They meet in an alley, nondescript and completely indistinguishable from any other. There is steam rising from the grate, the stench of it distinctly New York, and Jace shudders under his jacket, pulling the material tighter around himself.
It’s been two weeks since he’d left with Valentine, passing through the portal and onto his father’s ship. His base of operations, a vessel of war that moves from port to port, impossible to track through supernatural means because it’s over the water. His old phone is gone; Valentine had thrown it overboard as soon as they’d arrived, and Jace is too cautious to try to contact anyone from the one he’s been provided.
His side is tender, smarting. Training had been rough this morning.
“You look like hell.”
Alec’s voice is quiet, but it carries. Something inside of Jace unclenches when he sees his parabatai, and his boots tread soundlessly as he holds out a hand. Alec takes it, pulls him into a surprisingly tight embrace. “I wasn’t sure if you’d show.”
“I told you I would,” Jace says, pulling away. “This was always the plan.”
“The plan was that you would text me,” Alec replies tightly. “That you’d try to get a message out before the actual meet. Not once was complete radio silence for two weeks on the table, Jace.” The worry in his voice is almost palpable, but Jace merely looks away, his mismatched eyes finding the iron grate, focuses on that instead.
“I couldn’t risk it,” he says. “My f—Valentine watches my every move. He’s been training me again, building up the rest of the army. There’s too much at stake.”
He runs a hand through his hair, tugging at the ends. It’s longer now, bordering on unkempt, and part of Alec sympathizes. He knows how much Jace cares about his appearance. “Fine,” he says. “You’re here now. That’s all that matters. Do you have anything we can use?”
Jace nods, pulling out a disposable thumb drive from his pocket. “Numbers,” he says. “How many new Shadowhunters he’s managed to make; how many mundie recruits we’re expecting the next time we dock. The names of the mundanes who didn’t survive the process. Potential targets, locations. Everything I could get is on this, but it isn’t much. He doesn’t trust me, yet.”
Alec swears softly under his breath, shaking his head. “Are you sure you want to go back?” he asks. “It’s only going to get worse from here. You know that. If you return to the Institute tonight, we can explain to the Clave that it was all a plan to get into his inner circle. If we show them this, they’ll have no choice but to pardon you.”
Jace’s laugh is thin, hoarse. He presses the thumb drive into Alec’s hand. “You know as well as I do that this isn’t nearly enough to get me back in,” he says. “And this mission was never sanctioned; as far as they know, Valentine turned me. I’m sure your parents can tell you that you’ve got to bring something of worth back if you want to come in from the cold. Mercy has its price.”
Alec wants to argue, but he knows it’s a lost cause. Hell, if Jace had been open to suggestion, he’d never be on this insane mission in the first place. But something had clearly broken inside of his parabatai, something that couldn’t just be fixed by some down time and a long talk. No, Alec had gone along with the plan only because he’d known that Jace would do it with or without him.
“At least let me redraw your iratze,” he says instead. Runes drawn by parabatai are always stronger than the ones drawn by others, and Alec is well acquainted with Jace’s healing marks because he put most of them there himself. It’s been two weeks since they’ve seen each other, and about twice that since Alec redrew the rune. Arguing has not been conducive to their small rituals.
When Jace doesn’t reply, he takes it for agreement, reaching for the hem of his shirt and lifting it just enough to reveal the rune. When Alec sees the mess of purple and blue surrounding it, like watercolors on his skin, he freezes. “Jace.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I told you; Valentine’s building his army. That includes me, for now.”
“Does building up his army include kicking the crap out of you?” Alec asks, incredulous. He pushes the material up higher, past their Parabatai rune, trying to see the extent of the damage as he takes a knee beside Jace. Higher than that, the bruises are green, yellowing around the edges. Older. “How long has this been going on? Why haven’t you healed them?”
Two weeks. I’m not allowed to, because father says I need to learn to fight while injured. “I just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet,” Jace says, shrugging. His gloved hand closes over Alec’s, holding it in place. “You can do it now, all right?”
There’s a pregnant pause as Alec studies him; after all these years, he knows when his parabatai is lying. But he withdraws his stele with his free hand anyway, redraws the iratze and presses down hard enough that it’ll last longer this time. It’s not enough, of course, not nearly, but if this is all that Alec can give him, he’ll gladly do it.
The bruises fade as he completes the rune, Jace’s skin returning to its normal pallor. Alec watches until they’re gone completely, and then he becomes aware that his parabatai still hasn’t let go of his other hand. It’s just a light press of his fingers, nothing so earth-shattering, but underneath his own palm, he can feel the heat emanating from Jace’s side.
“Thanks.” Jace’s face is impassive, but the slight tremor in his voice is telling. He’s hurting beyond what he can hide, grateful for the small mercy that only Alec can see. Someone he can actually trust.
Alec stands, releasing his grip on Jace’s shirt and allowing the fabric to fall over the spot they’d both been holding. Covering their parabatai rune from view once more. It’s not fair, he thinks. He’d been certain that he was over Jace. That his feelings for his adopted brother had been resolved. He’d kissed Magnus Bane in front of a roomful of dignitaries, for Angel’s sake. Surely that had to have counted for something.
But as he looks at Jace and Jace looks at him, the stink of New York heavy in the air, Alec realizes that absolutely nothing has changed. His parabatai has the same haunted look in his eyes that he’d had the day they’d first met, the day that Alec had decided to love him because it was clear that no one ever had.
His chest hurts. His heart beats faster, he has trouble breathing. Everything Magnus described and then some, except Alec has been feeling this all of his god damned life and it’s so familiar he could scream. This isn’t about desire; it never has been. Alec has loved Jace for so long that he hardly knows who he is without this love, and it’s starting to look like he never will.
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” he says finally, and Jace smiles. It’s a small, crooked thing, and it hurts Alec to see it.
“I’m okay,” Jace says. “You don’t need to worry about me. I can do this.”
Alec wants to punch him across the face and knock him out, or even haul him back home by force—kicking and screaming-- if he has to. Don’t go back to him, he thinks, and he only manages to keep it together through bulkhead determination and years of practice. “Are you sure—“ he starts to ask, but Jace is already shaking his head.
“Two weeks,” he says, withdrawing a small scrap of paper from his pocket. “Meet me at that address. I don’t think I’ll be able to come back to New York without being seen, so it’s better to keep changing the place.”
Alec closes his fingers over the paper, mouth a thin line. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll be there. And you better be damned sure that you will, too.”
A ghost of a smile. “Oh ye of little faith,” Jace says, and then he’s backing away, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Two weeks.”
Alec stands there until he’s long gone, taking deep lungfuls of the acrid air. The worry is like a living thing in his chest, the thumb drive burning a hole in his pocket. Valentine is a monster, and he’d just let his parabatai walk back into his waiting arms for the second time that month. Guilt weighs on him, fear crushes him, and in his heart, he feels nothing but dread.
It’s going to be a long two weeks.