technology that can track someone who can disappear and reappear halfway across the globe at will.

 

Politicians and celebrities like to use them for their security details. Big business hire them to take out competition and steal secrets they shouldn’t be stealing. The local city council has them keep the peace, managing protests and riots which are, more often than not, directed at the supers themselves.

 

Sometimes, they’re hired to kill. It’s not often, and even Maryse is reluctant about taking on jobs that ask that much, but … Alec’s hands aren’t clean. Blood crusts beneath his nails; the only thing he can do is not look at his hands for too long at once.

 

Things have been better lately. The senate elections are approaching, and so Alec has been relegated to a very expensive bodyguard, making sure the electoral candidates get safely to and from their cars, watching their buildings for suspicious activity, breaking into the office of a rival politician here and there.

 

Mostly, they’re left to their own devices, and that’s okay with Alec. There will be missions  – manila envelopes pushed across the boardroom table by his mother and father – assignments that come with a hefty paycheck, but one can hardly call what he does as a Corporate, superheroism .

 

But rescuing people from burning buildings and stopping car chases and helping old ladies cross the road, that counts. They don’t get paid for that stuff, and it has Maryse and Robert fuming more often than not, but it counts.

 

Struggling to keep up with Jace also counts. It’s what Alec spends most of his time doing.

 


 

 

It’s the height of summer, but even now, the wind whistles cold and it draws in thunderstorms across the bay, forks of lightning far out of sea but crackling on Alec’s peripheral.

 

It makes Alec anxious. So far, it’s been a slow night, he and Jace perched on a billboard overlooking a busy intersection, listening to their police scanners to try and find something of interest to fill the night.

 

Jace is splayed out on his back, his silver wings spread eagle and prone, and he’s turning one of his knives over and over on his knuckles, weaving it expertly through his fingers. He saw it in a movie last night, and so now, he can do it, as if he’s been practicing for years. That’s how the muscle memory works.

 

Alec sighs heavily, returning his focus to cleaning his bow of dirt that isn’t even there.

 

He’s aware of his mask on his face tonight, which is weird. Usually, it’s one of those things that he just forgets about, the way you don’t notice your breathing until you think about it. But tonight, the leather feels uncomfortable, chafing at a graze on his cheek, a momento he gained from the training room the night before.

 

He furrows his brow and scrunches up his nose, shifting his mask, and that’s when the police scanner at his hip starts blabbering.

 

All units, we have a 211 in progress at the bodega on east fifty-fifth. Suspect is a white male in his thirties, suspected 417. Use caution. Please provide ETA.

 

Jace springs to his feet faster than Alec can blink.

 

“Alright!” he exclaims, far too enthusiastic for an armed robbery, “Finally something good, let’s get going!”

 

They’re not far away, barely a few blocks, so Jace takes off into the night without even looking back at Alec, leaving Alec to abseil down the side of the billboard and set off at a run, turning the head of a drunk man staggering down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

 

Alec slips into the side streets as soon as possible, thankful for the safety of shadows to hide him from the prying eyes all too keen to call the cops on him . He flips his bow to full length and grabs an arrow from his quiver, notching it in his bowstring without even looking, too focused on sliding over the hood of a car parked horizontally across the mouth of the street.

 

He can hear shouting from nearby, and can see bright lights where people have already gathered. Glass is shattered all across the sidewalk. First response is already there, a police car with its red-blue sirens still strobing across the street, the driver trying to calm a hysterical-looking woman, and the other officer already setting up traffic cones to stop the oncoming traffic.

 

It doesn’t look like anyone has been arrested. The robber must’ve fled. No-one seems that interested in pursuing him.

 

“Arkangel,” Alec hisses into his coms.

 

Perp has fled the scene, he’s heading north ,” replies Jace, “ I’m tailing him from overhead but the street are too narrow for me to fly, so I’m gonna have to drop down onto foot –“

 

“I need a location,” Alec snaps, but Jace says nothing. All Alec can hear in his ear is the rush of wind as Jace descends rapidly towards the ground.

 

Alec grits his teeth, curses his brother, and starts running vaguely north, hoping he’ll intercept.

 

He runs for barely a block before a man comes sprinting out an alleyway across from him, running straight across the road and leaping through the traffic – and Jace follows in hot pursuit, swooping as low as his wings will take him to the ground.

 

The man disappears down another side street and Alec hears Jace curse in his ear, fanning his wings as he brakes suddenly, to avoid slamming himself body-first into the side of the building. He drops from the air like a silver bullet, landing in a crouch on the sidewalk.

 

Jace doesn’t even pause. Not even for breath - and then tearing off again, hurtling into the dark.

 

Alec pushes harder, his feet pounding against the asphalt and his breath coming hard in his chest.

 

In the dark, he sees the glint of Jace ahead of him, but somehow Jace is still faster, even with his wings strapped to his back.

 

Fuck! ” Jace spits across the coms, “ Sentinel, the guy just scaled the building, I’m going after him!

 

Alec’s thighs burn as he wills himself to run, and in the gloom, he sees the shadow of a man disappearing over the lip of the rooftop high above. Jace stands at the foot of the building, his neck craned upwards, and Alec doesn’t have time to call out – because then Jace is doing it too, leaping from the ground, to the fence, and springing onto the drainpipe, scrambling his way up the narrow space like a military commando on a rope –

 

“Arkangel!” Alec shouts. Jace leaps from the drainpipe to the overhang of the service platform above him, a good fifteen feet upwards, but he grabs the railing with ease – because he just saw their robber do the same.

 

He hauls himself up onto the rooftop and his wings unfurl upon his back, powerful and godly, and then he soars up into the sky and –

 

“Fuck,” Alec curses, as Jace disappears from view. He scrabbles for his zipline and knots it to his arrow, letting the arrow fly high. Alec tugs at the line – it holds fast – but knows he won’t be able to climb with just this. The line is too thin and it’ll lacerate his gloves, no matter how good Izzy’s kit is.   

 

He maps the route Jace took up the building, but there’s no way he’ll be able to copy it. Instead, he hauls himself up onto the fence and slings his bow around the drainpipe, tugging backwards to see if the pipe will support his weight.

 

“Arkangel,” he hisses, pressing his finger to his ear just before he starts climbing, “God damnit, what’s going on? Come in!”

 

Nothing. Alec grits his teeth. If this is another night that ends up with both of them summoned to the penthouse at headquarters, Jace is going to be sorry.

 

Really fucking sorry.

 

 


 

 

Alec is breathing heavily by the time he drags himself up onto the rooftop - for which he berates himself because he shouldn’t feel so out of shape, but it’s exactly what happens when his nights are spent sulking in the rain acting as lookout for Jace and his ridiculous ego - but Jace is nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’s already swept their guy up into the air and is dangling him high up over the city and scaring the living daylights out of him in the name of interrogation. Or maybe he’s already three blocks down the street, still in hot pursuit.

 

The night is quiet and Alec has been left behind, yet again, through no fault but his own. He couldn’t keep up, and in this line of work, you can’t permit yourself the time to turn around and wait for the stragglers, especially when there’s someone you’re meant to be chasing.

 

He picks his way across the rooftop, clambering over ventilation piles and air conditioning units and satellite disks, but grinds to a stop with a heavy sigh, turning his face to the sky and letting his arms hang by his sides. He should probably check in with Izzy, or try to reach Jace on the coms again, but his body is sluggish and the thought of raising his voice suddenly seems like a daunting task that he doesn’t quite feel up to.

 

He sits down on the top of an airduct and the metal is wet from the drizzle; a wetness that seeps through his suit too quickly. If he calls it an early night, he could still head back to headquarters and get a few hours in the training room. Perhaps Izzy will put him through his paces if he asks nicely or if he looks sour enough when he drags himself through the front door with a face that could curdle milk.

 

Maybe by the time Jace is home, Alec will be able to scale the side of a building in five seconds too and won’t feel like such … an amateur . Maybe he’ll be able to stand next to Jace in debriefing tonight and not have it feel like every time his mother’s eyes pass over him, she sees someone who’s not up to scratch.

 

It’s irrational, and he knows it. It doesn’t stop the feeling from creeping up on him religiously, to the point where he can anticipate it a mile off.

 

Alec slumps forward, hanging his head between his shoulders as he stares at the ground. He puts his finger to his ear and presses on his com bud.

 

“Iz -”

 

The back of his neck prickles, some cold chill trickling upwards into his hairline, and he stills, the words extinguished on his tongue. The air shifts, a bloated pressure dawning overhead that pushes and prods at his temples and throat. Slowly, he lowers his hand to his bow, quietly unclipping it from his holster, a flick of his wrist extending it to its full length again.

 

He holds his breath, listening carefully to the tinny drizzle of rain against metal, but searching for something beyond that: for the soft tread of feet on a slick rooftop or a huffing laugh held back between the teeth. The prickle wiggles its way down his spine, pooling in the small of his back. Alec shifts and so does the night, a whumph of pressure thickening in the air behind him, filling the space he just evacuated.

 

Alec tenses. His fingers twitch on his bow. He readies himself to reach for an arrow and twist around in the blink of an eye, but -

 

“So, blondie left you out to dry again? This is turning into something awfully tragic.”

 

The voice comes from over his shoulder, not five feet behind him as he expected - Alec hadn’t heard anyone approach - but he does know the voice, rich and smooth and curiously pleased.

 

It’s that super from the other night. Nightlock .

 

Stiffly, Alec twists around upon the airduct, and sure enough - there is the same man with the same rain-damp hair, the same billowing burgundy-red coat, and the same dangerously amused look in his eyes.

 

He has his arms folded across his broad chest, gloved hands cupping his elbows, his weight leaning on one hip. There’s a tilt to his head, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards, but not towards a smile. As Alec considers reaching for an arrow again, the air crackles deliberately, as if Nightlock can read his mind and predict his movements.

 

Maybe he can. Alec wouldn’t know.

 

“He hasn’t left me,” Alec grunts. He’s not sure if he should stand his ground; he’s not sure if he should move at all. One sharp movement might be enough for Nightlock to snap his fingers and blast Alec to smithereens … or something. He doesn’t really know how Nightlock’s powers work, and he’s not exactly about to test them. “He’s gone on ahead and I’m going to catch up.”

 

“Right,” says Nightlock, exaggerated. “ Right , of course.”

 

Alec narrows his eyes.

 

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

 

“A man can’t be out for a midnight stroll?”

 

“Because that’s definitely what you’re doing.”

 

Nightlock shrugs his shoulders, smiling playfully. It rubs Alec the wrong way; it doesn’t put him at ease.

 

“Late-night vigilantism, what can I say,” Nightlock says, “As good as I look in this mask, the getup tends to attract unwanted attention if I run around like this in the daylight.”

 

Alec exhales heavily, rising to his feet. It makes Nightlock stiffen, albeit minutely. Alec’s probably not meant to notice.

 

“I don’t mean that,” says Alec, “I mean, what are you doing here ? Have you been watching us? Following us?”

 

“Oh, please,” scoffs Nightlock, “Of course you Corporates would immediately assume -”

 

“Answer the question.”

 

Nightlock’s fake smile falls away, all too quickly replaced by a scowl. It’s the sort that Alec is used to: the one he once received from Wolfsbane, the one he still receives from Veil, like he’s little more than gum on the bottom of her shoe. He can hardly blame her, but when it’s coming from Nightlock, someone who doesn’t know him , it’s grating. Alec’s hackles prickle, his tongue forming sharp.

 

“I was a few blocks north, following up a lead,” says Nightlock, eyes narrowing. “Not that you deserve to know that, and nor should I be telling you. I saw Arkangel fly by and I was curious.”

 

Alec squints at him.

 

“You didn’t follow him,” he says, more a statement than a question.

 

“No” says Nightlock, “I was more interested in where he came from. Blondie has a habit of leaving wreckages behind him. Someone might’ve needed my help.”

 

“Well, we don’t need your help,” Alec bristles. “Everything’s fine and no-one’s in trouble. And if they were - I’m here. I would do something about it.”

 

Nightlock scoffs, his eyebrows raising. He doesn’t believe Alec, and it shows.

 

“What?” snaps Alec.

 

“Nothing,” says Nightlock, “I believe I already mentioned that the word of a Corporate is a finicky thing, is all.”

 

“What’s the supposed to mean?”

 

“It means exactly what it means, Sentinel,” says Nightlock. “I’ll trust myself to do what needs to be done, thank you very much. I don’t need to outsource the work to … the paid muscle.”

 

“I’m not here because I’m being paid,” Alec hisses.

 

“I find that hard to believe,” replies Nightlock.

 

Alec takes a step forward; he can’t help himself. Nightlock’s chin snaps up and he uncrosses his arms, his fingers curling slowly into his palm.

 

“I’m not being paid,” Alec presses, because apparently he’s some parts an idiot too, just like Jace, and likes throwing himself into dangerous situations. The air around him pulsates and it seems to match the way Nightlock rubs his fingertips against the curve of his hand.

 

“I’m not being paid. We heard a 211 in progress on the police scanner and we came to help. And good thing we did, because the cops were doing fuck all about it –”

 

“A robbery?” Nightlock interjects, his eyes narrowing. His fingers unfurl. The pressure in the air lessens. “That doesn’t strike me as … the best use of your Corporate skill set.”

 

“That’s because it’s not,” Alec grits out, “I’m just here to help .”

 

Nightlock purses his lips and tilts his head again, appraising Alec with a different look in his eyes. He says nothing for a long moment, long enough for Alec’s ears to start burning, but then, slowly, he begins walking forward.

 

He walks like a cat, his steps silent and his paces long and graced and purposeful, and Alec imagines him stalking something. Maybe he’s been stalking Alec.

 

Alec doesn’t move, holding his ground until Nightlock reaches him, stopping just in front of Alec. He folds his arms again, this time pressing his thumb against his lips in thought.

 

He smells strongly of worn leather; the wind carries it to Alec. But beneath that, there’s something softer, smokier, more woodlike, and Alec cannot place it. Up close, Alec’s eyes dart across Nightlock’s face, cataloguing everything he can see to memory: there’s a gold colour swept into his hair, and dark kohl smudged around his eyes beneath his mask, which in itself is soft, embossed leather, sitting against his skin like a film. Beneath his coat, he’s wearing a supersuit not dissimilar to Alec’s; there’s no Kevlar armour, but it looks durable and expensive, undoubtedly concealing any number of hidden tricks.

 

“Help,” Nightlock says carefully, the word almost dripping from his lips. “Perhaps I’m overstepping, but it looks like Arkangel is the one trying to help. You’ve been abandoned again.”

 

Alec tenses. Nightlock notices.

 

“You try keeping up with someone who can fly,” Alec grunts, and it sounds far too petty. Hell, it is petty. It’s not what he should’ve said, not to a stranger, but it makes Nightlock blink, a small frown forming behind his mask.

 

“Is that your job?” he asks curiously, “Following behind him and cleaning up his messes?”

 

“We’re partners,” Alec scowls.

 

“Are you?” Nightlock counters, and when Alec’s frown deepens, Nightlock shrugs his shoulders with a familiarity that makes Alec itch. “I’m just calling it as I see it, Sentinel. Are you his partner or are you his handler ? He gets his face splashed across the front pages regularly, but you …”

 

“I’m not his –”

 

“Does Idris keep you in his shadow, or do you?”

 

Alec’s brain shuts down. He feels the words like a smack across the face and maybe he recoils like it too, because Nightlock’s curious expression changes into something grave. He doesn’t quite look apologetic, but he knows that he’s hit upon a nerve.

 

And Alec hates himself for laying it bare for all to see.

 

“I need to go,” Alec grunts, “Can you at least do me a favour and tell me which way you saw him fly?”

 

Nightlock’s mouth is a taut line, but he gestures with his pointer finger vaguely north, his eyes not leaving Alec.

 

Alec knows it’s stupid to turn his back on a stranger, especially a stranger with superpowers, but he tells himself that if Nightlock were going to hurt him, he would’ve done it before Alec even felt him coming.

 

He doesn’t say goodbye, but Nightlock doesn’t either. Alec turns and he runs, leaping from this rooftop to the next, realising that Jace could probably do it faster and everybody else knows it too.

 

 


 

 

When Jace catches the robber, he delivers the man to the police precinct in midtown with his hands lashed behind his back and Jace’s signature pinned to his chest.

 

Alec doesn’t find out about it until he’s back at headquarters and Izzy tells him, Jace having left with Clary hours ago, bored of waiting for Alec to come back.

 

It doesn’t go in the field report, so his parents never find out. He doesn’t even need to ask Izzy to exclude it; she does it anyway, because Alec is feeling particularly nonverbal tonight, like his mouth has been glued shut and the words are all trapped inside.

 

Izzy is adept at picking up on his moods. She’s good like that – once she sees something, once she recognises something for the first time, she’ll remember it. It usually works for entire conversations overheard, or full paragraphs in heavy-duty textbooks, but it applies to Alec’s quirks too, and she calls it her gift.

 

Intuitive aptitude , is what her file says. It’s amazing. Not amazing enough for their parents to let her out on the field because they don’t know how they can apply it to combat, but amazing, nonetheless.

 

But Alec’s always known she was smart, with or without it. Alec’s always known that she sees him for what he is.

 

It’s because of that, that he stops in the doorway of her laboratory after debriefing, turning to face her before she can ask him what’s wrong.

 

If he tells her first, he can do it on his own terms.

 

“I met Nightlock again tonight,” he says. He watches her eyes fly up from the bench where she’s fiddling with a new model of his bow.

 

“What?” she asks, “Where? What happened?”

 

“After I lost Jace,” he shrugs, “He saw Jace go by and wanted to … see the mess that Jace left behind. Instead, he found me.”

 

“Did you learn anything new about him?”

 

Alec frowns for a moment, replaying their conversation in his head. His mind lingers on Nightlock’s curling fingers, and then shifts to the press of his thumb to his lower lip as he studied Alec in thought, as if he was trying to pull Alec apart with his mind to see how he worked on the inside.

 

Alec shakes his head.

 

“No, I … no,” he says, “It was weird, but I don’t think he’s trouble. It was probably a fluke, seeing him again.”

 

“I won’t include him in the field report,” says Izzy, “Not until we know more, and even then… don’t want mom and dad finding out that you like to rendezvous with vigilantes after hours.”

 

She offers Alec a smile and he does his best to return it.

 

He’ll think more about it in the morning.

 

 


 

 

It’s a mistake, thinking that he wouldn’t see Nightlock again, and really, Alec should know better than to make assumptions about dangerous men.

 

It’s not like they actually run into each other again, no – instead, Alec stumbles across the aftermath.

 

“What,” says Jace, staring down at the two men tied to a concrete pillar in front of them, “the fuck is this?”

 

It’s pretty obvious what it is. Jace and Alec had picked up the tail end of a police broadcast about a sting operation on a warehouse suspected to be involved in a large-scale cocaine ring, and had planned to beat the police there and tidy up themselves.

 

What they didn’t expect, however, was for someone else to have beaten them, and left the place in absolute carnage .

 

There’s no blood. Maybe that’s what stuns Alec the most, stood in the middle of the warehouse floor with unconscious men splayed out on the floor around him.

 

Jace picks his way through the bodies, not bothering to check any of them for a pulse. Alec’s eyes flick to the man prone at his feet: his chest inflates as if on cue.

 

Still alive. Not dead. Just taken by surprise.

 

Did the deal go sour? Did someone double-cross them? Was it a robbery -

 

No. No, it doesn’t look like it. Jace weaves his way across the floor, but Alec turns to the SUV abandoned by the shutters. Its engine is still running and the trunk is wide open, piled high with at least half a million dollars in packaged cocaine. A briefcase is overturned on the ground, and the contents – wads of a hundred dollar bills – are scattered and drifting through the air, which has only begun to settle.

 

Jace lets out a low, sharp whistle, attracting Alec’s attention over to him.

 

The two men tied to the pillar are both still conscious, and both with nervous fear in their eyes. They struggle against their bonds, trying to wriggle as far as they possibly can from Jace as Alec walks up behind him, wariness prickling at his skin.

 

Really, that should be Alec’s first clue that whoever beat them to the scene was also wearing a mask. The two men can’t even look at him. They’re both pouring with sweat.

 

But, instead of saying anything, Alec holds his tongue as Jace reaches down and pulls the gag out of the mouth of one of the men.

 

Immediately, the man starts screaming. Alec scowls and Jace wrinkles his nose, as if he’s smelled a particularly bad smell. He kicks roughly at the man’s leg.

 

“Hey,” Jace says, “Hey, no. No shouting. That’s not cool, man. We just want to ask you a few questions-”

 

“Help!” yells the man, “Help! Somebody, anybody! Help!”

 

Jace looks back over his shoulder and pulls a face. Alec rolls his eyes, and Jace takes that as permission. He thumps his fist against the man’s temple, instantly knocking him out.

 

The other man, still gagged and lashed shoulder-to-shoulder with his unconscious friend, looks like he’s about to die of fright.

 

“Alright,” says Jace, leaning down into the other man’s space. “If I take your gag out, no screaming, okay? Or you’ll end up like him. Capisce?”

 

The man nods vigorously.

 

As soon as Jace pulls the gag out of his mouth, the man immediately splutters, drool unspooling down his chin. Jace grimaces in disgust, but Alec pushes past, crouching down to the man’s eye-level.

 

“What happened here?” he asks, no nonsense. There’s something static lingering in the air, just a remnant, but Alec can feel it - it skitters up the back of his neck. Reality is just a little bit displaced; the air is not quite as it should be, as if someone has churned it around and rearranged its atoms with plundering hands.

 

The man’s eyes jerk from Alec, to Jace, and back to Alec again, as if trying to decide who’s more dangerous. Alec should tell him that he doesn’t really want to find out.  

 

“I – ” splutters the man, “I was – boss only asked me along as a one-off, I swear – I ain’t – I ain’t usually involved in this sorta stuff, I – I was only keeping watch, I swear, I swear –”

 

Jace kicks at the man’s legs; the man almost leaps out of his skin, his entire body shaking violently, snot glued to his nose. It’s not a pretty sight, but Alec knows terror when he sees it, and this man is terrified.

 

And not necessarily of them.

 

“You heard my partner,” says Jace, frowning at the man, “He asked you what happened here, so you tell him. Who did this? What did they want? Why’d they leave you guys alive?”

 

“I – I – he … he was – he moved stuff with his mind, man, I don’t know, I dunno, it all happened so fast, I –”

 

In the distance, Alec hears a siren, and that’s probably the police catching up with them. It’s their cue to leave, before they get lumbered with the blame for whatever happened here.

 

Alec stands and exchanges a knowing look with Jace, tilting his head back in the direction of the door they came in. Jace understands him wordlessly, nodding his head.

 

He turns back to the man, readying himself to knock him out too – but the man squeals, fighting against his bonds to throw his hands up in front of his face, even though it’s to know avail.

 

“Wait, wait, please, it was – it was another super! A big red coat, black mask, I – I don’t know his name, he just –”

 

He can move things with his mind.

 

Alec’s expression hardens. He looks at Jace again.

 

Jace doesn’t hesitate in knocking the man out cold this time.

 

 


 

 

Alec and Jace watch the police dither about at the warehouse from the safety of their vantage point on a roof across the street. There are at least five cop cars and three ambulances on scene, the entire block has been cordoned off, and it’s like the bodies just won’t stop coming, wheeled out on stretchers from inside and shoved into the frantic hands of the paramedics.

 

Not a single person comes out in a body bag, but every single one of them is incapable of walking. Jace remarks, off-hand, that whoever did this must have a ridiculous amount of control over their powers to inflict so much damage but not kill anyone.

 

“I think I know who it was,” Alec frowns, his eyes following a pair of detectives huddled by their car, talking low to one another. He wishes he could hear, but not even Jace has that sort of gift. Maybe Isabelle could invent a gadget, or something …

 

“What?” Jace says, wheeling around on Alec. “Wait, Alec, what – who ? Who did this? Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

“It’s that vigilante I met a few weeks ago,” Alec says, “He’s a telekinetic, which fits the description that man gave … Nightlock.”

 

“Nightlock?” Jace frowns intensely, as if all this thinking is physically hurting him. “Oh yeah, I remember. You think he's new?”

 

“No,” says Alec. “I don’t think so … but he’s been keeping a low profile over the last few years. Something … something’s brought him out of the woodwork again, and I –“

 

I can’t figure out what it is, but I feel like it’s important .

 

“Well, fuck,” says Jace, folding his arms like a child, only a whisper away from stamping his foot on the ground. “If he’s gonna keep intercepting our calls before we get to them … I’m gonna be pissed.”

 

 


 

 

Jace is pissed.

 

Alec, on the other hand, is bewildered.

 

The second time it happens, it’s a burst gas main at an apartment complex in Brooklyn. By the time they get there however,  every single tenant has already been evacuated from the building, standing safely in the streets. Jace complains all the way home, his metaphorical feathers more than muffled.

 

The third time, it’s the foiled robbery of a jewellery store which Alec gets to read about in the papers the next morning; and then the fourth time, a gun fight in a subway station over in Queens; and each and every time, all the witnesses are singing the praises (while the perpetrators are cursing the name) of the man in the red coat who had saved them from a riddling of bullet holes.  

 

Alec doesn’t understand it. He’s never met Nightlock before this, never even heard his name, and now, suddenly, he’s everywhere that Alec is, before Alec even gets there. But it’s not like he’s tailing Alec - Christ, Alec would know if he was, wouldn’t he? - and it’s not like he’s tapped into their coms somehow and is deliberately following them. No. No, it’s not possible.

 

He must be following a police scanner, like them. He’s just faster . Faster, and far more competent than Jace. No-one seems to know any more about him than what Alec already has pieced together, and that isn’t much.

 

He’s a God-damn enigma and it’s  infuriating .

 

 


 

 

It’s a Monday, just after sunset, the city grumbling with the fickleness of the twilight, and Jace -

 

Jace is fuming.

 

Nightlock has just beaten them to their second grand theft auto of the last fortnight, leaving Alec and Jace looking like a pair of fools when they turned up on the bridge only to find their high-speed chase already wrecked upon a pylon and the police swarming.

 

It wasn’t a good look. Jace’s anger is probably more mortification than anything else.

 

Now, they’re camped out on top of headquarters, Jace’s legs swung over the edge of the building, while Alec impatiently counts and recounts his arrows. Tonight, their services have been solicited by Senator Herondale – the senator vying to hold onto her seat in the upcoming elections – and they’re supposed to be running point at her campaign rally later tonight. Her security team has tipped them off to possible rioting and their pay packet had been considerable, so it’s the sort of thing Alec is expected to accept without blinking. He doesn’t really know how quelling rioters and roughing up protesters counts as using his powers for good , but the more he thinks about it, the more he hates himself, so he doesn’t think about it.

 

He’s far too busy thinking about Nightlock instead.

 

Clary - not yet in her supersuit - has just arrived with Indian food to try and placate Jace – and although he munches angrily on a samosa – it’s still not enough to cool him. Rioting might be the least of Alec’s problems if Jace is going to be in a mood all night.

 

“If he turns up at the rally tonight, I am literally gonna kill him,” Jace grumbles, around a mouthful of flaky pastry and potato that crumbles all down his front.

 

“And get yourself thrown in a holding cell again,” Alec remarks offhandedly. Jace grunts something intelligible in response, which earns a pointed look from Clary.

 

“Why would he turn up at a public rally?” she asks, “You said he only appears when you’re answering emergency calls, not when you’re actually on a mission.”

 

“I dunno,” Jace complains, “But I’m not gonna put it past him. If he wants to steal our spotlight, he should just fucking ask .”

 

Alec snorts, but not because he’s amused.

 

“I heard that,” says Jace. “What are you laughing about?”

 

“Spotlight,” says Alec. His expression is more a grimace than anything. “That’s very … you.”

 

“I think you single-handedly might be the reason everyone hates supers,” Clary says with a nod, her mouth pressed together in a flat line. Jace has the gall to look wounded.

 

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, c’mon, that’s not fair. I’m nowhere near that terrible. I can only be responsible for, like, fifty percent of the hatred, max.”

 

Only fifty?” Izzy pipes up over coms. “Stop being modest. Seventy-five at least.

 

“Kiss my ass, Iz.”

 

When I know where it’s been? Gross, no thanks.

 

Alec knows full-well this game of theirs, and he doesn’t want to have to spend his night wrangling protesters as well as listening to Jace and Izzy trade playground insults with each other. It always ends in horrendous amounts of giggling, which is somehow worse than if they were actually trying to get at each other’s throats.

 

“Are there any updates to the mission brief, or are we good to move out?” he asks, putting a stop to the next terrible thing Jace is about to say. “I want to get in position before the crowds arrive.”

 

Izzy switches into business mode with the drop of a hat, and even Jace has a few useful things to say about their patrol route tonight; he suggests Alec and Clary swap lookouts, because the building across the street from their target will give Alec a better line of sight, and Alec has to give him that. It’s a good idea.  

When Clary disappears to suit-up and Izzy drops off coms, Alec helps Jace into his wings.

 

“It’s fucked,” Jace says, with his back to Alec as he buckles his harness across his chest. “Don’t you think?”

 

“What is?” Alec asks with a frown.

“People hating supers for no reason at all,” Jace says, “I get it if they hate us, Corporates, if they hate Idris , I get that, but - getting nervous because you don't understand people who do good just ‘cus it's the right thing to do?”

 

Alec doesn’t really know what to say to that. It’s awfully true, after all.

 

“It’s messed up,” he mutters.

 

Jace huffs, rolling his shoulders as his wings flex outwards. Alec is forced to take a step back.

 

“Guess that makes me a hypocrite,” Jace adds, but then he smiles, that Jace smile of his, the one that is brackish and boyish and angling for a fight. “For hating Nightlock for sticking his nose in when he’s only trying to do the same as us.”

 

“Guess it does.”

 

“I still hate him though. Bastard.”

 

“Of course you do,” says Alec, “C’mon. We’re gonna be late.”

 

 


 

 

Alec hates public rallies. They're loud and heated and election fever always drives people to do things they would not normally ever do. They bring out the worst in people, Alec included.

 

But in all honesty, it’s the politicians that he hates more, boastful and goading and lying as they are - but the bright strobe lights and loud music don’t exactly put him in a much better mood, completely skewing his senses.

 

Herondale has attracted a big crowd tonight; Madison Square is thrumming . The primaries are in full-swing and the election for the senate and the Presidency is only a few months away; there’s fervour brewing on the streets, a fever pitch closer to boiling with every day they approach November.

 

It’s the barest moment away from erupting into violence.

 

All it might take is someone looking at someone else wrong, or a cop reaching for his gun, or a kid spotting Alec hidden up on the rooftop. He’s sitting on a tinderbox, and he can see the sparks rummaging through the streets below.

 

We’ve already got protesters, coming down from Times Square ,” says Izzy in his ear. “ Nothing crazy yet, but expect a clash.

 

Fucked up that Herondale is paying us to keep pro-vigilante activists out of her rally, but okay ,” grumbles Jace across the coms too. He’s circling high above Madison Square, but he keeps dipping in and out of Alec’s sight, swallowed up by the blinding columns of lights that pierce the cloud.

 

Alec says nothing. He squints against the lights, against the massive blue-and-red billboards that flash across the outside of the stadium. The street is almost impassable, crowds at least a thousand-thick jostle at the doors, vying for tickets and a quick photograph of the Senator. An enormous jumbotron overhead flickers into life, its live-feed showing Imogen Herondale waving to the crowds inside the hall as she makes her way up to the podium to begin her address.

 

The roar of the crowd is deafening, but Alec cannot tell if it’s cheering or booing. Hell, it’s probably both.

 

Police dispatch just issued a 10-34 ,” Izzy informs him. “ It looks like they’ve assembled a riot-shield line up the street from you guys, but there’s a lot of protesters. I doubt it’ll hold.

 

So much for an easy mission, ” sighs Clary, positioned on the building across the way from Alec. “ I’m going down to street level to get a bit closer.

 

“Stay out of sight,” instructs Alec. “The Senator doesn’t want us seen.”

 

I’ll be careful , Alec ,” Clary says, sounding a little exasperated. “ But if she didn’t want people seeing us, maybe she shouldn’t have hired Corporate manpower for peacekeeping - it’s not like Jace is particularly subtle.

 

The coms spit with static as Clary drops off radio. Alec rolls his eyes, but he unclips his bow from its holster and makes his way to the edge of the roof, picking his way down the fire-escape, because he’s not about to let her head out there alone at Herondale’s behest.

 

There’s something not right about what Alec’s doing but, still, he’s doing it - living in the worst parts of himself and ignoring the whisper of his conscience in his ear: what’s it like working for a woman who wants to see supers kicked off the streets?

 

He can’t afford to listen to it; he doesn’t have the time. If he blinks, Clary will be too far ahead of him, farther than an arrow can fly, and getting herself into all sorts of trouble.

 

Alec hears the rumble of the protesters before he sees them, and before he’s half way down the fire escape: it starts as a murmur, and then it’s heads turning, looking the other way, craning over shoulders to see where it is that the clamour becomes a chant.

 

People are beginning to press back, away from the oncoming line of police, and behind them, the tide of placards and angry voices. The crowd is compressing, condensing, and that only makes Alec worry.

 

Too many people. Too many people in too small a space.

 

He knows he’s a great shot - an impeccable shot - but it becomes difficult to use a bow and arrows when he can’t predict someone stepping in front of him at the last moment.

 

The people outside the stadium are beginning to crackle, electricity rippling through them as some return shouts to the dark. Alec’s heard them all before: fuck you, democrat scum, Herondale’s gonna have the lot of you put in jail when she’s elected -

 

Alec quickens his pace down the fire escape, clinging to the shadows as an empty beer bottle gets lugged down the street, shattering behind the ankles of the police line. The broken glass crunches.

 

Here we go ,” says Jace in his ear.

 

The crowd begins to surge, people pushed backwards into one another, others shoving forwards. Angry fists raised. The shouting more incensed, more violent. Alec chances a look up at the jumbotron, but someone's already whispering in Herondale's ear on stage, no doubt already alerted to the incoming chaos. People are booing. He feels the ground shaking beneath his boots.

 

And then, Alec smells the tear gas. He smells it before he sees it: acrid, vinegary, and somewhere deep in the crowds. The green-grey haze of it wafts up into the air like a ghoulish fog; his eyes begin to sting; he tastes it at the back of his throat, a tar, a gravel burn. Herondale's security detail hurry her off stage and the crowd inside the stadium boos ferociously. But outside, the police line continues to push backwards as the protesters move forward.

 

Alec focuses on one placard in particular, jimmied through the riot shields.

 

Say it loud! Say it clear! Vigilantes are welcome here!

 

The line is buckling. He can see it.

 

There are protesters hammering at the riot shields, screaming profanities at the ralliers, who only scream them back, ever louder. There's pushing, there's shoving, there's men holding other men back from doing something truly stupid. There’s a helicopter whirring overhead with its strobe light searching the crowds, blinding people in white, making them manic.

 

It’s only a matter of time before an officer gets trigger-happy with his taser - or his gun - and there are a lot of people here. A lot of potential casualties.

 

Alec grits his teeth. Focus. Focus, Alec. His eyes dart through the crowd - a woman jeering with a placard, a man dragging his friend back by the waist, a policeman reaching for his holster - 

 

Alec? ” says Jace. “ Should we intervene?

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, already tried and bruised and he hasn’t even met one punch. “Standard formation. Form a line behind the police. Don’t let it break-”

 

Another beer bottle hurtles through the air, the rag stuffed in its neck alight with a ball of red fire. The heat of it sears Alec’s skin as it soars by, colliding with the placard that had drawn his attention.

 

The cardboard goes up in flames. Smoke pillars up into the sky and people leap back on all sides. Someone shouts out in horror or in pain.

 

And the police line just snaps .

 

The protesters burst through the wall of riot shields like a spearhead, thumping their signs on the asphalt, jeering and chanting, spilling over the police in wave upon wave. Alec curses beneath his breath, drawing an arrow. He lines up his sights, following the placards with the tip of his arrow, and he doesn’t shake, no, but the fire escape does, with the beat of people running and pushing in the street below. The thunder of feet echoes in his skull. He can't hear himself think.

 

The rally crowd floods forward to meet the protesters, the police line shoved backwards and compressed between the two riptides. They're screaming, shouting, squaring up in each others faces - hissing, spitting, waving fists. The iron beneath Alec's feet trembles. The jumbotron sputters out into blackness as a brick is thrown at the screen amidst a shower of sparks. More people swarm out from inside the stadium, an apex led by a man with his face painted red, white, and blue - no, not a man, barely a man, a kid -

 

And then, Jace lands in the middle of the street.

 

Jace lands in the middle of the street with his wings unfurled and his gun already in his hands - and it is a sight, it always is. The breadth of his wings, the bullet-shine of the titanium in the neon lights, the dark and dangerous cut of his mask - it’s threatening power, it’s a spectacle, it’s glorious , in a way. Danger clings to him like sweat: it's in his eyes, in the roll of his shoulders, in the way he stares them all down like he's bound to swallow up the sky.

 

The crowd parts like the sea around him, people shrieking, stumbling backwards, falling over each other to stay out of his way. But the shock and the panic doesn’t last - and Alec knows it won’t.

 

Jace turns in a wide circle, his glock pointed at the ground and his finger not really resting on the trigger. No-one else really knows that. Alec can see it in their eyes as panic solarflares into hatred .

 

He checks his sights again, the arrow on his string pulled taut against the anchor of his mouth. The fletching indents upon his lower lip. He can land an arrow right at Jace’s feet if anyone gets too close -

 

“Corporate scum!” someone in the crowd yells. "Get fucked! Get outta here!"

 

Another bottle shatters against Jace’s boots, spattering his suit with piss and beer.

 

Jace sneers, cricking his neck. His jaw works. His wings flex. He's pissed.

 

Alec’s fingers twitch. Focus.

 

“Muse, that’s our cue,” he whispers. “Don’t get scrappy -”

 

It’s then that Alec sees the man at the front of the crowd, the man with his face painted for war on the street, lunge at Jace from a mile off, some suicide mission - he’s clumsy and brutish and not a threat to Jace at all -

 

- but suddenly, it’s not what Alec’s looking at. No.

 

No, it’s a protester behind him, behind Jace, not even caring for Jace and his spectacle. It’s a woman in a balaclava who yanks the riot shield out of the arms of a police officer, slamming it to the ground, stamping on it. The plastic splinters. The police lunge for her, wrenching her back by the arms, but she still kicks, flailing wildly, trashing her head - screaming -

 

And then all Hell breaks loose.

 

The protesters leap forward, slamming into the crowd like a tide against a brick wall, crashing against a barricade that just won’t move. Alec watches in horror as police officers tumble head over heels, ploughed down by wave upon wave of people trampling them, and yeah, normally, he wouldn’t care, these are the cops who want him dead just as much, but -

 

There’s a gunshot. And then another, ringing out somewhere else in the crowd. He doesn't know where, and he snaps around in horror, but he can't see anything, the crowd is too damn thick, the noise just bounces - Alec doesn’t know if it’s a sparkler or BB-gun or something real. He doesn’t know if a bullet finds a home in someone’s thigh, if blood spurts high into the air. There’s only the chaos .

 

Go. Go now.

 

Oh, God save them all. 

 

He leaps down into the fray, wrenching two policemen off a woman and shoving them to the side. He takes an elbow to his gut, but barely blinks, booting an unexploded tear gas shell high into the air.

 

Ahead, there’s Jace, ducking out of the way of the man with the painted face, twisting the man’s arm behind his back and shoving him into the crowd, only to be accosted by two more men with angry snarls. Alec doesn’t know if they’re protesters or from Herondale’s rally, but it doesn’t matter - he shoots an arrow towards Jace and it pins one of the men to the ground by his pant leg, and his momentum has him slamming onto his face.

 

Jace flips the other one high over his shoulder, smacking him broadly with the flat of his wings as he wheels around, taking out three more people and making half a dozen leap back.

 

Then, there’s a glimpse of Clary, her red hair vibrant and unmistakable despite her mask, and she’s wielding a shield in her hands, something magicked out of thin air, pushing protesters away from the fight, but people are clambering past her too, blood in their mouths.

 

It’s a war on three fucking sides. The marchers are going for throats, but the ralliers are swinging punches, and the phalanx of police don’t care who is who, they’re slamming their riot shields into anyone’s chest, yanking people to the ground, pinning their hands behind their backs and leaving them there.

 

Alec ducks an oncoming fist and smacks his bow into someone else’s back. He spins on his feet and fires another arrow without blinking. Duck again. Take another shot. Grab a woman by the back of her shirt and heave her away from spitting in another girl’s face -

 

He clocks the police officer with the gun before he can really process it - just a glimpse, just a glance, but it’s like a signal flare inside his head: gun . There’s a gun. There’s a gun, and the officer is breathing heavily, his shoulders heaving, his eyes wild as he stares at Jace through the throng, lining up the shot.

 

He’s gonna take it, claim it was an accident. He's gonna say he shot a man with wings from the sky. Alec sees it in his eyes.

 

“Arkangel!” Alec shouts, but the arrow in his bowstring is quicker. He looses it, and then he dives, through the crowd, towards Jace, grabbing Jace by the shoulder and pulling him down as the gunshot rings out and the police offer reels back in pain as Alec’s arrow pierces through his hand.

 

Alec’s ears ring. There’s blood on Jace’s cheek, a bullet graze. Jace stares back at him, his mismatched eyes bright and wild and uncontrollable. He breathes. Nods. Pushes away. Alec has no time to pause.

 

Alec twists back towards the officer, recoiling on the ground and clutches his bloody hand, but Alec has no time for that either. He lunges for the gun before a dozen other hands can find it, snatching it off the ground and shoving it into the belt of his suit.

 

All around him, police sirens are wailing, people are screeching, tear gas is blooming in enormous, grey-green clouds, swallowing up the masses of people like a monster, like some sort of Lovecraftian beast, consuming as it goes. People are stumbling, falling to the wayside, but more people are powering forward, fists in shirt collars, words violent and spittle sprayed upon faces.

 

Alec knows Jace is at his back - even if he can’t see him, he can feel him, he can hear the zing of his wings, the grunt he makes when he smacks someone with the butt of his gun. It’s always been second nature, fighting alongside Jace, knowing where Jace is , an extension of himself - but Jace is a firecracker, and Alec knows that well too.

 

“Get back!” yells Jace, firing off three rounds from his glock into the air. The first is swallowed up by the noise, but the second is a bang, and the third pierces a splintering silence as space forms around both him and Alec, suctioned like a vacuum. Jace's hair is wild across his mask. His shoulders heave, his pupils blown wide and dark. Anger drips down his chin, crackling at his skin. “Get back, the lot of you!”

 

Alec hears the bullet casing clink to the ground. And so does everybody else.

 

The crowd parts, the marchers pushing and shoving at their ranks, trampling over those squished to the ground. The police struggle to reform a bent and broken line, clamouring for their riot shields. Herondale’s supporters rally back together too, pulling each other back to their feet as the cloud of tear gas disapparates in the wind. The shouts are those of panic now.

 

"Get back, get back, he's got a gun!"

 

Alec sees Clary, a long way down the line, breathing heavily, her hair in disarray. She’s still on her feet. No blood. She flinches. The group of protesters nearest her all reel backwards, as if spooked - and rightly so. There’s a sneer on her face and Alec knows just how scrappy she can get with balled fists or a makeshift weapon.

 

But she’s okay; she’s holding their line, their buffer between one side that wants them dead, and the other, who probably do too. She's alive. Still standing. Her safety is one less paperwork problem for Alec at the end of the night.

 

Good. Good . Alec’s breath still comes hard; his chest still hammers. Adrenaline lances through him, flaying him from the inside out. 

 

The beam of the helicopter overhead lights up her face then, and then it comes for Alec, blinding him for a moment. He squints against it, white and eye-watering, and lifts a hand to shield his face. The whop of the blades is deafening. The jumbotron on the side of the stadium is flickering with static where the screen has been smashed by a vagrant beer bottle. Somewhere nearby, there’s a bright red flare burning in the gutters, the violent light of it staining all the faces in the colour of blood and neon. He can only smell burning. It turns his throat to ash.

 

The depths of the crowd are still bellowing, a murmur returning to a roar, surging forward with a swell. Alec’s finger twitches on his bow. He watches Jace. Jace doesn’t watch him. Jace touts his gun on his finger, spinning it around in his hand. Cocksure. 

 

Reckless.

 

Alec sees it then - that man again, the man with the painted face, elbowing his way through the crowd as Jace turns a circle. Alec sees the hatred in the man’s eyes, the hatred he has for Jace, for Arkangel, for every Corporate and every vigilante he daren’t distinguish between. Alec knows that hatred, because it’s in the Senator’s eyes, it’s in the city newspapers, it’s in the graffiti on the outside walls of Idris, it was the look Nightlock wore that night on the rooftop -

 

The man charges for Jace, head down and bullish. Jace doesn’t have to do anything; Alec doesn’t have to yell. It should be slow motion, but it’s not - it happens so quick. The crunching glass, the grey smoke, the shout from the crowd, the howl -

 

Jace launches his gun up into the air, throwing it high, and before it crashes back to Earth again, he grapples the man around the waist and throws him to the ground. The air is expelled from the man’s body, Jace slamming his painted cheek into the asphalt, into the shattered windows, into the spilt beer and trampled rubbish. He wrenches the man’s arm behind his back and presses his knee hard between his shoulder blades.

 

The man is pinned, his teeth red with blood. He can’t move. He didn’t even get a punch in.

 

That’s not what the crowd sees. No.

 

No, they see a defenseless man lunging at a super with his bare fists, and they see a man in a black mask and enormous titanium wings slam him to the ground, and they see the man’s split open cheek and busted nose leaking liquid cartilage into the street.

 

Alec can’t move. His eyes meet Clary’s. Panic.

 

Jace looks up, his blonde hair flopping forward over his mask. The smoke and the tear gas rises up behind him as the searchlight illuminates him in a spotlight, white and bright and dangerous, and he looks like he’s the harbinger of the end of the world.

 

“Arkangel!” Alec snaps, yanking an arrow out of his quiver and locking it in his bow. There are a hundred eyes on Jace, on Clary, on Alec too. He doesn’t know which way to face.

 

Jace leaps away from the man’s back, but the man doesn’t get up, still face down in the dirt and the pool of his own blood. He’s making a strange gurgling sound, and he’s trying to push himself to his feet, but he’s not getting up, there’s a river of blood streaming from his hairline now -

 

“Get fucked, Corporate scum!” someone screams, and a beer bottle smashes at Jace’s feet. A shard of glass shoots up into the air and catches Jace on the temple.

 

Alec stares at the bead of blood as it blooms and then rolls down Jace’s cheek, a line of bright crimson dripping off his chin. Alec stares, and the shiver rattles up his spine, wringing him for all that he’s worth.

 

“Murderer!” another shouts from behind Alec, “Murderous pig !”

 

The flash of a camera too close makes Alec sees stars for a moment. He wheels round, pointing his arrow into the crowd and they all stumble backwards, away from him, but there’s at least three camcorders staring him down with black, unblinking eyes.

 

“Kill the supers!” comes the chant. "Don't let them get away with this!" Alec knows it well. All too well.

 

Jace curses, grabbing a new magazine from his belt and reloading his gun. There’s a snarl on his face now, and as he scrubs his knuckles across his cheek, he smears blood across his curled lip.

 

Alec ,” says Izzy over the coms. She doesn’t need to say anything else. Alec wonders if she’s watching on the TV from the safety of her lab.

 

This is going to end badly, and Alec - Alec doesn’t want to let his arrow fly, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He braces himself for the onslaught. He digs his heels into the concrete. His bow cuts into his fingers. Sharp. Pain.

 

Focus .

 

He has to keep Jace and Clary alive, but everyone else wants them fucking dead .

 

 


 

 

There’s a smear of blood on the sidewalk. It’s turning brown and darkening in the rain, but Alec knows that his fingers would still come back red if he rubbed his hand through it and smudged it into the cracks on the pavement.

 

The street is silent.

 

The street is silent, the crowds gone, run away, arrested, he doesn’t know, but beyond that,  there’s rain that hisses on the still-hot concrete, ringing on broken glass and tiny of upturned dumpsters and torn-off car doors. Placards and balaclavas are soaking in the puddles, cardboard turning to mush.

 

Somehow, the air still shrieks the song of burning. Acrid, violent burning that stinks of rubber and sweat and vomit. He’s been out here for hours, but he doesn’t know how many. The night is wearing away at his skin. Dawn will find the horizon soon enough. Maybe.

 

There’s a part of him not too sure.

 

Alec crouches down to yank one of his arrows out of a trash bag, the shaft all bent and twisted, the fletching ripped clean off. The arrowhead is sticky with something black, or a deep, deep red.

 

Alec’s stomach churns.

 

The street is silent, and the emptiness deafens him.

 

And New York is never this quiet, never this seething. He’s never seen Madison Square without its lights piercing into the sky, a column of yellow, hazy light. He’s never seen 7th Avenue devoid of taxi cabs and car horns.

 

He’s standing in the middle of the road, right on the dotted line. He looks up the street, and there’s only dark. He looks the other way, towards the sea, and there’s only the distant beam of a roaming helicopter. The skyscrapers loom tall above him, black, shadowy, goading as they vie to swallow him up.

 

Silent.

 

Jace lands with a heavy oomph behind him. He’s just taken Clary to safety, somewhere up high. Alec wants to be up high.

 

“Fuck, I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna sleep well tonight,” Jace grunts. The blood on his face hasn’t been allowed to dry; the rain smears it, watery red streaks across his chin and mask. His hair too, is stained pinky-red at the ends. There’s a dent in his wings. His suit is ripped.

 

At least he’s not smiling. He knows this is serious, and even if he doesn’t, one look at Alec’s face will tell him otherwise.

 

Alec doesn’t turn to look at him. Maybe he can’t. Maybe he can’t stop his hands curling into fists, maybe he can’t stop the shaking as adrenaline wrings him dry.

 

Alec stares at that bloody smear on the ground again. It’s mixed with paint, red, white, and blue. Brown now. Everything is brown, dirty, disgusting. It makes him want to pick as his skin, pull it clean off.

 

“Man, the Senator better pay us double for dealing with that,” Jace says, “Kinda cheap only hiring three of us out if she knew it was gonna turn nasty, even though we had it under control and everything.”

 

Alec says nothing. Jace continues, oblivious.

 

“That kid who ran at me at the start though? That was pretty crazy. I saw that move on TV, y’know? Raj and I were watching WWE the other night after shift and I’ve been itching to try it out, superflex someone’s ass -”

 

“You could’ve killed him.”

 

Alec almost hears the snap of Jace’s head as he turns sharply to stare at Alec.

 

“Yeah, but I didn’t,” Jace protests, and Alec knows the affront in his voice, the offense, the prideful anger. “Kid’s gonna have a fun night in the cells and a splitting headache tomorrow, but he’ll get out scot free. Me, meanwhile, I have this damn cut on my face and it won’t stop bleeding, and you know how easy I scar, Sentinel -”

 

Maybe he’s joking. Jace always makes awful jokes at awful times, the gift of sarcasm definitely lost on him.

 

Tonight, Alec suspects it’s lost on him too.

 

“If you kept your face outta the papers, a few scars wouldn’t be a problem,” he mutters, “A lot of things wouldn’t be a problem.”

 

“C’mon, Sentinel,” Jace smarts. He steps up to Alec’s side and slaps a hand on Alec’s shoulders, forcing Alec to face him. If Alec has a face like thunder, Jace doesn’t react to it. “Lighten up. Mistakes were made, no big deal. It’s not our problem, this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s a protest, things gets violent … what do people expect?”

 

Mistakes were made , Alec thinks, by you . He doesn’t say it.

 

He doesn’t say it, because he’s the one holding a bloody arrow, so mistakes were made by him as well.

 

He’s not sure if he hates himself for that. Deep down, he knows he does, he knows he will be reeling at himself this time tomorrow, but now? Now, all he feels is numb. His head is spinning, his eyes are aching from the tear gas, his throat is hoarse and dry.

 

He wants to ask Jace if he’s scared - but he already knows the answer, even if Jace will never admit it if asked. Jace knows the situation is fucked, Jace knows they shouldn’t be here, Jace does it anyway, because it’s all they know.

 

It’s all either of them know. The mask, the job, the pay packet at the end of it, the sense of guilt that comes afterwards, the hatred. Alec understands why people want them dead.

 

“Hey,” says Jace then, and his voice is softer. He’s known Alec long enough to recognise his spirals. “Buddy. C’mon. Don’t think about it, you know it doesn’t help.”

 

“I’m not thinking about anything,” Alec mutters.

 

“Sure you’re not,” Jace agrees, patting Alec’s shoulders again. “Sure you’re not.”

 

 


 

 

Alec heads home alone. And that’s normal, because he and Jace always say goodbye at the end of the night, either on a street corner or at headquarters after a debrief, but tonight, Alec hears the loneliness in his own footsteps. The thought of his empty apartment isn’t one of sanctitude. His living room will be dark, his kitchen silent. There’s no-one waiting for him at home, and oh - inhale, Alec.

 

Ignore the hitch of your heart, Alec . Ignore his desperation for a simple touch, a hand on his shoulder that isn’t Jace’s. Ignore the way the thoughts rattle around inside his empty head with nowhere to go.

 

He thinks about his parents. He wonders if they’re going to chew Jace out; he wonders if they’re going to congratulate him for a job well done. He wonders if Senator Herondale will hire them out again in a week’s time to run point on another protest and the night will play out again as it always must.

 

He thinks about the headlines that will splatter tomorrow’s front pages in slander. What horrible things will they say about Arkangel, about Muse, about Sentinel? Will the front steps of headquarters be splattered in rain-wet newspapers, plastered to the door like papier maché? Will Alec see his own masked face in the broadsheets on the subway tomorrow on his commute to work and have to pretend that it’s the movement of the carriage that makes him queasy?

 

Alec picks up the pace. He’s five blocks away from home and his legs are aching, his bow arm twinging in pain, a bruise blooming on his hip where he took a blow, maybe the scrape of a butterfly knife. He’ll find out later in the shower if the damp spots on his suit are rain or blood.

 

There’s a part of him, an insidious, ugly, deserving part of him that wants the blood, that longs for the cuts, that needs to feel the sting, because that’s real. It’s not numbness, or hatred, or anything like that: it’s just pain, and that, he can focus on. He can let the shower wash the blood away. He can pick at the scabs as they heal. He can look at each white whisker of a scar in the mirror and remember.

 

Five blocks to go. Instead, he has the wind, and it’s billowing, growling in the gutters and shaking telephone polls and sounding something like laughter.

 

Why does it feel like he knows that laughter? Why does it sound like that super on the roof, like Nightlock, laughing at him, telling Sentinel that he was right? All Corporates are the same, the paid muscle, deplorable, moraless, violent, untrustable -

 

It makes Alec angry - being laughed at, being proven wrong, being made to feel … like this . But beneath that compacted anger, he knows there’s so much more, a sadness, a longing, that damn loneliness, and the more he thinks about it, the more it feels real, and he can’t have that.

 

Ignore it , he tells himself, over and over and over again, all the way to his front door. Ignore it, squash it down, lock it away. Don’t think about what you’ve had to do to keep people safe. Don’t let it interfere with the job.

 

He does these things to keep Jace and Clary alive.

 

He does these things to save people, even if they don’t know it and never thank him for it.

 

He does these things because he doesn’t know how to live with himself if he doesn’t try .

 

He doesn’t have time for it to get in the way.

 

The media will milk tonight for all it is worth. Maryse will find a way to spin it, painting those protesters as dangerous and the rally-goers as innocent bystanders, even if they were all the same. Senator Herondale won’t comment on it when she’s asked about it at her next public appearance, insisting that she had no idea why the Corporate supers were ever there. The police will still hate Arkangel and Sentinel.

 

But give it a week, and everyone will forget. Something worse will happen. Someone else will distract the papers and the people and the placards littered in the streets and propped up outside Idris. Arkangel and Sentinel will be back on patrol and no-one will hold them accountable for tonight because no-one calling the shots really cares what the Corporates do or do not do -

 

It will be the same as always. The wind is still howling. Somewhere, Nightlock is still laughing.

 

 


 

 

For someone with such keen eyesight, Alec sees the figure strung up above the glass doors of the Tribunal far too late the next morning.

 

From across the street, it genuinely looks like a body - the lifeless slump of a dead man something Alec is unable to mistake. His heart surges into his throat and his stomach falls out from within him, suddenly unable to feel the ground beneath his feet, but definitely able to feel the biting sting of his nails digging into the palms of his hands where he curls his fingers into fists.

 

It takes a moment or two of blind, blank-faced horror for him to realise it’s only a dummy, because no-one else is stopping to give it more than a cursory glance over - this effigy, a straw man with his arms stretched out in crucifixion, his head bowed between his shoulders, and a placard roped around his neck.

 

Alec hurries across the street, weaving between taxi cabs that blast their horns at him and drivers who throw middle fingers out their wound-down windows, but his breath still comes hard when he makes it to the sidewalk, and it’s not only on account of exertion.

 

He stares up at his office, the big, brassy letters of The Daily Tribunal dulled by the overcast skies, the letters T and L bound with rope to string up the fake body above the door.

 

Alec has seen many of these effigies in his time; he’s seen them on pikes in angry crowds; he’s seen them burning at the centre of a bonfire; and he’s seen them abandoned on street corners, home for rats and city vermin.

 

But this - this one is right here . Hoisted up above the door to his place of work, staring down at him with a blank and broken and soulless stare, its eyes, two black pits of permanent marker scored by an angry hand.

 

It’s too high for anyone to reach without help, but that only means that someone planned this; it wasn’t a passing fantasy. Someone made this dummy for the sole purpose of hanging it up here, for everyone to see.

 

Alec takes a step closer, squinting as he takes in the dummy’s tattered black jeans, old leather jacket, its head of yellow yarn, and its floppy legs swaying in the wind. And then, on its back -

 

A pair of cheap, costume angel wings, made of plastic feathers and fine mesh. None of it is true to life, but the point still strikes Alec in much the same way nausea does, a smarting backhand, and he feels sick to his bones.

 

It’s meant to be an effigy of Arkangel. Of Jace .

 

Alec tries to make out the words of the placard around the dummy’s neck, but he’s too far to really read anything but the title - but he knows the front page of his paper when he sees it, and the headline is inky black and bold.

 

CORPORATE SUPER OR VIOLENT MERCENARY? ARKANGEL CAUSES CHAOS AT HERONDALE RALLY

 

There’s a red handprint on the placard too - not blood, Alec knows the colour of blood, both wet and weeping and long since dried - but in its crimson, equally violent and equally terrible.

 

The sickness in Alec’s bones calcifies, becoming anger, becoming hatred, simmering away just below the boil. He feels it scorching, searing him on the insides where he cannot reach and cannot stop it, and it’s all he can do to grit his teeth and bear it, like he always does, ducking his head and stalking into the office lobby without another look up at the greying heavens.

 

 


 

 

There’s a strange mood in the building, like there’s an elephant in the room but no-one wants to talk about it. Alec weaves his way through the cubicles, fingers gripping the strap of his bag tighter and tighter with every step, until his knuckles turn white.

 

No-one looks up, heads bowed and eyes focused on keyboards, but Alec can feel it in the air: the tension, the knife-edge, the want to gossip. It only fuels the simmer in his gut, but it’s not just that.

 

It’s not just the resentment and the fury and the disgust for this damn city, he realises, as he all but throws himself down in his desk chair. It’s not just the guilt and the way he didn’t sleep last night because his mind kept replaying over and over again Jace slamming that kid’s cheek into the concrete.

 

It’s panic too. Just beneath the surface, but there: an aftertaste for an afterthought.

 

And Alec hasn’t felt the phantom grip of panic in a long time.

 

He turns on his computer on autopilot, but even as the dial-up screeches, all he’s doing is staring at his screen, numb from the mind down.

 

Of course he’s scared - who wouldn’t be?

 

There’s a straw dummy of his damn brother in a hangman’s noose strung up outside the place he works. This has never happened before. This, he can’t ignore.

 

His fingers start trembling, and so he ties them up in knots, curls them into fists, does anything he can to fidget, to keep the tremors from creeping up his arms and burrowing deeper, to a place where he cannot control them. He has no time for fear , he tells himself on endless repeat. It’s probably not the truth, but perhaps it’s better than acknowledging the other reasons why it’s so hard for him to accept the hitch in his breath and the heave in his stomach.

 

This is because of last night . He knows it. Someone wants Jace dead because of that riot - and Hell, probably far more than just some one . This was a planned and collaborative effort.

 

He should call Jace. No, not Jace, he should call Izzy. Yeah, that’s a plan. He needs a plan.

 

God, he feels sick -

 

It’s then that the doors on the other side of the office swing open, and Magnus floods into the room, and Alec’s eyes fly to him on instinct. Magnus’ head is held high and his jaw cuts a sharp profile; his dark suspenders cut into the crisp white linen of his shirt; and his strides are fast and purposeful as he flies across the room, a dozen manilla folders pressed beneath his arm.

 

He looks cool and calm and collected on the surface, yet, as Magnus stops abruptly, spinning on his heel with the arrival of a sudden and crucial decision, Alec hones in on something in the set of his jaw that is just more than a little tense.

 

Alec watches him raise a hand, pinch his thumb and forefinger together, and then close his eyes to take a deep, steadying breath. He drops his hand again. Another breath.

 

And then he says, loudly, “Everyone, good morning - could I have your attention, please?”

 

It’s almost comical, the way Alec sees a dozen or so heads pop up from behind their partitions, all eyes curious upon the lone figure of Magnus standing in the centre of the room, commanding their attention.

 

Magnus doesn’t say anything until a few more heads rise, incensed by the prolonged silence more than anything, but when he does, Alec feels the tightness in his throat seize right up.

 

“By now I’m sure you’re all aware of the lovely new addition to the front of the building, following last night,” Magnus says, his voice strong and resolute. “But have we decided how we’re going to take it down ?”

 

A low murmur ripples through the office, undoubtedly harsh with words that Alec is glad he cannot hear - but what he can see is Magnus folding his arms across his chest and beginning to tap his foot, pointed and deliberate. His jaw clenches, the muscles in his face shifting, and he quirks an eyebrow as he surveys the room of people too afraid to reply.

 

He doesn’t look like a patient man.

 

“Don’t all talk at once,” he remarks bitterly. “Can I get some volunteers to take the thing down, or not?”

 

Another murmur, and this time Alec hears the man next to him grumbling about leaving the dummy up there, because it will serve someone right, because it will send a message -

 

Alec curls his palms into fists again, pressing his knuckles into the wood of his desk, hard. Across the room, he sees Simon’s hand pop up into the air.

 

And then Magnus smiles.

 

It’s brief and it’s fleeting, but it’s there, and Alec feels it like a puncture. Magnus nods at Simon, curt but thankful, and then his eyes begin to roam the room again, landing, at last, on Alec.

 

When their gazes lock, Alec swallows hard, and splays his palms out flat on his desktop. He thinks about keeping a low profile; he thinks about letting those disgusting whispers from his neighbour pass through him like it feels the wind in the treacherous city does; he thinks about looking away. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

 

He doesn’t. Slowly, he raises his hand too, not nearly as enthusiastically as Simon, but it’s enough for Magnus’ expression to shift, as if he’s somehow pleasantly surprised, but relieved, and grateful too, and just the barest flash of something else -

 

Alec is hard-pressed to name it, but it’s not unlike the feeling of a spotlight, with Magnus’ fixated stare the strobe. It’s not like the beam of the helicopter from last night, not blinding, but it shares the same scrutiny. He feels just a little bit transparent, as if Magnus can see right to the centre of him for the very first time.

 

It lasts but a moment, because then Magnus is serious and severe again, saying something barbed to the rest of the room about how that will have to do . He clicks his tongue to get Simon to follow him as he breezes from the room once more.

 

He doesn’t look back at Alec, but Alec wants him to look back.

 

Alec wants him to look back and raise his eyebrows in expectation and tilt his head just so, a what are you waiting for, are you coming or not?

 

Magnus always knows what he’s doing.

 

 


 

 

Alec is positive that Simon is going to fall off his ladder and break his neck on the sidewalk - or at least give himself a nasty concussion. Alec isn’t so fussed about that , but knows that Simon hurting himself is going to be something that Alec will have to deal with, and that definitely grates on him.

 

He wants to tell Magnus that he should be holding onto the bottom of Simon’s ladder, and not Alec’s, but Alec can’t bring himself to turn and look down at Magnus, because he’s already made that mistake twice so far, and -

 

Well. The first time he’d looked, Magnus’ eyes had snapped from somewhere that definitely wasn’t where they were supposed to be, to Alec’s face, and he’d raised his eyebrows and shot Alec the most guilty smile Alec had ever seen. The second time, Magnus didn’t even realise he’d been caught staring, his eyes completely glazed over and preoccupied when Alec had looked back over his shoulders.

 

So, Alec doesn’t look back. He grits his teeth and tries again to shake the ropes free of the big brass letters of the Tribunal . Blood rises in his face, most certainly betraying him. He yanks a little bit harder, and the knots comes loose, the dummy swinging down as its weight is released on one side.

 

Simon yelps something unintelligible, but then he manages to get the other rope free without overextending himself too far off balance, and the dummy falls to the ground with an unceremonious thud . A couple pedestrians on the sidewalk stop to look for a moment, silent and robotic, but they carry on walking without saying a word, because the wind is too cold and the clouds too grey to linger for long.

 

“Well,” says Magnus, as Alec eases himself down the ladder. Magnus moves to inspect the dummy, nudging it onto its back with the toe of his brogue, and frowning at the placard on its chest. He pulls his coat tighter around himself, the collar flipped up around his cheeks. The sight of his suspenders is definitely missed. “I’d say we should burn this, but I fear that would be what it was intended for.”

 

Simon climbs down from his ladder, almost tripping over the last rung in his haste to get to Magnus’ side.

 

“Could always try feeding it to the paper shredder,” he suggests, unhelpfully. “Piece by piece, very slowly, and very agonisingly. It’s what it deserves.”

 

“Just put it in the trash and be done with it,” Alec sighs, sounding as weary as he feels. He folds his arms across his chest, hunching his shoulders as the wind lances right through his thin work shirt. It’s no super suit. His teeth chatter. “Let’s just get back inside.”

 

Simon squawks about Alec being a buzzkill, but he hauls the dummy up into his arms and drags it inside, insisting loudly that he’s going to deal with it in a way he sees fit - but Alec doesn’t really care, because Magnus turns to him, something curious in his eyes.

 

No, not quite curious. It’s more like -

 

It’s more like he’s looking at Alec and trying to understand something, what with the way there’s a tiny crease between his brows and a tilt to his head, his eyes slightly narrowed. He studies Alec a moment, and Alec wonders if it’s possible to drive himself insane wondering with obvious thing Magnus sees upon his face: gravel burn? the dark outline of his mask? a splattering of blood from the streets last night he forgot to wash off?

 

He doesn’t want Magnus seeing any of that, and yet -

 

Magnus takes a step closer to Alec, slow and careful, but nothing further, and Alec is glad of that, because he’s already uncomfortable, his eyes anywhere but Magnus’ face.

 

“I, uh - “ Alec says clumsily, “I should get back to work.”

 

He turns to leave, probably a little too quickly -

 

“Alexander, wait -”

 

- and stops just as fast.

 

Magnus steps to his side, his hand hovering near Alec’s shoulder, but not quite touching. He guides Alec away from the bustle of the sidewalk, beneath the arch of the doorway. The shadows smell like cheap cigarettes and ash, but as Magnus moves, there’s the waft of his cologne too, more cloying than Alec remembers.

 

Alec blanches, and Magnus starts to say something, but the words smoke out before they even leave his mouth. Magnus takes half a step back, giving Alec the space again to breathe.

 

And then, Magnus frowns, pursing his lips together in a firm line, frustrated - and it surprises Alec, because Magnus is always someone so deft with words, so confident with what he has to say, so sure-footed when it comes to dazzling Alec with clever turns-of-phrase and whiplash smiles.

 

Instead, Magnus folds his arms around himself, rubbing his thumb and index finger together. It’s a tick. It’s a tell . For nerves, for doubt, for - Alec cannot claim to know, but it throws him off-balance nonetheless.

 

Why is Magnus nervous?

 

“Magnus?”

 

Magnus eyes snap up to meet his in a heartbeat, so fast that Alec startles.

 

“I didn’t know,” says Magnus below his breath, turned away from the street deliberately. There’s something about his voice that is simultaneously tentative and hopeful. He speaks slowly, as if sounding out each word, not only in his own mouth, but for how they fall upon Alec. “That you were sympathetic.”

 

“Sympathetic?” Alec asks, confused.

 

“To the supers,” Magnus clarifies, waving his fingers, his eyebrows raising on that last word. “You didn’t strike me as the sort of person to be on their side. Going against the grain is - well . I … didn’t assume it was your style, per say.”

 

Alec frowns, shifting his weight and clasping his hands behind his back. He straightens up, settling his shoulders.

 

“What made you think that I wouldn’t care?”

 

He means for it to come out more gently than it does, but it’s defensive, curt to a point that even he can hear it in himself, and he’s never been the most discerning. He sucks in a sharp breath, his tongue feeling fat and stupid in his mouth, but swallows down any further things he might say to stick his foot in it. He watches Magnus’ face instead.

 

Magnus doesn’t say anything. He’s still frowning, but it’s inwards this time, his thoughts clearly muddled. The silence goes on so long that Alec starts to itch, an uncomfortable feeling starting in his toes that goes hand in hand with the way he feels just a little bit too vulnerable standing out on the street where every passerby seems to be looking.

 

Why does Magnus want to know if he’s sympathetic to supers? What does sympathetic even mean?? Is he trying to sound Alec out? It’s the sort of thing that gets people fired, openly supporting vigilantes, but Magnus isn’t that sort of person - is he?

 

Maybe he was at the protest last night. Maybe he saw Arkangel in the crowds, maybe he saw Sentinel with his bloody bow and arrow, maybe he saw that boy with his cheek pressed to the concrete, and he can’t get it out of his head either. Maybe he wants Alec to tell him he’s not crazy for not knowing which side of the law the Corporates stand on -

 

He needs to make an excuse to leave again, but then Magnus speaks.

 

“I don’t know,” he says, and Alec blinks. Something left unsaid remains in the air, but Alec is not quite sure what it is, or how to read it. “I don’t know why I thought that. I was … evidently wrong.”

 

His eyes roam over Alec, searching Alec’s face, slow over the line of his hair, the cut of his jaw, the gulp in his throat. He lingers on the knot of Alec’s tie at the base of his neck, that tiny scowl appearing between his brows again for just a second.

 

Perhaps , Alec realises, beneath the way that obnoxious heat starts to rise up the back of his neck once more, Magnus is seeing him for the first time all over again .

 

Magnus looks like he wants to say more. He doesn’t, but he makes a humming noise that sounds satisfied (and leaves Alec nothing but stumped), and then tilts his head in the direction of the lobby.

 

“Back to work?” he almost whispers.

 

“I -” Alec mumbles, “I should probably … go make sure Simon isn’t breaking the paper shredder.”

 

He doesn’t have much time to wonder why the Hell did he just say that , because then Magnus is laughing, a soft, quiet thing, a little bit contained, and he shakes his head in dismay, but his eyes still shine.

 

“Quite,” Magnus says, and Alec is not sure Magnus has ever looked at him like that before. It’s new. It’s different. Something in Alec’s chest aches, and it matches all the mottled bruises he suffered last night. It makes Alec feel a little breathless. “Thank you for help, Alexander. I’ll see you later.”

 

 


 

 

Alec is not the sort of person to dwell on things too much: if there’s not an immediate answer to a problem, then the thought can be quashed down and compacted, to be dealt with on later date. It’s probably not a healthy coping mechanism and likely the latent cause of most of his issues - which Izzy likes to remind him of - but it’s worked, more or less, for most of his life.

 

That look on Magnus’ face is another matter, however, because Alec’s still thinking about it when he gets back to his desk; when he’s gearing up that night; and then again when he’s sitting on a rooftop waiting for Jace, for Arkangel, to confirm that the floor of the building across the street they’re supposed to be breaking into is empty. It’s not something he can ignore, not like everything else.

 

Alec’s not one to let his mind wander, but he comes back to himself with a start. He realises that he’s been staring down the length of an arrow for the last five minutes, but not seeing anything.

 

He blushes, because there’s no-one around to see him, but he still can hate the way his cheeks flare so warm. He feels like he wants to peel his skin off for how his mind keeps returning to that curious, unexpected look in Magnus’ eyes, a look that has now burrowed its way deep into his flesh - and he’s not oblivious to this morbid need for self-flaying that has possessed him two nights in a row.

 

He wants to say the feeling is different to last night: last night, he wanted rid of the flaking dirt on his skin, and tonight, it’s the heat, but really, it’s all the same. He wants rid of sensation.

 

But even his blood runs hot to the touch, and it’s not something he’s ever felt before, and it makes him antsy.

 

Alec? ” comes Jace’s voice in his ear. “ You still there?

 

“Yes,” Alec replies, a little too snappishly. “Are we in the clear?”

 

Looks like it ,” Jace replies, the sound of the wind rushing past his radio dying out as he comes into land on another building. Alec scans the rooftops for him, looking for the telltale glint of silver metal in the night, but spots nothing. He turns his attention back to the skyscraper before him.

 

You got one of those special arrows of yours, Sentinel? ” Jace asks, “ Sounds like Iz was right, the security system up here is electromagnetic . You’re gonna have to zap it, bud.

 

Of course I was right ,” replies Isabelle, “ And for the love of God, Jace, please don’t say ‘special arrows’ ever again .”

 

It wasn’t meant to be an innuendo, that’s your fault. Get your mind out of the gutter, Iz.

 

“Can we please focus?” Alec grits out. He adjusts his grip on his bow, drawing back the string to the corner of his mouth, anchoring it against his lip. Despite what Izzy might say, the arrow he has notched is a special one, one that will release an EMP pulse upon impact, and hopefully knock out most of the electronics within a fifty-foot radius.

 

Tonight, that’s how they’ll get into this building without being seen, and Alec has to admit he’s thankful for it, because it means no-one has to get hurt. It’s an in-and-out mission. Maybe it’s an apology from his mother for selling them out last night, or maybe it’s her careful plan to keep them out of the spotlight for the moment.

 

Alec’s not about to complain. It’s quiet, all the way up here. All he has is the wind and the buzz in his ear and the thought of that unreadable look in Magnus’ eyes -

 

“Where’s the target?” he says briskly into his radio, gaze focused down the shaft of his arrow. The empty fifteenth floor of the building across is aglow in the dark with the blue haze of computers on standby.

 

According to the blueprints, the security hub is on the other side of the room you’re looking into ,” Izzy replies. “ So … four windows down from the west should be alright. If you hit the glass, the pulse should be able to disable the system from there.

 

If I hit the glass,” Alec mutters, as if the window he’s aiming for isn’t twice his height and far, far bigger than any practice target he’s used in years. He draws the bowstring back until the tension digs into his fingers through the leather of his gloves, and then he lets the arrow fly, no sound but a quiet whoosh as it slices through the dark.

 

The arrow flies so fast that it goes straight through the glass, splintering the window with spider web-like fractures. It doesn’t break, but suddenly all the lights of the city are warped upon it, spindly yellows and strange magenta, refracting in different prismatic colours to all the other windows.

 

All the computers in the office flicker into darkness. Alec lets his breath hiss out over his lips and gently lowers his bow.

 

In his ear, Alec hears Jace let out a low whistle.

 

Nice shot ,” says Izzy, equally impressed. “ Alright, everything’s fried, electronic locking and alarms are both offline. Jace, you should be able to get in from the roof and walk down without tripping any wires. I’ll talk you through the rest .”

 

Alec hears Jace take off from wherever he is, the whir of his wings unmistakable, and then, in the dark, he sees a metallic glint landing silently on the roof across from him. He huffs out a breath and it mushrooms in the cold that has arrived in the city too soon for winter.

 

Alec doesn’t really know what they’re here to collect; the dossier handed to him by his mother hadn’t been all that informative, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary - Alec is used to not having all the facts and turning a blind eye. He suspects that someone out there is after some financial records and is willing to pay big money to get them, as this building is occupied by a bank, or a law firm maybe, but definitely someone with access to a lot of information and a lot of capital.

 

It’s fine. He’s not the one who has to get in there and get out, and he’s more than happy to leave that to Jace while playing the lookout. His ears have only just stopped ringing from the protest, from all those booming flares and all that screaming. The light of the city is softer this high up, all white and icy blue, and the pounding in his head finally lessens.

 

Espionage is quieter, and Alec trusts his arrows to fly true and his footsteps to be silent and his body to sink into the shadows.

 

He likes to think his hands are less dirty this way.

 

It’s a lie.

 

And the moment he realises it, the pressure in the air changes. There’s a taxi down on the street that blasts its horn, violating the quiet; orange light flashes upon the glass of the skyscraper, catching and sticking in the broken window of the fifteenth floor.

 

The cool damp of the night alights with an eddy current. It almost arcs from the ground to Alec’s fingertips like lightning.

 

It feels … familiar -

 

“You know, you’re not doing all that much to dispel the idea that you’re a glorified burglar, Sentinel.”

 

Alec starts, his hand already grabbing for his quiver, but behind him, stepping out of the veil of night, Nightlock just raises his gloved hands in surrender. He laughs bitingly, the sound conjured up from out of the gloom.

 

“Easy there,” he says. Tonight, the collar of his coat is popped against the wind, there’s a streak of red colour through his hair, and in the soft light, the shadow around his mouth isn’t as stark as before. He’s smiling crookedly. “I’m not here to interfere, but that EMP of yours certainly caught my attention. Couldn’t ignore that. Was that one of your arrows?”

 

“You felt it?” Alec asks, narrowing his eyes. He doesn’t draw his arrow, but damn it, he’s getting a little frustrated at being snuck up upon.

 

Nightlock only shrugs.

 

“Of course,” he says, “I was in the neighbourhood, but I am particularly in tune to changes in the dispersion of energy, after all.”

 

His flicks his wrist and the air convulses around his fingers, coiling out of nothing into a loose ball that begins to slowly glow with a faint white light. He tosses it up into the air like a baseball, catching it with ease, and Alec’s eyes follow.

 

So it’s not just telekinesis , Alec notes, it’s energy manipulation, probably … probably kinetikinesis . He’s never seen it before, but he’s read about it, and he knows enough about the Law of the Conservation of Energy to guess that Nightlock has just transferred the kinetic energy from his hand into the light that he now toys with in his palm.

 

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another.

 

That’s an infinite power.

 

“Neat trick,” Alec says instead, pressing it out between his teeth. Nightlock twirls his fingers again, the energy dissipating back into the air, but it doesn’t do anything to settle Alec’s nerves. He fights the urge to look back over his shoulder and see how Jace is fairing, but he knows it would be stupid to take his eyes off Nightlock now.

 

Nightlock seems far less fazed.

 

“So, what terrible deed is on the cards tonight?” he asks, rocking forward on the balls of his feet.

 

Alec can feel the vein in his temple twitching. Instead, he grits his teeth and swallows the temptation to make a rash decision. That’s Jace’s forté.

 

“In what universe do you think I could tell you?” he replies, “And even if I could, why would I want to -”

 

“Oh, not even to whet my curiosity?” Nightlock says, his smile turning sharp. He nods towards the building across the street. “You do know that Jia Penhallow’s campaign headquarters are in that building, don’t you?”

 

So, that’s it. Not a bank, not a law firm, but political mind games. That’s why they’re here tonight. They couldn’t even leave the election and last night behind if they tried.

 

Alec tries not to let it show on his face.

 

“That’s irrelevant,” he says. “And I’m not saying any more.”

 

“Or, maybe you can’t say any more,” Nightlock proposes, tapping his index finger against his jaw in thought. “I imagine Senator Herondale would pay good money for dirt on her opponent, and what better way to go about securing it ... what’s a little bit of late-night espial between a corrupt politician and her lackies-for-hire? Must be terribly fun for you.”

 

Oh, that hits a nerve. Alec clenches his fist around his bow.

 

He wants to argue that Senator Herondale isn’t paying them handsomely to steal whatever they’re stealing from that building across the street, but he doesn’t know that. The dossier didn’t say. He didn’t recognise the name of the sponsor on the mission file. Maryse and Robert wouldn’t think it pertinent for him to know anyways.

 

Nightlock’s probably right, and that makes Alec bristle.

 

“You need to leave,” he bites.

 

“Now, now,” Nightlock says. The air crackles with something dangerous, the sound of static. “I’m not causing any harm. I just stopped by to make sure you’re not, either. Why ever would you want me to leave?”

 

“You know why.”

 

“I do?”

 

Alec exhales sharply through his nose, his nostrils flaring. The man is infuriating, but Alec’s never been the sort of person to lash out. He coils up the feeling in his gut, until the knot is so tight that it throbs.

 

“You keep getting in the way,” he says, deliberately slow. He wants to sound threatening, but he’s not so sure he succeeds. “Beating us to our jobs, showing up when you’re not meant to - we don’t need your help, so whatever game you’re trying to play here -”

 

“Am I stealing your thunder?” asks Nightlock, his lips quirking.

 

“Wha- what, no ,” Alec sneers, “There’s no thunder to steal, you’re being a nuisance, and I’m - you can’t compare it -”

 

Nightlock ignores him. “Or,” he interrupts, with a glint in his eye, “Is it Arkangel’s thunder that I’m so cruelly stealing, and you’re the one who has to answer to Idris at the end of the night when blondie doesn’t get his face in the papers as planned?”

 

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“And you seem a little reluctant to see the truth, so I’d say we’re at an impasse, Sentinel. I am only trying to do my best for my fellow citizens, after all. Can’t blame me for being faster in a crisis, can you?”

“Can’t you just -” Alec starts, cutting himself off with a heavy, grumbling sigh. He pinches the bridge of his nose through his mask. “This city is plenty big enough for all of us.”

“It is,” says Nightlock with a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. He pretends like he’s inspecting his gloved hands, admiring his fingers, rubbing his thumb and index finger together nonchalantly. “But that has never stopped Corporates before, has it?”

 

Alec’s eyes flash to his, but he’s already looking, already staring, and it’s unexpectedly firm and unyielding.

 

He doesn’t blink, not until Alec does, and then he says, “You were all over the news last night, after all. I don’t think there’s anyone in the city who didn’t see that .”

 

In Alec’s ear, the coms crackle and Jace says, “ Alright guys, I think I’ve got what we came for. Piece of cake. Is Lydia still dealing with that car accident on the bridge? I know it’s not our jurisdiction but think we could swing by for a bit, I wanna take a look and we got time. I promise I’ll behave.

 

God damnit. Nightlock is right, and judging by the smug look on his face, he knows it too.

 

“Do you enjoy this?” Alec asks, gesturing sharply with his bow. “Do you get some … some kick out of messing with me, rubbing it in my face? Is it fun to you?”

 

The harsh amusement in Nightlock’s face quietly changes. A frown forms in its wake.

 

“I’m merely making observations,” he says.

 

“Well, then, stop ,” barks Alec, “I don’t want to have to fight you, but this is obstruction -”

 

“Do you want to fight me?”

 

“Wha-what?”

 

“Do you want to fight me ?” Nightlock repeats. “Given the choice between me, and say - your blond friend who keeps outrunning you and leaving you stranded on rooftops, or Idris, who puts you in that position to begin with? Is it me that you want to fight?”

 

“That’s enough!” Alec snaps, stepping forward, holding himself tall. Nightlock doesn’t even flinch. “If you don’t get outta here -”

 

Sentinel? ” comes Izzy’s voice in his ear, sounding wary. She must’ve just tuned into this conversation. “ Everything alright over there? Do you need backup?

 

Alec presses his finger to his ear, a cutting reply on his tongue, but he never gets that far. Nightlock holds up one finger, a soft shake to his head, and anything Alec was about to say is forgotten.

 

“Alright,” says Nightlock, “Alright, alright.”

 

His voice is soft, softer than it has any right to be, softer than Alec can understand. Nightlock sighs heavily.

 

“That sounds like my cue to leave,” he laments. “No need to get aggressive, Sentinel. You’d regret it.”

 

“I didn’t mean -”

 

There’s a snap - fingers or thunder, Alec doesn’t know, but he blinks nonetheless, taking his eyes off Nightlock for a moment. It’s a moment too long.

 

The bright lights of the city swallow Nightlock up into the fitful darkness with ease; his shadow melts into it, a blur that makes Alec’s head spin and his ears ring as the pressure on his temples abates in an instance. Suddenly, he can breathe again.

 

“Wait -” Alec starts, lurching forward towards nothing. His feet won’t move. Somehow, he doesn’t think that’s Nightlock’s doing, just his own incompetence. If Alec didn’t know any better, he’d think the man could teleport too, as well as move things with his mind, because the turn of his coat is so fast.

 

Sentinel? ” Jace is saying now, “ Sentinel, come in, are you alright? Buddy, do you need my help?

 

He can’t respond to that. He won’t. He doesn’t need Jace’s help. He doesn’t.

 

He just -

 

Alec hates him, hates Nightlock . Whoever he is, he hates him.

 

Nightlock has no clue what he’s talking about.

 

 


 

 

“Fuck,” Alec curses, paperwork scattered all over the floor and the coffee table upturned. He stares dumbly at the mess, fighting back the urge to stomp all over it and make it worse. The pages are hardly crumpled, still too white, still too clean, the typed text still too neat in regimented rows. “Fuck.”

 

Jace doesn’t look up from where he’s slumped in a leather chair, engrossed in some bizarre children's’ show on the boxset television mounted on the wall. They’re in the breakroom at headquarters, a boxy, neglected room tucked away in one of the deeper underground levels that hasn’t been refurbished since the mid-fifties, and Alec has been trying - and failing - to file his overdue field reports.

 

All he wants to do is scrunch them up into paper balls, every single one of them, every single one that omits that time and time again, Nightlock has beaten them to a dispatch call.

 

He’s been off-kilter all night, and it’s all Nightlock’s fault, the way he thinks he can just see right through Alec, the way he thinks he knows what’s best, the way his words just pin Alec up against that wall that he’s too afraid of backing in to -

 

The pile of paper on the floor doesn’t budge. Alec stares at it a while longer, hoping that it might if he wills it hard enough - when it doesn’t, he stoops to gather it all up again with a weary sigh. His mother wanted these on her desk two hours ago , but Jace had taken so long to fill out his parts that Alec still has to spot-check them all for slip-ups.

 

Lord knows he trusts Jace to watch his back, but never not to say something incriminating.

 

Breathe, Alec. Just breathe. Put your head on straight.

 

Alec rights the coffee table and settles back down into one of the chairs, spreading out his field report again into some semblance of order. It’s the rustling of papers that finally distracts Jace from his TV show.

 

He looks at Alec, then down at the paperwork, and then back at Alec again, decidedly unimpressed.

 

“Listen, Alec,” he starts, the sort of drawl that immediate jimmies its way beneath Alec’s skin. Alec knows he doesn’t want to hear whatever Jace is about to say, but Jace is going to power on anyway. “I hate the guy as much as you, but - you gotta cool it . Jesus Christ, it’s been four hours already and you’re still in a pissy mood. I’m trying to watch my show.”

 

Saved By The Bell is not your show. And I’m trying to fill out our field reports, thanks,” Alec grumbles, “The one that’s already two hours late. Emphasis on our , by the way.”

 

Jace scowls, folding his arms across his chest and sinking down in his chair until his chin is pressed against his chest.

 

“I don’t wanna talk about work,” he pouts.

 

“We always talk about work. We’re at work.”

 

“Fine, I don’t want to talk about field reports ,” he says, “I don’t know why you always check them, Iz has already looked through them all. They’re fine. You’re just a worrywart.”

 

“Ever think that I have good reason to be worried?” Alec mutters, finding his report from the cocaine bust the other week, scanning over the portion scrawled in Jace’s messing handwriting. He’s already read it three times this week, but he just wants to make sure that Nightlock’s name hasn’t magically popped up since then.

 

It hasn’t. Jace’s apathetic expression tells Alec that he knows exactly what Alec is doing.

 

“Y’know what?” he sighs, and what he says next is so alarmingly close to what Nightlock dared him to do on that rooftop that it makes Alec grit his teeth. “Fight me, Alec. Or fight Nightlock, I don’t really care. Just go do something - something that isn’t angry sighing or glaring daggers at anything that breathes, just because you’re pissed at the dude. We’re all pissed, but we don’t all take it out on our poor, undeserving brother.”

 

There’s a quip on Alec’s tongue about how Jace is anything but undeserving, but he doesn’t say it.

 

Instead, he just mutters, “He’s infuriating.”

 

Jace doesn’t look away from the TV, still engrossed in Saved By The Bell .

 

“I don’t know why you’re complaining,” he says, “He’d be a useful guy to have on our side. I thought you had a soft spot for vigilantes anyway?”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Don’t you have a bunch of vigilante friends that you and Iz try to hide from everyone else? What’re their names - Wolfman and Never-Gonna-Cross-Her-On-A-Dark-Night?”

 

“I wish you’d cross her on a dark night,” Alec mutters below his breath. He’d pay a substantial amount of money to see Jace’s ego take a beating at Veil’s hands. Or Veil’s mind, as it were.

 

“You say something?” Jace asks.

 

“No,” Alec sighs.

 

“Well, can you either sit down and watch or leave, because this is a really good episode and your grumpiness is distracting me.”

 

 


 

 

Alec likes to pretend that grumpy isn’t one of his defining character traits, but -

 

When Simon greets him at work this next day with a cheery “good morning, grouchy guts!”, Alec wonders if the world is out to spite him.

 

Honestly, he wouldn’t be surprised.

 

Alec slumps down in his desk chair and glares at his computer as the dial-up tone shrieks. Each note is excruciatingly shrill, shivering all the way down his spine. He curls and uncurls his hands over his keyboard, but his knuckles feel stiff. Every muscle in his arm is poised for something, but he doesn’t know how to act upon it.

 

Damnit, he’s not grumpy. He’s angry - and he has a perfectly valid reason for it.

 

Senator Herondale, the rally, and then Jace, and now Nightlock stepping on his heels, having the gall to tease Alec about it -

 

“Penny for your thoughts?”

 

Alec’s hands spasm in surprise and his fingers stab down on his keyboard. His computer makes a displeased beep.

 

“Magnus,” he says, eyes wide and a little breathless as he spins in his chair. And Magnus is there, leant casually against Alec’s partition with one ankle crossed over the other, wearing a fond smile, but a small, perplexed frown knitted between his brows.

 

And God above, these days, it isn’t only Nightlock who can apparently sneak up on Alec without being heard.

 

“That frown of yours, Alexander,” says Magnus, tapping on his own forehead. He has a beauty mark there. “It speaks of something terrible having happened. What has dear Simon done now?”

 

Alec deflates.

 

“He hasn’t done anything. It’s nothing,” Alec says, shaking his head and sighing. “You don’t have to worry about it, Magnus.”

 

“Now, now,” says Magnus, “I don’t have to worry, no, but I want to. I’m not one to turn a blind eye when someone else is clearly having trouble, despite what I’m sure the office gossip might say.”

 

He slips around the side of Alec’s cubicle to perch on the edge of Alec’s desk. His ringed hands rest on his thighs, and Alec doesn’t know if he’s supposed to look there or at Magnus’ face.

 

Really, he just wants to stare hard at his own shoes, but that’s not an option. Magnus’ attention is like a spotlight, more blinding than normal, and Alec longs to slink away from it.

 

“Alexander?” Magnus probes, a tilt to his head. When he looks at Alec, he looks at him for longer than Alec is used to, lingering on the twitch in Alec’s cheek, on the movement in his jaw, on his mouth, on his eyes; he considers Alec carefully, and his next words are cautious. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m overstepping.”

 

Alec’s words stick in his throat - and that’s for the best, he knows it is, because he can’t exactly say: yeah, actually, there’s this vigilante following me around and getting in my way and telling me things I don’t want to hear because they’re far too true, and it’s driving me insane , because that will only make Magnus regret ever asking.

 

But then - there was that look in Magnus’ eyes yesterday, when he asked if Alec was -

 

Sympathetic .

 

“It’s - ” Alec begins, and Magnus’ keen-eyed focus doesn’t waver. “It’s just my new neighbour . He’s keeping me up at night, making too much noise. It’s really nothing.”

 

Magnus frowns.

 

“Sounds like you should talk to him, if he’s disturbing you so much.”

 

“I’ve tried,” says Alec, “He’s … difficult. I don’t … really know how to approach him. Or when I’m going to see him next, and then whenever we run into each other, it -”

 

“Catches you off-guard?”

 

“Yeah. I never know what to say.”

 

“You don’t really strike me as the sort of person to not know what to say,” Magnus offers, and that makes Alec scoff, because it’s so ridiculously untrue. He’s always suffocating his own words, always biting his own tongue. Just because he’s good at snapping at people and ordering Jace and Clary around and being too brusque with Simon doesn’t mean he’s good at … talking. Feelings. Stringing words together to form those tricky things called sentences.

 

Magnus raises his eyebrows. He toys with the necklace looped around his neck, dangling in the open neck of his shirt. He hooks his finger around the chain, toying with the charm.

 

“What’s so funny?” he asks, like he really doesn’t know.

 

“I’m not exactly,” Alec starts, gesturing feebly with his hands, “Y’know.”

 

Not exactly in the best frame of mind whenever he’s had a run-in with Nightlock? Not exactly in the position for civil conversation? Not exactly thinking straight -

 

“Sounds like you need an olive branch,” Magnus suggests. He reaches back and grabs a pen from the pot on Alec’s desk and uses it to tap Alec on the shoulder. And then, he smiles, cheerful and encouraging, as he twirls the pen expertly through his fingers and holds it out for Alec to take back.

 

Right, a peace offering.

 

Alec swallows thickly, his long fingers feeling clumsy when he reaches for the pen - but Magnus doesn’t give it to him. He lifts it out the way of Alec’s hand and leans forward, tucking the pen smartly into the breast pocket of Alec’s shirt. He doesn’t pat Alec’s chest, but with the way the breath catches in Alec’s throat, he might as well have.

 

Magnus smiles, amused tucked into the corner of his mouth. He looks pleased with himself.

 

“You,” Alec asks, his voice caught. It’s barely a whisper. “You, uh, got any ideas?”

 

“Ask him what he wants,” Magnus suggests with a shrug. “Put the ball in his court, perhaps leave him a note or write him a letter or invite him out to coffee to introduce yourself properly.” His finger runs around the shell of his ear, toying with his ear cuff. “I happen to think you’re a good listener, Alexander. Perhaps it’s a skill you could utilise to your benefit. I’m sure your neighbour would be charmed.”

 

Alec nods. The pen in his pocket might as well be a candle for how it burns.

 

 


 

 

It’s difficult trying to find answers for questions that cannot be asked. And there are many, many questions Alec wants to ask about Nightlock.

 

He can’t ask his parents, and even then, he doubts they would know. Vigilantes probably don’t even register on his father’s radar, little more than dirt on the sole of his shoe, and as for his mother …

 

If Alec brought up his investment in Nightlock, it would come back to bite him in the ass. Maryse would want to know how they met, why they met, what Alec was doing when they met. She’d want to know how they might use Nightlock for their benefit, or how Nightlock might be using Alec for his. And then, it would all somehow become Alec’s fault, a risk Alec is taking that will cost the rest of them dearly, he’s sure of it.

 

Izzy, too, has also reached a dead-end, trawling through every Idris archive she has access to, and almost every one for which she didn’t, coming up with nothing save empty hands.

 

And as for Jace - well, anytime Alec has tried to have a conversation about Nightlock, Jace doesn’t want to hear it. His attention span clearly doesn’t stretch that far.

 

However, there are other avenues worth exploring.

 

Unfortunately, these other avenues have Sentinel hunched on a rooftop in the pouring rain, blinking through the refracted neon that clings to his eyelashes, and debating with himself how concerning it is that he’s lost feeling in his toes.

 

Jace is on patrol with Clary tonight and neither of them really question it when Alec decides to slip away without them. Rarely do they tread this far north during their normal hours, and Alec isn’t exactly about to ask Jace along when he’s looking for Veil.

 

When all is said and done, Jace is still Alec’s brother and best friend and he doesn’t actually wish him dead. Veil wouldn’t pause if given half the chance. There’s a reason Arkangel steers well clear of her.

 

Alec has tried many times to track down Veil and Wolfsbane, but it always ends with them finding him, rather than him finding them. In truth, they probably already know he’s here, scouring the streets for them, and they’re sitting perched on top of some high rise laughing at him in his drenched misery.

 

If they don’t want to be found, they won’t be found, and however inconvenient that might be for Alec, it’s all the safer for them. There are people out there who wouldn’t hesitate to turn vigilantes into the cops or throw broken bottles, or worse. There’s only a matter of time before the bodies strung up on buildings are no longer made of straw.

 

But if there’s someone left in this damn city who might know a thing about Nightlock - it’s going to be them.

 

Alec’s just not sure how much longer he can afford to wait to find out. The rain is unrelenting, dredges of a summer storm that is particularly violent and ruthless, a blood-seeking wind. Telephone wires jitter and spark in the streets below, bottles and plastic bags tearing down the pavement, head-over-heels-over-head again and again, lashing around lamp posts and smacking against windshields. Windows are yanked shut and shop shutters are drawn as the city stands plastered up against itself, turning a hard cheek to the thunder and the rain, eyes pinched closed.

 

Alec wishes he could do the same, because the downpour cuts at his skin where his mask stops, razor-sharp and whipping. His suit is slick and shiny. The wind howls with a wolf-like endeavour. It makes him flinch.

 

But it’s the rain on the rooftop that warns him too, warns him of  boots splashing into puddles, the wet smack of someone picking their way across ventilation shafts and gas lines towards him.

 

A part of him expects it to be Nightlock, but the other part of him rationalises that Nightlock, time and time again, has shown that he can slip through the spaces between the rain, unseen and unheard, a spectre at will.

 

This time, Alec hears someone coming. He turns, adjusting his grip on his bow, the wind buffeting him particularly violently - but his shoulders relax when he sees that it’s exactly who he wants it to be.

 

Wolfsbane. And then, shortly behind him, scowling something fierce, is Veil too. She’s even holding an umbrella, although the wind battles it, desperate to tear it in two.

 

“Sentinel,” says Wolfsbane, with a smile that Alec rules as genuine. “How are you tonight, son?”

 

Rainwater rolls freely from Wolfsbane’s cowl, rivulets over the leather, dripping down from his jaw to the ground. His boots are muddy, speckled with dark grit. There’s a bruise beginning to welt on his dark jaw, some deep shade of plum purple. It’s probably been a busier night for him than for Alec.

 

Alec opens his mouth to reply, but Veil is quick to interject.

 

“What do you want?” she frowns behind her mask. Her hair is only a little damp and her jacket is far cleaner than Wolfsbane’s.

 

Wolfsbane glances at her, as if to say come on now . Veil scoffs.

 

“What?” she demands, “He’s been sitting here for almost an hour, he’s clearly waiting for us.”

 

Alec was right; she has been sitting somewhere, watching him get soaked to the bone. It might make him a little grumpy, but either he knows better than to play the victim around her, or the week’s just taken it out of him. It sounds like a colossal effort to feel much at all.

 

Veil looks Alec up and down, unimpressed, pursing her lips. “So,” she says, “Why are you here? We all know that Harlem is out of your normal patrol route. What exactly is Idris up to?”

 

“I’m not here for Idris,” Alec says, “I’m following up on a lead of my own. Idris … isn’t involved in this one.”

 

Veil raises her eyebrows and Wolfsbane chuckles beneath his breath, clapping Veil on the shoulder. She bristles, but doesn’t shrug free of the touch.

 

“Alright, alright, cool it, kiddo,” says Wolfsbane, “What is it that we can do for you, Sentinel?”

 

“I want to know about the super called Nightlock,” says Alec. He’s not going to beat about the bush, but judging by the way Wolfsbane’s easy smile slowly slips away, getting the information he needs may not come willingly.

 

And why should Wolfsbane give it willingly? A Corporate demanding answers about a vigilante has never resulted in anything good. They all know how Corporates usually treat vigilantes. They all know that Idris isn’t above paying its employees to hunt down supers acting beyond the law. They all know the sorts of things Alec does in the name of blind duty.

 

Alec hopes his earnestness comes across on his face, but it’s difficult when half his expression is obscured by his mask.

 

“I’m not looking for him,” Alec clarifies, “I don’t want to find him. I just - want to know if you know him.”

 

Wolfsbane folds his arms across his broad chest, his biceps straining against his suit. He stands up straighter, and he’s one of the few people Alec knows with a height advantage over him. He knows how to make himself look intimidating, but Alec is not daunted.

 

“And if I do?” Wolfsbane asks, “What are you going to do with any information I give you?”

 

How does he explain what he needs form Nightlock when he doesn’t even know himself? How does he say that he’s had a terrible week in a terrible year and he just wants to put one thing right, before he grinds himself into the ground trying to stay afloat above it.

 

It’s a paradox. He hates the way Nightlock makes him feel, exposed, vulnerable, answerable , and yet, he’s seeking him out for … more?

 

Because that is what he’s doing. Looking for more.

 

Maybe he’s some part a masochist. It makes sense.

 

The rain slices sideways through the air, billowed and bludgeoned by the wind, and Alec feels it as a hundred tiny pinpricks to the side of his face. He grimaces.

 

It makes Wolfsbane’s hard lines soften, fading into something sympathetic. “Why do you need to know in the first place?” Wolfsbane asks. His voice is softer now too.

 

Alec decides not to lie. Honesty always comes far more naturally, however clumsy it might be, and given the way Veil is still glaring at him, he expects lying wouldn’t go over well anyway. They’re suspiciously close to the edge of a roof and he doesn’t want to test her strength. He knows she has it.

 

“He’s been interfering in Corporate business,” Alec says stiffly, “I need to know if he’s a threat or likely to do anything rash.”

 

But to Alec’s surprise, Wolfsbane just laughs, a dry, derisive rumble as he throws his head back and pats his belly.

 

“Nightlock, a threat?” he chuckles, “Hell, he’s not usually the sort to get involved with Corporates deliberately, but - well, I dunno if I’m all that surprised. He doesn’t like to make it easy for Idris, I’ll give him that.”

 

“So he is deliberately getting in our way?” Alec bites.

 

Wolfsbane shrugs, but he’s still grinning at a joke to which Alec figures he’s the punchline.

 

“I’ve known Nightlock for a while,” Wolfsbane explains, “He’s a smart guy. He wouldn’t be doing anything to jeopardise the safety of anyone, I know that. But he’s not as friendly with your lot as we are, and you know that’s for good reason, son.”

 

“Yeah, I got that impression,” Alec mutters, “It’d be nice if he could just trust me to do my damn job and stay outta the way-”

 

“God, you Corporates are all the same,” Veil bemoans, rolling her eyes. “Have you even tried seeing this from Nightlock’s point of view?”

 

Alec scowls; he chews the inside of his cheek as he folds his arms across his chest defensively. “What do you mean?”

 

Veil shares a look with Wolfsbane that is worn-in, like she’s heard the same belligerence many, many times before. The look in her eyes says: can you believe this? and Wolfsbane’s answering shrug replies: he’s from Idris, what do you expect? He doesn’t get it.

 

“I mean,” Veil presses, “How does Nightlock know he can trust you, trust Sentinel , to work the city, when he already knows he could do it himself and do a damn good job of it? He doesn’t know you. You’re a Corporate. You’re probably in his way just as much as he’s in yours, except, for you, he’s just a nuisance, whereas to him, you’re very likely someone who wants to throw his ass in jail. Or worse. Just saying.”

 

Alec opens his mouth to retort, to say that’s ridiculous because he would never , but hot words are extinguished by the rain. He doesn’t want to argue with her … especially when she’s right .

 

An olive branch. He needs to offer an olive branch.

 

“Remember how long it took for us to realise you weren’t a total ass?” chuckles Wolfsbane, and Veil chimes in with, “Still not totally convinced, by the way.”

 

Wolfsbane shoots her a dirty look, but she shrugs unapologetically. “What?” she retorts, “Only an idiot would let their guard down around a Corporate. You wouldn’t tell me to do the same to a cop, would you?”

 

Wolfsbane sighs and rolls his eyes, but Alec knows that he’s not going to disagree with Veil. When they look at Alec, they don’t see Alec , but they also don’t see his powers; they don’t see his track record or the fact he turns off his radio whenever he runs into them. They don’t even see Sentinel, not at first anyway.

 

They always see a Corporate first. They always see Idris, they always see the front-page image of Jace slamming an unarmed protester to the ground and getting away with it scot-free, they always see privilege that Alec too often forgets that he has.

 

Yes, Idris is downright miserable at times, and yes, there’s blood money stuffed in his pockets, and yes, Nightlock beating him to every single scene he’s been assigned in the last month is causing him nothing but problems, but -

 

Well, it’s still better than being stopped and frisked on the street by the police, or being hounded by Corporates for using your superpowers in a way the government has not mandated. It’s still better than not being able to leave your house without having to look over your shoulder.

 

Guilt dawns on Alec, spreading slowly through his gut; he ducks his head and works his jaw, if only to stop himself from biting his cheek again. The flush of shame creeps up the back of his neck, pinkening his ears, and it’s not a far leap to say that he’s been talking like a bit of an idiot.

 

He hasn’t been listening - to them, to Nightlock, to anyone really. Magnus was right. Magnus was -

 

“Sorry,” Alec murmurs, chewing on his words. “It’s, uh - yeah. Maybe I didn’t think.”

 

Veil purses her lips, her stare flat and begrudging, but it doesn’t linger. She shrugs her shoulders again, at least trying to pretend that she’s apathetic. The rain beats a snare drum rhythm on her umbrella that disrupts any silence that tries to slither in.

 

“Yeah, well,” she says, “As long as you know now .”

 

The city stirs in the awkward moment that follows, the rain hissing and metal pipes groaning, and it makes Alec want to fidget with his hands again. God damnit, he’s just another clumsy Corporate sticking his foot in it when he wasn’t ever asked, and there’s that shame again. He tries not to imagine the withering glares and disgusted looks; he tries not to think about the people he’s put behind bars; he doesn’t want to remember the blood on his hands. Ignore it. Ignore it.

 

Don’t ignore it, that just makes you part of the damn problem -

 

His fingers pick at his bow and he wonders, briefly, if he should just leave, muttering something about needing to get back on patrol, but then -

 

Then, the police radio clipped to his belt begins to hum - static noise before it becomes words - and so does the one strapped into Wolfsbane’s suit. Wolfsbane frowns, pushing his earpiece deeper into his ear.

 

“All units, we have 10-54 on East 103rd. Looks like a back-alley deal gone wrong. It’s a code 1, no hurry. Patrol, please respond.”

 

It’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing Alec hasn’t heard a hundred times before. Possible dead body. Police told that it’s not urgent. The complete and utter disinterest in the dispatcher’s voice.

 

It could be any other night, but maybe it’s that shame in his gut, or Veil’s cutting stare, or this twitching need he now has to prove himself to both her and Wolfsbane, and the absent Nightlock too, that has Alec shaking his bow out to its full length and plucking at the string. Its familiar twang vibrates all the way up his arm in a way he knows.

 

“Are you coming?” he asks.

 

“Your friend Nightlock might be there,” Veil remarks dryly, but she’s already folding up her umbrella and tucking it beneath her arm. She sighs, put out as the rain drenches her wild curls in an instant. “Fine. Yeah, why not. Tonight’s been a bit of a blow-off anyway.”

 

 


 

 

They’re not far from the call-in, maybe only a dozen or so blocks north and the night is encroaching upon 3AM, so the streets this deep in Harlem are quiet. The light is always more orange up here, less artificial than the beating heart of the city and its neon and high-tech gallows; the air is thicker, the silence eerier, the strange croon of jazz disorienting in the distance.

 

Alec moves ahead of Wolfsbane and Veil, caught in this awkward half-jog, where he’s not sure if he should be walking or running, or if he’s the one even setting the pace. Somehow, he suspects Veil would not bat an eye if he were to take off into the dark without them.

 

East 103rd is a narrow street, lined by red-brick buildings peeling at the edges. City council has done a half-assed job at covering up the graffitti, but the white-out has been washed away in places by the rain, leaving streaks of patchy paint across the windows of an old pharmacy that hasn’t seen service in at least ten years.

 

Puddles of dirty streetlight splatter across the sidewalk, illuminating shadows of people out and about past curfew, while the cracks in the pavement smell of stale liquor and stubbed-out cigarettes.

 

Despite having walked, they’ve beaten the cops. Alec is not surprised and Veil mutters something unsavory under her breath, but Wolfsbane nods his head towards the chain-link fence on the side of the street - and the crudely-cut hole torn through the centre of it.

 

“There,” he says, and Alec follows his eyes to the black, unmoving shape laying in the middle of the parking lot behind the fence. It looks distinctly like a body.

 

“God damnit,” Alec grunts, slinging his bow over his shoulder and ducking through the hole, the sharp edges scraping along his back and catching on his quiver. Veil ducks through with far more grace, whilst Wolfsbane vaults over the top, landing on the sandy asphalt with the splatter of water beneath his boots.  

 

If there were someone still here, loitering in the shadows, Wolfsbane would smell them, so Alec rushes over to the body and presses his fingertips to their throat - but as his fingers squelch through black and tarring blood, his eyes fall upon the face.

 

A young man.

 

In a mask.

 

A mask just like Alec’s.

 

“Fuck,” whispers Veil, somewhere over Alec’s shoulder. “It’s another super.”

 

Alec doesn’t want to ask what she means by another . He doesn’t really need to, because the implication is unspoken and like the cold plunge of a fist to his gut, clenching around his insides and tugging everything sharply up through his mouth.

 

He’s not an idiot. The life expectancy of vigilantes isn’t high.

 

But something about this is different, different to every dismissive front-page headline and leading story on the news, not just another amateur hero caught off guard.

 

This was violent.

 

The man’s throat is slit and his body is cold, rigour in his joints and muscles, contorting his face in a way that tells Alec he died in fear. Blood is oily all across his jaw, smudged by scrabbling hands and running watery in the downpour, and a dark stain also blooms in the centre of his chest, from beneath his makeshift suit … but the cut itself, the one slicing his vocal cords in two, is clean and sharp and well-executed.

 

It’s like a dissection.

 

Alec hasn’t seen anything like this in a long time; he’s stumbled across dead supers before, but it’s usually a mugging-gone-wrong, a gang attack, a few frantic thrusts of a knife to the gut before anyone can react: acts that are far messier than this.

 

This looks like it was done by just one person, and all this dead man could do was scrabble at his throat in a futile attempt to keep all his life from spilling out between his fingers. He wasn’t lucky.

 

Alec sits back on his haunches, resting his hands on his thighs as he takes one deep, steadying breath. The stench of death is almost as strong as the stench of iron; it makes his throat close up.

 

On the street, a car trundles past, wipers driving through the rain and headlights roaming across Alec’s face and Wolfsbane’s back just a little too slow, casting their shadows long and bleak. Alec squints, hand reaching for his bow, but the car keeps on moving, the hum of the engine disappearing into the downpour.

 

“Police will be here any minute now,” Alec murmurs. He drags his eyes back to the body, but it’s difficult to keep looking. Veil, too, is struggling, standing with her hands on her hips and her head turned to the side, staring pointedly into the fallowed sky as rain stings her cheeks.

 

“How long has he been laying out here?” she asks without looking.

 

Alec grimaces, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, the sticky black blood adhering to his gloves. It’s already turning tacky. Too long without help , is the answer he wants to give.

 

“Smells like a few hours,” remarks Wolfsbane, “Sentinel, do you know him?”

 

“No,” says Alec, “Not one of ours.”

 

“I don’t know him either,” mutters Wolfsbane, “Must be new on the scene. Wrong time, wrong place. Poor kid.”

 

Something about wrong time, wrong place doesn’t sit well on Alec’s shoulders. Wrong time, wrong place is when someone steals your purse in the middle of the street, or you get in a car wreck at an intersection - not when someone cuts you from ear to ear and leaves you drowning in a pool of your own blood in a parking lot.

 

Especially without removing the mask.

 

“This will be all over the tabloids by morning,” says Veil, “Unmaskings are front page stuff. You can bet that’s the first thing the cops’ll do when they get here, before they’ve even looked to see how he died. Rip his mask straight off his eyes.”

 

“Is there anything we can do?” Alec asks, looking over at Wolfsbane.

 

“Not unless we move the body and take him with us,” he says, “Which would only mean this getting buried on some sergeant’s desk even quicker, because if there’s no crime scene, there’s no crime. At least if the press gets wind of it, people will know. Someone might come forward with information.”

 

“Doubt it,” says Veil. She swallows thickly, as if the smell of blood is making her nauseous, and she shoves her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket to stop her fingers from twitching.

 

Alec looks back at the body, his eyes trained on the man’s face. The rain is diluting the blood; Lord only knows what else has already been washed away.

 

He doesn’t know what to do, and the thought of leaving this man out here makes him sick, but Wolfsbane is right. Disturbing the crime scene is as good as sweeping the whole thing under the rug, a guarantee that it’ll get thrown out by the first cop who sees it come across his desk.

 

But how does he just blink and walk away and call this just another night ? If anything, Jace will take one look at the state he’s in and makes some crass remark, and then Izzy will wheedle the truth out of him in seconds, and then tomorrow, at work - Magnus - the sharpness of that stare of his - questions Alec doesn’t want to answer -

 

“I’ll make some calls,” says Wolfsbane with a heavy sigh. He reaches into his utility belt and pulls out a police-issue transponder. “See if we can’t get some stringers out here to cover the story as it breaks.”

 

Magnus is gonna find out about this anyway. It’ll be on his desk before daybreak.

 

I didn’t know you were sympathetic -

 

“I know someone who works at the Daily Tribunal,” blurts Alec, causing Wolfsbane to pause. He doesn’t know why he says it or where it comes from, but there’s a part of him that thinks he must say it, because it’s important. Magnus Bane would do right by this dead man. Alec knows that inherently. “If you wanted someone to pick up the story, I could … get in touch with someone. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

 

There’s a stretched moment of silence where Wolfsbane just stares at him, his eyes dark and inscrutable, and Alec is acutely aware of the mud on his knees and the gravel digging into his shins.

 

“The Tribunal,” Wolfsbane repeats slowly. He nods, more to himself than to Alec. “Right. They do have a few good eggs still working in editorial. Sounds like as good a place as any.”

 

He turns away from Alec, bringing his police responder to his lips. His voice drops an octave as he speaks quickly into the radio, something about an officer down at the 10-54 and for all units to proceed to the scene quickly. Alec knows that they will be long gone by the time the police arrive, but at least it will mean their dead friend won’t be lying out here alone for much longer.

 

 


 

 

Alec doesn’t include the murder in his field report that night. Izzy doesn’t notice because she’s used to doctoring the details to leave Wolfsbane and Veil out of the night’s proceedings, but as Alec signs his name at the bottom of the briefing and scoots it across the table to her, he feels distinctly guilty.

 

It’s one thing to lie to his parents about what he’s been doing. It’s another thing to lie to Izzy and Jace, not telling them about what he saw.

 

He can’t shake the image of the dead super’s face from his head, however hard he screws his eyes shut. That, Izzy notices.

 

“Alec?” she asks, her pen paused above the page. Ink wells in the nib and drips with a splat onto the paper. “Are you alright? You look a bit pale.”

 

“‘M fine,” he lies, “Just tired.”

 

Izzy’s eyes narrow. She has a remarkable - and insufferable - predilection for detecting bullshit.

 

“Busy night with our second and third favourite vigilantes, huh?” she asks, “Did something happen? Did you run into Nightlock again?”

 

He doesn’t know what good telling her would do. It wouldn’t save the man’s life. It wouldn’t stop it from happening again. It’s not like her knowing would save people.

 

Maybe it would make the picture in his head less vivid. Maybe it would make it more so. He doesn’t rightly know.

 

“No,” he says, “No, we just - walked a lot. I just need an early night. You alright finishing the report and giving it to mom?”

 

“You know, I don’t think 4AM constitutes an early night for most people,” Izzy says, shaking her head as she signs her name on the field report, with both flourish and a smile. “But I suppose we aren’t most people.”

 

“No. Guess not.”

 

Izzy rolls her eyes. “Have a good night, Alec. Get some rest.”

 

“Sure.”

 

It’s far easier said than done.

 

 


 

 

Sentinel never walks through the front door of his apartment. Alec has a number of pairs of jeans and spare jackets stashed around the city for late-night costume changes in phone booths, but some nights, he’s too tired, and he just hopes and prays that no-one sees him drop onto the balcony in full gear.

 

Sometimes, he wonders what his neighbours must think, if they wonder about his comings and goings at stupid o’clock in the morning. Most times, he doubts they care. They don’t notice him. He lives alone, keeps to himself, doesn’t say a word.

 

Tonight, he wishes he weren’t alone.

 

But the thought of Jace, of Clary, of Isabelle - he can’t stomach that either. He can’t stomach their exuberance, their blindness, their love for him. They take up too much space, far more than him; they know how to occupy it and he doesn’t. So, it’s a paradox again: he doesn’t want to be alone, but he doesn’t want any of them to see him either, because he’s in a state, a state he’s now allowed to be in, and how is that fair?

 

He’s a mess. He’s not meant to be a mess, because he sees dead men all the time, he’s grown up in the world, he’s fought in this world, he’s been the man doling out the death sentences himself, he doesn’t deserve to feel terrible about it. He’s meant to be a leader. He’s meant to have his head screwed on his shoulders. He’s meant to be cool and calm and collected, because that’s Alec, that’s Sentinel, that’s what they have in common.

 

He’s meant to be coming up with a plan for what to do next, even though he’s sure his mother and father would say nothing, because this is not your jurisdiction .

 

Alec strips out of his suit as he wanders through his apartment: quiver on the couch, bow on the coffee table, mask flung into the kitchen sink for all he knows. He peels his suit off in his bedroom, draping it over the bed frame where it drips dark water onto the floor. It’ll leave a stain.

 

His work clothes are abandoned on his bed and he knows he should hang them, but he can’t - he can’t bring himself to do that, so he just kicks his shirt and pants to the floor, a problem for him in the morning.

 

Something hard bounces off the hardwood floor. Alec pauses with his knee on the mattress.

 

It’s a pen. It’s the pen, the one Magnus tucked in his shirt pocket this morning.

 

Alec slides off the bed and stoops on the floor, his knees smarting where he’s been knelt in gravel all night. He picks up the pen and holds it up to the shard of weak light that slides through his blinds, eerie, grey, and cold upon his skin.

 

It is just a pen. Not a dove carrying an olive branch. Not a life raft. Not a peace offering, not really, because he hasn’t seen peace tonight.

 

If he were better at listening -

 

Something in Alec’s chest still has the nerve to flutter. Something small, something foolish, right above his heart, right where the pocket of his shirt would sit, right where Magnus touched him, if only fleetingly.

 

He wants to throw the pen to the floor, but he can't, so he puts it in the glass on his bedside table and rolls over, smushing his face into the pillow. Behind his eyelids, he sees Magnus' smile again, he sees the way he looked at Alec like he was figuring Alec out all over again, he sees -

 

This feeling, it makes him feel sick. Don’t feel that. Not tonight. You don’t deserve to feel that .

 

Chapter Text

 

"Once, I was
afraid of death and would wash my hands until they welted
                                  and the skin scraped
off. I know so much about blood I can sense it before it is
                                 spilled, can feel the
                    wounds before they are made."

— Brynne Rebele-Henry, Self-portrait as a broken Venus statuette

 

 


 

 

If there’s one thing Alec hates most about his line of work, about mercenary deeds, about bows and arrows in the dark, about superheroism, it’s the thought of blood on his hands, blood that he’s unable to scrub off.

 

And he doesn’t mean it as a metaphor for guilt; he has shoulders of that, long ago resigned to wading bow-legged in the trenches when it comes to getting through every day, only for every night to make it worse, that penitence. What he means is the vibrant red stain that seems to cling to his fingertips no matter how hard he goes at his nail beds with a scrubbing brush. It’s not a metaphor for anything, and if it is, he doesn’t want to know.

 

He knows the blood’s not really there. He wears gloves when he’s Sentinel, leather gloves, which means the blood never touches his skin.

 

And last night, last night in that parking lot in Harlem, they had been so late to the scene that all the blood had already congealed black and sticky in the rain, and had peeled apart between Alec’s fingers like wax. By the time he had made it home, the only remnant had been a red-brown smear on his thumbpad that smelled faintly of sweet rot.

 

None of that stops Alec from spending ten minutes in the bathroom when he gets to work the next morning, lathering cheap soap into his hands and avoiding his dark circles in the mirror, made darker by the cheap fluorescent light overhead. The soap is harsh and his calluses harsher, and he rubs the foam into his dry skin until it stings, the water from the tap running crystal clear and bloodless.

 

He looks like a mess and he knows it. He didn’t sleep, his eyebags are here to stay, and the colour of his face is a very peculiar shade of grey; he would forgive someone for thinking he’s crawled out of the night as if a grave. His shirt and tie haven’t fared so well either, thrown on in a hurry this morning: his shirt is crumpled, sleeves shucked up about his elbows, and his tie knotted like a noose around his throat, hanging crooked beneath his collar.

 

Alec’s never cared much for his appearance, but this is different. This is like he’s been wrung dry and left in a boneless heap in the corner. Just gotta push through it , he tells himself, get the blood off his hands and he’ll feel better, even if it’s far more than optimistic to think there’s even one moment ahead of him when he won’t feel so wretched.

 

And that’s not even the tragedy of it all. The tragedy is that he’s used to it.

 

So, Alec scrubs harder at his fingers and the faucet runs freezing, numbing the skin he has rubbed red. He can still feel blood crusting under his nails. He can still feels gravel digging into his kneecaps.

 

Behind him, a man in a much smarter suit leaves a stall and eyes Alec suspiciously in the mirror, but doesn’t say anything, washing his hands far quicker than Alec. The water is so cold that Alec’s knuckles are starting to ache, but he doesn’t dare move.

 

Then, the bathroom doors swings open, and Alec’s morning goes from bad to worse.

 

“Alec!” chirps Simon.

 

He’s got an insipid smile on his face, his shirt tails hanging out from his belt like he got dressed in a hurry this morning. He has today’s paper tucked beneath his arm. Alec can hazard a guess as to why.

 

Simon makes a beeline for Alec, hopping up onto the sink next to him, which creaks alarmingly under his weight.

 

“You see today’s front page?” he asks, thrusting the newspaper under Alec’s nose, so that Alec has no other choice but to look. “That’s my photo, y’know? Magnus rung me up at five in the morning like I’m some damn stringer, can you believe -”

 

The photo on the front page is a side-by-side of a man, the same man lying heavy in Alec’s mind: on the left, he’s smiling and happy with his arm slung around a woman; and on the right, he’s on his back, bloody and breathless in last’s night parking lot, covered in some policeman’s jacket and surrounded by guys in white boiler suits. The photo was probably taken at dawn, the barest glow of a rust-coloured horizon turning the photograph fuzzy at the corners. The shadows it casts are long, and Alec thinks he can make out the scuffs in the gravel where he was knelt in his supersuit, not six hours ago.

 

The headline reads: HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER-TURNED-VIGILANTE UNMASKED IN FATAL CARJACKING . But Alec knows it’s a pallid truth. Alec knows that the man wasn’t unmasked before he was murdered, and there were no signs of any broken-in cars or tire tracks on the asphalt.

 

Almost all of it is a lie. Alec supposes no-one really cares. The inset article is titled: BUSH ON FIRST TERM AND THE FUTURE: GULF WAR, CLINTON, AND FAMILY VALUES, and continues on page three. There’s a smaller piece teasing an interview with Senator Herondale where she talks about her stance on vigilante justice on page seven. At the bottom of the page, there’s an ad listing a sold out tour for a pop star Alec doesn’t know at Madison Square Gardens. More people are going to flick to that.

 

“Police were already turning the cameras away when I got there, y’know?” Simon continues, “But I managed to swipe a good shot, and I know for a fact those greedy bastards at the Herald didn’t get anything usable, so guess who gets a bonus this week -”

 

Alec stops scrubbing at his hands, letting them go limp beneath the ice-cold stream of the faucet. He hangs his head and sucks in a deep breath, feeling it inflate his chest. There’s a lot of hollow space there to be filled.

 

“I heard about it on the radio,” he says carefully, his voice dipped low. He imagines if he talks any louder, Simon - or someone else just as nosey - will hear that he’s not quite right this morning. “Did the police release any details?”

 

“Not really,” Simon shrugs, squinting down at the newspaper in his hand. “I was talking to Magnus about it earlier actually, and he was saying he’s been on the phone with the city morgue since sunrise trying to get details from a guy he knows. He said most of the sources for this were this morning’s influx of stringers, but he was kinda pissed that the office had to overpay to get anything of use, but if you ask me, this all sounds like a police cover up, Hell, it sounds to me like a load of bullsh-”

 

“Hm,” says Alec noncommittally. With an iron-tight grip, he turns the faucet off, his red hands smarting in the dry air.

 

It’s grounding, that sting. It distracts him from the insidious what if that claws at the back of his mind, hooking its claws into where it’s tender.

 

What if we’d done something different?

 

What if people actually cared when another dead super appeared on their doorsteps?

 

What if there was some way Alec could’ve done more last night and he missed it?

 

That sort of thing.

 

“It’s kinda terrifying, y’know?” says Simon, hopping down from the sink and tapping Alec on the shoulder with the newspaper rolled up. He doesn’t notice the state of Alec’s hands. “I mean, I knew this city was fucked up - excuse my French, I know we’re at work, please don’t report me to HR - but if there are bad guys out there going after vigilantes, what’s to stop them from deciding to knife me on my way home, huh? Maybe I should start taking self-defense classes, what do you think?”

 

Alec doesn’t really think. He grabs a fistful of paper towels from the dispenser, acknowledges Simon with a grunt, and leaves the bathroom as quickly as he can.

 

 


 

 

Alec reads the paper at lunchtime, tucked in a back corner of the cafeteria, a stony glare on the seat opposite him so that no-one dares come near.

 

HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER-TURNED-VIGILANTE UNMASKED IN FATAL CARJACKING

 

It’s exactly as he suspects: bullshit, as Simon so aptly phrased it earlier. A scene is painted that never happened: a criminal man in a mask, hiding his face and skulking around in the dark, breaking into cars and slashing tires for no other purpose than, what, mischief ? Because that’s the goal of every vigilante, isn’t it, beckoned by a life of crime just because they can read minds or grow claws or fiddle with gravity when it pleases -

 

When he reaches the final paragraph of the article, there’s only a dimly-lit part of him relieved to not find Magnus Bane’s name attached to the end, instead palmed off to some other editor more concerned with fanning a lie than uncovering the truth. There’s a police tip line printed in bold black letters: please contact us if you have any information. Alec wonders just how long it will stay manned.

 

He cannot dwell on it, all of it, any of it; he can only let it fester, because he knows the truth, he knows that nothing short of prejudice and hatred killed this man, and yet no-one cares to listen. No-one wants to listen to Alec. No-one wants to listen to another Corporate in a black mask either.

 

He flicks to page three instead, and George Bush shouts back at him from behind a podium in front of an audience of thousands, and that makes Alec’s skin crawl. He begins reading before he can stop himself, because the day is already terrible, because he already feels like half the city is gunning for his blood for something he cannot change about himself, so why not -

 

The article is part of a longer interview with the President and Alec skims the sections about foreign policy, about Berlin, about Iraq, about Pat Buchanan’s poor attempt at a coup, about the deficits left behind by Ronald Reagan - until he comes to a cold stop.

 

Q: Is it wrong for people of the same sex or unmarried people to be parents? And why?

 

A: Yes, it’s -- in my set of values, people of the same sex to be parents?

 

Q: That’s right, or unmarried people.

 

A: No, not unmarried people at all. But I can’t accept as normal life style people of the same sex being parents. I’m very sorry. I don’t accept that as normal. [...] To glamorise life styles that are, in my view, not the normal life style, I don't approve of that. Our nation much defend the sanctity of marriage. I think it’s very important that we protect marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.

 

One day, Alec wonders, will it stop feeling a cold punch to the gut? His hands are still numb; he’s been hoping he starved himself of feeling today, his body blighted by the sickness of last night, but he was wrong.

 

The words taste bitter on his mouth; they feel tight in his stomach; he clenches his fingers into the newspaper and wills himself not to hang his head or rip the paper. The blow is always the same, how things like this always appear right next to some anti-super rhetoric in the papers, how it’s always so hand-in-hand.

 

The millennium is eight years away, and yet here they are, still living in the fifties, hating gay people and hating superheroes in equal and insidious measure, because being different is dangerous.

 

Whoever killed that vigilante last night, whoever sliced his throat from ear to ear, does he wield a straight razor in the same way when it comes to HIV, to abortion, to two people walking down the street arm in arm?

 

Alec closes the newspaper, and then he folds it, first in half, and then in half again, and finally, once more, until it won’t stay folded any longer and wants to spring free when he removes his hands.

 

Hands that feel sticky with blood again. Letting that man die, it makes him complicit in all of this.

 

Doesn’t it?

 

 


 

 

It’s late now, the sunset a fond and distant memory, one that Alec missed for all its orange promise of lost causes and second chances. The silence that pervades the office corridors is pulsing, the echo of every footstep a synth beat in the temples. Lights flicker grainy and blue overhead, artificial and cloying, a little unsettling. There are no windows. The veil of reality seems to shimmer, but what is to be found on the other side is dark and grimy.

 

Something builds, both thick in the air and heavy in Alec’s stomach, ruminating as it has been all day and since the night before. It tastes like nothing and feels like pressure, slow in its approach to a bursting point. The walls of the world - or the walls of the corridors - seem to flex and strain with it.

 

Alec hasn’t left the office yet; he doesn’t want to.

 

He doesn’t like the thought of swinging home for a lonely supper or cramming onto the rush hour subway with a thousand other rain-drenched people to make the commute across the city to Idris’ headquarters. Wandering dumbly into Izzy’s office to collect his stack of overdue paychecks is not something he wants to think about, and even less, his sister hounding him as to how he slept, when they both know he didn’t.

 

But he can’t sit still, because in the silence, his thoughts are loudest. He has to do something, but his options are few and far between: staring a spreadsheet or sneaking out on patrol.

 

Sentinel’s gear is in his locker downstairs. The cold and numbing wind calls to him; it doesn’t demand a ransom for his suffering. Freedom, it whispers, a well-practiced lie, freedom from dead men’s cries in the dark, freedom from God’s answering silence .

 

The office is almost deserted: there’s Alec, hurrying down the hallway, and there’s the security guard just starting his rounds, whistling an off-pitch tune as he spins his keys on his finger. And yet, there’s the sense of someone watching, matching Alec’s footsteps and ducking barely out of sight when Alec glances back over his shoulder. It’s unnerving, that sort of quiet that makes Alec feel just a little on edge, like there’s that same someone waiting around the corner with a straight razor ready to cut his throat from ear to ear.

 

He picks up his pace as he weaves through the building, taking a shortcut down the fire escape stairs when the thought of being stuck alone in an elevator gets under his skin. He turns a corner into another identical corridor, and in this one, two of the lights have completely died, pooling shadows on the floor, illuminated only by the eerie green of an exit sign.

 

Alec hoists his bag and hunches his shoulders, yanking down the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. His com bud beeps in his ear with the telltale tone of an incoming call from work - not this work, the other work - but he doesn’t pause to answer it. If it were Izzy, she wouldn’t wait for him to pick up. It’s probably Jace, wondering where he is.

 

He doesn’t have an answer for that - or at least, not one that would make sense to Jace. One harsh breath away from a panic attack makes him sound pathetic.

 

Alec almost makes it to the end of the corridor - and to the exit - when a fine beam of light cutting out from under the second-to-last door catches his attention. He doesn’t mean to stop - something prickles, telling him it’s a bad idea to stop in the dark - but it says Bane, Politics and Current Affairs on the door and the light is still on, which means Magnus is still here too, playing chicken with a clock striking late.

 

The fading blue of cooling argon lights casts a soft glow across Alec’s face, catching in the hollows in his cheeks, and the feeling of being followed is kept at bay for a moment. He ignores the incoming message from Jace and glances back at the sliver of light beneath the door.

 

It’s closer to midnight than it is sundown. The only people still here are those hiding secrets or those not wanting to go home. Alec is both. He wonders which one Magnus might be.

 

A soft knock on Magnus’ door, and Alec holds his breath until he realises he’s the one knocking. There’s the sound of rustling papers on the other side, someone hastily tidying up a messy desk.

 

“Come in,” Magnus calls. His voice a little pinched. Alec hasn’t seen him in a day or two, not since they spoke about olive branches. He must’ve been busy.

 

Alec is cautious as he opens the door, mindful not to move too quick, but it’s worth it to see the change in Magnus’ expression. Magnus stands from behind his desk, pushing a towering pile of paperwork hurriedly into his drawer, before he seems to blink himself back to reality, as if he’s not quite sure why he moved. A palpable shift from something tense to something pleasantly surprised appears in his eyes.

 

A bout of tension seeps from Alec’s shoulders in the same moment. He thinks, again, of one word. Sympathetic.

 

“Alexander,” Magnus says, the unfurling smile quite genuine. Alec returns a small one of his own, quietly stepping into the office. He doesn’t close the door behind him, leaving it slightly ajar. It’s habit. An escape route. His nerves are still prickling like a live wire. “Not still working, are you?”

 

“Just finished,” Alec shrugs. He glances at Magnus’ desk and the sheets of tabloid paper shoved hastily into a manila folder, and then back up at Magnus, who notices him looking. “And you? Is … everything alright?”

 

“Hmm,” Magnus says. Sometimes, he moves too quickly for Alec, still one moment and fluid the next, and it can be jarring at times. He steps away from his desk with long strides and retrieves a bottle of whiskey and two glasses from the top of one of his filing cabinets. “Nothing much to worry about. Just something a little troubling passing across my desk far too late at night. Drink?”

 

He’s pouring Alec a whiskey before Alec has the chance to say no. Alec takes the glass with a quiet thank you , not oblivious to the brush of Magnus’ knuckles against his, but doesn’t take a sip. Magnus is less shy, draining half his glass with a grimace.

 

The colour of the whiskey is not far off the colour of Magnus’ eyes beneath the yellowing light, although Magnus’ gaze is harsher and burns a little stronger.

 

“Troubling?” Alec asks. His com bud vibrates in his ear again, undoubtedly another message from Jace with tonight’s rendezvous point. It remains ignored. “Can I help?”

 

Magnus’ expression softens at that; his eyes cast down and the smile on his face becomes less tight, perhaps a little fond. He shakes his head imperceivably.

 

“I don’t want to keep you,” Magnus says, somewhat coy, “From home. From your bed . I’m sure you have plans.”

 

Alec shrugs again, letting his bag slide down from his shoulder. He lets is softly fall to the floor by his feet. He is brave enough to take a half-step forward, away from the door, and finds that the horrors of last night are left upon the threshold.The next breath he takes is uninhibited.

 

“Nothing really,” he lies, although it doesn’t entirely feel like a lie. Arkangel can manage without Sentinel, and Jace can manage without Alec, and Alec can manage not putting on his suit, probably still crusted with blood, for another few hours: he’s caught by other things tonight. There are no windows in Magnus’ office; there is no glass for the wind to beckon and sigh against. “Late sleeper. I’ve got time.”

 

Magnus purses his lips and doesn’t say anything for a long moment, long enough for Alec to second guess himself.

 

“But if I’m overstepping, I can-”

 

He doesn’t get to finish that sentence, because once again, Magnus is suddenly moving. He’s back behind his desk, and with what looks like a flick of his fingers, his pile of manila folders is flung open and his quick hands are spreading newspaper clippings out across the tabletop.

 

Alec steps right up to the edge of the desk, the corner pressing into his thigh. He cocks his head, trying to read the headlines upside down.

 

HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER-TURNED-VIGILANTE UNMASKED IN FATAL CAR-JACKING

 

TEENAGE GIRL ACQUITTED FOR MURDER OF TROUBLED SUPER

 

D.A. REFUSES TO USE JAILHOUSE RECORDINGS IN MIDTOWN MURDER OF THREE SUPERS

 

MAN HELD FOR QUESTIONING IN TORTURE AND MURDER OF TELEPATHIC VIGILANTE KNOWN AS “SYMPATH”

 

BOY, 14, FOUND GUILTY FOR DEATH OF VIGILANTE, CITY-WIDE PROTESTS TO ACQUIT CONTINUE

 

AUTHORITIES CRACK DOWN ON SEARCH FOR SECRET VIGILANTE HIDEOUTS

 

RED-BLOODED KILLING OR JUSTICE IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE: MURDER OF VIGILANTE ELLIOT MARSH GOES TO TRIAL

 

BODY FOUND IN DOWNTOWN SEWER, LIKELY ‘SUPER-FELON’ KNOWN AS ‘EQUINOX’

 

CITY INQUEST: MURDER VICTIM USED POWERS TO ORCHESTRATE STRING OF ARMED ROBBERIES

 

MURDERED CITY BARRISTER, RAGNOR FELL, UNCOVERED AS SECRET SUPER, POLICE INVESTIGATION ON HOLD

 

Alec reaches for the last headline with wide eyes and rigid fingers. Not all the clippings are from the Tribunal , but this headline is their own, their front page from yesterday. The front-and-center photograph is a headshot of the missing lawyer made up to look like a mugshot. It’s not real, but most people won’t notice that. Won’t care. Yet again.

 

“What … is this?” Alec says slowly, something nauseous stewing in his stomach. If he blinks, he’s back to last night, to this morning , on that grey and muddy street with Veil and Wolfsbane as the dawn rolled in, with swaths of red upon his hands, and it’s that memory that laps, now, at the doorway behind him. He thinks of the dead man at his feet; he thinks of his knees in the dirt and a blade at his throat; he thinks of panic seized.

 

His other hand, curled over the edge of the desk, clenches, knuckles turning white. He knows the press spins stories. He knows to take everything with a pinch of salt. He knows the world is hungry for his blood. He knows it’s bullshit.

 

And yet, he doesn’t think it’s all sensationalism this time. There is a pattern here, a darker pattern that he hasn’t yet seen, but now -

 

“These are all clippings from this last week,” Magnus says, voice low. His eyes are focused on the tabletop; his mouth is set into a hard line. Picking at the corner of today’s front page, the same one that Simon was waving at Alec this morning, Magnus’ face is a blank slate. “It’s an epidemic.”

 

Alec looks up, surprised.

 

“A what?”

 

“An epidemic,” Magnus repeats. This time, he meets Alec’s gaze, and the look Alec finds is seething and quietly furious. It’s not directed at Alec, but it’s not what Alec was expecting either. He’s never seen Magnus anything other than cool and calm and collected; never seen his emotions get the better of him; never seen him anything less than perfectly put-together.

 

He’s never seen Magnus so intense that he might be hot to the touch.

 

“Don’t you see it?” Magnus continues, his tone clipped. “People are being murdered, left for dead out there in the streets, on our front porches. Students, teachers, lawyers, children . Friends. Innocent people, by the dozens.” His anger is jarring. He throws back the rest of his whiskey and sneers. It might not be his first glass of the night. “And we’re spinning stories and celebrating it in the streets like we’re happy to see them gone whilst the police are shoving case after case into dark corners and forgetting all about them.”

 

Magnus smacks his hand across the desk, sending the clippings flying. Alec tries to catch the ones he can, but they scatter around his feet as leaves. Magnus doesn’t care. He treads on them as he crosses the room once more to refill his whiskey. Heated anger bristles down his back.

 

Alec has never seen him like this before. It’s strange, this undone side of Magnus, and it’s throwing Alec off balance. There’s something about it a little terrifying, but something more about it that draws Alec ever closer.

 

“Why do you have these?” he asks, but finds it’s half a whisper as he gathers up a few more clippings and stacks them back on the desk. The article on the top of the pile has a gruesome picture of an arson, a room blackened and burned around the edges by a super whose power might have been fire, but which reeks of fear.

 

Alec frowns. There are no excuses to be made; the reality is a chilling one.

 

“Personal project,” Magnus says. He drains his next glass and Alec hears him hiss. “Do you know why I took this job, Alexander?”

 

“No ... I don’t,” Alec frowns. “... Why?”

 

“I was fired from my last one.”

 

Alec blinks in surprise, but Magnus continues without pause.

 

“And sued for defamation, I should add,” he adds flippantly. “That’s why I moved back here, to New York. Home. My last editor-in-chief wasn’t a fan of the pieces I was trying to push through under her nose. Can’t say I’m surprised.”

 

“What do you mean?” Alec asks, “What were you trying to publish?”

 

Magnus shrugs, gesturing with his glass in one hand and with the fingers of the other.

 

“This and that,” he says casually. “A few rescued children, saving kittens from trees, foiled burglaries, an apartment block or two saved from burning to the ground.” He meets Alec’s eyes again over the rim of his whiskey glass. “The things supers do when they’re not being killed in Harlem parking lots and being blamed for their own murders. The positive stories. The good that they do. The truth .” And then he adds, as a murmur, “It deserves to be told and not shoved under a rug to be forgotten about.”

 

“You haven’t given up,” Alec says. It’s more of a statement than a question. He considers the pile of papers on the desk in a new light, a realisation tussling with the remnants of last night that still cling to him like dust motes. “You still want to publish the stories that got you fired? Can you do that?”

 

“At this point, I don’t think it’s a question of can I do it ,” Magnus shrugs. He aims for indifference, but his eyes are still focused and sharp on Alec, watching him warily. “I’ve been told I’m quite stubborn about getting what I want. And besides - it’s easy enough to slip the odd thing into the papers now and again, even on the front page, it turns out. Call it perks of being an editor.”

 

Magnus sees the bullshit too. He sees the word in the papers, the slanderous headlines, the libelous interviews, and he knows there’s no an ounce of truth. He sees the city killing supers and covering it up with gang crime and carjacking and unfortunate accidents that cannot be explained. He sees the bullshit, but it doesn’t make him spiral, not like Alec.

 

“But,” Magnus continues then, dangerously low, “What I’m doing, it’s not enough. Not yet.”

 

Alec looks back at the pile of clippings. “Why are you …. showing me this?” he asks carefully, “If it got you in trouble the last time someone noticed?”

 

Magnus’ smile is rueful.

 

“I need help,” he admits after a beat. He runs his finger around the rim of his glass, pretending like he’s focused on the way the glass sings. But his body language tells a different story; it’s too rigid for that, pulled taut like the line of a bow Alec knows well.

 

“There are stories that aren’t being told,” Magnus explains, “A lot of unread case files pass across my desk, a lot of crimes that don’t get reported, a lot of murders relegated to page three. Something insidious is happening in this city and I need to get to the bottom of it. But I can’t. Not when it’s just me.”

 

Unflinching, Magnus’ eyes flick up to Alec’s. He looks severe, piercing in his intensity that cuts straight through Alec like a shard of sunlight through fog, and it’s that sharp edge that catches Alec’s breath more than he would like.

 

Alec’s not entirely sure what Magnus is saying, but if there’s one thing he knows about Magnus, it’s that nothing he does or says is ever accidental. Magnus wants something. There’s a question about to be poised.

 

And yet, it still catches Alec off guard.

 

“I was hoping,” Magnus continues, “That you might be interested in helping me out. I can’t offer anything more than the pleasure of my company. There’s no extra pay, and it would mainly be research, helping me sift through police records and man the tip line. But, I would be grateful if you would consider it.”

 

Alec blinks. Then frowns.

 

“Wait, what ?”

 

Magnus presses his mouth into a thin line. He looks at Alec in that same way he looked at him after they took the Arkangel effigy down from the front of the building: like Alec is something to be seen, not just looked at , but he’s only just realised as much. Like there’s something there, inside of Alec, bright at his core, and it’s worth consideration; it speaks of sympathy.

 

And maybe, just maybe, they’re finally stepping out of this routine of teasing banter, and flirtatious comments, and pleasant smiles that make Alec’s head thump, but never progress to something more. This is something more. Magnus wants his help in bringing the city to justice, holding it responsible for its crimes. That’s definitely something more.

 

Because Magnus looks at him, looks at Alec, like his hands aren’t drenched in blood and wasted effort trying to pick it free. Just like that, Magnus presents a solution to one of Alec’s indelible what ifs .

 

What if I could do more to keep everyone safe?

 

It makes something flip over in Alec’s gut. His mouth feels a little dry.

 

“Why me?” he asks, curling his fingers into his palms at his sides.

 

“I suppose trust makes you do strange things,” Magnus answers. A small lilt of a smile picks up the corner of his mouth, maybe beyond his realising. “And I think I do trust you. You’re … quite surprising.”

 

Alec’s skin warms and he scrubs his hand across the back of his neck to try and smother it.

 

“There are - there’s gotta be others here, who would want to help,” Alec subverts. “Not everyone hates superheroes.”

 

“No, they don’t,” Magnus agrees, “But lots of people lie about their prejudices. They don’t tell you because they don’t want to be called out, and that fear is a dangerous thing. You can never quite be sure if you know someone like you thought.”

 

“How do you know I’m not one of those?”

 

Magnus doesn’t miss a beat. “You volunteered to help me take down that dummy of Arkangel the other week. Simon did too, of course, but I question his ability to keep his mouth shut, so you were the first and obvious choice to ask.”

 

“Anyone would’ve -”

 

“No. No, I don’t think so. Not anyone,” Magnus interrupts gently. “But you did.”

 

It’s a straight razor of a different kind pressed against his throat now, and Alec finds himself wanting to move against it, so that it might bite into his skin.

 

Last night, he asked himself: what else can I do? And where Wolfsbane and Veil said nothing , Magnus now offers an invocation. It’s almost too good to be true, an answer to Alec’s guilt presented to him on a silver platter like this, but -

 

“Look, I -” Magnus says, rounding the side of his desk. He half-raises his hand, as if he’s thinking of touching Alec on the arm, stroking his palm down to Alec’s elbow, but doesn’t quite find the courage to do so. His shoulders sag and he becomes a little less confident, a little more resigned. “It’s a lot to ask. It’s your free time with little incentive, and it’s not exactly  by the books. It’s under the table and it might be troublesome down the line. It got me fired before. Getting involved with vigilantes and their world is … dangerous. You don’t have to say yes. I understand.”

 

“You’re looking for justice,” Alec says slowly, and when Magnus looks up and nods, Alec continues, “How … how can I say no to that?”

 

It takes a moment, but when Magnus’ relieved smile blooms, it’s a miraculous thing, leaving Alec just a little breathless. It’s the sort of smile that makes Alec wonder if it’s even possible to say no, when someone looks at you like that, like you’re the answer to all their late-night and early-dawn prayers - and then he chides himself for the errant thought. Too much, too far.

 

Still, Magnus’ eyes come alive in the now-honeyed dark. The room has become warmer, the light softer without Alec really noticing, and it smooths some of the weight that has been bearing upon his shoulders away with the same sort of touch as a whimsy breath. He feels his skin prickle. For a moment, his hands are clean.

 

“Tall, dark, and handsome and with a sense of right and wrong?” Magnus says coyly, tucking his smile into the corners of his mouth and covering it once again with his whiskey glass. The rim leaves an indent in his lower lip. “Seems like I’ve lucked out.”

 

Alec rolls his eyes but he cannot help his smile, shy and crooked, colour high in the apples of his cheeks. His com bud buzzes again in his ear; apparently Jace won’t take no for an answer.

 

“I, uh - “ Alec says, gesturing awkwardly at the door. “I have to go, but -”

 

“Of course,” says Magnus with a wave of his hand, “Of course, it’s late. Why don’t you stop by after work tomorrow evening? We can talk a little more, maybe get a drink, see where the night takes us -”

 

“That - sounds good,” Alec interrupts, face warming. “Yeah.”

 

Magnus’ smile is blinding. “Well, alright then.”

 

The queasy feeling in Alec’s gut is still there, but for a different reason. It’s not his fault he gets the sweats when beautiful men smile at him. Sometimes, feelings get through the cracks. He’s working on it.

 

He hoists his bag up a little higher on his shoulder and - after a decidedly awkward pause where he’s not sure if he should say something or keep looking at Magnus or not keeping looking at Magnus - he decides he should probably leave. Before he says something either incriminating, or worse, embarrassing .

 

“Alec?”

 

Alec pauses in the doorway and looks back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

 

“Thank you,” says Magnus, and oh, it’s been such a long time since Alec heard those two words. He hardly thinks himself deserving of them, but Magnus has never struck him as the sort of man to lie. “For stopping by tonight.”

 

And Alec feels it, his strange and foreign gratitude. He feels it absolving him of the blood on his hands, and whilst he knows it won’t last, probably not steps beyond the door, all he can do is cling to the moment.

 

 


 

 

Alec calls it an early night on patrol, but Jace and Clary don’t really care, too swept up in a world of their own to offer Alec more than a parting farewell when he heads home.

 

Tonight, Alec doesn’t really mind. His thoughts are elsewhere, and when the door of his apartment is safely closed behind him, he marches into his bedroom, tossing his mask onto the mattress, and goes digging in the bedside drawer for the pen that Magnus handed him before.

 

It’s exactly where he left it.

 

Alec drops onto the edge of his mattress with a quiet huff and holds the pen up - his olive branch - between his thumb and forefingers. He spins it around, twirling it between his fingers like he’s seen Jace do. He’s not quite as good, but he’s practiced enough not to drop it now.

 

The masochistic part of him searching for the rough, familiar edge of panic, but he can’t get a good grip. It’s still there, wriggling and squirming in his gut, still in the ache of his knees and the newspaper print on his fingertips beneath his gloves, but it doesn’t have him in a chokehold.

 

But he doesn’t feel numb. He curls his fingers around the pen and presses it into the palm of his hand until he can feel it, feel it and nothing else. He closes his eyes; behind, there’s the parking lot again, there’s Wolfsbane and Veil in the rain, and Sentinel kneeling in the hemorrhage of blood-red light. Then, there’s Nightlock, strange and out of place, smiling that judgemental, seething smile of his, the look in his eyes goading, surrounded on all sides by the bodies of his dead friends, whilst in the distance, Arkangel walks away with his back to the chaos.

 

And then, behind that, beyond that, in a quiet fluorescent corner, there’s Magnus, and the promise of justice a whisper on his lips, a wishbone in his hands.

 

Alec’s heart hums with adrenaline.

 


 

 

Alec has known Magnus for a few months, but he doesn’t know Magnus, not in the way Alec suspects people like Magnus deserve to be known.

 

There’s this routine they’ve cultivated over time, one where Magnus will flirt and laugh while Alec will blush, and then steal secret glances at Magnus as Magnus walks away, a sway in his shoulders and a hum on his lips. It’s one where Magnus will ask him for dinner or drinks or a coffee in the cafeteria and he will force himself to say no everytime, because he’s scared of people seeing, because he knows what the papers say, because he doesn’t have time to waste when he barely gets three hours sleep a night, because - he’s afraid of letting someone stray beyond these carefully coloured-in lines. There’s a whole plethora of reasons. Alec only has to pick one.

 

It’s a routine that’s always been safe for Alec, something always confined to the hours of nine to five, never leaving the walls of the office; always something he can pick and choose when to come back to. It’s a routine in which he doesn’t have to give up too much of himself, doesn’t have to let someone else in, doesn’t have to feel bad about lying when he’s not asked to tell the truth in the first place. He gets to look, to feel these flares of warmth in his belly and these gentle stutters in his chest, but it’s always been smothered and squashed down, a feeling little more than pleasant.

 

It is pleasant. Their relationship - if Alec can really call it that - has always been pleasant .

 

But Magnus is a different person after hours.

 

No, that’s not entirely true - he’s not completely different. It’s not like the mask he wears at work, the smile he greets his boss with or the voice he puts on over the telephone, is all fake. After six o’clock, he’s still flirty and playful and smart and exquisite, all the things that have always made it hard for Alec to look away whenever he’s in the room, but he’s also -

 

He’s also far more intense, and it’s that severity which surprises Alec, the next night.

 

Alec is hunched over in the leather wingback pulled up to the opposite side of Magnus’ desk, in a windowless office just a little too small for two people to share comfortably. Maybe Alec was expecting Magnus to offer him a drink that became more drinks, and then they would sit here until late, until it became comfortable, and maybe Magnus would make a pass at him that Alec would have to politely decline (or maybe accept, he can’t really say), but there’s no whiskey in sight.

 

Instead, there’s a pile of manilla folders stacked dauntingly high in front of him, the first of many open on the table. And now, Alec has a pen in his hands that he’s squeezing just a bit too tight, and a glaze across his eyes that is decidedly blank.

 

He’s not really sure what he’s looking at. It’s some sort of police report, but he’s never really seen one so crudely Tipexed, and damn, he’s been taking Izzy’s commitment to bureaucracy for granted. He’s been staring at it for almost twenty minutes now and has done little else other than circle the date at the top of the page.

 

It’s from last week. Something to do with that murdered lawyer, Ragnor Fell. Alec had barely skimmed that story when it first broke, and now he regrets it.

 

Magnus is sitting on the other side of the desk, head bowed over a stack of paperwork that he flicks through with well-practised ease. His thumb is pressed against his lips in thought and he hasn’t looked up at Alec in a while. Alec finds himself surprised by that.

 

Magnus had been surprised too, when Alec had turned up at his door after work, just as he’d promised. It had taken Alec a good few minutes to psyche himself up outside the door and his knock had been weak at best, but Magnus’ expression when he had opened the door had been open and unguarded, like he wasn’t expecting Alec at all.

 

“I’m actually surprised you came back,” Magnus had said, after inviting Alec in and offering to take his jacket, which Alec had relinquished clumsily. “More surprised that you’re willing to help.”

 

Alec had frowned. “Why’d you think I wouldn’t stick to my word?”

 

And Magnus had paused, frowning to himself as his eyes roamed the length of Alec’s body, slow and questioning, before settling just over Alec shoulder.

 

“I don’t know,” he had said, “It wasn’t that I didn’t think you would honour your word. It’s more - that I’ve been let down too many times and it becomes a habit to assume the worst.”

 

So, yes, Alec is surprised that Magnus hasn’t looked up at him since they sat down - but it’s admirable too, he realises latently. Magnus clearly takes his work seriously, and maybe Alec’s not here for them to get to know each other in the traditional sense at all.

 

Some small part of him is mildly disappointed, but the much larger part of him is put at ease. He hasn’t felt the urge to rub his hands raw beneath the faucet all day.

 

Staring down at the police report on the table, Alec decides that he’s not going to be one of those people who let Magnus down. He just ... doesn’t exactly know what he’s looking for.

 

“You’ve been staring at that page for the last half an hour, you know,” Magnus says without looking up, jolting Alec back to reality. Magnus is still scanning his own notes line-by-line.

 

“Sorry, I -” Alec swallows. He taps his pen against the table to get the ink flowing again. “I’m not used to this sort of stuff … audits and financial records are more up my alley … and I don’t really know what I should be seeing.”

 

Magnus’ lips turn upwards into a quiet smile. “I’m sorry to throw you in the deep end right away,” he says, “But I have, shall we say, a personal interest in this case, and there’s a lot of information to sift through to catch every detail.”

 

“The Ragnor Fell case?”

 

Magnus nods, but Alec notices the way his smile falls just a bit.

 

“Yes,” he says, “You would think a high profile murder like this would get more attention from the press, but it’s been a month, we haven’t even had the trial yet, and already people have stopped talking about it. I was planning to have an exposé run on page two of next Sunday’s issue, not that the editor-in-chief knows about it yet.”

 

“What sort of exposé?”

 

Magnus sets his own pen down on the desk and grabs a clipping from the middle of his pile. He scoots it across the desk to Alec, folding his arms as he leans forward.

 

MURDERED CITY BARRISTER, RAGNOR FELL, UNCOVERED AS SECRET SUPER, POLICE INVESTIGATION ON HOLD

 

“That’s one of my articles,” he explains as Alec inspects the newspaper headline he’s been handed. “The Herald, the Times, and the Gazette all ran similar pieces on their front page that day, but none of them mentioned in the title that he was murdered . That was relegated as far down as paragraph two. All they were interested in was the fact a high-level public official was a vigilante on the side. The Tribunal was the only paper to mention him by name in the headline.”

 

“That’s … messed up,” says Alec. He decides to take a punt. “So ... you want me to help you figure out what happened? Who murdered him?”

 

“That would be nice,” shrugs Magnus, “Unfortunately it’s not likely, but it would be a welcome discovery.”

 

“What do you want then?”

 

Magnus’ steely eyes flit to his.

 

“Justice, Alexander,” he says, resting his chin in his palm in a way so at odds with the words in his mouth. “I want justice , and not just for the murderers and the arsonists and the petty criminals. I want to hold the press and the politicians and the police force accountable for their lack of care, for never prosecuting anyone, for their willingness to let crimes like this slide just because the victim was a super. Heaven knows Ragnor, the old crone, deserves some closure on his miserable existence.”

 

Alec frowns. “You knew him,” he says, more a statement than a question.

 

Magnus’ shoulders stiffen, his jaw moving, but his gaze darts away and back again to Alec, where Alec holds it deftly.

 

“Yes,” Magnus admits, “We were old friends. He was also a rather valuable source, and procuring records from City Hall without him is going to be far more difficult moving forward, I can assure you.”

 

Alec studies Magnus for a moment. He’s not sure what he’s looking for: grief, maybe? Mourning? Alec certainly sees the anger, but he can’t find the regret, the longing, or the sadness, and maybe that’s because Magnus has all those emotions meticulously stashed away, somewhere Alec cannot reach.

 

Alec supposes he wouldn’t want someone like him rooting around his misery either, if their situations were reversed.

 

He thinks again about his dead super in the parking lot, but it’s not the same. Alec didn’t know him; they weren’t old friends, and he can’t compare that loss to this. That guilty feeling is too black and white.

 

He tries to imagine what it would be like if he lost Jace, only to wake up and find his unmasking all over the front pages the following morning.

 

And that - well, It doesn’t bear thinking about.

 

“Okay,” says Alec, looking back down at his police report. “What sort of stuff do I need to be looking for then?”

 

Magnus blinks, and then he searches Alec’s face. It only makes Alec wonder if he’s surprised again by Alec’s willingness to get stuck in. There’s a small voice in the back of Alec’s head telling him that he’s not doing this for Magnus, or for justice and honest integrity, but instead, it’s all for him: to relieve himself of the guilt over leaving his dead man to the mercy of an incompetent police force, of not being there in the first place to stop this all from happening.

 

And then, there’s a voice smaller still, telling him that the longer he stays here, the longer it will be until he has to suit up as Sentinel and risk history repeating itself. But he does his best to push it back, to numb it, to silence it.

 

He’s good at that. Silencing things. Bottling up his feelings and dutifully ignoring them is something he has got down to an art.

 

“Anything,” says Magnus. “Everything. Anything that leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”

 

 


 

 

Alec stays late, that first night. He’s a slow reader at first, puzzling over the gaping holes in the police reports too long, where information has clearly been redacted from the witness testimonies that Magnus managed to procure from a friend-of-a-friend at 1PP.

 

They work in silence, most of the night. Sometimes, Magnus will mutter beneath his breath and Alec will look up, only for a moment, but Magnus never notices, immersed in whatever he’s reading. Magnus’ pen will scratch over the paper, and Alec will huff whenever he flips a page, and the building will creak when the heating comes on after nine.

 

But Alec doesn’t mind the silence. It’s not awkward, not like he feared it might be. There’s no pressure for small talk or noise to fill the gaps, no police sirens or people shouting in his ear; just breathing is enough, and Alec’s mind wanders to when that last was the case. The strangest sense of calm washes over him, submerges him, drags him slowly down with a soft pressure pulsing against his skin. He feels … contained.

 

He’s so engrossed that by the time he looks at the clock above Magnus’ head, it’s midnight.  He bolts upright with a small noise of surprise.

 

“Hm?” Magnus says, glancing up. He’s been leaning on his fist and now there’s a red mark blooming along his jaw, which Alec finds strangely charming. Magnus follows Alec’s eyes to the clock. “Do you need to go?”

 

“I, uh - how much later are you staying?” Alec asks with a frown. His stomach grumbles, but his thoughts are more on how pissed Jace will be that Alec completely ditched patrol altogether, rather than the fact he’s skipped supper. Hopefully Izzy will have come up with a good excuse to cover him. Hopefully.

 

Magnus shrugs, but it extends into a full on roll of his shoulders as he stretches his arms above his head and his joints click in satisfaction.

 

“I’ll probably work a few more hours,” he says, “Usually I stay ‘til we go to press, and then pop home for a few hours sleep and six or seven coffees.”

 

“We go to press at four ,” Alec gawps, and worse, this is what Magnus does most nights. No wonder Alec noticed those grey marks beneath his eyes before; he stays at the office until dawn every night and never once has he said a thing about it. Does anybody else know?

 

Magnus shrugs again, his resigned smile a little bashful. His gaze follows Alec as he stands and shrugs back into his suit jacket, eyes lingering on the buttons of his shirt and the crooked line of his tie.

 

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he says, “No rest for the wicked, Alexander. Or for the good, unfortunately.”

 

 


 

 

Alec doesn’t make it to patrol that night, and Jace is pissed for about ten minutes when Alec talks to him on the radio in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, Izzy is there to placate them both by telling Alec he didn’t miss much, save for Jace flying face first into a billboard again.

 

Alec wonders how much of that is true. Not that Jace doesn’t regularly fly into infrastructure when he’s showing off, and not Izzy would lie to him, but -

 

There must be a dozen dispatch calls to the police every night that go unanswered, that Jace and Alec don’t pick up, that get ignored in favour of something more exciting. Something more superpowered .

 

When Jace hangs up, grumbling about how next week will be his turn to play hooky, Izzy doesn’t miss a beat in asking Alec where he’s been.

 

“I stayed late at the office,” he says, and technically, it’s not a lie.

 

You want me to believe you stayed an extra six hours? ” she scoffs, “ At a job I know you don’t really like and only have to spite mom and dad?

 

“I do like my job.”

 

Uh-huh. I bet you like it almost as much as I believe you. C’mon, Alec, spill. ” She gasps. “You weren’t on a date were you?

 

“What? Of course not, I wouldn’t skip patrol for something like that.”

 

Jace certainly does.

 

“Case in point,” Alec grumbles, “No, Iz, it wasn’t a date. I don’t have time for that and you know it.”

 

Don’t have time for it or have you just given up trying to find Mister Right in order to dedicate your life to fighting crime? Because those are two very different things .”

 

“It’s three in the morning, do we really have to have this conversation now? Again?”

 

The more you get cagey about it, the more I’ll think you really were out with a mystery man,” she laughs. “Did you at least get laid?

 

“I’m hanging up.”

 

 


 

 

Alec returns to Harlem two days later as Sentinel. He goes alone, because Jace decides he would rather mess around with Clary and a bank robbery downtown, and Alec doesn’t feel up to arguing with him about it. Alec knows Jace and Clary will be alright and he doesn’t fancy being third wheel when they inevitably foil the robbery and make out afterwards, high on endorphins.

 

It’s happened too many times before. Alec is a little scarred.

 

Besides, Jace and his huge metal ego aren’t so good at being inconspicuous and Alec is rather fond of sticking to the shadows. The feeling in his chest isn’t as volatile as it was, but it’s still thick and dark and tarish and Alec doesn’t want Jace wading around in that, churning it up only now it has finally settled into something he can manage.

 

It’s raining tonight and the chalky gravel beneath Alec’s boots has turned to muddy slush, the yellow light of the streetlamps cloaked grey and dreary. The sidewalk hisses in the downpour; Alec’s hair sticks to his forehead, water drip-drip-dripping into his eyes, rolling down his mask.

 

The city is less neon this far north, the blue glow that floats above the skyscrapers downtown smoked out by car exhausts; the rain smells putrid and petrolic, propanoic in that way gasoline stings in the bridge of the nose when breathed in too deep. It mingles with the smell of fast food and greasy run-off and hot metal. Alec grimaces. He briefly contemplates whether he can get salmonella just from breathing it in.

 

The parking lot is dark and deserted; the bulb of the single street lamp above has been smashed or blown out in the last few days whilst Alec’s been wallowing. The rain refracts the light from buildings across the street, sickly yellow and just enough to outline the bumpers of a few abandoned cars and the sloping roof of the old church next door.

 

The body is gone, but the blood stain on the asphalt is not, too ingrained in the cracked tarmac to have been washed away. It’s a scar on the Earth, a dark and vicious in its vague, humanless shape, and Alec comes to a stop with the toe of his boot pressing up against the very edge.

 

He’s not entirely sure why he’s here; the panic has left him, somewhere on the threshold of an office with no windows, but the guilt still stagnates. He cannot shake it, but it’s been a long, long time since he entertained thoughts of doing just that.

 

He has very little hope of finding any clues that haven’t been drowned and decomposed by the rain, and he’s not so sure it will absolve the festering feeling in his stomach either. There has been nothing in the papers since the night the body was found, no follow-up reports, no talk on police radio about any leads - just silence.

 

The crime scene tape is gone - or maybe it was never here to begin with - and Alec knows there’s no cop stationed on this block keeping watch, because he made sure to ruthlessly check the whole perimeter before he came down from his rooftop vantage across the street.

 

Maybe he should talk to Izzy about it. It’s not like she would say no if he decided he wanted to confess his sins, if he decided he wanted to -

 

Wanted to follow through with this? To where? He doesn’t suppose there’s anywhere else to go but here; there are no leads, there is no trail to follow. Robert and Maryse would never sign off on an investigation like this. Jace would probably tell him it’s a waste of time. Clary would look at him with that pity in her eyes she sometimes wears, pity which never fails to make Alec feel both pathetic and disgusted.

 

But Magnus -

 

It’s a small, strange voice in his head: but Magnus . Magnus would know what to do and where to go from here - there’s no rest for the good either, Alexander - Magnus speaks of sympathy and Alec lingers in the aftershocks of that word still -

 

“Why am I not surprised?” says a voice from out of the rain.

 

Alec jolts.

 

The thrum of the rain on the concrete muffles the sound of approaching footsteps, and Alec twists sharply, snatching his bow from out of his holster.

 

He’s not an easy person to sneak up on, and so of course here is the one person who does it so well.

 

He doesn’t reach for an arrow.

 

Nightlock appears from the dirty-coloured dark, the collar of his overcoat turned up to guard against the cold. His supersuit is clean and bloodless. The faint shadow around his lips is crisp. His eyes are sharp and unconvoluted. And his hands - his hands are stuffed in his pockets, and that takes Alec aback, because it means he’s not prepared for a fight.

 

“Of course you’re here,” Nightlock answers himself, “For something sinister, no doubt.”

 

His steps are brisk and Alec tenses, but Nightlock glides right on by, his shoulder only an inch from brushing Alec’s. He walks around the stain on the ground until he’s opposite Alec, and the width of the bloody mark is a remarkably good buffer, one which Alec knows he won’t cross. Alec knows that Nightlock knows this too.

 

“So,” Nightlock asks without pretense, “What does Idris have to do with this?”

 

“Sorry, what ?” Alec retorts. “What the Hell -”

 

Nightlock clicks his tongue. “Don’t play dumb with me, Sentinel,” he says, more curt than usual. “What business does Idris have with this murder? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

 

“Not everything I do is Idris’ business,” Alec grumbles. He remembers what Veil and Wolfsbane said to him, the night they were last here, about seeing things from Nightlock’s perspective, he remembers Magnus’ olive branch with a phantom ache, but God , it all feels half a year ago and it’s so much easier to be defensive.

 

Still, Alec relaxes his grip on his bow, trying to recall what it feels like to hold a fountain pen and not a weapon of war in a tightly clenched fist. He forces himself to imagine the tension in his shoulders unspooling. He’s not sure if it works; to Nightlock, he probably just looks mildly uncomfortable.

 

Nightlock narrows his eyes. He withdraws one of his hands from his pockets and Alec fixates on the slow drum of Nightlock’s fingers against his thigh; he’s probably probing for something Alec cannot feel, rolling invisible energy between his fingertips.

 

“Arkangel isn’t around,” Nightlock observes. His voice is flat. The city feels like it’s encroaching upon their space, crawling up behind Alec where he cannot see, his attention focused solely on Nightlock.   

 

“No,” says Alec, imagining a phantom shank pressed up against the small of his back. “No, it’s just me.” And then, perhaps stupidly, he adds, “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

 

Rule number one, Alec , he can imagine his mother scolding him. Don’t tell a potential threat that you no backup in the area .

 

Nightlock slides his hand back into his coat pocket. The sharp, juddering tension in the air - which Alec thought was the rain - suddenly disappears. That creeping of the city abates in an exhaled breath. He can hear the drizzle once again, rather than just static noise.

 

“You know what happened here?” Nightlock asks.

 

“Yeah. I was here that night. We found the body.”

 

“We?” Nightlock repeats. His eyes flit to Alec’s with a golden sort of focus that pierces through the murky haze. “Oh, I see. You’re Wolfsbane’s pet Corporate. Makes sense.”

 

“I’m not anyone’s anything,” Alec snaps, but it doesn’t come out as cutting as he means. “And I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m just looking for anything the cops might have missed, but it looks like there’s nothing, so I’m just gonna go.”

 

Alec turns away, shoulders hunched, but he doesn’t make it two steps.

 

Blunt pressure loops around his shins, stopping him from running. He looks back over his shoulder, and sure enough, Nightlock has his hand outstretched, fingers curling into his palm. He smiles something that Alec doesn’t think is apologetic at all, but relents his invisible grip around Alec’s legs as he does.

 

A violent tremble rushes through Alec’s body. He grits his teeth not to let it show.

 

“That makes two of us, you know,” says Nightlock. “Trying to fight this before it goes cold. There’s a backlog of bodies at the City Morgue, so they won’t do an autopsy for another week. Any useful trace evidence will probably have degraded by then.”

 

“And the case will get passed on to some beat cop’s desk, who will ignore it until the statute of limitations expires, when it’ll get thrown into a pile with all the others, into the trash,” Alec bites, “I know the drill.”

 

Nightlock raises his eyebrows behind his mask. “So you do,” he remarks. Surprise makes his voice softer. “Corporates don’t usually go out of their way to -”

 

“We’re not all the same!” Alec barks. The smallest note of surprise crosses Nightlock’s face; for some unequivocal reason, it reminds him of Magnus, that same quick candor just as surely hidden away again in the same moment. It reminds him of Magnus, and in turn, of olive branches and peace offerings and prejudice, and so, he adds, “But, I mean - it’s probably safer … to assume that I’m …”

 

Nightlock’s lips curl up at the corners, lines appearing at the apex of his eyes. His steps are slow as he drifts around the edge of the asphalt’s bloody stain. He moves with a coiled grace, the sort that is meant to be deliberately disarming.

 

Alec stiffens, his body on high alert. He knows better than to not be wary.

 

“You’ve been talking to Veil about you and me,” Nightlock assumes correctly. His tone is sly and slithers up Alec’s back, toying with the hair on the nape of his neck. Alec clenches his teeth to stop himself from shivering again.

 

“She’s right, of course,” Nightlock continues. “Everything she says about you, about Idris.” He doesn’t stop moving, his steps slow and prolonged, and he circles Alec with a wide berth.

 

The urge to follow Nightlock with his eyes is overwhelming, but Alec’s pride has other ideas; he tilts his chin upwards and resolves not to move an inch until Nightlock appears in front of him again. Alec is not sure if he appears stubborn or just petulant.

 

Judging by the amusement cradled in Nightlock’s eyes, it’s probably the latter.

 

“Trusting Idris is naive. It’s foolish not to think that every Corporate is out to catch you,” Nightlock says, “Or worse, of course.”

 

“I’m not interesting in catching vigilantes,” Alec protests, “I just want to do my job.”

 

“Oh, I’m not so sure you do.” There’s a flash of teeth as Nightlock’s smile briefly broadens. “You wouldn’t be out here if you were doing your job. You would be across the city with Arkangel and the press with their fancy cameras. Corporates don’t get involved with vigilante murders unless there’s money on the line.”

 

“And how do you know there’s not?”

 

Nightlock scoffs, lips pulling back as his smile turns provocative. “Please,” he drawls, “There’s nothing about this that would ever pique Idris’ interests. A dead amatuer all the way in Harlem is not even a blip on Idris’ radar and you know it.”

 

“So if I’m not doing my job, why am I here?” Alec counters. His eyebrows are pulled down so low that he can feel an ache forming behind his mask. “If you know so much.”

 

“My question exactly, Sentinel,” Nightlock says, almost a purr. He definitely has an answer. Alec can see it in the way he flicks his fingers in midair, the rain around them trembling. “Would it be a stretch to say you have some innate desire to do the right thing for once?”

 

He’s not wrong. But Alec doesn’t know how to relinquish all that without admitting that his duty to Idris isn’t a desire to do the right thing; his stubbornness is both a pitfall and a blindness.

 

Instead, he mutters, “Keeping people safe is still part of Idris’ code.”

 

“Is it? Even the vigilantes?”

 

“Of course it is! They’re still people , aren’t they?”

 

Nightlock moves before Alec can blink - one moment, he’s five feet away, and then the next, he’s invading Alec’s space, the rain suddenly perfumed with the scent of cloves and sandalwood and clean leather. Alec inhales sharply, his breath near whistling, and stands so straight and still that he could probably be snapped in two at the middle.

 

He can feel Nightlock’s warmth. It’s so very … human .

 

Alec cannot move.

 

But it’s not because Nightlock is working his magic, holding him still, or at least - not in the way Alec understands.

 

Nightlock is a few inches shorter than him, but he holds Alec’s gaze with molten intensity, bright and dangerous in the drizzle. His black mask is slick and rain-wet, so dark that Alec can hardly make out the contours of his face beneath it; it bleeds into the grey makeup smudged around his eyes and Alec is unsure where the leather really ends. Nightlock’s boots nudge against Alec’s own, and Alec has to shuffle half a step backwards at risk of toppling over.

 

“What -” Alec starts, but his voice catches.

 

“Who are you?” Nightlock demands. He folds his arms across his chest but he doesn’t step away. “Sentinel. Why haven’t I heard of you before now?”

 

“I already told you,” Alec grits out through his teeth, “I don’t like the spotlight.”

 

“That’s not what I mean.”

 

Alec lifts his chin a little higher. “Then what do you mean?”

 

He holds Nightlock’s gaze - a second, two seconds, longer - but as the moment stretches, Nightlock flinches and steps away, holding up a palm in Alec’s direction.

 

A surrender.

 

Almost instantly, Alec’s shoulders sag and the breath he draws is deep as his fingers go lax at his sides.

 

“Maybe I would prefer it if you were here to kill me,” Nightlock mutters, more to himself than to Alec, but Alec hears him anyway.

 

“What the Hell is that supposed to mean?”

 

“It means, my Corporate friend, that I don’t understand -” He waves his hand in Alec’s general direction. “All of this. You make no sense.”

 

“What’s there not to understand?” Alec snaps, “You’re the one who - you’re the one who just appeared out of nowhere, with no records of you anywhere -”

 

Nightlock huffs on a laugh that’s both dry and disbelieving, his eyebrows shooting upwards towards his hairline. He shakes his head, but Alec doesn’t get it. Alec doesn’t get him .

 

“Are you always this cryptic?”

 

“Cryptic?”

 

“Yeah,” stress Alec, “Just say what you mean .”

 

Nightlock hums, a low note in the back of his throat, and he folds his arms across his chest again, appraising Alec. His biceps fill out the thick fabric of his coat, his shoulders straining just enough at the seams for Alec to notice. He tips his head to the side, and it highlights the strong line of a tendon up the side of his neck.

 

“What I mean?” he asks.

 

“Yes,” pleads Alec.

 

“Corporates aren’t supposed to care about us,” Nightlock says simply. “And yet, here you are. Caring . A paradox.”

 

Alec’s mouth snaps open to retort, but the words don’t come. Instead, Nightlock arcs his arm in a swift and dramatic slice upwards, and his feet lift from the ground and his rises up into the rain, water dripping from his boots.

 

He can fly .

 

“Hey, wait -” Alec starts, rushing forward as Nightlock continues to rise. “You can’t just leave -”

 

Ten feet into the air, and Nightlock looks down, his smile quickly coy.

 

“Oh, I think I can,” he replies, “But I’m sure I’ll see you around. This city isn’t as big as you think it is.”

 

He spreads both his arms out, palms facing skyward, and before Alec can blink back the rain that clings to his eyelashes and blinds him, Nightlock soars off into the sky, consumed all too fast by the darkness.

 

And then, the Heavens open, the drizzle becomes a thunderous encore, and Alec is soaked to the bone before he can even look away.

 

 


 

 

Achoo!

 

“Tissue?” Magnus asks, nudging a tissue box across his desk with the tip of his pen.

 

“Thanks,” Alec grumbles, snatching a handful and blowing his nose loudly. He groans as the pressure in the bridge of his nose doesn’t abate in the slightest. “Sorry.”

 

“If it’s something going around the office, I’m going to catch it sooner or later,” Magnus sighs, turning his attention back to his stack of paperwork.

 

It’s already pretty late and Alec suspects he shouldn’t still be here, especially with how terrible he’s been feeling all day. But he had run into Magnus in the canteen at lunch and Magnus had asked, ever so nicely, if he’d be interested in another late night study group, as he so unsubtly called it. (Simon’s eyes had bulged, but Alec had glared at him so fiercely that Simon had been smart enough to value his life rather than needle Alec about that definite innuendo later.)

 

“No,” Alec says, dabbing at his nose again and sniffing loudly. “Got caught out in that storm last night. ‘S just a chill.”

 

It better just be a chill. Lord knows that Idris doesn’t grant sick days unless someone is literally dying.

 

Magnus sets down his pen and folds his hands beneath his chin, leaning forward with a  gentle frown. Alec blinks, quite the picture with a tissue shoved up one nostril.

 

“The storm didn’t hit ‘til after midnight. You were out that late?” Magnus asks.

 

“No,” Alec sniffs, “I mean yeah. I, uh - met up with a friend , I guess, we got caught up, didn’t realise the time ‘til I was walking home.”

 

“Met a friend ?”

 

Alec doesn’t miss the way Magnus eyes drop back to the desk and he scribbles something illegible on the paper in front of him, his mouth pursed.

 

Alec feels himself blushing even before he cottons on. “ Not like that ,” he chokes, before muttering, “God, you and my sister would get on so well.”

 

He sneezes loudly, which makes him jump, his elbow knocking into his neat stack of papers and tipping them all across the desk. It’s followed by a disparaging groan, which only makes Magnus chuckle, handing Alec another tissue without being asked.

 

“Thanks,” Alec grumbles, “And it wasn’t a friend like that - I mean, I’m not seeing anyone, it was just - ugh .” He hacks all the snot back up his nose, particularly unattractively. “That case, from last week? The super murdered on East 103rd?”

 

“Yes, I’m familiar.”

 

“Yeah. After all you said the other day about - about someone having to do something , because no-one else is bothering. I went to see a guy. Thought he might … know stuff. He didn’t. Or at least, not about that.”

 

“Sounds mysterious,” says Magnus, raising his eyebrows. “I’m surprised, Alexander. I didn’t think combing the streets at night was your scene. It’s very vigilante of you.”

 

Alec tosses his tissues into the bin. “Yeah, well. Not gonna make a habit of it if I’m gonna get sick,” he mutters darkly, “The information was a dud anyway.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Alec hesitates. He’s been thinking about his interaction with Nightlock all day, trying to make heads or tails of it, but as hopped up on cold medicine as he is, he can’t exactly spill it all to Magnus.

 

Magnus doesn’t need to know that Alec is a part of that world. And Alec doesn’t want to incriminate himself, but - perhaps more importantly - he doesn’t want to incriminate Nightlock either. That’s one of Alec’s unspoken rules, no matter how infuriating Nightlock might be.

 

He’s not going to talk about things that should be secret, and Nightlock’s comings and goings are certainly that. And after last night, a part of him wonders if Nightlock might return him the same courtesy.

 

Alec picks at the corner of the paperwork he’s been reading, or trying to read, seeing as he’s been having trouble concentrating and stopping all the words from bleeding together.

 

Magnus watches him steadily for a moment, before quietly deciding Alec’s not going to elaborate. He doesn’t seem particularly put out, returning to diligently copying across some notes into his binder labelled Ragnor Fell .

 

Alec’s finger slips and he rips away the corner of his page. His hand stills.

 

It’s not like he can talk to anyone else about last night with Nightlock, or what he saw with Wolfsbane and Veil, or the omniscient guilt that blocks out every other feeling and rots within his chest because he can’t get it out. He still hasn’t told Izzy about the dead man. Jace would probably just laugh about it. And he’s nowhere near ready to get that chummy with Clary just yet.

 

Maybe he could tell Magnus. He thinks Magnus would probably listen.

 

“What, uh,” Alec starts, clearing his throat, “What do you think of Corporates?”

 

“All Corporates, or Idris in particular?” Magnus asks without missing a beat.

 

“Idris.”

 

“Glorified mercenaries, if I’m honest,” says Magnus. He doesn’t look up from his notes until he’s finished writing his sentence. “They use their powers for money, rather than for good. Usually a hallmark of the morally reprehensible, in my experience.”

 

“It’s not like they have a choice,” Alec frowns. “They’re only following orders.”

 

“The claim that ‘ they were only following orders ’ has been used to justify too many tragedies in our history,” replies Magnus, “Everyone has a choice. Some people value their privilege too much to see it.”

 

Alec chews at the inside of his cheek, staring hard at the words on the page in front of him. His knee-jerk reaction is to retaliate, even if Magnus has a point, and it’s a point both very true and very damning.

 

Magnus interprets his punctuated silence as Alec biting his tongue. He’s correct.

 

“You’re a fan of the Corporates, Alexander?”

 

“Not a fan, I just - I don’t think they’re all like that,” Alec murmurs, “They can’t be.”

 

“In my experience, they can be,” says Magnus, before adding, “Well, perhaps not all. I suppose it’s the institution that’s more corrupt than anything.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Magnus taps his pen thoughtfully against the desk.

 

“Let’s say a Corporate and a vigilante both try to quell some riots during a protest,” he begins, and Alec knows where this is going. “They succeed to some degree, probably preventing a significant amount of property damage and some unfortunate injuries. But when things get out of hand, a man is killed, through no fault of either of them, it’s the Corporate who still gets his pay packet whilst the vigilante gets picked up by the police and thrown in a cell - if he’s lucky . It’s a double standard, where one person is legal and the other is not, despite them doing the same damn thing.”

 

Alec doesn’t know what to say to that, so Magnus continues.

 

“It’s not the money I have issue with. Times are tough, you take what wage you can get, I understand that as well as anyone, I work in publishing . It’s the lack of critical thinking that that terrifies me. The thought that someone, say, with the ability to flip a car with their pinky could do just that at the behest of someone with power or wealth. Or worse - kill another person, should someone with the right connections ask it of them. And it’s not questioned. It’s just the norm.”

 

“It’s -” Alec starts, but it feels like there’s cotton stuffed down his throat, which he suspects is not just because of his cold. Suddenly Magnus’ office seems too small. “Idris start training when they’re really young. It’s not like they know any other way.”

 

“That’s true,” Magnus acquiesces, “And it’s dangerous. Teenagers have impressionable minds, and it’s certainly not fair to have politicians and multinational corporations moulding them as they see fit.”

 

“Younger than teenagers,” Alec finds himself admitting. “They’re children when they start. Five or six, if they can get them.”

 

Magnus’ expression softens. “I didn’t know that.”

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, ducking his head so that he doesn’t have to look Magnus in the eye. He goes back to picking at the paper in front of him. “So, I don’t - I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s not black and white.”

 

Magnus hums, the noise nondescript, but he doesn’t say anything. Alec fears he’s offended him. It’s all too rare to meet someone who values the work supers do, but there’s always been a divide between vigilantes and Corporates, because they’re all supers but not the same sort of supers, and maybe Alec was an idiot for hoping that Magnus wouldn’t draw it.

 

Alec can’t exactly blame him, but still, the disappointment stings. And worse, he’s sure he deserves it.

 

“It’s not like the supers can just leave Idris,” he murmurs, “Congress already has Idris rounding up vigilantes … I don’t think someone would chose to leave Idris when that’s the alternative. Choosing to risk your life just seems … counter-intuitive.”

 

“Human desire for self-preservation certainly outweighs a lot of things,” Magnus admits. “You make a good point.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Alec murmurs, fiddling with his hands. The air is thick with something Alec doesn’t know how to cut; Alec never does well under scrutiny, and he runs hot and itchy in the knowledge that Magnus is looking at him, teasing him apart with his eyes. Maybe Magnus can see that thick black tar pooling in Alec’s chest; maybe it’s beading out of Alec’s skin already and staining his shirt like some guilty Rorschach.

 

And that’s if Alec hasn’t already offended him. Maybe he shouldn’t have opened his mouth.

 

Does he really have a right to talk about all this -

 

“It’s not really my business, I - forget it,” he mutters. “Pretend I didn’t say anything.”

 

He starts picking at a loose bit of skin around his thumbnail, scratching at it with his index finger. It catches and tears too deep; Alec smothers a quiet hiss, his nose wrinkling. Blood gathers around his nail bed.

 

Magnus sets his pen down again, laying it parallel with his paper. He pushes away from his desk, his leather chair squeaking, and Alec hunches in on himself as Magnus stands and walks over to his filing cabinet. He uncovers his whiskey decanter and two glasses from behind a row of lever-arches, and tilts one glass towards Alec, eyebrows raised expectantly.

 

“Drink?”

 

Tongue-tied, Alec nods. He doesn’t hesitate to take the drink once it’s offered, if only for something else to do with his hands.

 

The stark hiss of whiskey down the back of his throat is a momentary pleasure: it burns, strong enough that he forgets himself for a fractal moment. He tries to imagine it sterilising his insides.

 

But when he looks up at Magnus, still leant against his filing cabinet and watching Alec curiously, Magnus doesn’t look like he wants to turf Alec out of his office for overstepping the line.

 

In fact, he looks -

 

He looks puzzled - and it’s the same sort of puzzlement he wore the day they took the effigy of Arkangel down from the front of the building, the same puzzlement from two nights ago when he asked Alec to help him bring the city to justice for the murder of his friend, the same sort of puzzlement he wears always, now, whenever he’s peeling Alec apart at the seams with his eyes to see what makes him tick, to see what comes spooling out.

 

It’s puzzlement like he’s not really sure who he’s looking at, or why he hasn’t looked at Alec like this before.

 

And it’s a sentiment Alec often shares, but usually when he’s alone and looking in the mirror. He’s not really sure who he is either, caught somewhere in the crossfire of wanting to defend Idris with a dying, blindly-patriotic breath, no matter the consequences; of the urge to confess all the terrible things he has done in the name of corporate superheroism, never not bubbling up at the back of his throat, just one terrible night away from spilling forth; and of clamping up and not saying another word, because he’s this close to sticking his foot in it .

 

Alec is all of those things in equal measure. Maybe Magnus sees that contradiction as clear as day on Alec’s face. Maybe Alec is a real Catch-22.

 

The silence stretches just a little too long. Magnus’ fiddling stare errs upon the burning, roaming Alec’s face and chest and jaw, and Alec’s eyes flick to the door, his way out - he can’t help it. It’s habit. Maybe not Alec’s habit, but Sentinel’s -

 

Maybe he should just go -

 

“You clearly know a lot about Corporates,” Magnus says then, and Alec’s eyes snap back to him so fast he might as well have brought down the guillotine on his own escape plan. He sits so damn straight in the chair that he’s sure his muscles have atrophied.

 

“I don’t,” Alec says quickly, hoping he doesn’t sound too strained. It’s a lie he’s told too many times, but he’s never been good at it. Jace and Isabelle are always so breezy about it, lying and laughing it off when they’ve been caught out, but Alec’s honesty has always bitten him in the ass. “Not that much. Just what I’ve read in the papers.”

 

“No tabloid in this city would be caught dead publicly endorsing Idris,” says Magnus, “Even if they are accepting donations from the same sorts of people.”

 

“I don’t know,” Alec says, shrugging it off the best he can. “Guess I’m just curious then. They get a bad rep. I don’t always think they should.”

 

“Most of them do deserve it.”

 

“But not all of them.”

 

Magnus hums, and then, to Alec’s surprise, he throws back his entire glass of whiskey, his face screwing up as he swallows with a swift exhale. Magnus’ eyes widen in the way that one often reacts when a tequila shot goes down too quick, and you feel your sinuses incinerate themselves in efficient succession, and then he drops back down into the chair across from Alec.

 

Immediately, he leans forward with his elbows on the desk, and Alec’s eyes linger on the glint of silver chains strung around his neck, slipped between the open wings of his shirt collar.

 

Alec swallows thickly. He doesn’t know why. His skin feels like it’s bubbling.

 

“Which ones? Which ones are the good ones?” Magnus asks, and maybe Alec physically recoils or his face wrinkles up into  grimace, because Magnus quickly adds, “I’d like to pick your brain, if that’s alright? I want to know more about what you know.”

 

Alec squints, clearly sceptical. “Magnus -”

 

“It’s always good to have all the facts,” Magnus adds. “And I’m not above admitting that I’m wrong, every now and again. So, which of these good Corporates should I be trying to scoop for a tell-all interview, hmm?”

 

And God, something about that is so fucking ridiculous that Alec can’t help but laugh, even if it’s a dry scoff at best. Jace would be all over an offer like that.

 

Whether he’s a good Corporate or not, is another question, Alec’s brain helpfully supplies. Sentinel too.

 

“I don’t -” says Alec, “I don’t really know … I don’t really keep tabs of who’s who. I see them in the paper, sometimes - there’s the one with the wings?” Jace .

 

“Arkangel.”

 

“Yeah. And the one with super strength?” Lydia .

 

“Apex. Yes, I’ve seen her on the news. Formidable woman. I don’t think I’d cross her on a dark night, even if she is a public servant.”

 

“There are a lot of newer ones,” Alec adds, thinking explicitly of Clary and the newly-hired Victor, and even Raj, who’s only been with them a few years since his transfer. “You don’t really see a lot of the well-known ones anymore.”

 

“Yes, well,” says Magnus, “either they’ve retired on their mountains of blood money, or they defected with Valentine Morgenstern in the 70s. Probably for the best.”

 

“Maybe the new Corporates will be different.”

 

Magnus smiles at that, but it’s tight. And , Alec thinks, he looks at Alec like he pities him , like he both rues and admires his naivety. He probably thinks Alec is a fool, like he’s blind, like his privilege is making him blind, but he’s humouring him anyway, because Magnus is too polite to say it to Alec’s face.

 

“Maybe,” says Magnus, “but I don’t think we can hold them to that though, however much we might hope for it.”

 

He pauses, considering the rings on his hand in thought. He twists one around his index finger, a gun-metal silver signet engraved with the letter M. In the yellowing light of the office, it doesn’t look nearly as grandiose as it probably does under the flashing lights of a nightclub or in its prime position on Magnus’ dresser at home.

 

“What do you think would happen if Corporates stopped existing altogether?” Magnus asks carefully.

 

Alec holds his tongue, but Magnus is astute enough to notice.

 

“Purely speculative question,” he clarifies. “Indulge me.”

 

“Is that what you want?” Alec asks slowly, “For there to be no more Corporates?”

 

Magnus leans back in his chair, and he stares at the ceiling listlessly. Alec watches him in silence, mapping out the length of his neck, the underside of his jaw, the way his brows furrow, just a bit.

 

“Maybe,” Magnus says eventually. “Or maybe we’re already so far gone that removing institutions like Idris from the equation wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. I suspect the hatred is already too deeply ingrained, whether you’re a Corporate ordered to run down vigilantes in the street, or a vigilante tired of seeing Corporates walk all over you and not suffer the same discrimination, or you’re just a civilian who despises anyone who lays claim to the superhero moniker.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot,” Alec says.

 

“It’s a rather depressing truth,” replies Magnus, “Until everyone can see everyone else from all sides at once, I don’t suppose peace or truth or justice is on the horizon.”

 

“But that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s not just for your friend. You … you want to make a difference.”

 

Alec has always had a penchant for honesty and he knows it, but Magnus doesn’t know it - not yet at least. He doesn’t know the way words can trip out of Alec’s mouth untested; he doesn’t know the black and white way in which Alec feels; he doesn’t know how Alec can focus on one thought so much that it can grow too big for his chest to keep contained.

 

He doesn’t know that Alec sometimes just says what he feels, and then suffers for it afterwards, when all eyes land on him.

 

Sometimes, Alec doesn’t know that either. It still takes him by surprise. He tries not to let it show. He sets his mouth into a firm line and holds Magnus’ stare when it lands back on him. If Magnus’ mouth falls open, just a little bit, Alec tries not to linger on it.

 

“That’s why you’re working to change the press and how they talk about supers,” Alec continues, gesturing with his hand like he does when he’s nervous. Why is he nervous? “So that people can start seeing the full picture and hearing the whole story. It has to start with someone, and - and that’s ... you.”

 

The you borders upon a whisper. Alec doesn’t mean it to, but that’s the way it comes out, held upon a breath. He meets Magnus’ eyes and finds his focus sharp and electromagnetic.

 

And then he wonders: is this the difference between looking and seeing? Is this the person Magnus hides behind sharp suits and sharper smiles and concealer-laid dark circles?

 

Who else knows that Magnus spends his nights behind his desk trying to uncover a conspiracy so deeply buried that the city rests upon it as its own sewer system?

 

Who else knows that Magnus isn’t someone to let sleeping demons lie?

 

What if it’s only Alec who knows?

 

Magnus looks away from him, twisting his ring around his finger again. Perhaps Alec is mistaken, but some faint colour blooms along the curve of his cheekbones, trickling down his neck, despite how hard Magnus tries to batten it down. Maybe Alec’s words slip through the nails and the bolts of those defenses; maybe those three-piece suits of his are only paper thin, but no-one’s dared to touch him to find out.

 

“For now, I suppose,” Magnus murmurs. “Perhaps those good Corporates might just help me yet.”

 

He pulls another folder from the pile and flips it open, but there’s still colour in his cheeks, and it’s definitely colour, not just a trick of the light.

 

He can’t be embarrassed by the attention, because he revels in it; he moves through spotlights like he was born for it; he paints dark colour around his eyes because he wants everyone to see -

 

Doesn’t he?

 

Or maybe that’s the point. Perhaps Magnus is the sort of person to command attention because he knows it can be commanded: he can make people look where he wants, and not at what he’s doing, where he’s going, who he is beneath it all.

 

That’s the real trick of the light. Alec is just no longer caught by it.

 

There are far more extraordinary things to see in the shadows.

 

And so, Alec stares. Maybe it’s shameful, but tonight, maybe he’s shameless. Maybe he stares because it strikes him, in a strange, out-of-body moment, that he has never met anyone like Magnus Bane before, and how has it taken him months to realise.

 

 


 

 

Alec stays late, but the silence never stagnates. It’s filled with quiet breathing and the rustling of paper and scratching of pens and these things on the tip of Alec’s tongue that he wants to say, but cannot find the words for.

 

He wants to ask Magnus more . He wants to ask what is was that pushed Magnus onto this path, because so very few people wake up one day and decide to care about the supers. He wants to ask about his murdered friend, the barrister. He wants to ask Magnus about his parking lot super - because surely, surely, Magnus would have an answer.

 

He says nothing. He stares down at a transcript he’s supposed to be highlighting, but he spaces out into memory.

 

In the memory, he sees the parking lot again, he sees the dirty streetlight pooling on the tarmac, he sees the dark and bloody stain and he sees the body with the slit throat. He sees the blackness of the night - but instead of that strange yellowing dark, murky with deceit and terrible secrets, the night is Genesis-dark and as deep as a dream, an incomparable blackness, incapable of puncture.

 

In the memory, it’s him standing over the body, and then it’s Nightlock, and then, shifting, the figure becomes Magnus standing vigil with a candle and an umbrella, whilst Sentinel and Nightlock slip off into the shadows, turning their backs on the scene.

 

In the memory that isn’t a memory, Magnus stays. Magnus says a prayer for the dead man with no name, accused of something he didn’t do.

 

Magnus absolves Alec of some of his guilt.

 

Not all of it, but some of it. Maybe that's not fair on Magnus. He shouldn't be a prop for Alec to -

 

Alec has to make it up to him. Magnus, Nightlock, his nameless dead friend.

 

He can’t just sit around and do nothing. Not when vigilantes are dying in the street. If he does that, he’ll rot too, down there in the gutters with all the piled-up corpses.

 

When the clock strikes twelve, the daze is broken. Magnus sits back in his chair with a sigh, running his hand through his hair and messing it up. Alec has never seen him disheveled, and it’s strange, but it’s nice too, because it’s crossing those neatly-coloured lines again.

 

Magnus breathes; it’s deep; his whole chest rises. He flicks a button undone at his collar and leans his head back against the spine of his chair, eyes falling shut for just one moment.

 

“It’s getting late,” Alec remarks. His voice sounds clumsy. He hasn’t said a word in hours; the last word he said still lingers.

 

You .

 

Magnus hums. He cracks open one eye and smiles at Alec, crooked, all teeth. Raw, again. The real him. The brutally tired and yet still striving for better, him.

 

“You don’t have to stay,” he says. It’s a little fond. “I forget normal people need sleep instead of surviving on a caffeinated drip feed.”

 

Part of Alec wants to stay. Wants to stay until Magnus calls it a night, wants to stay until they go to press at four, wants to stay until Magnus decides he’s done as much as he can do in one night, which might just be more than Alec has done in all his nights.

 

The other part of Alec is Sentinel, and is late for patrol.

 

“Yeah, I should go,” Alec says, thumbing at the door. He stands awkwardly, shrugging into his suit jacket and then his coat and scarf, and all the while Magnus reclines deeper into his seat, reaching for his empty whiskey glass to drum his fingers against the rim, whilst his gaze lingers where it shouldn’t.

 

Or maybe it should. Alec cannot say what things he thinks when he stares so long and lazily at Alec’s burning face.

 

“I’ll, uh - see you tomorrow, then,” says Alec, grabbing his bag and making to leave. Magnus says nothing, and Alec thinks that’s that , wondering if Magnus, too, has zoned out into some memory, but -

 

“Alec,” Magnus calls, when Alec is in the doorway. “Thank you again. For tonight. For talking to me.”

 

Alec frowns, a little confused. “You don’t have to thank me for that,” he says. “Ever.”

 

 


 

 

Alec doesn’t see Nightlock that night. It’s probably something to do with Sod’s Law: the one night he wants to run into Nightlock, and Nightlock is nowhere to be found.

 

Alec wants to apologise. He wants to swallow back his pride and tell Nightlock that he was right, is right, the Corporates aren’t doing enough, saving vigilantes isn’t on Idris’ radar.

 

Alec wants to say help me do what’s right . He’s just not sure how to phrase it like it’s not a demand, but instead, the plea that it really is.

 

Sentinel and Arkangel respond to a multi-car collision on the bridge that night, where they end up having to drag a dozen people out of burning bus, and Alec thinks, surely , they’ll run into Nightlock here - but they don’t.

 

The silence is damning, or would be damning, if Alec wasn’t so focused in getting in and getting out of the carnage as fast as possible, before police backup arrives and Jace commits to something stupid.

 

The cops don’t try their luck, not this time. Alec is sure that Jace sometimes gets arrested purely for the thrill of it, but Alec isn’t willing to risk it or entertain Jace’s ego in any capacity. The moment Alec sees a detective getting trigger-happy with his finger on his handgun, Alec pulls them out of there and they disappear into the night with a strange combination of satisfaction and disappointment echoing profoundly in Alec’s chest.

 

“For fucking once, it’d be great if the police could actually let us do our jobs before they turn up and try to pretend like they can do it better,” Jace complains loudly, once they come to a stop on a rooftop a few blocks south of the river. Aggressively, he begins scrubbing the soot from his supersuit, huffing unhappily.

 

“Technically not our job,” Alec adds, although he mainly says it just to play Devil’s Advocate. He scans the dark for movement, but there’s nothing, no creeping spectres watching them from a distance. “Road traffic accidents aren’t in our jurisdiction.”

 

Jace just rolls his eyes. “Stop being difficult,” he says. “You know what I mean and I know you hate it as much as I do.”

 

He’s not wrong. But he’s not right either, and Alec isn’t about to explain that the ones stopping them from doing the job they need to do is, well … them .

 

Jace rolls his shoulders - Alec’s not sure whether it’s his bones or his wings that click satisfyingly -  but Jace groans anyway. He wriggles his arms around, shaking out his fingers at his sides.

 

“Well, at least your buddy Nightlock wasn’t up our asses and stealing our thunder tonight,” he says with a heavy sigh. He pushes his mask up into his hairline as he scrubs at his bare face. There must be soot on his gloves, because his fingers leave a streak of grey down his cheeks. “Cops are one thing, but that dude needs to understand that this is our turf and too many cooks spoil the cake, or however the saying goes.”

 

“Broth,” corrects Alec, but Jace just stares at him blankly. “Nevermind. And I think we should cut him some slack.”

 

“Slack?” asks Jace incredulously. His hand pauses in his roots; the wind has other ideas, however, ruffling up his hair. “Dude, why ? That’s not what you were saying before. The guy does nothing but get in our way and beat us to half our calls. Next, he’ll be taking our paychecks. I have mouths to feed. My own mouth. I’m very hungry all the time.”

 

“He’s only trying to do the same as us,” Alec grumbles, thumbing at his bow. The bowstring presses into the leather of his glove; he wonders if it will leave a red line across his thumb beneath. “And it’s harder for him because he doesn’t have mom and dad covering his ass, keeping his mask on when he gets thrown in the cells.”

 

He looks pointedly at Jace. Jace attempts the perfect picture of innocence, but doesn’t succeed.

 

“I’m just surprised you’re defending him, is all,” he shrugs, “I’m not hating on the guy for saving people, I’m just … hating on the guy for being an asshole whenever we run into him.”

 

“It’s probably what we deserve,” Alec mutters.

 

Jace either doesn’t hear him or chooses to ignore him. “I’ve said it before and I’ll definitely say it again.  You’re the one who actively hangs out with Wiley Coyote and Madam Mim, so I already know you like to keep terrible company.”

 

“If Veil ever hears you call her all these names, she’ll kill you and I won’t stop her,” Alec deadpans, before adding, “Also, pot calling kettle. You hang out with Clary.”

 

“Y’know, one day you will actively have to start liking her. She’s been on our team for almost six months.”

 

“You mean on your team,” Alec mutters, “Just tell me when that day comes, because I’ll make sure to pack my bags and move out of the city.”

 

They bicker for most of the night, until, just before patrol ends, when Izzy cuts across the radio and tells them both to shut the Hell up before she loses her mind from all their inane arguing.

 

Jace heads back to headquarters, although not without one last below-the-belt quip that he’ll have to be the one to fill in tonight's field report, alone , but Alec could not care less. Alec takes the long route home - it’s not exactly scenic, but something makes him want to dawdle, makes him want to linger, to take his time.

 

He knows exactly what it is, even if his pride scathes him for it. He searches for that same dream dark, but all he finds is a veneer of cigarette smoke and rain.

 

Nightlock doesn’t appear.

 

 


 

 

“Here,” says Magnus, slapping down a newspaper in front of Alec a week later. “We go to press in the morning. What do you think?”

 

Alec blinks, his pen stilling in his hand where he was busy scratching on a report sent to Magnus’ office from Captain Garroway at the 99th, something about an increase in unexplained arsons all over the city. He steals a glance up at Magnus, but Magnus is staring at the headline, drumming his fingers against the front page. Tonight, he feels restless in a way Alec cannot pin down, and it seems to make the tiny space of Magnus’ office tremble around them.

 

Alec looks at the newspaper: it’s tomorrow’s edition and the front page is blindingly familiar - Alec has been watching Magnus stare at it from every conceivable angle for the best part of the last fortnight, after all.

 

It’s his exposé on Ragnor Fell.

 

LAW ENFORCEMENT BETRAYS POPULAR CITY DEFENSE ATTORNEY , reads the headline in bold, black print. At the top of the page, there’s a hook for some story about Senator Herondale’s chances in the upcoming election, probably relegated to page three. In the centre of the spread, there’s a crisp photograph of Ragnor Fell, the barrister and Magnus’ friend, caught impassioned in a docket speech, flanked by a tearful-looking jury.

 

Alec picks up the newspaper to inspect it more closely. Below the headline, in smaller print, it reads: written and edited by Magnus Bane, Senior Crime and Politics Editor .

 

“Wow, you got front billing.”

 

“A few of the gentlemen in the cutting room owed me a favour or two,” Magnus shrugs, “I doubt the board has seen this yet. They don’t usually review the week’s issues until Sunday, and by then, it’ll be too late to repeal.”

 

Alec frowns as Magnus rounds the desk and settles into his chair opposite, rolling his shoulders and stretching out his legs beneath the table, nudging Alec’s toes.

 

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Alec asks, but Magnus just shrugs his shoulders, seemingly ambivalent. “You could lose your job.”

 

“I could,” agrees Magnus, “But I won’t, not for this. I’ve snuck far worse into print and the editor-in-chief knows it.”

 

He reaches out and pinches the newspaper from Alec’s grip, spreading the headline out on the table and taking care to flatten down the corners. He purses his lips, eyes focused on the photograph of Ragnor.

 

“It’s a divisive piece,” he explains, “It will sell well, people will talk about it, the board will be angry for a little while, but they’ll forget about it soon enough. Besides ... if this were to be the piece that puts the final nail in my coffin, then so be it. It may not be much, but we’ve certainly managed to scratch the surface of the truth. His case was swept under the rug and now everybody knows it.”

 

“Ragnor would’ve appreciated it,” says Alec, although he doesn’t really know that. Magnus’ mouth twitches at the corners, his expression going somewhere fond and distant.

 

“No, I don’t think he would,” he remarks. “The old crone would’ve complained that it’s too much attention, that he would’ve preferred to have been murdered in peace.” Magnus glances up then, meeting Alec’s gaze. His smile grows. “But I appreciate it,” he continues, “Sifting through all those police reports would’ve taken double the time if you weren’t here to help, Alexander.”

 

“‘S nothing,” Alec shrugs, cheeks warming. He scratches his hand across the nape of his neck. “Like you said before, it’s ... it’s necessary. For a good cause.”

 

There’s a pinprick of light flickering inside Alec’s chest, fanned by Magnus’ praise, dancing back and forth with more vigour than Alec has felt in a long while. It feels good to be doing good, to have done something for someone he never knew, who deserved his help regardless.

 

It feels good to have spent his time writing notes and helping Magnus with the wording in his paragraphs, rather than getting soaked to the bone loitering on some city rooftop in the rain and the cold.

 

It feels good to have Magnus smiling, just for Alec. Magnus has … a great smile.

 

“Well, I should thank you anyway,” continues Magnus. He wets his lips; Alec definitely notices. “Perhaps we could get takeout, my treat. Or - a drink sometime, if you’re free.”

 

Alec swallows thickly and tries to pretend his toes don’t curl in his shoes. He hears the usual no begin to form on the tip of his tongue, cloying on the backs of his teeth.

 

But it’s just a drink ...

 

“Yeah,” he says, staring hard at the tabletop instead of Magnus’ face, “Uh - that sounds. That sounds good. I can … let you know.”

 

Magnus’ eyebrows shoot up; that’s not the answer he was expecting. “Oh,” he hums, still smiling to himself, but it’s freer now. “Okay then.” He looks down, eyelashes feathering shadows across his cheeks tinged with colour, and Alec wonders if it’s meant to be coy - because if it is, the dimples formed around his mouth are all too genuine for that. Someone should say something.

 

Belatedly, Alec realises that he’s been stabbing his uncapped pen into his page, and the ink has bled into a large blue dot. He curses beneath his breath, poking his finger at the mark, but his skin comes away stained.

 

It draws Magnus’ attention to Alec’s work, and to Alec’s disappointment, his expression quickly sobers. “Are those the transcripts Lucian sent over?” he asks, “The arsons?”

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, frowning at the blue on his finger. He rubs his index finger and thumb together, but it only smudges. “I started making notes, but - yeah. There’s not much to go on and the police aren’t really doing anything, but I don’t think it has anything to do with vigilante crime so I don’t -”

 

“I wonder if we could tie all of that into a larger piece about police negligence over that parking lot murder too,” Magnus muses, reaching out for one of the sheets of paper in front of Alec. He inspects it carefully, his eyes flicking over the words, another hum on his lips. It’s like a switch, flipped, for how quickly he’s back in work mode.

 

Alec is not sure if he’s impressed or disheartened by that. Still, he wishes he could tune out everything else like that to give him tunnel focus.

 

“Yes,” Magnus continues, and Alec’s not entirely sure if he’s talking to himself or not because his voice is low and distant, “Yes, this could work. I have some ideas for a headline already. There’s space in next Saturday’s issue that would be perfect for this.”

 

He talks with his hands and Alec is swept up in it like a sailboat at sea.

 

There’s something about Magnus, this bizarre hypnotism that he has never known before, that makes Alec realise he could listen to Magnus talk for hours. And Hell, Magnus doesn’t even really need to talk; Alec could just sit across the desk from him and watch him work for longer still and remain enraptured by his pull. He’s always known Magnus to be magnetic, the sort of person who commands all the attention in a room just by existing, light bending around him with the honour of casting his shadow.

 

But this, now , is different. It’s magnified. It’s not something Alec can awkwardly laugh off or leave behind when he switches his computer off at the end of the day.

 

Magnus is not like anyone else that Alec knows: he’s all sharp edges and whip-crack wit, but at the same time, he’s cautious, careful with revealing just a little too much, raw in a strange way that throws Alec off-kilter. His smiles are coy and gentle when he looks at Alec, when he thinks Alec isn’t aware. His sense of justice, of right and wrong, does something funny to Alec’s heart. It makes Alec stumble when he’s normally so sure-footed.

 

(And yeah, he’s still just as unfairly beautiful in his suspenders and shirt sleeves as ever … and Alec is only human.)

 

But it’s not just that. All that, Alec knew before, knew from watching Magnus from across the room; from Magnus dropping by his partition every morning and gifting him with that  Hollywood smile of his; from Magnus’ incessant flirting to the way Alec’s eyes would linger on the shape of his legs beneath his dress pants as he walked away.

 

But it’s also the little things, the small precious litanies that Magnus only bares behind closed doors, and Alec is somehow allowed to be privy to them all: how he’ll sweep all the papers from his desk in bouts of frustration; how he has a habit of tossing things he no longer needs over his shoulder leaving his office in disarray by the end of the night; how he works too hard and too late, completely oblivious to the tick of the clock on the wall, and Alec knows that when he goes to leave, Magnus probably isn’t going home to sleep.

 

He rubs his fingertips together when he’s thinking. He fiddles with his rings when he’s searching for the right words to pen. He runs his fingers over the shell of his ear, toying with his silver cuff when there’s something he doesn’t want to admit, but that he still wants Alec to guess.

 

Magnus is passionate, dedicated, and resolved; he’s clear and present in the endless swath of night in a way that leaves both Sentinel and Alec envious; he’s angry and eager to change a small part of the world that stretches far and beyond them both, and Alec wonders how , how on Earth did he not see it all those months before. It seems so fundamental to who Magnus is.

 

He returns to a previous epiphany: he wants to know that person. Really know him.

 

 


 

 

You could’ve just said, you know ,” says Izzy in his ear, after Alec finally bites the bullet and tells her why he’s been late to patrol so many nights this week.

 

He’s perched on a ledge underneath the B-train bridge, with the last train of the night rumbling above and his legs dangling freely over the street below as he picks at his arrows. Taxis pass by on the street and the streetlights scatter across their hard yellow shells. On the corner of the block, some young kid is already laying out the papers at his kiosk for the pre-sunrise rush.

 

Magnus’ headline is there, front and centre: LAW ENFORCEMENT BETRAYS POPULAR CITY DEFENSE ATTORNEY .

 

It’s been a long time since Alec recognised pride as the feeling blooming in his chest, but he’s not sure what else it could be. He feels like he’s done something good, however small, however inconsequential, and it’s an anaesthetic for everything else that putting on the mask forces him to feel.

 

It’s not like I’m mad, ” Izzy continues. “Or surprised, for that matter. I don’t blame you, Magnus is hot. Get some.

 

“You’ve never met him,” Alec grumbles, but it’s easier to have this conversation when they’re not face-to-face. Secretly, he’s just glad he’s telling her now, and it’s not coming out way down the line when it wriggles out of his control and she corners him in the elevator at HQ.

 

Yeah, but from the way you talk about him, he definitely is ,” replies Izzy, “ seeing as you never talk about anyone, Alec.

 

“Hey,” Alec warns, fiddling with his arrows again.

 

Clary and Jace have run off to investigate an arson downtown, and Alec is stuck patrolling a block-wide radius, keeping a lookout for anyone who might give them trouble. The air is wet but devoid of rain, and the police dispatch is remarkably quiet. Perhaps it’s the storms that always bring the trouble, and whilst they wait for the next one to break, poised for thunder, the radio remains silent. Which is fine with him, it’s nothing he’s not used to, being left to his own devices, but it does give Izzy an in to grill him about his personal life, about his Alec life.

 

“Look, can you keep covering for me with mom and dad, or not?” Alec asks, “We don’t need to talk about this.”

 

No, we definitely do ,” says Izzy. “ Also, yes, I’ll keep covering for you, but it’s not like mom and dad actually ever read any of my field reports … I think they both still operate under the idea that when you say you’re doing work, you’re actually doing work. What I wouldn’t give for mom’s blind faith in me like that -

 

“Thanks, Iz,” Alec grits out, “It’s only gonna be a few nights a week, probably. I don’t know how much of my help he really needs. I won’t stay at the office later than ten.”

 

Stay as late as you want, Alec. Make the most of it. Get laid.

 

Alec closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose in despair. Briefly, he thinks that he should introduce Isabelle to Simon, because they’d probably get along like a house on fire, but then Alec realises that’s a fucking terrible idea that would cause him all sorts of unending headaches. Note to self: never let them cross paths. Ever .

 

“I told you, it’s not like that,” Alec grumbles, “I’m helping him with some work … attacks against vigilantes have been on the rise lately, you know that, and we’re - Idris aren’t doing anything to help and the cops are covering it up. Magnus just wants the truth, but it’s - it’s under the table stuff.”

 

Oh, sounds very under the table. ” Alec can hear the tease in her voice.

 

“Izzy. No.”

 

Look, Alec, ” she says, “ Honestly, it sounds great and I’m very proud of you. You’re doing a good thing, fuck Idris, stick it to the police, etcetera, etcetera. But, like - come on. This is a chance. Please tell me you’ve at least got his number?

 

Alec sighs begrudgingly. “I have his number.”

 

It’s only a half-lie. Magnus’ desk phone totally counts.

 

Nice. I knew you weren’t completely useless.

 

“We’re work colleagues, Iz,” he grits out. He presses his gloved fingers against his mask, first pressing against his temple, and then feeling his way along the edge of the leather. He doesn’t like the strange note in his voice when he speaks again. “I don’t want it to be anything else. I can’t - not with this job. You know I have to focus on Sentinel.”

 

Izzy makes a tsk noise on her end of the line and Alec can imagine her rocking back in her chair at headquarters as she inspects her nails and rues the day she was ever born with a brother like Alec.

 

Says the man who described to me - no less than three times - what Magnus was wearing tonight whilst you were ‘hanging out’. Note that ‘hanging out’ was in air quotes, by the way. I want to make sure that you know that.

 

“Izzy.”

 

Izzy sighs. “ Not everything is about Idris, you know. Your entire life isn’t meant to be in service to mom and dad.

 

“It’s not.”

 

Live a little. I’m not saying - I’m not saying use Jace as example, because no sane human being should ever do that, but - just, for once, have fun, don’t think about the consequences. Do something that you want to do.

 

“I am. This is - I want to do this. Helping Magnus. It makes me feel -”

 

Makes me feel like I’m not on the wrong side of this fight , he wants to say. Makes me feel like I have purpose, like I’m not letting people down .

 

Makes me feel like I can wash the blood off my hands.

 

Instead, he says, his voice forcibly droll, “It makes me feel like I’m not wasting time waiting around freezing my ass off for Jace and Clary in the cold every damn night. You think you could upgrade my suit to keep the heat better? Can you install a radiator?”

 

Jesus, Alec, ” Izzy mutters, before adding, “ Yeah, fine. I’m working on a new prototype for you anyway, I’ll see what I can do. Don’t say I never do anything for you. You’ll owe me.

 

“Obviously,” Alec replies. The word tastes a little sour in his mouth, so he tries not to swallow it.

 

 


 

 

It’s a Thursday night, sometime after six, but ask Alec and he would insist that he hasn’t been paying attention to the time.

 

It’s a lie, of course - he’s been checking his watch incessantly for the past half hour, waiting for the office to clear out so that he might slip away down the corridors and find Magnus without being intercepted by someone too nosy for their own good.

 

There’s a thrill to be found in it, one which Alec has long since lost playing Sentinel, but probably the same one that Jace still covets, seeking adventure as he does: it’s the thrill of doing something he’s not supposed to do, the thrill of disobeying orders, the thrill of doing something right when everyone else demands it wrong.

 

Is it the thrill of getting caught? Alec’s not sure about that, but he feels his heart beat in his chest as he finally pushes up from his desk and shuts down his computer for the night.

 

He’s not usually the sort of person to go chasing things like thrills, but nor is he the sort of person to sit idly by and watch bad things happen around him, or so he’d like to say. He knows there are still parts of him that don’t speak up when it matters, but this - this is some penance, something to absolve that guilt; and helping Magnus write his articles feels like that balance between Alec and Sentinel he’s been looking for, however precarious.

 

He needs that. Sometimes, he needs it quite desperately.

 

Alec grabs his suit jacket and his bag, slinging them both over his arm, and heads towards the stairs leading down to Magnus’ office. Lights flicker in and out of existence, still not repaired by the custodial staff, but the stuttering yellow only serves to make Alec walk faster and not look back. He hops down the stairs two at a time, light on his feet, and slips out into the corridor without making a noise.

 

There’s always a quiet pride to be found in the way he can trust his body to move and hide and slink around, but apparently, it’s not quite dark enough for him to go unnoticed tonight.

 

“Hey, Alec! Wait up!”

 

It’s Simon Lewis.

 

Alec’s shoulders hunch up on reflex. And Alec was so close to Magnus’ office. God damn it.

 

“Lewis,” Alec says, hoisting his bag higher onto his shoulder. Simon bounds straight towards him, his arms overflowing with a box of raw negatives he’s ferrying to the printers; he comes to a stop in front of Alec like an over-excited puppy. “Why are you still here?”

 

Simon squints at him. “There’s no way you can ask that without it sounding suspicious,” he laughs, “Oh, you want me out of the way, I get it - secret rendezvous in the basement after hours, I can be sworn to secrecy -”

 

Alec rolls his eyes, moving to step around Simon, but Simon just spins on his heels, jostling the box in his arms.

 

“Hey, wait, hang on -” Simon chirps, “Are you going to see Magnus?”

 

Alec narrows his eyes. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Oh, I just came from there,” Simon chimes, keeping pace at Alec’s side, even as Alec deliberately lengthens his strides. Simon tips his chin down and bumps his nose against the lid of his box. “Magnus is running a piece on those arsons, right? He wanted me to dig out some raws from the archives and pick out the ones that look best - but he couldn’t stop to chat, there was some swish-looking guy in his office waiting to see him.”

 

“Swish-looking guy?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Simon elaborates, “Tall, buff black guy, like, movie-star handsome. But like, if he’s the sort to have secret meetings on a work night after hours, that’s a liiiittle sketchy to me -”

 

“Did you get his name?”

 

“Huh? No, Magnus kinda pushed me out before I could get a word in. Shook the guy’s hand though. Strong grip. Great forearms.”

 

“I’ll bear that in mind,” says Alec. He glances down at Simon’s box and nods his head. “Don’t you need to get those back to the darkroom?”

 

“What? Oh, shit, yeah!” Simon stops so suddenly that Alec almost gets whiplash. He spins around again to start off the way he was originally going. Looking back over his shoulder - and only barely saving himself from dropping the box as he holds it single-handedly - he waves at Alec, calling out, “Have a good night, Alec! Say hi to Magnus for me - and tell me all the hot gossip tomorrow, alright?”

 

Alec holds up his hand in farewell, but says nothing, with Simon disappearing through the double doors at the end of the corridor preceded by a muffled oomph . It always takes a moment for the air to remember how to settle after Simon has left a room.

 

Alec doesn’t move straight away, curling his fingers around the strap of his satchel as he stares down the corridor towards Magnus’ office door. The lights still flicker overhead, reflecting in the poorly-polished linoleum floor, humming with disquieting static.

 

Secret meetings after hours , he thinks, but then shakes his head and starts walking again. He knows better than to listen to Simon’s gossip. Magnus is a busy man, a busy man with secrets needing to be kept , and he’s probably involved with far more interesting people than Alec and Simon see in a week.

 

Alec falters midstep however, when the door to Magnus’ office opens at the end of the corridor and a tall, well-built man ducks out from inside. The man says something over his shoulder, flashing a smile that is both white and dazzling, and then shuts the door behind him, only to meet Alec’s eyes in the next moment.

 

Alec quickly clamps his mouth shut. He knows that Magnus often calls witnesses into his office for testimonials, but this man is -

 

Actually, he’s unnervingly familiar, and Alec has no idea why. He’s tall, dark-skinned and dark-haired, a well-trimmed beard framing his mouth as his smile slowly fades. He’s dressed in slacks and a blazer, his shirt still tucked despite it being after hours, but Alec isn’t blind to the shape of a handgun beneath his arm.

 

Who the -

 

The man’s face lights up into another megawatt smile as he crosses the distance between him and Alec in a few lengthy strides, his hand already outstretched in greeting.

 

“Alec Lightwood,” he says, which thumps Alec’s brain back into gear. The man takes Alec’s hand and shakes it firmly - and yeah, he has an alarmingly strong grip, just like Simon said - but Alec just stares at him, his frown undoubtedly frosty.

 

“I don’t think we’ve met before -” Alec starts, but the man just laughs, a low deep rumble.

 

“Yeah, no, we haven’t,” says the man. “My name’s Luke Garroway - you’re Jace’s brother, aren’t you?”

 

Alec blinks - and then he backtracks, because his first thought is how do you know about Jace , and then his second thought is oh yeah, Jace has a life outside of Arkangel , and then his third thought is -

 

“Captain Garroway,” Alec says. Right. Jace and Clary are dating in the widely understood definition of the word. Most people don’t automatically assume that plays second fiddle to superhero duties. “Clary’s father. Of course.”

 

“For a minute there, I thought I’d got the wrong man,” laughs Luke, “Jace was ‘round for dinner the other night and he showed us all your pictures -”

 

Of course he fucking did .

 

Alec squints an eye, looking skeptical. “The one he keeps in his wallet?”

 

Luke laughs again.

 

Alec knows the photograph - it’s of him, Jace, Isabelle, and Max, some years ago - when late puberty was still doing Alec few favours, while Izzy and Jace had, of course, lucked out. It’s a photograph they took on a trip across the river to Jersey City for an afternoon, because their parents had forbidden them from going any further or for any longer. Alec had won Max a stuffed monkey on a claw machine, thanks to some very unnaturally sharp reflexes, but then Jace had watched some kid win big on the skee-ball and proceeded to blow everyone in the arcade out of the park, because that’s what Jace does best: see someone else do something well, and then do it better.

 

“The very same,” says Luke, still smiling broadly. He looks Alec up and down, noting Alec’s loose slacks and rumpled shirt, but his eyes don’t really linger, not like Magnus’ do.

 

“Well,” Luke then says, “I need to get going. Night shift tonight and the precinct doesn’t run itself. Hey - next time we have Jace over for dinner, why don’t you come too? We’ll invite Isabelle as well. Make it a proper family thing, I’m sure Clary would like that.”

 

“Uh, yeah,” says Alec. “Sounds - sounds good.”

 

It doesn’t sound good at all . (So many people with superpowers crammed around a dining table can only end one way, and that way is badly .)

 

“Alright,” grins Luke, slapping Alec heartily on the shoulder as he passes. “Take care, son. Nice meeting you.”

 

Alec doesn’t move for a moment, listening intently to the retreating footsteps, the distant ding of the elevator, and then silence. He rarely hears silence, and truthfully, this isn’t it, because the argon still hums in the lights overhead and the water pipes in the ceiling still creak. But with no windows to the outside world, this is probably as close as Alec is going to get.

 

He takes a deep breath and walks the rest of the corridor, not hesitating to knock sharply on Magnus’ office door - but he waits, not touching the handle, until Magnus calls him in.

 

“Yeah, I’m still here,” calls Magnus, sounding more than a little fed up, “Come in.”

 

Alec eases the door open with his shoulder, poking his head in somewhat gingerly. Magnus is sitting in his chair, his feet up on the desk with his ankles crossed, and the soles of his Oxfords shiny and new. In his hands, he fiddles with a fountain pen pressed between his index fingers and thumbs, but he tosses it blindly onto the desk, swinging his legs down off the tabletop when he sees Alec.

 

“Alexander,” he says, delighted, as Alec eases his bag off his shoulder, dumping it on the ground. Magnus’ mouth curves up into a smile, the sort that says he’s genuinely pleased to see Alec at his door. “To what do I owe the pleasure? It’s a Thursday, I thought you would be busy. You don’t usually stop by.”

 

The chair opposite Magnus creaks as Alec sits down - but the seat is still warm, and Alec suspects it’s only just been vacated by Luke.

 

“I’m not busy,” Alec says, perhaps a little too quickly, “But, I mean, it sounds like you are. I saw Simon with the negatives -”

 

“Right, yes,” says Magnus with a wave of his hand, “About that. I’ve just received some new information, so there’s been a slight change in plan, actually. Regarding that piece were were talking about on those arsons?”

 

Alec frowns. It’s not difficult to assume that Magnus’ meeting with Luke has turfed up something that has put a spanner in the works, but Alec will wait for Magnus to raise it, if he wants to.

 

“I’ve got some free time tonight, if you need me to help out,” says Alec instead, with a small shrug of his shoulders. “I still need to call the coroner’s office and get a statement about the guy from the parking lot -”

 

“I think we’re going to run a separate piece on that murder now,” says Magnus swiftly, and Alec’s words die on his tongue. “Captain Garroway came by with some … disturbing news.”

 

“Disturbing news?”

 

“The task force that Lucian put together finally tracked down an alias for our Harlem vigilante - and they traced it back to a social security number and an address. An address more than twenty blocks away from where he was found.”

 

Alec frowns, but he can feel his vision clouding, his ears filling up with sodden cotton thoughts. He tries to push it back, but it seeps through the gaps between his fingers like rainwater. His hands, resting on his lap, press into the fabric of his trousers: he feels the indentations of his blunt fingernails digging into his thighs.

 

He doesn’t like where this is going. He can read it in Magnus’ face, the approaching plummet in his stomach. Magnus works through every word far too carefully, as if he’s waiting to judge Alec’s reaction.

 

“Twenty blocks is ... pretty far,” Alec manages, scowling down at his fingers which are slowly turning white at the knuckles. “But I guess, if he was a super, he was probably on patrol, or something.”

 

“Lucian doesn’t think so,” says Magnus, “A couple of his detectives paid a visit to his home this afternoon. There was more blood at the scene -”

 

Alec’s eyes snap up. He feels his stomach drop. “He was attacked at home? Was there any sign of a trail to where the body was dumped?”

 

“No,” says Magnus, flicking through paperwork and waving his hand dismissively as he talks. “Unless our dead man was a teleporter - which may have been possible, of course - but all signs suggest that he was taken to that parking lot and left to bleed out. But, that’s not the only thing -”

 

Oh, Alec knows. This was never a case of wrong time, wrong place. He just didn’t want to believe it, because then it would be true.

 

If Magnus continues, Alec doesn’t hear it. White noise rings in his ears, a blaring sort of silence that vibrates all the way through him. He glares so hard at his hands that his eyes begin to ache, a pulse forming in his left temple, but all he can see is that rainy night with Veil and Wolfsbane, a man with his throat slit at their feet, his blood pooling on the yellow-lit tarmac, already soaked into the ground.

 

It’s not like he’d forgotten - you don’t just forget about something like that, not ever - but it’s been different, working with Magnus, reading about it in the paper, following along with whatever police reports they can get their hands on from Magnus’ friends at City Hall -

 

He still hasn’t told Isabelle about that night. He hasn’t seen Veil and Wolfsbane in weeks. And then, there was the night he last saw Nightlock -

 

Alec can feel the rain trickling down the back of his neck, down his spine, beneath the supersuit that he’s not even wearing. He can smell the blood and the concrete wet through. He can feel Veil’s invisible hands churning up his insides again.

 

He can feel the blood crusting beneath his fingernails. He can feel the tar. He can feel the panic again -

 

Alec turns his hands palm-up on his lap. It’s like the blood that had caked his gloves that night is smeared across his palms now, slowly seeping back to the surface, beading out of the pores in his fingertips. Tiny red rosaries.

 

Alec curls his hands into tight fists, biting down hard on the inside of his cheek. Magnus notices. He can’t not notice.

 

“Alexander,” he asks, and worry passes over his face, “Alec, are you alright? Did you hear what I said?”

 

Alec blinks, and it’s like something pops in his ears, reality suddenly far too loud and crashing.

 

“I - what? Sorry, I just -”

 

“The man’s apartment,” Magnus says with a frown now. He hesitates before he continues, his eyes roaming across Alec’s face, lingering on the set of Alec’s jaw and then drifting lower - his throat, the rigid line of his shoulders, the tension in his arms -

 

Alec does his best to relax his posture, but he digs the heels of his shoes into the carpet so hard he wonders if he’ll leave dents in the floor.

 

“It was torched to the ground.”

 

Ironically, Alec’s blood runs cold.

 

What?

 

“That’s what Luke told me,” Magnus continues, rubbing his finger into the grain of his desk, picking diligently at the wood. A fleck of his nail polish chips way; he frowns, curling his fingers back into his palm, before looking back at Alec. There’s a firmness to his stare now, something resolved, unyielding, calcified. He doesn’t blink for a long moment, waiting to see how Alec will react.

 

Alec doesn’t know how to react.

 

“Torched?” Alec manages, not believing his own words, “Someone burned the place? What? Why ?”

 

“All the furniture, the wallpaper, the floors,” Magnus explains, “It’s a miracle there isn’t  structural damage to the building itself. But that’s why none of the neighbours noticed. You would’ve thought someone might’ve seen the smoke, but -”

 

Magnus pauses, pensive. His eyes flick over something Alec’s cannot see.

 

“I’d like to go have a look,” says Magnus. “It’s no longer a crime scene, so there’s nothing to stop us from dropping by. I think it would be useful for my story. Our story.”

 

“You … you want to go now ?”

 

“If you’re free,” says Magnus. If you’re okay , says his eyes.

 

Alec frowns, unable to stop himself from glancing at the clock. It’s not late, and Izzy knows to expect him on patrol closer to midnight, but still, there’s a voice in his head that tells him this is a terrible idea .

 

It’s not your business.

 

It’s not your jurisdiction.

 

It’s far too late to help.

 

The voice sounds awfully like his mother’s.

 

“I’m not a journalist, Magnus,” Alec mutters, “You should take Simon, he’s probably still in the building -”

 

“I don’t want to take Simon,” says Magnus quickly. His eyes seize Alec’s and hold his stare deliberately. If Alec’s hands were on the desk, maybe Magnus would reach out and touch them. “I’d like it to be you.”

 

Alec hesitates.

 

“Why?”

 

Brushing imaginary lint from his waistcoat and pants, Magnus stands with far too much grace. He steps out from behind his desk, reaching for his coat - a heavy black trench coat - and swings it over his shoulders, arms not in the sleeves.

 

“I trust you, Alec,” he says simply, “And I’d rather not go alone.”

 

 


 

 

Magnus hails a cab from the front of the Daily Tribunal , but the ride is silent. The cabbie doesn’t try to make small talk, the engine hums and splutters in potholes, and the drizzle pitter-patters against the windshield, rolling down the dirty windows in meandering rivulets, and yet Magnus says nothing.

 

So, Alec says nothing either. It’s not an uncomfortable silence, and Alec is lulled by the sway of the car and the rustle of Magnus’ coat as he shifts in the backseat next to Alec, but he can’t relax.

 

He leans his head against the window; the glass is cold, damp against his cheek, vibrating against his skull, while the streetlights blur into a smear of yellow and white and then red as they come to a stop at an intersection and taillights refract through the prism of glass.

 

It’s a bright red, proud, unyielding and unintentionally violent; it makes Alec squint, wincing away from its harshness. It’s the colour of blood.

 

His stomach clenches, haunted still, by his own damn hands, but he’s not in a position to scrub them clean, not here. Quietly, he kneads his palms into his thighs, but it does nothing save distract him from the urge to fidget. The world outside is blurred by rain; the immediate universe is reduce to the backseat of this taxicab and the thoughts with which Alec fills it.

 

They’re not great thoughts. There’s remorse and there’s shame and there’s fear, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t know how to rid himself of all of this, or even if he deserves to. He feels ... nervous. Like he’s not so sure he wants to step out of this car by the time they get where they’re going.

 

He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know why this dead man still lingers like a spectre with this grip on his shoulders, knocking and tapping at the window pane, howling look at me, look at me, see me over and over again. Why this one - and not any of the others before?

 

Stop it , he wants to tell himself. Stop thinking about it .

 

It’s always been difficult not to dwell on things that throw him so off-kilter. It’s an ugly feeling, black and thick and oozing, clinging to his insides. Part of him wants to reach down inside his own throat and pull it out from his gut, all its strings and tendrils, and fling it out the window into the gutters.

 

Normal people don’t think about this sort of stuff. And what he wouldn’t give to be -

 

He turns his head to look at Magnus, just enough that Magnus won’t notice that he’s looking.

 

There’s this beautiful leather notebook in Magnus’ lap, one that he always keeps on his desk but never opens, and he’s drumming his ringed fingers on his thigh, deep in thought. The smallest of creases cuts between his brows and he stares intensely into back of the driver’s seat, not blinking as often as he should. His face in profile is sharp, but Alec’s eyes flick down, just as Magnus’ tongue wets his lower lip: an action so small and subconscious that Magnus probably doesn’t realise he’s doing it, his mind elsewhere.

 

Alec wants to know what he’s thinking. He wants to know how his mind works: whether he’s stringing words together, even now, for his next piece; whether he’s seen so much death in the press that each one just blurs into the next; or whether he doesn’t have an off switch, just like Alec.

 

Does he go to bed at night, thinking about people he didn’t save, too? Alec might have a bow and arrow whereas Magnus wields a pen and paper, but surely it’s the same, that dizzying what if .

 

What more could I have done?

 

It must not make Magnus dizzy though, not like it does to Alec. Magnus’ eyes are steeled and focused - Alec could probably fling open the cab door and leap out into the rain and be swallowed up by the city and Magnus might not even notice - his concentration so intense on the back of the seat in front of him.

 

This is Magnus in his element. Late-night crime scenes and rendezvouses with witnesses; one man digging through the rubble of police conspiracies; what’s the next story gonna be and how can I make people read it ?

 

He’s a good journalist. An exceptional journalist. Alec’s glad the vigilantes of the city have someone like him on their side, so dedicated to their cause and their humanity in equal measure, because Idris certainly hasn’t been there for them as it should’ve been.

 

“Alexander?”

 

Alec blinks, his eyes refocusing on Magnus’ face. Magnus has turned towards him, the small frown still there, the curve of his mouth perplexed.

 

Alec rubs his hands harder against his thighs, his palms a little sweaty. Magnus’ eyes flick down, and then he smiles a half-smile, crooked and still confused. He reaches out with his leather notebook to swat Alec on the arm.

 

“Stop,” he says, his voice low like he doesn’t want the driver to hear him from the front seat.

 

“Stop what?” Alec asks unconvincingly. He stops digging his fingers into his thighs, knotting his hands together on his lap.

 

Magnus raises an eyebrow.

 

“Fretting,” he says simply. And then, he turns his stare back to the seat in front, like he said nothing at all.

 

A strange, rough heat prickles in Alec’s chest and arms, scuttling out to his fingertips and up along his neck, and he stares, for a moment at Magnus’ profile again: the sharp cut of his jaw, the shape of his Adam’s apple, the bow of his lips as they flatten into a tight line, betraying his nerves too. Alec stares, yet Magnus doesn’t look back.

 

He lets his cheek fall flush against the cold window again, vibrating with passing traffic. He closes his eyes and tries to envision Magnus in the rain again, lighting a candle for a vigilante, for the city, for Alec.

 

Alec doesn’t have to jump out the car at all.

 

 


 

 

The apartment of their dead man is on the top floor of an ugly tan-coloured building with bars bolted across all the windows. The ground floor is a discount mattress shop that reads Express Delivery and Super Mattress Sale in bright orange writing in the storefront. There’s a crack splintering through the front window, as if someone has taken a baseball bat the glass, if only for the kicks.

 

Alec holds his umbrella up above their heads as Magnus fishes in his coat pocket for the keys that Luke has given him. Alec doesn’t say anything, because this is clearly an arrangement that they have, and it’s not like Alec is in any position to talk about legality, but still he holds his breath as Magnus pushes on the door and it scrapes open with a rattling creak .

 

Inside, and the stairwell is narrow and smells of piss and greasy food, and the wallpaper peels, dirty and musty-yellow, revealing chewed brickwork beneath. There are cigarette butts kicked against the stairs and Alec can hear the sound of a TV on low in one of the other apartments, some rerun of Golden Girls if he’s not mistaken, and he’s not, because Jace likes to pretend he doesn’t watch that show religiously. Alec knows the theme song by heart.

 

“Watch your step,” Magnus says, glancing back over his shoulder to point out an errant floorboard angled upwards. Alec nods and mumbles thank you anyway, even though he knows he never would’ve tripped.

 

Alec doesn’t even smell soot until they’re stood outside the door of the top floor apartment, still crossed by an X of black-and-yellow caution tape. Magnus considers the key in his hand and hums, then presses his palm to the door, only to find that it swings open, left unlocked.

 

“That doesn’t seem secure,” Alec murmurs as Magnus ducks beneath the police tape, careful not to mess up his hair. Alec follows, the sleeve of his coat brushing against the door-frame; a smear of black charcoal catches on his cuff.

 

“If the police are finished here, I’m sure they don’t really care what happens now,” Magnus muses. “They’re not going to pay to see this place cleaned up, and I doubt any bill for restitution will pass through City Hall for months.”

 

Alec’s shoes crunch on the chargrilled carpet; he sucks in a lungful of ash. The walls are streaked with black, the paint seared away by fire to reveal the plasterboard beneath, and there’s rubble strewn across the floor, and it reeks of burned synthetics and wiring. A couch is pushed against the far wall, the upholstery melted away and distorted and its cushions either warped or violently ripped upon, their insides a sticky puddle of plastic dripping down through jagged tears in the carpet. There are books and old newspaper everywhere, but they’re all incinerated beyond recognition. The room is carnage , like a beast or a storm or both perhaps has careened right through, only inches from ripping straight through the walls as if they were paper.

 

Nothing about is says a superhero lived here - but what is Alec expecting? A cape hung up on the back of the door? A supersuit in the laundry basket? A mask looped over the end of a bed?

 

Exactly.

 

Magnus stands in the centre of the room and turns a full circle. His expression is too hard to read, so Alec can only watch. Magnus hums to himself, not a happy sound, and then, he whips out a pen from his coat pocket and begins scribbling furiously in his notebook.

 

Alec wonders what he sees, and what he sees that’s worth writing about. How it can be anything but some horrid and abstract destruction of a dead man’s house? Does he write about how the pattern in the couch cushions has been burned away? Does he write about how the television screen is smashed in where the boxset has crashed to the floor? Does he write that the smell of incinerated rubber would make Alec feel sick to his stomach, if he wasn’t already feeling queasy?

 

Does he write that, vigilante or not, the man who lived here must’ve done something terrible to warrant his apartment being torched and his blood let in the streets?

 

Something terrible . Alec clenches his teeth so hard his jaw throbs. Sometimes, in their line of work, something terrible is just existing.

 

He picks his way across the room towards one of the doors leading deeper into the apartment. The floorboards creak in betrayal beneath his feet.

 

Sometimes, something terrible is not having anyone to guard your back.

 

“Do you do this regularly?” Alec calls over his shoulder, his voice a little hoarse. He tries the knob of the door and it opens, but it paints his palm black.

 

“It’s not my preferred idea for a first date, if that’s what you’re asking,” Magnus replies, from somewhere out of sight. “Third date, maybe.”

 

Alec huffs, rolling his eyes, and pushes through into the next room. The door crunches against debris that has fallen from the ceiling. He tests the floorboards with the stomp of his foot; they creak again but do not break, and when he’s confident enough that the floor won’t give out from beneath him, he creeps forward.

 

The room he stands in now is a bedroom. The cover of the bed is singed and the sheets are browned, but it looks like the brunt of the fire burned in the front room, not here. The air is still stale, thick with dust particulates that Alec can feel gathering in his throat, but there’s an underlying smell that Alec can pinpoint all too easily.

 

He kicks back the duvet where it’s draped across the floor.

 

And sure enough, the dark brown mark in the carpet is blood.

 

There’s not that much, not as much as there was in the parking lot that night, but there’s enough for Alec to know this was no accident, no stubbed toe, no bitten tongue. There’s spatter too, arcing high across the headboard of the bed, clipping the edge of a picture frame that has been blanketed by a thick layer of ash.

 

Arterial spray, he suspects. Izzy would know. He doesn’t feel like he needs her to confirm it.

 

This was a hate crime. This was a murder. This could’ve been any one of a number of supers - vigilante or Corporate - and Alec doesn’t know how to stomach that, thinking about Izzy or Jace or even damn Nightlock lying throat-slit in that parking lot instead.

 

Alec’s fingers itch at his side and he curls them into his palms, squeezing hard until his bitten nails leave rough, crescent-shaped grooves in his skin. There’s something wriggling, digging its way beneath his cuticles and under his nails, rooting around below the top layer of his skin. It feels like fire. Just a small, single flame, yet still, it’s red-hot, blistering as it lances up his arm, excruciating as he grits his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut.

 

He should tell Izzy about this, tonight. He will tell Izzy about this tonight. He’s going to take a cab over to headquarters and grab Izzy from her lab and march right on down the hallway to slam this field report on his mother’s desk, and he’s going to ask what are we doing about this?

 

And his mother; she’s going to arch one eyebrow and frown at him, and ask back, what do you mean? This wasn’t in your briefing.

 

Alec exhales slowly, opening his eyes, and walks back out of the bedroom without a word. Magnus is still in the other room, inspecting the burn patterns along the edge of the ceiling with admirable diligence, but he glances back at Alec as he emerges.

 

“Anything?” he asks. Alec’s face is clearly pale, because then he adds, softer, “Alec … ”

 

“There’s blood in there, like the police said,” Alec murmurs, thumbing over his shoulder, his head ducked and his eyes trained on the floor. His footprints stand out on the carpet where the soles of his shoes have picked up all the soot.

 

“Not as much as in the street, and there’s no trail out here,” he adds, “If there was, I guess it was destroyed by the fire.”

 

“You’re probably right,” Magnus says, tapping his pen against his lips. He seems to drift away into thought, speculating out loud. “When I spoke to Luke, he was pressed to say whether the fire even happened on the same night as the murder. This could’ve easily been a cover-up and we would never know.”

 

Alec swallows thickly, plunging his hands into his coat pockets and hunching his shoulders. He stands as close to the only window of the room as he can, careful not to touch a thing.

 

“The fire doesn’t make sense,” he says below his breath.

 

“Are you an expert in fires now?” Magnus teases.

 

“No, I … it’s just what you said earlier, about no-one else noticing the fire. How did it not burn the whole building down?”

 

Magnus huffs. It sounds a little derisive. “I was wondering the same thing,” he admits. “The fire department were never called. I’m almost more curious to know who put out the fire than who started it.”

 

It’s a good question. Alec is wondering too. How does something this violent and destructive burn so well-contained?

 

But he’s not so sure he wants to know the answer.

 

It makes him feels tense all over, like his veins are pulled taut like puppet strings; his arms and legs won’t move as he wants them to, so he doesn’t move at all, despite how that blood stain shrieks at him from the other room.  

 

The window behind Alec is squalid, grimy with soot and smoke both inside and out, but the light from the street filters through: yellow, from the streetlamps; red from the tail lights of cars waiting at the intersection; and then white and neon blue from a sign across the way that reads Tobacconist , flashing with a the outline of a cigarette drawing smoke. The light pulses soft about the glass, softer still upon the warped furniture and the motes of ash and the sleeves of Magnus’ coat, but it’s unable to shake that cold and lonely and jittering unfeeling that the fire has left untouched in Alec’s chest.

 

Magnus moves around the room, following the scorch marks on the walls like he’s been here a hundred times before. Hell, maybe he has. Maybe he’s numb to it in the way Alec craves. He never once looks at the floor but always knows where to plant his feet and not stumble, as if on instinct. There are shadows to be sculpted out of his jaw, his thoughtful frown exaggerated by the blue and yellow glow. It catches in his eyes as he turns to find Alec still watching him.

 

He doesn’t say anything, not at first. He tilts his head, appraising Alec, or maybe appraising the way the light highlights Alec from behind, sticking to his coat like lint, casting a halo around his head that is comically out of place. He swallows up the sight of Alec surrounded by ash and a violent conscience, and that makes Alec shiver, because it’s too close to the truth, and that’s a truth about himself that he doesn’t want Magnus to be seeing.

 

He doesn’t want to look like he fits in amongst all this carnage. Maybe Magnus will interpret his brewing panic as something else.

 

Alec feels a little helpless beneath all of it, but it’s the weight of Magnus stare that he doesn’t know how to contain. Magnus looks too long.

 

Alec takes a breath. “Are you all done?”

 

“Yes, I think I’ve seen enough,” Magnus replies, although his brow does furrow. His mouth parts, as if he wants to say something more, but he decides against it. He slips his pen into his pocket and his notebook beneath his arm.

 

“Come on,” he says, “What do you say we get out of here?”

 

 


 

 

Rain splatters against Alec’s umbrella as he steps of the doorway, squinting up at the canvas as a particularly cold stream of water trickles down the back of his neck. Alec grimaces, but extends his umbrella over Magnus instead as he locks up behind them.

 

The rush of the downpour is loud and bleak, crackling on the sidewalk. An SUV speeds past, sloshing gutter water up across the kerb. Magnus scowls, stepping closer to Alec beneath the umbrella, his shoulder brushing Alec’s. There’s not quite room enough for the two of them so Alec takes a half-step back; the rain soaks into his other shoulder.

 

Neither of them says anything for a moment. Alec relishes in the cool of the night air, not quite fresh, but fresher than the apartment: it’s no longer steeped in smoke and the putrid stench of burned polyester. Something about four walls and close proximity always makes him antsy, even when he’s not dressed in full gear with a bow in his grip. Out of doors, he has room to run.

 

He’s not sure if he feels like running. His body moves slow and lethargic, like he’s wading through something he can’t see, but his muscles are aching with all the expending energy. He’s just not sure whether it’s that guilt again that he’s pushing through, or whether it’s the way Magnus’ eyes still linger, still trying to figure him out or offer him sympathy for all the wrong reasons.

 

“Would you like to go somewhere?” Magnus murmurs at his side. His shoulder nudges Alec’s again, and this time, it might be deliberate.

 

Alec glances at Magnus, but Magnus’ eyes are forward now, watching the rain bounce off the slabs of the sidewalk. He burrows into his trench coat, hands deep in his pockets.

 

“Go somewhere?” Alec asks, unsure.

 

This sort of proximity is jarring too. The walls might not be real, might not be tangible, but they’re made of other things, of human warmth. Magnus smells faintly of sandalwood; it’s the cologne he likes, and Alec has smelled it before and knows it now in passing, but he’s never stood close enough for so long as to breathe it in this deeply.

 

In fact, he’s not sure he’s ever stood this close to Magnus before. Usually, there’s Alec’s partition, or Magnus’ desk, or Heaven forbid, Simon Lewis , between them, a physical wall that Alec can count on to not let his thoughts wander.

 

This time, they’re squished side by side beneath an umbrella not nearly big enough for two people, and Alec doesn’t know if that scares him, or if he craves it more, because there’s always going to be that one part of him that longs to be seen before he has to explain himself with words.

 

At his side, Magnus huffs, maybe because of the cold. Maybe not. “I don’t really want to go back to the office,” he admits, “Do you?”

 

If it’s an opening, Alec’s not sure. He’s still stiff as a rake, a tension drawn out across his shoulder blades and taut in his knuckles where he grips the umbrella too tight, but he wasn’t sure that Magnus had noticed. Usually, people don’t notice.

 

Usually, people don’t notice him .

 

“There’s an Ethiopian place I know, a few blocks from here,” Magnus adds, “They do the best ful medames I’ve found in the city by far.”

 

When Alec doesn’t say anything, he continues, a little faster, “Or a friend of mine has a Mexican bistro, down in the East Vilage. Beautiful traditional food, family recipes, all home-cooked. We could split a cab -”

 

“I’m ... I’m alright. I’m just gonna - get the subway home.”

 

It sounds too harsh, the moment the words leave his lips, but he doesn’t regret it. Magnus blinks, looking up at Alec. Alec is not blind to the flash of surprise, and then disappointment, that parts Magnus’ mouth, before it’s quickly tucked away.

 

Magnus summons a smile instead. It’s soft, understanding, and a little resigned, but he nods like he gets it , even though he doesn’t get it, because the reason Alec looks so pale and queasy is not what Magnus thinks.

 

“Another time, then,” Magnus offers, and Alec smiles a tight smile that is hardly believable. He doesn’t want to sound rude, but there’s an itch gnawing at his hands and there’s soot beneath his fingernails, and all he wants is to go home and scrub his hands until they’re clean and the only blood swirling down the drain is his.

 

“I’m sorry,” says Alec. “It’s not that I -”

 

“No, no, I get it,” Magnus interrupts gently, “Not everyone is so desensitized to this sort of thing that they can step out of a crime scene and go straight to dinner. I didn’t think. That’s my fault, and I’m sorry.”

 

Alec bites his tongue. He can’t say anything; he can’t say actually, I’ve seen worse just as much as he can’t pretend like he could sit across a table from Magnus and decide which wine he wants to drink with supper, when he’s thinking about vigilante blood instead.

 

One doesn’t play well with the other, and Alec is forced to choose. He’s always forced to choose, and that choice -

 

Well, it’s always going to be the same.

 

Sentinel. Always Sentinel. Always Idris. Always … secrets.

 

An approaching taxi cab flashes its headlights at them and Magnus holds his hand out from underneath the umbrella to flag it down. It slows, pulling into the kerb, just as Magnus pops his collar against the rain.

 

“Well,” says Magnus, hesitating before he steps out into the downpour. He looks up at Alec again, eyes searching Alec’s face. Alec can only wonder what it is he sees there, and whether it’s worth anything at all. “Have a good night, Alexander. Stay out of trouble.”

 

“You too,” says Alec, “I’ll, uh - see you tomorrow?”

 

The inflection is there, right at the end of his sentence, that betrays a little too much hope. Magnus hears it, but, to Alec’s surprise, it draws out a smile on his lips. Dimples like quotation marks frame his mouth, but his smile is not crooked nor coy, not this time. Instead, it’s sweet.

 

Alec feels a little sick.

 

“Tomorrow,” Magnus agrees. He considers Alec for a moment, before patting his hand on the sleeve of Alec’s coat, and letting his palm run down Alec’s bicep, and that’s his kindled farewell. He turns quickly, hurrying out into the rain with long, swift strides, and ducks into the taxi cab amidst the flurry of his coat.

 

Alec watches from beneath his umbrella as Magnus leans over the partition to give the driver his address, and then settles back into the seat, unbuttoning the front of his coat with what looks like a slump of his shoulders.

 

The taxi’s blinkers flash orange in the dark, pulling out into the street, and Alec, too, feels his shoulders fall. Magnus doesn't look back, and soon enough, the red taillights dance away into the distance and the constant motion of the city. And then, his arm still burning from a simple touch, Alec is alone.   

 

He stands there for a while, just breathing in the ruddy petrichor, the way fresh rain is polluted by car exhausts and sodden cigarette butts, noxious before it hits the ground. The puddles on the sidewalk soak through his work shoes, not nearly as heavy duty as his Sentinel boots, and his socks and hems are already damp, a darker shade of grey than the legs of his pants.

 

He needs to go back to the office. His gear is still stashed in his locker there, and whilst the thought of traipsing back across the city to go and retrieve his stuff is a heavy, bruised cloud looming above his head, he knows he has to. He has patrol tonight, and tonight, more than all other nights, he has to be there.

 

He wouldn’t forgive himself if Jace and Clary found another dead man downed and Alec wasn’t there with them. He wouldn’t forgive himself if he could get there in time to stop it happening all over again.

 

Sighing heavily, Alec collapses his umbrella and shakes it off in the rain, even though it does very little to dry it. The rain slicks his hair to his forehead in a second, but the subway is only a few blocks from here, and Alec knows he’ll be quicker if he runs without holding his umbrella. He’ll be soaked on patrol later anyway, so what does he really care .

 

Truthfully, he should know better than to jinx it.

Chapter Text

"Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please –
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?"

— Ocean Vuong, Prayer for the Newly Damned

 

 


 

 

“You do realise this is meant to be an emergency frequency, right?” Alec deadpans, speaking into the radio sewn into the collar of his supersuit. His eyes scan the horizon, jumping from window to lit-up window, all empty beyond the soft blue glow of clunky computers powering down for the night. Not a soul moves above street level. Even the rain has faded, but the city still shimmers in it’s afterimage, refracting light in unnatural ways that keeps catching Alec out. He sees something there that isn’t there, a spectre in dream colour.

 

On the other end of the line, Izzy clicks her tongue and Jace barks a laugh.

 

Spoilsport ,” Jace says, and Alec rolls his eyes as he adjusts his quiver on his shoulder. He’s not sure where Jace is, exactly, but he does know they were meant to meet up half an hour ago and Alec is still alone on a rooftop on Lexington Avenue with cold, still-damp feet.

 

“If you two are constantly using the com for your gossip, no-one is ever going to hear when someone actually needs to get through with a real problem,” Alec says matter-of-factly. Even though Izzy and Jace are not in the same room - let alone the same side of the city - he can feel them exchanging that look of theirs that they have when Alec is being a stick in the mud, ruining their fun.

 

He’s used to it. It’s the bane of being the oldest sibling.

 

It’s a quiet night, Sentinel. Lighten up ,” says Jace.

 

And you’re acting like this is not an actual emergency? ” Izzy cuts in, circling the conversation back to that which Alec had just unfortunately interrupted. “ When Raj gets back to headquarters tonight, I’m gonna -

 

“All I’m hearing is how much you want to punch Raj, and not why you want to punch Raj,” says Alec.

 

Y’know that protection gig he had for that lawyer at that press conference the other week? ” Jace says. There’s a faint whirring on his end of the line, which might mean that he’s finally on the move. “ The News Corp guy who took out that big contract with Idris that Robert didn’t shut up about?

 

“What about it?”

 

The absolute moron formerly known as Raj thought it’d be smart to offer himself up as free real estate seeing as he’s getting paid so much. ” Jace laughs. “He’s started advertising his sponsorships. As in -

 

As in, Raj ruined the beautiful suit I made for him by sewing a fucking News Corp logo onto the back of his jacket like it’s some sort of cheap motorcycle leather and not my high-tech equipment!” Izzy exclaims . “He says he’s gonna start a collection. A collection! He’s going to look like Times Square on a Saturday night!

 

Alec rolls his eyes again. It sure sounds like something Raj would do, and at this point Alec needs to stop being so surprised.

 

He knows full well how fond Izzy is of her gear - as she so often cares to remind them - and even if Alec doesn’t quite understand her attachment, he does understand that wearing your clients’ logos around the city like a walking billboard is not only moronic, but asking for trouble.

 

Tonight, however, he’s far too tired for trouble. His hands are still itching from earlier and he hasn’t had the chance to clean away the soot he’d traipsed back from that apartment with Magnus.

 

Just you wait, Iz, ” Jace is saying, “Once all the dirty political money dries up, it’ll be McDonald’s hiring us out for corporate espionage next. Can you imagine Raj with a big yellow M on the front of his -

 

I swear to God, Jace, once I’m done with Raj, I’m gonna kill you too if you so much as put that idea in his head.

 

“Okay, okay, no McDonald’s. Burger King, on the other hand -”

 

“Jace!”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and then Alec remarks dryly, “Pepsi would probably look better on my suit.”

 

Jace howls with laughter.

 

If either of you ever come home with so much as a mark on your suits,” Izzy fumes , “I’m telling mom immediately that you’ve both been skiving missions and using your powers for good and she’s going to fire both of your asses .”

 

“You realise she would fire you too, right?” Alec points out.

 

It’d be worth it.

 

Jace is still cackling - Alec hears the telltale sound of him almost certainly flying into something he doesn’t see coming, probably a billboard - but Alec’s lingering smile doesn’t last for long. He can hear Izzy angrily tapping away at her keyboard on her end, but his eyes and thoughts drift back to the city below.

 

He’s in the affluent part of midtown where the skyscrapers are tall and the egos are taller, and the blue and white neon lights up the sky with an eerie, holographic glow that never fails to push Alec off balance. Cars crawl the streets far below, the red of their brake lights a long, winding tail that cuts and weaves through the intersections and dark alleys. The horizon leaks the ephemeral colour blue, but the underlying unreality casts a long retrograde shadow.

 

There’s a billboard a block east of Alec; he has a good view of it from here, all stars and stripes and sickening patriotism. An enormous photograph of Senator Herondale leers down at passers-by, stern and self-righteous; Alec has never known her to be a person who can manage a smile, even when she’s trying to encourage people to re-elect her to the Senate for a second term.

 

In big, bold, pulsating writing, the billboard reads: Staying Strict on Vigilante Crime: Herondale ‘92 .

 

The Senator has been one of Idris’ key clients for as long as Alec can remember. The contracts she takes out with them are always substantial, the pay packets generous, and the deference with which his mother and father treat her has always thrown Alec for a loop - but he’s not in  a position to question that.

 

He thinks about Raj advertising his clients as patches on his back, and then he looks back at the billboard and imagines all that red, white, and blue smeared across his shoulders.

 

Choosing to have something like that emblazoned on his supersuit feeling decidedly dirty. Or dirtier , at least, than the way they all fool themselves into believing that accepting under-the-table money to do these jobs is somehow better than advertising that they do.

 

Doesn’t really matter tonight. Alec feels filthy already.

 

“At what point do they start making us walking political campaigns?” he muses. The wind is picking up, rattling windows and making the neon shudder all around him. It muffles his words, but Izzy still hears him.

 

I’ll let you know after Raj gets back ,” she says, barbed. “ I’m gonna have words with him, I swear to - oh, hang on - Clary’s patching through. I’ll put her on this frequency .”

 

“Muse,” says Alec in stern greeting. There’s a moment or two where all he can hear is breathing, but then Clary’s voice trickles through. She sounds a little clipped.

 

Hey Iz, hey Sentinel ,” she says, “ Is Arkangel with you guys?

 

Over the river but en route to Sentinel, maybe twenty minutes away as the crow flies,” says Jace. Alec sighs audibly at the terrible pun he’s heard at least seventeen thousand times. “Why, what’s up? Where you at?

 

Empty lot up in Harlem . East 130th street ,” she replies, and Alec can already hear her frown and the way it scrunches up her nose. He tries not to think about how that’s only a few blocks north of where he was earlier this evening. It’s a coincidence. Must be. “ There’s, uhm - something weird here. Can anyone come take a look?

 

Alec’s closest ,” says Izzy, “ He’s on his way.

 

“Am I?”

 

Did I or did I not just threaten to get you fired? ” Izzy retorts back, quick as a whistle. Alec imagines her tossing her hair over her shoulder. “ Alec’s on his way, Clary. He’ll be with you in half an hour, if he runs. Which he will.

 

Alec mutters something below his breath about having to run all the way up town when Jace has a pair of fucking wings , but if Izzy hears him, she chooses to ignore him. Clary goes silent, and Jace clocks out as he decides to gain some altitude and the wind starts screwing with his coms.

 

Alec sighs, making his way back towards the zipline he has strung up between this building and the next. It’s a shame he can’t take the subway when he’s in his supersuit.

 


 

 

It takes Alec twenty five minutes to reach Clary, and that’s partially out of spite: if Izzy’s going to make him run, he’s going to show her that he can run faster than she gives him credit for. He’s petulant like that.

 

Running, too, has always been a sure-fire way to clear his head, too focused on breathing and the way the cold air hurts in his chest to fixate on much else. Maybe it’s not quite dealing with his problems, but it’s ignoring them, and sometimes that’s what he has to settle for.

 

The smell of Harlem is as he left it: petrol, tobacco, a late-night barbecue nearer to the river serving up the last of its fragrant sangria before the store closes for the night. There’s a faint ache in Alec’s legs by the time he slows to a jog on East 130th, but the cold sting in his throat in grounding. It takes more than that to leave him out of breath.

 

This part of town is a lot less neon, a lot less glossy, with dull and grainy street lamps illuminating the potholed pavement and abandoned syringes trampled into the dirt. Alec does not pretend like he isn’t scoping his surroundings, his fingers hovering about his bow. He spies an empty lot across the street and makes easy work of the padlocked fence by vaulting over it. The ground is rain-soft and muddy beneath his feet; brown rainwater splatters up against his calves and he sneers.

 

The empty lot is deserted and derelict, once a basketball court that has now been fenced off and left to overgrow with weeds worming through the cracks in the concrete. Now, it’s a square of dark shadow between three red brick buildings that block the light. Graffiti scrawls the brickwork and the wreckage of a dismantled car has been left to rust against the fence. The foul smell of burned rubber lingers.

 

Clary’s bright red hair is a beacon in the dark, but her supersuit is black and dark khaki green and difficult to spot, soft leather and lightweight suede where Alec has armour plating and thick Kevlar. As Alec jogs over, he can’t help but think her suit wouldn’t look so good with a Pepsi logo ironed onto the back either.

 

She’s crouched in front of an enormous structure of cardboard and corrugated iron leant against the crumbling brick of the building next door; the closer Alec gets, the more it become apparent that this may have been a homeless camp, but it has since collapsed upon itself.

 

Clary looks over her shoulder when she hears Alec approaching, and pulls down the mask that covers the bottom half of her face.

 

“Hey,” she says, but her eyebrows are still pinched together. Carefully, she straightens, brushing dust and wet gravel from her knees. “Thanks for coming.”

 

“I’m not here just to dig through trash, am I?” Alec remarks. His tone is not as biting as it used to be - not when she really was a newbie and stepped on his toes at every given opportunity - but he’s still learning how to break the habit. She takes it in good stride however, and Alec hopes she knows that he doesn’t always mean it.

 

Sometimes, of course, he definitely does.

 

“You really think I would’ve called for backup if I needed help sorting through someone’s recycling?” she retorts, but when Alec glances down at her, he sees that she’s not in the mood for teasing him.

 

Instead, her eyes are still fixed, quite severely, on the landslide of cardboard before them.

 

“There’s a body under there,” she says without pretence. Alec immediately sobers.

 

“What?”

 

“He was dead when I found him, I didn’t see what happened,” explains Clary. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together, as if trying to spark flint - it’s a pretty nifty trick of Izzy’s, these reservoirs of dark ink that are sewn into Clary’s long gloves that she can access with just a bit of friction - and then she rolls down her sleeve to expose her skin.

 

There are already a few marks there, other things she’s drawn upon herself tonight and since scrubbed away - but now, with her pointer finger, she draws the crude outline of something on her forearm. A moment later, and she’s holding a flashlight in her hand that wasn’t there before.

 

Muse. It’s the power of artistic creation. Anything she draws will come to life. Anything she imagines can be made real.

 

And it’s a useful power, something that not even Jace can compete with, but Alec’s not exactly about to tell her as much. She still has to earn that from him.

 

Clary clicks on the flashlight and its beam falls on the rubbish pile before them. Alec does not miss the way the earth is stained a darker brown in places; it’s not just the rain. Clary moves the torch around and the light catches on the edge of a sheet of iron slick with red. Alec knows the colour of blood to inherently to ignore.

 

And that’s when Alec sees it: someone’s bare foot sticking out from beneath a crumpled cardboard box. Mud and black soot are caked onto the sole, the toes scored raw with gravel burns and are those burn blisters? , Alec thinks, but it’s too dark to say. The distant smell of smoke irritates the inside of Alec’s nose; beneath the stench of rubber, something else has been burned. The stench is slightly sweet, slightly meaty.

 

Alec’s voice is unsure when he speaks again. He knows he sounds hesitant, even if he can’t afford to be.

 

“Did you already take a look?”

 

“I couldn’t move it all by myself and I didn’t want to summon some sort of forklift out of thin air to help me,” replies Clary. “Figured someone might notice.”

 

“That’s reasonable.” Alec tightens the strap of his quiver over his shoulder and adjusts his gloves. Deep breath. He has a job to do.

 

“Don’t get cut,” he then instructs, “Look out for sharps and needles, alright?”

 

They dig carefully through the rubble, Clary shining her magic flashlight over the both of them as Alec does the heavy lifting. It’s not as nasty as Alec expected, but after he’s tossed two or three sheets of corrugated iron to the side, the stench of cooling blood hits him with a rotten waft. He tries not to gag.

 

Clary’s nose wrinkles as Alec pulls away the last few damp sleeves of cardboard concealing the body from view. She exhales slowly, as if trying to temper herself.

 

“That’s a lot of blood,” she remarks. Alec does have eyes, even if he would rather not be seeing what he’s seeing right now.

 

Tonight, of all nights.

 

It’s not like he’s never seen a body; he’s seen his fair share of dead men and held more than his fair share of dying men in his arms. Poor souls pulled out of car accidents, dragged from the scenes of shootings, and hauled from burning buildings; Alec has dallied with other people’s death enough to know it well.

 

But it doesn’t stop the cold chill of familiarity from rippling down his spine and seizing in his gut. This is his second dead body in just as many months, but it will never become just another fact of life . And perhaps that’s for the best: the moment he gets complacent about death is the moment it becomes more than just a stain on the city he tries to protect.

 

A disease , he thinks absently. A plague. An epidemic, even. Magnus’ words.

 

Tonight’s dead man is old, but not too old; white, but not white enough for his death to ever reach front page headlines; and poor, judging by the state of his clothes and the patchiness of his beard. Alec would guess that he’s been sleeping rough for quite some time.

 

It’s not uncommon for the homeless to die on the streets: the city spares little sympathy for them, the governor even less. It’s a fact that grates on Alec’s nerves, but always as an afterthought, and that irritates him even more, because that only makes him part of the problem.

 

He’s seen stabbings before, muggings gone wrong, people getting killed for sleeping on the wrong front porch. Messy. Frantic. Violence imbued in panic and prejudice left unchecked.

 

But this is different. This man has a clean, swift cut across his throat, splitting open his vocal cords and severing his jugular almost from ear to ear. It’s neat and proficient, made with slow surgical precision. It’s purposeful. Premeditated.  

 

And Alec has seen it before.

 

“This is a murder,” he says plainly, taking a step back and squashing down the rummaging feeling inside his chest. He curls his fingers into fists at his side, squeezing tight. Clary looks a little green, but she’s trying hard to hide it from Alec. “Call it in. This is police business now, it’s out of our jurisdiction.”

 

“Have you … ever seen something like that before?” Clary asks instead, not doing as she’s told. “It … God, Sentinel, it looks like - a dissection -”

 

She leans as far forward over the body as she dares, using the end of her torch to lift up the edge of the dead man’s coat. A wallet still sits in his pocket and there’s a gold chain around his neck that should’ve been stolen if this was opportunistic in the slightest.

 

It’s not what Alec notices, no.

 

No, that’s the strange black singing along the hemline of the man’s clothes as if he’s leapt through a fierce-burning fire whilst running away from something else.

 

The burning smell is polyester. It’s flesh. Alec can taste it now.

 

What ... is this?

 

What the Hell is going on?

 

Alec swallows back the words in his mouth. He still hasn’t mentioned his last dead super to any of them, and now it feels too late. Izzy will have already read about it in the paper and she’ll make the connection without even blinking. And then, Alec will come clean because he can’t lie to her, and someone else will ask him why he didn’t say anything, and he’ll have to explain himself, explain the inoperable guilty feeling in his gut when he doesn’t even understand it himself.  

 

This man doesn’t look like a super , Alec reasons, looking back at the body. He’s not in a supersuit, he has no mask, and Alec doesn’t recognise him - although that doesn’t mean much. These murders are not related. This might be a hate crime. It might be an accident. His throat being slit is just a coincidence.

 

It has to be. It has to be. Why is he thinking about this? He has a job to do.

 

Alec presses his finger to his ear, activating his coms.

 

“Iz,” he says, his voice gruff. “We’ve found a body. Can you call the police to our location?”

 

Shit ,” Izzy says immediately, “ Of course, I’ll get right on it. What’s cause of death?

 

“Exsanguination, probably,” Alec says, “The throat is cut.”

 

I saw something like that in the paper the other day ,” Jace remarks, still elsewhere. Alec tenses. “ The paper you left in the locker room at HQ, Sentinel? You remember?

 

“Not really,” Alec lies, “Iz, could you … could you look into it?”

 

Sure ,” she says, “ Do you want me to call any particular police department, Alec?

 

Alec pauses, and almost says no , until he glances down at Clary again. He sees her turn her face into her shoulder and squeeze her eyes shut, a deep, shuddering breath trembling down her spine.

 

“Actually,” he says, “Call Luke Garroway at the 99th.”

 

 


 

 

Alec stumbles back home late that night, the clock on his nightstand goading him with quarter-to-four. He tosses his bow and quiver onto the couch as he traipses a trail of rain water through his apartment, dragging his feet along the creaking floorboards.

 

It feels like he’s been upright for days, if not weeks, in that his body hardly feels his own anymore, more a cadaver than anything living, breathing, and useful. His trip with Magnus to that burned-down apartment feels like a year ago, and the morning might as well be a world away for all he feels like he has aged since.

 

He strips down in his bathroom, throwing his wet armour and gauntlets into the tub, but then he stops. All the gears inside his body that keep him working just grind to a halt. Some cog in his mechanism catches. His body starts shaking. Won’t stop shaking. Alec’s hands find the sink bowl to steady himself, fingers clenched over the rim, and the breath pulled from him is quivering.

 

What is this? He’s not scared. It’s not panic. Maybe it’s fatigue, but even that he hates, because he shouldn’t be. He shouldn’t be fatigued. He’s trained for better.

 

He hangs his head between his shoulders, staring at the drain, but the jolts keep on coming, like someone’s jabbing him in the ribs with an electric cattle prod, each one catching him off guard. His body is too tired to do anything about it. His fingers press into the porcelain; he jerks forward again, his knee clunking against the undersink cabinet with a thud .

 

Maybe he’s just overwhelmed. That homeless man hadn’t been dead for more than an hour before he and Clary found him - or so the police said later over the radio as Alec listened in. If they’d been there earlier, if Alec had decided to patrol Harlem tonight instead of Midtown, if he’d gone to dinner with Magnus somewhere nearby, maybe he would’ve been in the right place at the right time -

 

No, he can’t think it. He’s coped with worse. This is nothing new.

 

So why can’t he cope with it now? Why can’t he fucking think straight?

 

Alec grips the sink tighter, but he doesn’t have the super strength, not like Lydia, to yank it from the wall.

 

Maybe he’s always been like this. Maybe this is what happens every time he’s faced with a death he could’ve stopped, every time the voice in his head says not good enough , and maybe he’s just been better at clamping it down, letting it take another knick out of him, ignoring it … letting it rot and fester and turn his insides black. Maybe he’s been letting it build and swell and slick up the inside of his throat and now he needs to expel it; his chest wants it out, his body wants it out .

 

Alec takes a steadying breath and raises his head to stare at himself in the mirror. He’s still wearing his mask, the leather slick with rain, but he rips it off and flings it into the bathtub with the rest of his gear.

 

His face is gaunt and his skin is grey, the dark circles beneath his eyes near purple. He looks hardly better than either of the two dead men he has come across recently - God, he looks terrible .

 

It’s not what bothers him. He doesn’t care how he looks. He cares how long he can keep this going until someone notices, because his mask can’t keep him safe all hours of the day.

 

 


 

 

Nobody notices him at work the next morning, but it’s no big surprise. Alec’s just another man in a suit a little too big and a tie a little too loose, dragging himself into the office off the last train he could take without being late.

 

Simon’s not in the office, his coat missing from the back of his chair, but today’s paper is already front-page-up on Alec’s desk, so either Simon has come and gone, or there’s some cruel onlooker desperate to revel in the way Alec bites down on his tongue until it stings.

 

Alec is something of a masochist. Jace and Isabelle tell him this regularly - and in good humour - but it’s hardly a joke when Alec slumps down at his desk and grabs the paper straight away, his eyes immediately drawn to the headline.

 

It’s about the election. The text reads: PENHALLOW SLIPS IN CRUCIAL POLLS, HERONDALE SEIZES KEY NEIGHBOURHOODS.

 

Alec’s shoulders sink further. It’s not about the dead man from last night at all, and why was Alec expecting it to be?

 

He flicks through the paper: the election coverage spans the first three pages, followed by an article about an AIDS crisis shelter looted by protesters, and a piece about Hurricane Andrew levelling Louisiana. Alec skims across the financials, and then - then , on page twenty three, he sees it. A tiny paragraph at the bottom of the page mentions the police being called to Harlem last night on account of a ruckus, and -

 

And well, that’s it. He reads the newspaper from headline to horoscope. There’s no mention of a body, no mention of a murder. The rest of the page is filled up with a story about how the WHO has officially declassified homosexuality as mental illness, but half the continental United States could still legally fire Alec from his workplace -

 

Alec clenches his teeth, as his grip tightens, until the newspaper in his hand crumples. There’s black ink on the pad of his thumb.

 

What did you expect? the voice in his head taunts him again.

 

Not this , he wants to plead. Not this .

 

In truth, he expected exactly this.

 

 


 

 

The morning passes in a grey haze. It’s not a blur, because Alec is all too aware of the tightness in his chest that makes it difficult to breathe, and the itch beneath his fingernails that makes him want to scrub his hands raw. There are only so many times he can disappear to the bathroom without it looking weird to his neighbours.

 

The skin on his hands hurts already, the backs of his knuckles dry and peeling where he’s used too much soap. He throws the newspaper in the trash, but then fishes it back out an hour later when his mind won’t stop racing; he tears out that paragraph on page twenty three and stuffs it into his wallet, even though he’s not sure what he’s going to do with it.

 

He feels like he’s been pulled thin, the length of him so tense and drawn that he would make a sound if plucked; every shift in his seat and flex of his hands on his keyboard emits vibrations, rattling in his bones.

 

His boss drops by his desk to ask how the audit is coming along, and Alec has to bite his cheek and just nod, because all the words in his throat are screwed up in knots and he doesn’t know how to get them out. He’s lucky, he supposes, because his boss long ago stopped telling him to smile, Lightwood , and now just accepts Alec’s scowl as a permanent fact of life.

 

Just before lunch, his leg starts tapping, his knee bouncing up and down so violently that he cracks his kneecap against the underside of his desk more than once. Alec’s eyes are only on the clock; he’s waiting for that minute hand to hit twelve. Because as soon as it does, he’s going to get up and grab his coat and sprint out of here - he doesn’t know where yet, but it doesn’t matter. Outside might be cold and reek of cigarette smoke and the same disappointment, but it’s an escape from the confines of four walls and an ever-lowering ceiling.

 

Alec only has thirty minutes for lunch. He won’t be able to get far.

 

Ten to twelve. Across the office, he hears Simon bundle through the door, laughing loudly at something one of the junior copy editors has told him. The sound wriggles under Alec’s skin, making him feel restless. He closes his eyes and sucks in a deep breath, his fingers twitching for his desk phone, wondering if he should just call Izzy.

 

But even then, what would he say?

 

The clock ticks too loudly on the wall. Simon’s laughter is too brash. The guy in the next partition eats his lunch at his desk and it smells strongly of curry. Alec’s gut churns.

 

Rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, he swears he can still feel the rough flake of soot and tacky blood on his fingertips.

 

Five to twelve. He could take his audit home for the afternoon, read through it with pen and paper, hunched over on his couch. He could take the rest of the day off sick.

 

Behind his eyelids, he can still see the foot of the man sticking out from that pile of rubble last night. The smell of singed skin -

 

His senses are in overload.

 

A polite, unassuming cough makes him open his eyes.

 

Alec blinks against the light. Leaning over his partition is Magnus, his eyebrows pulled down into a worried frown.

 

“Alec?” he asks. Maybe he’s already asked, and Alec didn’t hear him, judging by the look of confusion on Magnus’ face.

 

Alec says nothing. He just stares, forgetting how to talk. He must look like a prize idiot -

 

Magnus rounds the side of Alec’s desk and stops close enough for Alec to smell his cologne, both woody and powdery. He sets something down beside the keyboard: it’s warm and roughly container-shaped, wrapped haphazardly in tinfoil.

 

“What’s this?” Alec asks. His voice comes out more strained than he’d like.

 

Alec frowns at the tinfoil covered package, but it smells so good it makes his stomach growl. Magnus definitely hears it.

 

“I ordered too much takeout last night,” Magnus says, as if that explains everything. “I couldn’t bare to watch you poke at another tragic salad for lunch.”

 

Alec’s own frown deepens. “They’re not that bad.”

 

“That’s because you have nothing good to compare them to,” Magnus retorts. His eyes soften. He must see something in Alec’s grey complexion that summons pity, and honestly, it makes Alec feel a little wretched.

 

“It’s Ethiopian,” Magnus says, “I have more, in my office. Would you like to join me?”

 

“I -” Alec starts.

 

Magnus casts his gaze quickly around the office. Simon’s annoying laughter has disappeared.

 

“Looks like Simon already left for lunch,” Magnus muses. He turns back to Alec and switches on his smile again. It’s always been charming, but now, it's both warm and beckoning too, and a flicker of self-preservation deep down in Alec’s chest urges him towards it. He thought he’d lost that.

 

“Seeing as we didn’t get dinner together last night,” Magnus adds, and it comes out just a little pleading, as if he knows he can insist and Alec might just say yes this time, despite having said no so many times before. “I wouldn’t want you suffering in that God-awful cafeteria alone now.”

 

Is he pitying me or is he just being kind? Alec wants to ask how much of his sleep deprivation is evident beneath his eyes. But Hell, he knows the answer to that question already: he spent a long time staring at it in the mirror last night too.

 

It doesn’t matter. Alec looks terrible either way. Magnus probably doesn’t want to be seen in public with him, and at this point, Alec feels like he might vibrate out of his skin if he sits at his desk a moment longer. Lunch in Magnus’ office sounds like the best thing he’s heard all day.

 

“Okay,” says Alec.

 

Magnus’ double blink clearly means that he was expecting another no, but he recovers remarkably quickly. His smile broadens, somewhat delighted.

 

“Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Alec repeats. It’s more like a breath as he presses his hands into his thighs and pushes himself out of his chair a little too quickly. His mouth is dry, and that’s not normally a sign of fatigue or self-wretchedness.

 

Magnus blinks again. “Oh,” he says. He fights down this peculiar little smile and just about succeeds. “Okay. Excellent. I’ll lead the way.”

 

 


 

 

A whole pantry of Ethiopian food is spread out across Magnus’ desk, takeout containers full of curry and lentils, and tinfoil torn open to reveal thick-cut slices of sourdough bread. The smell of spices is warm and comforting - not overpowering - and it tickles at the back of Alec’s nose as he pauses in the doorway. He notices the two plates already laid out on Magnus’ desk, as if he were hoping for company even before asking Alec.

 

Alec throws a sideways glance at Magnus, but Magnus is pointedly not looking at him. If there’s colour to be found in his face, Alec isn’t quick enough to catch it - and Alec is so awfully quick.

 

“Take a seat,” Magnus says. He pulls out his chair, but doesn’t sit, holding onto the headrest as he watches Alec caught on the threshold between coming and going. Magnus inclines his head, nodding at the food. It does smell good. Alec’s stomach rumbles again.

 

“What … is it?” Alec asks cautiously, nudging the door closed behind him. He’s hesitant as he settles into his usual chair, hoping that his unease can be pinned to his lack of knowledge of ethnic food rather than everything else .

 

It’s not even half a lie. He really doesn’t know what he’s looking at, and he supposes Magnus was bound to find out how sheltered he is to the ways of the outside world sooner rather than later. His childhood in Idris wasn’t exactly a cultured upbringing.

 

“It’s called wat ,” Magnus explains, “It’s like a stew or a curry, some are meat, some are vegetable … I have a few, so you can try whichever you like.”

 

“No cutlery?”

 

Magnus laughs breathlessly. Some tension in his shoulders settles.

 

“Traditionally, you eat with your right hand,” he explains, “Use the bread, it’s called injera .”

 

Alec nods, sucking his lower lip in between his teeth as his eyes roam. Whatever is in the container closest to him - wat , Magnus called it - looks good, buttery, fragrant, and a vibrant ochre-yellow. It makes Alec’s mouth water, but he can’t bring himself to reach for it.

 

“Are you gonna join, or are you just gonna … stare ?” he asks.

 

Magnus laughs again, and it flips a switch in him; he moves to grab two glasses from his filing cabinet, pouring himself a generous whiskey and a water for Alec.

 

Something deflates within Alec that he hadn’t realised was pressing up against the inside of his chest; the air escapes his lips almost a whistle as Magnus settles into the chair opposite him.

 

Alec feels safe.

 

Is that the right word?

 

Why does it feel so fragile?

 

The door behind him is locked and no-one’s going to come looking for him. The city is kept at bay by this windowless room and, here, he’s tucked away from the outside world. The extent of this universe shrinks down until it’s just him and Magnus and the food on the table.

 

Alec tears away a strip of flat bread and scoops up a mouthful of yellow curry. He pops it into his mouth, messily enough that it smudges on the corner of his lips and gets all over his fingers, but he doesn’t even notice. The taste of saffron and buttery chicken – it’s heavenly. He murmurs his gratitude and across the table, Magnus smiles down at his food, his cheeks dimpling.

 

“Do you cook much?” Magnus asks.

 

“No, I don’t really get the chance,” Alec says around a mouthful. Most nights, it’s either a Pot Noodle after patrol or whatever he can scrounge in the Idris’ kitchens when he’s tired and cold and sleep-deprived, and that’s usually Izzy’s handiwork and irreparably inedible.

 

“No, me neither,” Magnus confesses, “I love this job but sometimes I wonder what my mother would say if she saw how many takeouts I eat because of it.”

 

“I’m pretty sure when I started here, I survived on coffee alone for the first two weeks. So you’re still doing better than me.”

 

Magnus smiles again, but it’s a little forced. His attention clings to Alec, deliberate and unshakable, and Alec’s leg begins to jitter.

 

“This … this is good though,” Alec says, low in his throat, “If you get to eat stuff like this every night, it’s not all bad -”

 

Alec’s sentence fragments, and he watches Magnus’ hands form brief churches around words before he says them - but Alec hears them coming.

 

“I want to apologise,” Magnus says.

 

Alec winces. “What … what for?”

 

Magnus rolls the words around on his tongue, pushing them up against the inside of his cheek. He waves one hand blasé through the air, but Alec suspects it’s not as nonchalant as Magnus pretends.

 

“For dragging you out with me last night to that arson,” Magnus says, “For getting you involved in all of this, because it’s not for everyone, and I do know that, and I shouldn’t have pressured you into this. So for that, I’m sorry.”

 

Alec blinks. He opens his mouth to protest, but closes it again. Blinks a second time. Restarts his brain.

 

“Wha - what?

 

He’s never claimed to be eloquent.

 

Magnus rubs his thumb and forefinger together incessantly. “It’s messy business and I don’t think I explained that to you properly when you agreed to help with this pursuit of mine,” he says, “And that’s on me, so I -”

 

“Magnus. Magnus, no .”

 

It’s Magnus’ turn to look alarmed, his eyes snapping up to Alec’s. His mouth parts with a note of surprise.

 

“I mean - I’m not - I still want to do this,” Alec backtracks, his face flushing warm, “You don’t have to be sorry for getting me involved, I wanted to be involved. I wanted to come with you last night, I just - I want to help .”

 

“Alec,” Magnus says pityingly.

 

“I’m serious,” says Alec, and he can feel the honest truth simmering in his belly, the smoke rising up his throat, the blood coagulating back on his hands. It’s a little bit dangerous and a little bit untapped, but there’s most definitely a part of him that just wants to spit it out: the truth.

 

He can’t, of course. He has to compromise.

 

“I just,” he murmurs, gesturing vaguely, “wish I could do more . I feel useless.”

 

Magnus’ eyes soften, his brows pinching up in the middle. His hand, resting on the tabletop, seems to twitch, as if he’s half considering extending it across the desk, encroaching upon the space Alec is usually so swift to bundle up to his chest.

 

He’s interrupted by the shrill ring of the telephone on his desk.

 

At the sound, Magnus snaps to attention, drawing his hand back so sharply it makes Alec wince. Magnus reaches for the phone with a heavy sigh, his gaze flicking to Alec just before he answers. Alec supposes it’s apologetic.

 

“Good afternoon, you’ve reached the office of Magnus Bane - oh, hello Dorothea -”

 

Alec’s shoulders fall and he’s not really sure why. He hunches forward and picks at his food again, taking another piece of flatbread and dragging a different foil carton towards himself, this one warmer and spicier, chilli flakes sprinkled liberally across the chicken. It doesn’t make it to his mouth; his hand falls to the wayside on the table.

 

Magnus is talking quickly to whoever is on the other end of the line - he’s familiar and cordial, a sprinkling of darlings that suggests he knows the caller well - and he uhms and ahs over whatever is being asked, but Alec can’t bring himself to listen. He stares hard at the food on his plate, but he’s not really focusing on it, not at all.

 

His leg is jittering beneath the desk again. He’s thinking about scratching at the back of his hands. His stomach growls, but he doesn’t want to feed it.

 

Alec knows his eyes glaze over.

 

He’s sitting here and pretending , whilst two men have died in the last few weeks, their throats slit, their bodies left abandoned in empty parking lots. Only one of them was a superhero, but violence predates this city and it’s putrid foundations, and he knows that – so it can’t be a coincidence.

 

He just can’t see how it all connects. He can’t do anything to help, because both men are dead, and he can’t do anything to stop it from happening again if he’s sitting here feeling like he just wants to slither out of his own skin. The clock on the wall is ticking down towards the end of their lunch break, and then Magnus is going to unlock the door: that’s when Alec is going to have to go back out there. Hell, he can feel that insidious dread beckoning beneath the door already, seeping in like black tar that sticks to the underside of his shoes and glues him to the carpet.

 

“Dorothea, darling,” Magnus says then, and it interrupts Alec’s thoughts, “It’s lovely to hear from you but I’m ... going to have to call you back.”

 

Alec looks up as Magnus places the receiver back in its cradle. Magnus stares at the phone for a prolonged moment, flexing his fingers in the silence, but then he turns to face Alec.

 

“Alexander,” he says without pretense, “Are you alright?”

 

No, not at all, and I don’t really know why , is the truthful answer, but that would beg a great deal of vulnerability that Alec doesn’t know how to bare - to Magnus or to anyone, really. He’s not even sure he can admit it to himself. Opening oneself up to that sort of scrutiny is terrifying, so Alec prefers to bury the shovel and batten the hatches. It’s always been easier this way, and even if it hasn’t, he has to keep telling himself that it is.  

 

But ... there’s something about Magnus that always demands a little honesty.

 

Alec’s not sure what it is exactly - the charming smiles, the whip-sharp wit, the disarming way he looks at Alec and Alec feels momentarily transparent because Magnus is no fool. He’s smart and quick and, as Alec has swiftly learned, has an unfathomable capacity for kindness.

 

And so, Alec finds himself upon a knife’s edge, with one side not talking about it, and with the other spilling his guts across the table. His body is afraid of teetering too far one way and falling . He’s always been afraid of slipping up. Making a mistake that he can’t recover from. The plummet to the ground. It’s a problem.

 

Magnus says nothing, but he watches Alec, his lips pursed into a flat line. Perhaps he sees the turmoil on Alec’s face; perhaps he doesn’t even have to go looking for it, because it’s as plain as day. Perhaps he already knows that Alec cannot talk about it, not this time. Maybe not any time.

 

For a moment, Magnus looks a little sad, but it passes in the way all rain should pass, in places other than this where storm clouds don’t smother them and plutonic downpours don’t drown them.

 

Magnus’ expression clears and he leans forward across the desk, seizing hold of the takeout container right in front of Alec. Alec blinks, opening his mouth to say something reflexive like hey, I wasn’t done with that , and it surprises him, because it’s a thought unbidden and not at all morose.

 

Magnus meets his gaze, deliberately bold, but his eyes tells Alec that he knows Alec is struggling, and if Alec cannot tell him something as simple as I’m okay , then Magnus can find other ways to keep vagrant thoughts at bay. It seems that he can touch places in Alec just by looking – and Alec is okay with that.

 

He’s … more than okay with that.

 

“Let’s eat,” Magnus says, “Before it gets cold.”

 


 

 

There’s a fire that night - some old warehouse on the quayside that’s been out of business for too many years to remember, and so no-one cares enough to save it from burning to the ground. Alec hears the dispatch call twenty minutes before he and Jace are due to return to headquarters for the night – so when Alec says he wants to go check it out, Jace gives him a look .

 

“What?” grumbles Alec, “We’re still on the clock.” We’re always on the clock .

 

“Look, Alec, I’m always up for a car chase or a bank robbery or, Hell - catching an arsonist whilst he’s still at it, but you heard the dispatch,” says Jace. “It’s been burning for an hour already and the fire department has it handled. It was abandoned, no-one’s hurt.”

 

Alec fixes him with a glare. Jace always likes to call it his hardass glare. Alec is rather good at it.

 

“Oh, come on,” Jace moans, “It’s almost two in the morning. Aline and Helen have the graveyard shift tonight, let them deal with it. I’m tired, wet, and hungry, and not in a good way.”

 

“How can you be any of those things in a good way - wait, nevermind.”

 

Jace grins and winks at Alec.

 

Alec rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to come with me,” says Alec, “I’ll see you back at HQ.”

 

There was a point, way back when, when Jace and Alec were far more green than they are now, where Alec would never volunteer to go off on his own, and Jace would be yapping at Alec’s heels to come with him, the glory hound that he is, but -

 

Well, they’re a lot older now, and Jace yawns dramatically, covering his mouth with the back of his hand, and Alec is a half-second away from impatiently tapping his foot. This is how it goes most nights. Jace is only ever interested when it’s exciting, and Alec can never find his own off-switch.

 

He supposes it’s somewhere near the switch that allows him to stop feeling guilty if he ignores dispatch calls like this, but he’ll be damned if he knows where that is either.

 

“Alright, I’ll see you at home then,” Jace yawns, rolling his stiff shoulders as his wings begin to whir. “You can tell Iz. Call me if anything interesting happens.”

 

“Yeah,” says Alec. “Fine.”

 

Alec doesn’t wait around to watch Jace disappear into the dark; the quayside is only a few blocks away. He’s quick and silent across the rooftops, swinging between buildings as little more than a vague shape in the night, the sort of movement that is only ever caught from the corner of one’s eye.

 

He stops on a roof opposite the riverside, where the vantage is good and the smell of salt water mixes with smoke. There are two fire engines still on the scene, but the firemen are rolling up their hoses, the ground slick with water and wet ash. The warehouse itself is blackened and nothing more than a derelict pile of steel bones and corrugated iron now, the roof completely caved in, but it’s neither smoking or cindering. It’s just a dark shape against the backdrop of the river, quietly rippling.

 

Alec inhales deeply. Not a petrol fire. He can’t smell gasoline. Maybe there was something flammable on the inside; packing peanuts do like to burn, almost as much as dried-out wooden pallets and old cardboard boxes.

 

Still a building made of metal doesn’t usually go up in flames as quickly as this place clearly did. Someone wanted it to burn, and burn fast. Alec squints into the dark, but it’s hard to make out details when everything is incinerated black and the bright lights of the fire engines are disorienting at best.

 

No-one was killed, as far as he knows. Dispatch is quiet and he cannot see any ambulances. There was no-one inside - which is a momentary relief, because these abandoned buildings on the quayside are usually hot real estate for squatters and teenagers out past curfew - but if the fire was hot enough, Alec supposes no-one would ever know if someone had been unwittingly cremated.

 

That’s a sour thought.

 

Alec’s gut clenches and he presses his mouth into a flat line, willing himself to forget it. He doesn’t want to think about that.

 

It’s far more likely that someone wanted to get rid of evidence - and there’s no better way than to turn it into ash. Or better yet, maybe someone was just bored and their idea of a kick is a spot of arson on a work night.

 

Alec watches a police officer lash crime scene tape across the front of the building before he drives off into the dark in pursuit of the fire engines. Alec waits a moment - a moment that probably stretches out into fifteen or twenty minutes of silence - before he clips his grappling rope to the edge of the roof and abseils down the face of the building. His feet are soft when he lands and a short, swift tug on his rope has it retracting into his hand with a hiss.

 

All the overlooking buildings are office blocks, but Alec has a cursory glance at all the windows, just to check for an nosy onlookers peering out from between the blinds - he finds none. The night is quite still.

 

He jogs across the street and ducks beneath the yellow tape, the soles of his boots quickly slick with wet charcoal. He leaves footprints in the blackened ground. The stench of melted plastic and hot iron is acrid.

 

Buildings and brickwork don’t burn this well on accident.

 

It’s easy enough to find his way into the warehouse - or what’s left of it - and the burned metal sings quietly in the beginnings of a drizzle, which will soon escalate into white noise if Alec lingers too long. He’s careful to lift his feet over felled steel beams and duck beneath charcoaled timber, ash dusting his hair and mask, but it’s when he pushes his shoulder against the remnants of a door, that something above him gives with a sickening crack .

 

Alec freezes. He slowly lessens his weight on the door and takes a half-step back. Again, the ceiling shifts above him, a groan and a creak and then a loud boom that shudders all the way down his spine. The sound has nowhere to echo. It seizes in the small of his back, his whole body rigid. A breath is held at odds in his throat; he doesn’t quite catch it. The air vibrates, and above him, below him, all around him, metal shrieks as it bows and bends beneath the weight of building.

 

Alec takes another step back, sliding his feet back in the footprints he’s already made, but whatever is left of the roof seems Hell-bent on collapsing. Another step back. His heels catches; he clips an electrical wire yanked taut by the destruction. The whole building trembles around him.

 

“Fuck,” he grits between his teeth. Black rubble tumbles from the ceiling, dust motes mushrooming around him in the dark.

 

Alec takes a third step back and his foot goes straight through the floor; he stumbles to the side, catching himself with palms pressed into a pile of debris, and it’s the ceiling that gives way, an enormous slab of slate roof piercing through the tiles above with a crash.

 

Alec is quick - quick enough to roll out of the way - but there’s a spike of pain in his knees and palms and he chokes on a mouthful of soot. Coughing into his elbow, he looks up, eyes tearing, but the shard of the roof that has struck through the ceiling is - well, it’s floating .

 

Alec’s hand snaps to his bow. He knows he’ll be hard-pressed to draw an arrow in such close confines, but -

 

- all he’s met with is a familiar and disembodied laugh.

 

Nightlock .

 

“Not funny,” Alec grumbles, pulling himself to his feet and dusting his suit down. His gloves are smothered in ash and it makes little difference. He glares daggers at the caved-in ceiling, but holds himself stone still.

 

“I just saved your life, and that’s how you thank me?” comes a voice from out of the gloom.

 

Alec’s senses prickle, the air crackling as it always does when Nightlock is close, but Alec feels it on all sides, turning in a full circle as he searches for his shadow.

 

“You didn’t save my life,” Alec scowls, “I had it under control.”

 

Footsteps to his left. Alec turns sharply as Nightlock ducks beneath a fallen beam, his smile lopsided and irritatingly handsome. There’s a devious glint in his eyes, despite the darkness.

 

“Says the man who was moments away from being sliced neatly in two,” Nightlock says as he rolls his wrist, curling his fingers in the air for show, and the large slab of roof is carefully lowered to the floor. The ground is too wet for it to kick up any dust.

 

Alec drags his stare from the black smear he’s left on the floor to Nightlock’s face. “What are you doing here?” he asks.  

 

“Same reason you are, I suppose,” says Nightlock, still smiling. “I overheard the call on the emergency frequency and I came to have a look. I wasn’t following you, if that’s what you’re implying. Believe it or not, I have better things to do with my time.”

 

“It’s an abandoned building,” Alec says, eyes narrowing, “And no-one was hurt or killed.” He thinks of Jace. “It’s nothing … exciting .”

 

“Exciting?” Nightlock scoffs. He purses his lips into a pout. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised that’s how the Corporates decide what is and isn’t worth their time.”

 

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

 

Hmm . Yes, you are.”

 

Nightlock takes a step forward as Alec takes a step back – but Alec quickly realizes that Nightlock’s attention is no longer on him. Nightlock is scanning the room, eyes dancing across the gaping hole in the ceiling where the night and the rain sprinkles through, but he ends up frowning at something over Alec’s shoulder.

 

“Arson has been on the rise lately,” he says slowly. There’s a very dark mark just above the doorway, burned deep into the wall like a violent and explosive scar. Nightlock steps past Alec to get a closer look. He waves his fingers and some of the soot lifts from the wall, particulates suspended in the air.

 

Alec tries not to be impressed. “What is that?” he asks instead, “That mark?”

 

“Ignition patterns,” replies Nightlock, “Where the fire started, most likely.”

 

Alec frowns. He’s had this conversation before. He’s had it in a different room, in a different flat, on a different side of the city. He’s had it with Magnus. This is one fire too many; the thought nags. The anaphora is not lost.

 

“This wasn’t a petrol fire,” he says slowly. “You’d be able to smell it.”

 

“Indeed,” agrees Nightlock. The strange scar twists in an erratic pattern across the wall, from floor to ceiling and back again. “And these are high up on the wall ... if someone had used gasoline to start this fire, they would have poured it on the floor.”

 

“What did this then?” Alec asks, “An electrical fire? There are probably wires in the plasterboard … or what’s left of it.”

 

“Probably,” says Nightlock. “ Hopefully . The alternative is … not particularly savoury.”

 

“A flamethrower?”

 

“Yes. But … perhaps not in the traditional sense.”

 

“Oh.” Realisation dawns on Alec. Ironically, it’s brutally cold. “A super.”

 

“Could be,” says Nightlock, “An elemental, maybe. A pyrokinetic. Thermodetonation or heat vision might also do this.”

 

“I’ve not heard of any pyrokinetics in the city.”

 

“What about at Idris?”

 

Alec fixes Nightlock with a glare, but Nightlock holds firm and fast, not blinking. He’s entirely serious.

 

“None at Idris either,” Alec scowls. “That’s a dangerous power in the wrong hands.”

 

“All powers have the capability to be dangerous,” Nightlock retorts, “Fire might be physically destructive, but it’s also loud and unsubtle. I’m sure a well-placed arrow can be both silent and deadly in the wrong hands too.”

 

“Well, what about all your-” Alec waggles his fingers in the air. “-stuff? You could probably cause a fire ... if you wanted to.”

 

“Good thing I don’t want to , then,” Nightlock mutters, before adding, “My powers don’t work like that, anyway.”

 

Alec can’t help himself. “How do they work?”

 

Nightlock’s brief laugh is dry and mocking and it makes Alec tense up.

 

“Why would I tell you that?”

 

“Forget it then,” Alec grumbles, turning away to inspect the wall where the scorch marks spread. There are scars criss-crossing over one another, some carved out and creviceal, others shallower but more tattered around the edges. Fire rarely has the patience for the things it burns, and these - oh, these look like war wounds left to fester.

 

Nightlock, however, isn’t finished. The air fizzles as he takes a step towards Alec. He feels Nightlock’s eyes focused upon his cheek, but wills himself not to look. Nightlock is presented with his face in profile, fuzzy around the edges in the gloom.

 

Alec can feel Nightlock searching his face, scrutinizing every tiny twitch in his jaw, every single one of Alec’s tells that he’s not even aware of, but that undoubtedly give the truth away.

 

“If I tell you,” Nightlock says slowly, “will it end up on my permanent record at Idris by the time you get back to headquarters tonight?”

 

Alec snaps to look at him, both incensed and appalled. “What? No . Of course not!”

 

“Once you know how something works, you can start figuring out how to make it un work. Which is not something I would put past Idris.”

 

Alec opens his mouth to retort, but no words come out. Nightlock continues.

 

“Idris doesn’t like vigilantes, Sentinel. We both know that. Who’s to say they

aren’t experimenting down in the sublevels with vaccinations to mutate our powers, or designing armour and weapons that will render our defenses obsolete?”

 

“I wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Wouldn’t do what?”

 

Alec stills. The silence stretches so long between them that he’s sure Nightlock will think he’s not going to say anything and turn away, because Hell, Sentinel’s a damn Corporate who talks before he thinks - but Nightlock’s gaze doesn’t waver. It summons honesty out of Alec’s chest, tempered one moment, and bubbling forth the next.

 

“I wouldn’t - I wouldn’t tell them about you. I wouldn’t sell you out to Idris just to get a leg up on you. I wouldn’t do that. I … I was just -”

 

“Curious?” Nightlock’s mouth quirks, a thin dimple appearing at the corner of his lips.

 

“No,” Alec says instinctively, the back of his neck warming, but then, “ … Yeah. Yes.”

 

Nightlock’s teeth clip his lip as he turns away. But Alec catches a glimpse of it, Nightlock’s sudden smile, before he reigns it back in, and Alec finds that it is a rare spell of a thing. He smiles like his has pennies hidden in his cheeks.

 

“As the saying goes,” Nightlock says, “I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours?”

 

Alec scowls but cannot hold it; he betrays himself, his own half-smile in the dark. He looks away so Nightlock can’t see it either.

 

“That doesn’t really work in this case,” he murmurs.

 

“No, no, you’re right,” says Nightlock. He moves his hand through the air, curling his fingers into his fist, and above their heads, the hole in the ceiling slowly peels back at the edges. No moonlight pours through - the clouds are too dense for that - but the soft and eerie glow of the city casts the destruction around them in a chalky haze. Shadows finally pool again on Nightlock’s face, illuminating his expression as he spins on his heels to face Alec. The look in his eyes is both star soft and star bright, even though the sky is hidden.

 

“What do you want to know, Sentinel?”

 

Alec blinks, half-convinced he has whiplash with how fast Nightlock has changed his tune. The question still remains suspended in the air, a pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth, waiting for Alec to catch it; for a clock to chime and tell him it’s gotten too late, it’s time to go home, the night is too dark; that he’s treading too close to a line that Idris would scold him for.

 

Nightlock is offering him an olive branch that Alec probably doesn’t deserve and definitely hasn’t earned, and it’s a vulnerability that he doesn’t have to permit Sentinel to see, yet still, he does.

 

Alec realises, belatedly, that he must handle it with care.

 

He nods towards the doorway. They don’t need to have this conversation here, not when all Alec can smell is soot and wet smoke that reminds him of worse things.

 

 


 

 

Sentinel lets Nightlock lead the way to the quayside, right on the bank of the river where the water laps up against the brick some twenty feet below them, a quiet hiss and splash that seems at odds with the distant thrum of traffic that rumbles, as always, through the earth. Nightlock leans up against the railings, his gaze skipping across the water like a stone, and Alec is careful to step to his side, a cautious foot of space between them. He folds his arms on the railings too, but does not let his eyes linger on the white spine of light pulled taut across the bay from Jersey.

 

“So,” says Nightlock after a moment.

 

“So,” Alec repeats, in like. They’re hidden from the street by the ruins of the warehouse, shrouded in deep shadows and the very lateness of the night. But still, Alec’s hackles are raised, his body still tense, back pulled taut like a bowstring. He listens for the sound of any approaching footsteps, and even though he finds none, he still feels restless.

 

Nightlock clears his throat. “Your friend, the blondie,” he begins, “I’ve been assuming he has some sort of psychometric reflexes? The flying is surely just for show.”

 

“It’s adoptive muscle memory,” Alec admits, “If he sees something done once, he can do it straight away. It’s … it is what it is.”

 

“Hmm,” Nightlock muses, “Incredibly handy and downright irritating?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

“And you - do you have any other hidden talents beyond your bow and arrows?”

 

Alec shrugs, but his shoulders hunch. “Enhanced accuracy and reflexes,” he says stiffly, but then sighs. “It’s not quite as … exciting, I guess. I’ve been training all my life to be half as good as Arkangel in combat.”

 

“I don’t suppose the genetic lottery is ever fair,” Nightlock murmurs. He turns so that he’s facing Alec, his elbow leant on the railing, and his considers Alec with a small frown.

 

Ingenuously, Alec blinks again.

 

“Do you know what energy manipulation is?” Nightlock asks plainly.

 

“Yeah,” says Alec, “Is that what you do?”

 

Nightlock nods with a hum. He considers his hand again, flexing and unflexing his fingers.

 

“It’s easier to let people think it’s telekinesis,” he says, “Easier and safer. Better if people are wrong about me, because they can’t make contingency plans. Kinetikinesis is probably closer to the truth of the matter.”

 

“So you can control kinetic energy?”

 

“Control, shape, manipulate, as long as I can create or at least transform it,” Nightlock explains, “It’s easier to generate my own kinetic energy and use that, but I can transform heat and light too. Not so useful when you live in a city where it’s always raining, but beggars cannot be choosers.”

 

“Does it work with other types of energy? Like … sound energy? Chemical energy?”

 

“Well, sounds like someone paid attention in high school physics class,” Nightlock laughs a little ruefully, smiling to himself, but his face sobers after a bare second. “You know what, sound is something I’ve never tried, but chemical energy, yes.” He gestures at himself, down the length of his body. “I do have a store of it, after all. For when times get desperate.”

 

Alec doesn’t get it right away, but when he does, he knows his eyes widen and his mouth parts on instinct. He looks at Nightlock, and then snaps his gaze immediately back to the water, his fingers curling around the railing.

 

“Oh,” is all he says. Nightlock can turn the chemical energy stored in his body into kinetic energy. That’s what he’s saying. He can quite literally use his life force to supplement his powers, and that -

 

That sounds terrible. Using his powers to help people, whilst at the same time, it hurts him just as much - Alec’s chest twinges.

 

“Have you … ever had to do that before?” he asks before he can think better of it.

 

Nightlock’s smile softens and he glances back out across the bay, some other memory licking at his heels. It’s hard to tell from his face whether it’s pleasant or not.

 

“Once or twice,” he admits.

 

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

 

“Oh, probably. It leaves me with the worst hangover, it’s utterly vile. Which is why I usually just stick to the kinetic manipulation.”

 

“Huh,” Alec murmurs, but he says nothing else. Water laps against brick somewhere below his feet, black and deep and unending. On the horizon, bleary lights wink at Alec and the soft blue glow of the city seeps into the clouds, blending with the drizzle. The rain collects on Alec’s mask and mists against the prickle of his jaw.

 

He thinks again of the dead super from the parking lot. He thinks of the man Clary found, with his throat slit beneath that pile of rubbish and refuge, blood seeping into the ground still sticky. He thinks of all the newspaper clippings Magnus had laid out upon his desk that first night when Alec went to him, looking for - looking for what? Solace? Forgiveness? Escape from this constant feeling of being adrift at sea, tossed and turned by the same gentle lapping of the waves as he struggles for balance, even if he never quite falls?

 

He closes his eyes, even though he shouldn’t. He has his back to a crime scene, and his hands folded on the railings and not on his bow. There’s a man at his side he doesn’t know enough - and still, he closes his eyes.

 

Nightlock doesn’t move, but the threat is still there. With a click of his fingers, he could reassemble the warehouse behind them, he could forge a path through the water, he could lift Alec off his feet and incapacitate him. He doesn’t, but he could, and Alec feels it, feels it in the way the air still shimmers whenever he’s near, light and heat and kinetic energy pulled and pushed around according to his gravity, whether he wills it or not.

 

And what can Alec do? Alec can fire an arrow and hit a target. Comparatively, he is powerless.

 

Helpless.

 

Useless.

 

It’s not new information and it doesn’t hit him like a winding punch because his body is already bruised by it. Twenty years bruised, he supposes. You can’t save everyone .

 

( But maybe you could, if you were better .)

 

The question he wants to ask comes to him at last and interrupts the quiet. It’s the one that he wishes he could’ve asked Magnus over lunch, but the one he didn’t know how to phrase.

 

It comes easier now.

 

“Do you think,” Alec says, his voice barely above a whisper, “you can save people with that power?”

 

Nightlock doesn’t even hesitate.

 

“It’s not power that saves people.”

 

Surprised, Alec blinks, but it contorts into a surly frown as he looks at Nightlock. “Well, what is it then?”

 

Intention .” Nightlock’s gaze roams and it lingers on Alec, the hard set of his jaw, the coolness in his eyes; he picks his words carefully. “I think that matters just as much, if not more. Power with bad intentions leads to hatred on the streets, to people dying, to … warehouses being burned down late into the night for no apparent reason.”

 

He pauses again to read Alec’s expression; it’s probably more telling than Alec realises. Alec feels acutely vulnerable despite all his armour and leather. His mask feels thin and flimsy, and he doesn’t want Nightlock to look, he doesn’t want Nightlock to see ; and yet he’s still overcome by this incomprehensible, morbid need to sink his fingers into his chest and tear it open. To bleed out into the rain, the blood-on-his-hands be damned. At least it’ll be his own.

 

He wants to wrench a hole in himself so that someone might be able to see all the way through, or so that the sparse light of dawn might seep all the way in, should he still be awake to see it when it rises.

 

He is neither so strong nor so lucky.

 

Instead, Alec mutters, “Power with good intentions seems to lead to all that anyway.” He grits his teeth, curling his fingers into his palms, wishing he could feel the bite of his nails against his skin. His gloves are too thick, too well made for that. “People have been dying and I can’t do anything about it with a bow and arrows.”

 

“And you think Arkangel can do any better flying around the city like a hooligan? You think I can do any better with a snap of my fingers?”

 

“ … What?”

 

“Do you think my power makes me any more capable of saving people's lives than yours?”

 

Alec feels a little bit stunned.

 

Well, yes, he wants to say. Yes, obviously. Look at what you can do. It’s amazing. It’s terrifying. It’s so much more than me.

 

Nightlock’s stare is unequivocable; it doesn’t flinch. Alec feels pinned by it, nails through his hands and feet. Yes is not the right answer here.

 

“I’m in the same boat as you,” Nightlock says, and though his voice is softer now, it still bares an edge of frustration, the same one Alec cuts himself upon so diligently. “We’re both at a loss here, Sentinel. We’re both one step behind whatever is going on here, we’re both picking up breadcrumbs that have been scattered by the wind. We’re both arriving too late to help people who are already dead, and what use are any powers then?”

 

He takes a step nearer to Alec and Alec tenses. Nightlock’s eyes are so sharp, so focused, that Alec fears he must see right through him, no bloody wound needed.

 

“Don’t judge yourself so harshly, Sentinel,” Nightlock says. “You have a good heart.”

 

Alec’s breath lodges in his throat. He stares at Nightlock, bewildered, but Nightlock doesn’t lose his balance. He says what he means. He’s not lying to Alec. He’s not saying it just for the sake of saying it, to comfort a man he shouldn’t be comforting, who has done nothing to deserve kind and reassuring words.

 

Alec is a Corporate . Nightlock should want him judged. He should want Alec to hold himself accountable and lose sleep, to hate himself for things both beyond and not beyond his control. Does Nightlock forget that?

 

How can he forget that?

 

Alec says nothing. Nightlock hums, and maybe he’s pleased with himself, or maybe he’s just said what he needs to say and since Alec hasn’t protested it, that’s enough. He turns away from Alec to watch the water, caught easily by the way the waves catch the light of the city upon their crests.

 

Alec keeps his mouth shut. A strange feeling gathers in his chest, far different to the tormented one that swirls in his gut. This feeling is calmed, like someone has placed their hands over his ears and over his eyes, and the world around him has been muffled.

 

Perhaps, it’s comforting, however fleeting it might be. Alec’s not so sure, because it bleeds across the line drawn inside of him, that one that divides Sentinel from Alec, polluted by his guilt.

 

 


 

 

Good intentions are more important than sheer power .

 

Alec wakes the next morning with this singular thought, but it’s not reassuring. His mind is quiet but the thought is loud, and he repeats it over and over again to himself as he brushes his teeth and dresses for work on autopilot, navigating the subway with a cheap coffee clutched in his hand, and sliding into his office chair with little more than a grunt to his neighbours in greeting.

 

He stares long and hard at his computer screen but he doesn’t read any of the words. There are emails to address and an audit request from his boss waiting in his in-tray, and at some point in the morning, Simon drops a newspaper on top of his monitor; on page three, Alec finds a brief mention of the warehouse fire from last night. There isn’t even a photograph.

 

By the time six o’clock rolls around and the office has all but emptied for the night, Alec knows he’s been staring at his screen for a good few hours without doing anything, his fingers seized, crooked over his keyboard.

 

How long did he stay out with Nightlock last night? He’s not entirely sure; he thinks about the energy scuttling between Nightlock’s fingertips instead, how he had distorted the water and peeled back the hole in the roof with just the curl of his palm. He thinks about the way Nightlock had looked right through him, the sincerity in his eyes upon admitting that he still struggles with the same thing that Alec does: uselessness . He thinks about the silence after that, how they had stood overlooking the bay until dawn had slunk along the horizon, not saying a word, a strange and strengthening peace settled between them.

 

And here, Alec thought he hated him. He was so sure that Nightlock wasn’t someone to be trusted, wasn’t someone who could remotely understand Alec and his Sentinel struggle. A Corporate and a vigilante, working together, it should be odd. Hell, it should be laughable, and maybe Alec knows a handful of people who would laugh, but -

 

Alec finds he doesn’t hate Nightlock. Not like he thought. Maybe not at all, because how can he hate someone striving for the same goal as him -

 

“Earth to Alexander?”

 

Alec’s head snaps up, sharp enough that Magnus, on the other side of his partition, blinks in surprise - but Magnus collects himself with a bright smile. He looks tired, but he wears it well, like today, for once, it’s not a burden, but the remnants of a night well spent.

 

“Are you free tonight?” he asks. In his arms, he clutches an impressive stack of manila folders; his biceps strain at the fabric of his shirt as he adjusts them in his grip. Alec’s brain short-circuits and white noise lances through his ears. He feels a little breathless, a little lighter than before.

 

It’s certainly enough for him to forget his train of thought.

 

“Luke Garroway sent over some more witness reports on the arson cases,” Magnus continues, frowning at Alec’s blank face. “I thought we might take a look through them tonight - Alec?”

 

“I’ll, uh -” says Alec quickly, and Magnus can only smile perplexed. “Oh yeah. Yeah, uh no, that sounds good. Great. I’ll be right there.”

 

 


 

 

Staring at police records is no different to staring at his computer screen, Alec discovers. In fact, it’s probably worse because all this talk of arson makes it that much easier for Alec to replay last night’s conversation with Nightlock in his head.

 

Magnus is focused, as he always is, flicking through files across the desk from Alec. There’s this perplexed pinch between his brows that would distract Alec on any other day.

 

Alec’s thoughts, however, are a mile away.

 

Or, well - about three and a half miles away, at that warehouse fire last night, and then further north, up in Harlem, with two dead men whose murders make no sense and keep him up at night.

 

Can good intentions really make a difference?

 

Alec doesn’t know. So rarely do people in his line of work have things as noble as good intentions. It’s taken him so damn long to notice.

 

But more importantly, can good intentions make a difference when the end result is still the same: two people dead on Alec’s watch - and doesn’t Alec deserve to take the heat for that, no matter how noble his cause?

 

Alec’s hand tightens around his pen; the plastic splinters, but Magnus doesn’t notice. Across the desk, he keeps writing, his cursive fluid and basically illegible, making notes next to a transcript that goes on for forty pages. He taps the nib of his pen against the paper in thought, his mouth forming a taut line.

 

Magnus has good intentions. That’s something Alec does know, something that is indisputable, something Idris and senators and self-preservation have no bearing on.

 

Magnus truly does have more good intentions in the tip of his pinkie finger than Alec has in his entire body and Idris, in its whole institution.

 

Magnus has the best intentions and he has them in droves and he needs no superpowers to harness them either. He does good without being able to manipulate energy in his fingertips, shoot fire from his palms, or fly . He doesn’t need a bow and arrows. He doesn’t need any of those things.

 

That is something Alec does know.

 

How does Alec go about borrowing something like that? How does Alec go about taking something like that and not giving it back?

 

Does Idris have good intentions?

 

That’s far less clear. If Idris doesn’t have good intentions, then by proxy, nor can Alec, because he’s working in their interests. That’s also something he knows, and it’s a painful thought, isn’t it, to wonder if he can ever really claim to be doing good when he’s only following orders.

 

He has no choice; he has to do right by Idris because … what other option is there? He’s said as much to Magnus before, here in this office, on another late night hidden away from prying eyes, just like this.

 

Alec doesn’t know how to do anything else but this. He’s only ever known Idris. He doesn’t know how to strike out on his own, without rules and regimen guiding his arms and legs like puppet strings. He doesn’t know how to make his own choices, because what happens if his own intentions are bad – and then what happens if he never realises in time?

 

Hell, what does Idris even do to deserters?

 

Alec doesn’t know. There haven’t ever been deserters, other than Valentine Morgenstern, and look how that turned out. It’s stupid to think about.

 

“Penny for your thoughts?”

 

Alec looks up, blinking back to reality. Across the desk, Magnus has stopped writing and Alec flushes.

 

“Uh - what?”

 

“You’re very quiet tonight. Something on your mind?””

 

Alec can read the concern in his face, the same as yesterday. Not pity, just kindness. It makes Alec blush and feel mostly like an idiot. He worries last night with Nightlock has left him mostly see-through.

 

“Do you think …” Alec asks carefully, “... if someone wants to do good, that’s enough to make a difference?”

 

Magnus makes a wounded noise.

 

“Straight in there with the philosophical conversation, alright. What’s brought this on?” he asks, but his playful frown quickly softens. He smiles at Alec reassuringly. “Do you really want to know what I think?”

 

“Yes,” Alec says without thinking, “Always.”

 

Magnus makes another curious noise, his eyebrows raising. He looks away from Alec, focusing on straightening out the papers on his desk, but Alec watches him intently, cataloguing every movement, every twitch in his fingertips, every clench of his jaw.

 

“Magnus?”

 

“Hm, yes,” Magnus says quickly, “Yes, I do think good intentions matter, and truthfully, nothing can ever be achieved without them -”

 

“But?”

 

“But,” continues Magnus, “without the ability to act upon those intentions, they can fall rather flat.”

 

Alec’s face turns grave. His mouth settles into a thin line and he presses his finger into the desk, rubbing at the grain.

 

“Right,” he says, “Figured as much.”

 

He turns his attention back to the police report in front of him, but the words swim on the page. He can’t think about arsons when this feels … so much bigger than that. He grits his teeth, willing himself to make heads or tails of it, but Magnus isn’t done.

 

“That being said,” and Magnus speaks slowly, particular with every word, “the assumption that grand gestures are needed to do good in the world is a misconception.”

 

Alec looks up.

 

“What?”

 

Magnus shrugs. “If you leave saving the world to the people with superpowers or the people with money - well, nothing ever gets done. They’re either corrupt or too thinly stretched on the ground to be everywhere at once. The former, more than the latter. In my opinion, good intentions are most valuable from the ground up.”

 

He sounds a lot like Nightlock. And that’s not a shocking realisation either.

 

It’s not the first time Alec’s noticed either, and maybe that’s a sign. A sign that Alec has to listen, however much his own conscience might protest and tell him he cannot be redeemed from a slip-up like this.

 

Magnus studies him, his gaze roaming Alec’s face, dipping down to his mouth, straying to his throat, tripping back up to his eyes and meeting his gaze for a moment that lasts longer than it should. Alec fidgets under the scrutiny.

 

“Alexander,” Magnus prompts gently, “What’s going on-”

 

The phone on Magnus’ desk begins to ring, cutting off whatever Magnus is about to say. It’s just like yesterday, and maybe - maybe that’s a sign too.

 

A sign that someone up there doesn’t want Alec to grasp at straws and fool himself into thinking there’s a way out of the one thing he’s only ever known with certainty.

 

Don’t fool yourself, Sentinel.

 

Magnus frowns at the phone as if he can will it into silence - it’s late, way past office hours, and whoever is calling either has a tip or a problem or can’t be caught saying what they want to say in the daylight - but he picks it up on the fifth ring with a short sigh.

 

“Hello, you’ve reached the office of Magnus Bane -”

 

Magnus’ frown deepens.

 

“Hello, Simon.”

 

Alec’s hearing is sharp, but not sharp enough for him to hear exactly what Simon says, other than something very rushed and very excitable on the other end of the line - but when is Simon not either of those things? Alec is already exhausted.

 

“No, I’m still in the building,” Magnus says slowly into the phone, “Well, you could, but I imagine it will be of little use, seeing as he’s not at home and is in fact, sitting right opposite me. Mm-hm. Okay.”

 

Magnus locks eyes with Alec across the desk, his dark nails tapping against the plastic shell of the receiver. Alec glances up at the clock. It’s nearly nine already, and Simon should be long gone for the night, tucked up in bed with his SNES - or whatever it is that he does with his spare time that Alec doesn’t really care to know about.

 

“No, I’ll tell him,” Magnus says then, “Transfer the call through. Okay. Bye.”

 

Magnus hangs up, resting the phone back in its cradle, but his hand doesn’t leave the receiver.

 

“What was that about?” Alec asks.

 

“Phone call from an outside line,” Magnus replies as his phone starts ringing again. “Simon said he was just leaving for the night and your desk phone started ringing, so he answered it.”

 

“Who is it?” Alec frowns at the ringing telephone. Magnus picks it up and holds the receiver out to Alec.

 

“Your brother, by the sounds of it,” says Magnus. His tone is unreadable but there’s something in his eyes that’s curious, as if he’s trying to anticipate how Alec might react to whatever he’s about to hear.

 

It won’t be good. It’s never good when Jace is phoning him at work. Alec quickly takes the phone, his knuckles brushing Magnus’, but he doesn’t have time to think about it.

 

“Hello? Jace?”

 

This call will be recorded and monitored. You have a collect call from an inmate at a New York City Corrections Department. If you would like to accept this call, please dial one now.

 

Alec’s fingers clench around the receiver, just shy of splitting the plastic in his fist. Oh, God fucking help him.

 

He looks up, but Magnus beats him to it, already spinning his finger in the rotary dial all the way round to the number one. Alec sets his mouth into a hard line as he turns away from Magnus’ obvious intrigue, hunching his shoulders and curling his hand around his mouth to muffle his words.

 

The phone line beeps three times with a dial tone, and then there’s noise on the other end: the hum of voices, the general raucous of a police holding cell, the commotion of a city precinct that Alec knows far too well.

 

And then Jace pipes up, and honestly, Alec curses the very day they met.

 

Alec! ” Jace barks, “ Jesus Christ, I’ve been trying to call you for like, twenty minutes - you know I only get three shots at this, right? I already called the apartment and your desk but Simon fucking Lewis picked up instead -

 

“You’re seriously going to complain about me when you’re the one calling from a holding cell?” Alec grits out between his teeth. He glances back at Magnus, and whilst Magnus busies himself inspecting his nails and admiring the ceiling, it’s clear that he’s listening intently to this conversation.

 

“Please tell me you didn’t get arrested again,” Alec hisses. There’s really no point beating around the bush.

 

Listen ,” says Jace, dragging out the word. “ Listen, okay, this time it wasn’t my fault - some cop was waving his gun around at a kid and I may or may not have got in the way and smacked it out of his hand, but like - c’mon. It was a kid. I’m not a monster, I can’t ignore that shit.

 

Alec closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.

 

“Do you have your stuff with you?” he asks, very deliberately. Jace knows what he means.

 

Oh. Yeah. I’m still in my suit, full gear and everything. You know how it works, they take my guns and my wings, but I get to keep the mask. They’re still too scared of Idris to try anything when I’m in lock-up. I just hope no-one is messing with my kit in the evidence locker, because you know Iz will literally kill them -

 

“Have you called her?”

 

Iz? No way. She’d kill me too ,” says Jace. “ Look, Alec, can you just come bail me out already? I’ll pay you back this time. Promise.

 

Alec sighs. “Does it even count as a lie if I already know it’s not true the moment you say it?” he mutters, running his hand through his hair. “Okay, fine. I’ll be there in half an hour. Do not cause any more trouble, or I swear to God, I will leave you there.”

 

Thank you ,” Jace chimes, “ You’re the best. Can always count on you.

 

“Yeah, well,” Alec grumbles, “I’d say don’t get used to it, but. You don’t exist to make my life easy.”

 

I exist to make it exciting ,” Jace corrects, “ C’mon, what else were you planning on doing tonight? Typing up audits in your cubicle at nine o’clock at night and then dragging your sorry ass home on the subway for cold noodles for dinner? Nice. Real thrilling.

 

Alec bites his tongue. He’s not going to tell Jace that he’s spoiled Alec’s evening with Magnus - because that might suggest that there is something to spoil, and really, they’re meant to be working - not Alec staring off into space, enraptured by the way Magnus fiddles with his pen, or how the tangle of necklaces in between the open buttons of his shirt glint in the yellowing light, or the way he somehow knows exactly what Alec needs to hear to quiet the demons whispering in his ear.

 

Alec’s lucky. Jace is too oblivious to ask why Alec wasn’t at his desk to pick up his phone call, and he’s much too dense to ask whose number this is now. Izzy clearly hasn’t told him about the arrangement with Magnus. Izzy clearly hasn’t told him anything about Magnus, and Alec knows full well that he’s gushed to his sister plenty about Magnus in the past.

 

Heat blooms in Alec’s cheeks, blotchy and uncomfortable. He chances another look at Magnus, but the embarrassment only prickles. He looks away just as quickly.

 

“Half an hour,” Alec repeats again, trying to make his voice as stern and threatening as possible, even if Jace won’t care one bit. “No talking to anyone, no trying to rile the police, no getting in fights with the guy in the cell next to you. ‘Cus I can still tell mom and dad.”

 

You wouldn’t.

 

“I would.”

 

Truthfully, it’s an empty threat, and Alec knows it.

 

Jace knows it too, even if he always fails to acknowledge it. Maryse and Robert know about all his brushes with the law; they know that the nights he doesn’t return to HQ aren’t actually spent in someone else’s bed like he boasts, and it doesn’t take a genius to see where his suit tracker has been. They know and they turn a blind eye anyway, because it’s Jace, the golden boy, he doesn’t know any better , but you do, Alec . You know better than that, and I know you would never put yourself in the same position because you’re the responsible one. That’s why we expect more of you, because we know how capable you are.

 

Alec bites hard at the inside of his cheek until the voice of his mother in his head is silenced. What she says now - what she has said in the past - isn’t wrong. Alec is long familiar with the knowledge that they will let Jace slide for things Alec would be crucified for.

 

Not that Alec - or Sentinel - would ever put himself in a position to get arrested in the first place. He is far too careful for that.

 

If you do this for me, I’ll trade patrol shifts with Lydia for a whole week ,” says Jace. “ I’ll go with Raj, and you and her can hang out and talk about painting your living room walls grey, or whatever it is you like to talk about-

 

“Good bye , Jace.”

 

Alec clunks the phone back into the cradle before he can hear whatever spluttered words Jace frantically tries to say before he’s hung up. Alec squeezes his eyes tightly shut again, just for a moment, just to will himself back into sanity.

 

This is not how he was hoping his night would go. Well, he’s not really sure what he was hoping for - maybe the tickle of some weird warmth in his chest again, or the delight that comes in seeing Magnus’ face light up with a breakthrough in the case he’s working on - but it sure as hell isn't this.

 

When he opens his eyes again, Magnus is there to meet him.

 

“Forgive me for eavesdropping,” he says without pause. “Am I correct in understanding your brother has been arrested ?”

 

Oh, it doesn’t matter if Izzy wants to kill Jace - Alec is going to make it his sworn duty to kill him first. Jace can count on it.

 

“Something like that,” Alec grumbles, “I, uh - I need to go. Bail him out or - whatever he needs this time. He got in a fight with a police officer … again . I’m sorry about this, Magnus, I know I said I’d stay - and we were talking -”

 

Magnus rounds the desk with careful steps and Alec’s fixates on his hands, this twitch in his fingers that makes Alec wonder if he’s going to reach for Alec’s arm, gently cup Alec’s elbow in his palm, offer Alec a warm condolence - but he doesn’t. Magnus’ arm falls back to his side and Alec wonders if he’s being a little greedy (and a little foolish too) for wanting such a thing. It’s a stray but unignorable thought.

 

“Alexander,” Magnus says, searching Alec’s face. Whatever he’s looking for, Alec is not sure he’s going to find. Alec has long since passed the point where fear and worry are the first emotions he feels when he learns Jace is spending the night in the cells. Instead, it’s mainly regret.

 

Regret that Jace was ever born at all and Alec was cursed to be his partner and brother.

 

“Alec,” Magnus continues and the severity in his voice is both moving and mortifying for the exact same reasons. Alec feels his cheeks begin to redden, heat tingling in the tips of his ears. “Is it serious? If it’s an infraction against the police, you need to be careful how you deal with it - the police never play fair and they always cover for their own. If you need a lawyer, I can put you in contact with a few friends of mine, pro bono -”

 

Alec sighs heavily, rubbing wearily at the scruff on his jaw. Magnus tracks the movement, staring just long enough that Alec’s mortification about Jace brims over into bashfulness.

 

“I -” Alec starts, before sighing again, “Whilst I appreciate the sentiment, you’re implying that Jace doesn’t absolutely deserve this.”

 

“This happens regularly?”

 

“More regularly than it should,” Alec replies, “My brother is -”

 

Reckless. Headstrong. Righteous.

 

A superhero.

 

“- a moron.”

 

Yeah, that works. And it makes Magnus smile too, this tiny little confused thing, tucked away into the corner of his mouth like he knows he shouldn’t be laughing at the mess of what Alec considers a normal family bonding experience, but he just can’t help it.

 

Beyond the amusement, however, Alec also finds relief in Magnus’ face: relief for someone he doesn’t know, relief that the police aren’t going to try something whilst Jace is locked up in a cell, relief that Jace will not be just another number on a page buried by the system, passed across desks and into the trash.

 

But behind that, Alec sees Magnus’ wariness. There’s his disbelief, a scepticism he’s rightly earned because there’s no way Alec is telling him the whole truth, and maybe they both know that.

 

“I could drive you,” Magnus says then. He takes a half-step closer, cocking his head to the side. He considers Alec curiously, earnestly , still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

Alec’s mouth goes dry. He can’t help it. There’s this slip of Magnus’ collarbones that draws his attention like a magnet: a deep vee of brown skin, soft shadows rolling over his sternum, and three fine gold chains dipping into the same valleys and disappearing into his shirt - and this close, Alec has an awfully good view.

 

Izzy would laugh at him. Jace would yell at him for not taking this situation seriously.

 

Alec really wants to know if the ground could open up and swallow him whole.  

 

“I -” Alec stumbles, “What?”

 

“I could drive you,” Magnus urges again, “since my car is in the garage downstairs. It would be quicker than taking the subway, I’m sure.”

 

Alec almost says yes - it’s the part of his brain without a filter that sometimes likes to speak before reason, before dignity can catch up and clamp his mouth shut. Luckily, this time, he’s too tongue-tied to say anything.

 

And he’s also too angry about Jace to agree. Alec kind of wants to take the subway if it means Jace will have to wallow longer in police custody. And if that makes Alec petty … well, so be it.

 

“No, it’s - thanks, but no. It’s my problem - well, it’s Jace’s problem - and you’ve got all this -” Alec waves vaguely at the piles of paperwork strewn all across the desk, “- to deal with.”

 

Magnus makes a low noise and turns away from Alec, hooking open the bottom drawer on his desk with the toe of his shoe. He grabs a stack of Post-Its and a pen, the cap of which he flicks off with his thumb, and scrawls something quick and messy.

 

“If you need something,” he says, folding the Post-It in half and handing it to Alec between his index and middle finger, “then call me.”

 

“Magnus, you don’t have to -”

 

“I insist,” says Magnus, “Please.”

 

Alec takes the note from his fingers and slides it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Magnus’ gaze lingers on his chest.

 

 


 

 

Alec reads the note on the subway.

 

Alexander , it begins, followed by the scrawl of Magnus’ number, and Alec is quick to realize it’s not the one for the telephone on his office desk. Hunched up against the subway doors with his Sentinel gear looped over his shoulder in a holdall, Alec pinches the tiny square of paper between both his thumbs and forefingers.

 

Alexander .

 

Magnus has signed the note with his initials only: M.B. in curling loops and a flourish of deep purple ink. The last digit of the phone number is a zero and there’s a spot, right where the pen left the page, where Magnus had pressed too hard and the ink has bloomed, a dark, bruised blotch, still slightly damp to against Alec’s thumb.

 

Alec stares hard at those eleven digits and almost misses his stop, barely leaping between the door before they close again.

 

 


 

 

“Y’know, you’re a hard man to get a hold of these days,” Jace says, rubbing at his wrists where the red welts of handcuffs mark his skin. They’re on the rooftop of the detention centre; Jace is in full Arkangel regalia, and Alec -

 

Well, Alec is wondering how he can ever live down marching into a police precinct dressed as Sentinel and looking a cop straight in the eye as he demanded to let Jace go free.

 

It wasn’t like he could do it as Alec. Sure, he could’ve told Izzy or reported it to his mother and father, and they would’ve sent over some suit from headquarters with all the proper paperwork and a briefcase full of cash, but -

 

Alec groans, dragging his hand down his face, digging his gloved fingers into his jaw.

 

“Staying out past curfew without us, rolling up late to patrol three nights a week, and now disappearing off-grid entirely?” Jace continues, oblivious. He rolls his shoulders and his wings unfurl with a metallic creak, steel ailerons flexing with a hydraulic sigh. “Since when do you play hooky, Mister Always-Gotta-Be-In-Control? Who yanked the stick out of your ass?”

 

“I’m not playing hooky,” Alec grumbles as he hoists his quiver higher onto his shoulder, deliberately turning away from Jace to survey the city. “Maybe sometimes I’ve had enough of putting up with your shit and want a night of peace and quiet.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Jace pouts, “Shut up.”

 

“Says the guy who got himself arrested for the third time this year, but okay.”

 

Alec flicks over the frequency on the police dispatcher strapped to his utility belt, thankful for the thrum of static to fill the semi-quiet. From the corner of his eye, he sees Jace open his mouth, no doubt to say something petulant, but Alec tries really hard to make it look like he’s listening to the radio, and the radio only.

 

Jace’s shoulders fall and he crosses his arms about his chest as he gets the message.  “So,” he mutters, “ Are you free to go on patrol tonight or what?”

 

Across the radio, a dispatcher calls in a civil disturbance somewhere in the south. It’s about fifteen blocks from where they are now; they could be there in five minutes if Jace flies and Alec’s stomach holds out.

 

A pair of patrol cars answer the dispatch call with dawdling urgency, one of them even going so far as to say they’re swinging by Starbucks and doing a donut run en route.

 

It’s just so typical and all Alec wants to is turn the radio off. He doesn’t want to be out here, not tonight.

 

But he can’t drag himself back to the office now. Magnus might have already left for the night. And Alec -

 

Alec’s not sure he can swallow his pride enough to admit to Jace that he wants to ditch him in favour of sitting hunched at a desk in near-constant silence reading about mysterious fires instead.

 

Jace wouldn’t understand - to him, making a difference is this , running around in the dark wearing masks, chasing emergency calls, breaking noses and accepting the consequences, despite just being sprung from a jail cell only hours before. To Jace, making a difference is not a pen, some paper, a telephone, and that strange and unforgiving drive that ignites in Magnus’ eyes when he’s so focused he sometimes forgets to blink for a minute.

 

If Alec were to tell Jace all of that - well, he wouldn’t hear the end of it.

 

Alec pinches the bridge of his nose one last time, but his gloved fingers squeak against his mask. The dispatcher upgrades the civil disturbance call to a drunk and disorderly. Jace’s wings begin to whir, and even though Alec’s not looking at him, he knows the expression Jace wears. It’s impatient, one eyebrow quirked in belligerent expectation.

 

Alec sighs. “ Fine . But I’m walking. I’ll meet you there.”

 

 


 

 

Alec clicks his scope onto his bow but doesn’t notch an arrow. Squinting, he peers through the lens, the night laid out before him in unforgiving green and thermal signatures, an alien contrast to the blues and coquettish pinks that rise from nightclubs and late-night bars into the stratosphere, only seen from a perch as high as his.

 

Down on the streets below, there are people massing, jeering loudly and drunkenly, waving beer cans in the air and sloshing hops all over the pavement. He can smell it, that sickly sweetness of ale and lager, sticky on the soles of shoes and frothy in the gutters where the light is yellower, dirtier. He cringes with each reckless shout, too vulgar and uncouth. He grimaces when one drunk man takes a meandering swing at another who looks at him funny and it devolves into a grappling match, surrounded on all sides by childish cheering.

 

It’s not violent, not quite a riot yet - just the humdrum of men turfed out of the downtown bars, commiserating a loss in whatever football or hockey was played on the TVs tonight.

 

But it teeters on the edge of control, and so Alec is wary.

 

Wary and tired , because no-one ever tells you that being a super and keeping the peace means this, if it can be called peace-keeping at all.

 

He follows the crowds slowly towards the metro station at the end of the street, walking parallel with them across the rooftops, a scowl sewn into his brow when the drunken chants become more derogatory than inebriated fun. He’s not sure where Jace is, but he knows he’s nearby for the flash of silver that bullets through the dark, caught from the corner of his eye. The cops still haven’t arrived, and whilst that’s not a surprise, if Alec has to step in and stop anyone from looting the shuttered storefronts, he can only imagine how bad it will end up looking, no matter his good intentions.

 

Another patched-together press conference for Idris, another lecture in his parents’ office, another night staring at his mask in the bathroom mirror and wondering how he ended up here, even though there’s nowhere else he could’ve found himself ...

 

Alec comes to a stop at the edge of a rooftop where the gap is too far to jump. He sighs, drawing an arrow from his quiver and securing one end of his grappling line to the fletchling. The bubbling crowd has begun to thin, the less drunk meandering towards the subway station, and the more rowdy lingering further down the street, stumbling into each other, arms looped around necks, voices carrying aggressively. Alec keeps one eye on them and the other on his arrow as he notches it in his bow and lines up the shot.

 

The gap between the buildings is some twenty feet - and Jace could probably jump that, even without his wings, because he’s seen people do it on TV and it’s just that easy for him - but Alec is stuck taking the layman’s route. It frustrates him as the night has already dragged on, and he longs for bed and his cold noodle dinner more than he’ll admit out loud.

 

The building opposite is all smooth brick and plate glass windows, winking in the neon dark - there’s nowhere really to land his arrow, unless he cares to commit public vandalism.

 

“Need a hand?”

 

The hairs on the back of Alec’s neck jump to attention, but he doesn’t turn around, not immediately, not this time. He settles his shoulders into a rigid line and lowers his bow towards the ground, letting his bowstring slacken.

 

“What is it with you and creeping up on me?” he asks, half wondering when this turns into a running joke, and half wondering if they’re already there. He turns and there’s Nightlock, with his hands stuffed in his pockets and collar popped to the whistling wind.

 

He looks at he always does: nonplussed, artfully ruffled, somehow still elegant in the crisp lines of his supersuit, wearing it rather than letting it wear him. There’s a slight purse to his lips, but it slips away quietly as his eyes rake over Alec, probably tracking the twitch in Alec’s jaw and the dark circles that peek out through the eyeholes in Alec’s own mask.

 

“I revel in the drama, what can I say,” Nightlock shrugs. His strides are long and purposeful as he approaches Alec, a tilt of his chin in greeting as he steps up to Alec’s shoulder and peers down over the edge of the rooftop, into the street. His nose wrinkles just a little.

 

“Protest?” he asks.

 

Alec allows the tension in his shoulders to dissipate. “No, but it might turn into looting, so we’re keeping an eye on it.”

 

“Hmm,” Nightlock considers, and he scans the sky then. “I don’t see blondie around. Has he ditched you with the grunt work yet again?”

 

“He’s around,” Alec mutters darkly, but it’s entirely believable that something shiny has diverted Jace’s attention elsewhere. “ Somewhere .”

 

He better be.

 

Nightlock picks up on Alec’s mood easily; maybe he can feel the way Alec is prickling, picking and pulling at the unseen energy in the air. Maybe he can feel it distorting across Alec’s skin, or maybe he can just read it that plainly in the hard set of Alec’s jaw.

 

“Rough night?” he prompts, his voice a little softer than Alec expects.

 

Alec grunts in response. “Not rough,” he says, “Just … troublesome.”

 

“How so?”

 

Alec squints, looking to Nightlock to see if he actually cares for Alec’s answer or if he’s just making polite conversation, but -

 

Alec is surprised to find something genuine held carefully in Nightlock’s eyes. He blinks; it doesn’t fade; Alec finds it somehow familiar. You have a good heart echoes inside his head. He feels it like a pulled hair, a burning nerve, a warehouse smoking at a distance. For reasons he doesn’t understand, the Post-It note with Magnus’ phone number - which he has tucked carefully into the inside of his supersuit - begins to burn against his skin too.

 

“Should I not have asked?” Nightlock probes, his tone a little flippant, “I suppose we’re not quite ready for small talk yet -”

 

“No, I - it’s alright,” Alec mumbles. “It’s just - I had other plans tonight. Now I’m here. Go figure. It’s … Arkangel’s fault.”

 

“I’m not even remotely surprised,” Nightlock remarks. He’s amused, Alec can tell, but there’s something embittered about his smile too. “What did he do? Save too many people for Idris’ liking? Punch a cop in the face and get away with just a caution?”

 

Alec can’t even argue. Nightlock is absolutely right, and it only harkens back to their conversations before, about privilege. Because it wasn’t really Alec who got Jace off the hook tonight, no.

 

“Something like that,” Alec mutters, just below his breath. But Nightlock hears him, and laughs this dry, derisive bark of a laugh. It trawls up Alec’s spine unexpectedly.

 

“Well, it’s certainly nothing new,” Nightlock chuckles, “Although it is refreshing to hear you moan about it, so thank you for that.”

 

Alec squints one eye. “... Anytime?”

 

Nightlock huffs again, but Alec doesn’t miss the slip of his tongue pressed against his teeth. It’s the sort of dangerous smile that makes the world pause, just for him. It’s a smile that doesn’t even fade as he nods his head towards the streets below, his gaze fastened on something Alec hasn’t yet seen.

 

“A half dozen men just turned away down that alley across the street,” he says, and the amusement still in his voice means that Alec doesn’t process his words right away.

 

“What?”

 

Nightlock nods his head again.

 

“There, look,” he instructs, and Alec lifts his bow again to peer through the scope. Sure enough, Nightlock is correct: a group of men who have been hanging back at the back of the procession have peeled away down a side street, although their loud and jeering voices still echo. He knows these sorts of men: brackish and boisterous and fraternal; team colours in their shirts and their facepaint and the grazes on their knuckles. The sort of men for whom one too many drinks and dangerous; the sort who Izzy would dismiss in a nightclub with a tiresome roll of her eyes after one or two try to get too feely, or who might might spit at Alec’s feet if he dared look too long at another man -

 

Maybe they’re just taking a shortcut home. Alec thinks nothing of it, and is lowering his bow again, when Nightlock speaks.

 

“A woman just turned down that way, not a minute before them. Walking by herself, head down, very fast. They’re following her.”

 

Oh. Alec’s stance shifts, his shoulders tensing, stomach churning unpleasantly. He pulls his bowstring taut again, the arrow flat along his sights. Peering through his scope, he lets the arrow fly, silent and swift through the dark. It finds its mark, a notch in the brickwork in the opposite roof, with pinpoint accuracy; it doesn’t making a sound. Alec knows how to move through the air without disturbing it. It’s second nature.  

 

The zipline tugs against Alec’s belt. He unfastens his end and loops it in a knot around the ventilation piping at his feet.

 

Nightlock lets out a low whistle. “Nice shot,” he remarks.

 

Alec yanks on his zipline and it doesn’t budge; it will take his weight.

 

“Yeah, well, not all of us can fly everywhere we want to go,” he says. Nightlock raises his eyebrows pointedly - a challenge, perhaps - but says nothing.

 

Alec takes a few steps back from the roof edge, only to take a run up. He leaps off the edge into the argon-soaked abyss, and for one exhilarating moment, he’s in free fall. But then he catches the zipwire with his bow like a hang glider and his shoulders jerk upwards as he’s propelled forward along the line. He doesn’t look back; doesn’t see if Nightlock watches him go; doesn’t call back are you coming or not ? He doesn’t wonder about the look on Nightlock’s face, not when the wind is whipping against his mask and his legs are dangling a hundred feet above street level.

 

Alec slows his slide down the wire as he nears the opposite rooftop and hauls himself up onto the ledge with a silent grunt. He rights himself, gathering the wire up into a coil on his belt, and Nightlock appears next to him, an apparition from out of the dark. His hands are still shoved deep in his pockets; not a hair is out of place on his head.

 

His eyebrows are raised as if he’s impressed, but he doesn’t say anything, and that makes Alec roll his eyes. Instead, Nightlock turns towards the far side of the roof and starts walking, and Alec can only hurry after.

 

Sure enough, there is a woman in the alleyway, walking parallel with Nightlock and Alec. She’s walking fast enough that Alec knows she’s aware she’s being followed. Her hand is tight around the strap of her purse, clutched to the side of her body, and she has her keys between her fingers, the clink of tarnished bronze unmistakable. She doesn’t look back over her shoulder, but Alec can tell she’s on high alert - and it’s not like the men following are trying to be quiet.

 

Someone hollers; it could be a catcall, but the words are too slurred. The intention is not.

 

It raises Alec’s hackles, as it always does. This is not an unfamiliar sight, but too often does Alec arrives too late, when these incidents have already been called in to the police and the worst has already been done and tears already shed.

 

But it’s not going to happen this time. Alec won’t let it.

 

His good intentions will matter this night.

 

Alec selects another arrow as he lines up his sights with the group of drunk men. There are six of them, which isn’t really a problem when both he and Nightlock excel at long-range combat, but it’s still more than he’d like if things go sour.

 

“At least three of them are armed,” Nightlock remarks, almost in Alec’s ear. “Two in the waistband, one beneath the arm.”

 

Alec watches the man in question through his scope, tracking him as he staggers forward. Immediately Alec spots something large and bulky beneath his arm, filling out his jacket strangely.

 

“Looks like a semi-automatic,” Alec murmurs, “At least 9 mm. Why the Hell does he have that?”

 

“Hmm,” hums Nightlock, adjusting his gloves. “Let’s not give him the chance to show us.”

 

Alec nods. And with a pinch of his fingers, he lets his arrow fly.

 

The arrow zips through the air, piercing into the concrete at the feet of the man with the gun.

 

“I think I woulda preferred if you’d hit him,” Nightlock remarks with a click of his tongue. Below, the man is shouting, another is scrambling backwards from the arrow on his hands and knees, and the others are pointing wildly at the rooftop where Sentinel and Nightlock stand.

 

The woman, much to Alec’s relief, has bolted, taking her chances with Alec’s distraction. Part of Alec wants to go after her and see her safely to a train station or her apartment, but he also doesn’t want to leave Nightlock alone to deal with whatever this is about to become -

 

His ears aren’t sharp enough to hear the release of the safety on a handgun, but the bullet that explodes into the brick below his feet is plenty loud enough. Sparks fly and Alec’s ears ring, his vision spinning. He leaps backwards, away from the edge, but Nightlock doesn’t budge, rolling his eyes at the drunk man’s terrible shot.

 

He glances back at Alec, looking him deliberately up and down.

 

“Don’t get shot on me, Sentinel,” he says, and then he steps off the edge of the building, plummeting towards the street as another gunshot rings out, clanging off a ventilation pipe.

 

The air is sharp as Alec sucks in a breath, grabbing another arrow. His fingers twitch, the arrow flies, but Nightlock waves his hand in a sudden arc and the handgun goes hurtling out of the drunk man’s hand, skidding into a dumpster. Alec’s arrow misses its mark, but clips the man’s empty hand with a spurt of blood.

 

There’s no time to watch him reel back or watch him charge at NIghtlock in blind anger. Two other men immediately wrestle with the guns in their waistbands, and as much as Alec wants to see Nightlock single-handedly flatten a person, Alec needs to get down there, stat.

 

Grabbing his zipline, Alec lashes the end around the closest ventilation shaft and jumps. He falls, ten, fifteen feet, until the line goes taut and swing him against the side of the building. Another loud gunshot pierces through the dark. Snapping to look over his shoulder, Alec sees another man shaking with a revolver in his hand, frantically reloading it as he points it at Nightlock, and Nightlock -

 

Nightlock, with one hand outstretched to pin two men to the ground with invisible force, is staring at the a scorch mark that has singed the epaulette of his coat.

 

He looks pissed .

 

Alec loosens his grip on his zipline, dropping fast and dangerously until his boots hit the ground with a heavy thud . He rips his bow from his shoulder and notches another arrow before he has even turned to the fight.

 

He doesn’t have to pause to find his mark. That’s his gift. His arrow pierces straight through the sleeve of the man scrabbling on his hands and knees for the handgun Nightlock sent flying. He pins the man to the ground.

 

It’s a perfect shot.

 

Alec’s blood is pumping.

 

He grabs another arrow, and that one too, lands where he wills it, clipping the temple of another man. The man stumbles, blood streaming into his eyes, his sense of balance uprooted as he trips over his own feet. His head bounces off the concrete with a sickening thunk .

 

There’s no time to stop; there’s only fever, only instinct. A second man rushes Alec, aiming to tackle him around the middle, but Alec is faster. Alec is always faster.

 

Alec wrenches the man’s arm behind his back, throwing him to the ground and smacking him across the back of the head with his bow. The man is knocked out cold.

 

Another gunshot rattles Alec’s brain.

 

And then a thrusting gust of wind embeds itself in the stomach of the man with the revolver; he doubles over at the middle, spitting up clear fluid and gagging, dropping his gun in the same instant.

 

Alec wheels around to look for Nightlock, but Nightlock is already there, gliding through the frenzy, unbothered. He arcs his hand dramatically and another surge of energy ploughs into the man like a tidal wave, and he thumps to the floor with a winded gasp, clutching his stomach.

 

One of the other men lunges for Nightlock, but Alec sees him and kicks low at the man’s knees, smacking him in the face with his bow. Blood erupts from the man’s nose, hands pawing at his face as mangled cartilage streams out into his palms.

 

Alec fires another arrow. He doesn’t wait to see if the man falls; the loud, grunting cry from behind lets Alec knows he hit his bullseye. He spins around, shoving another man backwards and his skull cracks on the ground, the whites of his eyes rolling back in his head.

 

The breath is coming fast and painful in Alec’s chest, but he feels alive, radiating with triumph. He looks to Nightlock, and Nightlock tears the last gun out of the man’s palm and flings it down the alleyway with his magic. And then he’s lifting the man from his feet and dangling him in the air, tossing him into a nearby dumpster with a loud and rattling clang .

 

There’s a smile blooming on Alec’s face: not a good smile, not an honourable smile, but one that’s crooked and fearless and alight. It’s been too long since he felt like this; since he felt adrenaline trampling through his veins, running rampant in his blood. The fine spray of blood not his own is warm across his cheek, and he smells it too, that ferrous taste seeping into the gutters and the asphalt.

 

Someone shouts. Nightlock answers with the thrust of his palm, a volley of energy parting the remaining men on their feet, all of them leaping for cover. Close quarters mean nothing to him. He’s unstoppable. Unflinching. Incredible .

 

Metal scrapes across the ground as someone collides with a dumpster. Alec can taste the electricity in the air on the tip of his tongue. It’s like he can feel Nightlock, feel how the air moves and shifts around him; he can sense where he is without even having to look, but look he still does, because why would he want to miss this .

 

Absolute power crackles in Nightlock’s fingertips, it drips down his chin, it pools in his upturned smile that courts the devilish.

 

He’s just like Alec. He gets high on this too.

 

And then, from the corner of his eye, Alec clocks the first man, still sprawled on his belly, dragging himself across the ground towards his handgun, his fingers reaching desperately for the grip.

 

Nightlock hasn’t noticed, knocking back another man with a blast from his hand and ducking out of the way of a punch from a second. He seizes the man by the cuff of his jacket and throws him over his shoulder, his whole body crumpling on impact. He groans, arms spread out wide, but he doesn’t get back to his feet.

 

The man lying on the ground finds his handgun, his fingers curling around the trigger as he lines up his sights with Nightlock’s chest.

 

The arrow barely trembles in Alec’s fingertips before it whizzes over Nightlock’s shoulder. It’s a brush of fletchling against Nightlock’s cheek, burying itself in the shoulder of the man on the ground. Nightlock doesn’t stop moving, wheeling around and dredging power up from the ground through his body, before blasting the man into the wall.

 

Nightlock looks back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised, hair a little windswept. His eyes are dark and provocative, something a little out-of-breath about him. Alec’s mouth falls open.

 

“I had that,” Nightlock says, clicking his fingers to snap the arrow stuck in the man’s shoulder, bending the shaft so that it won’t be removed easily. The man cries out, groaning with his hand clenched tightly over the wound, but Nightlock doesn’t spare him a look.

 

Nightlock nods his head at Alec. “One left,” he says, and Alec turns around: the last man is staggering towards the mouth of the alleyway, the revolver loose in his grasp.

 

Nightlock tilts his chin, a silent shall we? left poised in the air as it settles.

 

Alec’s chest heaves. He feels red exertion in his face, sweat beneath his mask, a sting in his chest from the cold air.

 

He strings another arrow in his bow. His mouth forms a half-smile. And then starts running, because he knows Nightlock will catch up.

 

 


 

 

The ground seems to vibrate under Alec’s every footfall, his pace fast and burning in his thighs. The air is so cold that he could mistake its taste for blood in his mouth, and the drizzle begins to cut at his cheeks like tiny shards of glass.

 

He picks up his pace. The man with the gun has a good headstart on them, but it won’t be enough, not with Nightlock easily matching Alec’s stride, the only sign of his exertion the burn on his coat and a faint tinge of red in his cheeks disappearing beneath his mask.

 

Part of Alec knows he should call Jace, tell him their location, get Jace to catch their guy before he bursts out into the main street - but Alec’s not listening to that part.

 

No, this one’s Alec’s catch.

 

Alec bows his head into the chase and runs faster. The mouth of the alleyway opens up before them, bright lights piercing and violent against Alec’s face, making him squint and his eyes water. The man ahead veers sideways into a dumpster, tripping in his panic to escape.

 

Nightlock pulls ahead of Alec - is he even running anymore, or is he floating? - and beneath his heavy coat, Alec can see the muscles working in his back.

 

He’s dangerous. God, he’s dangerous, more dangerous than anyone Alec has ever met. He’s so tentatively balanced between exhilaration and anger and control, and he’s on Alec’s side.

 

Not Idris’ side. Alec’s side. He’s shoulder to shoulder with Alec, pushing Alec to run further, run faster -

 

What is this thrill? Why has he never felt it before?

 

Why does it feel like rust and friction and teeth at a tender spot and why does he want more of it?

 

Why does it feel like a desperate arrow, aimed not for the target, the man with the gun, but for the darkness of longing behind him?

 

Alec hears his heartbeat in his ears. Pulse in his fingertips. Adrenaline surging through his veins. His blood is boiling. He wants more of it, but then he drags his eyes from Nightlock’s back to the fleeing man again, and -

 

There’s a car parked at the end of the alleyway, two men lounging on the hood.

 

Fuck , Alec thinks, civilians , but then he looks at the car again. Looks at its deep blue paint, how freshly it’s rolled out of a car wash, how it’s mirrors are a little bulkier than normal -

 

Restricted plates.

 

Lights in the grill.

 

Department issue model.

 

Fuck, they’re undercover cops.

 

Alec reenters reality so sharply that he’s sure he’s incinerated upon impact. His stomach plunges. He feels the bucket of cold water, the answering crush as the thrill of the chase collapses in on itself.

 

He thinks about Arkangel in a police holding cell, and then he thinks about Nightlock, and he knows those two stories don’t end the same way.

 

Fuck.

 

Alec lunges for Nightlock’s arm before he can step out of the shadows, yanking him back into the dark. Nightlock staggers backwards, caught off balance, and he snaps around to stare at Alec.

 

“Let go of me,” he says dangerously, that provocative blackness unfurling in his eyes - but Alec holds fast, gripping Nightlock’s arm ever tighter.

 

“There are cops out there,” Alec hisses, “Are you an idiot? You can’t go out there, they’ll see you. They’ll see us .”

 

“Oh, what can they do?” Nightlock snarks, but his eyes are bright and inflamed and he’s still riding that high, “Shoot me? No-one can shoot me -”

 

He tries to rip his arms from Alec’s hand again, but Alec just grabs his other elbow, twisting Nightlock back against the wall of the alleyway. He doesn’t want to be doing this - and he knows Nightlock could push him away with the flick of his fingers, have him blasted into the brickwork with just a snarl - but Alec presses his hand flat against Nightlock’s chest anyway, and tries to plead with his eyes.

 

Don’t do this .

 

“You -” Nightlock hisses, his jaw twitching. He wraps his fingers around Alec’s wrist. Static leaps in arcs from his fingertips and he pushes back against Alec’s hand. Alec steps forward again, crowding Nightlock against the wall, hoping the shadows will swallow them up.

 

Please ,” Alec insists. “We can’t be here, come on. Do you want to get arrested -”

 

He hears the policemen laughing, something low and gaudy and undoubtedly insidious, but they’re still perched on the hood of their car, sharing a cigarette. Alec can no longer see the man they were chasing. He grits his teeth as he presses his finger to his ear.

 

“Arkangel, come in,” he says. Nightlock’s fingers tighten around Alec’s wrist; he can almost feel his bones shifting. They’re pressed so close that Alec can feel the heat radiating from Nightlock’s chest. It’s white fucking hot. “Arkangel, do you have eyes on 63rd, come in.”

 

There’s a moment of torturous silence where Jace doesn’t reply and Alec’s coms sing with static and Nightlock’s eyes bore right into his, furious and hurt. And yet - it’s not enough to fling Alec back against the wall. And Nightlock could do that. What’s stopping him -

 

Hey, yep, I’m here ,” comes Jace’s voice then, even if Alec hardly hears it, swimming in the tunnel vision created by Nightlock’s unfathomable stare. “ I’m hovering above 63rd, what’s up? Some woman just hailed a cab and I just saw some drunk guy trip over a fire hydrant and knock himself out, it was pretty funny. Is there something I’m meant to be looking for? There’s a couple of undercover cops parked at the end of the block, are they causing trouble -

 

“Keep an eye on them,” instructs Alec. “Follow them.”

 

Roger that, boss.

 

Alec pulls back from Nightlock abruptly. The loss of his weight against Nightlock’s chest has Nightlock seizing the opportunity to shove him back - but it’s with his hands, and not with his powers, and maybe that’s worse.

 

Alec stumbles back a few steps, breathing hard. Nightlock doesn’t move. Alec can see him trembling as if electricity is running frantic up and down his arms, too much to be contained in his veins alone. His gloved fists are clenched at his sides.

 

“How dare you,” he hisses, his voice so low that Alec feels it reverberate in his chest. The thrum of the police car pulling away, plunging the alleyway into deafening silence, is not enough to make Alec turn away. Instead, he is rooted to the spot, scolded by the look Nightlock forces upon him now.

 

“How dare I?” Alec asks, feeling his lips curl. Waves of heat roll through his body; he can’t distinguish fear from anger or anger from shame. “Arkangel has it under control, what else do you expect me to do -”

 

“All you Corporates are the same,” Nightlock snaps, gesturing sharply at Alec as he takes a step forward. Alec holds his ground. “You only do what’s right so long as it’s going to help you .”

 

“That’s not true -”

 

“Oh, isn’t it?” Nightlock snaps, “Why else do you skulk in the shadows and only intervene when there’s no risk to your pay packet, hmm? Why else would you not step in -”

 

“Because I’m not some idiot with a deathwish!” Alec bites, “Because, hey, maybe there are   consequences to - to galavanting around in front of the police with your powers on full show, I don’t know!”

 

Nightlock scoffs, throwing his hands up in disbelief.

 

“Please. You know nothing of consequences,” Nightlock laughs bitterly, “The police stop you, and you get maybe a night in the cells before Idris come along and bail you out. You do whatever you want and nobody bats an eyelid, and meanwhile, the rest of us get shot in the street just for daring to think we might save someone’s life, because double standards , right? You have no idea what it’s like to exist knowing there’s a part of you that you cannot change but very well might get you killed, so don’t pretend like you’re in the right here, Sentinel. You don’t get to tell me what I can or cannot do.”

 

Alec bristles. He clenches his fists at his side, a ringing in his ears that drowns out the wail of distant sirens - but Nightlock doesn’t step down. In fact, he steps closer, settling his shoulders and raising his chin. He meets Alec with a look that says go on, I dare you to tell me I’m not right .

 

And he is right - almost . He’s right that the consequences for him are far worse than for Alec; he’s right that using his power in public may cost him his life whereas it only costs Alec a stern warning and a dock in his paycheck from the next client who is looking for someone a little more conspicuous to do their dirty work. He’s right that Arkangel’s nights in a police holding cell are a running joke now.

 

But he’s wrong about Alec knowing nothing of having to hide some part of himself in fear of how other people might react. Alec knows better than most how it feels to lock some part of himself away from the world, because the price might be his job, his home, his friends, his family - a price too high, a cost too dear. And it might have nothing to do with his superpowers, but it has everything to do with him , and that’s one thing that cannot be divided by the line drawn between Sentinel and Alec. It’s the one thing that always spills over.

 

All those newspapers headlines. All those burned-down AIDS crisis shelters. All those times President Bush has told Alec on TV that who he loves and who he is is not natural, like his superpowers don’t already make him all that -

 

All the times Alec has spared a scared glance around the office before daring to respond to Magnus’ insistent flirting -

 

Nightlock’s stare smoulders. There’s no way that Alec cannot say it now. The air is strung with tension and it dares Alec to break it.

 

“I do know what it’s like,” Alec says, barely a whisper, because at least it means his voice won’t shake. He clenches and unclenches his fists at his side; he fights a losing battle to keep his eyes on Nightlock. Staring at the ground terrifies him less. “Of course I know what it’s like to not be able to be the person you want to be because of everyone else. I’m-”

 

Even now, he can’t say it. He doesn’t really know why, but it always sticks in his throat, a lump that he can never swallow, however long he’s been out of the closet. That one little word.

 

Nightlock raises his eyebrows expectantly, but something in his resolve shifts, just a bit. Uncertainty takes root in his eyes, the firm line of his mouth softening. Perhaps realisation blooms before Alec summons the courage to spit it all out.

 

Which is worse , Alec briefly wonders. Being told you don’t deserve to live because you have superpowers, or being told you don’t deserve to live because you’re gay?

 

As it turns out, it’s all pretty much one and the same. There’s always going to be an overlap.


“I’m -” Alec mutters, averting his gaze. He takes a deep breath. He feels it yanking on a fishing line that travels down his throat, the hook caught somewhere in his stomach. “Let’s just say … I’m not going to fall in love with a woman and have tiny baby superheroes, however much my mom wants it, okay? She’s not happy with me being out here doing my own thing, let alone - all of that. So, I do know. What it’s like to have to - to hide part of yourself because it might … cost something I don’t know if I can afford. Okay?

 

“You’re gay,” Nightlock says, not a question. His eyes are wider now, his mouth slightly parted. It’s a shadow of the look his mother and father wore when he came out to them all those years ago. It still makes Alec flinch.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Have you ever said that out loud before?”#

 

“Not … that word,” Alec admits, “It’s not something I can just … tell people. Not now. Not with - everything that’s going on in the world.”

 

Nightlock pulls his eyes away, focusing fiercely on the ground. He folds his arms across his chest, pressing his thumb to his lip until his skin discolours.

 

Alec doesn’t know if he should move or if he should wait for the world to move around him; suddenly, he doesn’t know if he’s really standing on his own two feet anymore. That fishing hook is yanked loose without warning; he almost chokes on it, but Nightlock gets there first.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nightlock says abruptly, after a beat of silence that threatens to flay Alec, layer by bloody layer. “I think I spoke out of turn.”

 

“No, I -” Alec splutters, “You didn’t, you’re right - about me not knowing what it’s like to be - to be like you. I’m never gonna know, and I get that. I shouldn’t have held you back, I shouldn’t have touched you, but I -”

 

Nightlock sighs heavily, cutting Alec off with a dismissive wave of his hand. He spins away on his heels, and Alec opens his mouth to say something that sounds too damningly like wait, don’t go, but Nightlock doesn’t walk far. He fans out his coat behind him with the flick of his hands, and settles down atop an upturned trash can, crossing one leg over the other. In his lap, his fiddles with his hands, rubbing his thumb and index finger together in thought.


“Makes you wonder,” says Nightlock then, not looking up, “Whether people are more scared of gay men or of supers.”

 

Alec sucks in a breath and his whole body trembles with whiplash. The anger has been sucked from the air, and maybe that’s Nightlock’s doing with that fathomless power of his, but Alec doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know what has replaced it. There’s terror, the terror of coming out that never gets easier - but here he is, confessing to a stranger in an alleyway, and it’s both horrifying and liberating, and he’s not sure which of those things is making him want to vomit.

 

Izzy and Jace and Clary know, and he suspects Simon and Magnus do too, and his parents pretend like they don’t, and -

 

Alec has never just come out and said it before. He can’t. He doesn’t ever get that freedom in the daytime. Doesn’t get that freedom without the mask.


“Sometimes …” Alec mumbles, “Sometimes I wonder how this city survived both Reagan and the Circle at the same time.”

 

“I’m not so sure it did,” says Nightlock, still looking at his hands, “I don’t suppose I have enough fingers to count the friends I’ve lost on either side. Prejudice is a far greater killer than anything else I know, and that includes both my foolishness and yours.”

 

“I’m sorry,” says Alec, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Still, Nightlock glances up at him and Alec is winded by how quickly the anger in his eyes has diminished too, leaving behind dark shadows that attest to long-tended pain and a wound that Alec knows all too well. He feels the same crevice upon his heart.

 

“Don’t be,” Nightlock says, “That’s not your fault.”

 

Some of it is. Alec knows it, and he knows Nightlock thinks it, deep down inside. Idris will have cost Nightlock friends along the way, just as much as President Bush has, and that is a guilt Alec might well bear for the rest of his life.

 

How does he explain that he wants to do right, but he’s too afraid of putting himself out there and not have it seem selfish, when it undoubtedly is? How does he explain that he’s afraid of being in the spotlight, because that light might catch upon the parts of himself he doesn’t ever want anyone to see, and then he’ll be scrutinised for all those disgusting faults of his, and he can imagine nothing worse? How does he explain that he doesn’t know if he can give up all the comfort of his home, his job, his family for the sake of justice, because he’s just damn terrified of being alone if it's all stripped away?

 

Without all those things - he’s nothing. He’s no-one. He’s just a thin leather mask that means so very little. Who can do so very little.

 

Good intentions be damned.

 

That’s why the shadows are safer. That’s why he feels so damn terrible when these supers keep turning up dead on the streets. That’s why .

 

Alec must be turning white, his eyes glazing over, because Nightlock frowns behind his mask and then pats the space on the trash can next to him with the flat of his palm.

 

“Sit down, Sentinel,” he says, and the strength in his voice lets Alec pretend that it’s a command, and who is he to do not as he’s commanded. “Before you black out on me and I have to lug your body back to the steps of Idris.”

 

Alec’s pride is a lump slowly sliding down his throat, but he folds up his bow and clips it back into his holster, before settling down next to Nightlock. Nightlock shuffles to make room, careful to leave the space afforded to strangers between them, even if he radiates a warmth that Alec can still feel through his armour.

 

Letting out a deep breath, Alec leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and closes his eyes. He lets the sounds of the city wash over him, never the gentle lapping of waves, but more a riptide that pulls and tugs at his ankles, drawing him out into deeper waters, even if he knows he struggles to swim against the current.

 

Argon lights hum with a very distinct sonic note, and car horns bleat off-key at the intersection three blocks north, the cacophony carried by the wind that cards through Alec’s hair. He can hear music too - the deep, shaking pulse of bass, the synthetic chime of an electronic keyboard, subtle things that are usually drowned out by the rain. Now, he imagines the night shimmering with it, that strangely euphoric sound, willfully haunting and seeping into his veins until he imagines himself threaded with vibrant blues and soft pinks, rather than the red of his blood.

 

He says nothing, but nor does Nightlock, the only sound the rustle of his coat as he shifts, resting back on his palms and looking up at small slip of sky above them. Alec turns his head, cracking open one eye, just so he can watch Nightlock watch the clouds in piety.

 

Behind his mask, Nightlock closes his eyes, just basking in the soft underglow reflecting off the belly of the clouds. Faint yellows and blues bathe his cheeks, but sculpt out the sharp lines of his mask, the prickle of his jaw, the shadow around his mouth. There’s this faint shimmer of colour in his hair - Alec’s not sure if it’s gold or if it’s a deep royal blue, because it seems to change in the light and in the dark, shifting from colour to colour and never deciding, perpetually iridescent.

 

The dark colour that lines Nightlock’s eyes is the same. Alec supposes it must be black, but in the gloom of this alleyway, it seems to catch every colour, deep greens, wistful blues, the more violent purples, the dark red of Nightlock’s coat, the shine of his leather mask.

 

For the first time, Alec finds himself wondering how anyone could walk past this man on the street and not realise who he is. He’s striking; the world always seems to bend and fold around him, reality distorted where it comes in contact with his skin. And it’s his will . He requires it. He requires the universe to accommodate him.

 

At last, Alec finds a name for the desperate longing in his chest. What he wouldn’t give for the very same thing ...

 

The song in the distance shifts; it grows more nostalgically triumphant, more longing, more familiar. Alec recognises it as something Izzy has played before on the radio - it’s Queen. Alec likes their music.

 

Nightlock opens his eyes.

 

“Did you know,” he says quietly, as if unwilling to interrupt the faint music with words too loud. “Freddie Mercury was a super.”

 

“No, he wasn’t,” mutters Alec, but Nightlock just nods.

 

“You honestly believe a man like that didn’t have superpowers?” he scoffs softly, still searching the clouds overhead, “If he wasn’t some sort of psionic, I would be very surprised.”

 

And then, to Alec’s surprise, Nightock begins humming. He doesn’t find the rhythm or the tune right away, but after a bar or two, it blends into the far-away croon of Freddie Mercury seeping out of some late-night club and into the street, whispering and warbling through the alleyways and the gutters.

 

He hums; the song rises from out of the neon-split puddles at their feet; Alec listens. He closes his eyes again and lets the vibrations in Nightlock’s chest settle over him, drawing across his back and pressing down with firm but yielding fingers, invisible upon his shoulder blades and in the divot of his throat.

 

Something strange and muddled exists within the hollow of his chest, not quite sure how to fill the space completely. It echoes like sadness, pinches like guilt, but it’s not heavy - perhaps he would call the lightness relief or gratitude or just the way it can feel so terrifyingly good to confess a secret to someone else and not have them hate you for it.

 

There’s numbness too, white and willowy, swirling around Alec’s wrists and ankles, tingling in his fingertips. He feels all those things, but Nightlock’s gentle humming makes him forget how to feel present and he’s caught, in an updraught, by the sensation of floating just outside and above his body, drifting upwards into the city’s blue haze. His arms and legs are buoyed by air, by invisible strings, by the spaces within his body he does not know how to fill; behind his eyelids, he falls upwards, higher and higher, until he can see the city spread out before him, a tangled mess of threads and arteries, pulsing with a circadian rhythm bound by synthesisers and sirens.

 

The wind that sweeps across the back of Alec’s neck carries the cool caress of rain. He feels a speckle, and then another, against his forehead, the back of his eyelids, the bow of his mouth. The clouds begin to hiss in that way they do when they’re about to release a downpour.

 

Alec opens his eyes again and sits up. This time, he’s not shy in looking at Nightlock.

 

Nightlock is still leant back on his palms, his face bared to the sky. If the moon was out, Alec is sure his face would bask in it, but instead, he only earns the drizzle.

 

“‘ The time has now come ,” Nightlock murmurs, as the song comes to an end and the guitar fades out into something else, a blur. “ For my friends and family around the world to know the truth. ’ It’s fitting, don’t you think?”

 

The words sound familiar. They’re not Nightlock’s words. They still ring true, nonetheless.

 

 


 

 

“I changed my mind,” Magnus says, “I think good intentions alone can be enough.”

 

Alec blinks away from his computer screen, eyes focusing on the Styrofoam cup held out to him over his partition. He smells coffee overloaded with creamer.

 

Magnus is peering over his desk at him.

 

And Alec can’t help it, how his eyes trail up Magnus’ arm, lingering on the way his shoulders fill out his shirt sleeves and his waistcoat fits snugly over his chest, but pausing on the earnest and honest look in his eyes.

 

It’s barely ten in the morning, and Alec has already had three coffees but he’s not yet awake. He keeps slipping in and out of a spreadsheet-induced coma spliced with memories of the night before, Queen still humming distantly in his ears. Magnus, however, pulls him back to the present.

 

Alec carefully takes the coffee from Magnus, knowing his fingers are probably warm and clammy where they touch. He mumbles a small thank you .

 

The first sip is disgustingly sweet, just as he likes it. He’s not sure how Magnus knew that.

 

Instead, he asks, “Enough for what?” and takes another sip, coffee foam sticking to his upper lip.

 

Magnus’ eyes darken. “We never finished our conversation last night. Before your brother called.”

 

Right. Jace’s arrest. It feels suddenly so long ago.

 

Magnus reaches out and plucks a tissue from the box on Alec’s desk. Heat blooms in Alec’s cheeks and he ducks his gaze, taking the tissue with another muffled thank you , quickly wiping the coffee froth from his mouth.

 

“Oh,” he says awkwardly.

 

Magnus says nothing at first, just gazing down at Alec, silent and appreciative. It only makes Alec want to bite the inside of his cheek. Pointedly, he turns his eyes back to his screen and hopes it doesn’t come across surly, when the truth is that he’s just flustered by the attention.  

 

“Are you not going to ask me to elaborate?” Magnus probes.

 

“Do you want me to?”

 

Magnus shrugs with a lightness about him that is fondly amused. A smile still tucks away into the corner of his mouth, just for Alec.

 

Alec rolls his eyes fondly, but tries his best to be serious. “You think good intentions are enough?” he asks, and Magnus’ smile twitches again, because he’s gotten what he wants. “No matter whether someone can act on them or not?”

 

“Yes,” he preens, “I think so. I gave it some more thought last night, after you left. Good intentions are enough - sometimes . I don’t mean it in the sense that we should all just sit on our laurels and tell ourselves oh, it’s the thought that counts , even when we do nothing to prevent something well within our means. It’s just that -”

 

Magnus pauses, taking a moment to study Alec’s expression. Alec wonders if he gives anything away.

 

“I suppose some people aren’t always in a position to act upon the goodness in their hearts,” Magnus continues. “Perhaps we shouldn’t hold people accountable for things they cannot control, or expect people to put themselves in dangerous situations in order to do that good we demand of them. We should focus on someone’s capability to … be kind when circumstances are stacked against them.”

 

“Sounds like you thought about it a lot,” says Alec.

 

Magnus just shrugs, a little meek and sheepish. “Well, it’s always good to see things from as many points of view as possible. Sometimes I struggle with that, but it’s a character flaw I’m working on.”

 

“I kinda find that hard to believe,” Alec teases. “You’re pretty open-minded.”

 

“And also incredibly stubborn,” Magnus admits, laughing below his breath. He fiddles with the silver cuff on his ear. “It’s been said that I’m known to hold a grudge or two, in my time.”

 

It’s then that Alec almost says something ridiculous. The words form in his mouth as but you’re so kind , but he doesn’t manage to spit it out, catching it between his teeth. Still, his face flushes, and he stares diligently at his knees instead.

 

Magnus laughs again, softly, to himself. It’s not the first time Alec has noted the sound of his laugh, but it might be the first time he realises how … nice it is. How pretty it is. Alec doesn’t hear much of it in his line of work, and it’s a welcome reprieve in any form.

 

“Well, then,” Magnus says then, pushing away from the corner of Alec’s desk. Alec’s eyes follow him. “I can’t stay to chat, I have a busy day - the copy room messed up my editorial for the morning’s issue yet again, so that needs a patch job before we go to press.”

 

He steps away, but he seems to reconsider it; he spins back around on his heels just as quickly.

 

“Will you be stopping by my office tonight?” he asks. His tone is something strange, something round and full and hoping. It makes Alec’s chest flutter with a feeling honest and a little unfamiliar.

 

“I, uh - yeah,” says Alec with a small frown, “Uh, around six? If that’s alright?”

 

Magnus’ face lights up with a smile. “Perfect,” he says, “Absolutely perfect.”

 

 


 

 

Magnus is whistling when Alec knocks on his office door, six o’clock on the dot. He doesn’t stop when Alec pokes his head in; he just keeps on smiling and skewing the note offkey, enough that Alec doesn’t realise what the song is until he’s sat down.

 

“Is that … Queen?” he frowns, pausing as he shrugs out of his suit jacket and drapes it over the back of his chair. It’s not the same song that Nightlock was humming last night, but it’s still a remarkable coincidence.

 

Magnus pulls a face that looks like mock offense. “Oh, Alexander, I can cope with you liking Corporates, but if you don’t like Freddie, we’re going to have commitment issues.”

 

“I like Queen,” Alec laughs, shaking his head, “Izzy likes to play it in her lab when I visit.”

 

“Well, that’s a relief,” says Magnus. “And your sister has good taste. I haven’t ever met her, have I?”

 

“Uh, no,” Alec replies, “She works a lot so she doesn’t really get the chance to come see me here. You should, uh - you should meet her sometime though, I think you’d get along. She’s very -”

 

Alec waves his hand in a flourish, not really sure what he’s trying to say about Magnus, but Magnus still beams nonetheless.

 

“She sounds wonderful. Less trouble than your brother, I should imagine?”

 

“Oh, God, yes,” Alec scoffs, “Jace is adopted. Very adopted.”

 

“Can’t say I’m not curious,” Magnus laughs gently, “Perhaps we should all go out sometime - I know a few bars on your side of town that are quite good. I could meet your sister, and see if your brother lives up to all those terrible stories I’ve been told about him.”

 

Small talk about Izzy is easy enough: it’s the one thing Alec will always feel comfortable talking about, given how proud he is of her. And he can talk about Jace too, because Alec will never pass up the chance to moan about his misdemeanors - but it’s not what he really wants to talk about, not if he’s being honest with himself.

 

“Yeah,” he says, choosing one of the manila files from the pile and opening it up to a random page. It looks like a case file that Magnus has been preparing on a vigilante named Salem - Alec doesn’t know her and has never heard of her - but he doesn’t exactly read any of the words. “That, uh, sounds nice.”

 

Magnus goes to smile, unexpectedly pleased that Alec is interested in his invitation - but it doesn’t quite meet his eyes, not when Alec is staring hard at the table.

 

“Alec? What’s the matter?”

 

“Sorry, I, uh - that does, that does really sound good,” he says, waving his hand, “I just -”

 

I’m just not so sure how to be that person, even though I want to be .

 

And he wants it. He does. He wants that normalcy, he wants that space. He wants it uncompromising and unapologetic, just like Nightlock. He sees that now.

 

Magnus’ expression sobers and he leans in, resting his hands on the table. Alec focuses upon the rings on his fingers.

 

“Is this about yesterday?” Magnus asks, as vigilant as always, “Or about the night we went to that arson?”

 

Alec could talk about how he’s still haunted by it, how he’s still plagued by those murders. He could, because Magnus is leaning across the table, his focus singularly on Alec.

 

Alec could talk about it, but he can’t talk about everything. He can’t tell Magnus everything, and that’s frustrating because he needs to tell somebody the truth, the truth about Sentinel.  And here he is, Magnus, a somebody who might listen, and Alec knows it’s only going to fester and turn him rotten from the inside out if he doesn’t say something.

 

“Alec,” prompts Magnus. His voice is too gentle; it’ll get spoiled by the things stuck in Alec’s gut. “Alexander.”

 

Alec smiles softly to himself. He is so succinctly divided down the middle. He sees that too. One half of him runs around in the dark pretending to be a superhero and telling Nightlock all sorts of secrets, and the other half of him is here in this office with Magnus wishing for the same thing, and yet both parts of him wear the mask.

 

He can never be himself, only shadows of the person he thinks he has to be. He’s stretched so thin, and there’s never enough of him to go around, not when he needs it.

 

But - he wants to be himself. He sees that reflected in the ardency of Magnus’ eyes, his defiant concern, his worry, emotions that he doesn’t try to reign in when he looks at Alec in the way that he does. Alec wants to be himself because, in these last few weeks of knowing Magnus, really knowing him , Magnus has given that back to him in droves.

 

Magnus reaches across the table. He reaches for Alec’s hand to hold, and he does it without pretending it means something else – but Alec withdraws his hand to his lap in the same instance.

 

His fingers burn with a touch that never even happened, his chest made intimate. One day, loneliness and longing will outstrip his need for self-preservation - but not today.

 

Not today. So why does Alec’s stomach still flip like it does -

 

If Alec’s refusal affects Magnus, he doesn’t let it show. He’s so good at that, so good at making people look right as he moves left. His hands reach for the folder in front of Alec, sliding it back across the table.

 

“I was thinking we could get an interview with the coroner who assessed our dead super for Sunday’s issue,” he says, and it’s completely irrelevant to whatever he’s reading, a deliberate change in subject. Alec lets out a breath of relief. “Maybe a column or two, it would look great with the spread we’ve got going for the case already.”

 

“Alright,” Alec nods, and maybe it’s more to himself than Magnus. He wills himself back together; he’s precariously close to slipping up and that’s not something he can afford right now. “Alright, yeah. That sounds good. What do you want me to do?”

 

If Magnus is looking at him, he doesn’t say anything. If Magnus stares at him as he busies himself in paperwork, in his mysterious dead men and strange fires, in his beloved good intentions , then Alec doesn’t take notice. If Magnus flexes his fingers on the tabletop, regretting his attempt to touch Alec, or regretting not being able to touch Alec, then Alec will never know which is the truth.

 

But Alec can still wonder.

 

The clock on the wall ticks on. Alec loosens his tie from around his neck, eventually discarding it on the table. Magnus doesn’t try to raise the topic again, and for that, Alec is not sure if he’s thankful.

 

 


 

 

Arkangel and Muse are calling it a night ,” says Izzy over the coms. “ You can rendezvous with them back at HQ, or we can debrief tomorrow night before patrol, I don’t mind.

 

Alec sighs heavily, flicking away the rain that has been collecting on his gloves and the guard of his bow. Water clings to the bowstring, drip-drip-dripping onto Alec’s boot. He blinks away the drops upon his eyelashes, and sniffs heavily, hoping he hasn’t been standing out here long enough to catch another cold.

 

“Nice of them to tell me in advance,” he grumbles, but really, he’s too tired to argue. It’s Jace. He’s not surprised by anything Jace does anymore, and that definitely includes forgetting he left Alec on the roof three hours ago to ‘ keep watch ’.

 

Yeah, I know, ” sighs Izzy. “ I’ll talk to them about it tomorrow. Are you done for the night?

 

Rain drips from Alec’s hair too as it flops forward over the edge of his mask. He slicks it back against his head, but it just falls limply to the side, droplets rolling down his temple and across his cheekbone.

 

It’s late, but not too late, and he might be cold and wet, but he’s still got a few hours left in him. Nightlock is probably still out somewhere else in the city, and Alec - and Sentinel too - can’t quite stomach the thought of turning in for the night when someone else is still working.

 

“No, I think I’ll stay out a bit longer,” he says.

 

You’ve been staying out ‘a bit longer’ every night this week ,” Izzy says, “ I love you, but you have a switch that’s always on. You can’t be Sentinel twenty-four hours a day, Alec.

 

“I don’t think the city cares about my schedule.”

 

Izzy makes a tsk sound on her end. “ That murder, huh? ” she says, “ Are you still thinking about it?

 

He should say yes, but even that would be a lie, because it’s not just the body he found with Clary that he’s thinking about when he closes his eyes. It’s the dead super in the parking lot, it’s the warehouse that burned down, it’s every other unexplained arson that has passed across Magnus’ desk lately. It’s the murder of Magnus’ friend, Ragnor Fell.

 

It’s Nightlock shouting at him for having the luxury of choosing when he gets involved and when he doesn’t.

 

It’s Magnus placing his trust in him, not knowing all the secrets Alec keeps.

 

It’s all connected, a thready mess tangled inside Alec’s chest – and whenever he tugs, the whole mass shifts. Closing his eyes and seeing it all is second nature now. He can’t even escape it when he sleeps, because the unease lingers in his dreams too.

 

You could talk to someone about it .”

 

Alec scoffs. “Who?” he asks dryly, “It’s not like mom and dad have a department psychiatrist on call for us. Besides - I’m fine, Iz. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s just a lot on top of work and the investigation with Magnus-”

 

Could you talk to Magnus about it?

 

“What? No, of course not.”

 

He doesn’t need to know all the details, ” Izzy says, “ But you said you guys were running a few pieces on it, and - well. You sound close, and you don’t have many friends, Alec. Not to rub salt in the wound, but-

 

“Thanks,” Alec deadpans, “Thanks for letting me know.”

 

You know you can talk to me about it too, ” Izzy corrects herself, “ That’s a given, Alec. I shouldn’t have to say it, but we both know you’re never going to take me up on it, so - just talk to someone , alright? And don’t stay out too late. It’s bad for you.

 

“Fine,” Alec sighs, “Can you turn my trace off?”

 

Are you meeting up with Wolfsbane and Veil?

 

“I don’t know,” Alec shrugs, and then he adds, carefully, “Maybe Nightlock.”

 

Izzy doesn’t even react. “ Okay, I’ll switch you over to the secure frequency in a sec ,” she replies. There’s a click in Alec’s ear, and when she speaks again, her voice is a little more tinny. “ There, all set.

 

“Anything on the emergency frequency?”

 

Nothing of interest so far. Car chase on 23rd, but the cops are already in pursuit. Couple of domestic disturbances. Low level stuff. I’ll keep you posted.

 

“Alright,” says Alec. And then, after a pause, he adds, “Thanks, Iz.”

 

He can practically hear her frown. “ What for?

 

“Nothing. I’ll talk to you later.”

 

 


 

 

The vastness of a lonely city is a strange and eerie dream, blue neon shimmering in puddles, and rain, clinging to the dull and present ache in Alec’s stomach that swims with the sound of Freddie Mercury crooning in his memories.

 

He walks for a while, from rooftop to bleak rooftop until the gap between buildings is too far for his guideline and he has to descend down a fire escape to street level, stealing away into the dark. He heads for an old basketball court across the street from the police precinct on East 5th, and whilst there may not be shelter from the rain, the view will be good of the patrol cars coming and going. Alec tunes into the buzz of the emergency frequency, waiting for something to happen. Something will always happen.

 

And he’s not wrong. He’s a block away when he sees it: a strange shadow on the other side of the street, just beyond the pool of light spilled by a dirty streetlamp. From the corner of his eye, he thinks it’s a man crouched over on the sidewalk, perhaps a homeless man who hasn’t found a bed for a rainy night amongst many.

 

Alec almost keeps walking, uncomfortable at the thought of being seen on street level, but the shadow doesn’t move, not even a twitch, and that’s when Alec realises it’s not what he thinks it is.

 

He stops. A glance over his shoulder tells him that he’s alone, the street is deserted, at least for the moment. Still, he unclips his bow and sets an arrow against his finger, even if he doesn’t pull the string. A car whizzes by at the intersection, yellow beams and then red taillights in fast succession, the engine like a hum.

 

The shadow on the sidewalk is too large to be just one man - and definitely not a man crouched on his haunches. Alec steps carefully into the road, his boots splashing in stagnant rainwater pooling in the gutter. He readies his bow. The shadow still doesn’t move, but as Alec steps out of the glow of the streetlamp, his eyes adjust to the gloom.

 

Oh. Oh no.

 

He stops abruptly in the middle of the street, sucking in a sharp breath that hurts his throat, the air far too cold.  

 

There are two men tied up to a fire hydrant on the sidewalk.

 

And they’re lashed together with chain links and polyester webbing that cuts into their Kevlar suits, and Alec smells both blood and burning in the same horrible reckoning. Neither of them move, but as Alec’s hand tightens around his bow, he knows why: they’re both dead, their masks lying at their feet, soaking up the blood that the sidewalk cannot take.

 

Supers. Two more supers. Two more dead supers .

 

Alec’s finger moves to his ear, but he can’t press his coms. His arm seizes, tremors beginning in his elbow and shuddering up to his wrist. His teeth chatter on the breath he exhales, his jaw clenched tight enough to ache.

 

He takes a step forward; his toe stubs the kerb. Clumsy. He’s never clumsy. Glancing down, he finds his boots is scuffed with blood not allowed to dry in the drizzle.

 

And oh, God, the sidewalk is black with it.

 

When he inhales sharply, he tastes it, that ferrous tang in the back of his throat. He drags his eyes back to the two men, starting at their feet, up their legs splayed out on the sidewalk; across their hands lying limp in their laps with their fingers snapped; up their chest where their suits are shredded and singed around the edges; to their throats.

 

Their throats are slit, their vocal chords exposed to the dark, their bodies rotting in the twilight. Alec has seen this MO before.

 

Twice is a coincidence, three times is a serial.

And he feels sick. Around him, the city screams like an abattoir, and he’s made the foolish mistake of stepping blindly into the centre of the killing floor. There’s blood, slick and sticky, along the soles of his boots. The wind whips up, launching the smell of death high into the smog and the beat of synth that plagues the city streets. The drizzle cuts at the parts of Alec’s face not hidden by his mask.

He scrunches up his nose, a grimace, and brings a gloved hand to his mouth.

He’s seen violent lives end violently before, but not like this. Not strung out in the streets for all to see. The sidewalk reeks of bad consciences and worse consequences.

He slings his bow over his shoulder and bends to close the eyelids of the dead supers who stare up at him, fear still frosted in their wild eyes. His fingers shake, but he pushes it back, right back, as far down as it will physically go, squash it down and smother it .

 

Don’t feel it.

 

Ignore. Ignore .

 

He doesn’t know them. Either of them. Izzy will, he’s sure - she remembers everyone, everything, even if she’s seen it once - but Alec doesn’t know if their anonymity makes him feel better or worse.

 

He’s glad he’s not staring down at the bloodied corpses of Veil and Wolfsbane, but he knows these two people are the friends of someone else. Someone else knows them, is waiting for them to come home, who may never know what has happened here tonight.

 

Torture. Murder. Everything worse than that. Their hands are battered with defensive cuts, their knuckles shredded and bloody. Their suits are scorched by searing black marks. Their throats are torn wide open.

 

Alec should call Captain Garroway. He deserves the heads up before this reaches the dispatcher on the emergency frequency, before some civilian stumbles across this on their drunken walk home. Alec doesn’t want any old cop handling this scene, especially when he can already predict the headlines that will flood the city’s papers tomorrow morning, a dollar-fifty for a sheet of slander.

 

He should call Izzy and Jace and Clary after that. Jace will be pissed at him if he’s already gone to bed, but it won’t last; he would never turn down a case like this. Clary will set her jaw and try to look fierce in that way that Alec knows she really isn’t. And Izzy - Izzy will know what to do. She won’t freeze. These two dead supers aren’t Corporates, but it’s important to  know who they are. Who they were. There will be leads to follow up on, Alec is sure, and Izzy will know what to do .

 

He, however, does nothing. He doesn’t call Luke; he doesn’t call Izzy. Something stops him from moving, keeping his heavy feet glued to the ground. He can’t stop looking. His eyes fixate upon the raggard slash across the throat of the super who faces him: the tattered skin, the crusting blood, the violence of a jagged knife. No-one with powers did this - or if they did, they didn’t use them. They just used anger. Violence. Seething hatred. One swift slice.

 

Alec clenches his fists at his sides. The night is dark, but he’s standing on the sidewalk in full Sentinel gear, towering over the bodies of two men. Someone will see him and assume the worst. He has to leave, but he can’t. It feels dishonest, dishonourable, disloyal .

 

Useless , the rain whispers. Powerless .

 

A wind from behind scoops up the bloodied masks lying in the dirt; Alec watches as they twist and fold, the blood wrung out of them, pulled out of them, by unseen hands. They float, guided, back to the faces of the two dead men, and settle back across their brows where they belong.

 

Alec glances back over his shoulder; it’s no wind. He still feels rattled enough that it might as well be.

 

Nightlock steps out of the dark just as he lowers his guiding hand. Alec doesn’t know how he’s here, but he’s stopped asking that question. Of course he’s here.

 

His face is grave, the mask across his eyes symbolic for the way his expression is guarded. Alec cannot read him, but energy pulsates in the air, rolling, bursting, ready to crack like thunder. It presses down on Alec’s shoulders and seems to pound like a dangerous heartbeat.

 

“Do you know them?” Alec asks, but his voice is strained, ragged in a way he cannot hide. He sounds wretched. He knows it.

 

Nightlock doesn’t look at him, eyes focused on the dead men. He stops at Alec’s shoulder, close enough that the warmth from his body is palpable, but not a relief.

 

“Yes,” says Nightlock, clipped. “But not well.”

 

“I don’t know what happened,” says Alec.

 

“I do,” replies Nightlock. His voice is dangerous. “Someone is picking off costumed heroes.”

 

It hits Alec like a winding punch - the blow, first, and the pain, secondary. There’s that peculiar moment of cold, backhanded shock before Nightlock’s words settle in, but once they do, Alec wonders why he never saw them coming.

 

“We … we don’t know that,” Alec whispers.

 

“Yes, we do.”

 

Blood has a unique shine in the dark and the rain, slick and black like oil and just as slippery. Alec’s eyes linger on the man’s slit throat. This is the third time he’s seen this signature.

 

An epidemic, Magnus had once said. What would Magnus say if he were here right now? Would he reach for Alec’s hand in solidarity and tell him how to stop it happening again? Or would he tell Sentinel that he hates him for letting it go unchecked?

 

Alec frowns. “I don’t think this is just a hate crime,” he murmurs, “Someone is killing supers so that we can’t stop them from whatever happens next.”

 

“Yes,” agrees Nightlock, “And passing it off to look like a lynching.” He sighs heavily, turning away from the bodies and looking up at the foreboding sky. “Not that I would ever put a lynching past the people of this city, but -”

 

“This wasn’t an accident,” says Alec. “Or a frenzy. It was brutal, but … it was planned. Someone knew how to inflict the worst amount of pain. Someone well-equipped, well-funded. Well-trained.”

 

“Sounds like someone we both know,” Nightlock remarks cooly.

 

Alec prickles. “This wasn’t Idris, if that’s what you’re implying. Corporates have nothing to do with this.”

 

Nightlock turns to him, his body angled between Alec and the dead men, but it’s not anger Alec finds in his bright eyes, and that catches him off guard. It’s something desperate, almost pleading. Sympathetic. There’s that word again.

 

“They did once,” Nightlock says carefully. “The Circle happened, and we didn’t see it in time. It’s ludicrous to think it wouldn’t happen again, that it isn’t happening again. Sentinel ... open your eyes.”

 

Alec clenches his jaw, gritting his teeth. Nightlock is not wrong; he’s hardly ever wrong, as Alec is slowly learning. He tells the truth, as harsh and damning as it is, one which Alec has tried with all his might not to see.

 

And it frustrates Alec to know that he can still be so stubborn in the face of it. He knows he’s not that person. He knows he shouldn’t be that person, and he wants to do better, he really does, but -

 

He wants to strike out, bust open his knuckles on a concrete wall and feel the dull burn of torn skin leaching into his blood, but he doesn’t. He never does. He keeps it all inside and it rots.

 

Instead, he says, low and trembling, “Their suits are marked. It looks like … it looks like burn patterns.”

 

“Do you smell fuel?”

 

“No.”

 

Nightlock exhales heavily. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose through his mask.

 

“The arsons,” he says, maybe to himself. “They are all connected after all. It’s probably the same person - or people - doing all of this”

 

Alec swallows back the bile in his throat and crouches down. One of the men was dressed in blue, before his blood stained his supersuit red and black. Fastidiously, Alec reaches out and peels back the crisp edges of the man’s suit where it’s slashed across his chest; the stiff fabric crunches between Alec’s fingers, breaking away as charcoal. The flesh beneath is blistered and burned.

 

How -

 

How is he always too late? How have they gone so long without hearing any of this? How do you not hear the sounds of someone being torn open and burned on the streets, their body lashed to a fire hydrant on a public sidewalk?

 

The man that he and Clary found buried beneath all that cardboard and refuse - he must’ve been a super too. He wasn’t dressed for it. Maybe he hadn’t donned a cape or a mask in decades. It didn’t matter. Whoever killed him knew who he was. What he was.

 

A serial killer is running around in their midst, killing supers, and no-one has fucking noticed.

 

“The city has lost its damn mind,” Alec mutters. He stares down at his hand, soot and blood amalgamated into a paste on his gloved fingertips. He tries to rub it away, pressing his fingers into his thigh, but the stain hardly shifts. Alec hisses, but then Nightlock’s hand appears on his shoulder, giving him a gentle squeeze. Alec tenses at first, the touch foreign and unwelcome, but then he feels some of the energy coiled in his body begin to dissipate. He imagines it being stolen.

 

Nightlock lets him go before the touch can linger. Above their heads, thunder rumbles and the air sags with the sort of heaviness that preludes a downpour. Alec counts to three before it arrives like bullets on the pavement and upon his skin, passing right through him, searching for a sky reflected in the puddles. He’s drenched in seconds, but Nightlock remains dry, some invisible force conjured above his head with a wave of his fingers. The curtain of rain bounces straight off and onto the ground.

 

“There’s a payphone on the corner of the block,” says Nightlock, “I’ll call this in and then we need to get out of here. We risk too much by lingering.”

 

The blood caked around the dead men’s necks begins to run. The rain carves smears and rivers through the mess, but it still pools at Alec’s feet.

 

“We’re meant to save them,” Alec hisses, “We’re meant to save these people. And we’re always two steps behind.”

 

“No, we’re not,” says Nightlock firmly, “We’re just looking in a different direction.”

 

Alec turns to him, and if his eyes beseech, Nightlock does a good job not to react. Alec’s wet hair is plastered to his forehead and he must look a mess as it is.

 

People are dying , Alec wants to shout. And I don’t know how to get rid of the blood on my hands .

 

Nightlock must hear it anyway. His expression softens for just a moment, kind words on the tip of his tongue. Alec’s not sure he wants to hear them.

 

He almost wants to hear Nightlock blame Idris. He wants Nightlock’s scathing remarks and damning truths told to his face, in a way he cannot ignore, not this time.

 

Idris isn’t doing their job, Idris doesn’t care about murdered vigilantes, Idris is leading the charge themselves -

 

It makes sense. Alec is desperate for the blame. It makes sense .

 

“We’ll figure this out,” says Nightlock instead. He says it with conviction, enough to lead a dying man to water, but Alec still has trouble believing it. It’s not water that he wants.

 

Because in the downpour, he has plenty as it is.

Chapter Text

 

 

"That was [...] the year I dreamed of empty coffins and went mute,

when the bodies washing up on the riverbank

with burned soles and welted backs were called suicides,

and no-one told the children any different."


— Traci Brimhall, from “Peace Be With Us,” Saudade

 

 


 

 

“Double murder,” says Magnus the next day. He presses the front page of the day’s paper down on Alec’s desk, his ringed fingers splayed across the page, his nails painted a deep, dark blue.

 

The office murmurs around Alec, chatter and rustling paper, but suddenly, everything is white noise.

 

A blurry photo of last night’s crime scene stares up at Alec. Yellow police tape, and a blackened sidewalk, and the dirty light of a streetlamp at odds with the violent blue of a police car siren caught in the moment the camera flashed.

 

In the centre of the photograph, there’s a fire hydrant. It could be any street corner, any other grimey hydrant stained grey with soot and car exhausts, plastered with graffiti and sprayed with paint.

 

Only Alec knows that it’s not. Only Alec knows how his two dead men looked, lashed together and slumped over that hydrant, blood oozing down the kerbside, the gutters littered with the remnants of torn-up supersuits. Only Alec knows how it looked before the police came. Only Alec knows that this photograph is a watered down version of what really happened.

 

The thought goads and the newspaper headline gloats; how many people saw this on the kiosk stands this morning and reached for a magazine with their coffee instead? How many people are that complacent?

 

How many people are that used to it?

 

Not Alec. Alec can still feel the blood sticky on his hands. He can still feel the chill of the rain down the back of his neck. When can he not?

 

He doesn’t touch the newspaper, too afraid of leaving wet and bloody fingerprints amongst the text, but he makes a show of scrutinising the headline nonetheless. As if this is the first time he has seen this; as if he’s fighting with all his might to keep his eyes open after a terrible night tossing and turning; as if he and Nightlock weren’t there, standing on that sidewalk with viscera on the bottoms of their shoes in the downpour of a realisation that someone is hunting supers.

 

It doesn’t seem real. Maybe Alec’s too stubborn to believe it. Maybe Alec’s too scared to believe it. His entire body still feels cold to the touch, still rain-chilled, still reeling from the shock of something he should’ve seen coming - but he’s not the one occupying it. He’s watching this all unfold from somewhere high above and he’s unable to reach out and do anything about it.

 

Now, he can feel Magnus watching him, awaiting his reaction, awaiting some jerky movement that says Alec’s not entirely present in his body, awaiting a slip-up . A quick glance around the office tells him no-one is looking, but he doesn’t dare raise his voice above a whisper for fear of saying something he can’t take back.

 

The fear possesses him. It makes him hunch his shoulders, as if battening down the hatches of himself. He wants to lock it away, last night, Sentinel, whatever , but -

 

It’s just seeping through the cracks he’s too damn tired to press a hand over in order to stem the flow.

 

He wonders if Magnus can see that. If Magnus can see the bone-deep exhaustion, if he can see the hollowness, the emptiness, the directionlessness that has Alec wavering like a needle in a broken compass. If Magnus can see the way he’s itching in his own skin with the need to scrub it raw and be rid of the feeling of dried and tacky blood.

 

He wonders if the purple crescents beneath his eyes speak of any of that, or if his mask is just too damn good and no-one dares look close enough.

 

“Both supers?” Alec asks, despite already knowing the answer. He saw their suits; he saw their masks. He was the one who dragged his fingers over their faces so shut their blank and lightless eyes.

 

Magnus’ answering nod is grave. He shifts on his feet, angling himself closer to Alec, affording them a little more privacy. There’s a thread of tension pulled taut all the way through him. Alec doesn’t miss it.

 

“It seems so,” Magnus mutters. “Both vigilantes, low-level profiles, not well known. Young too. Barely out of college, I’d imagine.”

 

Magnus’ voice is low as he leans into Alec’s space. His cologne is too strong and it makes Alec’s head swim. And not in a good way. It’s overpowering and suffocating and Alec’s already feels vaguely nauseous. It mixes with the aftertaste of iron that still clings to the back of Alec’s throat and makes his eyes water.

 

Alec’s stomach clenches. His toes curl in his dress shoes where no-one else can see.

 

“The police are keeping this one pretty tightly underwraps,” Magnus continues, oblivious, “They haven’t released any details to the press yet, which is … unusual.”

 

“Captain Garroway?” Alec asks.

 

Magnus shrugs, running his finger over the shell of his ear, his eyes flicking over to Alec’s screen, to Alec’s desk, away from Alec’s face. His worry is painfully obvious and that - that hurts to see.

 

“He’s a busy man and I already have him working a few favours for me,” Magnus murmurs, “If he knows anything, he’ll get in touch, but I think the silence speaks for itself.”

 

“No-one knows who they are? The dead men?”

 

“I’ve asked around, but not much luck. There are a few other avenues worth trying, but … I fear we might have to remain patient on this one.”

 

Nightlock’s words from last night echo too loudly to be ignored: this has the hallmarks of someone we both know . Alec sucks in a breath, but it tastes of sour truth.

 

“What-” he begins carefully, unable to raise his voice or even look Magnus in the eye, because his shame speaks just loud enough. “-about Idris?”

 

He doesn’t mean to say it. He’s not asking do you think they can help us? He’s asking do you think they’re involved? It’s been weighing on him all damn night.

 

Magnus blinks, and then he blinks again, before pulling away from Alec and standing up straight. He opens his mouth as if to speak, and then decides otherwise, a frown appearing between his brows. Slowly, he curls his arms around himself, pressing his thumb to his lower lip; he studies Alec for a long moment that makes Alec want to squirm.

 

“They weren’t supers from Idris,” is eventually what he settles on, his focus resolute on Alec.

 

And it’s not fierce, the look in his eyes. It’s not repulsed or irritated or anything that might attest to his feelings about Corporates. Instead, the look is perplexed as he tries to figure something out that Alec cannot even guess.

 

“I know,” says Alec, dropping his voice. “I meant - is it … is it worth asking Idris if they have any records? They haven’t released a press statement about it either. There might be … something.”

 

Something . As if. Last night, Alec handed his field report to his mother his damn self and she’d just placed it on a pile on his desk, unread, and informed him of his next mission. She could so obviously read it in his eyes - the trauma, the shock, the blood still splattered on his boots - but she didn’t ask about it. She just pretended it didn’t exist.

 

As usual.

 

Magnus tilts his head, sceptical in just the same way. Alec cannot blame him. “Do you think so?” he asks. His voice is unreadable.

 

“I think it’s worth it,” Alec lies. He curls his fingers into his palms, pressing his blunt nails into his skin; he clings to the dull sensation. “Someone has to know something, and I can’t -”

 

The sentence fragments; maybe it already knows its a pipe dream, or worse, a lie.

 

I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t focus on anything else -

 

I can’t help but blame myself.

 

Alec looks around, but still, no-one’s looking at him, at them . And yet, how is it that he feels so excruciatingly visible? He fights to settle the twitch in his jaw. Hopes that Magnus can’t hear the rough catch in his voice. Prays for something more than lethargy.

 

Magnus says nothing, and that in itself forces Alec to continue.

 

“I can’t,” he says very carefully, “I know this happens all the time, but there’s a part of me that can’t -”

 

“Sleep at night?”

 

“Yeah,” Alec says on a breath. “Knowing that someone’s out there doing this, killing people, and the fact that no-one is doing anything to find them, I just -”

 

He finds that he’s been staring hard at a point in the centre of Magnus’ chest, a small wrinkle in his shirt – it must be where his necklace lies beneath, flush against his skin. Alec drags his eyes back up to Magnus’ face and finds fond sympathy in his soft expression.

 

Magnus offers him a small sad smile. “Someone will know something. You’re right. It’s just a matter of finding them.” The line of his shoulders falls, as if in quiet relief. He seems to take a breath to steady himself, realigning his thoughts into the sort of order Alec can only be jealous of. “I can call Idris tonight,” he continues, “I can’t say that they’ll give us anything - their PR department is notoriously difficult when it comes to nosey journalists - but we should try. It’s a good idea, Alexander.”

 

“Yeah?” Alec dares. Alec hopes .

 

“Yeah,” Magnus says. His smile tightens. “Yes.”

 

And for a naive moment, Alec believes it is, it is a good idea, if the way Magnus’ mouth twitches at the corners is anything to go by. Magnus always believes there’s a way forward; and that’s something Alec has come to learn and appreciate, one of Magnus’ small precious litanies. He doesn’t know how Magnus keeps hold of it when the city, when the government, when people passing by on the street want to wrestle it from his hands, but Magnus is not someone to let go of an idea without a struggle.

 

There’s heat rising in Alec’s cheeks - equally uncomfortable as the tight knot in his gut - but try as he might to wrench himself from the spotlight of Magnus’ stare, he cannot. He remains rooted to the spot, entrapped by the glint of hope that blooms in Magnus’ dark eyes.

 

They won’t get anything from Idris. Not as journalists, not as two people just trying to do the right thing, not as Magnus and Alec. Alec knows this. Some lies, some conspiracies, they’re bigger than him, bigger, even, than the presence with which Magnus lights up a room and emboldens Alec to tell the truth. Alec fears the worst, and the thought of it, of some corruption he hasn’t noticed until now, trickling black from the top down, until it lands on his shoulder, is repulsive.

 

But Alec is not just Alec . If someone needs to get dirty to stop this from happening again, well -

 

Sentinel can try. Sentinel can be better, Sentinel can ask the questions that need to be asked and bear the bruises so someone else won’t have to.

 

Alec isn’t the only one hooked by the determined look in Magnus’ eyes. Someone must know something .

 

 


 

 

That night in Magnus’ office, the Idris PR department keeps Magnus on hold for over an hour, only to present him with a curt dismissal, advising him never to call again.

 

Alec shifts in his chair, unable to get comfortable, and fights the urge to pick at the skin of his hands. He can hear the faint rasp of conversation, but can’t place the voice - but fuck, it could be Underhill, Lydia, or even Aline for all he knows - not over the hum of the argon lights overhead and the incessant tick of the clock on the wall and Alec’s breathing -

 

He feels like he might jump out of his damn skin any second -

 

Magnus slams the phone back into the cradle. He stares blankly at his hand for a solid minute, and Alec is about to ask him if he’s okay, who was it that you spoke to , when Magnus turns sharply on his heel to pour himself a double whiskey, slamming it back in what cannot be good conscience.

 

Magnus levels Alec with a flat stare when he sets his glass back down on his desk.

 

“God,” he gripes, “I hate Corporates.”

 

Alec swallows that as well as any man keeping a secret can. Words like that stopped leaving marks on his skin long ago, but from Magnus, they still bruise like fingerprints, speckling his skin with purple in the more tender spots.

 

The achy feeling in his chest is uncomfortably real, and slowly, it’s spreading down his arms, up the back of his neck, seeping into every little nook and cranny He knew Idris would be of no help, but maybe Magnus had been hoping for some sort of divine intervention, some luck at last -

 

Divine intervention . Alec could scoff. As if there’s any higher power looking out for them. And even if there were - why would Alec care for their help when they’re letting all of this happen again and again?

 

Alec would never call Magnus naive, but at what point do you start clinging onto anything, even the remotest hope of finding answers to your impossible questions? At what point does disappointment stop hurting and just become another fact of the job? At what point does it feel a little foolish?

 

Leads must not pan out all the time. Magnus must spend half his time on the phone getting nowhere; he must send countless letters out to countless sources, only to get nothing back in the mail; he must knock on so many doors and have most of them slammed in his face.

 

Magnus pours himself another whiskey; it sloshes up against the side of the glass, splattering onto the desk and staining Magnus’ paperwork with flecks of oaky-brown. Magnus wrinkles his nose but doesn’t seem to care. He’s always like this, tossing things over his shoulder when he no longer needs them, a hurricane through his office when he’s on a mission, but tonight that same carelessness isn’t a quirk. No.

 

No, it makes Alec feel like he’s raised Magnus’ hopes for no reason, knowing full well that Idris would be fruitless and he’s just sat here itching to transform into Sentinel and head over to headquarters and root through the mess himself.

 

“That bad?” Alec asks instead, faking a wince as Magnus swallows back another gulp of whiskey that makes him sneer at his glass.

 

“They didn’t say enough for it to be bad,” Magnus explains. He gestures widely with his hands, only barely keeping all the whiskey in the glass. “It was the usual spiel about privacy policies and advising me to contact seventeen thousand other people instead, which I’m sure would just lead me in endless circles back to the same person, not only wasting my time, but leaving me somehow knowing even less than I did to begin with -”

 

Magnus takes a breath both sharp and irate, pressing his finger and thumb across the span of his temples. It gives Alec a chance to speak, to say something fake like: it’s okay, maybe someone else will come forward , but what he says is not what he plans.

 

“Magnus, I’m sorry.”

 

Magnus looks up sharply, wide eyes flicking to Alec’s.

 

“You’re sorry?” he demands, “Why?”

 

Alec shrugs, but it doesn’t feel easy. He feels stiff and awkward all over. He feels like he’s lying to Magnus, even though he’s not - not in the usual way - and Magnus deserves better than that. Alec only wishes he knew how to give it.

 

“For suggesting you call Idris. I guess it was a bad idea after all,” he murmurs. Bad idea, pointless idea, waste of time, what’s the difference.

 

He glances briefly at the clock on the wall. His patrol starts in a few hours. His leg begins to jitter.

 

“Do you want me to try calling back the guy at the 99th?” he continues. “Maybe Captain Garroway will be back at the precinct by now and be able to talk.”

 

Shoving his pile of police reports to the side, Alec reaches for the phone, dragging it across the desk - but then Magnus’ hand comes down on the wire, stopping Alec from pulling it any further.

 

“Alec.”

 

Alec hesitates. “... Yeah?”

 

“It wasn’t a bad idea,” Magnus presses, “Idris might not have told me anything, but that’s not to say they revealed nothing.”

 

He doesn’t blink, leaning forward across the desk. His necklace unspools out of the collar of his shirt and swings like a pendulum in the empty space before realisation.

 

Suddenly, Alec understands what he means.  

 

“You think they’re hiding something. Idris.”

 

“If there was nothing to say, they would’ve hung up on me straight away,” Magnus explains. He sets his whiskey down so that he can splay both palms flat on the tabletop. “Keeping me on hold for so long makes me wonder if some poor intern was running around behind the scenes trying to find out what they should tell me, in order for the correct story to be spun in the press.”

 

Alec frowns. That can’t be right -

 

- but he knows full well that it’s possible. It’s exactly the sort of thing his mother and father would do.

 

There’s no way that they haven’t noticed these vigilante murders: not between the press coverage and Alec’s field reports and the fact that they’re not blind, but deliberate . His father is a businessman and his mother is clever, calculated, always thinking five steps ahead of everyone else and making contingency plans for all eventualities. If they know something about all this, then that’s knowledge they’ll be holding to their chests until the opportune moment, until they can reap the benefits of it, until it will make them a fucking profit. They would be selective in what they tell to the papers, tactical in scheduling press conferences, purposeful in writing the narrative they want to star in -

 

And if Idris are involved in covering it up -

 

How does vigilantes being killed on the streets help Idris? How does hiding it from the public work in their favour?

 

Corporates are hated almost as much as vigilantes. Surely, surely , encouraging violence against them is going to bite them in the -

 

“You think,” Alec rasps, “Idris is investigating these murders too?”

 

“Maybe,” says Magnus, “I don’t know in what capacity. I have a ... contact in Idris, shall we say, but it seems that all investigation is off the record. I don’t think he knows anything of use.” Magnus pauses, thinking carefully about his next words. “But ... who’s to say things aren’t different higher up the food chain? Maybe someone knows something and is working hard to control the flow of information in the way they see fit.”

 

Alec doesn’t know what to focus on. Magnus has contacts inside Idris? Does Alec, does Sentinel , know them? Is it another super or are they in weapon development with Izzy or could they be in security, like Underhill? Should Alec ask for their name -

 

- or is that too revealing of his vested interest?

 

And then -

 

It’s not that someone is playing the press or spinning stories or keeping secrets, no. The sudden feeling of revulsion that floods into Alec’s chest, dark and twisted and disgusted, is that someone in Idris knows about these murders and is choosing to turn a blind fucking eye. Choosing to put business and politics and money before, what, empathy?

 

What if it’s his mother? His father?

 

And all the while, Alec is working right under their nose to investigate the exact same thing, driving himself into the dirt when there’s someone out there deliberately closing doors on him, on Sentinel -

 

“Alexander?” Magnus pries. “Are you okay?”

 

No. No, he’s not okay, and he suspects he hasn’t been for a while. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised at the thought of Idris being involved in these dead vigilantes, in these strange arsons. They have their fingers pressed to the pulse of every scheme of this insidious city, in every back pocket of every vile politician - why not this too? Why does it shock Alec so damn much?

 

Is it because it speaks to his guilty conscience? Because it makes him complicit?

 

Alec thinks of Nightlock then. He thinks of Veil and Wolfsbane too, and of all those nameless, murdered vigilantes he hasn’t been able to save. But out of all of them, it’s Nightlock’s face, morphing into something full of hurt and betrayal that simmers Alec’s nerves, setting them alight and cauterising the frayed ends in turn.

“If Idris knows … ” Alec starts, “and they’re not doing anything about it, then - I don’t understand how they can live with themselves. It’s fucked up.”

 

“It is,” Magnus agrees without hesitation. Alec watches as he slumps back in his chair. “And is it better or worse that those pulling the strings at Idris are entirely aware of the fact? The promise of a large sum of money will make people turn a blind eye to a great many terrible things.”

 

Magnus starts spinning the ring on his thumb around and around his knuckle. Alec has always wondered if it’s more a nervous tick or a sign of deep thought, but Hell, maybe it’s both.

 

Magnus has been a journalist for a long time now. He must’ve seen terrible, horrible things over the years: unjust war and vile hate crimes and federal violence and more. There must’ve been so many times where he’s stood on the roadside with his legal pad jotting down notes for a story that he fears won’t make an inch of difference. He’s dedicated his life to reporting crime and politics, to the dissemination of truth, to the weighing scales of justice when the law forgets them, but -

 

Has he ever seen something as dark as this?

 

Alec hasn’t. But Alec has never gone looking before.

 

How does one man go about fixing that? How does one man save everyone?

 

“What-” Alec whispers, clenching his fingers into his palms. “-what can we do?”

 

It’s not a question he should be asking. One day, Idris will be his, more than it is already. He’s supposed to be a leader: he should already know the answer to this and more; he should already have a damn plan. He should already be on the rado telling Jace and Clary what they need to do, and not asking Magnus for help when he won’t even realise the extent of what Alec’s asking.

 

That’s not fair on Magnus. Magnus hates the Corporates.  

 

“It’s not your responsibility to feel guilty for Idris’ shortcomings, Alec.”

 

Alec looks up, but Magnus is already watching him, his mouth pressed into a firm line. It attests to things being said that he doesn’t believe are all true.

 

“Isn’t it?” asks Alec, daring to tread that line. “I mean … it’s the public who let them get away with it. No-one ever holds them accountable …”

 

Magnus’ expression softens. It doesn’t do anything to dispel the lethargic ache in Alec’s chest, but it reminds him, for just a moment, how to breathe. And then, before Alec can bundle that pliant, vulnerable feeling back into his chest, Magnus reaches for Alec’s fidgeting hands across the desk, pressing his fingers lightly to the backs of Alec’s knuckles, stilling them for a moment.

 

“Your sense of justice is something too many men claim to have, but fail to act upon,” Magnus says, “It’s rare for someone to have the integrity and tenacity not to settle for just anything.”

 

The touch doesn’t last. It’s a fleeting thing, barely there, barely warm, barely beautiful, but Alec’s heart is in his throat nonetheless. The warmth of skin on skin, the briefest arc of static, the tender throb of a first touch - it makes his pulse stutter in staccato, and maybe he’s surprised, but he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t have time to think about it, because Magnus draws his hand back and folds his arms on the desk, tucking his fingers into the crook of his elbow.

 

He doesn’t look down at Alec’s hand. He doesn’t even blink. It’s a match, let and snuffed out in the same second, but has left Alec’s palm with a flash burn all the same.

“I admire that about you, Alec,” Magnus continues, “Your sense of what is right and what is wrong.”

 

And oh, Alec doesn’t know about that, he doesn’t think he has a good grasp on that at all - but when Magnus says it -

 

When Magnus says it, it sounds like truth, doesn’t it?

 

There’s a long pause before Alec asks, on a defeated sigh, “How do you do it?” He feels immensely vulnerable, like he’s bearing his soul, or at least his ugly insides. “How do you know that this is a fight worth fighting? How does it not … y’know .”

 

Kill you?

 

“Sometimes I don’t know that it’s worth it,” Magnus admits with a small shrug. “Sometimes I think there must be more than spending my life staying up ‘til five in the morning every night trying to solve something that I fear can’t be solved. Sometimes I do think about shoving this all into the bottom drawer of my desk and ignoring it. I do. But -”

 

He sighs heavily, rubbing his fingers against his temple. Alec doesn’t know what he’s thinking about, but he can probably take a good guess. It’s the same sort of thing that leaves Magnus with the same bruise-coloured shadows beneath his eyes as Alec, ones that he thinks he can cover with makeup and not be noticed.

 

But Alec has always noticed. Magnus has always been the one to go above and beyond for other people, people who won’t ever thank him - and God, he’s not even the one with superpowers. He’s just one man trying to make a difference with a pen and a pad of paper, one man with a newspaper and an ideal. He’s more brave than Alec. It goes without saying.

 

Alec has noticed all of it. He’s just never known what to say about it before.

 

“But if someone doesn’t take the law into their own hands, who else will?”

 

Magnus smiles tightly, but he nods. “Precisely. I think I owe that to a lot of people. A lot of people who can’t speak for themselves.”

 

That’s a lot for just one person to take on , Alec thinks. Because there are a lot of people out there, disposed by the government, locked up in jail cells without the chance to call a lawyer, murdered on the street, persecuted for kissing another man - treated as pariahs for powers they were born with, beyond their control.

 

That’s a lot. And as Magnus sighs something heavy and burdened, cricking his neck and steadying his shoulders as he settles back into the pile of paperwork on his desk, Alec can only wonder how it’s fair for him to have to carry all that weight alone.

 

It should be Idris’ job. It should be the Corporates’. It should be Sentinel, it should be -

 

Alec .

 

 


 

 

Alec knocks on the door to Izzy’s laboratory quietly, body curved in on himself. On the other side, he can hear the hum of music, muffled guitar making the air shiver, a bass pulse felt just behind his ear. Dizziness makes his head swim, not enough for it to hurt, but enough for him to notice the twitch, the ache, the sunspots when he looks at the fluorescent lights above too long. It started on the threshold of Magnus’ office, stalked him on the subway all the way here, and now, the white corridors of headquarters only make it worse.

 

Alec winces. He glances back down the corridor behind him - but there’s no-one there. The hallway is as vacant as ever, and whilst the security cameras above wink and revolve, he’ll be in and out before someone notices he’s here and accosts him for not being out on patrol.

 

Alec pulls the collar of his overcoat up about his throat, shrinking into the fabric. He goes to open the door, but then there’s a crash . The floor vibrates.

 

Fuck! ” Izzy swears from the other side of the door. “Every time!”

 

Alec doesn’t knock again. Izzy can’t hear him. He pushes on the door and slips in unseen, but is immediately deafened by rock music - and it’s Queen, because it of course it is, because Alec can’t cut a break - and the unmistakable smell of smoke.

 

Alec wrinkles his nose. “Is something burning?” he sneers. He looks around for his sister, but she’s nowhere to be seen. “Iz?”

 

There’s another clatter, and then a bang that shoots down Alec’s spine. His entire body tenses on instinct, his fingers twitching for his bow that isn’t even there. Heels click on the linoleum and Alec turns fast, only to see Izzy emerge from the back room, clutching an enormous piles of metal in her arms. Her lab coat is black with soot and there’s a smear of grease across her chin.

 

“Jace’s new prototype,” she says in greeting, bustling past Alec to dump whatever is in her arms on the lab bench. “Wiring issue.” On closer inspection, it looks like engine parts, spark plugs and valves and silver pistons, but Alec can’t be sure. The metal is warped and scorched and probably not doing what it’s meant to be doing, because spurts of grey smoke are shooting out between the wires.

 

Izzy wipes the back of her hand over her cheek, but smears soot everywhere. Alec goes to gesture to his own face, but decides against it. She probably already knows it’s there.

 

“I think it’s on fire,” he says instead. Which is equally unhelpful, judging by the annoyed quirk of Izzy’s lips.

 

“You don’t say,” she grumbles, “I thought the smoke was just for fun.”

 

She teeters over to her computer and prods a few buttons with her fingertips, wrapping her knuckles against the screen when it takes a second to load. She hums, and then turns to the fire alarm on the wall, reaching behind it to yank out a handful of wires.

 

Alec is … confused . And slightly concerned, but that’s nothing new.

 

“So,” Izzy says conversationally, wandering over to her stereo to turn down the music. Freddie Mercury is silenced abruptly, and what replaces him is a hissing sound, like metal heating and expanding. “I heard we have two more bodies.”

 

“Right,” says Alec with a scowl. He glances at Izzy’s engine and hesitates. “Same … same area as the others. The MO was similar -”

 

“Cut throat and burn marks?”

 

“Right. Yes. I thought you might be able to cash in a favour at the city morgue and have a look at them -”

 

“I’ve got a rendezvous with Meliorn tomorrow to pick up some gear, so I’ll pay them a visit while I’m out.” She glances back at Alec over her shoulder and narrows her eyes. “I noticed you didn’t file a report about it.”

 

“No. I didn’t.”

 

“That’s not very you .”

 

Alec opens his mouth to retort, but the words aren’t quite there. He wants to say something like: would anyone really care if I had? and that surprises him, because it’s mutinous. It’s not by the book. It’s against protocol, it’s -

 

Keeping secrets from his friends, from his sister, from his parents.

 

Even if that’s only returning the favour.

 

Alec folds his arms behind his back, just so Izzy can’t see him toying with his fingers and tugging at his knuckles.

 

“I wanted to keep this low profile. Handle it myself. Until I know what we’re dealing with.”

 

“I’ve been asking around,” says Izzy, scraping her hair up into a ponytail with the scrunchie on her wrist. She seems utterly unperplexed by the smoke, now thick and black, pouring out across the bench . “But either no-one knows anything, or they’re all purposefully ignoring it -”

 

“I can take a guess which it is,” Alec mutters. He watches in bewilderment as Izzy grabs a fire extinguisher from under the bench and begins tugging at the nozzle. Her long nails make it difficult, so she presents it to Alec with a pout.

 

Alec rolls his eyes, and yanks the pin, before handing it back.

 

“Thank you,” Izzy chimes. She squeezes the nozzle and blasts the smoking engine with a spray of white foam. And it goes everywhere , splattering all over the engine, the worktop, and the wall behind. Alec feels the cast-off flick against his cheek.

 

When she’s emptied the entire canister, Izzy heaves it up onto the bench and then turns to Alec, hands on her hips.

 

“Mom and dad don’t see a problem,” she says. Alec’s eyes dart between the pile of foam dripping down over the bench, and her face, and he raises an eyebrow, but Izzy keeps on talking. “Crime against vigilantes has always existed, it’s not out of the ordinary. They don’t see the pattern, so therefore, it’s not any of our concern. Which is, of course, bullshit-”

 

“Sometimes it feels like Idris are just sitting back and watching,” Alec replies. “It should be our job, keeping people safe, using our powers for -”

 

Good , he thinks, but good has been a long-held dream never quite realised. There’s a sour taste in his mouth, and worse, a heavy pitfall in his stomach, so condensed and painful that he can feel it, even when standing still and gritting his teeth.

 

He can only think of Magnus.

 

Magnus, and his quest for truth, for justice, for vengeance, in a way. He wants recompense against the city with blood on its hands, against the press for its slander, against Idris for their apathy.

 

“It just feels like -” Alec begins, tilting his chin up so he stares at the ceiling and not at Izzy. “Like other people are out there doing more than us to stop this, and they shouldn’t have to.”

 

Izzy tips her head. “People like your vigilante friends? Or people like … Magnus?”

 

She reads him so easily, and oh, isn’t that’s unfair. He wishes his stony silence wasn’t so full of cracks and the light inside wasn’t a hemorrhage he’s unable to stop; he wishes the way his face contorts into a frown wasn’t the answer to the question she doesn’t even need to ask.

 

Izzy’s lips pull up into a small, sympathetic smile.

 

“You can’t always do everything for everyone, Alec,” she says, “Maybe we should accept the help and just … say thank you. Given how little Idris cares, we probably need it.”

 

But it’s not about that , he thinks. Or it is, a little, but it’s also the frustration of feeling like a waste that makes his head hurt like it does. Like these gifts he was given by pure chance are withering away the longer he doesn’t put them to good use.

 

Because what is the point of him, Alec the superhero, what is the point of Sentinel , if not to save? If not to bare the burden so nobody else has to?

 

How does he say Iz, I feel useless , and have it mean as much as he wants it to mean, and not just be a cry for help?

 

“You think you can have a look through the archives for any more murders with the same MO?” he asks instead, steeling his voice. It’s meant to be the voice he uses with Jace when he’s giving orders, but Alec knows it’s a poor imitation now. He can hear his own waiver of weakness. “Anything remotely similar, I … I want to know.”

 

Izzy scrunches up her nose, but acquiesces. “It’ll take me a while, sifting through all that paperwork, but I’ll see what I can do. I can probably blackmail Underhill into helping me.” She pauses, narrowing her eyes. “What are you going to do?”

 

Alec flattens his mouth into a tight line, clenching his hands behind his back. He should talk to his parents, address the problem head on, but he already knows what they’ll say:

 

‘It’s a waste of time, Alec.  Just stick to your briefings and keep your head down.’

 

‘This is not our problem. Vigilante disagreements are not in our jurisdiction.’

 

‘Those supers are illegal, they had it coming.’

 

And that - that leaves him back at square one: waiting for another person to end up dead in the same way, and for him to stumble across the trail long after its cold. That leaves him alone, cold and alone , and drenched on a rooftop or in a parking lot. That leaves him with nowhere to turn, wanting desperately to just give up, because wouldn’t that be easier -

 

How does Magnus do it?

 

“Alec?”

 

“I don’t know,” Alec says honestly. He closes his eyes for a brief moment of respite not to be found. The dizziness persists. “Iz, I don’t know.”

 

 


 

 

Alec finds himself on the southeast corner of 4th and Broadway a few nights of insufferable silence later, staring up at the bright red and yellow sign of Tower Records that glows like a beacon. He loosens his tie around his neck and hoists his bag higher on his shoulder as his bow digs into his side through the canvas.

 

Broadway is always loud and invariably too busy; it makes him feel visible, and he’s never been well-practiced in that. Headlights paw at his back and every blaring horn makes him jolt and twist back to look over his shoulder, fearing that someone is shaking their fist out of a rolled-down window at him. There’s a gaggle of teenagers on the curb with their cheap deli coffees, huddled around the enormous LCD screen in the window as it plays loop footage of Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time . Alec pauses for a moment, less distracted by Jackson’s blindingly gold outfit, and more by the Re-elect Herondale '92 badges that his audience all seem to be sporting.

 

One of them catches him staring and shoots him a dirty glare.

 

Alec in turn, has to look away. He doesn’t want to get into it with a kid.

 

Hunching his shoulders, he ducks into the bright white light of the record store before he can reason himself out of it, and the rumble of the traffic and Michael Jackson’s fey trill give way into the hum of synth and low bass, playing inoffensively over the indoor speakers.

 

Alec doesn’t listen to much music, and he has even less cause than most to be here in a record store in the first place because it’s not like he owns a record player or a stereo either.

 

But he’s not here for himself.

 

There’s a spotty kid at the register who tries to catch his eye and offer him some cheery help, but Alec keeps his gaze ducked, quietly stealing into one of the aisles. Shelves of tape cassettes and shiny CDs tower over his head, taller than he suspects he could even reach, and his eyes rake across the spines: Patty Smith, Paula Abdul, Pet Shop Boys …

 

It’s a gesture. For Magnus.

 

In order to show what, exactly, Alec doesn’t know, but it’s to show something , to show Magnus that despite everything, despite Idris and President Bush and the state of the world, Magnus is not alone in carrying it all on his shoulders.

 

… Phil Collins, Prince ...

 

Queen.

 

Alec’s fingers brush reverently across the row of albums; they’re all there, not one missing. A Night at the Opera, Greatest Hits II, Innuendo … Alec recognises most of them from Izzy’s record collection back at HQ. He selects a cassette at random and turns it over in his hand.

 

It’s a Kind of Magic .

 

Alec almost laughs to himself.

 

He stares hard at the strange, garish colours on the jacket, the dark background flecked with bright, dizzying colours, and then scans the track list.

 

The song Magnus was humming the other night isn’t there, but -

 

The one Nightlock was - that’s there. First track on the B-side. It makes Alec’s stomach flip in a way he doesn’t really understand, but it feels important. For a moment, he can feel the soft drizzle from that night on his face again, the tension bleeding out of his body as they sat side by side on that upturned dumpster, the faint glow of a fake set of stars gently lapping at his feet in the puddles.

 

The feeling tingles, a memory altogether distant now, but no doubt fond. It was only a few days ago, but it feels like far longer; the world doesn’t pause for Alec, not like it did for that brief hour, sat together under the city’s blue haze, Nightlock’s face turned to the sky.

 

Alec feels like he’s aged a year between the two dead heroes against that hydrant and all this discussion about Idris. And Magnus -

 

Hey, it’s me ,” says Izzy, crackling into quiet existence in his ear. He almost doesn’t hear her, though it’s no fault but his own. “ We’ve got a police chase along the bayside, Arkangel ’s already in pursuit. Might need you on patrol early tonight .”

 

Alec turns away from the shelf, ducking his head as he presses his finger against his com bud. There’s only one other man in his aisle and he’s nodding his chin along to whatever music is blasting through his headphones.

 

“Jace alright?”

 

He’s fine. Nothing out of the ordinary, ” says Izzy. “ We might not even need you, but there’s a police cordon down south that you might need to oversee, so just hang around somewhere near by and I’ll call you. ” She pauses, and Alec can hear her thinking. “ Were you busy tonight?

 

“No,” says Alec. He digs for his wallet and spies two crumpled bills stuffed alongside his subway pass. “No, I’m not doing anything. I’ll be there in ten.”

 

 


 

 

Alec perches on the rooftop of what he thinks is a hotel - a stout, geometric building of grey limestone, rulered in by rows of regimented rectangular windows glossy with yellow light. Across from him, the glass of a skyscraper winks at him in its post-modernist juxtaposition, and below, a police cordon stretched out across the street, slowing the traffic to a crawl.

 

There are five marked police cars and two undercover Mercedes with dark-tinted window blocking the way, and a lot of people in high-vis coats, looking more and more pressed as the night wears on. Alec’s not sure what they’re doing, but they’re stopping every third car that creeps through their funnel of traffic cones, pulling some off to the side to check beneath the wheel arches for Lord knows what.

 

Izzy muttered something about a terror threat in his ear a few hours ago, but his ear piece has otherwise been silent, Jace keeping out of trouble and Clary staying silent, wherever she might be. The night itself is unusually temperate; it’s not warm, never warm, but Alec’s teeth aren’t chattering and his mask hasn’t adhered with frost to his skin, so he might as well call it tropical.

 

It won’t last, and he knows it; the warmth will bring lightning before daybreak. If he licks his lips, he suspects he might taste that thunderous charge already in the air.

 

But it’s always the cold that carries the tension. Unremarkably, Alec is glad to be rid of it, if just for a moment. It allows him to settle, his legs dangling over the edge of the building, his heels knocking haphazardly against the brickwork. His bow is still slung over his shoulder - not out of reach, but it’s the most off-guard someone might ever catch him.

 

In his hands, he crinkles a bright yellow plastic bag, his gloved hands feeling the rectangular outline of his cassette tape inside. He was going to stash it with his work clothes, but at the last minute, had stuffed it into his supersuit instead. And now he can’t stop looking at it.

 

Or, at least - looking at the bag. He hasn’t quite worked his way up to taking it out of the bag, because that makes it more real that he’s bought Magnus a gift.

 

He’s bought Magnus a gift. It’s not his birthday or Christmas or Easter Sunday or Kwanzaa or anything of the sort. He really has no excuse. He heard Magnus humming: it made something in his chest trip, and that’s really it.

 

He wanted to do something that would make Magnus smile. He wanted -

 

He wants to make Magnus feel like he’s recognised. Like someone appreciates the work he’s doing, and like someone still sees him a person beneath all that. He wants to make Magnus feel seen.

 

Alec curls his fingers into the plastic bag and it crinkles. His fingers distort the plastic. His teeth clench.

 

What are you doing, Lightwood -

 

He folds up the bag and slides it back into his boot, but now, he’s acutely aware of it. Acutely aware of the look Magnus might have on his face when Alec gives this to him: curiosity, confusion, pity, maybe?

 

Happiness? Alec finds that he’s not sure what that looks like.

 

Below, a fire engine hurtles through the police blockade, sirens wailing and lighting up the dark with knife-sharp blue. The street is straight and long, all the way to the horizon, and Alec watches it go with a minute frown, until bright lights and bleariness swallow it up.

 

How does one find time for happiness between all this? Between emergency calls and the hot flush of adrenaline; between slowly seeping dread and unzipping at the end of the night and falling into bed; between story after story, lead after lead that peeters out to nothing.

 

Between match strike and extinguination.

 

There’s hardly a moment to breathe, led alone consider the strange swirling feelings in his chest.

 

Magnus must suffer from that too. His world revolves around that newspaper; he cannot have time for anything else.

 

In that regard, he’s just like Alec. They’re two sides of the same coin.

 

The warm thrum of a threatening storm rumbles over head, the air laden with it. The siren of the fire engine still rings in Alec’s ear, a Doppler effect still dissipating. His voice of reason whispers in his ear, even now: have you checked the dispatch? Do you need to go where they’re going? You don’t have time to pause and think about this.

 

Alec’s finger is halfway to his coms when he tastes that thunder calling on his lips. A prickle, a shudder, a simpering familiarity -

 

It’s not a storm at all.

 

Sometimes, Alec half expects the clouds to part above his head and for a column of strange, dream-deep light to appear as Nightlock materialises from out of the dark. It never happens, but Alec never stops wondering, the spark of anticipation rippling down his spine as he climbs to his feet, stuffing the cassette further into the side of his boot for safe keeping.

 

He searches the dark for a familiar shape, energy scuttling up and down his forearms, slithering beneath his bracers and lying flat between his suit and his skin. He searches for a shadow he finds he already knows the shape of. He’s still thinking of Freddie Mercury. It softens him at the edges, blurs all his carefully composed lines.

 

“Well, hello, stranger.”

 

Nightlock never appears in the place where Alec is looking. Maybe Alec should start looking the other way. Maybe he should just stop searching altogether and just wait to be found.

 

He turns. It’s not been long since they saw each other last, the two of them standing in horror over that fire hydrant, although it hardly feels it. Those days in between have not been kind to Nightlock.

 

Behind his mask, Nightlock looks exhausted. It’s not a passing shadow that hangs beneath his eyes. His whole body bears the weight. Alec wonders if he’s supposed to be seeing it.  

 

“How do you always know where I am?” Alec asks. “Can you do that with your powers too?”

 

Nightlock rolls his eyes. His smile is thin. “I think you’ve been grievously misinformed about my powers .”

 

“Twice is a coincidence. Three times is not,” Alec points out. Then, in a lower voice, he adds, “And I think we’ve passed that now.”

 

“I suppose the next step is dinner and a movie.”

 

Alec rolls his eyes. “Don’t push your luck.”

 

Nightlock scoffs, as close to a laugh as Alec has ever heard from him. He steps to Alec’s side, pausing a moment as if in silent greeting, and then moves past him, peering out over the edge of the roof. His half-quirked smile becomes a frown.

 

It’s hard to say what Nightlock is thinking - as it always is, because he’s a man who plays his cards close to his chest, because that’s who you have to be to survive this long in a city out for blood - but tonight, Alec can easily hazard a guess.

 

And that’s because Alec shares the same preoccupation. Those same vivid nightmares, the same caress of a noose tightening around his throat, the same fear that good is just not good enough .

 

Alec turns quietly, moving to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of the rooftop. Nightlock doesn’t move away. Alec ducks his head a little to steal a glance at his expression.

 

Does he still feel the rain from that on the back of his neck? Does he still smell the burning of leather and charred skin? Does his throat sting too with the thought of a straight razor?

 

Does he blame Sentinel, blame Idris, for all of this? Or does he blame himself for not doing enough, just like Alec?

 

What does fear look like on a man who can level buildings with the flick of his fingers? Not wide eyes and terror; nor pale and mournful either.

 

It looks ungodly. That’s the word Alec settles upon, because Alec reads the unnatural tension in the air like braille, indentations against his fingertips. He sees the stiffness in Nightlock’s shoulders, the clench in his jaw as he looks out over the city, the way his silence is loud and deliberate.

 

And oh, doesn’t Alec know feeling that all too well.

 

“Have you got any leads on those two supers?” Alec asks, trying to catch Nightlock’s line of sight. “The ones strapped to the fire hydrant?”

 

“No. No, none,” replies Nightlock. His words are clipped. Terse, but not angry. “I’ve asked around, but - nothing. You?”

 

“Not yet,” Alec admits, “I’ve got … someone looking into it. She knows someone at the city morgue and could pull a few strings. She’s the best of the best -”

 

“Does Idris know?”

 

Alec frowns. “No. It’s off the record.”

 

“Good,” says Nightlock thoughtfully, “Good. What I said before - about them being involved -”

 

He doesn’t look at Alec, not in the pointed way Alec would expect. Instead, he seems to avoid Alec’s gaze obliquely, and Alec knows the look of a man struggling with his own restlessness, a twitch in his fingers, a pounding in his chest. He’s fighting hard not to meet the questioning look in Alec’s eyes.

 

Nightlock is neither the first nor last person to make that accusation in the last few days. Magnus said just as much. Idris might be involved in this, someone higher up the food chain than Sentinel’s good intentions and Arkangel’s bravery and even Izzy’s intuitive aptitude.

 

And Alec would be a fool not to consider it -

 

“And tonight?” Nightlock interrupts Alec’s internal barrage of doubt. “Is Sentinel on duty or off duty?”

 

Alec gestures at the police cordon below them. As he shifts, he feels the cassette tape shimmy down inside his boot.

 

“I was in the neighbourhood,” he says cooly, even though there’s a burning sensation in his fingertips and he fights not to busy his hands. “I’m keeping watch.”

 

“You were in the neighbourhood? Is that code for can’t sleep ?”

 

( Can’t sleep at night? whispers Magnus in his memories.)

 

No , Alec immediately goes to bite back, but as Nightlock turns to face him, the word extinguishes on Alec’s tongue.

 

There’s this look on Nightlock’s face that is almost meek . It throws Alec for a loop.

 

Nightlook is tired . His shoulders are hunched up against a cold that isn’t even there; his half-smile is resigned and weary; and this rare moment of openness, this freedom to show feeling, is a vulnerability Alec doesn’t know how to handle. Alec’s hands are too big, his touch too clumsy; he’s sure it will sift through his fingers.

 

I haven’t been sleeping,” Nightlock says then, and he waves his hand in a manner dismissive and so obtuse that it’s irritating. “Pacing the pavements seems like a better use of my time.”

 

Is his candor a trap? Alec doesn’t feel like it is. Maybe Nightlock’s just as tired as he looks.

 

Alec presses his hand to his mask, pinching the bridge of his nose. He closes his eyes for a moment, before opening them again. He wonders if, when he opens his mouth, things will start pouring out too. It’s always a risk.

 

“When you close your eyes and you see … all of it,” Alec murmurs in agreement. Distantly, there’s another siren, growing closer, and then growing further in its vanishing echo. “All of them ... dead.”

 

Nightlock’s eyes turn sharp. He considers Alec for a long moment, and then, he says -

 

“Do you know when something’s worth it, Sentinel?”

 

Again. Again, here is the echo of Magnus, and Alec stares dumbfounded at Nightlock, his mouth dropping open on a noise of surprise that doesn’t quite come. The silence stretches enough to have Nightlock shift, clearly uncomfortable, away from Alec.

 

“Of course you don’t,” he says quickly, and this is him throwing up his walls, this is him getting defensive and prickly and throwing out his elbows at the easiest target, and that’s Alec, that’s all his damn Corporates. The night is dark, but Alec sees that as plain as day. “You get paid not to think about that.”

 

“Nightlock,” Alec warns.

 

“Are you going to deny it?”

 

Alec narrows his eyes, but it’s Magnus that echoes tonight in his head, the press of that cassette tape in his boot a reminder, so it’s not anger that he feels, not hurt, not a wounded pride, not anymore.

 

I admire that about you. Your sense of right and wrong.

 

And Magnus had said it with such conviction that Alec might almost believe it. Perhaps, if Nightlock heard Magnus too, saw the determination ever present in Magnus’ eyes, he might believe it also.

 

“I don’t need to deny it,” Alec says low. “I know right from wrong. It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not.”

 

Nightlock swallows thickly at Alec’s words. Alec watches it in the bob of his throat, the prominent outline of his Adam’s apple, and then, as Nightlock turns his head to the side, Alec sees him in profile against the glow of the roaming city.

 

Nightlock chews his cheek in thought. “It must be nice to feel things so black and white,” he murmurs, “Everything just feels so many shades of grey right now, it’s hard to find something … concrete, to hold onto.”

 

“Is that an apology?” Alec dares. It makes Nightlock scoff.

 

“Not likely,” he says, but then hesitates. “Perhaps a surrender. If I’m feeling generous.”

 

“I’ll take anything I can get,” replies Alec, and oh, doesn’t that echo truer than he would like. He’s always strayed from the spotlight, but when it’s the one cast by Nightlock looking at him, staring at him like he deserves to be deconstructed, like the both of them are standing in the centre of a slow motion car crash, well -

 

Despite the long, dark shadow that stretches out behind him, filled with all sorts of unholiness and suffering thought, Alec finds that he cannot pull himself away.

 

Another fire engine speeds down the street. The blinking blueness refracts in Nightlock’s dark eyes, making them glow, making Alec’s head spin. He waits for the siren to fade, before anything can be said, but it’s Nightlock who beats him to it.

 

“That’s the third fire engine I’ve seen in the last half an hour,” he says, and that’s enough to break the strangest of stupours. The wail of the sirens in distant and unmistakable, and it disappears off in the same direction of the first.

 

Alec frowns, reaching for the police radio clipped to his belt, fingers turning the frequency to a different channel.

 

There’s nothing at first, just the hiss of white noise and static. But then, the croaky voice of the dispatcher crackles through, and reality is cold and chilling.

 

… dispatch calling … available units to … suspected arson, no casualties …

 

“That’s not far from here,” Nightlock says, although Alec didn’t hear the street address. “It’s a church in midtown.”

 

Nightlock steps back from Alec, putting space between them that Alec hadn’t even noticed disappear. Immediately, he’s searching the horizon, seeking the uptrail river of smoke seeping into the sky between buildings.

 

He’s not going to find any. Even Alec’s keen eyes cannot make out plumes of purple smoke against the clouds lying low over the city’s head. The smell of burning never carries far enough to mean much.

 

“Did they say arson?” Alec grimaces, “Do you think it’s -?”

 

“Maybe,” replies Nightlock, smoothing out his coat and adjusting his gloves. “I can go. They said no casualties, and you’re busy here, I’m sure.”

 

“What? I - no, no, I can go,” Alec says, too quickly, too telling. “Arkangel and Muse won’t be back for hours. I can go.”

 

Nightlock fixes him with a curious look, but it softens quickly. He smiles a so-be-it smile, and yes - it does feel like a surrender. He was right.

 

“Well, alright then. As long as you can keep up.”

 


 

Alec smells the burnt carcass of the church long before he even reaches the block. Running up the street and the spire pierces between plate glass skyscrapers, pitch black and shadowless, but the billowing smoke is blinding: Alec cannot make out any definition between the windows and the brickwork until he’s staring up at the ruins and the cold hand of shock rummages around in his belly.

 

Scorched ground and incinerated brick smell so very different to the stale tobacco and marijuana that clings to the city’s dark alleyways and underpasses; and in that, Alec is made nervous.

 

This sort of smoke is arid and dry. Alec wrinkles up his nose, the wind chafing at his skin. Sirens light up the side of every building for a half-block radius, flashing strobe against the underside of the heavy clouds. Alec’s head already aches, his eyes threatening to water.

 

He scales the side of an old brownstone with less elegance than he would like, and hauls himself up onto the roof only to find Nightlock already there, having flown. Nightlock stands tall on the very edge of the building, the wind whipping up his coat in violent shapes behind him, and he exchanges a look with Alec that consists of too many layers.

 

Alec takes a few measured breaths - and grumbles to himself that he had to run all this way when Nightlock can just lift his hands and fly, and that’s hardly fair - and then joins Nightlock at the edge, looking out upon the carnage below.

 

It’s an old church, blackened and ashen, that crumbles before them, and is it the act of starting fires, or the aftermath, that bodes more violence, Alec wonders. Something about looking upon the skeleton of a building, ribs made of rafters and bleeding smoke, that whispers of destruction and sacrilege.

 

There are not many churches left like this in Manhattan, a world made of agnostic concrete and glass, and it’s been a long time since God and good faith found a home here. Churches are Sundays relics, pretty things to admire in passing, but left to fade in the corner of the eye.

 

And because of that, Alec already knows this wasn’t an accident. Someone wants this place noticed. A fire set to attract attention ...

 

A dozen fire engines and police cars are abandoned in the ruined shadow of the church, lights blaring, but the night is blue and black, and not the red of angry fire. They’re definitely too late to catch the culprit, but it doesn’t stop something dark contorting Nightlock’s face.

 

“What is it?” Alec asks, because he’s paying too much attention to miss it.

 

Still, Nightlock is surprised to be noticed. “Probably nothing,” he says. Alec watches as Nightlock worries his lower lip with his teeth, and then swipes his thumb across his mouth, catching upon the corner. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together then, his glove squeaking as he inspects his hand for some sort of residue Alec cannot see.

 

“Do you taste that?”

 

It’s an odd question to be asking but Alec obliges, tentatively wetting his lips. What he tastes is smoke, burning rubble, something ashy and charred. Hot metal, wet brick. Sweat cooling on his upper lip from running. Whatever cologne it is that Nightlock douses his coat in to keep himself hidden.

 

And Alec’s about to say no, no I only taste smoke , but then, as he pokes his tongue out between his lips once more, there’s something else, a faint sweet, leathery taste that creeps just below the surface of everything else, and it makes Alec stiffen.

 

He’s trapped by the same sensation as before, as in that charred warehouse, as on that street with the two dead man lashed to a fire hydrant, where the air felt heavy with human fat. And now, that same taste sticks to Alec’s lips like flesh and sinew, and he can almost feel it gluing his mouth shut.

 

Burning brick and burning skin smell so very different. He can taste the cooked fat again.

 

Someone was burned here.

 

“The dispatcher said no casualties,” Alec mutters, but down below, more police cars are pulling up, and one officer is unrolling a strip of yellow caution tape. A few men in dark trenchcoats are talking with heavyset frowns and war-grim faces, and Alec thinks they must be detectives.

 

“Yes,” says Nightlock, “But what remains is the question of whether there were any casualties to find.”

 

Alec’s throat tightens and he clenches his fists at his side. There’s that dread again, sickening and insidious, but it’s worse this time, because it’s hand in hand with anticipation.

 

Not again , he thinks. Not again, please not again . But he already knows the answer to a question not yet posed. Still, he sees it curling Nightlock’s lips up into a sneer, just as Nightlock’s fingers twitch and make the air shiver and tremble against the back of Alec’s neck.

 

Below them, a group of weary looking firefighters emerge from the remains of the great arched doorway, and one of them only makes it five or six steps before he falls abruptly to his knees and wretches on the ground. One of the other firefighters pats him sympathetically on the back, but Alec doesn’t need keen eyes to see that they all look green.

 

“I don’t think this was an arson,” Alec says low. He feels the bile churning in his gut too, and whilst heat still radiates from the burned-out church, the air has dropped ten degrees. Alec is chilled to the bone.

 

He looks to Nightlock, expecting him to be facing forward, his face contorted like thunder, the gears in his head turning.

 

Instead, all Alec finds is the dark brown of his eyes, somehow soft in the barbed-wire light.  

 

“No,” Nightlock agrees, and his voice is a whisper. “Old churches don’t burn like this; they were built to last, but this is just charcoal.” His eyes drop to Alec’s chest, spanning Alec’s shoulders, the length of his arms, the strength in his hands. He pauses at last upon the bow still strapped to Alec’s thigh, and Alec can only guess at what he’s thinking.

 

You can trust me , he finds himself wanting to say against his better judgement. This bow belongs to me, not Idris. Whatever it is you think we need to do, I’ll do it.

 

Nightlock’s gaze flicks back to Alec’s, sharper now. “I suspect our assumptions were correct,” he states. “We have a pyrokinetic amongst us.”

 

“Killing people,” says Alec.

 

“That remains to be seen,” Nightlock says, “But I fear as much.”

 


 

They stand on the edge of that rooftop for what seems like hours, and although Alec’s legs begin to ache, he cannot move. The fire engines leave but the police escort remains, and Alec watches the detectives come and go, accompanied by men in white suits and face masks who carry silver briefcases and large cameras.

 

Alec hasn’t seen anything like this before, and it worries him. Izzy has always said he’s a bit of a worrier, and he’s always fitfully denied it, claiming that he’s only appropriately concerned about things that he needs to be concerned about . But as the police don’t stop moving and the lights don’t stop flashing, the situation below feels like his concern is dearly warranted; it doesn’t sit well in his stomach. He feels uneasy, made only worse by the fact that, once the smoke starts to dissipate into the overcast sky, Alec can still taste that char on the tip of his tongue.

 

He pulls his bow and shakes it out to full length, aware of Nightlock’s eyes on him. Alec clips his scope lens on and peers through, hoping for a clearer view.

 

The telltale shape of a body covered by black plastic never appears, but not even that can quell Alec’s nerves. Something’s not right, and he has no clue what that might be, not unless he gets a closer look -

 

His boot inches forward towards the rooftop’s edge – he doesn’t even notice until Nightlock speaks.

 

“I’ve been told that I have a gift for distractions.”

 

Alec looks up. He lowers his bow, confused. “Huh?”

 

Nightlock’s mouth lifts into a small, wry smile, although there’s no humour in it. Perhaps if they were stood close enough, he might nudge Alec with his elbow. Alec’s not sure why that feels significant.

 

Nightlock tilts his chin towards the church, briefly exposing his throat. Alec’s stare doesn’t leave him.

 

“Do you want to go down there?” he asks, already knowing the answer. “Unfortunately, neither you or I have the power of invisibility, so we’d undoubtedly be caught if we did, but I can cause a distraction. If you’re interested.”

 

Alec nods and Nightlock clicks his tongue. He takes a step back, anchoring himself with a wide stance, and then sweeps his hand through the air, clenching his fingers into an abrupt fist. Alec can’t help but hold his breath.

 

The next thing Alec knows, an empty police car is sucked up into the air and sent hurtling down the street with the shriek of metal and screech of asphalt, followed by frenzied shouting from police officers suddenly panicked into action. The police car collides with a distant streetlamp in a fountain of bright orange spark, the roof and engine crumpling on impact.

 

Alec’s eyebrows shoot up.

 

Nightlock smirks and, as all the police officers run off in the direction of their runaway car, he raises his other hand. With a hard, fast strike of his fingers, he seizes another car in his telekinetic grip and launches it down the street in the other direction.

 

It’s chaos below, and Alec almost wants to laugh, but finds himself slightly breathless. Still, a smile betrays him, and Nightlock seems pleased, dusting off his hands on his coat as if it were nothing.

 

“That might have been overkill,” Alec remarks.

 

“No-one was hurt,” Nightlock replies, fixated on Alec’s reluctant smile. It seems to spark an idea in his dark eyes; Alec watches at it takes root and blooms with more excitement than he has seen on Nightlock before.

 

And then, Nightlock steps to the edge of the roof, toes curled over the edge, and he extends his gloved hand out to Alec, face up: it’s an offering.

 

Oh. Oh, he wants Alec to -

 

Fly?

 

Alec stares at Nightlock’s hand, bewildered for a moment. He doesn’t have time for staring, but his mouth parts and his fingers curl into his palm, nails pressing into the meat of his thumb.

 

Nightlock raises his eyebrows as if to say get that stick out of your ass or worse, come on, Sentinel, I dare you. When Alec doesn’t move, he rolls his eyes dramatically.

 

“Come on, Sentinel. We don’t have time for trust falls. Best we get in and out before they realise what’s going on.”

 

Alec nods curtly. Hesitantly, he places his own gloved hand in Nightlock’s. Nightlock’s fingers curl around his.

 

Warm. They’re warm.

 

Was Alec expecting them to be cold? Like everything else?

 

Nightlock smiles again, and it’s crooked and a little devilish, enough to make Alec tense all over.

 

He knows that sort of smile. It’s an unhelpful thought, and the tight feeling cramps in his chest. If it were Magnus smiling like that, he’d surely have something flirtacious or mortifying to follow -

 

But it’s not Magnus, and Nightlock’s grip on his hand is slightly too tight, his smile slightly too dangerous, running along the knife edge of that fear he still wears like a cloak. They’re about to take a leap off the edge of a building.

 

And that - that fear makes it that much easier for Alec to settle his heart, even when Nightlock raises his other hand and the ground slips away from beneath Alec’s feet, and he finds himself buoyed by forces unseen. Alec can’t stay his sharp intake of breath, his heart lurching up into his throat and catching there as his entire body goes rigid.

 

He’s flown plenty times with Jace, but that’s slightly easier to stomach. Because at least he can see Jace’s wings; at least knows what’s keeping them afloat and would trust in Izzy’s tech until he dies, even if the turbulence always makes him feel sick.

 

This, though, has his stomach doing somersaults over itself in the way his legs dangle in the air as Nightlock guides them both over the edge of the building, slowly descending towards the ground. Suddenly, he has no control over his hands and feets, no ground to brace himself on, no way to pull back his bowstring if he needs to. He’s so aware of his own weight and how he should be plummeting towards certain death right now, how something that makes no sense is keeping him aloft, but his brain cannot make left or right of it, let alone up or down.

 

He squeezes Nightlock’s hand without realising; it makes Nightlock grin, flashing his teeth as he squeezes Alec’s fingers right back, his grip strong. He pulls Alec a bit closer in mid-air, slowing their fall towards the ground. Alec’s chest feels like liquid, all his insides floating around inside, untethered and buoyed. He definitely tastes acid reflux at the back of his throat.  

 

“Someone might say you’re scared of flying,” Nightlock teases, his mouth twisted up at the side as they descend the front of the building.

 

Alec grits his teeth. “Not flying,” he says.

 

Nightlock gives Alec’s hand another squeeze, and Alec feels his nails through his gloves, pressing into Alec’s palm deliberately. It feels more like a pinch this time.

 

“Scared of letting someone else have control?”

 

Alec doesn’t answer that.

 

When his feet finally meet asphalt, he breathes a sigh of relief that is far too loud.

 

Nightlock scoffs. He drops Alec’s hand with a parting there, there tap to his knuckles, and steps away from Alec, putting space between them.

 

“Remind me not to do that again,” Alec says weakly, swaying as all his internal organs right themselves again. “I’m fine with walking.”

 

“Suit yourself,” says Nightlock with a knowing look, “But we can discuss the merits of air travel later.” He nods towards the simmering remains of the church. “Let’s see what’s going on.”

 

It’s easy enough to hurry across the street unseen. Alec is a ghost in black and Nightlock doesn’t make a sound; and as all the cops are dispersed halfway to the wind anyway, no-one notices the two of them ducking beneath the caution tape and ascending the steps of the burned-down church.

 

The arch of the doorway casts them both in deep shadow, and Alec looks up, just briefly, craning his neck back to see the spire disappearing into the dark high above. In its blackness, in the strange and unnerving way its burned flesh seems to absorb all the light pouring out of the city like an abyss, Alec swears he sees the whole building tremble, a full body shudder.

 

Perhaps it’s just smoke. Perhaps it’s the last whisper of piety evaporating into the clouds. Perhaps it’s something more sinister than that, wreaking havoc in the gloom.

 

The stench of burning rubble and charred rafters is stronger inside, enough to make Alec choke and cough into his fist as he ducks through the door, into the entryway. Nightlock sneers, his nose wrinkling up, and he waves his fingers around to move precariously balanced timbers out of the way, dislodging a thick layer of sediment from the ceiling.

 

It hits the ground with a soundless puff .

 

The inside of the church is painted black; there’s a mural of the Virgin Mary above the door that was once yellow and gold and powder blue. Her skin, now, is flaky and ashen, peeling across her bare hands and pinkened cheeks. Alec suspects that if he were to reach out and touch the walls, his hand would pass right through and they would crumble around him, reality dissolving into ash between his palms. It makes him wonder if the world outside still exists at all, or if there’s just vacuous black space, fragile, unfinished, half-erased. His boots alone leave dark footprints in the carpet of soot, muffling the normal sort of echo one would expect to hear in vaulted halls as high as this.

 

It’s eerie. The silence is deafening, seeping up from the tombs likely below his feet. It’s all so wrong, so unnaturally still , because he knows how the police sirens outside wail and how the wind howls and how his footsteps should sound, a beat like a heart on concrete. But the soot absorbs it all like snow, like fog, like the unmoving shroud of death and it’s like he’s stepped out of time; like the world around them has stopped; like Alec has slipped between two windows in time to a state of purgatory, paused right upon the veil of reality and disillusion where hidden listeners wait in ambush but never seize the chance. He can almost imagine the petals of ash falling from above, stilling in mid-air, long enough for him to be able to reach out and grab a fleck between his thumb and forefinger in some sort of daze.

 

How much fire did it take to do all this?

 

Nightlock leads the way, weaving a path through the wreckage. They pass a number of scorch marks on the ground, carved into the stone and the wood. And then, a litter of small yellow crime scenes cones amidst the rubble marking out evidence, already blanketed with a thin film of fallen ash.

 

Alec barely dares to breathe. It doesn’t seem right to make a sound, for fear of putrefaction. He focuses, instead, on matching his footprints with the ones Nightlock treads, careful not to disturb anything else.

 

But it’s when they finally reach the skeletons of the large, towering oak doors that lead into the nave and Nightlock creaks them open with another wave of his hands, that Alec’s entire body stills. His heart ... stops .

 

He can hear nothing. Endless, drowning, silent nothing .

 

And then, far ahead, in the gilded shadow of the sanctuary -

 

Ash is falling from the vaulted ceiling in clumps, pillowing on the ground and mushrooming as clouds of gritty smoke, the rows and rows of pews little more than a pile of smouldering and shattered wood, and the air hangs heavy with suffocation and broiled flesh -

 

But it’s not what Alec stares in horror at.

 

“What … is that?” he finds himself saying, his voice breaking upon the last word. He doesn’t know why he asks. He has eyes.

 

He can see.

 

At the far end of the church, suspended high above the chancel and the altar by long cast iron chains, is the unmistakable shape of a body .

 

And it’s too hard to tell from a distance if the body belonged to a man or a woman, an adult or a child, because it’s disfigured beyond recompense, flesh warped and blackened and crisp. The head lolls forward and the skin, blistered and weeping blood, has crusted dark and brown. Chains lashed about the wrists stretch the arms out wide, wrenching at the shoulders, pulling the bones free of the sockets and slicing into the softened flesh of the palms - and the analogy to crucifiction is not lost, not in a place such as this.

 

“By God,” Nightlock whispers. “What circle of Hell …”

 

This is not consecrated ground anymore. Alec is by no means a man of God - not in a city such as this where God has clearly abandoned them for all their Earthly horrors - but he knows this is no longer a place of worship. Fire has seared all the holiness from this ground, without care for the cries and prays of that which it has burned.

 

Someone has been burned at the stake, the stake being the altar. Does the blasphemy ring louder, or does the silence -

 

Nightlock starts walking, striding purposefully up the aisle, and Alec half expects the bellow of an organ to accompany him, to shatter the numb and terrifying silence - but it doesn’t come. Alec can only follow in blind despair, his mouth dry and his heart seized in his chest, picking his way over splintered wood and the remains of an enormous chandelier, crashed from high above.

 

At the steps of the chancel, Nightlock stops abruptly and stares up at the body. It’s strung up a good ten feet off the ground; a shake of the head is all the reaction Nightlock can muster, but Alec sees the tremble in his fingertips. Words whisper over Nightlock’s lips that Alec can’t quite catch, but which he suspects might be prayer, the sort spoken to people whose souls have been damned and need safe passage to the other side.

 

Alec remembers being told that people who die violent deaths don’t tend to be given the chance to move on. They remain trapped, anchored to the city –  in much the same way as him.

 

As he thinks it, his whole body shivers with a tremor of impact, of horrendous epiphany, rather than with the cold.

 

“I knew something wasn’t right,” Nightlock mutters, “The energy here feels all wrong.”

 

“It’s definitely not the only thing that’s wrong,” Alec says darkly.

 

He braves looking up, but this close, he can see the way the flesh has been seared from the bones and left to crack. He sees clothes incinerated, flesh bubbled, and hair torched, all remnants of an identity stripped away from whoever this once was. The smell of burned skin is putrid. The stench is nauseating and sweet, like leather tanned over a flame, so thick and heavy that Alec can taste it on his tongue. He leans forward, bowing his head as he tries not to gag, finding purchase in the edge of the font, once gold and ornate, but now black and crumbling.

 

Nightlock waves his hands again, the set of his face harsh and stern, and if Alec weren’t trying not to wretch, he would say something about not disturbing a crime scene. But he can’t; he can’t even bring himself to think it.

 

The chains holding up the body begin to sag. Slowly and sorrowfully, Nightlock guides the blackened corpse down to Earth, laying it to rest on the plateau of the altar before them.

 

Alec measures his breathing, looking up from where his head is bowed between his shoulders to watch Nightlock approach the altar. Nightlock tips his head and gazes down at the deformed face, and his expression is so carefully blank.

 

Numb. It’s numb, and that’s what Alec’s feeling too: the shock devolving, mutating into numbness .

 

And it manifests as a heaviness in Alec’s gut, an ache, a sickness that he’s sure he’s catching the longer they stay. He can’t keep looking; he can’t stomach the realisation that fire doesn’t burn human skin, it peels it; he never wanted to know that incinerated hair smells like sulfur.

 

Something wrong has happened here, and it goes beyond the evil and the violence that has been allowed into these walls.

 

Alec needs to leave, but he won’t leave without Nightlock, unwilling to abandon him, unwilling, even, to take his eyes from the lines of his back.

 

His stare does shift, however, because as he tries to right himself, pushing away from the font, he notices something drowned in the holy water. A small dark shape at first, a shadow beneath the murky surface.

 

Alec frowns. The water is cold as he plunges his hand into the font, almost icy to the point of paradox, as he pulls out a soaked scrap of fabric. He squints at it, unfolding it in his clumsy hands. It feels like soft leather, and it has two holes in it, and -

 

Oh no.

 

Oh no, not another one.

 

He balks, almost throwing it back into the water. It’s only a testament to the horror he has already seen that he keeps a hold.

 

It’s a mask.

 

It’s a fucking mask , and he sees that as he unfurls it in his hands, holding it up to the shards of faint light that pierce through the windows.

 

It’s a small black mask, not unlike the one he’s wearing right now.

 

He drags his eyes back to the immolated corpse.

 

“It was a super.” His voice rings out too hollow in the enormous hall, but the walls are blackened and thin and fragile and there’s nowhere for his voice to echo. His words are all but swallowed up. He tastes the bile that is left behind.

 

Nightlock turns back to him, visibly confused for a moment, until his stare locks upon the mask in Alec’s hands. And Alec sees it wash over him: the horror, the dread, the heresy of all of this, and then, thereafter, the hatred and the anger, a slow and simmering thing that will only be stoked as the night drags on.

 

“I knew it,” Nightlock says, his voice dangerously low. He seems to tense, not a breath of movement in his entire body, so usually fluid and graceful, and then he says, “We need to leave.”

 

Alec doesn’t need to be told twice.

 


 

Nightlock doesn’t speak for a while, but Alec can’t say he’s any wiser as to what should be said. Walking does little to clear his mind, and the city still screams like a slaughterhouse, sirens bleating in the distance, tires screeching on the asphalt, the slow thud of heavy bass seeping from the walls of seedy nightclubs - but Alec finds he does not long for silence, not anymore.

 

That church was silent. Too silent. And that same silence hangs heavy in the space between him and Nightlock now, unbroachable and as vast as an abyss, unnerving as it echoes across Alec’s skin, scoring him down to the bone. The wind, now beckoning thunder and downpour, sweeps through those crevasses in both the city and Alec with no apology.

 

They walk three or four blocks, cutting through darker alleyways where they won’t be seen, until the increase in drunk people staggering between bars becomes all too much. They’re forced to climb upwards then, taking to the rooftops once more.

 

Alec expects Nightlock to leave. He’s not sure why Nightlock hasn’t yet taken off, disappearing without a word. Alec can tell he’s in shock. He walks ahead of Alec, quiet and quipless, his eyes elsewhere and his fingers spasm between still and restless. Surely, surely , he doesn’t want to be here. Surely he has family and friends at home, surely he wants company that isn’t Alec and this Godless space of a city.

 

Alec stops.

 

He’s not sure why he does, on this rooftop rather than any other, but he does; he doesn’t want to keep walking. Hell, he can’t feel his legs, but he can feel his tender stomach, one harsh breath away form having him bent over on the ground and retching. He swings his quiver from his shoulder and unclips his bow and throws them both to the ground, and then he runs his hands through his hair, dragging it up on its end.

 

Godless space indeed. The city blinks at him with some dumb facade of not knowing any better , although Alec has long since fallen for that pretense. He’s not fooled. There’s blood in the gutters and churches steeped in fire and people dying in the streets, and there’s no way the city turns a blind eye to that. It’s complicit too, just like Idris, just like him . It has to be.

 

He slumps to the ground with a huff, and that’s when Nightlock stops walking, turning back to see where Alec has gone. His face softens in an instance when he sees that Alec has given up, and he retraces his steps, crouching down in front of him.

 

“Sentinel? Are you okay?” he asks, and Alec looks to the sky, exasperated.

 

“No,” Alec says, far too simply. “Are you?”

 

Nightlock mulls over a reply, and it swills around inside his mouth. Perhaps, he’s thinking about lying, ready to say yes and pretend that he’s not as disemboweled as Alec -

 

- but then he closes his eyes and shakes his head.

 

“No. No, I - certainly not,” he replies. “I can’t … get it out of my mind.”

 

He rolls off his haunches, sitting back on the rooftop across from Alec. His shoulders slump and he looks tired as he leans back on his palms, turning his face to the sky too. He breathes in and out, slowly, and somehow, it strips him down, because the man Alec sees before him now is just that: a man , not a vigilante or a superhero or a mask.

 

In the distance, thunder rolls, the purple clouds above brewing for a storm. Alec can hear the curtain of rain approaching. Even the air feels weighted, oppressive upon his shoulders, a hand about his throat that tightens with every swallow.

 

He doesn’t know what to do right now. He’s seen things - so many things he wishes he’d never seen, people dying, people dead - but this is different. This is something else. This is a murder, preempted and deliberate. This is a hate crime, this is political, this is demanding for attention. This is a scar on that church, on this city, on Sentinel, and on Nightlock that they will see whenever they close their eyes, a scar so bloody and gruesome, Alec doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to scrub it free from his hands.

 

But it’s a thread too. And Alec’s been searching for one for so long, since he found the dead super in the parking lot one rainy night weeks ago. And now that he’s found it, Alec knows in his heart that he dreads to pull it, but in his head, that he must.

 

This is just the start.

 

Whoever is out there burning down churches and setting people on fire and carving out throats, they’re going to do it again. It’s going to get worse. They have to be found.

 

And Alec - well, Alec is lost somewhere in this city, in this labyrinth of stone and thunder, bound to encounter the minotaur who lies waiting at the centre. The beast will never be the one he wants, but it’s going to have horns and teeth and fire in its eyes nonetheless.

 

The only way out is back or through. And Alec wants to go back, but Sentinel needs to go through – and that’s the dichotomy of him, his two parts that will never equate because they pull him too thin in two directions all the time.

 

If he runs, someone else ends up dead. If he yields, he has to shoulder the guilt for the rest of his life. If he pushes forward, who’s to say he won’t find something out about Idris he doesn’t want to know, who’s to say he’s not the next super with a straight razor against his throat or staring down a torrent of fire. If he pulls on this thread, he might unravel himself, and he doesn’t know if he’s capable of stitching that mess back together when he doesn’t know how to sew.

 

Not anymore. Not … alone .

 

The thunder rolls closer. Alec wonders if that body in the church was burned alive. Did they suffer, or was it over quickly? What does it feel like to have flame sprouting from your skin before your very eyes? What is it like to have your lungs fill up with smoke until you’re left gasping for breath -

 

“Sentinel.”

 

Alec looks up. Nightlock’s eyes meet his, firm and unyielding, already watching. Alec’s chest hitches.

 

You’re not alone , a voice in his head supplies.

 

“What?” he asks instead.

 

Nightlock frowns at him, but it’s not cutting. He sounds soft, caring even. His words are tender. “Stop it. Whatever you’re thinking about, it’s not going to help.”

 

Alec swallows thickly, but finds himself nodding. It’s ironic, he supposes, how he had once been the one to roll his eyes and bemoan Nightlock’s very presence, and now he can’t think of anyone else who he could stomach in a moment such as this.

 

Well, almost no-one else.

 

“I need to - call this in,” he says, pressing at his ear to activate his coms. “Idris probably already know, but -”

 

Maybe he expects Nightlock to protest, but he doesn’t. He sits across from Alec and just nods. A small twitch of his mouth is all he can summon in solidarity.

 

Maybe he’s as lost as Alec feels right now. And that isn’t a particularly reassuring thought.

 

“Hey,” Alec says instead, pressing at his coms, wishing he could call Izzy’s name aloud, but he holds it back on his tongue. He waits for her voice, hoping that it will bring the steadiness his covets. “You there?”

 

A moment passes until there’s a reply.

 

Oh, Alec! ” Izzy trills, and she sounds a bit flustered on her end, as if she’s been running circles around her lab, up to her elbows in God knows what. “ I was just about to call you, I have an update for you on those hydrant heroes of yours. The ones with their throat slit? I’ve just finished the autopsy -

 

“Oh.”

 

Oh? Alec? Are you alright? Is everything okay?

 

“I -” He looks up, searching for words, but of course, they’re not be found. Nightlock maintains a steady gaze, but Alec cannot hold it for long, flitting back and forth between his eyes, dark as they are, and the sky as it rumbles. Specks of rain begin to spatter the rooftop. “Yeah, I’m - it doesn’t matter. Did you find anything?”

 

Izzy pauses just long enough for Alec’s gut to flood with worry. He stiffens, and knows that Nightlock has noticed him straightening his back.

 

“Hey -”

 

Are you somewhere you can talk?

 

“I’m … with Nightlock.”

 

Again, another pause. Izzy’s hesitation speaks loudly enough; Alec can picture her frown, the red purse of her lips, the way she’ll grill him about taking unnecessary risks when he’s back at headquarters.

 

‘How well do you know this man, Alec? He’s a vigilante. Can you really trust him?’

 

She knows about Nightlock - she’s no idiot, and not one to forget a single detail of past conversations - but Alec doesn’t tell her everything. Alec’s not sure how he would go about telling her everything. How to go about replying: ‘yes, I think I can’ .

 

Alec glances back at Nightlock, but his expression is too guarded to guess, especially hidden away behind a mask. But he’s listening intently, Alec knows it, and it makes Alec’s skin itch.

 

Okay ,” says Izzy.

 

Alec blinks.

 

“Okay?” he repeats, but his surprise morphs into relief and then into gratitude when he realises she’s playing along, not making a big deal out of this. Knowing her, she can probably hear the strain in his voice, how off-kilter is sounds, how wrong he feels. It only ever takes one word for her to know when he’s not quite right.

 

He’ll have to thank her later for not asking questions.

 

Can you put me on loudspeaker?

 

Alec frowns, but does as he’s told, tapping the radio affixed to the neck of his suit.

 

“Hey, are you there -?”

 

I got you ,” Izzy replies, her voice more tinny than it was in Alec’s ear. She doesn’t sound like herself, which can only be a good thing because that means she can’t be recognised.

 

Nightlock appears appropriately surprised to hear her. He draws himself a little closer, stopping when he’s within touching distance in front of Alec. Alec can feel the warmth of his body, the wary prickle of his powers skittering across Alec’s skin.

 

“Nightlock’s here,” Alec says then, feeling a little foolish to be talking into his suit. “Uh, you can - say what you have to say. About the - about the autopsy.”

 

Okay ,” Izzy says, perking up noticeably, “ Also, Nightlock, hi. I’d say I’ve heard a lot about you, but that’s not really how this job works .”

 

“Likewise,” Nightlock replies, forcing a wry smile. He sobers quickly. “Is this about the double homicide?”

 

Yes ,” says Izzy, “ The two from the fire hydrant, with their throats slashed and their suits burned. So, I don’t know if Sentinel told you, but the guy at the city morgue owes me a few favours, so I was able to borrow the bodies after he was done with them.

 

“Yes.”

 

Yes, well - I found some weird things about their injuries. A lot of the wounds were inflicted from the front, but there were no signs of a struggle or anything defensive really. And then there’s the angle of the blade that made the throat incisions. The cuts were made upwards.

 

“What does that mean?” Alec frowns.

 

I mean ,” Izzy stresses, “ Usually when someone attacks you like that, cutting your throat, you’d expect them to slash in a downwards motion. But an upwards motion suggests an attack from below -

 

An attack from below? That doesn’t make sense. Those two supers weren’t exactly tall, barely out of college or finished growing -

 

Alec’s clearly missing something, and he knows he is, because Izzy’s silence is baited.  

 

“So it was done by someone shorter?” he asks anyway. “What about a woman?”

 

It’s possible, but as much as I would like to give my own gender credit for their ability to commit serial murder just as well as a man, I don’t think that’s the case this time.

 

“It was self-inflicted,” says Nightlock.

 

Alec’s eyes snap to Nightlock’s face, but Nightlock is deliberately looking away, staring hard at his hands as he fiddles with his gloves.

 

“Self-inflicted? What? What are you talking about?” Alec demands.

 

That’s what I thought too ,” interrupts Izzy, “ But that’s not everything. Once I peeled away their supersuits, I found more.  Some third degree burns and a lot more incisions. ” Her sigh is steadying. “Someone carved words onto them. Or made them do it themselves, I’m not sure. They carved their aliases into their chests. Their super names, Al- Sentinel .”

 

“The church,” Alec says then, looking to Nightlock. “Do you think -”

 

“I don’t know,” Nightlock replies, clearly on the same wavelength. He presses his thumb to his lower lip in thought. “I didn’t notice anything on the body, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. It seems too much a coincidence to think there are two people out there with such a vendetta against vigilantes.”

 

The church? ” Izzy asks, “ What’s going on? What church?

 

Alec sighs. He opens his mouth, his words catching in his smoke-hoarse throat, the thought of retelling the story already enough to make him nauseous –  but Nightlock beats him to it.

 

“A church in midtown burned down tonight,” he explains, his voice clear. “Inside, we found a body, it was made up to be … a spectacle. We have reason to believe it was another super, although I can’t say who.”

 

Oh, God, ” Izzy whispers, “ The same MO?

 

“Not sure,” says Nightlock, “The body was burned beyond recognition. But that’s not to say it was the cause of death. We didn’t want to hang around long enough to find out.”

 

If it ends up at city morgue, I can get my hands on it, ” Izzy replies, “ If not, I know a couple detectives at the 99th, and they'll get us an in. Are you guys both okay?

 

“Peachy,” says Nightlock.

 

Alec raises his eyebrows pointedly. Nightlock ignores him.

 

“We’re fine,” Alec says instead, “Can you put a trace on the fire department?”

 

Already done ,” says Izzy, “ And I’ll reroute their dispatch calls through to your suit once you’re back. ” Alec can hear her clacking away on a keyboard at her end. Then, she adds, maybe more to herself than anyone else, “ If someone’s going around burning people, there’s got to be a way to track these fires before the fire department … maybe I can figure out a way to track heat signals …

 

And then, despite the hiss of the approaching rain, despite the fat droplets of water that are beginning to roll down Alec’s mask, despite the cold that has settled in to stay in Alec’s bones, it’s all too easy for Alec to think of another church, smoking in the open air; all too easy to imagine the city engulfed in flames; all too easy to see another blacked body hung by the wrists from a statue of the Virgin Mary.

 

But what if, next time, it’s someone Alec knows? Jace, Isabelle, Clary, literally anybody else. Nightlock . The next vigilante who finds themselves alone in a dark alleyway will be the next victim.

 

And that could happen. So God damn easily. If Nightlock is correct and all these murders are connected, this violence is not going to stop. They can’t catch this killer after the fire has been set. They have to be able to preempt it, catch them in the act - but how do you do that when you don’t know where they’ve been until a building goes up in flames or a body turns up dead by its own hand?

 

Alec feels sick to his stomach. He leans forward, hanging his head between his shoulders, and knots his hands around the back of his head. He closes his eyes. He doesn’t care what he looks like, crouched on a rooftop in the rain.

 

He breathes deep.

 

“Sentinel?” Nightlock prompts. And then, careful and hesitant, comes the light touch of a hand to Alec’s arm. It doesn’t linger, but it sparks.

 

Alec presses his lips into a tight line. “It’s nothing,” he says, “I just … I don’t understand how we can have no leads on whoever is doing this.”

 

If I’d heard anything, I would’ve let you know ,” says Izzy, “ But it’s been completely quiet here. You would’ve thought supers taking their own lives would attract someone’s attention, but we all know how little Idris cares-

 

“I don’t want to be the one to say it, but there is one man who could be behind this,” Nightlock interrupts, “Silver Tongue. Valentine Morgenstern.” Alec’s eyes snap to his, but Nightlock doesn’t blink. He stares at Alec, and the horror stirs once more in Alec’s chest.

 

The Circle. Alec was only a child when they defected from Idris in the seventies, amidst the height of the Vietnam War, but it’s always been Idris’ favourite cautionary tale. But an abstract one too, because Alec has no really memories of that time, not beyond his parents always being so tense and angry, not beyond the horrible images on the television -

 

But they’re all ex-Corporates. Valentine, himself, is a super, just like Alec. Why would he be killing other supers -

 

What? ” says Izzy, “ There hasn’t been any talk about the Circle in fifteen, twenty years. Not since - not since back then.

 

“This fits his MO,” says Nightlock, “Not only killing supers, but persuading them to do it by their own hand? I’ve certainly seen it before.”

 

“But the fire-” Alec starts.

 

“Again, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that the Circle have found themselves a pyrokinetic,” says Nightlock, “There are too many similarities here for it to be a coincidence. We have to consider it.”

 

It … Dios mio, it’s not impossible, ” Izzy says, “ But why now, why after twenty years? It doesn’t make sense .”

 

“I wouldn’t put much faith in the logic of madman,” Nightlock says, low. “If this is the Circle, then this is only the beginning. They’ll kill again.”

 

“We need to figure out who, where, and why,” Alec continues, “If it’s a vendetta, or if they’re just selecting random supers, I … I should -”

 

He should what? comes the vagrant thought. What can he do that will make a difference?

 

How does he tell other people what to do when he doesn’t have the slightest idea how to fix this?

 

How does he make people listen to him when they don’t care what he has to say?

 

“- get back to headquarters and brief everyone,” he finishes lamely, but the words already feel weightless, and not in a good way. It feels like an empty promise, swallowed up by the wind.

 

He already knows how it will go. He already knows that his mother will dismiss him, that his father will shoot him down, that any information he tries to dig up in the archives about Valentine Morgenstern will have mysteriously vanished by the morning.

 

But he can’t just ignore this. Not this time.

 

He can’t keep living with his head in the sand or his fingers in his ears or this want in his heart to do better, to save more people, but never act upon it.

 

Alright,” says Izzy then, and she sounds stern, as if she somehow already knows how Alec’s resolve is wavering, and that he needs a command to follow before he gets lost along the way. “I’ll recall everyone in from the field and go talk to the boss. I’m rerouting Arkangel and Muse to intercept you on the way, so I’ll see you in a bit, then.” Alec hears her clicking away on the keyboard, multitasking as she talks. Usually, it’s a sound that settles him, but tonight, he feels it scampering across his skin.

 

“I’ll be back in an hour,” he manages, pushed out between his lips. “See you.”

 

Take care,”   Izzy replies. “I love you.

 

“I love you too.”

 

He says it on autopilot, tapping his finger against the radio on his suit. It cuts out with a hiss of static. He doesn’t meet Nightlock’s gaze, reaching instead for his abandoned bow and quiver, before hauling himself to his feet and realising what it is he just said.

 

What he just revealed to a stranger.  

 

Your identity is all you have , whispers his father in his ear. When you’re in that mask, you’re not Alec. She’s not Isabelle. Don’t let yourself slip-up just because you’re emotional. Just because you think you trust someone -

 

That scampering sensation begs to turn violent, a tension trampling across Alec’s armour. He forces himself to scan the horizon, but all that stirs is faintly-rising steam and a gathering of crows.

 

Nightlock hesitates a moment; he doesn’t move from the ground, held unnaturally still by a pilgrimous four words - but Alec feels his eyes . They follow Alec’s every move as he slings his bow over his shoulder.

 

“Sentinel.”

 

“I need to get going,” says Alec. He holds himself so still, so stiff, that the thought of moving sparks pins-and-needles in his legs and arms already. He does not follow through. He thinks Nightlock knows why.

 

Slowly, Nightlock rises to his feet, drawing himself into Alec’s space. Alec fixates upon the rooftops beyond his shoulder, but cannot help lingering on the threads in his coat, the wild fly-aways in his hair, the way Alec can feel his presence distorting the very air around them, warm and solid and real.

 

Nightlock doesn’t take a step back.

 

Close . He's close, but not close enough to stop the wind from cutting straight through Alec, still carrying the grey trace of smoke. Alec grinds his teeth so hard his jaw aches.

 

This night has become a nightmare, and the city gutters are swimming in blood and murderous intent – and it overflows, swelling and swelling until Alec can feel it staining his own hands red. He feels it beneath his skin, all that dirt and grime and viscera, and he’s overcome by this morbid need to sink his fingernails into his flesh and peel it back, just so he can be rid of the filth, so he can be rid of being seen.

 

His fingers twitch with the need to pick at his skin, and so he clenches them around the strap of his quiver as he buckles it to his suit, and holds tight for dear life.

 

For a moment, Nightlock just watches him, and perhaps, that makes it worse. Alec can feel Nightlock staring at his hands. Alec’s head swims.

 

Don’t look at me, some part of him pleads. Please.

 

“Can I ask you a question?”

 

“Sure,” replies Alec through gritted teeth.

 

A pause. And then:

 

“That woman,” he says, “Who is she to you?”

 

It’s the question he was expecting. And it’s not unwarranted, not after all that has been said and done here tonight.

 

Alec looks up from the strap of his quiver. Nightlock stands with his arms wrapped around himself, a curve to his mouth that is troubled, but not with violence, as Alec’s must be.

 

His expression, it’s distant, a little melancholy, encroached in this sweeping sense of old sadness that Nightlock can never seem to shake.

 

Once again, he’s not a vigilante, not a super, not a danger who stands before Alec, no.

 

No, he’s just another lonely man in a mask, pretending to be larger than the life he’s forced to live, because it’s the only way he knows how to survive.

 

He’s someone Alec has learned to trust. And maybe he shouldn’t know why - because he can hear his father scolding him - but he does, he does know why, and it always summons words to his mouth, unbidden.

 

“That’s my engineer. My handler,” he says. A breath. Trust. “She’s … she’s my sister.”

 

This might be the most he’s ever let Nightlock know about who he is behind the mask, but somehow, it feels safe. It feels … okay . Or maybe he’s just so bone-weary that he forgets himself, loose-lipped as he is.

 

Still, Nightlock’s face softens, and he smiles that crooked, quiet smile of his. Finally, he breaks his stare, looking down as he shakes his head.

 

“Your sister,” he muses, “It’s good that you have someone.”

 

“You don’t?” asks Alec, “You don’t have anyone in your ear?”

 

Nightlock huffs, either a breath or a laugh or a sigh, but it’s derisive. “No … no, it’s just me.”

 

It strikes Alec then that he’s lucky, that Sentinel is lucky.

 

Tonight, he will drag himself back to Idris, and Izzy will be there, and Jace, and his parents too, and even if he doesn’t want to talk to them, their presence and the thought of them all so close by is enough to temper Alec’s frazzled nerves. He won’t be alone after all that he has seen. He probably won’t go back to his apartment tonight; maybe he’ll sneak into his old bedroom at headquarters and fall asleep on his lumpy mattress, lulled by the murmur of people  coming and going at all times of the night to pull him under. The thought of his home, empty and dark and silent, won’t settle him tonight.

 

But that’s all Nightlock probably has. Saving the world has always been a lonely business.

 

Suddenly, Alec is torn. His head says leave, but his heart says -

 

Why does his heart say anything at all?

 

Perhaps Nightlock can hear it too, that traitorous beat, the one that has Alec caring about everybody else, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.

 

“It’s okay,” says Nightlock quietly, as he finally takes a step back from Alec and that mask, those walls slowly begin their reformation and Alec loses his chance to say, well, anything at all. Nightlock smiles a little, but it’s dry, self-deprecating compared to the last. “In my experience, bringing other people into this business gets messy. It may be lonely, going alone, but it’s also - “

 

“Safe,” Alec supplies. “I get it. It’s smart.”

 

Nightlock’s mouth tightens. His eyebrows lift, as if to ask, is it?

 

Alec’s not so sure of an answer to that. He’s not so sure Nightlock wants him to answer it either. He’s vulnerable right now. He won’t appreciate Alec’s honesty. They’re both still reeling.

 

“I’m … gonna get going,” Alec says awkwardly, thumbing over his shoulder in any old direction. He feels spilt, like it’s his blood all over a church altar; his insides are all a mess.

 

Stay , whispers his heart again. Don’t leave this man alone. “Are you … are you gonna be okay from here?”

 

Nightlock huffs loudly, rolling his eyes. “When am I ever not okay?” he asks, presenting Alec with his best fake smile.

 

Alec wonders if he, as Sentinel, is as transparent.

 


 

Alec, somehow, isn’t surprised to find that Magnus already knows about the church, the body, and the rumours of the Circle by sunrise the next day; an entry wound made in the night is always far wider come the morning.

 

The arson at the church is front page news. And Magnus knows enough people in the police to get his hands on all the copies of all the casefiles he needs: all those other arsons, other hate crimes, and other murders that have been swept under the rug.

 

It must’ve been all too easy for him to connect the dots. He’s sharp, far sharper than people already think, far sharper than he lets people think … especially if he was able to reach the same conclusion as Sentinel and Nightlock, but with half the facts.

 

Alec is not sure if that fills him with pride or with shame for not being the one to see the bigger picture sooner.

 

The night before is a blur, and he remembers little beyond dragging himself back to headquarters, his head overflowing with thought of dead bodies strung up in crucification, with the smell of burning muscle, with the regret of leaving Nightock alone on a rooftop after that, all mixed together into one gruesome slurry. Alec’s feet had moved on autopilot as he marched through Idris’ white-washed corridors, barking commands at anyone who would listen, summoning them all for an emergency meeting. The clamour and commotion that had followed had deafened him; Clary had started shouting, and Victor played Devil’s advocate, while Jace had gotten into it with Raj again, and Alec had just … stood there. He’d stood there in the middle of the briefing room, blank, and the aftershocks of something terrible ricocheting down his bow arm. Stood there and not known how to move, just as he’d feared, just as he’d expected.

 

Or at least, that was until his parents had taken over and Izzy had tucked her arm into his and led him from the room to her lab, forcing a glass of water down his throat until he could see straight again.

 

Alec doesn’t want to imagine how other people, how normal people will react to the whispers that the Circle is back. That the Circle is back and doing this -

 

Will they even care? If the Circle is only targeting supers -

 

It doesn’t matter.

 

Normal people knowing too much of anything about supers, Valentine or otherwise, has never ended well in the past.

 

“Tomorrow’s headline,” Magnus says as he tosses a mock-up down onto his desk, snapping Alec out of his tumultuous thoughts. The clock in Magnus’ office strikes six. The whole day has slipped through Alec’s hands in a daze. “What do you think? You’ve been terribly quiet tonight.”

 

The article takes up the entire front page of tomorrow’s paper, and the headline, black, bold, and damning, reads: VIGILANTE VALENTINE BACK FOR VENGEANCE?

 

Magnus’ name is just beneath, as it always is. By Magnus Bane, Senior Crime and Politics Editor ...

 

Alec can only frown. He shouldn’t be surprised that the Tribunal is taking a running leap at this and hoping something will stick, when all they have to go on the matching MO, but Alec knows better than to wrestle sensationalism out of the hands of a less-than-free press. If there’s a whisper than Valentine is back and killing supers, any editor would be fool not to run that story.

 

“Did you write this headline?” Alec asks.

 

“God, no,” says Magnus, waving his hand in the air as he circles around his desk, falling back into his chair with a huff. He knocks his head back, exposing his throat, before briefly pinching his eyes closed. “My suggestion was far snippier: Circle burns man at the stake in violent hate crime . But would you believe it, the board wasn’t all that enthused. They told me I was clutching at straws.”

 

Of course they did , Alec thinks bitterly . It echoes the excuses his mother gave him last night.

 

“Valentine’s not back, we have no proof of that. Everyone needs to calm down and not get sucked into borderline hysteria. Especially, you, Alec, I expected more -”

 

Magnus begins sifting through the stack of files on his desk, seeking a distraction, but something doesn’t settle well in Alec’s gut. Alec worries his lip, fingers picking at the edge of the newspaper, but he’s unable to flip the page. He can almost feel Magnus watching him over the edge of whatever it is that he’s pretending to look at, waiting for the words that Alec clearly wants to say.

 

Alec sighs. It’s heavy. His shoulder slump.

 

“Do you -” he starts quietly, “Do you think telling people that the Circle might be back is a good idea?”

 

Magnus doesn’t hesitate. “Yes and no,” he says with a shrug. His tone is flippant, but his flippancy should never be taken for lightness. Alec can see the steel in his eyes. “But at the end of the day, if there’s one thing people hate more than this city’s supers, it’s Valentine and the Circle. Perhaps all this tabloid press will be a good thing, flush him out of hiding, or what have you.”

 

“People will panic,” says Alec, thinking back to the way last night’s news had refracted: as terror across Raj’s face, as a  stony silence in Lydia, as panic in Victor as he single-handedly tried to reorganise the patrol roster right under Alec’s nose, until Jace had yelled at him to within an inch of his life.

 

Alec thinks back to the way he’d fought to control the shake in his hands as he held that glass of water Izzy gave to him. It has him slowly curling his fingers into a fist on the desk now.

 

Magnus notices. He frowns, his jaw moving minutely. “In my experience, the best defense is always information,” he says carefully. “If you know what you’re to be facing, you’ll know where to look for evidence, for proof. You can always prepare for it.”

 

Alec thinks back to the church, to that rooftop thereafter, to Nightlock’s grim determination in the face of such heinous evil . Alec thinks back to the way fear had pooled in Nightlock’s eyes too, behind his mask, beneath the anger and the fury. Alec thinks back to the way empathy for the most powerful man he knows had made a home in his heart for reasons he knows all too well.

 

“I don’t know how you can prepare for something like this,” he whispers. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

His gaze shifts from the headline, down to the photograph in the centre of the paper’s front page. It’s an old mugshot of Valentine Morgenstern from twenty years ago, the colour of his skin made darker, the shadows under his eyes made blacker. All to make him look scarier .

 

He doesn’t need it.

 

Alec was young when the Circle first formed - too young to remember all that much, nothing beyond the way the versions of his parents he recalls from back then were always stressed, always snapping, always biting heads. Alec remembers being relegated to the training room with his teachers, being cooped up in the library a Idris with his books, overhearing adults whispering harshly in the corridors and stopping when he would round the corner, so everything is in bits and pieces. He remembers the way his father had changed almost overnight into someone solemn and cold; he remembers how the stress had wreaked havoc on his mother’s pregnancy with Isabelle; he remembers hearing the name Valentine said with such hatred that he was in no place to question it; but nothing beyond that.

 

It hardly matters now. He’s heard all the stories and he’s read all the files on the Circle that Idris has to offer.

 

Alec knows what it was like: the depths of the strained Cold War stalemate; the conflict in Vietnam rearing its ugly head amidst the caustic smoke of Agent Orange; the aggravation bleeding over into paranoia and prejudice in the city streets. Idris had been involved, because of course they had been , what desperate politician wouldn’t have considered the employment of superheroes in a time of national crisis? And Alec’s parents had been on the frontline of it all, the ones paid to patrol the streets and keep the peace, to quell the anti-war riots before they boiled up and and bubbled over into carnage on home soil too.

 

Supers had been in high demand. Espionage, intelligence, mass destruction - things not unlike what they’re paid for now - and there was talk, at the time, of shipping volunteers out to the humid depths of the jungle, to instill fear: how would communists and innocent farmers alike take to the sight of a man walking through the burning fields with the power to flatten countries in the snap of his fingers?

 

Valentine had been a part of that Idris. He worked with Alec’s father, not unlike the way in which Izzy works with Alec now, except -

 

Well, it can only end one way when the person whispering secrets into your ear has the very literal power of persuasion. Silver Tongue was his alias back then for good reason. He could suggest a building to be a good place to jump from, and a part of you wouldn’t think twice about doing it …

 

The rest of the story is history. Valentine and a group of descenters had defected from Idris in the middle of the war, selling their skills to the Russians. The killing of a handful of nuisance vigilantes and high-level anti-Vietnam politicians alike had been something all too easily concealed within the chaos that had consumed the city. No-one knew they were acting outside of Idris until it was too late, the damage already done, the hatred for superheroes already sewn.

 

By all means, the city should have forgotten in twenty years, as fickle as it is, but the fear has only festered. After all, one prejudice might as well be all prejudices and no-one is ever going to split hairs about defining supers, categorizing them as good and others as bad. Idris was at fault for Valentine, and Valentine, of course, spoke for all supers, and -

 

“Alexander?”

 

Alec looks up, broken out of his thoughts by the sound of his own name. Magnus has the receiver of his telephone held up to his ear. His long fingers are coiled in the wire and doubt briefly flashes across his face.

 

“Yeah?” stutters Alec.

 

Magnus chews on his lower lip. “If you really think this shouldn’t be published, then I won’t,” he says, “I know this is fast. There’s limited evidence. It’s basically hearsay, and the editor-in-chief is only pushing this to beat the Herald for Sunday sales, I know that. I can’t change the headline but there’s still time for me to call the printers and move it to page six. I have an alternate lined up. Just say the word.”

 

“What? No, no, I -  why would you think I - Magnus, it needs to be said,” Alec blurts. “You’re right. Even if we don’t know it’s true … people still deserve to know.”

 

And it’s true, despite everything to the contrary, and that’s what makes this whole thing all the more wretched.  

 

People may despise Alec, or at least who he is when he wears a mask, but his duty is to keep people safe - and if not them, then the other vigilantes out there, the ones who don’t work for Idris, who had no say in the war, who may not have even been alive twenty years ago. They’re the ones who could so easily be the next body strung up in a church, blackened beyond recognition, or the next corpse left to rot in a parking lot with their vocal chords sliced open.

 

Alec swallows hard. He feels out of his depth. He’s trained twenty-something years for this, broken bones and shed blood and sweat and tears, and worked so hard to be half the person that Jace is with an easy, cheeky smile - and still he feels out of his damn depth .

 

He doesn’t know how to deal with insurgency groups and government conspiracies covering up serial murders. He doesn’t know how to cope with the weight of it resting squarely on his shoulders because no-one else wants to bear the burden, or Hell, even sees it need bearing.

 

No-one said decisions in the face of catastrophe would be easy, but Alec had been hoping they would be easier than all this.

 

Where do I go from here? Who do I turn to when I can’t talk to anyone -

 

“Alec.”

 

Alec doesn’t realise he’s been clenching his fist so tight that his knuckles are trembling until there’s a hand covering his. His heart stammers and stutters to an abrupt halt, and his head shoots up, only to find Magnus watching him in a manner that Alec certainly doesn’t deserve, but, oh, which he longs for.

 

Magnus’s fingers press into his skin. His thumb rubs a small circle into the bone of Alec’s wrist. His touch - his touch - is warm and strange and yet something Alec is already used to. That same familiarity, solidarity, and affection that so easily sweep into Magnus’ cavalier words and heartfelt smiles is here, now, in the uncomplicated weight of his hand on Alec’s. Don’t forget, I’m here with you , it says, without anything needing saying at all.

 

Alec sucks in a slow and steadying breath. He lets his hand flatten on the desk, the tension bleeding out of him and into the grain of the wood. A small, heedless part of him considers turning over his hand beneath Magnus’, just to feel the soft skin of Magnus’ palm against his own.

 

He doesn’t, but this - eyes flicking from their joined hands, to Magnus’ gaze, and back again - is suddenly enough. Suddenly, it’s everything. The only thing. Alec can see nothing else.

 

And, oh, right , says Alec’s head in such a way that it sounds so simple, so normal; in such a way that it negates the way his heart skips a beat for reasons he cannot fathom.

 

Oh, right , says his heart in the space of that same missed beat: he’s not alone in this. Sentinel may not know what to do or who to trust, but Alec, Alec does .

 

Oh, right , Magnus is touching him with a soft and sympathetic smile that seeps into his dark eyes and gildes them strangely gold in the light and which turns Alec’s insides to liquid.

 

Oh, right, Alec thinks, his fingers arching beneath Magnus’ hand, just barely, just enough for Magnus to feel it, to know that Alec feels it, just breathe.

 

(This catharsis won’t last, whispers the devil on his shoulder.)

 

“This is new territory for me too,” says Magnus softly. He gives Alec’s hand a little squeeze, drawing his fingers up the slope of Alec’s thumb. His rings are cold, but his touch is warm. Alec is not sure which to focus on, so he focuses on Magnus’ mouth instead. “I fear we’ve stumbled into something a lot bigger than both of us here, but the decision as to whether doing the right thing will keep people safe is not one to be made lightly.”

 

It doesn’t make Alec feel better, but nor does it make him feels worse. Maybe it’s still shock, slick to the soles of his feet like a shadow he cannot shake, or maybe it’s numbness, and he’s reached the extent of things that he can feel. Or maybe this is just Magnus, and that incomprehensible ability of his to remain a realist in the face of insurmountable odds, but still seek out a glimmer of hope in the darkness, which sheds just enough light for Alec to find his way.

 

“How do you decide what to do then?” Alec whispers.

 

“With difficulty,” Magnus says, drawing his hand back, but Alec is not one to miss the way his fingers linger. The focus in his eyes is momentarily distant. Alec doesn’t miss that either.

 

“I, myself, am bound by the responsibility of the free press, although it could be argued whether any press in this city is free,” Magnus continues. He reaches over to his phone to dial a number he knows by heart. “But the dissemination of knowledge always comes first.”

 

“Does that makes it easier? Having a rule you can’t break?”

 

Magnus hums, neither here nor there, and presses his ear to his telephone. Alec watches him, waiting for an answer that he supposes should be read between the lines.

 

He finds himself surprised.

 

“Not always,” Magnus says candidly. And then, he adds, “I’m going to order takeout. I think it’s going to be a long night. What would you like? It’s my treat.”

 


 

 

Alec is summoned to the boardroom at headquarters later that night. He shuffles into rank like a good soldier - mask in place across the bridge of his nose, arms folded behind his back, and shoulder to shoulder with Isabelle, followed by Jace and Clary, Raj, Lydia, Victor, and all the rest - as Maryse paces the room and fumes. She has a copy of tomorrow’s Tribunal in her fist, the newspaper creased up and crinkled between her fingers. Alec does not know how she has it, not when it won’t go to four-AM-press for a few hours yet, but he can take a good guess at how many pockets Idris has their hands in across the city.

 

He tries not to stare too hard or for too long. He knows he’ll give himself away. Instead, he watches his father on the far side of the room, sat silently at the other end of the table with his fingers steepled like all-too-familiar churches beneath his chin. He gives nothing away, his face a mask, even when his eyes catch Alec’s, but Alec still feels judgement.

 

Alec returns his stare to the floor as his mother passes him by, stalking down the line of them, all with their heads bowed. She brandishes the newspaper like a weapon, like it’s fire in his hands.

 

“This is why we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” she snaps at no-one in particular, or maybe at all of them at once, Alec can’t be sure. “This is going to be a PR nightmare for Idris. Those press dogs aren’t going to let us sleep .”

 

Her anger is understandable, in some weird, twisted way. It speaks of fear, of worry, of a dying need to keep them all safe, and Alec gets that, he does.

 

Maybe it would have been better to keep the rumours of Valentine and the Circle under wraps until they know more, until they’re absolutely sure it’s him . Maybe it would’ve been better to resolve it quietly before whispers had even begun to reach the tabloids.

 

The Circle is Idris’ sin and it’s theirs alone to bear, Maryse says. And Alec can’t argue with that, especially when he knows it’s true.

 

He can only wonder if she already knew about all of this, and whether this, now, her anger , is her way of justifying not telling them, or her way of seeking penance for something she must know was wrong.

 

“Congress is going to have a field day,” she sighs. “We’ll be losing contracts left, right, and centre once this is made public.” She turns to look at Robert, who has remained silent all the while. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not by Alec.

 

Does his father’s silence speak of his indifference? Or his guilt?

 

Or is that Alec’s guilt, reflected back at him in his ever cold and stoic father?

 

He tries to think about Magnus, but it’s hard, because words of affirmation can mean so much when they’re alone in that office, but here, they don’t get to echo with such ease. Alec stares hard at the opposite wall. He doesn’t look at his mother. He ignores Clary’s offended gasp at the proposition that contracts matter more than people’s lives .

 

He can feel Isabelle bristle beside him, clearly edging to say something, anything , but Alec knows anything she says will be silenced by one fierce look from their mother. He wants to know what Magnus would tell him here, now, what the right thing to do might be - but the closest thing he has to Magnus is that newspaper in Maryse’s hand, and the mask across Alec’s face exists only to pull him further away.

 

The night before weighs heavy on Alec’s shoulders, and his stomach feels like it’s full of the  ash he inhaled at the church. His body is quiet, solemn, and morose, and he forces himself to adhere to his parade rest, his hands folded behind his back, his fingers clenched.

 

“People to gossip are like hounds to blood,” Maryse says, “If illegal vigilantes weren’t out on the streets after dark, maybe this wouldn’t be happening, and imaginations wouldn’t be getting so riled -”

 

Either brave or oblivious, Jace nudges Alec in the shoulder; he wants Alec to say something too.

 

“Alec,” he whispers, “This is fucked.”

 

Alec cannot move. He can still smell that church, but he can feel his leather gloves cutting into his palms too. He can still hear blood squeaking beneath his boots, but he can hear his father reminding him of his duty to wearing the mask too.

 

His mother’s words fill his ears, all this talk of money and contracts and legality and justice , and yet he thinks of Magnus and his responsibility to the truth, and he doesn’t know who is right; who is the one he’s supposed to believe; who will save more people in the long run? Believing the Circle has risen from the ashes of their Cold War world to finish what they started and must be stopped, or hiding all of that from the people who it will impact the most? Telling the truth to save someone, or ignoring it, to save someone else? What if the someone else is himself? His family?

 

Who is he meant to believe?

 

Idris, or -

 

Magnus.

 

They can’t both be right. But maybe there is no right answer here; maybe both choices are bad choices, but still choose, he must, because the shame of standing still and treading the line between them is slowly eating him away from the inside out.

 

Jace nudges him again with a pointed look. He wants Alec. He wants that Alec with the mutinous thoughts that aren’t allowed to see the light of day. He wants Alec to put his foot down and say no, you’re wrong, people deserve to know who’s killing them. We need to see this through, even if it goes nowhere.

 

Alec cannot. He’s in his supersuit, he has his bow slung over his shoulder, he has the weight of his father’s expectations pinning him to the spot. His mother brandishes that newspaper like she’s going to flagellate him with it. His loyalty to Idris lauds over him. He’s still wearing the mask. He’s Sentinel . The law is the law.

 

Isn’t it?

 

He doesn’t know.

 

But what he does know, is this.

 

Sentinel and Alec cannot both exist on the same page, but he doesn’t know how to take a step away from one in the other direction. He’s stuck. It’s not a crossroads; it’s purgatory.

 

 


 

 

Izzy corners him in the locker room and tells him that she’s taken him off patrol for the night. Alec opens his mouth to protest, but is interrupted when Jace barrels into the back of him, swinging his arm around Alec’s shoulders and drawing him into a headlock. Alec goes somewhat unwillingly.

 

“Buddy,” says Jace, dragging Alec down so that he can smoosh Alec’s temple against his scratchy cheek, “Clary and I have got this. Go home and get some sleep before you pass out on us. I saw you shaking in there. Too much caffeine, huh?”

 

Izzy shoots Jace a look. It’s a look that suggests Jace is only pretending not to know what’s going on, and they’ve always been good at that, the two of them having conversations behind Alec’s back just with their eyes.

 

Alec decides not to put up a fight. Not tonight. He knows how difficult they can both be when they’re using their untapped psychic sibling bond to plot against him, or whatever they like to pretend this is.

 

He sighs, wriggling out of Jace’s grip. Jace slaps him squarely between the shoulders and grins.

 

“Don’t forget to record tonight’s Golden Girls rerun on the VCR for me, yeah?” he says, and then he swans off, shouting something antagonizing at Raj down the other end of the room, who only gives as good as he gets.

 

When Alec looks back at Izzy, she has her hands on her hips.

 

“What?” he asks, but he doesn’t sound as terse as he means.

 

“That’s my line,” she says flatly, but she doesn’t expand on it. She looks as shaken as he feels after that briefing, and she doesn’t need Alec to call her out on it. Instead, she shakes her head. “Go home, Alec. I’ll call you if anything comes up, okay?”

 

Alec nods. He feels dizzy again.

 

 


 

 

By the time Alec makes it back to his apartment, he feels no better. He’s been on his feet for hours; the last two days have blurred into one long nightmare, and Alec can hardly remember if he went to work today, let alone if the church with Nightlock was last night or the one before.

 

As he staggers through the front door with his kit bag slung over his shoulder, he flips on the living room light and it all but blinds him. He winces, seeing sunspots, and flails for the switch again, plunging the room back into darkness.

 

Immediately, the pulsing behind his templates abates. He can’t quite ignore it, but it’s quieter now, like listening to someone knocking on a door three apartments down the hallway, the sound fainter and more distant. If he turns the TV on, he can probably drown it out altogether.

 

He tosses his bag in the direction of his bedroom and heads straight for the couch, tumbling over the arm and sprawling out face-first across the cushions. His cheek presses into one of the musty pillows, criss-crossing lines onto his skin, and he toes his shoes off without looking, hearing them thunk-thud against the floor.

 

Alec doesn’t move for a moment. Maybe it’s longer than a moment, just lying in the dark, but he doesn’t count the seconds. His body is a weight, difficult to stomach. At last, he has ground to a halt, and only now does he feels the ache in his legs and the stiffness in his arms. Only now does he feel this dull pain in his head like someone’s dragged him by the hair through the streets, past the front steps of Idris, past the offices at the Tribunal , past burnt down churches and gutted cars, past the burning straw bodies hung like flags from shuttered windows -

 

The cold settles deep into his bones, but he closes his eyes and sees fire.

 

The easy solution is to not close his eyes.

 

Alec feels around the coffee table for the remote, but instead almost knocks it to the floor. Blindly, he stabs a button and the TV flickers into grey-green life, highlighting the room in chalk.

 

The static hums in the dark, a low, soft buzz that Alec can feel in his fingertips just as well as he can hear it. The picture is fuzzy. He’s not sure if the picture is in black and white, or if his old TV has just lost colour at last, but he doesn’t turn to look at the screen. The murmur of voices is barely here nor there, incoherent in the way late night conversation often is when you’re falling asleep in the corner of the room or the back of a car, and no-one’s really watching.  

 

In the dark, Alec feels invisible. He is buoyed by the faint laugh track on the television, by the whisper of the wind lapping against his balcony windows, by the way he dreams in slow motion, but he doesn’t feel safe.

 

His body won’t relax. His muscles are still coiled. His fingers have curled into fists in the couch cushions and he hasn’t even noticed.

 

He feels like he’s still wearing his mask, even though he tore it from his face the moment he left that boardroom tonight. He still feels his bow in his hand, his quiver on his back, his boots crunching through soot.

 

The church. The body. The smell.

 

He lunges for the remote again, and this time, it’s him that almost careens off the sofa. Stabbing the Teletext, he scrolls frantically through the bright green text for something akin to local news - and there’s nothing, so he flips the channel to CBS, to CNN, to God damn Fox , hoping, praying perhaps, for just one newscaster to say something about what he witnessed last night.

 

Nothing.

 

He turns over onto local cable, but the wind must’ve taken down the nearest transmitter because all there is is white noise and trembling static.

 

Why would anyone care about an arson? the voice in his head supplies. Why would that make national news, who are you kidding?

 

He’s trying to kid himself. That’s the truth of it. He’s trying to fool himself into believing that someone out there cares, that someone else has noticed what’s going on and wants to stop it too, that he’s not suffering through all of this in vain -

 

- because what if he is?

 

The phone begins to ring. Alec doesn’t startle, but he groans, burying his head in the couch cushion and wondering if his neighbours will hear him scream if he muffles it.

 

The phone trills, louder now. He’s taken his coms out, so it’s probably Isabelle, or Jace, or Hell, even his mother with yet another order he cannot stomach to follow, but must . His splitting headache is coming back. He feels it behind his eyes, in the bridge of his nose, at the base of his skull.

 

He knows it takes ten rings to go to the answering machine; he counts each one.

 

On the ninth, he pushes up onto his elbows and reaches for the receiver. The TV laughs at him.

 

“Hello?” he grumbles.

 

Alexander, ” someone breathes in relief on the other end. “ I wasn’t sure you were going to pick up. You sure know how to keep a man in suspense.

 

Alec blinks. On the TV, three old women are sitting around a kitchen table, drinking cups of tea. One of them might be Betty White.

 

Outside, the wind howls.

 

In his chest, his heart -

 

His heart, atrophied, remembers how to beat again, but it takes a moment for Alec’s muddled brain to catch up.

 

“Magnus.”

 

Alec glances at the clock on the wall. It’s only been a few hours since they saw each other last; since Magnus showed him tomorrow’s headline in the safety of his office; since they shared takeout across Magnus’ desk and Alec made a fool of himself with a pair of chopsticks.

 

He can’t be missing Alec’s company already, and Alec doubts he’s found a lead so important that it can’t wait for tomorrow.

 

So why -

 

Simon gave me your home number, ” Magnus explains, as if reading Alec’s mind. “ He was awfully quick to relinquish it when I asked. Don’t hold it against him.

 

“I -” Alec begins, but he doesn’t know what to say. He pushes himself up on the couch, swinging his feet onto the floor. He cradles the phone close to his ear as he ducks his head, picking at the thread in the fraying cushion.

 

In the end, he settles on, “Magnus, I don’t mind.”

 

He hears Magnus smile. A breath of relief.

 

A police car wails in the background of Magnus’ call. Alec thinks he can hear the wind howling on that side of the city too. It sounds like Magnus is outside.

 

He looks at the clock again. Press is in two hours. “You’re not in the office,” he frowns.

 

No,” murmurs Magnus, “But I couldn’t stomach the thought of going home.

 

Alec understand that. He understands that all too well, forcing himself to work until he’s too exhausted to remember why it is that he didn’t want to sleep in the first place.

 

This arson ,” Magnus continues then, “ This murder. The Circle. It’s different. Different to all the rest, and - what you said earlier, Alexander, perhaps I’m not as prepared for this as I thought .”

 

“I think you’re better prepared than most,” whispers Alec. He leans back into the couch, letting his head fall back. He covers his eyes with the palm of his hand, blocking out the glow of the TV. He focuses solely on Magnus’ voice when he talks, and on Magnus’ breathing when he doesn’t.

 

“How come you called?” he asks.

 

Magnus laughs quietly. “ I needed to talk to someone about it.

 

“Don’t you have -?”

 

No ,” says Magnus softly, “ I didn’t really realise until recently, but - there’s no-one I can talk to about this. Besides you, of course.

 

Alec wants to say he understands that feeling too. That loneliness. That muchness. That suicidal need to cradle all the gunfire and not let anyone else see the bullet hole-ridden chest he keeps to himself.

 

The way the Sentinel switch has to always be on, even if Alec will suffer for it.

 

Alec’s being eroded by the festering guilt that he’s never doing enough; by the fear that torments him that, if he falls asleep, something equally terrible will happen whilst he’s dreaming …

 

He wants to tell Magnus that he can’t get these thoughts out of his head either. That they’re the same.

 

That there’s no-one else who really gets it like he does -

 

Forgive me, Alexander ,” Magnus breathes then, and it sounds like steps away from the phone he’s using for a moment, before curling back in again. The phone line prickles with static electricity. There’s the rustle of heavy fabric. The squeak of what sounds like leather between two fingertips. Another roaming cop car. “ I know not everyone likes to bring their work home with them. If I could leave all this in the office, then -

 

“No,” Alec interrupts. He blushes. He retraces his steps. Tries again despite the way his words suddenly tremble with the intimacy of whispering across the phone in the dark. “No, I mean - no, I’m - I’m glad you don’t. Do that. I’m glad you don’t just leave it on your desk, because - that’s why everything is such a mess, isn’t it? Because it’s everyone else’s 9-to-5 problem, all these dead vigilantes, all this hate, but you - you … you’re good.”

 

Magnus hums. “ I would consider that flattery if our reality wasn’t so dreadfully macabre ,” he says, but Alec can hear the tilt of his mouth, ever so slightly upwards. “ I’m … well, I’m touched that you think so highly of me.

 

“Why wouldn’t I?”

 

Dry laughter tickles Alec’s ear. He feels it down the slope of his neck. The hair on his arms prickles to attention.

 

You don’t want me to answer that question, Alec, ” Magnus murmurs.

 

Alec doesn’t understand what he means.

 

An automated voice on the line tells them both that Magnus needs to insert more quarters before his time runs out.

 

“Are you on a payphone?” Alec asks with a frown.

 

Yes ,” says Magnus, and Alec hears him pressing quarters into the slot with his thumb. Each one clinks on the way down. He must put in four or five, enough to keep this call going a while longer yet. “ I’m … following up on a lead, so to speak. It hasn’t panned out.

 

“For the Valentine story, or another?”

 

I think they’re all connected at this point, don’t you? ” Magnus reasons, but then he sighs. “ I wanted to stop by some of the Circle’s old haunts. But they’re either all empty or abandoned, or have been refurbished into these overpriced, absolutely horrid apartments. It was a long shot at best.

 

“Magnus, Jesus , that’s dangerous. It’s way past midnight. Are you by yourself? Do you want me to come find you-”

 

Alec is already sliding off the sofa when Magnus laughs again. But this time, there’s more humour to it. This time, he’s laughing at a joke to which Alec doesn’t know the punchline.

 

How very noble of you, ” he chuckles, “ But don’t leave your apartment on account of me. It’s cold outside tonight. Besides - I’m more than capable of looking after myself. Don’t you worry.

 

Telling Alec not to worry is like telling a bird not to fly, or gun not to fire, or Jace not to stick his foot in it. Sometimes, worrying feels like what Alec was built for.

 

Still, he slumps back down on the couch with a heavy humph . Magnus’ light laughter is there again, right in the shell of his ear, like a breath, like a whisper meant for between the sheets or the back of a cinema. He feels far closer than he actually is.

 

Alec finds himself holding tight to Magnus’ voice and each breath of his makes Alec’s chest rise. He hangs on every word, every absence of a word. He wonders if Magnus is twirling the payphone cord in his fingers. He wonders if Magnus remembered to bring an umbrella on his late-night exploit.

 

Alec feels warm again.

 

Warm and weird , because his heart is thumping again, but it’s slow and sticky, like each beat is an effort. Like it’s having to push through other parts of him to make itself heard.

 

He pulls his legs up onto the sofa and rearranges the cushions around himself to build a wall. He cradles the phone against his ear, his touch light against the plastic. The TV bathes him in its translucent glow, silhouetting him alone in the dark.

 

“What …” Alec begins slowly, his breath hitching, “What did you want to talk about? Did you want to talk about the lead? Or about the church-?”

 

No ,” says Magnus, “ No, none of that. ” A beat of silence. Alec inhales to say something, but Magnus speaks again. “ What are you doing, Alec?

 

It’s not fed to him like a line. It’s not said in the same way as a lover or a stranger might ask so what are you wearing?

 

It’s said like Magnus is desperate for a story to distract him, and he’s asking for Alec to hear that in his voice. It still makes Alec shiver. He’s not familiar with intimacy. He’s never had the time to become acquainted, but -

 

But there’s a part of him that’s been saving a space for it. Purely out of hope, he supposes.

 

“Lying on the sofa,” he says, “I kinda just stumbled in and collapsed. Put the TV on.”

 

And what are you watching? No, let me guess - you’re a man who loves the classics. Something serious and severe, but something intelligent -

 

Alec laughs. “No, no, I - I think I’m watching Golden Girls ?”

 

You think?

 

“Yeah, I just switched it on for background noise, but - my brother wanted me to tape it for him because he’s on a night shift tonight. But I haven’t, so he’ll be pissed tomorrow.”

 

Magnus exhales shakily on his end, but it sounds like he’s still smiling. Alec can hear the squeaking of leather against metal, like Magnus is running a gloved finger up and down the side of the phone box a little coyly.

 

And your brother is how old? Sixty-something?

 

“Either that, or five,” says Alec. “Depends on the day.”

 

Alright, alright. Tell me what’s happening in this episode, then. Describe it to me.

 

“I think I missed the first five minutes.”

 

A breath, exhaled. Alec can almost feel its caress against his cheek.

 

Doesn’t matter.

 

“Okay,” says Alec, just as low, just as unspooling. He pulls one of the pillows onto his lap and hugs it to his chest. He imagines every dark thought on the other side of the window, pushing and shoving up against the glass, and the glass bends, but it can’t get in. Not for a moment. “So, Betty White just pulled out a chocolate cake from the fridge …”

 

He talks for an hour, maybe two. Maybe a whole year passes out there in the dark with no sunrise to mark it, and still, it’s not quite long enough for Alec. He longs for minutes, for moments, for hours and eternity pressed in pause, if he can have it. He talks until his voice goes hoarse, until he’s explained the plot of three episodes of Golden Girls and lost interest halfway through an episode of Cheers , until Magnus’ commentary becomes far more interesting and Alec punctuates it with his quiet laughs and sighs.

 

He talks until his eyelids grow heavy. His lullaby is the sound of outside traffic, the rain lashing against the window, the TV screen fading to black as end credits roll. The rare shard of moonlight slipping through the curtains for a moment passing but just enough to illuminate a path across the floorboards.

 

He wonders if Magnus can see it too, wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, however he’s feeling. Whether he’s feeling the same as Alec ...

 

“Are you falling asleep on me?” Magnus whispers into the dark.

 

Alec goes to rub his eyes, straightening upright against the sofa.

 

“Mm - no,” he slurs, “No, I’m awake. I can talk -”

 

“Go to bed,” Magnus says. On the other end of the line, Alec hears the rustle of a heavy coat, imagines Magnus popping his collar to brave the elements, pictures the silver of the moon like a ghost across his cheek. “Thank you for humouring me, Alexander.”

 

“Humouring you?” Alec doesn’t dare to raise his voice, afraid of breaking something that suddenly seems so immensely fragile. “I wasn’t - I’m not humouring you, Magnus. I’m -”

 

There’s nothing you could say that I wouldn’t want to hear.

 

“I just like talking,” Alec admits. “With you.”

 

Magnus laughs breathlessly. The sound still tickles Alec’s ear. “You do sound pretty sure.”

 

“I am sure,” says Alec. The words ring out in the empty room, disturbing the shades of grey that have fallen, thick and powdery and fuzzy across all that Alec owns. The light slipping through the blinds catches on his abandoned kit bag, his bow discarded on the floor. The bowstring looks like wire in the moonlight, razor sharp and glinting.

 

Alec cradles the phone closer to his ear and closes his eyes, focusing on the sound of Magnus breathing, knowing there will be deafening silence again soon but hoping he might stretch this - whatever this is - one moment longer.

 

“Well, then,” Magnus hums, “Thank you for not humouring me, and for just keeping me company. It means more than you know.” He yawns then, and it’s infectious, as Alec covers his mouth and does the same. That makes Magnus laugh again, but this time, it’s both delighted and it’s wistful.  “Go to bed, Alec,” he insists. “I’ll see you at the office tomorrow.” A pause, then. Deliberate. “Dream of something nice for me. For the both of us. Goodnight.”

 

Yeah , Alec thinks, as the line slips into silence with the telltale beep of Magnus placing the receiver down.

 

Yeah , he thinks, as he sits there in the dark a while longer, his cordless phone squished between his ear and shoulder, his fingers pressed just a touch too tight against the plastic.

 

Yes , he thinks, as he scrubs his hand across his jaw, feeling his stubble, letting his thumb catch on his lower lip - and pause . He wets his thumbpad with the tip of his tongue and trails it across his mouth.

 

How is it that his chest can feel both full and empty at the same time? How can he feel so aware of what exists outside the window, and yet feel like he’s floating high above it, beyond its reach, buoyed by an impenetrable feeling that curls around every bone, every muscle, leaving him firm to the touch?

 

How is it that he can exist in two places at once: out there, on the streets, in the rain, in that worn leather mask staring up at burned down churches, and here . Here, in the dark, surrounded only by the cocoon of Magnus’ voice, that inexplicable terror of being known as he is, when everything is stripped away, and that wonder of whether this rhythmless, erratic beat of his heart is normal -

 

- or something with the potential to be extraordinary.

 

And oh, Alec knows a lot about being just that.

Chapter Text

 

Creo que estaremos mucho más vivos si nos atrevemos a darnos cuenta de que no estamos necesariamente obligados a saber en todo momento quienes somos. (“I think we would be much more alive if we dared ourselves to recognise that we are not obligated to know who we are at every given moment.”)

- Jorge Bucay

 

 


 

 

Senator Herondale’s next rally pushes the church fire from out of the front pages within a week. Arkangel and Sentinel are employed to keep the peace again, keeping watch from above; this time, luckily, the rally doesn’t devolve into violence.

 

It feels like only a small victory.

 

Herdonale addresses the crowd with grand sweeping gestures and powerful words as Alec glares at her on the jumbotron. She doesn’t say anything about her stance on vigilantism. Her PR agent has probably told her to avoid it. She doesn’t mention the arsons. She doesn’t mention the murders. She doesn’t mention Valentine Morgenstern, but she has the nerve to remind people how unified, how together, how undefeated they were back in the good old days – as if such a time ever existed.

 

Jace laughs and says something bitter. Izzy mutters about Herondale being a hypocrite loudly in their ears.

 

And Alec - Alec supposes they all have different memories of what the world was like back then, but then again, he was only a child. Who is he to know what it was really like.

 

Oh, but he can take a good guess.

 

Afterwards, back at HQ, his mother slides his pay packet across her desk with a scowl. She’s always scowling lately, and not just at Alec. She’s snappier with Jace, more brusque with Izzy, and actively ignores Clary whenever they’re in a room together. Raj and Aline have taken to ducking down a different corridor whenever they see her coming. Even Victor has learned how to keep his smarmy comments to himself, now and again.

 

Tonight, however, it’s just Alec and Jace, and her and Robert. His parents’ penthouse office feels very small, the world dark beyond the windows and the old paintings on the walls squinting at Alec with beady eyes.

 

Alec stares at the brown manila envelope without touching it. Maryse pushes a second packet forward, and at Alec’s side, Jace reaches for it, not buoyed down by the same hesitation.

 

Jace rips the seal with his finger and peers inside, his eyebrows raising. His purses his lips and nods, closing the envelope again.

 

“This is more than we were contracted,” he notes, and Alec can hear how he’s trying to play it cool. “This a down payment on the next job?”

 

“Senator Herondale’s security team was pleased with the job you both did,” says Robert, “They were glad to avoid a repeat of last time. Idris’ presence was a good deterrent to any more fracas.”

 

Alec doesn’t know what to say to that, so he says nothing. He reaches for his envelope and tucks it beneath his arm without opening it. He hears sheets of paper crumple; there’s another mission brief inside there too, alongside some hefty wads of cash.

 

Or blood money -

 

He steels his expression into something that won’t bend, folding his arms behind his back and staring forward, finding a spot on the wall above his father’s head to focus on.

 

“Herondale would like to extend her contract with us,” Maryse explains, “She would like both Arkangel and Sentinel on her private security roster as we approach the election, and there’s discussion on the table about bringing in Apex and Muse further down the line if all goes well in November.”

 

“Private security?” Jace frowns. He doesn’t like the sound of that. Alec hear it in his voice, his hackles rising. “And what’s that entail, exactly?”

 

Maryse narrows her eyes at Jace. “Patrol routes are to cover both her campaign headquarters and her home, with Arkangel on fly-by at regular intervals every night. You’re both to start accompanying her security team to any large-scale public engagements, but are to stay out of sight unless the Senator’s life is explicitly threatened. I suspect there will also be some reconnaissance work as well. We’ve received a tip that Jia Penhallow is polling well in more marginalised areas. Senator Herondale wants to see that change.”

 

Alec closes his eyes and breathes through his nose. If his mother sees him do it, she pointedly ignores him.

 

“And what about our deal ?” Jace complains, “You said Alec and I could continue to pick up police dispatch calls as long as we turned in a couple contracts a month - what, is that off the table now? Is this you tightening our leash?”

 

“Jace,” Robert warns, steepling his hands into strict churches where he still sits behind the desk. “That’s enough.”

 

“The Senator can kiss my ass,” Jace seethes, “She doesn’t get to decide how we use our powers, right, Alec -”

 

“No, she does,” Maryse interrupts. She folds her arms across her chest and stands tall. With her hair slicked back into a ponytail and the lines of her dress sharp and sleek, she cuts an imposing figure. “Considering she’s one of our few clients who hasn’t pulled her contract after all that nonsense over Valentine Morgenstern and the Circle. She’s the one paying your commission. Don’t forget.”

 

“All the talk about Valentine is finally dying down,” continues Robert. Alec makes the mistake of looking him in the eye, but finds there’s nothing of substance there. “He’s not our concern, but we have to focus on getting Idris’ public approval rating back on track after all those stories in the press. Proving yourself with the Senator will help restore faith with some of our other political clients.”

 

Jace looks at Alec, his eyes bulging as if he wants Alec to say something , anything at all. The words stick to the inside of Alec’s throat and just won’t budge.

 

Across the table, Robert sighs. He rubs his fingers against his temple in the way Alec often does, but here and now, it just makes Alec feel small. Like Alec’s throwing ideas up against a brick wall and hoping to make a dent.

 

Neither of his parents are listening. Not really.

 

“I’ve been lenient with you and Jace,” Maryse frowns, “Giving you Isabelle, letting you work pro bono. It’s noble of the two of you to want to engage in … mindless vigilantism and help people, I understand, but I can’t have you chasing ghosts anymore. You need to start picking up more hours on the clock. Especially you, Alec. One day, Idris is going to be in your hands, and we need to be sure that you can carry that weight.”

 

Alec’s mouth goes dry. Numbness resides in his fingertips, and so he finds that spot on the wall again, and wishes he could count optic blasts amongst his superpowers so that he might bore a hole through the cement and stone.

 

Where Alec retreats into himself, however, Jace pushes forward. He throws his pay packet down in the desk in dramatic fashion.

 

“This is bullshit!”

 

Neither Maryse or Robert blink.

 

“This is business,” says Robert cooly. He leans forwards, resting his chin on the backs of his clasped hands. “We’re trying to keep ourselves afloat here, Jace. Idris offers us all a certain degree of protection from the rest of the world, you know that. Look at all these vigilante murders splashed all over the papers. That’s what happens if the Corporation goes under and we’re all turfed out onto the streets.” He gestures at Alec in his silence. “Alec clearly gets it. He sees how serious this is.”

 

Jace twists to Alec, already gaping, already wanting to demand that Alec is on his side, already saying back me up, buddy - but he stills when he sees Alec is barely breathing. When he sees Alec standing to attention like a soldier, when he sees Alec setting his jaw, when he sees Alec just waiting for it to be over.

 

Alec doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t want to see Jace’s disappointment.

 

“The Senator’s contract won’t be forever,” Maryse appeases. She tries her best to smile. Maybe her expression is meant to be reassuring, but it’s not. It’s a far cry from that, and just looks tight and forced. “This is only temporary until we’re out of the red again. Just think of it like you’re doing a service to Idris, for every single person who works here. For everyone here with powers. They need you to do this.”

 

She looks at Alec deliberately. “Alec?”

 

“I get it,” says Alec. “I understand.”

 

Maryse smiles again, but this one seems more believable. “I knew I could count on you.”

 

 


 

 

Alec and Jace ride the elevator down from the penthouse in silence, but Jace fills the space with his fuming. His fuse is lit and Alec knows that it’s only a matter of seconds before he jettisons off into the ceiling if he doesn’t get his wings open stat, and soar up into the stratosphere to blow off some steam.

 

Alec doesn’t dare prod him. It will only make the situation worse. Instead, he clutches the manila envelope with white fingers and picks incessantly at the ripped corner. The paper slices into his skin and makes him wince, just as the elevator doors open. Jace takes off like a bull down the corridor.

 

Alec doesn’t move. He doesn’t even move when the doors shut with a sigh, and the elevator stays on ground level, going nowhere. Alec turns his hand over and brings it close to inspect his index finger, and the fine red scored across his fingertip; a bead of blood wells up and slowly slides down towards his palm.

 

The sensation brings him hurtling back down to Earth at breakneck speed. He hisses on a sharp and telling breath now that he’s alone, and clatters backwards to lean against the handrailing. Tipping his head back, it thunks against the mirror just a little too hard.  

 

Suddenly, he’s him again, he’s Alec, he’s not driving his body on autopilot like it’s some sort of machine. This time, there are silent shakes. This time, it’s like his whole hand is vibrating as he brings it up to drag across his jaw.

 

It’s not like he blacked out up there in the office, no, it’s worse . He could see the room, he could see his parents, he could see Jace glaring at him like that , but he couldn't respond. His heart could’ve been hammering on the inside of his chest, he thinks, and still his body would not have moved.

 

How is it that he can be so aware of his surroundings, and at the same time so complicit to the numbness ?

 

God, he misses being Alec, because Alec feels . Alec would feel anger and hurt and betrayal. Alec might#ve turned back to his parents and put his foot down and said no, we need to go after Valentine and the Circle and we need to do it now .

 

But Alec is hung on a peg at the front door, and when he’s here, in Idris, he’s Sentinel, and he’s Sentinel only. All those Alec feelings, they’re all compartmentalised, organised into black and white and nothing in between, but they’re there, simmering, just out of reach, but hot enough to feel when he stops to breathe and breathe hard. The fear, the worry, the loneliness ...

 

And the rare moments of peace, the unpracticed laughter, the pretense of normalcy - the whisper of phone calls in the dark -

 

Alec thinks about Golden Girls. He thinks about cradling the phone against his ear in the dark of the night like he’s a teenager and up past his curfew, trying not to wake his parents. He thinks of Magnus’ low laughter and deliberate questions, goading Alec to talk more and reveling in Alec’s dry humour. He thinks about how Magnus made him forget Sentinel, if only for a few hours.

 

He thinks about that night and realises, God, I felt so real . I felt so me.

 

Alec tears open his envelope again, and the paper is smeared with the blood from his finger. He drops two fat bundles of fifty-dollar bills on the floor, but he ignores them. He pulls out the mission brief and scans it, and the sickness that Sentinel doesn’t permit him to feel finally strikes him with full force.

 

The overview says something about arms dealing, about infiltration, about Sentinel needing to steal something. Private documents, important clients, confidential information that can’t fall into the hands of the wrong person. He’s read this all before, a hundred times. Alec already knows all he needs to know from this first page.

 

He wonders what terrible deed is in Jace’s folder. Probably something similar.

 

Probably something they’ll both still do anyway.

 

 


 

 

On the first night that Alec can taste autumn in the air, Nightlock finds Sentinel again.

 

The wind is colder, and the cold is wetter, and the loamy taste of leaves rotting in the gutters molds on Alec’s tongue. Tonight has been one of the grin-and-bear-it nights, except there’s no grinning involved. Jace and Alec have hardly spoken a word to each other, both of them in silent agreement to get in and out of their targeted building with the necessary files as quickly and silently as possible.

 

Don’t get caught. Get the deed done. Remiss about it later.

 

After they retrieve the files, Jace takes them back to headquarters. “Don’t worry, I’ll take one for the team,” he said as he left, and truthfully, Alec appreciates it. He’s not sure he can look his mother and father in the eye again, and not fracture in some way that can’t be bolted back together again.

 

So he’s alone on a rooftop. He hasn’t been able to make it home and his hands are shaking again. There’s a loose thread in the stitching of Alec’s gloves that he’s been picking at for hours now, which only means he’s going to have to ask Izzy for a replacement later when they ultimately fall apart.

 

Stop , he tells himself, but he doesn’t really listen. He rubs his thumb against the seam of his finger hard enough to catch a spark if the air weren’t so wet.

 

So, move. So, go home , he thinks again, but he can’t do that either. Home is not a home; it’s a threadbare apartment, scattered with momentos that are supposed to mean something, supposed to represent a whole person. Home is a place with a mirror in the bathroom where he’ll spend the rest of his night staring at his reflection and wondering how it is that his mask leaves such a dirty mark across his eyes, even after scrubbing his face clean raw.

 

And moving from this rooftop - well, that requires an effort he just can’t quite dredge from within himself, so here, he stays.

 

Skyscrapers shimmer in the mist, a slowly-brewing fog that blends from white to blue as it rises. Alec watches windows flicker in and out of existence, yellow like candle flames and less like lighthouses guiding him towards a shore he’s searching for.

That’s the pain of living life at sea. He’s tossed and turned and never the right way up for long enough to know which way to swim to find the surface.

 

Alec’s gaze drags across the building on the other side of the street: old and grey and stained with black city fumes. A bustle of pigeons roost amongst the stonework, enjoying a peace far deeper than Alec. He watches as a straggler flies home to nest, cooing softly. Its wings are mottled and flecked with green, emerald green, amongst the feathers, and a purple burgundy around the neck, a colour Alec rarely sees.  

 

The pigeon disappears into a hole in the wall. When it doesn’t reappear, Alec’s gaze drifts up, towards the roof, and it’s there, too, that he finds a shadow in that same strange burgundy.

 

Alec frowns. The shadow shifts, billowing in the wind until the winds vanishes, snuffed out like a flame or gobbled up by New York’s hungry mouth.

 

Alec doesn’t look away and the shadow doesn’t move. Alec prides himself in his keen eyesight, but all he sees is the colour: that deep red-purple, the same shade as wine.

 

But then the shape moves again, stepping forward into the light cast upwards by the busy street below, and it’s Nightlock who materialises from out of the fog, scattering the pigeons up into the air in all directions.

 

Alec feels the pressure in the air change like a tell now, but this time, from all the way across the street, Nightlock waves at him, a single raised palm in greeting. There’s a shift, not tectonic or worldly or significant in any way, in Alec’s chest, that feels like the soft lapping of a wave. A sense of calmness ripples through him.

 

He’s not really sure why, but the air tastes less thick on his tongue, less like it’s been dredged from the bottoms of the sewers. It’s simply crisp and cold, enough to clear the cobwebs from his head.

 

Alec’s missed him. Sentinel has missed him. And neither of those fragments of himself should be feeling something akin to ardency, but here Alec is, pushing himself to his feet.

 

Nightlock holds up two fingers: wait a minute , he says from across the street.

 

Alec swings his bow over his shoulder and lets his shoulders slump, as if a weight has been taken off him.

 

It’s relief, he realises quietly. Relief to see Nightlock here, to find in him a familiar face, and maybe that familiarity is dangerous, but Alec’s exhausted in a place he cannot soothe with an ice pack or a hot shower.

 

When was it that Nightlock became a constant? When was it that he become a mooring?

 

Alec shakes his head. He watches as Nightlock lifts his palms at his side and guides himself over to Alec’s rooftop, stepping down out of the air with poise and grace.

 

“I’ve missed you on your usual patrol routes, Sentinel,” he says, and although his smile is wry, it’s weatherworn too. Alec doesn’t miss the way his overcoat and supersuit are slick with rain already passed. “You’ve been a hard man to catch for once. You’ve upped your game.”

 

They haven’t seen each other since the church. It’s been almost a fortnight now, a fraught fourteen days where Alec hasn’t had time to pause and think and recover from the things they saw together that night. No-one else understands, not Jace, not Isabelle, not his mother and father, not even Magnus. Alec finds himself remembering the look on Nightlock’s face as they both collapsed on the ground in front of one another, shock gripping their ankles, hearts in their mouths and stomachs in their throats.

 

He wants to ask: are you okay?

 

He doesn’t get the chance.

 

“I’ve been keeping myself busy, following up on some leads on Valentine,” Nightlock continues, “I’ve asked around for the location of a few of his old haunts, spoke to some friends of mine who were working back during the coup. I haven’t found anything concrete, but I’ve heard a lot of whispers.” He gestures with his hands as he paces back and forth in front of Alec like a metronome. Alec watches him tick. “ Apparently , there’s been a lot of interest in vigilantes with certain powers since the incident at the church, someone’s out there trying to recruit anyone who fits the bill - nefarious purposes, I’m sure - but the details are either scarce or anyone who knows something is too scared to talk. But, I’ve been tipped off on a rendezvous point over in Brooklyn that I think would be worth checking out.”

 

Alec’s not sure Nightlock takes a breath until he’s finished talking. He stops abruptly in front of Alec and looks up at him. The fear and the shock from before, from that night, it’s gone, and in its place a fire of a different kind.

 

“You are going to help me, aren’t you?”

 

And oh, that’s a winding punch that Alec didn’t see coming, and he prides himself in his reflexes. Suddenly, his mask feels paper thin.

 

He takes a step back, and realises too late what that looks like, as the vigour in Nightlock’s eyes turns wary.

 

He narrows his eyes at Alec. He’s too sharp for his own good.

 

“I saw Idris didn’t release a statement about the incident at the church. Or about the Circle, for that matter,” he says. “I found it rather … telling, shall we say, with regard to their stance on Valentine. Or lack of stance , so it seems.”

 

“They don’t think the arson was Valentine,” Alec whispers, but he doesn’t believe himself; the words are a pale imitation of anything resembling confidence.  

 

Nightlock shakes his head. The dark purple streaks in his hair tonight catch the city light. He sees straight through Alec.

 

“What gruntwork punishment do they have you doing for thinking that it was?” he asks.

 

Alec has nothing to say to that, because the answer sounds something like: my brother hates me for saying too little, my parents hate me for saying too much, and we’re contracted mercenaries now, although I guess we always were and I just didn’t see it.

 

So instead, Alec asks, “You’re going after Valentine and the Circle, then?”

 

Nightlock nods. “Yes. I refuse to let them get away with this. And even if I turn out to be wrong, and we’re looking for some renegade working alone, it won’t be wasted effort.” He pauses for a deep breath. “Unfortunately, I don’t make a habit of being wrong if I can help it.”

 

“And you really think you can catch them?”

 

“Not by myself,” replies Nightlock. “Although, if that’s my only option now -”

 

Alec’s chest aches. There’s a splitting pain in his ribs now, a phantom pain, sure, but it must feel like being slowly torn open, someone pulling on each of his arms. His skin is laddering, his bones fraying; he’s being pulled in two directions he cannot walk.  

 

How is it that he can exist in two places at once and yet not at all -

 

“Listen, I -” he begins, walking away from Nightlock, if only so that he can hide his face. He curls his fingers into his palms, focusing on the squeaking leather of his gloves, that frayed edge again. “Nightlock, I want to help. I do. I can’t - I can’t just let whoever is doing this get away with it, but it’s just - Idris -”

 

“You care what Idris thinks?”

 

“No,” says Alec, and it comes easier than expected. But it’s all he’s ever known, and he can’t just walk away. People are depending on him. His mother and father would judge him. “Yes. Maybe.” He pauses briefly before he continues, haltingly, “It’s not that simple …”

 

He sees that same look of disappointment in Nightlock’s eyes as he did in Jace’s, but this time, it’s worse, because there’s betrayal too.

 

And it makes Alec want to shout: why does it have to be him? Why does Nightlock need him to do this, why is Nightlock asking for his help, Sentinel who is bowed beneath Idris’ shadow and conflicted in his morals?

 

Why does he need Sentinel?

 

Alec thought he worked alone.

 

The wind rustles through Nightlock’s coat as he steps up to Alec’s side. There’s a moment of hesitation - Alec feels it in the way the pressure in the air exists upon a precipice - but then Nightlock’s hand is on Alec’s shoulder, and he’s turning Alec to face him.

 

Alec keeps his head bowed. Nightlock ducks to meet his gaze.

 

“Look at me,” he insists. “Sentinel.”

 

Alec looks up.

 

“It’s your choice, what you do with your gifts. Not Idris’,” Nightlock says. In his eyes, there’s a glow, and it borders upon the yellow, upon golden, and that’s a colour Alec so rarely sees amidst the rain too. “I don’t know what they have on you, and I probably will never understand, but the moment you give them your agency, you’re a dead man. You have a choice to make.”

 

Alec laughs dryly. “A choice? Try telling them that. They won’t listen.”

 

“I’m not telling them that. I’m telling you. Because, believe it or not, and despite - despite what I might have said in the past, you’re not them. Not if you choose not to be. Change can start with just one man, and God above, this world needs it.”

 

Alec will circle back to that, later, in the waning hours: he’ll think about Nightlock saying you’re not like the rest , and he’ll cling to it, he’ll dismantle it, he’ll try and fail to understand what it means.

 

For now though, he thinks about change and he thinks about how he knows so little about it. Nightlock is asking for too big a thing.

 

Standing quietly on the sidelines, being the dutiful soldier, not speaking out against the odds when they’re stacked high against everyone else but him … it’s all he’s ever been taught.

 

Idris is all he’s ever known, and you can’t just throw all that to the wind and be rid of it with no repercussions. It’s not a grey area. There’s only black and white, there’s Alec and there’s Sentinel, and there’s no middle ground between them where Alec can afford to run off into the dark, chasing rumours and mindless vigilantism, as his mother says.

 

“Think about it,” says Nightlock, “If you change your mind, if you decide Sentinel exists outside of Idris - come and find me. But I won’t be waiting.”

 

Alec scoffs dryly. “And how exactly do I find you ?” he mutters. “You’re nowhere.”

 

Nightlock purses his lips for a moment. He hums.

 

“Good point,” he says, before he turns to leave. Alec’s body teeters forward, as if Nightlock’s mere proximity is keeping him upright. Something in his legs wants to follow after him, but something in his head is like a gravity, a force both cruel and harsh, keeping him pinned to the spot.

 

Nightlock looks back over his shoulder and waves his hand airily. But in his eyes, Alec sees that disappointment again, and can only wonder if it’s a reflection of what Alec hides beneath his own mask.

 

“I suppose I’ll have to find you,” Nightlock says. “Send me a smoke signal. Something that will grab my attention.”

 

And then he vanishes, swallowed up by the dark. Suddenly, Alec is painfully aware of the empty space in front of him.

 

The wind howls cold. It seems to be laughing, mocking him for missing his chance to move forward.

 

 


 

 

The next day is terrible.

 

When Alec dresses for work, he struggles with pushing his hands through his shirt sleeves and buttoning the fly on his pants because it feels too much like he’s still Sentinel, like he’s shoving Sentinel into his Alec skin and it just won’t fit. His jacket feels both too small or too big; his office shoes pinch his toes; his back feels naked without his quiver, only his satchel as substitute.

 

This hasn’t happened before, this feeling of otherness. He has a line, a line he’s carved through his middle, and it’s meant to keep Alec and Sentinel neatly parted, two poles of a magnet that should never touch. But now, today, Sentinel has overstayed his welcome. There are cracks in him, and Sentinel has bled through from the night before.

 

On the subway, the turbulence of the carriage jostles him around, but he stands too rigid, his balance too good to be swayed. He doesn’t notice if it looks unnatural. He stares hard at the dirty floor.

 

There’s a tear in him. He realises that as he emerges from the subway into daylight, and the Tribunal looms over him, casting a large shadow across the street.

 

How does Alec go to work and sit down at his desk and stare at audit reports all day when Nightlock is out there, canvassing all of Manhattan and Brooklyn for leads on Valentine and these murders? How does Alec ignore the fact Nightlock is doing everything and he - Sentinel - is doing nothing? How does Alec make peace with the things that Sentinel is asked to do and the toll it has on him -

 

Alec drags himself into the office and throws himself down into his cubicle. He rests his elbows on his desk and smothers his face with his hands, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees stars.

 

This is purgatory, or it would be, if it wasn’t blasphemy to find God’s silhouette in the city skyline. It’s purgatory, because Alec is stood somewhere on the bridge between two countries where he has planted stolen flags, and he cannot step foot on the shores of either for too long. He is both his arrow and the civilian caught in the crossfire. Both the corpse in the alleyway and the fruit flies feeding upon it.

 

Both a desperate cry for help, and Idris’ answering silence.

 

How does everyone else do it? How does Jace do it? Clary? How does Nightlock do it, how does he exist as two identities at once and not lose himself somewhere along the way to endless, echoing what ifs.

 

Alec’s watch beeps. It reminds him that he has no time for breakdowns; he’s on company time, snap out of it . He scrubs his hands down his face, pulling at the skin of his cheeks and the rough stubble below his jaw, and exhales shakily.

 

Later , he tells himself. Later. Push it all down, smother it, compartmentalise. Organise it into something that can be understood. It’s always worked before.

 

He turns on his computer, but the screen flashes with white numbers on a black page, and then fizzles into blue with a dial up screech. The blue hurts Alec’s eyes, but he stares, for a moment longer than necessary, because his head won’t process it, his body is numb all over, and there’s something’s burning away into ash inside of him but he can’t quite tell what.

 

He doesn’t even notice Simon swan his way over and drape himself across the top of Alec’s partition. Not until he grins, too cheery:

 

“Hey, Alec!”

 

Alec looks up. Simon looks like he dressed in a panic: his hair is a bird’s nest and his shirt might be on inside out. But his smile is broad and only dims when Alec doesn’t immediately reply.

 

“You alright?” Simon worries. Alec can only imagine what Simon can see of him, the way he looks like a car wrapped around a telephone pole. Simon leans further over the partition to get a closer look at Alec’s monitor. “Damn. You having computer problems?”

 

Alec slumps back in his chair and gestures flatly as his desktop’s blue screen. “I guess,” he sighs.

 

“Let me have a crack at it,” Simon says brightly. “Usually you just gotta hit ‘em just right -”

 

He presses the flat of his hand to the top of Alec’s monitor and closes his eyes, as if he’s trying to focus his mind into - whatever he’s about to do. Alec doesn’t have the mental capacity to deal with Simon’s dramatics today.

 

Simon’s nose wrinkles and his temple twitches. Then, he smacks his hand down hard on Alec’s computer, and the whole thing shudders, but the screen flickers into the ever familiar Windows 3.0 start menu.

 

Alec blinks slowly. “Okay,” he says.

 

Simon peers around Alec’s computer again and beams at his handiwork. “Don’t mention it,” he smiles, “I’ve always been good with tech. I have a magic touch!”

 

Alec drags his mouse over to open up his emails. He makes a low noise of acknowledgement, but Simon doesn’t go away. He probably came over here for a reason, after all, although Alec isn’t about to ask for it.

 

Doesn’t really matter. Simon will tell him anyway.

 

Sooo ,” Simon says, dragging out the word. “All that stuff in the papers lately about vigilante murders. Pretty crazy, huh?”

 

Alec sighs and fixes Simon with a flat, unforgiving stare. Simon shrinks back.

 

“Whatever you want to tell me, just spit it out, Simon,” Alec says.

 

“What? C’mon Alec, I’m just making polite conversation about current affairs -”

 

Unimpressed, Alec raises his eyebrows.

 

“Okay, okay, you got me, I just - did you hear Senator Herondale on the radio this morning? She did a breakfast segment on WNYC … ?”

 

“I didn’t have time to tune in,” Alec mutters.

 

“Well, anyway!” continues Simon, “The DJ was taking calls in, right, and this one caller brought up the topic of her opinion on supers … and then they got discussing anti-vigilante legislation that she wants to bring to the Senate if she gets re-elected …”

 

Simon swallows thickly, and Alec notices. In the blink of an eye, Alec goes from feeling nothing at all to hyper focused on the way Simon palms his hand through his hair and looks anywhere but Alec’s eyes. Simon is nervous .

 

Why is Simon nervous ?

 

“What about it?” Alec asks carefully.

 

“I just … you know what she said? That she wanted to bring in some sort of record … like a public register for anyone with superpowers and that’s - I just figured it was kinda screwed up, y’know? Like, I get that there are vigilantes out there with some really dangerous powers but - I just keep thinking of my nana. She lived in Germany when she was a kid. My family’s Jewish.”

 

Alec doesn’t know what to say to that. He knows about Herondale’s stance on vigilantes, and he knows she’s a hypocrite because she still works with Idris, because they’re the right sort of superhero, the contracted type, the owned type - but he hasn’t heard about any plans for legislation before. Hasn’t really been listening.

 

He would’ve thought his mother might have warned him -

 

“And the more and more I thought about it, the more and more angry I got,” Simon continues, “But then when I chatted to Charlie in sales this morning, he just completely blew me off and said Herondale has a point. But you’re on side with the supers, right, Alec? I know you don’t hate them, so I just wanted to - you don’t think I’m being crazy, do you?”

 

Simon’s eyes are pleading; Alec realises he’s looking for reassurance and he’s quietly desperate for it. And Alec doesn’t have it in him to deny Simon today.

 

“No,” he sighs, “No, I don’t … think you’re crazy.”

 

Simon whistles a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s good to hear! I’m just worried, y’know? The next step after a register is always rounding people up and segregating them from everyone else and I’m … scared, I guess, for - people . For other people. No-one I know, of course, but - the general population of New York - hey, actually, it would be really good to pick your brain on this a bit more -”

 

“Simon,” Alec presses. “I have work to do.”

 

“I know, I know, I just - I don’t really have anyone else to talk to about this stuff, and it’s always a risk, bringing it up, because you don’t always know if people secretly want to kill you, y’know? But I know you don’t - not really - ‘cus you, like, get it .”

 

Get it means something different to Simon than it does to Alec. Or maybe it means half of the same thing, because judging by the way Simon tilts his head vaguely in the direction of Magnus’ office, he’s alluding to the other reason people would rather Alec be incarcerated. But for Simon, it stops there: it stops at you get this, ‘cus you’re gay , and that doesn’t even touch upon the rest of it.

 

Alec gets it so much more than Simon realises. He gets it because his own freedom is hanging by a thin, thin thread, if it hasn’t been snipped already. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

 

He feels powerless.

 

Again.

 

“Listen, this isn’t a great place to talk, but,” says Simon conspiratorially, “Maybe me and you can get lunch and chat more? Or we could go for drinks after work, I dunno. There’s a couple things I wanna run by you actually …”

 

Alec doesn’t really listen. He nods along and says okay when the pauses Simon takes for breath demand it, but he’s not sure what he is agreeing to.

 

He thinks about Nightlock again. He scolds himself for not going with him last night.

 

 


 

 

Magnus isn’t smiling when Alec slips into his office that night. His nose is buried in a substantial pile of documents as he furiously scribbles notes in a yellow legal pad, and doesn’t even look up when Alec dumps his bag in the corner.

 

“Come in, come in, I’ll be with you in a moment,” Magnus says, frowning fiercely at the page. His hair has begun to wilt and the black kohl around his eyes is smudged more around one eye than the other. His nail polished is chipped and his cravat has been loosened around his throat. Judging by the noticeable dent in his chair, it looks like he hasn’t moved in hours - or maybe longer.

 

It’s clearly been a long day for him too.

 

Alec clears his throat. “‘S only me,” he says.

 

Magnus immediately looks up, his pen stilling on the page. He offers Alec a small, crooked smile. It doesn’t quite illuminate his whole face, but maybe that’s a trick of the poor light.

 

“I wasn’t expecting you tonight,” he says gently, tapping the nib of his pen. “No Golden Girls to get home to?”

 

“Not tonight,” Alec says, “That’s Tuesdays.”

 

“Of course it is,” says Magnus. “Well, I must say I’m glad to see you. I’m not sure I’ve seen a single living person all day … or maybe I have, and I’ve just forgotten. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I went home.” He gestures widely at the paperwork spread out across his desk as Alec lowers himself into his usual seat. “I hit upon a new lead last night regarding Valentine and the Circle. It looks promising.”

 

Ah .

 

Alec stills, his weight not quite settled. He wonders if it’s obvious, but Magnus is quick to scribble a few more notes. Magnus hasn’t noticed, but Alec -

 

It’s like Alec can’t escape it: the bleeding line, Sentinel, the Circle, all of it. Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast; even Valentine’s name has the power to not let you forget it, whether or not it be from his tongue.

 

The universe must have it out for Alec today, prodding its fingers into all of his open wounds. If only he could tell whether it’s some higher power testing him and his loyalty to Idris, or serving him karma for not standing up for what he knows is right -

 

“Yeah?” Alec asks in a small voice. He picks at the grain in the desk. “Anything interesting?”

 

“Hard to say yet,” says Magnus, choosing a number of sheets of paper to hand over to Alec, all of which are plastered with Post-It notes and Magnus’ looping handwriting. “Last night, I visited one of the Circle’s old haunts. There was no-one there, of course, but canvassing the neighbours proved to be somewhat useful. I have some descriptions of some ‘suspicious individuals’, if you’ll pardon the phrase, but a number of witnesses report someone who fits Valentine Morgenstern’s description -”

 

Magnus pushes two grainy CCTV photographs across the desk to Alec, and then glances up to catalogue Alec’s reaction. One look at Alec’s grave face, however, and his excitement disappears.

 

“Alexander?” he frowns. “Is something the matter? You don’t look well.”

 

Alec stares down at the two photographs in his hands. The angle is difficult and the contrast is bad, but it looks like two men having a heated conversation in the pool of a streetlamp. The man facing the camera is younger, a full head of hair, a black tattoo stark against his neck, but the other, the man with his back to the camera, is older, his head closely shaved.

 

It could certainly be their man. Magnus’ man. Nightlock’s man. Valentine .

 

“How - how is it going?” Alec asks, his voice a little hoarse. His fingers tighten on the photographs, creasing the shiny paper. “The investigation? Do you think we’ll -”

 

“Slower than I would like,” says Magnus slowly. His eyes narrow as he studies Alec and the way Alec won’t look at him. “I’m still getting calls on the tip line, but most end up being duds. All the interest in the Fell case has died down, and I fear the incident at that church has already been lampooned from the public consciousness.” He rubs his thumb and index finger together in thought. His expression pinches. “I was hoping I’d be able to cover more ground with tracking down witnesses, but someone I assumed might help turned me down last night. Not that any good journalist should expect help when chasing a story, because it’s a surprisingly lonely business, but -”  

 

“You’ve … you’ve still got me,” says Alec.

 

“Yes. Yes, I do. And I am incomparably grateful for your help, Alexander, you know that. I wouldn’t be able to sift through half this stuff without you.”

 

He pauses, considering Alec carefully. He puts his pen down and lays both his palms flat on the desk.

 

“Alec, what’s this really about?”

 

“It’s nothing,” says Alec automatically, because it’s like a reflex, catching himself from opening up out of fear that he won’t stop pouring once he does. He exhales shakily, and resists the urge to scrub his hand down his face. Pull yourself together, Lightwood. “I just - I wish I could do more. To help.”

 

“You do plenty,” says Magnus, and Alec is sure they’ve had this conversation before, and maybe that means something. Something like: you’re going to end up going in circles if you don’t step over that carefully crafted line of yours, Alec . “Far more than most people, and far more than I deserve, considering how I roped you into this with little reward other than my dazzling company.”

 

Alec wants to tell Magnus how wrong he is. How Alec sitting at this desk is the only thing that stops the guilt from literally killing him. How he has the capacity to do so much more and he’s wasting it, and doesn’t that make him just as bad as the people they’re hunting? He’s complicit to their crimes, because he has the power to stop them.

 

“Can I ask you a question?” Alec asks.

 

“Of course,” Magnus says without hesitation. He tilts his head curiously. “Alec, always . I think we can be honest with each other, don’t you?”

 

“How do you -” Alec begins, “How do you get to be Magnus the journalist and Magnus the - everything else?”

 

“I don’t think I understand the question. Are you asking me about my work-life balance, or however HR likes to phrase it? Because trust me, I’m the last person you want to ask about that. My social life is surprisingly pitiful, despite what you might hear on the grapevine.”

 

“No, it’s -” says Alec, but then he sighs angrily, because it’s just not coming out right. And it won’t ever come out right, not whilst he has to keep Sentinel a secret. Magnus is only ever going to get half the picture. “You said before, that it’s easier to know what to do because of your responsibility to the press, but - what happens when who you are outside of the office doesn’t - doesn’t agree with that person you need to be? If that ... if that makes sense.”

 

Magnus blinks slowly and then he leans back in his chair, folding his hands together. He frowns as he stares at the ceiling, and the silence prevails just a little too long to be comfortable.

 

“Sorry,” Alec backtracks, “That’s stupid, I didn’t -”

 

“No. No, it’s not stupid. It’s a good question,” Magnus muses. Alec’s eyes are glued to his face now, caught by the shift of his jaw and the movement of his mouth as he thinks. “In this line of work, it happens a lot. You’re asked to write stories that you think don’t matter, and to ignore ones that clearly do. You’re asked to cover up the truth, to make things that will sell even if they’re sensationalist. I don’t agree with any of that, but - well, what can I say. I usually just go under the board’s nose and do what I want anyway. I don’t know if that’s good advice.”

 

Alec nods. It sounds so simple when Magnus says it. For him, doing the right thing and being himself are the same circle in a Venn diagram, but for Alec - his two circles don’t ever overlap. Hell, they’re not even circles at all, they’re two parallel lines, side by side into infinity, but never once meeting, and that’s some part a tragedy.

 

It’s hard to know what to do when you don’t even know who you are.

 

“It's like … “ Alec begins, wringing his hands together. “It’s like, you can have this plan for your life. You know what you need to do and what your responsibilities are, and you think, you know, if you follow the rules, everything's gonna be fine.”

 

Magnus’ gaze drops to his, diamond-sharp and quietly piercing. It lances straight through Alec, and Alec stills, his next breath hitched.

 

He’s too late; it’s all about to come pouring out anyway.

 

“But then … “ he whispers. “Then, somebody, some thing comes along, something like this case, these murders, and ... it pushes you off that path, and you just ..."

 

“Don’t know what to do?” offers Magnus. He leans forward again. He sounds sincere. “Alexander, listen to me -”

 

“I know. I know, it’s dumb, I’m just - afraid of change, I guess. When you’re -” He swallows thickly. “When you’re like me , it’s … intimidating, putting yourself out there when you’re not even sure who -”

 

The words are stolen from Alec’s mouth by Magnus reaching across the desk to grip his hand, separating Alec’s knotted fingers with a gentle tug. He clenches Alec’s fingers in his palm and draws Alec’s hand towards him.

 

“There’s a saying that comes to mind,” says Magnus, and he’s still staring at Alec, and Alec cannot look away, even though he can feel his pulse in his fingertips. “By an Argentine dramatist I read a long time ago. I think we would be much more alive if we dared ourselves to recognize that we are not obligated to know who we are at every given moment . I think it’s rather profound.”

 

Alec’s heart hammers with the speed of something so much more than a simple touch. Magnus squeezes his fingers; his hand is warm, but the pads of his fingers are calloused by many years with a pen in his grip, scribbling furiously on tiny notepads.

 

This is like before, like that night on the telephone, with Magnus whispering in his ear. Just them, alone in the world, but a world that doesn’t feel too big for them to fill.

 

Why - why do you look at me like you understand everything -

 

“Sorry, I - I feel like I kinda just dumped that all on you,” Alec half-laughs, palming his free hand through his hair. He gently tugs at his own hand, but Magnus doesn’t let go. If anything, Magnus’ grip tightens, and then he lays his other hand over the first. Alec is stuck in between, but it’s really Alec’s heart that’s trapped behind his teeth.

 

“I’ve - I’ve been stressing about it all week,” he presses on. “And it was gonna end up coming out to someone … and I don’t think my brother is as good a listener as … you.”

 

“Thank you for telling me,” says Magnus with a smile. “There are very few people I get to talk to like this. Thank you for trusting me.”

 

Trust . There’s that funny old word again. Magnus throws it around so freely, and Alec doesn’t understand it, because trust precludes letting people in, letting people get their hands on his bruised skin, letting people see behind the mask, and that’s something he doesn’t give away as easily.

 

And yet, here he is, wanting to tell Magnus everything, just because Magnus is willing to listen.

 

And isn’t that selfish? Making Magnus listen to his problems when Alec won’t even tell him the whole truth?

 

Making Magnus listen when he’s probably been stuck at his desk all day and just wants to go home and -

 

“I do,” says Alec, speaking before he thoughts get in the way again, “Trust you, I mean. And uh -” Deep breath. The room suddenly feels a little suffocating. He doesn’t know why. “If you wanted someone. To talk to. Then, well - I’d do the same for you, although your problems probably aren’t as melodramatic as mine.”

 

“Darling,” Magnus drawls, but the affection sounds forced, and whatever warmth was within his eyes is quietly tempered. Alec cannot help but think it’s his fault. “Believe me, melodramatic is my middle name.”

 

Carefully, he untangles his hands from Alec’s and withdraws back across the desk. Alec’s hand is left palm-up and cold between them.

 

Alec opens his mouth to say something, anything clumsy enough to fill the sudden silence, but the only thing that comes to mind is that he wants Magnus’ hand back on his. He glares at his own fingers like they’ve personally betrayed him, and they have, fingertips tingling in the same way they do when he’s stringing his bow and stroking the fletchling of his arrows.

 

It’s an eager feeling. Alec calls it anticipation. He doesn’t understand why.

 

Then, Magnus sighs. He sighs, and it’s a heavy, weary sigh, as he leans back in his chair and rolls his stiff shoulders, before stretching his arms out above his head. His rings catch the light, chrome and silver coins rolling across his knuckles, and as he shifts, the light finds the fine chain tucked beneath his shirt collar too. He cricks his neck, and Alec’s eyes follow the exposed column of his throat.

 

Time seems to slow, just as white noise rings out in Alec’s ears like a siren. Alec snatches his empty hand back across the table like he’s been stung.

 

“What do you say to a bit of fresh air?” Magnus asks, and he’s already climbing to his feet, reaching for his coat. His voice is lower than expected. “I don’t know about you, but the stuffiness in here is making me lightheaded.”

 

“Oh,” says Alec, “I can go if you want some peace and quiet-”

 

“I’d rather you didn’t,” says Magnus. He offers Alec a strangely shy smile, but there’s something off about it, something that feels a little distant . He shrugs into his coat, buttoning it up to the base of his throat. “Stay. Please. If you have a moment.”

 

And it sounds so much like Nightlock from the other night that Alec freezes for a moment. How come with me and stay can feel so much alike that he’s doused in the most surreal sense of deja vu that there’s no other answer he can give but yes .

 

He grabs his coat and follows Magnus out the door without locking it behind them.

 

 


 

 

Magnus holds the fire escape door open and leads Alec out onto the rooftop of the building, where a wall of bitter cold greets Alec like frostbite that immediately makes his eyes sting. Alec squints, nudging the door closed with his shoulder and burrowing into his coat, but Magnus disappears on ahead, slipping into the dark with phantom strides.

 

The roof is puddled with rainwater turned stagnant and leaves caught in the gutters. They’re still erring on the side of green, but Alec doesn’t know where they might have blown in from; Central Park is a while away from here and autumn has yet to turn them brown.  

 

Ahead of him, Magnus steps gracefully over ventilation pipes and grates in the roof, picking his way over to the edge. He casts a long and lonely shadow, thin and black as it stretches back and licks at Alec’s shoes. The wind ruffles at his hair and his coat, but it’s not quite enough to be violent tonight, not enough to shift the strange mass that has settled in Alec’s chest.

 

Alec’s had so many bizarre conversations on rooftops lately that this shouldn’t feel so out of the ordinary, and yet this is the one that feels most surreal, most private. This time, he’s the one sneaking up from behind and intruding upon solitary feelings not his own.

 

At the edge of the rooftop, looking down over a dark, narrow alleyway, Alec joins Magnus at his side. Magnus wraps his arms around himself to ward off the cold.  

 

The city ripples out around them in a blue daze, heady, intoxicated, saturated in colour, swaying with the wind that whistles like a siren song through the streets. There’s always been a sense of unreality about the distance, a shimmer of violets, of cobalts, of strange white blinking lights that run like barcodes up the side of skyscrapers. The city bleeds anticipation, the whisper of violent, exciting promise - the breathlessness of a disposed God - and yet, it seems so inherently lonely .

 

Alec loves it and hates it in equal measure, but it swallows him up anyway, smothering him in quietness. All that exists is distant sound; and his eyes falls shut as he sways to a stop next to Magnus.

 

Alec breathes deep. His body settles into a rhythm that he knows. He chances a look at Magnus, if only to tip himself straight out of it again, faithful to the rush of the fall.

 

“I come up here to think, now and again,” Magnus murmurs. “Simon doesn’t seem to know anything exists above the fifth floor of the building, so it’s rather quiet. Peaceful, I suppose.” He stares out into the dark, searching for something Alec wants to know. Then, he adds, “It’s surprisingly beautiful up here too.”

 

Alec swallows thickly. “Yeah.”

 

“Yeah?” Magnus asks, tilting his head towards Alec, smiling a little. “Yes, it’s beautiful, or yes, Simon, for all his good graces, can be a nuisance when it pleases him?”

 

“Both?” says Alec with a shrug. “But it is pretty nice up here. It makes you forget - everything else that’s going on down there, I guess. It’s … like a dream.”

 

“And you don’t want to wake up.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, something like that.”

 

Magnus steps a little closer. Maybe he doesn’t realise it, maybe it means nothing, maybe he’s just drawn towards Alec’s body heat against the wind. His shoulder brushes against Alec’s in silence.

 

But Alec watches him, his face in profile, the slope of his nose, the clench of his jaw, the bob of his throat as his swallows, highlighted by twinkling lights beyond. Those lights, they dance, flickering in and out of reality like the slow flashes of a camera, or of lightning, bright one moment and gone the next.

 

When Magnus speaks again, Alec almost doesn’t hear him, either his voice too soft, or Alec too far gone into the strange dream of blue.

 

“You prefer it up here.”

 

It’s not a question, although it certainly weighs like one in Alec’s chest. He glances away from the swell of the city, but Magnus looks away from him in the same instance, staring out into the dark, his arms still tightly wrapped around himself, but his fingers drumming restlessly against his elbow.

 

“I’ve noticed. You breathe deeper when you’re outside.”

 

The wind blows harsh and cold and straight through Alec. Magnus is both wrong and not wrong.

 

Alec thrives in that windowless office, when it’s just the two of them bowed over the casefiles strewn across Magnus’ desk and the rest of the world is kept at bay by four walls in a way that Alec cannot see, yet feels like a temperance.

 

But Sentinel -

 

Sentinel wants the wind and the cold and the way the rooftop plunges away into neon obscurity far below. He’s a raindrop in an infinite ocean.

 

Of course Alec and Sentinel are different in this way too. Maybe that’s just how it has to be.

 

But Magnus has never been someone so easily confined to boxes and to walls and vast and endless skyscraper seas. His fingers are still twitching, his foot still tapping, his eyes flitting from building to building, from flickering lights to roaming sirens: he doesn’t want to be here, just as much as he wanted out of his office too.

 

So where ? Alec cannot help but wonder, Where do you want to be that isn’t here?

 

His chest tightens at the thought. It shouldn’t, but it does, because he thinks of Magnus longing to be somewhere else, away from here, away from Alec. Who does he have waiting for him at home?

 

He said before, that he doesn’t have anyone he can talk to about all this, but -

 

He must have someone .

 

“Alec?”

 

Alec looks up, snapped out of tumbling thoughts. Magnus is watching him again, his eyebrows pinched, his mouth downturned. The city highlights him in purple and blue from all angles, but the shadows on his face are still so dark and pooling, black in the sockets of his eyes and the curve of his cheeks.

 

And briefly, that shadow looks like a mask, and Alec thinks again of Nightlock and the night at the church. He thinks of Nightlock turning away from him on that rooftop and how Alec’s own heart ached for him in a way he knows far too inherently to ignore.

 

You don’t have anyone in your ear?’

 

‘No. No, it’s just me.’

 

“Sorry,” says Alec, clearing his throat. “Yeah, I guess I do. When I need to clear my head. The cold’s good for that.”

 

Magnus murmurs in agreement, but he doesn’t say anything. Alec is acutely aware of the glint of his rings in the dark as he continues to pick at his coat sleeve.

 

Magnus is definitely not okay. And Alec -

 

Alec has a good idea why. Suddenly, the reasons why Magnus throws himself so selflessly into his work makes perfect sense. The reason why he stays for press every morning to see the sunrise can’t be mistaken for anything else. And now, he offers himself up to Alec’s deluge of problems and it just makes Alec feel so tremendously sad.

 

“Are you lonely?” Alec asks, before his sense of self-preservation catches up with the murmur of his words. Still, it’s not quiet enough for Magnus not to hear and he looks at Alec sharply.

 

Sharply, and then softly, because resignment quietly replaces those well-fortified defenses of his, and his shoulders slump.

 

“Isn’t everybody, in one way or another?” he replies, “Why do you ask?”

 

Judging by the way Magnus’ jaw clenches, Alec knows he’s prodded upon a sore spot. It’s probably cruel of him to keep poking, but sometimes, once he’s started talking, it’s difficult to stop, as if the courage in his blood wants to make the most of a rare moment where he doesn’t feel like burning up.

 

“You look ...” Alec begins, waving his hand aimlessly, “Distracted. Like you want to say something, but can’t. Or won’t. I dunno which.” He curls his fingers to his palm. “Magnus, I was serious back there, if you wanna talk about something -”

 

Magnus lets out a dry laugh. “Is it that obvious?”

 

Yeah, is what Alec thinks about saying, yeah, it’s in your eyes . But he doesn’t suppose it’ll make Magnus feel any better.

 

Instead, he says, “No. I just … know what to look for, I guess.”

 

“Hmm,” murmurs Magnus, spinning one of his rings around and around on his finger. “Well, like I said, I suppose my personal life must make for semi-decent office gossip.”

 

“What?” Alec frowns. “No, I -”

 

There’s a difference , Alec wants to say. There’s a difference between someone seeing the dark circles beneath Magnus’ eyes not covered up by makeup, thinking that’s he’s tired, and knowing that it’s all because he’s been working himself to the bone. There’s a difference between watching Magnus in his element in the office, barking orders to the copyeditors, and knowing it’s only because he’s a workaholic and he doesn’t know how to make room for anything else.

 

There’s a difference, Alec wants to say, between Simon looking at Magnus, and Alec looking at Magnus. They see different things.

 

Alec sees someone incomparable. Someone who gives and gives and gives, but when it comes to taking for themselves: nothing. Magnus carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet won’t let anyone do the same for him. Won’t share , because he’s too kind a person to want anyone else to suffer under the things he suffers. Won’t tell Alec, because he’s -

 

Is he afraid? Like Alec?

 

Is he afraid to let people get too close and see what’s under the mask?

 

Magnus huffs, and as if reading Alec’s thoughts, says, “Well, I’ll start preparing myself for Simon staging an intervention then. Thanks for the warning.”

 

Alec shakes his head. “I think there’s a difference,” he murmurs. Magnus’ shoulder brushes his again.  “Between looking at someone and … seeing someone.”

 

Magnus is smart. He catches onto Alec’s meaning before Alec has to explain himself, and for that, Alec is grateful.

 

“And you can see me?” he scoffs.

 

Alec looks up. He meets Magnus’ curious stare. “I think you deserve to be seen, Magnus.”

 

And Magnus shifts, Alec’s honesty rippling through him like a fracture, revealing the briefest of windows. Alec catches a glimpse of the way the breath pauses in his throat before he swallows it back and wills himself to be calm.

 

He laughs, that same, quiet, slightly despairing laugh as always, but his eyes betray him. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Alexander,” he says, his voice rough around the edges.

 

“I mean it,” says Alec, “Everything that you do, all the stuff you do for the supers, to keep people safe, to get justice for them - and nobody knows. That - I dunno, it just feels wrong to me. Like you deserve to be able to tell someone, like other people should know. They should be grateful -”

 

“I tell you .”

 

“That’s different,” Alec says quickly, “I’m different. I mean - being able to have someone you talk to about all the stuff you see every day -”

 

Magnus steps in front of him then, obscuring the skyline, narrowing Alec’s vision right down to the tight line of his mouth. Alec sucks in a sharp breath, folding his arms behind his back. He stands tall, body pulled taut like a bowstring.

 

Magnus tightens his arm around himself. His eyes flick briefly down from Alec’s gaze to somewhere lower: his chest, his throat, his lips maybe, but doesn’t linger. He finds Alec’s eyes again, and opens his mouth to speak.

 

He says nothing, and Alec is left dangling over a precipice he never even saw coming, his focus glued to the round pause of Magnus’ mouth.

 

Magnus says nothing, because whatever it is that he wants to say is better kept locked away, shuttered between four walls and no windows. Whatever he wants to say is something he thinks Alec doesn’t want to hear.

 

Alec wants to hear it. Anything that Magnus will give him, he’ll take it. He knows that now. It doesn’t come as a surprise.  

 

“It’s about to rain,” Magnus murmurs then, but he’s still standing so close and Alec can feel the heat of him, a tremble of energy in the air that usually precludes a storm, but maybe not this time.

 

Some small part of Alec, attune to the sorts of people who can command energy with a snap of their fingers, wonders if this strange prickle ruminates across Magnus’ skin too.

 

“Back to work?” Alec hedges.

 

Magnus’ eyes drop again, this time definitely focusing on Alec’s mouth. He reaches out, the barest press of his fingers against Alec’s arm. It doesn’t last, and Alec is not sure whether it’s a comfort or not.

 

“Back to work,” Magnus confirms, and then he turns to leave, heading back towards the faint glow of light escaping the fire door behind them. The warmth leaves with him, as does the shiver in the air.

 

Alec turns his face to the sky, just for a moment, just for a breath. He doesn’t taste rain. Not tonight. There’s an incision in the clouds above, through which he can see the faint outline of stars.

 

They seem very far away.

 

 


 

 

Solitude and loneliness are two very different things. Solitude is a choice, a penance, a moment to readjust amidst breathing; but loneliness, that’s time spent at odds with the world.

 

Alec understands loneliness better than most.

 

It’s a selfish sort of feeling, because he has Isabelle, he has Jace, he has both his parents still alive and breathing. There’s Clary and Max and Underhill too. Even Simon.  

 

Even Magnus.

 

He knows he’s not alone in the world.

 

He knows he’s always got Izzy’s whisper in his ear. He knows that Jace would have no-one else fighting at his back. He knows he’s not standing in the foreground of a burning church like Nightlock and having no-one there to call at home.

 

Alec knows he’s loved.

 

And yet, he still knows loneliness intimately. There’s a second pillow always laid out to the empty space on his mattress beside him; there’s a cold indentation in the covers waiting to be filled. There’s always a prolonged moment of silence in the roof of the city when everyone else sleeps on and he finds himself behest to the wind and the skyline.

 

There’s always an ache in his chest, and Magnus -

 

Something about Magnus only makes it hurt more, and it doesn’t really make sense, but at the same time, it makes total sense. Superheroes are meant to have broken hearts and tragic backstories and perhaps Alec doesn’t have all that, not yet, but he does have bulletproof empathy that drives him into the firing line for someone else.

 

Magnus isn’t someone who should feel lonely. He’s the sort of person who drags people into his orbit like stellar bodies; and the sort of person brave enough to leap off a tall building in a single bound and expect people to follow into the fire. People turn to look at him when he enters rooms; his opinions are sought after, coveted, a man who everyone must want to know -

 

And yet none of that matters.

 

Magnus is still lonely, and Alec shares that, finding himself wanting to strip it away with his bare hands and claim it as his good deed. There are walls around Magnus, walls drawn up perhaps to keep people out, to keep himself protected from the world. Alec sees those walls in the sharp flick of makeup at the corner of Magnus’ eyes, in the gun-metal glint of his rings, in the crisp suits and tall hair and untouchable smiles that never reach his eyes.

 

Magnus is lonely. He bears the weight of the city on his shoulders and has no-one who listens when he needs to talk.

 

No-one except Alec, but Alec is different; Alec might be his friend but he’s his work colleague first; Alec is terrible at conversation. What little help must he be -

 

It hurts to think of Magnus as lonely, because Magnus deserves more than the same blue that lingers in the lonely city and in the punishment of rain. Magnus always deserves more, he deserves the world , but held up by someone else, just for him. He deserves someone to do for him what he has been doing alone for years for everybody else.

 

He deserves compassion, appreciation, love -

 

That’s a heavy word.

 

It’s a heavy word for a heavy feeling, and it’s probably not Alec’s to give, but his chest still clenches tightly.

 

Alec’s alone on a rooftop, another rooftop, another night in the same mask. He wonders if his loneliness isn’t the only selfish feeling with which he’s galavanted lately as the wind howls around him, the silhouette of the city surrendered to the fog, flirting with the rain yet to arrive.

 

He presses his gloved fingers to his mask, pushing the leather against his skin until he can feel it, sticky and cold at the same time. His radio is quiet tonight, and he resents himself for thinking that’s a terrible thing, because it means no leads. It means that he’s no closer to solving what happened at that church. No closer to the Circle.

 

Not that Alec’s allowed to chase that ghost in the taillight -

 

Below, the street is lined with bars and nightclubs, red light slicking up Alec’s shoulder, a darker indigo cradled in his hip; neon flashes and deep bass pulses, and the air, soupy with low-lying cloud, trembles with that same heightened fever. That saturated colour seems to cling to Alec, curling around his legs, making every movement feel like wading through waist-high water.

 

It’s going to be a late night, but the people spilling out of the bars are more ready and willing to chase the dawn than Alec, their boisterous laughter and shouts muffled by the thickness of the air. They don’t know loneliness tonight, protected from heartache by a beer jacket draped across their shoulders, isolation staved off by someone else’s hands on their hips. There’s a dream of synth, a lo-fi bass, a guitar soaring off into the dark, Freddie Mercury’s familiar croon again swooping up into the stratosphere where no-one else can reach.

 

The Queen cassette tape sitting in Alec’s desk drawer at the office is like a homing beacon from across the city. He still hasn’t given it to Magnus. Maybe he should, if only to build a bridge between two lonely people, because there are only so many ways to talk about heartache without opening the mouth. Maybe it would make Magnus feel better; it would make Alec feel better in truth, to say the things that Alec is afraid to say, cannot say, cannot think .

 

It should be a sign.

 

Alec’s eyes roam the street again, flitting from one drunken man to another, frowning at the women who laugh and cling to lamposts to keep themselves upright. He watches a man drag his fingertips up the back of his companion, playing with the hair at the nape of her neck. She laughs into his shoulder. They whisper conspiratorially in each other’s ears, and then stagger home in search of sheets to tangle around their ankles, and Alec wonders if that green and twisted feeling was merely his jealousy all along.

 

And what does that feel like , he wonders, curious hands trailing down his back, mapping the shift of muscles in his shoulders, tracing the scars and whisker lines of duty on his skin, prickling a path of goosebumps all the way down into the small of his spine?

 

That’s not a life he knows. He could go out to a bar and meet a stranger, like what Jace used to do before Clary, but that’s not what he wants. He doesn’t want one-night-and-done. He wants connection .

 

That’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?

 

His gaze falls, at last, upon the door to a basement bar that oozes illucid red and pink light, teasing of tongues and lust sans the hot flush of panic behind.

 

A few people are crowded in the shadow of the doorway including someone breathing out smoke, the cigarette between their fingers glowing like a firefly in a place where fireflies should never be. There’s three of them: two women, and a man. Alec’s not sure why he watches them for so long; the hush of their conversation is too low to overhear; maybe it’s the way they sway against each other, a little drunkenly, a little giddy, a little care-free. The bob of the woman’s cigarette pulls Alec into a strange trance, hypnosis ebbing and flowing against his better judgements.

 

The woman with the cigarette is objectively beautiful, a soft rust-orange coloured dress whipping around her thighs, her hair straight and dark. Her grin is crooked as she leans in to whisper to the other woman; it makes them both laugh. The man though, still draped in shadows, does something with his hands that looks like he’s throwing them up in fond despair.

 

It’s only when the man steps out of the dark and into the pool of a streetlamp do Alec’s eyes widen, because, well .

 

It’s Magnus.

 

It’s Magnus, and he’s wearing a black and gold shirt done up to his throat, with his jacket draped over his shoulders, the sleeves hanging loose by his sides. His hair is tall and imposing, his makeup smoky, and there’s a glint of metal biting into his neck and around his knuckles. He looks expensive, his silhouette powerful, his legs long and lean in jet-black pants. His smile is sharp; the blade of it cuts through the haze, even at a distance.

 

It’s Magnus, and Alec has never seen Magnus when he’s ... Sentinel .

 

And it’s full-circle irony, isn’t it, because of course Magnus would be someone else outside the office too, just like Alec. Alec had only asked as much the other night. Magnus doesn’t spend every waking hour behind that desk of his, sifting through case notes: he has a life as well. He goes dancing, he goes drinking, maybe he does the one-night-and-done.

 

Alec doesn’t even notice the woman in orange extinguish her cigarette. He doesn’t notice her lean in to kiss Magnus on either cheek as he supports her by the elbows. Then, she loops her arm together with the other woman, and throws a cackling goodbye over her shoulder as she steers them away down the street.

 

Alec does notice that Magnus turns to walk the other way. He’s not going home with his two stumbling friends; he’s not going to hail a cab with them to another bar, because the night is still a little young, but nor is he accompanying someone back to their apartment for a nightcap.

 

He’s just walking home alone.

 

Alec throws his bow over his shoulder and scrambles to keep pace with Magnus, parallel along the rooftop. Magnus walks fast, faster than a man who’s had three beers and a whiskey should. Alec struggles to pick his way over gutters and drainpipes without catching his boot and earning a facefull of rainwater for his troubles.

 

Alec shouldn’t be following him. He’s meant to be on duty, waiting for Izzy’s call or Jace’s fly-by, but he can’t stop himself. It’s just curiosity. It’s just a pale imitation of intimacy at a distance.

 

The pink lights of the bars disappear behind him, replaced by the far colder, far unkinder, blue and white of high-rises that unfurl in front of him. Magnus makes a sharp turn away from the main street, disappearing into an alleyway. He doesn’t hesitate: he must walk this way often, a shortcut perhaps, but Alec is sure Magnus lives in Brooklyn and the subway is in the other direction.

 

Maybe he has other plans for the night after all.

 

It makes Alec freeze, one foot on the lip of the rooftop, preparing to jump to the next. Sharp tension ricochets through his knee as he forces himself to stop.

 

What is he doing? He’s not actually following Magnus all the way home, is he? What if he’s not going home? Is Alec going to tail him all the way there? What’s the end game here -

 

Then, a figure ducks out of the doorway of a shuttered restaurant, just as Magnus disappears into the narrowed street. The person hunches their shoulders, looking right, then left, hesitating as they scan the road for incoming traffic - but it’s late and there’s no-one else here save Alec. They start walking fast, with the urgency of a man with unnerving purpose, body pressed close to the wall of the building, and then they slip into the shadow of the same alleyway as Magnus.

 

Following Magnus.

 

And Alec almost misses them, dazed and disoriented as he is, but -

 

Almost is the operative word; his senses are too keen for that. He catches the flap of a dark coat as heavy boots splash in puddles; he sees the figure flip up their hood to obscure their face from prying eyes. Alec moves before the feeling in his stomach has the chance to form dread. He swings himself down the fire escape of the building and his feet hit the ground hard. He yanks his bow from his shoulder, readying an arrow in the same instance.

 

He has to run to catch up. Magnus is walking fast, and whoever is following is walking faster still. Alec catches a glimpse of their coat as the figure turns a corner up ahead, and in profile, he sees that it’s a man beneath the hood, scruffy and unkempt, but broad in the shoulders.

 

Alec’s seen this sort of thing enough to know what’s about to happen.

 

Magnus is probably an easy target: well-dressed, alone, the few drinks in his system affecting both his hearing and his balance. A wallet in his pocket. Jewelry around his throat. A ring or two that could be pawned for quick cash at a brokers.

 

Alec’s stomach clenches. He moves silently, but at speed, and his breath catches when he briefly loses sight of the man ahead. The small alley reeks of garbage, but above, a regiment of crows on a telephone wire screech in a minor key, eager to see how the main event will turn out.

 

Alec’s not about to let it get that far.

 

He locks his arrow in his bow as he ducks around the corner, just in time to see the man following Magnus reach into his coat for something threatening. It could be a gun or a knife or a toothpick for all Alec cares, but he doesn’t wait and see; he draws his bowstring back to his mouth and lets the arrow fly, silent and sure. The air parts for him.

 

The arrow pierces through the man’s coat sleeve with a force so swift that it pins the man against the wall of the alleyway. The sound of metal into brick rings out with clarity.

 

The man yelps in surprise. He drops the silver thing in his hand - a kitchen knife, serrated edge, rust around the handle. The loud metallic clang of it hitting the ground is shrill too.

 

For a moment, the entire world is completely still.

 

Alec exhales. The man pinned to the wall stares at him in horror, but Alec doesn’t stare back for long. He looks up, expecting Magnus to be stopped in the mouth of the alleyway, staring back at him in surprise, but he’s not there. He’s gone, he kept on walking; likely five drinks deep enough not to even notice that he was being followed, and that Alec, that Sentinel , took care of it.

 

Alec’s shoulders fall. He walks up to the man pinned to the wall, and the man flails backwards, holding his empty palms up in surrender, babbling a mile a minute. Please, please don’t hurt me , is what the words look like, falling out his mouth, but Alec doesn’t hear them. He thinks about pulling his arrow out of the wall, but it’s stuck fast between the bricks. This man isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

 

Izzy always tells him to retrieve his arrows - because her tech is too dangerous in the wrong hands, and that’s true - but Alec doesn’t want to let this man off with just a fright and a warning tonight.

 

Instead, Alec stoops to pick up the knife. He flings it away down the alleyway, and it ricochets off brick and dumpsters further away than he can see.

 

And then, he walks away.

 

The man shouts from behind him:

 

“Hey! Hey, come on, you can’t just leave me here! Wait!”

 

Alec hoists up his quiver and doesn’t look back. It’s not too cold. The man will survive a night in the elements: either he’ll be picked up by the police in the morning or he’ll rip his coat free of the wall. It doesn’t really matter. Alec doesn’t really care. This man won’t be trying his luck again, not whilst Sentinel’s on watch.

 

 


 

 

Alec wanders down the alleyway until the man’s shouting fades into the rumble of distant traffic. Street level is a dangerous place to be in a suit and a mask, but all the windows above him are dark, lights off and curtains drawn, and he’s alone right now, or as alone as he can be.

 

He feels like he’s floating. Not in a good way. He’s separate from his body, halfway to dissociation somehow, like his feet are moving but his mind is not, quiet as the grave. He imagines seeing himself from above, but the angle keeps changing like the blinking of an eye as some part of him hangs in midair over the city and rises with the distant cackling of crows.

 

He imagines a metropolis breathing. He imagines rising high enough to see the cars already lining up at the toll booth on the George Washington bridge. He imagines a late-night-news helicopter slicing through the layer of smog on the horizon.

 

And above, through that odd, recurrent gap in the clouds, the moon is a thin white monolith alone in the sky. Strange.  

 

What are you doing, Alec? he asks himself, but it’s not a question with an answer. His hand tightens around his bow and he fights the urge to throw it away into the gutter and be rid of it. He wants to feel that moonlight on his face. His mask obscures it.

 

Instead, numbness lingers and the question echoes. That was bold and risky, what he just did. Unnecessary. His parents would scold him; he already feels their shame, Pavlovian in nature, but that’s all he ever feels.

 

He wants to feel more. There’s got to be more. More than just the wind, the rain, the grey fog of longing; the brief thrill of risk and the even briefer trembles of the heart that come and go like passing headlights.

 

What are you doing here, Alec? What are you doing to yourself? What are you letting happen?

 

He looks again at the moon and a heavy, defeated sigh escapes him. The clouds knit themselves together again, a wound sutured, swallowing up that quicksilver colour. He shouldn’t still be here, but here he lingers, and he cannot bring himself to press his finger again his coms and call for Isabelle. Alec looks upwards, toward the rooftops, one more time.

 

“Are you following me?”

 

When Alec turns the corner, he nearly misses Magnus leant against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Magnus’ eyebrows are raised, chin tilted upwards.

 

Alec’s heart catapults into his throat. He leaps backwards, grasping for his bow on instinct -

 

And then he freezes.

 

Magnus doesn’t laugh, but he pushes himself off the wall and steps in front of Alec, in front of Sentinel, squaring up to him with the confidence of a man who has either met too few or too many supers in his time.

 

Panicked, Alec looks both ways down the street. It’s deserted. No cars. They’re alone. No witnesses. The shadow of the alleyway still clings to Alec’s back. His eyes widen.

 

A stuttered “ Magnus ” almost escapes his lips. He almost breathes.

 

But Sentinel doesn’t know Magnus’ name. Sentinel doesn’t know Magnus , and this is their first meeting. He catches himself just in time, forcing himself to scowl.

 

Another almost.

 

“Says the man waiting to ambush me on a street corner,” Alec grumbles, steadying his voice, glad that his modulator pitches it lower than normal. “I’m not following you.”

 

Magnus still has his arms folded across his chest, his ringed fingers pressed against the crease of his elbow. The gold lines on his shirt look sharp. So does the look in his eyes.

 

It’s sharper than the way he looks at Alec in the office. Sharper, colder, more wary, less apologetic. Unfamiliar, calculated, and definitely not welcoming.

 

And it’s how it should be, but Alec doesn’t like it. He wishes only that his mask were bigger or that the ground might swallow him up, because he’s breaking one of his cardinal rules.

 

Don’t let the parallel lines cross.

 

But he’s already fucked it up.

 

“You need to be careful,” he says below his breath, because he thinks if he talks any louder, Magnus will hear a tremble. “It’s not safe alone at this time of night. For anyone.”

 

He glances both ways down the street again, and yes, it’s still empty, but he knows that if he hesitates any longer, he’ll run out of escape routes. His heart feels tight; it beats too loud; it betrays the shake forming in his hands. Take a step back , it warns him.

 

This is dangerous. Magnus and Sentinel and a crossroads.

 

God, why did Alec decide to follow him -

 

“Oh, I believe you,” says Magnus, raising his eyebrows. “Being followed home by a super with unknown intentions would unnerve even the most foolhardy, I’m sure.”

 

He stays his ground. He still doesn’t step back from Alec. It’s a challenge.

 

Is he angling for a fight? Sentinel is a Corporate after all, and Alec knows how Magnus feels about -

 

Him.

 

Magnus hates him.

 

Alec huffs. “There was a guy following you. He had a knife,” he presses.

 

“And it looks like you had a handle on it,” Magnus retorts, tilting his chin towards the alleyway. “What did you do to him?”

 

“I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

The look in Magnus’ eye is probative. He’s pushing, expecting Sentinel to push back. Magnus is somehow not surprised that Sentinel’s standing there, or if he is, he sure as Hell is not going to let Sentinel see.

 

He reminds Alec of Nightlock, or how Nightlock used to be, on that first night on a distant rooftop. It’s that razor-sharp edge, that poise, that anticipation, that I’ll show my cards, if you show me yours , waiting for Sentinel to make the first move. It’s that way he’s so far hidden behind those walls of his that Alec cannot trust anything he says for truth.

 

This is not the Magnus he knows. Alec’s fight-or-flight response flares up, but still, he can’t move. If he moves, if he shifts at all, he’s sure the blue light will catch the side of his face in a way that will make Magnus realise in an instant who he really is.

 

Sweat begins to collect in his palms. He can feel the steady thump of his pulse in his thumb where he squeezes it into his fist.

 

Alec is not the sort of person to panic, but he’s no longer numb, not anymore.

 

Magnus hums on a low note, his eyebrows briefly jumping. He looks Alec up and down then, quick over his mud-shot boots and the lines of his supersuit, his utility belt, the quiver on his back, the bow in his hand. He lingers longer on the mask. It makes Alec’s stomach churn, his jaw tightening.

 

Don’t look , a part of himself is whispering. His heart scares itself out of its own silence and begins to thrum again. Don’t look at me. Don’t figure it out.

 

I don’t want you seeing all the dirty things I’ve done.

 

“What’s your name?” Magnus asks.

 

“Sentinel,” lies Alec.

 

“Corporate or vigilante?”

 

“I’m with Idris.”

 

“And dealing with poorly-attempted muggings at one in the morning is on Idris’ radar?” Magnus asks. A sly smile is tucked into the corner of his mouth, not necessarily friendly, but certainly daring. Leave now , chants the voice in Alec’s head. “I find that hard to believe, Sentinel.”

 

If Nightlock had said it, Alec would rise to the bait, fight back. He knows he would; he knows he has . But when it’s Magnus -

 

He needs to leave. Right now. He’s treading a line that should never be tread, and it hurts, because he’s thinking about Magnus being lonely, and he’s thinking about the cassette tape in his desk, and then he’s thinking about what might’ve happened if he’d not followed him from that bar -

 

Would that have been the right thing to do ? Hell, he doesn’t rightly know. Magnus is fine, he’s all in one piece; that’s a reassurance Alec clings to. He recalls the clattering sound of the knife as he’d thrown it away down the alleyway.

 

Maybe his own expression softens, and for once, it’s Alec seeping out between the cracks in Sentinel’s armour, and not the other way around. And the bleeding’s more gruesome this way, because Alec is flesh and blood where Sentinel is only leather; and Alec feels , and those feelings are ugly.

 

He can feel himself unravelling the longer the taut silence stretches.

 

And worse: Magnus sees it - and Alec knows he does - because hesitation appears in the slight parting of his lips.

 

Alec should leave .

 

“I’m just doing my job,” he mumbles, “Look, I have to go -”

 

And Alec turns, because one second more and he’s afraid Magnus will realise that he knows his hair, the shape of his jaw, the way his fingers can’t stay still. He’s staring at Magnus with fear in his eyes, and Magnus will call him out for it.

 

“Wait,” Magnus says. He doesn’t shout; he doesn’t need to. Just one word and it’s enough to get Alec to turn back. It always is. Alec can’t help himself. “Walk me home, will you? I had a few too many to drink tonight, and if we’re really having this conversation, I can already tell you my wits aren’t about me.”

 

“I’m on duty,” Alec argues weakly.

 

Magnus ducks past Alec, making sure not to let their shoulders brush. “I can’t imagine someone’s keeping tabs on you tonight if you’re already all the way out here,” he says pointedly, and then he smiles a bit, but it looks like a fake smile, a barbed smile, and it does nothing to settle Alec’s nerves. “You don’t have to, of course. I’m sure I’m perfectly capable of -”

 

“No,” says Alec immediately. “No, it’s fine. I’ll do it. How far is it?”

 

Magnus smiles again, but this time it speaks more of the things he’s had to drink. It’s a little easier, a little looser, a little closer to the truth. There’s this look he always wears so well that makes Alec realise he’s not privy to a secret joke.  

 

“Ten or so blocks,” Magnus grins, but Alec sees the whiskey stirring in his eyes. Magnus  isn’t quite sober. “Not far.”

 

Alec huffs. He looks around again, but the street is still empty and the lights of upstairs windows are dying out for the night. All that’s left is the blue halo of neon that illuminates Magnus from behind.

 

Ten blocks is a long way to go when Alec’s head is urging him to run but his feet just won’t move, not when Magnus is looking at him in a way he doesn’t recognise and Alec has to be a person he is not.

 

What are you doing, Alec?

 

Not leaving a drunk Magnus out on the streets, that’s what.

 

He’s not convinced by his own answer and he knows it. But regardless, he isn’t leaving Magnus here alone.

 

“Fine,” Alec sighs. Immediately, he starts walking away, shoulders hunched and fingers gripping his bow so tight that the tendons in his wrist ache.

 

And then, Magnus calls out, darkly delighted, “Not that way, Sentinel . Follow me.”

 

 


 

 

There’s a space between them as they walk, a no-man’s land that stretches no more than several feet but feels a mile wide. It makes Alec feel weird, so used to the brush of Magnus’ shoulders when they pass each other in the office, or the smell of Magnus’ cologne when he leans across the desk to bat Alec’s hands out of the way to make a point. So used to these casual touches -

 

Not quite the space of strangers, but still enough for the air to blow cold through the centre of them. Silence too. Alec fights the urge to wring his hands; instead, he keeps them clenched at his side, senses on high alert.

 

Perhaps he was expecting Magnus to talk; a glass or two of whiskey has always loosened up the tie about his neck, if not his tongue. Alec knows how he gets in the office late at night after he’s opened up his file-cabinet scotch. He looks at Alec longer. He lingers. He makes Alec wonder what he’s thinking, how he’s thinking it.

 

He’s not looking at Alec now. As they walk, Alec peeks at him from the corner of his eye, but Magnus is focused on the road ahead, on putting one foot in front of the other, on something that has sobered him quite severely, if the downturn to his mouth is anything to go by.

 

His walls are back up, Magnus’ walls, the ones that shutter away the brightness in his eyes that Alec has come to long for in earnest.

 

Now, when he catches Alec looking, the smile he plasters on is fake and inebriated.

 

Alec clears his throat. “So,” he says awkwardly, “Date night?”

 

Magnus snorts. “Hardly.”

 

“I saw you with some people at the bar,” Alec offers. “But you didn’t leave with them.”

 

“Friends of mine,” explains Magnus with a wave of his hand, “We needed an excuse to go for a drink, and, well. They had some leads they thought I might find useful. I’m a journalist.”  

 

Alec hums quietly. He already knows that. What sort of questions should he ask if he were to be pretending otherwise?

 

Magnus doesn’t give him the chance to ask.

 

“I’m sure there’s some old saying about mixing business with pleasure that I should take heed of, but I’ve had three too many whiskies tonight to bring myself to care -” He laughs dangerously, a punctuated sound in the dark. “-or bring myself to remember, for that matter.”

 

“Isn’t that lonely?” Alec asks, before he can help himself. He flushes behind his mask. “I mean -”

 

“I know what you mean,” interrupts Magnus, “Constantly trying to live two lives and never quite succeeding at living one?”

 

“Yeah,” mumbles Alec, “That.”

 

The silence descends again, but Alec can’t be sure if it’s more or less awkward than before. It feels heavy, a weight on Alec’s shoulders that he cannot shake and it’s bowing his back, folding him up into tiny pieces right before his eyes.

 

He wonders if Magnus can see it too. Hell, he wonders if Magnus is even looking, because he’s Sentinel , and why would Magnus want to look -

 

A taxi hurtles by, it’s white lights striking Magnus from behind, lancing through his hair and catching in the net of necklaces draped around his throat. The gold glitters in supple silver, and then, just as quickly, the brake lights cast his face in red, and then fade. Alec watches the colour disappear from Magnus’ eyes.  

 

He doesn’t want Magnus to look . Doesn’t want Magnus to look at him, doesn’t want Magnus to see that duality in him too, for Magnus to ask a question of him that he cannot answer without lying through his teeth, and when -

 

When did it get to that? When did it become a fear of his to lie to Magnus? He already does it every damn day. Magnus has stood with him on bleary rooftops and confessed the loneliness he feels, whispered to him across telephone wires like a secret in the dark not wanting to be left alone; bare parts of himself that he has never shown anyone else. But here Alec is, unable to afford him the same courtesy. Unable to give him that same honesty , even though Alec hopes Magnus would handle it with care and comfort, with gentle, reverent hands.

 

And oh, Alec hates himself. He hates himself for letting Sentinel bleed over onto Magnus and stain him with that same black ink and red blood that can’t be washed from Sentinel’s hands; Magnus, this one relationship Alec has that makes him feel like a normal person and not like he’s losing his damned mind -

 

Magnus notices him staring. “Oh, spit it out,” he says, half a laugh.

 

Alec blinks himself back to reality, his mouth gently parting in surprise. Magnus has stopped on the sidewalk and is watching him with more lucidity than a drunk man should be afforded. He slowly folds his arms about his chest again, perhaps one dry comment away from tapping his foot. He looks at Alec, at Sentinel, expectantly.

 

“I, uh -”

 

“What’s the matter?”  

 

Alec swallows thickly. Magnus doesn’t blink, unwilling, even, to miss a single twitch of Alec’s expression that might betray him.

 

“I’m just - I’m surprised,” Alec stumbles. There’s a fragility to his words he knows he doesn’t mask. He rubs his gloved hand across the back of his neck and Magnus tracks it.

 

Magnus’ eyes narrow. “Surprised about what?”

 

“Usually people are a bit more wary around supers … they don’t just … ask us to walk them home.”

 

“And how many people have you offered to walk home, hmm?” Magnus bites, but then he rolls his eyes. “I’m a friend,” he says, as if it’s obvious. “Of supers. You don’t have to be so -” he gestures drunkenly with his hand, “-antsy around me. Relax.”

 

Relax. It doesn’t quite sound like Magnus means it, but Alec has a hard time not listening to him. He lets out a slow, shaky breath and Magnus smiles a bit as Alec’s shoulders visibly drop.

 

Alec doesn’t feel much better.

 

“I don’t usually … work at street level,” he admits, glancing back over his shoulder. He half expects a police siren to come hurtling around the corner at any second. “Sorry.”

 

“Oh, I’ll protect you, don’t fret,” Magnus chuckles, but as he starts walking again, he staggers, an amused “ oh ” escaping him. Alec reaches for him on instinct, gripping his bicep before he goes tumbling into the gutter. He pulls Magnus firmly into the centre of the sidewalk, but Magnus is looking at Alec’s hand on him, a pout to his lips.

 

He looks up at Alec from beneath his lashes, his focus so intense that Alec swears his palm simmers, like he’s been burned, like Magnus is still burning him.

 

“Scared?” Magnus asks.

 

“Only of you walking into oncoming traffic,” Alec huffs, but it’s without heat. He presses his hand between Magnus’ shoulder blades - and if his heart lurches upwards in his chest, he swallows it back down, right down - and gives Magnus an encouraging push.

 

He thinks Magnus rolls his eyes, but he can’t be sure; it happens so quickly and he misses it, he second guesses it in the dark. Alec begins counting the pace of Magnus' steps as they follow a drowsy too-even beat: one-two-three, one-two-three, like a drunken waltz. His shoulder brushes Alec’s.

 

Alec’s not sure what is happening here. He didn’t get training for this. Magnus is tipsy, but not in the way Alec knows. Nothing about this is what Alec knows.

 

“Can I ask you a question?” Magnus says, making a dramatic show of rolling his shoulders and cricking his neck. Alec stares hard at the ground. “Tell me if I’m overstepping.”

 

“Go ahead,” Alec mumbles, if only for the distraction it permits. Magnus’ arm nudges him again, he steps a little sideways, and Alec is half-inclined to offer his arm for Magnus to hold onto. The thought doesn’t quite get that far. His mouth is dry.

 

“What is your real life like?”

 

“Wh- what ?”

 

“Oh, don’t look so shocked,” Magnus laments, “Doesn’t everyone always want to know what it’s like being a super? Isn’t it all: can you fly? Can you shoot laser beams? Have you ever been caught by the police? Forgive me for wanting to know what’s on the other side of the coin. What is normal life for someone in Idris’ employment?” He pauses, and then his voice is softer. “Does my question surprise you?”

 

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Alec mumbles, gently pushing Magnus back into the middle of the sidewalk, aware that he’s hovering. “But there’s not much to talk about.”

 

“How old were you when you started at Idris?”

 

Alec twitches. “Five,” he relinquishes. “My … my younger sister was three.”

 

“And you’re, what -” Magnus squints at his mask, as if that might help him see through it. Alec deliberately looks away. “Twenty-five, thirty at most? And you’ve never wanted to do anything else? What about school? College?”

 

“I went to college. Is this twenty questions?”

 

“Well, if you’ll permit me twenty, then I would be a fool to pass up the opportunity,” says Magnus. “What did you study?”

 

Alec narrows his eyes. Dangerous territory , says a modulating voice inside his head. In the same instance, Magnus stumbles again, grabbing hold of Alec’s arm and squeezing. He laughs to himself, but something about it sounds off.

 

“Business and finance,” Alec says, vague enough that Magnus won’t think twice about it. Hell, Magnus might not even remember this conversation in the morning, and perhaps Sentinel will be relegated to a blurry shape amidst his hangover, but -

 

Magnus doesn’t let go of Alec’s arm for a moment. It’s not a friendly squeeze of Alec’s elbow; his grip is tight. Deliberate. Almost painful.

 

It feels too forced.

 

“Hmm, I was an English major,” Magnus hums, “Journalism in grad school. And what about your day job? Do you have one? Does Idris let you have one or is it skulking around in the shadows from 9-til-5 too?”

 

“I don’t think that’s any of your concern,” Alec mutters, but he can feel his face heating up. They must’ve walked ten blocks by now -

 

“And what about your friends?” Magnus is saying, “Do they know you’re a super? Or are all your friends supers too?” His eyes narrow with a mischievous glint, but there’s something underneath that is far darker and more severe. He says it with the poise of a man who went out drinking with his friends in the hope of acquiring a new lead for his story. He’s always thinking one step ahead. “What about vigilantes?”

 

Alec sighs tiredly. One of these buildings must be Magnus’ - “What about them?”

 

“What do you think about vigilantes?”

 

That’s not a conversation Alec wants to have, not here, not on a street corner where anyone might hear or see or walk into them. He doesn’t have the time to say everything that would need to be said.

 

“They’re not my enemies,” is what he settles on, and it might just be the most honest thing he’s said all night. “But they’re someone’s. I’ve seen all the murders in the papers. I want to help.”

 

Magnus hums softly. His mouth forms a smile. His expression shifts to something unreadable, but it’s not hostile. “Quite right,” he says, and the conversation ends.

 

Perhaps he has the answer he’s been fishing for. Perhaps not.

 

Behind them, Alec hears a horn and the squeal of brakes, someone behind a wheel that shouldn’t be. He tenses, turns, to look back over his shoulder, but then Magnus pulls in closer to him, two seconds before a car zips by.

 

Magnus moves without thinking. The sway in his shoulders follows a predictable pattern. There’s a crack in the sidewalk and he steps over it with ease, not looking once at his feet.

 

Oh.

 

Magnus makes people look right when he wants to move left -

 

“Okay, so this is me,” Magnus announces, gesturing widely up at the brownstone that towers above them. Alec is surprised: the building is old, but not too old, and there’s no man at the door, just a buzzer corroded grey with people’s fingerprints. The penthouse is dark, save for a few twinkling lanterns lit on the balcony, and Magnus uses the excuse of looking up to press into Alec’s side once more.

 

His body is warm, but he doesn’t smell of beer and spirits, not really. Alec’s seen him put away more than a few whiskies before and be perfectly coherent. This is a game.

 

It’s not just that. It’s a test.

 

Magnus is testing him. Testing him, testing Sentinel, seeing how Sentinel might push if he pulls ... he wants to see what Sentinel will do when Magnus is pretending to be vulnerable.

 

Of course he is. Magnus is smart. If it were anybody else and their situations were reversed, Alec would do the same damn thing …

 

Alec doesn’t pull away, but he does gently unpeel Magnus from his arm and push him towards the front steps of his building, guiding him by the shoulders.

 

“I know you’re not drunk,” Alec whispers, under his breath, somewhere too near to Magnus’ ear. He’s not exactly sure if he means to say it, but part of him - the Alec part of him - longs for Magnus to hear it. For Magnus to know that Alec can’t be fooled, not by him, not anymore. Alec sees him, even if he might be the only one in the world who does.

 

“Hmm?” Magnus says, peering back over his shoulder at Alec. “Oh, I beg to differ.”

 

Alec shakes his head. “You’re not.” He laughs softly and it makes Magnus pause. “You’re just pretending. Probably to see how I’ll react. I can tell.”  

 

The amusement in Magnus’ eyes fades quickly and Alec watches as he straightens up, standing taller than before. His smile grows wry. He offers Alec a meek shrug.

 

“I must’ve sobered up on the walk home,” he says knowingly.

 

“Or you just don’t want a stranger to see the real you,” Alec suggests, not breaking eye contact. “Which is probably smart.”

 

Magnus hesitates, and then, in a voice surprisingly quiet, he murmurs, more to himself than to Alec, “And you might just be smarter.” He laughs quietly, disbelieving, oddly beautiful. “I don’t like relinquishing the upper hand, you know.”

 

Yeah, I know, thinks Alec.

 

Magnus looks up and he’s grinning again, grinning at Sentinel, and it’s fake and they both know it. Magnus knows that Sentinel knows it.

 

And that hurts, doesn’t it, just a little. It hurts because it’s not just Alec who has to suffer this duality; it’s Magnus too. It’s Magnus hiding from him, playing him, him the stranger, him the super, him who is not Alec, Magnus’ Alec .

 

It’s Magnus who smiles that droll smile and shakes his head, and says, then, “You’re kinder than I expected.”

 

Alec’s traitorous heart dares to beat. “What were you expecting?”

 

Magnus’ lips turn thin. His disbelief is palpable and it surprises Alec.

 

Magnus says nothing for a moment, weighing his words before he says them. He says them anyway.

 

“Not this.”

 

And then he disappears behind his front door, a brief stream of light blinding Alec enough to shield his eyes as the latch catches and the door clicks closed. Alec blinks away the sunspots, eyes stinging as the black, amorphous shadows of the night begin to reform. He’s left feeling dazed.

 

He always feels dazed. It’s the effect Magnus has on people and he knows it, but a part of him can’t help but wonder if anyone else ever feels as swept off their feet by a sudden gust of wind as him.

 

And he never seems to hear it coming.

 

Alec stands on the sidewalk, staring up at this brownstone building, for a moment that becomes many moments, too many moments. His heart aches and hurts in the same instance, and he feels both rooted to this spot and yet swept away.

 

He wonders if Magnus stands on the other side of that door, with his head leant back against the wood and his hands palming through his hair and his eyes tightly closed. He wonders if Magnus hasn’t moved either.

 

Alec’s fingers twitch as he thinks about loosening his mask and following up the steps, knocking on the door.

 

That urge has never been so powerful before. Why here? Why now?

 

What are you doing, Alec? says the voice again, and it must be getting tired of warning him against the same mistakes. What do you expect to happen here?

 

No good will come of Magnus knowing Sentinel. It won’t cure him of his loneliness, and it won’t cure Magnus of his either, because Sentinel is based on a lie, just like Alec. He’s not real, just like Alec. He’s a vague impression of a person, but nothing more. Nothing concrete.

 

And Alec doesn’t want Magnus knowing the things that come with this version of him, those whispery, watery, bloody things with no substance. That’s not something Magnus deserves, not on top of every little other thing from which he suffers.

 

Alec watches the penthouse until the lights flick on, gold and yellow and seeping out into the night, before he turns away. Then, he leaves.

 

He doesn’t look back.

 

 


 

 

Alec goes straight home. It’s not even two in the morning when he collapses backwards onto his ratty couch. He splays his palm across his mask, shielding his eyes from the cheap fluorescent light that floods his apartment.

 

He’s breathes deeply, concentrates on the rise and fall of his chest until he inhabits his own body again; he tries so desperately to close his eyes as he pushes back into the lumpy cushions of the couch, but they’re pried open.

 

Strange shapes wiggle at the edges of his vision. The next breath is sharper, harsher, more prone to a panic he doesn’t want to face.  

 

What was that?

 

Did he really just -

 

What if he gave something away that he can’t get back?

 

This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all, and he can hear his father’s voice in his head - ‘ that was an amaeur mistake, Alec’ - and at the same time, he can see the disapproving twist of his mother’s mouth into a grimace.

 

‘The less people know about Idris, the better, ’ she would say, ‘ Your identity is all you have. It’s all that keeps you safe. Don’t do anything to compromise that.

 

It’s too late for that. Alec is long past compromised, he’s -

 

He’s -

 

But oh, God, if he hadn’t followed Magnus home, who knows what would’ve happened between him and that man with the knife, and Alec wouldn’t have found out until tomorrow at the office, and -

 

Oh, could you imagine the guilt?

 

Alec stands at a crossroads; he knows that to be true. The intersecting roads are labelled Alec and Sentinel , and where they meet, instead of Alec’s divided body, now stands Magnus, and Alec should never have let him stop there. Never should’ve let him see Sentinel, because Sentinel’s road leads somewhere dark and bloody and unforgiving. Alec cannot see its end.

 

He doesn’t want Magnus stepping a foot on that path. Not if Alec can help it.

 

Alec grinds the heels of his palms into his eyes and swallows back a groan of frustration that borders upon despair. He sees flashes of bright colour where he presses too hard on his eyes. He thinks about Magnus pretending to be drunk, about Magnus testing him, about Magnus grinning, like that , on the front steps of his building.

 

How did it come to this? How did Alec get here , of all damn places?

 

His heart flips, but doesn’t land quite right. There’s a sprained-ankle ache in his chest; it twinges as he moves, and it pushes him up off the couch, unable to fight the urge to fidget.

 

He paces the length of his living room, but he lives in New York and not even Idris’ stipend can afford him more than twenty feet of space. He meets the opposite wall in a few short strides and lurches to smack it with his fist, but stops at the very last moment.

 

He presses his palm flat to the wall; behind it, the water pipes creak and groan. His fingers drag down the plaster, and then tips his head forward, resting his forehead there a moment too.

 

Eyes closed, and the world stops spinning again. Eyes closed, and he can’t see the rain-soaked state of him, can’t see the mud on his boots, the scuffs on his supersuit, the bow clipped to his thigh.

 

Can’t see Sentinel with his eyes closed.

 

Magnus is already involved , a small voice in his head says. It sounds distant, but also brave. You can’t keep him out of this. He’s too stubborn and you know it.

 

And Alec does know it: he knows Magnus’ tenacity and his dedication, his want to do good in the world. He knows Magnus is a friend of vigilantes who holds a cache of suspicion about Idris, and he knows, somewhere down the line they’re walking, flanked on either side by murder and arson, that Alec’s secret is going to come out whether Alec wants it to or not.

 

He’s unlucky like that.

 

But, God damnit, he’s going to hold onto it for as long as he can, because who is he but the mask? That person has done terrible things, inexcusable things. That person lives in a dark, bleak world, not the same world that Magnus still insists can be absolved.

 

Magnus cannot be a part of Sentinel’s world.

 

Does that mean -

 

Does that mean Alec cannot be part of Magnus’?

 

Alec’s flat palm becomes a curled fist again, pressed knuckle-first against the wall. Suddenly, his throat is tight and something behind his eyes burns hot.

 

And his reaction scares him, of course it does, because he doesn’t know this feeling or its source; but he also knows he cannot give Magnus up either, and in turn, he’s afraid of the things he might do or the risks he might take to remain in Magnus’ orbit just a moment longer, even if he’s on a trajectory to crash.

 

This divide. This thick, black line through the centre of him, slicing him in two. He calls it survival and at the same time consequence, he calls it the red apex of a wound long tended and now finally hurting.

 

He holds a quiet, unknown wish within himself to be seen as he is, despite all the bad that will come from it. Just as he sees Magnus, there’s a part of him that wants Magnus to see him.

 

Is that foolish? Or just a deathwish?  

 

A knock on Alec’s window pulls him upright, and what a sight he must look, bowed over with his head against the wall and his eyes closed, still in his full Sentinel gear.

 

At the window of Alec’s tiny balcony, Jace is standing there, smiling crookedly, doing this dumb little wave. His Arkangel wings are already abandoned against the balustrade.

 

Let me in , he mouths to Alec, pointing at the latch on the balcony door. Alec makes a point of scowling and gesturing at the clock on the wall, but Jace’s smile just broadens, unrepentant.

 

Alec sighs and meanders across the room to let his brother in, along with half a gutter’s worth of rain water.

 

“Fuck, it’s getting cold, huh?” is the first thing Jace says as he bundles past Alec and into the warmth. His supersuit is drenched and his hair is slick to his forehead, but with a dramatic flick of his head, its back in its place, whipping Alec across the cheek with the spatter. “Now don’t tell Iz, ‘cus I trust her tech, but my wings always start creaking when it gets below forty, and it makes me kinda worried, y’know?”

 

“I thought you and Clary were heading back to HQ?” Alec grumbles, turning away from Jace and heading towards his kitchenette to turn the kettle on. Jace follows him like a wet dog at his heels, grabbing one of the clean dishcloths from the sink to towel himself dry. But he hesitates before he leans back against the kitchen counter, and  Alec frowns: Jace’s nonchalance is clearly forced. He’s never been great at the art of subtly.

 

Alec grabs two mugs from the cupboard above his head and sets them down a bit too loudly on the countertop. “What?” he deadpans.

 

“What do you mean what?” Jace asks, the tea towel now draped over his head. He looks like an idiot. “I can’t just stop by to visit my second favourite brother unannounced?”

 

“Second favourite?”

 

“Maryse would be mad if I dropped in on Max at two in the morning, c’mon. I don’t think she’s noticed that he’s sneaking out past curfew yet.”

 

Alec fixes Jace with a flat look. It makes Jace squirm.

 

“Okay, okay,” Jace says, “You win! Iz said you didn’t check in tonight and I was worried, alright? You’ve been skipping out on me a lot lately - and yeah, I know, I deserve it - but I just wanted to check in, y’know? I feel like we’re -” He gestures roughly between them. “-missing each other at the moment. You’re trying to go somewhere where I’m … not.”

 

With the towel on his head and rainwater dripping from his hair onto his nose, Jace looks a little pathetic and Alec can feel himself thawing. The kettle whistles just loud enough for Alec to think he can be honest without the whole world overhearing.

 

“It’s these fires,” he says, “The murders. The Circle. I don’t - I don’t know how mom and dad can just look the other way.”

 

“You’re preaching to the choir here, Alec,” Jace says, “Listen, if you wanna do something about it, if you wanna go after the Circle or whoever - just say the word. I’d go with you. I don’t care what Maryse is gonna say. We can deal with that later.”

 

It must be nice to live without fear of consequences, Alec thinks. He doesn’t know how Jace does it, but Alec envies that part of him, just another thing in a long line of small jealousies.

 

“Did Iz tell you about ... the stuff I’m doing at work?”

 

“The stuff with that Magnus guy? Yeah, she did. It’s cool and all, and don’t get me wrong, it’s important to be getting all that out in the papers, but -”

 

“But,” repeats Alec, “Not direct action.”

 

“No. ‘S not,” says Jace. “Sentinel and Arkangel could do more. Maybe if people saw us not taking this shit lying down, maybe if they saw me and you actually trying to find who’s doing this, if they saw us in the papers - yeah, maybe then someone might listen.”

 

Alec’s mouth goes dry. Jace is not entirely wrong, and the thought of Sentinel and Arkangel making a stand for what is right ... that’s powerful.

 

Powerful and noticeable, and whilst Jace must’ve been a glory hound in another life, Alec has a pretty glaring reason for not wanting to do that.

 

He thinks about Magnus’ faux-drunken smile again. The kettle stops whistling. The apartment is suddenly unerringly silent.

 

Jace notices immediately.

 

“Buddy?” he asks, tilting his head to try and catch Alec’s line of sight. “You okay?”

 

Alec begins pouring them tea; three sugars for him, black and bitter for Jace. Usually people think it would be the other way around.

 

“Yeah, fine. Why?”

 

“Alec. C’mon.”

 

“What? I said I’m fine.”

 

“I think you’re full of bullshit,” says Jace, folding his arms when Alec tries to hand him his tea. “How long have we known each other? I know when you’re pretending not to have feelings. You did it every day from age thirteen ‘til you moved out.” Alec rolls his eyes, and so Jace adds, a little softer, “I was out on your balcony for a good five minutes watching you stand here with your face pressed against the wall, Alec. I was half-wondering if I was gonna have to stop you from doing damage to your drywall.”

 

“It’s nothing. I’m just tired. Patrol was busy.”

 

Jace presses his mouth into a flat line. He knows Alec is lying to him; Alec can see that plain as day in Jace’s face, because Jace has never been good at lying to him either.

 

But Jace is not going to push it. Not tonight. That’s not really who they are.

 

“What time you gotta be at work tomorrow?” Jace asks instead. At last, he accepts the proffered mug from Alec, welcoming it into his cupped palms as he brings it to his face and basks in the sweet-smelling steam.

 

“Nine-ish. Why?”

 

“NBC has Golden Girls reruns this time of night. You wanna cool down and watch a few? I’ll get out of your hair after, promise.”

 

Jace is already moving towards Alec’s ratty couch before Alec really has the chance to reply. Jace flop down into the middle of the cushions, expertly not spilling a drop of his tea, and then he kicks his boots off and puts his feet up on the coffee table.

 

He pats the cushions for the remote, uttering a triumphant “aha!” when he finds it and points it at Alec’s TV. The cackle of a sitcom laugh track fills the room with life again.

 

Alec hesitates a moment in the kitchenette, but then he grabs his tea and joins Jace on the couch, shoving him in the shoulder to budge over and make room. He props his feet up on the table too, kicking aside a manila envelope full of briefings, as he settles into the familiar warmth of Jace at his side and the fizzle of the TV.

 

This, he knows. This is where the crossroads between Alec and Sentinel should be; him and Jace, side by side on the sofa, still in their supersuits, bickering about Jace’s geriatric taste in television.

 

This is where Alec should be. This is what he should want. But whilst the longing in his chest is distracted, it isn’t quietened. Not at all.  

 

Still, Alec is grateful. He won’t say it and Jace doesn’t need to hear it, because Jace knows well enough that his presence on Alec’s couch is enough, because it stops Alec from doing something reckless. And a someone to stop him is what Alec needs right now, before he really does make a hole in his drywall.

 

Eyes forward , he tells himself.

 

 


 

 

Alec doesn’t know how to face Magnus the next day, but he knows if he stays away, it’ll only risk Magnus noticing something is wrong.

 

Magnus can’t notice. And after last night’s fitful sleep, that is the only thing of which Alec can be sure.

 

Magnus can’t notice that anything is different between them.

 

That feels too much like an unwinnable battle and he can’t just pretend like last night never happened; but it did and he’s changed by it, in however small a way that might be. Magnus is observant and Alec has always been an easy book to read, his spine already bent, well-creased. He falls open on the same few pages with just the flick of someone else’s fingers.

 

“You seen Magnus today?” Simon asks that evening as he’s packing up his cubicle for the night, taking his sweet time stuffing his camera into his bag.

 

He and Alec are the last two people in the building - which is not unusual in itself - but it’s well past home time, and Alec is dragging out the minutes until he’s meant to stop by Magnus’ office. Minutes which have already come and gone, but Alec still has to work up the nerve -

 

“No,” Alec replies, glancing at the clock like it’s a tell, “I was gonna go say bye before I left -”

 

“Tell me if he’s still being weird tomorrow, yeah?” Simon swings his bag up on his shoulder, almost taking his desk PC out in the process. “I’ve gotta run, the electrician is coming to look at the wiring in my apartment because everything’s on the blink and I have no idea why, but - heck, you’ll see what I mean. You know Magnus gave me an extension on that Penhallow editorial we’re doing? An extension ‘til Sunday! Forty eight whole hours, Alec! An extension! Someone either spiked his coffee or -”

 

Alec squints at Simon until he disappears into the elevator, the doors quite literally cutting him off mid-sentence. Alec lets the silence settle for a moment or two - maybe more than that, because he’s quite sure there’s sweat forming on the back of his neck - and then he sucks in a deep breath.

 

Okay , he tells himself. Be normal. Be Alec. Nothing to worry about.

 

 


 

 

The bottle of scotch is already open on Magnus’ desk when Alec knocks on his office door. Magnus doesn’t try to hide it, throwing back his glass and pouring himself another one dry as Alec slips into the room.

 

It sets off warning alarms in Alec’s head.

 

“Magnus?”

 

“Alexander!” Magnus announces emphatically, standing up to fetch another glass. Alec shakes his head and waves for him to stop. “I was wondering where you got to. I’ve got something you’re going to want to hear.”

 

Alec eases himself into the chair across from Magnus. Magnus, on the other hand, doesn’t sit down. He holds the back of his chair and drums his fingers against the leather, restless. His eyes are bright and his gaze flicks from desk to Alec to corner of the room and back again, but won’t stay still long enough for Alec to catch it. The level of the scotch in the bottle speaks to a number of glasses drunk before this.

 

On the surface, nothing has changed since the day before: Magnus’ suit is crisp and pressed, a beautiful slate grey with a matching tie; his hair is swept upwards and the dark colour around his eyes is bold; he sweeps his paperwork across his desk without a care in the world, grabbing a legal pad from the bottom of the pile and pushing it towards to Alec.

 

“A new lead?” Alec asks slowly, leaning forward to glance at the legal pad. It’s covered in Magnus’ illegible scribble, all looping purple letters that Alec cannot read without squinting.

 

Magnus moves again, unable to stay still. He pushes his chair away and leans forward over his desk, both hands gripping the edge, reading his notes upside down.

 

“I caught up with some old friends last night,” Magnus explains, “After a few drinks, they had some interesting stories to tell.” Magnus glances at the locked door over Alec’s shoulder, and then pitches his voice low. “Witchlight and Salem, if you catch my drift.”

 

“Oh,” says Alec, and then he says it again, with a bit more realisation. “ Oh . I didn’t realise you -”

 

“You tend to meet a lot of people in this line of work,” Magnus shrugs, “Some more interesting than others.” He looks at Alec through his eyelashes darkly. “But that stays in this room.”

 

“Of course,” says Alec. He swallows thickly. “They’re vigilantes …?”

 

“Yes. Witchlight is retired, but Salem still does the rounds in Brooklyn - you might not have heard of her -”

 

Alec hasn’t, but that’s not a surprise. He’s well aware that there is a whole world of supers beyond what he knows from Idris.

 

“Did she know anything about the fires?”

 

Magnus shakes his head, but Alec can still see that tell of his in the whitening of his knuckles as he clenches and then releases his fingers around his desk. Magnus hesitates, as if he can’t quite decide what he wants to say.

 

Never has Alec sat so still.

 

“No, not about the fires,” explains Magnus, “But she did have something interesting to say about one Hodge Starkweather. You may not know, but -”

 

“Ex-Idris. Defected to the Circle in the 70s, then the Governor made a big deal when he was arrested. I know the story.”

 

Magnus looks impressed. “Alright then,” he says, “Apparently Starkweather is no longer incarcerated and was released on parole about two months ago. And apparently, he’s now back out there looking for a super with a very particular set of skills … teleportation, to be exact.”

 

“Teleportation,” Alec muses, rolling the word around in his mouth. The only teleporter he knows is Raj, and whilst Raj is an idiot, he’s not so much as an idiot to get caught by the Circle, not when he can literally disappear with the blink of an eye.

 

Why would a known member of the Circle be after a teleporter? It’s a question with an easy answer, even if it’s not one easily swallowed: what’s the best way to set fires and get away without being seen or caught?

 

He looks at Magnus again, wondering if he’s reached the same conclusion as Alec. Maybe it would explain the way Magnus is drumming his fingers on the desk again now; maybe it would explain this strange furor, if Alec didn’t already know the reason for it.

 

“Do we know why Starkweather was paroled?” Alec asks. His voice only a pinch above a whisper.

 

“I’m looking into it,” says Magnus, “Most of the court records are public because they’re over ten years old.” He gestures at the enormous pile of folders balancing precariously on the edge of his desk. “There’s a lot to sift through, but hopefully between the two of us, we’ll find something. I have a few contacts at Riker’s who might know something too, so I’ll ring them in the morning, but I’m not holding out hope. If only I could…”

 

He trails off, the sentence left undone, and that’s unusual in itself because Magnus is someone so careful with his words. It’s a thread Alec cannot help but pull.

 

“If only you could what?” he asks, “Magnus?”

 

Magnus’ eyes flick up to meet Alec’s, searching, hoping. Alec doesn’t dare to blink. Magnus holds his gaze for a moment that stretches thin, but it is enough for Magnus to find whatever he’s  looking for, in that moment .

 

Magnus sighs heavily, the strong line of his shoulders slumping. Running a hand through his hair, he draws his roots up on end and falls back into his chair at last, the back of his head hitting the leather. He stares upwards at the ceiling, exposing the underside of his jaw to Alec. The restless twitch in him suddenly stills.

 

“I met someone interesting last night.”

 

Alec’s hands form fists in his lap. He takes a moment to steady his voice, clear his throat.

 

“Someone who can … help ?”

 

“Maybe,” says Magnus, “Hopefully. It was someone from Idris.”

 

“Oh,” says Alec, raising his eyebrows. “I thought you didn’t like -”

 

“I don’t. Or at least, I don’t like the people he serves. But, he was - he is - it was curious. A good sort of curious, mind. Someone who wasn’t like what I expected.”

 

Alec swallows thickly. He fights the urge to pick at the skin on his fingers, but he knows Magnus will notice that.

 

Instead, he says, “If anyone were to have information on Hodge Starkweather, it would be Idris.”

 

Magnus hums half-heartedly, but Alec’s not sure he’s really listening. Magnus is still staring at the ceiling, absently toying with the rings on his fingers, twirling one round and around his thumb.

 

He’s thinking about Sentinel.

 

But Alec doesn’t know if he’s thinking about the way Sentinel dispatched that man in the alleyway or if he’s thinking about the warmth of Sentinel’s hand pressed between his shoulder blades as he steered Magnus home.

 

Is he thinking about how Sentinel lent over his shoulder, whispered in his ear to call his bluff?

 

Is he wondering how Sentinel saw right through him when he doesn't even know him?

 

“I wonder,” says Magnus slowly, “what it would take to get someone like that on our side?”

 

“A Corporate?”

 

“A Corporate who maybe doesn’t want to be a Corporate as much as he first thought,” Magnus corrects. He looks at Alec again, a half-smile forming on his lips. “If someone were to speak out against Idris like that, someone from their side, imagine the weight it would have. People would stop and listen.”

 

“I don’t … I don’t think it’s that easy,” Alec mutters, “You can’t just ask a Corporate to betray - why would they risk all that?”

 

“Because of what you said before.” Magnus’ dark eyes flare bright again, this time with an earnestness bordering upon excitement. “You were right, Alexander, as you always are. Perhaps there are good ones at Idris. Perhaps things are changing. Perhaps, if I were to ask-”

 

Alec’s heart thumps loudly. His throat is painfully dry.

 

“You think this super would help us if you asked? That’s all it would take?”

 

Magnus’ smile grows. “I think so, Alexander. I really do think so. He’s halfway there already, I’m sure of it.”

 

 


 

 

There’s nothing on record about Hodge after ‘75 ,” says Izzy later that night, when Alec is perched on a rooftop and waiting for his police dispatcher to start crackling. “ It doesn’t look like anything’s missing from his file either, so I doubt we had anything to begin with. I’m sorry, Alec .”

 

“It was a long shot,” replies Alec, his finger pressed to his ear. “Don’t worry about it. Thanks for checking.”

 

There’s one thing that might be of interest, though ,” Izzy continues, and Alec can hear her flicking through a file on her end. “ Hodge’s last three contracts with Idris were all ordered by Senator Herondale, back when she was still vying for State Senate. That might be worth looking at in more detail, don’t you think?”

 

It doesn’t mean anything, not to Alec, but it does leave a bad taste in his mouth. He only wishes he could pinpoint why.

 

“Mom and dad have been doing business with the Herondale campaign for years,” he says, “It’s probably nothing.”

 

I hope so, but I’ll keep digging ,” says Izzy, “ Neither you or I are dumb enough to let something like this slide, and you know it. You’ll be thinking about it instead of sleeping tonight .”

 

“Alright,” Alec sighs, and he feels the heave of his body all the way down in his toes, the effort of it aching. There’s a tension headache forming in the bridge of his nose and he hasn’t been able to shake it all night, not since talking to Magnus. It’s beginning to make his eyes water. He’s already told Jace to patrol with Clary, because Alec is one slip-up away from snapping, and he doesn’t want to take his mood out on either of them, not when they don’t deserve it. “Thanks, Iz.”  

 

What are you gonna do about Magnus?

 

The dull pain pulses through Alec’s temples. He winces. He didn’t mean to tell her, not about Magnus, but he had to tell someone before he accidentally opened his mouth and spilled every last secret to a stranger on the subway.

 

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t regret it, however. But telling Izzy is irrevocably better than telling Jace or Clary, because at least Izzy might have some advice.

 

“What do you mean?” he asks now.

 

I mean, you can’t just turn up at the office tomorrow and tell him, ‘oh hey, that Hodge thing is a dead-end but don’t ask me how I know that’.

 

“I know that, Iz,” Alec presses, “But I can’t let him get close to Sentinel, I - it’s - it’s dangerous. For him.”

 

Dangerous for him, or painful for you?”

 

“You really think I should help him? As Sentinel? Really?” Alec scoffs, “If mom and dad found out that I’m tracking the Circle -”

 

That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it .”

 

A retort dies abruptly on Alec’s tongue, extinguished into smoke and swept away by the wind that buffets him. He bites the inside of his cheek.

 

You don’t care about whether mom and dad approve, not really ,” Izzy continues, “ If you did, you and Jace wouldn’t spend every night foiling bank robberies and chasing hit-and-run drivers on company time. Disappointing mom and dad isn’t the thing that’s hurting you most .”

 

Alec grits his teeth. He tugs at the fingertips of his gloves for something to do with his hands.

 

“Sometimes your superpowers are more annoying than Jace’s,” he says.

 

You know my powers don’t work like that. This is just me caring about you, Alec. And sometimes you don’t hide your feelings as well as you think you do .” Izzy sighs despairingly. “ Does the thought of letting Magnus get to know you as Sentinel scare you ?”

 

“No,” lies Alec, “Why would it?”

 

Because ,” says Izzy, “ that would make Sentinel someone real? Make you more vulnerable than you’re used to? Maybe even make you realise that you can’t always separate yourself into parts like this because it’s exhausting you and one day it’s going to cost you something -”

 

“Okay, thanks for the psychoanalysis. Appreciate it.”

 

You ass . You sound like Jace .”

 

“Low blow.”

 

I mean it, Alec. This isn’t about you and Magnus, or about you and Jace, or about you and Idris. This is about you understanding that Sentinel isn’t a bad person that has to be kept under lock and key, just as Alec isn’t someone you have to hide from mom and dad because you’re scared of his - your - feelings being too loud. Sentinel is who you are and I know you’re good. You don’t have to shield people from that and give them this watered-down, half-version of Alec to appease them .”

 

He wants to make a snide point about how people are being killed for revealing their super identities, but he knows it would be in bad taste and it’s not the lesson Izzy wants him to learn either.

 

It’s easier said than done. It’s easy for her to sit in the safety of her lab and tell him that he should just let go, let Alec and Sentinel collide and coalesce, two halves of one whole that will only ever be ugly when pushed together. The red in Sentinel’s ledger will always prevent him from living the normal life that Alec craves; and Alec’s sense of duty will always stop Sentinel from being as loyal to Idris and his family as he knows he has to be. He is a paradox, and yet Izzy still believes that’s something that can be rewritten. An honest sort of hope that could only belong to a person who doesn’t have blood on her hands, not like him. She’s never -

 

She’s never -

 

Has she ever worried about someone in the way Alec worries about Magnus?

 

Because the thought of Magnus discovering who Alec and is and what he does, and then being repulsed by him, is - well, it’s not a rejection Alec thinks he can bear. And he’s not sure when that became the case, when this respect for Magnus evolved into admiration, which is slowly changing into something else again, a pressure in his chest for which Alec doesn’t have a name and doesn’t understand. It makes him dizzy. Confused. Unsure of which way is up, because he’s not sure what it is he wants anymore.  

 

“Maybe one day, Iz,” he mumbles, because it’s all he can really say. He hears her sigh again, but it sounds a little sad. That stings him too; her words tend the part of him that still longs to hear his secret on someone else’s lips. “I should get going.”

 

“Okay, ” is all she says, “ I love you. Stay safe and I’ll see you later.

 

The coms go dead with a hiss and a crackle, and then Alec is left to the mercy of the wind again, unforgiving in the spiral of its howl tonight. Echoing, it bounces off the plate glass of distant skyscrapers, whirling around ankles and tying New York up in knots. The city is submerged in autumn; frost is already forming on the rooftops and Alec can feel it tingling in his fingertips, slowly turning numb the longer he sits without moving. It won’t be long before the snows come and turn to sleet and slush on the streets. Alec has always been one to feel the cold. Max used to laugh that it’s because Alec’s so tall, that the blood in his body can’t reach all his fingers and toes.

 

Now, it just feels like another thing wrong with him.

 

Ignore it , says the voice in his head that sounds sometimes like both his mother and father at once, or like a younger him when he was more naive and before all this guilt turned gangrenous. Ignore it, don’t feel it, you have a job to do -

 

He has a job to do. That’s why he’s here, on this rooftop tonight, and not any other - because this is where he met Nightlock, all those weeks ago. It feels like a different lifetime now. Standing here and hoping probably isn’t the smoke signal that Nightlock was asking for, but it’s the best Alec can come up with; he hopes it will grab his attention, wherever he might be.

 

If he can’t tell Magnus about the things warring in his chest that leave him a bruised and bloodied battlefield, he can at least tell Nightlock. Because Nightlock knows Sentinel. Nightlock doesn’t have any misconceptions about who he is. Nightlock understands all his faults and fallacies already, without Alec having to say a word, and Alec -

 

Alec doesn’t want to have to come out a second time.

 

 


 

 

Alec doesn’t know how long he waits on that rooftop. The passage of time at night is an abstract thing with no sun to chart across the sky, with no moon to guide him, and with no stars to map the turning of the Earth. His suit gleams with rain and falling light. The city hardly wavers in its blueness, stuck and poised in a strange and arbitrary moment.

 

His police radio hisses and hums; there’s a car chase on the Brooklyn bridge, but Arkangel is already in pursuit. Civil disturbance in the south, but Apex is already there. Robbery attempt at the bank on 48th -

 

I’ve got it ,” says Clary in Alec’s ear. “ Nobody fret .”

 

Alec doesn’t move. He sits down on the edge of the roof, legs dangling over the void, and turns his cheek away from the slicing wind. His knees are aching, like they’re telling him he should be out there, running to help Clary, making sure Jace is not getting into trouble, and not just sitting on his ass and waiting for something he doesn’t even know will come. Something that is purely for himself. It feels selfish. He knows it does. It’s an ugly feeling.

 

It must be nearing three o’clock when the drizzle threatens to become a downpour, and Alec knows he risks hypothermia if he stays out here much longer without moving. Nightlock might not even be on this side of the city tonight. He told Alec he wouldn’t come looking for him.

 

Maybe Alec was a fool to hope for -

 

Almost as he thinks it, the air pressure shifts.

 

Alec twists around as a phantom hand scampers up the back of his neck and into his hair. He’s ashamed by the relief that lights up inside him like a signal flare when he identifies his ghost.

 

Even behind his mask, it must be obvious, because as his eyes find Nightlock, floating down from out of the sky, Nightlock’s grave expression shifts into a smirk. There’s a levity to him that Alec wasn’t expecting, not after how they left things the last time.

 

“Oh, I didn’t stand you up, did I?” Nightlock says, slinking over towards Alec. “I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a gesture to get my attention, or if you were just hanging out here looking like a wet pup by pure coincidence.”

 

Alec stands to meet him, shaking his hair free of rain as if to prove Nightlock’s point.

 

“I needed to find you. I didn’t know how else,” he says. “You said to light a smoke signal, but -” He gestures with flat palms to the sky. “It’s raining. Flint wouldn’t catch.”

 

“Of course it wouldn’t,” Nightlock hums. He plunges his hands into his coat pockets and steps up to Alec, rocking forward on the balls of his feet. It’s closer than he usually dares, but tonight, he dares. He tips his head coyly to the side. “And why did you need to find me?”

 

Alec pauses. He can see it in Nightlock’s eyes: how he expects Alec to have changed his mind. He truly expects Sentinel to have summoned him here to say I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Of course I’m going to help you find the Circle .

 

Alec’s silence is loud. Nightlock’s smile falters, his face sobering.

 

“How many cats have you saved from trees this week?” he demands, surprising Alec. He lifts his head to make himself seem taller, so that he can meet Alec’s stare head-on. The light in his eyes has turned to steel. “How many?”

 

“What?”

 

“How many muggings have you stopped since I saw you last? How many people have you pulled from car wreckages? How many drunk men have you walked home out of the kindness of your heart?”

 

Alec’s mouth goes dry. Nightlock doesn’t budge. It must be a coincidence -

 

“What are you trying to say?”

 

Nightlocks tsks . “I’m trying to show you that Sentinel exists outside of Idris, rather than just tell you, seeing how well that didn’t work last time we saw one another,” he sighs. He moves to rap his knuckles against the centre of Alec’s chest plate, but decides against it, curling his fingers tightly into his palm. “All those good deeds, you’re not doing them because Idris told you to do them. You’re doing them because you want to do them, because it’s the right thing and you want to help, I know you do. You’re kind . Don’t make me out to be a fool for believing that you might want to do good -”

 

“You’re not a fool-”

 

“I know I’m not. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling foolish for trusting you,” Nightlock insists. “Because I don’t understand you, Sentinel. I don’t understand how every time we’ve met, you can do something heroic without even thinking twice, but then when I ask you to act on that, to help me track the Circle before they kill more of my people, you just ... hide.”

 

Alec tenses. “I want to help,” he pushes out between his teeth. “You know I do.”

 

“So then, just do ,” pleads Nightlock, taking a sudden step forward that surprises Alec. “Idris will never understand, but I do. You stood in that church with me and we saw the same damn thing.”

 

“I know,” says Alec weakly, “I know.”

 

Melancholy and disappointment take root in Nightlock’s eyes, but he doesn’t let them out.

 

“You’re perhaps the most stubborn man I know. And I know me ,” he sighs again. He takes a step back from Alec, making sure to give him a wide berth as he stalks to the edge of the rooftop. He stops with his boots curled over the edge. “Why exactly did you want to see me tonight, Sentinel? Just to prove everything I thought I knew about Corporates right?”

 

The words are meant to sting; they’re barbed, meant to wound, but some part of Alec knows that Nightlock doesn’t really mean it. He’s lashing out because Alec has hurt him, and Alec cannot blame him for that. Alec has let them both down in equal measure.

 

“A name came up in Idris’ investigation,” Alec says softly, “I wanted you to know.”

 

Nightlock wheels around on him, eyes narrowed. “Idris’ investigation?” he demands, “I thought you said -”

 

“It’s off the record. Only people I trust. I just - I couldn’t do nothing. You were right about that. And even if I can’t … do what you’re asking of me, I can still - do this. It’s not much, but … maybe it can be an olive branch. Please.”

 

“Sentinel -” Nightlock begins, but he doesn’t finish it. He doesn’t seem to know what to say.

 

“It’s Hodge Starkweather,” continues Alec, and he’s not blind to the way Nightlock’s eyes widen slightly. “I had my sister look into a few old Circle members from the 70s, and she noticed that he’d recently been released from prison. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t, but it can’t be a coincidence that it happened at the same time Valentine resurfaced and these fires started.”

 

“Idris don’t know why he was released?”

 

“No, it wasn't in any of our records,” says Alec, “But, there was something -” He pauses, only to find Nightlock hanging on his next word. “Senator Herondale’s name came up too.”

 

Nightlock’s expression shutters. Suddenly, it’s like his eyes are grey to match the clouds overhead, and just as impenetrable. And Alec finds himself reaching out, before he can stop himself, to brush his fingers against Nightlock’s elbow. The touch is brief. Nightlock still shudders. He moves his arm out of Alec’s reach, deliberately looking away, stare focused on New York’s sepulchral horizon.

 

Alec feels cold. His hand forms a fist at his side; he won’t touch Nightlock again. Instead, he asks, in a hushed, tentative voice, “Do you know something about that?”

 

“I need to go make some calls.”

 

“Nightlock -”

 

Nightlock looks back sharply, and Alec stills, his mouth falling open. He feels strangely disappointed and scolds himself for it, and then scolds himself again for the way he must so opaquely wear a look of hurt.  

 

Pain softens the fire in Nightlock’s eyes. When he speaks again, his words are softer, more apologetic. “I mean it, Sentinel,” he says, “I need to go.”

Alec nods, pressing his mouth into a flat line. He looks at the ground and folds his hands behind his back. “Yeah, okay,” he says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more -”

 

“No,” Nightlock interrupts, “No, Sentinel, don’t do that. This is helpful.” He looks both ways down the block, preparing himself to jump off into the night and disappear, just like that. “You should ask your sister to cross-check Herondale with any other known Circle associates. I will do the same on my end -”

 

“Nightlock -”

 

Nightlock pauses on the precipice of the roof, peering back over his shoulder.

 

Wait , Alec wants to say, let me come with you.

 

No , scolds Sentinel. You can’t. Idris told you not to.

 

Why are you so afraid of change? whispers the wind.

 

There’s nothing he can say, no way he can finish that half-plea of a sentence that starts and ends with Nightlock’s name far too familiar on his lips. Instead, he winces against the hot sting in his eyes, and turns his face away. The frustration is sudden and terrible and it throbs, throbs as an ache in both his temples, buried deep within his skin, desperate to be let out.

 

He doesn’t know what it is anymore.

 

But he does see Nightlock hesitate, taking a half-step back from the edge of the roof. Nightlock’s fingers twitch in a way that betrays want: a want to stop Sentinel from looking at him like he is, far too open and honest for the relationship they have.

 

For a moment, Nightlock looks afraid. He looks like he doesn’t know what to do.

 

“Listen … listen to me, Sentinel,” he starts, and the rasp to his voice is unfamiliar to Alec. It no longer speaks of anger. “Every corner we turn, every stone we flip over, every thread we pull is revealing something more, something bigger than both of us is happening here. I don’t know how far this goes, or who is sitting at the centre of the spiderweb, or how we stop them from killing someone else, but I do know that you will want to be on the right side of this fight at the end of it. And that side won’t be Idris, you know that. I know you do, but that side can’t be your guilt either. Do you understand?”

 

It’s not that simple a question , Alec wants to say, but he doesn’t. He can only nod his head again, rendered mute by his constricting throat.

 

Nightlock looks at him a moment longer; he searches Alec’s face for something Alec cannot be sure if visible from behind his mask.  

 

I’m good , Alec thinks. I’m a good person. I swear I am. I want to be .

 

For the first time in a long time, Alec wants to be seen. He wants Sentinel to be seen. He doesn’t want to fade into the background like another solemn shadow who won’t speak up when it matters.

 

He wants Nightlock to see who Alec wants to be, and not just who he can be.

 

Nightlock says nothing, but it looks like he wants to say everything, words curving the shape of his mouth. They don’t come; he swallows them back with a minute shake of his head that anybody else might miss.

 

Not Alec. He doesn’t miss it.

 

Nor does he miss the slow plummet of his heart as Nightlock takes the final step forward over the edge, vanishing quickly in the flutter of his coat and the black pool of night far down below. He doesn’t say goodbye. He doesn’t say that he wants to see Sentinel again.

 

Alec is not sure he is deserving of either of those things. But Alec -

 

God, Alec only wishes that he would stay.

 

 


 

 

Before, Alec called it a line, the thing that divides his body in half: one part for the day time and one for night, never touching save for rare moments at dusk and dawn.

 

He sees, now, that he was wrong. It’s no line. It’s too violent and visceral a thing for that; it’s a torn and tattered scar through the middle of him, something that has not been allowed to heal.

 

He just wishes he knew what it was that rips it open afresh every day: the putting-on of his mask, or taking it off again.

 

Tonight, the office is quiet. It’s a Friday, a whole week since he met Magnus as Sentinel, and most people have ducked out early to spend the weekend with their families, to see their friends, to go to a late-night bar with the excuse of sleeping in tomorrow. Alec doesn’t have that luxury; days off are few and far between.

 

So, instead, over the top of his partition, he watches as Simon packs his bag and switches off his computer for the night, its blue screen fading with a shrill dial-up tone. And as Simon whistles and swings his bag over his shoulder, Alec feels jealous.

 

Imagine that: feeling whole, feeling human. Simon will probably spend the whole weekend on his SNES and then he’ll tell Alec all about it on Monday morning, because he’s not ashamed of the person he is outside of work hours. He doesn’t have to hide himself from the sun.

 

What must that be like?

 

Well, that’s not a question Simon would be able to answer if Alec were to ask. Simon doesn’t know any different. All he knows is how to be himself.

 

And oh, how Alec envies.

 

“You still working, huh?” Simon says, striding up to Alec’s desk on his way out, “Well, I’m off for the night! Don’t stay too late - one day you are literally going to overwork yourself to death, and then they’ll have to hire someone else and I’ll be miserable!”

 

Alec smiles thinly, offering Simon a half-wave, unable to fully look away from his computer, because he feels, if he did, he might not be able to control the muscles in his face.

 

“Yeah,” he says, “I got it. Have a good weekend.”

 

“You too!” Simon chimes, “I’m gonna sleep for forty eight hours straight! I swear, I must be going through a second growth spurt because I am so tired lately - is that even a thing? I’m twenty-five, not twelve, but -” Simon’s wrist watch beeps with an alarm; it’s already seven o’clock and apparently Simon has somewhere to be. Alec won’t ask him about it. “Oh! Shoot, I’m running late! Busy night today, I gotta go - see ya Monday, Alec!”

 

Alec has a busy night ahead too. Arkangel and Sentinel have a new mission. Their latest commission is with a defense contractor, but Alec knows what that really means: arms dealing . When Maryse handed him the brief, he vaguely recognised the company name, but sometimes, the less he knows, the better, and he doesn’t want to think about it any more than he has to.

 

Arkangel and Sentinel, in and out. Arkangel to secure the files, Sentinel to stand guard and watch the perimeter. It’ll be an easy job, one that they’ve done a thousand times before -

 

It’s already making Alec feel sick.

 

But ...

 

He doesn’t have to be there for another few hours and the rendezvous point is close. He glances at the clock on the wall, and then switches his computer off without finishing the email he was typing.

 

There’s not enough time to go home, but there is time to play pretend. He has twenty years of practice, after all.

 

 


 

 

Alec knocks quietly on Magnus’ office door, but the lights are on and he can hear Magnus muttering to himself on the other side.

 

“Alexander!” Magnus calls, “That better be you, because I am in no mood to see anyone else tonight.”

 

Alec pokes his head around the door and smiles weakly. Magnus’ desk is piled high with paperwork and open binders littered with Post-It notes. His telephone is off the hook and there’s a mark on his chin that looks like newspaper print lifted from his thumb.

 

“Good thing it’s me, then,” says Alec.

 

Magnus looks up, rolls his eyes, but then grins, and Alec feels it like a spark, lighting up the dark.

 

It dies, of course, all too quickly, because in Alec’s hollow chest, there is nowhere for it to go.

 

Alec lowers himself into his usual chair, dumping his coat and bag on the ground by his feet. He scoots himself up to the desk and peers over Magnus’ notes from upside down.

 

There are a lot of familiar names to be read: Starkweather, Morgenstern, Herondale, and others that Alec has not yet heard, ringed in bright red pen and annotated with a lot of question marks. Beneath that, there are copies of old police reports to be looked over for the dozenth time, hoping to find something new; a number of articles lifted from the papers about the ongoing murder trial of Ragnor Fell; and a series of photographs of their burned-down church, which seem to bear Simon’s hallmark.

 

Magnus has been busy. Alec would expect nothing less.

 

“Anything?” Alec asks wearily. He picks up the edge of a tabloid to peer under it, but there’s just another headline there too: VIGILANTE MENACE UNMASKED BY HERO COPS . All he gains is a black inky smudge on his thumb.

 

“Nothing concrete,” says Magnus, but he’s still writing as he talks, not looking up. Whatever he’s scribbling is distinctly furious. “I’m still looking into Starkweather, but I’m not expecting to find much. I suspect it’s going to be another all-nighter tonight.”

 

It’s a different tune to the way he spoke the other night, so enthused about getting answers from Idris. Now, he sounds terse. Incensed. Horrendously tired, like he hasn’t sat still in days for the chance to catch his breath.

 

Alec hums a low note. He doesn’t know what to say, because are you alright? isn’t enough, and where do we go from here? will never be a question with an answer. Speaking feels like too much an effort; he just wants a moment to exist, here, with Magnus’ companionship and nothing else.

 

So instead, he reaches for a file on Magnus’ desk and pulls it towards himself and reads the first few lines. He makes it one paragraph - something, something, Jane Doe, Caucasian, 25-30, found in church - before his tension headache begins to bloom.

 

Alec pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, willing the pain away, because it’s not the sort he can cling to, coming and going in waves. It’s not the rough and ready ache of grazed knuckles or the sting of his bowstring snapping back against his fingers; it’s not rubbing his skin raw beneath a faucet; it’s not even stitching up a bullet wound in his bathtub, trying not to alert the neighbours.

 

No, this is like a tight band around his head, like his mask is covering his face and pushing back on his eyes, pressing on his sinuses until it becomes an struggle to breathe. Of course it feels like that. It’s a Goddamn metaphor.

 

Magnus’ pen stop scratching. He puts it down. Alec can hear him hesitate.

 

“Alec?”

 

“Headache,” says Alec. He squints open one eye, and sure enough, Magnus has forgotten all about his writing.

 

Magnus ducks his head to try and meet Alec’s line of sight. “You’ve stayed late every night this week,” he says, “If you want to go home, go home. I’m not forcing you to stay.”

 

“‘M just tired,” mumbles Alec, palming at his jaw. It’s prickly with stubble; he overslept this morning and didn’t have time to shave as well as shower away last night’s city grime. “‘Sides, like you said, there’s a lot to go through …”

 

Magnus purses his lips and picks up his pen again, but doesn’t start writing. He seems to consider his notes, and then his pushes it all aside. Alec blinks in confusion.

 

“It’s nothing that can’t wait a moment,” Magnus says. “Or an hour, or a day, if that’s what you need.”

 

“The vigilantes getting killed don’t have an hour or a day,” Alec mutters. “Magnus, it’s fine. Tell me what you need me to look at.”

 

I need the distraction . I need to just be.

 

Magnus pulls the file away from Alec, swatting Alec’s fingers when he tries to grab it back. He fixes Alec with a stern look.

 

“You’re overworking yourself.”

 

“Says you.”

 

“This is not about me. I’m used to it,” Magnus retorts. “What time did you get to bed last night?”

 

Alec can’t remember. He was at headquarters until late for the briefing, and then Jace had kicked off in front of Maryse and Robert again about them wasting their time on stupid missions , and Alec hadn’t been able to sleep, replaying their disappointed faces over and over again behind his eyelids.

 

What would they say if Alec stood up for Jace? If Alec had said something and not just faced forward with his hands behind his back and his chin raised?

 

What would their faces say if Alec told them how desperately he wants to do what Nightlock asks of him?

 

What would they do if Alec just said … no ?

 

No, I’m going after the Circle and you will have to kill me to stop me.

 

“Late,” Alec rasps, his voice betraying him. He gestures vaguely with his hand. “How do you do it, Magnus? How do you … stay afloat in all this?”

 

Magnus smiles ruefully, and there’s a brief moment of pause, enough for Alec to look up, just as Magnus speaks. “I think that’s a matter of perception, Alexander.”

 

Magnus is fiddling with his rings, rubbing his finger into his page of notes curiously, inspecting the grain of his desk. Frown line forms between his brows.

 

Alec sees that loneliness again, but now, it’s more than that. It’s the weariness he asked Magnus about on that rooftop; it’s that strange longing that crept into his voice that night on the phone; it’s that frustrated anger that Alec can sometimes feel bubbling beneath the surface when they hit yet another wall -

 

He’s not indestructible. He’s not infallible. Why did Alec ever think that he was, he’s only human.

 

Alec’s not human. Not in the same way. He’s not allowed to be.

 

Alec feels the word vomit pushing up inside his throat. He starts talking without really meaning to. “Sometimes … sometimes, I know what I need to do, but it doesn’t always align with what I want to do.” He sighs desperately and scrubs a hand down his face, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, that probably makes no sense …”

 

Anyone else would say it’s an easy choice, choosing what he wants, choosing to do the right thing, rather than the things Idris demands of him. Jace baits him with it; Izzy scolds him for it; and Nightlock judges him for it in a way that Alec can’t quite stomach. But Magnus -

 

Magnus is not just anyone.

 

“No, I get it,” says Magnus softly, “Some responsibilities are too big to throw away, especially when they’re all you’ve known your entire life.” For a moment, he looks wistful, the look in his eyes straying into the past. Alec can only wonder who or what he thinks of. “It can be difficult for other people to understand that.”

 

Alec laughs, but it sounds all too fragile, all too-telling. It teeters upon the brink of exhaustion and a breakdown he’s been putting off for far too long. He feels it now, creeping up on him from behind like a shadow eager to cling to his back, and he can only hope he’ll make it home in time before it latches.

 

“Alec?”

 

“Yeah, sorry,” says Alec, sniffing loudly, “I’m okay.”

 

“I don’t think you are.” Quietly, Magnus pushes out of his chair and steps around his desk, crossing the distance that it has created between them until now. He leans against the corner, and with his foot, he turns Alec’s chair to face him.

 

His words are feather-soft, sad, a whisper: “I don’t think you’ve been okay for a very long time.”

 

And oh, isn’t that the inconvenient truth.

 

Tilting his head, he looks at Alec with that kind and endless expression of his that says you might be able to fool everyone, but you can’t fool me. But this time, Magnus has consciously taken a step over yet another line that Alec has drawn, and he’s slowly smearing his hands through Alec’s insides, blurring all the things Alec thought he knew.

 

And what does that feel like? The thought of someone with their hands inside your chest, rummaging around between your ribs and coming up with palms full of secrets and sinew? Vulnerable, intimate, bloody, all these sorts of things that scare Alec, that speak of the dreadful mortification of being seen, and -

 

And yet, which are yearned for.

 

Alec feels pinned to his chair. Magnus’ eyes are so bright, so quietly desperate for some sliver of truth, so endlessly selfless that Alec can’t help but hate him a little bit, because he gives too much for one person to truly bear. He gives away these parts of himself like flowers, knowing they might wither and die once cut, but also knowing that in the brief moment Alec holds one of his smiles, the world somehow feels a little better, a little more beautiful.

 

In those moments, Alec feels real.

 

“You sit here with me every night,” Magnus continues then, his voice a whisper now. He holds Alec’s gaze with tenderness and understanding. “And I can’t help but wonder where you go when you do. What you’re thinking about, what those bags under your eyes mean, what makes you frown like you do when you zone out from what you’re reading and clearly don’t realise -”

 

“Magnus …”

 

“I care about you, Alec. I admire you for your sense of right and wrong, for your willingness to go out of the way for other people - you know that