“I guess this is it?” Madeline deduced, looking up at the barely-there Neverland marquis. The vertical-hanging, garden-themed sign was faded by sunlight, the lettering precariously curling at the edges like dried flower petals. Unexpectedly more nervous than she imagined she’d be, Madeline gripped the address card in her trembling hand.
Sensing her apprehension, Levi interlaced his fingers with hers, giving a reassuring squeeze.
Taking a deep breath, Madeline crossed the inconspicuous threshold into the shadowy hallway. Its walls, black paint now peeling, still held the pasted remnants of discolored posters announcing age-old events. It had the atmosphere of a place that hadn’t seen activity for a very long time, its heyday long gone.
Wearing the powder-blue sweater-dress Levi had purchased for her, Madeline was careful to keep her black lita boots out of the grime.
“This is a clever facade,” Levi revealed in a hushed tone as his green eyes peered out from beneath his black hood. His gaze combed the walls, nose failing to pick up any offending scents. “A long, dark hallway, unbarred from the street... Even in Tokyo it would be marred by unpleasant odors. This smells clean.”
Stormy-blue eyes drifted from her surroundings to examine Levi. Looking as pristine as always in casual black trousers, a black hooded jacket, and a forest-green henley, his face was fixed in a calculating expression. Absent was his flirtatious, and often snarky, attitude. He was wary, carefully processing everything and expecting a challenge. The previous day was strenuous for him, having had to suppress his scent, leaving Madeline to wonder how low his energy reserves were especially now knowing that he was continually maintaining the charade of being felinae.
Disengaging her fingers from his, she knew what she had to do.
Reaching out with both hands, she gripped the soft fabric collar of his henley. The height of the heel on her boots only required her to tilt her head up a little bit to match his, and slowly, closing her eyes, she pulled him close for a kiss.
His warm lips pressed against hers softly, rhythmically, before giving way to the sweetness of his tongue. Madeline’s hands slipped beneath his hood, tangling in Levi’s soft, black hair as Levi forcefully pushed her back against the wall in the darkness, his kisses driving deeper and more fervent. Pinned intimately against Levi’s upper body, the worries of what the day would bring were trivialized.
“We’ll get out of here okay,” Levi promised, breaking away from the mouthwatering kiss.
“How can you be sure?” Madeline questioned breathlessly.
“Because I am going to have so much more of this later,” Levi grinned devilishly, removing his hands from her body, but not before lifting her chin up to his face again and placing one sweet kiss on her flushed cheek.
It took Madeline a few seconds to regain her composure.
“Getting a little cocky, are we?” she quipped playfully.
“There’s nothing little about it,” Levi responded smoothly.
Interlacing their fingers together once again, the couple continued to make their way cautiously down the hall, losing more and more daylight the deeper they went.
At the end of the narrow hallway was a burly, older, Japanese man who glared at them with an unfriendly eye. Madeline assumed this was the bouncer. To his left was a door which likely led to whatever Neverland was. Handing the man the card Gwen had given her, Madeline watched him apprehensively, unsure what was going to happen next.
The bouncer felt the card more than looked at it, flipping it over a few times in his hands. Suddenly his eyes widened, and he looked back at Madeline in surprise. Clearly, she did not look to be the person he was expecting.
“Welcome to Neverland, m’lady,” he greeted as politely as his rough English would allow before handing the card back to her and giving his best attempt at a bow. “Oh, and that, m’lady,” he added, pointing to Levi, “Is your responsibility.”
Madeline was shocked by the bouncer’s words at first, but then managed a sly smile. “Did you hear that Levi? You’re my responsibility. So be good.”
Normally, Levi would have had a playful response, but he presented a question to the bouncer instead.
“Good sir,” he asked in a very uncharacteristic voice, “What is the time ratio today?”
“It is one-to-one in honor of m’lady’s visit,” the bouncer replied, treating Levi as if he were Madeline’s servant, yet still maintaining politeness.
Levi frowned. One-to-one was a highly unusual accommodation. Almost unheard of.
“Then we’re expected?” Madeline inquired, glancing once at Levi, then back to the bouncer.
Not being able to decide whether that was a good or bad thing, Madeline took a step toward the door. The sudden weight of the bouncer’s hand on her shoulder guided her past the mundane looking door and towards the absolute darkness behind him, as he mumbled somewhat of an apology that she was going the wrong way. Reaching out to brush the bouncer’s hand aside, Levi’s entire arm unexpectedly began to twist into the pitch-black void before rotating into an explosive swirl of color as if being sucked down a prismatic-colored drain. The sensation of his eyeballs riding the spiraling waves while the rest of his body felt utterly absent was not a completely foreign feeling. Levi had experienced this exasperating sort of travel before. This was a portal.
A fae portal.
For a brief moment, all the colors faded back to black, leaving Levi temporarily feeling that he’d nodded off. Then, as dramatically as it had started, he was hit with a wall of sound and found himself standing in a foyer overlooking a nightclub.
Next to him, Madeline was doubled-over shaking, her legs half a moment from giving out beneath her. Releasing her hand that he’d managed to hang onto during the entire experience, he slipped his arm around her waist to support her.
“Oh. My. God,” she uttered, gasping for breath between every few words spoken. “Never did drugs before... but I imagine… that’s what a bad acid trip… would feel like.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Levi asked as he held her up, concern in his brilliant green eyes.
“Yeah, just give me a few moments.”
As Madeline caught her breath, Levi took a more careful look around.
The foyer was located at the pinnacle of a grand staircase of mirror-like black steps that cascaded downward toward the main floor in one seamless piece of dizzying obsidian, reflecting every ray of the expansive rafter lighting circling overhead. Crystal-clear, as if being pumped directly into his tympanic membrane, was a mesmerizing remix of White Rabbit. The place was packed with gorgeous people wearing immaculate, expensive clothing and sporting perfect coifs.
Regaining her composure, Madeline felt immediately underdressed.
“We’ve crossed into The Veil,” Levi spoke quietly as he released his hold on her. “Be very careful with what you say, and don’t make small talk with anyone. We need to mingle though. We can’t linger up here or we’ll attract attention.”
“Never expected the fae to have a discotheque,” Madeline observed with amusement.
“Who do you think kicked off that whole movement?” Levi asked. “All that wild abandonment, the mind-altering experiences, the music… it all had a pretty big fae push. Lots of humans went missing during that period only to come back very messed up - if they came back at all.”
Nodding in understanding, Madeline followed Levi down the staircase to the dance floor, weaving about ten people deep into the dancing crowd before coming to a stop. His green eyes raking through the dancers confirming his suspicions. All were fae. He did pick up the scents of a handful of other shapechangers beyond the dance floor, but they were definitely in the Veil.
This was bad.
Levi stared deeply into Madeline’s stormy-blue eyes, the two exchanging glances which conveyed the unspoken importance of fitting in and staying cautious. Completely in sync, the pair began dancing to the upbeat rhythm. Since the affirmation of their relationship, both Madeline and Levi were more free with the movements and proximity of their bodies, rolling against each other and pressing closer than they’d ever dared before. For a moment Levi considered how enticing this would all have been had the sense of impending death not hung so heavily in the air.
He could feel eyes on him from every direction. Fae kept shapeshifters more or less as pets and Levi guessed the crowd was probably trying to figure out how a stray got inside. They likely considered Madeline, being human, inconsequential. Nothing more than a plaything. He hoped this predicament wouldn’t back him into a position where he’d have to take action. That would cause a stir which would circle the globe in a matter of minutes.
Knowing Gwen sent them here to meet someone, Levi scanned for anyone showing a capacity for authority. To the far end of the dance floor, opposite from where they’d come in, was a clearing for tables and couches, and beyond that, some private rooms encased in smokey, tinted glass.
He only took his eyes off Madeline for that brief moment, and somehow she was gone.
Giving an audible growl, he spotted her dancing away with an incredibly handsome, even for fae standards, blond gentleman who appeared slightly older than her. The graceful fae held her left hand up, his other around her waist, moving effortlessly, almost waltz-like, with her through the crowd.
Pushing through the masses, Levi was almost upon them as they stepped through one of the doors leading into a private room.
Warm light bathed the room as the man slid himself and Madeline into a rust-colored, leather, horseshoe-shaped booth right about the time Levi caught up to them. And as Levi lunged into the booth next to Madeline, flashing a set of very long, and very sharp, claws, the door to the private room closed.
“An extremely poor choice,” the blond fae frowned in disappointment. “You’re fortunate I blacked out the glass, or someone else might have seen that.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Levi spat, retracting his threat and pulling Madeline practically onto his lap, as much as the space between the table and booth would allow.
“I’m no enemy, I assure you. In fact, I am possibly the best ally you have.”
Levi was deadly protective of Madeline and was poised to do anything to get them out of here if need be. The fae that sat across from him was stunning and unnervingly powerful, so much so that Madeline was fighting her training to remain on guard. It wouldn’t take much for this man to ask Madeline to stay with him, and for her to agree, and then there would be no way in hell Levi could get her out, not even if he reverted to his true nature.
The blond fae completely ignored Levi’s question, focusing solely on Madeline.
“You’re so beautiful!” he praised happily, giving her a sunshine-filled smile from ear to ear. “Then again, I knew you would be. And I see you’ve caught yourself a feisty one.”
He giggled profusely and then sighed. Madeline was clearly enchanted by this stranger, but then her eyes narrowed.
She remembered him from somewhere. Where would she have seen him? She paid little attention to the continual stream of customers from her day jobs years ago, purposely keeping the endless faces from clogging up her memory. She backtracked through a handful of nightclub visits with friends but couldn’t place his wavy blond hair or piercing blue eyes anywhere, and with his looks, she should have. Due to a strict budget, there wasn’t really anywhere else she would have gone back in the day where a mass of people would have been gathered.
Except for grandma’s funeral.
“I am getting beyond pissed off,” Levi continued, still being ignored.
“Such beautiful auburn hair,” the fae said, reaching out to stroke his fingers through Madeline’s locks as she sat frozen by his advance.
Levi reached out so fast that the movement of his arm couldn’t be seen, and he wrapped his fingers around the fae’s wrist like a vice.
“When my eyes first settled on your mother it was the most brilliant sunny day. The heavenly light glinted off her long locks, rivaling that of my kind. She sat between rows of flora, wearing nothing but a paisley sundress and a floppy straw hat. Toes dug happily in the dirt, never minding the insects around her. Humming delightfully to herself while her slender fingers pulled tirelessly at obnoxious weeds...”
Levi eased his grip.
“Wha… what did you say?” Madeline asked in a whisper.
“The barrier here is impenetrable, so there's no need to whisper. I had to erect it to help keep your boyfriend here from being an ass and endangering himself. Which I must say, is very out of character for you, Leviticus. I know your secret. I met Leviticus before you became him, trickster, so mind your manners. That being said, you must really love her to be acting so irrational right now, and I can’t say I blame you. Her mother had me in a bother much the same way. Drove me to do unthinkable things. There just must be something about McCaffrey women… even Jason was entranced...”
At that point, Levi released his grip completely, let go of Madeline, and slumped back into the comfort of the booth, mentally exhausted. That great big dot he was trying to connect years ago finally appeared.
“You knew my mother?” Madeline asked hopefully, leaning in anxiously.
“Of course he does,” Levi interrupted, rubbing his temples. “He’s your father.”
“He’s what?! But he looks so… young.”
“Hahahahaha!” the fae laughed aloud. “And of course you have my eyes. Perhaps introductions are needed. I am Archfae Alesdair Floradorei, but you can call me Alex. Or dad. That necklace was indeed your mother’s, but it’s not an ordinary necklace. It masks who you are. Helps keep you safe. It served your mother much the same way.”
There was an intense sadness in his eyes for a brief moment as he thought of the past. And then it was gone.
“By the by, would you care for a stiff drink? I can’t imagine anyone would like to take in all this sober.”
Speechless, Madeline nodded, and next to her Levi signaled by lifting a finger that he would like one too.
Alex pressed a slender index finger against a three-inch diameter malachite button in the center of the table. Within moments, a woman with skin as white as porcelain, edges of her cheekbones sparkling with glitter, seemed to flutter into the private room wearing a lavender, thigh-length, chiffon sleeveless dress. Carrying a drink tray, she leaned forward towards Alex with a smile, letting him whisper his order into her ear rather than shouting over the oddly clubbed-up version of "Light My Fire" that was playing outside. With a playful wink, she hurried away, long blonde waves trailing off behind her.
“I’m assuming you are who we’re supposed to meet,” Levi ascertained out loud, raising his voice above the music until the door closed.
“Most definitely,” Alex replied. “As much as Gwen’s disability hampers her life, she is invaluable to me as a trusted source of worldly information.
Three colorful drinks appeared on the table out of thin air. Levi’s was a mystic blue that seemed to swirl with a glow all its own, while Madeline’s and Alex’s sparkled like diamond water.
“Don’t worry, they are all perfectly safe to drink,” Alex said, seeing the apprehension on both his guests’ faces. “So, back to the beginning…. I’m really not sure how I happened upon your mother as she tended her garden that day, but I simply could not take my eyes off of her. Never had I come across such an enchanting human with such a sparkle to her. And the pureness of her spirit! The way she embraced the Earth completely with such a small gesture had my loins swelling with…”
“Stop,” Levi interrupted. “We don't need to hear that part.”
“Surely you have a similar tale of when you first laid eyes on Maddy?” Alex pouted, brokenhearted that his magnificent story had been pruned.
Long ago images of Madeline’s bare breasts bobbing as she strangled a fae from within the bars of a cage flashed before Levi’s eyes.
“Um... no,” Levi replied with a sigh and a chuckle, running a hand through his black hair.
Disappointed, Alex went back to telling his story, omitting the details of intimate encounters even though he felt they would add an important element.
“I made that gem for your beloved mother to make it easy for her to visit me whenever she wanted to. Certain precautions had to be taken, you see, because although our side isn’t bothered by complicated love, the other side doesn’t share the same open-mindedness. If they would have found out she was my human lover, they would have hurt her. Endlessly. Just for fun and spite. And it would have been much worse had they discovered her connection to the Orimura clan.”
Alex took a sip of his drink, and Levi picked up on the glitter of what looked to be a solitary diamond set in the center of a rose gold flower suspended in a silver band on Alex’s finger.
“As things happen, she became pregnant with you,” Alex continued, “Which left us in a dilemma. She couldn’t live in the Veil. Spending too many years here would drive her mad, and she didn’t want to leave you here to be raised without her. I couldn’t abandon my rank either. Not because of selfish reasons, but because of the safety of those under my care. A grandson of Oberon just doesn’t up and leave the Veil for a human and her child…”
Levi was shocked. A grandson of Oberon?!
“So your mother and I sat down and had a long talk. We decided she would leave and never return to the Veil. For her safety and yours. She gave birth to you in the Veil, with me protecting her in the process, and then she left with you when she was able to do so. Being away from the Veil for too long caused the years to catch up with her, so I manufactured pieces of family history to fill in the time that couldn’t be accounted for, and she took care of you for as long as her life allowed.”
Madeline’s vision began to blur as tears struggled to spill over her lower lashes. All that time, she hadn’t been with her grandmother at all. How did mom maintain the facade so perfectly? Through all Madeline’s mourning and childhood sadness, her mom's act of being grandma was airtight. She couldn’t imagine that type of sacrifice.
Levi pulled her close, wrapping his arms gently around her. Once again, she found comfort in the warmth of his embrace. He placed his hand lightly on her head and cradled it as he held her to his chest, tilting his own head down so his lips were against her ear.
“Shhhh,” he whispered lovingly, trying to calm her heart. Her sadness was physically hurting him, but he wasn't about to move away.
“I am sorry, Maddy. Had there been any other way, we would have found it. Believe me when I tell you that your mother was the greatest love of my life, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her tremendously.”
Alex reached out and touched the pendant on the chain around Madeline’s neck, noticing immediately that this was not the original.
“My dear, can you remove your necklace for me please?” he asked politely.
Seeing the concerned look on his face, Madeline nodded, slipping her hands behind her neck and disconnecting the clasp. Gently, she placed the black opal in the palm of her father’s hand.
With a flourish of fingertip motion, Alex was able to zoom in on a thread of minute, arcane symbols, making them much easier to examine. Even Levi leaned forward to get a closer look. The thread was composed of linked characters that maintained a constant rotation around the pendant, a mix of Old Norse, alchemic, and binary code. With an expert eye for magical scripts and incantations, Alex quickly realized that the axis of the spell on the outer layer was off balance.
“While I don’t understand the digital language, this seems to be a recently made living copy of your mother’s necklace,” Alex revealed. “This is bad.”
“How bad is bad?” Levi asked.
“Well, the necklace was primarily created as a two-part, interwoven incantation. The first spell made your mother appear to be fae instead of human, and the second spell allowed your mother to enter the Veil independently.”
“Wait… how is that possible?” Levi asked suspiciously.
The Veil only allowed fae to enter, and even then, only through specific reinforced checkpoints. If magic existed that would allow anyone to enter anywhere, it would be disastrous. It opened the Veil up to an invasion.
“The less you know, the better,” Alex replied. “And I permanently destroyed all notes on the procedure afterward to prevent duplication. As I was saying, your mother and I decided it would be better to cast a reversal spell on the necklace, since any attempt to remove either spell already existing on it would result in its destruction. Because the necklace only reacts to the blood of the person it was designed for, we knew it would react for you.”
“So when she wears it,” Levi added. “It masks her fae side and prevents her from entering the Veil on her own.”
“Down to a molecular level,” Madeline added, words focused towards Levi. “That’s why Maseo said those things about my blood.”
“Indeed, and I added the anti-theft spell on it afterward as a precautionary measure. But now, there really is no need for her to hide her identity. With Elizabeth passed, there is no danger to Madeline as she is recognized as a full member of fae court.”
“She’s only half though,” Levi interjected. “She wouldn’t be recognized as fae unless she is more than half.”
“An interesting fact that is overlooked by most,” Alex continued. “Is that the magic in the Orimura clan is fae magic, which makes Madeline fae by blood law because that makes her more than half.”
“The Orimura clan has fae blood?” Madeline asked.
“That explains their longevity,” Levi replied to Madeline, “And your percentage of fae blood explains your affinity for the sword.”
“An unintended perfect storm of genetics,” Alex added. “She can wield, and likely has access to, any clan items those four are able to use.”
As Levi and Alex continued to converse, Madeline remembered the number of the clan, and the anomaly she wasn’t supposed to look into. Ever.
“I am beginning to understand the issues then,” Levi said, still staring at Madeline. “If someone were to control her, they would have access to some powerful tools.”
“Then you can appreciate why I requested you to rescue her long ago, and forced you to stay with her,” Alex said. “I needed someone capable of protecting her until I could get things on my end figured out. Unfortunately, it appears I’ve run out of time.”
Alex’s eyes drifted down to his drink solemnly before he caught himself and met both their gazes once more with a bright smile.
“What do you mean?” Madeline prodded, noticing the brief change in his demeanor.
“Nothing that would change your current arrangements,” Alex responded. “Although I strongly suggest you prepare yourself to embrace your fae heritage. There really isn’t a need for the necklace to function any further, especially considering that the original is likely being tampered with as we speak.”
“Gideon,” Madeline murmured, feeling ashamed and angry that she somehow allowed the real necklace to be stolen right out from under her nose.
“Gideon?” Alex questioned in a raised voice, looking appalled.
Squeezing the gemstone pendant in his hand, a fleeting expression of rage engulfed Alex. There was a faint red glow struggling to make it past the tight clench his fist had around the stone, and when he opened his hand, the opal was streaked with melted silver. If Gideon had the original, given enough time he would likely be able to peel back the layers of magic, then the physical properties. And although it might take him years, the probability of re-engineering another was high. If Gideon were able to mass-produce the desired effect, the Veil would be lost.
Alex had just broken the copy, and without its link to the original's magic, the false pendant lay dormant and dull.
Madeline bolted upright, startling Levi.
The colors around her were suddenly vibrant. Crisp. Distant objects she couldn’t make out too well before were now hyper-focused. And the music… there were notes in it that chimed as if they were alive.
And somewhere, in a forgotten corner of her conciseness, a presence stirred.
Ah...there you are.
“I apologize my dear, but with the original in his hands, I had to break the enchantment on this copy. You will begin to be accosted by your fae senses.”
By the look on Madeline’s face, Levi knew it had already begun.
“You will see things; indications of magic, nature’s true form, ghosts of the dead… Do not let them frighten you. They have always been around you, unseen by you until now. Our family’s house has an affinity for water and light, and since you are my daughter I would guess water would be your attunement. Certain noises might startle you, or irritate you, which hadn’t before. Certain things that hadn’t had much effect on you before will likely make you very uncomfortable, like iron, rot, and decay, carrion flowers, pollution… and for goodness sake don’t ever go back to Aokigahara again. It is one of the few places on the Earth that cripples our kind. It actually overpowered the necklaces’ own spells, which up to that point I would have considered an impossibility. Oh! And before I forget...”
Alex reached into his pocket and removed a ring exactly like the one Gwen wore yesterday. Handing it to Madeline, his expression softened and his gaze glazed over he fought back tears.
“This is your legacy,” he said, giving the proud smile of a father. “House Floradorei. Wear it with honor.”
Slipping the ring onto her finger, the band magically adjusted to her size. For a few moments, Madeline could do nothing but watch it sparkle.
“So Gwen was acting as your emissary?” Levi asked.
“Oh dear me, no, Leviticus. Gwen is my niece. Madeline’s cousin. It is just my sister and I at the head of House Floradorei. Gwen is her daughter.”
Madeline stopped admiring the ring.
“What the fuck? Gwen and I are cousins??”
“Language!” Alex scolded. “But yes, but she didn’t know until right before I asked her to retrieve you from the Tetsugawa building. I would highly recommend letting her introduce you to our ways. Due to her special circumstances, I couldn’t imagine a better teacher.”
“What about the guy she brought with her? He seemed very familiar.”
Alex chuckled, glancing at an elaborate painting that hung on the wall to his right for a few seconds before looking pointedly at Madeline with a shimmer of mischief in his eyes.
“Ah, that gentleman… I confess that you’ve slept with him, but the details are not mine to tell. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Wait,” Madeline interrupted, standing along with Alex. “I can count all the guys I’ve slept with on one hand, and he’s not one of them.”
“That’s not necessarily what he means,” Levi interjected, suspicious of this gentleman. “Going by words alone, you slept with me last night. And that wasn’t the first time.”
Smiling in acknowledgment, Alex tapped a slender finger to the side of his nose, pointed at Levi, and then left the room through a door at the back, leaving both Madeline and Levi alone in the private room.
The door Alesdair passed through led directly to his private chambers within the Floradorei estate, deep within the Veil. Portalling from any random door into the estate was a neat little trick, only no one was around to be amazed by it.
Well, almost no one.
Sitting elegantly on a broad pedestal placed against what appeared to be a window, scaled tail coiled around his two front feet, rested a multi-colored dragon. A pair of small, golden horns accented with beads of silver curled slightly backward, and in the center of his forehead, grouped in a V-formation above his eyebrows, crystal blue scales glittered. Most of his cat-sized body was covered in various hues of emerald green scales that occasionally blended into gold, except for his chest, belly, forehead, snout, underwings, and the fronts of his legs. Those areas were clad in brushed-silver scales, almost armor-like.
Staring through the glass that appeared as a painting to Madeline and Levi, its ruby-red eyes regarded Madeline longingly.
“Can I go?” the dragon asked Alesdair hopefully. “I have missed her. And I don’t like him. At all.”
“I’m afraid she’s had more than enough surprises for one day, Horace,” Alesdair replied. “Soon though. I promise.”
“He’s not a cat. He pretends. He lies.”
“I know, and so does she. Do I sense jealousy?”
“Did you know he is in-between?” Horace questioned, eyes still fixed on the redhead in the other room. “My eyes see all truths.”
This caught Alesdair off-guard.
“What do you mean?”
“He has not committed himself to benevolence. Not completely. There are still shadows lurking.”
“True, friend, but there are shadows within us all.”
Alesdair sighed solemnly. Horace’s words rang true, and not only concerning Levi. It had finally come to this, the moment Alesdair knew was unavoidable.
It was time to pay for the indiscretions of House Floradorei.