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Long Gone Day - Part One “So much blood I’m starting to drown…” Decades ago... He sat on a wooden stool in an unfamiliar bar, spinning the thin red straw in his fourth, and likely last, Jack and Coke. Glancing across the square-shaped bar to his right, the grunge cover band had played through about a dozen songs and was likely near the end of their set. He had shown up early, not to see them but rather a lady he had met online. She was considerably late, but even if she stood him up, he didn’t regret paying the cover charge. The music was good. It seeped into his soul making him feel connected with everyone else in the room through the muddy beat of the bass and drums. The singer was a thin, unimposing Asian guy, with long, straight black hair that hung down to his waist. But his voice… damn. He belted out lyrics with such power that everyone in the place was enthralled. When they started their set, conversations stopped in mid-sentence. People set down their drinks. He was that good. Wearing faded blue-jeans and an unbuttoned red flannel, he firmly held the chords on his bass guitar, while his slender fingers stroked the thick strings with perfect rhythm. Beating the skins with a tribal approach that satisfied the most primal needs of the spirit, the drummer was quite the opposite of the vocalist. He was a tall man with chiseled arms and wide shoulders that whittled down to a toned waist. He wore black jeans and no shirt as he sat behind the drumset, his blood-red hair wet with sweat, sticking to the sides of his long face and as he tossed his head around. But it was the guitarist the intrigued Michael the most. She was a petite young woman, with beautiful golden-blond locks styled in perfect ringlets that bobbed and bounced against her thin shoulders as she played, never losing their curl. She wore a dress that was reminiscent of something a doll would wear, a knee-length red plaid dress with black lace trim and a black petticoat underneath. She played her guitar with effortless precision, and she had a dreamy look on her face as if she was in a trance. Despite her skills, she seemed to be a backdrop to the other members, coming to the forefront only when she needed to play a solo. And she kept that dazed look on her face for most of the performance, except the few times Michael thought she was staring at him. Which of course had to be his own wishful thinking. She was beautiful and talented, and there is no way she would be looking at a low-class joe like him, even in his brand new, buttoned-up black dress shirt and faded jeans. He’d spent his week’s paycheck on them for this date, but underneath, he was still his poor, futureless self. He had driven an hour in his beat-up truck just to get here from his side of town. He tried calling his date when he first took a seat at the bar, to let her know he’d arrived, and she responded she was almost there, but that was an hour ago, and other calls to her went unanswered. Did something happen? He’d only known her online for a month, so he couldn’t say he was really sure if this was even legit. He always told the truth about himself on the dating website, and sometimes that would lead to things like this. Perhaps a friend had talked her out of going after looking over his profile, but better for them to know he worked construction, never graduated, and doesn’t come from money, than to lie about it and have it come back to bite him later. He’d seen that happen with his friends, and it was always a mess. Baby blue eyes looking back down at his drink, he stirred the ice around a bit more. The band had finished up their set and were breaking down equipment as the sound system kicked in with a mix of similar music. Michael looked down at his phone again. Still nothing. When he looked up, he was suddenly staring into a pretty pair of green eyes. It startled him, how silently she appeared. “Who are you waiting for?” she asked curiously in a sing-song voice. “I was meeting someone for a first date,” Michael replied, running a hand nervously through his short, shaggy black hair. “But I think I’ve been stood up.” “Stood up?” she pondered, unfamiliar with the word. “It means she’s not going to show up,” Michael explained. He thought of himself as a pretty handsome guy, but women in this town wanted more than that. They wanted a way out of poverty. He felt embarrassed telling this amazing person about his failure. “Sounds like it’s her loss,” the guitarist replied. “You’re pretty, and you have an honest heart. What more could a girl want?” Michael was speechless. Did she just tell him he was pretty? And more importantly, did that mean he was someone that a person like her could want? A shy, warm smile spread across his lips. “And you have a joyous smile,” she added, exchanging his expression with a beautifully bright one of her own. “Thank you,” he said, accepting the compliment. “Hearing that from someone as lovely and talented as you really cheers me up, no matter how the rest of the night goes. I’m Michael by the way.” Just then, the red-headed drummer shouted what must have been her name from stage-side. “Gwen!” “Be right there,” she waved back with a little bounce in her step. Turning back to Michael, she took his hand and shook it. An odd gesture in a situation like this, but he shook it back. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Michael. Perhaps we’ll meet again if the fates allow.” And with that, she skipped away, leaving the warmth of her hand to fade against his skin. His bulky cell phone rang in his shirt pocket. It was his date. “Soooo sorry I’m late. I’m here now. Had to park in back because the place was packed.” “I’ll come out to meet you,” he replied. Sliding the bartender a tip across the counter, he hurried outside to meet up. He still planned on dinner, and there were a few late-night spots he researched just in case. Hands in his front jean pockets, Michael rounded the back of the bar into a group of men he hadn’t seen before. “And here he is!” one of the three said excitedly, draping his arm around Michael’s shoulder. Looking around, Michael didn’t see any sign of his date. “If you guys did anything to hurt her…” he threatened. He was good in a fight, had to be coming from his rough, poor neighborhood. There was a man on either side of him now, as well as one at his back, and they walked him across the back parking lot into the alleyway of a couple of businesses that were long closed. “How typical,” one of the men sneered, amused by the words. “Listen here,” the one behind him started, “There’s no girl. Never was. Just us.” “What do you mean?” Michael asked, not quite understanding what was happening. The man to his right grabbed Michael’s wallet from his pocket, taking his $200 in cash and dropping the rest to the damp, oily ground. Michael tried to grab his wrist to stop him, but the man was abnormally strong. “There is no girl,” he repeated, dragging out the words as if slowing. “But you’re too uneducated to pick up on that. What kind of girl would want to meet you anyway? You barely make enough money to take care of yourself, and you’re never going to be anything but a dirty human putting a strain on the planet.” Then in a split second, he cocked his arm back and punched Michael square in the jaw. Michael’s head snapped back, and the rest of his body followed suit, landing with a skid on the wet concrete. He’d never been punched so hard in his life and there was a weird vibration in his skull. Getting up slowly, he raised his fists. “Are you kidding me?” the man who had punched him laughed out loud, astonished at Michael’s lack of fear. “You really have no idea you’re going to die here, do you?” Michael didn’t flinch at the words, remaining at the ready with his fists up in a boxer’s stance. There were two seconds of pure stillness, and then the man who had punched him lunged forward with fangs exposed. Michael couldn’t react. He was knocked down instantly by the force of his attacker. Trying to scream, to give an outlet for the pain that ripped through him, he could only gasp with his open, dumbstruck mouth as the air was knocked out of his lungs. The weight of the man straddling him felt like solid stone, cold and immobile. No part of him felt of the warm, spongy sensation of flesh and bone. Fingers like steel gripped Michael’s arms, bruising both his skin and the muscle underneath. Another fist decimated his jaw, and the side of his face grew warm and sticky with blood. His kicking feet were quickly locked down by another set of iron-like hands. After a few shallow panicked gasps for air, he opened his mouth trying to scream, but it was forcefully engulfed by the depraved kiss of the monster that dominated him. He struggled with all his might, but could only feel the rupture of his muscles from his own frantic, mad convulsions as tears flooded his wide blue eyes. Then came the maddening agony. He felt sharp teeth sinking into his tongue, grinding the muscle apart little by little like a knife through a cheap piece of overcooked meat. He couldn’t call out, couldn’t trash in pain. He wanted to die, right this second, before having to feel any more of this. Hot blood started to fill his mouth, burning his throat as he tried to breathe. He was painfully drowning in his own blood. And in his mind, he pleaded for it to all end. Loading gear into their RV, Terrant froze. Maseo as well. “What is it?” Gwen asked, worried. The boys clearly sensed the physical attack. “Blood,” Maseo answered her, eyes narrowing. “I can hear the struggle,” she said after sharpening her attention in the direction they were both looking. Her eyes focused on something her companions couldn’t see, and then her expression turned to one of heartbreak. She bit her lower lip and took off running. “Gwen… wait!” Terrant shouted after her as he and Maseo left the gear and made chase. She moved faster than her bandmates, which was in itself no small feat, and found three vampires attacking the pretty man from the bar. He was in complete misery, moments from death, and there was blood everywhere. Without thinking twice, she dropped her hands to her sides and then opened her palms to the three vampires. Rays like bright, golden bullets streamed from fingertips, showering into their skin. It wasn’t real sunlight, but the sting was more than enough to get their undivided attention. In a panic, they sprung up from their prey and raced off down the alley. Gwen dropped down to her knees into the puddle of Michael’s blood, unphased as it splashed onto her dress and slicked her perfect skin. Cradling his head in her arms, her kind, green eyes fixated on his, trying to force a calming magic into him. He was so terrified and in shock. Tears streamed down his already wet face, mixing with the blood that was still pumping up from his mouth as he tried to breath through it. There was no way he was going to make it. “You have to save him,” Gwen spoke to Maseo who had just appeared behind her. When she turned her head and looked up at Terrant, her green eyes burned assertively. “Terrant. Get them.” Terrant glanced at Maseo, who nodded in approval and then charged off down the alley after the vampires. “Maseo, please,” Gwen’s eyes softened as she begged. “I will take care of him, I promise, just don’t let him die. He’s too pretty and rare.” Maseo knelt down and placed his hand on Michael’s chin, turning his head from the left to the right as he looked him over. The man was still sobbing uncontrollably, losing blood by the second. If Maseo hadn’t been a vampire of the old blood, he would have felt tempted to partake, but unlike most of his kind, he had control over his need. Opening Michael’s mouth, he quickly realized what they had done. They had bitten off most of his tongue. He would certainly bleed to death if nothing was done. Maseo hadn’t turned anyone before. He was against that sort of thing. His strong blood would allow this new vampire the perk of not needing to feed very often, and their lifestyle would definitely make the adjustment easy, increasing his chances of survival, but that would mean another companion, and they didn’t even know who this guy was. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Gwen,” Maseo protested. “We know nothing about this guy. I refuse.” “Maseo,” Gwen narrowed her eyes commandingly, “I invoke my right of primogeniture. You will do it.” Maseo shuddered. She’d never invoked her birthright before. When he was entrusted to watch over the hypersensitive fae by her own people, he was specifically instructed to accommodate any requests long as they didn’t break any laws, human or otherwise. But this… this was unexpected and went against his principles. Although she was his friend, and he trusted her, she was still fae, which meant he needed to be careful with who would be responsible for this stray pup. “Give me your word that you will care for him throughout his days, Gwen,” Maseo demanded. “He will NOT be my burden. Ever.” “You have my word Maseo,” she responded. “I absolve you of all responsibility. Any judgment and all hardships of this decision will be mine alone to bear.” “Even when it comes to my clan?” Maseo narrowed his eyes, reminding her. “He will carry the blood of my clan and therefore will be of my clan, as well as your House.” Gwen nodded. “Fine then,” Maseo sighed, surrendering. “Let’s get this over with.” Maseo rolled up the sleeve on his red flannel shirt and used the thumbnail on his opposite hand to make a two-inch slice into his forearm. As the blood beaded upon his skin, he had Gwen turn Michael’s head to the side causing the blood Michael had collected in his mouth to spill out all over the fabric of Gwen’s skirt. Righting his head again, Maseo laid his forearm against Michael’s mouth and let his own blood drip in. Blood to blood was required for this to work. Normally it would be done via a transfusion and not in this crude, barbaric fashion, but Maseo was certain that the large wound on what remained of Michael’s tongue would suffice, and time was of the essence. Michael was still gasping for breath, swallowing the vampire’s blood without realizing it. The burning was stronger at first, and he thrashed his feet around from the fire in his throat, but then it started to sooth the torment. He felt his eyelids grow heavy from exhaustion as the pain faded slowly away from his entire body. He felt light. Was this death? He was sleepy. The last thing he remembered was seeing the face of an angel. “There,” Maseo said standing up. “He’ll be asleep for a while now while his body adapts.” “Thank you,” Gwen said looking up at him with tears in her eyes. “I will never forget this debt.” “You don’t even know this guy,” Maseo scolded, but his voice was softer than before. “I’m not sure why you even requested this. He’s a complete stranger.” “He’s rare, Maseo,” she said, trying to elaborate. “I am not sure how to explain it to someone like you, but I will try. His heart dances like a twinkling star. It pulses like the energy our music makes. He is like a sparkling gemstone that…” “Enough, I get it,” Maseo chuckled, raising his hand to make her stop. “You like him a lot. Although I don’t know how much he’s going to twinkle for you now that he’s died. “It doesn’t matter. He is mine. I made a promise.” Just then Terrant returned back to them. He stopped a few feet from where Gwen sat on the ground, Michael’s head still in her lap. Crossing his strong arms, he slowly approached. “Gwen, what did you do?” he asked as if catching a child who had just broken something expensive. “Me? Why do you assume it’s me?” “Because I’m sure Maseo didn’t suddenly want a new drinking buddy.” “What’s done is done,” Maseo interrupted. “Let’s take the koinu inside.” “Koinu?” Terrant asked. “It means puppy,” Maseo explained. Terrant lifted Michael easily, tossing him over his shoulder and they walked to the RV. “They were young ones,” Terrant revealed under his breath to Maseo and Gwen as they walked back to their transportation. “Confessed to doing this trick countless times to humans they considered trash that no one would miss. I got the names of their makers, then I killed them. Oh, and I also painted the Mark of Culling in their blood on the wall near their bodies. Let their sires clean up the mess. Assholes.” Maseo nodded approvingly as they unlocked the RV and stepped inside. Terrant carried Michael’s unconscious body to the very back and laid him down on the queen-size bed, while Maseo went to the fridge and removed a black beer bottle that disguised the blood inside. Twisting the cap off, he guzzled down the whole bottle within seconds as Gwen took the seat across from him. “Are you okay?” she asked sincerely, her voice merely a whisper while placing her small pale hand on the same arm where he’d cut himself. The wound was already mostly healed. Leaning his head back against the leather seat, he blindly set the bottle on the nearby table. “I’ll be fine,” he answered breathlessly. “It just took more out of me than I was expecting.” Walking past them, Terrant took his seat in front of the wheel and started the engine. After a few moments of letting the RV warm up a bit, it rolled out of the bar’s parking lot and headed for the highway. “You should get some sleep though,” Maseo recommended. “It’s a bit of a drive to the next gig and we’ve got about four hours until daylight.” “Okay,” Gwen replied, standing and making her way to the back where Michael slept. “Wake me when you need me to take over.” Saying nothing in response, Maseo just waved her off and closed his eyes. He was tired, and only had one question on his mind. What have I just done?
Chapter Twenty-one Neverland “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.
Chapter Twenty-one Neverland “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. “Yes, m’lady.” 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.” “How so?” 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. “Marvelous!” 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.” Four. 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. Madeline nodded. 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.
Chapter Twenty In the Dark Madeline stood in the elevator, staring uneasily at the panel of buttons before her. There was only one button she wanted to press, but her hand hung frozen, poised in mid-air as an unknown external force acted against her. Dressed in the only outfit she’d brought with her that could pass for a party, a classic little black dress, Madeline kept her makeup and hairstyle simple despite dropping her mascara brush into the bathroom sink and smearing a Sumi-e streak across the white porcelain. She’d cleaned it up and soldiered bravely on, but the unexplainable tremors and feeling out-of-sorts were not subsiding. Pressing the Club Level button which would bring her into the bowels of Taro’s building, Madeline felt its cool surface sink beneath the weight of her index finger. It wasn’t the floor she wanted, she wanted the Lobby, but every time she reached for it, a sense of doom rained down upon her so heavily that it nearly buckled her knees. And the more she struggled to gain control of her motor skills, the more dreadful the feeling became. Not giving up, another attempt caused the foreboding discomfort to twist into a piercing, skull-splitting pain. Gritting her teeth and pushing through the agony, tears began to blur her vision. Madeline’s trembling fingertip inched closer, now fighting a sensation akin to magnetic repulsion. With all the strength she had left, her final, desperate push managed to activate the Lobby button moments before the elevator would have passed the floor by. But when the doors slid open, she could not bring herself to move forward. Not a single step. And she did try, but the sense of panic was debilitating. It constricted around her chest, and her skin grew cold and clammy. Pressing the Lobby button had been exhausting, leaving her powerless to fight against whatever force was imposing its will on her right now. Also, she couldn’t fathom why she had even considered staying here, thinking Gideon could protect her and make her well again. Something had influenced her mind, and now her body, as if the goal was to keep her in this building. She had to escape. Her eyes darted frantically around the lobby, urgently seeking Cameron in the hopes he was coming for her as he said he would be, but only the concierge and a couple of security guards stood by. No one else was in sight. As the doors slowly joined together and the elevator continued its descent, the horrible attack ceased. Madeline cursed under her breath. When next the elevator doors opened, Madeline was immediately inundated with the rich, bassy music of the nightclub. The lighting was annoyingly dim, especially over the dancefloor in the center, brightening only slightly at the seating areas that lined the perimeter. Thankfully the place was already packed, making it easy for her to blend in. Scanning the dessert table and what decorative displays she could see through the bodies of guests, the redhead concluded the strange and dangerous flowers had been removed. She spotted Gideon conversing cheerfully in a corner booth large enough to seat half a dozen people. Taro was there, as well as another man and woman she didn’t recognize. Madeline wanted to avoid joining them, waiting for a moment when Gideon appeared too busy to concern himself with her so she could briefly show him she was fine and excuse herself from the premises. “Good to see you are feeling better, Miss Madeline,” Takeshi greeted her from behind. “Gideon has been waiting for you. This way please.” Fuck my luck today. Faking a pleasant smile, Madeline let herself be guided to their table, unhappily taking a seat next to Gideon while feigning enjoyment. “You look spectacular, my dear,” Gideon beamed, bright blue eyes sweeping over her before turning his attention back to his guests and rejoining their conversation. There was something different about him tonight. His elegant composure was sprinkled with a dusting of innocent flirtation. It could have been the club atmosphere playing tricks on her mind, but Madeline swore she caught him stealing glances at her throughout the business discussion rotating around the table. She tried to follow the flow of the conversation, but quickly realized she had nothing to offer. “Good to see you are doing well,” Taro’s voice broke through the chatter around her, his lips curved into a pleasant smile. Mind flashing back to the night she almost kissed him, Madeline struggled to keep her urges from resurfacing. She was helped, unexpectedly, by another episode which prompted her to hyper-focus on the sensations rolling across her body. It was shorter in duration than the others, causing the music to seemingly decelerate for a few seconds, buying her a desperately needed moment of clarity. “Restrooms?” she asked hopefully. She needed to distance herself and find a place where she could think straight. “Of course, dear,” Gideon answered graciously. “Toward the entrance, to the left of the bar.” “Thank you,” she smiled as she scooted away from his side, straightening out the hem of her dress as she stood. “Be right back.” How the hell did I manage to get myself into this situation? Madeline complained under her breath as she weaved through the socializers. Halfway to the ladies room, Madeline felt another episode. The onset, so soon since the last one, caught her off guard, and the thought of getting to the point where she would be inundated continuously was truly frightening. Again, her skin tingled in waves, but when she looked down at her arms, she saw nothing. And each time the sensation surfaced, Madeline found it increasingly harder to move until the foreign phenomenon passed. Once it subsided, she slowly lowered her arms to her sides, briefly balling her hands into fists to steady her frustration. Letting out slow controlled breaths, Madeline relaxed and uncurled her fingers. At that moment, something brushed across her palm, tugging her hand up and forward as if urging her to resume her path towards the hallway. Madeline’s blue gaze jumped from figure to figure, looking for the culprit, and came to rest on the back of a man walking away from her. Shoulder-length, layered black hair. Lean physique. Hips swaying ever so seductively as he disappeared down the same hall she’d been heading for... The likeness was uncanny. Careful not to betray the possibility with hurried steps, Madeline followed the man, who was now about ten feet ahead of her, down the hallway. His long strides took him past both the Men's and Women's rooms to the end of the corridor where a door, painted the same crimson color as the walls, was almost undetectable in the low light. As the stranger opened it with his left hand, he reached back toward Madeline with his right, never once looking over his shoulder. Tentatively, she slipped her hand into his and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. "Why didn’t you answer my texts?" an all too familiar voice whispered questioningly in the darkness. Madeline couldn't bring herself to utter a word. It sounded like Levi, but the alluring sandalwood that captivated her whenever he was near was absent. And being this close to him, she should be able to detect it without a doubt. Her hands fumbled around the door frame from which she entered. There had to be a light switch. She had to be sure. Before Madeline’s fingertips could locate the switchplate, they were pulled away and held captive. The sudden electric glow of a cell phone screen bathed the supply closet in enough light to make his features clear. “Is it really you?” she asked quietly. Wearing a heather-gray shirt of thin, draped fabric paired with lightweight black trousers of the ripped-yet-expensive variety, Levi looked down at her through brown contact lenses. “We don’t have time for this,” he replied impatiently, running a hand through his black hair. “Look, you once went by the name Emily, you’re one of the few girls I know that hasn’t slept with Caslon, and you have a very peculiar taste in handheld video games.” “I never got any texts,” Madeline whispered, convinced. “I thought you deleted yourself from my phone.” “Why would I do that?” he asked, voice raw as if wounded. Taking a deep breath, Levi placed his palms lightly on Madeline’s shoulders, looking unwaveringly into her stormy blue eyes. “I came here to tell you to leave the building. Cameron tried to get to you earlier but failed. As it is, I have to suppress my scent to avoid unwanted attention. It’s not an easy thing to do, so you need to leave now.” Leaving now was an understatement. Levi wasn’t sure what Gideon was up to, but Cameron’s intel was right. Something was wrong with Madeline. She still had the same beautiful scent about her, but there was what appeared to be a thin film of magic encasing her body. Actual magic. He wasn’t sure what the underlying cause was but didn’t want her in the vicinity of Gideon right now. Thankfully, he didn’t believe there was anyone else in the building capable of seeing magic, but having her out in public while he figured this out was a huge risk. "I should never have let it get this far," he mumbled. Assessing the immediate area, Levi strained his senses while struggling to keep himself hidden. Filtering out the electronic dance music, the only footsteps he could hear where going in and out of the restrooms; no one heading in their direction. And although the whole place reeked of rot to his sensitive nose, there were no vampires in the immediate proximity. Much to Madeline's surprise, Levi suddenly pulled her intimately against his chest. Head resting partly on the softly draped chenille of his shirt, and partly on the warm bare skin of his collarbone, Madeline's heart began to race. Still, after all this time, he affected her exactly the same. "You need to leave Japan and get back to the states," he whispered tenderly. "This is one time I can't take you by force. Believe me; if I could, we wouldn't be having this conversation." Sensing something change in the pressure around her body, Levi released Madeline and took a step back, observing as the film he noticed early thickened and began to seep, forcing energy out of her pores before tapering off as if someone closed a faucet. And from the look on her face, the process was terrifying her. “I see it,” he comforted. “It looks like your body is filling up with magic from the inside, and when it can’t contain anymore, it spills out through your skin. That’s probably when you feel strange. Like just now.” Finally. Somebody finally understood what was going on, and that somebody was Levi. Embracing him tightly, Madeline began to sob. “You need to stop crying,” he warned as he gently stroked her long auburn hair, fingers losing themselves in her curls. “If my concentration falters, they’ll find us in a matter of seconds.” Establishing some remnant of strength, Madeline inhaled sharply to stop the flow of tears. "When we get somewhere safe we need to have a long talk," he added softly. Suddenly, Levi backed away from Madeline and placed his hand on the doorknob. “Someone’s coming,” he warned, sniffing the air. Confusion spread across Levi’s face. “Gwen?” Tucking his cell phone back into his front pocket, Levi opened the door cautiously. He wasn't sure what was going on, but it was indeed Gwen approaching, along with a very tall, hooded fae that was obviously only here for muscle. Were fae to blame for Madeline’s current state? "Good evening, Levi," Gwen greeted quietly as she came into view, while the intimidating fae at her side remained silent. "You can leave Madeline in our care. We’ll get her out of the building carefully and quickly; I give you my word." As Gwen gestured for Madeline to come forward out of the supply closet, Levi noticed her index finger was adorned with a pair of silvery-gold leaves twisting around a circular emerald. He knew this emblem, though he’d never seen it on Gwen's finger before. Perhaps it was like his gate key, in that she only wore it when she felt the need to either impress or threaten. "Can you bring her to the Granbell?" he asked hopefully. “Please?” Gwen smiled wildly, eyes sparkling, and nodded. It greatly amused her to see Levi so openly worried about Madeline’s safety. “Thank you,” Levi whispered before turning to Madeline. "Please wait for me there." Gazing at Madeline with uncharacteristic affection, Levi squeezed her hand once then let it go, disappearing down the corridor into the darkness. Gwen approached Madeline with a misplaced sense of excitement, sweet blond ringlets bouncing as she placed a light jacket over the redhead's shoulders. Madeline didn’t understand any of this. Why was Gwen, of all people, here? "I can tell by your quizzical look that you believe there has been a mistake in my presence here," Gwen beamed brightly as she linked her arm with Madeline’s and the pair walked back in the direction of the dancefloor, bodyguard in tow. Madeline nodded, dumbfounded. "Just you wait! It gets better!" The blond fae was grinning from ear to ear, frighteningly innocent, leaving Madeline to wonder if better meant safer, or crazier. Approaching the corner table where Gideon and his crew sat, Madeline felt nervous once again. Not because she was that afraid of them, but because she was now with Gwen and didn’t know what to expect. Guest parted in front of the trio, noticeably shocked and a bit frightened. "Greetings from House Floradorei!" Gwen bubbled happily at Taro, giving him a little wave. "Ah, Genevieve," Taro smiled. "It is good to see you. Still traipsing around with my little brother?" "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," she said, curtsying before clearing her throat to prepare her declaration. "I am here on official business." "Business is very unlike you," Taro frowned. "What is this business about?" Madeline could tell Gideon and Taro already knew what this was all about, and they weren’t too happy about it. "This child, sir," Genevieve began, indicating Madeline with a sweep of her hand. "I understand she was under your protection, and we thank you sir, but we have come to gather her now." "You've come to gather her? That almost makes it sound like she is kin." "Yes, sir. It does sound that way. Thank you, sir." “But she was enjoying herself so much,” Gideon interjected, and then directed his attention to Madeline. “Do promise us you’ll come back?” Just as Madeline inhaled to provide a reply, Gwen’s hand clamped down over the redhead’s mouth and prevented her from speaking. “Regrettably, she won’t be returning to the party,” Gwen replied in Madeline’s stead. Without giving the pleasure of a goodbye, Gwen curtsied and swung around, pulling Madeline with her, the bodyguard following behind them both. Passing through the crowd, no one made a move to stop them from getting into the elevator. They couldn't. It was yet another rule of the otherworld. If fae comes to call, you let them take who they want. To question validity would be an insult, and no one wants to piss off the fae. As the elevator ascended to the floor where Madeline’s guestroom was, the redhead could be silent no longer. “It is so good to see you,” she told Gwen, feeling the weight of her dilemma lifting away. “Where're the guys?” “I came here on my own,” Gwen mused, her voice light and melodic. “I needed to rescue you because the cat and the dog couldn’t. The vampires won’t try any more of their tricks on you because I’m here now, but even so, you need to be swift in getting your things because not only is Gideon dangerous, he’s also a very quick thinker.” As she waited for the elevator to make its floor, Madeline’s eyes turned from her bubbly friend to the gentleman beside her. Easily over six feet tall, the way his hooded jacket was pulled taut around his biceps and shoulders made clear the muscles he possessed underneath. There was something peculiar about him though. Although the fur trimming on the hood and the downward position of his head blocked a view of his face, this stranger felt familiar to her though she couldn’t figure out why. Looking down at their feet, Madeline realized she was standing much closer to him than she should have been comfortable with. In fact, she somehow felt safer next to him than Gwen. Narrowing her blue eyes, she spoke directly to the fae bodyguard. “Do I know you?” The bodyguard brought his head sharply down, chin to chest, and said not a word, just as the elevator floated to a halt. “Ah, here we are!” Gwen chimed in. “No time to waste.” Rushing out of the elevator, Madeline hurried into her room, grabbed her small suitcase by the handle and high-tailed it back to Gwen. As the elevator approached the lobby, Madeline realized she hadn't checked to see if she’d left anything behind, or even if her suitcase was still intact. At this point, there wasn’t much they could have taken that couldn’t be easily replaced. She’d know immediately if they took the strip of trackers out, and if so, she’d deactivate them, and she had kept her passport, credit cards, and phone with her in her purse. Before the doors opened, Gwen started humming a whimsical tune, child-like smile on her lips as she rocked back and forth on her heels. “I bet right now Gideon is trying to think of a way to stop us,” Gwen smirked, “But he won’t succeed. He simply doesn’t have enough time.” With a gentle ding, the doors opened to the lobby causing Madeline to cringe. She was expecting the same ominous feeling to assault her, but it was absent this time. “You better put that jacket on,” Gwen pointed to indicate the one still resting on Madeline’s shoulders. “It’s chilly outside.” Walking through the lobby under the watchful stares of the guards filled Madeline with such relief that she couldn’t stop her smile from spreading. A few seconds later, and she was safely outside. Madeline could remember only one other time where the cold night air felt as welcoming. As the tension began to drain from her muscles, Madeline noticed Cameron across the street, approaching them with considerable speed, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. As he marched up to the trio, heavy footsteps betraying his outwardly calm demeanor, it wasn’t the bodyguard, but Gwen that blocked his path to Madeline. She placed her small hand lightly on the side of Cameron’s cheek, bring him to a screeching halt. Who the hell is this girl?! Cameron thought, wide-eyed. Her touch forced him to an alert state of passiveness like the snap of a finger. And although he didn’t know her, he could not bring himself to have even the slightest ounce of animosity towards her. “My, my,” Gwen whispered, her voice suddenly dropping to an uncharacteristic iciness as her fingertips stroked Cameron's face, “What a majestic hound we have here.” Cameron struggled to put up any form of resistance, but could not. “So strong. So loyal. You must be Cameron McCaffery.” “What are you doing to him?” Madeline asked stepping forward, openly worried by the change in Gwen’s composure. She’d never seen Gwen act like this before, and the command she had over Cameron was both frightening and absolute. She was admiring him, yet dominating him with a mere stare. Is this why fae were so feared? Releasing her hand, she bounced back to her usual bubbly self. “I was just evaluating him,” she replied as if it were no big deal. “He is beautifully raw, not shiny like my Michael.” “Um, still standing here,” Cameron quipped, regaining the willpower to transform back into his usual curt self. “Not sure who you are, but thanks for getting her out of there. I’ll take it from here.” “Sorry, but she’s already been promised to someone that outranks you,” Gwen said taking Madeline’s free hand. “I’ll be sure to have her call you when she gets there.” Cameron was getting agitated, but one look from Gwen shut him down. “She will be safe. You have my word.” Cameron took a step back, nodded his head, then mouthed the words call me to Madeline before turning and leaving the trio. Hailing a taxi, Gwen slid into the backseat first, leaving Madeline to be sandwiched between her and the bodyguard. Speaking in perfect Japanese, Gwen directed the driver to the Granbell Hotel. As the car pulled up out front, only Gwen got out to walk Madeline to the entrance after the driver retrieved her suitcase from the trunk. “Don’t worry about what’s going on, little hu… I mean Madeline,” Gwen whispered before giving the redhead a hug and a kiss on each cheek. “Over the next few days, things will clear.” Reaching into her pocket, Gwen handed Madeline what appeared to be a business card printed on fancy parchment paper that felt warm to the touch. It contained the word Neverland and a street address. “You must go there as soon as you can,” Gwen said as she planted another sweet kiss on Madeline’s cheek. “You can bring Levi if you want, but understand that you will be responsible for him while you’re there. Bye-bye!” And with that, Madeline found herself standing alone in front of the Granbell Hotel in the middle of a cold, February night. She had so many unanswered questions. Of course, it was commonplace for her to have lots of questions, but in the whirlwind of the past thirty minutes she could have written down a few pages worth. Stepping through the hotel’s revolving glass door, Madeline entered the lobby. As she rolled her suitcase towards the white marble reservation desk, she felt footsteps approaching from behind that matched her pace. From years of training, she immediately knew who they belonged to, and felt her remaining stress dissipate. He’d changed clothes since she’d last seen him at Gideon’s party, and was now dressed in a comfortable pair of jeans and a brightly graphic shirt mostly hidden beneath an oversized black hoodie. “I’ve got a suite here,” Levi indicated, keeping his voice low and his hands in his pockets. “Come on.” Silently, she followed him into the elevator, both of them instinctively keeping their backs to the security cameras. As they ascended, neither said a word, which was a difficult task for her considering the circumstances. Coming to a smooth stop on the 14th floor, the doors opened with a pleasant ding. Stepping out ahead of her, Levi walked past a handful of rooms before removing a key card from his front pocket and swiping it through the magnetic lock on his door. With a green light and a click, he rotated the brushed nickel handle and pushed the door open. Flipping on a light switch, Levi illuminated the small foyer with subtle, warm light, allowing Madeline a glimpse of a narrow, wooden credenza at the far end next to the archway on the right which opened up to the rest of the suite. Stopping briefly to change into a pair of slippers, Levi waited for Madeline to do the same before entering into the main room. The whole west wall was nothing but plate glass windows, giving the most stunning floor-to-ceiling view of Shinjuku. Against the opposite wall, facing the landscape, was a king-sized bed, and at the far end of the room was a full bath separated from an outdoor spa and the rest of the suite by frameless glass walls. The extravagance left her speechless. “It’s safe for us to talk here,” Levi said, voice still a whisper as he took a seat at the small, round table, inviting Madeline to join him. To be honest, she was nervous he didn’t turn on any other lights in the room, leaving the glow of the city the only illumination. Cautiously, she rolled her small suitcase to the side of the bed before taking a seat at the table across from Levi all the while doing her best to ignore the dizzying height. Removing the business card from her pocket, Madeline slid it across the table, presenting it to him. “Gwen gave me this. Told me to go to this place as soon as possible. I really wanted to leave Taro’s building but I couldn’t. It was weird. Even the words coming out of my mouth any time I wanted to talk about leaving were different than what I wanted to say.” Levi picked the card up with his long fingers, flipping it over to read the address as he carefully listened to the flurry of information Madeline was recapping to him; from her frightening experience at Aokigahara, to the wealth of information in Taro’s library, and also her lunch with Gideon and the subsequent inability to follow her own will. He’d never heard of Neverland but suspected there was a reason for that, considering his growing suspicion that the fae were behind Madeline’s sudden ailment. “I’m not sure what could have prevented you from leaving, but we should go to this place tomorrow,” Levi advised. “I have a hunch we’ll get all the answers we need there, but first, we need to talk. In the past, I’ve made you play games for answers. But not today. I’m prepared to answer everything I can. No tricks. No half-truths.” Taking an audibly deep breath, Madeline could feel her nerves start to work their way into butterflies. She never imagined she’d get a chance like this, at such an unexpected moment. And as uncomfortable as it was going to be, this was the best opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, to get the truth. If only she wasn’t so afraid of pushing him away with questions now that he was back in her life. No turning back now, she thought to herself, feeling as if she were about to jump into a body of water without knowing the temperature nor the depth. “Did you really kill all those people? The merchant’s family in Cairo? The bride? The scholar in front of her students?” Searching for an emotional response in his emerald eyes, Madeline could tell her questions dusted off painful memories. “No, I did not,” he answered softly. “Did you actually believe in your heart I could ever do any of those things?” He had every right to ask that of her, and she wrung her hands in guilt under the table for believing, even for a second, that he was capable of such atrocities. Still, she felt the need to defend her inquiry. “I was shocked to read all those stories,” Madeline admitted, “It didn’t make sense at first. But after I read about bastets, and remembered how the twins were terrified of you, and how Cameron considered you a monster, I began to see the possibility. Especially because I’m human and easy to trick.” Levi leaned his elbows on the table, resting his head in his hands as he looked down, defeated. “What if I told you I wasn’t a bastet,” he mumbled, still staring down at the smooth, wooden tabletop. “Or even felinae?” “Eh?” “It’s a long, complicated story, but I need your full trust back quickly,” he continued, “And we need to be able to move forward, so here it goes...” Raising his head, Levi lowered his arms, interlacing his fingers as his hands rested on the table. “I want you to understand that anything I omit is only because it’s too dangerous for you to know, not that I don’t trust you with the knowledge,” he began. Removing her hands from under the table, Madeline placed them over Levi’s, nodding. She’d grown accustomed to how need-to-know information worked. “I was found next to the body of my oldest brother, with his blood on my hands and no recollection of what had happened. Naturally, I was blamed, which led to my exile. I wandered for many years, ending up in Cairo around the 16th century. That’s where I met the real Leviticus, and yes, he was just as barbaric as you’ve read. I bore a striking resemblance to him, which he took advantage of immediately. In a short period, he taught me to be him, and since I needed a new identity in order to leave my past behind, I embraced his offer. What I didn’t realize was that someone wasn’t happy with me simply being exiled, so they sent assassins after me. During a job where Leviticus and I switched identities, he was killed in my stead. I made a decision that night. I would become Leviticus from that point forward, forever burying who I was so that whoever thought they had killed me would be satisfied and never go looking for me again. I perfected being felinae; having a felinae’s scent, shape-shifting into the varying degrees of a cat, even all the mannerisms and instincts. I’ve been Leviticus for so long that I’m not sure I remember what being me even feels like.” For a few seconds, Madeline forgot to breathe. “The number of enemies Leviticus made before I came across him was staggering, and they continue to be very deeply seeded into current day descendants. That doesn’t even account for the enemies I’ve made since I became him, so you can imagine why I never allowed myself to get involved with anyone who didn’t have the strength to hold their own against my enemies.” He paused for a moment, struggling to organize his next thoughts. He wasn’t sure why the near darkness helped ease his nerves. Perhaps he felt the shadows gave him somewhere to hide. Slipping his hands out from under hers, Levi caressed Madeline’s fingers and found the words to continue. “But you… you somehow reached a part of me I thought I’d killed off. I actually used my own ki, something I’d only used on one other occasion since I was exiled, to heal the broken ribs Scott gave you. And that morning, after I healed you just enough so your injuries wouldn’t be suspicious, I wanted to just hold you. When I realized why that was, I left. I didn’t want someone going after you because of me. Maseo… Caslon... all of them can take care of themselves, but not you. And because of my feelings, you would have been put in the most precarious position of them all.” For a long while, no more words were spoken. Madeline was processing Levi’s confession, feeling the warmth of his hands as they held hers, and listening to each breath he took. Levi, on the other hand, had turned his gaze to the window, his mind processing a thousand scenarios. If she reciprocated his feelings, which he believed she would, he would be bound to her over time, and once her short human life passed him by, that would be it. He would take no other mate. He had tried to fight these feelings, tried to convince himself over and over again that this was not a good match for either of them, but it was a useless battle. The only way he could be free of these feelings now would be if she rejected him. Madeline’s whisper interrupted his deep thoughts. “I missed you.” Looking back at her, he was caught unexpectedly by the shimmer of tears in her blue eyes, twinkling from the city lights. He rose from the table the moment she did, springing into each other’s arms. She was crying again, only tears which didn’t have the same effect as those born of misery. “I missed you too,” he whispered into her ear as they embraced. Burrowing into the crook of his neck, Madeline wrapped her arms around Levi’s waist and lost herself in the curves of his muscles and the familiar scent of his skin. She pressed herself firmly against him, something she never dared to do before. Being wrapped in his arms was just as heavenly as she imagined. Warm. Safe. After a few more minutes passed, Levi slowly released her. “I bought you some clothes,” he said, voice low and husky. “I wasn’t sure what you’d have with you. There’s also some sushi in the fridge in case you’re hungry.” “Thanks,” Madeline replied with a sniffle. Letting her arms regretfully slip from Levi’s body, Madeline turned around, spotting a couple of boutique bags on the floor next to the dresser. Rustling through the tissue paper, she found a thigh-length, powder blue sweater-dress, a pair of black leggings, and an incredibly soft set of pajamas. The trials of the day had been exhausting, and she was all set to settle in for the night. Ducking into the bathroom, Madeline quickly realized that except for the main foyer and the area around the toilet, all the walls were glass, providing zero privacy. Given as tired as she was, she only took that into consideration briefly before stripping down and out of her nightclub dress, and into the fresh comfort of the cotton-soft pajama shirt and shorts provided by Levi. Sure, she had nightclothes of her own packed away in the carry-on, but there was something magical about sleeping in a pair of pajamas given to you by the person you loved. Walking back out towards the bed, Levi had likewise changed into a pair of charcoal-colored, drawstring pajama pants and a white t-shirt. He’d been leaning over her suitcase, running his fingers over the surface to eliminate the possibility that Gideon or Taro placed a tracker on it. The frequency detector he was running hadn’t picked up anything since she rolled it into the room, but he wanted to be thorough to prevent any attempt at a delayed activation. Confident it was secure, he climbed into bed, nothing seductive about his mannerisms. Today had simply been too much. The words that had been spoken were so heavy on the mind that it completely smothered the libido. Pulling back the sheets, he invited Madeline into his arms. Madeline, finally feeling safe after days of being on edge and dealing with the exhausting focus of maintaining her guard, was anticipating the peaceful sleep Levi’s scent was inducing. Or at least she was until she felt the sensation of another episode. She found herself suddenly in an upright position staring out at the city, its sparkle captivating her like the glitter of moonlight across a flowing stream. Levi sensed the change and sat up next to her, pulling her close. “When did this start happening?” he asked from over her shoulder, hoping to gain some insight. “Was it all at once, or has it been a gradual thing?” “This morning,” she replied, forcing her eyes shut until the overwhelming feeling went away. “And it was sudden.” She painstakingly described the markings on the hotel chair and how they vanished. About the shower and the mist. And the flowers. The awful, awful flowers. She also went into more detail about how it felt like her will was being controlled at Taro’s. She’d wanted desperately to leave, to ask for help, but her body wouldn’t comply, and her words became twisted as she spoke them. “What’s happening to me?” she asked after feeling she’d given Levi every detail. “Some sort of fae magic would be my best guess,” Levi assured, getting comfortable as he continued to cradle Madeline from behind. “But try to clear your mind of worries. You are safe with me, and tonight we’re both going to rest. No alarms. We sleep in as long as we want.” Her body suddenly went rigid. “Oh shit, I forgot to call Cameron!” She sprung from the bed and began fumbling through her purse in the darkness, searching for her phone. No sooner did she bring it to her ear did Levi appear, in a silent blur of movement akin to materializing out of thin air. His long fingers were already wrapped around her hand, lowering it and the phone she held. “I got you a new phone,” he revealed, offering the sleek black device to her. “I suspect your old one’s been compromised, meaning they have been monitoring your calls. We’ll keep it around in case we need to draw them out somewhere, but don’t use it again for anything else, okay?” Nodding, Madeline took a seat back on the edge of the bed and copied Cameron’s number into her new phone’s directory. She also checked her text messages. Everything from Levi was intact since the last time she’d taken a look at them. All her other contacts were there as well, and, of course, her grandmother’s voicemails. If Levi was anything, it was meticulous. Dialing Cameron’s number, she pulled her new phone to her ear. “Cameron? Yeah, it’s me. I’m safe.” Levi could hear the mutt yelling on the other end. “Calm the fuck down for just a minute,” Madeline replied to the outburst, causing a satisfied grin to spread across Levi’s face. How he missed that potty mouth. “That was my friend Gwen. She’s fae. Well, she apparently knows how to shut you up.” More yelling exploded on Cameron’s end. “Look, I know you’re mad, and I don’t blame you, But I wasn’t able to leave, and I couldn’t say what was on my mind, but I am fine now. I’m with Levi.” Madeline had to pull her ear away at the volume of Cameron blowing up. “Hang up and come back to bed,” Levi purred loud enough for Cameron to hear. Lowering the phone down to her waist, Madeline shot Levi a look. “You’re not helping things,” she glared. Levi just smiled devilishly. Bringing the phone back up to her ear, she caught the tail-end of Cameron asking her if she was out of her mind spending the night with Levi. “I’m fine now, really I am,” Madeline responded. “There’s someplace I have to go tomorrow, but then we can meet up somewhere. I feel awful about missing the onsen. You too. Goodnight.” Immediately, Levi wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close once more. She let herself drown in the warmth of his body and the rise and fall of his chest against her back. For a long time, Madeline blissfully relished in the warmth, the dark, and the quiet. She would be okay just spending forever like this. Twenty-four hours ago, had someone told her today would end like this, she would have thought they were crazy. Hell, if they would have told her Levi would be back in her life, she wouldn’t have believed that either. Yet here she was, wondering what loving a felinae was going to be like. No. Not felinae. “Hey, Levi?” “Mmm…?” “If you’re not bastet or felinae, what are you?” Madeline asked quietly. He didn’t answer right away, which made her immediately regret asking. She imagined it would be difficult to tell someone a secret you’ve spent centuries hiding. Something you dared not utter for fear of putting others in danger. After a minute or so, Madeline felt the tickle of his breath on her ear as he leaned his head in closer to her's, whispering a single word so quietly that Madeline had to strain to hear it. Her eyes widened. Everything made sense now, from his lack of shedding hair to his aversion to processed foods and body contaminates. She could not imagine, however, how difficult it was, and how much energy and concentration it took, to suppress being that. To keep it all bottled up in the framework of a felinae. And she couldn’t deny, although in the current situation it was entirely inappropriate, how arousing it was knowing the body that held her was so… “That’s… that’s pretty um… wow...,” she finally managed. After an amused sigh, Levi chuckled.