The bell above the tailor’s door jingled loudly in the silent shop. Jace winced and hunched his shoulders, self conscious of the noise and even further the disturbance. He quickly looked around but saw no one save an elderly alpha who gave him a welcoming smile and gestured that he step further than the doorway. Jace hesitated and then gathered himself, pulling his shoulders back and giving the alpha a bright grin.
“Good day, young sir! May I assist you with your wardrobe? My, my but you seem to be in dire need of my services. Yes, the season has already begun and these threadbare rags are not doing you any favors. Is that a hole in your waistcoat? So handsome! So unfashionable!”
Jace stumbled as he neared the man, shocked at the bald face insults and backhanded compliments. He had been away from Idris society too long and forgotten the honeyed barbs and hidden snakes that dwelt there. He swallowed but hid his unease behind his grinning mask. His father had taught him well to hide his emotions from others. It had certainly only helped him against his father’s manipulation and abuse.
Jace fingered his shirt cuffs behind his back. His clothes were certainly not threadbare but the elder alpha was right, he would be scorned and gossiped about if he were dressed so at society’s parties and dinners. Jace opened his mouth to speak but the spry little man cut him off.
“Oh, my! An omega, of course. How lovely you are and those eyes, how unique! I can do wonders for you, my dear. The alphas won’t be able to resist.”
The tailor took the measuring tape from around his neck and reached out to Jace with it, frowning slightly in concentration. Jace reached into his jacket pocket, tracing the small piece of paper within gently.
“Actually, Alpha Einri, I was rather hoping that you required my services...as apprentice, you see.”
Einri frowned down at him and stroked his clean shaven chin.
“An omega apprentice? How odd! But, of course, an omega is as competent with their hands as an alpha or beta.”
Jace watched the man’s expression carefully, easily seeing his lie. The tailor may say such things in polite company but it was obvious by his mannerisms and hesitation that he saw omegas as less capable. It was a common view and it made Jace burn with shame and anger. His life would be infinitely better had he been born a beta. He would have been allowed to continue, undisturbed, his previous ambition to be a novelist and his father wouldn’t have… Jace shook off his spiraling thoughts.
“I assure you, sir, I am a hard worker, a fast learner and prior to my presentation, I was a shop assistant to Beta Warner two streets over. I’m sure you are acquainted, he’s a very reputable-”
The man waved his hand dismissively.
“Yes, yes, of course I am well aware of Warner Candy Shoppe. And shop assistant, you say! That seems like it’s perfect for you, I could use someone to greet the customers and handle deliveries.”
“No, I mean, sir, I am more than capable to apprentice-”
The bell above the door made a loud noise again and a young feminine voice laughed too loudly. She was shushed quickly. Jace refused to turn and acknowledge the interruption, pulling out the paper from his jacket and thrusting it at the tailor. The man sighed but took it, waving over Jace’s shoulder to the newcomers.
“One moment, my dears! I’ll be right there.”
He opened and carelessly read the little lines that contained Jace’s whole life. His name, his designation, his work experience and one lonely reference from Beta Warner. Einri startled and folded up the paper quickly, handing it back in a rush.
“Morgenstern, my dear boy, you are Valentine Morgenstern’s son? Oh, no I can’t have you in my shop, what would society say? No, no, please leave unless you are here for my services.”
The other customers behind him were deadly silent and Jace felt his face flush with shame as the tailor dismissed him and moved around him. He turned, feeling ill, and forced himself to leave the shop at a respectable walk when he really wanted to just run. Run until he collapsed, run until no one knew him and didn’t judge him for the sins of his father. He brushed past one woman’s petticoat and apologized softly before throwing the door open. The bell sounded harshly and Jace took a childish pleasure from the disturbance before he took off at a fast clip down the street.
The tailor had been the third shop he had visited that day and no amount of confidence or groveling had made a difference. Not even to Beta Warner who had doted on him when he worked for him as a child. His father had destroyed his life and Jace wished fervently that he was drowning in his own sick at whatever tavern he had fled to.
His father had been missing for three months, taking all the family money and valuables with him, leaving Jace destitute and disgraced. It wasn’t a surprise to Jace. After Jace’s mother had left them, Valentine had begun a spiral of booze and violence that reached out to consume his son. The bank had eventually come after the family estate and left Jace on the street, completely unsympathetic to a young omega with no where and no one.
Jace halted abruptly and turned to the voice, feeling his sour mood lift and hope bloomed in his breast. Isabelle Lightwood ran to him, her skirts in her hands and a bright smile on her face. When she was close enough, she launched herself at him and he laughed, catching her in his arms easily. Jace was considered tall for an omega, who were ideally small, delicate and soft in their loveliness. Jace was handsome at turns and pretty at others, mostly surly and much too muscular for society to label him a great beauty, his scent of black pepper and cardamom too abrasive. He couldn’t help but compare himself to the lovely Isabelle, she would be greatly sought after when she was introduced to society. For now, she was simply Izzy, caught between adulthood and childhood but ultimately free. Jace would never feel free again.
“Oh, Jace! I’ve missed you. When did you get back to the city? People are saying so many horrible things-”
Izzy rolled her eyes and huffed and Jace looked up to meet the eyes of Maryse Lightwood. Jace felt anxious as he met her gaze. This was the first time meeting any of the Lightwoods since he had been called away by his father. The four years he had spent as a ward to the Lightwood family had been the most blissful he had ever known. Robert Lightwood and Valentine had run in the same social circles well before Jace was born and had been close companions since childhood. A fortuitous visit by Robert to the Morgenstern estate had revealed the abuse Jace was being subjected to at his father’s hands. Robert had been horrified and convinced Valentine that Jace was too much responsibility for his father and Robert would be happy to take Jace in until Valentine was back on his feet. Jace suspected money had been involved. His father had delighted in the ill treatment of his son and he had let Jace go much too easily.
Maryse reached out and took Jace’s hands in hers, smiling softly.
“Jace, it’s good to see you. I’m sorry for what you’ve had to endure, my boy.”
The smile on Jace’s face hurt it was so wide. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this happy, this relieved. A kind touch and warm words had him ready to fall at Maryse’s feet and beg for more. He trembled. A large shadow fell over him and Jace twisted to see who had approached them. His breath caught in his throat as he craned his head to meet Alec Lightwood’s expressive brown eyes.
Of all the Lightwoods, Alec had been the dearest to Jace. They were constant companions as children, often sneaking away from their lessons to run to the stables, sneak scones from the kitchen and hide away under blanket forts and make up fantastic stories. It was Alec’s staid encouragement that had Jace dreaming of travelling the world and writing of his adventures. They would go together, Alec had said, they would never be apart. The cold indifference on Alec’s face was a splash of cold water. His eyes were hard and flinty and his face was blank as he looked down at Jace.
Jace took a fortifying breath and opened his mouth to greet Alec but was stopped by a most intoxicating scent, ginger and parchment. It wrapped around Jace’s senses and made him weak, dizzy. The smell had Jace wanting nothing more than to lean close and bury his head in Alec’s chest. Jace had been called away before they had presented and Jace had never smelled an alpha scent that was so intoxicating. Why was Alec acting so distant? Did Alec not recognize him? Was Jace the only one clinging to the time they had spent together? Alec raised an eyebrow at Jace’s awkward gawking.
His voice was brusk and Jace reeled back as if he had been slapped. Yes, of course. Alec was an alpha of high society now. He had no need, no want, of a destitute, landless omega. Even one who had been a childhood friend. Society would mock Alec for any association with Jace, let alone...Jace shook those thoughts away. He was too old to cling to daydreams and promises made to him in the past. Things were different now.
“Hello, Alpha Lightwood.”
The words were like ashes in his mouth. He had dreamed for years of this reunion and the reality was devastating in it’s disappointment. Even when his letters to Alec had gone unanswered, Jace had hoped there had been a good excuse. Maybe they had been lost in the post, maybe some family tragedy prevented Alec from rushing to his side, whisking him away from his dark torment.
Surely, if Jace explained his dire situation with Valentine, Alec would make good on his promise to never abandon him. Surely, surely Jace’s love for Alec was more important than the pressures put on Alec by his family and society. What a damned fool Jace had been. He had poured his heart out to Alec in his letters, things he couldn’t say before he left to return home. Had Alec even read them or had they gone straight into the fire?
Alec looked away, dismissive and cold and Jace wished he could sink into the ground beneath his feet. How humiliating to be treated so but Jace understood. He was beneath the Lightwoods, had always been a charity case for them. Looked at with pity and treated kindly but he had never been good enough to marry Alec even before Valentine’s last explosive scheme.
Maryse’s smile was slightly strained and she took Alec’s elbow, squeezing harshly if his wince was to be believed. Jace stood across from them, smiling awkwardly as Izzy clung to him, her eyes wide from the tense atmosphere. Maryse cleared her throat.
“Jace, please, join us at the manor for lunch! We were just about to head back, join us in our carriage.”
Jace started to shake his head but he made the mistake of glancing to Izzy. He wasn’t so heartless to deny her when she made that pathetic face at him. He grimaced and agreed. Maryse made to turn and walk to the carriage but Alec stopped, pulling away.
“Mother, I have a previous engagement, remember?”
Maryse made a soft sound of understanding.
“Oh, yes, Alpha Bane! You are such a good friend, son.”
Maryse turned to Jace and smiled brightly.
“I’m so proud of my son for making such good social connections! Alpha Bane is so generous and so charming!”
Alec ducked his head and Jace could see the lightest blush of red on his cheeks.
“Please, mother, I will be late if I don’t go now.”
Maryse waved her hand and dismissed him. Alec kissed both his mother and sister on the cheek and gave Jace a barely perceptible, stiff nod and he was off. Jace watched Alec’s tall frame disappear down the street over his shoulder as he was dragged by an enthusiastic Izzy to the Lightwood carriage. As Jace settled into the plush seat he saw Alec pause outside of a florist's shop and enter. Was Alec courting someone? The idea sat like a stone in Jace’s stomach and he watched the buildings pass as they pulled away.
The Lightwood manor had not changed since Jace had last seen it. As the carriage clattered up the drive, Jace allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy that no time had passed at all. That he would alight from the carriage and run off hand in hand with Alec and Izzy to the gardens and mock fight with sticks as their mighty swords until they collapsed in contented exhaustion. Those days were lost to him but perhaps this unexpected invitation would help cultivate a relationship between Jace and the Lightwoods.
The nostalgia was overwhelming when lunch was served on the veranda. The trees around the secluded table offered enough shade that the ladies were able to shed their hats and the glare of the sun wasn’t in anyone’s eyes. The flowers were in bloom, verdant colors and sweet scents surrounded Jace and he allowed himself to lean back in his chair and take in deep, relaxing breaths. He hadn’t felt this safe in years and he let the soothing voices of Izzy and Maryse wash over him, smiling softly, pretending that he belonged here, that he was a Lightwood. Right here, right now, his father’s taint couldn’t reach him and he felt light and happy.
A tea tray was brought for them and the young beta woman that served it chattered openly about the menu, how nice the day was, how lovely they all looked and how was your trip to town, Omega Lightwood? Maryse indulged her questions and the women shared a laugh about something or other. Jace wasn’t following the words, just letting the atmosphere and the chatter wash over him.
The beta servant turned to include him in the conversation and Jace smiled charmingly at her, answering her quietly. He felt a thrill when she blushed and stammered a bit, eventually excusing herself to check on lunch. Oh, how he wished to have presented alpha. He would never treat an omega the way Sebastian Verlac had treated him. Jace was thankful when his darkening thoughts were interrupted by Maryse.
“Oh, Jace dear, I hope you don’t mind I sent for Maxwell to join us in our repast. He will be so excited to see you!”
Jace grinned and leaned forward, clenching his hands together.
“Of course I don’t mind! Does he even remember me? He was so young when I was called away.”
Max had latched onto Jace quickly after his arrival to the Lightwood manor. The other Lightwood siblings had been indulgent and doting but they rarely made time for their younger brother. Jace would sneak into Max’s room at night and read to him for hours, soaking in Max’s hero-like worship and almost possessive demand for his attention. Being an only child, Jace had never been around pups before and his instincts had led him to spoil Max. Jace wished desperately to have pups of his own one day, he just wished he didn’t need a mate for that. Izzy gasped loudly at his question, bringing Jace’s mind back to the present.
“Of course he remembers you. I don’t think a day has gone by that your name isn’t on his lips! I don’t recall you spending so much time with him before but he is constantly regaling anyone who will sit and listen about you.”
Jace flushed in embarrassment and pleasure. He shook his head and leaned back, grinning slightly, sipping his tea. Maryse cleared her throat.
“Now before young Max joins us, there is something I’d like to talk to you about. Nothing bad, I assure you.”
Despite Maryse’s reassurance Jace felt a creeping dread and sat down his tea slowly, careful not to slosh the liquid as his hands began to shake. He cursed Valentine for making him so sensitive, his anxiety had never been so overwhelming and he felt like a foal stumbling alone in the woods. He hated himself for being so timid. Izzy reached out and took his hand in hers, smiling and Jace straightened his spine, meeting Maryse’s concerned gaze.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with Alpha Einri, the tailor.”
Jace groaned and covered his face with his hands, not worried about propriety with the other omegas. They wouldn’t mind his lapse in manners, having known him for so long. He peeked through his fingers to see Izzy looking amused and Maryse, well, there was the pity he knew the Lightwoods felt for poor, lost Jace. Maryse reached out to refill their tea and Izzy sat two more biscuits on his plate, nudging it closer.
“I only mention it because I believe there is a better, simpler solution to your, ahem, situation.”
“Oh, no please don’t tell me you mean…”
Maryse pursed her lips and folded her hands in her lap, pinning Jace with a fierce gaze.
“You are having trouble securing yourself independently, Jace. That is not your fault, my boy, it’s Valentine’s fault. He’s ruined the Morgenstern name with his gambling and drinking and swindling unsuspecting, naive people out of their money. And now he’s fled to parts unknown, leaving no trace save for a kind, nurturing, beautiful son. Your father is not here to persecute and his victims are taking their ire out on you, not realizing that you are more of a victim of Valentine than they ever were.”
Jace ducked his head in shame, unable to process such kind words. He had only been spit on and yelled at since his father’s disappearance. Maryse continued.
“You need allies and the Lightwood name can only get you so much. Your greatest support would be an alpha husband and- don’t make that sound, it’s true!”
Jace clenched his hands into tight fists, frustration seeping into his tone.
“No alpha of any kind of influence will agree to marry me, Maryse. Haven’t you heard the gossip about me?”
Maryse sniffed and Izzy was silent, watching their conversation and moving her head as if she were watching an intense tennis match.
“Yes, and I know they are not true. I’m glad your engagement to Sebastian Verlac was broken and anyone with half a mind won’t believe those awful rumors. Alpha Verlac is a liar and a rogue, much like your father.”
Jace winced. If only society knew just how much Valentine and Sebastian were alike, Jace has permanent marks from the both of them to prove it. Sebastian would certainly be less sought after, the damn snake. Maryse took a deep breath.
“Jace, I won’t ask you to tell me what happened between you and Valentine or Sebastian. I will always be here if you wish to unburden yourself a little by speaking of it with me.”
Jace smiled at Izzy’s bright offer. Maryse reached out and laid her hand near Jace’s, not touching but close if needed.
“Forgive me for saying so but Jace, you will not find work in Idris and a lone omega outside of Idris is much more vulnerable. The laws for omegas there are much more restrictive. Your father’s reputation has become yours and you need to associate yourself with more respectable families. I know a few omega mothers who would jump at the chance to introduce you to their available alpha sons if I support you this season. The Lightwood name can get you a few suitors and your charming, loving nature will secure you a husband.”
Jace felt numb and overwhelmed by Maryse’s words. He knew, intellectually, that Maryse was right. He would never be able to find work to support himself as a lone omega with no family. And to leave Idris...it was unthinkable. Omegas were treated as slaves by the surrounding lands. Idris still had many problems with omega rights but it was certainly the better of two evils for Jace. Izzy huffed loudly and crossed her arms.
“I don’t know why we can’t just adopt him! Then he could live here forever and be happy doing whatever he wished.”
Jace cleared his throat, embarrassed.
“Please, Izzy, I already owe your family so much. I don’t wish to be a further burden.”
The look of pity was back on Maryse’s face and Jace wished he could excuse himself, leave and never return. Maryse shook her head.
“You aren’t a burden, Jace. The time you spent here with our family are cherished memories. I’ve never seen the children so happy than when you lived here with us. I can’t see you spending the rest of your days in isolation, you have so much to give. Don’t you want a family of your own, pups?”
Jace met Maryse’s eyes in surprise. How had she seen his secret heart so easily?
“Yes, I want that more than anything. A loving family.”
Maryse nodded briskly.
“Step one for that is an alpha husband. Certainly that would suit you better than a beta, you are so fierce when the mood strikes and an alpha would do better to dote on you, you deserve the extra attention. Oh, don’t blush so, you know it’s true! It just so happens that the biggest party of the season is this week and Alpha Bane is hosting it at his lovely estate. You remember Alec mentioned him in town?”
Jace’s smile dimmed a bit at the mention of Alec. Speaking of alpha husbands and Alec in the same conversation was making him maudlin. Would he ever find an alpha that loved him for just being Jace? Or would his future husband only see him as an omega and more importantly, want him for his connection to the influential Lightwoods. Jace nodded as Maryse continued.
“Well, Alpha Bane is such a nice young man, generous, kind and charming. Society practically adores him! If they see him welcoming you with open arms, they will surely follow. I will write him directly after lunch. And don’t worry about having something appropriate to wear, your room is exactly how you left it, wardrobe and all.”
Jace raised his eyebrows, moved by the thought of his room being untouched, waiting as if for his return.
He was distracted by the arrival of a grinning and running Max. Despite his mother’s admonitions to settle down, Max clung to him and insisted on sitting in Jace’s lap as they ate lunch. Even with an uncertain future hanging before him, Jace was determined to enjoy his reunion with the Lightwoods, the soft, warm atmosphere and the excellent menu.
The Lightwoods were reluctant to let Jace leave after lunch, quite insistent that he stay with them for the season, sleep in his old bed. Jace wanted nothing more than to accept, to make a nest for himself and feel safe and protected for even just a moment. Then Alec’s cold face floated into his mind and Jace couldn’t endure the torture of being so close yet so far from the one alpha he wished would court him. To be politely ignored by his oldest friend and listen to him wax poetic about the omega that received those flowers. Maryse had mentioned an Omega Lydia Branwell that was interested in Alec. Were they courting?
The Lightwood’s carriage stopped and Jace exited, giving the driver a nod in thanks and standing on the derelict street that hosted his current lodgings. The neighborhood was firmly in the less reputable part of Idris, home to the poorest and most pitiable. The affronted look on the driver’s face as he pulled away assured Jace that Maryse would hear of the sad little omega boarding house that Jace called home.
Jace considered himself lucky to have stumbled across the kind elderly beta woman who ran the boarding house being accosted by ruffians. The horrible men had underestimated Jace, as alphas were known to do of omegas, and Jace had thoroughly trounced them, sending them scurrying like rats into the alley. He offered to walk the beta, Lillian Patel, to her destination and she had eagerly accepted. She had pried quite skillfully into Jace’s depressing personal history and adamantly offered Jace a room when he reluctantly admitted he had nowhere to go.
Jace had been instantly charmed by both Lillian and the little attic room she showed him once they reached their destination. The room was dusty and smelled a bit stale but there was a large window that offered a perfect view of the street and in the mornings, the sun shone brightly onto the small table and two chairs. It was a perfect place to enjoy tea and toast or scones with strawberry jam that Lillian insisted on bringing him three times a day. He had tried to deny her coddling at first but she had insisted so fiercely that Jace was afraid of upsetting her too much and he secretly enjoyed the attention. There was a plush chair near the small fireplace where Jace spent most of his evenings reading and wishing for a nice glass of wine. It was an indulgence that few could afford here.
The bed was small but it fit Jace well enough, much better than the park benches he had been chased off of before. The quilt was thin and Lillian had apologized at length for not having appropriate nesting materials. Most of the omegas she took in were unable to pay her and Lillian couldn’t afford extra blankets or pillows. The thin quilt didn’t keep his scent very well and his one pillow wasn’t much comfort on lonely nights. It left him feeling vulnerable and anxious to not have a proper nest to unwind in every night. He often woke up crying and wishing for any comfort, wishing that his life had been different. He had not had to endure a heat here yet and he found himself hoping he never would, that he could charm his way to an alpha husband and spend his heat in comfort and affection.
Lillian’s soft voice called out to him as he ascended the noisy stairs to the attic. He paused and turned to her, coming back down and pressing a kiss to her soft, wrinkled cheek.
“Oh, my dear boy! You were gone so long today, I was growing worried. Any luck at the shops?”
“I’m afraid not, Lilly. But I did run into a few old friends and joined them for lunch. The Lightwoods.”
Lillian gasped and pressed her hand over her mouth, eyes wide.
“Oh, my! The Lightwoods, how lovely to be acquainted with such a family. Now, shoo! Go up to your room and I’ll bring a tea tray with extra scones and you can tell me all about it. This is so exciting!”
Jace chuckled and made to follow her to the small kitchen.
“Let me carry that for you.”
Lillian pursed her lips at him and opened her mouth as if to argue but Jace breezed past her, not stopping to hear.