It was a gray, smoggy day in New York City as Alec Lightwood crossed the street to the delicatessen he went to at least once a week. He strolled in, wrapping his threadbare sweater around himself self-consciously as he stepped up to the counter.
"Good morning, Alexander," said the woman at the cash register with a tired smile. Warily, he placed a crumpled and stained five dollar bill on the counter.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, not wanting the other customers to be aware of his poverty, "that's all I've got. Max needed shoes and-" The woman shushed him, pushing the money across the counter towards Alec. "No, really, I can pay you back," he insisted, but she shook her head.
"How is Max?" she asked, turning to prepare some bread and meat. "And Isabelle?"
"Uh, they're good," said Alec. "Max is reading now. Mostly comic books." He laughed humorlessly, as if he hadn't truly laughed in a long time. "Izzy's turning into a teenager. Thinks she's the queen."
The deli worker turned to face him again, sorrow in her eyes for the boy turned adult so fast. "Here, honey," she said kindly, handing Alec the package of food.
"Thank you so much," he answered politely, tucking the food inside his sweater.
"Take care, Alec," she finished, moving to help the next customer. Alec took a deep breath and returned to the street outside.
Accepting free food always made him feel like the Tramp in the old Disney movie his mother had loved. In fact, his mother had loved all the Disney movies. Fairy tales, Harry Potter, vampire stories, almost anything to do with magic or fantasy. Alec hadn't been able to pinpoint the reason for this obsession before his mother had perished, alongside his father, in a car crash three years ago.
They'd lived in Minnesota then (Isabelle and Maxwell had lived there their entire lives, but Alec had lived somewhere in Europe- he'd never been told exactly where- until he was two.), but Maryse Lightwood had always strangely seemed to expect her premature death and had told Alec, days before she died, that she intended him to take his siblings to New York if anything should happen to her.
Since the crash, Alec had raised his younger brother and sister on the streets of NYC, begging for money and food and picking up odd jobs to earn cash honestly, the way he preferred. In fact he'd never robbed or thieved. He'd even seen a wallet lying on the ground once and had strived to return it to its correct owner rather than keep the money for himself. Sometimes he regretted this life of do-good-ing when he looked at his small family and how weak with hunger, how cold they were.
Alec sighed bitterly and turned a corner into the alley he lived in. Isabelle was brushing her hair with her silver hairbrush, one of the few prized possessions she'd brought with her from Minnesota, and Max was lying on the ground, reading what looked like the Funnies section of a local newspaper he seemed to have scavenged from the Dumpster at the entrance to their grand establishment: a couple boxes built into a cardboard fort, a few thin, holey blankets, and a plastic tote that contained all their worldly possessions.
"Dinner!" he announced, attempting to fake cheerfulness for the two younger children. Max leapt up and rushed toward the white paper parcel that his elder brother had produced. Isabelle stood up more languidly, stretching and reminding Alec of a cat whose sunlit nap had been interrupted by the patter of food in her dish. He gave them generous portions of beef and bread, taking a small couple bites for himself. Isabelle and Max loved it, and he appreciated the feel of food travelling down his throat, the thought of not going to sleep hungry, but the food, to him, could not taste good because it was tainted with charity. Pride gave the measly meal a bitter taste to Alec, and he promised himself that he would never take a free meal again, knowing even as he made it that he could never keep it.
Living on the streets had wrought immense changes in Alec Lightwood. Four years ago, he never would have denied a cookie given from a benevolent vendor, but these days he became nauseous at the thought of accepting a nickel from passer-by. Lack of humility was another thing he regretted when he looked at his starving brother and sister, but he felt e could not change who he was.
That night, Alec, with his arms wrapped around the sleeping forms of Max and Isabelle, watched the dancing and flickering lights of the city above him and wished for another life, any other life.