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—”