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Salty Rivers

By katertotgrace

Romance / Fantasy

Salty Rivers

Will stood on the roof of the Institute, the bitter London wind ruffling through his sweat-streaked black hair, the chill easily penetrating through his gear, which was crusted with thick, congealed blood. Tessa's blood.

His heart constricted in his chest as he remembered cradling her seemingly lifeless body in his arms, the blood on her dress soaking through his shirt, making it so that he could feel the warm rivulets running down his torso. He had thought her dead, and in his assumption had allowed her to see his feelings for her, and worse, his desire. 

She had seen him without the protection of the wall on which he had relied for concealment all these years. And she had seen his love.

Will clenched his jaw and faced head-on into the wind, letting the cruel chill freeze the tears in his eyes before they fell on his cheeks. He stared up at the cloudy, starless sky, a desperate prayer unspoken on his lips. God, he prayed, God, I love her so much. So incredibly much. Please don't take her from me.

He sagged back against the chimney; he knew his prayers were futile. No amount of desperate pleas to the heavens could possibly save Tessa from this, from him.

He knew what he had to do. 

In order to keep Tessa safe from his curse, he had to push her away with all of his strength, make her hate him forever. It was the only way. If he let her love him, he would be the catalyst of her death. If he let himself love her, it would be the demise of them both.

He couldn't love anyone. 

You love Jem, a little voice in his head whispered.

But Jem doesn't count, he argued with himself. Jem is dying already. He is beyond the stranglehold of my curse. 

Tessa was not

He had to protect her. From himself, from his curse.

Will ground his teeth into the inside of his mouth, tasting blood. Already, he could hear his voice, cold and hard, and see the anguish, the hatred in those beautiful, otherworldly ethereal gray eyes. The words would come easily to him; by now he had perfected the art of pushing people away. He knew how to hurt, knew just where to press to extract the most anguish. But this was Tessa, his lovely, sweet, gentle Tess, whom he wanted to protect more than anything in the world.

But on that solitary rooftop amid the sooty chimneys of London feeling a brisk wind cutting him to the core, Will Herondale was certain of two things. The first was that he had to keep Tessa safe, to protect her at all costs; the second was that he knew the cost for Tessa's life would be his own heart.

It was a price he was ready to pay.

Will leaned into the iron fence that ringed the rooftop as he stared out at the sunset, feeling the rungs digging into the palms of his hands. A wry smile twisted at his lips as he remembered what had caused the fence's construction. As a child of twelve, he had attempted a suicide leap from this very rooftop. He had nearly ended his life that day, if Jem hadn't followed him; Jem, his parabatai, his best friend, his greatest sin. He remembered that day with vivid clarity; it was the day on which his sister Ella had died; she was the first victim of his curse. Jem didn't know - how could he? But his best friend had sensed the black despair in Will's heart, and knew that Will would find solace on the lonely rooftop

He had saved Will's life. 

The next day, when Will returned to his skyline sanctuary, he was greeted by a fence lining the edge of the roof. Impaled on one of the rungs was a note penned on parchment in Jem's careful, looping script, telling Will, in a manner so unique to Jem, that his life was worth living. 

The matter had never been discussed between the friends since. Jem, wisely, had the sense to refrain from inquiring, and Will had never found the courage to tell Jem of his curse.

However, he had kept the note; it was tucked into his worn copy of A Tale of Two Cities. He hadn't forgotten Jem's words, but he still couldn't bring himself to believe them. Despite Jem's faith, he knew that he was truly a burden to everyone around him, and a danger. He still didn't think that his life was worth living, but now there was Tessa. He needed to be alive to see her, at the very least, even if he couldn't love her.

Will shook his head in pent-up heartache as he stared out at the sleeping city. The London skyline at twilight had always possessed a beautiful, ethereal quality for him. In the fading rays of the setting sun, the sooty, overcast sky was bathed in delicate hues of magenta, violet and scarlet, almost allowing Will to forget the ugly reality.

He hadn't spoken to Tessa following her recovery from her ordeal with Mortmain in the Sanctuary, although he knew she'd been trying to approach him. He had noticed, with a pang of pain, the way her eyes followed him hopefully around the Institute, or how she lit up when he stepped into a room. But he hadn't been able to look at her, let alone say her name. It hurt to much, with the knowledge of what he needed to do. 

"Will." The voice behind him was sweet and hopeful, heavy with an American accent. Tess.

His hands tightened on the bars of the fence as he leaned forward, wishing for the fence to give way so he could fall to his death and end this moment, end this agony that was to be his undoing. He would rather die than hurt his Tess, but he knew he had no choice.

Her skirts rustled as she crossed the rooftops in careful, measured steps to stand beside him. The gentle scent of her lavender perfume rose from her skin, making his stomach turn. The smell was piercingly familiar, and he wanted nothing more than to draw her close and breathe her in, but he resisted, staring instead at the streets of London. 

Will felt her eyes searching his face, but he didn't look at her. 

She shifted uneasily beside him. "Will," she said again. "What are you doing?"

He continued to stare out at the city, seeing the sunset reflected in Tessa's gray eyes out of his peripheral vision. The air was clotted with grime, but he could still see the snaking, pulsing Thames winding its way below the towering dome of St. Paul's. He knew what the angels must feel when they stare down at Earth, and wondered, as he always did, why such ethereal beings would ever come down to dwell among humans, let alone breed with them to create Shadowhunters.

"I remember now," he said, still not looking at her, "what I was trying to remember the other day. It was Blake. 'And I behold London, a Human awful wonder of God.'" Will stared at the dark, shifting shapes of the mudlarks searching for valuables by the river's edge. "Milton thought Hell was a city, you know. I think he had it half-right. Perhaps London is just Hell's entrance, and we are the damned souls refusing to pass through, fearing what we will find on the other side will be worse than the horror we already know."

He didn't need to see her face to sense her bewilderment at his tirade.

"Will," she said, moving ever closer as her voice rose in confusion. "Will, what is it, what's wrong?"

Will only gripped the railing tighter until his knuckles whitened. The added pressure on his hands made the innumerable cuts and scratches pulse with pain, but he hardly noticed it. His whole body ached; he was covered with bruises and scrapes, his lip was swollen and split. He could have healed these minor injuries easily with an izrate, but he hadn't bothered. The pain took his mind off of her. Off of Tessa. 

"I should have known," he said finally, changing the topic. "That it was a trick. That Mortmain was lying when he came here. Charlotte so often vaunts my skill at tactics, but a good tactician is not blindly trusting. I was a fool."

"Charlotte believes it's her fault. Henry believes it's his fault. I believe it's my fault." Tessa's tone was soothing, but laced with impatience. "We can't all have the luxury of blaming ourselves, now, can we?"

"Your fault?" Will couldn't hide the genuine puzzlement from his voice, despite himself. "Because Mortmain is obsessed with you? That hardly seems-"

"For bringing Nathaniel here." Will could hear the tightness in her voice that gave evidence to the tears she was holding back. "For urging you to trust him."

Will felt his resolve soften just the slightest bit, in sympathy for the girl beside him who sounded so incredibly alone. He himself knew what it felt to be lonely all too well. "You loved him," he said softly. "He was your brother."

"He still is," Tessa said, her voice distant. "And I still love him. But I know what he is. I always did know what he was. I just didn't want to believe it. I suppose we all lie to ourselves sometimes."

At her words, Will felt as if someone had landed a crushing blow to his chest, rendering him breathless. His entire life was a lie. He didn't just lie to himself on occasion; he lied to himself every day. "Yes," he said finally, his voice as tight as a bowstring. "I suppose we do."

He felt nothing but her warmth as she stepped closer still . "I came up here because I have good news, Will," she said, her voice quickening in hesitant excitement. "Won't you let me tell you what it is?"

"Tell me." His voice was hollow and dead to his own ears.

"Charlotte says I can stay here. At the Institute." Tessa was breathless as she watched him, waiting anxiously for his approval, his happiness.

She's telling me because she knows that I love her, Will realized in horror. And she loves me.

He said nothing.

"She said there's no Law against it," Tessa continued, her voice dropping off in hesitation. "So I won't need to leave."

Will smiled to himself at the idea of Charlotte forcibly expelling Tessa from the Institute. But he quickly stuffed his amusement deep inside of himself and forced his voice into bland disinterest. "Charlotte would never make you leave, Tessa. She cannot bear to abandon even a fly caught in a spider's web. She would not have abandoned you." He still didn't look at her, but saw her sag out of the corner of his eye. 

"I thought..." Tessa started, obviously disappointed at his lack of response. "I thought that you would at least be a little pleased. I thought that we were becoming friends."

A wave of icy horror swept over him from head to toe as he realized exactly what he could say right now to break her heart. It was perfect; she would hate him forever. He swallowed hard and tried not to scream as he clenched his hands into fists around the wrought-iron posts of the fence.

"As a friend," Tessa continued, her voice dropping slightly in pitch. "I have come to admire you, Will. To care for you."

She reached out a tentative hand, meaning to touch his face, but stopping abruptly, no doubt put off by the tension in his posture. She drew back, biting her lip. "I thought perhaps..."

He knew what she wanted him to do: to say that he loved her more that as a dear friend, more than life itself, and that he was overjoyed that she was to stay at the Institute. He wanted so badly to say those things, to see her face light up and to hear her return the words.

Will looked straight at her at last, seeing the hope in her eyes, the steady, gentle light in her face. He was startled by the love he saw there, the openness of her heart reflected in those clear, piercing gray eyes. She loved him, and it scared him to death. Words, vile and hideous and foreign to his tongue flew into his mouth as he stared at her, gathering the shreds of his resolution.

"Come here," he said finally. 

Without hesitation but with a little trepidation, she stepped even closer to him, close enough that he needed only to move inches before they were touching. Instead, he reached out for her and cupped her delicate face in his hands, brushing stray dark curls from around her cheekbones. Her skin was warm underneath his fingers, which were chilled by the night air. 

"Tess." The single syllable left his lips as naturally as any exhale, and she looked up at him. 

He saw all of the desire in her eyes: the desire to touch him, to pull him close, to kiss him. She wanted him as much as he wanted her, he knew. This is for her own good, he thought as he bent to kiss her. I can't let her love me.  I can't; I can't; I can't.

 She leaned into his kiss, her hands tangling in his hair. Will pressed his body against hers, feeling her lips part underneath his. He pulled her close, knotting his fingers in the silky material of her dress. She angled her mouth against his, her hands rising to trace his jawline, her gentle fingertips grating slightly on a rough shadow of stubble. She was warm underneath him, and he wanted more: more of her, more of this love.

But he couldn't have her. Not here, not ever.

Her hands came to rest on his shoulders, and he broke the embrace, looking down at her as his breath heaved through his lungs. Her face was very bright and alive in the dimness of the London twilight, and her eyes gleamed in the weak light streaming from the witchlight lamp resting on the ground.

"Perhaps," Will said, barely recognizing his own harsh voice, "we should discuss our arrangements, then."

She looked up at him, her eyes huge and uncertain. "Arrangements?" she whispered. Her voice caught in her throat, sending new waves of guilt crashing over him. 

"If you are going to be staying," he continued," it would be to our advantage to be discreet. It might perhaps be better to use your room. Jem tends to come in and out of mine as if he lives in the place, and he might be puzzled to find the door locked. Your quarters, on the other hand-"

Tessa's face twisted in horrified revulsion, as if she refused to believe what Will had just told her. "Use my room?" she echoed, her voice low and wary. "Use it for what?"

The wry, cold smirk Will painted across his lips was only partially false. She was naive, his Tess, but that only added to her beauty. He let his smirk grow, and shot her a condescending look. "You cannot pretend you don't know... You are not entirely ignorant of this world, I think, Tessa. Not with that brother of yours." The words were poison to his ears, vile and repugnant. He desperately wanted to take them back, but he knew that it would only hurt her more. He bit the inside of his cheek, using the dull jolt of pain to distract himself from the betrayal in Tessa's eyes. 

"Will." Tessa drew away from him as if stung. Her eyes flashed with furious hurt, but she quickly tried to hide it. "I am not like my brother. 

"You care for me." Will packed as much arrogance as was possible into the statement, his voice bored and glacial. "And you know that I admire you, the way all women know when a man admires them. Now you have come to tell me that you will be here, available to me, for as long as I may wish it. I am offering you what I thought you wanted."

Her eyes hardened as her jaw set in anger. "You cannot mean that."

"And you cannot have imagined I meant anything more," Will retorted, in as steely a tone as he could muster. "There is no future for a Shadowhunter who dallies with warlocks. One might befriend them, employ them, but not..."

"Marry them?" Tessa's voice was cool and unyielding, but he knew her well enough to hear the tears she was hiding from him."

"How forward." Will smirked at her, feeling his heart shattering into a million pieces inside of his chest. "What did you really expect, Tessa?"

"I did not expect you to insult me." Her voice was firm, but about as steady as a delicate china vase teetering on the edge of a counter, one push away from shattering. 

"It cannot be the unwanted consequences of a dalliance that concern you," Will said, attempting to sound reassuring. "Since warlocks are unable to have children-"

Tessa staggered backwards as if shot, her hands shooting up to cover her mouth. "What?" she whispered, shocked.

His mouth tensed; her heartbroken face was almost too much to bear. "You didn't know that? I thought someone would have told you."

"No." Tessa's voice was small and soft. "No one told me."

Will held his gaze steady, but he forced his hands into clenched fists to physically restrain himself from wrapping her in his arms. "If you are not interested in my offer..."

She looked up at him with flooded eyes. "Stop." Her voice was more forceful than he had ever heard it. "Jem says you lie to make yourself look bad," she said, taking a deep breath to steady her wavering voice. "And perhaps that is true, or perhaps he simply wishes to believe that about you. But there is no reason for cruelty like this."

Only if it means saving your life, Tess! He wanted to shout the words, to tell her it was vital that she be protected from him. He felt his cold, uncaring facade slip in the presence of her hatred. Of him. But quickly, he schooled his features back into his unsympathetic mask. "Then there is nothing more for me to say, is there?"

He caught a glimpse of her face as she fled from him, down the steps, back into the safety of the Institute. Her cheeks were splotched with furious scarlet, and her eyes were red-rimmed with tears she refused to release. She didn't look back once.

As soon as he heard the trapdoor slam shut behind her, his strength left him. 

His knees buckled as he sank to the roof of the Institute.

Will leaned his head against the chimney and stared at the smog-shrouded sky. Tears stabbed at his eyes, but he didn't have the resolve to care. He let them stream down his bruised cheeks, letting them sting the exposed skin of his split lip. His body was wracked with silent sobs, leaving him spent and deflated like a tattered balloon. He was hollow, his heart as heavy as a storm cloud on the brink of explosion. Will let himself cry for the first time in years, letting the night wrap him in a cool embrace as the brisk wind dried his tears into salty rivers that streaked his face and marked his pain.

There was nothing but a vast emptiness inside of him, nothing but a cold, dark empty void where his heart, where Tessa, had been. 

I have lost everything, Will thought as the darkness swallowed him whole. 


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