“Okay, what is wrong with you?”
The question - and particularly the accusing tone of it - shakes Alec out of his stupor. It’s a testament to how out of it he is that the only response he manages is an intelligent “huh?”
He blinks, shaking his head to clear his head, but in the end, Magnus Bane is still standing in front of him, a stack of books hugged to his chest and eyebrows raised and it’s - well, it’s a lot. It’s always a lot, to be the focus of his attention, to be faced with his....everything: his incandescent beauty, his razor sharp wit and brilliant mind, his smooth charm or his biting contempt.
Alec flounders. Magnus Bane is the secret star of all his late-night fantasies, his verbal sparring partner in their shared Introduction to Clave Law class and all-around thorn in Alec’s side.
They snipe at each other a lot.
What they don’t do is talk outside of class.
Alec quickly runs through a mental inventory of things he might have done to offend Magnus so horrendously that he’s cornering him in the corridor, eyes blazing, and comes up empty. Unless his mouth developed a mind of its own in the last sixty minutes, there’s nothing he could have possibly said. And if there’s one thing that Alec knows how to do is make sure nothing unintended ever slips out of his mouth, to keep his closely guarded secrets.
“I didn’t do anything,” Alec defends himself.
“Exactly,” Magnus says irritably.
“I don’t follow,” Alec admits.
“You didn’t participate once this session. What, do you want to tell me the professor can drone on and on about the legitimacy of Downworlder discrimination and you don’t have an opinion on that? No raising your hand to offer your.....valuable insights?”
“What, are you my professor now?” Alec says, snippy. “I don’t need lectures from you on how active participation is a big part of the final grade.”
“That’s not why I’m asking.”
The last thing he needs right now is picking a fight with Magnus, but he can’t help it. “Why are you asking? I’m sure you enjoy class less when you don’t have a convenient punching bag for your arguments, but newsflash: I don’t owe you an explanation on why I don’t wanna engage in that. It’s not like it’s any of your business.”
“Well, I’m sorry for stepping on your toes by expressing my concern for your general well-being,” Magnus snaps. “Guess I’ll remove my lowly Downworlder self from your presence before I leave a stain on your perfect reputation or something.”
For the third time in their brief conversation, Alec is completely thrown. “I - that’s not - what?”
Now that he sees actual fury on Magnus’ handsome face, covering up a brief flash of something that looked almost like genuine hurt, he realises that the expression Magnus wore before was less furious and more....furiously concerned.
He doesn’t think he’s ever been this confused in his life.
“Magnus, wait!” He struggles to catch up with Magnus’ quick strides – he has a head start, and he’s surprisingly tall, but in the end, as they’re hurrying down the deserted corridor that leads to the notoriously ill-tempered professor Fell’s office, Alec’s freakishly long legs win out. “Magnus, will you just –“
He grabs him by the biceps, and Magnus whirls around faster than lightning. To his credit, he doesn’t punch Alec in the face. Maia, he knows, would have had a much more violent reaction to being seized like this. Most Downworlders would – recent attempts to smooth things over between the different factions in the Shadow World haven’t done much to assuage rational fears and suspicions based on several centuries of near constant oppression and maltreatment.
“Sorry, I – sorry,” he blurts out, quickly withdrawing his hand. “I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not contagious, despite what your precious Clave might tell you,” Magnus sneers.
“Can you just stop for a second?” Alec snaps. “Don’t put words in my mouth!”
“Why would I?”
“I’m trying to apologise here!”
That seems to take Magnus aback. “For what?”
Alec takes a deep breath. “I – don’t really know what’s going on here,” he admits, waving his hand around in what he hopes is a sufficiently all-encompassing gesture. “I mean, we don’t really….talk, and I guess I was confused and had my hackles up, because I was having a shit day anyways but – none of that is your fault, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. So I’m sorry.”
Magnus cocks his head. “I appreciate the thought, but as you so astutely pointed out, you don’t owe me an explanation.”
“I did owe you the apology, though.”
Magnus hums contemplatively, and, against all odds, lingers. Alec knows a challenge when he sees one, or maybe it’s an invitation – he’s misjudged Magnus’ intentions before. He doesn’t really want to talk about it but – well, if he’s honest, it does grate on him to not have his siblings around, constantly needling him until he talks about what’s bothering him, and he doesn’t really have friends here to confide in.
He’s been told that friendships often form between roommates just by virtue of being stuck with one person in close quarters for a long time, but his roommate Raj is a grade-a asshole, and other than that, his options are limited; there aren’t many Shadowhunters here, and those that do attend generally think he’s insane for being the only one Nephilim voluntarily choosing to go to the first integrated college when he was good enough to attend the Shadowhunter-only and highly acclaimed Idris Academy. The Downworlders, on the other hand, who make up a majority of the student body, are all understandably wary and tend to avoid him when they can. He’s cordial enough with a lot of people, but there’s no one he would say he’s actually close to. He’s getting there with Maia, he thinks, who’s brazen enough to yell at him and so far grudgingly impressed by the lack of times he’s given her an actual incentive to start a fistfight.
So maybe it’s a need for connection, or maybe it’s the fact that Magnus is everything Alec isn’t while simultaneously probably one of the few people who might understand, that causes Alec to talk.
“Campus tours are next week.”
“I’m aware,” Magnus replies, raising his eyebrows at the sort of non-sequitur.
“My siblings are thinking about going here as well and – that means the whole family is coming. Including my parents.”
“I take it that will not be a joyous reunion?”
“Uh, no. They’re still angry with me for not going to Idris like they wanted and –“ Alec hesitates briefly, and then decides to not give a fuck. The truth is going to be out there soon one way or another. “And even angrier with my ruining the marriage they had arranged for me.”
The first, he had been able to mostly explain away with logical arguments about Shadowhunter politics – if he was supposed to lead an Institute one day and work with Downworlders, he’d need to get a better understanding of them, especially in the changing political climate. The latter – not so much.
Magnus looks almost at a loss for words. “It is my understanding that arranged marriages are so traditional for Shadowhunters that they are virtually unavoidable,” he says cautiously.
“Another way for you to rebel, then?” Magnus suggests. “Fighting for more freedom of choice?”
Alec shakes his head. “It’s not the arrangement part that I couldn’t handle. I know my duties, my responsibilities, that’s not – that wasn’t the problem. Many of the couples end up kind of happy, anyway.”
“What part disagreed with you that much, then?” Magnus asks softly. He can probably see where this is going, judging by the way he’s now clearly careful of his words and by the way his entire demeanour seems to soften.
He takes a deep breath, and steels himself. His hands are trembling, which is stupid – everyone on campus knows that Magnus Bane will judge you for pretty much everything, but not for this. There’s no one else around – everyone knows to make a wide berth around professor Fell’s office at all times. “The part where I was supposed to marry a woman.”
Magnus goes to say something, but Alec barrels on. He’s not sure he could stand to hear some supposedly affirming and supportive platitudes right now. “They’ll forgive me for the choice of college eventually, I guess, but – not that. Don’t – please don’t say you’re sorry or whatever. Just – it’s just the way it is. I’ll deal with it.”
Magnus accepts that with a nod, and remains quiet for a long moment. “So what’s the plan?” is what he eventually asks.
It’s not the question Alec was expecting. “Sorry?”
“For the upcoming visit of hell,” Magnus clarifies.
Alec shakes his head. “There is no plan. Get through it, I guess. Izzy and Jace will try to intervene when things get out of hand or take some of the family heat if possible, but there isn’t much that will stop them.” He shrugs a little helplessly.
“So what, you’re just going to keep your head down and take it?”
“You got a problem with that?”
“No,” Magnus says quietly. “It just doesn’t seem like your style. You don’t generally strike me as the type of person to let something like this slide without a fight.”
“How would you know?” Alec asks, and oh, he’s getting defensive again now.
Magnus doesn’t take the bait this time. “Alexander,” he says, “as much as we disagree on how things should change, or how quickly steps must be taken, I haven’t ever seen you defend a bigoted law or damaging stereotypes. Why are you willing to defend people like me from people like your parents, but not yourself?”
Oh, but he had forgotten how scarily perceptive Magnus can be. “It probably won’t even be that bad,” Alec says, desperately trying to deflect. “I’m sure they’ll just use the fact that I’m single to argue that I’m just confused and will change my mind and it’ll be fine once they convince themselves of that.”
For a brief moment, Magnus looks angry. He doesn’t think anyone but his siblings has ever been angry on his behalf. It’s a strange experience. “Sounds like you need a boyfriend to show off to them to stop that ludicrous line of thinking once and for all.”
“Well, I don’t have a boyfriend, so –“
“You could have a boyfriend,” Magnus says easily.
Alec snorts. “Yeah, right. Magnus, half the people at school won’t even look at me, and I’m not really good at this kind of thing anyway. Plus, even if I did find someone to go out with me – who’d want to meet my parents after a week?”
“It wouldn’t need to be real.”
“What, like, hire someone? No one would go for that, and if I have to pay someone to date me – well, I’d rather spare myself that particular humiliation.”
Magnus bites his lip, almost nervously. “I would do it,” he offers hesitantly.
“For free, even,” Magnus adds. “I’m always in favour of sticking it to homophobic and racist bigots.”
“Uh,” Alec says dumbly. “You do know who my parents are, right?”
“The Lightwoods are rather famous, yes,” Magnus says drily.
“Then you know how they’d react to –“ Words fail him. He can only weakly gesture between the two of them.
Magnus smiles bitterly. “They are rather famous for that as well, so yes.”
“Why would you –“ Alec falters. “Why would you willingly subject yourself to that? Why would anyone – I mean, they’re my family, it’s not like I have a choice – but you shouldn’t have to suffer through that. Not ever and – you get enough crap from Shadowhunters without painting a huge, deliberate target on your back for me.”
In front of him, Magnus’ eyes hold an infinite sadness that threatens to choke Alec. “You know,” he muses, “when I first heard that the Lightwood heir was going to go the same school as me, I was expecting – well, I was expecting many things, none of them pleasant. But you – I don’t think I could have predicted a single thing about you. At every turn, you continue to surprise me. Look – “ he continues, “if you don’t want to go for it because it’s – too much for you, I get it. But if you’re only turning me down to protect me, don’t bother. I don’t need anyone to protect me. There’s nothing they could say to me that I haven’t heard a thousand times before.”
“That doesn’t make it better,” Alec argues hotly. “You shouldn’t have to hear it at all.”
“And neither should you,” Magnus points out. “But I can assure you, in my experience, if it can’t be avoided, then it’s easier if you have someone there to help you through it, to have your back. You don’t have to do everything alone, Alec.”
It’s – it’s too much. The magnitude of Magnus’ offer sends him reeling. Even worse is the heady feeling of being judged by Magnus Bane and being found worthy when that notion of getting his approval is utterly ludicrous to him. Magnus shouldn’t choose him. Not like this, not ever, maybe. When Alec had run after him he’d at best expected a chance to extend an olive branch that would help them get back to the way things were. A part of him think he shouldn’t even be contemplating it, but –
It would be so good to not be alone in this, for once.
He draws in a shaky breath. “It’d be ugly,” he warns.
Magnus’ smile is small and lopsided, but it’s there. “Fighting for something important usually is.”
“Do you have class now?”
Alec blinks at the sudden change of topic. “Not until five.”
“Then how about we get some coffee and just – talk, figure things out?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, that sounds good.”
Magnus’s smile widens, soft and sweet and genuine. It’s the first full smile he’s ever directed and Alec, and Alec thinks – if he just keeps smiling at him like that, then Alec can do anything, get through everything the world and his parents throw at him.
His heart is fluttering in his chest, and it feels a lot like hope.