Underneath the Apple Tree


Shadowhunters AU
Ship: Jace x Alec

See tags for trigger warnings. Also, I listened to this a lot during writing, so if you want background music while reading: click here.

          Jace had always loved the apple tree the most. You could see it from almost every room on the east side of the house, its wide branches embracing the mansion like a gentle giant. It was the one living thing in the gardens that Mr. Lightwood had to look after the least and yet it was the first thing that came to Jace’s mind when he thought of their groundsman. The Lightwoods had always been there to look after the gardens surrounding Herondale Manor, just like the apple tree had always been there. To Jace life at the mansion was unthinkable without either one.

He loved everything about the apple tree. He loved its white blossoms in spring, its green leaves in summer, its delicious apples in fall and even its knobby naked branches in winter, that turned from black to white with the first snow every year. Countless memories hung in those branches, like forgotten fruit. Memories of a little blond boy who climbed too high and broke his arm when he fell, of three children – two siblings and their best friend – shaking the trunk with all their strength until an apple hit one of them on the head and they laughed until their stomachs hurt; memories of faded letters carved into dry bark and of promises whispered and carried away by the wind.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          Alec had been Jace’s friend for as long as he could remember. Despite belonging to different social classes they had grown up together and spent their whole lives in each other’s company. Life had been easier when they were children, no rules standing in their way that went beyond ‘don’t eat this’ or ‘don’t ruin your clothes playing in the dirt’. It hadn’t mattered that Jace was the son of a Lord and Alec the son of his servant. They had just been Jace and Alec.

Two boys who had played together, laughed together, learned how to read and write together. Two boys who had brought home an injured fox cub and insisted on keeping him as a pet during the winter, both hiding their tears when spring came and it was time to let him go. Two boys who had looked at the world with the same innocent eyes and believed that things would always be the same.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          They started treating them differently when Jace turned twelve – Alec was thirteen then – and he was given a private tutor. Mr. Starkweather was a strict but kind man, relentless and patient. Jace would have liked the lessons he taught him if they hadn’t taken up the time he’d used to play outside with Alec and Isabelle. Often Hodge would rebuke him for not paying attention but rather staring out the window, watching Alec walking around the garden, carrying tools for his father, planting flower bulbs or moving around carts filled with earth. The time for games seemed over and soon Jace began to yearn for a childhood that had ended too quickly.

Their friendship didn’t end but where they had spent time watching worms squirm around in the rain-damp earth or fought wars with their brave toy soldiers Jace was now reading books and practicing the piano while Alec learned everything there was to know about his father’s trade. One day Jace would be lord of the manor and Alec would be his groundsman. It was a game they had played as little children but a reality neither of them were prepared to live.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          They first kissed on the day Jace left to stay with his uncle in the city. It was only for two months; to see the capital and the world of business – and to learn how to be a proper gentleman. Sixty-one days, Alec told him, and Jace would never forget the way his hazel eyes shone in the early light of the sun, or the way his lips felt against his when he had stood up on the tip of his toes and claimed them as his. He’d smelled like rain and earth and something sweet. With fifteen Jace was too old to cry about leaving home, his mother said, but she did not know that it was not the house he would miss.

He kissed Alec sixty-two times when he returned, for every day he had missed him and one extra because he had never been good at math. Alec didn’t complain.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~ 

          The following summer they cleaned up the attic together. Jace’s mother did not like to see her son do a servant’s work, but she could see there was no stopping him. For days and days Jace and Alec looked through dusty old things, forgotten and abandoned, discarding many and keeping a few. To Jace those days were a blur of happiness and joy and kisses that tasted like dust and ancient wine (one of the things they kept).

Their efforts were rewarded with a place they could call their own; with a bed and a pile of books and a wall for pictures and photographs they liked. On many nights to follow they would sneak up to meet there, to get lost in their own little world and forget what was expected of them. The bed stood right underneath the window so that in the mornings all Jace had to do was lift his head and he could see the apple tree in the garden below. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Aside from Alec sleeping in his arms.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

         When Jace turned 17 he was set to marry a girl he had never met. Her name was Clarissa and her hair had the color of rust. She was the daughter of a man of influence and power in the capital, and their union would be appropriate. The only person more upset about this arrangement than Jace himself was Alec.

Two nights Jace spent alone in the attic, waiting for his love in vain. On the third night he saw him outside by the apple tree. That night Jace gave away his family ring: dangling from a silver chain he put it around Alec’s neck. It is yours and no one else’s, he vowed. Like my heart, now and forever. They kissed, and Alec swore to kiss no other as long as he lived.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          As the wedding moved closer Jace became restless. He cried and refused but his parents insisted. No man or woman is truly free in this world; bound by duty and expectation we are but caged animals, his father said. Two nights before his coach to the city awaited, Jace begged Alec to meet him by the old bridge that crossed the river near the woods. It was the place where they had found their fox cub and where they had spent many summers trying to catch fish. A place of magic and freedom and innocence.

Run away with me, Jace pleaded. I’d rather die a beggar in your arms than live a life of wealth and never be allowed to kiss you again. And what reason had Alec to refuse? They agreed to meet a night from then, taking nothing but what they needed to live.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          But they had more than the stars and the moon to witness their encounter. Isabelle, woken by her brother’s disappearance had followed and overheard their whispers. In fear for her brother’s fate Isabelle ran to their mother, recounting what she’d heard. And the following night Alec would scream and cry and hit his hands against the door of his room until they bled, but it would not open.

And Jace would wait an hour, two, his hope slowly fading – until he heard footsteps on dry leaves. But it was not Alec who came to him. It was Max, the youngest, with the Herondale ring in his hand and news of Alec’s change of mind on his lips. Perhaps in another life, he recounted his mother’s words, disguised as his brother’s.

Heartbroken Jace stayed behind, praying the winter cold would take his life and with it his misery. But he was not so lucky, and in the morning it was time to go home and get on his coach. He did not look back at the house or the attic window, the brown leaves of the apple tree looking lifeless and still from the corners of his eyes.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

         For weeks there were no news from home, yet Jace could not forget. More often than not he found himself wishing he could go back, back to the little room in the attic, to their books and their dreams and the warmth of Alec’s embrace. His marriage was one on the paper, no love lost between him and his wife. It was not her fault that she was bound to him, but he could not give her what he had given away a long time ago: his heart.

One day his parents arrived in the city, like refugees, bearing news of a dreadful sickness. Like a plague it had taken over the house, they said, leaving nothing but death in its wake. Never in his life had Jace felt greater fear and all warnings were ignored and all vows to Clarissa forgotten as he took his father’s horse and stormed back over icy roads to the home of his childhood.

Take what you must, o death, he thought, but please spare my love.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          The house had never been so quiet. Where once laughter and joy had prevailed only dread and loss were present now. With trembling hands and an aching heart Jace visited the stage of his childhood, the rooms that told the story of his life. One by one he found them. Mr. and Mrs. Lightwood, still and mute, as if they were sleeping. Isabelle, her black hair held in a loose braid, lips once red and full of life now white and silent. She was beautiful as ever, like Snow White preserved in her casket of glass. And little Max, his hand wrapped loosely around the wooden toy soldier Jace had given him for his birthday a lifetime ago. They all had died in their beds, trusting in the one who’d cared for them, who had brought them sweet smelling tea and promises of painless sleep. The one who could not forgive.

With an aching lump in his throat Jace stumbled through the graveyard he had once called home, yelling the one name he could remember in his horror, the one name that still mattered.

Alec. Alec. Alec.

He never received an answer nor found another body. When he reached the attic his mind played cruel tricks on him, maddened by fear. There he was: Alec, as pale as his sister, a twig from the apple tree in his hands that stood in full flower, his eyes closed in a peaceful expression. A blink, a beat of his heart later and he was gone; nothing but an empty bed that held the happiest memories of Jace’s life between its dusty sheets with him in the room. And outside the window, the apple tree.

Jace had never seen an uglier, more horrific thing in his life.

It was a mockery, a cruel ridicule of something once pure and innocent. Jace ran, faster than he ever had, even though he knew it was too late. He fell and tripped, his knees covered in dirt and snow by the time he reached the tree. He felt no pain or cold as he wrapped his arms around his lover’s legs and pushed him up, as if that would bring the air back into his lungs or the life back into his body. He couldn’t hold him for long, his shoes slipping on the wet ground and his strength failing him fast. The world was blurring before his eyes; the image of Alec hanging in his beloved tree swimming away— and Jace screamed.

He screamed until his lungs burned and his throat was sore.

~ + ~ + ~ + ~

          The ground was hard and frozen and by the time Jace had dug a hole deep enough his hands were bleeding. There were no flowers to adorn his lover’s grave, no letters to be buried with him and no words of love to be spoken. So many things were left unsaid between them but Alec couldn’t hear them where he was now, and Jace’s heart was too broken to believe his prayers would reach him. The small hill of black earth beneath the tree stood out sharp against the white snow around it, the only thing remaining from the story of the three little children who had shook the apple tree for its fruit, and the two lost boys who had found love in one another.

And like the others, Jace disappeared. His feet carried him away from the tree, away from Alec, away from the house. All he left behind was a trail of footprints that was quickly covered when the snow began to fall again. A trail that led through trees and bushes, all bare and dead now, down to a little bridge that spread across the icebound river.

And half-way across, the footprints ended.

Lyrical and beautiful, this AU broke my heart into a million little pieces.

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