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Families of Choice

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It felt like there was a steel band wrapped around Alec’s lungs. He stood in the center of his room – a room that had been his for as long as he’d been here – and fought to try and breathe past the fear and panic that were gripping his insides and slowly strangling him. It was that very same panic that was fueling him now, pushing him to go, to move, to get out.

His mother’s words were still ringing in his ears. Even as Alec shoved another shirt into his bag, hands shaking so badly he almost didn’t manage it, he could hear the echoes of his mother’s voice saying the kinds of things that he’d never wanted to hear from her. Things he’d always been afraid he would.

It was her last words that stuck with him the most, though. “Get out,” she’d told him, standing over her terrified and bleeding child with a look on her face that he’d only ever seen there when she spoke of the Downworlders she so hated. “I’m going to put your brother to bed. By the time I get back, I want you gone. I find you here and I’ll turn you in to the Gard myself!”

With those last words, she’d left him there, far more broken than he’d been when he’d first crawled his way to her.

It took a few more iratzes for him to get up off the floor. After that, panic carried him to his room to do the one thing he’d always feared he’d have to do.

For as long as he could remember, the New York Institute had been Alec’s life. His dream. He’d grown up here, trained here, dreamed of one day taking over for his father and running the place. Every plan that Alec had, every dream that he allowed himself, all centered around being in this place. So to leave… the idea had crossed his mind once or twice, but it’d always been pushed away. Until now.

Once, leaving would’ve been the impossible thing. The idea that might occasionally get entertained in the dark of the night when the mind wishes for things it can’t ever have.

Now? Now, it was staying that would never be possible. Not anymore. Not after today.

Alec knew he only had a short window of time in which he was going to be able to go. His mother had made it quite clear what would happen if he were still here when she came back. The seventeen-year-old had absolutely no plans on letting that happen.

Just thinking about it sent a shiver down his spine.

With quick, efficient moves, he ignored the pain and grabbed what clothes were left and shoved them down into his bag. It wasn’t like he had much. Some shirts, some pants, some gear – he wasn’t leaving his gear behind, no matter what it might make her think of him. Just as he wasn’t leaving his stele. This might not be his home anymore, but he’d be damned if he stopped being a Shadowhunter.

Adrenaline kept him moving even when his body was ready to give in. Alec gathered his things quickly, and he was just slinging the strap of his bag up over his shoulder when the door to his room burst open. In an instant he was dropping down into a defensive crouch, seraph blade already up in his hand. He practically dropped it when he saw who was there.

Jace and Isabelle were standing just inside his doorway. Both of them were frozen, staring at him and his blade with wide eyes. While they were all trained to be on alert, they’d never had to be like that here. In their rooms was a place they’d always been safe and able to let go of instincts like that for just a little while.

Embarrassment colored Alec’s cheeks. He straightened up and lowered the blade, flipping it so that he could sheathe it in the thigh holster once more.

“Woah,” Isabelle breathed out.

That seemed to break the standstill that had fallen over them. In the next instant, Jace was across the room, stele already out. Feeling the burn of it as Jace traced over the iratze on his side – plus the subsequent relief as a few more aches faded away – had Alec shuddering. That only seemed to make Jace worry even more. “Alec, what the hell happened? You feel like you got your ass kicked by a horde of demons.”

The realization of what Jace had felt – what he was no doubt checking for now in his rather invasive search – had Alec paling. He jerked back with a little more force than was probably necessary, startling Jace enough that he at least stopped trying to feel Alec up. “I’m fine,” the older teen said. The fact that his voice didn’t waver at all was a bit impressive. He couldn’t stop the hoarseness, though, or the way it made his siblings look at him even more sharply than before. Ignoring it, Alec tried to straighten up. Stand tall and unmoving under their stares. Somehow Alec managed to find a shred of his usual control, though it was fading fast underneath the pulse of go, go, got to go, got to run, get out of here, go now! “I’m fine, guys.”

They didn’t call him on it like he could see Jace wanted to do. Instead, Isabelle beat him, calling out “Where are you going?”

Alec wasn’t ready for this. He hadn’t prepared himself for this. The plan had been to get his stuff together and get out of here as quickly as possible. Before Maryse came back – before his siblings came back. Alec didn’t want them to see him like this. He didn’t want them to know. And now… now it was too late, and they were here, and he had no idea what to say to them… they were going to find out… they were going to know…

He didn’t even realize that he’d started panicking until Jace was grabbing hold of him again. With one palm pressed against Alec’s chest, Jace used his other hand to grab hold of one of Alec’s wrists. “Hey, hey, c’mon Alec. Careful breaths. Quit trying to suck it in – you know that’s not gonna help.”

Alec’s hand was drawn up so that he mirrored Jace’s pose. With his hand over Jace’s heart, and the steady feel of their bond between them, Alec forced his breaths to slow. They’d done this enough times for it to be almost second nature. The instant Alec’s hand was on Jace’s chest, it was like his body recognized what was happening and immediately started to relax.

When Jace leaned in, pressing them together forehead-to-forehead, it made Alec’s heart give an extra hard thump. He viciously shoved any of those feelings down as hard as he could.

“Talk to me, brother,” Jace murmured. Here, in the privacy of Alec’s room, the asshole that Jace could normally be was gone. There was no one but his siblings to see him. Here, Jace let out the softer side that Alec had slowly, painstakingly drawn out of him.

Alec tried to shake his head, only for Jace to reach up with his free hand and clasp the back of Alec’s neck, holding him in place. “Alec.”

He didn’t want to say anything. Alec’s plan had been to get out of here before running into either of them. Maybe there would’ve been time to leave a note, or maybe he would’ve just gone, he didn’t know. Everything had been happening so fast. But here, faced with them, with Jace dropping the cockiness that had been growing lately, Alec found himself blurting out “She kicked me out.”

What?” Isabelle blurted out.

Alec closed his eyes and pressed his forehead harder against Jace’s. “I… I’ve got until she gets back to be gone. I can’t – I have to go.”

Any other people, and any other situation, Alec knew there would’ve been a thousand questions. He could feel Jace’s need to start demanding answers. But at the same time, he felt the strong swell of protectiveness that Jace always had when it came to Alec, the one that had made him fall for the younger boy just a little more each time he felt it. “Give me five minutes,” Jace said, giving Alec’s neck one last squeeze before he drew back.

There was no time for Alec to ask him what the hell he meant. Jace was out the door in the next second and Alec was left staring after him, wondering what was going on.

Isabelle smiled sadly at him. “Did you really think we’d let you go alone?”

Alec’s mouth actually dropped open. “Izzy…” She couldn’t mean what he thought she did. “No, you can’t…”

She cut him off by darting forward and flinging her arms around him, stealing a tight hug. What else could he do but hug her back? Pressed in close, Isabelle buried her face against his neck and asked, whisper soft, “Is this because…?”

She didn’t finish the question. She didn’t have to, though. Alec’s arms twitched against her, and his breath felt like it was punched out of him. That was enough of an answer.

When Isabelle drew back, she looked even sadder than before. She didn’t say anything else about that, though. Just a quick “Five minutes,” and then she was gone, too, and Alec was left to stare around his empty room in shock.

It wasn’t until he heard footsteps outside of his room that he snapped out of it and began to move. There was no telling when Maryse would be back, and Alec wanted to be far from this room, this place, when that happened.

He slipped out of the Institute with the ease of someone who’d done it many times before. Usually, it’d been to go chase after his siblings and stop them from doing something else stupid. This time, it was the last time he was going to walk through here, the last time he’d slip his way out. Alec tried not to think about how much that hurt.

When he got outside, he half expected to find his siblings already waiting for him.

What he hadn’t expected was to see his father.

Robert Lightwood was waiting in the shadows just outside of the perimeter cameras. No one would be able to see him there. But as soon as Alec caught sight of him, his body tensed, and his insides felt like they froze over. The panic that Alec had been battling came back full-force and almost took him out at the knees. Half of Alec wanted to go still as if maybe, if he didn’t move, his father wouldn’t see him. The other half wanted to turn and run as far in the opposite direction as he could.

Then Robert caught sight of him, and Alec hated himself for the way he trembled when his father moved toward him. Hated just how weak it made him feel.

He was pathetically grateful when he felt the presence of his parabatai come rushing up behind him, a click of heels making it clear Isabelle was right behind him.

“Stay the hell away from him!” Jace went directly to Alec’s side and then moved, stepping in front of him so that he was between Alec and Robert, every inch of his body ready to defend. It was a familiar pose. One that he’d done plenty of times when practicing, or when he felt that people were being assholes. It was just never one that Jace had ever felt the need to use against their own parents before.

Isabelle stopped beside Alec, leaning in and slipping her arm around his waist. Whether it was to support him, or to try and hold him there, he wasn’t quite sure. Alec’s body was a tense, trembling statue.

If Jace’s fierceness shocked Robert, he didn’t show it. He simply held his hands up in a gesture of peace that made Alec twitch back a little. “I’m not here to stop you.” His eyes drifted over Jace’s shoulder, right to Alec, and there was something soft there that was almost harder to see than the anger Alec had expected. “Alec…I’m so sorry. This wasn’t ever what I wanted for you.”

“You could’ve stopped it,” Jace snapped at him. Normally he wasn’t this bold, not with Robert or Maryse. He loved and respected them too much, and he still felt like he owed them for taking him in. But becoming parabatai with Alec had helped to give Jace… not courage, he had plenty of that on his own, but stability. Someone that he knew was his, and he was theirs, and there was no one who would be able to get in the middle of that. It gave Jace someone he loved and who loved him. Knowing that he was loved, and that the person who loved him wasn’t going to leave if Jace ‘messed up’, gave Jace a solid foundation to stand on. One that he’d then worked to build himself up on.

Robert couldn’t meet the strength in his adoptive son’s eyes. Seeing it, he looked down as if ashamed. “I know. But…” he took a deep breath and looked up at Alec again. “It’s too late now. There’s no going back.”

The words hit Alec hard. For the finality of them, and the truth behind them. Robert wasn’t wrong. Even if Maryse hadn’t reacted so badly, after what had happened beforehand… there was never any going back for Alec. The only thing that had protected him before was the Lightwood name. Maryse had made it clear that wasn’t going to be a shield for him any longer.

“Here,” Robert said suddenly, thrusting an envelope out towards them. “I can’t stop this, but I won’t see my children living on the streets.” When none of them reached for the envelope, he shook it at them, and his expression turned pleading. “There’s money in there, and the contact information for someone who’ll be able to set you up with the necessary mundane paperwork to blend in, and a place to stay. Just… just take it.”

There was nothing that Alec wanted to take from this man. Or from anyone else here. But… Isabelle was pressed against him, and Jace was in front of him, and there was no way they were going to go back inside. And Alec had no idea what he was going to do with himself, let alone his teenaged siblings, but taking care of them had always been a priority for him. For that, he could do anything. Even accept blood money from a father who should’ve offered so much more.

A nudge to Jace’s back had Jace reaching out to snatch the envelope.

“I’m sorry,” Robert whispered.

The words probably should’ve meant something. Another day, maybe someday far into the future, they might. But that night as Alec slowly made his way away from the only home he’d ever known, siblings at his side and his body aching, the words felt as empty and hollow as he did.

What came next was sort of hazy for Alec. He wasn’t quite sure when the world began to fade around him, only that it suddenly felt like being dunked down in multiple jars of dark paint that were being stirred and swirled all around him into this hazy mess of color and darkness and cold. The only things that felt real were the arms of his siblings holding him up as they encouraged him to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other, that’s it, you’re doing great, Alec, just keep going, we’re almost there.

Then suddenly there was a new voice, and new hands on him, hands he didn’t recognize. Alec’s hazy mind flashed back to the memories of earlier, of the hands that had grabbed him, that had hurt, and his body began to try and fight back, feeble though its attempts may be.

Someone shouted out “Hold him down!” and Alec’s panic grew. He wasn’t going to let them pin him down again. He wasn’t!

But though the hands that grabbed him were strong, they were also gentle and almost as familiar to him as his own. And then there was a weight against his forehead that had Alec going still. He couldn’t hear much beyond the pounding of his heart, but he heard a low voice that somehow seemed to steadily weave its way in, breaking through the panic and wrapping itself around him, anchoring him in the present. In reality.

Slowly, Alec’s body still as he focused more and more on those words, as they became that much clearer until, finally, he heard them not just with his heart but with his ears, too. “…whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Angel do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

Alec held tight to those words as blue washed over him and gently drew him down into the calm darkness of sleep.

Breath shuddered out of Jace as he felt his brother go limp underneath him. Even when he knew Alec was unconscious, when he knew that his words weren’t being heard anymore, his touch not being felt, there was no way Jace could bring himself to move away. The young teenager stayed where he was, forehead to forehead, holding the face of the most important person in his world and whispering the words of their vow over and over again.

It was a reminder to Jace. A reminder of just how much Jace had failed his parabatai tonight, and a promise to not ever do so again.

Jace knew he wasn’t going to forget tonight. No matter what else happened to them in their lives, or where they went from here, Jace would never forget what it felt like to be out dancing with Isabelle, enjoying the feel of the bodies pressing in around him, the music pumping through him, and then to suddenly get the strongest wave of fear. Jace hadn’t known what the hell was going on. It’d taken him a moment too long to realize that the feelings were coming from Alec. Jace had felt him afraid before, but only a little, and certainly nothing like this. This hadn’t been just fear. It’d been terror.

The pain that came with it had spurred Jace out of his stupor and sent him moving. He’d had just enough presence of mind to grab Isabelle. Then they were out of the club, stumbling into an alley.

Looking back, Jace hated himself for the weakness he’d shown then. Hated how he’d had to pause there, how he’d clutched at the wall and thrown up, wasting precious time. Moments where he could’ve already been moving, could’ve gotten back to his partner. Staring down at Alec now, seeing the bags under his eyes, the paleness that no wash of magic could chase away, Jace couldn’t help but wonder if they might’ve been able to save him from whatever happened if he’d just manned up and moved faster. If he hadn’t wasted their time being surprised or sick.

“You can’t blame yourself,” Isabelle murmured. She was pressed right against Jace’s side, holding on to him tightly.

Jace didn’t bother moving away from Alec. “Yes, I can.”

The only thing that was keeping the guilt from eating him alive was the knowledge that Alec was getting the help he needed. When they’d arrived at the address Robert had given them, Jace had been stunned to see the slender black woman who opened the door, or the flare of magic in her eyes when she’d taken in the half-conscious Shadowhunter being held up by his younger siblings. “Help us,” Isabelle had begged her. She’d thrust out at least half their money with her free hand and unashamedly begged. “Please, help us, I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

Now they were here inside the woman’s house – “Catarina Loss. I’m a nurse, and a warlock, and I’m not going to turn away even a Shadowhunter. Now get him in here,” – and she was still running her healing magic over Alec. Whatever was wrong with him, it must’ve been internal, because most of the marks on the outside had already faded away.

He hadn’t looked that bad when Jace and Isabelle had found him in his room! Sure, he’d felt bad, but he hadn’t looked bad, and Jace had figured that Alec had used an iratze to heal himself. Apparently it’d only healed so much.

“What the hell did you people do to him?” Catarina demanded. She drew her hands back, the light under her palms fading away. The light in her eyes, however, only flashed brighter when she looked up at Jace and Isabelle. “What happened to him?”

It went against everything Jace had in him to say “I don’t know.” The fact that he didn’t know what his brother had gone through, what had caused this, was painful. “I… I felt him. He was hurt…” Terrified. “…but I don’t know what caused it. We aren’t… we don’t go on missions without each other. He wasn’t out hunting. He was just supposed to be at home training.”

“If this was training, it’s no wonder your people die young.”

Catarina’s sharp words had Isabelle flinching. That was enough to finally break Jace from his hold on Alec. He drew back so that he could better pull his sister to his side, and he fixed Catarina with a glare. To his surprise, she actually looked contrite. Like she hadn’t quite meant to speak like that.

“Why don’t you two rest here with him?” she suggested in a much gentler voice. “I’m sure he’ll do better waking up with familiar faces around. For now, I’ve got him as comfortable as I can make him, and I’ve healed what I can. His body mostly needs rest.”

From her place against Jace, Isabelle looked up, that core of strength in her that Jace was sometimes envious of now helping her to lift her chin and sound steady, even when she felt anything but. “Thank you.”

“Yes, well, I’m not going to see a swarm of Shadowhunters at my door for this, am I?”

Jace shook his head. “No. No one but our dad knows we left, and he’s the one that sent us to you.”

“I got his fire message,” Catarina said. She looked down at Alec again, and her face softened, something there that Jace didn’t quite understand. Then she shook her head and that look was gone. “You three get some sleep.”

With that, she left them alone, shutting the door to the bedroom behind her. It allowed Jace to finally bring his focus fully back to his brother. He and Isabelle leaned against one another and looked down into Alec’s sleeping face. Even knocked out the way he was, there was still stress in the lines of Alec’s face. Pain that showed in the tightness around his lips. Not even like this could Alec seem to get any real rest.

Isabelle let out a shaky breath and pressed herself closer to Jace. “What happened to him?”

“I don’t know.” The words hurt to say. Jace held her tighter and tried to fight back the feeling of sick that was crawling up his throat. “I don’t know.”