Will predictably, though, did not like this. "Let me go," he said with sudden irritation. "Let me go. I can stand."
Jem and Cyril exchanged glances, then moved apart. Will staggered, but stayed upright. He raised his head, the cold wind lifting the sweaty hair from his neck and forehead, blowing it across his eyes. Tessa thought of him up on the roof of the Institute: A nd I behold London, a human awful wonder of God.
He looked at Jem. His eyes were bluer than blue, his cheeks flushed, his features angelic. He said, "You did not have to come and fetch me like some child. I was having quite a pleasant time."
Jem looked back at him. "God damn you," he said, and hit Will across the face, sending him spinning. Will didn’t lose his footing, but fetched up against the side of the carriage, his hand to his cheek. His mouth was bleeding. He looked at Jem with total astonishment.
"Get him into the carriage," Jem said to Cyril, and turned and went back through the red door-to pay for whatever Will had taken, Tessa thought. Will was still staring after him, the blood reddening his mouth.
"James?" he said.
"Come along, then," said Cyril, not unkindly. He really was awful y like Thomas, Tessa thought as he opened the carriage door and helped Will inside, and then Tessa after him. He gave her a handkerchief from his pocket. It was warm and smelled like cheap eau de cologne. She smiled and thanked him as he shut the door.
Will was slumped in the corner of the carriage, his arms around himself, his eyes half-open. Blood had trickled down his chin. She leaned over and pressed the handkerchief to his mouth; he reached up and put his hand over hers, holding it there. "I’ve made a mess of things," he said. "Haven’t I?"
"Dreadful y, I’m afraid," said Tessa, trying not to notice the warmth of his hand over hers. Even in the darkness of the carriage, his eyes were luminously blue. What was it Jem had said, though, about beauty? Beauty is harsh. Would people forgive Will the things he did if he were ugly? And did it help him, in the end, to be forgiven? Though, she could not help but feel he did the things he did not because he loved himself too much but because he hated himself. And she did not know why.
He closed his eyes. "I’m so tired, Tess," he said. "I only wanted pleasant dreams for once."
"That is not the way to get them, Will," she said softly. "You cannot buy or drug or dream your way out of pain."
His hand tightened over hers.
The carriage door opened. Tessa drew back from Will hastily. It was Jem, his face like thunder; he spared a cursory glance at Will, threw himself into a seat, and reached up to rap on the roof. "Cyril, drive home," he called, and after a moment the carriage lurched forward into the night. Jem reached out and drew the curtains across the windows. In the dimness Tessa slipped the handkerchief into her sleeve. It was still damp with Will ‘s blood.
Jem said nothing all the way back from Whitechapel, merely stared stonily ahead of him with his arms folded while Will slept, a faint smile on his face, in the corner of the carriage. Tessa, across from them both, could think of nothing to say to break Jem’s silence. This was so utterly unlike him-Jem, who was always sweet, always kind, always optimistic. His expression now was worse than blank, his nails digging into the fabric of his gear, his shoulders stiff and angular with rage.
The moment they drew up in front of the Institute, he threw the door open and leaped out. She heard him shout something to Cyril about helping Will to his room, and then he stalked away, up the steps, without another word to her. Tessa was so shocked, she could only stare after him for a moment.
She moved to the carriage door; Cyril was already there, his hand up to help her down. Barely had Tessa’s shoes hit the cobblestones than she was hurrying after Jem, call ing his name, but he was already inside the Institute.
He had left the door open for her, and she dashed in after him, after only a brief glance to confirm that Will was being helped by Cyril. She hurried up the stairs, dropping her voice as she realized that, of course, the Institute was asleep, the witchlight torches dimmed to their lowest glow.
She went to Jem’s room first and knocked; when there was no answer, she sought a few of his most commonly visited haunts-the music room, the library-but, finding nothing, she returned, disconsolate, to her own room to ready herself for bed. In her nightgown, her dress brushed and hung up, she crawled between the sheets of her bed and stared at the ceiling. She even picked up Will ‘s copy of Vathek from her floor, but for the first time the poem in the front failed to make her smile, and she could not concentrate on the story.
She was startled at her own distress. Jem was angry at Will, not at her.
Still, she thought, it was perhaps the first time he had lost his temper in front of her. The first time he had been curt with her, or not attended with kindness to her words, had not seemed to think of her first before himself. . . .
She had taken him for granted, she thought with surprise and shame, watching the flickering candlelight. She had assumed his kindness was so natural and so innate, she had never asked herself whether it cost him any effort. Any effort to stand between Will and the world, protecting each of them from the other. Any effort to accept the loss of his family with equanimity. Any effort to remain cheerful and calm in the face of his own dying.
A rending noise, the sound of something being wrenched apart, tore through the room. Tessa sat bolt upright. What was that? It seemed to be coming from outside her door-across the hal – Jem?
She leaped to her feet and caught her dressing gown down from its peg.
Hurriedly slipping into it, she darted out the door and into the corridor.
She had been correct-the noise was coming from Jem’s room. She remembered the first night she had met him, the lovely violin music that had poured like water through the doorway. This noise sounded nothing like Jem’s music. She could hear the saw of bow against string, yet it sounded like screaming, like a person screaming in awful pain. She both longed to go in and felt terrified to do so; finally she took hold of the knob of the door and swung it open, and then ducked inside and pulled the door closed fast after her.
"Jem," she whispered.
The witchlight torches were burning low on the wal s. Jem sat on the trunk at the foot of his bed in just his shirtsleeves and trousers, his silver hair tousled, the violin propped against his shoulder. He was sawing at it viciously with the bow, wringing awful sounds out of it, making it scream. As Tessa watched, one of the violin strings snapped with a shriek.
"Jem!" she cried again, and when he did not look up, she strode across the room and wrenched the bow out of his hand. "Jem, stop! Your violin- your lovely violin-you’l ruin it."
He looked up at her. His pupils were enormous, the silver of his eyes only a thin ring around the black. He was breathing hard, his shirt open at the neck, sweat standing out on his col arbones. His cheeks were flushed. "What does it matter?" he said in a voice so low it was almost a hiss. "What does any of it matter? I’m dying. I won’t outlast the decade. What does it matter if the violin goes before I do?"
Tessa was appal ed. He never spoke like this about his il ness, never.
He stood up and turned away from her, toward the window. Only a little moonlight found its way into the room through the fog; there seemed to be shapes visible in the white mist pressed against the window-ghosts, shades, mocking faces. "You know it is true."
"Nothing is decided." Her voice shook. "Nothing is inevitable. A cure-"
"There’s no cure." He no longer sounded angry, just detached, which was almost worse. "I Will die, and you know it, Tess. Probably within the next year.
I am dying, and I have no family in the world, and the one person I trusted more than any other made sport of what is kil ing me."
"But, Jem, I don’t think that’s what Will meant to do at all." Tessa leaned the bow against the footboard and moved closer to him, tentatively, as if he were an animal she was fearful of startling. "He was just trying to escape. He is running from something, something dark and awful. You know he is, Jem.
You saw how he was after-after Cecily."
She stood just behind him now, close enough to reach out and touch him tentatively on the arm, but she did not. His white shirt was stuck to his shoulder blades with sweat. She could see the Marks on his back through the fabric. He dropped the violin almost carelessly onto the trunk and turned to face her. "He knows what it means to me," he said. "To see him even toy with what has destroyed my life-"
"But he wasn’t thinking of you-"
"I know that." His eyes were almost all black now. "I tell myself he’s better than he makes himself out to be, but, Tessa, what if he isn’t? I have always thought, if I had nothing else, I had Will. If I have done nothing else that made my life matter, I have always stood by him. But perhaps I shouldn’t."
His chest was rising and fal ing so fast, it alarmed her; she put the back of her hand to his forehead and nearly gasped. "You’re burning up. You should be resting-"
He flinched away from her, and she dropped her hand, hurt. "Jem, what is it? You don’t want me to touch you?"
"Not like that," he flared, and then flushed even darker than before.
"Like what?" She was honestly bewildered; this was behavior she might have expected from Will, but not from Jem-this mysteriousness, this anger.
"As if you were a nurse and I were your patient." His voice was firm but uneven. "You think because I am il that I am not like-" He drew a ragged breath. "Do you think I do not know," he said, "that when you take my hand, it is only so that you can feel my pulse? Do you think I do not know that when you look into my eyes, it is only to see how much of the drug I have taken? If I were another man, a normal man, I might have hopes, presumptions even; I might-" His words seemed to catch, either because he realized he had said too much or because he had run out of breath; he was gasping, his cheeks flushed.
She shook her head, feeling her plaits tickle her neck. "This is the fever speaking, not you."
His eyes darkened, and he began to turn away from her. "You can’t even believe I could want you," he said in a half whisper. "That I am alive enough, healthy enough-"
"No-" Without thinking, she caught at his arm. He stiffened. "James, that isn’t at all what I meant-"
He curled his fingers around her hand where it lay on his arm. His own scorched her skin, as hot as fire. And then he turned her and drew her toward him.
They stood face-to-face, chest to chest. His breath stirred her hair. She felt the fever rising off him like mist off the Thames; sensed the pounding of the blood through his skin; saw with a strange clarity the pulse at his throat, the light on the pale curls of his hair where they lay against his paler neck.
Prickles of heat ran up and down her skin, bewildering her. This was Jem- her friend, as steady and reliable as a heartbeat. Jem did not set her skin on fire or make the blood rush fast inside her veins until she was dizzy.
"Tessa," he said. She looked up at him. There was nothing steady or reliable about his expression. His eyes were dark, his cheeks flushed. As she raised her face, he brought his down, his mouth slanting across hers, and even as she froze in surprise, they were kissing. Jem. She was kissing Jem. Where Will ‘s kisses were all fire, Jem’s were like pure air after a long time of being closed up in the airless dark. His mouth was soft and firm; one of his hands circled the back of her neck gently, guiding her mouth to his.
With his other hand he cupped her face, running his thumb gently across her cheekbone. His lips tasted of burned sugar; the sweetness of the drug, she guessed. His touch, his lips, were tentative, and she knew why. Unlike Will, he would mind that this was the height of impropriety, that he should not be touching her, kissing her, that she should be pul ing away.
But she did not want to pul away. Even as she wondered at the fact that it was Jem she was kissing, Jem making her head swim and her ears ring, she felt her arms rise as if of their own accord, curving around his neck, drawing him closer.
He gasped against her mouth. He must have been so sure she would push him away that for a moment he went still. Her hands glided over his shoulders, urging him with gentle touches, with a murmur against his lips, not to pause. Hesitantly he returned her caress, and then with greater force- kissing her again and again, each time with increasing urgency, cupping her face between his burning hands, his thin violinist’s fingers stroking her skin, making her shiver. His hands moved to the smal of her back, pressing her against him; her bare feet slipped on the carpet, and they half-stumbled backward onto the bed.
Her fingers wound tightly in his shirt, Tessa drew Jem down onto her, taking the weight of him onto her body with the feeling that she was being given back something that had belonged to her forever, a bit of her that she had missed without knowing she was missing it. Jem was light, hollow-boned like a bird and with the same racing heart; she ran her hands through his hair, and it was as soft as she had always in her most buried dreams thought it would be, like pinfeathers between her fingers. He could not seem to stop running his hands over her in wonder. They traced their way down her body, his breath ragged in her ear as he found the tie of her dressing gown and paused there, with shaking fingers.
His uncertainty made Tessa’s heart feel as if it were expanding inside her chest, its tenderness big enough to hold them both inside it. She wanted Jem to see her, just as she was, herself, Tessa Gray, with none of the Change on her. She reached down and undid the tie, sliding the dressing gown off her shoulders so that she was revealed before him in only her white batiste nightgown.
She looked up at him, breathless, shaking her loosened hair out of her face. Propping himself over her, he gazed down, and said again, huskily, what he had said in the carriage before, when he had touched her hair. "Ni hen piao liang."
"What does it mean?" she whispered, and this time he smiled and said: "It means that you are beautiful. I did not want to tell you before. I did not want you to think I was taking liberties."