Smoke and Mirrors
The next morning started off lazy and slow. There were no alarms set, so Madeline just woke up when nature prompted her, which was a little before 10 a.m. Typically, as with most people living alone, she would have dragged her groggy body, messy hair and all, into the kitchen and pour herself a bowl of cereal. But being a guest in someone else’s home dictated she look presentable first. Straight out of a long shower, she towel-dried her curly, auburn hair and put on some light makeup after brushing her teeth and slipping into a t-shirt and jeans.
As she made her way to the kitchen, she quickly realized there was no cereal and no milk. She also realized Levi was gone. There was a note on the fridge, in elegant cursive, that he was at the local farmer’s market, hopefully picking up something for breakfast.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door.
Apprehensively, she tip-toed through the living room and peeked through the peephole. On the other side, she could see Caslon’s golden-brown eyes peering back at her. Should she open the door? She knew he was a friend of Levi’s, but she didn’t know how much of a friend he essentially was to her yet.
“Miss Madeline?” he called from the other side of the door, voice slightly muffled. “I know you’re there. I can feel you looking at me.”
At the risk of being rude, she unlocked and opened the door, forcing a smile. “I was just looking to see who it was. Sorry it took so long.”
“You don’t have to lie, ma mie,” he responded, waving one hand dismissively. “You hardly know me. I understand. But I do come bearing gifts.”
In Caslon’s other hand was a small box of six doughnuts. Six beautiful fried doughnuts, iced with chocolate. They even had rainbow sprinkles.
“I figured you’d be hungry, and Levi has no experience with keeping a pet… er, roommate. He is either is out buying wheat germ for you or has completely forgotten that you need to eat. Tsk tsk,” Caslon said rolling his eyes.
“A pet?” Madeline raised a brow suspiciously, but it didn’t stop her from reaching for a doughnut.
“A slip of the tongue,” Caslon admitted, looking wounded. “Something my kind would say. I apologize.”
Awkwardly, Caslon glanced at the doorframe with hurt in his eyes, prompting Madeline to finally invite him in, and the two headed to the sofa to sit and eat. It was then Madeline noticed he was still wearing flannel pajama bottoms. Caslon acknowledged her assessment of his attire.
“Oops, sorry,” he blushed. “I normally just sort of wander over here. I honestly didn’t think twice about what I was wearing, but the doughnuts are good, yes?”
“Yes, thank you,” Madeline replied sincerely.
His was as good an excuse as any, she supposed, although she was still wary of him.
“So I take it you are still staying in the guest room?” Caslon pried as he began to eat a doughnut.
“Yeah, why?” Madeline answered in between bites of decadent pastry.
“I don’t smell him on you,” Caslon continued frankly, sniffing the air. “This isn’t normal for him.”
For some reason, his words stung. “I can only imagine,” Madeline replied harshly.
“In that regard, if you are ever in need of straightforward companionship, I am currently unattached,” Caslon offered. “I don’t play any games, and I keep exclusive for the duration.”
Madeline couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She knew Caslon was forward, but really? At least he was damn honest. She had suspected he was also a shapeshifter, but what kind? A horny rabbit?
Not looking amused, she popped the final piece of the doughnut into her mouth and spoke.
“I’ll keep that in mind. So how was your sister’s flight?” she said, changing the subject.
“Fine, I suppose. You should meet her sometime, not sure if you would get along, but that’s beside the point.”
Madeline raised an eyebrow, perplexed by the meaning of his words. Why would it be important to meet someone she wouldn’t like?
“She’ll be here through the holiday; then she’ll be flying back to Japan.”
“The holiday?” Madeline asked. She was a bit fuzzy on dates but was pretty sure it was still just October. Was he talking about Veterans Day?
“Halloween,” Caslon replied joyously, with a smile as bright as a child talking about Christmas. “It’s the biggest holiday of the year! You should stop by my apartment sometime and say hello before then. It will be a great time!”
Just then, she heard a key in the door, and Levi stepped inside, a large paper bag in his arm.
“What are you doing here?” he questioned Caslon, locking the front door before heading into the kitchen to set the bag down.
“You hadn’t fed her,” Caslon explained in his defense, rising from the couch. “How neglectful of you.”
“I was getting food,” Levi said returning to the living room. “And didn’t I tell you to leave her alone? Nothing past friendly conversation. In the hallway.”
“I was being friendly.”
“You’re going commando in your pajamas, cleanly shaven, and you managed to put on cologne,” Levi accused. “And you brought processed sweets.”
“Going commando…?” Caslon said, looking confused as he ran his fingers through his chestnut waves of hair. It took him a few seconds to realize what Levi was pointing out. Caslon gave a weak laugh trying to make it seem like his lack of underwear was an accident.
“Out” Levi ordered, pointing to the door.
Not even bothering to try to argue, Caslon slouched his shoulders and left, but not without reminding Madeline to visit him, or rather his sister, before Halloween.
“Are you done eating that crap?” Levi questioned Madeline as he grabbed the box that contained the remaining doughnuts.
“I suppose so since you’re going to toss them,” Madeline pouted.
“Good. Follow me.”
Taking the box into the kitchen, Levi dumped it into the trash and then washed his hands in the sink. He then proceeded to remove about a half a dozen ripe fruits from the brown bag, along with some whole grain bread.
“And just so you know, I would never forget about you,” Levi said with a princely charm as he removed a sharp knife from one of the drawers. With mesmerizing precision, his hand seemed to dance with the knife as he peeled and sliced the fruit into bite-sized pieces. His movements were so quick and fluid that the fruit ended up with perfect, clearly defined edges. Grabbing a couple of plates from the cabinet, he carefully stacked the pieces together, being cautious not to bruise anything. Satisfied with the placement, he set thick slices of fresh bread on the side. Next, he poured some filtered water from his fridge into two glasses and Madeline helped him carry everything to the coffee table in the living room. As they sat to eat, Levi offered up the same sincere gesture for his food as he did the night they had Chinese delivery, and then asked Madeline if she was ready to start learning. She excitedly insisted that she was.
“So, first off,” Levi began, “Try to put aside all your preconceived understandings of legends and urban myths. Some of them are true, and some of them have been fabricated by the same beings they are about. This isn’t going to be an encyclopedia-style explanation; it’s going to be an identify-and-live-to-fight-another-day version. I will do my best to be as non-judgemental as possible, but this is the first time I am trying to teach someone this stuff, so...”
Madeline nodded. She was ready to absorb all she could.
“I like to think that there are roughly five categories of non-humans,” Levi continued, counting off each one by raising a finger on his hand, “Shapeshifters, the Dead, the Undead, the Magical, and the Supernal. I’ll go over what you’re more likely to encounter first, and then over the next few weeks, I’ll go into much more detail. And there will be no notes. None. If you have questions, you should ask them as we go, but absolutely nothing gets written down or recorded. As a non-human, I identify things differently than you will, but I’ll do my best to provide information that will be relevant to you.“
“No notes?” she asked, “Is it even all right to tell me?”
“If you decided to run off, hypothetically, and go poking your nose around in places it shouldn’t be, someone will permanently cut it off,” Levi responded. “And if you run off and decide to use info on me as leverage with a third party, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Hypothetically,” Madeline reminded him. She didn’t like the conversation’s sudden change in direction.
“Of course,” Levi smiled sweetly, before taking a bite of cantaloupe and continuing. “The most common non-humans are shapeshifters, mainly because most of them, myself included, can hold human form indefinitely. And the term is a vast one, but means the same thing - they can change from human form to either a partial animal-like form or a full animal form. Some, like me, don’t have to harm humans to survive. Those are the kinds you’ll come across most often because they blend into humanity the easiest, and their lifespans are comparable to humans as well. Out of all shapeshifters, it’s the cat types, called felidae that are the most common.”
“That makes sense,” Madeline accepted. “Cats are pretty elusive creatures. They come and go from people’s lives all the time.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘werewolves’?”
Madeline nodded again. There’d been a lot of movies and tv shows about them, both good and bad.
“That would be the second most common.”
“Is it true that if you’re bitten by a werewolf you’ll become one? Or that they eat human flesh?” Madeline asked, because although it was common monster movie knowledge, whether or not it was true was another thing.
“Natural werewolves are born, not made,” Levi explained, “As are most shapeshifters. So being bitten or scratched by them, or any shifter isn’t going to make you one any more than being bitten by a dog is going to make you a dog. However, there is a type of werewolf whose lycanthropy is transmitted like a disease. They were the result of vampires screwing with magic and natural werewolves. You’re not likely to run across those, but they love human flesh. So besides being bodyguards, they are also genetically designed to clean up victims.”
“What about dogs?”
“Dogs are an interesting case,” Levi continued. “They are out there, but very, very rare. The whole story about them being man’s best friend is so true that it’s heartbreaking. Some have decided to remain in human form forever, and have been fully genetically blended into the human race. The rest decided to remain as dogs forever and lost the desire to be anything else. The latter have usually done so out of sheer selfless love for a human or family of humans, and have even gone as far as to breed with true dogs.”
“That's amazingly sad,” Madeline said, looking down at her plate after swallowing a bite of bread.
“The most important thing to remember is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of different kinds of shapeshifters, making it impossible for me to cover them all. Even the same animal types have different names and slight variations depending on what part of the world they come from. I can tell most of them apart by scent, but that’s not going to work for you. The best giveaway is going to be mannerisms and body heat. It’s nearly impossible for shapeshifters to completely let go of what makes them who they are. The way they carry themselves might be rough and wolf-like, or slinky and cat-like, or shrewd and raven-like. When they are very upset, they might snarl, hiss, click, or whatever sound they would normally make. They will usually have the same heightened senses that match whatever their true nature is. Another thing to look for is that most will be born in litters, so be cautious of twins. Also, the most common ones will normally run an average of three to four degrees hotter than your own body temperature.”
Levi rested his exposed forearm on top of Madeline’s. His skin felt warm like he was running a fever, and yet comforting to her at the same time. It explained why his body was so pleasantly inviting on the chilly night he rescued her.
“I feel what you mean,” she replied, committing the fact to memory while selfishly enjoying the physical contact.
“For the most part, they are going to be quicker than you,” Levi continued, pulling his arm away. “So fighting them is going to be mostly about dodging and then luring them somewhere that will put them at a disadvantage. That disadvantage is going to depend on what they are. Since small cat types, which are officially called felinae, are the most common ones you’re going to come across, we’ll be training on them first. The main thing is that though they are fast and agile, they aren’t that strong. So your goal would be getting them tangled up or restrained in some way so that you can get away.”
“So are they felidae or felinae?” Madeline asked, remembering the name to be different when he said it earlier.
“The entire category of cat-type shapeshifters is called felidae. Shapeshifters that would be considered big cats, like lions and tigers, are called pantherinae, and all the rest are considered felinae.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Next we have the Dead, things like ghosts, poltergeists, and some with full-blown consciousness, like spirits. Ghosts are probably pretty similar to what you are familiar with; they are only partial beings that need to be disbursed. Poltergeists are energies that get attached to certain people, places, and things. The dead don’t mask anything about themselves. You’ll know a ghost when you see it. The thing that might be difficult for you will be telling if it’s a real ghost or a fae trick. Under normal circumstances, there’s no real danger.”
“Then we have the Undead,” Levi grimaced, obviously not one of his favorites. “And number one on that list are vampires. They are few and far between only because it’s increasingly hazardous for them to blend in. You can consider vampirism a kind of blood disease spread through a considerable amount of blood mingling, like a transfusion. The older clans even have ridiculously complicated rituals for turning. It’s possible to infect someone without going through the complexity of a full-blown transfusion, but it requires a large amount of blood loss on the part of the victim. That type of infection is also a slow one, as the lesser than adequate amount of vampire blood would have to work at multiplying and replacing the victim’s existing blood cells. No one is born a vampire because they lose the ability to procreate once their body changes. And before you ask, if a pregnant woman is made a vampire, the baby doesn’t become one too. The mother’s body almost immediately devours the living tissue of the unborn baby for nourishment before it has even the slightest chance to be affected by the blood.”
“Not sure if I needed to know that. That’s absolutely gross,” Madeline wrinkled up her nose in an expression of disgust.
“Hey, I’m just setting facts straight,” Levi defended, yet smiled mischievously. “New ones don’t have good survival rates unless they are coddled by older, more experienced ones. That means the ones you are likely to run into are the older, stronger, and more dangerous ones. Make no mistake; they feed on human blood. They have to in order to survive. The nonsense about them being able to survive off animal blood is a lie meant to deceive humans. Ones that have been around for a long time tend to have a rotation of donors, but the new ones that don’t, tend to lose it and kill, and are then killed by their own kind to cull the weak. I identify vampires by sense of smell. Those that haven’t recently consumed blood tend to reek to me. I guess a good observation for you would be whether or not they eat or drink real food. Only vampires with strong self-control, so we’re talking older ones again, can make eating look normal. Younger ones either avoid real food like the plague, or they gag when they try to eat even the blandest of foods. And even an elder, more powerful vampire, will vomit it up within an hour. They also are usually quite pale. The more recently they’ve fed, the healthier they look and the warmer their skin will feel, but it will never be warmer than yours. The ones with ‘old blood’ don’t have to feed often, and they maintain their healthy glow much longer. There are other things out there too, like zombies, but they don’t have any sort of staying power, nothing to keep them from decomposing. Those you can just wait out if you ever come across them.”
“Do vampires burst into flames in the sunlight? Like the stories say?” Madeline asked.
“No,” Levi answered. “But the exposure will make them dry up. The only thing that keeps them moist and supple is consuming human blood. Without it, they go through something similar to dehydration. Expose that to some nice dry heat and well… it doesn’t help matters any. And while we’re on the topic, holy water doesn’t work at all. Most holy water isn't holy, and even when it is, it doesn’t do any harm. Neither do crosses. Vampires are not demons or devils. They are going to be pretty tricky for you to deal with. For starters, they have this thing they release, sort of like a pheromone, that can either calm or arouse their victims, so they don’t struggle. Some like the violence of the process, so they don’t use it, but it’s mostly the young that think like that. As desperate at is sounds, your goal would be not get killed. If it’s an older vampire, an option for survival would be to let them drink and leave you. But if you have to fight, go for sharp weapons with some length, so your reach is greater than theirs. Blunt objects are useless. You need to get them bleeding, so they are more concerned about that, and then you run.”
“I see,” Madeline understood.
“The Magical are some of the most dangerous of all the non-humans. They include the kind that kidnapped you, the fae. In general, the fae have their own yin and yang thing going on. They strive to balance each other out. They have a court system, and although they don’t have a lot of rules, the ones they do have are upheld pretty ruthlessly. Of course, they have to get caught to be punished, so there are a lot of politics involved - more than any other group of non-humans. Most of the other groups fear them.”
“Why is that?” Madeline asked curiously as she finished up her breakfast.
“For starters, most of the myths you’ve heard about them are true,” Levi continued. “They are tricky, love to tell half-truths, and they love mischief. If you can get them to make a promise, they won’t ever break it, but on the other hand, they are experts at making those around them do their bidding. For instance, they are forbidden by their own laws to kidnap other beings, so they get around that by tricking the victims to come with them.”
“But that’s not what happened to me,” Madeline stated rather pointedly.
“I know, that’s what makes your case so interesting, and why, in a way, you have an advantage because kidnapping is harshly punished. Getting back to the point though, the magic they use can distort reality and perception. They can flood human minds with pleasant or dark thoughts that can cause insanity. They can even do it to a lot of non-humans too. They have been on this planet a lot longer than most of the others, so there are things about magic that only they know, and they aren’t going to share that with the rest of us. Not to mention they have their own handy pocket dimension called The Veil. Only fae can go in and out of it unless you have an invitation, or you have a resonance charm from a noble family, but even then those charms get you in no further than the lobby unless you are fae. I suppose the best way to identify the fae is their charisma, both light and dark have it, and their language. They love to trick and talk in riddles, and most of the time they will not be able to carry on a long conversation without slipping into some of their old-world phrases and round-about answers to questions. With all that’s happened to you, we’ll train on counteracting them second to the felinae. And I use the word counteract on purpose. Fae are nasty to fight. The lesser ones are pretty much all about dodging and hitting, which you need a lot of speed and strength for. They are easy for me to deal with, as you’ve seen, but you don’t have that kind of agility or power. And we won’t go into the greater fae. You just won’t win in a straight-up fight with them. Your only weapons are going to be your words and your wits.”
"And lastly, the rarest of the groups are the Supernal," Levi continued. "It’s highly unlikely that you will ever come across any. The powers these beings display caused them to be worshipped by humans at some point, and in some cases they still are. They are found in every culture. Demon, angels, gods, demigods, and they go by many different titles. Unfortunately, I don't have any advice to give you about them, only that they do exist, and don’t piss them off."
“Have you ever come across an actual angel? Or demon for that matter?”
“I came across a demon once, a very long time ago. It massacred a camp of about a fifty nomads in Mongolia. Didn’t eat them or anything just killed them all and left their bodies in the dirt.”
“What did you do?” Madeline asked, blue eyes wide.
“I ran,” Levi answered, taking the last few bites of his fruit and bread and letting the information sink in.
“Tonight, we’re going to go on a field trip,” he continued after a brief moment of silence. “I’ll introduce you to a contact of mine.”
She wasn’t going to lie; she was unquestionably nervous about stepping into this world so soon.
“Where will this field trip take place, exactly?” Madeline asked carefully.
“There’s a nightclub called the Golden Lotus,” Levi began. “The person we’ll be meeting works there, for the time being anyway.”
“The Golden Lotus!? I don’t have anything I could possibly wear!” she raised her voice in panic. Her wardrobe consisted mostly of jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and tanktops. She had two skirts, and one floral-print sundress, none of which were nightclub material.
Levi mused for a few seconds, tapping his index finger to his lips while he thought. Suddenly his green eyes brightened, and he stood, grabbing Madeline’s wrist and forcing her to follow him into his bedroom.
She’d never been in his room, and was surprised that it was at least twice the size of hers. The floor was a warm and comforting oak hardwood, surrounded by paneled walls reminiscent of shoji screens. In the center of the room was a low king-sized bed which appeared to be a futon resting on a wooden platform, and at the far end of the room next to his closet was a staircase that ascended to a mysterious second floor.
Leading her to his walk-in closet, they stepped past dozens of trendy, neatly hanging shirts and trousers. The closest was huge, so large in fact that it felt like a small men’s boutique instead of a personal closet. Before she could digest it all, he stopped in front of a section of women’s clothing.
“I’m not even going to ask,” Madeline said dismissively. Who was she to judge?
Levi ignored her smart-ass remark, flipping through a number of wooden hangers until he found a suitable dress he knew would fit.
“Try this on,” he ordered.
He handed her a sleeveless black dress that had lace collar running to a low sweetheart neckline of silk right above the breasts. Starting at the hip, it slowly blended down into a deep red, with the hem ending about mid-thigh.
"You expect me to try it on here? Now?" Madeline questioned.
"It's not as if I haven't seen you naked before," Levi responded with a smirk.
Madeline was having none of it and stood with the dress draped across her crossed arms.
"Fine. I'll wait in my room. Let me know when you have it on."
Sighing dramatically, Levi walked out of the large closet and waited.
Madeline slipped out of her jeans and t-shirt, and unzipped the back of the dress. Stepping into the soft silk, she briefly wondered whose idea it was to make clothes that required assistance. She managed to get zipped up as much as possible, then called out to Levi for help with the rest. Flipping her long red hair over her shoulder, she felt him zip her up with expert ease.
"So whose dress is this anyway?" She asked, assessing herself in the floor length mirror at the end of the closet.
"Doesn't matter. She has so many dresses she won't notice one gone."
The answer didn't leave Madeline feeling very comfortable. She continued to glance at herself in the mirror, noting that the black straps of her bra were well camouflaged by the lace of the dress. The dress itself was a snug fit, but not too tight, and it showed off her curves in a flattering way.
“You’ll wear that,” Levi decided without consulting Madeline any further.
She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued speaking almost immediately, so she wasn’t able to get a word in.
“We have about ten hours until it’s fashionable to arrive, so do what you need to do.”
“So, is there anything I’m supposed to do tonight? Specifically?” she asked.
“Not make a fool out of yourself?” Levi replied.
“I’m fucking serious.”
“So am I.”
Madeline never remembered ever taking this long to get ready for anything in her life.
She’d done a few other things during the day, like ordering groceries online, and doing a few intro lessons on the Japanese language program Levi installed on her laptop, but it was mainly focused on getting ready for the evening’s activities.
After showering for the second time that day, and getting carefully dressed, she applied, and then reapplied her makeup probably half a dozen times before she was satisfied. Settling on a dark, smokey shadow matched with winged black eyeliner, she also chose a deep crimson lipstick. Seeing herself, all made up in the mirror, made Madeline feel way overdone and overdressed. She rarely went to nightclubs, mainly because she didn’t have the money to buy the clothes or to get in. And getting time off from work cost her money too, so the whole fashion thing didn’t come easy. After first putting her hair up, she decided she didn’t like the look, so she had worked her red curls into sexy waves which rested against her back and over her shoulders. She also borrowed a pair of strappy kitten heels from the mystery woman and hoped her feet would forgive her.
There was a rapping at her door as Levi knocked with the back of his hand.
“Time to go,” he called from the other side.
Taking one last look in the mirror, she was about as pleased with her work as she was going to get. Opening the door, she nearly choked as she laid eyes on Levi.
He was wearing tight black leather pants with black combat boots. A blood-red, silk shirt hung on his body loosely, unbuttoned halfway down. Around his neck was a couple of long silver and black chains, along with a choker displaying a single intricate silver charm. His black hair was styled perfectly straight and parted off-center so that the sweep of his bangs almost covered his right eye, and not a strand was out of place.
“I take it you like?” he said, tilting his head to the side and licking his lips subtly before giving her a cocky smile.
“S...sure,” she replied, trying to not act like an idiot. He was hot. She got that. He was also somewhat of a dick. She got that too.
“Our cab is waiting downstairs.”
Madeline went over in her head anything she might have forgotten to do and realized she didn’t have a small purse to bring. Reaching for her normal purse, Levi stopped her immediately.
“What are you doing?” he asked, grabbing her wrist. “You’re absolutely not bringing that thing.”
“Well, what do you propose I do then? Put my ID in my bra, or my panties?” Madeline fired back.
“I am proposing you don’t bring a purse at all,” Levi responded. “You don’t need one. No one is going to card you, and you’re not going to have to pay for your own drinks. So just leave it.”
Taking her hand, Levi led her out of the room and to the front door where he locked it behind them. Entering the elevator, he let go of her hand.
“Just remember not to embarrass me,” he said under his breath. “I didn’t pick the colors of my clothes on a whim. I’m matching yours as a precaution, and I do have a reputation to uphold.”
“I’ll remember that,” she answered, crossing her arms sharply.
“No one will go out of their way to harm you there,” he continued as the elevator was about to arrive at the ground floor. “I want to see how you get a feel for people. That’s also a big part of what I do.”
Silent, Madeline nodded.
“You look lovely by the way,” he added.
Ignoring him, she strutted out of the elevator ahead of him and towards the taxi. Not waiting, she let the driver open the door for her so she could slide into the backseat. After Levi joined her, they rode to the club in silence. She was irritated, but she was going to do her best not to show it when they got to the club.
From what she knew of the Golden Lotus, it was a newer, upscale nightclub. Their security was impeccable. You never saw anything on the news about any disturbances or altercations of any sort. The cover-charge was insane, and there were very few pictures on the internet of what the inside looked like, other than what was on the club’s official website.
As the car pulled up to the front of the club, a doorman opened the door, allowing Levi to step out. Graciously, he offered his hand to Madeline, helping her out of the backseat. She took his arm as they approached the front of the line where a relatively underwhelming bouncer stood guard. She could feel Levi’s taunt arm muscles from beneath the thin fabric of his crimson shirt, and the sensation thrilled her.
Sensing this, Levi chuckled.
Madeline wondered what was he laughing at. She glanced up and down the line of guests waiting to get in, and didn’t see anything funny. Shrugging it off, she approached the bouncer at Levi’s side.
The rather thin bouncer took one look at the silver charm on the choker around Levi’s neck and waved them both through.
Madeline took notice.
“Is that a V.I.P. badge or something?” she asked, referring to his charm.
“Something like that,” Levi replied without disclosing anything further.
As they passed through the entryway, they entered a small, dimly lit hall with bronze covered walls and amber-colored running lights along the baseboards. A heavy bass beat grew louder the further in they walked. As the hall veered sharply to the left, they arrived at a podium attended by the twin of the bouncer outside. Without even glancing at Levi’s necklace, this man waved the pair through immediately. The end of the hallway opened up to the large main room where the bronze theme continued; only there was now the addition of jade tiles running waist high as well. To the right, partitioned off with golden pillars, were rows of black booths with high, clam-shell like backs and golden cocktail tables. Along the far right wall of the club stretched a bar of polished bronze under-lit with golden lighting. To their left was a large dance floor flanked with groups of low-back chairs, surrounding even more golden cocktail tables. And in front of them, at the far end of the room, was a stage with the curtain drawn. To the left of the stage was a DJ booth, where a fashionably street-clothed young man with a short, shaggy black haircut bobbed his head along with the beats he was rolling out.
And it was packed.
Levi looked past the crowd to a private booth to the immediate right of the stage. Seeing it was unoccupied, he started to guide Madeline to the dance floor.
“We’re going to dance?” She asked coyly.
“Maseo isn’t here yet, so we might as well kill some time,” Levi replied. “Why, can’t you dance?”
“I can dance just fine, thank you,” Madeline responded coldly. “Can you?”
Levi snickered in response.
She wasn’t sure what to expect. She loved to dance, however past dates either refused completely, or they thought they could dance and ended up moving like a drunken bear on its hind legs. Begrudgingly, she followed Levi to the dance floor and weaved through the other dancers moving with the heavy beats.
Her first clue that things were going to be different was that Levi leisurely rested his left forearm on her right shoulder, and placed his right hand on her hip. In this position, he could guide the sway of her hips to match his, and the weight of his forearm kept her captive.
Madeline didn’t know where to put her hands at first. She couldn’t put them around his neck because his left arm was in the way, so she resorted to mirroring him, which meant she had to touch his waist with her right hand. As in touch touch him, and feel his body move under her palm and fingertips. His pants rested lower on his hips than she’d expected, and raising his arm to her shoulder shortened the length of his shirt. So while most of her hand was touching the leather of his pants, her thumb and index finger were resting on his bare skin right above his belt.
And his rhythm was lecherous. The snake-like way he swayed under her touch was bringing heat to her face as her imagination dropped to the gutter. She could feel eyes on them, or rather eyes on Levi, as most of the females within site were stealing hungry glances.
Oh hell no…
She did mention to him she knew how to dance. She would not be dismissed as some random dance partner.
Closing her eyes, she focused on the pumping rhythm that was shaking the floor. She let every note into her blood, let the melody move her upper body while letting the back-beat flow through her lower body. When she opened her eyes again, she was rolling her body perfectly in sync with Levi’s. And she could feel eyes on her now.
The multicolored lights spinning overhead played tricks with the shimmer of his eyes as his gaze pierced her, analyzed her, but she didn’t stop. She wanted to prove to him she could be just as sexy.
Levi immediately noticed the increased potency of her delicious emotion. If it was a game of who could be better, he was going to show her the full ability of who she was playing with. Flashing her a wicked grin, he licked his upper lip, hungrily accepting the challenge.
Madeline felt his eyes now undressing her in such a way that parts of her body were tingling with anticipation. To make matters worse, he removed the hand that was resting on her hip and used it to unfasten the remaining buttons on his shirt so that his chest was now mostly exposed. Placing his hand back on her hip, he moved her just close enough that the movements of their dancing caused their bodies to brush against each other ever so slightly. She was acutely aware that the only thing separating his bare chest from hers was a thin layer of silk and lace, and it took every ounce of stubbornness Madeline had to keep the uncomfortable distance. Fighting to distract herself, she forced her eyes to wander around the crowd behind him. She didn't dare look him in the eyes right now.
Over Levi’s shoulder, Madeline could see the crowd parting as if to let someone important through. Still moving her body without missing a beat, she continued to gaze in that direction, curiously wondering who was coming.
It was a man about her height, with the most beautiful black hair. Slick, long, ebony hair that hung down to his waist. He wore a sleeveless, persimmon-orange, maple leaf-patterned, kimono-like shirt that wrapped around his slim torso, falling mid-thigh to his black pants. Despite his thin frame and slight build, he had an aura of power around him that was almost tangible. The closer he came, the more Madeline realized the kimono style wasn’t just for show, his flawless Asian features were perfect and poreless.
Approaching Levi from behind, he tapped the shapeshifter on the shoulder.
If Levi had been startled, he didn’t show it.
Stepping off to the side, Levi made it clear this person was going to be her new dance partner. Unsure how to carry herself now, she let this stranger guide her. In contrast to Levi’s method of placing his hands a bit inappropriately, this man placed his right hand more traditionally on the middle of her upper back, while his free hand took her right hand gently. Although he brought her in close, their bodies did not touch, and compared to Levi’s pelvic gyrating, this man held himself properly, nothing obscene in his movements at all. In fact, even thinking about dancing dirty with this man made Madeline feel quite embarrassed.
She stole a quick look at Levi out of the corner of her eye to see what he was doing.
He was dancing with another girl who had promptly dumped her partner for him, but his eyes were still on Madeline. It wasn’t a look of playful inhibition anymore, just unreadable observation.
At that point, the gentleman dancing with her leaned his head forward and began to whisper into her ear. It was a throaty whisper in another language, and although she didn’t understand a word of it, the way they vibrated in her head made her blush.
Before the song blended into the next, the man was leading Madeline off the dance floor and towards the high-backed booth to the right of the stage in the reserved area.
Levi followed silently behind them.
Sliding into the booth first, he released Madeline’s hand so she could scoot into the seat, and Levi slid in behind her.
“Madeline, this is Maseo,” Levi introduced, fingers moving to button his shirt back up.
“Levi, you need to stop being so salacious,” Maseo scolded with a bright smile. “This is a public place.”
“You’ll have to forgive him,” Maseo now turned to Madeline, watching as Levi finished primping. “Some shapeshifters are predatory, and they can’t help their own triggers sometimes.”
“Predatory?” Madeline questioned. “Just what is he after?”
“He feeds on the emotion of Desire,” Maseo elaborated, causing a light to go off in Madeline’s head.
It all made sense to her now. The teasing. The atmosphere at the condo being so sexually charged. She understood now how their arrangement was, as he put it last night, a “mutually beneficial situation”.
“Really, Maseo?” Levi glared in disbelief. “Telling her that was not your decision to make.”
“She does deserve to know, though,” Maseo said in his defense. “Being upfront is a good way to see if you can trust her, and if not, it’s not like you can’t dispose of her. Not to mention, it’s not as if it isn’t common knowledge.”
Levi sneered and then turned his attention to Madeline.
“And just so we’re clear,” he said to her, “Desire is not to be confused with Gratification, and it doesn’t even have to be Desire directed towards me. Maseo makes it sound like I’m an incubus.”
Madeline didn’t even bother to ask why he didn’t tell her. It was obvious that even though he rescued her, and was now stuck with her for the time being, he was under no obligation to confide in her. Especially with that sort of information. But it did make sense. He offered her a safe haven, and she fed him, as weird as it sounded.
“I get it,” Madeline said understandingly with a wave of her hand, trying the dismiss the topic from the rest of the conversation. “ ‘No such thing as a free lunch,’ and all that crap. You don’t have to go into it any further.”
“Soooo, not performing tonight?” Levi asked Maseo, changing the subject.
“Not tonight,” Maseo answered. “Although Michael couldn’t stop himself from playing DJ, which means Gwen is floating around here somewhere too. I thought it would be nice to hang out without interruptions. Can I get either of you anything to drink?”
“Sure,” Levi answered.
Maseo signaled for a waitress and ordered sake for Levi.
“And what would you like, my dear?”
“A white russian would be fine, thank you,” Madeline replied.
Maseo added that to the order and also some finger foods.
“So this is Madeline….” Maseo mused, looking her over with inquisitive bronze eyes. “I heard about your little adventure. How odd.”
“We’re still trying to figure out the ‘why’ part. Anything you can glean off her?” Levi asked.
Madeline sat up straight, proper and hopeful.
“Well, I don’t see anything unusual about that gem,” he replied as he stared at it from a distance. “As you suspected already, it’s not a gate key.”
“A gate key?” Madeline asked.
“You haven’t explained anything to her yet, have you?” Maseo asked Levi, surprised.
“Haven’t gotten that far yet. Not sure if I wanted to.”
“Considering her situation, you should,” Maseo urged. “And like I said, if she’s not what she appears to be, you can always get rid of her.” Maseo then turned to face Madeline apologetically. “No offense dear.”
“No worries, I wouldn’t trust me either given the circumstances.”
“A gate key is usually a charm that allows members of important families to use their family’s gate,” Maseo elaborated. “I have one, and so does Levi. I suppose you could consider a gate as somewhat of a special portal.”
Maseo grabbed onto a circular charm which hung around his neck. Framed within a silver circle were three smaller circles of equal size. Two at the bottom supported the one at the top in somewhat of a triangular shape, all three joined to the larger outer circle frame, but barely touched each other. He lifted it to show Madeline, prompting Levi to lift his as well, although not as enthusiastically.
“Getting back on track, anything else you can tell about her?” Levi continued the conversation, wanting to change the subject.
“Not without tasting her,” Maseo replied playfully.
Was Maseo a werewolf? Madeline could feel her wonder begin to reflect on her face and repressed it as quickly as she could. She went over in her mind what Levi had told her earlier and compared it to what she knew. Maseo certainly didn’t seem like a shapeshifter. He didn’t appear to have any animal characteristics, but she had met him a whole fifteen minutes ago, so it was hard to tell. His skin was a warm, healthy color too, so he couldn’t be undead. Maybe he was a fae? But fae didn’t consume people. As if he was reading her mind, he smiled at her and let her stare all she wished. After a considerable amount of time had passed, and seeing that she was still stumped, he leaned over and whispered into her ear.
“I’m a vampire.”
Just then, their drinks arrived, along with a variety of small dishes.
Madeline immediately went for her white russian and took a few deep gulps, but she didn’t allow the shock of Maseo’s words show on her face. What she didn’t understand was how he managed to look so healthy. Was he a really old vampire? That was the only logical explanation.
Ha ha, she laughed to herself. Logical.
“So yes, I could taste you and see if there is anything unusual.”
She weighed the risk. In such a public place, she was fairly certain nothing scary was going to happen to her. Surely nothing that would put her in danger. She didn’t fully trust Levi yet but didn’t think he would let her get drained by a vampire. At least she hoped he wouldn't.
After a few more seconds of contemplation, she made up her mind.
“Why the hell not,” Madeline replied. “Nothing weird has happened yet today. I was beginning to feel like something was wrong.”
Maseo smiled, amused by her words.
Levi rolled his eyes.
“I’ll just need your hand then,” Maseo said, holding out his own hand for her to rest her's in.
Madeline took another gulp of her drink and laid her hand palm up on top of Maseo’s, surprised it was so warm. Reaching into a pocket hidden within his shirt, he retrieved a small, silver lancet.
The shrill voice caused Madeline to jump in her seat, and Levi to squint his eyes, cringing as a strange woman draped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly.
“Angelica,” Levi replied with a smile that Madeline could tell was slightly forced. “Perfect timing. What say we dance for a bit?”
“Aw, just dancing?” The well-dressed brunette responded disappointedly.
“I have plans later that I can’t break,” Levi answered, sounding just as downtrodden as she was. “Unless you don’t want to dance?”
“I never said that!” she panicked, causing Levi to smirk.
Standing, he grabbed her hand a took her to the dance floor, their bodies disappearing into the sea of dancers.
“Does that happen a lot?” Madeline asked Maseo as he brought the lancet to the side of her index finger.
“You mean Levi with women? Yes, although I think this time it was more because of this...”
With a sharp prick, a drop of Madeline’s blood swelled in the spot Maseo lanced. He squeezed her finger twice to get a beautiful, deep red collection. Gently, he brought her finger to his mouth and kissed the crimson so that her blood stained his lips. Partially closing his mouth, he drew air through his lips to get the full effect of the blood, much like a sommelier would do with wine. He then licked his lips to taste it.
“Well, you’re B-,” he surmised. "Although there is something that bothers me…”
“What?” Madeline asked, impatiently. She had to admit it was pretty amazing he could tell her blood type by taste, but she was anxious to know what the more critical revelation was.
“You seem to have the right amount of platelets, but I can’t taste some of them,” he answered. “I’m not sure if that means anything or not, but I’ve never come across it before, and I would dare say I am quite the epicurean. But you should eat some of those lettuce wraps before they get cold. I hear they are amazing.”
It was Madeline’s turn to laugh now. The way he casually slipped from one topic to another was strangely comforting.
She grabbed one of the lettuce wraps and devoured it.
“Yep, they are good,” she replied. “Levi told me you can’t eat or drink regular food.”
“I haven’t been able to for a very long time. I can remember what sake tastes like though, and rice. Not much else though. And I have no idea what fast food tastes like. It was before my time.”
“Levi would say you’re not missing out on anything there,” Madeline laughed as she finished off her drink.
“Ah, so you’re already aware of his particular dietary choices,” Maseo chuckled, flagging down a waitress to order Madeline another drink.
“So how did you and Levi meet?” she asked, taking another bite.
“I prefer not to answer that,” Maseo replied with a kind smile, much to her disappointment.
“How old are you?”
“I also prefer not to answer that.”
“You aren’t easy to interview,” Madeline said sternly but continued to ask away. She also continued to drink, and Maseo continued to order her more. After four white russians, she wasn’t holding back on any questions.
“What’s Levi, exactly,” she asked slurring her words.
“He’s a shapeshifter, dear,” Maseo replied.
“Yeah, but what kind?”
“That is something that can only be deduced by you, or revealed by him, so I can’t tell you that,” Maseo replied, amused by how cute Madeline was when she was tipsy and surprised Levi hadn’t come to collect her yet. He didn’t see his friend on the dance floor anymore either, and only assumed he had escaped somewhere with Angelica for something nefarious.
“I will give you a hint though,” he leaned in closer to her.
“Hips?” Madeline asked, confused. “What the fuck is that suppose to mean?”
“Doesn’t he seem to move his hips a lot?” Maseo continued playing the game.
“Fuck yeah!” Madeline continued rambling, “Sometimes he walks like a fucking girl… He’s not gay is he? Because that would suck!”
Maseo had to cover his mouth with his hand to hide the fact he was laughing so hard. It was a dated Japanese reaction to hide an open laughing mouth to prevent coming across as a western barbarian. The last time he’d had to do that, he’d covered his mouth with a fan.
“You have quite the filthy mouth, my dear.”
“I’ve been told that.”
“I bet you have,” Maseo continued, still covering his mouth. “But to answer your question, no, he isn’t gay.”
“Thank God,” Madeline exclaimed dramatically as she tossed both her hands up in a sign of relief.
“I take it you’ve fallen for him?” Maseo asked, his expression serious for a moment, but Madeline didn’t catch it.
“Hell no. He’ll be begging me. Begging I tell ya!”
Madeline pounded a clumsy fist on the table for emphasis, causing Maseo to break out into a fit of laughter just as Levi came back to the table, thankfully without Angelica.
“SHHHHHhhhh… there he is…” she mumbled in Maseo’s direction.
Taking one look at Madeline and then at Maseo, Levi literally plopped down into the booth and face-palmed.
“Maseo… why did you let her drink so much?” he asked, exasperated.
“She was thirsty?”
“Yeah,” Madeline added enthusiastically.
“She’s quite entertaining,” Maseo chuckled.
“Yeah… wait… what the fuck is that suppose to m …”
Levi put his hand over Madeline’s mouth, cutting short her developing tirade towards Maseo.
“She’s going to be quite a handful, Levi,” Maseo warned. “My instincts tell me she’s a good person, but there’s something dangerous about this whole situation. You sure about what you’re doing?”
“It’ll be fine,” Levi replied. “Find anything?”
“Her platelets are… odd,” Maseo revealed. “Count seems normal, but most of them have no taste. None. I’ve never come across that.”
“I should take her home,” Levi sighed as he looked at Madeline’s elegantly wasted state, releasing his palm from her mouth. “She’s a mess. Thanks, Maseo.”
“Anytime” Maseo smiled innocently as if nothing has happened. “I assume you’re coming to the holiday party?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here. You might as well give me a sponsor pass for Madeline. I’m guessing nothing is going to resolve itself before then.”
“I figured as much,” Maseo said, reaching into the same inner pocket he pulled the lancet from earlier. He retrieved a silver medallion and tossed it to Levi. “Just write your crest on it and see that she wears it. Oh, and have a good night.”
“Whatever,” Levi muttered under his breath as he stuffed the medallion in his front pant pocket before offering Madeline his hand to help her out of the booth. She slid out okay but was a bit wobbly on her feet once she stood. Nothing that would have caused a scene, but Levi held out his arm for her to take, which was a gentleman’s way of saying 'let me help you so you don’t fall’. She accepted it but was trying to stare at his waist for some reason, which made walking next to her a bit difficult. About halfway to the exit, Levi had to yank her arm to get her to focus her gaze ahead toward where they were walking, instead of on his hips, oblivious to Maseo chuckling behind him.
The cold night air helped clear her head a little bit, but she still had some trouble getting into the taxi with Levi. She stayed silent for the duration of the drive back to the condo and also in the half minute ride up the elevator. When she stepped into the living room, she turned to face Levi, eyes glazed over and sleepy.
“Sorry I drank so much,” she attempted to apologize as she walked backward toward her room, still unsteady on her feet.
“It’s not entirely your fault. Maseo is an enabler of sorts. He used to work at a host club in Japan years ago, so keeping the drinks coming is second nature to him. Or at least that will be the excuse he’ll use when I yell at him tomorrow.”
“And about you feeding on desire…”
“What about it?” Levi asked suspiciously. From personal experience, this was usually followed by ‘why do you need to feed on other girls when you have me,’ or ‘I consider that cheating, so you have to stop.’ A couple of times it was even ‘you’re a pervert!’ with a slap to the face. That was why he didn’t date.
“It’s no biggie,” she said with half closed eyes. “It’s not like you hurt anybody.”
Spinning around, she almost fell as she stepped into her room and closed the door. To be honest, there was a part of her that was jealous, though she had no right to be. Imagining him enticing desire in girls like Angelica caused a twist of uneasiness in her stomach. Or was that the white russians? She wasn’t sure at this point. Clumsily unstrapping her heals, she fumbled with the zipper on the dress and managed to get it off on her own. Wiggling out of it, she let it slip to the carpet and stepped out of it moments before collapsing into bed.