“I wonder if Athena and Percy are back at the cars with Tyler,” Dianna said. “Hopefully they’re done fighting, if they are.”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed, only half listening.
Annelise, however, was still too deep in thought to even notice that Dianna had said anything.
A few minutes later they made it back to the vehicles to find Athena, Percy, and Tyler all sitting around the fire, the flames of which were now only a quarter as high as before. All three of them had wide grins on their faces. They weren’t laughing, or talking, or interacting in any way. All they were doing was sitting there, grimacing from ear to ear.
“Hi, guys,” Dianna said to them brightly.
“Hi!” They all responded as one, enthusiastically.
“Everything alright?” Xander asked, slightly taken aback by their strange greeting.
Annelise, however, still lost in her own thoughts, had barely noticed the others at all, much less how strange they were acting.
“We’re great!” Athena answered.
“Absolutely awesome!” Tyler added.
“The best we’ve ever been!” Percy exclaimed.
Then, they all burst out into laughter.
That finally caught Annelise’s attention.
“You guys should sit down,” Tyler said.
“Yes, you must,” Athena added.
“It’s no fun with you guys standing,” Percy stated.
“Guys, what’s going on?” Xander asked.
“Nothing,” Percy answered.
“We’re great!” Athena said.
“Best we’ve ever been!” Tyler added.
“Okay, great,” Xander replied, before turning to Annelise. “So is this that glaistig thing?” He asked.
“No. She’s too far away. They would have had to seen her to be enchanted by her. And she wouldn’t have done this anyway,” Annelise answered.
“It’s definitely fae related, though, right?” Xander followed up.
“Or they found some left over laughing gas in one of the buildings,” Annelise jested with a shrug.
“You guys should sit down,” Athena said.
“Yes, you must,” Percy added.
“It’s no fun with you guys standing,” Tyler stated.
“This is really starting to freak me out,” Xander remarked.
“Tell me about it,” Dianna agreed.
“Something must have done this, but I don’t know what it could have been, or how to fix it,” Annelise said.
“You guys should sit,” Percy said.
“Yes, you must,” Tyler added.
“It’s no fun with you guys standing,” Athena stated.
“It’s like they’re on repeat,” Annelise observed.
“Well, one thing is for sure, and that’s that they’re definitely not acting like themselves,” Xander said.
And with that, Dianna gasped.
“I know this one! I know this one!” She yelled, jumping up and down with joy.
“Seriously?” Annelise asked, unable to believe it.
“What is it?” Xander inquired.
Dianna moved away from the fire slightly, so the others wouldn’t hear. Xander and Annelise leaned in closer and then, quietly, Dianna answered Xander’s question.
“Changinglers,” she said.
“What?” Xander asked, confused.
“You mean changelings,” Annelise said. “And I don’t think that’s right. Changelings only go after kids. And we’re not exactly kids anymore.”
“Well we’re sure as hell not adults,” Dianna retorted. “Come on, I know that’s what they are. Unless you can think of something better.”
“No, I can’t. But I’ve never heard of changelings going after people as old as we are,” Annelise said.
“Annie, just this once, trust me. I know that’s what they are.”
Annelise thought it over for a moment, before letting out a sigh.
“Fine. But we’re testing them to make sure before we throw them in the fire.”
“Wait, what?” Xander asked, shocked by the talk of burning their friends.
“That’s how you get rid of them,” Dianna said. “You throw them in the fire, and then our friends will kind of, like, teleport back to us, like in one of those old Star Trek movies, or something.”
“And if you’re wrong they end up with third degree burns over half of their bodies,” Xander remarked.
“Quit your belly aching. We can test them first,” Dianna said.
Before anyone could answer his question, though, the others started to wonder what they were up to.
“What are you guys talking about?” Percy asked, coming up behind them.
Surprised and startled by that, Xander jumped away from him.
“We like whispering too,” Athena said.
“Secrets are fun,” Tyler added.
“Hey guys, want some eggs?” Dianna asked them brightly.
“Yes!” Athena answered.
“That sounds wonderful!” Percy said.
“That sounds more wonderful than anything else in the world,” Tyler added.
“Good. You guys sit down, and I’ll go make us some,” Dianna said, before giving Annelise a quick wink.
“What is she doing?” Xander asked Annelise as Dianna went to get the eggs.
“Just go with it. Dianna has it covered for now,” Annelise answered.
“Those words don’t fill me with confidence.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
Annelise and Xander sat down next to each other, across from their supposed imposter friends, being careful to keep them in sight the entire time, while Dianna fetched the basket.
Annelise and Xander shuffled uneasily in their seats as the others smiled the same wide, stupid grin they had the entire time.
“Hey guys, want to take a picture?” Annelise asked, hoping to break the awkwardness.
“Yes!” Tyler answered.
“That sounds wonderful!” Athena said.
“That sounds more wonderful than anything else in the world!” Percy added.
“Okay, here we go,” Annelise said, raising her camera.
Percy, Athena, and Tyler remained perfectly still as Annelise snapped a few pictures of them, making sure she got good photos of Athena, as she’d never seen her smile like that before and suspected she never would again after that day.
“Ready for some delicious eggs?” Dianna asked when she returned.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Athena, Tyler, and Percy answered as one.
“First don’t you need to boil some water?” Annelise asked Dianna suggestively.
“That’s what I’m about to do,” Dianna responded. “I have it covered.”
“You’re right, you do. Go on.”
The other three watched the exchange between the two girls and then Dianna’s movements with rapt attention. Carefully, Dianna placed her water bottle next to her, and then took a couple of eggs out of the basket. Then she cracked them both open with her thumbnails.
“I thought you said she had to boil water,” Xander whispered to Annelise.
“She’s doing alright. Just be patient,” Annelise told him.
Xander couldn’t imagine how cracking eggs was helping her to boil water, but he trusted Annelise enough to accept her word, and just go with it.
With the eggs broken in half, Dianna tossed away the yokes and whites so she was left with four empty eggshell halves.
Athena, Percy, and Tyler, meanwhile, had their mouths agape as they watched Dianna work, as if in awe.
Then Dianna grabbed her water bottle and filled each of the eggshells with water, before placing them near the edge of the fire.
“Now we just wait for them to boil,” she said simply.
And with that, a guttural sound came from the throats of Athena, Percy, and Tyler, all of their mouths still hanging wide open in insane grins.
At first Xander, Annelise, and Dianna didn’t know what was happening and felt a surge of fear. Were they about to be attacked, or was something else happening? They soon got their answer. For the noises grew in strength until it became clear that they were all laughing.
“If they say something really weird, follow my lead,” Annelise whispered to Xander.
A second later, something weird they did indeed say.
“In my thousand years I’ve never seen the like!” Athena, Tyler, and Percy all said at once.
In doing so, they confirmed that they were indeed changelings.
“Now!” Dianna said, jumping over to the imposter Tyler as Annelise went to the fake Athena, and Xander ran over to fake Percy. Then, before the changelings could react, the three humans pushed the imposters into the fire.
As he did so, Xander prayed that he wasn’t making a huge mistake.
The moment they touched the flames, the three changelings turned into billows of smoke. The black smog grew in size rapidly, covering Annelise, Xander, and Dianna before they could run away. Then it enveloped the vehicles, and the rest of the town.
All Annelise, Xander, and Dianna could see was blackness, as if all at once every light in existence, including the sun, was turned off. The smoke was seemingly darkness incarnate. Unlike smoke from a fire, though, it didn’t smell, and they found that they were able to breathe normally.
Then, gradually, the smoke began to dissipate. The vehicles were uncovered, then the three friends, and then the fire.
Momentarily dazzled by the light, Annelise put up her hands to block out the sun as she glanced around to see what exactly had happened. She immediately noticed Tyler, Athena, and Percy there, all in the same positions they’d been in before being replaced by the changelings.
Confused, they all looked around silently with troubled, dazed looks on their faces.
“Hi guys,” Dianna said, positively beaming with pride.
“Hi,” Athena replied slowly. “Wh…What…” She sputtered.
“What the hell happened?” Tyler spat out.
“Changelungs took you,” Dianna said.
“What?” Percy asked, still perplexed.
“Changelings,” Annelise corrected.
“Right, those things,” Dianna said. “They replaced you, but I figured out that they did, so I boiled water in eggshells, and we pushed them in the fire, and they turned into smoke, and then you guys reappeared,” she told them proudly. “So not to brag or anything, but I kind of rescued you all, and saved your lives, and deserve lots of gratitude and gifts.”
Athena, Tyler, and Percy all stared at her for a second, before turning to Annelise.
“That’s what happened,” Annelise said. “Dianna figured it out, and knew what to do about it.”
“Are you screwing with us?” Athena asked in disbelief.
“No. I promise you, that’s what happened,” Annelise assured them.
“Thanks for giving me a little credit, guys,” Dianna said, throwing her hands into the air incredulously.
“I really am impressed, and proud of you,” Athena told her. “How exactly did you know all of that, though?”
“It’s simple,” Dianna began. “You see, you and Annie are good at smart. You know all this stuff about all these things. But I’m good at stupid. I mean, using eggshells to boil water? That’s so dumb. And that’s my specialty.”
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
“Which proves my point.”
“Yeah, it sure does,” Athena lied, deciding to just let it go considering that Dianna had probably just saved her life.
“I still don’t understand how it could be changelings, though,” Annelise said. “I mean, changelings are supposed to take kids. I’ve never heard about them taking people our age.”
“Well, the human brain doesn’t finish developing until the twenties,” Athena said. “Maybe that has something to do with why we’re vulnerable.”
“As the expert, I’d say that sounds like a possibility,” Dianna chimed in.
“At any rate, someone should really look into that,” Athena continued. “I mean, if no one has proposed that possibility before, like you say, then there really is potential for it to be ground breaking research.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Tyler interrupted, “but could we please get out of here before those things come back for revenge?”
“I don’t think changelings are like that,” Annelise said.
“Still, I agree with Tyler. Can we please get out of here?” Percy asked.
“Yeah, we probably should get back on the road,” Athena said.
With everyone in agreement on that point, they started packing up their stuff.
“Can I talk to you for a minute, in private?” Xander asked Annelise, seeing his chance to do what he had to do.
“Yeah, I guess,” Annelise replied.
To prevent their friends from eavesdropping, they moved off towards one of the abandoned buildings about fifty feet away.
“So what was it like in changling land?” Dianna asked Athena, Tyler, and Percy as they put out the fire.
“It’s changeling,” Athena corrected her.
“Close enough,” Dianna shrugged.
“And I don’t really know. I can’t remember anything after being pinched, or whatever it was they did to us,” Athena answered.
“Neither do I,” Percy said.
“Well I remember. And I was dreaming of you the whole time,” Tyler lied to Dianna.
“That’s so sweet,” Dianna replied with a smile, eating it up.
“Maybe hypnotism would work,” Athena muttered to herself as they loaded their stuff to the vehicles.
“What?” Percy asked.
“I was just thinking that maybe hypnotism would help us get our memories back from after we were replaced,” she explained.
“I guess it’s possible,” he replied skeptically.
“I’ll have to look into that,” Athena said, more to herself than anyone else.
“So what do you want to talk about?” Annelise asked Xander when they were on the other side of a building, out of sight of the others.
“I was just…” Xander began unsurely.
He was just what? What exactly was his plan here? That would have probably been a good thing to figure out before he got her alone. There was so much he needed to say, it was hard to figure out where to start. Eventually, though, he decided that it would be best to start where it would be the easiest and build up to the more difficult bits.
“Back at the pond it seemed like you knew more about the glaistig and why it didn’t enchant me than you said. So I was just, I don’t know, just wondering what you aren’t telling me about it. I mean, I’m the one that’s on the figurative hook, potentially, after all.”
“I do know more than I said,” Annelise admitted. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to pry in anything you want to stay private, especially not with Dianna there.”
“So you know why it didn’t work?”
“I think I do.”
“Then please, tell me.”
“If I do, you might regret it.”
“Please, just do it.”
“Okay,” Annelise nodded, breathing in deeply, steeling herself for what she was about to do. “Okay. Glaistigs can enchant pretty much any man they want, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But some people have said that there’s an exception to that rule. It’s never been confirmed, just theorized, but I guess we’ll definitively find out if it’s correct or not right now,” she said, taking another deep breath in and out, before forcing herself to continue. “The exception they theorize to be true is that if the man the glaistig tries to enchant already has feelings for someone, if his heart is already with someone else, then her spell won’t work. And since you weren’t enchanted-”
“You realized I have feelings for someone,” Xander said.
“Yes,” Annelise nodded. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make things awkward between us. And you don’t have to tell me anything now, either, if you don’t want to. It’s none of my business, and I won’t tell anyone else anything, so-”
“It’s you,” Xander interrupted.
“What?” Annelise asked both in shock, and also needing confirmation that she’d actually heard what she thought she heard.
“It’s you that I have feelings for,” Xander said, his heart thumping in his chest. “I realized it, I accepted it, when I saw you dancing at the fair, but in all honestly I’ve liked you for a while now. You’re like no one else I’ve ever met before. And I feel like I could live a thousand years and never meet anyone like you ever again.”
By then, tears were in Annelise’s eyes. She stood there, overcome with emotion, not really sure how to respond. It was as if her brain had stalled out, momentarily forgetting every word it ever knew. Well, not every word. For one word did eventually pop into her head. And that word was: kiss.
Before she knew what she was doing, or could help herself, Annelise leaned in and kissed Xander. After a stunned instant he recovered, and kissed her back.
Those few moments, when their lips were locked together, felt like heaven to them. Those moments were full of nothing but bliss, happiness, joy, and wonder. Those few moments were perfect. But, like all good things, they couldn’t last forever.
“Annie! Xander! Where are you?” Dianna yelled.
“Come on! It’s time to go!” Tyler followed up.
“I guess we should go back,” Annelise said when they broke the kiss.
“Yeah, we probably should,” Xander agreed. “There’s some other stuff I need to tell you, though.”
“Okay,” Annelise said, ready for it.
“Come on guys!” Athena yelled.
“Would it be alright if I tell you later tonight, after we stop? If we stay here much longer I’m pretty sure they’ll go postal on us,” Xander said.
“Okay,” Annelise said. “But guess what?”
“I really, really, really, really, really, really like you too.”
“I kind of got that from the kiss.”
“Are you sure you got the whole message, though?”
“Maybe not. I might have missed one or two of the reallys,” Xander answered, knowing what she was thinking.
Once again, they kissed, until more impatient yells came from their friends, culminating in threats to come drag them into the van if they had to. Reluctantly heeding the calls, they walked back to the street and returned to the vehicles.
“It’s about time. What were you two doing?” Athena asked when they were all back in the van.
“Making out,” Annelise answered truthfully.
“Yeah, right,” Athena scoffed as she started the van, and they set off.
Xander glanced over at Annelise, shaking his head, though smiling widely. Annelise merely shrugged her shoulders back, an enormous smile on her face as well.
“Next stop, New San Francisco,” Athena declared when they made it back to the highway.
They still had a long way to go, though. Even if they drove through the night, they still wouldn’t get there until the following morning. Tackling that massive drive in one go was a long shot, especially considering that they’d have to traverse mountain roads at night, but Athena thought it an attainable one.
Annelise, meanwhile, was still thinking about what had happened between her and Xander. She still couldn’t help but grin like one of the changelings when she thought about their kiss. It had been her first and, without a doubt, she felt that it had been with the right person. Xander was a special kind of person, after all. She thought back to when those blobs tried to eat them, and how he was the only one that had stayed back with her. And then, going even further back, she thought about how he was the one that volunteered to open the hood of the car, despite knowing that there was a voracious, most likely hostile monster inside. Yes, maybe Tyler was more muscular than him. And yes, maybe Percy was more intelligent. But Xander was the brave one. Xander was the one that had stood by her more than anyone. Yes, he was the right person to share her first kiss with.
Xander, meanwhile, couldn’t get Annelise out of his head either. Part of him was still in shock that he’d actually told her how he felt and over everything that happened after. He could barely believe it even as his lips tingled where hers had pressed against his, and he recalled in perfect detail how she’d felt in his arms. And as he did remember, he smiled yet again. Yes, he knew that he still had stuff to tell her, truths to reveal, but that was the future’s problem. At the moment he was more concerned with their present together.
“Hey, Xander?” Annelise whispered so only he could hear.
“What?” He whispered back, turning to her.
The second he turned and faced her Annelise snapped a picture of him.
“What was that for?” He asked.
“You know,” she responded simply.
Yes, he did. And despite the fact that their friends were just a seat ahead of them, their hands found each other and clasped together.
So they drove, and they drove. Around seven o’clock they left the foothills and entered the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Goliath peaks towered above them and deep valleys flanked their path on the right. For the first hour in the mountains Annelise snapped picture after picture of the majestic landscape outside. Eventually, though, the initial wonder of the mountains wore off and she put her camera down and took up Xander’s hand again. For the wonder she felt when she looked at his face still hadn’t worn off, nor did she wish it ever would.
They wound their way over the snaking mountain roads even after the sun grew weary and dipped its head under the covers of the world to get some rest. At about nine thirty, after a day of highs and excitement and firsts, Annelise finally gave in to her weariness and drifted off in her seat.
“So much for talking tonight,” Xander whispered to himself, quiet enough so the others wouldn’t hear.
Despite his dismay at that, though, he couldn’t help but smile when he looked at her. She was so cute like that, with her mouth agape, and her hair a mess from her rolling her head back and forth across the back of her seat, and the tiny speck of drool on her chin. He was sure that she would have been aghast to know that he was seeing her like that, but he didn’t care. She was still absolutely beautiful to him.
Soon enough, though, Xander found himself nodding off as well. Within a half hour of Annelise dozing off, he fell asleep as well. And within an hour of Xander drifting off, Percy fell asleep too, which made Athena the lone survivor.
“Bunch of softies,” she commented, glancing around at her sleeping friends. “You guys better not be sleeping too,” she said, glancing in her side mirror at Dianna and Tyler. It was too dark to see them, so she braked slightly. When the car mirrored her braking, she knew that at least Tyler was still awake.
“Good. Now stay that way,” she ordered him. “And you too! Come on! You can do this,” she said, shaking her head abruptly in an attempt to stave off her own weariness.
For all her fighting, though, Athena was only able to hold out for another hour before she started nodding off at the wheel. Too tired to safely continue, she reluctantly pulled off of the winding mountain road and into a clearing that had been made next to it, presumably for the purpose of allowing a weary driver to get some rest.
When they were safely nestled in the clearing, surrounded by trees on three sides, she shifted the van into park, turned off the engine, and almost immediately joined her friends in sleep.
Taking them stopping as a sign that their friends were all asleep, Dianna and Tyler quietly stole out of the car. Tyler grabbed a blanket out of the back seat, and then they snuck up to the van and peered in the windows.
“They’re all asleep,” Tyler whispered to Dianna. “Now come on!” He added, hurrying into the forest with her right behind him.
They walked until the vehicles were out of sight and they came to a flat, relatively bare patch of land. Tyler unfolded the blanket and laid it on the ground.
Unable to restrain themselves any longer, Dianna and Tyler embraced, and kissed each other passionately.
Hungry for more, Dianna whipped Tyler’s shirt off of him, and threw it a few feet away. Not to be undone, Tyler did the same to her.
From there, they fumbled with their pants until those too were lying near their shirts. And then, still kissing each other passionately, they sent their underwear, and Dianna’s bra, away with the rest of their clothes.
Unimpeded by their unnatural garments, naked as they’d come out of the womb, they collapsed onto the blanket together and gave wholly in to their lust for one another.