AN: The prompt for this fic came from the lovely Angel Gidget, who is working on some Jem/Tessa artwork at my request. We enjoy exchanging fandom goodies. :) Beta work is compliments of il-sole-le-stelle, who was incredibly patient about my neediness and helped clean this puppy up. This story wouldn't have happened without you guys.
Warnings: Yes, that is foreshadowing in the title. There will be sex.
Five Times Jem and Tessa Misplace Their Virginity
And the one time they actually lose it.
1. In Court
"Oh. This is lovely."
"Yes, I suppose it's reasonably tolerable at night. Ghastly by day, though."
"What is this place?"
"The Italian Gardens. It's said to have been a gift from Prince Albert to the Queen. A declaration of his love for her."
"That was romantic of him."
"And financially irresponsible. Imagine the maintenance required to keep water flying through the air like that. It's all rather pointless seeing as how in 50 years the place will be covered in scum. And everyone agrees there isn't anything romantic about algae."
"I've heard mermaids use it to scent their tails."
"Mermaids also exchange eel heads as tokens of affection. You don't see anyone congratulating them for their ingenuity in the art of wooing."
"And the fairies live here?" Tessa asked as she, Will, and Jem made their way down the stone steps of the Pump House. Surrounding them was the quiet rush of water from the four pools occupying the center of the gardens. At the middle of each basin was a stone rosette that sent elegant sprays of water streaming up several feet into air. Ahead of them, the surface of The Long Water shone like thousands of pearls bobbing in the moonlight.
"No. The Fair Folk live in the Seelie Court. There just so happens to be an entrance to the Court here in Kensington Gardens."
"Tessa,"—Jem took her hand—"can you swim?"
/ / /
Wet, and in varying states of apprehension, the three of them followed the guard who had met them at what should have been the muddy bottom of The Serpentine. It was as if they had fallen down Alice's rabbit hole into a strange world beneath and beyond the reality of London, a place with stone walls that glittered with gems more radiant than diamonds.
As the tunnel began to widen into a larger cavern, Will passed Jem a long strip of cloth Tessa recognized as having been cut from the same material as their gear. "What's that for?"
"You," Jem said and smiled apologetically. "To keep you from seeing that which would drive you mad."
Tessa held still as Jem secured the blindfold over her eyes. "How will I know where to walk?"
"I could sing," Will offered. "And you could follow the strains of my melodious voice."
"A new verse to that Demon Pox song?"
"I've been practicing. I think you'll be impressed by my progress."
The guard glared at them over his shoulder. "A human does not sing unless requested to."
While Will started in on an argument about the key differences between singing and chanting, Jem ducked his head to Tessa's ear. "I promise not to let you trip. Or stray."
She tightened her hold on his arm. "Yes, but can you promise to keep Will from making my ears bleed?"
/ / /
"The favor you ask of me is a great one."
"But it's not really a favor, is it?" Will said. "You don't do favors."
The Seelie Queen grinned from her throne of fish bones. The misshapen shark's head topping the throne was only marginally less menacing than the face of the Queen, which emanated an unearthly beauty that was almost frightening. "A woman with my power has no need to give help freely. A favor given is a favor earned."
"Well, I happen to give excellent foot massages. Yours must ache terribly, what with you sitting around all day and ordering people about—"
Jem laid a silencing hand on Will's shoulder. "What would you ask of us in return?"
The Queen reclined back in her throne. "I'm bored and the thespian lives of humans entertain me." Her smile twisted. "One of you must tell me about the most passionate kiss you've ever shared. No detail is to be omitted. And I'll know if you lie."
Jem frowned. Will turned a shocking shade of white. Tessa glanced helplessly back and forth between the two of them.
"What sort of details?"
"All of them. I want to know everything. I want to feel it on my lips as surely as you did."
There was a moment of collective silence, and then Jem looks entreatingly at his parabatai. "This may be a time when a regalement of one of your scandalous affairs would actually be considered prudent."
Will's mouth opened, but it was as if his voice were stuck in his throat—as if it were held hostage there by the threatening tip of a blade at his neck.
"Will, please. I don't think—"
"I'll do it."
Everyone looked to Tessa, but she didn't dare meet anyone's gaze but the Queen's. She couldn't face Jem, who was full of concern, or at Will, who was…who she was about to…
"I'll tell you about my most passionate kiss."
A trill of excitement went around the court as the Queen's attendants all inched closer. The queen raised her fine eyebrows. "Go on."
Tessa took a deep breath. "It was late in the evening. I should have been in bed, but Jem's playing had woken me. So I went across the hall to see if he was alright."
"Were you dressed?" The Queen was watching her intently. Tessa burned under the scrutiny.
"I had already prepared for bed. I was in my robe."
This seemed to amuse the Queen. She signaled for Tessa to continue with a wave of her hand. "Go on."
"Jem was upset, so we talked briefly."
"Why was he upset?"
Tessa's fists clenched. "He was worried about Will. And he was frustrated. With his illness and…and with me."
"He admitted to having feelings for me beyond friendship," she said over Jem's interruption. She still couldn't look at him. At either of them. "I was surprised. I hadn't realized he felt that way me or that I…that I felt that way about him. And then he kissed me."
Now the Queen leaned forward in her throne. "And what was it like?"
"It was like a kiss. Surely you've been kissed before?"
The Queen's eyes narrowed. "Don't act a fool. A kiss is never merely a kiss. No two are the same. Each is its own truth, for the Fair Folk cannot lie with their lips, and our mouths meet as readily as yours."
A look from the Queen silenced her. "You agreed to tell me. But if you have changed your mind, then I shall not grant the favor you have come to beg of me, and you may leave now."
Tessa did not move. Nor did she flinch under the Queen's piercing scrutiny.
"Then," the Queen said, "what was it like?"
Tessa dropped her gaze to the pendant around her neck. "Like waking up." She fingered the jade stone. "It was as if I had realized the most important truth about myself, and Jem was the one who had opened my eyes to it. I was overwhelmed, but I wanted more, and I could tell that he felt it to. We were so close, and we were there—both of us. We were there in that moment and nowhere else. And neither of us wanted it to stop. "
The silence in the court echoed like a drum. Tessa stared down at her engagement necklace, which was warm from her loose grip. She felt Will's stare where it bore into her head.
"Just one kiss?"
She lifted her eyes to the Queen. "No. More than I could try to recount."
"And yet you retain the blush of a virgin." The corner of her pale lips twitched. "If only just."
Jem recovered his voice. "Is that it? Are you satisfied?"
"My satisfaction hardly seems to be of consequence in the matter." She tossed her head, and the beads in her hair quivered like scales on a fish. "Were you satisfied, Nephilim? To feel passion returned as equally as it was given? To taste freely the sweetness of virgin desire? To lavish skin never before touched and lips never before kissed?" Her gaze—as dark and merciless as a tempest-churned ocean—moved to Will. "There is something momentous about being the first. It is inerasable."
2. Over Cookies
It wasn't a particularly warm day. The clouds were low and threatening rain—again. Yet Tessa could not shake the heat that had been crawling beneath her skin. The back door to the kitchen was ajar, but the gentle breeze did nothing to cool her flushed cheeks. She stood over the accumulating debris from her baking project and tried to concentrate on the feel of the rolling pin in her hands and getting the dough to the proper thickness.
"It's a common enough belief that only the man need be informed, but it will be easier if you know what to expect. Your aunt. Did she ever speak to you about…what to anticipate on your wedding night?"
Tessa bit her lip, Charlotte's words from earlier playing in her mind. The explanation that had followed was one of the most bewildering and uncomfortable conversations Tessa had ever partaken in. Charlotte, alternatively blunt and hesitant, had offered both startling details and puzzling ambiguities, and in the end Tessa was left with more questions than she had at the start. Not that Tessa voiced them to Charlotte. Despite her insistence that Tessa be informed, the older woman had been quite eager to depart as soon her advice was offered, and Tessa hadn't been able to find the necessary courage to pursue the topic further.
And yet it continued to pursue her.
When the library had failed to provide distraction, she escaped to the kitchen, and that was where she had been holed up all afternoon. Just her and a great deal of ingredients she wasn't entirely confident she was using correctly.
"What are you making?"
Tessa jumped, nearly fumbling the rolling pin as she turned to find Jem standing beside her. He peered curiously at her messy workspace and then at her apron, which was just as much a victim of her efforts. His silver eyebrows lifted.
"Sugar cookies," Tessa answered. She tucked back a wayward lock of hair, inadvertently smearing her ear with flour. "They were Aunt Harriet's favorite. I haven't had them since…and, well, Bridget had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned them, so I thought I would try myself."
"I suppose I'll find Bridget trussed up in the store room. From the sound of it, she must be gagged."
"She's left to get some produce she'll need for tonight's dinner." Tessa smiled and returned to the task of flattening the dough with broad sweeps of the pin. "Don't tell her I dropped some butter on the floor. Church cleaned up most of it, but I'm worried he'll give me away. He looks very guilty."
The cat in question was sprawled across Tessa's feet, stretched out on one side in a plump, self-satisfied manner. His purring was a quiet hum of contentment.
Jem shook his head and leaned back against the counter. He watched as Tessa began cutting the dough into shapes. "Tell her he caught a mouse. That should put her in a more gracious mood. Well, as gracious a mood as Bridget ever manages."
"I'm sure she knows a song about mice-eating."
"Or about murderous cats." His lips twitched. "I enjoyed last week's ballad of the faerie who gutted a wolf so she could crawl inside its body and lie with its mate. All for the sake of the love she bore the moon."
"Yes." The word caught in her throat.
Jem's presence—usually something of a balm—left her flustered. She was very aware of his hands gripping the wooden ledge scant inches from her elbow. They were a musician's hands, nimble and capable of grace. But they were also a warrior's hands. Strong. Calloused. Accustomed to wielding a great variety of weapons.
She found herself simultaneously worried and hoping that he would touch her with those hands now.
"Are you feeling ill? You look flushed."
Tessa met Jem's concerned eyes and something swelled inside her, something warm, churning, and filled with her love for Jem. She felt light. And heavy. More than a little breathless. He was so close she could feel the way the air moved around his body and see the white scars at his throat. There was so much of him, and Tessa's thoughts jumped ahead a month to their wedding night when even the little space between them right now would be gone.
His gaze turned knowing. "Charlotte spoke to you."
Tessa thought she may very well die from mortification. "No. I mean—that is, yes, she did, but it was only to discuss wedding preparations. For the ceremony. Flowers. Ribbons."
"Henry spoke to me and Will." Jem sighed. "Only he used ratchets and cylinders. Not flowers and ribbons."
Of course it made sense that Henry would be the one to broach the subject with them. While not exactly a father figure, he was the only married man in a position familiar enough to warrant the responsibility. Tessa thought of the three of them discussing such matters and was suddenly very glad that Charlotte had approached her alone. It was also reassuring, in a way, that Jem had needed to be spoken to at all. Perhaps he did not know so much more than her after all. It made Tessa feel a little bit better about her own ignorance.
"Cylinders?" Tessa wondered aloud in spite of herself.
Jem shook his head. "Henry was his usual inventive self."
He gave no further explanation, and Tessa returned her focus to the task of cutting the cookies. Jem was a silent companion. Occasionally he collected the bits of excess dough and rolled them flat again. Soon his hands were as flour-ridden as hers, and he paid no mind to the state of his fine waistcoat as he carried the tray to the squat, wood burning oven against the far wall. Tessa supervised this process before turning to the mess of bags and containers she would need to have cleaned up before Bridget returned. As she set about returning things to their proper place in the store cupboard, Jem followed her lead. It wasn't long before the silence proved to be too much.
"I've found a few books to be quite helpful," she said suddenly. Then she blushed and placed the jar of vanilla in its place on the shelf.
Jem blinked at her.
"After talking with Charlotte this morning, I, um, took the liberty of browsing the library. I found couple of volumes on human anatomy. They were quite…detailed. I spent some time going through certain sections."
"Did you?" There was no censure in Jem's face. His grin was all fondness and amusement—which was entirely unhelpful because Tessa felt anything but amused.
"I…yes." She picked at her filthy apron. "For informational purposes."
"And you feel informed now?"
"A little." It felt as if she's stuck her face in the oven, she was so warm. When Jem set aside the bag of flour and moved closer, the heat spread down her spine.
"I've been reading, as well."
Tessa looked up at him in surprise. "You have?"
This time, it was Jem who colored. The red was a fetching shade against his alabaster skin, a healthy flush that made him look his seventeen years. "Yes. Something Henry mentioned troubled me, and I wished to research the matter further."
"Oh." She knew she should let the matter rest. The conversation had overstepped all bounds of propriety some time ago, and for them to speak of such things alone together was decidedly reprehensible. And yet…it was Jem, and they were, in fact, alone. "What matter was that?"
If her boldness surprised him, he didn't let it show. Instead he looked very grave and, hesitantly, he took her hand in his. "I've been told that it can be unpleasant for a woman the first time." His frown deepened. "That I'll hurt you and then there's nothing to be done for the pain."
Charlotte had said as much to Tessa. Amidst the litany of delicate information that had been imparted to her, Tessa had not found the prospect of some physical discomfort troubling. She understood pain. She knew how her body responded to it and how to move past it. Pain did not always mean suffering. Tessa thought of her scarred palm. She could not be so easily intimidated.
Of course, convincing Jem of this was another matter entirely. Gently withdrawing her hand from his grasp, she used it to cup his face. He was already looking at her intently. The gesture served merely as an excuse to touch—to feel the smooth skin unmarked by runes, or scars, or age. He released an unsteady breath.
"You won't actually be hurting me," she said. "Not really. If there's pain, I'll bear it gladly if it means…if it means getting to be with you. Isn't that what marriage is? A vow to never let the bad overshadow the good? To endure because it is worth enduring? I love you, Jem, and there are very few things I would not endure on your behalf or on behalf of our happiness together."
Her words had the effect of softening his gaze. He turned his lips briefly into her palm and then let her hand fall away as he moved to stand behind her. She felt his fingers brush the small of her back, deftly unfastening the tie of the apron. This accomplished, he moved to the strap around her neck, and all at once Tessa felt the heat of his breath mingling with the light caress against her skin.
"I hope it is not only suffering you plan to endure." He guided the apron up over her head, and for a moment she was standing in the loose circle of his arms, her back pressed to his front. "I would have you endure such pleasures you'll not find listed in any of your books."
3. Through Clothing
"I need to solicit a favor of you, and I need you not to ask after my intentions."
Jem looked up from his sheet music in time to see Tessa close the door behind her. She smoothed the folds of her heavy skirt in a nervous gesture before crossing the room to stand before Jem's small writing desk. Her apparent anxiety stayed any trivial greeting Jem might have offered after not seeing her for most of the day. She had been out all afternoon with Sophie, shopping for gloves and hats.
At least, that was what he had been told.
Jem stood from his chair. "What is it that you need?"
Tessa breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you. I need to borrow some of your clothes."
"My clothes?" Jem had to check his surprise. "Anything in particular?"
"Something you would wear out."
"Not gear," he guessed as he turned to his wardrobe.
"No. I was hoping for something less conspicuous."
Jem selected a shirt, waistcoat, and trousers and then took up the jacket he had been wearing before dinner. He passed them all to Tessa. "Will these do?"
"Yes." She accepted them with a fleeting smile. "They'll do perfectly. And I promise to have them back to you in the morning."
"I'm not concerned for their safety."
Tessa looked as if she meant to say something further but pressed her lips together and nodded instead. Warily, she eyed the pile of clothes hanging over her arm. "Thank you, Jem. I know I'm being terribly rude and abrupt, but I must go. I—"
"Do you need help?" He gestured at her dress. "If you're in a hurry, you'll need assistance to change."
"Sophie is still out with Cecily," she said hesitantly, not refuting his assumption that the clothes were for her. "And Charlotte…Well, it's best if she doesn't know about this."
"I'll help you."
The offer went against his better judgment and against all precedents of decorum. (This was not, of course, to mention the aspects of his nature which were very much in favor of the proposal.) Tessa was as conscious of the social misstep as he was. She blushed prettily but then seemed to rally her determination. With a nod, she moved toward the bed and laid out the garments side-by-side.
"The ties on this one are complicated. The dress used to belong to Jessamine. Sophie had to make several alterations for it to fit me properly. There's a small fastening just under the first seam."
Jem hesitated only a moment before approaching her back and searching for the proper clasp. Despite their combined efforts, it took several minutes of negotiating fastenings and fabric to free Tessa of her cumbersome attire. The dress, petticoats, and camisole joined Jem's clothes on the bed (he found his attention drawn to the sight more than once). When she was down to just her chemise and stockings, Jem politely turned away so she could finish the task.
To distract himself from the sounds of garments landing on the floor and cloth sliding over skin, he occupied his mind with theories about the purpose of his fiancé's unprecedented request. The matter was clearly pressing if she wasn't willing to wait for Sophie's assistance. It also ruled out his and Cecily's involvement entirely. And if Tessa meant to keep it a secret from Charlotte, then her task could not be concerned with Henry or the Institute as a whole. Jem could then only conclude that Will was somehow involved. This conjecture was strengthened by the nature of her request—it seemed Jem would still be the one out saving Will even when he wasn't.
Curiously comforted by these speculations, he passed the rest of his wait in silence, not focusing on Tessa's current state of dress until her fingers slid gently along the crook of his elbow.
"How did I do?"
Jem turned and found his prepared response to be painfully inadequate. "You…"
"Oh, I've done something wrong, haven't I?" She fussed with the buttons on the waistcoat.
"No. No, you…" Jem swallowed. "I'll just…" He reached out and released the clasp of the brace, untwisting the leather so that it lay flat beneath the vest. His clothes hung loosely on her slighter frame, but they did nothing to disguise the shape of her legs—usually hidden beneath layers of skirts. He looked from her bare feet up to where his shirt disappeared into the waistline of the trousers. Unconsciously, he fingered the last visible button.
Jem was reminded of the first time he'd seen her dressed to pass as a man. The disguise was as convincing now as it had been then—a complete giveaway.
Tessa stepped into his touch. "I'll need shoes."
"And a hat."
"I know you can't tell me, but—" The words died against her lips.
A goodbye kiss, Jem thought even as his hands spread over the curve of her waist to draw her nearer. Tessa did not pull away but sighed and murmured something that was lost between her mouth opening and her hands skimming up his sides. Everything was lost. The space between them, the air in his lungs, and any reason as to why he should not hold her now as he intended to hold her for the rest of his life.
Beneath the jacket, he gripped the stiff material of her—his?—waistcoat and pulled until their bodies were flush. Tessa gasped, and Jem tasted the sound. Her hands were on his chest, in his hair, and then clutching at his shoulders with fervent desperation. When she rose up onto her toes, Jem instinctively shifted toward the desk to check their balance. Inertia and desire worked together to get Tessa sitting atop newly inked sheets of music, Jem caught between the warm press of her thighs.
Ru guo jia de gan jue shi ru ci, na jia li tian tang bing bu yuan, he thought as his mouth moved along her jaw to her neck. He pushed aside the jacket collar to reach the warm skin beneath.
"What?" Her body arched into his.
"You said…mmm…something. I…what was it?"
Jem forgot what he had said the moment her hips rolled forward into his. He groaned and pressed back, his body moving on its own volition and determination—it knew what he wanted before the rest of him. He thought of his discussion with Henry. Somehow knowing what he had learned and what Tessa had learned made the moment more real. The night they kissed for the first time had felt like a dream, an illusion they would both eventually fall away from. Smoke and mirrors.
Now there was no denying the reality of Tessa's wet lips on his chest or the intent in the shifting press of their bodies. Beneath the want and the being wanted, there was the knowing.
Jem bit his lip.
"Jem," Tessa whispered against his collarbone and then looked up at him with heavy-lidded eyes. "What's wrong?"
He ran a hand over the thin cotton covering her spine. "The clothes. You needed them for something."
"Oh." She blinked and sat up straight. Beneath the jacket, her chest rose and fell rapidly. She was breathless. "Yes. Of course. I was just leaving…"
Jem's laugh caught in his throat. He fingered a loose wave of her mused hair. "Were you?"
After everything, she still managed to blush. "I was. And then you…kissed me like that." She did not sound convincingly scandalized. The effect of her vexation was ruined by the affectionate softening of her eyes. She raised a hand to his lips. "Jem, you mustn't kiss me like that."
Her light touch did little to soothe the desire that was an ache in his belly. "Ever?"
"Not tonight," she said and gave him the slow, brazen smile he hadn't seen until after their engagement. It was a smile that made Jem glad he had not delayed his proposal any longer. "But it will not be tonight for much longer."
Jem shook his head amazedly.
She caught his face in her hands and placed the slightest of kisses on the corner of his mouth. "Help me with the shoes."
He took the spare pair from his wardrobe. Even tightly laced, they threatened to fall off her feet. It was strange, because Jem had never before considered Tessa to be small. Yet he could now attest to her waist being no wider than the span of one hand. And her fingers, slender and petite, could not quite bracelet his wrists.
He carefully removed the pins from her hair, piling them on the corner of his desk with the thought that she would eventually return to claim them. He was glad that she made no effort to assist him and that he could deliberately allow the tresses to uncoil around his fingers before they fell down her back.
These tasks completed, Tessa slid to her feet, wobbled slightly, and picked up the hat he'd worn out earlier. "There," she said, settling it atop her head.
Jem gave her an appraising look. "Not quite. You're missing something." He walked to the chest at the foot of the bed. Lying on top of the engraved oak was his cane. He lifted its familiar weight, taking a moment to weigh it in his hands. Then he offered it to Tessa. "You'll need it if you mean to be convincing."
Tessa accepted it with a good deal more gravity than she'd received the rest of her disguise. The silver dragon's head glinted in the lamplight as she tucked it carefully beneath one arm. "Thank you, Jem."
"You've already said that."
"Yes, well, I mean it. For everything. And for understanding."
Jem smiled. He lifted the rim of her hat and pressed his lips to her brow. "I will see you tomorrow. When I can kiss you without receiving complaints."
He felt her laugh against his neck before she nodded and pulled away. Her eyes were warm and dark, the color of frosted glass filtering the first light of day. Jem stared, transfixed, until she turned and walked toward the door.
She paused at the threshold. One hand on the doorframe, she looked back at from him beneath the slant of her hat. "What was it you said earlier?"
Jem smoothed a hand over the rumpled clothes and repeated the Chinese phrasing he'd used only subconsciously.
Tessa considered the words and then smiled. "I will tie you to this Earth, Jem Carstairs. If it were my choice, it would be many more years before you ever catch sight of Heaven."
"Just as well. I would find it a lonely, desolate place without you."
The closing door concealed her face. "Mizpah."
4. To A Stranger
Amelia had never minded being Horace Carstairs' dirty little secret. In fact, she rather preferred it that way. Secrecy granted a certain degree of anonymity—no matter how artificial—and anonymity granted some semblance of freedom. If you lived far enough beneath the Law, then the Law stopped caring that you lived. And for that measure of indifference, Amelia was willing to crawl on her belly.
Still, being the mistress of a recluse Shadowhunter—even one as intriguingly damaged as Horace—had its shortcomings. As she was barred from entering Alicante and discretion kept her from making acquaintances of her distant neighbors, the only true companion she could claim was Horace. And his mind was ever more distant than his body.
So it was with no little curiosity that Amelia watched from her window as the never-mentioned nephew and his young fiancée arrived through the front gate. The coach stopped at the main door, where it was met by the old man who had served as Horace's butler for some forty years. He held the coach door open, and a young man alighted from inside. From this distance, Amelia could not make out his features save that he was of a slim build and a fair complexion. The woman he helped down after him had dark hair that winked at her from beneath the brim of her yellow hat.
As the couple entered the house arm-in-arm, Amelia felt a prickle of wakefulness along the back of her neck.
/ / /
"What do you mean you will not be able to attend?"
Horace glanced helplessly down at his plate. "I do wish that I…It's only I couldn't possibly…my health, you see…"
Across the table, Tessa cast a critical glance at her host, no doubt noting his small, but perfectly healthy frame. Horace was flush with alcohol and the anxiety of the unprecedented company.
Amelia smiled into her glass.
"Perhaps some sunlight and brisk air would have you feeling more robust," Tessa suggested. "We could go for a walk after dinner. It won't be dark for another hour at least…"
Horace's nervous laughter interrupted her. "Oh, I'm afraid not. I've a fair heap of work from the Council to see to. You'll learn very quickly that the Clave is not the patient sort."
"But surely you wouldn't miss your only nephew's wedding? We had both hoped—"
"Margaret. My guests need more wine." Horace gestured at the maid standing in wait by the door. She disappeared and returned with a glass decanter half-filled with rosy liquid. As her goblet was filled, Jem's soon-to-be bride sighed and bit her tongue.
/ / /
Amelia did not possess the stealth of the Nephilim or a vampire's penchant for avoiding the light. What she did have was an intimate knowledge of the grounds and a natural inclination for long, meandering walks in the early afternoon. Stumbling upon the visiting couple hardly proved to be a challenge. Staying out of sight behind the stable door required only a casual familiarity with discretion.
So Amelia bided her time and listened as they worked at grooming one of the past-peak stallions Horace insisted they keep on the grounds.
"It's completely unacceptable. For heaven's sake, he's a grown man—"
"Who has had a very trying life."
"You have had a very trying life." The heat of her indignation caused the horse to shuffle its hoofs restlessly against the ground. "But you don't refuse to leave your home."
"He isn't well. After my parents died, he stopped going outside or accepting callers. There's a reason the Clave denied him custody of me when I was a child. He hasn't left that house in 18 years."
There was a break in the discussion as Jem instructed Tessa to not walk behind the horse, as he was partially blind and likely easy to spook. Her response was to suggest that she take over the task of the feeding—if that was the less dangerous of the two ends. The two talked of other matters after that. Conversation came easily to them the way it did to lovers who had been tested but not beaten. An intimate exchange in its own right but not what Amelia was looking for.
"Would you teach me how to ride?"
"Not necessarily. But some time soon. I'd like to learn."
"Will is a better rider than I am."
"I want you to be the one to teach me."
Amelia peeked out from her hiding spot and caught a glimpse of two bodies swaying into one another. A teasing, glancing touch.
In the quiet that followed, Amelia leaned her head back against the door and smiled.
/ / /
That evening, while heading towards her rooms, Amelia passed the library the same moment that Tessa was leaving it. The younger woman regarded her curiously but then dropped her gaze to the book in her hands.
"I am glad that you and your fiancé have come to stay with us," Amelia offered. "I am sorry that Horace will be unable to attend the wedding. I am sure it will be quite beautiful."
"Thank you. But I still hope that I might change his mind."
"It would require a valiant effort." Amelia smiled politely. "Goodnight—"
"Jem told me about you," Tessa said suddenly. "I mean, he told me what you are."
Turning back toward her companion, Amelia clasped her hands together. "And what did he say?"
"He said that you're a succubus," Tessa started, pausing to assess Amelia's reaction before continuing. "Like demons, you survive on human energy. But you don't feed on their flesh; you feed on their physical desire, on their passion. So long as you do not kill or enslave a human, the Clave does not hunt you."
"The Nephilim view us as little more than parasites." She shrugged a smile. "But that is what they think of anyone less human than they are." Gesturing to the dusty demonology volume clutched in Tessa's hands, she asked, "Does the book tell you how a succubus feeds? We can enter a man or woman's dream and inspire passion while they sleep. Or,"—she stepped forward and tucked back a curling lock of hair that had escaped Tessa's coiffure—"we can stimulate the urges in person. Their life, so bright and fleeting, is what gives us the strength to outpace mortality."
Tessa's lips pressed into a thin line. "How old are you?"
"I have walked in this world for some 300 years." Amelia watched Tessa's reaction closely. "You wonder if it is a lonely existence."
She remained silent.
"The time you have is only as good as the company you keep. And your company is only worth the value of your time. What does it mean to spend 50 years loving someone, if 50 years means nothing to you? Do not allow time to become inconsequential, or everything else will follow."
Amelia stepped away, Tessa's eyes following her retreat into the flickering shadows.
"Goodnight." She grinned. "And sweet dreams."
/ / /
The clock on the mantel chimed two in the morning, and Amelia listened from her bed as a door softly closed and footsteps disappear down the hall. She hummed, having too much life to sleep.
5. Under Duress
Jem pressed his ear to the door and listened to the silence on the other side. No heavy footsteps. No mechanical whirring. No inhuman voices.
It was the most peace he'd had over the last three days.
He withdrew and went to the small parlor's settee. From beneath the cushions he took the iron curtain rod that had been secured above the barred windows the first night of his captivity. The ends of the rod were capped with pointed, diamond-shaped finials. With enough force, the makeshift weapon should be capable of penetrating the body of a clockwork creature. Jem was not certain how many stood between him and Tessa's location.
He spun the pole once to test its balance and then approached the door, aiming to cripple the lock.
Then, just as he prepared to strike, a quiet click sounded. The knob turned. The door opened. The iron rod fell from Jem's limp hands.
"Tessa?" Relief muted by alarm swept over him. He barely registered the silencing gesture of her finger against her lips before rushing forward to take her in his arms. All at once he was home. The force of her hands fisting in the material of his vest was more reassuring than any of the dozen rationalizing speeches he'd delivered to himself the last several days.
"Jem!" She whispered anxiously near his ear, lips just brushing his skin while he left quick, fervent kisses down the side of her face, her hair, her neck—anywhere he could reach. "I overheard one of the warlocks say they had imprisoned a Shadowhunter down here, someone who had showed up alone and tried to break in. What happened? Where is everyone else? Where's Will?"
"Are you hurt? Have they tried forcing you to do something? To Change?"
"I am not hurt." She pulled back and brushed away the hair falling into his eyes. "Are you? How long have you been here?"
"Three days. I came that night after they took you."
"I told Will I was going to question someone about Mortmain's dealings with the local vampire coven. We needed the information for our plan." He shrugged a shoulder. "I lied."
She fingered a long rent in the sleeve of his shirt. "That was dangerous. You should have known that—"
"I would get caught?" He slid his fingers along her bare forearms until their hands met. "Yes, I know."
The answer was there in the way she was looking at him. In the way he always felt drawn to look at her. She knew, of course. And yet he would never mind saying it. "Because I love you. I wasn't going to wait out there when you were here, in the possession of someone like Mortmain. My place is here at your side."
She nodded and seemed to swallow back some strong emotion. "I'm glad you're here, James. Even if it is selfish of me to feel that way."
"It's not selfish. It's…what's wrong? You're trembling."
Tessa dropped her gaze. She shook with tiny tremors, as if she were fighting to stay warm. But the room was temperate, and she didn't feel cold to the touch. Her hands squeezed his with bruising force. When she spoke, her chin quivered. "I'm afraid."
"Don't be." He lowered his face to hers, seeking out her eyes. "We'll leave now. If you were able to escape your room and make it down here, then we should be able to find a way out. Did you pass anyone on your way here?"
She shook her head. "Jem, I did not escape."
"What do you mean?"
"I asked Mortmain to let me come and see you"—her teeth sunk into her bottom lip until it turned pale and bloodless—"as a wedding gift."
Something in his expression must have betrayed the cold dread that had seized him because Tessa suddenly withdrew her hands from his and used them to cup his face. He did not think he had ever been so close to those wide, gray eyes, which were now shining with tears.
"I am to marry him," she said quietly. "Tomorrow. There's a dress in my room. Shoes. Gloves. A veil. In the morning a lady's maid is coming to help me prepare. The ceremony will be held here. Some sort of ritual as well. No one will explain it to me. He demands that I marry him, and that if I don't do so willingly, he will force me. He says I am to be his wife and that I am to be joined with him in every way…"
She closed her eyes and did not continue. She had no need to. Jem understood. And as unthinkable as her fears were, he knew they were not misplaced.
"We'll leave," he told her. "We'll leave now."
"No!" The fire in her eyes would have humbled the sun. "No, we cannot attempt to escape. The house is too well protected, and they would not hesitate to kill you."
"But if I could provide a distraction, something that would give you time to get out…"
Her hands fell from his face. She took one step back. And then another. "I would never ask you to send me to my death. Please show me the same compassion."
She turned then to close the door before slowly making her way to the settee and sinking down onto the edge. She appeared so terribly out of place in the dingy room that had served as makeshift cell. The skirt of her fine dress brushing the stained carpets. The elegant curve of her neck and shoulders set against the backdrop of threadbare cushions. The smooth color of her skin in the yellow light streaming from the soiled windows. She did not belong here.
Jem knelt down at her feet and took her hand in his. "I'm sorry. But you must understand that I cannot sit idle while you are forced to submit to this man against your will. You're asking the impossible of me."
"I would not have you be idle."
"Then what? Tell me. You know I would do anything for you."
She nodded and, without looking down at their intertwined hands, began tracing the scarred ridges of his knuckles. "Yes. Because you know I would never ask you do something that would compromise you in some way. I know you, Jem. I know your goodness and I know your fears." She raised her fingers to his lips. "Now, I want to know the rest of you."
Jem stared, transfixed by the determination in her touch and the anticipation in her eyes. "The rest of me?"
She nodded and then kissed him. It was slow, lingering, and gave no hint of an ending. The heat of Tessa's mouth on his was capable of distracting Jem from a great many things, but it could not chase away the threat looming ahead of them.
"Tessa." He broke away, and her lips followed the pulse in his throat. "This isn't—"
"I want to make love with you." The words were spoken against his jaw, etched there by the gentle scrape of her teeth. But Jem felt them deeper. Much deeper.
"We can't," he said, sure of his conviction. "Not here. Not now. It isn't right. Our wedding night—"
"Tomorrow may be my wedding night." She drew away far enough to look him in the eye. "But I won't be marrying you. And you promised…you promised that it would be us. That we would share something and that it would be worth it because we love each other. And because we both want it so badly we ache. I won't give that to someone else. I want you. I want you now…if…if you'll have me."
"You can't give up hope," Jem countered. "Charlotte, Henry, Will. They'll come for us."
"That doesn't change how I feel right now. I want to be with you."
It was like hearing her accept his proposal all over again. That same sense of surrealism buoyed by exhilaration. She could choose him over and over and over, and it would never be any less startling. Even as he contemplated relinquishing his own sense of decency and taking her as she asked—unwed and afraid of tomorrow—he couldn't quite believe that he had found himself here. Somehow he had ended up with this woman's unconditional love and trust, and his greatest fear was that he might prove unworthy of it.
His grip had gone slack, and Tessa used the space to slide off the settee and into his lap, hiking up her skirts as she went. "I want this to be something both of us choose."
Jem's arm went around her waist. "I chose this a long time ago. I thought that our wedding day would be the time—the right time—because being bound to you in only one way or the other will not satisfy me. I intend to give myself to you in every way a person can relinquish himself to the one who has accepted him. Even now that is my purpose."
"It's mine as well," Tessa said, palms against his chest.
"But if this is what you want…my desire is not less than yours."
Her lips parted in surprise. "You mean you…"
Jem answered her with a definitive kiss. He sought out her mouth again and again, leaving no room for doubt. He kissed her and hoped that she could feel the conviction of his promise to always be this close. Her response was immediate and fervent. Tessa came to life in his arms, grasping, and pressing, and wordlessly returning his adoration. Jem was no longer sure who was devouring whom.
"We don't have much time," she murmured against his lips.
Grasping his wrist, she guided him beneath the bunched folds of her dress to the warmth of her leg. He felt the sheer barrier of her stocking, then the stiff garter strap which led him up her thigh. His fingertips brushed along the crease where her leg and hip met, and from there, she moved his hand down until he was touching her as he had desired to for weeks. They both inhaled sharply.
Her forehead fell against his, and her eyes slipped close. "I'll always need you," she murmured.
He felt beyond the help of words. Tessa was kissing his face and running a hand through his hair. She pleaded quietly even as he began to move his fingers against her.
He was not prepared for her response. The bucking of her hips. The bruising force of her mouth. The persistence of her hands in ridding him of his clothes. It was more intoxicating than the burn of yin fen firing through his veins and more satisfying than a thousand soulful notes spilled from his violin. Jem's faith in his self-control began to fade beneath the wetness collecting on his fingers and Tessa's panting by his ear.
She worked the buttons of his trousers free, and her hand slipped down his stomach between the parted shirt tails. Jem groaned and pressed into her tentative touch.
"Is this all right?"
The murmured question barely registered above the pounding of blood through his veins. He nodded wordlessly and rose up onto his knees, sending the settee skating back over the thin carpet. Tessa gasped and clutched at his back until he lowered her to the floor and settled his weight on top of her
Jem could not help pulling back to take in the sight of her beneath him. She was flushed, the high color giving way to her heaving décolletage, which threatened to escape the confines of her corset with each breath. His fingers itched to reach for the ties of her dress, but Tessa's warnings and his own mounting sense of urgency kept his hands where they were braced against her bare hips.
Silently, he promised that their next time would be slower.
"Wo ai ni."
His body aligned along hers, he held her gaze as she arched up against him.
That was when the air shook with a sound like thunder, and the dirty windows rattled in their frames until they threatened to shatter. Shouts grew from a hum to a dull roar that quickened the heart. Heaven's horde had arrived, and Jem and Tessa found their feet once more firmly rooted to the ground.
1. After Vows
Tessa expected it to be slow. Gentle. Cautious. And maybe, at first, it was. The way Jem reached for the tie of the robe, how it parted beneath his fingers, the feel of it pooling at her feet. And all the while, Tessa counting her breaths so that they did not come too quickly.
But then she was on the bed without consciously thinking to move. Jem didn't mind when she straddled him or shy away from the advantage it gave her. She bestowed the first kiss. And the second. Each was accepted with a smile of generosity that belied his patience. When holding her was no longer enough, he took to familiarizing himself with the curves of her body—a bony shoulder, a shallow clavicle, slim hips, ribs that his thumbs somehow managed to count through warm satin. It was at that point Tessa insisted they finish undressing.
Her nightgown got caught as she pulled it over her head, and he nibbled on the sensitive skin beneath her elbows until she worked it free. Any rebuke from her died in a gasp as she learned how it felt to have scarred, calloused hands cupping the swell of her breast. She watched him, transfixed, as he kissed his way down her chest to the flat of her belly. It was not until his breath caught that she realized her nails had scored his shoulders.
He arched into her touch as she drew them hard down his back.
If Tessa had any preconceptions about sex, they were forgotten in the course of the night. She had been warned about the pain and the pleasure, but nothing had prepared her for the intimacy, the closeness that reached beyond slick skin and tangled legs. If at moments she wasn't aware of being kissed, it was only because he had her coming apart in a dozen other ways. Her only thoughts were of Jem and the way his body led hers relentlessly forward.
Teeth caught her jaw as the muscles beneath her hands went taut, and everything stilled. Jem's arms shook, and a moment later he collapsed against her, face buried in the hollow of her neck. Tessa felt the tremors in her own limbs as she wrapped him in her arms.
"Are you alright?"
She nodded. The ache of her body felt like a pleasant thing. Something she wouldn't trade for all the comfort in the world. "Are you?"
His breathless laugh warmed her shoulder. "Not the word I would use."
"And what word would you use?"
Jem rose up onto his elbows. The satisfaction…the pure joy she saw in his face was enough to send her heart racing all over again. He was beautiful, so beautiful, like this.
He placed a hand on her belly and ran it along the length of her thigh. "I can't think of a single word." He slid down the bed until he could kiss the inside of her bent knee. "I can only think to show you."
He did just that, and Tessa felt herself caught in the spokes of a wheel that would never cease turning.
- NOTES -
- Jem mentioned Henry's stellar sex ed advice. You can find that scene in my story "Incandescence."
- Ru guo jia de gan jue shi ru ci, na jia li tian tang bing bu yuan translates to "If this is the feeling of home, it is not too far from Heaven."
- Thanks for reading. :D