Will Herondale was burning.
This was not the first time he had consumed vampire blood, and he knew the pattern of the sickness. First there was a feeling of giddiness and euphoria, as if one had drunk too much gin — the brief period of pleasant drunkenness before the morbs set in. Then pain, starting at the toes and fingertips, working its way up as if lines of gunpowder had been laid across his body and were burning their way toward his heart.
He had heard the pain was not so great for humans: that their blood, thinner and weaker than Shadowhunter blood, did not fight the demon disease as Nephilim blood did. He was vaguely aware when Sophie came in with the holy water, splashing him with the cool stuff as she set the buckets down and went out again. Sophie’s hatred of him was as reliable as fog in London; he could feel it coming off her whenever she got near him. The force of it lifted him up onto his elbows now. He pulled a bucket close to him and upended it over his head, opening his mouth to swallow what he could.
For a moment, it doused the fire burning through his veins entirely. The pain receded, except for the throbbing in his head. He lay back down carefully, crooking an arm over his face to block the dim illumination coming from the low windows. His fingers seemed to trail light as they moved. He heard’s Jem’s voice in his head, scolding him for risking himself. But the face he saw against his eyelids wasn’t Jem.
She was looking at him. The very darkest voice of his conscience, the reminder that he could protect no one, and last of all himself. Looking the way he had the last time he had seen her; she never changed, which was how he knew she was a figment of his imagination.
“Cecily,” he whispered. “Cecy, for the love of God, let me be.”
“Will?” That startled him; she appeared to him often, but rarely spoke. She reached her hand out, and he would have reached for her, too, had not the clang and clatter of metal brought him out of his reverie. He cleared his throat.
“Back, are you, Sophie?” Will said. “I told you if you brought me another one of those infernal pails, I’d—”
“It’s not Sophie,” came the reply. “It’s me. Tessa.”
The hammering of his own pulse filled his ears. Cecily’s image faded and vanished against his eyelids. Tessa. Why had they sent her? Did Charlotte hate him as much as all that? Was this meant to be a sort of object lesson to her in the indignities and dangers of Downworld? When he opened his eyes he saw her standing in front of him, still in her velvet dress and gloves. Her dark curls were startling against her pale skin and her cheekbone was freckled, lightly, with blood, probably Nathaniel’s.
Your brother, he knew he should say. How is he? It must have been a shock to see him. There is nothing worse than seeing someone you love in danger.
But it had been years, and he had learned to swallow the words he wanted to say, transform them. Somehow they were talking about vampires, about the virus and how it was transmitted. She gave him the pail with a grimace — good, she should be disgusted by him — and he used it again to quench the fire, to still the burning in his veins and throat and chest.
“Does that help?” she asked, watching him with her clear gray eyes. “Pouring it over your head like that?”
Will imagined how he must look to her, sitting on the floor with a bucket over his head, and made a strangled noise, almost a laugh. Oh, the glamour of Shadowhunting! The warrior life he had dreamed of as a child!
“The questions you ask …” he began. Someone else, someone not Tessa, might have perhaps apologized for asking but she only stood still, watching him like a curious bird. He did not think he had ever seen someone with eyes the color of hers before: it was the color of gray mist blowing in from the sea in Wales.
You could not lie to someone with eyes that reminded you of your childhood.
“The blood makes me feverish, makes my skin burn,” he admitted. “I can’t get cool. But, yes, the water helps.”
“Will,” Tessa said. When he looked up again, she seemed to be haloed by light like an angel, though he knew it was the vampire blood blurring his vision. Suddenly she was moving toward him, gathering her skirts out of the way to sit by him on the floor. He wondered why she was doing that, and realized to his own horror that he had asked her to. He imagined the vampire disease in his body, breaking down his blood, weakening his will. He knew, intellectually, that he had drunk enough holy water to kill the disease before it could burrow into his bones, and that he could not put his lack of control down to the sickness. And yet — she was so close to him, close enough that he could feel the heat radiating from her body.
“You never laugh,” she was saying. “You behave as if everything is funny to you, but you never laugh. Sometimes you smile when you think no one is paying attention.”
He wanted to close his eyes. Her words went through him like the clean slice of a seraph blade, lighting his nerves on fire. He’d had no idea she had observed him so closely, or so accurately. “You,” he replied. “You make me laugh. From the moment you hit me with that bottle. Not to mention the way that you always correct me. With that funny look on your face when you do it. And the way you shouted at Gabriel Lightwood. And even the way you talked back to de Quincey. You make me …”
His voice trailed off. He could feel the cold water trickling down his back, over his chest, against his heated skin. Tessa sat only inches from him, smelling of powder and perfume and perspiration. Her damp curls curled against her cheeks, and her eyes were wide on him, her pale pink lips slightly parted. She reached up to push back a lock of her hair, and, feeling like he was drowning, he reached out for her hand. “There’s still blood,” he said, inarticulately. “On your gloves.”
She began to draw away, but Will would not let her go; he was drowning, still, drowning, and he could not release her. He turned her small right hand over. He had the strongest desire to reach for her entirely, to pull her against him and fold her in his arms, to encompass her slim, strong body with his. He bent his head, glad she could not see his face as the blood rushed up into it. Her gloves were ragged, torn where she had clawed at her brother’s manacles. With a flick of his fingers, he opened the pearl buttons that kept her glove closed, baring her wrist.
He could hear himself breathing. Heat spread through his body — not the unnatural heat of vampire sickness, but the more ordinary flush of desire. The skin of her wrist was translucently pale, the blue veins visible beneath. He could see the flutter of her pulse, feel the warmth of her breath against his cheek. He stroked the softness of her wrist with the tips of his fingers and half-closed his eyes, imagining his hands on her body, the smooth skin of her upper arms, the silkiness of the legs hidden beneath her voluminous skirts. “Tessa,” he said, as if she had the slightest idea the effect she was having on him. There were women who might have, but Tessa was not one of them. “What do you want from me?”
“I—I want to understand you,” she whispered.
The thought was quite horrifying. “Is that really necessary?”
“I’m not sure anyone does understand you,” she breathed, “except possibly Jem.”
Jem. Jem had given up on understanding him long ago, Will thought. Jem was a study in how you could love someone entirely without understanding them at all. But most people were not Jem.
“But perhaps he only wants to know that there is a reason,” she was saying. Her gaze was fierce. Nothing stopped her arguing, he thought, or caring: in that way, she was like Jem: loss did not make her bitter, and betrayal did not beat down her faith. Unconsciously, she moved to draw her hand back, to gesture passionately, and he caught at it, slipping the glove off her hand. She gasped as if he had put his hands on her body, blood rising to stain her cheeks. Her bare, small hand, which curled like a dove inside his, went still. He lifted it to his mouth, his cheek, kissing her skin: brushing his lips across her knuckles, down to her wrist. He heard her cry out in a low voice, and lifted his head to see her sitting perfectly still, her hand held out, her eyes closed and her lips half-open.
He had kissed girls, other girls, when basic physical desire overcame common sense, in dark corners at parties or under the mistletoe. Quick, hurried kisses, most of them, although some surprisingly expert — where had Elspeth Mayburn learned how to do what she did with her teeth, and why had no one ever told her it wasn’t a good idea? — but this was different.
Before there had been controlled tension, a deliberate decision to give into what his body asked for, divorced from any other feeling. Cut free of any emotion at all. But this — this was heat flowering through his chest, shortening his breath, sending a tide of goosebumps over his skin. This was a feeling of pain when he let her hand go, a sickness of loss cured only when he pulled her toward him across the splintery wooden floor, his hands cupping the back of her neck as his lips descended on hers with equal parts tenderness and fierceness.
Her mouth opened under his, hesitant, and some corner of his mind cried out to him to slow his pace, that by any reasonable guess this was her first kiss. He forced his hands to slow down, to gently unclasp the fastenings in her hair and smooth the curls down over her shoulders and back, his fingertips tracing light patterns on her soft cheekbones, her bare shoulders. Her hair felt like warm silk running through his fingers and her body, pressed against his, was all softness. Her hands were light as feathers on the back of his neck, in his hair; when he drew her closer, she made a low sound against his mouth that nearly drove every last thought from his head. He began to bend her back toward the floor, moving his body over hers —
And froze. Panic rushed through his blood in a boiling flood as he saw the whole fragile structure he had built up around himself shatter, all because of this, this girl, who broke his control like nothing else ever had. He tore his mouth from her, pushing her away, the force of his terror nearly knocking her over. She stared at him through the tangled curtain of her hair, her face pale with shock.
“God in Heaven,” he whispered. “What was that?”
Her bewilderment was plain on her face. His heart contracted, pumping self-loathing through his veins. The one time, he thought. The only time —
“Tessa,” he said. “I think you had better go.”
“Go?” Her lips parted; they were swollen from his kisses. It was like looking at a wound he had inflicted, and at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to kiss her again. “I should not have been so forward. I’m sorry —”
“God.” The word surprised him; he had stopped believing in God a long time ago, and now he had invoked him twice. The pain on her face was almost more than he could bear, and not least because he had not intended to hurt her. So often, he intended to hurt and to wound, and this time he had not — not in the least — and he had caused more hurt than he could imagine. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and take her in his arms, not even to satisfy his desire but to impart tenderness. But doing so would only worsen the situation beyond imagining. “ Just leave me alone now,” he heard himself say. “Tessa. I’m begging you. Do you understand? I’m begging you. Please, please leave.”
Her reply came, finally, stiff with hurt and anger. “Very well,” she said, though it was clearly not. He chanced a look at her out of the corner of his eye: she was proud, she would not cry. She did not bother to gather up the hair clips he had scattered; she only rose to her feet and turned her back on him.
He deserved no better, he knew. He he had thrown himself at her with no regard for her reputation or the indecorousness of his passion. Jem would have thought of it. Jem would have been more careful of her feelings. And once upon a time, he thought, as her footsteps receded, so would he. But he no longer knew how to be that person. He had covered up that Will for so long with pretense that it was the pretense he reached for first, and not the reality. He dug his nails into the floorboards, welcoming the pain, for it was little compared to the pain of knowing that he had lost more than Tessa’s good opinion this evening. He had lost Will Herondale. And he did not know if he could ever get him back.