Our Lips are Sealed
Madeline had the taxi driver drop her off a block away from her destination, and as she walked confidently down the sidewalk, bundled comfortably in a buttoned-up wool coat, she casually checked her appearance in the shop’s plate glass window. Having spent a good couple of hours getting herself model-worthy this morning, her makeup was impeccable. Her hair was styled into lovely, ribbon-like curls, and under her fashionable coat was a classy, sapphire-blue, sleeveless A-line dress. She was going to meet a world-class model, one who had won Levi over, so it was essential she looked her very best.
Glancing down at her delicate silver wristwatch, Madeline noted with a certain amount of pride that she had arrived precisely on time. She had agreed to meet Cameron at a shop across the street from the multi-story office building that housed Aya’s talent agency. Earlier this morning, Cameron had called to give her Aya’s location, suggesting they meet at 11:00 a.m. So after meticulously preparing her outfit, hair, and makeup, Madeline sent Cameron the tracking app she’d promised and let him know she was activating it right before catching a taxi from her hotel, allowing him to test the accuracy for himself. This would be the only opportunity for Cameron to play around with the tracking technology because tomorrow was the day Madeline planned to visit Taro’s library.
Walking into the quaint stationary shop, she was ambushed by the most unexpected vision.
Browsing through the day-planners, Cameron was nearly unrecognizable.
His spiky hair was toned down and softened into a classic quiff. Instead of his usual leather jacket and jeans, a crisp white collar and cuffs peeked out from beneath a navy blue, long-sleeved henley which silhouetted his muscular arms. Dark gray skinny jeans completed the look, along with a pair of carefully polished black dress shoes. He looked like he belonged in a boy-band, an impression that did not go unnoticed by the handful of schoolgirls pretending to peruse the notebooks nearby, only to rush off stifling their smitten giggles whenever Cameron glanced in their direction.
“Wow,” Madeline gasped in disbelief, teasingly. “Had I not seen this with my own eyes I would’ve never believed it.”
“You have no idea how much of a chore this is,” he replied with a husky sigh, giving a deceptively charming, and equally fake, smile.
“I can imagine it’s not easy being in your position and looking so… pretty,” Madeline snickered.
Madeline knew that a collection of specifically selected curse words were on the verge of tumbling off his tongue, but Cameron restrained himself.
“I figured if I end up having to go in there to get you, it would be a lot easier getting in dressed like this,” he replied, indicating his attire.
“I’ll behave myself. Promise.”
The expression on Cameron’s face showed he didn’t have much confidence in her words. Nevertheless, he went over the building details with her.
There were two possible service entrances that the agency's catering company could use. Because the building housed other businesses besides the talent agency, Madeline would have no issues waiting anywhere in the main floor lobby. Dressed to the nines, she planned on sitting closest to the entrance further back from the main street, while Cameron watched the one visible from the stationary shop.
“I called the agency earlier,” Madeline informed, “Verifying that the order for Aya’s shoot was still being delivered today, so I guess all that’s left is to head over and get myself into her studio.”
“I still don’t see why you’re so obsessed with talking to her,” Cameron commented, stopping Madeline in her tracks. “He’s not worth it.”
Without responding, Madeline glanced down to the shop’s white floor tiles for a moment as if using the extra time to reign in a hopeless response, then simply looked up and gave Cameron a soft smile. Letting his shoulders drop, a sign he was giving up on talking her out of it, Cameron waved his hand at her in a gesture that told her to get going already.
Checking her makeup with a compact mirror from her purse before she headed off to destiny, Madeline inhaled deeply. She had this.
The lobby was spacious and busy, making it all the more easy for her to blend in. After she unbuttoned her coat and confidently settled into a plush, leather chair within close proximity to the back service entrance, Madeline removed her cell phone from her handbag, giving the impression she was engrossed in texting. Judging by the time, the truck could arrive anytime within the next hour, so Madeline began a casual routine of looking preoccupied with her phone alternating with taking out her compact to check her makeup and touch up her lipstick.
Her phone rang. It was Cameron.
“Truck is pulling into your entrance,” he said, keeping the call short and sweet.
“Thank you, I’ll call you when I’m done,” Madeline replied pleasantly, keeping in her role.
“Don't make me regret this.”
Hanging up, Madeline slipped her phone back into her purse and stood, smoothing out her skirt. By the time she leisurely made her way to the back delivery entrance, the catered lunch was being wheeled in on carts by both the agency staff and the caterers. Putting on her best professional smile, she positioned herself into the freight elevator and rode up with the group to the floor where Aya’s photo shoot was staged. As Madeline exited the elevator right behind the caterers, she struggled to keep her anxiety in check. This wasn’t like contract work, it was a personal matter, and as she passed through the doorway into the spacious studio, there was a brief moment in which she wanted to turn around and leave, abandoning her chance to discover the truth. The only thing that stopped her, that kept her moving forward, was the fact that she knew she could never let it go without a substantial reason, which meant that if she withdrew now, she’d only find herself back for answers at some point in the future.
Inside the studio, a variety of lighting and diffusion screens encircled a slightly elevated stage. Different fabric backdrops hung in the wings, but the one chosen for this particular shoot was a sunny blue sky, fuzzy with white circles reminiscent of dandelions. A buzz of people, each entrusted with different tasks, darted to and fro. Even with all the bustle, and the agency professionals swarming, it wasn't difficult to get within sight of Aya, who was standing on the stage, dressed in a lavender bikini. Trimmed in a flashy silver, the combination of colors was flattering against the glow of her healthy skin and silky black hair.
Knowing Aya would have to leave the stage at some point to eat lunch, all Madeline could do now was wait for an opportunity.
There was, however, one unexpected obstacle.
The pantherinae’s golden-brown eyes widened dramatically, then narrowed in suspicious frustration. At that same moment, an agency representative realized Madeline didn’t possess any credentials and headed to confront her. Aware that Madeline would get thrown out if she didn’t intervene, Tift fooled the rep with a smile, sidestepping him to approached Madeline first. Wrapping her long fingers tightly around the redhead’s bicep, Tift squeezed to the point of being purposely unkind.
“Thank you for coming,” she lied audibly, leading Madeline toward a doorway at the rear of the studio. “I’ll show you to Ms. Yume’s private dressing room so you can prepare for the interview.”
Madeline maintained her composure despite the uncomfortable pressure of Tift’s manicured nails digging into her upper arm, soon finding herself yanked into a long hallway behind the studio.
“What are you doing here?” the brunette demanded through gritted teeth.
“I was hoping to have a word with Aya. I needed to clear something up,” Madeline responded honestly, finally able to wrench her arm out of Tiff’s iron grasp. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m Aya’s stylist and personal assistant,” Tiff revealed, still obviously unhappy as she continued to lead Madeline down the hall and through a door that had Aya’s name inscribed on the nameplate. “Sit, and I’ll go get her. Lucky for you, she usually takes lunch in her dressing room, so this isn’t going to look too suspicious. STAY PUT.”
Madeline snapped rigidly to attention at Tiff’s brutal demand.
“I won’t leave this room,” Madeline assured her immediately, realizing that even though Caslon and Tift were twins, Tiff was obviously the dominant one. The woman’s command of her surroundings was quake-inducing.
Tiff clicked her tongue and grimaced, leaving Madeline in the room by herself.
In the sterile silence of the dressing room, Madeline’s blue eyes couldn’t help but wander.
There were a couple of rectangular tables flanked by folding chairs in the center of the room, which Madeline figured would be as good a spot as any to sit and wait. Removing her coat and laying it neatly over the back of one of the chairs, she took the seat next to it. Glancing around, she was curious as to what constituted the dressing room of a Japanese idol. There was a long, mirrored counter along one wall, explicitly for hair and makeup. A few makeup cases dotted the countertop, surround by some hair products and accessories which made the area look quite like an upscale salon. Positioned on the opposite end of the room was a pair of rolling z-shaped clothing racks stocked with all sorts of apparel in many different colors and fabrics. Madeline was tempted to walk over to take a look at the sizes, curious as any woman would be, but didn’t want to deal with Tiff’s temper should she be caught rifling through Aya’s things.
About to take her phone out of her purse to let Cameron know she was safely inside and behaving herself, Tiff reappeared, this time with Aya, who was now wearing a luxurious thigh-length robe which covered her swimsuit.
Madeline left her phone in her purse and immediately perfected her posture.
Getting a better look than the brief glance she was afforded such a long time ago, she realized how beautiful Aya really was. Her glossy black hair reached nearly down to her petite waist and looked as though it had never experienced a single split-end. Her skin was poreless, and although it was enhanced by Tiff’s professional talent, there was no denying that the canvas was a work of art to begin with.
Behind them, the caterers followed with trays of vibrant sushi accompanied by leafy green salads and ripe, peeled fruits. Tiff directed them to place the trays down on the table where Madeline was sitting, and then ushered them out of the room.
“By the look you are giving me, it’s perfectly clear why you are here,” Aya spoke, light brown eyes studying Madeline from beneath thick ebony lashes as she approached the table and took a seat in front of her lunch. Unlike Levi, she had a very thick Japanese accent.
Her candid observation of took Madeline by surprise.
“Whatever do you mean?” the redhead asked, trying to appear ignorant.
“You are assessing me,” Aya explained, glossy pink lips curving into a playful smile as Tiff took a seat next to her and began consuming her own lunch. “Oh, I’m being rude. Have you eaten already? I can get you something if you…”
“No, I’m good,” Madeline replied, raising her hand in interruption. “You were saying?”
“You’re evaluating me to see how you measure up. You are here about Levi, correct?”
Knowing Madeline was going to consider her words carefully before she answered, the model wasted no time cracking apart a pair of chopsticks and lifting a piece of sashimi to her mouth.
“Um, yeah,” Madeline replied. “I’m just trying to…”
“Sort out your feelings?” Aya said bluntly, glancing at Madeline in between bites.
This was not at all the way Madeline pictured this conversation going. She suddenly remembered she still needed to let Cameron know she had made it inside. The last thing she needed is for him to get antsy and rush in.
“Pardon me, but do you mind if I text my friend really quick to let them know I’m here?”
“Sure, whatever,” Tiff responded in Aya’s place, seeing as her mouth was full of fish.
As she took her cell phone out of her purse, Tiff and Aya continued to eat at a brisk pace. Lunches in this industry must not be very long.
Made it in. Talking to Aya right now. Will let you know when I’m done.
Putting her phone away as swiftly as possible, she made a distinct effort to regain her composure and turned her attention back to Aya and Tiff. Taking a deep breath, she decided she was going to proceed truthfully, as embarrassing as that was going to be since the only person she had confessed her feelings for Levi to was herself, and even that took some doing.
“Yes, I am trying to sort out my feelings. I didn’t realize you were aware of me.”
“Levi told me all about you. About how he didn’t think you’d amount to anything, and yet you stuck it out, surprised him even, and here you are. He’s proud of you.”
“Pr...proud of me?”
“Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?” Aya questioned, looking up from her sashimi with a kind, almost sisterly, expression.
Madeline couldn’t put any words together. The flow of the conversation she had rehearsed in her mind depended on meeting specific parameters, none of which Aya had triggered.
Next to Aya, Tiff gave a husky chuckle, as if she was having a ball watching this uncomfortable discussion unfold. Very different from Caslon.
“Anyway, go on,” Aya continued. “Ask your questions. I have about thirty minutes left before I need to return.”
Taking a deep breath, eyebrows still furrowed, Madeline silently went over the questions she had practiced in her head, realizing that they now all sounded out-of-place.
“How long have you known Levi?” Madeline began.
“I’ve known him since I was about three years old,” Aya answered in between bites of rice and fish. “He was a friend of my late uncle. Uncle told me that if I ever needed anything inconspicuous done, even things I didn’t want my own family to know about, Levi was the person to contact. The only condition being that I never admit to having hired him or gotten assistance from him in any way. That was also the condition which my uncle kept. Took to his grave actually.”
“Didn’t you used to call him Ri-Ri?” Tiff mused.
“Yes! Because I couldn’t pronounce his name when I was little,” Aya laughed. “I had almost forgotten about that. He used to hate that, but he put up with it.”
She'd known Levi since she was a toddler? Wide-eyed, Madeline was not prepared for such a revelation, and it suddenly made their relationship very creepy, but no more delaying with niceties, it was time Madeline got to the point.
She took a deep breath.
“Are you and Levi dating?”
Having finished with her lunch, Tiff leaned back and crossed her arms, an expression of relief mixed with annoyance shaped her features.
“The illusion is perfectly convincing from the outside,” Tiff sighed, speaking to Aya and ignoring Madeline’s question, “But I didn’t think she’d be dumb enough to fall for it.”
“Now, now,” Aya said, softly scolding the pantherinae at her side. “Stop being judgemental. You know that if you were in her shoes, you’d be just as confused.”
“But I wouldn’t have wasted so much time guessing what was going on. I would have just asked you. Hell, I would have asked him before it even got to this point.”
“What illusion are you talking about?” Madeline asked.
“Levi isn’t dating Aya,” Tift said leaning forward towards Madeline across the table as she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I am.”
Madeline slowly digested the words.
Things that once made no sense suddenly started to become clear. Tiff’s apprehension tending to the bite Scott had inflicted. Levi’s sudden relationship with Aya after vehemently stating he was the type not to get into one.
But why were Tiff and Aya going to such lengths to bury their relationship? Being gay was becoming more and more acceptable in society, and while they likely couldn’t flaunt it out in public given the chance that it might affect Aya’s career, they certainly didn’t need to employ Levi to utterly destroy the truth.
“So the whole media fiasco is just a ruse?” Madeline asked.
“Yes,” Aya replied quietly.
“But what about his loft? I saw you two…”
“We’re both felinae,” Aya answered, surprised that Madeline didn’t already know the answer to that question. “Unlike humans, physical contact doesn’t equate to sexual contact. I assume you’ve seen animals huddle together for warmth or safety?”
“She must have never seen Cas sprawled out on Levi before,” Tiff laughed out loud.
Apparently, Madeline missed out on that, and in a small corner of her otome-loving heart, she was disappointed. But guilty pleasures aside, that meant Levi was still unattached, and she found herself selfishly relieved.
“But why go through the trouble?” Madeline asked. From her perspective, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
“I am the eldest child, so naturally I am expected to take my father’s place at the head of the corporation,” Aya began softly. “But I don’t want that. I have hopes of living a life of my own choosing, and in order to accomplish that, I must convince the board of directors that I am unfit to have the honor of leading the board into the future, so I am creating a particular reputation of being disgraceful. Besides, my little brother has a strong desire to be the one the board chooses. He has always been good with numbers and very much likes the corporate lifestyle. It would make him happy to have that position, and I would be happy to see him take it.”
“So why not just come out?” Madeline suggested. “It sounds like that alone might be enough to ruffle some feathers.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Aya continued. “But I will not drag Tiff into this. I will not have the media make her a figurehead for any losses that might occur to the corporation should I come out. Gay and involved with a foreigner? The disdain would haunt us forever. But this way, I can take the responsibility on my shoulders alone. I alone can present myself as a loose woman. The board should find me unfit and unwelcome, they should turn to my brother who will do the company a great service, and then I will be able to fade away from the spotlight into obscurity, live with Tiff, and no one will care.”
“And just so we’re clear, we’re telling you this in the utmost confidence,” Tiff warned sternly. “Until Aya’s family concedes the business to her younger brother, we will play this game. And now that you are aware, you’re going to play it too.”
“Sure,” Madeline willing agreed, standing in full support of the pairing. “You can count on me.”
“I barely know you,” Tiff responded, narrowing her brown eyes menacing. “Cas might think you’re adorable, and you may have earned Levi’s trust, but that doesn’t require me to accept your word at face value.”
“Tiff, calm down,” Aya interjected, her expression showing disappointment in her partner’s actions. “I trust her too, and Levi doesn’t make mistakes with where he places his trust.”
Turning her attention back to Madeline, Aya reached out her hand.
“May I have your phone please?” she asked.
After retrieving it from her purse, Madeline used her fingerprint to unlock it, then carefully typed in her security code and handed it to Aya.
“I’m giving you my phone number,” she revealed. “If you need anything, or just feel like talking to someone, please call me. As much as I know about you, I can’t imagine anything in your life is easy anymore, and I am guessing you tend to bottle up everything. You need all the friends you can get.”
“Ms. Yume, we’re ready for you,” came a woman’s voice through the door leading back toward the studio.
“Thank you,” Tiff replied as she began to rise from her chair, taking her and Aya’s lunch containers to a tray the caterers had provided for recycling.
“I’ve got to go now, Madeline,” Aya smiled as she nodded her head. “Be well.”
“Thank you,” Madeline replied. “If there is anything I can do to help, call me okay?”
With a glowing smile that left no doubt in Madeline’s mind why she was as successful as she was, Aya was escorted by Tiff out of the dressing room. Feeling much lighter than she had when she arrived, Madeline gathered her things and prepared to leave.
About forty minutes earlier...
Levi was quite surprised to receive notification on his cell phone that Madeline had activated a tracking chip on the same frequency they used for the blue diamond contract, and in Tokyo no less. His first thought was that the tech was malfunctioning, it was that much of a coincidence, but that was impossible. He always registered each chip he purchased, and this particular one was from a set he had gifted Madeline. It was pinging because she activated it. There could be no mistake.
Sitting at the round, wooden table that butted up against his hotel room window, Levi pondered what course of action to take while overlooking the Shinjuku streets below. Slowly, he drummed his fingertips along the edge of his laptop.
He’d been in the middle of composing an email to Maseo regarding a semi-permanent gig at a club other than the Golden Lotus, but that could wait. Although he’d been in Tokyo for about a month helping Aya stage a clever deception to get out of her inheritance, he had been with Maseo only a few days ago in England to celebrate the life of a friend on the anniversary of her passing. Levi had just arrived back in Tokyo yesterday, but in light of this recent development with the chip, he was regretting not coming back sooner.
He’d been forcing himself to stay out of Madeline’s life, but it was difficult. Some nights it took a lot of whiskey to numb the urge to contact her, but he managed. But now she was here, practically in front of his face. Why?
He focused his attention back on the tracker’s movement. It was clear she had gotten into a vehicle, and since her initial position coincided with a hotel, the vehicle was likely a taxi. It was when her destination became, with increasing probability, a particular location he was familiar with that he decided to intervene.
Tossing a black parka over his white t-shirt, Levi slipped his cell phone, room key, and wallet into the front pockets.
He wasn’t worried about Aya and Tiff. They could take care of themselves, and he was confident Madeline wouldn't do anything stupid. He was, however, extremely curious as to what event had led his former student there, if, in fact, that was indeed where she was heading.
By the time he’d reached the ground floor and hailed a taxi outside of his Shinjuku hotel, Madeline had appeared to exit her taxi and was now walking across the street from the agency building. Judging by traffic, it was going to take Levi approximately ten more minutes before he reached the area. So while the taxi crawled through the city streets, Levi mapped out the businesses surrounding the agency, noting that Madeline had just stepped into a stationary store. Growing unexpectedly anxious, he watched on his app as she seemed to mill around inside for a bit before exiting and heading across the street.
She was now inside the lobby of the agency building.
As his taxi arrived across the street, in front of the shop she had been in moments ago, Levi ever so carefully pulled his faux-fur lined hood up, completely covering his face and hair before even considering stepping out of the vehicle.
Inhaling the chilly winter air, he picked up her sweet scent immediately. It tugged at him, unearthing memories from more pleasant times, and dusting off moments of tranquility when he was simply being and not dwelling on past horrors or the uncertainties of the future.
Closing his eyes for a second to refocus his attention on his surroundings, he could tell with certainty that Madeline was still in the agency building’s lobby. The last thing he wanted was to be spotted by her, so he decided to duck into the stationary store.
As soon as the all-too-common retail door chime triggered, Cameron smelled a cat. Likewise, Levi picked up on the distinct aroma of a canidae. Refusing to show even the slightest hint of surprise, he lowered his hood and proceeded to leisurely make his way around the shop, browsing here and there.
It was Cameron who approached first.
“This is interesting,” he postured loftily. “Getting your panties in a bunch over your girlfriend?”
Levi was taken aback by his remark. Which girlfriend was he actually referring to? Many women had passed through his life, so it was best not to assume he was talking about Aya, or Madeline for that matter, especially with a foreigner.
Then he noticed the hair.
This man had the same distinct hair color as the gun-toting stranger Madeline described the night she attempted to steal the pair of katana.
“You assume to know me,” Levi retorted, “Yet I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“We haven’t. I keep a low profile. Makes my life easier.”
“Then why approach me? I don’t care to associate with dogs,” Levi toyed, purposely trying to get the man riled up.
“Consider this me marking my territory then, pussy,” Cameron replied, lowering his voice to a growl. “Play your shitty little games elsewhere and leave Madeline alone, or I will make you regret ever laying eyes on her.”
“Madeline?” Levi chuckled in disbelief. “So that is what this is about? Are you the new possessive boyfriend? Did she tell you about the last one? No matter. Rest assured, once I’m done with a meal, I don’t come back around to lick the plate.”
Expecting his last remark to set this pup off, Levi was surprised to instead see this man loosen up and take a step back.
With a satisfied smile, Cameron tilted his head to the side, regaining his boy-band cuteness once more.
“That’s a relief to hear since I have a couple of gentlemen to introduce her to while she’s here. To make her forget all about an asshole like you.”
Levi felt something within him begin to falter.
He had convinced himself he left her for her own safety, certain that if he didn’t, someone would eventually harm her to get to him. It was common sense that if he wasn’t around, she wouldn’t get hurt. But buried deeper within was a fear of her fragility. Seeing her so wounded on that early morning months ago scared him. Staying away from her meant he never had to see her like that again. But the absence didn’t cause the worry to fade, it had quite the opposite effect. There were nights that he would never admit to in which he found himself alone in a dark place, drinking and ruminating over his decision.
But that was the extent of it.
He never once considered the possibility she could find happiness and forget him altogether. Real happiness, not the temporary, doomed-from-the-start fling she had with Scott.
This canidae was a tough one, to know who Levi was and still stand unwaveringly against him. If the other men he spoke of were also canidae and just as confident, Madeline would be safe for sure, and given the loyalty canidae usually possessed, it was possible she could be blissfully happy for the rest of her life in a secure and loving relationship. She could even have a family.
The reality of it started to make him ill.
The sound of a vibrating cell phone interrupted their conversation
“Ah, there’s the princess now,” Cameron smiled, retrieving his phone from his pocket. “Just one sec, I need to text her back. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her you’re here. She doesn’t need to know, right?”
But Levi wanted her to know, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He never considered how keeping her at arm’s length would mean at some point she would be so far away that he could never touch her again.
“And if it makes you feel any better, not that I really care, either way, I won’t be among one of the princes, although I will be permanently in her life seeing that she’s happy.”
“What do you mean by that?” Levi asked. “Trying to take my place as her teacher?”
“Nope. I’m much more important than that. I’m family.”
Levi was not prepared for that. Not at all.
“My name’s Cameron, by the way. You should already be very familiar with the last name.”
Cameron McCaffrey. Levi committed it to memory, forcing himself to focus on getting back to his room and his laptop to verify it. He couldn’t lose face now. He wouldn’t allow Cameron the pleasure of seeing a very rare loss of composer. A sly expression spread back over his features, and he exuded an aura of relief.
“Then her safety falls upon you,” Levi shot Cameron a deceptive smile and a warning. “I only hope that for her sake you are prepared, and can back up all your posturing with actual strength, because if you can’t meet every challenge as I have all these past years, she will die, and you will be to blame.”
“Yeah, yeah… whatever you say,” Cameron replied, waving it off.
Glancing at his own phone, Levi saw Madeline was still inside the building, but her position had changed, increasing the possibility she was with Aya and Tiff. So, ignoring Cameron, he pulled his fur-lined hood up and confidently sauntered out of the stationery shop, feeling the canidae’s eyes boring into the back of his head the entire way.
Once back outside in the cold, Levi exhaled the tension that had built up in his body and began to walk briskly away from the scene. Madeline was here. He quickly began to deduce what on Earth could have possibly brought her. Taking his phone out of his pocket, he was surprised there wasn't a text from either Aya or Tift, so instead, he called Maseo.
“Did you know Madeline was coming to Japan?” he asked, skipping the formality of a proper greeting.
“Japan?” Maseo questioned, sounding shocked. “I knew she’d accepted a contract and was going to be out of town for a week. Left the wakizashi with us. But I didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. Did something happen?”
“Not yet,” Levi answered, “But my instincts are telling me it’s only a matter of time. I’ll tell you more about it when I get back to my hotel. Ja ne.”
Dialing another number, Levi took careful, observant glances at his surroundings from beneath the edge of his hood, and then tucked his phone against his ear once again.
“What’s Madeline doing in Japan?” he asked his broker bluntly.
“A minor task I offered her. In fact, she’s already completed it and is enjoying the rest of the week off, paid for, as part of her compensation,” the electronically modified voice on the other end replied.
Hearing all he needed to hear, Levi ended the call and continuing on back to his hotel on foot.
Alesdair, or Alex as he was known informally, stepped fearlessly out of his fae gate and into a miniscule clearing surrounded by lush forest. The field was so narrow in fact that the branches of the mature pines circling it reached inward almost far enough to completely block out the sunlight. The air here was invigorating, scented strongly with the aroma of the earth, very similar to his home in the Veil. Fidgeting with his hands, an uncommon thing for him to do, he stepped toward the unopposing gassho-style house tucked under and between the trees about fifty feet away.
Before he reached the door, a man had stepped out.
Standing at least a few inches taller than Alesdair, making him rather tall indeed, the Elder approached with determined steps, moving in such a way as if it would be impossible for him to ever be unsure in his footing. His limbs were thick with muscle, but not in a way as to make him appear bulky. With the sides of his hair gathered in a topknot, the rest of it hung slightly past his shoulders. At one time it was a crown of jet-black, but the passage of centuries breathed a peppering of silver into it. His face was like granite, mostly smooth but also etched with the lines of wisdom, experience, and loss. Tan skin was covered in simple clothing; a pair of well-worn jeans, and a hunter-green t-shirt. Not so surprisingly, he was barefoot.
Almond-shaped eyes, a testament to his Asian heritage, softened when he saw his old friend.
“Sorry that my visit comes under dire circumstances,” Alesdair apologized, blue eyes flit with worry.
The Elder gestured through the open door to his house, where a warm fire blazed, inviting Alesdair inside.
“Come inside,” he offered, “I prepared some tea for you.”
Getting settled in the Elder’s home, Alesdair sank comfortably into one of the armchairs, tea in hand, and began to clarify his dilemma.
“As I mentioned yesterday,” he started, “I think there is some unforeseen issue with the necklace.”
He looked straight into the Elder’s eyes, all semblance of his usual lackadaisical and playful attitude gone.
“This could be very, very bad.”
The Elder nodded in sympathy, and then shared what he knew, even knowing it would make his friend even more distraught.
“I spoke to Cameron yesterday, and she was in Aokigahara around the time you called me.”
“Death mountain?” Alesdair inhaled sharply, his eyes wide with panic.
Alesdair fell silent.
She should be able to go anywhere, even places fae would not dare travel. Aokigahara was once such place. The aura of death was so thick in that forest that it literally suffocated life. Fae, with their unshakable link to the life and magic of the earth, found Aokigahara akin to a vacuum. Life magic did not exist there. Oh, things grew there; trees, moss, insects and the like, but it was void of earth energies. If a fae were to enter, it would be like drowning, not in water, but in tar.
Alesdair unconsciously rubbed the side of his ribcage with his free hand. That small part of himself that he gave up for the necklace had felt the full effect of Aokigahara. As crippling as it was, he wondered what Madeline had endured, if anything.
“Was she in pain?”
“If she was, she didn’t mention it to Cameron,” the Elder replied.
“I need for you to ask your pup to find out,” the fae replied. “He needs to collect every detail. It is imperative. If I’ve somehow made a mistake, and there is a flaw in the necklace, I will need to take action immediately.”
“I understand why you are worried, Alex,” the Elder began, “But don’t you think she’s strong enough not to have to depend on its protection anymore? She’s built a formidable circle of friends, and we’ll certainly keep an eye on her too.”
“Her kidnapping was not random,” Alesdair reminded. “But because I don’t know who was behind it, I don’t know if the friends you speak of are capable enough of acting as a deterrent against any future attempts.”
The Elder grimaced, looking offended.
“I know you are capable,” he reiterated, “But we both know you can’t just be hanging around her all day and night, can you?”
Alesdair was right. The Elder had his fill of the world. He was tired of walking it, tired of participating in the game that never changed. History only repeated itself. Too many good people die, and too many bad people flourish. He'd had enough of it.
“Let’s say for argument's sake you find a flaw. How are you going to fix it?” the Elder asked somewhat sarcastically. “Give up more body parts?”
“If I must.”
The Elder sighed.
“I respect your decisions, Alex, but sometimes you just have to let things follow their own course to their own conclusion. You forget she has one of my swords in her possession. She fought with my daughter, so I too am wondering who knows enough about her to have purposely arranged to get my weapon into her hands and if it’s the same person involved in her kidnapping. But Alex, fixing an issue with the necklace isn’t going to erase the events that have already been set in motion. Whoever knows is still gonna know.”
“Unless they got bored of the whole thing and moved to a different distraction. My kind does that all the time.”
“I’m aware, but you are assuming that only fae have a hand in this whole thing. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I must admit, I’m surprised you’ve stayed on top of this whole situation as seriously as you have.”
“This is… important,” Alesdair said sadly.
“Yes, I know,” the Elder sympathized, lowering his voice as well. “Let me give Cameron a call and see what he can get from her. Did you want to wait around? I was going to grill up some fish for dinner.”
“I’m afraid I’ve been absent too long already,” Alesdair declined. “Perhaps when this is all over, we can have an evening of feasting and drinking, and finally get caught up?”
“Yes. I would like that,” the Elder agreed, giving Alex a reassuring smile.
“Well then,” Alesdair said as he rose from the comfort of the armchair, taking a deep and hopeful breath. “I shall await your call. I have been keeping that cellular phone on my person, by the way.”
The Elder laughed weakly.
“In that case, I will let you know the moment I get some information. Just don’t forget to keep it charged.”
“I will, and thank you.”
Giving a regal bow, Alesdair excused himself from the house and made his way back through the fae gate.