His early childhood is a vague blur of painful memories, interspersed with the smallest of joys. He remembers mostly being sore, because his father had trained him to be a Shadowhunter as soon as he’d been strong enough to stand on his own two feet. A militant diligence far too advanced for limbs so small. He remembers growing up with a bed as his only comfort, his only soft place to curl into after long, exhaustive days of running and drills and hunting wild boar, trying to impress and succeed at the unsucceedable. Because impressing his father meant reward. It meant a model aeroplane and a spaghetti bath and a pet falcon. It meant having his father nearby. Though he soon learned rewards came with tests, and tests always made any happiness he found fleeting.
He remembers being hurt, scratched and scraped by twigs and stones. He’d try not to cry at the pain, because his father always looked so disappointed when he cried, and that always led to no rewards, no harsh tests and none of the closeness he craved whenever his father was home. So he trained himself out of pain, learned to ignore the cuts and bruises, how to manage his injuries until an Iratze could be applied. He’d once gone four full days with a broken arm, while his father had been away on one of his usual hunting excursions, long enough to compensate for his loss of mobility. His father had been so impressed that he’d let him eat an entire punnet of strawberries while his healing rune did its job.
As he conquered his pain, his father grew prouder. As he grew stronger, his father pushed harder. Bad habits will get you killed, his father would say. You don’t want to get killed, do you? Every failure brought punishment but every new achievement made his father smile, and those were worth all the days and nights of secret aches and pains, the restless sleep of a broken body.
He remembers being given his pet falcon, a gift after one of his father’s many week-long absences. He’d been asked to train it, but instead he’d tamed it, because he’d seen himself in that bird and thought love might be a better language than force. It turned out that the test had been less about training it and more about following orders, and the failure had been one with dire consequences, in which he’d been made to snap the bird’s neck himself. I asked you to train it, not love it, his father told him. It’s useless now. Seeing the broken corpse of his beloved bird in his own hands had been one of his gravest lessons. So when his father told him that to love was to destroy and to be loved is to be the one destroyed, he damn well believed.
He’d cried for hours. His usual self-soothing and his tolerance for pain were no match for the mighty sadness lodged inside, too devastated that he’d caused the death of what amounted to his one - his first - and only friend. He’d been too angry at himself for his own weaknesses, his selfishness, of trying to find love and companionship in something he had no right to. He’d never seen his father so at the end of his tether, as if all his hard work had come undone in one fell swoop. And it had frightened him.
My sweet boy, he remembers his father sighing as he’d stroked the hair away from his forehead one night, a rare show of affection. He’d been too exhausted from a day of crying between drills to stay awake long enough to enjoy it. My angel boy. You’re too sweet for your own good.
It had been the last time he’d ever seen his father alive.
He remembers the long, painful trek across the flats of Brocelind Plain, skin tear-streaked and sliced and blood-crusted from running through the sharp forest trees. He’d wandered for days until he’d been found by a passing traveler, spent a week in an Alicante infirmary being cleaned and healed and interrogated. He hadn’t offered much in the way of explanation, because his father had always said not to trust anyone but him, to be careful of his words because words could be leveraged. But others had been sent to the Wayland manor, and whatever they found there was enough to have him taken in.
He remembers countless, faceless adults ordering him to sit, to eat, to read, to find something to do while they figured out where to put him. Three different beds in four months, because Alicante’s orphanages were already at capacity. Because the Consul was only meant to be a temporary guardian. Because the Wraithwaites were unnerved by a child whose default day-to-day was to train himself bloody.
He remembers being sent to America after some miracle letter had come in, promising open doors and open arms where he had none. It’s the best place for you, one of his minders had said, a severe, older woman who pitied him enough to be patient. The Lightwoods were friends of your father. It’ll be the closest thing to home. He knew home. He wanted home. But home was sprawled face down among the rotting leaves of Brocelind forest with his skull split in two.
He’d been subjected to other numerous adults, some short-tempered, some uncertain of how to act in front of him. So he made the choice to teach them. He’d study other Shadowhunter children, the way they smiled and laughed, and he began to smile, and laugh, mastering a level of confidence that made it easier for others to look at him. Inside, he was in tatters. Outside, he was picture perfect. Hiding himself as his father had always taught him. Because no matter how he felt, the next home had to stick.
Robert and Maryse Lightwood were a pair of odd ends. Where Robert was kind but stern, Maryse was stern but kind. He remembers they’d both delayed their busy morning schedules long enough to welcome him, then Maryse had shown him around the Institute as she’d laid out the structure of his new life. Family breakfast at 7. Studies with the tutor until noon, followed by lunch. Then self-study until 2, and training until 5. Shower, family dinner at 7, bed by 8. He was wary of the mandatory family meals, because it meant he’d be subjected to a table of people watching him. But the idea of self-study terrified him the most, because he’d never been allowed to do anything but what his father always set out for him. And he didn’t know what to do with that kind of freedom.
He’d never been inside an Institute before, so the hundreds of rooms and various wings were easily jumbled in his head by the end of his tour. But he’d mapped the return path of one particular common room Maryse had shown him, where a grand piano had sat. She’d seen the way he’d stared and told him he could play whenever he wanted. He remembers smiling and thanking her through the rolling unease in his stomach, because all he could see was his father teaching him, spending time with him. Giving him the attention he was rarely afforded, even as he slapped the backs of his small hands with the flat of his dagger until his knuckles swelled.
He remembers Isabelle taking over for her mother when she needed to get back to work, and she was immediately too loud, too enthusiastic, all but yanking his arm from the socket as she pulled him along, asking a million questions. She’d introduced him to her little brother Max, a bubbling, gurgling baby who had gone eerily quiet in his presence, and it had made him uncomfortable to be looked at in such a way. Then after she’d shown him the weapons cabinets and the hall of training rooms with great gusto, she’d taken him to the kitchen to feed him, telling him that if he ever needed anything, she’d be happy to make it for him. By the end of his tour, she'd grown on him. But he'd learned pretty quickly that it was always a good idea to steer clear of Isabelle’s culinary genius.
Then he’d met Alec.
He remembers his heart leaping at the sound of arrows hitting targets nearby, and he’d found himself moving down the hall toward it, feeling almost a physical pull that demanded he investigate. Lanky, scraggly, with dark unruly hair falling into his eyes, Alec looked for all the world like he was assessing his own skill and adjusting whatever dials in his brain would enable him a better shot. Jace had immediately liked Alec’s face, because it was readable and that meant he’d always know where he stood. And he’d watched the next arrow, and the next, then as Alec shot three separate targets with only one pull on his bow string, impressively. His own hands had itched with the need of a weapon, a need to join in and prove himself to the nearest soldier, because his father had always demanded he prove himself to him. But he didn’t get the chance. Alec had retrieved his arrows, packed his bow and quiver in its rightful place and grabbed a book that was propped against the wall, picking it up where he’d clearly left off as he wandered back to his bedroom.
He remembers Alec pausing in the hallway, as if he'd felt eyes on him, then looking back over his shoulder. Gone was the serious training face. In that moment, it was a face he would never forget. It was a face he would love. Just pure, trusting openness, like they were already friends.
A friend. A first.
And Alec had asked. You coming?
And he’d replied. Yeah.
It had been the first word he’d spoken in the Institute that hadn’t been faked for propriety. He’d jogged down to catch up. Alec had waited for him. And together they’d walked.
They’d been walking together ever since.
He blurs in and out of these memories for what feels like forever, as if stuck in a perpetual limbo between sleep and wakefulness. He feels a scratchiness in his eyes that can only be soothed by blinking, but they seem too heavy to lift. The side of his neck begins to throb as he gradually, an insurmountable time later, finally comes to. And he immediately wishes he hadn’t.
Impossibly, he sees his father’s face, and his heart begins to pound in disbelief at the smile he’s greeted with. A barely-there twist of lips. Hard, cold, dark eyes. His hair is gone, shaved bald where baldness hasn’t already overtaken. He remembers his father’s face as softer, kinder. Or had it always been this way, and he simply hadn’t known what kindness looked like until the Lightwoods had taken him in?
He’d imagined a day he might see him again. Fairytale comforts of his father miraculously returning from the dead to reunite with him, or save him from danger as he appears to be now. Other more recent memories flood in, vague flashes of being punched, sliced with blades. Spat on. Brute strangers taking their pound of flesh from his hanging, shackled body, for no specific reason they could give him. Promising, guaranteeing his death would come soon.
He blinks again, hot relief swelling in his chest at the sight of him. Fat tears wet his eyes and fall as a ragged sob inches up his raw throat. His father has come. His father has really come to save him, just as he used to envision. A dream.
“Dad? ” his voice catches, hoarse from overuse, or underuse. A mix of both, “Are you really here?”
“Yes,” his father says, his detached smile growing almost fond, “I’m here.”
“It doesn’t matter,” his father takes a step closer. He’s already leaning his ruddy, swollen, blood crusted face forward when his father’s hand reaches up to cradle it. He trembles at the touch; they’re the same rough fingers he remembers. Raziel, you’re really here, “I’m with you now.”
“Help me,” he begs, shivering in his chains from the cold. His own skin feels frozen, having been left shirtless and covered in his own blood for days, “Please.”
“I will. But you haven’t earned it yet.”
He’s momentarily confused, because his head has taken one too many knocks and thinking is proving difficult.
“You’ve gotten too soft over the years,” his father tells him, disappointment turning down his smile, “You used to work so hard. You used to make me proud. Remember how hard you used to work? Remember how much we both enjoyed it when you succeeded?”
He frowns, and it sends a blinding ache through his entire skull that puts stars on the backs of his eyelids, “I don’t understand.”
“You wouldn’t,” his father sighs, “You’ve forgotten what I taught you. You’re full of bad habits. What did I always tell you?”
He momentarily searches his memories, then mumbles through throbbing, stinging, split lips. “Bad habits get you killed."
“We need to fix you,” his father’s answer is resolute, like the decision has already been made. “Before you get yourself killed.”
His father speaks exactly like he used to, like he’d needed extra care to understand his father’s lessons. Lessons he was later too ashamed to admit weren’t normal lessons for a child to learn. But it still tugs at something nostalgic inside him. Hearing him talk like this was one of the only ways he used to know he was cared for.
But he can’t wrap his head around why he’s just standing there, watching him suffer without immediately offering help. Robert would, because he has a memory of a pocket blade he’d accidentally stabbed through his own hand once, and Robert had been there to pull it out and rub his back as his Iratze kicked in. Maryse would, because he has many memories of her reprimanding him for dangerous stunts and hugging him fiercely when all was said and done. Isabelle and Max would, because he has memories of them always offering assistance, for anything, their own curfews and restrictions be damned. Alec would, and he’d be sure to cover every spare inch of his skin with Iratzes while he was at it, because Alec took care of what was his and Jace was lucky enough to be included. The Lightwoods - his family - have always cared about his welfare, and they’ve certainly never demanded that he earn it. Having their love has never been conditional the way his father’s had been.
“Would you like me to hold you?” his father says now, lifting his hands in gesture.
A large part of him is restless to be free, to escape back to Alec and the Institute. But a much smaller, older, withered part of him says yes, because it might mend his years of loss and loneliness to have his father’s comfort again. And that smaller piece wins out with how much louder it cries. So he nods, wincing as his bruised chin scrapes his father’s shoulder before he sinks into his offered embrace. It feels brittle and alien, nothing compared to the countless warm, smothering hugs his family have given him since he came into their lives. But he’s transported back all the same; ten years old again and simply wanting love. So he savors it even in its strange emptiness, this rarer than rare affection that he’d believed was precious for how often it didn’t come.
He barely feels the pinch in his neck, something sharp and deep piercing his skin, gone moments later. It takes the pain with it, makes his head fuzzy and his body warm and his mouth slack. The only thought that comes to mind is this feels better.
“Will you let me fix you, son?”
Against his father’s shoulder, he mumbles tiredly, unable to keep his eyes open, “Yes.”
“Good boy,” he hears, and his battered, exhausted body thrills to the praise, just like it used to.
Then he sleeps.
He remembers not being able to sleep for the longest time after his father’s death.
Being ripped from the only life he knew and forcibly integrated into another had taken its toll. Maryse and Robert gave him structure and a schedule to live to, but the space he had to exist in had been made exponentially wider, and it had left him out of sorts. It also gave him the time to think about his father, and thinking of his father led to a heartache so bad he thought he was dying. Thinking of his father brought back the image of his twisted, unrecognizable corpse, which provoked nightmares at bedtime.
He remembers maintaining the facade of friendliness as much as he could, but sometimes he would draw him into himself in a way that worried other people. Isabelle and her gigantic bleeding heart was always demanding he tell her what was wrong, demanding he help her so she could help him, which made him want to pull her in and never let go, but shove her away just as quickly. Those were the moments he preferred Alec’s company. Because whenever he was feeling like a raw nerve, Alec was a quiet, comforting presence that didn’t expect him to be or feel anything but what he needed to. And when he’d finally have the energy to pull himself back together, Alec would smile and ease him back into normal without hesitation.
He remembers having nightmares every night for the first month, his young little mind trying desperately to process his trauma. Maryse would bolt into his bedroom half asleep and try to wake him up enough to calm him. Then as the weeks dragged on, Robert would charge ahead of her, because the throes of his worst agonies were often violent. There had been mornings where he could smell the scent of freshly applied Iratzes, could see on Maryse’s cheek or jaw a shadow of a bruise the size of his small fists, and Robert had wanted to spare him the guilt of something beyond his control.
But as he’d settled, and as the Lightwood family made themselves softer to accommodate him, his anxieties eased. As he’d found new ways to keep himself busy during his down time, his nightmares lessened. And those that still occurred, Alec began to manage on his own. Alec had somehow understood that the whole family surrounding him, being horrified for him, pitying him as he struggled was more of a hindrance than a help. He remembers having overheard Alec telling his mother to stay out next time, to let him handle it himself. Thirteen year old Alec Lightwood, taking responsibility for him like he was his to watch over. And when the next nightmare came, Alec had gently pulled him from his frightened mind with a word he’d never heard before.
He had blinked awake, trying to catch his breath, adrenaline coursing. And Alec had been at his bedside, his ever gentle smile visible even in the dark.
I’m going to sleep next to you. Okay?
He’d breathed an okay that sounded more like a please help me, and Alec had crawled under the covers, stuck his warm feet on his cold toes and together they’d gone to sleep.
That word had stuck with him - Parabatai - because the way Alec said it had always sounded powerful and important, like something that belonged, and he felt powerful and important to have heard it. When he’d asked about it, Maryse had looked at him pityingly, like perhaps his many traumas had blocked the information from his head. But then she’d set him up in the library with the Shadowhunter’s Codex, directing him to the chapter on Parabatai, and had left him to it with a gentle smoothing of his hair. And he’d read that book from front to back, wondering why his father’s copy had been thinner, and tattier, and absent of all the things he might have liked.
Parabatai. A forever friend. Someone who would be with him in whatever battle he faced. Someone who would love him no matter what. As soon as he reads about it, everything in his entire body wants it. Because his father had taught him that to love was to destroy, but staring at him from the pages of his own history was a bond that survived on it. Thrived on it. Needed it. And maybe that meant he didn’t have to be alone after all.
He’d wanted it so badly that he’d tentatively asked Alec to be his. When Alec had readily agreed, Jace had thrown himself at him in a mess of limbs, propelled by an unexpected ball of emotion so strong that it had burst from him without warning. He’d immediately found himself pressed against Alec’s shoulder, self conscious, brain catching up with his heart’s little act of rebellion. But Alec had patted him on the back and given him a welcome squeeze, and that had been that. He’d decided then that his new self - this new person he was allowed to be - was going to be a hugger. Because his father hadn’t once indulged him, but Alec was more than willing to. And it made him feel safe in a way he’d never been before.
The entire Lightwood family was affectionate, he’d learned. The Lightwoods fought and bickered and complained too much to be a perfect family, but they touched easily between themselves without thought or hesitation. Robert was always putting a steady hand on Maryse’s back, and she was always smoothing his lapels down, even when things were tense between them, which happened more often than not. Isabelle and Alec were always rubbing Max’s chubby cheeks because he was a gummy little goofball, Max was always climbing into Alec’s lap when he was reading, and Isabelle was always picking lint off Alec’s clothes like Maryse would to Robert. He’d watched the language of their family love for weeks with both a deep fascination and a sadness he couldn’t quite understand, and he’d wondered why his father’s hadn’t been the same.
He remembers the night Maryse had reached over to dab her thumb at the corner of his mouth during dinner, as casually as she would her own children, and he’d instantly wanted her to do it again. And it made him realize that Alec’s hug, and Isabelle picking grass off his sweater, and Robert patting his shoulder, and even little Max, who had started cackling whenever he walked by, were all signs of love. It just took Maryse and her thumb on his lips, cleaning him like a mother would her baby, to realize it. That they’d accepted him not just into their home as a guest, but as a son and a brother into their hearts. And because they loved him, he wanted more than anything the permission to love them back.
He remembers his food had almost gone cold as he’d sat there in awe, heart beating wildly, as if it were gasping for another chance at affection. It had taken him so much strength to reach back over to Maryse, and when he did, he’d picked at her shirt sleeve, hoping she didn’t look too closely. The only lint there was the lint he pretended to see, and he didn’t want to lose their love so quickly by being caught in a lie.
Robert and Maryse had slowed to a near stop, both witnessing the gravity of his simple gesture. He’d been terrified inside, rejection swelling up beneath his ribs because he’d clearly read the situation wrong. Of course, he’d got it wrong. But then Maryse had flashed him a small, secretive smile and winked at him like it was just him and her, and she’d eaten the rest of her dinner gifting him that same smile between bites of chicken paella. And when he'd looked to Robert, he was smiling too, and nodding gently like he'd done something praiseworthy.
His father’s love had been complicated. It was bursts of relief between long stretches of pain, and in his mind it was precious because it was rare. But the Lightwood family’s love was simple. It meant getting to eat Alec’s last slice of toast, and having someone who was always willing to train, and pick at his clothes until they sat right. And it meant joyous shared laughter, and fond, proud hands smoothing his hair and patting his back, and it meant warm arms wrapped around him until he was ready to let go first. It meant shoulder butts, and fistbumps, and annoying tickling fingers on his sides when he got too serious, and it meant warm feet on his cold toes when his world tilted into darker places.
And as time went on, what he knew of love changed.
He remembers that when he wakes next, muddied questions for his father at the front of his mind. But his father isn’t there when he opens his eyes. The others are, and he’s left trying his best to keep himself together while they break him apart all over again.
He remembers months of specialized training, made all the more exciting by how it was theirs - his and Alec’s - a means to test their compatibility. Every session pushed them, forced Jace to think of Alec’s survival as his own, which was a tough shift in awareness for a kid that’d been conditioned his entire life as a one man show. It was the one habit he dedicated himself to turning around, because he could deal with people not liking him or thinking him odd or thinking him too big for his given boots, but he would never forgive himself if he allowed Alec to get hurt on a hunt.
There were some things that had been harder to change. He either tended to be what people wanted of him, or he reverted to the insulated version of himself his father had built him to be, and it had made him unreadable, unpredictable and untrustworthy more than not. The Lightwoods were always patient enough to look beyond his mask - especially Alec - but leaving them to apologize on his behalf had been a burden. And he hated being a burden; to the family that had so graciously taken him in, and to the friend who had claimed him for his own. So he’d tried his best to do better, though using his heart was more difficult than using his head. He was adept at fighting, at survival, at following his father’s orders because those were the things he’d been trained for. But he hadn’t known the first thing about relationships, and learning how to navigate their intricacies was a slow, difficult process.
So when a distance had grown between he and Alec the closer they came to completing their Parabatai trials, he’d wondered what he’d done wrong. Because it had been weeks of Alec suddenly needing to study by himself, or read an important book. Missions he went on with Isabelle, or others. Moments alone that Jace didn’t know not to intrude on, which had Alec shutting down and shutting himself away altogether.
I’m fine, Alec would say, though he didn’t sound anything remotely close to fine. Just busy. We’ll catch up at dinner.
He had taken it as gospel. He'd had no reason to question it and trying to question it only made his head hurt and his panic rise. He couldn’t lose Alec. Not then, not ever. Because his father may have forged Jace to orbit his universe, but Jace had willing built Alec at the center of his.
So when their Parabatai ceremony finally arrived and Alec was nowhere to be found, he’d done everything he could to remain patient. Alec had been patient and loving and faithful with him since the very first day they met, and it felt like everything had led him to that moment just so he could pay it all back.
He’d nearly crumbled to his knees when Alec had rushed in several minutes late, breathless and wide-eyed, and he’d taken Alec’s arm in his and proudly, happily recited their oath. He’d smiled as they’d marked each other, twin runes above their left hip, and he’d grinned a little harder to compensate for the smile that hadn’t quite reached Alec’s eyes. And when their bond rushed gloriously through him, made physical by the Angel’s will, he’d felt Alec’s heartbeat settle in his own chest, and the strength of Alec’s blood flowing in his own veins---
---and an unexpected, dreadful misery suffocating his new Parabatai from the inside out. The startling pain of a heart’s longing, and knowing it wouldn’t be returned.
Alec hadn’t stuck around long enough to celebrate or answer his many questions, choosing instead to flee the Institute like his feet were on fire. He’d followed him, because his Parabatai was suffering something he wasn’t able to name, and being separated didn’t feel right with how fresh and intense their new bond was. So he’d trailed Alec all the way to the Hardtail, even as he’d wondered why being at a Downworld nightclub was more important than being together. He’d learned the answer rather quickly.
He remembers having averted his eyes with the intention of giving Alec privacy, because Alec clearly hadn’t meant to lead him into that kind of situation and the last thing he’d needed was Jace interrupting him while he had a mouth full of Seelie dick. But Jace hadn’t moved from the side of the Hardtail’s grungy cement walls, trying to make sense of all the feelings overwhelming him. Indescribable sadness. Anger. Resentment. Excitement. Arousal. Shame. All Alec’s. Shock. Disappointment. Relief. Misery. All his. Because Alec had this huge kept secret - and if he hadn’t shared it, it meant Jace wasn’t worthy of hearing it.
He’d stayed there until Alec and his Seelie acquaintance were done, waiting to ensure his Parabatai was safe. And when Alec had left to return home, he’d followed him from a distance as he’d processed everything he’d seen. As he processed the ruptured, heartbroken reality left in its wake.
Looking back, it had been a little more complex than Alec living a secret life on the side. He’d later gone on to spend his downtime outside of the Institute a few nights a week, sneaking into bars so frequently across the city that Jace had felt he was being avoided. As the weeks had dragged on, the sadness laced throughout their bond had lessened considerably, though it still pulsed softly whenever they crossed paths. He’d waited patiently for Alec to approach him about it, because their bond left no room for secrets. But as the days went by, he began to realize that Alec wasn’t avoiding him, he was simply pursuing his own happiness. And he loved Alec enough that he wished to share in it. To know he was okay. That they were okay.
Jace had missed him terribly, and every bit of space he gave his Parabatai to flourish in had hurt to spare. He’d committed himself to Alec for life, and he’d meant it with every fibre in his soul, but Jace feared time and perspective would turn him away for good. He’d wanted Alec to know it was okay, that he wouldn’t rescind the sacred promise they’d made to each other. That no matter what Alec struggled with, he wouldn’t revolt. He’d only vow to love him harder, and fiercer, until Alec could pick himself back up and move on.
A childhood of repressing his feelings meant Jace had never been brave enough to articulate them. But he’d needed Alec to know he wasn’t afraid of his love, no matter what form it came in. He’d only been heartbroken that it wasn’t something he could return.
Eventually, he’d managed to corner Alec long enough to invite him out to the Hunter’s Moon for a drink. And once they’d gotten halfway through their chosen beverages, Jace had finally poked at the awful silence permeating the space between them.
You know I love you, right? He’d told him, quietly and desperately. I love you more than anything.
Alec had sighed quietly to himself, heavy and burdensome like the weight on his shoulders was bearing him down. And he’d nodded, because he had already understood.
No matter what. I mean it, Alec.
His Parabatai had finally glanced over, looking him directly in the eye for the first time in too long, and he remembers the relief that had flooded him to see himself in Alec’s eyes. Because there had been a certainty there, a promise that they’d stand together in the eye of any storm, no matter what he happened to be going through.
Do you want to talk about this? About...?
Alec had quickly shut it down, but he hadn’t been afraid. Just accepting. No. There’s nothing to say. I’ve dealt with it.
Wow. Already. He’d laughed ruefully, because he’d spent a large chunk of his life loving a father who hadn’t loved him the way he’d needed, and everyone but the Lightwoods had grown tired of him quickly. To hear that Alec had already dealt to any other feelings he might have harboured hadn’t really been a surprise, though it had stung him like a blunt blade.
Yeah, well, hanging onto unrequited…whatever, isn’t romantic. It’s destructive. Alec had grown quiet, rolling something over in his head before he carefully picked his next words. And I’m done being destructive. I’m done hiding who I am.
Jace had nodded, gently phrasing the nudge he was trying to give him. And you have better options out there.
A hint of a smirk had touched Alec’s face then, and Jace observed as his Parabatai’s mind had seemingly drifted to other people, those he’d met and been with over the past few weeks. People that could give him what he was after. Yeah, I do.
Jace had smiled too, as he’d nodded and taken a swig of his beer. Are you at least being safe?
He remembers Alec’s face scrunching up, and the grin that had spread across his own face had felt wide and freeing. The profoundness of relief.
Hey, I’m just being a good, concerned brother.
And Alec had raised one brow at him, which perfectly encapsulated everything that followed. Yes, I’m being safe. Though I’m not the one at risk of getting anyone pregnant, dipshit. Are you being safe?
They’d lapsed into an easy silence after they’d finished laughing, smiling and shoving at each other like brothers again, their bond warm and inviting between them. And with that drama out of the way, he’d quickly noticed how relaxed Alec was, as if their time apart had allowed him to fit better into his own skin. Through their bond, Alec had been calm, and relieved, and centered, like he’d found his true place in the universe and everything else had shifted graciously to accommodate him. He was happy, and that had made Jace happy. Because Alec’s happiness was all he wanted. Sometimes, even now, he thinks he wants Alec’s happiness more than his own.
Alec is on his mind when he comes back around, feeling frail and weak. He can’t remember the last time he ate or drank anything, or the last time he slept. The last time his arms weren’t shackled above his head, or the last time his body didn’t feel like a muted, phantom pulse of pain.
But he remembers the last time he’d seen his Parabatai. He remembers the disappointment darkening Alec’s stark features as he explained how Jace had let him down, even as he tried to soften the blow. Because even when Alec got madder than mad, he was always trying to soften the blow. He was too kind to be mean, and mindlessly hurting those he loved was the last thing he ever wanted to do. But Jace had taken it like a sucker punch all the same.
His right eye - the one that isn’t completely swollen shut - spots his father again through the blurriness. His ten year old self is still naive enough to be relieved to see him, but each futile lesson his father tries to impart on him falls further on deaf ears. He can’t imagine how the other Jace Wayland would be faring right now - the Jace that hadn’t lived half of his life in the protection of the Lightwoods; in the embrace of his Parabatai’s love and loyalty. Would he have mindlessly believed the words he was being fed? Would he have accepted his fate without a fight? Would he have believed he was deserving of punishment? The thought makes him nauseous.
He’s begun to see his father for what he is now. And he’s far less than the hero he’d always made him out to be.
“Are you ready to listen now?” his father asks, eyes hardened.
Jace can barely breathe past his broken nose and the blood in his mouth, so he spits at the ground to relieve his airways, breathing deep between words, “I’m not sure what I need to be listening to. But I’m...beginning to think I’m not the one who needs help.”
His father has been caught in a strange emotion for days now. He’s disappointed and frustrated at how his punishments - dealt purely to beat Jace back into line - only cause him to rebel further. But his hard, cold gaze also shines with pride and glimpses of a changing plan. It should give Jace hope, but the unease he feels when he looks at him doesn’t allow it.
“You’ve got a spine, I’ll give you that. Perhaps you’re not beyond salvaging, son,” his father smiles, and Jace’s raw, empty gut sinks. Beneath that menace is also a fondness he’d rather deny. It’d be much easier to stomach the reality that he’s being systematically tortured by his own flesh and blood if he knew for certain he was loathed, “Though I’ve got to take some of the blame, at least. I hadn’t counted on you finding yourself a Parabatai, especially a Parabatai so set on dismantling everything I’ve worked for. That was rather unfortunate.”
He thinks of Alec - of his kindness and strength, his goodness, his steadfast loyalty, his love - and his battered soul reaches again through their bond in search of him. But he’s met with the same resounding nothingness he’s had since he ended up here, and he angrily tugs on his chains with as much energy as he can, just to cover up the helpless sob that rises in his throat. The drugs he’s being pumped with are numbing their bond and have left him very much alone, which is its own excruciating torture. But he can’t deny that he’s almost glad for it, if only for the fact that his father’s cruelty isn’t extending to his Parabatai. That Alec isn’t suffering the same fate is the one positive to come out of this.
“You sent me to the Lightwoods,” he spits again, “What the hell did you expect?”
“I expected you to wait for further instruction,” his father narrows his eyes, “As I trained you to.”
“Further instruction? I thought you were dead.”
His father leans in close to smooth the sweaty, blood-matted hair off his face, “It doesn’t matter now. You failed. So I had to resort to Plan B.”
A rush of icey fear slides through his belly, “Plan B. What does that mean?”
“It means you weren’t fit for the job. So I replaced you with someone who was.”
He shakes his throbbing head in confusion. “What job? What was I supposed to do?”
“You were to be my second-in-command,” his father says into his ear, “You were always meant to be by my side, son. Working with me. Remember your falcon? The bird you broke?”
He shudders again at the thought of that bird, guilty for its death even now. How could he ever forget? It had been a lesson designed to isolate him, one that had ripped away any idea of future happiness he might have hoped for; the idea that someone someday might love him as he loved them. It was a lesson that had kept him running from the Lightwood’s affections until they’d caught him and taught him that what he knew of love had been a lie.
He remembers having told Alec what his father used to say all those years ago: To love is to destroy. To be loved is to be the one destroyed. His Parabatai had thought long and hard about it, about what it meant for Jace growing up and what it would mean for him in the future if he kept living by it. Then he’d hugged him, hard and unyielding and full of fierce compassion, and he’d told him the truth he stood by: To love is to have something worth fighting for.
And in Alec’s arms - in the arms of someone who had done nothing but love him and fight for him, through nightmares, bad habits and crippling insecurity - Jace’s weathered, hopeful heart had every reason to believe.
“I remember,” he tells his father now, his hands clenching in anger.
“You were supposed to learn from your mistake,” his father sneers, “The Lightwoods were yours to tame - not to love.”
“They’re my family--- ”
“They were your mission!” His father bellows.
He thinks of Alec again, of his family and friends in the New York Institute, and violently revolts against the idea that they were unknowing pawns in whatever his father had planned. That his father was the type to plan missions against their own kind, at all. Panic seizes him. Not only is he being forced to face the fact that he doesn’t know the man who raised him, but now he knows that a plan is still apparently in place, being carried out by someone he can’t warn anyone about. And if the roiling, sickly tumble of his stomach tells him anything, it’s nothing good.
He thrashes furiously in his chains, gritting his teeth as they clink and wrench his joints. He reaches through his Parabatai bond again, feels his face flush with the effort and nearly collapses from it. He tries again, his soul screaming for Alec, screaming into the void in want of being heard. He screams so loud and so furiously that his body is overcome with a white, hot heat that presses up beneath his skin, and the rune at his left hip - his Parabatai rune - lights up with a pure, golden glow so powerful that it feels as if Raziel himself is inside him, changing the very foundations of his atoms.
He reaches again through the bond until he can feel Alec distantly on the other side, and he makes to push through a message of warning---
The sharp sting of a syringe suddenly plunges into his neck with brutal force. The familiar, euphoric softness that begins to flow through him tugs him backward, stealing him away from Alec, and he cries out from the top of his lungs until it echoes from the ship’s walls. No no no. Alec!
Through the growing haze, the expression on his father’s face is a new one, one he’s never seen. He’s white as a sheet, eyes wide with shock and a simmering panic that rises and falls at his chest, and he holds the empty syringe in front of him like he hadn’t been prepared to use it so quickly. But he soon recovers, and his smile grows awed and demented, like Jace has finally done something worthwhile, beyond his wildest imaginings. And he tosses the syringe aside to gather close to him, smiling and chuckling to himself even as regret sobers him.
“You are my son in every way that matters,” his father tells him softly, shaking with emotion, almost cooing at him as he strokes his face, bleeding wounds and all, “I made you what you are. You are who you are because of me . My precious boy...you are my greatest achievement. I forgive you. I forgive you. Sleep now, and we can begin again.”
Jace feels his lips go slack and numb, his limbs heavying, eyelids drooping with the pleasant flying sensation in his veins.
And he falls once again.
Now, he dreams of Clary.
He remembers how they’d literally bumped into each other outside the Pandemonium - him, one of Raziel’s children, and a Mundane with the Sight who had immediately looked through him like he was just another rude, faceless human boy owing her an apology. She’d surprised him with that; then as she’d walked blindly into the middle of their mission. Then as his own Seraph blade had lit up beneath her touch, angelic power calling to hidden, dormant blood.
He’d always been the type to need answers before he could push something to the back of his mind, and Clary Fray had been no exception. But what kept him invested was the new lows that came with each discovery. It seemed as though the universe was perfectly content to rip her entire world out from under her, repeatedly, eradicating everything she knew on a regular basis. She’d lost her mother, the only true north she’d ever had. Her dead father wasn't quite as dead as she'd been led to believe, and happened to be the greatest threat the Clave had ever known. Her best friend was killed and turned by a Vampire; an unexpected, avoidable death that Jace himself felt partly responsible for. And through all of it, she’d been scared and uncertain, alone and housing a panic she didn’t want to touch for fear it might paralyze her when she needed to keep moving. All things Jace could relate to. All things that would have drowned him once, had it not been for the Lightwoods. For Alec.
So he’d done the only thing that had made sense. He’d decided to be for Clary what Alec had been for him - gentle guidance, care and comfort, her teacher, her protector, her strength. Her new true north, until she could find her own again. He’d made a space for himself in her corner and stuck there like a watchman, because that’s exactly what Alec had done for him, and he’d been determined to pay it forward ever since.
He hadn't expected it to backfire.
Against all odds, Alec’s compassion hadn’t extended to Clary, and Jace didn’t have the faintest clue as to why. The variables around her were immense and morally cloudy at best, but he knew with everything he was that Clary was no enemy. That she needed their help. Alec, for whatever reason, couldn’t seem to see it.
Jace had watched Alec grow from a boy wedged beneath heavy expectations into a young man who had earned the privilege of impossible responsibility. He’d been Alec’s proud shadow as his Parabatai gained confidence in his position and favor with the Clave for a job no one else had done better. If anyone could have helped him help Clary, it was Alec. But when it came down to it, Jace’s best intentions and Alec’s stern authority clashed in butted heads, locked horns and hurt feelings. Hurt feelings that poked at the silent running theme that had been between them for years, growing uglier with every It’s fine and It’s not important and As long as we have each other. Saying those things always fixed the issue temporarily, but prevented it from really seeing the light. Sometimes, honesty had the potential to cause irreparable damage, and it was too scary to touch.
But as the years went on and they both grew and changed into separate people, having each other simply wasn’t enough. Not when Alec kept a fence between them. Not when Jace still had an entire ruthless childhood to unpack. Not when he didn’t know the wrong steps he’d taken until they were already walked. They had different ideas of their purpose in the world. And it took Clary Fray entering their lives to make them face the disconnect.
I can’t depend on you, Jace, Alec had told him, even as he seemed to regret saying it. Because that had been what they’d both been afraid of - hurting each other by being honest. I never know if you’re going to have my back or not. And I can’t afford to wonder anymore.
They’d been the single most devastating words Jace had ever heard. He knew better than anyone that he wasn’t perfect; it was why he usually ditched the rules in favor of trying and failing them. He knew better than anyone that he was difficult to love; his father had drilled it so deeply into him that he constantly questioned those that did. He knew better than anyone that he wasn’t worthy of Alec, because somewhere along the line, Alec had become his hero, and a hero was something Jace was yet to be.
It had become apparent that they’d failed at voicing what they needed from each other. Where Jace had only ever needed Alec’s friendship, Alec needed Jace to understand something he wasn’t naturally inclined to understand. There were things about himself that Alec wasn’t willing to discuss, and there were struggles Alec faced that Jace would never experience firsthand. But questioning those felt too much like intolerance to him, so Jace was more comfortable letting things be. Except letting things be had led to the both of them glaring at each other from different sides, and that was the last thing Jace had ever wanted.
So he’d trudged downstairs and assigned himself to a weapons cleaning shift, affording himself the time to think and feel and brush off his wounds. Isla, Alec’s Head of Surveillance, had approached him on her way back from refilling her travel mug of coffee, and had willingly offered him her ear for venting.
After giving some semblance of an explanation, she’d sighed, shoulders growing visibly heavy as if she carried Alec’s burdens as her own. Try to see things from his perspective.
He’d been in enough of a mood that he’d been too stubborn to take the suggestion. Why? He’s not seeing them from mine.
Because he doesn’t have that luxury, Jace. He’s gay.
Why is it always about him being gay?
Because that’s the only way the Clave sees him? She’d replied, delicately lifting an eyebrow. Don’t make the mistake of assuming a promotion means that everyone is suddenly cool with it. No one gets put under the microscope the way he does, and we all know the reason why.
He’d seen things, heard things, small brushings of tension in Alec and those around him. He’d even intercepted when someone was brazen enough to speak their distaste out loud. But Alec was always internalizing his feelings or compartmentalizing his problems, so Jace had never known the full extent of awful things his Parabatai faced on a daily basis. His naivety had led him to believe that Alec moving through the ranks was both effortless and a sign that he was held in high regard, at least in the Clave’s eyes. That Isla had seen it where he couldn’t had overwhelmed him with guilt.
He’s had to work twice as hard for this position, and he got it by playing by the rules. You do realize that the Clave is waiting for him to screw up, right? And that everytime you pull your typical shit and expect him to clean up after you, you push him closer to losing his job? A job he’s using to help people like him be more accepted? People like me?
He’d really had no argument then. He’d only felt worse as the gravity finally dawned on him. He’d loved Alec unconditionally with everything he had, and he had still managed to be ignorant.
I’m sorry, I didn’t know---
Isla had rolled her eyes. I’m a lesbian, not a fucking demon. I’m not someone you need to be sorry about.
And he’d raised his chin, looking her directly in the eye. Because Isla was a good friend, and Alec was his greatest love in life, and he’d never be sorry about either of them. You’re right. I couldn’t agree more.
Isla had always liked to deliver the kind of brutal honesty that made people rethink their life choices, often to comedic effect, and she was removed enough from the situation to really let him have it the way he’d needed to hear it. He and Alec would get there in their own time when they were more secure in their ability to communicate the hard things. But in that moment, he’d needed to understand, if only so he could make the right moves to fix things.
So he'd asked the question, dread filling him. Do you think I’ve let him down?
And she sighed again, her big blue eyes softening in sympathy. I can’t comment on that. But you’ve made life fairly difficult for all of us these past few weeks. That I can attest to.
I know. And I know your heart is in the right place, dude. But Alec doesn’t get to put you first, whether you’ve earned it or not. Not when he’s trying to keep a whole house in order. Give the guy a break. And maybe have some faith? Lightwood is a smart guy. He knows what he’s doing.
And that had been it - what he’d thought would be the rock bottom in which to bounce from. He’d shaken himself from his funk and promised to do better; to see, to hear, to understand where he’d previously failed, determined never again to allow the walls between he and Alec to rise so high that they couldn’t climb them.
But he hadn’t gotten the chance. And his idea of rock bottom had been greatly understated.
His memories feel distant now, flashes of drawing his Seraph blade and running for the residential wing, ready to warn and protect those that had been woken by the alarms. An incoming attack, Alec had shouted. Forsaken. Forsaken that had somehow breached the Institute and proven abnormally strong and chilling in their mindless ferocity. One in particular that had fought him with an awareness Forsaken weren’t supposed to have. One that had come at him with a hatred that had appeared personal.
He remembers the sharp pain of window glass slicing through his arms, the weightlessness of falling, the jarring impact of the ground travelling through his kneecaps as he’d landed. It had been followed by another sharp pain, the deep ache of a Seraph dagger embedded below his ribs, then a pinch at his neck and the cloudy oblivion that had brought him here. Here to where a group of hulking men, both Mundane and Nephilim, were testing his endurance with their weapons and fists.
His father stands by and watches now, without remorse. Waiting. For what, Jace doesn’t know, but his assailants are more vicious, relentless, desperate for whatever they’re trying to find in him and he’s not certain he’ll survive long enough for them to find what they’re searching for. He takes each hit with a ragged groan, pain piled onto more pain until he’s so physically numb that they cancel each other out. He feels another rib break, the third in this beating alone, and a sharp wrenching in his gut when he takes a metal bat to the waist.
He’s pulled into the next lucid moment by a Stele grazing across his Iratze, and he barely manages to get his glazed eyes to look upon his nearest assailant as an argument breaks out around him.
You had him!
The kid is almost dead, moron! We’re supposed to keep him alive!
Valentine? His heart stopped again, sir. I really don’t think he’s gonna last much longer.
He’ll live. I’ll decide when he’s done.
...who’s up next? Barnard? Fine. Stay away from the organs, for fuck’s sake. Use your brain.
His ears pick up the name - Valentine - and his weak heart begins to race, encouraged by his activated healing rune, pumping fresh blood to his open wounds.
His mouth lies open against his chest, jaw broken, but he forces what he can through his throat, “ V...Val… ”
And his father steps forward, right up close, and he smiles in a way that drops what’s left of Jace’s heart through his stomach, “I didn’t realize how much I’d wanted to hear you say my name. Not until now. I must say, it pleases me more than I’d imagined.”
Valentine. Valentine is here - in place of his father - and his muddled, brutalized mind can’t even begin to make sense of it. He’s conscious enough to feel relieved, to know the man hurting him isn’t the same man he loved and grieved growing up. But...he can’t seem to reconcile a time when the man he loved and grieved wasn’t the man standing before him.
“Listen carefully, Jace,” Valentine tells him, “You are my son in every way that matters. I may not have bore you, but I fed you, clothed you, raised you, loved you. I built you. I also gave you a gift...and now I’m here to collect. So do yourself a favor and try harder. Then all of this will stop. You and I are going to change the world together. Don’t you want to change the world, son?”
It starts on repeat in his head, a panicky staccato of denial.
Valentine raised me.
Who am I?
I’m nothing. I’m no one.
I’ve only ever been his.
His. His. His.
He never could have imagined that he’d been unknowing property of the biggest threat to their society. The murderer that had shaken the foundations of their entire race with the massacre of innocents twenty years ago. Clary’s father. The one to blame for her anguish. The one responsible for the attack on the Institute, for endangering his family. The one who had apparently built him as some sort of sleeper cell and placed him with people that would love him, so it’d be easier to betray them.
Power. The strange power that had briefly coursed through him hours, days earlier. He can vaguely see the desire for it on Valentine’s face, like Jace is a glorious weapon for him to wield. He’s simply waiting for it to come back out, as if beating him within an inch of his life may trigger some sort of ingrained survival instinct. To give it to him would be to betray his own kind. His family. His friends. His Institute. It would mean betraying Alec, and he swore an oath that he has no intention of rescinding.
He’d rather die.
So, he gathers the remaining shreds of his will and shapes the words as much as his jaw will allow, tears in his eyes.
The smile on Valentine’s face extinguishes, replaced with a black, emotionless stare. And it’s the last thing he sees.
He submits to what comes next with a resolution he didn’t think he was capable of, and gives himself and whatever power is in him over to Raziel, to the Angel’s mercy. To peace and painlessness and fulfillment. It feels mildly terrifying to let go, but if this is to be his end, then he’s relieved it is an end that won’t bring harm to others. If this was all his life was ever to be, then he’s grateful for all he’s had. He’s glad for the chance to right this wrong. His only regret is not having the chance to make things right by Alec. To say goodbye to those who had been human enough to love him, and tell them all that they were his saving grace.
He feels Alec then, a faint pulse of warmth at his hip, as if his mind in all its pain has conjured his most precious thing to comfort him in his last moments. And he finds himself holding on for as long as he can, if only for the hope that when he breathes his last breath, it’s in the safety and love of his Parabatai’s embrace.
He opens his eyes some time later, and wonders if he’s on the other side.
It’s white, searing bright, the warmth of sun and blankets softly cradling his body. Gentle in ways he hasn’t felt in forever. He closes his eyes again and drifts in the moment, the muted peace and quiet, until he can hear his own heartbeat in his ears and the faint beeping of a machine nearby, trailing it like an echo.
He takes a deep, easy breath, then opens his eyes once again - except now he sees Alec and his halo of dark, unruly hair. Alec and his soft, kind face, hardened by awful burden. Alec and his loving eyes, filled with regret and relief. Alec and his teary smile, impossibly wide and goofy and wrinkling his face in all the best ways.
Jace tries for words, unsure if they’ll come out beyond the grittiness in his throat. But he’s more than willing to say them.
Alec breathes a hoarse sob, and the pang of hearing it lands in Jace’s chest. He feels the onslaught of giddiness through their bond, chipped and ragged with guilt and too many upsets to put fingers on, but it rushes him like a happy wave all the same. And he’s so damn relieved to feel their bond again that his own happiness rushes out to meet it, embracing like old, reunited friends.
Alec’s big warm palms squeeze and rub where they encircle Jace’s hand on the bed.
“Tell me what you need, brother,” he tells him gently, his voice deep and worn as he searches Jace’s eyes for signs.
But he shakes his head on the pillow ever so carefully, gripping weakly at Alec’s fingers.
“I’m good,” he croaks, tears springing to his eyes without warning.
Alec wipes them from his cheeks before they can fall, then leaves his hand there, thumb stroking the shape of his brow.
“It's okay, Jace. Tell me,” he urges. His gaze is knowing, tormented, imploring him to unbottle the heaviness sitting between them, quick like a bandaid. Allowing him the space to unload before he can do what he usually does; the shameful shoving of his pain into the dark, dusty corners of his head, where they sit and wait for the chance to drag him down again.
Alec holds that pain for him and waits, patiently. Ready to catch him, just as he always has. Ever his Parabatai, his brother, his most treasured friend. His safe haven.
And as Jace cries - releases - he feels like that lonely little boy all over again. The same boy raised to survive. The one raised to forget himself. The one raised to walk through life denying himself of hope, connection.
But it’s different this time. His misery feels okay. Temporary.
Now that he knows he’s not alone.