"So basically you were a prep school kid?" I ask as we walk down the street towards the warehouses of the Mission Bay District.
Eli makes a growly noise in the back of his throat. "Say that again and see what happens to you."
I snort. "So sensitive. Jeeze. It's not like it's anything to be ashamed of. Come on."
Eli rolls his eyes. "Shut up, Potter."
I step into the middle of the sidewalk and block his way, smiling when Eli glares and moves up into my personal space. I cock my head to the side and smirk. "Aw, poor big bad wolf. So misunderstood," I tease.
Eli snarls, wrapping his arms around my waist and half lifting me off the ground so that I have to stand on the balls of my feet. The kiss is harsh and so full of raw, heated lust that I half want to suggest we go home and try the bar another night. "Don't," he warns.
"Get used to it," I counter. "I'm not afraid of you anymore." His mouth moves to my neck and I grit my teeth, run hands up the back of his shirt over warm skin. "God, you're distracting."
Eli laughs and licks my ear. "Yeah? You're the one making it awfully hard to concentrate on curse breaking. One round at Lucky's, baby, and I'll be more than happy to spend the rest of my evening persecuting your ass."
I swat at his arm. "Fat chance, buddy."
He catches my hand in his, dragging me down the street. "Then stop gagging for it already," he says over his shoulder. "I can only resist so much. I'm still partially human, you know."
The entrance to the bar has red neon script over it spelling out 'Lucky's' in loopy lettering. It looks like your average dive bar, except for the hulking size of the bouncer, who's larger than any man has a right to be. Somehow his eye patch only makes him look more intimidating.
"Hey Cy, how's it going?" Eli flashes a toothy grin and the man gives a nod of recognition. "Who's working the bar tonight?"
"Just Caleb," Cy grunts. "Who's your friend?"
"Nobody." Eli passes his cigarette to me to finish before we go in. I find myself subconsciously fingering my pocket with the ward salt.
"Hmm, your nobody smells good. Like a bakery at 3AM." Up close his teeth are like roughly hewn yellow stones, biceps as big as my head. I take a step back so that Eli is fully between us.
"Hey, now, Cy, show a little respect when you're talking to him," Eli tssks. "He's going to be a very powerful mage one day, don't go starting off on the wrong foot."
Cy sniffs, looking offended but he steps aside to let us pass through the door. "I didn't mean nobody no harm."
Eli puts a hand on the small of my back, guiding me past Cy and into the dark, smoky room beyond. "Why'd you tell him that?" I ask.
Eli shrugs. "It's the truth. Everyone is always trying to size everyone else up. I was doing him a favor."
"I don't even know if I want to learn any more magic after the fucking curse is…" I am stopped by a gasping choke, my throat closing as an overwhelming caustic smell fills my nose and mouth. It's like being physically body checked. Jesus. I've never been around so much magic at once in my life.
Figures move between the scarred wooden booths, their outlines betraying the fact that many are not altogether human. The profiles hover and slide—the silhouettes of horns, tails, and something that looked an awful lot like wings moving through the shadows. A pair of glowing, red eyes stare out at me from one of the poorly lit corner table near the back.
"You okay?" Eli asks, hand pressing more firmly against my back.
"Yeah. It's just a little overpowering in here. It will fade in a minute," I say, eyes watering. "At least it always does with you."
"Will a drink help? Jesus Jack, don't stare." Eli pulls me towards the bar by the arm. "For fuck sake. Come on, I'll buy you a beer."
"Hey, Caleb, can I get two PBR specials?"
"That all depends on if you have ready money this time," says the man with the thick mustache behind the counter. He's wearing a striped button up rolled up to his meaty biceps, black suspenders, and a bowler hat.
"Don't be a dick, man, I still have credit from that last job I did for you," Eli huffs.
"You did, at least until you broke that chair over that other bloke's head." There is something strange and metallic about Caleb's voice, like it's being broadcast over a shortwave radio. I offer to pull out my wallet but Eli waves me off.
"That's just plain hard, man. I did you a favor and you know it. He was fucking with paying customers."
"He was fucking with you," Caleb corrects, "and I'd hardly call you a paying customer."
"Hey! No way. You still owe me, Tin Man. Now pay up." Caleb rolls his eyes, but he pours two shots of Jim Beam and puts two tall cans of PBR on the counter anyway.
"And will your tourist friend want something as well? Or is one of those orders for him?"
Eli doesn't answer, flipping Caleb off with a grunt and shoving the beers into my hands. We are treated to sharp metallic laughter as Eli storms off for a booth, leaving me scrambling to follow. I spare one more glance for the bartender, but he has already turned away to talk to someone else.
"Wanna tell me what that was all about?" I ask as I slide into a seat.
"Damn animatronic bastard," Eli shakes his head. "I hope he rusts. You know, I hear that this place has been around since the gold rush days and that stubborn creaky asshole has been behind the bar every single one of them. I wonder if he ever even leaves."
"What did you do for him anyway?"
"Something really stupid involving goblins and a VW bus. Whatever, I'm over it. Do you have any cigarettes left?"
"Yeah, sure." I reach into my pocket for a pack of smokes and a lighter. "So wait, he's been here since like the 1840s? Whoa, what the hell is he?"
"Mmm." Eli lights his cigarette. "Heh. You better not go asking people stuff like that that around here, sweetheart. It's considered a little indelicate. Someone's going to pop you in the nose for being rude."
"Good thing I have you to defend my honor then."
"Ha. Anyway, he's another storybook thing like the rest of us—an automation I think is the name—I call Caleb tin man because it pisses him off, but that's essentially what he is, all armor with no filling inside. It takes some pretty black magic to do something like that, but I never got the story of who his master used to be."
"Oh." I fish around in my coat pocket until I find a small leather bound notebook and a pen. "And has this always been a supernatural bar?" I am already writing down automation, tin man, and black magic.
"Put that away," Eli hisses, "you are a pair of goggles away from getting kicked out of here."
"What? Okay, fine, but you have to help me get it all written down later then."
"Focus, man. We're here to find a mage, not write a penny dreadful."
"Okay," I drawl. "So how do you feel about questioning the guy that stole my laptop then?"
Eli raises an eyebrow. "For real? That little shit is here?"
"Mmhm. Right behind you near the back."
"Oh man." Eli stubs out his smoke. "Let's tag team 'em. You distract him and I'll come up behind so he can't bolt."
"Yeah, okay. You're not worried he'll do something?"
"Nah. Not in the middle of Lucky's with everyone watching. Let me get into position and then you confront him 'kay?"
"Got ya." I take my shot of whiskey as I watch Eli saunter to the ancient looking jukebox just behind Toby, the tightness of his jeans leaving very little to the imagination. I suppress a silly smile as I sip my beer. God, Eli's right, I need to focus. With some luck there will be plenty of time to play stupid boyfriends another day—after we figure out what the hell is going on. Sighing, I slide from my seat.
"Hey, I remember you," I say dryly. "You're the guy who stole my shit." Toby's looks startled, but his expression quickly turns into a scowl as he lets out a sharp hiss, his pale cheeks sucking in like he's tasting something sour. There is a rip in the sleeve of his shirt, one of his eyes bruised and so puffy it's half closed. I almost feel sorry for him.
"What are you thinking?" Tobias demands. "You shouldn't be here, Ajax! You're cursed! This…this bar is full of things that could cause you harm in your current state."
"Oh, like you have my best interests in mind all of a sudden? How do you know I'm cursed and what did you do with my stuff?"
"You are not safe," Toby, looks around wildly chewing his bottom lip. "Stupid, stupid, so stupid. I thought you better than this, little witch."
"Don't worry," Eli growls, putting a hand firmly on Toby's shoulder. "He brought some back up."
Toby swings around in Eli's grip, eyes narrowing as they take on a bright yellow glow. "What do you want flea bag?"
Elis grimaces, baring his teeth. "Ha! As if you're one to talk little kitty. I saw Jericho today by the way. I swear he curses the day he took you in more and more every time I see him."
Toby flashes sharp canines, his lips tight, eyes glowing even brighter as a slight wind whips around us, ruffling our hair. I shiver. The power coming off of him makes me dizzy. "Do not presume to understand me and my motivation's Elijah. If you had half the wits of your namesake—oh shit. No, no, no. My master comes. Take the witch and go before it's too late."
"Who's your master?" I ask. "What does he want from me?"
And then something happens.
The feeling is a bit like simultaneously having my stomach turned inside out and the all air in my lungs replaced with ice water. There is no bar, no Eli, nothing—just Tobias standing before me, eyes like flames, an angel of wrath with nothing left of the simpering little kid I'd seen in the bar. The hairs on the backs of my arms stand up. "Where are we?" I ask.
"The spirit plane. Your companion is inconvenient and I do not have time to deal with him." He cocks his head and smiles. "You didn't throw up and I was none too gentle about doing that either. Impressive for a young witch. You must have necromancers in your family. Ah yes, if I recall, you do."
I run a shaky hand across my face, not entirely convinced I am actually going to hold down my dinner. "Uh, look. I'm not a witch."
"You are," he says lightly. "A very powerful one, in fact, just wretchedly untrained. If you were my witch I would teach you very easily, I think. It might have even been fun. Jericho was already far too established to want for a familiar, the idiot. That man wants for nothing save a beating."
"And you appear to want for less beatings. Who are you working for, Toby? What does he want?"
"Someone far too powerful and far too dangerous for you to take on directly. You will have to be careful and you will have to be very tricky and even then I fear it is truly hopeless for us all. He has the damn spell now and soon he will have you and then there will be no stopping him."
"You aren't exactly his type, Kat," Eli's voice is a menacing rumble near my ear. "I can't believe you even pulled a stunt like that. Of all the bullshit I've gotten from you over the years. I swear you bit him just to piss me off."
"Oh, please. Not everything is about you. I was trying to offer him protection of the highest caliber I have available!" says a sharp female voice. "What should I have done? Waltzed into Lucky's like I owned the place? Seriously Eli, you are going to get that poor kid killed one of these days."
"We were trying to find some information. It's not like staying home with my thumb up my ass was going to make things any better and you don't have me believing for a second– not for one goddamn second– that your motivations were altruistic, Kat. You took one look at him and started cooking up how you could best benefit from his powers."
"The benefits would have been mutual! Besides, you haven't exactly been around lately, sweetheart. Your little fuck and run routine doesn't put you on higher ground than me."
"Say that again and I swear to God…"
"Ha!" she snaps. "You are all bark and no bite."
"Yeah, well you do enough biting for the both of us you bloodthirsty…"
"Both of you are being ridiculous," says an unfamiliar, rich, male voice. The tone is stern and yet strangely soothing. "Honestly, you're acting like children and over what? An inexperienced and highly unstable witch? Honestly if we got this worked up every time some human got themselves in over their head…"
"No!" Eli snaps. "This isn't Jack's fault. He's a good person, a better person than any of us for fuck sake and he's mine and your little psycho ex-boyfriend tried to kill him, Jer, and excuse me but I take exception to that. I'm in no mood for this shit."
"Peace now," The man soothes. "I highly doubt Tobias meant any true harm to your lover. Let me see." I feel cool fingertips press to my temples as the smell of cinnamon and mint washes over me. "There now, he's already starting to wake. Jack, can you hear me?"
I blink, my cheek brushing across a denim covered thigh as I turn my head. There are suddenly hands in my hair, Eli's voice urgent. "Jack?" My head, I realize, is cradled in Eli's lap and I wonder how long I've been out like this.
"Mmm. Watza?" I look up into worried blue eyes.
"Jesus, you scared the shit out of me. That little pissant just disappeared and your eyes rolled back up into your head and you went out like a light. It was horrible."
"I'm fine," I say, feeling my cheeks burn in embarrassment as I struggle to sit up. "I'm fine." We're in Katharina's office with me sprawled out limply on her black leather sofa. Could this get anymore humiliating? "He said we were on the spirit plane," I explain, accepting Eli's help maneuvering me into a sitting position. I want to tell him he doesn't have to be quite so gentle. I'm not hurt, just tired, but I don't complain because his steady hands feel nice.
The man standing over us makes an unhappy noise and I really notice him for the first time. He is strikingly beautiful with almond shaped eyes and high cheekbones, curly hair swept up into a knot on the top of his head. His dark skin is complimented by a red, silk jacket and spattering of gold jewelry in his ears and nose. He is both elegant and exotic looking like some kind of foreign prince from a fairytale.
"Well that must have been a bit of an unpleasant shock for you. Toby forgets that others have more substantial corporeal forms and that we rather like to keep our spirits attached to them, but still, as I suspected he didn't mean you any real harm."
Eli scowls, putting a hand on my knee possessively. "I think I can be the judge of what kind of harm Toby meant. I don't trust that kid as far as I can throw his scrawny ass."
I roll my eyes at Eli. "I'm fine. Stop being overprotective." But then I cover the hand across my knee with my own and give it a light squeeze. What's happening to me? How can I feel so comfortable around someone who has only been back in my life a little more than twenty-four hours, someone I hardly know for that matter? I shake away those kinds of thoughts and give the stranger another glance. "You must be Jericho."
"I am. And you are the young man everyone seems to be in fits over. Mr. Jack…?"
"Ioannis," Kat supplies, a knowing look in her eyes. She's over at the bar filling glasses with red wine and I eye her warily. "His name is Ajax Ioannis."
"Oh?" Jericho looks surprised. "I hadn't realized there was still an Ioannis in San Francisco. I knew Medea well."
"She was my grandmother," I say, drawing my attention away from Kat and back to Jericho. As long as I have Eli pressed up against my side I feel safe enough from her in any case. All the same my hand slips into my pocket and I finger the ward salt there. "But it's not all that surprising you haven't heard of me. I never wanted to learn the family craft and she respected that."
Jericho's eyes narrow. "And how is that working out for you, boy? I have you placed now. You're one of the twins. I knew your poor mother as well, you know. After that mess, if I were Medea I wouldn't have taken no for an answer."
I feel Eli tense next to me as I shudder, a cold sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Some memories are better left buried deep. "Watch your mouth," Eli growls. "I would refrain from talking smack about a man's mother unless you want a sock to your big, snooty nose."
"Aye, boys put your cocks away," Katharina says with a scolding gesture. "I fear Jack and I are not impressed." She hands a glass of wine to Jericho with a bemused expression. "Would you two prefer wine or something else? Ajax, you will have to excuse Jerry, he always gets this way when he's gotten news about Tobias."
I frown at Kat. "I'm fine, thanks." Why did Eli bring me here anyway? What part of she sucked my blood did he not understand?
Kat smiles back smoothly at my refusal. "Ah, Ajax. I owe you an apology as well, my dear. I meant nothing sinister by our last encounter, truly. But I can understand how you might see it differently."
"You mean when you lied about knowing where Eli was and then used my desperation to trick me and take a little chomp out of my neck? Yeah, I'm still mad about that, thanks for asking."
"Well, my deepest apologies. I had your best interests in mind but I fear our worldviews may be too different for you to see it that way. By my age it is a nasty habit to treat anyone under fifty like a petulant child."
"You also have a nasty habit of not leaving well enough alone when you think there's money still on the table," Eli snaps. "You're exploitative nature is showing, darling. I'll have a whisky."
"Right. Which is exactly why I let you two into my home after you behaved so recklessly?"
"What else was I supposed to do?" Eli makes a frustrated gesture. "Lucky's is not exactly known for its hospitality."
"Oh, I don't know. Tell me the truth about what you know about the curse," Kat looks at me pointedly. "Accept my help under the conditions I can give it."
"I think I'll pass," I say rubbing my temples. God my head hurts.
"This curse," Jericho says, settling into the chair across from us and giving me an appraising look. He finishes in his front pocket and retrieves a pipe. "Katharina has told me what she knows about your condition, but I was hoping you could elaborate."
"Why?" I move to press fingers against my eyelids. "You don't even know me."
"My dear child. It has never been my experience to regret aiding an Ioannis. If you wouldn't mind starting at the beginning I will see what I can do for you."
"I still don't see why I can't just go home," I complain as Eli steers me towards the giant four-poster bed in the middle of the room. I stare at the ornate floral wallpapering.
"Because." He kisses the back of my neck. "If someone is really coming for you, Kat has the strongest wards in the city. Jericho has been perfecting them for years."
"I hate this."
"I know but try to relax. I'm not going to leave you alone with her. Don't worry, man. It's just for a few nights. Lay down. I'll give you a blow job or something."
I shake my head. "Stop trying to distract me. And I'm so not having sex in Kat's house." His hands run up under my shirt, passing over my belly and tugging me towards him, his chest warm against my back.
"Mmm. Jesus, you smell so fucking good." He runs his mouth down the column of my neck. "I'm glad you're okay, Jack. I wanna keep it that way."
I close my eyes, let my body relax against his, let the solid feel of him comfort me. "And you really think staying here is a good idea?" God, nothing feels certain anymore.
"Yeah, I do. Do you want me to go downstairs and fix you a drink?"
"No. Just come to bed with me." I let Eli pull back the covers, toeing off my shoes and removing my shirt and pants before crawling in-between the sheets. They are a high thread count and cool against my skin. Eli strips down to his boxers and follows a moment later, pulling me around until I have my head on his chest and he's got fingers in my hair.
"Well at least we have Jerry on board now," he says. "That counts for something."
"Hmph." I shrug. "He knows things about my family he's not saying. It gives me the creeps."
"To be fair, from what I can tell, your people are also kind of creepy." I sit up and glare down at Eli and he throws up his hands in a defensive gesture. "Go ahead. I'd love to hear you try to deny it."
"Just because my sister is a ghost does not automatically make her creepy! That's so fucking prejudiced."
"Heh. Maybe. But the girl was clearly up to something. She's your twin. Look me in the eye and tell me her taste in necromancy has nothing to do with you being cursed." I sigh and deflate. Athena has always been a magnet for trouble; I know it down to my bones.
"I'm sorry," he says and kisses my chin, my cheeks, my nose. I don't really know what he's sorry about, but I don't ask. Instead, I sit up and move to straddle his hips. I rock us together, enjoying the way his face flushes and his expression shifts, dark curls spilling across the pillowcase. I lean down and run my tongue across those irresistible freckles, then suck his bottom lip between my teeth. "This is certainly not going to lead to that not fucking you were talking about."
"What about me?" I ask, mouth licking a trail down his chest. I flick my tongue across one of his piercings and listen to him gasp. "Am I?"
"Ah! Huh? Are you what? Creepy?"
"Yeah." He's pushing down the hem of my boxers and I move my legs to accommodate, stretching out on top of him as he works the last of his clothes down his hips as well.
"You're very organized." He spits in his hand and wraps it around our cocks. My eyes flutter but I force them back open. I want to watch, take in the glory of the big man sprawled out beneath me.
"That's not really an answer."
"Mmm." He pumps his hand in a good hard rhythm, gripping us together and I bite down on my lip. My body is heating up, becoming prickled with sweat in places as I start to rock in time with Eli's movements. "I don't really think I'm qualified to decide if you're creepy. I mean, I'm creepy. I'm probably kind of hoping we can be spooky together, but I'd understand if you don't want that. I know this isn't he life you had planned."
"I can't think when you do that," I stutter. "Oh God fuck, fuck…" Eli cuts me off with a deep kiss, plunging between my lips with an eager and firm tongue. I moan into his mouth, fingers catching in his hair and probably pulling too hard as I spill across his belly.
I've done my best in this life, but the world doesn't owe me anything, not really. But if I have my way I'd like to survive this curse and have this thing with Eli somehow work out too.