Before I could finish freaking out — before I could even really get started — Hans opened the passenger door on my side. I clamped down on everything while he helped me out. I tried to just focus on the sun and not on wondering what my dad had thought when he’d seen my blood-smeared mouth. While I was failing to cope with either of those, Hans helped Emma as well. I actually was distracted by a moment of guilt as he helped her to my side and then took his place on the other. I do need to talk, I berated myself. This isn’t working. Bottling things up until I freak out is just going to get people hurt. You know that, Abigail. This was serious. I only called myself by my full name instead of Abby when I knew I couldn’t afford to not listen to myself.
“Hans,” I said, knowing I had to open up a little, and I couldn’t afford to only do it when I was hungry enough to be on the verge of being dangerous.
“Yes?” He asked in reply.
I swallowed. I couldn’t bring myself to actually say I was panicking about my Dad maybe knowing something was wrong — it was too personal a fear. I’d been a daddy’s girl, I was pretty sure, growing up. I’d always known that if the monsters or robbers or serial rapists or wolves or monsters tried to get me while he was around, Dad would shoot them in the face. He’d told me so, more than once. I didn’t know if I could handle explaining to Hans that I was afraid my dad might think I was the monster, now. So I mentally kicked my autopilot until it buckled, instead. It responded by being too cooperative.
“Have you ever had one of those nightmares where things just get worse and worse and worse,” I blurted out, “and then eventually you’re being chased by a monster and it corners you somewhere — like on the edge of a cliff — and you’re all like ‘this can’t be happening!’ and it’s all like: ‘but it is, mwahaha’ and then you’re all like: ‘no, really, this is impossible.‘ and it’s all like: ‘I’m gonna eat you now, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ but then you’re like: ‘oh yeah? Well I’m clearly dreaming, and since this is my dream I can just obliterate you from existence.’ And then it’s just all: ‘bullshit, you can’t do that!’ so you go: ‘oh yeah? Well, this is my dream, so I’m going to bequeath upon you the knowledge that I’m right and I can.’ And then you do, and it goes: ‘oh, fuck me,’ in horror and then it disappears?” The words came out in an unrestrained rush, leaving my ears burning with embarrassment over how pathetic I was.
Hans blinked, but I wasn’t done.
“And you spend the rest of the dream oh, I don’t know… skipping through a field of sunshine and rainbows and daisies while bishounen make out all around you?” I mentally cursed whatever part of me had decided it would be a good idea to convey to Hans how I felt. I barely managed to stop blathering long enough for Hans to answer me.
“No,” Hans said slowly while he tried to process my questions. “I don’t believe that I have. But then again, I don’t know what bishounen are, either. Why?”
I frowned and concentrated. “That depends. Do you feel like kissing John when we get home?”
“Er… no,” Hans said. “No, I can’t say that I do.”
“Oh,” I replied. My shoulders slumped in disappointment. “Never mind, then.” Hans was smart. He could probably figure out where I’d been trying to go with that.
Instead of trying to continue the conversation — which was clearly as doomed as all of mine always are — I swooped up part of my cloak so it hung loosely over my arm and I could cling to Hans’ while Emma snuggled into my side. Then I took a deep breath to steel my nerves. Then, I forced myself to step forward.
Together, we walked into the restaurant to wait for Hans’ friend, Linda. The woman who happened to be the strongest witch Hans knew, who would take one look at Emma’s aura and know I was out of control, and who was a quisling who might — just might — be able to guess what Archarel’s next move would be toward Megan.
Fuck me, I thought as we did. Why couldn’t this have just been a nightmare like that?
Fortunately, we were offset enough from noon that the restaurant didn’t look crowded. I stayed back with Emma while Hans went to speak with the hostess. I hadn’t noticed it the other night, but there were windows along the front of the building. They were just tinted so as not to upset the internal ambiance.
Curious, I snuck one of my hands free. I jerked it back almost immediately. Apparently it didn’t matter if it was coming through a filter: sunlight was sunlight, and I couldn’t tolerate it. That probably meant sunscreen was too easy a solution to be viable, too. Magic was a jackass.
I looked around anxiously. Although I didn’t see many people, the ambiance really didn’t help them look less sinister. I saw two guys who looked like businessmen. They chatted quietly while they ate. I listened in and heard them talking about logistics and ‘export fees.’ Bribes to cover up their human trafficking, I figured. I stopped listening before they could freak me out more. Another table had a bunch of rough looking men in rather worn clothing and construction hats. Having learned my lesson from the businessmen, I didn’t listen in on those ones. They were probably in disguise as part of a heist they were about to kick off or something. I really hoped they weren’t going to hold up everyone and rob the restaurant on their way out.
I didn’t see any women sitting by themselves, though, so unless Linda was hiding in a booth or somewhere I couldn’t see, we’d gotten here first. I didn’t know if that was better or worse, but I was relieved when the hostess finally led us back to the same table Hans and I had shared the other night. I had really disliked standing in the open by the doors, which anyone could have come through at any moment — and the windows, which were just pretending to be friendly by being tinted.
When we sat, I faced a quandary. On the one hand, I could hide behind Emma and take the seat by the wall. On the other hand, if I was hemmed in against the wall I wouldn’t have an easy avenue of escape if the conversation with Linda got too intense.
Which it would.
I ended up guiding Emma into the booth first, then taking a spot next to her. That way, I figured, if things went really, really bad, and some crooks tried to rob the place or something, they’d have to go through me before they could get to her.
We ended up having a different waitress than last time. This time our waitress was a middle-aged woman named Miranda. I let Hans handle the majority of the interaction with her, only chiming in to request a soda when asked. Hans had water and Emma got a lemonade. Together Hans and Emma picked out a couple of appetizers and ordered them. I didn’t pay much attention because at that point I kept twitching and leaning into the aisle to look toward the door — even though I knew I’d be able to hear it when Linda came in and gave her name to the hostess or asked for Hans.
“Abigail?” I jerked my head out of the aisle and looked at Hans when I heard him call my name.
“Sorry,” I said. I’m just nervous. “I’m just making sure nothing suspicious is going on. I mean, if Linda is the quisling who betrayed Archarel and he’s planning on stirring shit up, I’d figure he would probably plan to do something bad to her and we did just sort of lure her out to a dark, unguarded location,” my autopilot explained for me.
Oh, fuck me. Why couldn’t I have just said I was nervous? I hadn’t been consciously thinking any of that before I’d said it. Suddenly, everyone in the restaurant seemed a lot more sinister. Maybe they were just normal people, protecting our meeting place with their disbelief. Or maybe they were fae agents, and as soon as Linda showed herself they were going to hose down the booth with lead and firebomb the place.
“I know the fae can be banished with disbelief,” I said, “but is there any way for them to interact with our world around normal people without being a changeling, or being with one?” Or, I thought, I supposed the people in the restaurant didn’t have to be in-disguise fae in order to be fae agents. Perhaps some warlock or other quisling had recruited perfectly ordinary mafia hitmen to take us out, knowing that the contract killer’s own disbelief would help them bypass any magical protection Linda might have in place against assassins.
“Oh!” Emma said. “I know this one. Um… Two ways.” She smiled. “Familiars and doppelgangers are both fae who interact with the regular world regardless of belief, despite not having a changeling to anchor them.”
I felt sick to my stomach. I’d wondered about doppelgangers while I’d still been alive. Why hadn’t I taken myself seriously and insisted on giving everyone I knew an identification code phrase? “Doppelgangers?” I asked. “Like, duplicates of people?”
Emma nodded. “Yeah. Technically, they’re just a different sort of familiar, really. But while a familiar is bound to a witch or warlock and the two of them have made a mutually beneficial pact, a doppelganger has typically tricked someone into the bond and then disposed of them somehow. In both cases, the fae can exist in our world as long as they don’t do anything too brazenly unbelievable by relying on sympathetic magic: the person they’ve linked themselves to belongs in this world, so they can too. With a familiar, the fae usually takes the form of a pet or child or trinket or something.”
Hans nodded. “Familiars aren’t harmless, exactly, but they aren’t the one calling the shots. Linda explained it to me, once. The fae who become familiars are either being punished by being forced into a geas that strips them of their free will and most of their powers, or are so bored they’ve chosen to handicap themselves and bind themselves to a mortal just to… ‘watch the human drama’ is how Linda put it. In any case, it’s the witch or warlock who calls the shots and whose allegiance really matters.”
Emma nodded vigorously. “Mrs. Fleisher said the same thing,” she said. “But doppelgangers, on the other hand, don’t have those limits. They usually try to replace the person they tricked completely. Usually they dispose of the human they’re replacing by trapping them in fae. In that case the sympathetic magic is more one of equal exchange: there’s someone in the faerie lands who doesn’t belong, and a hole in this world where they should be. So the doppelganger takes advantage of that hole and their relationship with their abductee in order to trick the world into letting them fill that vacuum.”
Oh, I did not need to know about this. Why had I even asked? I swallowed and looked around nervously.
“Don’t worry,” Hans said soothingly. “Doppelgangers aren’t exactly common. The victim has to be someone who can interact with the fae to begin with, which means someone in the supernatural set. And the replacement isn’t perfect.”
“Yeah,” said Emma. “Mrs. Fleisher said that we’d be able to see flaws surrounding the aura of any fae that was trying to fit itself into our world, just like we can tell a familiar from its aura. That’s what makes changelings so sneaky. They’ve been a part of our world for so long those flaws don’t exist. They aren’t replacing someone, because the only version of them that anyone in this world has ever known is, well, them.”
“Oh,” I said. “So, are there any doppelgangers in here?”
“Dunno,” Emma said frankly. I recoiled in confusion. She smiled at me and tried to explain. “My aura is too messed up for me to be getting anything about the other ones in here,” Emma said. “Shoot: this morning I couldn’t even check on the house wards,” she reminded me.
Hans reached across the table and put a calming hand on my arm. “Don’t worry,” he said. “If anything like that were around here, Linda would see them a mile off.”
“Great,” I said. I barely refrained from adding: ‘So, if this is a big ambush, we’ll know when Linda doesn’t show up and we get firebombed?’ Somehow I thought that might upset Emma to hear, and I didn’t want her to be upset when that would be all she could feel.
I think Hans might’ve read my concern on my face, because he started to say something else. He stopped before forming any words, though, and glanced toward the aisle.
I’d heard it too.
The front door of the restaurant opened and closed, and a quiet woman’s voice spoke to the hostess. “Hello,” the woman said. “I’m joining someone. My friend Hans should already have a table.”
“Right this way,” the hostess replied.
Hans smiled. “You see? Nothing to worry about.” He stood and stepped into the aisle as the hostess and the woman approached. “Linda!” Hans said as he folded her into a hug. “How have you been?”
Linda didn’t get to answer, though, because at that point Emma leaned past me. “Mrs. Fleisher?” she asked in surprise. “I didn’t know you were a quisling!”