“Here we go.” Em smiled over her shoulder. “Are you ready?”
May wasn’t sure how to answer that question.
The ship was navigating its way into the ports of Mondova; their journey was nearly complete. Before she knew it, May would be stepping onto unfamiliar soil for the first time in her life. Nervously, she fiddled with her mother’s ring and tried to force a smile for Em’s benefit.
Picking up on May’s fretful energy, Em swooped in and peppered light kisses across her cheeks, forehead, and nose until she laughed.
When at last the time came to disembark, May hovered before taking that last step. This was it…
“Oh! Wait!” Em cried, dropping her pack and fishing around in one of its pockets until she produced her phone. She had taken to photo-documenting the trip; May’s first big adventure.
“I’m starting to feel like a kid on their first day of school,” May laughed, only slightly embarrassed.
Em paid her no mind and focused instead on framing her shot. She was so absorbed, in fact, that she didn’t notice the man creeping up behind her. It took May a moment to realize what was happening herself.
She gasped loudly just as the man reached out, wrapping his arms around Em’s waist and spinning her in a fast, nauseating circle.
“There you are, you little shit!” he boomed, clutching Em in an embrace so tight she coughed for breath.
Dominic looked exactly the same as he had that morning on the video call. He was taller than May expected though, towering over Em whom he held aloft as if she were a child. His face was alight with a smile so warm that May doubted she had ever met a more friendly-looking person in all her life.
Em wrestled her way free and turned to land a playful, albeit hard, punch to Dom’s shoulder.
“You fucker!” she cackled. “You’re making an ass of yourself in front of May. Be cool, I told her you’re a decent person.”
May, who had been sheepishly making her way forward, paused mid-stride just as Dom looked up to face her. He was much younger than his scruffy appearance made him seem. Twinkling, mischievous eyes stared out from a face that not even May could deny was handsome. She blushed despite herself as he reached out to shake her hand.
“Miss May, it is a pleasure.” He grinned before pulling her into a friendly embrace. That he was a hugger did not surprise her in the least.
“The pleasure is all mine,” she replied politely. She truly meant it.
“Thanks for making the big trip out here,” Dom continued, shifting to hold May out at arm’s length. “This must be pretty overwhelming, huh? Your first time away from home and all.”
Relief swept through May, knowing she didn’t have to act calm for his sake.
“Just a bit,” she smiled. “But I’m sure I’ll get over it soon enough.”
“Of course you will!” Em assured, hoisting the pack onto her shoulders and taking May by the hand. “Are you two ready to roll out?”
As the trio made their way to Dom’s pick-up truck, May caught him gesturing at her out of the corner of her eye. Looking at Em, he mouthed the words well done, to which Em responded by reaching out and slapping his arm.
While the flushed, proud look on Em’s face made May’s heart flutter, she acted as if she hadn’t noticed a thing.
The drive from Mondova to Tenna took most of the day. Every sight along the way stole May’s breath away.
As Em and Dom chatted virtually without pause, May pressed her face up against the passenger window and took in the new world around her with breathless wonder. Bustling city streets that carried more people than May had ever seen in one place eventually gave way to lush, rolling foothills. In time, the silhouettes of giant peaks rose like a mighty fortress across the horizon. The mountains were nothing like anything May could have conjured in her imagination; everything was wild and raw and massive in a way that made her somehow feel both vulnerable and safe all at the same time.
It was breathtaking. Awe-stuck, May understood at once why this was a place Em was so eager to return to.
By the time the truck rolled into Tenna, a small village of charming structures perched high atop a mountain plateau, May had also discovered something else she hadn’t anticipated: it was freezing. At Em’s insistence, she had sought out long sleeves and layers when she packed, but nothing could have prepared her tropically acclimatized body to the chill of the alpine in late spring.
“You’ll get used to it soon enough,” Dom assured her, eyeing the way she huddled in close beneath Em’s sheltering arm for warmth. “But we’ll definitely get you suited up with some of Trina’s spare gear.”
They came to park in front of the large, open bay doors of an oversized garage – Tenna’s search and rescue headquarters. At the sound of the truck’s arrival, a small group of people filtered out from inside.
“Speak of the devil.” Dom grinned as a spritely woman came bounding across the courtyard and pulled the driver’s door open.
“It’s about damn time you got here,” she crowed, tossing her short raven hair away from her face. “Did you take the scenic route or something? Sheesh.”
May knew the woman was probably joking. Still, she couldn’t imagine a route more scenic than the one they had just taken. The three piled out of the truck but May hung back to make room for the team as they clamoured in tightly to embrace Em in welcome.
“Okay, yes. It’s good to see you, Emmy,” shouted a tall, grinning woman from the back of the crowd. She had flawless black skin and strong, toned arms that May feel smaller than usual. “Now get over yourself, girl. Introduce us to your friend!”
Beaming, Em guided May forward with a reassuring hand on her lower back.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet May. Maybe, meet the team!”
The tall woman was Karin, resident paramedic. May remembered briefly catching a glimpse of her on the video call. Trina was a recovery specialist and was built like May; willowy and slight. Her thin, angular eyes gave the pair both a knowing once-over and a wink. Matti, the mechanic, was the very definition of a gentle giant. He was thrilled to have them both there and shook May’s hand gently in his dwarfing paw. Of equally dominating size, albeit much more trim, stood a man named Sean. His skin was like midnight and something about his laugh made May feel at home.
“Stephanson is in the booth,” Sean explained, referring to the team’s senior leader. “He sends his regards.”
“The booth?” May asked.
“Our communications station,” Karin explained. “It always needs to be monitored just in case we get a call.”
With hands on his hips and a satisfied look on his face, Dom nodded at the crowd. “Now that everyone’s had the chance to say their hellos, what say we move this party inside?”
As he reached into the truck bed to fetch the pack, May noticed a light like a camera flash come from the wooded area on the other end of the courtyard. She had to focus, but through the brush and boughs she could just make out a face.
The face glowed with a fading light that tinged the halo of flora it hid behind. May’s heart skipped a beat as she locked in on a pair of golden eyes staring ominously back at her.
It was Welkin, and they looked furious.
Banner art by @flowerveil