May stepped carefully over a mess of underbrush and checked the map again as yet another question came to mind.
“What does being reborn feel like?”
From a few paces behind, Em laughed. “Thankfully, nothing like what I imagine being born normally feels like.” She paused to consider a more serious answer. “It’s like waking up from anesthesia after surgery. You’re groggy and slow and it takes a while for things to start making sense.”
“Does it hurt?”
This was how it had been in the days that followed their conversation on the cliff. May didn’t want to ask her laundry list of questions all at once; she didn’t want to be overbearing. Instead, she posed each one gradually, making her way through the muddled puzzle that was Em’s story one piece at a time.
The only question she didn’t have the stomach to ask was how it happened – how the woman once known as Audrey died in the first place, giving way to the person Em was now. Murder seemed self-explanatory enough, and given that Em wasn’t offering up anything on the subject, May figured she made the right call keeping that question to herself.
Em had been happy to field every other query tossed her way. When May asked what she had been doing on the beach that night, Em did her best to explain.
“Remember when I told you my abilities are related to feeling and manipulating the energy around us? Sometimes being constantly connected to everything gets a bit overwhelming and I need a way to turn it all off. Have you heard of sensory deprivation?”
“No,” May admitted, but she thought it sounded frightening.
“I sometimes use water as a crude means of blocking out my senses. It helps cut me off from the constantly bombarded of energy. I’m sure it’s not easy to understand, but being submerged helps block the push and pull of the universe. It quiets all the noise just enough that it almost feels tranquil by comparison.”
May hesitated before asking her next question, casting a furtive glance at Em before speaking.
“Welkin said something about your old memories… That sometimes Audrey’s memories stir and it bothers you.”
“Hmm.” Em furrowed her brow. “It doesn’t happen as much as it used to but sometimes I kind of… forget who I am for a second. It all comes screaming back to me for a moment or two and it throws me off.” She looked guilty, squirming with discomfort. “Sometimes I wonder if it happens because they’re thinking about her. Missing her.”
“Who?” May asked, one part curious and another part horrified.
Em looked away. “Her friends. The people who loved her.”
Of course. In a way it made sense that Em – hypersensitive to unseen forces as she was – might feel shockwaves of grief from Audrey’s loved ones as they mourned her passing. The idea that Em could still feel the pangs from some shared broken heart made May’s stomach lurch. Knowing that she so selfishly clung to someone others had no option but to miss…
But Em wasn’t Audrey, that much she made clear. Audrey had been another person, and whomever had loved her once were nothing but memories to Em now. She didn’t want to talk about them. In truth, neither did May, so she steered the conversation elsewhere.
“What’s it like to be dead?”
“Ridiculously boring. And frustrating as fuck. I didn’t have a body; I was just a thought, stuck in the same space for who knows how long.”
“Do you like the body Welkin made for you?”
“More or less. I would have chosen something a bit more colorful if I’d had a say in it though. Can I ask you a question for a change?” Em asked, coming up behind May and peering over her shoulder at the map in her hands. “How come you’ve never been camping before?”
May laughed. “I don’t know, it’s just not something my family does.”
Together the pair made their way deep into the forest, looking for a place near a spring they found on the map May borrowed from her father.
May still wasn’t sure if she was ready to make the trip to Tenna. In a stroke of what she called genius, Em suggested they go camping. Shaking out her backpacking gear, she had described each piece of equipment excitedly, painting a peaceful mental picture of sleeping by a fire with only the night noises for company.
“That sounds creepy,” May had frowned. “People actually do this for fun?”
“Listen, at best you’ll come out of it with a brand new skill set that would totally impress, say, a group of mountain dwelling locals.” Em reasoned. May raised an eyebrow. “At worse, you’ll have a character-building experience.”
So far building character had entailed learning how to navigate using only a map and compass, something May had never done before but found herself picking up quickly enough.
“You know, it would be a lot faster if you just flew us out to the spot,” May huffed as she checked her map against Em’s compass. It had been a gift the team back in Tenna gave Em when she decided to leave – the same one May had pulled from her pack on the night they first met. In the light of day, May could at last read the inscription carved into the compass’ leather sleeve.
If it is adventure you seek, the needle will always point to home.
“There is no satisfaction to be gained in supernatural shortcuts, Navigator!” Em called over her shoulder as she forged ahead. “Besides, you may be a tiny thing but I still couldn’t carry you and the gear all that way.”
“Is there satisfaction to be gained in getting lost?” May shouted back. “Because I’m ninety-nine per cent sure you’re going the wrong way.”
May figured Em would tease her if she admitted it, but as they relaxed by the fire later that night she was feeling satisfied with everything she had accomplished. They found the spring without any trouble, and after a quick tutorial she was able to raise the tent all on her own while Em tended to the fire. Now, as they lounged on a blanket and watched the flames stretching up into the dark, May actually found the night noises surprisingly soothing.
“Oh!” she chirped, a new thought coming to her. “I haven’t asked you the most important question of all.”
“What’s that?” Em looked a little uneasy but waivered when she caught sight of May’s cheeky grin.
“Is your full name really Emanthy?”
Em laughed, a bright and bubbling sound rising up in the night. “I was hoping you missed that. Isn’t it the worst?”
“No!” May replied earnestly. “I think it’s pretty!”
“Yeah? Well, I think you’re pretty.”
May let out an exaggerated groan. “Super smooth, Emanthy.”
“Whatever,” Em stole a quick kiss that left May giggling. “I made you blush so I must have done something right.”
“That’s just from the fire,” May muttered, patting her cheeks to hide the wild grin she couldn’t seem to suppress.
The two leaned in close, hands finding one another in the flickering shadows. May stole quick glances at Em, heat of a different kind rising inside her. She was mesmerized by the way firelight danced off Em’s alabaster skin, like sunlight reflecting off the waves. All at once she was overcome by a desire – a need, even – to feel that skin against her own.
Out of the corner of her eye, Em caught May watching her.
“Something the matter, Maybe?”
May cast her eyes downward, too embarrassed to watch the look on Em’s face while she spoke.
“Remember that morning when you told me it was okay for me to change my mind?”
She could feel Em’s grip on her fingers tighten for a fraction of a second.
“Yeah, of course. Why?”
May swallowed and forced herself to meet Em’s gaze. She found it wide and still, as if Em was afraid to so much as blink lest she spoil the moment. “Can I change it back?”
It was as if they had each been unwittingly holding their breath, and in a moment they exhaled, unrealized tension dissipating like fire smoke from their lungs. Em closed the small gap between them – what may as well have been a chasm only a heartbeat before – and kissed May fiercely.
“Are you sure?” she whispered, her hands gently clutching around May’s face, her neck, keeping her close.
May nodded and kissed Em back with confidence and need. Yes, she was sure.
Em pulled back just enough to speak again. “I want to make sure you feel good.” Her hands itched to explore May’s body. She restrained herself, needing to make sure May heard her first. “But if you want to stop, just let me know.”
May bit her lip, not to be seductive but out of excitement. It drove Em wild anyway and May noticed. In one sultry motion she crawled atop Em, straddling her lap and pressing herself in close.
She had no intention of stopping this time.
Banner art by @blushmallet