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  1. Chapter Twenty-two Rise “Well,” Cameron exhaled slowly, stretching his arms above his head, “That explains a lot.” Legs taking up the entire length of the gondola bench on his side, Cameron leaned back against the glass window. He’d listened to both Madeline and Levi explain what they learned from Alesdair and was now processing the information while enjoying the gentle swing of the cabin as it slowly rounded the apex of the Ferris wheel. On the bench across from him, Levi sat properly, arms crossed, studying the wolf’s reaction. Considering how deeply involved the Orimura clan now was in all this, and with Cameron being a formidable descendant, it made perfect sense to recruit him as an ally. Levi had even dressed up for the occasion in a collared, long-sleeved, dress shirt and dark trousers; his way of showing his respect for the seriousness of the alliance he was proposing. Cameron, however, was in his usual jeans and t-shirt despite the chill in the February evening air. And then there was Madeline, bundled up nervously in her winter coat on the floor of the gondola, half-hidden in the shadows created by the colored lightbulbs dotting the Ferris wheel’s frame. The three had met up in a park Southeast of Tokyo, mainly because she felt guilty about the whole onsen fiasco. They visited the aquarium and walked the gardens for a bit before Levi and Cameron decided to take a ride on the monumental Ferris wheel. Madeline protested, but both her companions agreed it was the one place in the park they could talk freely. The ride wasn’t bad at first, but as the distance between the glass-walled cabin and the ground increased, so did her fear of heights. It didn’t take long before she moved to the floor to avoid the view, clean clothes be damned. “But why couldn’t she leave the Tetsugawa building?” Cameron asked. “She made a promise. Simple as that,” Levi replied. “Gideon tricked her into making one the moment he knew the necklace’s enchantment was failing. Fae can’t break their word.” “And he planned on having those flowers at the reception,” Madeline added, voice quieter than usual due to her current mental state. “He must have switched out my necklace before then.” “So he knew she’d be susceptible to being bound by promises because he more or less short-circuited the real opal. He just had to wait for the opportunity,” Cameron explained the situation to himself out loud. Levi nodded. Short-circuited. Madeline dwelled on the phrase for a few moments before coming to a realization. “Guys? I know when Gideon stole it,” she announced looking up at the both of them. “It must have been during the night before I was supposed to go to the onsen. Maybe that red shadowy stain I saw for a moment on the hotel chair was where he was sitting?” Analyzing the facts, Levi tapped his index finger against his lips before speaking once more. “He must have been able to translate the original Fae incantations to know what the necklace’s job was before he would have wasted his time adding his own magic to it in order to produce a copy. And considering how guarded their written languages are...” “Gideon sure does know a lot about the fae,” Cameron added, narrowing his eyes. “Suspicious, don’t you think?” Levi asked. “Definity,” the wolf agreed, “So what’s next?” “We’re going to head back to the states, meet up with Gwen so Madeline can get some guidance,” Levi replied. “I’d appreciate it if you and I could exchange contact information in case this gets bigger.” “Bigger how?” Cameron asked, arching a brow. “So far this involves the Fae, the Orimura clan, the Tetsugawa clan, and Gideon. Call me pessimistic, but I expect there to be more. And while I’m good at staying steps ahead of everyone, I’m not that good,” Levi smirked. “Sure, but I’m not doing it to help you. I’m doing it to protect Madeline,” Cameron stated. “Fair enough.” “I’ll let the pack know what’s going on,” Cameron added. “And I’m sure the Elder will want to be briefed.” As the gondola reached the loading dock with a gentle bump, Madeline rose to her feet immediately ready to leave. It was a relief to be back on the ground, even if the smell of asphalt was awful compared to her non-issue with it days before. “How do you both deal with scents?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. “The pavement is just… nauseating.” “Being born with a strong scent of smell is much different than having it suddenly sprung on you,” Cameron replied, “Although I’m betting certain things bother you more than it does us.” “True,” Levi added, “Man-made things at odds with nature probably smell worse.” As they walked toward Cameron’s motorcycle, Levi pulled out his cellphone to summon a cab back to the hotel. “Promise me you’ll call me when you’re back home safe?” Cameron asked Madeline, worry briefly clouding his eyes. “And if you promise, I know you will for sure, unlike when you forgot after leaving with your friend Gwen.” “I promise,” she responded confidently. “You don’t have to worry.” Glancing from Madeline to Levi, his expression darkened. “I still don’t trust him. So be extra careful, got it?” It saddened her that she couldn’t explain to Cameron why he was so wrong about Levi. History had painted a devious picture of him, and he kept up the charade for good reason. All she could offer Cameron now was a tight-lipped smile and a nod of her head hoping that would lead him to worry less. Seeing her nod in agreement, Cameron flashed a quick, toothy smile before mounting up and roaring off into the night. ------------------------------------------------------------- “How are you doing?” “I’m not sure,” Madeline responded as her blue eyes traced the pattern on the hotel bedspread before meeting Levi’s. “Is that a weird thing to say?” “Considering that up until yesterday you thought you were just human, no. That’s not a strange answer at all.” Sighing deeply, Madeline rose from the bed. It had been a very long day and tomorrow evening they’d board a plane back to Washington. She was feeling more exhausted just thinking about the long flight. “I’m going to take a shower,” she informed, making her way to the bathroom. With so much on her mind, she was oblivious to the clear glass walls, stripping down to nothing before stepping under the showerhead. Twisting the faucet, the warm water cascaded down over her body cleansing away the tension and anxiety of the day. Alesdair told her his line, their line, was water attuned, causing her to briefly wonder if that’s why the water always felt so unusually therapeutic. The more time she passed under the deluge of hot water, the more she felt renewed. Washing her long auburn curls felt like she was cleansing her spirit, ridding herself of negative energies. Lathering some soap in her hands, Madeline closed her eyes and began to gently wash her face, savoring the slow and methodical process. There was a sudden drop in the surrounding air temperature and humidity as the glass door quietly opened and closed. Holding perfectly still, she concentrated on the space behind her. She could sense the heat of a body, a chest rising and falling with relaxed breaths, and the placement of bare feet forcing the stream of water to redirect its path. Only one person could be standing at her back right now, and the single thought of his toned, nude body ignited her desire. “I’ll leave if you want me to,” Levi’s silken voice whispered in Japanese from over her right shoulder. Eyes still closed, she let the soothing sound of his voice resonate, picturing the intimate details of his lean frame only inches behind her. Pulse-pounding in her ears, it would be a lie to say she hadn’t been wanting him. From the first moment she laid eyes on him from her cage in that warehouse, even as he fought, he intrigued her. Bewitched her. She put up with years of his cruel teasing. Almost giving in to the way he toyed with her emotions only to retreat and finish out her fantasies of him all alone. Lips parting to speak, her voice cracked as she uttered only one word. “Stay.” [-NSFW-] ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi strode elegantly through the lobby of Taro’s building. His movements were undetectable even to the experienced security “wolves” who could not even pick up his scent. After making love to Madeline, he had slipped back into his white, collared shirt and black trousers but remained barefoot. Thinly pointed, velvety-black ears tipped in a silvery-teal majestically crowned his tousled black hair, and his slitted emerald eyes momentarily glowed turquoise, a consequence of the power he seethed. He could feel life in the building, from the bodies on each floor to the smallest desk plant. He could also feel the presence of death. It was far above him, which was likely Taro’s personal quarters, and far below, paired with magic. It was the draw of it below him that guided his path. He was looking specifically for where Gideon studied while under Taro’s roof and surmised it would be below-ground since the depths of the earth provided natural protections, especially for those who dealt in magic. It was a hunch, but knowing how Gideon’s copy worked, Levi guessed the original black opal would not have been kept too far from the copy, lest the spell connecting it to the fake be weakened. Heading purposely for the staircases and avoiding the elevators, Levi descended into the bowels of the building at remarkable speed. When he reached the targeted floor, he was met with an electronic lock, interfaced through a numerical keypad and a biometric scanner. Normally amused by such security precautions enough to manually deactivate them, tonight Levi simply placed his hand over the device and tripped the tumblers. He smirked. The door led to a darkened hallway which opened to a single room, void of cameras, which wasn’t surprising. One such as Gideon would not dare allow himself, or his experiments, to be recorded. There were, however, papers and instruments galore. Raking his long, sharp nails slowly along the meticulously scribed notes on Gideon’s writing desk, Levi left a fuse-like trail of thin blue flame which illuminated the dark room and quickly licked the papers to ash. He gave a husky chuckle imagining the look on the master vampire’s face after seeing what had become of his research. And just knowing the mischief he was causing was enough to make the tips of his ebony hair turn a fiery aqua, pricking with delight. Before he gave into the temptation of vaporizing all the books on the shelf as well, a familiar sight caught his attention reminding him of the reason he came. Hanging from a simple wooden stand under a glass dome rested Madeline’s original pendant and chain. The tips of his claws heated to a blueish-white. He circled them around the top of the dome producing an eerie whine akin to rubbing the edge of a glass. In moments, the glass melted, leaving a hole in the dome large enough to reach his hand into. Cautiously, he removed what belonged to Madeline and confidently sauntered out. ------------------------------------------------------------- After what felt like many hours later, Madeline stirred. Eyes still closed, she extended her arm to wrap around Levi’s body, only he wasn’t within reach. She had remembered falling asleep in his embrace, completely spent, but as she opened her heavy eyelids she discovered that not only was he not within reach, he was no longer in bed. And there was a strange light coming from the open-air bath. Sitting up, she grabbed the bathsheet that had been haphazardly strewn on the duvet hours ago and wrapped it around her body. As she approached, Madeline became aware that the light wasn’t coming from any fixture, and it was bobbing oddly in the air. Soaking in the bath was Levi, rolling a golfball-sized flame of blue light back and forth over his knuckles. As Madeline opened the glass door to join him, she noticed he was completely nude. A blush spread over her cheeks. “Still shy after all that?” He whispered teasingly, extinguishing the flame and cloaking himself in shadow. “How did you sleep?” “Great,” Madeline smiled back sheepishly as she sat on the edge of the bath, eagerly dipping her feet into the warm water. “You?” “I didn’t, actually,” he replied, reaching for something in the artificial grass that carpeted the ground around the tub. “But I did put all that energy you gave me to good use…” Extending his hand out to her, Madeline couldn’t believe what rested in his palm. It appeared to be her necklace. The real one. Splashing down into the water next to him, towel and all, Madeline clasped both hands around his. “How did you get this back?!” she asked excitedly. “Gideon had it, didn’t he? How did you know where he was?” “I went back to the Tetsugawa building and tracked it from there, betting that was the only place in Japan Gideon would have kept something that important.” Madeline had so many questions. How did he get past security to wherever Gideon was keeping the necklace? Did he have to suppress his scent again? Did he have to fight anyone? And why was he so eerily calm about it? A throaty chuckle interrupted her thoughts, followed by a sigh as Levi tossed his head back and looked up at the pre-dawn sky. “They’ll notice it’s missing, but they won’t suspect it was I who took it,” he revealed. “I didn’t go as Levi the Thief.” Eyes widening, Madeline was surprised by his abandonment of common sense. “I thought you told me it was imperative we kept you a secret,” she stated, voice dropping to a whisper as she removed the necklace from Levi’s hand and brought it to her chest, fastening it around her neck. “Why did you do that?” Looking at his now empty palm, Levi called forth another ball of flame, this one a bit larger than the previous one. It spun slowly, floating above his hand in a fully controlled rotation. “To be honest, I’m not really sure,” he confessed. “I wanted to? It belonged to you? It sounded like fun? A combination of the three I suppose.” Biting her lower lip, Madeline stared at the sphere as it rolled, flames licking the air. After all the talk about why he was masquerading as a felinae, he just decided to roll out on the town, in Japan no less, as his true self. It was no revelation that her desire was energy to him, but tonight he responded to it differently. It was almost as if he got high. “Are you sure you did the right thing?” She asked nervously. “Is this a momentary lapse of reason?” The cerulean ball of flame vanished into thin air, and shadows once again engulfed them. “I don’t think so. It was more along the lines that I’m out of practice being me,” Levi tried to explain. “Last night sort of... supercharged me. It grabbed Leviticus by the scruff and tossed him aside because he was not allowed there.” Madeline let out a laugh. “What?” Levi asked, arching a brow. “When you think about it, it makes sense, right?” she said as she scooted next to him in the bath, wet towel clinging to her upper body while the lower half floated on the surface. “You impersonated Leviticus. You became this persona that didn’t allow the real you to exist. And since you told me it was you that became attracted to me, not the impersonation, that part of you was being selfish last night.” “Ooo, aren’t we being haughty?” Levi smiled before leaning over and kissing Madeline on the cheek. “I’m being serious,” she pouted. “Your ears last night were not the same ears you showed me at the Halloween party. And I’ve never seen your eyes like that either.” Levi paused. “My eyes? What did they look like?” “Well, they glowed an electric blueish-green and the pupils were slits. Now before you say anything, I know cats pupils take that shape in bright light, but it was dark last night. In all these years, I’ve never seen your eyes do that.” “Those are my real eyes,” Levi whispered, sporting a weak smile, “So I guess you’re right. It seems when I’m under your enchantment there are things I lose control of.” “Well, they are beautiful,” Madeline replied blushing. “Thank you, but don’t expect to see them very often,” Levi warned. Madeline pouted once more. “News of your inheritance has no doubt circulated by now,” Levi began. “Which gives you protection from most of Leviticus’ enemies. However, I still have to keep up the charade of being Levi. And while what I did tonight was a bit impulsive…” The heartbroken expression on Madeline’s face at his words caused him to backpedal immediately. “I’m not referring to that. I’m talking about getting your necklace back,” he said as he flicked her forehead with his finger. “Baka. At the very worst, it made me a brief blip on my family’s radar. Which doesn’t really matter since I’ve planned to go see them soon anyway.” Madeline couldn’t speak. She was only able to stare dumbfounded into Levi’s emerald eyes. They sent someone to kill him and technically succeeded. There was no doubt he was going to be in danger all over again. And though she thought him to be invincible since the moment she first laid eyes on him, this was something that could truly get him killed. Seeing her rising panic, Levi drew Madeline into his arms. “You can’t,” she protested, eyes growing hot with tears as the world around her blurred. “You’ve been gone for so long and I finally get to see you, finally get to love you, and you’re going to leave, and….” “Shhhh,” Levi soothed, stroking her hair. The pain of her sadness wasn’t as bad this time. Perhaps it was the residual strength she’d given him earlier. “I will be fine, really I will. It’s a bit of a different situation now.” “How so?” Madeline sniffled. Levi took a moment to choose his words carefully. If he told her most of his brothers were mysteriously killed off and he was going to investigate, that wouldn’t help matters much. “I’m going to prove I didn’t kill my brother.”
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Chapter Nineteen Unbreakable Promises A hissing alarm clock radio, as if the dial was turned just a bit off-center of the radio frequency, was the first noise Madeline heard the next morning. The tempo of the song playing felt slower than she remembered it to be, but that could have been attributed to her awakening senses as she peeled off the heavy blanket of sleep. Reaching over to the clock, her hand came down too swiftly, slamming heavily against the plastic buttons. What the…? Rolling onto her back, she laid still for a while trying to process her assault on the clock. Although still groggy, she had reacted to the alarm with lightning speed, definitely not the norm for her first waking moments of the day. And for that brief moment, her body felt incredibly light. But now, as she systematically concentrated on each muscle and joint from her toes on up, she felt no different than usual. Maybe the sound of the alarm startled her this morning causing muscle memory training kicked in? Turning her head from the cradling warmth of the downy pillow, Madeline glanced at the clock hoping she didn’t damage it. It looked fine from a distance, but what really caught her eye was the blue glow of LED indicating it was much later than expected. Swinging her legs out of bed, she wriggled her toes against the plush carpet. Today was shaping up to be a lazy one. Since Taro’s place was now off limits, and she’d fulfilled her only contract, playing tourist was the only thing left on her schedule today. After stretching her arms high over her head in an attempt to invigorate herself, she grabbed the remote from the side table and turned to the morning news. The weather wasn’t going to be too bad today. Perfect, in fact, for exploring the city. Reaching instinctively for her cell phone to check for any messages or emails, she saw there was a text from Cameron. Swiping her finger to unlock the screen, she entered her code and tapped on his message. Wanna take a train to an onsen today? Relax before you fly home? If it were anyone other than Cameron asking, a question like that would have come across as an opportunity for intimacy. An onsen was definitely on her list of things to do while she was in Japan, and given the events of the past few days, clearing her mind and relaxing her body in a hot spring sounded like the perfect indulgement. It was just a shame she’d be going with Cameron. It felt as if she were taking her brother, that is if she had a brother. She immediately typed her reply, asking what time she needed to be ready. While she waited for Cameron’s response, she decided to re-read the last message thread between herself and Levi. Only it was gone. The entire conversation was gone. In fact, all the text conversations she’d ever had with him were gone. Heart beating rapidly as panic took hold, Madeline called Cameron. “You need to be at the train station by 1:15 p.m.,” he said after picking up, expecting her call to be about the impromptu trip. “Levi’s been deleted from my phone,” Madeline said, clearly upset and completely ignoring Cameron’s words. “What do you mean he’s been deleted?” “All my text conversations with him are gone. All of them.” Rising from the comfort of the mattress, she began to pace in the gap between the bed and the wall that divided the living space from the bathroom. “Calm down, calm down,” Cameron’s voice soothed. “Check his number. Is it still in your contact list?” Pulling the phone away from her ear, Madeline checked her contacts and found it to be missing as well. “That’s gone too.” “Does he have remote access to your phone?” “Yes. As a backdoor safety net.” “Maybe he removed himself?” Cameron suggested, shrugging on the other end of the line. “Why would he do that?” “If you didn’t do it, and he’s trying to disappear from your life, that seems to be a logical conclusion. Unless you let someone else mess with your phone.” “I had to leave my phone in a secured deposit box when I visited Taro’s library. Everyone does. Hacking into my phone would be extremely difficult and time-consuming, but let’s say they did. Why would they only delete Levi?” Madeline stated before suddenly remembering the phone faux-pas yesterday. “I did forget to retrieve my phone yesterday, but it was brought to me at lunch. That still wouldn’t have given them enough time to get into it. Even if they cloned the SIM card, they would still need my fingerprint and access code.” “In that case, Levi removing himself is much more probable, isn’t it?” Cameron remarked smugly. Madeline didn’t want to accept it but, Cameron was right. It was more plausible for Levi to have accessed her data and delete anything related to him than for someone to have hacked into it. If only she could convince her heart to accept it. “So are we going to the onsen or not?” Cameron asked, slightly irritated that she was still, after all this time, worrying about the asshole cat. “Um, sure. What time did you say we had to meet up?” “You’ll need to be at the train station a few blocks away by 1:15 p.m.,” Cameron repeated his earlier instructions. “That will give us plenty of time to buy your ticket and get situated. We should arrive at the onsen just in time for dinner. Oh, and you don’t have any tattoos do you?” “No,” Madeline responded. “No tattoos.” “Good. Call me if you need anything.” Not feeling even half as excited as she was about the trip ten minutes ago, Madeline walked a few feet from the bed to the small round table and set her phone down. As her fingertips released the phone, she felt a sensation of weightlessness akin to how one feels after setting down a heavy object that had been carried for an extended period. But before she had time to analysis her mood, something unexpected stopped Madeline dead in her tracks. A faint, dark crimson stain appeared on the upholstered seat of one of the two chairs in the hotel room as if it marked the spot of a previous occupant. As Madeline knelt closer to inspect the oddity, she realized the backrest was also slightly discolored. Running her fingertips over the fabric revealed that the strange markings were less of a stain and more a miasma. It wasn’t wet. It wasn’t cold. But in the moment it took for her to think about grabbing a white towel to have a rub at it, the abnormality vanished. Squeezing her eyes shut, Madeline took a deep breath. She knew she couldn’t attribute something like this to being tired. No way. What had happened was real, and it had rattled her to a certain degree. Opening her eyes slowly, she looked at the chair once more. Nothing unusual. After giving it a few more seconds to see if the chair would change again, which of course it did not, Madeline gave up and decided to take a shower so she could begin packing for the onsen trip with Cameron. At least she could ask him about, see if he had any experience with anything like this. Either way, the trip would do her good. Setting a change of clothes on the bathroom counter, she undressed and stepped into the shower to began washing up. There was no need to rush, so she enjoyed the steam as long as she could, despite a few odd changes in water pressure. The five-star hotel’s services and amenities had been flawless, with the pressure and the availability of hot water being a non-issue up until this point. Shrugging it off, Madeline let herself soak in one last hot rinse before turning off the faucet and grabbing a nearby towel. It wasn’t until she stepped out of the shower and went to wipe the foggy mirror that she became aware it wasn’t the water pressure, it was something wrong with her. After another out-of-sorts episode, she could feel the steam against her skin and eyes as if it were tangible. With a roll of her fingers, she was able to send the moisture spiraling like a corkscrew against the bathroom door. Gasping, Madeline hurriedly wiped the steam off the mirror with a towel. She checked her reflection. It didn't look any different. And then, the sensation dissipated and she was back to feeling normal. She tried rolling her fingers once more, but this time nothing happened. Wet, red curls cascaded down toward the sink as she let her head drop. “...Fuck.” Walking naked to where her cell phone lay on the table, suspicious eyeing the chair as if daring it to change, Madeline called Cameron again. “What’s up?” he answered. “There’s something weird going on with me,” she revealed nervously. “Weird like how?” “With my body. With how I seem to be sensing things. At first, I thought I was just exhausted, but now, not so much.” “You can tell me all about it on the train. It’ll be alright,” he comforted. “See you then.” The once popular idea of taking her time getting ready to meet Cameron was abandoned completely as Madeline frantically stuffed clothing into the smallest of her suitcases. She was desperate to tell Cameron about her strange morning and see if he had any idea what was going on. Maybe take her to the Elder or someone else if he couldn’t help. Levi would have been her first choice, but with his number missing from her contacts there was literally no way to reach him now unless she called Maseo. Or maybe Caslon. No. Levi removed himself from her life on purpose, so she needed to depend on getting through things without his help now. Doing her best to reign in her adrenaline and stop her frantic outwardly appearance, she rolled her suitcase to the door, about to leave. She stopped with her hand on the doorknob. An idea sprung to mind. Since she wasn’t sure if these uncomfortable episodes would grow more frequent, or worse, become debilitating, she wanted to be certain Cameron would be able to know where she was at all times. It was merely a safe plan. Unlocking and unzipping her largest suitcase, she removed a strip of tracking chips and some medical tape. Activating one of the chips, she taped it to her upper, inner thigh near her bikini line and then re-secured her luggage and stepped briskly out of the hotel room. ------------------------------------------------------------- He’d waited precisely where he knew she would pass. This was his chance, after consulting with his source, to isolate her for a while. To cross his T’s and dot his I’s. Finalizing his conclusion and cementing the next step of his process. Excellent. Purposefully heading in her direction, he pretended, most expertly, to be struggling with the packages he was carrying. He could tell by the look on her face, and the lack of spatial awareness, that Madeline was too self-absorbed to notice him from a distance. As he got closer, he made his move. “Madeline?” he said, feigning surprise. “That is you. What luck!” Snapping to reality, Madeline rolled her suitcase to a stop. “Good afternoon, Gideon,” she smiled, an easy expression to slip into when he was around. “You look a bit overwhelmed.” “I definitely am,” he admitted. “I fear I’ve bought too many cakes for my party, and I’m not sure where my car is to pick me up.” Madeline couldn’t help but giggle. “Could you possibly help me?” Madeline checked the time on her phone. It was only 11:30 a.m. “How far away is your party?” she asked. “Remember that phone call I had to take yesterday? My company has acquired some very lucrative assets and, to celebrate, I’m holding a party at Taro’s nightclub tonight. Please tell me you’ll attend?” Madeline frowned internally. She wasn’t supposed to go to Taro’s, wasn’t supposed to associate with Gideon, and she needed to get herself to the train station to meet Cameron. She broke the news gently. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m headed to catch a train this afternoon.” “This afternoon?” Gideon asked, just as a car pulled up to the curb. “Could you at least accompany me to the nightclub so you can indulge yourself in one of these amazing pastries? I’ll drop you back off at the station so you won’t be late.” She thought about it for a few seconds and agreed. As long as she made it to the train on time, there shouldn’t be a problem. The car ride to the event took just a few minutes, and only about five minutes longer to help carry the sweets down to the nightclub where a very festive atmosphere had been created. Gideon directed Taro’s staff on the placement of the desserts on the table trays and then turned his full attention to Madeline. “As a reward, you may pick whichever one you like,” he smiled, indicating the cakes. “You have the honor of being the first to try them.” Returning Gideon’s smile, Madeline approached the table, leaving her luggage beside a cocktail table well within sight. The dessert table was spectacular. Multiple-tiers of cakes, tarts, and parfaits in a rainbow of colors greeted her with the most tempting of scents. Highlighting the color of each sweet was a plethora of boutiques strategically placed to frame the trays. There were roses, violets, irises, lilies, cherry blossoms, and some flowers Madeline couldn’t identify. Another episode overcame her, causing her blue eyes to hyper-focus. A group of flowers on the dessert table suddenly took on a fleshy, and somewhat veiny, appearance. Her stomach lurched and she began to stumble, finding each breath more and more laborious than the one before it. What was happening to her? “Whoa, I’ve got you,” Gideon reassured as he wrapped his arms around her waist, supporting her weight. “Are you alright?” “I.. don’t think so,” Madeline confessed, bringing her hands to her face and rubbing her eyes. Looking once more at the table, the grotesque flowers were still there, only now they possessed an overpowering, rancid smell. “What… are those?” Gideon’s blue eyes followed Madeline’s pointing fingertip to the dessert table. “The exotic flowers? I’m not sure, but I think they are preserved in some way. Why?” “They’re just… just…” Struggling to keep her lungs working became a losing battle as the sensation of suffocating kicked in. Keeping her eyes open for only a moment more, Madeline was unable to finish her sentence before she collapsed in Gideon’s arms. None of the staff moved so much as an inch to help her. They were all awaiting Gideon’s orders with blank expressions of indifference on their faces. “Remove the Stapelia,” Gideon instructed as he listened to Madeline’s heartbeat slow with a calculated calm. “And let the doctors in.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Cameron looked down at his watch. It was 1:17 p.m. and Madeline was nowhere in sight. As distraught as she was this morning about Levi’s contact info and feeling out of sorts, He figured she would have shown up early for this trip. Reaching into his coat pocket, he removed his phone and tried to call her. There was no answer, just her voicemail message. A strong sense of unease crept in, and he tapped on the tracking app just for the hell of it. There would be no reason for her to be wearing a chip today unless… “Son of a bitch,” Cameron growled under his breath. She was at the Taro building. Swinging his duffle bag tight against his shoulder, he hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address. What the HELL is she thinking? he thought to himself. She promised me she wouldn’t go back. Tapping his foot uncontrollably in a fit of anxiousness, Cameron counted the seconds before he arrived at his destination. ------------------------------------------------------------- When she opened her eyes, Madeline’s first view was of a stranger in a white lab coat leaning over her. With a groggy swipe, she attempted to bat the oxygen mask off her nose and mouth but the elastic held tight. The slight tug in the crook of her elbow indicated she had an IV running as well. “Thank goodness!” came Gideon’s energetic English voice from out of her peripheral sight. “We almost lost you.” Within half a second, the stranger’s image backed away and Gideon, with his lovely blue eyes, golden hair loosely brushing past his shoulders, filled Madeline’s field of vision as his powerful arms gently helped her sit up and adjusted her bed for back support. Careful lifting the mask off her face, he brushed back her red curls and examined her eyes and the pallor of her skin. “The doctors said you suffered an anaphylaxis reaction to the succulents on display by the sweets,” Gideon explained before Madeline could strain to ask. “You’ll be fine now that the condition has been reversed.” Turning toward the pair of medical professionals in the room, Gideon dismissed them with a nod of his head, leaving only himself, Madeline, and Mr. Mito. “Those flowers are only troublesome to certain creatures, and none of them were invited to my party,” Gideon whispered in a serious tone. “I’ve noticed you seem different today compared to yesterday. Did something happen?” She would never have considered revealing such information, but she was never quite in her right mind around Gideon for some reason. “This morning some strange things began happening to me,” Madeline replied in a voice mildly hoarse from the oxygen mask. “I thought I was seeing things at first, but now I’m not so sure. It comes and goes.” “Well, I would be a liar if I told you I hadn’t read your folder,” Gideon admitted. “There seems to be some mystery about you and why you can do certain things.” “Like use the Orimura sword?” she asked, knowing that information was in her folder. “Yes, child. Like use that sword,” Gideon confirmed. “You know, I do specialize in research such as this. I could take a look and see what there is to see. It will be painless, and who knows, I might be able to find answers, or at the very least help you feel like you used to.” She knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to let Gideon poke around, but no one she trusted had the ability to break the mystery. Levi had tried. Maseo had tried. Cameron gave her the majority of the information she already knew, but nothing more. Oh, shit! Cameron is going to kill me! Trying to get out of bed, Madeline asked where her belongings where. “I had them moved to the corner of the room,” Gideon casually thumbed at her suitcase and purse, “But you aren’t well enough to get out of bed yet.” “I need to call my friend,” Madeline said, continuing to rise, but suddenly finding Gideon’s arms restraining her upward movements. “Stop.” “I will not. Not until you are well enough.” “Let go of me,” Madeline warned, heart beating faster as her frustration mounted. The pumping blood also started to make her head spin. “How about this? I will bring you your phone, but you have to promise not to worry your friend when you call him,” Gideon proposed. Propping herself back into bed caused the dizziness to disburse, letting her think clearly on what Gideon had asked of her. It seemed like a good trade-off, so she promised with a nod of her head. “Perfect,” Gideon smiled warmly and left her beside to get her phone out of her purse. Handing it to her, he watched with great interest as she swiped her fingerprint and tapped on her contacts to call Cameron. “What the FUCK are you doing?” Cameron shouted as soon as he answered her call. “I thought we made a deal you wouldn’t go back?” “I’m fine, really,” Madeline replied. Only she wasn’t. She felt captive at the moment, laid out by some plant, and wanted nothing more than to leave. She had intended to tell Cameron to meet her out front. “You need to come outside NOW!” Cameron ordered, continuing his tirade. “There’s no need,” Madeline replied. What the fuck am I saying? “You don’t need to worry about me, okay?” Out of Madeline's field of vision, Gideon’s grin grew wider. “That’s it! I’m coming in to get you.” “It’s okay. I said you don’t have to worry. I’m just helping out with the party setup for tonight, and I'll catch up with you later. The words coming out of her mouth betrayed her mind pleading for Cameron to hurry. Instinctively clutching her opal pendant with one hand, a gesture reserved for moments of helplessness, Madeline ended the call letting the hand holding her phone drop down to her lap. “There, now you can rest for a little bit more, and when you’re feeling up to it, I’d like you to join the party downstairs, but only if you’re feeling well enough. Oh, and I completely disposed of those horrible plants and had the staff scrub and sanitize the area.” Only half listening to his words since she was trying to sort out what the hell was happening around her, Madeline nodded. “I couldn’t forgive myself if I let you leave without taking a closer look at what is causing you this trauma,” Gideon said as he rose from her bedside. “Please promise you will stay overnight so I can monitor you. Whatever is causing you this harm, no one is more capable of protecting you than I. In my care, you are safe from things not even Leviticus could protect you from.” His words caused Madeline to pause. Cameron had called Gideon dangerous, but he had also called Levi a monster. Gideon was feared by so many, that perhaps she would be safe, at least until she found out what was wrong with her. Gideon walked toward the doorway but waited for her response before he completely exited. “I promise.” Smiling wickedly, Gideon continued on his way. “That’s a good girl.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Paying the taxi driver extra to drive around the block and wait for him to return, Cameron marched up to the entrance of Taro’s building. Surprisingly, the two non-human doormen allowed him into the building without so much as a glance, but his good luck ended in the lobby. Two more security officers, both werewolves like the doormen, blocked his path with their massive frames. Cameron was 6’0 himself, estimating that these men were both around 6’2. “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the stockier of the two, face stern. “That’s a shame,” Cameron replied standing his ground. “Because I’m here to pick someone up and I’m not leaving unless she’s leaving with me, so I would say we have a bit of a problem.” “We can’t allow you to remain in the lobby, sir.” “Fine, then I’ll wait downstairs in the club.” “I’m afraid we can’t allow that either, sir.” Cameron could feel his anger starting to peak, and that was never a good thing for anyone on the receiving end. “You can’t refuse entrance to a public place without just cause,” he retorted. “I’m not stepping foot in any private areas, just going to pay for drinks and wait in the club.” “There is a private party being held at the club this evening, sir,” came the response. “Only invited guests, of which you are not.” “Then I’ll go take a seat at the bar in the restaurant upstairs.” “No, you will not, sir,” said the guard as he began to push Cameron toward the front entrance with his wide body. Being handled by anyone his least favorite thing, Cameron gave a powerful pushback with both palms on the guard’s chest. The man staggered backward a few feet, looked very pissed off, then reached for his radio for backup. Who did this trespassing dog think he was? Anywhere else and he would have given this guy a beating. “I suggest you leave now, sir,” he warned. “Before things get ugly for you.” After being strong-armed out of the lobby, Cameron made his way across the street and stopped just short of entering a clothing store. Leaning against the brick of the building, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and grabbed his lighter. Withdrawing one, he lit up and took a long drag, eyes fiercely watching the doormen across the street. A familiar scent grated against Cameron’s senses as a figure came into view, approaching the canidae from just out of sight. Fanning his slender hand in front of his face to banish Cameron’s nicotine habit, Levi had only one word to say. “Disgusting.” “What are you doing here, pussy?” Cameron spat. “Come here to gloat?” Rolling his eyes at Cameron’s abrasive attitude, Levi responded with an equal lack of pleasantries. “Hardly. What’s the situation?” “Madeline was supposed to be leaving on a train with me right now, but instead she’s going to a party. And there just happens to be a private party at the nightclub tonight, so I am guessing they are one and the same. I have a feeling she’s not there by choice.” “Of course she’s not,” Levi replied, appalled that Cameron didn’t know her well enough to recognize something so out of character. “I’ll head over, but I’ll need a small distraction.” “I can go back into the lobby and cause another scene, but the minute the cops show, I’m gone,” Cameron offered. “That will work.” Cameron took a look at Levi and noticed his eyes were brown now, and he was dressed very stylishly, obviously already decided on going into the building before even realizing Cameron was across the street. “They’re gonna scent you,” the canidae warned as he indicated the doormen. “I’ve got that covered.” No sooner did the words leave his lips, then Levi’s scent was gone, a feat which should have been utterly impossible. Cameron’s jaw dropped. “That’s a nice trick,” he gaped in disbelief. “It’s not easy.” “Oh, and a word of warning. Madeline told me something was wrong with her earlier. She sounded pretty upset about it over the phone. I told her we’d talk about it on the train, but that obviously didn’t happen, so be careful.” “Noted.”
  6. Chapter Eighteen Corrosion After releasing the button on the hotel alarm clock, Madeline rolled onto her back and stared at the vast, white ceiling. Typically, she would have only trusted her own personal alarm, but there wasn’t anything pressing today, other than her trip to Taro’s Library this afternoon. Reflecting on her call to Caslon yesterday, it was comforting hearing his voice despite his never-ending advances. She’d grown so used to them by now that if there came a time where he wasn’t hitting on her, something would feel terribly wrong. He’d spoken openly about his relationship with Ms. Bassir. She’d been his prearranged mate, and he’d been more than anxious to fulfill his duties for two main reasons. The first being obvious - Caslon loved women and loved having sex with women. It was his hobby. The second only made sense to Madeline now that she knew of Tiff’s situation. Most pantherinae families participated in a practice that basically replaced themselves with future generations. In Caslon and Tiff’s case, they would have to produce two offspring, one for each of them. Because Caslon’s coupling bore twins, he covered both his own and his sister’s obligations. This took enormous pressure off of Tiff, seeing as a natural pregnancy for her would go against her sexual preferences. With that quota met, both were free to pursue life without further reproductive expectations. Madeline’s cell phone rang suddenly. Reaching lazily to the bedside table, Madeline lifted her phone and brought the screen within eyesight. It was Cameron. “Hello?” “Just calling to let you know I spoke with the Elder about that fourth folder,” Cameron began, sounding a lot more awake than Madeline was. “He doesn’t want you to look into it any further. He’s aware of what it likely contains and doesn’t want the knowledge to endanger you.” “Did he tell you who’s in the folder?” she questioned. “No,” Cameron replied, “But I need you to promise me you won’t read it.” “Alright, fine,” Madeline agreed with a drawn-out sigh. She hated leaving stones unturned. “I promise I won’t poke around in that folder.” “Thanks. So am I picking you up at the same time today?” “Sure,” she responded. “It worked out really well yesterday, but I might stay longer depending on if there are any other developments. This will be my last trip. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.” “Or give him time to follow through with whatever he’s up to.” “Exactly.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi had spent the last couple of days gathering information on Cameron McCaffrey. Along the way, he determined there was a branch of Madeline’s family tree that was purposely incorrect, and that once bridged, did, in fact, link her to Cameron’s, which was heavily canidae. There wasn’t even so much as a trace of canidae scent to her, indicating her side was ridiculously diluted with human DNA. His research also revealed that the McCaffreys dated back a very long time, intertwining with the famed Orimura clan at one point. It explained her link to the wakizashi, but not the affinity for it. The picture was looking more complete, but there were still some critical pieces missing. Rising from the round cafe table which overlooked the city streets through a ceiling-to-floor picture window, Levi headed to the kitchenette to make some coffee. He didn’t expect his phone to ring. Puzzled as to who would be calling him directly, he was quite surprised to find it was Maseo. “Moshi, moshi,” he answered, tone reflecting the unexpectedness of the call. “I’ve got some bad news,” Maseo replied, voice sounding a bit shaken, which was very unusual. “You’ll want to have a seat.” Instead of walking back to the table by the window, Levi sat on the edge of the bed. “Go on.” “I’ve heard from a reliable source that number four has passed,” Maseo said solemnly. Levi leaned back, phone still braced against his ear, and sunk into the mattress. For a few moments, nothing was said. Maseo dared not speak another word until Levi did. “How?” “Reports are indicating murder, with the suspect being number three.” “Of course,” Levi replied as he closed his eyes, voice a pained whisper crushed by a heavy heart. “Why would he do that though? He’s already next in line. The fourth was never a threat to him.” “Your guess is as good as mine,” Maseo admitted. “I don’t claim to understand the ways of that process.” Levi took a deep breath and placed his free hand over his eyes, picturing his brother’s face in the darkness. The mysterious death of mother’s eldest son, Masataro, had been blamed on Levi. And because Levi had missing memories that corresponded to the time of death, he was unable to present a defense. The first thing he remembered was brother's blood on his hands, so he wasn't even 100% sure of his own innocence. His punishment had been exile, putting his fraternal twin next in line for leadership. For obvious reasons, no one liked his brother Matajiro, who had been treated poorly behind their mother’s back since he was born, so Mata had many reasons to detest the courtesans and high-ranking officials. Levi wondered for a moment if popular opinion was attempting to force his mother’s fourth son into a position above Mata, triggering this assassination. Still, Levi couldn’t imagine Mata being a murderer or even ordering someone else to do the deed. “Any word on the twins?” Levi finally asked. “No mention of them, so I assume they are both fine,” Maseo informed. “Look, I don’t want to butt into your business, but if I were you, I would go back and put an end to this before… well... you know.” Maseo didn’t have to name names. The same thought was on Levi’s mind as well. If Matajiro was disposing of competition, there was only one brother left. The very youngest, and still very much a child, Keigorou. “I know.” “And unfortunately, that’s not all the bad news I’ve got.” “I can’t see how anything else can be worse,” Levi tempted, “But give it to me.” “Gideon is in Japan.” ------------------------------------------------------------- The rain had passed, but there was still an undeniable chill in the air, prompting Madeline to coddle the teacup that was poured for her by Taro’s assistant, Takeshi. She was able to acquire Cameron’s folder, disappointed that there wasn’t really much to it, and all of the entries were recent as if he’d flown under their radar until meeting up with her. To be honest, she felt incredibly guilty about that, having dragged him into Taro’s focus. Her own folder had been a little more interesting at least. They had painstakingly traced her back to the McCaffrey that produced a babe with the head of the Orimura clan, whom Madeline assumed was the Elder, only they called him Kage. They also knew Madeline was able to wield his weapons, but they weren’t sure how. The katana job was ordered through Taro as a “compatibility” test. Their notes mentioned the weapons repulsed anyone not of Orimura blood with an intense burning sensation, so Madeline should not be comfortable holding either weapon, but she was. As far as why she was, it was still being researched. Confident she had all she came to see, Madeline had since settled back down on the sofa with a second cup of tea and was browsing through a general informational book regard felinae and all the different types. Some of the facts were fascinating, such as the normality of twins and triplets, both identical and otherwise, leading her to the realization that Caslon and Tiff being twins was not that extraordinary. After taking another sip of tea, her ears picked up on the subtle hiss-click of an electronic lock coming from the entry door. Stepping into the library was none other than Mr. Taro Tetsugawa himself, only he wasn’t alone. At his side was an elegant man, with chiseled Nordic facial features, golden-blond hair gathered at the nape of his neck, and the clearest blue eyes she’d ever seen. He smiled cheerfully as he spoke with Taro, radiating with genuine warmth. He had all the characteristics of a classic blue-eyed, blond-haired angel, and Madeline found it difficult to take her eyes off this ray of sunshine as the two men strolled in. She also missed the chance to pick up on the tail-end of their previous conversation before it was pointed in her direction. “Let me introduce you to Miss Madeline McCaffrey,” Taro invited, speaking English, as both men approached. “She’s visiting from the states and is using my family’s library to familiarize herself with the unsavory nature of some of our yokai.” As the gentleman approached her, impeccably dressed in a pale gray suit that made his blue eyes even more piercing, Taro handed an unassuming manila envelope to Takeshi and dismissed him. Madeline gently set her cup down on the table in front of the sofa and rose swiftly to greet them, though her eyes were fixed on the unfamiliar, yet captivating, one. “It is a great pleasure to meet you,” the blond smiled brightly as he reached out and took her hand. His deep voice was peppered with an accent that sounded slightly British, with hints of Northern European. “My name is Gideon.” His grip was pleasant and politely firm. “Pleased to meet you,” Madeline replied, silently wondering what brought this enchanting man to the library. As he slowly released her hand, Gideon asked her if he and Taro might have a seat, one at the chair adjacent to the sofa and the other next to Madeline. Nodding, she agreed. “So what brings you here, Mr. Gideon?” the redhead asked directly. Gideon flashed another magnetizing smile. “Oh, no… Not ‘Mr. Gideon’, just Gideon, if you please,” he requested eloquently. “And business brings me here. Quite often actually. My company frequently partners with the Tetsugawa conglomerate, and I simply delight in browsing this library. The wonders never cease.” Madeline couldn’t agree more in that regard. The amount of information Taro’s family had gathered here was extraordinary. The fact that Gideon was even allowed entry must mean he knew about the world that went on below the surface, unseen to humans. She couldn’t help but wonder how this glorious man obtained permission to such a place. “You are probably asking yourself what kind of man would be allowed access to this treasure?” Gideon smiled. This took Madeline off-guard, but she certainly appreciated his straightforward inquiry, and the look on her face was all the confirmation Gideon needed. “I’m sort of hybrid vampire mixed with old magic and a large dose of alchemy.” Another old vampire. She should have guessed. “Come now Miss, don’t give us that sour face,” Gideon chuckled pleasantly. “I’m sure you know a few good vampires, right?” Madeline nodded again, his sweet laughter catching her off-guard. “I can’t say I blame you though, most vampires say the same thing - 'I’m different,' 'I don’t kill for sport,' 'I have my hunger under control,' 'I will never hurt you,' 'You can trust me'... I could go on and on. The fact is that only a vampire that comes from old blood can ever claim any of those statements to be true. Anyone less is a liar, both to themselves and to you.” Memories of Scott thought to have been extinguished, swirled like ashes in the corners of her mind, stirred up by Gideon’s words. Scott had said those things and had lied, just as Gideon described. Seeing her gaze drift off, Gideon was instantly aware of the pain behind her stormy-blue eyes. With a gesture that caught Madeline off guard, he reached out and laid his hand comfortingly upon hers. “My dear, I am heartfully sorry,” Gideon apologized, voice softened to a soothing caress within Madeline’s ears. “I didn’t realize you’d already been wronged by one of our kind. Allow me to make things right.” “It’s in the past,” Madeline attempted to brush the entire exchange off. “There’s really no need for you to be responsible for his… actions.” “Would you at least allow me to tempt your appetite?” Gideon begged adorably. “Our initial reason for coming down here was for Taro and I to chat while he delivered some paperwork to Mr. Mito before heading off to a business meeting. After which, I was to be dining alone. I would be absolutely delighted if you were to join me in his stead.” Dining? Madeline thought, arching a brow. Gideon’s smile widened with innocent gratification. “I did mention I am somewhat of a hybrid, did I not?” he smiled, pleased to have gotten such a reaction. “And I hear the view from the restaurant here is outstanding. Please say you will join me?” It was with ease that Madeline decided to accept his invitation. Smiling, the three stood. “You make me feel extremely guilty,” Taro admitted, as he escorted Madeline and Gideon from the library. “But I will host you for dinner later, my old friend.” “Think nothing of it. I have a much better lunch companion now,” Gideon teased. As they walked cheerful towards the elevator, Gideon graciously offered Madeline his arm and the pair stepped in first, Taro entering behind them. Turning his back to the couple, he pressed two buttons on the console and then turned back around as to not come off as being rude to his guests. “Again, I sincerely apologize, Gideon, for not being able to join you for lunch.” “Business is business, Taro,” the angelic gentleman with the golden hair smiled softly. “I know very much how things can get from time to time, but I will see you later, my friend.” Taro gave a respectful bow, rising just as the elevator doors opened on his floor, then he stepped out, leaving Madeline and Gideon alone in the confinement of the elevator. She expected herself to feel nervous, given the situation, but she was not. Not even in the slightest. She felt safe standing next to him but wasn’t sure why. After several failed attempts at analyzing her comfort level, she surrendered and decided to just enjoy herself. “I have only been here a handful of times, and each time the food has been astounding,” Gideon revealed. “Do they know you’re… not human?” Madeline dared ask. “That’s the beauty of it,” Gideon glowed with excitement. “They have no idea.” Madeline was on the verge of inquiring deeper into the intriguing idea of a vampire actually eating, but the elevator doors opened, interrupting their candid moment. Stretching out before them, was a cozy lobby of Brazilian cherry floors and warm, earthen-colored walls. As they approached the dining room, the scents of meats and spices toyed with Madeline’s appetite. They passed the hostess, who bowed deeply and gestured them inside. The view from the top floor of Taro’s building was spectacular, with the city unfolding outward to the mountains far off in the distance. “May we have a window seat?” Madeline asked hopefully. “I don’t see why not?” Gideon shrugged and then made the request of their waiter. Without hesitation, they were seated right at the window, and Madeline’s attention was equally divided between views of the city below and Gideon’s pleasant, animated expressions. “Order whatever you wish,” he informed her with pride. “Don’t be shy.” Nodding, Madeline accepted a menu and leaned back to inspect it. Each dish sounded lovely, but she had promised herself she’d try Kobe beef while she was in Japan, and this was by far the best opportunity to do so. As they waited for their meal to be brought to the table, Madeline sipped a Red Bordeaux while watching, with great interest, Gideon indulge himself with tea. “Stop that,” Gideon smiled sheepishly. “You’re making me blush.” Feeling a heat rush to her own cheeks at his remark, Madeline convinced herself it was the wine on an empty stomach and looked away briefly. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I didn’t realize it was possible for you to have something like tea.” “For me, yes, but not for my kind in general. Although I must say, it’s truly a shame there is such a difference between myself and those of lesser bloodlines. I would dare say that the more common of my kind truly are monsters.” “You sound as if you don’t get along well with the less fortunate,” Madeline stated bluntly. “It’s not as if I don’t get along with them, but that I am ashamed of them the way a parent would be ashamed of a troublemaking child,” Gideon explained. “They must be punished, but at the same time, they are only reacting to their instincts. It is a sad dilemma, one I’ve dedicated my life to resolve.” “Resolve? How exactly?” At that moment, the first course of their meal arrived, and as the waiter set the bowls down, Madeline again watched Gideon intensely as he brought a spoon full of clear broth to the curves of his pink lips. “Again, my dear, you are making me blush.” “Sorry,” Madeline apologized, lowering her eyes to her own soup bowl. “As I was saying, in a perfect world none of us would have to hide, and I’m not just talking about my kind but all kinds. New laws and rules laid out worldwide protecting from persecution and setting up systems of blood donation and registration that my kind would be required to follow or suffer incarceration. Multiple systems would manage all races of earth and keep everyone safe. Could you imagine it? All races could live without fear of persecution or harm. There would finally be peace.” Eyes wide, Madeline sat stunned for a few moments. Peace? What a grand dream. And as unlikely as it would be for it to come to fruition, she couldn’t deny the allure of it. The big issue was practicality. How would this plan be able to keep those wanting to do harm from doing so? “As romantic as that idea is, evil will always exist alongside free-will. Who would stop the evils of mankind? Or any other race for that matter?” Madeline asked pointedly. “Races would police their own, and if needed, assist others to do the same,” Gideon explained. “But I would never expect felinae to police my kind, or humans to police canidae, but my kind could help the felinae police other felinae that might be too much of a handful. Does that sound fair? And there would be a world council overseeing everything. But enough about that. It is still just an embarrassing dream I have.” “It’s a good dream,” Madeline agreed, reassuring him. “It would be a beautiful world to live in.” “I thank you for your support,” Gideon smiled appreciatively, his clear-blue eyes joyful. They made small-talk through much of the meal, interrupted by Gideon repeatedly asking Madeline politely not to stare at his every bite of beef and sip of tea. But she couldn’t help it. She was captivated by the handsome soul in front of her doing something she had been told was impossible for him to do. And not only that, but he ate his meal with refined grace befitting someone schooled in the highest forms of etiquette. It was actually a pleasure to watch him enjoy his meal. Gideon gently set his silverware down and stared into Madeline’s eyes. “My dear, I have informed you repeatedly that your lingering gaze gives me cause to blush,” he stated, eyes still locked on hers. “Are you purposefully aiming to elicit an amorous response from me?” As much as Gideon referred to blushing, it was only Madeline’s face that bore such a mask. “N... n… no,” Madeline stuttered uncontrollably, and then rushed through the words that followed. “That wasn’t my intention at all.” Taking a mouthful of wine for courage, she was able to continue her thoughts, only this time more emotionally stable. “Please forgive me. Until now I had thought it was impossible for your kind to eat or drink anything other than the obvious. And you are so… exactly the opposite of what I think of in my head when I think of your kind, and very different from the few I have met so far. You are just extruding warmth and life… like… like an angel.” There. She said it. No take backs. Gideon picked up his silverware once more and smiled down at his plate, color finally coming to his cheeks as he continued his meal. “That is a gracious compliment,” he spoke in a deep voice barely above a whisper. “Thank you.” Suddenly his eyes went wide, and his face grew pale, prompting Madeline to stiffen in her chair convinced his food had suddenly not settled as it should. “What is it?!” she asked urgently. “My phone!” Gideon replied, his voice on the edge of panic. “I must have left it in the library box!” At that same moment, Madeline realized she too had made that same mistake. She hadn’t gotten her phone, hadn’t contacted Cameron. She could only imagine what state of mind he was in right now wondering what was taking her so long. “Unforgivable,” Gideon murmured. “I can’t be absent from my responsibilities. An entire corporation rests on my shoulders. If I’ve missed an important call…” A shadow suddenly loomed over their table. It was Takeshi Mito. He bowed politely, presenting each of their cell phones and placing them respectively on the table. “My apologies,” Takeshi said, bowing again. “These were left secured in the deposit box, and I received an alert communicating you had both left the library without retrieving your devices. Again, my sincere apologies.” Gideon scooped up his phone and breathed a sigh of relief. “Ah good, no urgent calls or emails,” he announced. “Luck has smiled upon me.” Laughing, Madeline picked up her own phone and likewise had no emails or texts. She did manage to tap off a quick message to Cameron letting him know she was almost done, just eating lunch. His response came almost immediately and boiled down to asking Madeline to be careful and wrap things up. Gideon’s bliss did not last too much longer, however, as within a few minutes of receiving his phone, a simple and to-the-point ringtone pinged from the speaker, muffled slightly by the polish wood of the table. Picking it up, he frowned. “Unfortunately, that’s it for me,” he sighed regretfully. “I’ve got to handle this immediately. Don’t let that interrupt the end of your meal though, my dear. I would be heartbroken if I caused you to miss out on finishing that delicious beef.” “I’ll finish it, I promise,” Madeline smiled pleasantly. “Don’t worry.” “It was such a pleasure. May we meet again soon.” With an elegant bow, Gideon gave a warm smile and turned to leave, bringing his cell phone up to his ear as he walked away from their table and out of the restaurant. Madeline finished her main course just as she planned, but the closer she was to the end of her cut of beef, the more anxious she was beginning to feel. Purposefully, she swallowed another large gulp of red wine hoping the alcohol would relax her nerves, but it wasn’t working at all. Her outward appearance indicated nothing was amiss, but internally she was struggling to find the reason for her increasing discomfort. Then suddenly she realized what it was. Looking to her right, she saw the wide expanse of the city far below her. Nothing but a plate of glass separated her from a height of twenty stories. Devouring the rest of her meal, she signaled the waiter who informed her, as she expected, that Gideon had covered the bill and she was encouraged to have a good evening and to please come again. Rising from her chair, she was confused as to how she sat there for so long and remembered even asking Gideon if they could have a window seat. Was his charm that distracting? Was it something more? Something to do with him being a vampire? Madeline dismissed the thought. He’d done nothing suspicious whatsoever. Didn’t ask for any favors, or even invite her out for another meeting. The whole affair was nothing but pleasant. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps she had just enjoyed his company that much. Gathering her things, she slipped her phone into her purse and exited the restaurant, heading to meet Cameron down below. ------------------------------------------------------------- “Things appear to have gone well?” Taro inquired as he and Gideon watched Madeline exit the building and head across the street. “Exceedingly,” Gideon replied, his crystal blue eyes scrutinizing the monitor. His charm, which he used to his advantage daily, was not lost on Madeline. “It is an honor to assist with Miss Madeline,” Taro said. “We have extended a guiding hand, offering her information as you suggested.” There was no lip-service in his comment. No insincere flattery. Gideon was at the forefront of modernizing the survival of vampires everywhere. It was his long-term goal to move his allies into planetary leadership roles. To indirectly rule over humankind, therefore ensuring that none of his kind would ever fall victim to humanity again. Already, there were many allies controlling world governments from behind the scenes, with laws already being set into motion to protect his kind by taking certain rights away from others. Gideon was known for his patience, his long game, but recent information pointed to a way to fast-track his plans, and he was not about to let that slip by. “Yes, guiding her is the key. Providing her with incentive. She is the type of woman that struggles tirelessly against a leash but doesn’t mind a delicate ankle chain as long as it flatters her. She loves the convenience of freedom, but deep down wants to be guarded by someone she knows has the power to protect her. I will pay her a visit this evening. See if I can get the ball rolling so-to-speak.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Listening in on half the conversation Cameron was having with the Elder over the phone was frustrating. As soon as she’d told Cam who she had lunch with, the canidae blew up, pacing her hotel room in disbelief and chastising her for not contacting him immediately, despite the fact that Madeline had no idea who Gideon was. She argued with him, quite heatedly, that she couldn’t have possibly been at fault and that she was never in any danger. It was at that point Cameron made the call to get orders from the Elder. “Yes, I will tell her,” Cameron confirmed respectfully. “Under no circumstances. Got it.” Ending the call, he ran his hand through his spiky amber hair and slipped his phone into his pocket. “Under no circumstances are you to go back to that building,” Cameron ordered. “Gideon is ridiculously dangerous.” “Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?” “I’m positive. Why do I get the feeling you don’t believe me?” Madeline gave a sarcastic shrug. Gideon was the utmost gentleman. Goodness just emulated from him. Clearly, Cameron and the Elder had this wrong. “Give me an example of something horrible he’s done,” Madeline asked. “How about we start with the biggest one then,” Cameron retorted, raising his voice. “He tested out some theories on how much humans would put up with the internment of other humans during World War II. He was able to push it really far, obviously, since people ended up getting gassed at the cumulation of it all.” “You’re saying Gideon is Hitler?” Madeline questioned in disbelief. “No, I am saying he influenced the Third Reich,” Cameron explained. “He is working toward a world where he and his allies are in charge, and the rest of can either enjoy the life they give us, be punished for refusing.” “He told me about his plan,” she revealed. “The way he explained it, it would bring peace to everyone. No race would have to suffer at the hands of another unless they didn’t follow the rules. It seemed like a small price to pay for peace.” “Are you crazy?” Cameron replied loudly. “I can’t believe you’re even considering his point of view! Would you believe what I am saying if it came out of Levi’s mouth instead?” Madeline froze. “That’s what I thought.” He pulled a chair to the edge of the bed were Madeline sat. “Listen, it’s okay if you’re suspicious of what I’m telling you. I just need you to promise me you won’t go back to Taro’s building anymore, and you won’t have any more contact with Gideon, okay? At least until I can get you more information on him. Something that will allow you to form your own opinion. Promise?” “Fine.” “Okay,” Cameron smiled. “And I need to head out to a pack meeting, so just hang out here and order room service or something if you’re hungry. I just think that after today you need to lay low.” “Sure.” Cameron’s smile faded. She was being sassy, but at least it appeared she would follow his instructions, she just didn’t like them. “Lock the door behind me?” Dragging herself out of bed and stomping her feet in protest, Madeline followed Cameron to the door, and after closing it, slid the bar lock into place. Retrieving her handheld game console from her locked suitcase, she climbed back into bed and played for a few hours until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. She was never aware that around 2 a.m. someone had unlocked her hotel room door with a spare key. Nor did she hear them use the Do Not Disturb hanger to expertly push the U bar away from the bar lock. The door quietly opened, and a man carrying a saddleback briefcase was momentarily silhouetted by the light from the outside hall before the door shut and the room was drowned in darkness once more. He approached the bed upon which Madeline slept, then carefully set his briefcase down on the small table in the corner. Slipping his hand into his coat pocket, he removed a tiny glass bottle capped with an eye-drop stopper and leaned over the sleeping redhead. With a satisfied smile, he twisted the cap off, bringing the dropper close to Madeline’s lips. With a cautious squeeze of the rubber, Gideon let fall a single drop of liquid onto her lower lip, watching with interest as it caused a glistening reflection. Sensing the moisture, the sleeping Madeline instinctively licked her lips, unknowingly letting herself be sedated. It took only a few minutes before she was in too deep of a sleep to be woken by conventional means. “There, there, my dear,” Gideon purred, stroking her cheek. “Such intriguing genetics you have. Time to unravel your story.” Slipping out of his coat, he folded it over the back of the chair near the table and rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt. Flipping on the nightstand light as well as the one at the table, he unlocked his briefcase and removed a notebook computer along with a gem-cutter’s eyeglass, some unidentified vials, and small picks. Stepping back to the nightstand where Madeline’s phone lay charging, he disconnected it from the cable. From observing her at the restaurant, he was aware she had both a fingerprint and a code security step implemented. He removed the SIM card from her phone and slid it into a card reader plugged into his laptop began to copy Madeline’s card. After the card was copied, Gideon briefly carried his laptop to the sleeping redhead and scanned her fingerprint into the reader. He now had all he needed to set her phone up for MiTM control of her communications. Satisfied, he returned the SIM card to Madeline’s phone. Leaning back over Madeline, he gently lifted her head and brushed her hair to the top of the pillow with his free hand. At long last, he would now be able to examine her necklace. He first verified that there was no clasp by running his slender fingers entirely around the chain. From Scott’s description, and the accounts of the fae sent to steal it, the fastener must only respond to Madeline, and disappear otherwise. Gideon deduced this was one of the protection measures embedded into the piece of jewelry. The other known protection was the visual camouflage it took on once skin contact with Madeline was completely broken. Gideon wasn’t sure if at that point the necklace was detectable by touch or not, and he wasn’t at liberty to test that particular characteristic, but it was unimportant. What was important was the characteristics of the opal. Reaching back into the briefcase, he carefully removed a white cloth. Unfolding it revealed it was painted with an arcane, alchemical pattern that Gideon had meticulously prepared weeks ago using an enormous amount of precious resources. Painstakingly created, it would allow him to detect any spells and layers in objects much like an MRI detect anomalies in the body. It was his first time using such a tool, and he didn’t come up with the technique entirely on his own. He lifted the opal pendant from Madeline’s skin and placed the cloth under it so that setting the opal back down caused it to rest in the center of the intricate pattern. Then carefully, anxiously, he took a delicate vial out of a foam-cushioned box and brought it to the cloth. The vial contained what was barely a drop of magic-infused fae blood. It had taken weeks of planning to procure this one perfect drop, and Gideon hoped it paid off. With precise control, Gideon let the single drop fall onto the face of the opal and then run slowly down through the pendant’s filigree setting and onto the cloth below, soaking into the pattern. Within moments, the pattern burned away from the linen like a lit fuse, its glowing red symbols and equations rising up through the pendant, stopping to hover a few inches from the opal. The pattern rotated on its many axes until it came to resemble a celestial star map. Grabbing his eyeglass, Gideon wasted no time analyzing the structure of the spells. As he surmised, there were multiple spells intertwined with the necklace and the chain, in such a way that to remove any one of them would cause the others to fail, collapsing the entire structure and rendering the piece useless. Grabbing his notebook, Gideon began to jot the four spells down. They were mostly in an ancient script that only fae aristocrats would use. He deciphered the top layer as the protective element, used to keep the necklace unusable to anyone but Madeline. The next layer was surprisingly a reversal spell, which Gideon wasn’t expecting, yet still found intriguing, because it meant the two spells beneath it were actually producing the opposite effect than what was originally intended when the necklace was initially enchanted. This led him to believe that Madeline wasn’t the intended wearer, but that the necklace had been so troublesome, and perhaps even taboo, to make, it was more practical to build upon it rather than disposing of it. It became apparent by examining the next level that the language used was not something he could easily translate. The language was too unfamiliar. Something about allowing entry. The final layer was even more ambiguous, with the only word he was able to make out was the ancient symbol for fae. Leaning back in the nearby chair, he went over his notes, making sure he had documented the language of the spells exactly so he could translate them later. Back to investigating the stone once more, Gideon took a careful look at the composition. There was one vital element he was looking for, one that would make this the necklace, and it was so well hidden that one would only see it if they were looking specifically for it. “Ah,” he sighed out loud, a wide grin indicating he was extremely pleased with his discovery. The presence of bone within the opal confirmed the story he was told about the necklace. He was intimate with the sister of its creator, who provided the information in exchange for an alliance. She told Gideon the story of how her brother enlisted her help with the removal of one of his ribs. Knowing body parts were only required for forgotten, forbidden spells, she warned her brother of this but was told to mind her own business. She helped him with the painful surgical procedure and had kept her mouth shut afterward, never quite sure what had become of it. Sometime later, her brother gave a necklace to a girl as a gift. The only reason she remembered the event was of how odd it was for a fae of the court to give commoner fae anything, let alone a beautiful jewel. What made it even more suspicious was how often the same fae girl came and went from the Veil. Gideon’s confidant had been searching for the necklace’s whereabouts for a very, very long time, finally coming across it a mere three years ago around the neck of a human girl. Double-checking that his transcripts were accurate, Gideon noticed something peculiar happening to one of the axes. The sister’s pure fae blood he’d dropped onto the opal had begun to shift the Northern axis of the protection spell. Never one to let a discovery go undocumented, Gideon patiently watched, taking notes as the thin red glow of the point fizzled just enough that there was now the most minuscule of gaps. A single spark then dropped down a level and brightening a few of the symbols in the reversal spell before fading out and doing no further harm. Gideon recorded that in his notebook too, describing the symbols that were affected. Then on a hunch, he traced the silver chain once more with his long fingers. And felt a clasp. The slip of the axis must have triggered a fault in the protection spell, but did it have any affect on the reversal spell? He studied Madeline intently, silently staring at the symbols mapped out above her sleeping body, and watching the rise and fall of her breasts with every breath. After about twenty minutes, it happened. There was an incredibly faint shimmer of fae magic that rolled like an ocean wave over her body before disappearing at the tips of her limbs. Gideon smiled widely and wickedly, and for the first time in a great while he was in a hurry to decipher this puzzle. Quietly gathering up his equipment and removing the now unmarked linen from her chest, he turned off the lights and exited the room with no one the wiser.
  7. Chapter Seventeen More Today was the day. Raindrops chaotically assaulted the windshield of Cameron’s car before being periodically wiped away by the rhythmic sweeps of the wiper blades. But even the blades’ orderly march lagged behind the beat of the pop music playing faintly from the radio. “For the record, this is a very shitty idea,” Cameron grimaced, as he and Madeline sat in his Mazda, parked in a metered space across the street from Taro’s building. “I doubt I could go in and get you even if I had to.” “What makes you think you couldn’t?” Madeline questioned, watching the heavy rain continue its onslaught against the passenger side window. “It’s a public building, for the most part anyway.” The swollen clouds had rolled in last night just as Cameron began escorting her around the city in a very well-thought-out plan to take her mind off Levi for good. After taking her out for an extravagant dinner, he effectively pointed out every good looking man who took more than a casual notice of her, hoping she’d realize that compared to what she might have thought in the past, she had a tremendous amount of options in front of her. He then insisted they visit a host club in Shinjuku, where a friend’s little brother worked. Even though the “little brother” was about Madeline’s age, he acted much younger, lavishing attention on the redhead as if he was a smitten schoolboy. She couldn’t deny he was cute, and he absolutely took her mind off her troubles for the few hours she spent in his company, but leaving the club spawned thoughts of Levi as if the incoming rainstorm itself carried them to her. Cameron glared out through the storm, eyeing the entrance of the Tetsugawa building. “Well, the doorman is one of those vampire-made lupine monstrosities. I can smell him,” Cameron elaborated. “Even in this rain?” “I’ll pretend I didn’t just hear you insult me,” Cameron grumbled. Obviously, Madeline hadn’t been around any canidae long enough to know how acute their sense of smell was. Of course, felinae senses were sharp too, but canidae like Cameron seemed to have olfactory systems second to none. He decided not to ride her too hard about it, however. He had more important matters to discuss with Madeline before she left the comfort and safety of his automobile for the danger and uncertainty of Taro’s property. “By the way,” he began, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, ”When you went to Aokigahara, did anything bizarre happen? And I want the truth.” Madeline fell silent as she gathered up her thoughts, trying to figure out what would be the less damaging way to say what needed to be said. It was essential to choose her words very carefully, avoiding all possibility that her tongue might give Cameron cause to pull the plug on her independent investigation into Taro’s library. “Yes, but it was just a strong feeling of foreboding,” she began. “Anxiousness.” “Anything else? I need all the details.” “Why?” she asked, turning to look at Cameron directly. “To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about telling you because I don’t want to pass up this chance to get inside that library. Will you give you your word that no matter what I say, you won’t let it affect me going inside?” “Is it something Taro did to you while you were there?” “No,” Madeline answered, shaking her head. “It would have been impossible even for him.” “Okay then, explain,” Cameron said removing his hand from the steering wheel and crossing his arms. “I felt really nauseous while I was in that forest,” she described. “Like I could feel all the pain and sorrow that people left there. I was finding it increasingly harder to breathe to the point it felt like a physical force on my body. It got worse the further away I got from the car. Then when I got close to the grave marker, a kubikajiri showed up.” Turning his gaze from Taro’s building, he focused on Madeline’s face. “You saw a kubikajiri?” Cameron asked bluntly. “N..not exactly,” Madeline stammered. “Something was talking directly into my mind, telling me I was unclear, and getting pretty mad about it. It was trying to draw me away from my task. That’s when Taro appeared. He grabbed my arm, stopping me from being tricked into following it. He was the one that told me it was a kubikajiri.” “Head eater of the living and the dead?” Cameron quizzed, making sure Madeline knew what a kubikajiri was. “Yes, that’s how Taro described it too,” Madeline confirmed. “That’s also why he invited me to the library to study up on local yokai. He said I should be aware of such things for my own safety. I’m sure that’s not his only motive, but I am also confident he couldn’t be behind the overwhelming sickness I felt in that forest. That was something else entirely. Do you know what it could have been?” “To be perfectly honest with you, no. I have no idea what could have caused that,” Cameron replied, both puzzled by the mystery and disturbed by the toll it had taken on Madeline. “But Taro did stop you from wandering off after the kubikajiri, which says something at least.” “I know he’s up to something, and I shouldn’t trust him, but this is a rare opportunity for information.” Seeing as Madeline was shifting in her seat, Cameron assumed she was going to get out of the car shortly and head across the street. Reaching out, he lightly gripped the sleeve of Madeline’s coat, causing her to pause. “How long are you going to be in there? We need at least a loose plan.” Looking down at her watch, Madeline mentally calculated how long it might take being escorted to the library, and any niceties she would have to act out with Taro if he was going to be present. “It’s a little after 11 a.m. now,” she stated, “So assuming I use the excuse that I have a late lunch date, how about I aim to be out around 2 p.m.?” Cameron pulled his hand back from her black coat. “That will be fine,” he agreed. “Just please be careful. I figure your asshole cat friend taught you at least how to handle yourself around vampires? Since that’s the biggest danger to you, being human and all.” Opening the car door, Madeline poked her umbrella out first and popped it open before stepping out. Looking over her shoulder, her blue eyes conveyed a look of courage to Cameron, hoping to put his mind at ease. “I’ll be around, okay?” he said to her. “I’ll call you if I’m able, and you can track me,” Madeline reassured. “I’ll be fine.” “You better be.” After giving Cameron a kind smile, Madeline closed the passenger side door and stepped away from his vehicle, briskly making her way to the crosswalk and then across the street to Taro’s building. Looking up through the rain that dotted her clear vinyl umbrella, she counted roughly twenty stories. From her research on the structure, it not only housed the corporation’s headquarters, but also three acclaimed restaurants, a day spa, meeting space, and even a nightclub right below the ground floor. The spa, nightclub, and restaurants were all public spaces requiring no security access, but everything else was reportedly locked down tight. The meeting rooms could be rented out, but required badges to access, and of course, the corporate offices were off limits to anyone unauthorized. As she approached the main entrance, she found herself under a generous awning, giving her the time to carefully collapse her umbrella, tapping its crown on the concrete to rid the vinyl of droplets. Satisfied she’d gotten as much of the rain off as possible, Madeline approached the doorman, who graciously held the door open for her and politely demanded her umbrella. This was actually expected in Japan, so she handed her umbrella over without much thought, giving an appreciative smile to the door-wolf. The lobby had pristine white tile floors, though large area rugs woven with spiral patterns of warm browns and reds were laid beneath the handful of seating areas and in front of the concierge desk. The walls were painted a neutral gray, but sections of it were visually broken up with black, white, and gray splashes of glass tile. The furniture was elegant and black, giving a professional look. Madeline worked the buttons on the front of her coat as she stepped confidently to the concierge who had acknowledged her with a pleasant smile the moment she walked through the glass doors, the epitome of customer service. His hair was styled in a very typical business pompadour, and he wore a dark gray, three-piece suit. Greeting Madeline as she approached, the concierge bowed his head politely. “How may I help you?” he asked in English. “Mr. Taro Tetsugawa has invited me to his library,” she answered with a matching smile. Madeline was hoping to see something flicker in this man’s eyes when she mentioned Taro’s name, some clue as to how his employees regarded him, but there wasn’t even the slightest change in the man’s expression. “Of course. One moment please, Miss,” he replied smiling cheerfully as he picked up the internal phone, pressing a single button. “Mr. Tetsugawa’s guest has arrived.” Still no ripple in his mask, the concierge hung up the phone. “A gentleman will meet you momentarily.” “Thank you.” Before she was even given the opportunity to take a seat, the elevator to the right of the concierge desk opened, and out stepped a familiar face. It wasn’t Taro, but the man that removed Scott’s body the night she was attacked in her apartment. He was also the same man at the club she and Levi scouted earlier that same evening. Dressed much like the concierge, only in an unmistakably more expensive suit, he gestured toward Madeline indicating she was to join him in the elevator. “Mr. Tetsugawa is pleased you have accepted his offer, and humbly apologizes for not being able to accompany you to the library personally. He hopes you will forgive him and accept me in his place,” the man spoke in English. “My name is Takeshi Mito, and it is an honor to meet you.” “Likewise,” Madeline replied. “Thanks for opening up your library to me. I’m sure Mr. Tetsugawa is an extremely busy man, and I truly appreciate this invitation.” As the elevator doors closed, Madeline took note of the panel of buttons. The floors were numbered, as expected, with labeled descriptions of the three restaurants. Two were on the lower floors, but the third was on the top floor, likely to offer a rooftop view of the city. The spa was on the twelfth floor, and the nightclub was below the lobby level, underground, but didn’t have a floor number. The button Takeshi pressed was actually below the nightclub, requiring a fingerprint scan as well as a magnetic key card. Waiting for the elevator to descend below ground, Madeline wondered if there were any accessible emergency exits from the library. By law there should be, but who knows how far Taro was able to twist building code to meet his own needs. The doors opened, revealing two security guards, one on each side of the elevator. Madeline couldn’t tell if they were armed, but it would be highly unlikely for them not to be. If she had to guess, they probably weren’t human either. “The library contains important information,” Takeshi said, feeling the need to explain the enforcement. “A great deal of this information is known to others, but there is no place in the world you will find it collectively presented.” “Thus the location,” Madeline reinstated. “Yes. Access is controlled solely by Mr. Tetsugawa, and protected by extensive security measures.” Leading her past the guards, Takeshi directed her down a short, sanitized hallway to a solid white door she assumed led to the library. To the right of the door, on the wall, was a security panel with a keyboard, optical scanner, and what appeared to be a shallow drawer. Takeshi stepped up to the monitor and spoke his full name in Japanese. A female-modeled computerized voice confirmed his voice print and then asked him to present his right eye to the scanner. He did so, and Madeline watched as his eye was scanned as a secondary confirmation step. He was then asked to place his hand through an opening inside the contraption, one that Madeline hadn’t noticed until now. After a moment, the screen displayed a confirmation of DNA and fingerprints then asked him to deposit his cell phone into the drawer, which he did before closing it much like a post office drop box. “Requesting guest access,” he said speaking clearly towards the security device. Guest is required to stand on the platform. Takeshi stepped back and gestured to the slightly discolored square on the floor. It was some sort of panel that Madeline assumed was to make a note of her weight. Stepping onto the plate, she found herself right in front of the intimidating machine. Guest, please state your first name. “Madeline.” Confirmed. Madeline, please look forward for optical mapping. Fuck. Mapped and fingerprinted? she thought, not expecting this. “Override code 583,” came Takeshi’s voice from over her shoulder. “Thank you,” Madeline whispered to Takeshi with genuine sincerity. Confirmed. Madeline, please place any electronic devices into the drop box. “I give you my word we will not attempt to access it,” Takeshi assured. “Your device will be stored right here until you leave the library.” Begrudgingly, Madeline took her cell phone out of her purse and placed it in the padded drawer of the drop box, closing it. Confirmed. Guest, please remain still for five seconds. 4… 3… 2… 1… Confirmed. Access to the library granted on condition of escort by Takeshi Mito. As the female electronic voice went silent, Madeline could hear an audible click as the mechanism securing the door to the library unlocked. Holding her breath, she followed Takeshi inside. Upon entering the room, which was about twenty feet wide with eight-foot ceilings, the first thing Madeline noted was that it was designed to accommodate both a leisurely reader and a scholar. There were a handful of rather cozy looking sofas and chairs, as well as work tables and desks. The floors were hardwood, and the walls a richly designed red and brown fabric adorned with what appeared to be very faint kanji. So faint, in fact, that even squinting Madeline strained to make anything out, and was convinced the kanji changed as she read it. Most peculiar. At the far side of the room were three long hallways. “The library is divided up into sections for ease of navigation,” Takeshi explained as he led his guest deeper into the chamber. “The left aisle contains general information about yokai and other creatures, in a reference format. The center aisle is where records of significant places and events are kept. The right aisle is where you will find files regarding specific individuals and entities. We have a card catalog in the file system to your left to make finding information easier, organized by kanji of course.” “Amazing,” Madeline responded in awesome. She was genuinely impressed that they had such a manual system in place for such important historical accounts. “I assume you have all of this digitally backed up somewhere as well? Just in case of a natural disaster or something?” “We have many safeguards other than what you see here,” Takeshi confirmed. “However, we appreciate the traditional way of doing things when it comes to information and study.” “Of course,” Madeline smiled. “Although there are some records that I must require you handle with gloves,” he continued. “If you come across any of those, they will be clearly marked. Now please, make yourself at home, and I will prepare some tea.” Madeline set her purse down on the nearest sofa and slipped out of her coat before walking over to the card catalog, while Takeshi headed in the opposite direction, rounding an immaculate counter area to prepare the hot tea. Familiar with how card catalogs worked from her public education, she noted right away that pursuing her information from this angle was going to be difficult, without assistance from Takeshi, so she decided to try her luck browsing the sections on yokai instead. Starting simple with her most recent discovery in mind, the kubikajiri, Madeline went down the far left aisle, gaze brushing over the many spines protectively displayed behind glass-paneled cabinets. The order of the books, for the most part, began with the common Japanese vowel sounds. Then, as expected, they went in the order of ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko sounds of hiragana. Surprisingly, some of these books were dedicated solely to a single type of yokai. Madeline withdrew a thick book on kappa, and as she carefully thumbed through the pages, she found the history and details staggering. The book was more of a journal listing, containing information on which of the water-head-filled kappa had dealings with whom in the Tetsugawa clan and other clans. And there were a significant number of blank pages to add more to the list. At the end of the k section, there was another hefty book which was more of an encyclopedia. Exactly what Madeline was looking for. Removing it from behind the glass door, she carried it back to the sofa and sat down next to her purse. Crossing her legs, she leaned back and cracked it open. Despite a bit of a struggle remembering some of the characters at first, she was pleased to find the majority was in hiragana, so she was able to make perfect sense of most of it. There were a lot of yokai just in this single volume. She’d heard about some through books, video games, and movies. Like the kappa and their love of cucumbers, the beautiful and mysterious kirin, and the tricky kitsune; so she began to read about them first to see how her expectations matched Tetsugawa accounts. For instance, the book revealed that kappa are not the goofy water spirits she had figured they were. Aside from their love of cucumbers, their second choice of food tended to be young children. Methods were mentioned on befriending kappa, who were highly knowledgeable in medicines and irrigation, which was of vital importance centuries ago. There was also information on how to successfully avoid them since apparently one of their hobbies were drowning people. Looking up from her book, Madeline reached for the teacup Takeshi had set down while she was browsing the aisles, inhaling the aroma with calculated scrutiny. One thing Levi had insisted on training her on was detecting oddities in food and drink, and although a majority would be nearly undetectable by human senses, she learned as much as she could. This tea was a simple green variety, nothing peculiar at first inspection. Taking barely a sip, she let the air mingle with the infused hot water unable to distinguish anything that would have made her suspicious. So between sips of tea and glances at Takeshi who had taken a seat at one of the desks and appeared to be making some file entries, Madeline flipped through the pages to get to the kirin. She expected to see drawings of what she was familiar with - a unicorn looking creature. What she found were drawings of many chimerical beasts. Their heads all seemed very dragonesque, but the horns weren’t uniform in any way. Some had a single large horn with multiple prongs coming up from the back of the head, while others had two horns, as would be traditionally seen in deer. Some had feathers, some fur, and some scales. All appeared to have hooves, however. The notations indicated that kirin were divine creatures, able to determine the good from the evil and to pass judgment. They appeared only for benevolent leaders, however large or small. She was just as surprised to read about kitsune. They were tricksters yes, and looked exactly as she expected, but also had the potential to be divine creatures. Intelligent, magical creatures, kitsune were capable of astounding benevolence, or unspeakable evils, with the number of tails signifying power or age, or both. The danger with them, the book pointed out, was that you couldn’t tell which were good, and which were evil. The evil ones, or nogitsune, were just that clever. In short, the book divulged that although the benevolent ones provide eternal loyalty once befriended, the risk of having a nogitsune in your midst instead was just too great of a danger. Then she read about some of the lesser-known yokai, and a few of them sounded so ridiculous that she would not have believed a word had it not been for the fact she was in Taro’s library. There were toilet peeping-tom spirits and umbrella yokai. There were even monsters that resembled paper scrolls, and a giant flaming cat who liked to steal the corpses of evil people. And of course, there was the kubikajiri. The book said it was a ghost-type yokai, and mentioned that to see one usually meant death. She never actually saw it on the mountain, didn’t even smell the scent of fresh blood that was supposed to accompany it. Perhaps it had something to do with the cryptic accusations the kubikajiri made? She wasn’t honestly sure, but she wasn’t about to share that information with anyone she didn’t trust. Reaching into her purse to instinctively check the time on her phone, she stopped abruptly remembering she had relinquished it at the door. The walls of the library were barren of clocks as well. However, there happened to be a springs-and-gears clock sitting on the desk where Takeshi was working. From a distance, it looked to be ten-minutes-to-one. Closing her book carefully, she rose from the sofa and walked past Takeshi to the aisle she’d borrowed it from. After placing it back on the shelf and order she retrieved it from, she headed down the far right aisle, where records tied to specific individuals were organized in file folders. She was aware Taro expected her to look up information on Levi, so she didn’t feel like she was giving too much away by doing so. However, she needed to be cautious with any other choices. She wasn’t about to grab anything with Orimura in the name but needed to confirm whether or not the Tetsugawa clan actually possessed that intel. Starting on her path down the row, she drifted her gaze casually over the shelf that would contain them. She counted four Orimura-labeled folders. Four. One of the only three was exactly how Cameron had described the Elder. There was no mistaking it. So why would there be four? Purposely moving on as to not draw attention to the perplexing number of folders, Madeline searched for her own last name next. Surprisingly, there were two folders. One was marked with only her last name, and as she slid it away from the folders that flanked it, Madeline assessed it was a general collection of McCaffrey's. The first names were unfamiliar to her and contained basic information about residences, careers, and the dates they were observed by the clan. The vast majority of those listed had records that ended with words like “irrelevant” and “insignificant.” But then she discovered an entry referring to Cameron. It referenced a separate folder that wasn't found on the shelf, which was both odd and unnerving. She struggled with the idea of looking into her own folder but convinced herself to wait until she could be sure that the information she’d already found was verifiable. Continuing on, she decided to look for another familiar last name and grabbed a folder labeled “Desjardins.” Opening it on the spot, Madeline read the names of assumed family members, as well as “Caslon” and “Tiffany.” There wasn’t too much information, but surprisingly Caslon’s record noted he fulfilled his mating duties with Karima Bassir of Morocco at the age of eighteen, producing twins. Madeline’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. Caslon’s a father?! You have GOT to be shitting me! Shaking the disbelief from her head, Madeline slipped the folder back into the same place she’d found it. Enough of that. She was here for one reason, and she only had an hour left. Searching for Fukushima, Madeline found a single folder inscribed with the characters. Upon opening it, she noticed one of the pictures matched the host who had been flirting with her last night, though the name was different. The fact he was apparently working under an alias didn’t surprise Madeline since he was employed at a host club after all. Aoi Fukushima was his older sister, which the clan’s research had noted was a “high-quality canidae specimen” from a “long-standing canidae line”. It went on to mention, in the description of her younger brother, that he was an “unfortunate exception” to the lineage, which likely led to his career as a host. That ought to do it for what Cameron wanted to confirm, Madeline thought, placing the Fukushima folder away. Proceeding a little further down the aisle, she found the folder labeled “Leviticus.” It had been so long since she’d spoken with or seen him. After spending a couple of years with him, his departure blindsided her, but as she considered what the history this folder might reveal, she realized she had no idea what to expect. He never talked about his past. Never talked about his family. She convinced herself it was okay to appease her curiosity when Taro first invited her here, but now that she was about to delve into Levi's story, she felt guilty for doing so. Still. Carefully sliding the folder away from the rest, she realized it was much thicker than Caslon and Tiff’s. Holding it in such a way as to be sure not to spill the contents onto the wood floor, she carried it back to the sofa where she had laid her purse and coat. “Would you care for more tea?” Takeshi asked with an empty smile, noting what was in her hand. “No, but I appreciate the offer,” she replied with an equally unreadable smile of her own. Sitting, Madeline lightly touched the upper edge of the cover with her fingertips and opened to the first sheet. This was it, no turning back now. The account began by first stating the fact that the earliest documentation was purchased from an outside source and not firsthand information provided by an official clan member. Following the disclaimer, it provided an actual storage location and box number for the original documentation which a clan member had scribed ages ago. After a detailed description of his appearance, the Tetsugawa clan explained how they assumed Leviticus was actually a bastet, a term Madeline wasn’t familiar with, rather than a felinae. They surmised that he adopted the name “Leviticus” sometime during the Roman rule of Egypt, which at the time would have made it part of the Byzantine Empire, ascertaining that his Asian looks could be easily attributed to the bastet’s cat-shaped eyes, apparent when they take human form. At least I’m in a library, so looking up what a “bastet” is should be easy, Madeline thought to herself as she moved on to the next page. The next sheet was titled “Local Lore,” with unverifiable stories passed down verbally. But whether they were accurate or not, the reputation they painted was grim. Extortion, kidnapping, burglary, and womanizing were among the list, with assassination leading the pack. The first clan verifiable account was in the 1300s. A European merchant looking to expand his unsavory business to Cairo hired Leviticus with the intention of scaring an Arabian competitor out of town. The merchant suggested killing one of the man’s many wives as a warning until the Arab agreed to the European’s terms. However, Leviticus choose the quickest path to his client’s goal - murdering all of the Arab’s wives and children in a single moonless night. All of them. Madeline blinked a few times as if refreshing her vision would paint a different set of hiragana on the paper. This can’t be true, she thought to herself, feeling suddenly light-headed and unable to draw breath. And what followed was no better. There was an entry where a client had refused to pay for Leviticus’ kidnapping services, so rather than return the victim to her fiance, Leviticus ended her life, sending a bloody hand wrapped in silk to the groom along with the client’s name and the location of the rest of the body. And there were dozens upon dozens of similar stories that carried well into the years the Black Death ravaged the city. But by the time the Ottoman Empire controlled Cairo, Leviticus’ cruelty declined significantly. There was still the occasional assassination, but nothing dramatic, and no innocents. His focus turned to extortion and theft, but again, no innocents. The Tetsugawa clan hypothesized that because European and Turkish officers controlled the city during this period, Leviticus wasn’t able to be so free with his binges, fearful of being caught and persecuted. Taking her eyes off the text, Madeline reflected on the words but couldn’t imagine him so bloodthirsty. How could the same soft hands that bandaged her be responsible for slicing the throats of children? How could the person that freed her, not once but twice, needlessly murder innocent women for money? And his inspirational talk to her about returning things to needy people, was that all bullshit? Was she nothing but a toy to practice his convincing lies on? Her instincts and her logical mind both slammed back at her with a resounding “No.” Not at any point the entire time she’d been at his side had she ever felt unsafe or that he was being underhanded. And while she understood that hundreds of years had passed, and people change over time, she couldn’t imagine Levi in the shoes of such a demon. Madeline closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, letting the aroma of the cold tea in the bottom of her cup mix with the volumes of aged paper unfurrow her troubled brow, but all she could see in the darkness was his Levi’s face staring back at her. Was it possible she’d been wrong about him? She didn’t want to believe it, but signs existed. Like the terror in the eyes of the felinae twins at the Halloween party, and Scott’s remarks about Levi being a monster. Even Cameron’s hatred of him. Could his mischievous green eyes, the same eyes that looked upon her with such playfulness, be the same eyes that could look upon a pleading child and give no mercy? Did a bastet have the power to make ordinary humans believe the lies they were told? Could they charm suspicions away? Without reading through the rest of the sheets, Madeline closed the folder in front of her, managing to successfully hide how deeply the information disturbed her. She had to go. Rattled, she didn’t want to give Takeshi, or whoever was undoubtedly monitoring her via CCTV, the privilege of watching her fall apart. Extruding only a calm presence, she returned to the aisle, sliding Levi’s folder back into place. But before heading back to the sofa where her purse and coat rested, she once again stepped down the first aisle, looking for a book on bastet. It was a bit tricky to find because of the name being in katakana, and the fact Madeline was internally crumbling wasn’t helping. After a minute of looking, she found the volume that contained the information she was looking for. Bastet were supernals that derived their name from the goddess Bast, originating from the Egyptian continent long ago. There had only been a handful of them, having either already died off, or entrenched themselves so deep into humanity as to never be found. Skimming through the details, Madeline learned they were beautiful, charming, and fed mainly on idol-worship. There was nothing regarding being able to bewitch their followers into blind admiration, but there wasn’t anything that said they couldn’t either. The possibility was there. Closing the book carefully, Madeline placed it back on the shelf and walked back to the sofa to retrieve her purse and coat. Approaching Takeshi’s desk, she glanced over at the files he'd been updating. Directly underneath the one he currently had open was a folder labeled “McCaffrey, Cameron.” Madeline paused for a moment as Takeshi looked up from his work, not making the slightest effort to hide the name on the folder. What was he going to add to Cameron’s folder? Where they aware Cameron had been with her since she came to Japan? “Please express my sincere thanks to Mr. Tetsugawa for the use of his library,” she said clearly, not allowing her shock to affect her tone whatsoever. “But I have a lunch appointment soon, and I don’t want to be late.” Setting his pen down on the desk, Takeshi gave another empty, unreadable smile, leaving the documents open as he rose from his chair. Extending a hand in a gesture that indicated Madeline should step towards the door, he followed her. Exiting, he once again provided his security clearance and had her stand on the floor panel before allowing her to retrieve her cell phone. He then escorted her up the elevator and out into the lobby. “May I stop by again?” she asked, feeling the last vestige of her composure start to waver. “Of course,” Takeshi replied. “Mr. Tetsugawa indicated you are welcome to use the library at any time.” “Thank you. I will try to stop by around the same time tomorrow then,” Madeline said bowing deeply as a staff member approached with her umbrella. Coat still draped uselessly over her arm, Madeline exited the building, popping open her umbrella, but indifferent to the chill in the air. Cameron knew something was wrong as soon as he saw her step outside. She walked sluggishly, and although the heavy rain mercilessly assailed her with every empty step, he could smell certain emotions conflicting within her. A numbing shock was the best way to describe them, and it was agonizing for Cameron to wait for her to slide into the passenger seat of his car. After she tapped the end of the umbrella against the sidewalk, folded it up and set it at her feet on the rubber floormat, Madeline closed the car door. “What happened?!” Cameron asked anxiously, starting his car with the twist of his key in the ignition. Madeline raised her hand, directed him to wait as she retrieved her phone from her purse. Dialing her contact with a single screen press, she didn’t give herself time to overthink her question, knowing that the person she was calling was always brutally honest and straightforward. It rang only twice before Caslon picked up. “Cas? This is going to be a really awkward question, but I‘m trying to verify other information that I found out along with it, so here it goes… do you know a Karima Bassir?” Surprisingly unphased by her inquiry, Madeline listened to what Caslon had to say on the other end. “Nothing is wrong,” Madeline reassured him. “I promise I’ll call you back in a few hours and give you all the details. Will you be available? Thanks, Cas.” “What was all that about? And who’s Cas?” Cameron asked, pulling out of the parking spot. “He’s a trusted friend,” she responded, ending the call and slipping the cell phone back into her purse. “Taro’s family had information on him and his family, so I wanted to confirm whether it was true or not. The best way to do that is to go to the source. I also found the Fukushima information you wanted me to look for.” “Go on.” “The guy you introduced me to last night? He works under an alias, but I am sure you already know that. Has an older sister named Aoi who is considered a high-quality specimen by the Tetsugawa clan according to their notes. Goes so far as to say her brother is an unfortunate failure.” “Correct assumption, as cruel as it sounds,” Cameron confirmed as he made a turn at the stoplight. “Anything else interesting?” “Loads,” Madeline responded as she made herself comfortable in the seat. “They had four Orimura folders, though from what you told me, there should only be three.” “Four?” Cameron couldn’t hide his bewilderment. There should not be four. “Did you happen to catch the names?” “I didn’t want to bring attention to the fact I was looking at them, so no.” “There should only be three,” he reiterated, though mostly repeating the information to himself. “I’m going back tomorrow, so I’ll get the names then. I take it it’s crucial to know what they are?” “Yeah.” She was expecting some sort of resistance to her going to the library again, but he put up none, and was suddenly extremely quiet, deep in thought. After a couple of minutes of silence between the two, Madeline felt the need to tell him what other uneasy event occurred there. “I was escorted to the library by one of Taro’s V.I.P.’s, a man named Takeshi Mito,” she began. “He’s someone entrusted with updating records and information in the library. He was updating your folder.” “I have a folder?” Pulling onto one of the main arteries, Cameron drove in the direction of Madeline’s hotel. He needed to drop her off so he could head back home and make a call to the Elder. “Yes. Separate from the main McCaffrey folder. Only you and I have individual ones. I didn’t look through mine, or yours for obvious reasons, but I really want to know what he was writing in yours.” “Me too.” ------------------------------------------------------------- After seeing their guest off, Takeshi took the elevator up to the executive floor and made his way to Taro’s office. Opening the mahogany door, he stepped into the room quietly, so as not to disturb Mr. Tetsugawa, who was reading through some documents. “I take it things went well?” he asked Takeshi, only glancing up momentarily before etching his signature to paper with a flourish. “Yes, sir,” Takeshi responded. “And she did read through the Leviticus file as you predicted.” “Excellent. I assume she’ll be returning?” “Yes, sir. She indicated it would be around the same time tomorrow.” “After escorting Mr. Gideon from the airport early tomorrow morning, I plan on meeting her personally at the library when she arrives. I’m sure Mr. Gideon would be delighted to meet her as well.”
  8. Chapter Sixteen Our Lips are Sealed Madeline had the taxi driver drop her off a block away from her destination, and as she walked confidently down the sidewalk, bundled comfortably in a buttoned-up wool coat, she casually checked her appearance in the shop’s plate glass window. Having spent a good couple of hours getting herself model-worthy this morning, her makeup was impeccable. Her hair was styled into lovely, ribbon-like curls, and under her fashionable coat was a classy, sapphire-blue, sleeveless A-line dress. She was going to meet a world-class model, one who had won Levi over, so it was essential she looked her very best. Glancing down at her delicate silver wristwatch, Madeline noted with a certain amount of pride that she had arrived precisely on time. She had agreed to meet Cameron at a shop across the street from the multi-story office building that housed Aya’s talent agency. Earlier this morning, Cameron had called to give her Aya’s location, suggesting they meet at 11:00 a.m. So after meticulously preparing her outfit, hair, and makeup, Madeline sent Cameron the tracking app she’d promised and let him know she was activating it right before catching a taxi from her hotel, allowing him to test the accuracy for himself. This would be the only opportunity for Cameron to play around with the tracking technology because tomorrow was the day Madeline planned to visit Taro’s library. Walking into the quaint stationary shop, she was ambushed by the most unexpected vision. Browsing through the day-planners, Cameron was nearly unrecognizable. His spiky hair was toned down and softened into a classic quiff. Instead of his usual leather jacket and jeans, a crisp white collar and cuffs peeked out from beneath a navy blue, long-sleeved henley which silhouetted his muscular arms. Dark gray skinny jeans completed the look, along with a pair of carefully polished black dress shoes. He looked like he belonged in a boy-band, an impression that did not go unnoticed by the handful of schoolgirls pretending to peruse the notebooks nearby, only to rush off stifling their smitten giggles whenever Cameron glanced in their direction. “Wow,” Madeline gasped in disbelief, teasingly. “Had I not seen this with my own eyes I would’ve never believed it.” “You have no idea how much of a chore this is,” he replied with a husky sigh, giving a deceptively charming, and equally fake, smile. “I can imagine it’s not easy being in your position and looking so… pretty,” Madeline snickered. Madeline knew that a collection of specifically selected curse words were on the verge of tumbling off his tongue, but Cameron restrained himself. “I figured if I end up having to go in there to get you, it would be a lot easier getting in dressed like this,” he replied, indicating his attire. “I’ll behave myself. Promise.” The expression on Cameron’s face showed he didn’t have much confidence in her words. Nevertheless, he went over the building details with her. There were two possible service entrances that the agency's catering company could use. Because the building housed other businesses besides the talent agency, Madeline would have no issues waiting anywhere in the main floor lobby. Dressed to the nines, she planned on sitting closest to the entrance further back from the main street, while Cameron watched the one visible from the stationary shop. “I called the agency earlier,” Madeline informed, “Verifying that the order for Aya’s shoot was still being delivered today, so I guess all that’s left is to head over and get myself into her studio.” “I still don’t see why you’re so obsessed with talking to her,” Cameron commented, stopping Madeline in her tracks. “He’s not worth it.” Without responding, Madeline glanced down to the shop’s white floor tiles for a moment as if using the extra time to reign in a hopeless response, then simply looked up and gave Cameron a soft smile. Letting his shoulders drop, a sign he was giving up on talking her out of it, Cameron waved his hand at her in a gesture that told her to get going already. Checking her makeup with a compact mirror from her purse before she headed off to destiny, Madeline inhaled deeply. She had this. The lobby was spacious and busy, making it all the more easy for her to blend in. After she unbuttoned her coat and confidently settled into a plush, leather chair within close proximity to the back service entrance, Madeline removed her cell phone from her handbag, giving the impression she was engrossed in texting. Judging by the time, the truck could arrive anytime within the next hour, so Madeline began a casual routine of looking preoccupied with her phone alternating with taking out her compact to check her makeup and touch up her lipstick. Her phone rang. It was Cameron. “Truck is pulling into your entrance,” he said, keeping the call short and sweet. “Thank you, I’ll call you when I’m done,” Madeline replied pleasantly, keeping in her role. “Don't make me regret this.” Hanging up, Madeline slipped her phone back into her purse and stood, smoothing out her skirt. By the time she leisurely made her way to the back delivery entrance, the catered lunch was being wheeled in on carts by both the agency staff and the caterers. Putting on her best professional smile, she positioned herself into the freight elevator and rode up with the group to the floor where Aya’s photo shoot was staged. As Madeline exited the elevator right behind the caterers, she struggled to keep her anxiety in check. This wasn’t like contract work, it was a personal matter, and as she passed through the doorway into the spacious studio, there was a brief moment in which she wanted to turn around and leave, abandoning her chance to discover the truth. The only thing that stopped her, that kept her moving forward, was the fact that she knew she could never let it go without a substantial reason, which meant that if she withdrew now, she’d only find herself back for answers at some point in the future. Inside the studio, a variety of lighting and diffusion screens encircled a slightly elevated stage. Different fabric backdrops hung in the wings, but the one chosen for this particular shoot was a sunny blue sky, fuzzy with white circles reminiscent of dandelions. A buzz of people, each entrusted with different tasks, darted to and fro. Even with all the bustle, and the agency professionals swarming, it wasn't difficult to get within sight of Aya, who was standing on the stage, dressed in a lavender bikini. Trimmed in a flashy silver, the combination of colors was flattering against the glow of her healthy skin and silky black hair. Knowing Aya would have to leave the stage at some point to eat lunch, all Madeline could do now was wait for an opportunity. There was, however, one unexpected obstacle. Tiff. The pantherinae’s golden-brown eyes widened dramatically, then narrowed in suspicious frustration. At that same moment, an agency representative realized Madeline didn’t possess any credentials and headed to confront her. Aware that Madeline would get thrown out if she didn’t intervene, Tift fooled the rep with a smile, sidestepping him to approached Madeline first. Wrapping her long fingers tightly around the redhead’s bicep, Tift squeezed to the point of being purposely unkind. “Thank you for coming,” she lied audibly, leading Madeline toward a doorway at the rear of the studio. “I’ll show you to Ms. Yume’s private dressing room so you can prepare for the interview.” Madeline maintained her composure despite the uncomfortable pressure of Tift’s manicured nails digging into her upper arm, soon finding herself yanked into a long hallway behind the studio. “What are you doing here?” the brunette demanded through gritted teeth. “I was hoping to have a word with Aya. I needed to clear something up,” Madeline responded honestly, finally able to wrench her arm out of Tiff’s iron grasp. “What are you doing here?” “I’m Aya’s stylist and personal assistant,” Tiff revealed, still obviously unhappy as she continued to lead Madeline down the hall and through a door that had Aya’s name inscribed on the nameplate. “Sit, and I’ll go get her. Lucky for you, she usually takes lunch in her dressing room, so this isn’t going to look too suspicious. STAY PUT.” Madeline snapped rigidly to attention at Tiff’s brutal demand. “I won’t leave this room,” Madeline assured her immediately, realizing that even though Caslon and Tift were twins, Tiff was obviously the dominant one. The woman’s command of her surroundings was quake-inducing. Tiff clicked her tongue and grimaced, leaving Madeline in the room by herself. In the sterile silence of the dressing room, Madeline’s blue eyes couldn’t help but wander. There were a couple of rectangular tables flanked by folding chairs in the center of the room, which Madeline figured would be as good a spot as any to sit and wait. Removing her coat and laying it neatly over the back of one of the chairs, she took the seat next to it. Glancing around, she was curious as to what constituted the dressing room of a Japanese idol. There was a long, mirrored counter along one wall, explicitly for hair and makeup. A few makeup cases dotted the countertop, surround by some hair products and accessories which made the area look quite like an upscale salon. Positioned on the opposite end of the room was a pair of rolling z-shaped clothing racks stocked with all sorts of apparel in many different colors and fabrics. Madeline was tempted to walk over to take a look at the sizes, curious as any woman would be, but didn’t want to deal with Tiff’s temper should she be caught rifling through Aya’s things. About to take her phone out of her purse to let Cameron know she was safely inside and behaving herself, Tiff reappeared, this time with Aya, who was now wearing a luxurious thigh-length robe which covered her swimsuit. Madeline left her phone in her purse and immediately perfected her posture. Getting a better look than the brief glance she was afforded such a long time ago, she realized how beautiful Aya really was. Her glossy black hair reached nearly down to her petite waist and looked as though it had never experienced a single split-end. Her skin was poreless, and although it was enhanced by Tiff’s professional talent, there was no denying that the canvas was a work of art to begin with. Behind them, the caterers followed with trays of vibrant sushi accompanied by leafy green salads and ripe, peeled fruits. Tiff directed them to place the trays down on the table where Madeline was sitting, and then ushered them out of the room. “By the look you are giving me, it’s perfectly clear why you are here,” Aya spoke, light brown eyes studying Madeline from beneath thick ebony lashes as she approached the table and took a seat in front of her lunch. Unlike Levi, she had a very thick Japanese accent. Her candid observation of took Madeline by surprise. “Whatever do you mean?” the redhead asked, trying to appear ignorant. “You are assessing me,” Aya explained, glossy pink lips curving into a playful smile as Tiff took a seat next to her and began consuming her own lunch. “Oh, I’m being rude. Have you eaten already? I can get you something if you…” “No, I’m good,” Madeline replied, raising her hand in interruption. “You were saying?” “You’re evaluating me to see how you measure up. You are here about Levi, correct?” Knowing Madeline was going to consider her words carefully before she answered, the model wasted no time cracking apart a pair of chopsticks and lifting a piece of sashimi to her mouth. “Um, yeah,” Madeline replied. “I’m just trying to…” “Sort out your feelings?” Aya said bluntly, glancing at Madeline in between bites. This was not at all the way Madeline pictured this conversation going. She suddenly remembered she still needed to let Cameron know she had made it inside. The last thing she needed is for him to get antsy and rush in. “Pardon me, but do you mind if I text my friend really quick to let them know I’m here?” “Sure, whatever,” Tiff responded in Aya’s place, seeing as her mouth was full of fish. As she took her cell phone out of her purse, Tiff and Aya continued to eat at a brisk pace. Lunches in this industry must not be very long. Made it in. Talking to Aya right now. Will let you know when I’m done. Putting her phone away as swiftly as possible, she made a distinct effort to regain her composure and turned her attention back to Aya and Tiff. Taking a deep breath, she decided she was going to proceed truthfully, as embarrassing as that was going to be since the only person she had confessed her feelings for Levi to was herself, and even that took some doing. “Yes, I am trying to sort out my feelings. I didn’t realize you were aware of me.” “Levi told me all about you. About how he didn’t think you’d amount to anything, and yet you stuck it out, surprised him even, and here you are. He’s proud of you.” “Pr...proud of me?” “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?” Aya questioned, looking up from her sashimi with a kind, almost sisterly, expression. “I.. uh...” Madeline couldn’t put any words together. The flow of the conversation she had rehearsed in her mind depended on meeting specific parameters, none of which Aya had triggered. Next to Aya, Tiff gave a husky chuckle, as if she was having a ball watching this uncomfortable discussion unfold. Very different from Caslon. “Anyway, go on,” Aya continued. “Ask your questions. I have about thirty minutes left before I need to return.” Taking a deep breath, eyebrows still furrowed, Madeline silently went over the questions she had practiced in her head, realizing that they now all sounded out-of-place. “How long have you known Levi?” Madeline began. “I’ve known him since I was about three years old,” Aya answered in between bites of rice and fish. “He was a friend of my late uncle. Uncle told me that if I ever needed anything inconspicuous done, even things I didn’t want my own family to know about, Levi was the person to contact. The only condition being that I never admit to having hired him or gotten assistance from him in any way. That was also the condition which my uncle kept. Took to his grave actually.” “Didn’t you used to call him Ri-Ri?” Tiff mused. “Yes! Because I couldn’t pronounce his name when I was little,” Aya laughed. “I had almost forgotten about that. He used to hate that, but he put up with it.” She'd known Levi since she was a toddler? Wide-eyed, Madeline was not prepared for such a revelation, and it suddenly made their relationship very creepy, but no more delaying with niceties, it was time Madeline got to the point. She took a deep breath. “Are you and Levi dating?” Having finished with her lunch, Tiff leaned back and crossed her arms, an expression of relief mixed with annoyance shaped her features. “The illusion is perfectly convincing from the outside,” Tiff sighed, speaking to Aya and ignoring Madeline’s question, “But I didn’t think she’d be dumb enough to fall for it.” “Now, now,” Aya said, softly scolding the pantherinae at her side. “Stop being judgemental. You know that if you were in her shoes, you’d be just as confused.” “But I wouldn’t have wasted so much time guessing what was going on. I would have just asked you. Hell, I would have asked him before it even got to this point.” “What illusion are you talking about?” Madeline asked. “Levi isn’t dating Aya,” Tift said leaning forward towards Madeline across the table as she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I am.” Madeline slowly digested the words. Things that once made no sense suddenly started to become clear. Tiff’s apprehension tending to the bite Scott had inflicted. Levi’s sudden relationship with Aya after vehemently stating he was the type not to get into one. But why were Tiff and Aya going to such lengths to bury their relationship? Being gay was becoming more and more acceptable in society, and while they likely couldn’t flaunt it out in public given the chance that it might affect Aya’s career, they certainly didn’t need to employ Levi to utterly destroy the truth. “So the whole media fiasco is just a ruse?” Madeline asked. “Yes,” Aya replied quietly. “But what about his loft? I saw you two…” “We’re both felinae,” Aya answered, surprised that Madeline didn’t already know the answer to that question. “Unlike humans, physical contact doesn’t equate to sexual contact. I assume you’ve seen animals huddle together for warmth or safety?” “She must have never seen Cas sprawled out on Levi before,” Tiff laughed out loud. Apparently, Madeline missed out on that, and in a small corner of her otome-loving heart, she was disappointed. But guilty pleasures aside, that meant Levi was still unattached, and she found herself selfishly relieved. “But why go through the trouble?” Madeline asked. From her perspective, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. “I am the eldest child, so naturally I am expected to take my father’s place at the head of the corporation,” Aya began softly. “But I don’t want that. I have hopes of living a life of my own choosing, and in order to accomplish that, I must convince the board of directors that I am unfit to have the honor of leading the board into the future, so I am creating a particular reputation of being disgraceful. Besides, my little brother has a strong desire to be the one the board chooses. He has always been good with numbers and very much likes the corporate lifestyle. It would make him happy to have that position, and I would be happy to see him take it.” “So why not just come out?” Madeline suggested. “It sounds like that alone might be enough to ruffle some feathers.” “Maybe, maybe not,” Aya continued. “But I will not drag Tiff into this. I will not have the media make her a figurehead for any losses that might occur to the corporation should I come out. Gay and involved with a foreigner? The disdain would haunt us forever. But this way, I can take the responsibility on my shoulders alone. I alone can present myself as a loose woman. The board should find me unfit and unwelcome, they should turn to my brother who will do the company a great service, and then I will be able to fade away from the spotlight into obscurity, live with Tiff, and no one will care.” “And just so we’re clear, we’re telling you this in the utmost confidence,” Tiff warned sternly. “Until Aya’s family concedes the business to her younger brother, we will play this game. And now that you are aware, you’re going to play it too.” “Sure,” Madeline willing agreed, standing in full support of the pairing. “You can count on me.” “I barely know you,” Tiff responded, narrowing her brown eyes menacing. “Cas might think you’re adorable, and you may have earned Levi’s trust, but that doesn’t require me to accept your word at face value.” “Tiff, calm down,” Aya interjected, her expression showing disappointment in her partner’s actions. “I trust her too, and Levi doesn’t make mistakes with where he places his trust.” Turning her attention back to Madeline, Aya reached out her hand. “May I have your phone please?” she asked. After retrieving it from her purse, Madeline used her fingerprint to unlock it, then carefully typed in her security code and handed it to Aya. “I’m giving you my phone number,” she revealed. “If you need anything, or just feel like talking to someone, please call me. As much as I know about you, I can’t imagine anything in your life is easy anymore, and I am guessing you tend to bottle up everything. You need all the friends you can get.” “Ms. Yume, we’re ready for you,” came a woman’s voice through the door leading back toward the studio. “Thank you,” Tiff replied as she began to rise from her chair, taking her and Aya’s lunch containers to a tray the caterers had provided for recycling. “I’ve got to go now, Madeline,” Aya smiled as she nodded her head. “Be well.” “Thank you,” Madeline replied. “If there is anything I can do to help, call me okay?” With a glowing smile that left no doubt in Madeline’s mind why she was as successful as she was, Aya was escorted by Tiff out of the dressing room. Feeling much lighter than she had when she arrived, Madeline gathered her things and prepared to leave. ------------------------------------------------------------- About forty minutes earlier... Levi was quite surprised to receive notification on his cell phone that Madeline had activated a tracking chip on the same frequency they used for the blue diamond contract, and in Tokyo no less. His first thought was that the tech was malfunctioning, it was that much of a coincidence, but that was impossible. He always registered each chip he purchased, and this particular one was from a set he had gifted Madeline. It was pinging because she activated it. There could be no mistake. Sitting at the round, wooden table that butted up against his hotel room window, Levi pondered what course of action to take while overlooking the Shinjuku streets below. Slowly, he drummed his fingertips along the edge of his laptop. He’d been in the middle of composing an email to Maseo regarding a semi-permanent gig at a club other than the Golden Lotus, but that could wait. Although he’d been in Tokyo for about a month helping Aya stage a clever deception to get out of her inheritance, he had been with Maseo only a few days ago in England to celebrate the life of a friend on the anniversary of her passing. Levi had just arrived back in Tokyo yesterday, but in light of this recent development with the chip, he was regretting not coming back sooner. He’d been forcing himself to stay out of Madeline’s life, but it was difficult. Some nights it took a lot of whiskey to numb the urge to contact her, but he managed. But now she was here, practically in front of his face. Why? He focused his attention back on the tracker’s movement. It was clear she had gotten into a vehicle, and since her initial position coincided with a hotel, the vehicle was likely a taxi. It was when her destination became, with increasing probability, a particular location he was familiar with that he decided to intervene. Tossing a black parka over his white t-shirt, Levi slipped his cell phone, room key, and wallet into the front pockets. He wasn’t worried about Aya and Tiff. They could take care of themselves, and he was confident Madeline wouldn't do anything stupid. He was, however, extremely curious as to what event had led his former student there, if, in fact, that was indeed where she was heading. By the time he’d reached the ground floor and hailed a taxi outside of his Shinjuku hotel, Madeline had appeared to exit her taxi and was now walking across the street from the agency building. Judging by traffic, it was going to take Levi approximately ten more minutes before he reached the area. So while the taxi crawled through the city streets, Levi mapped out the businesses surrounding the agency, noting that Madeline had just stepped into a stationary store. Growing unexpectedly anxious, he watched on his app as she seemed to mill around inside for a bit before exiting and heading across the street. She was now inside the lobby of the agency building. As his taxi arrived across the street, in front of the shop she had been in moments ago, Levi ever so carefully pulled his faux-fur lined hood up, completely covering his face and hair before even considering stepping out of the vehicle. Inhaling the chilly winter air, he picked up her sweet scent immediately. It tugged at him, unearthing memories from more pleasant times, and dusting off moments of tranquility when he was simply being and not dwelling on past horrors or the uncertainties of the future. Closing his eyes for a second to refocus his attention on his surroundings, he could tell with certainty that Madeline was still in the agency building’s lobby. The last thing he wanted was to be spotted by her, so he decided to duck into the stationary store. As soon as the all-too-common retail door chime triggered, Cameron smelled a cat. Likewise, Levi picked up on the distinct aroma of a canidae. Refusing to show even the slightest hint of surprise, he lowered his hood and proceeded to leisurely make his way around the shop, browsing here and there. It was Cameron who approached first. “This is interesting,” he postured loftily. “Getting your panties in a bunch over your girlfriend?” Levi was taken aback by his remark. Which girlfriend was he actually referring to? Many women had passed through his life, so it was best not to assume he was talking about Aya, or Madeline for that matter, especially with a foreigner. Then he noticed the hair. This man had the same distinct hair color as the gun-toting stranger Madeline described the night she attempted to steal the pair of katana. “You assume to know me,” Levi retorted, “Yet I don’t believe we’ve met.” “We haven’t. I keep a low profile. Makes my life easier.” “Then why approach me? I don’t care to associate with dogs,” Levi toyed, purposely trying to get the man riled up. “Consider this me marking my territory then, pussy,” Cameron replied, lowering his voice to a growl. “Play your shitty little games elsewhere and leave Madeline alone, or I will make you regret ever laying eyes on her.” “Madeline?” Levi chuckled in disbelief. “So that is what this is about? Are you the new possessive boyfriend? Did she tell you about the last one? No matter. Rest assured, once I’m done with a meal, I don’t come back around to lick the plate.” Expecting his last remark to set this pup off, Levi was surprised to instead see this man loosen up and take a step back. With a satisfied smile, Cameron tilted his head to the side, regaining his boy-band cuteness once more. “That’s a relief to hear since I have a couple of gentlemen to introduce her to while she’s here. To make her forget all about an asshole like you.” Levi felt something within him begin to falter. He had convinced himself he left her for her own safety, certain that if he didn’t, someone would eventually harm her to get to him. It was common sense that if he wasn’t around, she wouldn’t get hurt. But buried deeper within was a fear of her fragility. Seeing her so wounded on that early morning months ago scared him. Staying away from her meant he never had to see her like that again. But the absence didn’t cause the worry to fade, it had quite the opposite effect. There were nights that he would never admit to in which he found himself alone in a dark place, drinking and ruminating over his decision. But that was the extent of it. He never once considered the possibility she could find happiness and forget him altogether. Real happiness, not the temporary, doomed-from-the-start fling she had with Scott. This canidae was a tough one, to know who Levi was and still stand unwaveringly against him. If the other men he spoke of were also canidae and just as confident, Madeline would be safe for sure, and given the loyalty canidae usually possessed, it was possible she could be blissfully happy for the rest of her life in a secure and loving relationship. She could even have a family. The reality of it started to make him ill. The sound of a vibrating cell phone interrupted their conversation “Ah, there’s the princess now,” Cameron smiled, retrieving his phone from his pocket. “Just one sec, I need to text her back. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her you’re here. She doesn’t need to know, right?” But Levi wanted her to know, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He never considered how keeping her at arm’s length would mean at some point she would be so far away that he could never touch her again. “And if it makes you feel any better, not that I really care, either way, I won’t be among one of the princes, although I will be permanently in her life seeing that she’s happy.” “What do you mean by that?” Levi asked. “Trying to take my place as her teacher?” “Nope. I’m much more important than that. I’m family.” Levi was not prepared for that. Not at all. “My name’s Cameron, by the way. You should already be very familiar with the last name.” Cameron McCaffrey. Levi committed it to memory, forcing himself to focus on getting back to his room and his laptop to verify it. He couldn’t lose face now. He wouldn’t allow Cameron the pleasure of seeing a very rare loss of composer. A sly expression spread back over his features, and he exuded an aura of relief. “Then her safety falls upon you,” Levi shot Cameron a deceptive smile and a warning. “I only hope that for her sake you are prepared, and can back up all your posturing with actual strength, because if you can’t meet every challenge as I have all these past years, she will die, and you will be to blame.” “Yeah, yeah… whatever you say,” Cameron replied, waving it off. Glancing at his own phone, Levi saw Madeline was still inside the building, but her position had changed, increasing the possibility she was with Aya and Tiff. So, ignoring Cameron, he pulled his fur-lined hood up and confidently sauntered out of the stationery shop, feeling the canidae’s eyes boring into the back of his head the entire way. Once back outside in the cold, Levi exhaled the tension that had built up in his body and began to walk briskly away from the scene. Madeline was here. He quickly began to deduce what on Earth could have possibly brought her. Taking his phone out of his pocket, he was surprised there wasn't a text from either Aya or Tift, so instead, he called Maseo. “Did you know Madeline was coming to Japan?” he asked, skipping the formality of a proper greeting. “Japan?” Maseo questioned, sounding shocked. “I knew she’d accepted a contract and was going to be out of town for a week. Left the wakizashi with us. But I didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. Did something happen?” “Not yet,” Levi answered, “But my instincts are telling me it’s only a matter of time. I’ll tell you more about it when I get back to my hotel. Ja ne.” Dialing another number, Levi took careful, observant glances at his surroundings from beneath the edge of his hood, and then tucked his phone against his ear once again. “What’s Madeline doing in Japan?” he asked his broker bluntly. “A minor task I offered her. In fact, she’s already completed it and is enjoying the rest of the week off, paid for, as part of her compensation,” the electronically modified voice on the other end replied. Hearing all he needed to hear, Levi ended the call and continuing on back to his hotel on foot. ------------------------------------------------------------- Alesdair, or Alex as he was known informally, stepped fearlessly out of his fae gate and into a miniscule clearing surrounded by lush forest. The field was so narrow in fact that the branches of the mature pines circling it reached inward almost far enough to completely block out the sunlight. The air here was invigorating, scented strongly with the aroma of the earth, very similar to his home in the Veil. Fidgeting with his hands, an uncommon thing for him to do, he stepped toward the unopposing gassho-style house tucked under and between the trees about fifty feet away. Before he reached the door, a man had stepped out. Standing at least a few inches taller than Alesdair, making him rather tall indeed, the Elder approached with determined steps, moving in such a way as if it would be impossible for him to ever be unsure in his footing. His limbs were thick with muscle, but not in a way as to make him appear bulky. With the sides of his hair gathered in a topknot, the rest of it hung slightly past his shoulders. At one time it was a crown of jet-black, but the passage of centuries breathed a peppering of silver into it. His face was like granite, mostly smooth but also etched with the lines of wisdom, experience, and loss. Tan skin was covered in simple clothing; a pair of well-worn jeans, and a hunter-green t-shirt. Not so surprisingly, he was barefoot. Almond-shaped eyes, a testament to his Asian heritage, softened when he saw his old friend. “Sorry that my visit comes under dire circumstances,” Alesdair apologized, blue eyes flit with worry. The Elder gestured through the open door to his house, where a warm fire blazed, inviting Alesdair inside. “Come inside,” he offered, “I prepared some tea for you.” “Thank you.” Getting settled in the Elder’s home, Alesdair sank comfortably into one of the armchairs, tea in hand, and began to clarify his dilemma. “As I mentioned yesterday,” he started, “I think there is some unforeseen issue with the necklace.” He looked straight into the Elder’s eyes, all semblance of his usual lackadaisical and playful attitude gone. “This could be very, very bad.” The Elder nodded in sympathy, and then shared what he knew, even knowing it would make his friend even more distraught. “I spoke to Cameron yesterday, and she was in Aokigahara around the time you called me.” “Death mountain?” Alesdair inhaled sharply, his eyes wide with panic. “Yes.” Alesdair fell silent. She should be able to go anywhere, even places fae would not dare travel. Aokigahara was once such place. The aura of death was so thick in that forest that it literally suffocated life. Fae, with their unshakable link to the life and magic of the earth, found Aokigahara akin to a vacuum. Life magic did not exist there. Oh, things grew there; trees, moss, insects and the like, but it was void of earth energies. If a fae were to enter, it would be like drowning, not in water, but in tar. Alesdair unconsciously rubbed the side of his ribcage with his free hand. That small part of himself that he gave up for the necklace had felt the full effect of Aokigahara. As crippling as it was, he wondered what Madeline had endured, if anything. “Was she in pain?” “If she was, she didn’t mention it to Cameron,” the Elder replied. “I need for you to ask your pup to find out,” the fae replied. “He needs to collect every detail. It is imperative. If I’ve somehow made a mistake, and there is a flaw in the necklace, I will need to take action immediately.” “I understand why you are worried, Alex,” the Elder began, “But don’t you think she’s strong enough not to have to depend on its protection anymore? She’s built a formidable circle of friends, and we’ll certainly keep an eye on her too.” “Her kidnapping was not random,” Alesdair reminded. “But because I don’t know who was behind it, I don’t know if the friends you speak of are capable enough of acting as a deterrent against any future attempts.” The Elder grimaced, looking offended. “I know you are capable,” he reiterated, “But we both know you can’t just be hanging around her all day and night, can you?” Alesdair was right. The Elder had his fill of the world. He was tired of walking it, tired of participating in the game that never changed. History only repeated itself. Too many good people die, and too many bad people flourish. He'd had enough of it. “Let’s say for argument's sake you find a flaw. How are you going to fix it?” the Elder asked somewhat sarcastically. “Give up more body parts?” “If I must.” The Elder sighed. “I respect your decisions, Alex, but sometimes you just have to let things follow their own course to their own conclusion. You forget she has one of my swords in her possession. She fought with my daughter, so I too am wondering who knows enough about her to have purposely arranged to get my weapon into her hands and if it’s the same person involved in her kidnapping. But Alex, fixing an issue with the necklace isn’t going to erase the events that have already been set in motion. Whoever knows is still gonna know.” “Unless they got bored of the whole thing and moved to a different distraction. My kind does that all the time.” “I’m aware, but you are assuming that only fae have a hand in this whole thing. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I must admit, I’m surprised you’ve stayed on top of this whole situation as seriously as you have.” “This is… important,” Alesdair said sadly. “Yes, I know,” the Elder sympathized, lowering his voice as well. “Let me give Cameron a call and see what he can get from her. Did you want to wait around? I was going to grill up some fish for dinner.” “I’m afraid I’ve been absent too long already,” Alesdair declined. “Perhaps when this is all over, we can have an evening of feasting and drinking, and finally get caught up?” “Yes. I would like that,” the Elder agreed, giving Alex a reassuring smile. “Well then,” Alesdair said as he rose from the comfort of the armchair, taking a deep and hopeful breath. “I shall await your call. I have been keeping that cellular phone on my person, by the way.” The Elder laughed weakly. “In that case, I will let you know the moment I get some information. Just don’t forget to keep it charged.” “I will, and thank you.” Giving a regal bow, Alesdair excused himself from the house and made his way back through the fae gate.
  9. Chapter Fifteen Remake Settling in lengthwise on her sofa, Madeline draped a snuggly-soft, charcoal-colored, wool throw over her legs and grabbed the novel she had cracked open a few days ago. She’d hoped to read undisturbed for the next couple of hours, but it was only mere minutes before the sound of an email alert interrupted her. She wasn’t expecting anything, and selfishly hoped it was Levi even though she knew better by now. It had been a couple of months since she last saw or heard from him, and although Caslon and Maseo both confirmed on multiple occasions that he was fine and she should move on with her life, she just wasn’t able to put him in her past. Tossing off the blanket, she begrudgingly got up to check her laptop. There was an unanticipated email from her broker. I would like to contract you personally for a travel and delivery job. A personal request? Madeline thought. How odd. Suspicious, Madeline inquired for more information. I need you to travel to Japan to deliver flowers to a grave in Aokigahara. My assistant is unavailable this year, so I am looking to outsource it. I usually arrange his flight, transportation, and lodging for a week so he can do some shopping and sightseeing after the delivery, and would extend that same offer to you. What do you say? Madeline quickly searched the internet to map the location. That’s a forest Northwest of Mount Fuji. She clicked back into her email, fingertips poised to respond until she noticed a particular set of search results flooding her browser. Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide forest. Well, I suppose bringing flowers to a grave in a forest known for suicides isn’t too unusual, Madeline thought to herself. The job was pretty straightforward, and there didn't seem to be anything remotely dangerous about it. Whatever the broker’s reasoning for not delivering the flowers personally was none of Madeline’s business. Not to mention, she’d never been to Japan, and outside of the delivery, it would be like a paid week off. She was comfortable with the language, and there was a decent amount of temples and historical places she wouldn’t mind visiting. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more reasons she had for going. I accept. Please forward all pertinent information. ------------------------------------------------------------- Looking out of the oval window, Madeline gave a thankful sigh as the jet’s wheels gently touched the tarmac, and the plane forcefully braked to a low roll with nothing more than a couple of bumps. It was a little after 2:45 p.m. local time, and although the business class seat her broker had booked for her was extremely comfortable and reclined into a bed, the redhead was much too excited to get a decent amount of sleep on the flight. She had been reading up on tourist destinations for weeks, planning where to go and what determined a must-see location. She was going to relax, go at her own pace, and thoroughly enjoy the cuisine. Stretching, she decided to let the majority of passengers pass by in the aisle, taking time to gather her belongings and pack them safely away. When she stepped out of the jet bridge into Haneda International Airport, the first thing Madeline noticed was the lack of carpeting. Compared to other airport terminals she had visited, it had a very sanitized and industrial feel to it. Rolling her carry-on down the white-speckled, black tiles, she checked the overhead arrival display to get her baggage carousel number. Just a bit longer, she told herself, Then I can get to the hotel and get dinner and some sleep. Her red hair managed to attract a fair amount of attention as she waited among the crowd for the luggage to emerge. Nothing rude, just curious glances. Smiling, she would offer a polite bow of her head and say good afternoon in Japanese, drawing friendly smiles. She only had to wait briefly for her two suitcases to make their way around the steel conveyor belt. As she pulled them off the baggage carousel and placed them onto a nearby luggage cart, unwinding at the hotel seemed finally within reach. All she had to do now was head downstairs and catch a taxi. But as soon as she entered the arrival lobby, she could feel a set of eyes on her. Casually holding a dry erase board with the words M. McCaffrey written on it, was a familiar, yet nameless, man. She remembered his spiky, amber-colored hair, and in the bright light of the airport, it was now clear that his dark roots matched her own. His features were much more angelic than she would have guessed, making him out to be more innocent than she knew him to be. Wearing the same leather jacket he had on outside the Orimura house the night of the katana job, there was no doubt in Madeline’s mind that this was that gunman. His baby blue eyes were locked on her purposefully as he waited to catch her full attention. She ran through multiple scenarios in her head. Was this a trap? Did the broker set her up? Doubtful. If this man meant her harm, he would have waited until she left the airport, avoiding security entirely. He certainly would not have gotten her attention first with a sign, showing travelers nearby her actual name. This stranger was trying to arrange a meeting, and consciously putting forth the effort not to spook her. But how did this person even know she was coming? Madeline realized she hadn't booked under an alias, so anyone knowing her name and having the ability to access passenger information would know when she was coming. So either the broker shared that information, or the “interested third party” this person represented was keeping tabs on her whereabouts. Either way, much like Taro Tetsugawa, this third party was another piece occupying the gameboard she’d been placed upon, but the odds were firmly in her favor that this gunman was not here to hurt her. Relaxing her posture a bit seemed to signal to this man that it was okay to approach. “Have a good flight?” he asked in a husky voice that carried a hint of tobacco, placing his hand on the handle of the larger of her two suitcases and removing it from the luggage cart. “And you would care because…?” “Because I’m trying to be fucking nice,” he responded blatantly, turning from her and heading in the direction that the international terminal parking sign indicated. “I’m Cameron.” Removing her other suitcase from the cart, she towed it beside her opposite her rolling carry-on and followed reluctantly after him. “So where are you planning on taking me, Cameron?” Madeline caught up with him, making a point to emphasize his name. “I’m here on business, so if I don’t check in when and where I’m expected, flags will be raised.” “Oh I’m well aware of your business,” Cameron replied with a throaty chuckle. “In fact, I’m going to be shadowing you. You can think of me as your bodyguard.” “No,” Madeline said defiantly as she stopped walking. “You are not. I don’t need a bodyguard.” “Just the fact that you are saying that tells me you have no fucking idea what’s going down,” he laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “Aren’t you even the bit curious why I’m here? Why you’re my contract?” “Your contract?” Madeline repeated, surprised, but she didn't show it outwardly. “Are you fucking serious?” “I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” he confirmed. “So you can taxi your ass to your hotel by yourself and take your chances, or I can drive you to your hotel in my car, and you can find out more about your ancestors.” Turning his back to her once again, he walked out through a pair of automatic glass doors, and out over a skybridge, her large suitcase still in his grasp. Her ancestors? He had information about that? She already knew she was somehow related to the Orimura clan, but if he had more than that, it would definitely be in her best interest to hear him out. It wouldn’t be considered digging if someone flat out told her, right? Surely that wouldn’t incur anyone’s attention. “Wait the hell up,” she relinquished as she started after him. Madeline sensed no ill intentions from Cameron, not here at the airport, nor the night of the katana job. The fact that he specifically took the heaviest suitcase rather than the lightest off the cart was a subtle hint at his character. Not to mention he wasn’t mincing words or feigning politeness. He was straightforward with how he addressed her. He wasn’t threatening or lecherous, but was, in fact, dauntless and fiery. It took about ten minutes of walking in uncomfortable silence to arrive at Cameron's car. Madeline was not expecting what she saw. It was a gorgeous Mazda; sleek, black, and customized. “This is a surprise.” “Are you trying to be funny?” he asked as he popped the trunk and placed her bags inside. “This is for your convenience. I prefer to take my motorcycle.” “Nope. I just wasn’t expecting something this nice.” “No wonder you’re single,” Cameron mumbled under his breath, too low for Madeline to hear as she slipped into the passenger seat. After closing the trunk, Cameron got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “Go ahead and put the name of your hotel in,” he instructed, pointing to the GPS navigator built into the dashboard. “That way you can watch where I’m taking you.” “I still don’t know what makes you think that I am just going to trust you,” Madeline remarked as she leaned forward in her seat and set the course. “Well, I have some things to tell you that will change your mind about that, but not until we get you checked in and fed. Then you’ll need a drink, or four. But in the meantime, open the glove box.” Following his instructions, Madeline couldn’t believe what she saw inside. “This is so illegal. How do you even manage to have one?” “Connections,” he smirked as he backed his car out of its parking space and headed to the exit and main roadway beyond. “It’s loaded, and the safety is on. I figured I’d have to give you a huge insurance policy on me, seeing as I am currently a stranger to you. This way, if you feel I’m a danger to you, you have the power to shoot me, plain and simple.” “Are you fucking crazy?” Madeline asked out loud, shocked. “Not any more than you are,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the road. Point taken. Closing the glove box, Madeline leaned back in the bucket seat and turned her head to look out the window. The unfamiliar scenery scrolled past whimsically as if she was watching a travel documentary and not actually here in Japan. Thankfully, Cameron said nothing more, he just turned on some Japanese rock music and let her sight-see through the glass. They arrived at her hotel in about thirty minutes. After Madeline checked in at the front desk, Cameron helped her secure her luggage in the room, then they both proceeded to go looking for something to eat. Madeline suggested something simple and convenient at the hotel restaurant, but Cameron forbid it, making her start to feel like a hostage rather than someone who supposedly needed a bodyguard. “Eating there would have been wise,” she furthered her argument, grumpy to be outside walking rather than inside eating. “You do realize I’ve been on an airplane for an unGodly number of hours, right? I thought bodyguards were supposed to respect the wishes of the person they are guarding?” “Are you kidding?” Cameron responded in disbelief as they walked down a sidewalk bustling with locals. “How many times have you been to Japan? Wait. Let me answer that for you. Never. And you want to eat hotel food? Un-fucking-believable.” “And you know better?” “Of course I do. I live here. And I’m hungry, so I’m taking you to one of my favorite izakaya. You need food and drink that will comfort your soul. A hotel restaurant isn’t going to give you that.” “Wait just a second,” Madeline said as she grabbed him by the arm and forced him to stop. “I don’t know where you’re dragging me off to, and you still haven’t given me any information like you promised. All you’ve been doing is barking at me.” “Funny you should say that,” Cameron grinned devilishly, raising Madeline’s suspicions. Turning, he pointed at one of the many trees planted between the sidewalk and the road. “See that? That’s me...” “You’re a tree,” Madeline interrupted flatly, crossing her arms unamused. “For fuck’s sake woman, let me finish.” Sighing, Cameron continued. “See that large, sturdy branch that comes out from the trunk of the tree directly? That’s me. And that scrawny twig poking out from that thin branch on the other side is you. Our family tree is the same; we just come from two different offshoots.” Madeline’s eyes widened. Was he joking? “So you’re an Orimura?” she asked lowering her voice and stepping closer to him for increased privacy. Cameron laughed loudly and ran a hand through his spiky hair. “No. I’m not one of them.” Seeing the look of confusion on her face as she tried to figure out if Maseo was misinformed, Cameron elaborated with a whisper. “I’m a McCaffrey.” Her dumbfounded expression was definitely worth all Cameron’s trouble. “See this here?” Cameron continued, tapping the base of the tree with his leather combat boot. “This is the Elder. He’s an Orimura. One of the only three. The trunk diverges here, where Lady McCaffrey entered the picture. She was one very badass canidae. The offspring she had with the Elder are our ancestors, except my side over here is thick and strong from breeding only canidae to canidae, and well yours… yours just bred with whomever. Mostly humans. So you don’t have a hell of a whole lot of Orimura blood in you. Nowhere near enough to produce even the faintest canidae scent.” Maseo was spot on about the small percentage; he just didn’t know all the details. “So we’re related?” Madeline asked, arching her brow. “Yes, we’re related,” Cameron confirmed, pulling out his wallet to show her his residence card. “You have to admit; there is a resemblance. And I’ve been watching over you longer than that dickhead cat friend of yours. Who do you think reported your kidnapping?” “You?!” “Yeah. The Elder had me watching you.” “Why?” “To be honest, I don’t know, but he does have us watching some of the non-canidae descendants from time to time. I don’t know why you were kidnapped. Not sure the Elder knows either, and if he does, he’s not sharing it with the rest of us.” “Rest of us?” “His pack,” Cameron elaborated. “The Elder has a hand-chosen pack of his descendants. I’m his beta.” Madeline looked down at the pavement as they resumed their journey, thinking careful over what Cameron had told her. Seeing her heavy contemplation, he chose to remain quiet and let her digest it all. She could see a slight resemblance if she looked close enough, especially in the hair color and the facial structure, though Cameron’s eyes were a very light blue, and hers were more of a dark, stormy blue. And there was the swearing, but she wasn’t sure if that would classify as hereditary. She had no reason to doubt he was watching over her, especially since he’d already saved her from an early demise once already. She did, for a moment, wonder why Levi wasn’t able to determine it was Cameron that night, especially given the last name, but then again she didn’t exactly provide him with a decent description. But apparently, Cameron knew about Levi. “So you think Levi’s a dickhead, huh?” Madeline asked, putting her hands in her pockets to keep them insulated from the biting winter air as they walked. “Of course I do. All he thinks about is himself, stealing, and women, in that order - for like hundreds of years. The guy never changes.” “You talk as if you’ve been around as long as he has.” “Me? Nope. There are no McCaffreys with enough Orimura blood in them to give them immortality. I’m just speaking from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by the Elder.” “Well, I think you’ve misjudged Levi,” Madeline defended. “He’s not like that. He always tries to do good, and he’s never lied to me. I trust him with my life.” Cameron stopped in his tracks, annoyed by her last remark, but didn’t turn to face her. “So tell me, where is he now? And why am I here keeping an eye on you, and not him? Whether you realize it or not, you put yourself in danger by coming to Tokyo. He would know that. He should have stopped you. But he can’t do that if he’s abandoned you, can he? You say you trust him with your life, but have you ever asked yourself if your life has any value to him?” Madeline’s gaze faltered, dropping abruptly to the concrete once again. The truth was, Levi didn’t want his enemies going through Madeline to get to him. However, she couldn’t tell anyone that. Yet was Levi’s primary concern her safety? Or maintaining the reputation he wasn’t weak? Considering he left her in no one’s care, it was getting harder to justify the former. “Let me tell you then,” he continued, not waiting for the half-assed excuse she would come up with if he gave her enough time. “He’s been too busy carousing the city with a model named Aya Yume. The paparazzi have been having a field day with all the public displays of affection they’ve been able to photograph over the past month or so. Oldest Daughter of Business Mogul Behaving Improperly - it’s quite the scandal…” As Cameron finally turned around, the satisfied grin he had on his face from bad-mouthing Levi faded into a frown once he saw tears welling up in Madeline’s faraway look. Taking a few steps toward her, he wrapped an arm tightly around her shoulders, bringing her close in a rough, brawny hug. “Geezus,” he whispered, “I honestly didn’t think you were in love with that asshole. Not sure why McCaffrey women always seem to fall for guys that are nothing but trouble.” She didn’t fight him, just let him comfort her firmly as they walked through a doorway, ducking under the noren as they entered the izakaya. “Ah, Cameron-sama,” the gentleman behind the long counter that ran almost the full length of the space greeted, seeing his regular customer passing through the threshold. “A date?” “Family,” Cameron and Madeline replied in unison, both speaking Japanese. “Ah, I see,” the gentleman replied in kind, keeping the same friendly smile. The izakaya was long and narrow with a bar top taking up much of the available space, but the pronounced wood decor and the dim lighting allowed for a cozy atmosphere, one that Madeline easily melted into as Cameron led her to a seat. She stared blankly at the cookware, glasses, and bottles kept on shelves behind the bar, and the carefully written chalkboard menu, but saw none of it. Her mind was elsewhere. Was that really what Levi had been up to? She remembered the girl he had in his room that one afternoon. Her name was Aya. Was this the same person? Was she the reason he couldn’t be bothered with something as trivial as answering her texts? Was Madeline that inconsequential to him? Would it have killed him to send her a text, or reply to an email? Would it have killed him to wish her well on Christmas Eve? Cameron ordered himself a beer and then asked Madeline what she wanted. “Whatever is fine,” she replied unemotionally. She didn’t pay attention to what he ordered but was looking forward to drinking whatever it was, and in large quantities. As the drink was placed in front of her, she lifted it numbly to her lips and took a sip. It had a bit of a hard cider flavor about it, but a lot stronger. It was crisp and sweet and happily didn’t taste like umeshu, which she suddenly found herself repulsed by the thought of. “Shōchū with bit of seltzer and fresh apple juice,” Cameron enlightened her. “Thank you.” “So your job is tomorrow, eh?” Cameron asked, taking another swig of his beer as the bartender set a couple of plates of yakitori down in front of them. “How did you know that?” she asked, although the tone of her voice was so brooding that it didn’t sound like she cared what his response would be. “Just by the date,” Cameron replied honestly. “When we caught the fact you were flying in, we figured it had something to do with the date, especially since you didn’t know Levi was here. You’re not the type to make impulsive trips unless it's for business, so I’m to see that you’re safe while you’re here. The date is significant to a certain group of individuals, the Elder included, but not all of them are nice people. You’ve already met Taro Tetsugawa, and the fact that he took time out of his ridiculously busy schedule to bother himself with you back in the States is very suspicious. We don’t think it's a coincidence that you were offered a job to come here.” “Well, after tomorrow I’ll have the next six days off before my flight leaves.” “Cool. Then I can show you around. Maybe take you to a host club. That’ll take your mind off that fucker.” “You dislike him a lot, huh?” Madeline mumbled, taking another sip of her drink. “Do I need any more reason than he’s disrespected a McCaffrey?” Cameron asked. “You’re not intimidating, but you're still family.” “I may not be as powerful as you, but I am in no terms weak.” “Of course you’re not. None of us are. I did mention that Lady McCaffrey was a badass, right? Well, it’s a consistent ancestral trait. Anyways, enough about Levi. I’m going to show you around, and you’re going to have a great time.” As the two ate and drank, Cameron began to tell Madeline the story of Lady McCaffrey. About how she was so beautiful and tenacious, with her flowing red hair and brilliant blue eyes, that the Elder couldn’t keep his emotions in check. About how she was the alpha of her tribe, able to beat any man she came across until she met the Elder. It was a remarkable story, almost sounding too much like a twisted fairy tale than something that genuinely happened. When asked about what happened to such an amazing woman, Cameron simply replied that she never stayed too long in one place, her spirit was too wild, but she lived a long and adventurous life, passing away at a very old age. After filling up on skewered meats and edamame, Madeline let Cameron know she needed to head back to the hotel. She was beat from the long flight and planned on turning in earlier than normal, making sure she’d be rested enough to be at her peak for the delivery job the next day. Without the slightest complaint, Cameron paid their tab and escorted her safely back to the hotel. “Let’s exchange numbers,” he suggested as they entered the warmth of the lobby. “That way you can reach me if you need anything, and at least let me know when you get back from your job tomorrow. No pressure, but remember I am here to back you up if you get into anything dangerous.” “Sure,” Madeline agreed, not seeing any harm in it. She’d been looking all evening for a reason, any reason, to be suspicious of him but came up empty. There was simply nothing about him that made her feel even the slightest bit uneasy. “I’ll call you sometime tomorrow evening, that’s when I expect to be back.” Nodding, Cameron slipped his cell phone back into the pocket of his leather jacket and waved goodnight before heading out to the hotel’s parking garage to drive home. Finally alone, Madeline entered her room and began unpacking her suitcases. Knowing how exhausted she was, she made sure to set the alarm clock before taking a greatly anticipated hot shower. Then, crawling into bed, she fell into a deep sleep almost immediately. ------------------------------------------------------------- Late the next morning, Madeline prepared herself for her contract job. After setting the single-serving coffee maker brewing, she laid out a pair of comfortable jeans and a creamy-white sweater on the second bed. It was winter, and the temperature would be in the upper 30s near the mountain. By her calculations, it was going to take quite some time to hike to her destination, and being out in the elements meant making sure she was warm and protected. She didn’t realize she’d made a mistake by turning on the television to provide some background noise until she heard Aya Yume’s name. As soon as she glanced up at the screen, Madeline was accosted by a reporter's photograph of Aya locking lips with Levi. It was him. There was no mistaking it. The anchorwoman went on to comment on Aya’s lack of decorum and how her actions would “surely affect the reputation of her family's companies should she be appointed CEO.” The months of silence between herself and Levi had forced Madeline to realize that not only did she love him, but that she'd have to learn to live with the void he left in her heart. Not having him in her day-to-day life helped numb the pain. She hadn’t been prepared to be blindsided by such a visual. This hurt. Is this really why you left? Shaking her head violently, Madeline had to let this anguish roll off. The flowers would be arriving at any moment, and the car her broker arranged to drive Madeline to Aokigahara would be out front at 3 p.m. sharp. She calculated it would take less than an hour and a half to get there, and approximately the same to get back, but she wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take her to walk to the gravesite. She had the coordinates, but the terrain was uneven, so it was a wildcard. She had told Cameron to meet her for dinner at 8 p.m. just to play it safe. It was only about ten minutes later that two delicately wrapped floral bouquets, arranged explicitly for presentation at a grave, arrived via messenger. Setting them carefully on the smooth surface of the in-room workstation, Madeline slipped into her hiking boots then grabbed a backpack containing her phone, credit card, passport, incense sticks, and a compass. After putting on her hip-length, black coat, she slung the backpack over her shoulder and headed down to the awaiting vehicle outside of the hotel. The driver opened her door explaining that he had brought the customary ladle, as well as a small scrub brush and bottled shrine water. The drive out was a quiet and contemplative one. Madeline didn’t have much to occupy herself other than thinking about Cameron, about Levi, and her link to the Orimura clan. Letting the sound of classical music being played by the driver act as a soundtrack to her thoughts, she watched as the fog-blanketed hills roll by. She should have immediately addressed the fact that something wasn’t right the moment she stepped out of the car. There was a tension in her chest that hadn’t been there a moment ago. A foreboding feeling that stifled her breath. It wasn't quite the same sensation as being watched, but closer to feeling unwelcome, as if some larger and more imposing presence was applying pressure directly to her spirit. Giving a passing glance to the driver, the calm bow he gave coupled with how he unassumingly notified her he would wait until she returned, indicated he was oblivious to the atmosphere she found herself struggling with. After removing her cell phone and compass from the backpack, she slipped them both into the deep front pockets of her coat. Setting the jug of water, the ladle, and the scrub brush inside her backpack, she zipped it up and slid her arms through the straps, pulling the tethers snug. She paused for a few seconds trying to decode the unease weighing down on her. What was this feeling? The road behind her vibrated with the occasional car, but the forest ahead of her was quiet and still. Not even the chirping of birds could be heard. It was cloudy, and although she wasn’t a meteorologist, Madeline guessed the silence might be due to the threat of rain. Perhaps the animals were taking shelter because they sensed the coming downpour that Madeline could not. The air she took into her lungs as she slipped her hands into a pair of warm gloves was crisp and clean, typical of what she would expect with so much greenery around. Flowers in hand, she pressed past the No Entry sign chained to the trail head. Finding the grave was going to be a challenge, but she was confident in her capabilities. She only needed to get to the set of coordinates the broker had given her, with the promise that her cell phone service would hold out at least until then, at which point Madeline would head directly Southeast for a quarter of a mile. Cradling the two bouquets in her left arm, she retrieved her cell phone from her pocket so she could keep an eye on her GPS coordinates. After twenty minutes of walking down a well-worn trail, she reached a point where she would have to leave the path. Carefully setting down the flowers, Madeline retrieved a baby-blue scarf from her backpack. Not only did the deathly quiet maintain its presence over her, but there was also now a soul-chilling cold which permeated from the trees, seeping through her heavy coat. Madeline hoped the scarf would provide more warmth, but it did so minimally. Picking up the flowers once again, she placed her phone back into her pocket and stepped off the trail. Being aware of the general direction she needed to travel allowed her to concentrate on her footing. With every step, she felt as if she was walking on a brittle wicker basket. The ground off the main trail was worlds apart from the well-compressed footpath she’d been on. The unevenness was due to layers upon layers of snake-like vining roots, fallen branches, and hundreds of years of fallen leaves. It was spongy, slippery, and even though it was still early in the afternoon, it was hard to see the spaces in between the foliage which harbored the deepest holes. It would be easy to take a wrong step and end up knee-deep, caught in a nature-made trap with the risk of twisting an ankle, or worse. Aside from scanning the ground before her, and feeling how it distributed her weight as she advanced, she noticed a bright pink ribbon tied around one of the branches she passed. Ribbons, she had read, were like breadcrumbs used to find one’s way out of the forest. Those who came to this forest to take their own lives used ribbons to find their way back to civilization in case they had a change of heart. But did this particular ribbon mark a journey to death or a return to life? Madeline’s chest continued to constrict. She didn’t want to come across anything else in these woods. Not tents, or discarded umbrellas, or personal affects - nothing. Hands shaking, she removed her phone from her pocket to check her location. Almost there. Glancing back in the direction she had come, the well-worn trail was a distant memory, swallowed up by the curtain of trees surrounding her. At that moment, she could sense why people came here to die. This forest didn’t feel like it belonged in this world. It felt like an entity patiently watching from the shadow of every tree, and from beneath every moss blanketed root like a venomous creature which had already poisoned its victim and was now awaiting their last breath. Turning back toward her GPS destination, Madeline estimated she only had about two hundred feet more before she would need the compass. A quarter mile. I can do this. It’s just a forest. I’m letting rumors freak me out. Madeline knew it was critical she pay close attention to her direction and the compass. If she messed up… No. That was not an option. Shaking the thought away, she walked on. A quarter mile wasn’t a great distance, but uphill through tightly grouped trees and gnarled roots made it hard to stay in a straight line and still make good time. And her hands would not stop shaking. The altitude wasn’t that high, yet Madeline's breathing discomfort was increasing, and a horrible, horrible feeling churned in her gut. Disparity. Loneliness. Heartbreak. For a brief moment, she wondered if Levi felt like this when he had to deal with the misery of others. Before she could think about him any further, the sensation crushed more heavily on her spirit as if it was trying to punish her for her thoughts. She couldn’t wait to get this over with and go back to the car. “Why are you unclear?” The sudden whisper in her ear made her lose her footing. She stumbled towards one of the more massive tree trunks to catch herself, almost crushing the flowers she was holding in the process. The voice, if she could even call it that, was crystal clear and spoke in Japanese, yet there was no breath, or gender, to it. Holding her breath, she remained still, listening for footsteps. In this forest, it was impossible for anyone to approach on foot without being heard. Unless they weren’t earthbound. Recovering her footing she continued, albeit shaken, in the direction the compass was leading her in. There were no more voices as she approached the grave, but her nerves were now prickling as her stomach continued to churn. Then, at last, she reached her destination. The gravestone was not in a clearing as she’d pictured it in her mind, but at the base of a medium-sized tree. It's dark marble foundation rose out of the tangled roots to a height of about three feet, perfectly level into the verdant slope. There were two steel vases set into each front corner, filled with the withered remains of last year’s bouquets, and between the vases were two recessed cylinders in which she was to place the incense. Adjoined atop the marble foundation was a two-foot tall onyx obelisk, its surface void of any name, leaving it a mystery as to who was buried here and why. Slipping the compass back into her front pocket, she removed her gloves and began to retrieve the supplies from the backpack. She set the brush on the marble and poured some water from the jug into the ladle. Pausing for a second to clear her head, Madeline wanted to be in a state of reverence. Whomever this person was, they deserved the respect of a proper cleaning and flowers, not some unnerved girl that was in a rush to leave the forest. She tipped the ladle slowly over the top of the onyx, letting the purified water bathe the stone before she began to scrub with the brush. “You are distorted. Vibrating,” came the whisper again, right in Madeline’s head. “I can not see your face. Why?” Her paprika-red hair fanned out as she whipped her head around, but there was absolutely no one there. Could this be a ghost? She had yet to come face to face with one, so she couldn’t be sure, but so many people had taken their own lives in this forest that it would certainly increase the odds. If that was the case, she remembered from her training that she had nothing to fear. Common ghosts couldn’t do direct harm, and there was nothing in the vicinity that could be affected by psychokinesis resulting in injury to her person. Pouring more water, she continued to scrub until the stone was free of all the dirt and moss that had gathered since last year. She then placed each bouquet into their respective vases, filling each with the remaining water from the jug. Reaching into her bag, she removed the small box containing the incense. The broker gave her specific instructions - three sticks in each censer. After lighting them together, Madeline gently blew the flame out and separated them into two sets of three sticks. Placing them in the censers, she clapped her hands together in prayer, prepared to offer the deceased the best wishes of her broker. “WHAT ARE YOU HIDING??!!” The scream caused Madeline to topple over, covering her ears tightly. Unlike earlier, this frustrated screech pierced painfully into Madeline’s skull. It was so terrifying and nauseating that Madeline could feel her gag reflex triggering at the same time tears began to burn her eyes. Gasping for air, she pushed through the pain and the sickness forcing herself to maintain focus. Should she respond? Would it even make a difference? Was this the deceased? Fettered to this stone? “I am here to pay respects,” she managed, still covering her ears. “To whom? There is only a stone here.” Its words were just as clear whether Madeline was covering her ears or not. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a very, very bad one. “Someone nearby will be dead soon. Would you like to pay your respects to them instead?” Madeline could detect a touch of sarcasm in the words. This was definitely a very bad thing. “No. I have a task here to complete,” she replied to the nothingness, carefully choosing her words. “Once I am done, I must go and report that my task is finished.” There was no reply. Cautiously, Madeline waited a few minutes and then apprehensively uncovered her ears and looked around. There was still no sign of anyone nearby. To steady her mind, she focused on the burning incense, inhaling the gentle fragrance and silently passing along the message of sincerity that the broker had wanted her to convey. Thankfully, no more whispers came. However, the external pressure she had been feeling earlier was condensing, maintaining her illness and sapping her equilibrium as if the oxygen around her was being vacuumed away. Lightheaded and dizzy, she noted the incense was within half an inch of burning out. Then off in the distance, she heard it - the strange echoing whimper of a dog. This wasn’t like the whispers in her ear. This sound had the characteristic of distance. She attempted to ignore it, but it sounded like it was in such agony, giving way to a sharp inhaling cry as if it was being hit or kicked. Was this what the voice had meant? The death that would be coming? Seeing as the incense was just about finished, Madeline turned away from the grave, taking a step in the direction from which the noise was coming, prepared to investigate. Someone grabbed her wrist. Instinctively, she spun around, twisting her arm to force whoever was restraining her to lose their hold. About midway into her action, she realized the grip was akin to solid stone, and she found herself facing none other than Taro Tetsugawa. “Don’t,” he advised in English. “The kubikajiri is baiting you.” As he released control over her, Madeline realized he was dressed much more formal than she was, holding two thin bouquets of his own in his free hand. Whoever was buried here was not only important to her broker, but also to Mr. Tetsugawa. As Cameron believed, this could not be a coincidence. Levi’s parting words suddenly came to mind - Don’t trust Taro Tetsugawa. She knew she had to remain guarded. “Kubikajiri?” she asked, unfamiliar with the term. “A yokai that consumes heads, be they of the living or the dead,” Taro elaborated. “It attempted to speak to me as I assume it did you until it figured out what I was. You must pardon my surprise. Your arrival here has taken me completely unaware.” Madeline didn’t believe that for a second. “I take it you knew the deceased,” she asked, slipping her gloves back over her cold hands. She wasn’t sure how Taro approached without her knowing, but it wasn’t wise to mention that to him. “In a manner of speaking, yes,” Taro replied. “But she’s not actually buried here. This grave was erected to allow those of us who were not on good terms with her to pay our respects. We wouldn’t be permitted to do so otherwise.” So the kubikajiri wasn’t lying, Madeline thought to herself. There really is nothing here but the stone. “Funny thing, we were on different sides since before I was even born. Still, she was such a shrewd and cunning woman. Protected her loved ones so fiercely. She truly was a force to behold. Beautiful. Deadly.” Taro’s attention was someplace both continents and decades away. And for a few moments, a bemused smile curved his lips. He hadn’t been the only one bewitched by the raven-haired woman, but she allowed no one to tame her extraordinary spirit. “Ah now, enough daydreaming on my part,” he said sweeping away the past as a broom would under a rug. “What happened to the usual gent?” “I wasn’t privy to that information,” Madeline replied, watching as Taro stepped gracefully to the stone and arranged his flowers into each vase along-side Madeline’s. Bringing his slender hands together twice in a respectful clap, he bowed his head slightly and closed his eyes, lost in private communication. She didn’t notice until then that the incense she’d placed had burned down to ash. Feeling relief even as the strange sickness still gripped her, Madeline finished packing up all the gear she’d carried into the forest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Taro was done with his prayer and was now approaching her. “If you are going to be staying in Japan, I cordially invite you to peruse my family’s library. There are many different yokai in Japan, and for your safety, I recommend you read up on at least the more common ones. I have first-hand accounts, in Japanese of course, and you will even find meticulously gathered information on the more infamous non-humans, including your preceptor.” “My what?” Madeline asked, feigning ignorance. “Leviticus,” Taro replied without hesitation. “I believe our records go back to about 1000 A.D.” Luckily, Madeline was still feeling well enough to easily mask her surprise at how far back Taro’s information appeared to reach, wondering if it was true. Was his library that extensive? “My card,” he said, presenting her with a crisp business card out of his chest pocket. “You’ll find the address easily reached within Tokyo. I’ll notify my staff to allow you access to the library should you decide to visit us, and assign you an interpreter. And, as I previously stated, I recommend that you do so.” “For my safety,” Madeline reiterated his words, swinging her backpack onto her shoulders. “If you like, I could escort you down to the road,” he offered. “I am familiar with this area.” “No, thank you,” Madeline gently rejected his offer. “I’ll be fine on my own, but I appreciate your kindness.” “As you wish.” Politely bowing her head in farewell, Madeline lined the compass up bearing Northwest and started walking, keeping her phone within sight for when it once again had a signal. The way back to the main trail was easier because of the trees and roots she remembered navigating previously. She passed the same pink ribbon as well, reinforcing her confidence in the path she was treading. Once she was back on the main trail, Madeline was able to put both the cell phone and compass back into her coat pocket. The suffocating pressure diminished to a bearable discomfort the closer she got to the trailhead. She honestly wasn’t sure if it was due to the distance she was putting between herself and what she could only describe as malevolence, or the relief spreading through her mind and body that she was done with the job. As she reached the car hired for her, she was greeted with a welcoming smile from the driver. He assisted in loading the provided supplies back into the trunk and opening the rear passenger’s door for her. Within minutes, the vehicle was traversing the roadways back to her hotel. Unzipping her coat now that she was perfectly warm inside the car, Madeline removed the business card from her pocket and entered the address into her phone to see just how far away it was from where she was staying. She was seriously considering Taro’s offer. Although it was possible Taro mentioned it only to entice her into coming to his property, Maseo had told her that Taro’s strength was in the resources he had at his disposal. They were his weapons. Knowing what was in his arsenal might help Madeline piece together the reasoning behind his sudden interest in her, and she’d be lying to herself if said she wasn’t curious about Levi’s history. Perhaps Taro had information on Cameron and the mysterious elder he was always talking about. Maybe he even had information on her. It was settled then. In a couple of days, she would pay Taro a visit. ------------------------------------------------------------- The pain was enough to wake Alesdair from his slumber. Pressing his right hand firmly against his lower rib cage, he stared up at the intricate vines of carved wood that weaved their way through the exposed beams of his bedroom ceiling. Silently counting the moonlight-painted leaves one by one, the pain began to subside slowly. As each second passed, his weighted breaths became quieter and calmer. He had dreamt of a dead forest, a disparaging place devoid of the pulse of the earth. He knew it was tied to her but didn’t realize such a sharing could be possible. In fact, it shouldn’t be possible. And yet... He was frightened. For both Madeline and himself. Had he made a mistake? Was there a flaw in his well-researched spellcasting? It was truly uncharted and forbidden territory, so the chance of a wrong stroke or a page with pertinent information left unturned, was undoubtedly a risk. Rising from his bed, he walked barefoot across the warm wood floor to the cherrywood desk gracing the far side of his room. Opening the top drawer, he removed the seldom-used cell phone and dialed a particular number he knew would give him the answers he sought, and hopefully calm his fears. ------------------------------------------------------------- “That’s a horrible plan,” Cameron assessed over dinner after listening to what Madeline proposed. “But it’s in a public building in the city,” Madeline defended. “You’re forgetting who you’re talking about here. It’s not like he’s some nobody. It wouldn’t take much to make a person go missing in that building.” Madeline leaned back in her chair rebelliously, wondering if Cameron had done his research on her at all. She had been trained to handle infiltrations like this. She would be fine. Mouth twisted into somewhat of a pout, she was happy she didn’t tell him about her experience at Aokigahara. Glancing around the hotel restaurant, she was drawn to a couple of Japanese girls wearing bright, lolita fashion, each devouring an ice cream sundae. The sight of their ruffled, feminine dresses reminded Madeline of the last time - the only time - she had worn one. That gave her an idea. Leaning forward, she placed her elbows on the table and stared at Cameron who was unenthusiastically eating what he had described to Madeline as “crap food.” “What if I was able to provide you with a way to track me to within a foot of accuracy?” she offered. “Guaranteed.” “I’m listening,” Cameron said, considering the offer. “You would know if I left the building, even if I was unconscious, which would be highly unlikely.” “Foolproof?” he asked, arching his brow. “Foolproof,” Madeline confirmed. “And I will even give you a definite time I will be leaving so you can wait for me across the street or something.” “When?” “I was thinking the day after tomorrow.” Cameron mused over her suggestion. He could hang out nearby and keep an eye on her with tech like that. And if she agreed to a schedule, any deviation would be his signal to intervene. She’d have her phone with her of course, but he wouldn’t know until she got to this so-called library what kind of surveillance she’d be under. It was possible she’d be able to call or text him at will, but it was also possible they’d confiscate her phone to prevent her from taking pictures. There was no telling. While she waited for Cameron’s answer, her attention began to wander once more. There was so much around her that was new and interesting that she couldn’t stop herself from taking it all in. Behind the hotel bar, hanging up on the wall, a television was broadcasting the local weather and news. As if she should have expected it, an image of Aya Yume popped up in the newscast, only thankfully without being in a compromising position with Levi. Madeline strained to hear that the model was in town for a few days before traveling to Taiwan to begin filming a drama. She commented to the press she was in town “only for a photoshoot and a good time.” She made it clear she had no intention of attending the board meeting her family had insisted on. “Sounds like she’s a spoiled little bitch,” Madeline commented, crossing her arms. “Who is?” Cameron wondered. He’d still been weighing the pros and cons of Madeline checking out Taro's library, completely railroaded by the comment the other McCaffrey had made. “Aya Yume,” Madeline said, spitting the name out. Cameron glanced over his shoulder at the television and then back at Madeline. “They’re two of a kind if you ask me,” he commented. “I wonder where her photoshoot is? You don’t have any kind of intelligence network perchance? Some way to get me in contact with her?” “Woah, wait a fucking minute. You’re not going to go cat-fighting on me, are you? I mean, as much as that would be expected of a McCaffrey, it isn’t your business. Leave them be.” “You seriously think that’s what I was planning to do?” Madeline shook her head in disbelief. “I just want to talk to her. You’re an asshole.” “In that case, I can likely get you the location of the shoot, but I’m not going to be able to put you on the staff list.” “That’s fine.” “But what do I get out of it?” he asked point-blank. And…. here it comes, Madeline thought. “What are you expecting?” she asked carefully, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “I want full disclosure on anything you find in the library.” “You do realize I will be looking into Levi, right?” Madeline responded. “So don’t expect me to give you any info on him. I won’t do it.” “What if I asked you to look up mine then? And maybe a couple of others? Then we can compare and see just how accurate Taro’s information is. He could have volumes on Levi, but that doesn’t mean a thing if they’re all lies.” “You have a point.” “Of course I fucking do,” Cameron gave a deceptively boyish smile and quickly finished up his meal. He could tell Madeline was tired from her busy day, so he decided to wrap things up fairly quickly. “I should have something on Aya for you by morning,” he said. “But remember what I told you - no screwing around. I don’t want to see you on the news tomorrow, and if that happens, you can forget about Taro letting you into his place.” “Deal.”
  10. Chapter Fourteen Crystallized “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. “Please continue.” “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?” “Orimura.” 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. Error Immediately, she tried again, slower this time in case she fudged an entry. Error The third time she deliberately keyed each number precisely on the keypad. Error 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?” “I’ll try.” “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.
  11. Chapter Thirteen Mighty Long Fall An alarm was going off. That is if you could call the metallic clang of two pieces of cheap cookware being smashed together an alarm. As still as the crescent moon that hung in the night sky, Madeline paused to wait out the unplanned audio interruption. Ever cautious, she replayed the past ten minutes in her mind as if she was rewinding an old movie. She'd stuck to the shadows and hadn't been seen. She'd watched her footing around the poorly laid tripwire. The nearby cicadas hadn't ceased their chirping until now, which meant she hadn't been heard either, and she had studied the compound for months before taking on this mission. In fact, she had been so careful that she was expecting to catch a flight out of Guadalajara before the sun began saturating the horizon with its life-giving color and warmth. So why was she suddenly straddling the still-warm Spanish roof tiles? What had gone wrong? It wasn't until she felt the gentle pressure of two small paws on the back of her left calf that she realized the cruel joke that was being played on her. Nothing had actually gone wrong, and she didn't need to turn her head around to know that the ball of warmth now curling up against her thigh was, in fact, a large, black cat. And a mischievous one at that. You asshole. You did this didn't you? she thought to herself as a handful of local men raced around below her, investigating the area surrounding the house she was blending into. All she could do was remain motionless and wait for the commotion to settle, hoping she didn’t get spotted. That was no small feat, considering how uncomfortable the tiles were against her ribcage and pelvis. As the minutes crawled by, she could feel the cat shift his weight and start grooming its paws. Laying her ear lightly against the deep crimson braid of her hair, Madeline tried to push images of strangling the cat out of her mind and replaced them with the mother and daughter whom this contract was for. She had accepted the job of helping a young mother and her three-year-old daughter recover a ring that was assumed stolen. After some investigating, Madeline deduced that the father of the child had taken what few valuables the mother had and fled to Mexico. One of the valuables happened to be a sapphire ring. It had been passed down through the mother's family for over four generations, but it was further believed that the stone itself had been in her family for much, much longer. It was hinted that the gem was special and that lone fact was the reason Madeline was hired. An ordinary ring would not have attracted the attention of Madeline’s broker, nor would it have secured Madeline's talents, especially since the mother and daughter were not the ones actually paying her expenses nor were they supplying the reward. It was one of those jobs where the client wished to remain anonymous. The cat suddenly got up and began carefully padding its way around her sprawled-out body, working it's way to her head. Madeline shot a glare full of thunderclouds at the feline as it sat right in front of her face, his emerald-green eyes twinkling with mischief, a bemused smirk curled upon its moist, little black lips. With a flick of his tail, which felt very much to Madeline like an insult, the black cat leaped down from the roof and vanished into the darkness. "Gato negro," came a shout out of the darkness below, followed by a gruff chuckle and a few other mumbled words that Madeline couldn't make out. Then after a few more minutes, there was silence. The men had gone, and the area outside of the house had grown dark and lifeless once more. Patiently, Madeline gave herself ten more minutes of uncomfortable roof-hugging before moving on to the room below. An alarm was going off. What the hell…? Again? Suddenly, the curves and protrusions of the red roof tiles melted into soft, cotton quilting, and the cover of the night brightened into a fresh, new morning. Madeline dwelled on the thought that she might have actually slept through her alarm, a feat she hadn't accomplished in a very long time. Then again, she had just returned from her first solo trip out of the country, and the jet lag had worn her out. So much so that it had affected her dreams, making her relive her recent mission with a few twists. For one, Levi hadn’t been there at all, so why she was dreaming about him being roguish in his cat form? And two, she didn’t set off any alarms on that job. Taking a slow, deep breath, she rolled over. Something was out of sorts. A warmth. A shadow… She quickly opened her eyes and found herself staring into the same pair of emerald eyes from her dream. "What are you doing here?" she gasped, gathering her bed sheets tightly to her body in one quick movement. Stretched out the length of her king-sized bed, her mentor laid leisurely. His shaggy, black mane brushed past his shoulders lightly, and spiked here and there around his face, framing his eyes flirtatiously. He was fully clothed in dark-gray jeans and a rich red sweater flecked with black, his whole body emitting the familiar scent of sandalwood. Madeline wondered suddenly if the scent was what had triggered his intrusion into her dream. "Just dropped by to see how your trip went," his velvety voice purred, face propped up elegantly with his hand. All the while he was smiling, obviously proud of himself for sneaking in and surprising her so. "It's not appreciated," the redhead replied, irritated at how he always showed up as he pleased. It was no use getting angry with him. It wasn’t like she could stop him from coming and going even if she wanted to, not that she really did. His sudden appearances never made her feel unsafe. Never frightened her. That, and over time she learned she could always trust him with things that truly mattered. Little things that didn’t however… "I made coffee..." he tempted, still refusing to leave the bed, "and pancakes." Madeline recognized the scent of the freshly brewed coffee hovering deliciously in the air. "You can't make pancakes," she grumbled, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You’re right. I lied," Levi admitted, still smiling and remaining motionless on the bed. There was a silence that hung awkwardly for Madeline, but no doubt felt like a victory to Levi. "A little privacy, please," She finally piped up, pulling the sheets even higher as if shielding herself against his presence. Gracefully, Levi sat up, draped his long legs over the side of the bed and strutted out of the room, knowing Madeline's eyes were on him the whole time. After he was well down the hall, Madeline let out a long sigh and threw off the covers. She always slept in shorts and a tank top, but even wearing that around him seemed dangerous. It wasn't that she was worried he would try to take advantage of her, but that her own willpower would someday falter. Even without being in a relationship with him, his teasing and indiscretions tore at her heart. As strong and stubborn she was, Madeline knew she wasn't strong enough to deal with that if exposed to it for too long. And thus, her wall stayed up, and she repeatedly convinced herself that pursuing the relationship would end in disaster. Still... She cursed herself for even thinking about it and stormed off into her walk-in closet to find something to wear. After slipping on some jeans and a black camisole, she made her way to the kitchen where Levi was pouring coffee. There was also a neatly arranged plate of cranberry muffins that wasn't there last night. "So how did the trip go?" Levi inquired again, glancing up at her while he poured the creamer. All manner of teasing was now gone, much to Madeline's disappointment. "It was much easier than I was thinking it was going to be," she replied, taking a seat on one of the island’s three bar stools. "Turns out, the thief pawned the ring. All I had to do was buy it back from the shop. " "Relish that," he replied stirring the coffee for her, "That's not going to happen very often." Madeline nodded as she reached anxiously for the mug he had just prepared for her. "By the way, new job for you tonight," Levi continued as he began to pour his own cup. "Local." "Local? That's going to be two unusual jobs back to back. What's this one about?" "Our broker wants you to investigate that club near the docks that just opened a month ago." "Endless? Investigate it for what?" she questioned as she wrapped her right hand around the mug’s large handle, her left hand cupping the warm ceramic. Slowly, she brought it to her lips, taking an indulgent sip. Levi always gave it a perfect balance of sweet and bitter. "Just a recon mission, nothing more." Recon mission? Madeline didn't do recon missions unless there was something to be recovered at a later date. Not to mention all the recons she had done up to this point involved a target of some sort. "Wear something expensive and sexy," Leviticus suggested with a devilish grin, derailing her train of thought. "And I'll pick you up at 10 p.m." ------------------------------------------------------------- It was 9 p.m., and Madeline was still looking through her closet for something suitable to wear. Her contracts paid very well, so the selection of dresses was not limiting. Clubwear wasn't even the issue. The issue was her date. And although she told herself a million times that she didn't care about him, she wanted Levi’s eyes on her alone. She slid hangers left and right, frantically assessing her collection, before settling on a classic little black dress with long, sheer sleeves. The hem had about 2 inches of the softest black lace sewn into the bottom, giving the naughtiness of the short length a whisper of feminine dignity. She matched it with her favorite strappy black heels, a pair of sparkling diamond earrings, and her ever-present family heirloom - the harlequin black opal - around her neck. She gathered most of her long red curls up, leaving a few teasing strands to brush her bare skin. She usually wouldn't dare to put her hair up when she knew there might be the possibility of vampires, but being with Levi gave her courage, and above all else, he made her feel safe. Grabbing her black leather clutch and a faux fur wrap, she locked up her apartment and took the elevator down seven floors to the lobby. It was 10 p.m. on the dot, and as expected, a car was waiting. The driver opened the door for her, and she slid gracefully across the leather seat to Levi's side. She could feel his eyes undressing her, making her both elated and defensive at the same time. "You look lovely," he responded to her attire with enthusiasm, and a provocative smile. Trying to hide her reddening cheeks, she glanced at him to see what he was wearing, and her heart started to flutter. His shoulder-length, jet black hair was highlighted with streaks of crimson. And his dress shirt, which was only buttoned up halfway, had a wet-look to it which shimmered like liquid beneath his open, thigh-length tailored black jacket. An intricate silver pendant, his gatekey, hung on a thin black cord from around his neck. She only saw him wear it when he needed to put on airs - to prove he was a lot higher on the food chain than anyone local would probably have ever seen. She couldn’t think of a reason why he would be wearing it now, unless he knew something about the job that she didn’t, or was suspecting there might be trouble. "Why are you wearing that?" she flat-out asked him, pointing to his pendant. "We've never been to this place," he began, "But it's likely not a place for you, so I figured it would be an added measure to keep you safe." To keep her safe? It didn’t seem like anything dangerous in particular would happen in a public place, and she had knowingly gone into much worse situations without him showing so much as an ounce of concern. So why the sudden protectiveness? As she was drifting off in thought, the leg of his black trousers brushed against her bare skin as he shifted closer to her. Madeline gasped at the sensation. She didn't want to be so tempted by him. Didn't want to feed him her emotions right now. Her body wanted to increase contact, but her mind was getting angry once again over the thought of being used for food. "I suppose you would need to be well fed before we head inside," Madeline managed to stab the words out, wanting to make it clear she wasn't a fool, and was aware of the games he played with her to entertain himself. He let out a small sigh at her accusation. "Just making sure we play the part tonight. That's all," Levi replied despondently. "And I do have an image to uphold." "Of course," she said crossing her arms. That image was of a very free-spirited, devil-may-care, someone important in the shapeshifter world - which Madeline never cared to inquire about. She knew people disliked him because he was uncontrollable... and maybe that was her issue as well. As the town car pulled up to the front of the club, Levi patted Madeline on the bare knee. "Showtime." The driver opened the door for Levi first, who stepped out with feline grace. Rounding to the passenger side, Levi opened the door for Madeline and politely extended his hand for her to take, guiding her out of the vehicle in one fluid movement. Offering his arm to her, the pair stepped toward the entrance in perfect sync. As they approached, the doorman recognized Levi's pendant and waved them through. The cold air within the club shocked Madeline immediately. It was far colder than the outside December air, and she regretted not bringing more than a wrap for her shoulders. Being prepared was part of the job, and she had failed in that regard this evening. And in the presence of her teacher. Embarrassing to say the least. Before her sight even adjusted to the drastic drop in lighting, she could feel many sets of eyes her and Levi. It wasn't normal. Was it because she was human? Was this place that exclusive? There was a sudden weight and warmth on her shoulders as Levi rested his arm on her. “I know a good way to warm you up,” he purred, leading her to the dance floor. Without any resistance, she followed his lead. She’d always loved to dance at the clubs, and Levi was pretty much the perfect dance partner with his fluid movements and sense of rhythm. The music pulsed with a heavy bass as she and Levi kept perfect time with each other. He placed his arms on her shoulders at the same time she set her hands on either side of his waist, their hips swaying left and right as they felt the music and responded to one another’s movements. Madeline looked into Levi’s eyes for a brief moment, in between casually scanning the room and other dancers. He was staring at her strangely as if he was really enjoying himself rather than playing a role. He slowly brought her body closer to his until their hips were almost touching. Madeline’s temperature rose. This was going a bit too far. She looked back into his eyes, and his expression was serious. It broke her rhythm for an instant, and she found her body reacting to him. This wasn’t one of his tricks, at least not one she knew of first hand. She tried to distract herself from his gaze by studying the crowd again. People around them were whispering. Judging. But why? Assessing the clientele, there appeared to be all manner of beings here, but the atmosphere was not as casual and friendly as at the Lotus. There were those that had the characteristics of vampires, some of the more common type of shapeshifters, and possibly fae, but very few actual humans. Suddenly, a few of those who’d been observing Madeline and Levi started to snap photos with their cell phones. Levi noticed it too. "Well that is certainly interesting," Levi whispered into Madeline’s ear over the grind of the music. "Apparently we’re news to someone." “Well, you are wearing your pendant. That has to trigger some gossip I would assume, especially among those that don’t know who you are. Could that be what this mission is about?" Madeline asked, “To see who has an interest in you?” "Or rather who has an interest in you..." Levi said, suddenly unamused, staring off toward the far end of the room. Madeline followed his gaze to a group of men who were possibly vampires, one of which she recognized immediately, but hadn’t seen for at least six months. "What’s he doing here?" she whispered harshly under her breath so only Levi could hear her uneasy tone. It was Scott. And here she was, dancing with Leviticus. To make matters worse, her shapeshifting date’s serious expression had turned, and he was now playing off of Scott's festering jealousy, throwing devilish smiles at the vampire as if they were challenges. Scott's companions were clearly trying to get him to confront Levi, prompting the silver-haired vampire to make a slicing motion along his throat directed at the couple. Her mind flashed back to the morning Scott had bitten her, and Madeline froze, eyes locked on her ex. She saw the satisfied grin that began to spread across his face as he realized he could still affect her. Suddenly there were two warm and gentle hands on either side of her face, turning her gaze away from the vampires and toward a familiar pair of green eyes. Levi's eyes closed as he brought her face to his, the warm softness of his lips and the comfort of his scent making Madeline forget everything around her. Instinctively, she reached up and placed her palms lightly on his chest, but not to push him away. Years ago, he kissed her during the blue diamond job to show they were a genuine couple and more recently with the unexpected forcefulness of the umeshu, but that had been nothing so honest as this. This kiss was so sincere and tender that it broke her heart when their lips parted. She opened her eyes gradually, and for an instant, his expression was devout. Was her hope blinding her again? No, the look Levi gave her was the real thing. A few flashes of blinding white light cause her to flinch as the same few people that were on their cell phones earlier continued taking pictures. She glanced back at Levi, finding her attention fixed on his soft, beautifully curved lips, but his eyes were already transfixed back on Scott. The sly, devilish smile crept back in as he shot the vampire a wicked glare. Scott’s rage was at the breaking point, as his ego could only bottle up so much, but Levi knew Scott wouldn’t erupt here. There were laws of the shrouded world that prevented things like that in public. Knowing he was mere moments away from breaking those laws, Scott and his small entourage of friends ducked out of the club. It was a big piece of pride to swallow, but he frankly had no choice in the matter. Any older or stronger vampires in the club would have ripped him apart later had he transgressed. "Well, that went well," Levi chuckled under his breath. Madeline semi-punched him in the chest out of annoyance more than anything. Whatever feelings she had felt coming off of him during their kiss must have been fabricated by Levi to anger Scott. She'd been tricked yet again. "What was that for?" Levi responding, trying to make it look like his feelings were hurt. "You know he's an ass, can't be trusted, and he's stupid on top of that. I warned you about him from the get-go. You should be grateful you were able to get him back." Another flash from a cell phone wiped the playfulness out of Levi completely. His gaze sliced out into the crowd like a blade, cutting through bodies as he searched for the culprit. Madeline knew that look, and began trying to nonchalantly read the crowd in her own way, but knew she couldn't come close to analyzing as thoroughly as Levi could. He was listening. Sensing emotions. Sensing intentions. Behind his eyes, he was also calculating something or another. Madeline could never tell what he was really up to. But just as his expression was suddenly all business, it quickly returned back to playful charm. His eyes were still fixed away from her, now on a pair of young females seated on a sofa in the nearby lounge. Madeline could feel her face flush with jealousy as she saw Levi lick his lips, gifting the ladies a sinful grin. "If you'll excuse me," he said, giving Madeline a sideways glance as he slipped out of his jacket and placed it on her shoulders over her wrap. "I have some socializing to do. Have the doorman summon a cab for you anytime you want to leave. I'll pick up the tab of course." And that was it. He hurried away from her without another word. He actually hurried. Madeline felt another camera flash slap her in the face. She was beyond hiding her feelings right now and didn't really care who saw her anger and pain. Her eyes followed Levi for a few more seconds, long enough to see him take a seat between the two young ladies who wasted no time cuddling up to him. Walking alone back to the bar, she figured she would try to make the most of the night by taking her mind off of Levi. The problem was, no one would talk to her. There were plenty of attractive men at the club, but whenever she tried to chat up any of them, they politely excused themselves from her presence as if she had the plague. Her frustration was only building the longer she stayed, so it was quite easy to convince herself it was time to go. After the doorman called her a cab, she peeled Levi’s jacket off her shoulders almost repulsively and handed it to him as she exited. "Make sure the asshole gets this back," she said under her breath. Stepping out of the club and into the night, Madeline gave one last backward glance at Endless. In the dark warehouse district, it’s white neon sign stood out like a full moon on a clear night. The only thing she was able to deduce about it was how pretentious it felt on the inside. And cold. Vampires wouldn’t care about the cold, but common shapeshifters would have found the temperature refreshing. Without Levi at her side, it had been impossible to make small talk with anyone, and she got to feeling the only humans there were possessions. Hopefully, that would be enough information to report back with, unless Levi was able to extract any more. Madeline sighed. Levi. He wasn’t going to be reliable in any way tonight. At least not to her. Quietly getting into the taxi that was summoned for her, she gave the driver the usual directions to the block near hers, and then was silent for the rest of the drive. Upon arrival, she took a look around, noting the street was well lit and quiet. Seeing nothing suspicious, she strolled casually toward her building and keyed her way into the downstairs lobby. Riding the elevator up to her floor, Madeline leaned weakly against the back wall, not realizing until now that the evening had taken such an emotional toll on her. Raising her fingertips to her cheek, she wiped away the wet trail of a tear, chastising herself for feeling this way yet again. Why did she love him? Why couldn’t she get over him? The anger and jealousy that had her in such a tizzy earlier in the evening had now dissipated, leaving only frustration and sadness behind. Exiting the elevator, Madeline stepped leisurely down the quiet hallway to her apartment door and lazily placed her fingertips on the security keypad. As she began entering the first few digits, she realized the electronic beeps that chimed in response to each key-press were not echoing the same way they ordinarily did when the hallway was empty. There was a solid object somewhere behind her. Madeline’s fingers momentarily froze on the keypad. No one should be on this floor but her. With a sudden flurry, she pressed the last digits. As the door gave way in front of her, the force of a blow from behind impaled the doorknob into the wall and sent Madeline sailing into the blackness of her living room. She slammed hard, chest first, into her coffee table, which cracked until her weight. "I asked for ONE NIGHT to make it up to you," Scott bellowed as Madeline attempted to scramble away. In one fluid motion, he was at her again, grabbing her by the back of her dress and smashing her down hard onto the broken coffee table once more. She raised her arms up to block her face from hitting the fractured surface, leaving her torso unprotected. Upon impact, Madeline’s ribcage electrified with sharp, crippling pain. Picking up a vase that had rolled onto the floor, Scott shattered it against the living room wall. "That was all I wanted, now look what you've made me do...." "How did you...?" she gasped in agony before she could finish her sentence. Every breath felt like it was tearing her apart from within. "Find you?" he answered spitefully and then huffed in disbelief. "You're actually concerned with that?” Wearing the same clothes from the club, but now stained with someone else’s blood, and his short, silver hair disheveled, Scott grabbed her by the wrist and started to twist her body to the hardwood floor. Although he foiled her attempt at making for the far corner of her apartment, it was only temporary, as Madeline still managed to swing her legs around and kick Scott’s legs out from under him. Wrestling out of his grasp as he fell, she bolted to her safe in the corner and pressed her thumb to the fingerprint reader, tears of agony streaming down her face. It opened with an electronic hiss just as Scott came at her again, but by that time she had her hand wrapped around what she was looking for. The wakizashi. Despite the debilitating pain in her ribs, her adrenaline allowed her enough coherency to stand and kick off her heels. Unsheathing the blade, she pointed it towards Scott. The pain was nearly blinding, but she knew if she doubled-over from it she was going to die. Biting down on her own lip until it was bloody, Madeline took a few well-aimed swings at the vampire, who even in the near darkness managed to dodge every attempt. While Madeline's blade missed its intended mark, it sliced effortlessly into her sofa and anything else in its way. It wasn't long before the living room was littered with bits of upholstery. "You can't hit me," Scott mocked, "Between my natural agility and the darkness, the outcome won't fall in your favor." Scott grabbed a floor lamp, ripping its cord from the wall, and swung it back at her mockingly. Snickering, he took one perfect and lightning-quick swing at her arm causing her already weak grip to fail, and the wakizashi spun across the floor. Momentarily paralyzed by the additional pain from her arm, Scott took advantage of her inaction and swung the lamp at her head, connecting on the right side of her face and knocking her to the floor. Straddling her, he held her wrists down and locked his long legs around hers. "I'm going down... and I'm taking you with me." He exposed his fangs and lunged at her throat. For a moment, time stopped for Madeline. She was convinced this was it. This was how she was going to die. She could not move. Had no strength left to fight. And with all the pain she was in, death was actually feeling preferable. Closing her eyes to accept her fate, she wondered if Levi would avenge her. Scott suddenly inhaled sharply, and Madeline felt the weight of his body lift away, followed by a loud thud which she assumed was his body slamming against the wall. She remained perfectly still, not really sure what the hell was going on and uncertain if she could even make an effort to escape. An unfamiliar, commanding voice from above startled her. "How dishonorable of you, Scott," the voice, male and peppered with an accent, spoke. "Shamefully stalking an ex-lover." Madeline turned her head slowly, acutely aware of how her cheek throbbed where the lamp had made contact. Her eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to see what appeared to be the silhouette of Scott doubled-over against the wall where he landed. She turned her head back to see a bare hand extended out to her. Nervously bracing for the pain she knew would increase tenfold if she tried to sit up, she reached out. As she was gently helped up, the debilitating pain erupted. Then, suddenly, it was gone. As she breathed easier, confusion set it. Pain suppression? Who was this man? She couldn't see many details in the darkness, but this man was slender and tall, likely with dark hair, and from his accent, he was Japanese. Reaching down, he took hold of a pillar candle that had toppled over in the commotion, and placing it on a shelf, lit it with a traditional match from his suit pocket. As the candlelight flickered its golden light in the corner of the room, his familiar features were made clear. With silky-straight, shoulder-length black hair and curvy, tempting lips, he glanced around the room. His clothes were expertly tailored and pressed, and expensive, and yet he dispatched Scott without causing them so much as a wrinkle. His skin was healthy looking, and his hand was warm when she took it, but he was strong, much stronger than an average human would be. His face was strikingly handsome in an ethereal sort of way, and his dark-brown eyes seemed to pierce everything around him. Intelligent eyes. Disarming eyes. Eyes that could see into souls. And he bore an uncanny resemblance to Maseo. "I apologize for not taking action sooner, but we had a bit of trouble landing on your roof," he said suddenly in a deep, throaty voice that warmed Madeline's cheeks. "I am Taro Tetsugawa. It is a pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances." He bowed formally, the faint amber light reflecting in the soft silken luster of his ebony hair. As his gaze passed over the room again, it prompted Madeline to do the same. It was a disaster. Even in the low light, she could see destruction. Table lamps knock over. The sofa and chair were ruined. Bits and pieces of broken vase were everywhere. Shaking off the thought of how much work it was going to take to clean up the mess, her gaze once again landed on Taro, catching him inspecting her with his brilliant brown eyes. The knowledge and intensity she had seen in them earlier now burned with something akin to amusement. Out of nowhere, his lips curled into a promiscuous grin. Her pulse began to race as her body grew warm from the flash of wicked images which played uncontrollably in her mind. This wasn't of her own doing. It was like they were being projected into her, and she recalled the time she spent on the edge of the bathtub with Maseo. "Forgive me," he said in a husky voice barely above a lover's whisper, his eyes showing no signs of letting hers go. Suddenly, Scott bolted from the corner and dashed towards the door with all the strength he could muster. In a blur of motion that was barely a blink, Taro beat him to the doorway and locked his hand tightly around the vampire's throat. Displeasure burned in his eyes now, and his expression was grim. Scott’s eyes, in contrast, were wide with terror. "Do you not know when you are beaten, boy?" he snarled threateningly, tightening his grip slowly until the struggling vampire’s body went limp. Scott fell to the floor with the release of Taro's hold. "Get him out of my sight..." Taro spat out as he pulled a tightly wrapped handkerchief from his breast pocket and tossed it onto Scott’s unconscious body. From seemingly out of nowhere, another man appeared to drag the unconscious vampire out the door. Madeline recalled seeing this second man at the club earlier. He had been on his cell phone, but not taking pictures. Now alone with her new savior in the moonlight, Madeline's lips parted to say "thank you," but Taro spoke first. "I will have a check delivered to you in the morning, covering the damage," he said politely, letting the harsh expression from dealing with Scott fade from his features. "Oh that," Madeline said, trying to smile, an expression made easier by the numbing of her injuries. "It's ok. I have it covered. Thank you though." Finding herself at a loss for words, Madeline felt oddly vulnerable at the moment. The crackle and hiss of an electronic voice sparked into the air around Taro. "En route." Tilting his head slightly to the left, Taro replied into a mic that was pinned to his lapel and then turned his full attention back to the lovely redhead before him. "That would be for me," Taro said softly to Madeline. He bowed deeply to her, black hair falling softly forward and back. "Sayonara." As he turned to leave, Madeline felt an unexplained panic swell up. It compelled her to reach out and grab the cloth of his sleeve as she took a step forward, prompting Taro to turn back around. The touch and close proximity of their bodies brought about another emotion in Taro's eyes, something of a grand temptation that beckoned to be met. He didn't lean any closer to her. However, Madeline desperately wished him to do so. She brought herself to him until she felt the tease of his breath and the brush of his lips against hers. With a jolt, she backed away. What the hell am I doing? She shook her head roughly in an effort to clear her mind. This wasn't like her at all. Watching her distress, Taro gave the most subtle smile and repeated himself once again. "Sayonara." With a whisper, he was gone, and the air around Madeline grew still and cold. Half a second later, the pain returned, brutal and unrelenting. Feeling nausea start to brew in the pit of her stomach, she took a few shaky steps backward before her knees lost all strength and she collapsed unconscious onto her tattered sofa. ------------------------------------------------------------- Amidst the gusts of the propeller, Taro slipped into his awaiting helicopter. Taking a plush leather seat next to Takeshi, the man who had dragged Scott’s body away, another subordinate slid the craft’s door tightly closed. The conversation that ensued was entirely spoken in a centuries-old dialect of Japanese. "I've gathered more information on her, sir," Takeshi said as he handed Taro a tablet. "Her clothing and shoe sizes, interesting items in her bedroom, contents of her medicine cabinet, books in her collection, and so forth. Her computer was tightly encrypted so I couldn't get into it in the amount of time allowed." Taro scrolled through the information carefully, nodding in satisfaction. "The contents of her computer aren't too important to us at this time. We've confirmed she has been trained by that prodigal felinae Leviticus, and the pendant she wears matches Gideon's description. And she has that wakizashi." Taro remembered precisely what Gideon had said about the night she stole the wakizashi. He reminded himself that affinity Madeline had for it wasn't necessary to their cause, but did confirm their suspicions. It would be an added bonus, however, if they were to win over supporters of that particular clan, and that made the idea of possessing her for the long term too tempting to pass up. The fact that she had Leviticus' scent on her amused him. From every detail gathered thus far, her relationship with Levi was nothing more than that of a master and apprentice. Levi's aimless and lecherous behavior was well-known, and his actions tonight at Endless reflected that, as expected. Speaking of which… "Is the traitor secure?" "Of course," Takeshi responded. "I've restrained Scott in the rear of the craft." "Excellent. Forward this to Yukihiro and have him compile it into Miss Madeline’s file," Taro instructed. "Let us be off." As the helicopter ascended, Taro dwelled a bit more on the situation. Cat shapeshifters of both sexes toyed with humans like mice, grooming their prey to feed off their emotions and then feasting on the strong rage and heartbreak that followed at the breakup. Some were more notorious at it than others. They certainly didn't care about their victims any more than a vampire would. So why was Levi scent marking? Taro's eyes narrowed a bit, considering the possibility. Did the cat know about the necklace and the blade? Was he trying to make a weak, pathetic attempt at a power grab? A chuckle escaped Taro’s lips, drawing the curiosity of Takeshi. We'll just see about that. ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi wasn't sure if it was his conscience or his instinct, but something had been nagging at him all night. The feeling of unease led him to Madeline’s apartment where he currently found himself pensively riding the elevator up to her floor just as the sky was starting to lighten. As the elevator doors opened and he stepped out into the hall, her open door caused him to briefly pause. Madeline had the entire floor to herself now, but she wouldn’t in her right mind leave her door wide open like that. He taught her better. Then again he was against her moving into this place to begin with. With uncharacteristic urgency, Levi rushed to her doorway and cautiously stepped through. A potent emotion, one that he’d denied himself for months now, twisted his stomach. He was unable to mask his shock upon looking at the complete disaster that was her living room. Furniture was cut to pieces, and there were shards of porcelain littering the ground. Touching nothing, Leviticus took a few more hurried steps into the room, his highly polished black shoes keeping carefully out of the debris as he nervously approached her. Unaware his mouth was agape, he was relieved to hear her heart still beating rhythmically as she lay unconscious on the torn-up sofa, her dress from the night before ripped and dirty. Leviticus knelt silently next to Madeline, gently brushing strands of wild hair from her face. With a look of concern, he softly stroked the developing bruise on her cheek with the back of his hand before noticing additional bruises developing on her wrists and arms. Surprisingly, he caught himself caressing her bloody, lower lip lightly with his thumb, and again his heart ached with that same undeniable feeling. He forced his eyes shut as if attempting to seal his body against what he was feeling. Deep down, he knew what it had to be, but he couldn’t allow it. He could never allow it. On the other side of the sofa, the wakizashi rested carelessly on the floor. He remembered clearly the near-fatal run-in she had obtaining that sword, and there were a few rumors floating around as to who was behind the contract she accepted that night long ago. He was worried about her then too, but nowhere near as worried as he found himself right now. It had taken him completely by surprise. After a deep breath, he reached out with his senses as far as he could, trying to detect anyone within a block of the building that wasn’t human. Thankfully, there was no one. He then took another deep breath and laid his hands on either side of Madeline’s torso. The knotting and rupture of energies indicated there was severe bruising to her ribs on her left side, with two of them actually being cracked. The rest of her injuries were typical of surface bruising, with the worse one being a deeper bruise on her sword arm. Biting the corner of his lower lip, his hands warmed unnaturally as he used some of his own ki to repair the broken ribs by knitting and cleansing the flesh and bone. It had been a very, very long time since he’d healed anyone, but it wasn’t a skill he could actually forget how to use. He would fix her ribs, and to an extent, the bruising, but he needed to be careful not to do too much. After a third deep breath, he removed his hands from her body and focused his attention on the mess around him. Knowing Madeline was now out of physical danger, his emerald eyes began to cloud over with rage. From the strong scent of decay in the room, he knew what had done this, but now he wanted to know who. Closing his eyes, he began to cycle through the layers of scents in the room. He immediately disregarded Madeline’s scent and was left with the stench of the undead, as well as a faint trace of blood that was not Madeline’s. Vampires. Concentrating on that, he was surprised to be able to separate out the scents of two different vampires. One he didn’t recognize at all, but the other… that one was familiar. He followed the stench to the far wall of the living room, to where one of the vampires apparently hit the wall hard enough to leave a strong olfactory imprint. As Levi got closer to the wall, he picked up the undertone of a common, cheap cologne. There was no doubt who this was. Next time I see you, Scott, you’re going to burn. Hands clenched tightly into fists, Levi’s nails began to sharpen to the point they were nearly cutting into his own flesh, and for a single, brief moment, he almost lost it. Almost. He tensed up his entire body, locking up each individual nerve and muscle as he suppressed the burning ferocity that was trying to escape. After a few minutes of silent struggle, Levi was able to slow his breathing and place a mask of disappointment on his face. Clearing his throat loudly, he raised his voice hoping to wake Madeline up. “My, my… quite a lovely mess you have going on here.” His familiar voice dragged her out of her sleep as if it was mud. Groggy, Madeline opened her heavy eyes. As her sight came into focus, she recognized her intruder. Exotic facial features with stunning green eyes. Soft and sleek, shoulder-length black hair. Perfectly pressed dark-gray trousers. Snug-fitting, blood-red colored silk shirt. At least he had changed clothes from the night before. Impulsively, Madeline went to sit up but ended up gasping instead. The tenderness caused her to take a few breaths before continuing more slowly into an upright position. She had no idea she had been beaten so severely since her adrenaline had been pumping so hard last night. Levi’s arm was around her immediately, helping her gently into a sitting position. “Last night was… a nightmare. After I left the club..." she paused for a moment, catching her breath, "Scott paid me a visit. He was going to kill me, but apparently, he is in trouble with someone named Taro Tetsugawa. He stopped Scott.” Madeline didn't miss Levi's brief expression of alarm. "I won't go into Scott," Leviticus said firmly, successfully fighting back something akin to hatred. "But Tetsugawa... Taro Tetsugawa is a dangerous person with a lot of political influence." Leviticus arched a thin brow in contemplation as he stared at the floor, thoughts analyzing a million things and his mood began to visibly darken. After a momentary silence, he continued. "I'm surprised he came here himself after Scott. Any of his underlings would have been able to handle it, even the better trained human ones. There has to be a bigger reason he came here personally." "Dangerous, eh?" Madeline said, wincing a bit as she forced herself to stand while Levi continued to support her. "Dangerous to whom? Because having dangerous allies can be a good thing." She saw Leviticus' lips part, about to say something, when the sound of Madeline’s intercom buzzer interrupted. It was the concierge from the downstairs lobby. "Yes?" Madeline queried, discomfort evident in her voice. "A courier has arrived for you ma'am," the voice crackling over the speaker replied. "This early? From who?" "A Mr. Tetsugawa." Madeline paused for a moment in consideration while Levi just stood by silently. "Send him up please." "Yes, ma'am." She waited for Levi to make a crack about the security, but he said nothing, still carefully supporting Madeline’s body with his own. Debating whether or not to primp, she figured if it was from Taro Tetsugawa he already knew what condition she was in. It took only a few moments before the elevator door opened with a deceptively pleasant ding. The courier was a young Japanese man (apparently Taro only trusts his own people with even menial tasks) in his early 20s, who looked briefly shocked at the lack of front door and the mess within. With a quick shift to a mask of professionalism, he stepped into the living room carrying a dozen red roses and an envelope. The roses brought red to Madeline's cheeks as she carefully stepped away from Levi to accept them into her arms, and with a graceful bow, the young man placed the card into her awaiting fingertips. He only took one glance at Levi with emotionless eyes, and then after a final bow, excused himself and disappeared back into the elevator. The florist's paper rustled as she made quick work of the envelope, the lovely scent filling her senses. "My dearest Madeline, A true gentleman would always right a wrong, despite being told not to do so. Please accept this with my humble apologies. If you ever find yourself in Japan, I would be honored to be your personal escort. Yours, Taro Tetsugawa" A check for $10,000 was included. "Well this is a bit unexpected," Madeline whispered, still a bit shocked by the amount of money that was sent to her. She would be lying if she said she didn't feel charmed by the gesture, despite being in pain. Between letting the rose petals brush against her lips, and the honey-sweet words echoing in her thoughts, Madeline didn't notice Levi had taken the card from her fingertips to read it himself. "So just how dangerous is this man again?" she asked him. "He’s a snake," Levi responded sharply, having read the card and now touching the edge of the paper to his lips as he began processing the entire situation. "Something isn't right. The mission last night. The fiasco here. I don’t like it." "You aren't the only one," Madeline added in a whisper, knowing full well Levi could hear her clearly. Ignoring her, he continued to muse over his thoughts out loud. "It wasn't much of a recon mission. Was more like... entrapment." "Entrapment?" Madeline questioned. "What do you mean?" Leviticus didn't reply to her, didn't even acknowledge he had heard her question. The look on his face revealed that his thoughts were brewing up a storm, then suddenly his expression turned dark and feral. A low, vicious growl rattled in his throat, something that Madeline had never heard come out of him before. Suddenly, he grabbed the roses out of her arms, tossing them to the floor. He took both of her hands firmly in his, being careful not to injure her wrists any further. He was in the worse mood she had ever seen. It caused whatever thoughts Madeline had concerned herself with to be cast aside trivially, and her full attention was focused clearly and nervously on Levi. Her breathing had quickened, bringing pain to her ribs, and she was genuinely frightened. He’d never scared her like this before. She searched his eyes, which seemed to be almost glowing, for something that would clue her in on his intentions. They burned a flickering green, but as he started speaking to her, they extinguished and became gentle, almost tender. "That wakizashi," he said in low, even voice, “Keep it locked up somewhere safe. It is connected to you in a permanent way that could put you in danger if more people find out you have it. Your ribs are heavily bruised, so make sure you manage the pain and rest. And you have to find another place to live. Immediately. You’re not safe here anymore. No matter what you may think you see or hear, trust your instincts and stay strong. Second and triple guess everything. If there’s an emergency, contact Caslon. And don't trust Tetsugawa." Levi’s mouth parted as if to continue, but instead, he looked away for a moment. When he finally looked back, his expression was tortured, his brilliant green eyes glistening with tears. This frightened Madeline more than anything. To see the person who was her rock looking as if he was about to break down. “I want you to know that I… All of this was...” He paused for what seemed like forever, opened his mouth to say something else, but decided against it the very next second. She saw a look of torment in his eyes, and then the air around her was suddenly whipped into a frenzy, infused with his usual scent of sandalwood. It was so strong this time that it completely overpowered everything else in the room to the point she felt as if she was being smothered by it. “...I’m sorry…” His sweet whisper echoed in the room as he released her hands. And then he, and the scent of sandalwood, was completely gone. Vanished. For a few minutes, she stood alone in her living room, staring at the open door as if Levi was going to pop back in at any moment. But he didn’t. This was the first time since she had met him that his scent was entirely absent. Day to day, she was always able to catch his fragrance somehow. Most of the time she assumed it was her imagination being hopeful, but she never noticed how much it truly lingered until it was gone completely. Now all she could smell were the roses that lay scattered at her feet. And the look on his face when he said he was sorry… There was something in his eyes, and the way he spoke those words, that made her feel that at that moment he really did care for her. She’d been tricked by her own emotions so many times before, but this had caught her completely off guard. She hadn’t been looking to read anything into him this time. And now she stood, unsure what to do next. Her stomach uneasy, she dared to wonder if this was actually a good-bye. No. Levi wouldn’t do that. Would he? After all he’d helped her with and his ongoing concern for her safety? It didn’t make sense for him to leave her. She stopped herself from going further because that was her heart talking again and she didn’t want to admit it. The logical side of her processed all the events, his parting words and emotions, and came to the conclusion that Levi had left her. There was no way of telling for how long, but likely for a very long time, if not for good. Still, she couldn’t allow herself to believe it. To satisfy the logical side of her, Madeline quickly started making a mental list of things she needed to do, as she stepped to her front door and pulled the knob out of the wall so she could close and lock it. The force of Scott’s entry left a gaping hole in the wall where the doorknob had embedded. Rather than have a contractor come in and repair it, she deduced it would be more efficient to have the property manager take care of it. She had paid a hefty deposit to move in with the promise to lease the entire floor once the other tenants moved out. He could easily deduct from that and then bill her for the difference. The second most pressing issue would be locating a new place to call home. On such short notice, the best plan was to move into one of the buildings Levi owned in town. She could contact Caslon immediately to get her set up, and then it would be a simple matter of selecting a moving day. That would keep her busy today. Despondent, she took careful steps toward the wakizashi and held her breath as she squatted to pick up the blade and its scabbard. Joining the two, she also retrieved her clutch purse from the floor where it had landed when Scott had hit her from behind. Carrying both to her bedroom, she set them on the bed and then dug into the purse for her cell phone. Luckily it was still in one piece. She debated sitting on her mattress while she called Caslon, wondering if it would be painful and if she would be able to comfortably get up again. She compromised and decided to sit on the edge near the headboard to use that to help herself back up if need be. Slowly inching her rear onto the mattress, she grimaced a couple of times and reminded herself that after she got off the phone, she should take some codeine. Dialing Caslon’s number, she waited for him to pick up. “Good morning Madeline,” his cheerful voice warmed her mood. “It’s rather early, and you never call me, so can I hope you are requesting a rendezvous?” “Nope, that is not what this is about at all,” Madeline responded with a sigh, somewhat used to his constant advances. “I need a new place to live. Immediately.” “What happened?” he asked, sounding very concerned. Normally Levi would have called him about this in advance, so this was extremely out of the ordinary. “To make a long story short, Scott nearly killed me last night. In my apartment. Levi thought it would be best if I moved out today, and I agree.” “Are you okay?” he continued, making her feel better that her network of friends, even the one that wanted very badly to sleep with her, was still intact. “I have some bruised ribs and bruised other places,” she replied, taking a moment to breathe. “But I’ll be fine.” “I have two buildings I can move you to,” Caslon offered. “This one, or one South of you on Boren.” She thought for a moment. As tempting as it was to move back into the same building as the safe house, she had to decline. She just couldn’t bring herself to do it. “Boren will be fine.” “As disappointed as I am with your choice, I can come get you in a few hours to escort you to the new apartment., just make sure you have an overnight bag and any sensitive materials. This apartment has a freight elevator for your bike, a large safe, electronic and biometric security, and 24 hour monitored cameras. Oh and it’s fully furnished, so I hope you didn’t plan on bringing any large pieces of furniture.” “Nope,” she replied quietly. “You know me. I’m not attached to anything more than what I can fit in a suitcase.” She heard Caslon sigh as if he was just as depressed hearing her words as she was speaking them. “Okay then, be ready in a few hours. I’ll call before I head over. Oh and Madeline? I’m sorry you got hurt. If you want me to go after him, I will.” Her eyes started to blur. She had to get off the phone soon or Caslon would figure out she was about to cry and then he would come over, and before long she’d be crying in his arms. Struggling to keep her voice from choking-up, she managed to respond in a normal tone before she hung up. “Thanks. See you in a few.” Sniffling the sadness back into check, she rose slowly off her bed. Madeline then attempted to wiggle out of the black dress from last night but found it both challenging and painful to do so. Fuck it. I’m not ever wearing this again. From her bathroom, she grabbed a pair of utility scissors and cut the front of the dress allowing her to slip out of it like a jacket. It was ruined anyway, so it made no sense to make its removal any harder than it needed to be. In its place, she pulled on a roomy t-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. In the bathroom mirror, her hair was a frazzled mess. Straying wildly from her neatly styled up-do from the night before, Madeline took her dark red hair down and ran a brush through it. As she brushed her hair as best she could without pulling the muscles between her ribs, she glanced over at the wakizashi. What was so important about it? She wasn’t a professional appraiser but knew enough about weapons to tell this was well-crafted and probably priceless. But connected to her? Permanently? What did that even mean? And why didn’t he mention this to her before this morning? Brushing her red hair up into a high ponytail, she began to wash the tired-looking makeup off of her face, being careful of the tender bruise developing on her cheek. Speaking of contracts, she needed to sit down and email her broker about what happened last night at Endless. Surprisingly, there was already an email on her laptop inquiring about the recon mission. Madeline took a seat and stared at the screen for a bit, not quite sure what to enter in her report. After about ten minutes of mental deliberation, she started typing a response. Didn’t notice any unusual fixtures or architecture. Mostly non-human guests, no VIPs outside of Leviticus who accompanied me. There were a few pictures taken of us together as we appeared to draw interest. I normally know better than to ask questions, but who purchased this recon? She wasn’t expecting an answer, but the job wasn’t sitting well with her, and she couldn’t help but ask. Levi had it right. It felt like it was a setup to bring them unnecessary attention, and she had a strong hunch that’s what set off the avalanche that led to Levi’s departure. But why didn’t he share what was going through his mind with me? Getting up from her desk chair in the bedroom, she went into the kitchen and began to make herself fresh coffee, adding cream and sugar. It smelled divine, but it never tasted good enough. Before she could start feeling sorry for herself again, an email notification alarm chimed on her laptop. Shockingly, it was already a response from the broker. You know I can’t reveal the source, but I understand your concern and agree it seems suspicious. Payment has been deposited. And that was it. Madeline didn’t even bother mentioning Levi’s departure. Even though she was extremely unsettled by it, her broker would have considered her worry ridiculous. Still staring at the words on the screen, she drummed her fingertips tentatively on the desk. Ordinarily, she would have heeded Levi’s warning and wouldn’t even consider digging into such a dangerous man, but her life was nearly snuffed out. If Taro Tetsugawa was a key figure in underworld politics, she needed more information than what Levi elected to share. And considering the strong resemblance, Madeline guessed Maseo was bound to know something. Knowing full well she couldn’t speak with Maseo until nightfall, she took some codeine and began to load her laptop and other valuables into a large suitcase, along with a few days worth of clothes, her toiletries, and makeup. Once that single task was accomplished, she rolled the suitcase to the living room and got settled in on the battered sofa. She had a couple of hours before Caslon would call, and decided to spend them with her eyes closed, napping on her couch.
  12. Chapter Twelve The Man Behind the Curtain Walking gingerly into the same coffee shop she delivered Cole's package to, Madeline felt like she was re-winding her life. The same soothing scent of roasted coffee beans. The same cozy atmosphere of bookshelves and easy chairs. For a moment she wondered that if she could go back in time, would she have made the same choices? Yes. Yes, she would. Dressed in a very unassuming and unflatteringly pair of old, baggy sweatpants and a light sweater the color of cornsilk, she weaved her way around the groupings of chairs and tables looking for Scott. She was in a lot of discomfort, and found herself taking extremely small steps as she walked, fearful of the shooting pain that would manifest should there be any gap in her stride. He spotted her first, rising up from a chocolate-brown recliner to meet her. She let him take her hand and guide her to the area where he had previously been sitting, only further back to a pair of high barstools at a tall cafe table. Carefully, she scooted her rump onto one of the seats, hoping not to damage anything in the process. “I am so sorry,” he whispered trying to take her hand. “Please don’t do this. Give me one more chance, one more night, and I’ll make it up to you. We can’t let it end like this.” “I can’t. I just can’t,” Madeline replied, pulling her hand out of his reach before he could grasp it. “Every time we get close, I am going to be thinking back to what happened. Don’t you see I’m not going to be able to relax again around you? It’s not going to work.” “How do you know that?” Scott said, beginning to raise his voice, but then catching himself and calming down. “You won’t know until you can at least give me one more chance. Then if what you say about your feelings are true, I’ll let you go. We can end it.” Madeline’s brows began to furrow in frustration. She knew her own feelings. She knew that what he was proposing was a waste of time. “No. I’m sorry but no,” she stopped him, lowering her voice so no one around them could hear. “I’ve decided I am not going to date anyone that’s not human. You’ve made me realize that as a human I am fragile. You or any other non-human can easily break me. I can’t build a relationship tip-toeing around danger and chances. If you care about me, you’ll understand. This may be about us, but it’s also about how unconventional your kind dating my kind is.” “Just one night?” Scott repeated. “Please don’t make this any more difficul…” “Any more difficult?!” Scott cut her off, again raising his voice. “I’m sorry if this inconveniences you.” Nearby, other patrons were stealing curious glances at the pair. In the calm and serene setting of the coffee house, their rising voices were easy to distinguish. “Are you even thinking about my feelings?” Scott continued. “Any idea what this is going to do to me? What this is going to do to my life?” His life? Madeline thought. What the hell is he talking about? “This is going to ruin me. Think about that when you start going on again about being inconvenienced!” “Scott, please calm down,” Madeline asked, realizing even more people were starting to take notice of his loud voice. “I don’t want people to notice you, for your own sake.” “So you care about what people think about me, but you don’t care about what you’re doing to me?” Bolting upright from his chair, Scott clenched his fists to his sides and grimaced menacingly to no one in particular. His chestnut eyes were ablaze with a mix of anger and frustration as his breathing became more and more labored. He was about to do something impulsive, Madeline could read it in his body language, but then he suddenly stopped himself, bring his volatile emotions under control. Without saying another word to her, he stomped out of the coffee shop, confrontationally bumping into patrons along the way. Seeing his silhouette all but bust out of the cafe door on his way out, Madeline exhaled and relaxed her entire body. The whole meeting was substantially more taxing than she’d expected. “At least he kept himself in check,” a voice from behind her stated, startling her. “How long have you been here?” she asked Levi quietly as he took a seat at the stool previously occupied by Scott. “Oh I’ve been here for the past hour,” he confessed. “Got here about thirty minutes before lover-boy did. You okay?” “As to be expected,” she replied honestly. “Why are you here exactly?” “Insurance,” Levi admitted. “I didn’t expect him to do anything stupid, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.” Madeline glared sharply. Was he trying to say he didn’t expect her to be able to handle things? “Don’t give me that look,” Levi replied with a smile. “I wasn’t going to step in at all unless he started a physical fight.” “Well thank you for having my back then,” she managed. “But if you really want to be helpful, you can take me to The Golden Lotus for drinks. I think I could do with some self-medicating.” ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Back at the hotel, Scott was throwing a horrendous tantrum. With a malicious snarl, he plunged both hands at the king-sized bed, gripping handfuls of linen and tearing away the sheets and duvet, tossing them to the floor. He had kicked the chairs over and flipped both the work desk and table across the room. The house phone was yanked off the nightstand; its cord ripped out of the wall. Nests of wires now hung where wall sconces used to be. The entire suite was in shambles. For a moment Scott stood in the center of the room, breathing heavily and making dark, animalistic sounds. He wanted to kill, with so much rage in his mind, but it was still too early in the day. Eyeing a floor lamp in the corner to the left of the large picture window, he took a few steps toward it, planning to send it crashing through the glass and onto the street below, when his cell phone rang. It was Cole. He knew he had to answer it, and there was no way he was going to talk himself around this one. Scott had no choice but to fess up to the situation. “Hello,” he answered, still breathing arduously. “You sound out of breath, young man. What’s going on?” Cole asked. “Madeline broke up with me,” Scott confessed with a snarl. “I really tried to do it in a private place so I could just knock her out until I could convince her to go with me to London.” “Knock her out? Scott, that is not the job you were given. No harm is to come to her. Why did she break up with you to begin with? Last time we spoke I was under the impression things were going swimmingly.” “Well you see, I sort of accidentally bit her in bed…” There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “I see,” Cole said slowly. This was a possibility they had accounted for, but it was still disappointing. “New orders then. You are to fly back to London as soon as possible.” “But what about Madeline?” Scott asked in a voice that was both frustrated and desperate. “What about her? Since you were unable to perform the task assigned to you, she is now none of your concern. Master Gideon will decide what to do next. In the meantime, you are to travel back home, is that understood?” “Yeah,” Scott replied grudgingly. “Good. Provide me with your flight information as soon as it’s available, and I’ll be sure to have a driver pick you up at Heathrow.” “Fine.” Setting the traditional phone back down on its receiver, Cole sat back in his leather chair and tented his fingers. Not one who enjoyed being the bearer of bad news, he hesitated for a few moments before divulging the information to the man who sat across from him. It was roughly 3:00 a.m. in London, the perfect time of the morning for a spot of tea and intelligent conversation. Although it was out of the ordinary for two vampires to be drinking tea, the beverage was a unique concoction of Gideon’s creation. He had perfected it long ago; hell-bent on recreating the drink that was all the rage in the 17th century. He had found the fragrance of tea to be absolutely divine, and it drove him into an immediate obsession. It didn’t take him more than a week and a dozen or so blood donors to develop a formula that allowed a mix of fresh blood, tea leaf infusion, and alchemy to create a very near perfect cup of imitation tea. And as with most all of his creations, he kept it a closely guarded secret shared with only a few, and although Cole was allowed the pleasure of drinking it, he hadn’t a clue how it was actually made. As Gideon’s graceful, long fingers wrapped around the handle of the delicate china cup, his other hand carefully held the saucer, lifting them both in mannered unison. He paid no mind to Cole, his lesser, as the older man, in appearance only, sat in silence thinking. Gideon was already aware of the situation. It was the suspected outcome actually, but allowing the lost neophyte named Scott to stumble recklessly through the relationship with Miss Madeline gave them a lot of foresight into her personality and morals. As physically trained as she'd become to survive in the world she'd now chosen to call home, Madeline was inadequately aware of her place in it, or of which path she would follow as the future approached her. She was at a point now where she could be shaped. She would follow whichever path was the first to be illuminated for her. In contrast to Cole’s pillar-like stature, Gideon appeared delicate, girlish even. His long, light blond hair was gathered up over his ears on both sides, pulled back with a simple steel clip. His pleasant blue eyes gave the impression of youthful vigor and brightness, a contrast to his actual age and the dark depths of his soul. His face was flawless, a credit to his Nordic heritage, and despite the elegance and decorum he exuded, one could argue he was the most terrifying vampire in all of Europe. His physical strength rivaled that of the fae, and despite all that was known of his past was that he emerged from the undocumented history of the brutal Nordic clans of the North, no one challenged his superiority. “It seems Scott has failed,” Cole said finally. “Miss Madeline has broken off their relationship after being bitten.” With a smooth gesture that didn’t so much as tilt the level of the tea in his cup, Gideon set both cup and saucer down on the table in front of him before leaning back in his chair. “He is very lucky that’s all that happened,” Gideon replied, his voice edged with steel. “Once a rat, always a rat. Still, he provided information we would not have been able to get so easily otherwise. You say he likes to kill?” “Yes, sir,” Cole answered. “It provides a rush comparative to the drug use of his human years, and he likes the control aspect.” “Don’t we all,” Gideon mused. “However, how we exert that control divides those who conquer from those that grovel. When he returns, assign him to the guard and have him start training as a soldier. If he wants to act like a rabid dog, then we shall make use of him as one.” Gideon’s attention was suddenly elsewhere, fixed on a stoic-faced butler that entered the grand library from the door behind Cole. “M’lady has arrived,” he announced with a deep, unemotional bow as he remained in place, waiting for Gideon to pass him and therefore release him of his proper posture. “Excellent,” Gideon smile brightly as he rose from the armchair with the grace of an aristocrat. “We’ll discuss this matter further tomorrow, Cole.” “Of course, sir.” As he exited the grand library, Gideon ascertained that his clothing was immaculate and his thoughts were in check. Next to himself, his honored guest was the most influential person in the manor at the moment, and although their partnership was solidified in blood, there were still airs that needed to be put on. After a short walk to the solarium, a room custom made using artificial sunlight and regulated humidity, the servants standing guard opened the large double doors for Gideon’s grand entrance. It is always a pleasure, my dear,” Gideon beamed, approaching an unoccupied white garden chair that was designed to look as if it was made out of vines. “Sorry to bid you here at such an off hour.” “Nonsense, Gideon,” the woman already seated across from him replied. “Any and all news of our progress excites me. It was no inconvenience at all.” “Can I get you any refreshment?” “That won’t be necessary,” she smiled warmly, raising her hand in refusal. “But I thank you for the offer. Now, what news do you have?” “Straight to the point,” Gideon sighed wistfully. “A woman after my own heart.” “You are too kind. “She has enough of the blood to be useful. The sword was a match.” “This is fantastic news!” the woman across from him replied joyously, clasping her hands together. “I am confident that with my knowledge and your skills we will be able to deconstruct that necklace and use it to our advantage. All that is left is her grooming.” “Unfortunately, the mongrel we allowed to play with her has outlived his usefulness in that regard.” “An expected outcome.” “Quite,” Gideon agreed. “But we know enough of her nature to move to phase two now.” “I take it plans are already underway?” the lady asked anxiously, twirling a strand of long, brilliantly-golden hair between two youthful, slender fingers. “Of course, my dear. Of course.” “Then I will begin preparations on my end,” she said rising gracefully from her garden chair. “I regret I cannot spend the night this evening, but this news demands events to be put in motion tonight that must simmer and multiply slowly so that they will be ripe for feasting upon when the time comes.” “Understandable,” Gideon replied, promptly standing in the presence of a risen lady as etiquette dictated. “I will contact you again once she is in our care.” He bowed like a true gentleman, taking the lady’s outstretched hand and bringing it to his lips gently. With a kiss that was both cordial and intimate, he bid her farewell and eyed her departure from the solarium. ----------------------------------------------------------------------- She’d come a long way from the club-shy girl she was when she first stepped foot in The Golden Lotus. Comfortable enough in her own skin and clothing to be sitting in a booth near the bar with Levi and actually feel relaxed about it. Well, as relaxed as she could be, given what she’d gone through over the past few days. The responsible side of her warned that she should have probably stayed at the loft and relaxed, but she needed this. She needed to feel the attention of those she considered friends, and to be in a place she felt comforted by. It was a relatively slow night at The Golden Lotus, so she knew Maseo and company were floating around somewhere. Adding to her well-being, the modest heather-gray skirt and matching sweater Madeline wore felt unencumbering and cozy. She sat staring at the milky ice in her White Russian until Levi snatched it away. “You really need to find something better to drink,” he said disapprovingly. “Or at least something different.” “But I like those,” Madeline whined. “With all the cream that’s in it, I figured you would too.” “Ha. Ha. That’s so not funny. And just for that…” Levi signaled a waitress. As one of the handful of pretty girls that worked the club approached, she placed her hand on Levi’s shoulder with too much familiarity, much to Madeline’s annoyance. “Take this away and bring a couple of glasses of umeshu,” Levi ordered, placing Madeline’s half-finished drink on the waitress' tray. Nodding, the attractive brunette waltzed away, stopping at another table to pick up a second order on her way back to the bar. “What on earth are you ordering for me?” Madeline asked leaning back, careful of her injury, and crossing her arms. “Something I know you’ll like,” Levi replied. “I don’t normally pick out drinks for people, but given your taste in things, I am fairly confident you will love this. It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it has a nice burn going down. Less alcohol content than your White Russian, so you can drink more with less damage to your reputation.” “Hey, that was a one-time thing,” Madeline reminded him. “Let me put it to you this way then,” Levi said with a sly smile. “Cloudy drinks are dangerous.” He made a good point. Under normal circumstances, it would not matter, but during contract work, it was probably best to go with something else. As they talked, Levi caught a whiff of something coppery in the direction of the entrance. Blood. Keeping his expression playful and cocky, Levi’s gaze drifted around the club nonchalantly before settling on the cause of what was offending his nose. As the waitress returned with their drinks, Levi’s eyes caught sight of Maseo walking with purpose, one of the bouncers at his side, toward the podium where none other than Scott stood waiting to gain entrance. Luckily, this was all happening behind Madeline. Levi didn’t want her to have to see his face ever again, especially so soon after what had recently befallen her. He could see Scott frantically glancing around tables, likely trying to spot Madeline. Levi could only imagine how many other places he’d gone with the hopes of finding her. Unfortunately, the vampire’s eyes locked on the back of Madeline’s red curls and he became suddenly more agitated with the gentleman at the podium for not letting him pass. Oblivious to what was going on behind her, Madeline simply stared at the drink placed in front of her. Its color was akin to ginger ale, and it had a strong, fruity scent. She also took note that it wasn’t served on the rocks, but with something green and prune-like resting at the bottom of the glass. “What say we make your first taste a memorable one?” Levi grinned devilishly, not giving her time to respond before he took a mouthful of his drink and scooted toward her, eyes briefly locking with Scott’s to make sure the young vampire was watching. Before Madeline realized what was happening, Levi leaned in for a kiss, placing his lips over her slightly parted mouth. As she raised her hands to his chest in protest, the sweet, chilled alcohol flowed from his mouth into hers, a pleasant elixir that she couldn’t resist swallowing. The taste of the umeshu, Levi’s scent of sandalwood, the warmth of his inviting lips, and the proximity of his body mixed to create an atmosphere that left her docile for a few moments, unable to refuse his advances as she closed her eyes. Pulling slowly away, Levi took the opportunity of her eyes being shut to check on the situation at the podium. Scott was livid. He had tried to force his way in, which was a terrible idea. The bouncer had grabbed him by the arm and Maseo stood immovable in front of him with one palm centered sternly against Scott’s chest. With Levi’s impeccable hearing, he picked up on the conversation from afar. “You want to do this? I’ll make you regret it,” Maseo warned with a voice infused with threat and maliciousness. “Go home, boy.” Shrugging the bouncer off, Scott adjusted the sleeves of his jacket and turned to walk out. As upset and determined as he was, he knew there was no way he was going to overpower Maseo. He had no other choice but to leave. “Why did you do that?” Madeline asked breathlessly, drawing Levi’s attention back to their table. Looking back at her, he saw her blue eyes were wide in shock, her right hand raised, fingertips touching her lips at the memory of his being there. It was an expression he found tempting. “You know me. Can’t help but to tease. It’s in my nature,” Levi responded slyly. Of course, Madeline thought sarcastically. Why would it be anything other than that? She was surprised at herself. That even after being on her own for so long, and being with Scott, her heart was so quick to tremble before him. Her feelings hadn’t changed one bit; they had only been invigorated by the distance she had purposely placed between him. And those feelings… she still needed to fight them. It was easier to do in the past, primarily because she didn’t want to be played for a fool. Didn't want to be the naive human who fell in love with her rescuer. Then, as she learned more about him and his appetite for women, Madeline realized she didn't want to be another one. And neither could she be a friend-with-benefits. That wasn’t how her heart worked. To bad my fucking heart won’t listen to my fucking mind, she cursed herself. These feelings are so pointless. Taking a deep breath, she focused on the flavor of the wine that had been in her mouth moments ago. He was correct in assuming she would like it. It had a sweetness that burned and went down smooth and easy. And as much as she wanted to drink more, she couldn’t. She had to leave. He'd rattled her too much. If ever she'd been on the brink of surrendering herself to him, it was now. She needed distance. “Sorry for having you bring me out here,” Madeline apologized as she began to gather her things and carefully slid out of the booth. “It doesn’t seem like this was a good idea after all, given my condition and everything that’s happened recently. I don’t know what I was thinking.” “Sure, we can head back,” Levi nodded sympathetically. “It’s best for you to be resting up anyway.” “No,” Madeline cut him off. “I mean me heading back to my own apartment. I need to be alone. I’ll come get my things in a few days.” As she rose and turned towards the entrance, Levi grabbed her wrist. “That’s not wise,” he warned, voice serious. “If Scott is still in town, you can’t be traveling alone. I’ll get Maseo to get a taxi around the rear entrance; then security can monitor you leaving and make sure no one follows you.” “Do you seriously think that's necessary?” she asked, arching a brow. The cloak and dagger of the situation just seemed over the top. It was just Scott after all, and she was trained to know when she was being followed. “I do,” Levi replied. “Fine,” Madeline caved in, lowering herself slowly back down on the edge of the booth. Levi sent a brief text message to Maseo, and within minutes one of the bouncers approached their table. “Miss Madeline, if you would please?” The stocky, well-dressed gentleman spoke eloquently, his right hand gesturing toward the back of the establishment, where the rear entrance that serviced the club’s living quarters was located. The residential suites were not publicly known, which allowed Maseo and company, and even The Golden Lotus’ elusive owner, the utmost privacy. Rising carefully again, Madeline bid Levi farewell before following her escort to the rear exit where an unmarked car awaited her. The alleyway behind the club was shaped in such a way that exiting put one with the extension of the building’s brick wall to the left, and a view of the main street that the alley emptied out into on the right. As Madeline exited the doorway with the bouncer on her right side, he produced a large, black umbrella which shielded her upper body from the main street in that direction. The open car door shielded her lower body. And with the exterior brick wall blocking the left side, she was completely hidden from any prying eyes. Once safely inside the car, the darkly tinted windows protected her identity even more so, and inconspicuous security cameras blanketed all angles around the perimeter of the establishment. As she made herself comfortable in the backseat of the town car, the driver radioed in and was given clearance to leave. Madeline directed him to drop her off on the opposite side of her block, where a different and more modern apartment building was located. After thanking the driver, she exited the car and carefully walked around the block to her building, slowly making her way home.
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