THE SERPENTS OF THE DUST
When Alec and Simon returned to the central cave, they found Isabelle still curled asleep among a pile of blankets. Jace was sitting by the fire, leaning back on his hands, the play of light and shadow dancing across his face. Clary lay with her head on his lap, though Simon could see by the shimmer of her eyes as she watched them approach that she wasn’t asleep.
Jace raised his eyebrows. “Walk of shame, boys?”
Alec glowered. He stood with his left wrist turned in, hiding the puncture marks, though they were mostly faded thanks to the iratze he’d put on his wrist. He hadn’t pushed Simon away, had let him drink until Simon had stopped himself, and as a result he was a little pale. “It wasn’t sexy,” he said.
“It was a little sexy,” Simon said. He felt much better, having fed, and couldn’t help but poke at Alec a bit.
“It wasn’t,” said Alec.
“I had some feelings,” said Simon.
“Do feel free to agonize about it on your own time,” said Alec, and bent down to grab the strap of his backpack. “I’m going to take watch.”
Clary sat up with a yawn. “Are you sure? Do you need a blood replacement rune?”
“I already put on two,” Alec said. “I’ll be fine.” He straightened up and glanced at his sleeping sister. “Just look after Isabelle, okay?” His gaze went to Simon. “Especially you, vampire.”
Alec headed off down the corridor, his witchlight casting his shadow, long and spidery, against the cave wall. Jace and Clary exchanged a quick look before Jace scrambled to his feet and followed Alec into the tunnel. Simon could hear their voices—soft murmurs through the rock, though he couldn’t make out any of the words.
Alec’s words echoed in his head. Look after Isabelle. He thought of Alec in the tunnel. You’re loyal and you’re smart and you—you make Isabelle happy. I don’t know why, but you do.
The idea of making Isabelle happy filled him with a sense of warmth. Simon sat down quietly beside her—she was like a cat, curled up in a ball of blankets, her head pillowed on her arm. He eased himself gently down to lie next to her. She was alive because of him, and her brother had done the closest thing he would probably ever do to giving them his blessing.
He heard Clary, over on the other side of the fire, laugh softly. “Good night, Simon,” she said.
Simon could feel Isabelle’s hair, as soft as spun silk, under his cheek. “Good night,” he said, and closed his eyes, his veins full of Lightwood blood.
Jace caught up easily with Alec, who had paused where the cave corridor curved away toward the gate. The walls of the corridor were smooth as if worn away by years of water or wind, not chisels, though Jace had no doubt the passages were man-made.
Alec, leaning against the cave wall, clearly waiting for Jace, raised his witchlight. “Is something wrong?”
Jace slowed his pace as he neared his parabatai. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Alec shrugged with one shoulder. “As much as I can be, I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” Jace said. “Again. I take stupid risks. I can’t help it.”
“We let you,” said Alec. “Sometimes your risks pay off. We let you because we have to let you. Because if we didn’t let you, nothing would ever get done.” He rubbed at his face with his torn sleeve. “Isabelle would say the same thing.”
“We never got to finish our conversation, before,” Jace said. “I just wanted to say that you don’t always have to be all right. I asked you to be my parabatai because I needed you, but you’re allowed to need me, too. This”—he indicated his own parabatai rune—“means you are the better, other half of me, and I care about you more than I care about myself. Remember that. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much you were hurting. I didn’t see it then, but I see it now.”
Alec was very still for a moment, barely breathing. Then, to Jace’s surprise, he reached out and ruffled Jace’s hair, the way an older brother might ruffle his younger sibling’s hair. His smile was cautious, but it was full of real affection. “Thanks for seeing me,” he said, and walked off down the tunnel.
She woke up slowly, out of mellow dreams of warmth and fire, the smell of hay and apples. In the dream she’d been on Luke’s farm, hanging upside-down from a tree branch, laughing as Simon waved from below. Slowly she became aware of the hard stone under her hips and back, her head pillowed on Jace’s legs.
“Clary,” he said again, still whispering. Simon and Isabelle were sprawled together some distance away, a dark heap in the shadows. Jace’s eyes glimmered down at her, pale gold and dancing with reflected firelight. “I want a bath.”
“Yeah, well, I want a million dollars,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. “We all want something.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Come on, think about it,” he said. “That cavern? The one with the lake? We could.”
Clary thought of the cavern, the lovely blue water, as deep as twilight, and felt suddenly as if she were encrusted with a layer of grime—dirt and blood and ichor and sweat, her hair knotted back into a greasy tangle.
Jace’s eyes danced, and Clary felt that familiar surge inside her chest, that pull she had felt since the first time she’d ever seen him. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment she’d fallen in love with Jace, but there had always been something about him that reminded her of a lion, a wild animal unfettered by rules, the promise of a life of freedom. Never “I can’t,” but always “I can.” Always the risk and the surety, never the fear or the question.
She scrambled to her feet as quietly as she could. “All right.”
He was up instantly, taking her hand and tugging her down the west corridor that led away from the central cave. They went in silence, her witchlight lighting the way, a silence Clary felt almost afraid to break, as if she would be shattering the illusory calm of a dream or a spell.
The massive cavern opened in front of them suddenly, and she put her rune-stone away, dousing its light. The bioluminescence of the cave was enough: light shimmering out from the walls, from the glimmering stalactites that hung from the roof like electrified icicles. Knives of light pierced the shadows. Jace let go of her hand and walked the last steps of the path down to the edge of the water, where the small beach was powdery and fine, glittering with mica. He paused a few feet from the water and said, “Thank you.”
She looked over at him in surprise. “For what?”
“Last night,” he said. “You saved me. The heavenly fire would have killed me, I think. What you did—”
“We still can’t tell the others,” she said.
“I didn’t last night, did I?” he asked. It was true. Jace and Clary had maintained the fiction that Clary had simply helped Jace control and dissipate the fire, and that nothing else had changed.
“We can’t risk them giving it away, even by the wrong kind of glance or expression,” she said. “You and I, we’ve had some practice hiding things from Sebastian, but they haven’t. It wouldn’t be fair to them. I almost wish we didn’t know. . . .”
She trailed off, unnerved by his lack of response. Jace was looking at the water, blue and depthless, his back to her. She took a step forward and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Jace,” she said. “If you want to do something different, if you think we should make another plan—”
He turned, and suddenly she was in the circle of his arms. It sent a shock through her whole body. His hands cupped her shoulder blades, his fingers stroking lightly along the material of her shirt. She shivered, thoughts flying out of her head like feathers scattered on the wind.
“When,” he said, “did you get so careful?”
“I’m not careful,” she said as he touched his lips to her temple. His warm breath stirred the curls by her ear. “I’m just not you.”
She felt him laugh. His hands slid down her sides, gripped her waist. “That, you are definitely not. Much prettier.”
“You must love me,” she said, breath hitching as his lips traveled excruciatingly slowly along her jaw. “I never thought you’d admit anyone was prettier than you.” She started as his mouth found her own, his lips parting to taste hers, and she leaned up and into the kiss, determined to take back some control. She wound her arms around his neck, opening her mouth to him, and nipped gently at his bottom lip.
It had more of an effect than she’d bargained for; his hands tightened on her waist and he groaned low into her mouth. A moment later he’d broken away, flushed, his eyes glittering. “You’re all right?” he said. “You want this?”
She nodded, swallowing. Her whole body felt as if it were vibrating like a plucked string. “Yes, I do. I—”
“It’s just, for so long I haven’t really been able to touch you, and now I can,” he said. “But maybe this isn’t the place—”
“Well, we are filthy,” she admitted.
“ ‘Filthy’ seems a bit judgmental.”
Clary raised her hands, palms-up. There was dirt embedded in her skin and under her nails. She grinned at him. “I mean literally,” she said, and indicated the water nearby with a jerk of her chin. “Weren’t we going to wash off? In the water?”
The sparkle in his eyes darkened them to amber. “Right,” he said, and reached up to unzip his jacket.
Clary almost squeaked, What are you doing? but it was perfectly obvious what he was doing. She’d said “in the water,” and it wasn’t like they could wade in with their gear on. She just hadn’t quite thought this far ahead.
He dropped the jacket and pulled his T-shirt off over his head; the collar caught for a moment, and Clary just stared, suddenly hyperaware of the fact that they were alone, and of his body: honey-colored skin mapped with old and new Marks, a fading scar just under the curve of his left pectoral muscle. Flat, ridged stomach tapering to narrow hips; he’d lost weight, and his weapons belt hung loose. Legs, arms, graceful like a dancer’s; he pulled free of the shirt and shook out his bright hair, and she thought with a sudden sinking in her stomach that it just wasn’t possible that he was hers, he wasn’t the sort of person ordinary people got to be near, much less touch, and then he looked up at her, hands on his belt, and smiled his familiar crooked smile.
“Keeping your clothes on?” he said. “I could promise not to look, but I’d be lying.”
Clary unzipped her gear jacket and threw it at him. He caught it and dropped it onto the pile of his clothes, grinning. He unlooped his belt, dropped it as well. “Pervert,” she said. “Though you get points for being honest about it.”
“I’m seventeen; we’re all perverts,” he said, kicking his shoes off and stepping out of his pants. He was wearing black boxer shorts, and to Clary’s mixed relief and slight regret, he kept them on as he stepped into the water, wading in knee-deep. “Or, at least, I’ll be seventeen in a few weeks,” he called back over his shoulder. “I did the math, with my father’s letters and the time of the Uprising. I was born in January.”
Something about the complete normalcy of his tone set Clary at ease. She toed off her boots, pulled her T-shirt off and then her pants, and went to the edge of the water. It was cool but not cold, lapping up to her ankles.
Jace looked up at her and smiled. Then his eyes traveled down from her face to her body, her plain cotton panties and bra. She wished she’d worn something prettier, but it wasn’t like “fancy lingerie” had been on her packing list for the demon realms. Her bra was pale blue cotton, the totally boring kind you could buy at the supermarket, though Jace was looking at it like it was something exotic and amazing.
He flushed suddenly, and averted his eyes, backing away so that the water rose to cover him, up to his shoulders. He ducked under and resurfaced again, looking less flustered but a lot wetter, his hair dark gold and streaming rivulets. “It’s easier if you get in fast,” he said.
Clary took a breath and dived forward, the water closing over her head. And it was gorgeous—dark blue, shot with threads of silver from the light above. The powdery stone had mixed with the water, giving it a heavy, soft texture. It was easy to float; the moment she let herself, she bobbed to the surface, shaking water from her hair.
She sighed in relief. There was no soap, but she rubbed her hands together, watching the flakes of dirt and blood melt away into the water. Her hair floated on the surface, red mixing with blue.
A spray of water droplets made her look up. Jace was a few feet away, shaking out his hair. “I guess that makes me a year older than you,” he said. “I’m cradle-robbing.”
“Six months,” Clary corrected. “And you’re a Capricorn, huh? Stubborn, reckless, bends the rules—sounds about right.”
He caught hold of her hips and pulled her toward him through the water. It was just deep enough that his feet touched the ground, but hers didn’t quite; she clenched her hands on his shoulders to keep herself upright as he drew her legs around his waist. She stared down at him, heat coiling in her stomach, at the sleek wet lines of his neck and shoulders and chest, the water droplets caught in his eyelashes like stars.
He rose up to kiss her just as she leaned in; their lips crashed together with a force that sent a shock of pleasure-pain through her. His hands slid up her skin; she cupped the back of his head, fingers tangling in wet curls. He parted her lips, stroked inside with his tongue. They were both shuddering and she was gasping, her breath mingling with his.
He reached behind himself with one hand to steady them on the wall of the cave, but it was slick with water and he half-slipped; Clary broke away from kissing him as he found his footing, his left arm still wrapped tightly against her, pressing her body to his. His pupils were blown wide, his heart hammering against her.
“That was,” he gasped, and pressed his face to the juncture of her neck and shoulder and breathed as if he were breathing her in; he was shaking a little, although his grip on her was steady and firm. “That was—intense.”
“It’s been a while,” she murmured, touching his hair gently, “since we could, you know—let go. At all.”
“I can’t believe it,” he said, “I still can’t, that I can kiss you now, touch you, actually touch you, without being afraid—” He pressed a kiss to her throat, and she jumped; he tipped his head back to look up at her. Water trickled down his face like tears, outlining the sharp edges of cheekbones, the curve of his jaw.
“Reckless,” he said. “You know, when I first showed up at the Institute, Alec called me reckless so many times that I went and looked it up in the dictionary. Not that I didn’t already know what it meant, but—I always kind of thought it meant brave. It actually meant ‘someone who doesn’t care about the consequences of their actions.’ ”
Clary felt stung on behalf of small Jace. “But you do care.”
“Not enough, maybe. Not all the time.” His voice shook. “Like the way I love you. I loved you recklessly from the moment I knew you. I never cared about the consequences. I told myself I did, I told myself you wanted me to, and so I tried, but I never did. I wanted you more than I wanted to be good. I wanted you more than I wanted anything, ever.” His muscles were rigid under her grip, his body thrumming with tension. She leaned in to brush her lips across his, to kiss the tension away, but he pulled back, biting against his lower lip hard enough to whiten the skin.
“Clary,” he said, roughly. “Wait, just—wait.”
Clary felt momentarily dazed. Jace loved kissing; he could kiss for hours, and he was good at it. And he wasn’t uninterested. He was very interested. She braced her knees on either side of his hips and said, uncertainly, “Is everything all right?”
“I have to tell you something.”
“Oh, no.” She dropped her head onto his shoulder. “Okay. What is it?”
“Remember when we came through into the demon realm, and everyone saw something?” he asked. “And I said I didn’t.”
“You don’t have to tell me what you saw,” Clary said gently. “It’s your business.”
“I do,” he said. “You should know. I saw a room with two thrones in it—gold and ivory thrones—and through the window I could see the world, and it was ashes. Like this world, but the destruction was newer. The fires were still burning, and the sky was full of horrible flying things. Sebastian was sitting on one of the thrones and I was sitting on the other. You were there, and Alec and Izzy, and Max—” He swallowed. “But you were all in a cage. A big cage with a massive lock on the door. And I knew I had put you in it, and turned the key. But I didn’t feel regret. I felt—triumph.” He exhaled, hard. “You can shove me away in disgust now. It’s fine.”
But of course it wasn’t fine; nothing about his tone—flat and dead, and devoid of hope—was fine. Clary shivered in his arms; not from horror but from pity, and from the tension of knowing how delicate Jace’s faith in himself was, and how careful her answer had to be.
“The demon showed us what it thought we wanted,” she said finally. “Not what we actually want. It got things wrong; that’s how we all managed to break free. By the time we found you, you’d already broken free on your own. So what it showed you, that wasn’t what you want. When Valentine raised you, he controlled everything—nothing was ever safe, and nothing you loved was safe. So the demon looked inside you and saw that, that child’s fantasy of completely controlling the world so nothing bad can happen to the people he loves, and it tried to give you that, but it wasn’t what you want, not really. So you woke up.” She touched his cheek. “Some part of you is still that little boy who thinks to love is to destroy, but you’re learning. You’re learning every day.”
For a moment he just looked at her in astonishment, his lips parted slightly; Clary felt her cheeks flush. He was looking at her like she was the first star that had ever come out in the sky, a miracle painted across the face of the world that he could barely believe in. “Let me—” he said, and broke off. “Can I kiss you?”
Instead of nodding, she leaned down to press her lips to his. If their first kiss in the water had been a sort of explosion, this was like a sun going supernova. It was a hard, hot, driving kiss, a nip at her lower lip and the clash of tongues and teeth, both of them pressing as hard as they could to get close, closer. They were glued together, skin and fabric, a heady mix of the chill of the water, the heat of their bodies, and the frictionless slide of damp skin.
His arms wrapped her completely, and suddenly he was lifting her as he walked them both out of the lake, water pouring off them in streams. He went down on his knees on the powdery sand beach, laying her as gently as he could on top of the pile of their heaped clothes. She scrabbled for purchase for a moment and then gave up, lying back and pulling him down on top of her, kissing him fiercely until he groaned and whispered, “Clary, I can’t—you have to tell me—I can’t think—”
She wound her hands into his hair, drawing back just enough to see his face. He was flushed, his eyes black with desire, his hair, beginning to curl as it dried, hanging into his eyes. She tugged lightly at the strands wound between her fingers. “It’s okay,” she whispered back. “It’s okay, we don’t have to stop. I want to.” She kissed him, slow and hard. “I want to, if you do.”
“If I want to?” There was a wild edge to his soft laugh. “Can’t you tell?” And then he was kissing her again, sucking her lower lip into his mouth, kissing her throat and mouthing her collarbone as she ran her hands all over him, free in the knowledge that she could touch him, as much as she liked, however she liked. She felt as if she were drawing him, her hands mapping his body, the slope of his back, flat stomach, the indentations above his hips, the muscles in his arms. As if, like a painting, he were coming to life under her hands.
When his hands slid underneath her bra, she gasped at the sensation, then nodded at him when he froze, his eyes questioning. Go on. He stopped at each moment, stopped before removing each piece of clothing from either of them, asking her with eyes and words if he should keep going, and each time she nodded and said, Yes, go on, yes. And when finally there was nothing between them but skin, she stilled her hands, thinking that there was no way to ever be closer to another person than this, that to take another step would be like cracking open her chest and exposing her heart.
She felt Jace’s muscles flex as he reached past her for something, and heard the crackle of foil. Suddenly everything seemed very real; she felt a sudden flash of nerves: This was really happening.
He stilled. His free hand was cradling her head, his elbows dug deep into the sand on either side of her, keeping his weight off her body. All of him was tense and shaking, and the pupils of his eyes were wide, the irises just rims of gold. “Is something wrong?”
Hearing Jace sound uncertain—she thought maybe her heart was cracking, shattering into pieces. “No,” she whispered, and pulled him down again. They both tasted salt. “Kiss me,” she pleaded, and he did, hot languorous slow kisses that sped up as his heartbeat did, as the movement of their bodies quickened against each other. Each kiss was different, each rising higher and higher like a spark as a fire grew: quick soft kisses that told her he loved her, long slow worshipful kisses that said that he trusted her, playful light kisses that said that he still had hope, adoring kisses that said he had faith in her as he did in no one else. Clary abandoned herself to the kisses, the language of them, the wordless speech that passed between the two of them. His hands were shaking, but they were quick and skilled on her body, light touches maddening her until she pushed and pulled at him, urging him on with the mute appeal of fingers and lips and hands.
And even at the final moment, when she did flinch, she pressed him to go on, wrapping herself around him, not letting him go. She kept her eyes wide open as he shuddered apart, his face against her neck, saying her name over and over, and when finally she closed her eyes, she thought she saw the cavern blaze up in gold and white, wrapping them both in heavenly fire, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.