“She’s sick,” fretted Fiona, checking Abbie’s temperature once more. Dan stood in the doorway of his daughter’s room, his arms at his side while he watched his wife read the digital thermometer. “A hundred and two.” She pressed her palm to her daughter’s feverish forehead as Abbie sat patiently on the edge of her bed.
“I’m okay Mommy,” said Abbie, bravely smiling. She looked pale, and maybe even a little thinner since the night before.
“You’re going to be fine,” Fiona promised, giving her a kiss on her hairline. “Lay down, okay? You need your rest. I’ll be back in a minute with some Tylenol for you.” Abbie obediently snuggled down into her comforter, hugging her stuffed bear that she’d called ‘Big-Eyed Teddy’ since she was four.
“Should I take her to Doctor Tom?” asked Dan as his wife passed him in the doorway. “Just to be sure?”
Fiona pursed her lips, pausing in her quest for medicine. “It’s just a fever for now. I don’t think we need to call the pediatrician yet - but if it doesn’t go down, or if she gets another symptom, then yeah, we probably should.” She leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek before disappearing into their shared bedroom.
Dan leaned back into Abbie’s room, looking at the little girl on the bed. Her brown hair clung damply to her face, and she opened her eyes and made eye contact with him. “Daddy,” she called softly, holding her hand out toward him. After a moment’s hesitation, he went to her side.
“What is it?” He swept her lovingly crocheted baby blanket over her, tucking her outstretched arm in close to her body. Big-Eyed Teddy stared at him reproachfully from under her chin.
“I feel strange.” She wiggled under the blanket, freeing her arms and plucking at his shirt. “I need a hug.” Abbie’s eyes filled with water, as if she were about to cry, and then Fiona bustled in with the Tylenol in a little cup, brushing Dan aside.
“Here you go, sweetie.” Fiona tucked the girl’s hair behind her ears and helped her sit up and drink the medicine. Abbie dutifully drank the purple liquid, and then threw her arms around her mother in a tight hug.
“I wish you didn’t have to go to work,” she said, her face pressed against Fiona’s shirt. “Can’t you stay with me?”
Fiona looked up at Dan, grimacing as their daughter’s pleas broke her heart. “You know I have to go to work. Daddy will be here, like always. Everything will be fine. Just rest, okay honey?”
“Okaaaay,” said Abbie slowly, still hugging Fiona. Dan wanted to leap forward and separate them, but he couldn’t. Not without tipping his hand, or horrifying his wife. He forced a smile as Fiona extricated herself from Abbie’s arms, promising she’d be back as soon as she could. No births today - not that there couldn’t be a surprise - just office visits.
“I’m going to be late.” She kissed Abbie’s warm forehead and stood away, blowing another kiss through the air as she made her escape from the bedroom.
Dan smiled at the girl in the bed. “Get your rest. Do you want a book to read?”
“No thank you,” said Abbie, and she wiggled down into her blankets and closed her eyes. He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him, and caught up to Fiona before she ran out the front door.
She caught the expression on his face and paused. “What’s worrying you?” Then she looked at her phone, her eyes widening at the time. “It’s going to be okay. Call me later?”
“Sure.” Dan kissed her goodbye, and then she was gone, hurrying out the door to her car.
“How did you get this number?”
“Does it matter?” Dan sat on the kitchen counter, tethered to the wall by the phone.
A sigh. “Was a time you could call me up and I would follow you through hell, Wodan. That was a long time ago.”
“I know. Things have changed since the Hunt -”
“The Hunt no longer exists.” Mathan said flatly. “The Gates were closed behind us when we came through, and the Boar runs wild in the worlds. And it’s not my problem, whatever it is. Don’t call me again.”
“There’s been an incursion. A changeling.”
The silence on the line went on so long, Dan wondered if Mathan had hung up already. Then, “How do you know?”
“It’s my daughter.”
Another pause, and then a weary sigh. “Killing it is -”
“I can’t do that. Not yet, anyway.” Dan frowned. “It’s existence is a violation of the truce.”
“Not much we can do about it from this side of the Gates.”
“You know as well as I do that it can’t be the first incursion since the Queens signed the Accords. Summer is making a move.”
“And if you keep the changeling around, one of them will have an agent who can access magic with impunity. The entire reason the Gates were sealed was to keep the Balance between Summer and Winter and stop these power plays in the world.”
“Well, one of them has decided the risk is worth it. Probably Summer.”
“Titania is too smart for that.”
“Too smart to get caught. The Gates are sealed. If Winter holds to the Accords they will never find out until it’s too late.”
“Global warming,” Mathan said suddenly. “I did wonder if perhaps Summer was growing in power, but if this is true, if they sent the changeling…” His deep voice trailed off.
Dan picked up where he left off. “It’s a long game she’s playing. One that could change this world forever.”
“She cares nothing for the human world, you know that. The elven lords of her court will follow her whims and fight over the scraps of what’s left.”
“Bold words, even for a bear,” Dan said with a smile that quickly faded. “I contacted the Cat.”
Mathan sucked in his breath in a hiss. “The Cat cares about nothing but herself.”
“She has access to the Otherworld,” pointed out Dan. “She has her magic, even here in the human world. She’s as close to a neutral party between Seasons as exists in the worlds.”
“The dragons are too capricious to trust. Neutral - or chaotic. Who can tell what they get out of their deals, until it’s too late?” Dan was silent for a few moments, and Mathan continued, “Better to kill it and move on. The girl is beyond your reach, even if she still lives.”
The pragmatic words rankled, and Dan took a breath to calm the surge of irrational anger that welled up inside him. Once he would have thought, and done, the same as his old friend advised. Who could predict what the whims of Queens could be, other than their predilection toward screwing his life up? Dan rubbed a spot between his eyes, closing them briefly.
He looked up, startled, and then angry at himself for being surprised. “Why are you out of bed?”
Abbie stood by the kitchen table a few feet away, darkening circles under her eyes. “I don’t feel so good.”
“I know, just go back upstairs to rest, please.”
Mathan sighed on the other end of the open line. “Don’t call this number again, Wodan. I have made the best of this life… and I cannot help you.” There was a click and the phone went silent in his hand. Dan’s face hardened and his hand tightened on the receiver until his knuckled whitened. Instead of yanking the phone from the wall and throwing it into the refrigerator door, he carefully hung it up and turned toward the changeling child.
“I thought you were asleep.” He could see the girl who looked so much like Abbie it made his heart ache making those small movements that meant she was preparing to run at him. Not to hurt him, not exactly anyway, but to hug him. He had been minimizing his contact with her since he’d realized what she was, trying to keep the changeling at bay without alarming his wife, and he was still trying to decide how best to handle the creature. Treat her poorly and he would lose Fiona and his carefully crafted life - live in denial about the girl and he would lose his daughter and possibly everything else in the end anyway.
‘Abbie’ darted at him, and he caught her before she wrapped her arms around him, holding her away at arms length. Her big brown eyes welled up with tears, and she grabbed at his forearms. “Let me stay up with you, I’m sad.”
“Why are you sad?” Dan gently pushed her away, but she came back at him in the way children do, octopus-like in the way they could latch onto a caregiver’s limbs. He kept shifting his hands, but couldn’t bring himself to shut her down completely and she took advantage, slipping inside his reach at last and snuggling against his side. Her little body was hot with fever, and his heart ached at how much she looked like his girl.
“I’m lonely up there.” Abbie looked up at him as he reluctantly put his arm around her. “Can we watch TV?”
An automatic refusal was on the tip of his tongue, but he nodded in spite of himself. “A little TV sounds like a good idea. Meet me on the couch?” Abbie’s face brightened, despite her illness, and she hurried off into the living room. Dan followed more slowly, gathering a big blanket from a closet, and setting her up with a snuggle-nest on the couch before he took his seat beside her. Not too close.
From what he knew (which wasn’t everything, of course) changelings were creatures of almost pure magic, and needed nourishment to grow into their full strength. If they were denied love and affection, they would wither an die. In fact, when the Queens were actively fighting, so many years ago, they sent many changelings into the world to battle for supremacy on their behalf. The devastated parents of the replaced children would often leave the changelings out to die, in the hopes that their own child would be returned to them.
They were not, of course, but the agents of the Seasons were thwarted by the cold-hearted treatment, withering away and dying in the woods more often than not. This had been written into human history as ignorant superstition, perhaps paving the way for…whatever this was, here and now.
Bad luck, then, that he was the one who …but was he the only one? Dan glanced down at the child near him, feverish eyes staring dully at the cartoon animals cavorting about on the screen, and wondered again if perhaps Summer had been sending the creatures for years. And, if Titania had been, was that so bad? Summer striking a blow and winning the war of the Seasons once and for all could be good for him.
Perhaps he could finally go home.
Dan looked down at Abbie, the changeling, remembering the day his daughter had been born. Taking a wife as successful as Fiona had been calculated, but she had convinced him they should start a family together. Over eight years ago, it had been, and he had acquiesced to keep her happy. Of course he had always felt affection toward Fiona, but when the human doctor had placed the baby girl into his arms and he had looked into her eyes for the first time while his wife lay sweaty and accomplished on the birthing bed, he had been changed forever by the little person he held.
With as much dedication as he had ever put toward driving the Great Hunt forward, Dan had thrown himself into fatherhood. It seemed that Titania was destined for the last laugh, however, her plans managing to toss his life into disarray once again.
The child coughed, ending with a little painful moan that sounded so much like Abbie that Dan wanted to gather her into his arms, but he steeled himself against the impulse. They stared at the television as a pair: her with one hand sticking out of the blankets for him to take, and him with his arms crossed, jaw set.