“Thanks for taking care of me on such short notice, Caslon. I really appreciate it a lot.”
Glancing around at her new living room, Madeline was still gripping the handle of her rolling suitcase with gloved hands. Caslon thoughtfully turned the heat on in the unit before coming to pick her up, but there was still a definite chill in the air, and she certainly didn’t want her already aching muscles to seize up from the damp cold. Although she had yet to investigate the bedrooms or the kitchen, Madeline was already impressed at how much more superior this new apartment was compared to the one she had just vacated.
It was a corner unit with hardwood floors, off-white walls, and furnished with a modern decor that was very much in the same style as the safe house. It had more windows in the living room than her previous place, but the thickness and quality of the curtains were a welcome improvement. On a day like today, where the dense, gray clouds brought steady rain and biting cold, there was nary a draft. Separating the living room by a long breakfast bar was a spacious kitchen. Clean colors matched the gray marble countertops and paired well with the stainless steel appliances, giving Madeline more than enough room for cooking and baking.
“Short notice is my specialty,” Caslon purred with a smile, golden-brown eyes watching Madeline assess her new home. “But in all seriousness, I hope you’re not feeling like you’re a bother. Suddenly picking up and leaving is something my kind do quite often, so moving without much notice is normal.”
About to step toward the hallway, Madeline paused. Certainly, Caslon had no idea what emotions troubled her right now, but his words struck too close to how she felt Levi had abandoned her.
“You okay?” he asked, concerned by her abrupt change of expression. “Do you need to sit down? Some more pain medicine, perhaps?”
She gave him a sad smile and shook her head.
“No. I’m good,” she replied quietly, letting slip a white lie. “I just want to lay down for a bit. The pain meds have made me tired and a bit dizzy, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve got a lot of emotions I need to sort out.”
Caslon was about to remind her that if she needed to get anything off her chest, he would listen, but he could tell from her expression and the way her eyes would cloud and then suddenly clear, that she was barely keeping her feelings in check right now. Any little thing he said that amounted to an offer to console her would cause her to break down, and because she was battling so hard to keep her fragile state a secret, he didn’t want to be the one to defeat her.
“Well, the safe I spoke to you about is in the bedroom. It’s fairly large and set into the wall, ready for you to reset the locks. I put some frosted doughnuts in the breadbox for you too, and some frozen meals in the freezer for lunch or dinner so you don’t need to worry about cooking for a while. The movers will be bringing the rest of your stuff over tomorrow, and disposing of your old furniture. And if you need anything, and I do mean anything, give me a call, and I’ll be right over.”
“Thank you,” Madeline replied with the best smile she could muster. She was truly grateful. And he had brought her doughnuts, which always cheered her up. “But right now, all I want to do is soak in the bath and take a nap.”
“I can assist with the ba...”
Madeline quickly, but gently, put her index finger against his lips to stop him from continuing.
“I can manage,” she responded sternly.
Shrugging, Caslon handed her the keycard and then left her by her lonesome in the apartment.
Rolling her suitcase down the short hallway, she noticed there were two rooms. Assuming the larger one was the master, she set her suitcase on the bed, took off her gloves, and unpacked a few necessary toiletries into the adjoining bathroom. Next, she stood the wakizashi in the wall safe, setting the lock to her biometrics and fingerprint. Then, without changing her clothes, she spread out on the king-size bed and closed her eyes. Falling asleep was more difficult than she expected, but she did manage a blissful five-hour nap once she was able to drift off. After she woke up, she changed out of her t-shirt and sweats into a comfortable, long-sleeved, black maxi-dress which she was able to step into and pull up, sparing any strain on her ribs. Heading to the en-suite, she began the task of covering the hideous bruise under her eye and making herself as presentable as possible for her trip to The Golden Lotus.
Madeline expected to have to explain her way into The Golden Lotus since this was the first time she tried to enter by herself, but the bouncer waved her in immediately, a pleasant smile on his face. Not one to question good fortune, she thanked him and stepped into the brightly lit venue. As a cheerful attendant took her long winter coat and handed her a claim ticket, Madeline noted that there were only a handful of clientele seated at the bar and nearby tables, and no one was on the dancefloor yet. However, the few that were here at this relatively early hour were socializing happily with smiles on their faces. Nothing at all like how pretentious and haughty the Endless had felt.
Heading towards the V.I.P. booth next to the stage, she spotted Maseo, along with Gwen, Michael, and Terrant. For a moment, she almost turned around and headed to the bar, not wanting to impose on what looked to be some sort of band meeting, but she urgently needed to speak with Maseo and figured if they didn’t want to be interrupted, they would simply ask her to wait.
Taking a moment to allow herself to watch them casually interact with each other from afar, she noticed Michael on the end seat, his left arm resting lovingly on Gwen’s shoulder, her head leaning against his in a mix of shaggy jet and golden ringlets. He was sleeveless today, which was a new look for him, and his muscles had taken her by surprise. His arms were very well defined, as much as Levi’s, and he sported two interesting tattoos on his right upper arm. The top one on his deltoid was a simplistic, single curved leaf, the stem curling out and around it in a perfect, vined circle. The one below it was familiar to her, matching Maseo’s own tattoo of triple circles within a circle. Maseo’s gate key. For a moment she assumed the band all had matching tattoos, but then remembered Terrant always played the drums shirtless. If he had any tattoos on his upper body, Madeline would have seen them.
Spotting her from a distance, Maseo stood up immediately, and with an inviting expression, strutted over to her.
“Do you have a moment?” Madeline asked politely, feeling guilty that she was about to dampen the mood.
“For you? Of course,” he replied charmingly.
Leading her back to the booth with the others, he let Madeline slide in next to Terrant, and then Maseo slid in after her, putting him opposite Michael.
“So what brings you here?”
“Um,” Madeline started out nervously, “I was wondering if you’ve ever heard of Taro Tetsugawa?”
The mere mention of the name changed Maseo’s expression in a split second, from jovial and welcoming to dark and serious, and the rest of the band became uncharacteristically quiet.
“Why?” he asked slowly in a cold and calculating voice.
“He saved my life last night,” Madeline began. “You remember Scott, don’t you?”
Maseo chuckled under his breath at her question, though there was still a darkness emanating from him.
“How could I forget Scott,” he responded sarcastically.
“Well, he broke into my apartment and attacked me last night. Almost killed me.”
“Are you okay?” Maseo asked suddenly concerned, gently touching the bruise on her cheek despite the fact she thought she did a good job concealing it.
His sudden gesture startled her. Oddly enough, his hands were warm and comforting. For a moment, she almost crumbled. Madeline had been successfully keeping a brave face about the entire incident so far, but her friends had a way of lowering her defenses to the point where she really had to struggle to retain composure. Lowering her head, she was able to remain strong.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, seeing her reaction and withdrawing his hand. “You were saying…?”
“Taro saved my life last night and even paid for the damages to my apartment. I just wanted to know who I was dealing with.”
Maseo leaned back lazily with a sigh, taking a few seconds to think about what he was going to say next. Gwen, Michael, and Terrant exchanged apprehensive glances, making it clear to Madeline that this was a touchy subject.
“He is powerful and dangerous, and is never nice just to be nice,” Maseo finally replied. “There is always a motive. He won’t outright lie, but he doesn’t need to. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened exactly? I would like to hear every detail.”
Madeline described how Scott got into her apartment, and how Taro appeared out of nowhere to apprehend him. All the while, Maseo analyzed her every word. When she was done, he tented his long fingers and stayed deep in thought for a few more minutes. His bandmates were silent as well, eyes fixed mostly down at the table.
“It’s no coincidence he came to your place,” Maseo began. “He has the manpower to kill Scott at any time, so he picked your apartment as his stage. I don’t know why. My advice is not to trust him, because whatever he is up to, he’s decided to include you in it, and that can never be a good thing.”
“How much danger am I in?” Madeline asked, her stormy-blue eyes meeting his.
“He’s not looking to kill you if that is what you’re asking. He would have done that already.”
It was now Madeline’s turn to sink back into the cozy booth, deep in thought.
“So what is he?” she said, thinking out loud. “At first I thought he might be a vampire, but his hands were so warm and gentle…”
“You mean like mine?” Maseo reminded her in a matter-of-fact tone. “In case Levi neglected to tell you, for a while immediately after a vampire feeds, their skin is warm and looks alive with color. The stronger the blood that made the vampire, the less often that vampire will need to consume blood to survive, and the more they appear to be human.”
The troubled expression his words caused on Madeline’s face made Maseo chuckle.
“Don’t worry. I’m not like Scott. I need very little blood to sustain myself, and all my donors are extremely willing,” he grinned mischievously, giving Madeline a wink. “They leave completely satisfied and very much alive. If you are ever curious, come and see me. I promise you’ll have every desire satisfied.”
Madeline was put off by the thought of being used as food. She didn’t like it when Levi did it and was positive she wouldn’t like it if someone else did it either. But something he said at the end triggered a thought.
“I am not saying I’m interested, but how does that trick with the pheromones work?”
Maseo sighed, pouting teasingly.
“If you’re not interested, why should I tell you?”
“Because I think Taro used it on me. I just want to know if there’s a way to tell.”
Arching a thin brow, Maseo looked agitated, as if what Taro'd done had struck a nerve.
“It’s really embarrassing, ok,” Madeline confessed, looking down at the table to escape his gaze. “It was like I couldn’t stop myself.”
Another sigh escaped Maseo’s lips, only this one was real.
“Remember how I sedated you when you were injured? That’s not the only way that ability can be used. What I am about to do… it doesn’t mean anything. If you were mine, it would mean something, but you’re not mine, so it means nothing. I will try to be gentle, but the pull will be much stronger than Taro’s. Still, it means absolutely nothing. Remember that afterward.”
What a weird thing to say, Madeline thought right before she nodded apprehensively.
A split second later, she felt parts of her body grow extremely sensitive, acutely aware of the fabric teasing against her skin. Eyes locked on Maseo, she tried to shift seating positions to calm her need, but even that just compounded the sensation. His lips, she wanted to taste his lips so badly. Wanted to run her fingers through his long black hair. She scooted along the booth until she was right up against him, sliding her hand up his pant leg getting dangerously close to his personal space. Madeline leaned forward, wetting her lips to prepare to taste his…
Then the whole scene changed like someone had snapped a finger.
She was about an inch from his lips, and deathly still. She could feel the heat of her body slowly cooling as her mind regained control once more, her own heavy breathing echoing in her ears. Feeling flushed and embarrassed, especially with Gwen, Michael, and Terrant sitting right there, she backed off and stared down once again at the table. Maseo observed her, trying to gauge her reaction, while the rest of the friends around the table seemed unphased by what had just transpired.
“It… it was like that,” she finally managed to speak, still catching her breath, “But nowhere near… that. I mean it was the same, only weaker. Much weaker. Are you... related?”
She tried to choose her words carefully because she had already guessed that they were but didn’t want to insult Maseo had she been wrong in her logic.
“He’s my older brother,” Maseo admitted.
He slid over to her and took her hand, knowing the artificial desire he created in her had passed, and it was safe to touch her again.
“Remember what I did here just now, and keep in mind that was not at my normal level. I was trained to be a seducer from the moment I first blushed,” Maseo explained quietly. “It was my sole purpose in my clan and becoming a vampire only intensified it. No vampire can come close to how I have mastered it. Now think about this… Taro was trained since before he could speak to lead by any means possible. Image the power of what I did to you except apply that to knowledge, cunning, influence, and material resources… that is what Taro possesses.”
He gave his words some time to sink in.
“That is why he is dangerous.”
“Why didn’t Levi tell me who he was? I assume he knew?”
“Likely to protect you,” Maseo answered.
“Protect me from what? Right at the beginning of my whole misadventure he sat down with me and told me so much about the most common things in this world. Said the knowledge would help me survive. So keeping things from me doesn’t make any sense.”
“He tells you as much as he feels is safe for you to know.”
“I still don’t understand. Let’s say I decided to trust Taro because I didn’t know better. Because nobody told me otherwise. How would not telling me protect me?”
From across the table, Michael pulled out his cell phone and began texting. After a moment or two, he held the phone up towards Madeline so she could read what was on the screen.
The more you know about things, the deeper in shit you get, and this world has a lot of deep, sticky shit you can’t get out of once you’re in it. Trust me on this.
“Ah, now that makes sense,” Madeline nodded appreciatively. It was nice to have someone around that was as relatively new to this world as she was, even if they were a few decades apart. “Thanks, Michael.”
Next to him, Gwen grabbed the phone to read what he had typed. Her eyes widened.
“Michael! Language!” she scolded, unhappy with his curse words.
Smiling sheepishly, Michael gave Gwen an apologetic look.
“Well then, keeping along those lines, Levi didn’t tell me anything useful about my wakizashi either,” Madeline continued. “Only that I should lock it away.”
“Wakizashi?” Maseo questioned. He hadn’t heard anything about this. “Before you go any further, let us go someplace more private. I have a feeling it’s best if only I have this knowledge for now.”
Nodding in agreement, Madeline carefully took Maseo’s hand and let herself be escorted to a back hallway where an elevator to the residence quarters awaited. Anyone outside of their circle of five would think he was taking her upstairs for a tryst since it was commonly considered what Maseo did. Conscience of her condition, he did his pheromone trick again. He’d be damned to let a woman be in any sort of discomfort in his presence. Madeline noticed this and thanked him as she followed him into his personal room, sitting down on a loveseat near an electric fireplace which he activated with a flick of a switch. The crackling fire and the warmth it provided soothed her body and mind.
Sitting next to her, Maseo pulled in close lowering his voice to a whisper.
“I received the wakizashi as compensation for a contract I did about nine months ago. I was supposed to get two swords, but I botched the job and only got one. The contractor was satisfied with that for some reason, saying the whole point of the job was basically to piss off the family I stole it from.”
“Do you remember the family name?”
Maseo’s eyes grew as large as saucers.
“And Levi didn’t tell you anything about them?” Maseo remarked, stunned, although he already knew the answer.
“Only that they were a very old canini clan, and could kill me if I crossed paths with them.”
“Kuso,” Maseo swore under his breath in Japanese, running a hand through his hair. “What was he thinking? You don't happen to have a rapport with the blade, do you?”
“Yes, and I actually fought a girl in the house with it. She wasn't happy.”
“I can only imagine,” Maseo leaned back, exasperated. “Orimura is an old werewolf clan that has actual magic in their bloodline. If that sword is part of the set I suspect it is, and you can wield it comfortably, that means you have some Orimura blood in you.”
“Werewolf blood? In me?” Madeline choked. “Are you kidding?!”
“I wish I was, though it should be too diluted to be effective. You haven’t even the slightest scent of shapeshifter about you, which means there is something more to you, something tied to your platelet mystery I’m sure, but I honestly don’t have a clue as to what it might be. That aside, there’s a more pressing issue now. If you have a rapport with the blade, that means you can use its primary ability; opening gates.”
“Gates? Gates to where?”
“Wherever the original wielder synced it to. I suggest not using it. No telling what's involved opening a gate, but I imagine you don’t want to end up there accidentally.”
“Not particularly, no. I am surprised Levi didn’t at least tell me this. Seems a lot more important than knowing who Taro was.”
“For one, as Michael so eloquently stated earlier, it puts you in danger just knowing about such things,” Maseo guessed. “And Levi probably thought that since he couldn’t detect anything about you that made you out to be canidae, no one else would be able to either, so you would be just some human girl in possession of a weapon.”
“But what if someone else could detect me as a canidae?”
“If Levi couldn’t, no one else would be able to. Where is the wakizashi now?”
“Locked in a safe at my apartment.”
“Good. I would leave it in there if I were you.”
Madeline nodded. That was it then. But why didn’t Levi tell her any of this? Even though Maseo’s reasoning made sense, she still felt betrayed that her very own teacher would keep information like that hidden. After over three years of trying to figure out why she had been kidnapped initially, she finally discovered something about herself that might have attributed to it. It gave her a sudden urge to do some researching of her own.
“Thank you so much, Maseo,” Madeline said enthusiastically, offering the vampire a big smile. “Things are clearer now, and at least I know not to screw around with that sword.”
As she rose, Maseo was no fool as to what she had just been thinking, warning her about doing any digging into the subject. If it raised any flags, the Orimura clan would come after her. He also reminded her that as soon as she got more than a few feet from him, she would feel discomfort again. Promising him she would be careful, Maseo took no chances and requested she be escorted back to her new apartment in the club’s personal car.
“Thank you again for seeing me,” she said bowing as much as her injury would allow before leaving his room.
“Anytime,” Maseo replied. “Be careful.”
After she was out of view, Maseo took his cell phone from out of his front pocket. The number he dialed barely rang once before it was picked up on the other end.
“She showed up here at the club,” Maseo informed. “Asked a bunch of questions. Yeah. I told her what I thought she needed to know, but I don’t think that’s going to deter her any. She’s unshakable. Yeah. Sure. Ja ne.”
It was about 11 p.m. by the time she got back home, having The Lotus’ personal driver drop her off a block away so she could pick up some Chinese take-out and walk a bit to clear her head. It hadn’t even been 24 hours, but she felt the strong urge to text Levi. She wanted to know why he didn’t tell her about the link between the wakizashi and the Orimura clan. Something as important as that should have been made clear to her right away. As much as she understood the need to keep dangerous information from her, it was only excusable to a certain degree. Something as vital as this should have been communicated to her. It was her right to know.
Entering her apartment, she hung up her coat and then took her phone out of her purse and sent Levi a short text that she hoped would let her lead into a conversation about the wakizashi.
Moved into one of your properties safe and sound. Rest of my stuff should be here tomorrow, but I brought the sword with me, as a precaution.
Taking a seat at the island counter, she flipped open her laptop while she began eating her take-out right out of the container. There were no emails from her broker, and nothing from Levi, making dinner feel even more lonely than usual. It didn’t help that her whole apartment was barren of any personal items. Those would all be arriving in boxes tomorrow, but for tonight, she had to deal with feeling like a stranger in her own home. In an attempt to cheer herself up, she thought about Christmas. There were only a few weeks until the holiday, giving her plenty of time to unbox the lights and ornaments, bringing cheer to the place with Grandma’s decorations.
This brought a smile to Madeline’s lips.
This year, she was going to invite everyone. The first Christmas after her kidnapping went uncelebrated, at least not in the traditional sense. She had a small, 12-inch plastic Christmas tree in her bedroom at the safe house, and that was about it. She didn’t want to impose on Levi by canvassing the loft with her grandma’s decorations, so she just let it be. The following Christmas was nearly a repeat of the year before, except she made Christmas dinner for Caslon and Levi.
This year she was going to all out. She was going to get an average-sized, real tree, put up grandma’s ornaments, and invite everyone over for a late supper. She even was considering the challenge of getting small gifts for everyone. Yes, this year would be excellent!
Finishing her dinner, she cleaned up after herself and then headed into the main bedroom where the en-suite held a large, soaking tub. Stripping off her clothes, she tossed them on her bed and walked barefoot into the marble-floored master bathroom. The tiles felt cold under her feet, and she looked forward to soaking in the steamy waters of the roman tub. After she got the water to a pleasantly hot temperature, she stepped in and sat down. Instinctively, she thrust both of her hands under the current, loving the sensation of the water flowing powerfully through her hands and fingers.
Leaning back against the warm, smooth surface, the hot water began to soothe away her muscle tension, and with it, some of the mental stress she’d been dealing with. She was so tired, but when she tried closing her eyes, she began to think about Taro, and what Maseo said about him. What could he possibly want with her? Unconsciously, Madeline rubbed her opal between her index finger and thumb, thinking back to her kidnapping. It seemed so long ago now, and no one had bothered her since, so she figured she’d been doing a decent job of laying low and not making a blip on the supernatural radar.
Could the entire thing have been about the wakizashi and not her necklace? It sounded like a big deal, and Levi had mentioned it specifically, but if that was the case, why didn’t Taro just take it? Madeline remembered the vampire glancing over at the sword the night Scott attacked her but made no effort to take it with him. He had to have known she’d been in no condition to even attempt to stop him. It would have been easy.
She took a very slow, deep breath, testing the strain of it against her ribs after the comfortable water relaxed her muscles. They still ached, but between the painkillers and the steamy water, it was manageable right now. Stretching her legs out, she flexed her feet, first heel then toes. Clearly, this was the best thing about this apartment. Her old place didn’t have nearly as big of a tub. Leave it to a felinae to insist on such luxury in his properties.
After spending a decadent amount of time in the tub, Madeline started the water draining and slowly climbed out to dry herself out. Her pajamas were warmed by the steam gathered in the bathroom, and the rest of the apartment was now nicely heated to a heavenly temperature. Taking her last painkiller of the day, she tucked herself in and waited for sleep to claim her.
It had been over a week since she’d heard anything from Levi. Her texts and emails went unanswered. Voicemails were unreturned. She hadn’t brought it up with any of their mutual friends, thinking she would sound childish to be so worried about someone who could obviously take care of themselves. So she kept falling back on something Levi had told her from the very beginning - that he didn’t actually live in this city. It was simply where he had a safe-house.
Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she rode the elevator to the seventh floor, back to the safe house she used to live at with him. At most, she’d confront him face-to-face and see what’s been going on, and at the very least, she hoped to run into Caslon.
The nostalgia haunted her like a ghost.
Exiting the elevator, Madeline approached the loft and began to enter the security code.
Immediately, she tried again, slower this time in case she fudged an entry.
The third time she deliberately keyed each number precisely on the keypad.
He changed the lock?
Standing confused, she only half-noticed the sound of Caslon’s door opening.
“I thought I heard you out here,” he grinned, one hand holding a toothbrush and the other resting on his hip.
His appearance took her a moment to digest.
Wearing nothing, she assumed, but a white bath towel low around his waist, he invited her in, gesturing for her to give him a moment to finish brushing his brilliantly white teeth. Following him into his apartment, she was surprised how spotless it was, and how lovely the scent of expensive cologne hung in the air. Hearing him gargle down the hall, she stepped to his bathroom just as he spit some minty mouthwash into the sink.
“What brings you here? Everything okay with the new place?” he asked, dabbing his square jaw dry with a hand towel.
“The place is great, thank you,” Madeline replied, trying to keep her eyes locked on his, and not letting them wander down and around the rest of his body. Like Levi, Caslon had very lithe and defined muscles, only his chest had a delicate amount of chestnut brown hair on it. And as much as she never thought of him that way, she was female after all, and she’d heard enough stories about the pantherinae’s endowment to make anyone somewhat curious.
“I was just stopping by to invite you and Levi over for Christmas,” Madeline explained.
“It breaks my heart to tell you this, but unfortunately I am flying out this afternoon. Spending Christmas abroad with family,” Caslon frowned. “Otherwise I would accept.”
“Oh,” Madeline said, downtrodden, eyes lowering in disappointment. Surprisingly, they drifted over the toiletries Caslon had on the bathroom counter, about to pack up. Spotting his hairbrush, she noticed it had what one would expect to be a reasonable amount of hair tangled up in the bristles.
“Do all felidae shed hair?” she asked, suddenly reminded of Levi’s brush.
“Of course,” he responded with a laugh. “We’re all mammals, why wouldn’t we?”
Madeline was puzzled. That was certainly curious.
“Speaking of which, have you seen Levi around? He hasn’t been responding to my texts or emails.”
“Not recently,” Caslon revealed. “He headed out a week ago saying he was going to be gone for a while. Relocating to a different safe house from what I could tell.”
Seeing the worried look on her face, he patted her on the top of the head and stepped past her out of the bathroom on the way to his bedroom.
“This is the first time he’s moved since you’ve known him, huh? I bet you feel like a pet that’s been dropped off at a boarding kennel. This isn’t anything to be concerned about. You just need to accept it.”
Madeline almost followed Caslon to his bedroom but stopped as soon as she realized where her path was leading.
“You can come in, you know,” he purred from within the room, “But you wouldn’t leave for a couple of hours.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re very pushy?” Madeline asked.
“I like to think of myself as aggressively optimistic.”
Madeline didn’t reply, just lowered her head in disbelief and turned around, letting herself out of his apartment in the process. Being locked out of the safe house, the news of Levi switching locations and Caslon’s decline of her invitation was more than enough to send her home without the desire, or the energy, to further chase her Christmas dream.
It had been twenty-three days since Levi had vanished from her life. Oddly enough, nothing had changed between the contact he kept with their mutual friends. Only her. She couldn’t remember doing anything that would have wronged him in any way, nor had she been overly dependent on him. In fact, since the day he took her in, she put forth a herculean effort not to burden him with her human weakness. It had been difficult at times, but she felt like she had successfully risen above being a stereotypical, vulnerable human being. She had thought she’d become someone he could be proud of. Yet here she sat, curled up on her sofa all alone on Christmas Eve, with not so much as a word from him.
Her apartment was dim, lit only by the multi-colored lights decorating the tree and her cell phone screen. In one hand she held a glass of umeshu, the ice cubes clinking gently together over the sound of Christmas music playing faintly in the background. She glanced at her phone for the thousandth time. She had texted “Merry Christmas” to Levi hours ago, receiving nothing in reply. Staring at the tree, the alcohol had weakened her spirit instead of lifting it. Perhaps the umeshu wasn’t the best choice, but it reminded her of him. And if he couldn’t, wouldn’t, be here, this was the next closest thing. Staring at the lights on the tree, they began to twinkle more than usual as tears started to blur her vision.
Suddenly there was a heavy knocking at her front door.
Setting her glass down on the table in front of the sofa, Madeline walked curiously to the peephole and peeked through.
It was Gwen.
Fumbling to unlock the pair of deadbolts, she was quite surprised to see the bubbly blond fae bounce into the living room, arms full of small, glittering gifts. The rest of the band was behind her, looking cheerful albeit a bit cold from traveling in the freezing weather.
“Merry Christmas Eve, little human,” Gwen beamed softly before heading straight to the coffee table to set down her stack of foil-wrapped packages. “It’s not good for the soul to be alone tonight.”
Coming in directly behind her, wearing a velvety red Santa hat in stark contrast to his black hair, was Michael, rolling in a portable sound system. He smiled brightly at Madeline, pure joy in his heart, and at that moment Madeline could see without a doubt why Gwen was smitten with him. Although he came across somewhat shy and at times awkward, when he smiled with all of his being it was akin to a sunbeam.
Carrying a cooler that chimed with the clinking of glass bottles, Terrant headed to the same table were Gwen had set down the gifts, placing the cooler on the floor beside it.
“I hope we’re not too late?” Terrant inquired with a smile. “It was a bit difficult to find a place to get food.”
“Food?” Madeline questioned, arching a brow. “Surely you didn’t…”
“Way to poorly word your thoughts, Terrant,” Maseo chuckled, as he shut the door behind them, a paper bag cradled in his right arm. “We brought drinks, and something for you and Gwen to eat.”
Handing her the bag, Madeline instinctively looked inside. Chicken wings, spring rolls, pot stickers, and a couple of other appetizers. She could feel the drool gathering in the corners of her mouth.
“Thanks so much guys,” Madeline stood grateful, tears readily pooling against her lower lashes as Michael plugged a USB drive into his sound system and started piping lively mix of both classic and contemporary Christmas songs into the air.
As the music warmed the room, Gwen began to hang streams of magical firefly lights onto the garland Madeline had already crowned the living room with, adding an extra glitter of luminosity. The sparkle instilled in her the same joy she remembered from childhood. The scent of the pine, and the lights and tinsel decorating it brought her the same enchantment from those days so long ago. Everything around her overflowed with an unexplainable mix of sanctity, light, and love. She thought back to the night of the Halloween party when Gwen had created the confetti at The Golden Lotus which granted the imbiber the flavor of their choice. Perhaps this was the same trick?
“Merry Christmas, Madeline,” Maseo whispered with a smile, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek before moving to the sofa where she had been sitting.
His smile was infectious, and Madeline couldn’t stop herself as she took the appetizers to the kitchen so she could quickly get them out on some plates and bring them back to the living room table along with some glasses for her and Gwen.
As soon as Madeline took a seat in one of the armchairs across from the sofa, Gwen came by and placed a glittering ring of green garland around her shoulders. Madeline inhaled deeply and let the particular scent of the garland fill her with a comforting warmth. As her mind wandered back to a past Christmas, Terrant began pouring some wine for her and Gwen, while Michael and Maseo both grabbed a bottle of their own and leaned back in their own seats. Gwen wasted no time digging into the food, and although she was clearly eating a lot, she had the most gracious way of doing so.
“So how many Christmases have you all spent together?” Madeline asked, taking a sip of wine.
“Well, I didn’t even celebrate Christmas until I met Terrant,” Maseo admitted.
“Yeah, although the holiday is celebrated heavily in Europe, it definitely wasn’t a big thing in Japan,” Terrant added, then turned his attention to his Japanese friend. “Does your brother celebrate it today?”
“As far as I know, no,” Maseo answered. “And I would be astonished if he chose to anytime in the future.”
“Fae celebrate it,” Gwen chimed in between bites, “It started with us after all. We call it by many names, but we’re not picky about any of them. A celebration is a celebration. Fun is fun. Sparkle and joy are sparkle and joy.”
“And Michael is modern compared to us,” Maseo continued. “So it would be really weird for him not to celebrate Christmas.”
Michael nodded in agreement.
“So, if you don’t mind me asking because it’s been on my mind for a long time,” Madeline began. “How did you all become friends? And sorry if I’m being too forward. If you don’t want to answer, that’s okay.”
“I met Maseo before he was a vampire,” Terrant revealed.
“Really?!” Madeline’s eyes widened, clearly intrigued.
“Yeah,” Terrant continued, “After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was part of the Allied Forces sent to oversee the signing of the treaty, although that wasn’t the real reason we were there.”
“Terrant’s squadron was there to verify my father had died in the bomb blast,” Maseo added. “There were a lot of groups poking around there at the time, for that same reason. I also met Levi back then.”
“To make a long story short, it was after being stationed there for some time, that I found Maseo in a brothel, drunk out of his mind. When I found out whose son he was, I decided to keep an eye on him, which apparently meant having to listen to him rant like a mad fool about how he hated his brother and his clan, and most importantly, how he wanted revenge.”
“I wanted to get back at my brother, and Terrant had a trusted contact who was with the Mori clan,” Maseo said.
“So after Maseo begged me for weeks,” Terrant sighed, “I arranged a meeting for him. Not surprisingly, they jumped at the chance to sink their teeth into Maseo, both figuratively and literally.”
“Why, though?” Madeline inquired.
“The Mori clan and the Tetsugawa clan have never gotten along. Let’s just leave it at that,” Maseo replied.
“Ah, right,” Madeline smiled politely. She definitely wasn’t going to press any further.
“Little human, Michael would like to know if he can play your video game thingie,” Gwen stated, reading what her boyfriend had typed out on his cell phone, but not being able to pronounce what the console was actually called.
“Sure,” Madeline quickly replied, directing her attention towards Michael. “Let me grab the second controller too, and you can play with Gwen or Terrant.
After the video game console was all set up, Michael grabbed a player-vs-player fighting game right away and challenged Terrant to a duel, which the tall red-head accepted readily. As they started their battle, the conversation moved between Gwen, Maseo, and Madeline.
She discovered that Gwen had been entrusted to Maseo’s for protection by her great-grandfather. She had been born much too sensitive to fae magic, a condition that would overwhelm her to the point where she’d be entranced for days on end, lost in the Veil’s bewitching spell and unable to break out on her own. Rather than having her live out her life in such a state, her great-grandfather requested Maseo become her guardian in the mundane world. Because of real-world politics, Maseo was the best choice. The Tetsugawa clan he was born into took the side that believed humanity should be ruled over, while the Mori clan he pledged his life to believed in coexistence between all logical beings. Not to mention, his lifestyle was a political threat to neither side, so staying out of conflicts was yet but another layer of protection to him and his close friends.
As Madeline stood and began to gather up some of the plates and empty food containers so she could dispose of them in the kitchen, she decided she’d ask Maseo how he met Levi next. Surprisingly, Maseo followed her into the kitchen, carrying what she could not.
“Thanks,” she said, giving him a smile that was both genuine and melancholy.
She could not express how grateful she was that they showed up, brightening a holiday that would have gone down as being one of the most depressing in recent memory. Hearing the shouting and laughing from the living room, her heart became a lot lighter. Having friends around - no, having family around - was a blessing.
“How are you doing?” Maseo asked her, hoping to have a moment alone to see how she was holding up. He knew she was pining for Levi, and although he didn’t approve of how the thief had handled things, he did understand the reasons behind it.
“For the most part I’m okay,” she admitted as she tossed some of the empty take-out containers in the trash. “But can you answer a couple of questions for me?”
“Is he okay?”
The question caught Maseo off guard. He wasn’t expecting her to ask about Levi’s well-being right off the bat. He was honestly expecting a question that was more along the lines of “why is he ignoring me”.
“He’s fine,” Maseo answered with a smile. “I spoke with him just the other day, so you don’t have to worry.”
“Did I do something wrong? Is that why he left?”
“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s in his nature to wander like this, only it’s new to you, so it feels out of character.”
“Caslon told me about that, and I can accept the whole tom-cat thing, but why isn’t he talking to me? He’s talking to everyone but me, and to be honest, it really hurts.”
This was the point where Maseo wanted to tell her what he knew, all of it, but it wasn’t his choice to make or his secret to tell. At the same time, he didn’t like to see his friend in so much pain. Being ignored as she was… he could only imagine how cruel it felt. He remembered a time when he had been shunned by the girl he loved, and how it drove him into a rage. But there was no mystery at the time as to why he was not allowed to be with her, so there was closure in that, but what Madeline was going through now was different, and more painful.
“Do you remember when Michael said that the more you know about things, the deeper the danger of involvement gets?” Maseo began.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“This is one of those things,” Maseo explained. “Levi has helped a lot of people, usually people who aren’t well off enough to take care of things on their own. That means he has a lot of capable enemies. Up until now, all of his close friends could take care of themselves, so he never had to worry about his past catching up to him. But you, you don’t have that advantage. Don’t get me wrong, you are one of most adept humans I know, but if any of his enemies decided to pick him apart, they would start with you. I suspect he’s cut ties with you because by distancing himself, he’s putting out the message that you’re not friends anymore, that he won’t protect you anymore, and by doing that, Levi thinks he’s indirectly keeping you safe.”
Madeline closed her eyes for a moment and lowered her head. The night they went to the Endless must have triggered it. All the attention at the club for looking like a couple, and nearly getting killed by Scott, probably reminded Levi how fragile she was despite all he’d taught her.
“Well, his plan is very convincing, especially to me,” she spoke softly, sadly. “So that’s it then?”
“Likely, yes,” Maseo regretfully replied.
Madeline’s heart sank like a rock tossed into the black depths of an ocean, and like that rock, she wanted to withdraw into darkness, putting a sea of nothingness between herself and the rest of the world. However, the wine and the umeshu had wrapped their numbing magic around her like a diving suit, keeping her unable to feel the expanse around her but allowing her to know it was there nonetheless.
Affected by her silence, Maseo felt the need to reassure her.
“But you still have all of us,” Maseo spoke, indicating himself and the others in the apartment by placing a hand on her shoulder. “There are no reasons to prevent any of us from being in your life.”
His words were comforting to her. They gave her something tangible that she could trust in, besides depending solely on herself.
“Will you at least be able to let me know what he’s up to? That he’s okay?” Madeline asked hopefully.
Maseo took a moment to think about his reply. Although she never admitted it to him, he knew without a doubt that Madeline had been attracted to Levi for a very long time. It was obvious. He watched as his friend toyed with her emotions mercilessly, because Levi knew it as well. Maseo had been asked to help Madeline move on and detach from her mentor, for her own safety, but at the same time, Maseo knew how painful being separated from the person you loved could be. Especially by force and by reasons that you had no control over. It was a gut-wrenching, devastatingly frustrating and maddening journey. His experience had caused him to turn his back on his family and embrace the unfamiliarity of another clan. It had rebranded and re-molded him into a completely different person with a different outlook on the world. But even after all that, the girl he loved was still untouchable, and although his move to the Mori clan kept his mind busy for a long time, it never erased the feeling in his heart, and he doubted it ever would.
“Yes,” the Asian vampire said finally, “I will give you updates, but that is all I can give you because I made him a promise.”
Her eyes clouded with approaching tears for a second or two, almost spilling to her cheeks.
“Thank you,” Madeline sniffled in appreciation. “Just knowing I didn’t cause him harm or make him mad at me is such a relief.”
“Trust me,” Maseo whispered, “You are not at fault. Now, I am going to head back to the living room and watch Michael beat everyone with that video game, and give you some time to center yourself again before coming to join us, okay?”
Bringing her lips together in a tight smile, Madeline nodded her head briskly a few times before turning around to find something to dry her eyes with.
The rest of the evening was filled with smiles, laughter, and good-natured video game thrashings. The presents Gwen had brought were actually gem-strung bracelets she had made for each of her friends. She’d put a great deal of thought into each one of them, picking colors and stones to match each person’s style and personality.
Maseo’s was made of snowflake obsidian, which stood for persistence and overcoming difficulties. There were amber beads in between them for warmth and wellbeing. Terrant’s was strung with chrysocolla, for wisdom, and quartz, which amplifies other stones. Rhodonite and jasper made up Michael’s, to give him a feeling of purpose, grounding, and a connection to nature. The one given to Madeline also had a precise meaning. The chrysoprase was for love, healing, and joy, while the fluorite was for clarity, focus, and order. It was clear the fae was hoping the little human would overcome any sadness and find her place in the world.
Slipping the bracelet around her wrist, Madeline couldn’t thank Gwen enough. It was beautiful, and the beads were polished so smoothly that they reflected the lights off the decorations nearby. Gwen let her know she needed no thanks but was hoping they could all crash at Madeline’s place tonight. Without realizing it, it had become nearly 5 a.m.
“I have a guest bedroom you and Michael can use,” Madeline smiled happily, “Although Terrant and Maseo will have to decide between the couch and the recliner. And I also want to say you can all stay as long as you like. I really enjoy the company.”
After a brief argument, it was decided that Terrant would take the couch because of his long legs, and Maseo would take the recliner. After they got settled in, Madeline brought them a couple of blankets.
This is what it must feel like to have big brothers, she mused with a smile.
“I’ve made sure the curtains are closed really tight, so it should stay pretty dark in here,” she informed. “And I won’t wake you. You won’t even know that I’m here.”
“Madeline, don’t feel like you have to tip-toe around us,” Terrant said, laying the blanket out flat and pulling the edge up to his chest. “We’ll be fine. Honest.”
“Don’t be silly,” she replied with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot to keep me busy in my bedroom, and you have no idea how late I sleep in normally. Goodnight you two.”
Seeing they both looked as comfortable as they could be on a sofa and recliner, Madeline grabbed her cell phone from the table and walked down the hall, knocking gently on the door to the second bedroom.
“Do you have everything you need?” she asked politely.
“Yep. We are good, little human,” Gwen replied. “Now go to bed. This is an order.”
“And Gwen,” Madeline whispered, “Thank you for the Christmas magic. It felt good to feel that child-like wonder again.”
“Human,” Gwen replied from behind the door, “The only magic I created were the lights on the garland. Anything else you felt was all you.”
Puzzled, but smiling, Madeline walked down the hall to her our room and closed the door behind her. The perfect silence reminded her to check her phone. Still no response from Levi. Her chest tightened a bit, but remembering Maseo’s words gave her hope. Maybe someday she’d talk to Levi again. See him again. But for now, she had to be satisfied with the knowledge that he wasn’t punishing her for any particular reason. Besides, it had brought Maseo, Gwen, Terrant, and Michael to her place for Christmas Eve; something that she didn’t think would have happened otherwise.
Changing into a pair of warm pajamas, Madeline turned off her light but left the curtains to her bedroom window open, so that she could faintly see the twinkle of Christmas lights from nearby buildings and homes. Hugging her pillow, she realized the evening ended much differently than she had expected it, starting out. All things considered, it was a very merry Christmas Eve.