She didn’t want to open her eyes and leave it.
It took her a few moments to realize this wasn’t her bed. It was too comfortable, and too big. Bolting upright, she adjusted her eyes to the light and her surroundings. The room was small, like a hotel room, but the tell-tale signs of things like generic paintings and a nightstand lamp were absent. A studio apartment perhaps? It was modestly furnished and very clean.
The light through the curtain announced it was daytime, perhaps midday.
She jumped at the sudden noise, pulling the covers up to her neck with the sweep of her hand. It was at that point she realized she was naked under the sheets.
And had apparently been cleaned up.
Her skin smelled like soap and there were even a few carefully place bandaids on her feet. Even her long red hair had been brushed. Did he do this? She began to feel very self conscience, and also a bit angry. No doubt her cheeks were burning red right now. She wondered how she had managed to remain unconscious throughout the whole thing.
Instinctively, she reached up and wrapped her fingers around the pendant that hung from a silver chain around her neck. It was given to her by her late grandmother as a memento of her mother. She didn’t remember too much about her mother, whom grandma said passed away when Madeline was only four years old. The pendant was all she had left of her. It was a harlequin black opal, and she was relieved to find it still hanging around her neck. She only took it off to shower, and would have been devastated to find it missing.
Letting out a sigh of relief, she drew the courage to find out if she was alone or not.
“Hello..?” Madeline called out timidly.
The only response was the purr from the cat that was curled up next to her, and the sound of a running shower in the distance.
“Hello…?!” She repeated, though a bit louder.
The cat leaned its body against the side of her waist, eyes closed as it pushed its head demandingly against her to be petted.
“You’re a friendly one,” she responded, raking her fingertips through the soft, black fur.
Suddenly, Madeline’s stomach growled loudly.
She glanced around the room and noticed a simple, yet pretty, floral patterned sundress draped over a clothes valet in the corner near the window.
From her apartment.
Apprehensively, she slipped off the king-sized bed and rushed towards the dress. Folded neatly underneath it were a bra and panties. Also from her apartment.
She wasn’t sure whether or not she should be grateful or furious at this point.
She got dressed as quickly as possible, and then cautiously exited the bedroom into the hall. With every step, she could feel a dull pain on the bottoms of her feet. Between the bars of the shipping container, and running over who knows what on the asphalt last night, she couldn’t say she was surprised.
The black cat raced past her down the hallway, taking a sharp right. Following it, Madeline ended up in the kitchen.
She felt a bit intrusive as she opened the refrigerator door looking for something to eat, but she really was starving. Besides, whoever was here must have realized she would probably be famished after waking up. She found the refrigerator just about barren. There was a half a dozen eggs, a carton of orange juice, some lunchmeat, and a carton of half and half. Going through the cabinets and drawers, she found those pretty much empty as well. Luckily, she found a white dinnerware set, three glasses, a skillet, and a saucepan. She managed to crack a few eggs into the skillet and began to cook them along with some diced-up lunchmeat.
She was so focused on frying, and the delicious aroma rising up from the pan, that she didn’t noticed the figure that had sat himself casually on the countertop at the other end of the kitchen.
“You cook? Nice.”
She nearly knocked the pan off the stovetop with her startled convulsion.
The man from last night sat with one leg propped up on the counter, sipping from a bottled water, and leaning against the backsplash. He was wearing grey sweatpants and a white tanktop, and his black hair was wet from being freshly shampooed. He smiled mischievously at Madeline as she tried to save face. She was surprised to see his eyes were still the same shade of green as the night before. As odd as it was, perhaps they weren’t contact lenses after all.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to form the words, “I was just really hungry. I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they didn’t feed you well.”
He was right. Over the past week or so she’d been given maybe half a dozen cold cheeseburgers. Some partially eaten.
She looked down at the pan once more, making a few final stirs before guiding it out onto a plate. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him hop off the countertop and slink over to the drawer next to her. He had this very fluid way of moving that was both agile and a touch feminine. Her heart started to race as he opened the drawer next to her and took out a couple of forks. Handing one to her, he helped himself to a few bites of what she had just prepared.
“You’re pretty good at whipping up stuff up, huh?” He asked after savoring the warm flavor of the eggs.
“You don’t cook?” Madeline responded, trying to make conversation to steady her nerves.
“Not at all.”
“But you have food in the fridge. Things that can expire.”
“Sometimes I have guests over,” he said lowering his voice seductively, “They cook.”
She began to tremble, and found herself suddenly backing away. She knew she was still emotionally fragile from her captivity, but still…
This caused a deep chuckle from him.
“Sorry, I’ve started this off all wrong, haven’t I?” He apologized with a disarming smile as he set down his fork and offered a simple bow. “My name is Leviticus. I was generously hired to rescue you, Miss Madeline McCaffrey, from those fae.”
“Fae?” She asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “As in fairies?”
“Exactly that,” he replied. “Surely you noticed they weren’t normal?”
She nodded slowly. So that confirmed it. It wasn’t hallucinogens or anything of that nature. What she saw was real.
He took a step forward, putting himself back into close proximity, and brushed his fingertips through her long red hair. “Normally I don’t retrieve living things, but in this case I’ve made an exception.”
Purposefully teasing her, he was rather surprised at the strength of her desire. The amount of delicious desire she was emanating was above her species’ normal output. And despite the fact she was fighting to hold it back, it was very rich. He could only imagine how strong and fulfilling it would be at full fruition.
Madeline backed away even further this time.
He was too close.
Who was this person and why was he being so forward? She took another small step backwards, stuttering through her next sentence.
“Did you..? When I was asleep, did you…?”
“Do anything inappropriate?” He quickly finished her sentence. “No. I sponged the dirt and blood off of you, took care of your cuts, washed the clothes you had thatweren’t torn up, and brushed out the knots in your hair. Couldn’t have you getting my guest bed all filthy. I also managed to bring over some of your things from your apartment, so you’d feel more at home.”
She exhaled softly.
“It takes a lot more than handling a nude human body to get me excited.”
That put the brakes on her beating heart.
He could see her expression start to sour, and he returned it with a smirk, the same amused smirk he had given in the warehouse watching her tenacity.
Before responding to him with a smart-ass comment of her own, she reminded herself once again that she was still mentally and physically exhausted. She had just been told fairies were real, and there was still psychological damage undoubtedly making her pretty vulnerable right now as well as keeping her from thinking clearly.
“So you… you retrieve things?” she said, desperately trying to change the subject.
He walked over to one of the sleek, stainless steel canisters which sat on the counter and popped it open. The aroma of coffee beans drifted through the kitchen.
“Yes, and there’s a lot I need to explain to you, so do you mind if I make us some coffee? I know it’s the middle of the day and all, but I can’t seem to have scrambled eggs without having a cup of coffee.”
“Sure,” Madeline replied. To be honest, coffee sounded perfect at the moment.
He scooped the beans directly into the grinder on the coffee maker, pressed a few buttons and the small appliance whirred into action. Taking her by the elbow, he gently guided her out of the kitchen in the direction opposite from which she entered, past the living room and out a sliding glass door to a balcony. It was a high-rise residential building in the city, and from her best guess, they were about six floors up.
“We’re seven floors up,” Levi replied. “I could see you mentally counting them.”
Fearlessly, he leaned back against the railing. He noticed her apprehension.
“Are you afraid of heights?” he asked her.
“Nope, just gravity” she replied.
Her response brought out his bright, gorgeous smile.
“Well, have a seat,” he grinned, motioning with a sweep of his hand to a small cafe table and chairs made out of teakwood. “I’ll go get us that coffee.”
He went back inside through the open glass door leaving Madeline alone on the balcony. As she took a seat at the table, she gazed out at the city below and wondered just how many people out there were not what they appeared to be. And of those, how many have hurt people? How many had killed? How much of it was hidden, and for how long? Within a few minutes, Leviticus returned with two cups of hot coffee and the rest of the plated breakfast she had made.
“I took the liberty of making yours with milk and chocolate. Drink it slowly, this is going to take a while.”
Cupping the warm mug in both hands, she took one sip. It was delicious. She could tell it had something to do with the chocolate. It definitely didn’t taste like the chocolate syrup used at all the corner coffee shops. It was smoother, richer, and more decadent.
“This is really good!”
Did she actually see a blush on his cheeks?
He raised a hand to the back off his head and ruffled his hair. “Thanks.”
Taking a deep breath, he weighed in his mind just how much to tell her. He had specific instructions on what to tell her, but knew that if she was anything like him, she would not be satisfied with just that.
“As I was saying earlier,” he began, “I was hired to get you to safety. But before you ask, I can’t tell you who hired me. I retrieve property and return it to its rightful owner, working through a broker. If whomever hires me wants me to know who they are, I’m told through the broker. If not, I get the details of the job and make my own choice whether to take it or not. Your retrieval was of the latter. I take on other types of jobs as well, as long as they don’t conflict with my own interests. And I rarely, RARELY, work for humans.”
“I take it you’re not human then?”
“No. I’m not.”
She suspected as much. A normal guy off the street wouldn’t have been able to give supernatural creatures such an ass-kicking. She was tempted to ask him what he was, but figured that might be a very rude question to ask someone that wasn’t human. Especially someone she hardly knew.
“So if you can’t tell me who hired you, can you tell me why I was taken in the first place? I keep going over it in my head and I can’t think of one solid thing that would make me important to anyone like… that.”
“Well you’re definitely important to somebody that’s important enough to hire me,” Leviticus responded casually. “I was told to get you to safety, and make sure you had that necklace on you. And I can tell you that if they went to the trouble of hiring me, this is probably just the beginning of your problems.”
“Great” she grumbled, absentmindedly reaching up to touch her pendant. In the midday sunlight it glittered like a kaleidoscope.
“Those were my explicit instructions. Anything I should know about the necklace?”
“It was my mom’s,” her voice lowered solemnly, “She passed away when I was four.”
“It’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the mug of coffee.
She thought back to her mother. She remembered her long red hair, and her bright smile. She remembered the afternoon her grandma came to pick her up from daycare instead of her mom. This lady she had never met before took her to a small house, where all her toys had already been brought, and told her the bad news. Mom wasn’t coming home again. Something bad had happened. The only things left were the family pictures grandma had of mom, and a necklace. Grandma Addy had told her that her mother would have wanted her to have it, and that it would bring her close to mom’s spirit when she wore it. It was a gorgeous, glittering opal, and Madeline would stare at it for hours as a child, watching the light dance off the rainbow of colors set against the black stone. She had hardly removed it since.
Growing up with grandma was wonderful. She was kind, although a little eccentric. She helped Madeline through school, taught her to cook, and to appreciate music. About five years ago, grandma passed away as well. She was able to sell the house for enough to pay off the rest of the mortgage, and had money to spare to get herself into an apartment.
Levi had done his own extensive research into her family background before he took the job to rescue her. He didn’t ask Madeline about her dad because her mom was a single mother. There wasn’t a father listed on the birth record at all. The rest of the story pretty much went as Madeline told it. A short while after her mother’s death, her grandmother was granted full custody and raised her granddaughter on her own modest pension. He had searched deeper into her family’s background hoping to find something that would directly, or indirectly, tie her to the fae, but came up empty. For all intensive purposes, she was a normal, lower-class human girl. However, it was very possible someone had covered up her or her family’s tracks. There had to be something. He just hadn’t found it yet, and that intrigued him.
“I guess you can say the necklace is important to me, but I can’t imagine why it would be important to anyone else, unless they wanted to sell it.”
Reflecting back on the night she was kidnapped, she remembered how they pushed her down on her bed when she tried to run out of the room. When they grabbed at her necklace, she thought they were going to rape her. An paralyzing chill ran down her spine as she dwelled on the moment.
“They only tried to take it off me once, now that I think about it. When they first broke into my apartment. Then they started to go through my jewelry box. Maybe it’s not this necklace they were looking for? Do you think they will try again?”
“Probably. Without knowing why they were so interested in the first place, I can’t even guess if it will be the fae that come back looking, or others.”
“Vampires, shapeshifters, phantoms… basically if you’ve heard of some sort of monster, they exist in one form or another. Myths always have a basis in truth.”
He could tell she was considering all the possible fiction vs. reality situations deeply now, as her gaze was a dozen fables away, and clearly shaken. His voice softened, hoping to cushion the blow of the reality she was going to have to deal with from this point forward.
“Think of it this way – most of the world is draped in blindness, like there’s a shroud of gossamer keeping them from seeing what’s really there. Everyday things reinforce that blindness. Take the news for example. Or social media. All the trending stories are just distractions. They keep people fighting and arguing differences of opinions, and redirect any focus from things that are actually important. And the few people who rip away the gossamer, be it by chance or by choice, realize that to survive they have to support the lies and the distractions. If they don’t… well, you know what happens to those people spouting nonsense about monsters and conspiracies….”
He leaned forward, eyes locked on the pendant.
“May I?” he asked politely.
Madeline nodded and set her coffee mug down on the polished, wooden table.
Carefully, with his index finger and thumb, he lifted the pendant so expertly that she didn’t even feel his touch. He stared at it intensely and rubbed it between his fingers so it caught the light at different angles. It warmed to the friction of his touch, which he expected, but he couldn’t detect anything unusual about it from this rudimentary inspection. It appeared to be a genuine black opal, with a multi-colored diamond pattern blazing with depth and clarity. It had none of the characteristics he was specifically looking for, which would have flagged it as something more than just a precious stone. He could mess with it further, but that would require her to remove it and give it to him for a bit of undisturbed study, which he wasn’t in much of a mood to do.
“Sorry, but I don’t see anything other than a fine quality black opal.”
He let it slip from his fingers and fall back against the base of her throat. It felt very warm when it landed, but it soon cooled back down to her own body temperature to the point that she could no longer feel its presence.
“Do you remember anything else while they had you?” Levi continued. “Anything they might have said, or anyone that might have came to see them?”
Levi already knew they were petty thugs as far as fae went, so it was obvious they were working for someone higher up on the food chain.
Madeline thought deeply, trying to remember their conversations. They talked about beer, and they argued over their card game and if someone had been cheating.
“Oh! They did take a few phone calls while I was there,” she remembered. “That one guy did. The one I strangled.”
There was a brief expression of satisfaction on her face as she remembered exacting vengeance.
“I think it was the second day I was there. He made a call to someone, and then told the other guys that there was going to be a delay because something happened in court. Maybe someone got arrested or something?”
Levi knew what that meant. Whomever arranged her kidnapping couldn’t move her because of some unexpected activities in the fae court, which meant the person behind this was probably a member of the fae court. Beneficial to them was the fact that it was against court policy to kidnap humans, so whomever was behind this was going to lay low for a while.
Picking up the coffee cup once again, she took a couple more sips, trying to appear calm on the outside even though she felt she was shaking on the inside. There was a gentle, late afternoon breeze reminding her how good it felt to be free from her captives, but was her future going to be spent running? And how long could she run? Realistically? If Leviticus hadn’t been there to save her, it’s possible she could be dead right now. She certainly was no match for fighting off something like the fae if they wanted to outright kill her.
Sensing her troubled mind, Levi rose from his chair and walked around to where she sat. Placing his hands lightly on her shoulders from behind, he began to massage away the worry.
“Not all the monsters are bad,” he said calmly. “For instance, not all fae are like the ones that kidnapped you. Just like with humans, there are the good and the evil. And someone cared enough to hire me to rescue you. That in itself is a sign that you are not as alone as you feel right now.”
His hands felt warm and relaxing, and despite the path that lay before her now, she felt a little better about it. Then again, she didn’t know if she felt trusting of him because she was still in a fragile state of mind, or if he really was a kind person.
“What do I do now? I am afraid of going back to my apartment. They know I live there, so it would be stupid of me to go back. I have to disappear, don’t I?”
She sounded so sad, yet so resolved in her decision that Levi wasn’t really sure how to respond. She couldn’t go back. That would be too dangerous for her.
He was surprised he hadn’t gotten a follow-up call or email from his broker, Syriem, as to what the client wanted done next. He figured once Madeline was safe, he would get instructions on what to do with her, who to take her to, etc… But there was nothing. No communication at all.
This made things troublesome.
He couldn’t just kick her out.
Stepping away from her, he slowly walked over to the balcony railing and looked out over the city. The strength of her emotions would be an asset to keep close by. It would be like having his own rechargeable battery if he played his cards right. Not knowing why her emotions were so potent both bothered and intrigued him. He’d never had a live-in pet before. It might work out, and it might not. Either way, it would only be for as long as it took for the client to claim her.
“We can head over to your apartment tomorrow and start the process of getting you off the grid. You can store your stuff here for now.”
“I don’t have my keys though,” she replied, “But I can call the leasing office and have them let us in.”.
“That’s not going to be necessary,” Levi replied. “We need the whole process to appear so normal that it’s boring, so we don’t even want to let your leasing office know anything other than you’re moving out. Getting into your locked apartment is going to be way too easy, so don’t worry about.”
Madeline’s blue eyes widened.
“So that’s what you meant by retrieving stuff,” she realized. “You’re a thief.”
“Don’t make it sound so degrading,” he responded, a little put off. “There are a lot of precious things that get stolen from good people by greedy, manipulative people. Often, those good people don’t have any way to get things back on their own without risking their lives. I steal from the greedy and manipulative and return the items back to their rightful owners. I don’t steal just to fence stuff. Unless someone pisses me off.”
Guilt spread across Madeline’s face.
“I’m sorry, that was really rude of me,” she apologized. “I didn’t realize.” She paused a moment in thought as she took another long sip of the rich coffee he had made. “That actually sounds like a really rewarding way to live,” she continued rather quietly. “To be able to give people back what they had stolen from them. To give them back hope. I bet you make a lot of people extremely happy.”
“The people I steal from aren’t too happy about it.”
“But you can take care of yourself. The way you fought was amazing!”
“It’s rarely that heroic.”
“Could you teach me how to fight? I’m not expecting to be able to be anywhere near as good as you, but I have taken some karate classes, so I know some basics at least, and I’ve been told I’m very good at it. It will increase my chances of survival.” Madeline began to raise her voice in nervous excitement. “And in return, I’ll owe you a bunch of favors… I don’t know…. maybe help with trivial jobs or be a lookout or something? Please… at least it will give me a better chance to live through this.”
There was a very long pause as Levi considered it. In fact, he was surprised at himself for actually even thinking about it at all. He’d never taught anything to anyone before, let alone a human. Still, she was impressive in the warehouse, all things considered. She didn’t hesitate for a second when it came time to try to get herself out of that cage, even though it meant exposing herself. And she handled the fae pretty fearlessly given the fact she had just found out that whole world even existed. She definitely wasn’t timid.
And who knows, it might be amusing. To see how far he could push her. To see at what point she would give up. He was fairly sure she would get discouraged after a few weeks or so and that would be that. Not to mention she was a cute little thing he would get to play with.
“Sure. Why not,” he replied. “It isn’t going to be easy though. And you will owe me many favors.”
She brightened up. At least she had something to focus on beside the possible dangers she faced.
“You can stay here for now in the guest bedroom,” he began. “Not sure if you noticed, but it has it’s own full bath. For the time being, I don’t want you going out on your own. The reason I mention that is because there will be times I am gone. Sometimes for weeks at a time. I don’t actually live here. Let’s go inside.”
As Madeline stood with her coffee cup in hand, Levi grabbed his cup and the empty plate and stepped through the opened sliding glass door. Motioning for her to have a seat on the couch, he place the empty plate and cup on the coffee table, and took a seat on the adjacent armchair. As he propped his bare feet up on the oak coffee table, she couldn’t help but feel his proximity within the walls of the apartment. She internally scolded herself for getting excited at a time like this. Before meeting her gaze, he smiled as if he knew what she was thinking.
“I will try to focus my work around this location so I will be here more often than usual. But when I am out, I’ll leave you some numbers you can call if you need groceries delivered, something needs to be fixed in the apartment, etc… I’ll cover all costs upfront, so you don’t need to worry about money. But I do expect you to cook for me when I am here.”
“When I’m here, we’ll be training. When I’m not here, you’ll be studying languages and cultures. The first language you are going to learn is Japanese because it’s my native language. I’ll make some calls to prepare us for tomorrow, and we’ll need to go over the details and develop a scenario.”
Suddenly, the cell phone that had been sitting on the coffee table began to ring. He could feel her gaze on his body as he looked away, and even allowed himself a bite of her desire. She might be shaken by the recent events, but she was still checking him out at every turn.
“Moshi moshi,” Levi said as he picked up the phone. “Well for the moment, I have her staying here since I don’t have any further instructions. Uh huh. Is that so? It would have been nice to know that going into this one. I guess that all works out in the end since I agreed to take her in…”
There was some stern scolding on the other end of the call, along with something that sounded like a strong warning.
Levi just chuckled.
“You don’t like the idea of me having an assistant? Don’t get all worked up about it. I think she’ll probably give up early into the process. Or she’ll sleep with me and get her heart broken…”
Madeline’s eyes widened.
There was a very threatening sound on the other end of the line this time. One that cut Levi out of his joking spirit immediately. All pleasantries left his face, and his voice was now cold and sharp.
“And why not?”
He listened patiently to the poor lack-of-a-good-excuse, but was clearly not a fan of being told what he could and couldn’t do.
“If she’s that important to the client, then they need to take responsibility for her. As long as she’s with me, I’m doing things my way. I am not making any promises about anything. Do I make myself clear?”
Apparently intimidated, the voice on the other end was quieter.
“Yeah, you tell them that.”
With a press of his screen, Levi ended the call and slid his phone back across the table, obviously irritated by the conversation.
Madeline sat in shocked silence. Did he just say he expected her to either sleep with him, or to just give up? Unbelieveable! Feeling her anger burning, she clenched her fists and blurted out a much censored version of what she was really thinking.
“You are such a JERK!!”
She picked up the nearest thing she could get her hands on, which thankfully was not the coffee cup, and hurled a throw pillow as hard as she could towards Levi’s head. He could have easily caught it, but instead chose to let it hit him square in the face so she could feel satisfied. She then stormed off into the room he gave her, not seeing the way he smiled at her from behind.
That fire, he thought, You need to hold onto that.
He got up slowly, realizing he was going to have to make an attempt at apologizing now. He ruffled the hair on the back of his head as he thought about what he was going to say. Walking towards the guest room, he was surprised that she hadn’t slammed the door shut, so he stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
“Sorry,” he smiled arrogantly, “I had to say those things. My broker was getting on my ass.”
Madeline sat on her bed, arms crossed, looking unimpressed at his excuse.
“It seems that whomever hired me decided I’m suppose to keep tabs on you now. They have indicated that they won’t be making any contact with you at this time. Which is bullshit in my opinion.”
“Why would they send someone to rescue me and then not even let me know why?!” Madeline rose from the bed, throwing her hands up in the air, frustrated. “That IS bullshit!”
Levi felt relieved that the other part of the conversation might have blown over quicker than he expected.
“But I am still mad about what you said,” she said as she walked up to him, glaring.
Okay, maybe not, he thought.
“I am NOT going to give up. I PROMISE you that.”
“So you’ll sleep with me then?” he asked , faking an innocent expression.
It was too easy. He couldn’t help himself.
She stopped right in front of him so that she was inches from his body. Looking up into his green eyes, she spoke clearly and confidently.
“You’ll be begging me.”
For a moment Levi was speechless. He definitely wasn’t prepared for that kind of a response. And Madeline found that her actions had deflated her anger, and with it, her resolution.
Sometimes she hated her fiery, strong will.
This was one of those times.
For a few seconds, the two of them stood in uncomfortable silence.
Then the door buzzer rang.
Neither of them budged or broke eye contact.
It rang a second time.
“I need to get that,” Levi said matter-of-factly. “I ordered us food right before you woke up.”
Madeline nodded in acceptance and they both stepped apart at the same time. As she watched him walk down the hall, she couldn’t bring herself to follow him right away. She felt embarrassed and awkward right now, and really wanted to go hide somewhere. In the distance she could hear the door being opened, and a muffled conversation. The door closed and she heard the rustling of paper bags, and the scent of Chinese food drifted into her room.
“You want to eat now, or can I show you the rest of the place first?” Levi yelled from the kitchen.
Madeline stepped out from her room, thankful their conversation was traveling in an entirely different direction now.
“I guess I could put off eating for a bit,” she responded entering the kitchen just as Levi set the paper bags on the counter. “I didn’t realize there was more to see. But is that food going to be ok out on the counter with your cat around?”
“My cat?” Levi responded a bit puzzled.
“Oh, you mean the cat that was in here earlier,” Levi continued. “That’s not my cat. I watch it for one of my neighbors from time to time. It took off out the door when the food came.”
Madeline’s blue eyes grew wide with shock. Did he just let the cat out? Shouldn’t they go looking for it?
Seeing her reaction, Levi chuckled.
“It’s fine. He lives down the hall and was just heading home. We do this all the time. It won’t get lost. It knows where it needs to go.”
As he spoke, Levi headed towards a door that Madeline thought might be a pantry.
She was not prepared for what was on the other side.
Instead of a simple two bedroom apartment, Levi’s place was actually a loft. Behind the door from the kitchen was a large open space with hardwood floors and minimal natural window lighting. There was a weight bench, some balance beams, a punching bag, rock climbing wall, and a Wing Chun wooden practice dummy. At the end of the room was a freight elevator, and parked next to that was the motorcycle they had rode in on the other night.
“This is where we’ll be training,” Levi stated. “You’ll need to raise your stamina, dexterity, and bring your self-defense skills up a lot. I’m not going to be training you in a traditional self-defense program, because there are specific ways you need to fight specific attackers. The whole situation boils down to this… the more of my teaching you can absorb, the more your chances of survival increase.”
Madeline nodded, still trying to take it all in.
“And they’ll be other types of training you’ll undertake as well,” he continued. “I’ll have to teach you to ride, for one. But don’t concern yourself with that right now. First things first, and you’ve already been hit with enough today. How about we eat?”
“Sounds good,” she replied as she followed him out and into the kitchen.
He didn’t have a kitchen table, so they took the bags out to the coffee table and Madeline took a seat on the floor. Levi indicated he was going to make them some tea, grabbed the coffee cups and plate from the coffee table, and disappeared back into the kitchen for a while. Trying to quell her internal thoughts, she began to remove the take-out cartons from the paper bags as normally as if she had been visiting a best friend on a Saturday night. Sitting cross-legged, she rested her elbows on the table and cracked a pair of chopsticks apart. She wasn’t sure what he had ordered, but could identify one of the cartons as broccoli and beef. The second one was some kind of chicken, maybe orange chicken, since it had a bit of a citrus smell to it.
“Help yourself to whichever,” Levi shouted from the kitchen. “Or if you want, we can eat half and then switch. I don’t really care.”
She decided to play it safe and go with what she was familiar with, the broccoli and beef. After taking a couple of bites in the silence of the living room, she heard Levi coming out of the kitchen with a couple of cups of tea. It was green tea served in two beautiful white and blue traditional tea cups, each one covered in kanji. He took a seat across from her, also sitting down cross-legged. It became pretty obvious that he took all his meals here at the coffee table.
“So about tomorrow…,” Levi said raising the chopsticks to his lips and taking a bite of the lemon chicken, “I want you to think of this as your first job. You will be playing a role. How much is left on your lease?”
“About two months,” Madeline replied.
“Here is the plan – We’ll head over in the morning and tidy the place up so it doesn’t look like someone broke in. And get your ID, assuming it’s still there.”
“Keep in mind we’ll need to contact anyone you have an account with. Utility companies, cell phone provider, whatever… so if you need to get account numbers and customer service numbers on that stuff, get it before the movers get there. Then we’ll head to the leasing office at your complex to pay off the rest of your lease, and arrange for them to do a final walk-through after the movers are done. Story goes, you and I were dating and have gotten serious, so you’re going to move in with me. Your forwarding address will be one of my PO Boxes. I’ll have the movers scheduled for 10am. We’ll supervise them as they pack and load your stuff onto their truck. After the walk-through is done and signed off on, we’ll follow the movers back here and have them load your stuff onto the service elevator. Then we’ll take it from there.”
He calmly went back to eating, as if he does stuff like this every day, leaving Madeline to go over the plan in her head. He was able to get movers scheduled on such short notice? That certainly wasn’t normal. After a moment of silence, he looked up at her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there with you. You don’t have to remember any of that on your own. I am, however, expecting you to remember the details of our relationship. We’ve been dating for five months and two weeks. We met in a coffee shop. Barista got our orders mixed up. You’re moving ‘downtown’. And the bonus answer is ‘the rooftop patio at the Hard Rock last night’.”
“The bonus what?” Madeline asked. That made no sense.
“Just remember all that, and play your part,” he said and then paused to take a few more bites. “I assume you’ve dated before?”
Madeline glared in response to his snarky question.
“I guess so,” he laughed. “I just want to make it perfectly clear that you are going to have to act like we’re a couple for this. If you can’t pull that off, you might as well give up now. It doesn’t get any easier than this.”
He was right. They were going to her place, a location she was extremely familiar with, to basically move her out. And moving in with a new boyfriend was completely believable. And he was definitely easy on the eyes, so it wasn’t like she had to try hard to pretend they were dating. Not to mention she had something to prove to him. That she was serious about the decision she made. That she wasn’t going to give up, or back down, or give in. She was going to handle this, and handle it well.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
“Excuse me,” Levi said as he stood and went to the door.
She could hear some friendly banter, so being curious, she stood and went to the door as well. Standing just inside the now closed front door was a tall, slender man with slightly wavy, short brown hair. His almond eyes sparkled as Madeline approached, and he removed one hand away from the calico cat he was holding to offer it to her in a greeting. His clothes were nicely tailored, which probably wasn’t abnormal for anyone who could afford to live in the same nice building downtown, but he gave off the impression of being a bit too friendly.
“Madeline, this is my neighbor, Caslon,” Levi introduced. “He’s the one with the cat.”
“Oh, the cat from earlier?” Madeline asked, shaking Caslon’s hand politely. Looking down, she noticed the cat he was holding wasn’t the same one as earlier.
“How many cats do you have?” she asked, letting out a small laugh.
“More than I would like to,” Caslon replied with a regretful sort of smile. “Would you like one?”
“Um, no,” she said, taking back her hand, “I’m okay without any pets right now.”
“So, what’s up?” Levi asked, offering him a seat at the couch.
“Oh, nothing. I heard some noise over here and was just making sure it was you, that’s all.” Caslon assessed Madeline with his eyes, all the while scratching the cat behind the ears. “So, new roommate?”
“Something like that,” Levi responded, eyes suddenly narrowing. “She’ll be here for a while, and has the run of the place. We are moving her in tomorrow actually.”
“Wow!” Caslon smiled wide-eyed, a bit surprised by the situation.
“Wow, what?” Levi asked. Caslon was always sniffing around whenever there was a girl over at Levi’s place, but he was even more annoying this time. Probably because this girl was actually moving in, and not just staying the night.
“So, is this a serious thing then?” He smiled as he prodded.
“No,” Levi responded flatly.
Caslon then stood checking Madeline out even more so, with an even bigger smile on his lips this time. “So, um, Madeline,” Caslon began once more. “If you need anything, just come over. I’m right next door.”
“Elle n’est pas une souris,” Levi interjected before Caslon could continue with his amorous invitation.
“Seriously?” Caslon pouted. “Ok, whatever. You’re no fun.”
Madeline was pretty sure that was French, but before she could commit it to memory so that she could look it up later on the internet, Caslon took her hand again.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said politely. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
“Just go already,” Levi ordered, crossing his arms.
Caslon smiled once more at Madeline, and then left Levi’s apartment.
“He seems nice, but a little forward,” Madeline observed out loud. “Is he… ?”
Levi didn’t respond to her question and just walked away back to the coffee table. Perhaps it was a rude question to ask? She thought about apologizing, but then figured it would just bring more attention to the uncomfortableness of the situation. And she did get the point. It was rude to ask what someone was when she barely knew them, and that included Levi.
The rest of the evening went by pretty quietly, but after they finished dinner, Levi told Madeline he wanted her to go to her room and decompress. He explained that he could tell she was bottling up all the emotions from the past couple of weeks and it was only going to get worse if she didn’t release them.
“Just lock the door, pretend I’m not here, and do what you need to do. I can guarantee you I’m not going to eavesdrop. I may sound like I don’t know what I am talking about, and you may think you’re fine, but you’re not. I can smell it all over you.”
Madeline was taken aback by his words. Eyes wide, she thought she had been doing pretty good, and was actually feeling a bit better.
Until he said that.
And he could smell it? Smell what exactly? What was he, a dog?
“Fine,” she responded sharply.
She stood up and walked to her room somewhat defiantly. After locking the door behind her, she leaned her back against it. It would be nice to take a hot bath and get back to a normal sleeping schedule. She set the radio alarm clock to the time she had discussed with Levi earlier, and left her favorite station on loud enough to be heard in the adjoining bathroom. After brushing her hair, she started to run some hot water into the tub. Stripping off her clothes, she left them in a pile on the floor and sank her tired body into the warm water. As she stretched out, she noticed two sets of shampoos and conditioners in the recessed shelf. One was her cheap brand that Levi brought from her apartment. But the other set? Curious, she popped the top off and took a sniff. It didn’t have the same earthy scent that Levi had lingering around him. In fact, it was a pricey women’s brand with a very feminine scent. And they were less than half full. The bit of cold water that sat in the flip-top cap also revealed that they were recently used.
Frustrated, she set the shampoo bottle down with a thud, sinking a bit deeper into the clear, steamy water. What was she expecting? That someone like him was available?
Someone like him.
She didn’t even know what he was.
So many things she didn’t know, and for being self-sufficient, she now depended on a stranger for a roof over her head, clothes on her back, and her next meal. She wasn’t even certain how long that was going to last. From his phone conversation earlier, the whole arrangement seemed to be temporary. And then what? Was it going to boil down to her bending to his whims to keep from being kicked out on the street and figuratively to her death?
She had basically moved from one prison to another, only this was one she couldn’t escape from. It was going to be hers forever.
And she had nothing anymore. Sure, she couldn’t afford much to begin with, but now she truly had nothing but a few toiletries and a couple of changes of clothes that could literally fit in a large shoebox.
Grabbing onto her necklace, she slid backwards, putting her head underwater. She stayed under for as long as she could hold her breath, hoping it would stop the tears she could feel coming. Without his distraction, her mind became busy with an overwhelming amount of doom. Her thoughts suddenly felt like a derailing bullet-train.
Coming up for air, she started sobbing. She splashed the warm water on her face, but it wouldn’t stop the crying. She didn’t want to think about having nothing, but she couldn’t stop. Over and over again. She didn’t even have a reason she could blame for it all. There was nothing to even look back on and point “there’s what screwed me over”. She’d been on her own for years, but right now she felt the need to be held. She missed grandma. She knew she had to suck it up, but it was easier said than done right now. She would get through this. She would get stronger. She would survive. Through her tears, she repeated that mantra over and over to herself.
At the far end of the condo, back in the loft, Levi was blasting some rock music while he did chin-ups on the steel bar. The music was so loud he could feel it reverberate inside his chest as he repeated his sets over and over again. Even from this far away, her hopelessness was thick in the air. He had a feeling since the bit of desire she emanated for him earlier was strong, then her raging misery would be unbearably heavy.
And he was right.
It was salty and sour and he didn’t want to be anywhere near her right now. He figured he’d do a hard workout to force his focus on getting through double his normal reps, burning the atmosphere out of his mind. It also cleared his head, allowing him to concentrate on some questions he had been dwelling on in her presence. For a human, the strength of her emotions were well above par. His kind could gain some sustainuance on the emotions of others, but it wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Most could normally absorb them like taking a drag off a cigarette. They could pick which emotion they wanted, unaffected by the other less desirable ones. The drawback to having it easy like that was that one couldn’t survive off that alone.
But Levi was different.
He absorbed emotion much more efficiently, could heal serious wounds from it, but he couldn’t tune out undesirable ones. His specific kind had emotions they strongly preferred, and therefore had emotions which they strongly detested. And they were born that way. It wasn’t something they could develope a taste for later on. It was unchanging.
He worked out for a few more hours, long after he heard the water draining from the guest bathtub, and felt Madeline’s emotions subside. He likewise showered and then headed to Madeline’s room, with a blanket from the linen closet in hand. Unlocking the door, he silently stepped over to the bed and laid the blanket over her sleeping body. He knew first hand how it felt to lose everything in an instant, but he also knew that it was possible to survive it and be stronger because of it. By her will and drive, he knew she’d survive it too.