182 DAYS BEFORE
The bar is poorly lit.
He thinks, at first, it’s to hide the faces of the customers inside. To add anonymity to the atmosphere. He likes that—what others might consider a curious mystery, Jay considers a veil to hide his identity.
Then, he thinks, as glances around, perhaps it’s because they can’t afford to keep the lights bright. Or they’re too lazy to change the bulbs that have finally puttered out. The place is a dive if he’s ever seen one—the walls are unpainted brick and the tables are older than he is, with scratches and words carved into them, and dusty lampshades around every bulb, broken or otherwise.
But, when the smell hits him, he decides it’s to cover up the sketchy stains on the—well, everywhere.
He decides he likes this place despite the low lighting, and the smells, and the stains. The low lighting makes sure that people won’t be able to recognize him. Even if there was a chance that they would, the bar’s patrons are too drunk to notice shit. It’s late, past curfew for familiars, but he should be fine—it’s not like humans can tell familiars from themselves anyway.
He saunters up to the bar and sits at a stool, waving at the bartender to get her attention. She’s pretty—short black hair in a bob, tattoos running up her arms, clear blue eyes and a pixie-like demeanor. Jay takes to her immediately, smirking as she smiles at him and makes her way over, wiping her hands off on a dish towel.
“What can I get for you?” she asks with a smile.
Jay leans forward, still smirking at her, and says, “Just your number, sweetheart,” he flirts.
She looks down with a laugh and shakes her head. “Nice try, hun. I have a boyfriend.”
Jay smiles. “Worth a shot, right?” He shrugs. “In that case—could I get a scotch?”
“On the rocks?” she asks as she pulls a bottle down from the shelf, and grabbing a glass to pour it in. The door opens then, a new customer entering the building, and the bartender waves at the new patron.
“Neat,” Jay answers, resisting the urge to look behind him. He’s in a public place—he has to act natural, not paranoid. Like he actually is.
“Gotcha,” she says.
Jay hears footsteps behind him. “Is this seat taken?” a voice asks.
“Nope, ‘s all yours—” Jay starts, turning around to face the speaker. But when their eyes meet, everything else falls away.
He’s never seen the man in front of him. No, he’d remember this guy’s face—clean-shaven, blond hair, blue eyes clear and fucking breathtaking, a strong jaw and sharp cheekbones—yeah, he’d remember this guy’s face. That’s not the problem.
The problem is that he’s hearing a ringing in his head, like church bells echoing off the walls of his skull. They toll louder and louder and Jay thinks he’s going to fucking vibrate out of his goddamn skin—that’s the fucking problem.
Because that—that is resonance, but it isn’t normal resonance. It’s not the everyday resonance that familiars and witches feel with each other all the time—when they see each other on the street, whatever. It’s the Resonance— the capital R, Resonance—that only True Bonds feel with each other.
True Bond. The perfect match between witch and familiar. The man in front of him—he’s the perfect witch to Jay’s familiar. He’s the missing piece. Their magic would sync perfectly together. They could be incredibly powerful if they were to work side-by-side.
And Jay’s anything but excited. In fact, he’s panicking like a son of a bitch.
In his peripheral vision, he sees the bartender set his drink on the counter.
“It… it’s you,” the man whispers. His eyes are full of wonder, and—strangely enough—relief. “I didn’t think I was ever going to find you.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Jay thinks to himself. His fist clenches and unclenches where it rests on the bar.
“Look, buddy,” Jay starts, and then stops completely. “Why don’t you sit down?” he says instead.
The guy’s eyebrows pull together, seeming to not understand why Jay’s not as overjoyed as he is. He takes the stool next to Jay, sitting down with a sigh. He folds his hands on the counter.
“What’s your name?” the man asks, trying for a conversation as he takes the stool next to him.
Jay exhales sharply through his nose. “James,” he answers.
The man nods, offering a hand. “Luca Daniels.”
Jay takes his hand and shakes it once, sizing Daniels up. He’s got a firm grip. The guy seems so goddamn innocent—he’s built like a fucking tank, with broad shoulders and muscles everywhere, but his eyes betray him—he’s not stupid, just innocent, naïve.
“Are we,” Daniels starts, then stops. “Are we seriously not going to talk about this?”
Jay glares at him. “Not here, we’re not.”
Daniels raises an eyebrow. “Why not?”
Jay presses his lips together in a line. “You’re not from around here, are you?” He fights the urge to snap at this guy. He’s like a child with a million and one questions.
“No,” Luca answers. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Jay looks around. “Look,” Jay says. “I don’t have time to explain this shit to you. But we’re in a bad part of town, okay? Legally, we’re not supposed to be here at all. So just—hold your horses, and we’ll talk after this, okay? But you gotta order a drink. You gotta act normal.”
“Normal?” Luca looks offended at the very idea of normality.
“Yeah, buddy, normal.” Jay presses his lips together in a tight line. “There are laws out here. People aren’t so easy to accept familiars like me and witches like you as they are in the North, m’kay?”
Luca looks at the drink the bartender has set on the counter for him. “I knew it was bad for familiars, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
The bartender freezes in Jay’s peripheral vision, and that’s when Jay knows he fucked up. He should have looked at his surroundings better—now the bartender knows, and they’re gonna get fucking kicked out of the bar. She looks at them with hard eyes, leans in close on the counter.
“You’re a familiar?” the bartender whispers furiously.
Jay swallows the lump in his throat and nods. Of course. Just when he was getting to like this place, he had to get thrown out. Of fucking course.
“And you’re a witch?” she adds, looking at Daniels.
Luca’s mouth presses into a thin line and he nods.
She looks worriedly between the two of them and sighs. “You guys gotta go. I’m sorry—really. But you gotta leave. Drinks are on the house, just—leave. I can’t afford another fine.”
“Fine?” Luca asks, eyebrows pulling together.
“You’re really not from around here, huh?” Jay says.
The bartender shakes her head. “Familiars and witches in here after curfew means I get a fine. Really, I don’t want to kick you out. My boyfriend’s a familiar. I know how shitty you guys get it. But just the other day two familiars walked in here after curfew—the cops are already breathing down my neck.”
There are two men down at the end of the bar, sipping their drinks and remaining quiet. Jay knows that they were talking animatedly a few seconds ago—he fears that they might have overheard their conversation with the bartender.
“You can stay until you’ve finished your drinks,” she says, “but you can’t buy anymore and you gotta leave right after.” She presses her lips in a firm line. “On the house, okay? I’m sorry.”
She turns and leaves to go tend to the other customers. Luca scoffs and says, “Yeah, like that’s gonna fix anything.” He looks over at Jay. “Hey, you okay?”
Jay gnaws at his lip. “The guys at the end of the bar. I think they might have heard our conversation.”
Luca doesn’t look over, thank God. “Yeah? You think they’re gonna try something?”
“Maybe.” He sighs. “Just—finish your drink and we’ll go. Maybe they’ll just forget it.”
Luca looks like he wants to say something, but instead just takes a gulp of his beer. Jay takes a small sip of his whiskey.
Soon enough, though, Jay is staring at the bottom of his glass, and Luca is trying to make conversation with the bartender to distract himself from drinking. She’s not taking the bait; just gives him a pointed look. Finally, Luca just downs it all in one go and Jay can’t seem to find any reason to stick behind.
Jay’s mind is racing. If the two men know that Jay is a familiar, it’s pretty obvious that he shouldn’t stay in this town any longer. Word travels fast in a little place like this. He’ll never find work. People will treat him like shit. Besides, he already told his landlord that he’s a human. If he found out Jay was lying, he’d be out on his ass in a second.
The two of them get up from their stools and exit the bar. Jay stands with his hands in his pocket, not sure what he’s supposed to do.
“What now?” Jay asks.
“Wait,” Luca murmurs, looking in the window of the building. The two men that were staring at Jay are starting to get up from their seats. The bartender takes the money for their tab. She looks nervous as hell.
Through the glass, she and Jay make eye contact. Then she hastily looks away.
The two men exit the bar, just as Jay feared. One is short and red-faced with a ginger mustache. The other is tall and thin with black hair that accentuates his unnaturally pale face and dark eyes.
They start walking towards Jay in what he assumes is supposed to be a menacing way, but they don’t quite pull it off considering that they look like idiots.
“Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” Luca asks, smooth as he’s ever been. His hands are in his pocket, but Jay can tell that he’s poised to fight despite looking relaxed.
“You two shouldn’t be out past curfew,” the short man says. “Bad things happen to those who break the law.”
“I don’t see a problem,” Luca says, shrugging his shoulders. “We aren’t hurting anyone, are we?”
“Just take your mutt home and stay there,” the tall man chips in.
Jay feels the word like a kick to the chest, but he ignores it in favor of watching Luca’s face suddenly go from normal to an angry red color. Fascinating.
“What did you just call him?” Luca asks, raising his eyebrows and stepping carefully closer.
“You heard me,” he says.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck is on a repeat in Jay’s head, the only thought he’s capable of comprehending right now. Luca isn’t making this situation any better.
“Luca,” he whispers urgently, angrily. “Leave it.”
One of the men, the taller one, laughs in amusement at Jay’s statement. “So the bitch is giving orders to the witch now? That’s new.”
Jay grits his teeth and clenches his fists together, but stays rooted to the spot. Luca, however, is advancing to the tall man quickly, grabbing the front of his shirt roughly.
The man scrambles to get away from Luca, but he’s just flat-out stronger and bigger. The shorter man tries to go to his friend’s aid, but Luca pushes him backwards with enough force to knock him on his ass. The tall man yelps as Luca leans in close, his voice dangerous and threatening when he speaks.
“You listen,” Luca growls. “You’re going to apologize to him, okay? You got that?”
Jay’s nostrils flare. “I don’t need you protecting my honor, Luca,” he growls. “I’m not a damsel in distress.”
Luca doesn’t even acknowledge him, just keeps staring at the poor bastard still in his grip.
“Yeah, yeah—” the man stutters. “Of course, buddy, whatever you want.”
“Repeat after me,” Luca says. “I’m sorry, James, I was an ignorant asshole.”
“I’m s-sorry, James,” the man echoes in a quavering voice, “I was an i-ignorant asshole.”
“Good,” Luca says, releasing his grip on the man’s shirt. “Now get the hell out of here.”
The two men start walking away, slinking back like two kicked puppies, hands held up in surrender. Luca and Jay watch them until they turn the corner, and then Luca pats Jay’s arm to get his attention.
“Come on,” Luca says, starting to walk away from the bar at a quick pace. Jay jogs to catch up to him.
“What—?” he starts.
“They’re gonna call the police, I can tell,” Luca says. In a split second, Daniels has changed. He’s no longer the fumbling, naive man from the bar. Suddenly he stands taller, his chin held high, and his voice is deep and commanding in a way that suggests authority and Jay can’t help but listen to it. “Let’s go. This way.”
Luca starts jogging, and Jay follows a step or two behind. Then Luca starts to sprint in a way that can only be described as efficient; his arms pump at stiff angles, his back is straight and his chest slightly pushed out. He breathes easily and steadily. His feet his the ground and he pushes off with grace, in the air for a second before his other foot hits the ground and he repeats the process. Right foot left foot right foot left foot. Never faltering in rhythm. Never slowing down. Efficient.
Running like this—it’s familiar, Jay remembers. It’s been awhile since he’s actively run from someone trying to catch him, but it’s easy to fall back into routine. Long strides, running toe-heel, arms pumping mechanically at his sides.
Sirens start behind them both; Jay hears them getting closer. He runs faster, pumps his arms harder. They run at least three blocks before they turn; Jay follows Luca’s lead as they run a few more blocks and turn again and again.
Soon Luca glides to a stop and Jay follows. He takes Jay’s arm and guides him into an alley, where Jay puts his hands on his knees and tries like hell to breathe. Luca hasn’t even broken a sweat.
Jay’s back hits the brick wall and he slides into a sitting position. Luca sits next to him with a sigh.
“I’m sorry,” Luca says after a few long moments. Jay’s still breathing a little heavy, but he’s gotten it mostly under control, and he looks over when he hears Luca speak.
“For what?” Jay asks.
“For getting out of control,” Luca replies. “They probably wouldn’t have called the cops if I hadn’t grabbed and pushed them around.”
“Well,” Jay sighs. “They kinda deserved it. Even if I didn’t need you saving me.”
Luca smiles and chuckles. “They kinda did. And it wasn’t to save you,” he says. “I just don’t like assholes.”
There’s another quiet moment as Jay finally gets his breathing totally under control. He listens to the sirens in the distance.
“So,” Luca starts. Jay turns his head to look at him. “What is… this? What do you want to do?”
“What do you mean?” Jay asks.
“I mean,” Luca says, “we’re a True Bond. So… what should we do with that information? Should we just ignore it? Or should we start… working together somehow?”
Jay thinks about it. The men outside the bar know that he’s a familiar. They’re probably giving his and Luca’s description to the cops right now. They’re going to be looked for. Hunted for. The woman at the bar is gonna be questioned regardless. She’s soft on familiars. She might even lose her damn job, letting a witch and a familiar in the bar after curfew. People from the bar are going to recognize him. He’s not going to have a happy life here anymore.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Jay tells him. “I’m gonna have to leave town.” He sighs. “I just got settled here, goddamn it.”
He buries his face in his hands. Fuck, he has to come up with a plan. He’s not sure what to do—he has some money, but definitely not enough to get him out of the city. It was a treat tonight to even go to the bar. He hasn’t eaten anything but ramen for weeks. If he leaves now with the money he has, he’ll be back to drinking boiled water for meals.
Luca is quiet for a long moment, considering. “Do you want to… live with me?” he offers tentatively. “I’ve got plenty of room, really. Too much room, in fact. It wouldn’t be a problem.”
Jay’s knee-jerk reaction is to say, No. Absolutely not.
But he’s running out of options.
“You’d do that?” Jay asks instead, suspicion lacing his words.
Luca tilts his head. “I’d be happy to. Honestly. I need the company.”
“How far away do you live?” he asks.
Luca smiles. “Brooklyn.”
That’s a positive. Also a negative, though. Jay grew up in Brooklyn, but it’s also hundreds of miles away. Jay will have to travel that far with Luca, a complete fucking stranger that he can’t figure out and doesn’t trust. That’s an issue.
He can’t stay here, but he has no money to leave. Usually he has longer periods to plan his escapes, and this time he has no time at all. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He doesn’t want to do this.
But… living with Luca could be a good thing. Witches leave people involved in a True Bond alone, even if they aren’t officially Bonded. Jay could finally be free—if Luca were to not Bond with him, that is. He could live without the fear of getting taken again. That, he knows, is the deciding factor.
While there are some things about this that he doesn’t like, he’s left with fewer cons and more pros. He sighs, already regretting the words before their even out of his mouth.
“If I’m going to come with you, I have a few rules,” he tells Luca.
The guy lights up like a fucking Christmas tree. God.
“You’ll come with?” he asks.
“Only if you agree that we don’t Bond. Not officially,” Jay says.
Luca hesitates for such a short amount of time that Jay’s sure he imagined it. “Deal,” the blond says, smiling. He holds out his hand for Jay to shake, and Jay takes it.
“We’ll leave tonight,” Luca says.