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Fall Without Wings

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"You're late," Maryse barks as the staccato click of Isabelle's heels announces her presence to those gathered in the Institute's meeting room. There's silence, save for the rhythmic tapping of shoes on the floor, Maryse's eyes fixed coldly on her daughter.

Isabelle ignores her, flipping her hair back over one shoulder, and struts further into the room. The slapping sound of a thick folder of paper hitting the worn wood of the meeting table breaks the quiet. It slides across the table, coming to a halt in front of Alec.

Alec looks up at his sister from where he's bent over the table, examining the strategy map they were drawing out, but she has her chin tipped up, eyes flashing as she holds Maryse's gaze.

He ducks his head, deciding that it would be more beneficial to everyone in the room if he pretends to be oblivious to their non-verbal sparring, and flips open the folder. His eyebrows shoot up.

"You got all this in two days?" Alec asks her, glancing up.

"I was told we needed intel. There's your intel."

"It's great." Jace peers over Alec - or, rather, around Alec, because Alec is too tall to be peered over - eyes skimming across the page. "This is exactly what we needed."

"You're welcome." Isabelle still hasn't looked away from Maryse. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't sit around painting my nails all day."

Alec snaps his head up at that, frowning. Nobody could think Isabelle lazes around. Her methods might be more than a little unorthodox, but it couldn't be argued that she doesn't get things done. She does. Superbly. It is, however, usually best not to ask where, or how, she's garnered her information.

"I take it this means you've changed your mind about this mission, Isabelle?" Maryse stands tall, broad-shouldered, hair scraped back from her face, expression impassive. The perfect commander. The Clave's most loyal leader, with no time for frivolity or compassion. The severity written into the tired lines of her face is even more obvious in the evening light, all shadows cast by cheap fluorescent light that catches on the weary faces of the Shadowhunters gathered.

Isabelle's nostrils flare. "No."

Behind him, Alec feels Jace tense at the same time he does. He glances back at his parabatai, and sees his own worry reflected back in his brother's eyes. This isn't going to be good.

Everybody gathered in the room knows that Isabelle loathes the Clave's attitude towards Downworlders: inferior beings to be protected only because they have use. Dangerous, savage, bloodthirsty, and a threat to peace.

Alec's interactions with Downworlders have been limited. In-out missions, interrogations, putting down those who cause trouble—he does his duty. He is a soldier, and he does what his commander demands of him.

Isabelle, on the other had, has defiance burning bright within her, an unending source of fuel keeping it alight; she's set fire to rooms full of people. And faced the consequences.

"This mission is a joke," Isabelle snaps. "You don't want to help any of those Downworlders. You want to make sure they don't side with Valentine, because if the Circle gains the support of more Downworlders, this will be a war we can't win." Her eyes flash. "You couldn't care less about whether they live or die. And some of them will die, if we do this."

Maryse remains stoic. "The Circle is dangerous, Isabelle. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary to win a war. The Downworlders are foolish to be siding with Valentine. They shouldn't be meeting with him at all."

"Even if they are - which most of them aren't - who can blame them? What do they have to lose? We use them, and then we slaughter them in their thousands."

"Because Downworlders are animals, Isabelle." Maryse inhales, and then lets it out again in a long-suffering sigh. "They don't want the kinds of things we do. They have to be controlled for a reason."

"Besides which, Valentine doesn't want them alive," Alec says, straightening, interrupting before this can turn nasty. Isabelle turns her furious eyes on him. "He wants to take their powers for himself, and then he wants to eradicate them. We have laws, Izzy, and we abide by them. That's more than can be said for Valentine and the Circle."

"Enough." Maryse brings her hands down flat on the table, making the whole room flinch. Including Alec and Isabelle. "You will intercept this meeting, you will kill every Circle member in there, and you will take any sympathisers. Your priorities are the Shadowhunter children being held in there. If the Downworlders attempt to distract you from your mission, you kill them too."

Her eyes find Alec's, eyebrows raised slightly, as though daring him to disagree, as Isabelle had.

But Alec never disagrees. He obeys.

"Understood," he tells her, and flips the file shut, Isabelle's intel and Jace's strategy map safe inside.

***

Alec motions half of his team forwards, curling his fingers and motioning round the side of the building. Jace nods his understanding.

At his back, Isabelle stands stock still, fuming, while Jace scouts the area around them for traps or unexpected defences. It's a simple mission. Get in, kill the Circle members, get the children, and go. The Downworlders are irrelevant. Focusing on which Downworlders to take will only district his team from the task at hand, so Alec instructed his team not to engage the Downworlders unless absolutely necessary.

Valentine might be completely insane, hell-bent on destroying the Clave, purifying the Nephilim bloodline and purging the Downworld, but he isn't wrong about everything. The Downworlders are powerful. Dangerous. They aren't to be trifled with. Especially not in the numbers they're expecting when they walk into the abandoned warehouse Valentine has, according to Isabelle's information, chosen for this meeting.

"Something's wrong," Jace murmurs, when he comes back round from scouting the perimeters of the building. "They're not inside."

"And no sign of the children," Raj says.

Alec glances back at Isabelle, and licks his lower lip. She's right, then. Valentine knows. They know they're coming. They're prepared. Prepared for Alec's team to try to butcher them where they sit, without mercy. And if they're prepared—

"We don't kill them," Alec says, quietly. "Not unless we need to. Is that understood?"

Jace frowns. "Alec—"

"They know," Alec states. "And if they know, they'll have moved the children. This is our only lead. They've been missing for weeks, and this is the only lead we've come up with. We need them alive if we want to find those children. Do not kill anyone, Downworlder or Circle member, unless you have to. Do I make myself clear?"

Isabelle is the first to nod. "Perfectly, big brother." She cranes her neck to look up at the top of the building, wings shimmering into appearance and spreading wide behind her. "They're on the roof. It's glamoured, but they're on the roof."

"According to your sources," Raj points out. Alec can hear the scepticism in his voice. He can't entirely blame him. There have been incidents in which Isabelle has been wrong. "Or they could be waiting inside to jump out and slit our throats. The meeting might not be here at all. They just made us think it's here by feeding us fake intel."

"You're the one who just looked inside," Isabelle snaps at him. "Did you see anyone?"

"No." Raj shakes his head. "I trust you, Isabelle, but—"

"That's enough, Raj." Jace has gone still all over, his voice quiet in the cold nighttime. The bustling life of mundane New York seems far away, though they're a mere block from a main road.

Jace and Alec exchange a long look, and then look back at Isabelle. The three of them understand each other perfectly. Alec made the right call. They agree with him. And he and Isabelle agree with Jace: they've stalled long enough. It's time to fly.

***

There's a scream the moment they rise high enough into the air to be seen from where they're flying close to the building for cover. The hairs on the back of Alec's neck rise at the sharp, piercing sound. That's not a Circle member. That's a someone being tortured by the Circle.

Alec's heard it enough times to be familiar with the sound of Raziel's runes being burned into a Downworlder's flesh.

"Still ignoring the Downworlders, brother?" Isabelle asks. She doesn't look at him, but he can hear the suppressed rage in her voice. Alec understands. But he has to do as he's been told. "Still killing them if they're a liability?"

He glances across at her. "No. We're not killing anyone."

Raj nods. "If we kill the Downworlders, they're just more likely to side with Valentine."

Nothing crosses his face, as inscrutable as always, but Alec appreciates it. Jace and Isabelle siding with him when he overrules Maryse's instruction is one thing. They're notorious for being reckless, for disobeying, for spiting their mother. Raj is different. Raj's loyalties are unquestionable. His support solidifies Alec's certainty that, this time, Maryse's priorities are wrong.

He's not disobeying her. He's still going to finish this mission. It's quick, straightforward, in, out. But his team are doing this their way.

***

The moment Alec hovers in the air, wings beating steadily to hold him still, draws back the string of his bow, and lets his first arrow fly, he feels something in his stomach settle. The world narrows. The past and the future become irrelevant. All that matters is hitting his targets, spot on, every time.

The first arrow embeds itself in the shoulder of the Shadowhunter holding a stele, drawing on the forearm of a Downworlder. The Shadowhunter cries out, dropping the stele with a clatter on the rain-damp roof, and the other members of the Circle turn to see Alec and his team hovering above them.

There's a moment of silence. And then a gurgling, choking sound, followed by a thud as the Downworlder being marked - a warlock, Alec presumes, from the stumpy brown horns that brand it as demonic - slumps sideways, dead.

And then the fight breaks out.

Seraph blades light up the night, Circle members spreading their wings and leaping into the air, shouts and screams and the shattering clash of blades the soundtrack to battle.

There's chaos below, as the Circle attempts to control the Downworlders. Alec keeps his spot in the air, firing off arrow after arrow at the Circle, aiming for hands, shoulders, thighs, wingtips if they're above the roof—anything to incapacitate, but not enough to kill. If there's nobody left to interrogate, they won't find these children.

The Downworlders keep casting fearful glances up at the blazing fight above them. There are no werewolves there, Alec notes. Fey, warlocks, vampires, but no werewolves. They're ducking, defending themselves against stray knives and arrows and vicious Circle members who are still fruitlessly attempting to keep them where they are, but they don't seem inclined to help in the fight.

Maryse won't be happy about that. Neither will the Clave. Alec supposes he should be capturing the Downworlders, because they're technically breaking the Accords, in not offering assistance to the Clave's soldiers.

But he doesn't. He hates being involved in anything related to the Downworlders. He'd rather ignore them. Eternally.

Jace appears at his side, suddenly, covered in blood. Alec doesn't break his gaze from his targets. He knows Jace is uninjured, through their parabatai bond.

"We're outnumbered," Jace says, breathlessly.

Alec lets another arrow fly, this time towards a woman who doesn't look much older than them, trying to escape down the stairs.

"I know," he replies.

"But we can't kill them." He feels Jace turn, so they're back-to-back, wingtips brushing every other beat, protecting each other as they always have. All that's missing is Isabelle at their side. "Because then we're back to square one."

And then Isabelle is there, hovering a little higher, snapping her whip through the air to wrap around a man's neck. He falls to the roof with a crunch, and rolls over, coughing blood.

"If we kill them, it takes us more weeks to locate those children, and they could be dead by then," Isabelle says, calmly, as though she hasn't just ripped out a man's vocal chords and splattered them across the rooftop. "Alec's right. We have to be smart about this."

There's someone coming towards Jace, at an angle, from the side. Alec's eyes widen as he takes in the bow with just a single arrow knocked against the string, the deadly gleam in the man's eyes, and the murderous rage etched onto his face.

Alec pushes Jace back through the sky with a grunt of effort. On pure reflex, he spins so his chest is against Jace's back, and his wings curl protectively around his brother, shielding him from the attack instinctively, as they've protected each other since they were ten years old.

The familiar whistle of an arrow let loose cuts through the air

There's a scream from his sister, a desperate shout from Raj across the sky, and he knows it's over. White-hot pain flashes through him as the arrow embeds itself in his wing, and he cries out. His grip on Jace slackens; he falls apart from his parabatai, but Jace is safe, even if his mouth goes slack in horror as he stares at Alec.

One wing beats furiously in an attempt to hold him in the air, where they're all suspended, fifty stories up, still locked in battle, but he's falling. Fast. Too fast. He knows he won't survive the fall. Above him, Jace dives down after him, wings tight to his sides, one arm reaching out, but Alec knows. He's much heavier than Jace. His wings are longer than Jace's, and he's taller. If Jace catches him, they'll both tumble to the ground and die.

Besides, he's falling too fast. Jace won't even get close to him.

"Stop!" Alec shouts. "You can't!"

Jace shakes his head, just as Alec sees the streets of New York fall into clarity below him. Jace strains his arm forwards, and then, to Alec's relief, pulls back with a scream of frustration that tears at Alec's heart. Jace's wings spread wide just at the last moment, and Alec hits the concrete with a crack.

For a moment, he's paralysed, unable to move, in more pain that he could possibly have imagined. He feels like every bone in his body is shattered. And his wings... His wings have crumpled underneath him, feathers sticky with blood. His vision is blurry, black spots swimming in front of him, ears ringing. He can't hear the traffic whizzing by next to him, or the loud hubbub of people going about their daily lives that is always present in New York.

He doesn't even know if his glamour rune is still in tact, or whether it's been slashed through. He doesn't want his death to be a mess that the other Shadowhunters will have to clear up. He's failed already. Failed in his mission to stop those Circle members, and find the children.

The instructions from the Clave had been to kill them. Alec told his team to capture them, and only kill them if absolutely necessary. And now he's dead. Or, at least, he will be, in moments.

He failed.

A shadow falls over him. Alec manages to turn his head just slightly in an attempt to see where he is, and who the shadow belongs to. It can't be Jace or Isabelle. They'd never have left the rest of the team unguarded when they know Alec will be dead. They wouldn't be that stupid. They wouldn't do something so futile.

Someone bends over him, crouching but not quite kneeling. His vision is still swimming, and he can't focus on whoever is beside him. But he can feel them. He can feel their presence, radiating calm, and power. So much power. Dark power. Not the angelic power the Nephilim run on.

If Alec isn't already dying, he'll be dead in the next minute.

There's movement, and a swirl of blue light, and everything goes dark.