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Amber liquid sloshes over Jace’s knuckles when he slams his glass down, stinging in the minor cuts and scrapes on his skin. It’s his third, but it’s strong enough that it feels like his thirteenth. Honeyed faerie mead warms him from the inside out, sweet and tart and bruisingly alcoholic. He’s not sure he can finish it, but he’s no quitter. It’ll get down somehow.

“Better than a mundane,” says the pixie bartender, nodding at Jace’s half-empty cup. It’s a colored glass goblet, multi-faceted surface glimmering greenish-blue in the half-light. “That much would probably have killed one.”

“Aren’t they lucky,” Jace mumbles, and kicks back the rest.

Juniper & Bay is every inch a Seelie bar. Rough rock makes up the walls and low ceiling, which is strung with so many flowers you can barely see through; studding the flora are odd glowing orbs that house minute fae who flicker like fireflies. The room is close and hot, rich with chatter and laughter, smoky with incense. The air is thick in Jace’s lungs, clouding his brain with cedarwood and honeysuckle. The glassware doesn’t match and the drinks are bizarre, stuff Jace has never heard of even with his study and Seelie experience: dillwater, lilac wine, mushroom gin. Fluttering wings keep catching on the back of his neck as patrons edge their way around him. His skin buzzes. It’s good to be drunk.

Jace had only been to Juniper & Bay once before, when he and Izzy were kids, maybe fifteen. They’d read about it in a book, so they had to check it out — after hours, no one tell Alec. It was a tricky little adventure to find the entrance, which was located at the lip of a sealed-over cave in Central Park called the Ramble Cave. You had to walk through an archway to an overlook, then jump the railing and descend a narrow set of stone steps that led down, seemingly, to nothingness. Once it had been a favorite spot for Seelies to snatch mundanes. Now you had to cut your palm and press blood into the stone to get inside.

It’s fine. Jace bleeds a lot.

He had to go somewhere that wasn’t familiar, somewhere without a tough werewolf behind the bar who looks at him with critical kindness and cuts him off after his second drink. He can’t handle someone who knows him and sort of cares, especially because he can barely look Maia in the eye after Izzy sat him down and gave him that talk. You should ask her out, she’d said, all earnest and flushed with her new relationship, wanting the same for everybody else.

Jace wanted to know: what about Clary?

We don’t know how to get Clary back yet, Izzy told him. It could be years, Jace. You can’t stop living your life. You should be happy. She’d want you to be happy.

Clary has been gone for seven months. Everyone else seems to be handling it a lot better than Jace.

Alec is happy, newly married and in love; Isabelle is happy, newly coupled up and in love; their mother is happy, recently relocated and in love. Jace feels good for them in a way that doesn’t really touch him at all. They’re on some island somewhere far away, and where Jace is it’s more of the same, and the same, and the same. He’s angry again and bleeding again, going too hard on missions again, not sleeping again, sleeping around again, drinking too much again. Misery burns a hole in his stomach. He could spit bile. He’s furious.

Sometimes he wishes they’d taken his memories, too. Other times he knows he earned the punishment of being left behind.

He’s about to order a fourth glass of mead when nausea rocks him forward on his stool. He presses both hands to the bar but that doesn’t stop the spinning, so he sinks down to rest his forehead against it, too. The big slab of unfinished oak is strangely cool to the touch, which helps, but not enough.

“Here. Have this,” someone says. The greenish goblet is tugged from Jace’s loose grip and replaced with a small shot glass. When he turns his head (slowly, so slowly, he wants to die), he sees Meliorn looking at him with a kind of fond exasperation. “It will help.”

Jace knows about strange Seelie substances. Stubbornly, he resists.

“Come now, our alliance is not so soon forgotten,” Meliorn says. “And you know very well I am bound by honesty, Jace Herondale.” He taps the rim of the small glass. “It’s good for you.”

The liquid inside the glass is thick and yellow-gold, unsavory enough to be an antidote. Jace lifts his chin to tip it into his mouth and swallows in one go, spluttering and gagging at the gritty texture. He swears he can feel the second it hits his stomach, because sobriety cracks over him like someone smashed an egg onto his skull, dripping cold and fortifying down his back. Just like that, he’s not drunk anymore.

“What was that?” he grumbles, not entirely grateful.

“Mm, honey and peppermint, turmeric, wormwood, ginseng, hawthorn dew, a touch of charcoal.” Meliorn pauses, then adds thoughtfully, “A little coconut water.” He pats Jace on the back. “It’s a reliable recipe.”

“A little too reliable.” The inside of Jace’s skull is raw with rapidly evaporated booze and his teeth are coated in a thin herbal crust. His vision is sharp enough to see the grain in the wood. He’s no longer woozy, and he’s aware of every thump of his heart. “I’m starting to miss the alcohol poisoning.”

“A ‘thank you’ does just as well, Shadowhunter.” Meliorn alights on the next stool over. He isn’t wearing his usual armor, but a loose tunic in a rich teal gradient that’s darkest at the hem and lightest at his shoulders. His pants are heavy and stiff with embroidered flowers, but he carries himself comfortably. “Would you like something less pernicious than your last?”

Jace wouldn’t mind something more pernicious.

“My treat,” Meliorn adds, leaning forward to make a request of the bartender. “There’s no reason to drink alone when a friend is near at hand.”

“Are we friends?”

“Certainly. Brothers-at-arms, at the very least. I imagine that would appeal to you better.”

Appeal comes out in a purr, but brothers-at-arms is decidedly shady. “Mm.” Jace gives Meliorn a sidelong look. “Are you implying something?”

Cheerfully, he replies, “Perhaps your ear is just attuned to implications.”

Jace snorts. He accepts the next drink handed to him, but has second thoughts once he gets a look at it. The liquid is a silky pale purple and it emits a slightly phosphorescent mist; Jace tilts his glass from side to side, watching the shine shift. “Nothing…trippy, right?”

“Its appearance is deceiving. I imagine you will find it no more intoxicating than a typical mundane wine.”

It tastes faintly floral and sweet, like expensive tea. It’s much too mild to insulate Jace against the next thing Meliorn says, which is:

“I wanted to offer my most sincere sympathies. I did appreciate Clary Fairchild’s fire, even if I was personally singed from time to time.”

Jace’s stomach twists up tight. He refuses to look at Meliorn, whose gaze is too forthright and open. “Nobody died.”

“No,” Meliorn agrees. “But there has been a loss all the same.”

The next sip Jace takes is shockingly sour. He pushes the drink away and starts to stand, wants to get out of there, wants out of his skin. “I’m not here to talk about this.”

“Then why are you here?”

After that volley of questions in Edom, Jace is almost used to Meliorn asking him things, so much so that he answers honestly by accident. “To forget.”

“Do you think that’s possible?”

Jace can’t stand small talk lately. He can’t handle one more person asking if he’s okay when they know he’s not. He dreads the way his family gently checks in on him. He hates the banal suggestions they offer about how to make himself feel better. He feels like a thing to be navigated. Or maybe a vending machine; if people put in enough sympathetic aww’s, they expect to receive a tremulous, hopeful smile in return.

But Meliorn doesn’t give the impression of prying. He’s almost philosophical, curious in a detached way, but not cruel. “No,” Jace says eventually.

“Then are you so certain she has?”

That hits Jace in the chest.

It’s the thing he can’t let himself think about, and the only thing he ever thinks about. He has no idea what to do.

“I can’t —” Jace inhales sharply, shakes his head. He used to know how to handle himself. He should flash Meliorn a grin, say something stupid and flirtatious. He should start a fight. Instead he stands there like an idiot and tries really hard not to cry. “I —"

Meliorn’s touch is cautious and sparing, just a brush of fingers against Jace’s shoulder before his hand lands heavily. “Come,” he says. And, easily led, Jace goes.

There are a number of small alcoves ringing the perimeter of the bar, scraped roughly into the rock and lined with embroidered pillows or woven throws. They’re deep in shadow, intimate and removed. Places to kiss, or cry, or maybe both. Usually both, for Jace.

Meliorn’s face is placid and symmetrical. His hair spills loose over one shoulder, and the fragmented scar on his cheek is almost lost to the low light. “Have you ever heard the story of the sealskin maid?”

Jace has not.

“She lived in a faraway Court a very long time ago,” Meliorn says. “I first heard this story when I was a child, and that was a very long time ago, too.” He smiles and Jace thinks, nine.

Meliorn continues, “At night, the selkies are known to cast off their sealskins and dance at the edge of the water in their human form… It is a very beautiful and very terrible thing, if you are ever unlucky enough to see it. Mundanes have lost decades of their lives watching the fae dance, but on this night there was just one mundane watching and he managed to keep his wits about him.

“He crept close enough to snatch up one of the sealskins. He brought it back to his home and hid it. Then he returned to the water to find all the selkies gone but one. They had transformed back into their true forms, but one maid was left stranded with no way to follow. She wanted very badly to go home, but the mundane was not so kind. He asked her to be his wife instead. She didn’t know how to survive in the mundane world on her own, so she had no other option but to acquiesce.”

“I hate this,” Jace says sullenly.

Meliorn touches his wrist again, as though to say, listen. “They lived together for many years, and even had children. But sometimes she would go and walk along the water, letting it lap against her ankles, craving it and unable to find her way back. Then one day while her children were playing hide and seek, they found something odd concealed deep in the storeroom. It was a strange old leathery thing. An animal skin. Confounded, they brought it to their mother, who confounded them further by starting to laugh and weep. In an instant, she had dashed back to the beach with her sealskin in hand. Her mundane husband went after her, of course.”

“Am I supposed to be this guy?” Jace demands. “What is the point of this? I swear on the fucking angel —"

He’s hushed again. Meliorn’s voice remains calm and steady. “At the water, she turned and wished him well, but remarked that she had always loved her first husband more. Then she put on her sealskin and dove into the waves.” He pauses. “The point, Jace Herondale, is that it may take many years and many trials and many tricks, but love can be found again. And yours may very well be returned to you after all, as ardent as ever.”

In a strange way it is the kindest thing anyone has said to Jace yet. Just a simple assurance that good things can come back.

He studies Meliorn for a long moment and is studied in return. Even during their alliance, they weren’t exactly friendly; Jace was an amusement to him, someone to tease. Before that, they trafficked in sarcasm. Now Meliorn is solemn, his gaze kind and direct, not up to anything. Jace’s hand moves almost of its own accord to trace the braided trim at Meliorn’s collar and traipse down to the tassel that hangs from it. His hand falls and he tries again, uncertain and far from smooth; this time, he lays his palm against the side of Meliorn’s neck, then slides it back to curve around the base of his skull. Hair tangles in Jace’s fingers. Restless, he pulls Meliorn forward to kiss.

Meliorn accepts the kiss amiably, as though Jace is saying thank you and he’s replying any time. It’s polite.

Jace isn’t trying to be polite.

His grip tightens in Meliorn’s hair and he angles in again, but Meliorn pulls back slightly, eyebrow arching. “What?” Jace says, gruff, and when there’s no answer, more garbled syllables make their clumsy way to the surface. “I just — I want —”

Meliorn is close enough, his forearm braced on the rough ledge behind them, his other hand curled around Jace’s knee. “What do you want, Jace Herondale?”

He wants someone to touch him without feeling bad for him. Not the tentative affection of his friends; not a stranger’s carelessness, either. He wants something in between. “I want you to fucking kiss me.” And then, because he feels like an asshole, “If you want to.”

The hand on his knee lifts to his mouth; Meliorn’s thumb finds the dip of his cupid’s bow. “Why?”

Annoyed, Jace says, “I don’t know. Don’t you ever want that?”

“No, what I meant is —” His touch skates intently over Jace’s frowning mouth, very warm. He’s weighing something internally. “Am I particular or anonymous?”

Jace understands. “You’re a nine,” he says, almost smiling. Something of his old personality in it. “So fucking kiss me.”

This time when he opens his mouth for Meliorn, he feels the tip of a tongue trace over his bottom lip and catch against the top before they meet. The kiss is fierce, immediate, hard enough that it’s probably ugly to look at; all mashed mouths and locked jaws, Meliorn’s nose pressed against Jace’s cheek, teeth and saliva. It’s like being eaten whole.

Any time Jace tries to take control of the kiss, Meliorn backs off a little, teasingly. He’ll release his rough hold on Jace’s hair and trade in the bruising kiss for something gentle and lazy that Jace can barely feel, his lips are buzzing so much. He arches closer with a frustrated huff, is hushed and held still for another spectral kiss. “C’mon,” he grumbles, impatient, and restrains himself. He waits, his skin humming all over. And it’s only then that Meliorn gives him back what he wants, wringing a satisfied moan from Jace that seems to surprise Meliorn even as it gratifies.

The position is awkward and uncomfortable, side by side on stone, but they make the best of it. Jace can feel the jagged backdrop pressing an imprint into his back, cold and unyielding, but on his other side Meliorn is a flurry of furious attention. He trails his lips down Jace’s neck, each kiss forming a constellation of heat. Jace watches the crowd over Meliorn’s shoulder, breathy and gasping at each scrape of teeth, feeling removed from the rest of the bar by the relative isolation of their little nook. Jace has that feeling a lot lately: watching people from a distance. The closest thing he ever felt to it before was the Owl, when he was a passenger in his own body. There’s no one else knocking around inside his head right now but he still feels the same disconnect. Everyone is out there living their lives and he’s in here, echoing.

“Does something command your attention more than I do?” Meliorn wonders, tongue flat and hot against Jace’s Adam’s apple. If he were a vampire, his teeth would be embedded by now, the transition so smooth Jace probably wouldn’t even have noticed. He remembers it, the heady high of the bite. Not that this isn’t heady all on its own.

“No,” Jace murmurs, words eaten by another kiss. “No, I — I get in my head sometimes.”

“And you want to be in your body.”

“Yes,” he breathes, craving contact, feeling sustained by it. “Yes.”

Meliorn cups Jace through his jeans. There’s no pretense to it. He rubs over Jace’s inseam, the heel of his hand grinding leisurely upwards and lingering for heartbeat of pressure before sliding firmly back down. Pulse pounding wildly, Jace looks to the crowd again, but no one has noticed, or maybe no one cares. Seelies aren’t especially inhibited, and there are other couples and groups hooking up much more explicitly in their own secret alcoves. Meliorn could probably fuck him here and no one would care. The thought sends a sting of mortified desire through him.

As Jace gets hard under his fingers, Meliorn offers a light, “ah,” as though he’d just discovered something unexpectedly pleasant. He slows but doesn’t stop, and the heavy pressure of his palm doesn’t let up. His forehead rests again Jace’s temple, other arm still behind them; Jace has a knotty fistful of braided trim that he keeps winding tighter so Meliorn will shift closer still, legs knocking into Jace’s. Jace tries to keep his eyes open and his breathing even, because there are things he’s only just noticing that he doesn’t want to miss — like the burnished flush on Meliorn’s cheeks, his lips parted with effort, chin raw from the scratch of stubble. His eyes are inescapably dark. Wet-mouthed, hand steady through denim, he asks, “Would you like to retire to my bower?”

“Uh-huh.” Jace’s hips are starting to cant up uncontrollably; he bites back the voice that wants to say, no, here, let’s do it here. “Yes.”

Meliorn abates and Jace arches up into nothing, the motion jerky and stifled. Then Meliorn slips his hand under Jace’s shirt to rest on his stomach, skin to skin for the first time. They’re both so overheated Jace can barely tell that someone is touching him. Meliorn kisses him lightly, friendly as he says, “I’m going to make you come.”

A blunt statement of truth from someone who can’t lie. Jace asks, more than a little strangled, “How?”

He hopes the answer’s good. But Meliorn only smiles and stands, pulling Jace through the throng and out into the shockingly clear night, cool air intoxicating after so long in close quarters. “This way.”

Meliorn leads him along until they get to a fountain, where he releases Jace to take a gold coin from his pocket. Emblazoned on one side is a likeness of the Queen. Meliorn presses it to his lips and then tosses it; the coin flashes as it falls and breaks through the still surface of the water with nary a ripple. They jump in after it and land dry on a stretch of grass in front of Meliorn’s tent. They’re surrounded by trees. The canvas of the tent is dull and stiff, nothing like the rich medley of color and texture that awaits inside.

The last time Jace was here was months and months ago, accompanying Izzy to get information. Meliorn had been in mourning then. There are no butterflies to be found now, but the gauzy, multicolored hangings are the same, as are the crowded pots of plants. Jace thinks of the Seelie realm as a drab place of suffocating vines and bad decisions, but Meliorn’s small corner of it is bright and warm.

Meliorn steps up behind Jace and kisses the back of his neck. He’s slightly shorter; Jace can feel the upward tilt of Meliorn’s chin fitting against the bumps of his spine. “Always leather,” Meliorn notes as he slides Jace’s jacket from his shoulders and deposits it on the floor with a soft thump. It’s very quiet without the ambient noise from the bar, just the stirring of leaves and the rush of Jace’s blood in his ears. And elsewhere.

Jace wonders if he should feel weirder about bedding down with his sister’s sort of ex, but he’s not sure Izzy, ensconced with Simon, would care that much. If she can fuck Clary’s ex, Jace figures hers are probably fair game. Boundaries were never really their thing.

“He’s thinking again,” Meliorn remarks, words pressed into the slope of Jace’s shoulder.

Jace could laugh, and does, a little. “What are you gonna do about it?”

“Well, normally I might ask a thoughtful and incisive question designed to elicit an honest response, encouraging you to open up and embrace your vulnerability.” He pauses. “But, under the circumstances —” He goes for Jace’s belt, unbuckling it from behind before pulling it free of the belt loops with a swish of leather through denim. He discards that too. “What would you rather?”

“You’re on the right track.”

“I suspected.” Meliorn frees the button of Jace’s jeans and then unzips them, sliding his hand into the gap, under the waistband of Jace’s briefs. With his other hand, he tugs Jace’s head back by the hair, tilting up to lay his teeth against the line of Jace’s throat. Jace grabs him by the wrist, not to stop him but to feel the manipulations of his hand as the motion travels up his arm. He’d lost his hard-on a little in the quick trip from the bar to the tent, but it doesn’t take much to get him there again, especially with the soft pleased murmur Meliorn keeps making in his ear. “I made you a promise.”

Jace remembers.

“How would you like it?”

Jace isn’t a prude but this isn’t the kind of desire he typically vocalizes.

“Well,” Meliorn continues, when it becomes clear Jace is tongue-tied. “What do you like?”

“Do you ever stop asking questions?”

Meliorn only smiles; Jace can feel it against his neck. “Not when I’d like so much to hear the answer.”

Jace doesn’t have an answer. At least, not right away. What he likes is attention and people telling him he’s good. He likes proving himself, earning it. But he thinks of Maia’s fist knocking his head back. The way she shoved him up against the bricks in the alley, more strength in her hands than the strongest rune could give him. The manhandling in the training room that left him sweating and breathless; the rare occasion that he didn’t come out best in a fight. He likes the challenge of someone else’s strength. He remembers fighting alongside Meliorn in Edom, how natural it was. Two trained soldiers able to anticipate each other’s movements in favor of reaching the same goal.

He wants something like that, but with sex. “You know when we fought together?”

Meliorn gives Jace’s hair a delicate testing yank that has him thrusting into Meliorn’s other hand. “Pain?”

Jace shakes his head, even if it seems at odds with his body’s reaction. Meliorn accepts that with a slight nod, limits decided, before giving Jace a sudden spinning shove towards the bed. Jace stumbles and lands hard, shirt rucked up over his stomach and jeans sliding down his hips. Meliorn straddles him and catches his wrists to pin them above his head. Jace has to close his eyes, it’s good; he bucks up, struggles, and can’t go anywhere, that’s good too.

The mattress is thin and too soft, down probably, stuffed with feathers. The coverlet is homespun and as dense with embroidery as Meliorn’s clothes; stitched flowers scratch against the back of Jace’s neck, the small of his back. The tent above gathers to a central point from which hangs an explosion of colored stars and glass flowers. They glimmer and clink against each other in a faint breeze. Jace feels all over tender. The ache in his shoulders from his last mission gone awry is sweetly exacerbated by his current position. His legs are trapped by Meliorn’s sprawl, leaving his body very vulnerable, half-exposed and available for anything.

Meliorn slouches closer, hand trailing down Jace’s chest while the other keeps his wrists captive. Meliorn fills Jace’s field of vision, backlit by the light above; it gilds his curls, with their shocking strands of interwoven blue, even as it casts his face in shadow. He’s smirking slightly, amused. All of his expressions are subtle, as though his features are too expertly crafted to be especially malleable. He’s beautiful like a statue is. He could be in a museum somewhere with a little placard next to him. He probably is, actually; he’s old enough.

“Is something funny?” The words leave Jace in protracted huffs.

“I thought you wanted to fight.” One-handed, not gentle, he drags Jace’s jeans down to mid-thigh and then his briefs after. It’s a struggle; the fabric catches a little, has to be coaxed. “I’m not especially impressed, Shadowhunter.”

The way the air eases over Jace’s bare skin is torture. Being half-dressed makes him feel acutely naked, hyper aware of the weight of clothing and its absence. He’s so attuned to the slightest touch that when Meliorn’s hand closes around his cock, he actually cries out. “Really,” Jace gasps. “I am.”

Meliorn’s laughter is warm. His hand is quick and light, enough to torment but not enough to tip over, not yet. Jace can feel it edging closer and closer but it evades him every time. “Why, thank you, Jace. How nice.”

He manages to keep most of his body tantalizingly out of reach, held up by the hand holding Jace down. The tassel of his tunic brushes over Jace’s stomach. His weight is heavy on Jace’s legs; it feels like being pinned to the floor of the training room, which Jace always liked. He pushes up against it, wanting a kiss or anything else, but he can’t budge Meliorn a bit.

“Let’s see what else I can do,” Meliorn muses. The tip of his tongue follows a line of tension up Jace’s neck to his ear. “Shall I —”

He’s not like anyone Jace has been with — not like Jace himself, always rough and to the point when he gets himself off, hurrying towards the inevitable finish. He never understood prolonging something that felt good; better to grab it before it disappeared entirely. But Meliorn makes his case with the slow glide of his hand, his fingers loose until they curl around the head of his cock, thumb circling the tip. Another amble downwards and lower still, cupping Jace while one long finger massages the tender skin behind. He finds his way back to Jace’s cock, his grip decisive now, then gossamer again, a loop that has Jace shivering, wanting something he can’t quite have.

Meliorn’s breathing is as rough as if he were the one being touched. His mouth descends on Jace’s for an unsatisfying kiss as he abandons his teasing for firm strokes, not stopping now, the kiss deepening —

The next twist of Meliorn’s hand catches Jace in just the right — wrong — way. He can’t hold back anymore, moaning raggedly as he comes on his stomach, and a little on his shirt. Meliorn doesn’t let him go until it’s over, watching with his lower lip between his teeth, like he’s almost sorry.

He slides off Jace to lay beside him on his back. Jace stays right where he is, hands still above his head even though the joints are getting stiff and his fingertips are tingling. He doesn’t care about anything right now. It’s a good feeling. His eyes close and his breathing evens out, satisfied enough to fall asleep without a second thought.

“Apologies,” Meliorn said. “Did you believe us to be done?”

Lazy like a big cat, Jace turns into Meliorn and drapes himself over him, biting his neck playfully. “No,” he says, cocky despite the thin strain to his voice.

Really, what’s the point of anything else? What’s the point of all that other bullshit — entangling his life with someone else’s, splitting himself open, giving all the pieces away? Worrying every second of every day, wondering if she’s okay and how she’s getting by. Walking through the fucking park and seeing red hair and feeling his heart stop only for it to not be her, never her; still, in that split second, having a fantasy of her coming through the Institute doors with her sight intact, her smirk triumphant and determined like always, imagining that her will is still stronger than any angel’s. It isn’t. She’s gone and she’s not gone at the same time, but either way Jace is better off this way, with his one-nighters that never scratch too deep below the surface.

He can’t fathom why anyone in his family thinks anything else is a better option. Is he supposed to take someone — Maia — to dinner and fuck it up and laugh it off, let her make fun of him? Answer her when she asks about his scars and try to get under hers? Fight to earn her trust and maybe get it, then have it and have to do something with it. Let himself feel something again and watch it fall apart again. How many times is he supposed to do that? Until it sticks? Once was enough. It was more than enough.

This is better. Immediate understanding and no angling for more. Just someone’s hands on his body. Might as well be Meliorn’s; he’s clever and hot and he gets how it works. He does the same thing. He doesn’t want anyone to know him, least of all Jace. Later tonight, when Jace is straggling home with flowers in his hair and tender little bruises on his neck, none of it will matter anymore. Maybe they’ll see each other again or maybe they won’t, but either way neither of them has any expectations.

And then Jace will do this again with someone else. And probably again. He’s trying not to look too far ahead.

He sits up on his knees to pull his stained shirt over his head and toss it onto the woven rug, where it’s quickly joined by his boots, jeans, and briefs. Then he reaches for the hem of Meliorn’s shirt. Meliorn watches him without participating, though Jace leaves him to his own devices when his tunic gets caught up in his long hair. While he’s busy with that, Jace contemplates the leather laces of his embroidered trousers, which are woven together in such a complicated pattern that plucking them apart would require considerable time, care, and perseverance. So instead Jace grabs his stele and slices right through them with a rune.

“I shudder to think what might have happened if your aim was less precise,” Meliorn says mildly.

Jace points to a rune on the right side of his chest. “Accuracy.”

Meliorn’s lips quirk. He’s propped up on his elbows, hair rumpled and even snarled a little where it trails over his shoulder. Without his armor he seems slight, compact but still muscular, hipbones sharp and veins stark on his forearms. His mouth is kiss-blurred, skin reddened under his scruff. His eyes are alert, returning Jace’s perusal with an inscrutable expression. “Go on,” he says.

Jace has heard a lot about the hypnotic quality Seelies have; his schoolbooks might as well have written about it in big red block letters with blaring alarms. He’s heard about fruit you can’t stop eating and dancing that doesn’t abate, about creatures you are compelled to follow through the trees. And he does feel the urge to keep looking at Meliorn, but maybe it’s just because he never really looked before.

He divests Meliorn of those needlessly difficult pants and finds he isn’t wearing anything underneath. Typical, Jace thinks, and smirks. He bends to press his mouth to Meliorn’s stomach, licks hot over his hipbone, and then notices a strange shift of shadow on his skin — no, he realizes as he moves up Meliorn’s torso kiss by kiss, not a shadow at all. A motif of greenish-brown vines flirts along Meliorn’s sides, curls around his hips, edges in on his ribs. The design isn’t etched in like a tattoo or drawn on with makeup; it vanishes and reappears as the light catches it. Jace tries to trace one unfurling leaf with a fingertip but it skitters away, disappears.

Meliorn cards his fingers through Jace’s hair and tugs slightly. “A common attribute of my people,” he says, answering the unspoken question as Jace leans up to kiss him on the mouth. “My mother lived inside a laurel tree and my father was the vines who crept up the trunk.”

Jace arches his eyebrows. “Cute.”

Meliorn smiles. “They are woodland fae. As am I.”

Jace rubs a hand through the hair on Meliorn’s chest, vines slipping away from the path of his fingers. “I like it.”

“Thank you.” Another kiss, the tease of Meliorn’s tongue in his mouth. “But it doesn’t matter if you enjoy it or not. It’s not for you.” His thumb finds the swoop of a rune on Jace’s collarbone. “These, I don’t care for.”

Jace snorts. He nips at Meliorn’s knuckles then begins to follow his earlier path back down his body. “Popular opinion.”

“They do not entirely despoil the look of you, but it is a close thing.”

Jace gives him a shove so he’ll fall back against the bed. “Thanks so much.”

“You are most sincerely welcome.” He watches Jace descend with an almost curious gleam in his eyes. “Have you decided upon your next course of action?”

Jace has.

Meliorn’s head tilts. “Is it something you’ve done before? If, perhaps, you needed some instruction —"

Jace looks up at him, poised with his lips against the inside of Meliorn’s thigh, framed by the casual sprawl of his legs. “It’s not my first time,” he says flatly, and takes Meliorn’s dick into his mouth.

It’s perhaps because of Meliorn’s well-meaning doubt that Jace feels the compulsive need to show off, so he goes all the way right away. Keeps easing down until his mouth has met the hand wrapped around the base of Meliorn’s cock and then, stupidly unbreathing, pushes himself slowly further. Peels his fingers away one by one until he can pull his hand away entirely and press his palm flat to the surface of the bed. His hair is in his eyes and his nose is full of Meliorn’s smell, crushed grass and wildflowers. He swallows thickly. It’s not until he feels a hand in his hair that he moves, sliding off but not giving either of them a moment’s peace before sinking down again, wanting that raw feeling in his throat. Wanting to hurt himself, a little.

It’s not enough. There’s something naturally sensory about Meliorn, his soft well-shaped mouth and intense dark eyes, the slash of brow and tumble of lush hair. He’s made up of so many textures: those tightly-threaded flowers and loose linen, the velvet crush of petals and slip of sweat on skin. But for as tangible as he is, there’s something removed about him, and he doesn’t give away much in bed. There are no muffled cries or earnest praise, just his breathing growing shallower and sometimes a low rich moan that slithers down Jace’s spine. He sounds pleased, or pleasured, in those hums, with his cheek turned to the side while he strokes the nape of Jace’s neck. He is so hot and alive on Jace’s tongue but elsewhere he is almost cold, and Jace wants his attention so desperately that he could bite him.

So he does, a little. And Meliorn actually laughs, rough with shock, his gaze returning to Jace.

“Are you bored?” Jace taunts, hoarse. Something sharpens in Meliorn’s eyes. He cups Jace’s cheek, digs his fingertips into the hinge of his jaw.

“Do you need attention?” he wonders, patronizing, too aware.

But he’s not the only one who can evade. Instead of answering, Jace starts in on him again and this time Meliorn sits up, his hand sliding down to dig into the muscles of Jace’s back. This time Jace is conscious of the small ways Meliorn starts to unravel — the muscles that lock in his thigh, tensed against Jace’s ear; the impatient movement of his hips; the tremble of his stomach as he holds himself up. Jace is hard again but it’s not as important as the task he’s set himself, not as important as Meliorn sucking in a sharp breath and holding it, his brow furrowing as his short nails scrape over Jace’s skin. That low, low humming sound he makes. When he comes it’s not a production, just a sudden drop over the edge. Jace swallows because he has something to prove, though it’s not something he usually does. When he does this.

“You taste like lavender,” he says, amused and a little wondering.

Meliorn smiles slightly and shrugs one shoulder in a louche, insouciant way. He’s splayed and spent, skin sheened in sweat that Jace wants to taste.

Jace does not feel done, exactly. He wonders how long he has to wait to suck Meliorn off again.

Meliorn trails his fingers absently over Jace’s knee, then up along the top of his thigh in a flowering nonsense pattern. “You’re a different kind of lover than I expected.”

“Oh?” Jace allows Meliorn to draw him down into a kiss. “Something you thought about?”

“No,” he says, sunny. “I can’t say I thought of you much before.” He chuckles at Jace’s outraged grumble. “Though I did hear tell from Kaelie from time to time.”

Tension saps some of Jace’s post-coital ease. Cautiously, “What did she say?”

“That you were tireless.” He smoothes Jace’s hair back behind his ear. Then his gaze drifts pointedly downwards. “Which I can tell for myself.”

Jace indicates a mark on his hip. “There’s actually a rune for —”

Before he can finish, Meliorn wraps an arm around his waist and rolls him in a sudden pivoting tumble that puts Jace on his back again, Meliorn above him. He brings Jace’s legs up around his hips. “I will hear no more of runes.”

Jace laughs and then groans when Meliorn sinks down against him. “Are you seriously — already?”

Meliorn’s hand snakes down between them, curl of his knuckles caught against Jace’s stomach. Once again, he’s unperturbed. “For Seelies it’s more a matter of will than physiology.”

“That’s convenient.”

“I’d say so. Have you not been with a Seelie man before?”

Jace had half-expected this, at some point. Everyone wants to know. He’s aware that he’s not bound by honesty, but he answers honestly anyway. “Not a Seelie.”

“Well then.” Meliorn’s kiss is leisurely and purposeful, mirroring the slow rocking of his hips. “You’ve learned something tonight. Lucky you.”

Jace’s smile is bitten off by a wave of rising heat that makes him close his eyes, brow furrowing. They’re all locked up together, sweltering and slick, thigh over thigh and arms winding. It’s too much of a puzzle to kiss, but Jace tries; finally tightens both hands in Meliorn’s hair and bucks his hips up, rolls them back over. Meliorn’s hair spreads out on the mussed bedding, threaded through with small blue flowers that Jace doesn’t remember seeing before.

Desire is a feeling like a clenched fist, like readying himself for a strike — all tension and excitement, knowing something is about to happen but not exactly what. He only has the general sense of it, of bodies and the impact they make. Jace has always received violence and affection one after another for as long as he can remember, and it’s probably a bad thing that even now he has them tangled up. But he only ever learned how to do two things with his body and he recognizes them in each other, even if the way one plays out has little to do with the other.

It’s Meliorn’s turn now to be pinned, his wrist twisted off to the side, fingers flexing against nothing. Then the other, now just hips sliding together with nothing to guide them, a messier friction but just as good — better, maybe, because it’s hard-scrabble and tight. It feels like it’ll take longer now, the immediacy dulled but the heat still high. Meliorn wrests one hand free so it can scurry up Jace’s chest and throat to his lips, where teeth and tongue are waiting.

Meliorn watches him, flush high in his face. “I bet you’d bring an axe to bed with you.” With a forceful jerk, he breaks Jace’s grip and turns them over again, the duvet bristling against his skin. “If you could.”

Jace leans up to lick at his mouth and is denied, grins. “Only so you could take it off me.”

Meliorn snorts. He drags one of Jace’s hands down between them, fingers sliding together as they each try to do what probably only one needs to. Jace takes Meliorn roughly by the face to kiss him and they come like that, one after the other, in all that frantic movement. They keep going a little after, carried away by momentum, until it stings enough that Jace pushes him off. Heart thumping. Breath storming in his lungs.

Meliorn drops onto the mattress beside him. They never even got the blankets untucked, though it hardly matters now. The whole thing’s a rumpled mess. Pillows everywhere.

Jace is wiped out but Meliorn’s energy is, apparently, endless. He pats Jace on the chest in a friendly way before pushing up, dipping back down for a peck, and then bounding off the bed entirely. He returns after a few minutes wearing a loose brocade robe and carrying a tray with an assortment of snacks; fruits and cheeses mostly, but there’s also bread and water. Tucked under his arm is a length of dampened linen that he uses to gently dab Jace clean. Jace accepts it. He has no reason not to.

While Jace picks at the food, Meliorn works a handful of daisies into a crown. He places it carefully atop Jace’s head when it’s done.

Jace glances upwards, expression wry, and sees only the edge of white petals. “Thanks.”

Meliorn inclines his head as though this is commonplace one-night stand protocol. Other people Jace has been with were not so thoughtful; Jace himself is not so thoughtful. They talk a little bit, about not much. It’s almost dawn when Jace gets dressed and goes to the entrance of the tent. Meliorn rises to follow. “I hope,” he says, observing too much of Jace as usual, “that one day what you’re looking for finds you.”

Jace tries to muster up another thank-you, but his throat constricts and the words get stuck. Instead he nods and kisses Meliorn once, for the road.

Then he goes home.