Chapter 1: On an Existential Level
His chest locked up as he tried to take a deep breath and stuttered on it. He didn’t remember how to do this. How to breathe. He didn’t remember how his body was supposed to feel. He tried again, shallower, then again. Eyes squeezed shut, hands rolled into fists, shoulders tight against the effort. All the air left him. He tried again. Slow. Slower. Breathing in and out with Will whispering in his ear as he fought through a bad night. He could do this. He waited until he had a handle on his breathing before he opened his eyes.
Jem blinked and turned around slowly. He paused on that thought.
He took in another breath.
He was himself.
His heart was not only beating but beating too fast like he was running for his life. He drew in a breath and blinked again before forcing his eyes to focus. Blue and yellow floor. Pretty ceramic tiles arranged in geometric patterns. He was staring at his feet and he was wearing a pair of black and white running shoes. Jeans. Plain. Modern but normal. The type of thing a young person might wear to the mall.
He snapped his head up, casting around for a reflection. His eyes didn’t focus properly for a moment. It didn’t seem possible to forget how to breathe or how to focus on a point in the distance but he was struggling with both of those skills. He hadn’t used them in so long. Brother Zachariah had settled into a solid body and closed his eyes so long ago that he had fallen out of practice. The little things.
There. His face in the window. His face. Brown eyes. Dark hair still streaked with silver. The shaped of it was as he expected but the pallor and the near motionless calm expression of Brother Zachariah were gone. His eyes were too wide. His mouth a little open. He looked scared. He looked shocked. He schooled his expression and held his reflection’s gaze as though it would help. He didn’t like it. Didn’t like the way his face looked when he tried to keep it in check.
He was shocked.
He was scared.
Hiding it didn’t make it less real.
Those emotions were loud and bright and bouncing around his chest where his heart was beating.
A miracle inside his ribcage.
He didn’t know why but he would not waste this gift.
He dragged his attention away from his own face in the window and took in the rest of the scene. A plate glass window with lettering meant to be read from the street. He was too disoriented to make sense of the reversed letters. There was a sign advertising the hours of the business he was standing in. Outside it was dark. A street lamp glowed on the sidewalk and he could see cars parked along the narrow road. The sign for a pharmacy glowed beyond that. Superimposed over the too normal urban street scene was his face. His face with runes on his cheeks and his hair all askew and his eyes too wide again.
He flung a thought out - reached out with magic that had been there so long it had become second nature. Reality did not warp around him. There was no Silent Brother chorus. No sense of time and space and possibility. No awareness of living things or the rhythms of life writ large upon the fabric of the universe. Nothing. Just his own head. His own thoughts. No disapproval from Brother Enoch's direction or idle curiosity from Brother Ezra or the blank flat thoughts of those who had been among the Brothers so long that they had lost their individual sparks of personality entirely and were simply the Silent Brothers. A giant faceless collective bricked into walls in the Silent City or still drifting about the archives like ghosts who hadn't ever put down their tasks.
They were no longer tied to him. No longer inside his head.
The only thoughts in his head were his own.
And they were racing.
As fast as his heart. Just as unfathomable.
He was alone.
Alone inside his own head was one thing. It was something he had wanted ever since he had left the ranks of the novices and lost the ability to push the other voices out. There had been moments of regret during his years as a Silent Brother and that had been one of the starkest. His thoughts were where he held onto them and those memories were so much harder to protect when there were so many other people pressing into the spaces. Now his thoughts were his own again but he was also alone in this place.
He didn’t even know where he was.
It was a cafe.
It was a cafe and that was a relief because it meant that there were chairs and tables and places to sit. He needed to sit down. The chair held him up so he didn’t collapse to the floor. He looked down at those black and white running shoes and the white socks under them and the blue of his jeans and his hands hanging there because he was leaning forward and bracing his elbows on his knees to keep from collapsing. His fingers were his fingers. The scar where Will had fucked up a knife throw badly enough that Jem had bled a stain out onto the training room floor. His voyance rune lay black as pitch against his skin. The faded white scar tissue outlines of a strength rune that peeked out from under the sleeve of a blue jumper.
"Are you alright?" a voice asked.
Jem squeezed his eyes shut.
He turned to look at her before he opened his eyes. He knew who it was. He would know that voice anywhere.
"Tess?" he said.
She smiled at him but it was a flat sort of smile. A polite but impersonal smile. She was wearing a name tag. Her hair was pulled back into a braid that fell over one shoulder. Long. Long and light brown and surprisingly familiar. He hadn't seen it in decades but it felt like yesterday. She wore a blue apron over a white button-down blouse that had been rolled to her elbows. Plain and simple. She had her hands on the polished wood of the counter top and was considering him with a little frown line between her eyes. Polite and impersonal but kind. Kind and concerned and his Tessa. She had looked at him with that same curious kindness that the first night they'd met, when she'd stumbled into his room in the middle of the night.
"We close at ten, I'm going to start cleaning the machine soon so if you want coffee, let me know," she said.
It was late. It was night time. He hadn’t noticed. It was dark. He had noticed that but hadn’t connected it. Tessa stood behind the bar, looking at him like she’d never seen him before. It was dark. Of course, it was night time. She picked up a blue towel and had a little smudge of something on her cheek. He had forgotten what day and night looked like. They had been feelings. Knowledge and understand of the sun and the planet and their placement in the universe. He would have glanced back at the window if he wasn't so transfixed by her.
Tessa was here and he was worried about the sun and the stars.
"Are you alright?"
"This is a strange moment," he told her.
He smiled. Always a question. Always a question from Tessa Gray.
"Reality is the wrong shape. I am not who I thought I was."
"On an existential level or a physical one?"
He smiled at that question. Smiled. He felt it. Felt the way his muscles had to move. He stopped smiling as soon as he realized that he was thinking about it. He tried to do it again but it was hard to remember how. He shrugged instead. Not as complex. It was harder to get a shrug wrong. Smiles, on the other hand, could look alien if they weren’t the right shape.
"Both. Though the physical is far more striking. I was something else before this and now I am something I never thought I would be again."
She frowned and came around the counter. He watched her. She moved smoothly and evenly. Her posture perfect from a lifetime of being laced into corsets. She paused to pick something up at the end of the bar and then came across the room to him. She wore a skirt under the apron. Longer than her knee. The wrong century. A fashion that was not from this century where they stood nor the one they had been born in. A bell of navy-blue fabric that rustled softly as she crossed the room to him. She wore running shoes too. Hers were pink. They suited the outfit in an incongruous way. A woman in the 1950s would have worn that skirt but not those shoes.
"You look beautiful," he said.
"It is after dark on a Thursday, flirting with the barista isn't in good taste," she said lightly.
She sat down on the other side of the table and handed him the glass of water she had been carrying. He was perched on the edge of a chair, staring at her, trying to keep his breathing together. She held his gaze. The little frown was back. Her attention was wary but still kind. She was concerned about him but she didn't know him. Her gray blue eyes were as familiar as -- No. They were more familiar than his own. He remembered her face more clearly than he remembered his own. She looked like home. Even dressed like this. She looked like home and smelled faintly of coffee and lavender.
He knew her.
She didn’t know him.
He was forgetting how to breathe again.
"Are you alright?" she asked again.
"Can I call someone for you?"
He looked up at her and tried to find the right words before he said, "No."
"There has to be someone," she said. "A friend?"
He quirked a smile and then looked down at his hands again. A friend. He needed a friend but he needed a specific friend. He needed Will. He needed Will to lean against his shoulder and whisper little observations about the world in his ear. He needed someone to explain what the hell was going on or at least marvel at the strangeness with him. He needed his Tessa. This Tessa didn’t remember him. The only person he wanted to call was sitting across from him and she didn’t know who he was.
"I think I might have been forgotten."
"You don't strike me as the forgettable type," she said.
He grinned at her and the smile felt foreign on his face but he didn’t lose it right away. He was surprised by it but he didn’t want to lose it. His face hadn't stretched into a smile in so very long. He didn't remember what it was supposed to feel like. It felt good. It felt alien. The smile dropped again. He could relearn this. He wanted to be able to smile at her and put everything he felt behind it.
"You don't remember me,” he said.
She answered his grin with one of her own and it was painfully beautiful. There were too many years between the last time he had seen her face and this moment. Lifetimes. She was the only one left that he really cared about. The only one he wanted to remember him. Please. The smile was almost enough to take the edge off the pain of wanting. Almost.
She laughed and pointed a finger at his nose.
"The catch there is that we've never met. I'll remember you for next time."
"We've met. The universe and the flow of time might have rearranged itself around some event that neither of us remember but we've met."
"In a cosmic sense?" she asked with a laugh. “In some other life?”
"In a very practical sense. At least for me," he said and his own laugh slipped out to answer hers. He didn't mean to say it but the words escaped before he had considered them. "You were my first kiss." He cut it off before he could let out the rest. My last kiss. The only person I ever kissed.
"I'd remember that," she said.
“Evidently not,” he said. “There is some magic at work that I haven’t figured out yet.”
That made her stop and consider him again. She had assumed he was mundane. The shop was very mundane. He would have needed a stele and a few runes to say for sure if there was any enchantment on the place but there was nothing obvious that he could feel. Magic was the only answer for how he had ended up here. It would have taken a miracle to put him here but he had no evidence of miracles. Just this woman who didn’t know who he was.
"What are you?" she asked. "You're not a warlock. Fae?"
He ran his fingers along the runes on his cheeks and hesitated. It was written on his face but she couldn’t or wouldn’t read it. Tessa knew what a Shadowhunter was. Even in this other world, she had to know what a Shadowhunter was.
"Shadowhunter, I guess. I seem to be a Shadowhunter again. I always was. I didn’t feel like myself when I was among the Brothers but I was still a Shadowhunter, even then,” he stretched his hand out in front of face and studied the rune on the back of his hand. He turned it so she could see. The ones on his face were obscure. Not well known. This one was a mark of his people, one they all wore. This she recognized. She looked at him again and all the warmth was gone.
Her expression shut down. Colder. Defensive.
"I've never kissed a Shadowhunter. I've got more sense than that. You're mixing me up with someone else."
She started to stand up and Jem panicked.
He didn’t want her to leave.
Everything was wrong. The world had gone utterly sideways and he didn't understand it at all but while she was looking at him, he could handle it. He reached out and caught her hand and she tensed. Sharp. Her eyebrows drew together. Her lips pressed into a tight line. She was bracing for a fight and he stupidly rubbed her knuckles with his thumb as though he could calm that reaction.
No. He was causing it.
He dropped his hands. Twisted them into fists and pressed them together under the table.
She stood there. Staring at him. Taking in the details. Making him self conscious. Making him question every detail of his appearance and his behaviour and every choice he had ever made. She was cold and ready to defend herself and he needed to prove to her that he wasn’t a threat. He wasn’t. Was he? He closed his eyes and pushed the questions back. They weren’t helping. His thoughts were running too fast again. Was he a threat? No.
"Tess. I would never hurt you.”
"You don't know me," she said.
"That's not quite true. You've never met me but I knew you. I did. I do. Your life must have taken a very different path in the years since this time line diverged from mine but I knew you or I know the person you could have been."
That frown. He wanted to wash it away. He wanted her to smile at him again. He wanted to be home. He wanted this miracle – where ever it had come from - to have brought him home.
Tessa was home. She had always been home. She kept frowning at him.
"You hate chocolate. You learned to dance with your brother in a tiny apartment in the New York tenements and you always loved it. Not the apartment. You mentioned once that you had to put paper on the windows in the winter when it got too cold but the dancing and your little family, you love them. Your aunt raised you like her own after your parents died in a carriage accident.”
She watched him as he talked. Eyes too wary but the tight line of her mouth relaxing as he let the words pour out. He didn’t quite remember how to make his face do what he wanted but he hoped that there was some fraction of his emotion was showing in his face. He wanted her to know. To understand. He loved her. He had always loved her. In this world. In that one. In any other one that they might find themselves in.
“Your brother is a -" Jem trailed off and shrugged, "But you loved him. You loved him even when he did unforgivable things. You've always loved with a depth and a strength that few could rival. I met you just after you had discovered that you weren't as normal as you'd believed and that the world was not as safe or sane as you'd imagined. You love the Tale of Two Cities and Little Women and can quote poets that I can never remember the names of. We were friends once."
"Friends who share kisses and family secrets?"
A hint of a smile. Just a tiny one. She didn't sit back down but she wasn't primed for a fight any more. Curious. She was always so curious and she couldn’t turn away from this. He tilted his head back to study her. He let his smile answer the question. He was afraid to put it into words. The force of emotion ricocheting around his chest was too much to be put into words with someone who didn’t trust him or remember him.
"You didn't like Nate?"
"Do most people like Nate? Is it surprising?"
"He charmed just about everyone. Most people never saw – they saw what they wanted to where Nate was concerned. He was handsome and well spoken which counted for a lot in those days. It still does, I suppose."
"Will always-" Jem paused. "Do you know Will?"
She shook her head.
She was considering him again. He leaned forward on the table. The kind of modern mannerism that his governess would have scolded him for and his mother would have scowled at if she had caught him doing when he was young. He set his elbows on the polished wood and leaned in, smiling like he was going to tell a secret. He didn't want to make her nervous again. She didn’t recoil. He wanted her to keep talking with that little hint of a smile threatening at the corner of her lips.
"You'd like Will,” he said in a whisper like it was a secret.
She laughed a little. Jem pushed the chair with his foot so it slid out from her side of the table. An invitation. Casual but an invitation. She didn't sit. She looked at the chair and raised her eyebrows at him but he ignored that. Just an invitation. Sometimes people refused an invitation. That needn't make his chest hurt. His chest ignored that fact and ached. Please. He looked up at her because her face was softer, too curious to be defensive.
"Maybe my life is radically different than you imagine it to be. Of we come from two divergent time lines, then the past that made me, made me different than it made your Tessa."
"You'd still like Will. Any lifetime. Any series of events. He has exactly your taste in books and says the things that you're thinking but are too polite to say."
She laughed. "I'm not that polite."
"I can confidently guarantee to you, without hesitation, that Will is less polite. Was. He was."
Jem's thoughts fell apart. He'd been talking about Nate and that fell apart on a verb tense. Was. Is not anymore. Was in the past but is no longer. In this world. In his own world. Will was gone. A lifetime had passed since he had last spoke with William Herondale. Will had lived some other life in this world. Some life without Tessa in it. Imagining that was impossible. He had known Tessa without Will but he could barely remember Will without Tessa. They had always been together. That wasn’t true but after so many years, it felt true.
Jem was staring at point over Tessa's shoulder. A bookshelf. The space was not all café. The tables and the counter only took up half the space. There was a set of three stairs and a railing and the upper level was full of shelves. It was a bookshop. Of course, it was a bookshop. Dark wood and narrow alleys between the shelves. The lamps up there were glowed yellow and there was a tiny sofa tucked into the corner by the window beneath a stained-glass lamp that hung low over it. It looked cozy.
He wondered if Will would have liked it.
"What does your Will have to do with my brother?"
"Will," Jem started.
But the story was gone. A story about Will being forgivable and why Nate was not. A comment about beautiful people. He could remember why he had wanted to tell the story. It had seemed like a good anecdote.
"Will is someone you care about," she said.
"That doesn't mean that you care any less."
"As long as there is love and memory," Jem said but he trailed off again.
The emotion was pressing in. He had forgotten how to focus his eyes properly but that wasn’t the worst part of waking up human. He had also forgotten how to manage his emotions. This feeling took everything he had and swallowed it whole. Words were hard. Breathing had gotten difficult again. The world narrowed down. His chest hurt.
She sat down. She sat back down and put her hand on his. He looked up at her and she blurred. Blurred. She blurred because his eyes were full of tears. He shook it off. Wiped them against his sleeve like a child and started to reach for her. Her fingers were against the back of his hand and he got as far as flipping his palm over before he remembered how badly grabbing hold of her had gone last time. He froze. He sat there with his hand palm up on the table like a beggar looking for loose change and tears still threatening.
"I'm sorry for getting emotional,” he forced out in a flat even voice. Brother Zachariah’s voice.
She grabbed hold of his upturned hand and squeezed. Her hands were warm and strong and soft. He hadn't been able to feel anything properly in years. Decades. Too long. The breath he tried to take in was shaky. He was suddenly aware of the fabric of his shirt against his back. The way his shoes felt around his feet. The chair. The table. The floor beneath them. The air on his skin. He held onto her hand like it was a lifeline and letting go would mean getting swept out to sea. He had to close his eyes against the wave of emotion that hit him.
"Don't apologize," she said. "You've made it through centuries with your heart intact. You still care. You still love. If you are old enough to have known Nate, you’re at least as old as I am. Some immortals lose that strength. It is hard to love. To care. They let their hearts go cold. To love something is to risk this pain. There's intense bravery in that. There is no weakness in feeling that pain.”
He smiled and started to say something but any word was going to come out as a sob. He just nodded and held her hand. She sat with him. Silent and steady. The first time they had met on the bridge after Will's death, she had been the one to sit and hold onto him like this. His hand had been distant then. A piece of the statue that he inhabited. A piece that she had needed and he would have let her carry home with her if he could have figured out how to do it. She didn't remember. This Tessa didn't remember. It hadn’t happened here but she sat with him and returned that favour.
The evening wore on and she left him to lock up the door, to turn the sign to closed and make a pot of tea and then come back to sit at his table. The teapot was blue and white china. Floral and delicate. The teacups didn’t match. She brought it all on a silver tray. He picked up one the teacups and turned it in his hand. It had a pattern of little rabbits on it. Eclectic. There were probably articles about how quaint this place was in the local papers. Or on the internet. Things that used to go in the papers when he was young all went on the internet now.
Jem poured. He put milk and just a little sugar in her cup and then slid it across the table to her. She took a sip and smiled at him. Confused but pleased.
“You know how I take my tea?” she asked.
"I'm not lying. I promise," he said.
"I don't think you're lying. It's just all a bit much to take in. You knew me. In some other life. Knew how I take my tea and what books I like. It's an unusual thing to have walk through the doorway of your cafe a half hour before closing."
"Sorry. I didn’t intend to upset your evening."
"I'm not upset," she said taking a sip of her tea. "Do you want something from the bakery case?"
Jem looked down at his own cup which he had prepared the same as hers. He could remember how she took her tea but was struggling to remember how he took his own. More sugar? No. That was Will. Will who put in too many lumps. He hadn't taken a sip from it yet. He hadn’t touched the water either. He just let the two cups sit on the table.
People brought food. Especially when they were stressed. Even the Nephilim would have tea sent up when a Silent Brother came to tend to a sick loved one. He had accepted many cups of tea because it helped ease the minds of those having terrible days. He had never drunk one. Silent Brothers could not. His body would not have tolerated the food. Now he turned to look up at the bakery case and consider whether or not he was hungry and if he was, what he wanted to eat.
"I was a Silent Brother for nearly a century and a half. I haven't eaten anything since I was seventeen."
"We can order take away."
He frowned a question at her. The bakery case was right there. Slices of cake and piles of pastries. They didn’t need to order anything. She was smiling at him again and so he just raised his eyebrows and waited for her to explain why she looked excited by the prospect of ordering something.
"Pick anything. Any first meal. This is New York. I'm sure we can find someplace that's open at this hour and serves anything you could imagine. I'm buying. Anything you want."
"No. That’s alright. Thank you for the offer.”
"I don't want something fancy. I can - I have - Yes. I do. I have time. I have time to try everything. Give me your favourite. Whatever is in that case. The one you like best," he said.
She considered him for a moment before going to slide the case open and pick something for him. She brought it back and set the plate in front of him. She had two forks and she handed him one and then used the other to steal a bite for herself as she settled back into her chair. She smiled as she ate it. He watched her do it. He was staring and dropped his attention back to the piece of cake piled high with berries.
He took a sip of tea and then pulled a strawberry off and ate just that. Just that one piece. He closed his eyes and just sat there for a long moment. It was just a strawberry but it had been so long. He hadn’t remembered what they tasted like. He barely remembered what it was like to taste anything. Flavour filled his mouth when he bit down and for a moment he wasn’t sure if he liked it or if he could bear it. He shut his eyes against the rush of sensation, and just sat there with his mouth full for a moment before he started to chew again.
He swallowed and sat for a moment before forcing his eyes open and reaching for another one.
"Are you alright?" she asked again.
“I will be,” he said.
“Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”
He looked up from the blueberry he’d picked of the piece of cake and glanced outside again. He was alive but he was also homeless. He had never needed to consider where he was going to sleep. His home had changed over the years before becoming a narrow cell deep under ground where he did not actually sleep but retreated to contemplate in solitude. No. He didn’t have anywhere to go. He rolled the blueberry around the plate as he ran through his options.
“I suppose the Institute will take me in. You said, New York? Lightwoods? Are the Lightwoods still in charge there or has that changed as well?”
“The Institute,” she repeated.
“I’m a bit of an unusual case but I’m still Nephilim. They can’t turn me away.”
She was frowning at him.
“You don’t like the Nephilim.”
“Do you know my heritage?”
“You are Nephilim. You are a warlock but you’re one of us, too.”
“I am an abomination in the eyes of the Clave.”
Jem paused before he spoke. Will and Charlotte had stood between Tessa and the darker corners of the Clave. They had kept her safe from the ones that had fought against the signing of the Accords and fostered the seeds that would give birth to the Circle. Jem had always believed in the Clave. He had been born to be a warrior in their great war against the demons and he’d never questioned that mission but as he’d gotten older, he had found things to question in their methods. Now without Enoch or the others on the edges of his thoughts, those doubts came out in starker language than he expected.
“They’re bigots and idiots,” he said.
She laughed. She laughed and considered him as she nodded. The wariness faded again. It came in flashes and then blew away again. He nudged the plate closer to her. She took another piece of cake and then put her fork down and reached out to take his. She scooped up a bigger piece with actual cake on it and handed it back to him. He smiled and raised his eyebrows. No commentary. He hesitated before eating that. Rich and sugary. He had to shut his eyes again but he could feel her attention on him.
“I’ve got a spare room. Stay here. You don’t need to go back to the bastards right now.”
That was improper. That was an imposition and he shouldn’t do it. In this world, in this situation, she was a stranger. She watched him and he couldn’t see any doubt in her expression. She was making this offer because she meant it. He was already nodding before his own doubts could catch up and escape from his mouth in phrases that started with thank you but.
He didn’t want to leave. For the first time, he didn’t need to leave.
Their time was up. The last few minutes, when they knew the time was ending were always the hardest. Tessa would hold onto his hand and her stream of stories and conversation would wane and drop away. Sometimes she’d just sit there with her head on his shoulder for those last few minutes and they would watch the water. This moment was ending and his time with Tessa had always been parceled out in stolen moments. It ended and he left. But. This was different.
It was getting late but he didn’t need to go back to silent dusty halls echoing with whispers of the dead.
He could stay.
She was asking him to stay.
They sat together at the little table and finished the piece of cake and the pot of tea together. They sat in companionable silence. Every topic of conversation they had was fraught with mismatched history so they just sat together and enjoyed the cake. She picked off the strawberries and rolled them across the plate to his side without a word and he wasn’t sure he’d ever enjoyed a meal more.
The clock claimed it was after eleven when she stood and went to put the dishes away and pull all the shades down. Jem trailed after her until she held out a hand out to him. He took it and laced his fingers with hers. She smiled as she hit the lights and locked the door. She didn’t let go of his hand as she led him home.
Tessa thought she understood her life story. Hers was a story about the witch in the woods. Half cautionary fairy tale, half horror novel, all meandering detour through various historical eras. It was a story of friendships that endured and of knowledge learned and battles fought.
It was a lot of things but it was not a romance novel.
It was not a story where this sort of thing happened.
Beautiful men with deep brown eyes and long thoughtful glances and sudden bursts of emotion fingers didn’t just appear in stories like hers. Handsome mysterious strangers showed up in a woman’s workplace in romance novels. There was feet sweeping and life changing and big romantic gestures in stories like that and none of that fit into her life. It wasn’t that she had never dated, it was just that nothing in her dating history had ever fit the mould of a romance novel. Cautionary tales. Domestic detours through historical eras no one cared much about. Dead end chapters that didn’t go anywhere.
Lives couldn’t be neatly summed up in story arcs. She knew that but she had spent so much of her life pressed between the pages of books that it sometimes helped to imagine that the story arcs meant something. Other times it left her feeling a bit out of touch with the world around her but this evening was already so surreal that out of touch seemed like a requirement.
The beautiful man who had crossed out of his story and into hers, caught her watching him and his entire face changed as he smiled. He had been drifting off into thought and he had gone very still as it happened. He was waiting for her to lock up the door to the café but he was very far away. His back straight. His eyes on some point in some other world. Then he caught her looking and he lit up. All the hard edges softened and his smile spread. He smiled with every piece of himself.
The smile faltered.
She had done something with her face that didn’t welcome that soft smile and he was stepping back. He was so careful. Tessa tried to get her expression back under control but she was flustered and he was already looking away. They walked along the alley between her building and the next one and he reached for her hand. She let him take it. He had long graceful fingers that curled all the way around her hand. She didn’t look up at him again. She didn’t want to risk doing the wrong thing with her face again.
He paused. She stood there holding his hand so she could lead him around the back and waited. He scanned up and down the narrow brick passageway. He watched the night like he was watching for danger. Tessa did the same scan. There were the same trash bins, the stack of empty vegetable crates waiting for pick up was in the same place, the sliver of sky above them was the same dull orange glow of low hanging cloud over the city. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing had pinged her wards. Nothing moved except for the occasional car on the street behind them. He was trained to check for danger.
She kept forgetting this part.
He was a Shadowhunter. Nephilim. She had thought she understood what that meant. The foot soldiers in the great war between good and evil. Militaristic. Trained from childhood to kill the things that went bump in the night. Arrogant. Beautiful. Dangerous because they didn’t always look to see the story behind the thing that went bump and usually didn’t care. It was a piece of him. Written on his skin. Coded into his behaviour. She grabbed his hand with both of hers so that she could cover up that black rune on the back of his hand and pull him forward. She wanted to pull him away from those people and into something better.
Every time she remembered what he truly was, it dragged up old memories she would have rather left buried.
Tessa had been declared an enemy of the Clave before she had known she was anything but human. Her first meeting with his people had been terrifying. The ones that had come after were not much better. There had been nearly a century between the first campaign to murder her personally and the second campaign to murder everything like her. Tessa had been there when the Circle had landed on American shores and she had seen exactly what the worst of the Shadowhunters could do.
She couldn’t imagine him doing any of it.
Nephilim as she had known them were not fragile or emotional and every inch of their grace was turned towards killing. He was graceful and she tried to see it as a threat. They had made it around the building to the metal staircase that led up out of the alley. He was slightly ahead of her on the stairs, heading up to the single door to the attic apartment on the third floor. The runes. The weapons. The murders. The trials. None of it suited him. None of it fit with her limited experience of those people.
He stood beside her door, under the porch light that had switched on when they got close enough and startled him just enough to make him tighten his hold on her fingers. The embarrassed smile when he realized what had happened was adorable but only lasted a moment. She was studying him again. Trying to take him out of that blue sweater and the running shoes and put him in the doorway to an Institute, arguing with Magnus Bane and that werewolf from Queens that no laws had been broken and that was all that mattered. She tried to imagine this boy quibbling over the wording of a law to argue that what the Circle had done after landing in New York was not murder at all.
“Tess?” he asked.
She was frowning at him. It wouldn’t come together. The way he had laughed and the way he’d used the word bigot to brush off the Clave’s opinions. The way he kept reaching for her hand despite knowing what she was. He probably even knew what she could do. Truly do. He probably knew that the change was not a parlour trick of glamour but a kind of magic rarely seen outside of the most powerful demons. He knew. She was the daughter of a Prince of Hell. She was something that shouldn’t have been born. She was something his people had once tried to kill. He knew and he was still holding her hand.
He looked at her with just the tiniest bit of desperation in his eyes. He had switched again. He could see it. See her doubt but not understand it. He looked her like he was afraid of being cast out into the darkness. He drew himself together, locked some of that vulnerability away behind a set jaw and serious eyes. Careful. Polite. Composed. Holding her hand too tight.
“I could go-”
“You could, but you don’t have to, you can stay here,” Tessa said.
She had never liked to be in the same room as Shadowhunters. They were a risk. Tessa could change into anyone. She had sat in rooms with them and been assumed to belong, to be one of them. She had seen them at their worst on the battlefield but she had also seen them at their worst in parlours and meeting rooms. The rational discussions of why it was better in the days of spoils and executions. The casual disgust.
And yet, here she was. She was standing on her front porch, insisting that one of them come into her home.
Where were the damn keys?
She had to let go of his hand to rummage for her keys. She fumbled around for them. Her embarrassed smile dragged her attention down. She let go of him, went back to finding her keys. It shouldn’t have been so hard to find her damn keys. The dress only had two pockets. She didn’t even have a purse with her. She had her phone and her little wallet but the keys were not in her pocket.
He reached out and very carefully, without touching her, lifted the lanyard off her neck. Her hair was looped through it he manouvered it so that it didn’t pull and the keys came free. She hadn’t put them back in her pocket after locking up the café.
Tessa laughed and snatched them back from him.
She was blushing and he was giving her a very soft smile as she unlocked the door and pushed it open. Amused but not cruel.
“Why don’t you use magic?” he asked.
“I like having a space that isn’t connected to that life. No magic. No spells. There are protection spells and warding on the building itself but aside from that, I like to leave the magic outside. This space. It’s home. In as mundane a way as I can manage. There’s a workroom on the second floor. My spell books, my ingredients, a practice space, it’s all down there. But up here. I like to keep it magic free.”
Her apartment felt strange as she pushed the door open. It was a private space. It was a space that she had decorated for herself and only herself and rarely invited others in to see. The bookshelf in the hall was crammed with new purchases she hadn’t read yet. There was a sweater thrown over the back of the chair by the door. It wasn’t messy but it wasn’t a place for other people. She dropped her keys in the little ceramic bowl on the table and paused to kick off her shoes. He followed her, taking off his shoes because she did.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Bizarre,” he said. “How about you? You’re taking this all in stride in a way that most people would not.”
“Alternate realities are a well documented fact. There are pathways from this one into others that are well known to the Spiral Labyrinth and the Fae and likely the Silent Brothers as well. I’ve never met anyone from another one before but it was always a possibility.”
“That is a very technical answer.”
She looked up at him. She had been looking at his shoes sitting on her mat and trying not to think too hard about it. It wasn’t fair that he could see right through her like that. She almost brushed him off but he had been nothing but deeply honest with her and it didn’t feel fair to meet his honesty with jokes or deflection.
“How are you doing, Miss Gray?” he asked again.
She told him as much of the truth as she could pull together. “I am taking it in stride because I have practice at taking strange things in stride. My life has been deeply bizarre since I was sixteen years old. Even by warlock standards, my life has been strange. If you stop to panic over every issue, you will spend your entire life in a panic. There is a lot of this that I am not handling well but I am good at hiding it. And you are not a threat. You are a traveler in need of assistance. I can handle that much.”
He nodded but something in his expression hinted that that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. She had a few guesses as to what it was that he wanted but she wasn’t sure she could be that for him. She was not the friend he had lost. Friend was an incomplete definition of what he had lost, what she had been to him in that other world. What she had been to him in that other world was too big to think about so she pushed it away into a box to deal with later. She was not who he wanted her to be and she didn’t know how to convince him of that.
She touched his hand again. She let her fingers brush against the back of his and waited for a response. He took the invitation and laced their fingers together. There were a thousand apologies she could offer him for why she couldn’t be who he wanted but if this could make him smile, then it was enough. He had stepped out of a romance novel that she didn’t belong in but she was a kindly witch and she could try and make him comfortable in this story.
She pulled him forward, drawing him into the living room and pulling him down on the sofa with her. He sat close but not touching. Close enough to touch but not closing the gap. Just their hands linked between them. She pulled her feet up, her skirt spreading out around her as she turned to look directly at him. It got her a little more space and helped dampen the urge to put her head on his shoulder and cuddle in.
Tessa was not going to cuddle the Shadowhunter.
That was a ridiculous urge and she was not going to do it.
She would never have sat sideways on a couch in the 1870s when they had met. The girl he had known was more polite than that. Her aunt had taught her better than that and it would have been deeply uncomfortable in a corset and petticoats. She sat curled up now. He sat properly. Aunt Harriet would be proud of how he was sitting, straight and a bit stiff. Tessa held onto his hand, pulled it in to rest on top of her knees so she could play with his fingers. She rubbed his knuckles and traced the scars on them.
This might count as cuddling the Shadowhunter.
She pushed that thought away but she let his hand go. He gave her the ghost of a sad smile as he took his hand back. God. She almost grabbed it back again. Those big vulnerable emotions kept hitting her like ocean waves. The shock of them knocking her down so a current could draw her out to sea. She almost got up from the sofa because the current of all that feeling was pulling on her. She settled for looking away from him at a big art print of an Alphonse Mucha set that she had had almost as long as she’d owned this building. The art nouveau patterns and the girl staring out at her against the background of stars held enough detail to distract her.
Her mouth opened and honesty came out.
“The big picture. The magical theory. I can handle that. The rest of it is harder,” she said.
He shifted so he could turn towards her. His expression was so soft and it pulled her back from her contemplation of a piece of art she had looked at every day for a lifetime.
“I used to day dream about this. About other worlds. About all the what if scenarios. What if the world had been different? What if I had gone to England when Nate sent for me? What if the Clave hadn’t believed I was a threat? What if a butterfly flapped its wings and caused a hurricane that wrecked a certain ship?”
She closed her eyes. She was not this honest. She simply wasn’t. Tessa didn’t like to lie so she had gotten very good at simply avoiding the question. She kept her secrets through omission. He hadn’t even asked for this and here she was, volunteering it, offering it up. A knife for him to turn on her later. Except. He wouldn’t. She held his gaze and believed that. He wouldn’t use this to hurt her.
She had no reason to trust him this much but that didn’t stop her.
“It’s hard to have that perfect life that I’d imagined when I was seventeen and terrified, suddenly come walking through my front door,” she said before closing her eyes and clenching her jaw against the stream of honesty.
“It was hardly perfect,” he said.
“It was better.”
“You don’t know that.”
She let the current catch her and reached out to squeeze his fingers. “Yes, I do.”
She did know. He was enough. A life where she had known a boy like this during those first terrible years after her mundane life had crumbled had to be better. Even if every other awful thing that had ever happened to her in this world, had happened in that one, it would be better to have had just one conversation where he held her hand and watched her with those beautiful eyes.
“Talk to me, Tess,” he said.
“There is nothing like me anywhere,” she said and he started to interrupt her. She reached up to touch his face, putting her fingers against his lips and then quickly pulling them back again. His skin didn’t burn but the intensity in his expression should have. He fell quiet and waited. “There was a man in England who claimed that I would bring about the end of the Nephilim and so they sought to destroy me to protect themselves.”
“You did nothing wrong. They shouldn’t have-”
“That is not the point. I was a threat. My existence was a threat and these were the years just after the Accords had been signed. They were a fancy new idea and there were a great many in the Clave who would have been happy to see them gone. A great many who thought nothing of hunting down a downworlder for a good cause regardless of what they might have individually done.”
He was frowning but not arguing.
“They didn’t know who I was or where I was or even if I was a boy or a girl. They knew how old I should be and my mother’s name but Morris is a common name and even if they could trace that to the marriage records, Gray is an even more common name.”
“Pandemonium found you first?” he said.
Tessa blinked at the name and then nodded. Just the name took her back. The chasm of horror. The rabbit warren of secrets and parties and mystical rituals. The threats. The promises. What they had done to Nate. The treasure box of horrors about what she was, who she was, what they wanted with her. Pandemonium was one of the great what ifs but not a good one.
“An agent of theirs. A woman I’m still friends with today. I never went to England. I’ve been avoiding the entire damn country since I was a kid,” she said.
Lijing and Johanthan had decided pretty quickly not to turn in the warlock girl they found tending her dying aunt in a tiny apartment. She would find out years later that they had been told they were looking for a weapon and had been shocked when they had found a sixteen year old girl instead. They had been her first friends. Li had taught her magic and found an antidote for Aunt Harriet in some warlock market in the Bronx. If it had been someone else, Tessa’s life would have been very different. Maybe that other person would have brought her back to London and put her on the path that would have crossed with this Shadowhunter boy’s path. She had always imagined that any possibility that brought her closer to the Magister and his schemes would have been worse.
“You never met Mortmain?” he asked.
“You already know this story?” she asked.
“I read another version. Like a fairytale with alternate endings,” he said with a smile.
“I only met Mortmain once. I was twenty five, I think? This old mundane man shows up in my city and behaves as though he owns me and I owe him for it. Only one of us walked away from that meeting. He thought I would be easy to control. He thought having me brought into his fancy hotel room so he could threaten my family directly was a good choice. It would have been different if I had been sixteen but I’d had ten years of training with the Clave breathing down my neck. I was not easy to control.”
He smiled. He looked almost proud of her for that.
Tessa left the story at that. She wanted details about him more than she wanted to share details about herself. Especially those details. There were better stories about her life that she wanted to share. Traveling through South China Sea with Lijing. Convincing the Spiral Labyrinth to let her join before she was even a hundred years old. Learning to canoe in upstate New York. Road trips for spell books and artefacts that crisscrossed America. Hell, even the organization campaign against the Circle was a better story than the time she had murdered an old man who wanted to turn her into a chess piece in his ridiculous revenge fantasy.
He stretched, shifted, settled back in on the sofa, sitting less like a proper gentleman now. He didn’t yawn but he blinked a few times and looked up at the clock.
“Are you tired?” she asked.
“I can’t tell. I honestly can’t even remember how to tell.”
“You’d be able to tell if you’re tired.”
“Maybe I’ll just drop off to sleep in a corner like a toddler. Like Lucie used to do.”
“You had kids?” she asked.
He frowned at her. He would have been very young when he became a Silent Brother. He had the ancient eyes of an immortal but his body was young. Early twenties probably and he had mentioned being seventeen the last time he’d had a meal so she hadn’t thought his life would have included kids but there was something about the way his face changed when he said it that made her think the story was about his children. Still she could imagine him as a father. She could picture him with kids. All smiles and earnest attention. Kids probably adored him.
“A toddler called Lucie, was she yours?” she asked.
He stared at her then blinked twice and looked away. This emotion hurt. Tessa couldn’t quite read it. She could see how deep the feeling ran but couldn’t put a name to it. Grief, of course it was grief. No tears this time but deep loss in his eyes. That child was long gone. She had grown up and passed on and losing her had hurt. Tessa touched his face again and this time he leaned into the touch like a cat and she didn’t panic and pull away. She stroked his cheek and waited.
“Not mine, or not in the sense that you mean. She was family. They both were. I. You. You knew them better than I did,” he said.
She nodded but let that conversation drop. She did not want to follow that conversation through. She did not want to know. Her friends, in this world at least, were almost all downworlders and most of them were immortals. She didn’t know many children. Had never known many children and so trying to imagine that other world was hard. In his world, she had had friends among Nephilim, had played with their children, had been engaged to one of their young me. It wouldn’t come together as a picture. She couldn’t smooth that image out into a world that she could understand.
They sat together and the silence stretched. Full of things unsaid. Of lifetimes that didn’t line up. Of stories that weren’t the same genre and Tessa wasn’t sure could ever be put together. It wasn’t uncomfortable silence but it was heavy.
“Do you have a radio?” he asked.
She looked up at him and he was looking in the direction of her desk as though trying to see if it had a radio on it. Some immortals loved the noise and chaos of technology but Tessa was selective with what technology she adopted. She tried not to slide into rejecting new things because they were new but she didn’t embrace technology easily. She had never really liked having a television in the house and wasn’t a particular fan of the radio either. They filled spaces with noise and voices and all that noise with no people usually just left her feeling lonely.
“I might in the storage closet. Why?”
“Silent Brothers can hear but it didn’t feel the same. As I got older, as the magic took root deeper and deeper. I could hear the notes but I couldn’t feel them anymore. I’m me again. I can hear the emotion in your voice. The shifts in pitch. I can feel it again. I wanted. That is. I thought it might be nice to hear music.”
She rummaged in her pocket until she found her phone. The skirt had big deep pockets. There were two text messages waiting. One, a mass text from a werewolf she knew about a party and the other, a long one from Li that she was too distracted to even begin to read. She swiped them both away and then hesitated.
“Did you want something in particular?”
“That’s a broad topic.”
“Classical. Something gentle. Violin music if you can find it,” he said it with a tiny half smile. His lips slightly apart, his eyes far away as he tried to remember something. Tessa had both hands on her phone and she kept them there. The urge to touch him was a physical thing in her chest, urging her to lift her hand and run her fingers through his hair, pull him in, promise him anything he wanted.
He kept hitting her out of the blue with those deep emotional eyes and his soft expression. He liked classical music. People weren’t actually like this. Soft edged and wondering. Curious and wanting but gentle. He was suddenly more than she could handle. She had been holding it together but with that expression, he overwhelmed her. He was too close. He was too much. He was beautiful and soft and so vulnerable that she wanted to hurt anyone who had ever made him sad.
“Let me show you the guest room,” she said.
Disappointment flickered and she felt guilty but she needed space to breathe. She had almost kissed him. Had almost kissed a stranger over a request that she turn on the radio. She got up. She was moving too fast and he trailed after her. Polite. Polite and disappointed and moving with graceful steps. She stopped by the shelf to grab the tablet she used as an ereader and left her phone in its place.
She needed her phone. She needed to call someone who could talk her down from this madness.
She wasn’t going to let him keep her phone but she wanted him to have his violin music. It was important to him and she was so deep into this that it was important to her as well. He hadn’t asked for anything else. He had taken things she had offered but this was the only thing he had asked her for. She turned it on and flipped through the apps to find the right one while she gave him a little tour of the hallway.
“That one’s the bathroom and this one,” she pushed the door open. Her voice was perfectly normal despite the emotion in her chest. “Is all yours.”
The guest room was small and neat and unused. She kept it in case Li or John or Trix and Arthur ever needed a place to crash. She did not keep it for wayward Shadowhunters. It had thick blackout curtains for Eddie but they were tied back with lace and the quilt was a handmade patchwork in shades of blue. She had bought it on a road trip from a little shop in some town where they grew a lot of corn. There was a bookshelf in here as well but it was almost all reference and histories.
His attention flitted over it but he turned back to her almost immediately. Tessa wasn’t brave enough to come into the room. She stood in the doorway with her shoulder against the frame to keep her grounded. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do if she got too close to him again. He was very tall when he was standing. She stayed by the door and tapped at the screen until he came closer to see what she was doing.
“Give me a composer, I don’t know anything about classical music.”
He did and read the list of youtube videos over her shoulder. He had little comments on some of the pieces. He knew his classical music well and Tessa didn’t understand half of what he was talking about. He picked one.
He was too close again and the music made him smile like the world was a beautiful place and Tessa just stared at him for a long moment. His hair was a very dark brown, almost black but it picked up highlights in the lamp light. The silver streak near his face fell forward and she reached up to push it back from his eyes before she realized what she was doing. That beautiful smile got more intense. She wanted a dance. She wanted to pull him close and sway along to the music as she studied his eyes. There were flecks of silver buried in them too.
She snatched her hands back and ruined the moment by explaining how to use the youtube app in a rushed voice. Then she fled. She left him the tablet, playing a soft melody from its little speaker, and retreated into her own room. Ran away. Retreated made it sound measured and intentional. It wasn’t. She rambled and chattered about the app and then backpedaled away from him and hurried down the hall with her heart beating like she was being chased.
She shut the door to the her room and sank to the floor, back pressed to the wood and hand pressed to her chest.
The desire to go back and curl up very close to him and watch him listen to that song was almost overwhelming. In some other world she had kissed that man. She had fallen in love with a boy who cried over dead friends, who liked classical music, who ate blueberries like they were the greatest thing in the world, who was proud of her for murdering a man, who liked small children and holding hands.
She could hear the music. Soft. Indistinct but there. He hadn’t turned it up but it carried through the quiet apartment.
She could have done worse. That other girl. That girl she might have been if things had been different. That girl had made some good choices but that girl had lost him. He’d left her and become a Silent Brother and she must have grown old alone. Without him. To have had someone like that and lost them might be worse than to have never had them at all.
She dialed a phone number, “Tell me everything you know about Silent Brothers.”
The bit with the keys is my favourite. Flustered Tessa is fun!
Chapter 3: Polite and Normal
I did a bit of reorganizing and added a Tessa chapter so that the story could balance between POVs. This was originally chapter 2. There is now a new chapter 2.
There have also been minor edits but they're pretty small. I just needed to shift where Magnus fit in Tessa's backstory.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The sunlight cast a square on a dark wood floor when Jem woke up in a bed. Woke up. He lay there and stared up that spot of sunlight for a long time. The edges of it fluttered as a breeze moved the curtains hanging in the window. He was getting better at using his body. His eyes focused properly. Waking up was a novelty. Falling asleep had taken a long time the night before because he didn’t remember how to do that either. The tablet she had given him to play Vivaldi on sat on the bed beside him. He had lay in the dark and listened to it for a long time the night before. Listening to the music and the low sounds of her in the other room.
If it was a novelty to wake up, it was a luxury to lay curled up in blankets with nothing pressing to do. Everything smelled good. A faint scent that was probably just laundry soap but it was comforting. He stretched out each muscle and felt the way his body fit together. Yesterday his senses were a pinprick in the dark and now they were a kaleidoscope of colour and sensation. Touch and scent and sight and sound. Everything was brighter and so much more than it had been.
He ran his fingers over the covers and then got up and ran them along the curtains and the window sill and the edges of bookshelves. He picked a battered hardcover with an old cloth binding and paged through it. He flipped the pages until he realized the book was older than he was. His fingers froze on the publication page with the date printed on it. He slid it back into place before he accidentally ruined it.
He lingered in the room. He was hungry but this was already an intrusion. The sound of dishes and water in the kitchen carried through the walls which meant she was up and she had things to do and he was an intruder in her house.
Any rational person would use the word guest. He had been invited, she had lent him things to wear, she had offered him food and wished him a good night. He was not an intruder. He was, by any stretch of the definition, a guest. He ran his fingers through his hair and opened the door to the spare bedroom to look out on her hallway. A painting of a lavender field. A little cluster of colour photographs of people. An old daguerreotype of New York before the turn of the century.
He had worn a pair of track pants and a t-shirt to sleep. He’d found them in a drawer. They fit better than he expected. His own clothes - the ones he didn’t remember buying or putting on - were folded neatly on a chair just inside the door of the room but he didn’t stop to dress. There were soft sounds in the kitchen and he wanted to be where she was more than he cared what he was wearing.
He was barefoot as he stepped out into the hallway. He found a bathroom first and was surprised to remember that that was something he needed. He paused after washing up to study his face in the mirror. To study the streaks of silver in his hair and the exact shade of his eyes. It was a stranger's face. The stranger looked like him but there was a difference between resemblance and familiarity. The silver eyes and silver hair and pale skin had been replaced with the rich colours of his childhood. He made a face. The man in the reflection scrunched up his nose and stuck out his tongue.
Man. Maybe that was part of the problem. He wasn't a child anymore and no matter how grown up he had imagined himself to be at seventeen, he hadn't ever made it to adulthood. His face now was a different shape. Just a little though it was hard to say where exactly. Through the jaw maybe. In the shape of his cheekbones. The details were just a little bit different. He still looked young. He would get carded if he went to a bar in America.
Carded. It was such a modern verb. He didn't have any cards. Never had. Modern mundanes had so many cards. Cards for credit and payment, for identification and health care, for memberships and coupon packages. It was silly. Silly and mundane but he wanted a card. He wanted a cellphone and a credit card and a driver's license that he would have to show at restaurants before they would let him order a glass of wine.
Staring at his own face was making him feel like the world was spinning the wrong speed. He abandoned the mirror and the bathroom in favour of following the sounds of dishes and humming.
"Tess?" he asked.
"Hi," she said.
She appeared at the end of the hall. Her hair was down and for a moment that was enough to derail the last of his thoughts. It was long enough to brush her hips, light brown waves that fell around her. She wore jeans and a t-shirt today and no name tag. Her feet weren't bare but she was only wearing socks. Jem was struggling with his Victorian sensibilities on the entire outfit. The loose hair, the obvious lack of corset, the way the denim moved with her when she took a step back towards the kitchen and waved him to follow her.
He almost reached out to touch a loose bit of hair.
He hadn’t been invited to touch her. That wasn’t an offer the way she had offered her hand the night before. He was a guest. He needed to behave properly. He had crossed some line the night before and she had pushed him away. That wasn’t going to happen again. He was going to be careful.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and kept his distance as he followed her into the kitchen. She was fussing at the stove and he leaned back against the counter as far from her as he could be without leaving the room. Her hair looked so soft and she didn't seem quite as impossible as she had the night before. And yet. There hadn't been any invitation to pet her hair and so he was keeping his hands in his pockets and his attention on polite conversation.
"Are you going to work today?" he asked.
That was polite, wasn't it? Normal. He could do polite and normal.
"No, I called off and got someone else to do the opening shift."
"You're more than a hundred years old and you have powers no one else can even imitate. Why do you work in a coffee shop?" he asked.
"I own this building," she said without turning around. A bowl clinked as she moved it away from the stove. "The cafe, the bookshop and the apartment block we're standing in have been mine since 1913. I don't always make lattes and serve cookies but sometimes I like to step away from the madness of the rest of my life and just be a person. Working retail is much easier if you don't need to turn a profit. I can sell two cups of coffee and a paperback novel and tell seventeen people to stuff it without concern."
Jem laughed and it broke his careful spell. He didn’t have the Silent Brothers in his thoughts, whispering never ending impulse control. He was going to have to control his own impulses and that would take practice. He was moving before he’d thought about it. He didn’t stop. He came to stand closer to her and look at what she was making on the stove. She turned to look at him, leaving the eggs in the pan to sizzle. Her hand came up and pushed his hair back from his face. She lingered on a piece, running it through her fingers. Silver. Not gray. Silver. It caught the light and shone like metal. He bit his lip and waited for the question that she had cut off the night before.
She caught the expression and held his gaze as he scrambled to smooth his features back into place. Polite and normal. Nothing about that story was polite or normal but she was so close and it was hard to think when she was so close. A deer in the headlights. It was an expression he knew without having experienced. Did deer really get stunned like this? He was trapped by the little frown line between her brows and the curiosity in her gaze.
"It's a bad story?" she said.
"Most of it is, yes."
"You don't need to tell me or anyone else. You don’t owe anyone your story. It's striking. Tell people that it's expensive dye if they ask."
She turned back to her pans and didn’t press.
He watched her cook. His hands pressed deep in his pockets. The twin desires to touch her or to coax her into touching him again were beating in his chest like an extra heart. She stirred a pan of potatoes and vegetables and watched her eggs, obviously seeing something in them that he couldn't. How hard would it be to learn to cook? It couldn't be that hard. The vast majority of people did it every day.
The kitchen was quiet while she adjusted the temperature and added pepper to the mix. She asked a question about how he liked his eggs and he couldn’t remember. The two of them stood side by side, watching the eggs until Jem started to talk.
"My parents were killed. Demon attack. I was poisoned and spent the rest of my rather short natural life dying of a yin fen addiction. The hair is all that lingers of it. That I can see. I haven't put my strength to the test yet. Perhaps it left more scars than the ones that can be covered up with hair dye. At least the hair makes me look like I could be in a rock band."
She turned and stared him full in the face.
He held her gaze.
She didn't know that. This was the first time she had heard that. He had told it like an old story that she had been told before and just needed a reminder of. He hadn't meant to be flippant. He hadn't meant to make it sound casual. The first time he had told that story to her, he had planned it out, half imagined it a dozen times before he found himself actually saying the words. This time he just tossed it out into the world like a little fun fact. A tiny bit of ancient history. Her frown was deep and concerned.
"How old were you?" she asked.
"Eleven. I was seventeen by the time I was on my death bed and made the decision to gamble on joining the Brotherhood."
"Why would you do that?" she asked. "The Silent Brothers are terrifying."
Jem couldn't hold her gaze. "Your food is going to burn."
She turned to the stove and set to work finishing it up and getting the food out onto two plates. She had made him breakfast. The silence held as they brought it over to the little table by the window. Once, this would have been a nice view but New York had grown up around it and now they were looking at the side of a modern building that towered high above the little brick buildings on this street. A restaurant nearby had a terrace with brightly coloured canopies to keep the sun off the diners.
Tessa tapped her fingers on the table before finally letting the words out in a rush.
"I understand that mortals fear death. We all fear death but some prices are too great to pay. To give up your freedom like that. To give up your heart and soul and your thoughts to a collective that has served an authoritarian military for centuries. You- How- You don't strike me as the sort. Death would be better. Death at least has a measure of freedom in it. It is unknown but unknown freedom is better than being trapped among those things. Why would you do it?"
A machine made a bright happy tone and they both turned to look at it with a jump. A black plastic thing stood on the far side of the sink with a little light flashing on it. Tessa had put on coffee. Jem was the one who got up to go and fetch the pot because he needed a minute to sort out his thoughts before he tried to put them into words. The coffee smelled rich and strong and he placed the pot carefully beside her.
She poured coffee and brought cream and sugar and sat down across from him. Studying him, waiting for an answer. The domestic rhythm of the morning and the intensity of her anger - and it was anger even if she wasn't angry at him - were at odds. Jem took the coffee cup and considered it. He had never had coffee. He took a sip and then added a bit of sugar and took another sip. The cup warmed his hands and he wrapped them around it tighter before he tried to explain.
Honesty is what came out.
"You," he said.
He smiled a little and her frown deepened in answer.
"I did it because of you."
"There is no universe, no set of events, in which I would ask that of anyone," she said. "I might be immortal but I would never force that on another person for any reason."
"You didn't ask me to do it," he interrupted.
No answer just that frown and a moment where she made up her own coffee. Had she been waiting for him to do it? He didn't know how she took coffee. It had never been served at the Institute. He made note of what she added to it. The silence stretched, not as comfortable as it had been the night before. Her emotion was contagious and he had to fight to stay calm.
"You'd been taken and Will had a guess as to where you were but no one was sure and the Clave had not made your rescue a priority and I was going to die,” he said it as easily as he could. “Not in the abstract. I had been sick for a very long time and I had always known that I would die but in those last days, I knew that this was the end. There would be no more good days. There would be no recovery. There was just my failing lungs against the passage of time. As a Brother I had a chance of doing something that might have helped. You saved us all without my intervention being at all useful but I could not have gone gently into the night while all those I cared about were still on the battlefield."
"I would not have held it against you."
"Dying?" he said with a laugh. "No, you wouldn't have. Neither would have Will nor Charlotte nor any of the others. Perhaps I made the wrong choice. Perhaps it was ridiculously selfish of me to demand a seat at the table. Perhaps I should have let the drug drag me down into oblivion with it. Perhaps I should have asked Magnus to find me a vampire who would have changed me. Imagining all the possibilities that begin with perhaps is a fool’s errand. Those are not the choices that I made. I can only live with the choices that I made and do what I can from where I am. There is no good that comes from fretting over the past."
"That much is true," she agreed though the frown wasn’t gone.
They ate in silence. Jem was hungry. He had only had the half a slice of cake in one hundred and thirty years and eating this meal was a relief. The coffee was good. The eggs were good. The potatoes were good. It was all delicious. He did not tempt fate or discomfort with any more conversation. He held his tongue and enjoyed his food.
She didn’t eat everything and when he finished all of his, she simply passed him the rest of her plate and he ate all of that too. He hadn’t missed food. He had missed a lot of things but it had never occurred to him to miss food until he was sitting with a plate full. He wanted more strawberries. He wanted a mango. He wanted that stew Agatha used to make that would cook all afternoon and make the house smell of garlic and onions. He wanted bread and more coffee. He liked food.
Tessa had her hair tossed over one shoulder to her neck was bare and she drank her coffee as she studied him. The frown was finally fading. Her attention had weight but it was softer.
"I was more than your first kiss," she said.
"You are more than any one thing."
"I'm not flirting, just for the record. I'm badgering you for personal details.”
He laughed. "We were engaged."
"In this life, the first time I met a Shadowhunter he tried to cut my heart out to prevent the spread of the corruption and in another, I agreed to marry one?"
"I wasn't the first one you met," he said.
"Not the point."
"There are good Shadowhunters."
He held out a hand and waited. He let his hand rest on the yellow and white pattern of the tablecloth with his palm up. For too long he thought that she wouldn't take it but then her fingers brushed his palm and he gently closed his hand around hers. Gentle. It was a relief to touch her. It was a relief that she wasn’t frowning any more. It was a relief.
"I'm sorry. On behalf of all of them, even the ones who would hate me and declare me a traitor for it. I'm sorry for anyone who ever hurt you."
She pulled his hand in and kissed his knuckles which derailed his thoughts again. Her mouth was soft and warm and gentle. And that. That was. Not expected. Polite and normal, what had happened to polite and normal. He was holding onto her hand as she lowered it back to the table as his thoughts scrambled around inside his head, searching for somewhere to land. It wasn’t working. He just stared at their hands and waited for everything to stop spinning.
She told him, "They aren't forgiven but I don't expect you to carry their sins.”
Then she released him and got up from the table to clear the dishes.
Jem gave her space.
He needed to get his thoughts back under control.
He fled into the living room, feeling like he was overstepping but looking over her bookshelf. She had built the shelves right into the wall, floor to ceiling, made of heavy dark wood and packed full. There were little breaks in the lines of books for glass sculptures or plants or a photograph but the shelves were not decorative. They were functional. He stopped to pull out a photo. Tessa and a blue skinned warlock who looked familiar but whose name Jem couldn’t remember. They stood together, arm in arm, laughing on the shore of a sunny beach.
He put it back in place and moved onto the books. He hadn't read a book since he was a teenager. Silent Brothers took in information but not in the form of printed words on paper pages. They certainly didn’t waste their time with fiction. He had thought Will's obsession with books bordered on absurd and then turned around and found the same trait in Tessa endlessly endearing but he had never shared it. Not the way they did. Books were just paper and cardboard and ink. There were stories he had enjoyed but he hadn't reread poems until he had them memorized and despite enjoying stories, he didn’t hold onto stories like those two did.
She came to stand at his side and rested her elbow on his shoulder. Casual. Childish. Almost silly. Distracting. He was too aware of the contact and her hair. It was close enough to touch again. Had he always been so fascinated by her hair or was this new? He couldn't remember. He kept his hands where they were and did not turn to look at her. If he turned, her face would be too close and he'd do something he wasn’t sure he should.
"Any favourites?" she asked.
"Not really," he said. Then backtracked, "Know that I don't dislike reading before you burn down your entire opinion of me and my worth as a person but I can't talk books the way you and Will can."
"So, what do you do? Besides kill demons and save the world? You must have hobbies. Music?"
"I play the violin," he said. "I collect throwing knives and fail to reteach myself how to write Chinese. But all that was before. The Brotherhood got in the way of all those hobbies."
"Collecting knives isn't a hobby."
"Collecting decorative spoons is a hobby. There are catalogues. Knives are more practical than decorative spoons."
He got a startled laugh out of her at that. When she had regained her composure, she was standing a little closer to him - maybe - maybe that was his imagination.
She asked, "Will you play for me?"
"I don't have a violin."
"Amazon will do next day delivery."
"I don't think I want a next day delivery violin. I used to play on my father's Guarneri. I don't think I'd be able to play on something made in a factory."
"Don’t say interesting like that, like you’re a naturalist and I’m a specimen you found on a slimy rock.”
A laugh. “It is interesting though. You're a little bit of a snob.”
“I am not.”
"You are. That's not a terrible thing. I am just taking in details right now."
"Liking the family heirloom, antique violin that my father gave me, makes me a snob?" he asked.
He was smiling and trying to scowl at her but she really was closer. She had turned towards him, her elbow still propped up on his shoulder but now she was looking at him and he couldn't look away. He couldn’t maintain the scowl while she teased him and crowded into his personal space like this. She had switched gears. The intensity of her outburst about death was gone and in its place was this teasing smile and friendly commentary.
"Liking it is a perfectly reasonable response. Refusing to play on anything else is snobby."
"Excuse me?" he was still smiling but he managed to make his tone offended. “There’s a saying about stones and glass houses, Miss Gray.”
She spread her hands and shrugged. She was cute. God, she was adorable. He was leaning in, he was too close, he wanted to kiss her. He was trying to be mock offended but he was getting distracted by her lips and her hair and those jeans and he dragged his attention back up to look her in the eye. He was supposed to be teasing. He tried again.
"You nitpick every adaptation of every book you've ever read. You are snobbier than me."
"I don’t think that’s true."
"It’s true," he said in his most sincere voice.
That made him laugh and it set her off too. She leaned into him, laughing hard. Her forehead was against his shoulder and he finally lost the battle with his self control and let his hand wander up into her hair. Jem pushed it back from her face and let it trail through his fingers. Then he did it again. They were both still giggling as he did it a third time. Her hair was as soft as it looked. Silk between his fingers.
Before he could tilt her head up for a kiss, she met his eyes and started to talk. He remembered where he was and who she was and the moment passed. He didn’t step back but he wasn’t leaning in like that anymore. Close. Friendly. Laughing together.
"Promise me a song," she said.
"That you'll play for me, someday, even if you need to find one perfect violin for it."
"If it'll make you happy, I'll play on some plastic mass produced monstrosity with no soul," he said.
“It would make me happy.”
“Call up Amazon then, have one sent over.”
“That isn’t how Amazon works.”
He laughed again, still playing with her hair.
She stepped back from him. Smiling but putting space between them, some of her hair was caught between his fingers and as she moved back it stayed there, bridging the gap between them before finally falling away. She perched on the arm of a nearby sofa and started chattering about violin shops and antiques. He was only halfway listening. He was too busy watching her.
His attention finally got in the way of her monologue on the neighbourhood. She went quiet and still and watched him with too much intensity. Judging him. No. Not that harsh. Considering him. He felt pinned in place by that attention. He was going to be judged and found wanting.
"I'm not who you imagine me to be," she said.
He had been listening to her voice the way one listens to music. Sound and rhythm not meaning. Those words took him by surprise and brought him crashing back into the conversation.
"I know. You're Tessa but you're not my Tessa. Different history, different present, I understand that," he said.
"Your Tessa is a better person than I am."
“I don’t believe that. Different, not better," he said.
"You don't know me."
He closed the distance and kissed her forehead. She went still. Not rigid or frightened but very still. He pulled back to find her looking up at him with wide eyes.
"You are kind and funny and adorable. And I know you aren't going to appreciate being called adorable so forgive me for that. I know how smart you are and you were willing to take a stranger in because he had no where to go," he said. "That's enough. I'll learn the details over time but that's enough to know that you're her. The details might change but the soul of a person stays the same."
“What if you don’t like what you find?”
“You don’t have to like every detail of a person’s life to-” he cut off the word he was going to use and changed it to, “-care about them. I’m not asking you to be perfect, Tess, not in this world nor the world that I came from. You hate everything I spent a hundred and thirty years being and you haven’t asked me to leave yet. We can find the middle ground. We can find the things that we do share.”
He held out his hands to her. A peace offering. He didn’t really want to delve any farther into her dark past or his own. He wanted to make more coffee and find another excuse to pet her hair and take a hot bath. He wanted music and warmth and to listen to her talk. He didn’t want her to be perfect. He just wanted her to be there.
He held his hands out to her and waited. Middle ground.
He had been hoping that she would take his hands but instead she stepped right into his arms and pulled him into a hug. A moment of shock as her arms came up around his neck and her body pressed into his. Then he wrapped his arms around her. She settled in with her head on his shoulder. She shook her head a little but didn’t explain it or step away. Jem buried his face against her hair and held her tight.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
He rocked her a little bit as he held on. “Anything. Always.”
“What’s your name?”
He laughed and then squeezed her tighter. She was warm and she smelled good and he forgot what the question was because he could feel her breath against his neck. A moment later he remembered. He had never made introductions. “James Carstairs. Jem. Ke Jian Ming. Brother Zachariah.”
She shook her head and returned the squeeze. She laughed a little like it was embarrassing. “That’s too many names. What do you want me to call you?”
“Jem,” he said. “James if you’re feeling fancy but Jem is fine.”
“Hi, Jem,” she said.
She shifted so she could settle with her cheek against his chest and her arms around his waist. Not so much a hug anymore as just holding on. Relaxed and settled and comfortable. Jem closed his eyes and didn’t let go. He could very happily stay right where he was for a century or more without getting bored. He set his chin on the top of her head.
“What are the rest of the names? Why do you have so many?” she asked in a soft voice. Curious.
“Zachariah means memory. It was the name I chose when I joined the Brotherhood because I wanted to remember who I was. Who I had been. I wanted to remember you and Will and Charlotte and my parents and every terrible or beautiful thing that had ever happened to me.”
A nod. He felt the movement rather than saw it.
“Ke Jian Ming was the name my mother gave me. She was born just south of Beijing and Ke is an old name. It’s a mundane name though her family had been Nephilim for three generations by the time she came along. My ancestors carried it into the Clave and refused to let that piece of their heritage go. Ascendants are supposed to pick Shadowhunter names from a big list but the names aren’t Chinese and my great great whatever didn’t like that. It isn’t a name I use much but it is one that matters.”
“James Carstairs was my official name. A Shadowhunter name. The one on the records. Jem’s just a nickname. I like it better than Jimmy.”
“You don’t look like a Jimmy.”
She snorted and punched him gently in the shoulder and he regretted the joke because she was putting distance between them again. She stopped to fuss with her hair, to twist it around her hand before tossing it back over her shoulder again. It could have been a nervous tick or it could have just been in her way. Jem tried not to smile at the possibility that he made her shy.
She was too far away but he wasn’t brave enough to close the gap between them. She had chosen this space and he let her have it. She fiddled, shy and quiet for a moment before brightening up and turning back to look at him. He returned her smile. Helpless. He was helpless to do anything but return her smile.
“Do you want to go sight seeing?
“As long as it’s with you, I’ll go anywhere and everywhere.”
A Silent Brother headcanon - they can read people's minds so they're very aware of modern things (the Jimbo joke, the deer in the headlights reference, knowing basically what Amazon is and the internet is) so Jem's got this huge vast pool of knowledge. He knows all these things. But he's done so very few of them.
I now have a plan for this AU but it's officially "self indulgent fluff forever"
The first 25 000 words are all Jessa - 7 chapters which are almost all drafted and I am working on edits. I also bumped the rating on this thing because there's some smut in chapter 6 (and maybe 7 but definitely 6). The first five chapters are just fluff.
Tessa took her strange new house guest out into New York without almost no plan. She wanted to make him smile. That was as far as it went. They left on foot, winding their way up through the streets of her neighbourhood before they made it to the wide crowded streets of New York in movies. He was quiet but it was a content sort of quiet as he tilted his head back and took it all in.
“Can we go up one?” he asked.
“There’s a famous one, isn’t there? One that everyone always wants to go up when they come to New York. Not the Statue of Liberty.”
“You want to go up the Empire State Building?”
“Yes,” he turned to her. “Yes. I do.”
“It’s not the same during the day. Do you want to stay out until after dark?”
“Do we have other plans? Dinner? Dancing? A wild party? I have never been to a wild party of any sort. I think I’d like it.”
“If you want to go to a wild party, I can find you one. I bought tickets for an event but it’s tomorrow.”
“Where are you taking me?”
She was taking him to a chamber music concert. She wasn’t entirely sure what it was but it had violins and their set list seemed to be the right era for something he would remember from before. The philharmonic wasn’t in session at this time of year and so she’d chosen something close to home and was just hoping it would be good. She explained that to him and he leaned over to kiss her temple as a silent thank you.
The last time he had pressed his lips to her forehead, she had forgotten how to breathe. She didn’t do much better this time but she didn’t stumble or fall over in the street so it could have been worse. She took the kiss as an invitation to wrap her arm through his and hold onto him.
She was going to get brave enough to kiss him properly. Eventually.
“I don’t have anything to wear to a concert,” he said. “I don’t even have another pair of socks.”
“I think those socks are fine but we should probably get you a nice shirt and some better shoes at the very least. It isn’t at the opera or anything. You’re not going to need a suit.”
“What if I want a suit?” he asked.
“You’re going to have to ask very nicely unless you got a job sometime in the last twenty four hours because you’re going to be spending my money.”
His expression shifted, worried and a little embarrassed.
“You don’t need to spend your money on me.”
“I don’t, that’s true. I’m going to do it anyways. Come on,” she said waving him forward.
He fell into step beside her. There were worse projects to spend money on than beautiful young men who watched you like you were the most important thing in the world. He settled into easy idle chatter about fashion changes over the years and what he had liked or disliked. Talking to Jem was easy. Almost effortless. There were people she had known for decades who she couldn’t talk to like this.
“Comfortable,” she said. She was half talking to herself, half talking to him. “That’s the biggest difference.”
“Modern clothes are all soft and thin. They can be more comfortable but for the first few years after corsets went out of fashion, I missed them. The thinner fabrics and fewer layers still make me feel uncomfortable sometimes. There’s less structure. A full set of clothes from the 1800s is like armour.”
Jem laughed. “One of those crinolines from my grandmother’s era were better than armour, they just kept everyone from getting within arm’s reach at all.”
Then the conversation was about grandparents and his memories of China. He hadn’t known his British grandparents well. His grandfather had died on the battlefield while his father was still young and he’d only known his grandmother by letters. The stories about China were colourful and full of detail and watching him talk with his hands as he tried to explain some detail or another was the most animated she had seen him yet.
He was waking up. The quiet lost young man from the night before wasn’t who he really was. Those dark eyes weren’t wide and lost. They were animated and bright. He smiled with every part of himself and the smiles were coming more easily now. The Silent Brothers were living statues. Yesterday, being alive at all was a shock but now she was watching him reassemble who he was as a person. He was more confident with initiating contact, with making jokes.
He had been ethereal and a bit terrifying. A ghost from some other past. A what if fantasy walking into her life far too late to do any good for the scared teenage girl who had needed him. Now, out in the world as he woke up, he was just a person. Walking own the streets of New York, skirting garbage bins and tourists, watching his face as he took in the shops and restaurants and paused to touch a trinket on a display table, he was real.
Tessa wanted to be his friend. She wanted him to tease her and offer her ugly little ceramic knickknacks. She wanted him to watch him smile and talk about his favourite food and tilt his head back to look up at the skyscrapers. He stumbled over a cracked bit of pavement and his startled look of offense, as though the sidewalk had tried to attack him, was the most endearing thing that Tessa had ever seen.
He was still talking about the Shanghai Institute during the Golden Week when they got to the shop that Tessa was searching for. She ushered him inside. His story trailed off. He had been talking about how the Clave considered celebrating most mundane traditions backwards and silly. His voice got softer as he looked around. He trailed off with a smile.
It was a music shop.
There was a tailor down the road that was owned by a cranky vampire Tessa knew and that was their next shop but this place was first. There was a wall of guitars and a few drum sets set up but along the back were displays of orchestral instruments. He walked through the aisles and paused to scan a display of sheet music but it was mostly arrangements of pop music. He kept going.
He took his time and Tessa stood back and just watched. He touched the buttons on a saxophone and ran his fingers along the wood of a cello before he stopped in front of the display of violins. There wasn’t going to be anything fancy or antique here. This place probably did most of their business in selling guitars to high school students who dreamed of joining rock bands. The instruments were all new.
“We can get one, if you want one,” Tessa told him.
“It’s made with plastic,” he said touching some piece that Tessa couldn’t even name. She was going to have to ask him for a crash course.
The salesperson caught wind of their interest and materialized. “It’s a student model, if you’re used to playing on a higher quality instrument-” the sales pitch rolled out like it was a practiced speech. Jem watched her talk for a few moments before he started asking questions. Tessa stood back and let him talk. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to anyone but her since he’d arrived and he was a little too old fashioned, too stilted, to appear quite normal. He was waking up but he wasn’t completely at ease yet.
He didn’t leave with a violin. He hadn’t even taken one in his hands though he had been offered one to play as a sample. Outside he looked unnerved.
“Are you alright?”
“I think I’m homesick. I really don’t want that violin. It was lovely but I want my violin.”
“You lost everything. You don’t need to try and replace that old life.”
“It’s not replaceable,” he said.
Except for her.
She looked up at him in case he was aware of her thoughts. That was impossible. He wasn’t a Silent Brother anymore. The idea that some part of their power might have lingered in him didn’t make any sense but Tessa couldn’t shake it entirely. He caught her looking and smiled. He wasn’t listening to her thoughts. She was glad of it. It would have ruined his mood.
She was the replacement part.
Not the girl that he had loved but a similar girl. Close enough that he wasn’t ordering her away but still, a replacement. A lovely violin but not his violin. He wasn’t hers. He belonged to someone else. She pushed those thoughts away, buried them down someplace far away from this moment. She didn’t want her mood ruined either. She wanted to enjoy this time and this person even if both were borrowed from some other Tessa Gray.
She held out a hand and he took it.
“Let’s go see if John can find something for you to wear,” she said.
This interlude might not last but she was going to get every good moment out of it that she could. He might go back home to his own world and his own Tessa and she would never see him again but he was here now. For the moment, he was hers. She pulled him a little closer, holding onto his arm. He pulled her in against his side as Tessa pushed into John’s shop.
“High Warlock!” rang out from an upper level of the shop. The front had proper windows but if you wanted a fitting, you had to go upstairs, where the windows had long ago been bricked over to keep the sunlight.
“Shut up Johnathan!” Tessa called back in an imitation of his tone.
“What are you High Warlock of?” Jem asked.
“New York!” John said leaning over the rail of his upper floor.
“I am not.”
“You should be. I nominated her,” John told Jem with a little wink.
John squinted a little against the sunlight that streamed in from the windows. He was studying Jem like he was an interesting bug. The shop was empty. It usually was. Johnathan wasn’t exactly a welcoming presence. One of his thralls was probably in the back if a mundane customer decided to brave the dusty facade but few people did. John did most of his business with Downworlders.
He was old enough to still have thralls. Tessa wasn’t sure exactly how old. He’d mentioned knowing Harriet Tubman though she wasn’t sure if that was before or after he’d been turned. He predated the Civil War and he had just enough of a French accent on certain syllables to make Tessa think that he predated the Louisiana purchase. She didn’t know many details about his early life. He had been born in America and was proud of the fact. He liked to claim that he personally knew just about everyone of note in American history. The only reason she knew that he wasn’t old enough to have seen the Revolutionary War was because he had never claimed to personally know George Washington.
“I remember that nomination nonsense. I did not appreciate it then, I do not appreciate it now. I do not want to be High Warlock of anything. Leave that to people like Magnus Bane who actually like the attention.”
“Sparkling peacock,” Johnathan declared.
“Magnus uses glitter the same way I use coffee cups, to convince people that we’re not worth taking seriously.”
“Regardless, you’re better qualified than that peacock,” John said.
“I am not. That peacock could wipe the floor with me if we ever got into a fight,” Tessa said.
“You’re not friends?” Jem asked.
“We’ve met a few times and while I think he’s a better person than he pretends to be, I don’t know him well enough to consider him a friend. He deals with the Clave more than I would like in a friend.”
Jem raised his eyebrows at her.
“You’re a special case,” Tessa told him.
Above them, Johnathan was studying Jem with all the attention of a teenage girl looking for gossip. Which meant that Arthur had called around after Tessa had phoned him the night before looking for information on Silent Brothers. So all her friends knew she had a former Silent Brother crashing at her place and minutes this meeting was over, they would all know that she was holding hands and flirting with the former Silent Brother too.
She laced her fingers with Jem. A little show. If her friends wanted to gossip like a pack of little old ladies, they weren’t going to let it ruin her day. She took him upstairs. The work room up here wasn’t much more modern but it was better kept.
“He looks tasty,” Johnathan said.
“Don’t be creepy,” Tessa smacked him with a ruler because it was the first thing on his desk that she grabbed. He cackled and it was horror movie worthy. Even his teeth were on display. He wore black. He was always dressed for the wrong decade but the tailoring was always perfect. Today the suit looked like it belonged to the 1920s. It wasn’t a bad look and it certainly added something to his horror movie aesthetic.
“You’re a vampire?” Jem asked in a professional voice.
“I am. You’re angel spawn?” an imitation of the tone.
Jem tilted his head but didn’t dignify it with a response.
“Now you’re being intentionally offensive,” Tessa said.
“I don’t let angel spawn in here. I remember the days when his people used to hunt us for sport. I started the tailor business back then because if they didn’t think you had money, they would leave you alone. You had to be worth killing so I made sure that I wasn’t. Your Clave, they used to send the bad eggs away, ship them off overseas to keep them out of Idris’s hair and go hunting for Downworlders where no one had centuries old covens to protect them,” Johnthan said. “We protect our own on these shores.”
The conversation up to that point had been light joking but Johnathan let the jolly facade drop as he spoke. It was a threat. It took Tessa so completely by surprise that she turned to stare at Johnathan. She couldn’t even think of something to say. Johnathan had never threatened anyone on her behalf. Out of the little group of them that had survived the Circle, Tessa was easily the strongest. She was younger than the others but they didn’t usually treat her like a baby sister. None of them had felt the need to step in like this since Aunt Harriet was still alive.
“I know,” Jem said.
He took the threat in stride. He didn’t meet it with posturing or anything but perfect calm.
“I know kiddo but it needed said. You don’t know the Shadowhunters like I do. The Circle were their worst but their best isn’t much better.”
Tessa wanted to argue but Johnthan didn’t know her history and she wasn’t sure she wanted to try and explain it to him. She hadn’t planned to keep it a secret but she’d buried that part of her history by the time she had met him in 1904. They had known each other for a century. Admitting that she had been keeping major secrets for that entire time was not something she wanted to do. Especially not now when his hackles were already up.
“I disagree,” Jem said. “The Clave’s best is far more than you’re giving them credit for.
“You would say that.”
“Boys. We can go to a Moore’s and buy something off the damn rack if this is going to become a pissing contest,” Tessa snapped.
“Listen, Kiddo,” Johnathan said.
“I don’t think you can call someone on a century, kiddo any more.”
“And yet,” Johnathan said leaning over to pinch her cheek like she was a precocious child. She twitched away from him which did not make him drop it. He never dropped it. He had been turned in his forties. He looked old enough to be her father and he played it up sometimes.
“Kiddo, girlie girl, Tessie-Wessie.”
“I’m going to magic the roof off this building and turn you into a toasty vampiric marshmallow.”
“There are six floors of apartments above us.”
“I could manage it. Don’t under estimate me.”
Jem laughed and the exchange broke the tension. The conversation moved onto the actual business of buying and selling clothing. Johnathan was assessing everything Jem said or did but the hostility had waned and they both seemed to be in better spirits. Tessa kept up the jokes. She started calling Johnathan “Grandfather” until he was annoyed by it as she was but the Kiddo nickname.
“Your boy is built like a scarecrow. I’m going to have to take in absolutely everything. What happened with these shoulders? Are you dying of consumption?” Johnathan asked.
“Not anymore. And it was never consumption,” Jem said.
Johnathan studied him. He took in the silver streaked hair and the thin build. “You kicked the habit?”
“That doesn’t happen easily.”
“I am well aware.”
“Does she know?”
“Do I know what?” Tessa asked.
“Your boy used to be on yin fen. If you want to get high, there are better options. Honestly, go mundane. Take Crystal Meth or Ecstasy.”
“I’d rather not,” Jem said.
“An even better option.”
Johnathan promised them an outfit that would be wearable by the next evening and sent them on their way. Tessa flipped open her phone and sent off a text message to Arthur.
<you gossiping biddy>
She didn’t get anything back. He was probably already on the phone with Johnathan analyzing the drug addiction and the conversation and the potential dangers of dating Shadowhunters. Tessa decided she didn’t care. She had liked Jem being described as her boy. She liked that when she brushed the back of his hand, he laced his fingers with hers. The gossips could have their field day. This was worth it.
“Let’s go get on the ferry. We’ll save the Empire State for after nightfall but there are other landmarks to visit,” she said. She hailed a cab without letting go of his hand.
I am wishy washy on where I'm going to end this right now. So I am giving Tessa a friend group separate from Magnus and the warlock squad to accomodate a plot point that I might not include.
There's an earlier line where Jem sees a photo of her and Catarina and that is staying. Tessa and Magnus are friends of friends in this world. They both know Cat - Tessa still helped out during the war which is where they met - but don't know each other well.
Giving Tessa Downworld friends and a rich life outside her romantic entanglements is important to me. She deserves a network of friends to hang out with and nominate her for jobs that she doesn't want and wouldn't be well suited for and tease her. Also I wish I knew more American trivia because I'm enjoying layering the Americana stuff into Tessa's life. Canon is very London centric so reimagining her against a different backdrop is fun. Tessa was born right after the end of the Civil War when the country was still reeling. In this life, she has lived closer to American culture and mundane history so those elements are fun to add even just as passing mentions.
Chapter 5: In the Pouring Rain
Jem leaned out over the rail. The ferry was crowded and utilitarian and Jem wasn't really a fan of boats but Tessa had promised him sight seeing so they were going to see the Statue of Liberty. He watched the water below and it brought up memories so deeply buried that they took him by surprise. The shoreline was visible. They weren't going far but there was a part of him that was worried about leaving things behind.
The only other time he'd been on a boat, he had left everything behind.
"Are you seasick?"
"You don't look very well."
"I'm just a little lost in memories," he said.
"What are you remembering?"
"The trip from Shanghai."
He looked at her. She was leaning against the rail beside him and watching him. Her eyes were a softer shade than the water below. It was steel gray and her eyes were warmer and gentler than that. Her soft expression promised so much so he started to talk. Just a jumble of recollections. It wasn't really a story. It was things he remembered about the ship, about the Clave escort, about landing in ports where he was the only person in the retinue who spoke the language at all. The ship was a British merchant ship and the mundanes spoke enough to get them through the ports and the cargo pick ups but the Shadowhunters had avoided spending time with the mundanes if they could so it often fell to Jem to retranslate.
"Will used to ask me how I managed to stay so calm no matter what happened. He had a temper that would flare up at the worst times. I don’t. Or perhaps that isn’t true. Will’s anger was always fire. I get angry, everyone gets angry, mine just doesn’t explode the same way his did. I think that journey was the start of it. I was eleven. I was grieving and hurting. The pain was still new. I would get better at managing it and living around it but back then it was still fresh and everything hurt. But. These three men would land in ports and not even know where they were so I would go out and ask around. I was the one who would put in orders for fresh food. I decided at some point on that journey that dying or not, I was not going to be useless. I was being shipped off somewhere I'd never seen to live among strangers and die without bothering anyone but I was not useless. I was not just a burden to be passed around."
"You deserved better than that."
"Are you getting angry on my behalf?"
"I'm considering it and for the record my anger is definitely of the fire and explosions variety.”
"I know but you don't need to bring it out on my account."
She sighed and shook her head. Her hair brushed her cheek. It was still loose around her, falling in curls. It was humid and she complained that made it frizzy but it was still beautiful. She leaned over and rested her shoulder against his. Jem's thoughts short circuited for a moment before he leaned into the touch and rested his cheek against the top of her head. Her hair was soft and smelled good so he turned into it just a little more to breathe in that scent, memorize it.
What if it didn’t last? What if he didn’t get to stay? What if this was a dream or a hallucination and he would wake up in the Silent City again tomorrow? He wanted memories to hold onto. He closed his eyes so he could hear the water but the unforgiving gray of it was hidden. Her hair smelled like flowers and her arm against his was warm.
"I'm going to stand behind you in the scariest transformation I can find in my arsenal and glare at people until they treat you properly," she said.
"Will tried that and it usually ended with me having to drag him out of a fight."
"I'm not going to start fights. I'm not a teenage Shadowhunter. I am an immortal. I am very patient. I'm just going to intimidate people into better behaviour."
Jem laughed. She settled into the closeness the longer they stood together. Her arm slipped around his waist and she hooked a thumb into his belt loop and stood there, draped around him as the statue got closer. This was a better memory of being on a boat. This was the one he was going to call up if he ever found himself traveling by water again. Tessa against his side. That floral shampoo. Her voice promising to defend him against the cruelties of the world.
It was a good memory. It was a good moment. It was happening now.
Tessa was here now. Tessa’s hip was against his now. He closed his eyes again and categorized the details not as a memory but as a moment. Right now. An errant curl against his cheek. Her hip shifting to press against him. Her fingers curled loosely at his hip, almost holding on but trying to seem casual. He kissed the top of her head.
"I remember when they put it up," Tessa said pulling him back to the conversation. The statue was getting closer. He looked up at it without lifting his head.
"I was already a Silent Brother by then. I didn't follow mundane news so I never knew much about it. It became a landmark before I even thought to consider it.”
Tessa took to that like it was an invitation. She settled a little closer to him and told him the history and the folklore surrounding the statue and Ellis Island. Her story was punctuated with little observations of someone who had been there. Stories about Downworlders who passed through the tuberculosis wards as doctors or patients pretending to be human. A memory of looking out at the statue when it was half built and making jokes about it with a friend called Arthur. This Tessa had lived her life in New York and America and she was proud of that history in a way that the Tessa he remembered wasn't. She had grown up in New York but had never spoken of the city like this.
"You love this city."
"New York has always been home. You heard the way Johnathan talks about Downworld here. We built a world for ourselves in this city. The City that Never Sleeps is a good place for immortals."
"I'd like to take you to London."
"You should take me to Shanghai."
"Have you ever been to Paris?"
He had but not as himself. She hadn't let go of him and he stayed exactly where she had put him as he admitted to all the places he hadn't seen. He had lived on two sides of the world but hadn’t had a chance to see any of the things in between. Had never eaten Thai food. Had never seen New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Had never gone dancing in Spain or seen the Alps or drank tea in the Medina in Marrakesh. She kept asking, kept coming up with cities and landmarks and entire countries to go visit.
"Do you need a notepad? Are you making a list?" he asked.
She bumped him with her hip. "Shush."
He pulled her closer because he could. He whispered in her ear because she was leaning into him and it was invitation that he had been dying for. He’d been dying for this chance to hold onto the girl and plan for the future for lifetimes.
“Can I add things to your list?”
“Yes, course. Anything you’d like.”
“I want to go get ice cream.”
“You do? That’s what you want to add?”
She tilted her head back and frowned at him. She had been planning a world tour but he was struck by the idea of planning a future. Of all the little things that he had missed and dreamed of. He wanted Sunday afternoons and late-night conversations and going for ice cream and watching movies. He wanted all those soft little corners of life more than he wanted to go to Bangkok or Rio or New Orleans. He wanted more moments like this, leaning together and talking in low voices.
“Yes, and don’t look at me like that, I’ve been living under a rock for a century. I want to do all those little things that other people take for granted. I want ice cream and concert tickets and to try an avocado. I want to go for a swim and I want to get my hands on a decent broadsword just to see if I can still use it properly.”
“You want to live.”
She turned into him. He had let his arm drift and his hand close around her hip. She was in his arms now and he didn’t let the little voice in his head stop the impulse to pull her in a little closer. He had both hands on her waist now and she tilted her face up to study him. Jem was halfway to closing the kiss when she flinched.
She startled and her attention snapped up to the sky. His heart clenched and dropped through the floor at the flinch. It took him another moment to catch up. It was raining. A drop had landed on her face and she wiped it away with the palm of her hand but it was just starting. Jem looked up at the sky, the day had been cloudy since they started but now the clouds had grown heavy and dark and the rain was building up speed. The patter of drops became a downpour in a moment.
Tessa started to pull him towards the overhang where everyone else who had been on the deck was already huddled but the sky had mesmerized him. He was still holding onto her and rooted to the spot. Her fingers were tight around his wrist but she wasn’t pulling him anymore. He looked at her. Her hair was spotted with rain and a droplet beaded on her cheek. He reached up with the hand she was holding onto and brushed it away only for more to gather on her skin.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
She laughed and looked away from the rain and his attention. He caught her face in his palm and turned it back. Her eyes were just the colour of the sky. It felt important. A sign or a portent. He wasn’t sure how to put that into words. She was beautiful and she was here and that was enough. She was leaning in, closer without having taken a step.
“So are you,” she said.
“I’m skinny and broken and scarred,” he said with a laugh.
“You’re beautiful, James Carstairs, you’re so, so, beautiful.”
She had water beaded on her eyelashes. The rain was coming down hard and fast now and their clothes were soaked and clinging. She wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him closer. She was warm. The rain was a summer’s rain, heavy and warm but not as warm as her skin beneath the soaking wet shirt she wore.
She hesitated. Looked up at him. Pinned him in place with her gaze.
“I’m not her,” she said.
“You’re you,” he said. “You are who you are and you are beautiful. You’re everything I ever wanted.”
He kissed her before she could let the doubt in her voice grow any larger. He kissed her as gently as he could. Just a soft brush of lips. Just a promise. She went still. He pulled back and looked at her. The rain was slicking his hair to his scalp. Drops were sliding down his spine under his shirt. Her skin was wet. Her lips tasted of rain water. When he touched her hair, it was just as wet and the strands clung to his fingers. He pulled back and leaned his forehead against hers. She hadn’t kissed him back. She was staring at him and her fingers were tight in his shirt.
“I can’t be the girl you remember,” she said.
“I’m not asking you to be anyone but you. Tess. Please believe me.”
She started to pull back, “You don’t know me.”
“I want to.”
She stopped and looked up at him.
“I’m a long way from home and I don’t understand why or how I got here but I know that I trust you. I know that you’re beautiful and incredible. I know how smart you are and how brave you can be. I want to know who you are here and now. I don’t know you but I want to.”
The water ran down her face and slicked a tendril of hair against her cheek. He reached out to push it back, to try and smooth it away from her eyes. She took the touch as an invitation and grabbed hold of his shirt. She twisted her fingers in the fabric and pulled him in closer. He stumbled and let out a startled laugh. His face was still twisted into a smile when she kissed him.
It wasn’t gentle or tentative. It was a hard deep kiss. Jem gasped and then leaned into it. He kissed her back and had to grab hold of her to keep from collapsing. She wrapped her arm around his neck and held on just as tight. Her mouth was feverish and her teeth grazed his lip as he tried to demand more from the kiss. Despite the rain, Jem's skin was too warm and he had to gasp out a breath which finally broke the kiss.
Some one let out a whoop and there was a clap.
Tessa laughed and buried her face in his chest.
It took him a moment to realize why she was embarrassed. They were the only people left on the deck. Everyone else had fled the sudden downpour, which had become nothing more than a trickle now. There was an audience under the overhang of the upper deck. People had been watching. Someone cheered and clapped like they'd seen a particularly interesting show. Jem's emotions crested and he burst out into laughter. It wasn't quite funny. That wasn't why he was laughing. It was just too much.
He laughed into her wet hair. He held onto her with one hand and pushed the rainwater back from his eyes with the other.
"If I cast a spell now, do you think the Clave would get mad?"
"There are definitely mundanes watching."
"I don't want to see the statue," he said.
"We should just stay on the ferry, take the trip back, I don't want to see the statue."
Her attention refocused, coming back to him with a tilted smile. Jem held her gaze. "It's very impressive."
"We could go someplace quieter," he said, "With fewer spectators."
He hadn't really thought through the request. He was fully of vague impressions of kisses and warm hands and drying his hair. It was summer but it wasn’t a warm enough day to be sopping wet on a windy deck. Her expression said that she was reading a very different invitation into what he had just said. Jem didn't say anything to stop that interpretation. If she was interested in that interpretation, he was happy to see where it took them.
She pulled them down to a lower deck where the crowd hadn't noticed the kiss. People were getting up to disembark and she stole a seat in a quiet corner and pulled him down with her. Jem could see her weaving spell work around them so no one would notice they were there. He slouched back against the uncomfortable bench and she joined him, curling in close to his side and resting her head on his shoulder again.
"Have you actually thought about it?" she asked as the space got quieter.
"Your world and this world are not the same. I'm not the girl you remember."
"None of us are who we remember ourselves to be."
"I'm not talking in terms of poetics. I mean it far more literally."
Jem sighed pulled her in closer. The magic would keep the crowd that would soon come on board from noticing them so he pulled her right into his lap. She let him do it. Settled in so she was cuddled against his chest with her legs stretched out over the bench. The taboo on touching had evaporated all at once. One moment he was worried about brushing the back of her hand and the next, she was breathing against his neck while he rubbed her arm and held her close.
"You are not the girl I fell in love with when I was seventeen but neither is the woman I met on a bridge every day for a century and a half. We change. We're alive. We're a little bit different every day. I don't need you to be that girl. I don't expect you to be who you were when we were kids. Time leaves its marks on everyone. I have watched generations come and go. Most immortals walk the world but I stayed in one place. I stayed in the Silent City. I observed one corner of the world for generations. I watched people grow and change. I watched some of them become the best versions of themselves and others fall to vice and prejudice and the worst that humanity can be. We are not, today, who we were a week ago. We should not be held to the standards of who we were a century ago."
"Let me say this, even if it isn't as articulate or as beautiful as it could be. I do not want you to be the Tessa that I knew when I was young. I do not want you to hold yourself to the long dead standards of behaviour we were taught when we were growing up. I loved her when I was that boy. I’m not that boy anymore. You’re not that girl. I want a chance to love you now. I want a chance to love you as you are and as I am. I cannot be that boy again. I am not as kind as he was. I am not as selfless as he was. I spent so much time and energy being kind and serene and making sure that my illness didn't make anyone else's life worse. I want to be selfish now. I want the girl I like to kiss me on a boat on the way to a tacky landmark."
"I want to forget that there is evil in the world in favour of listening to orchestras and eating ice cream and you breathing against my throat like that. I want to live for me. Just for a little while. If this is all I get, if a few days of cosmic impossibility is all the universe will offer me, I want it. I want your life to have been better for this brief cross over with mine. I want you and this.
"To clear the air, I want her and all those memories. I want Will and all those lost souls. I want all those years I lost when I died too young. I want to know who I would have been had I grown up in Shanghai. I want to spend a lifetime laughing at Will's jokes and watching his children grow. I want to marry the girl I fell in love with and I want her to have the life she got instead. I want so many things and none of them fit together. The piece of me that wants her to have pined for me for decades is selfish and egotistical and yet he lives alongside the piece of me that is so grateful that she married and lived a good life alongside a man she loved."
Tessa nodded against his chest and wrapped her arms a little tighter around his waist.
"But I also want you. I want you because you gave me a piece of cake and gave me a second chance even after you found out I was a Shadowhunter. I want you because you have beautiful eyes and are so powerful that I can feel the magic in you. I want you because of your curls and your coffee and your book collection. I want to know who you are in this world. I want you, Theresa Gray. I want you as you are. Now. Then. In another hundred years. I want you."
"I don't deserve you," she said.
"I know. You deserve better than I could ev-"
"Not what I meant."
She kissed him. Softer than the last time. His thoughts short circuited and he didn't regret losing the end of that sentence. Her mouth was soft and she stroked his cheek with a thumb as she kissed him. The air around them was warming and he pushed out any thoughts. It might have been his imagination or the heating system on the boat or her magic but he pushed out all those considerations. Her lips were soft and her fingers were in his hair and she kept the kiss very slow.
Jem wanted to rush into things. He wanted more than he had the vocabulary to ask for. He knew the basics but he had only been to this edge where it was all possible once before. They'd both been too young and too overwhelmed back then. Now he had her to slow him down and make him pay attention. They were still on a ferry boat. And while her magic kept people from noticing them, Jem couldn't keep from noticing the people. He was both deeply aware and completely lost. In the same moment.
"We're going home, right?" he said.
"Yes, yes we are."
He nodded and buried his face against her throat. He kissed her pulse where it hammered beneath her skin. His self control was too fractured to keep from being all over her but if he kept kissing her mouth, he was going to start forgetting that they were in a busy place, surrounded by strangers. She stroked his hair and he held her tight as they waited for the ship to make the return trip to land.