“We need to lay low and travel carefully,” Connor had instructed. “If the Loyals learn we’ve found you before we’re ready to stage the handover then we’re screwed.”
According to WIND, the Loyals had informants everywhere. To avoid rousing suspicion from potentially prying eyes, the group would have to leave as faint a trail as possible. No travel that required identification; cash only, aliases as much as necessary. May and Em didn’t mind – they were familiar with the best practices of runaways by now.
No one cared who you were when you took the bus, and travelling by dark was a good way to keep a low cover, which was how the group found themselves riding a night bus headed east. May and Em sat away from the others, as they would whenever they were in public. May was grateful for the many hours that lay between them and their next destination; she felt like she could breathe for the first time since climbing out of Dom’s truck.
She leaned into Em, her legs curled up beneath her. She was supposed to be sleeping, but with the space to breathe had also come the stillness her mind had been waiting for. It took advantage of the silence and filled it with a barrage of worries.
Beside her, Em fidgeted.
“Can’t sleep either?” she whispered, her voice just audible over the monotonous din of the bus.
Em gave an affirmative grunt.
Glancing up, May watched Em toy with a lock of dark hair. In their hasty packing, Em had the foresight to take one of her stage wigs – the long black one she used for their Moon and Ocean routine. May had trimmed it to a reasonable length and tucked her own hair beneath Em’s old ball cap. It wasn’t much as far as disguises went, but it was certainly better than nothing.
“On a scale from one to ten, how goth do I look in this thing?” Em asked, gesturing at the wig with a dramatic flourish.
May chuckled. “Ten. Very witchy.”
“Ooh, witchy. I can get into that.” Em wrapped her arms around May and let her cheek rest atop May’s head. “How are you holding up?”
Chewing her lower lip, May debated whether she should share the latest addition to her growing list of concerns. She hadn’t had the chance to tell Em what happened with Jeremy back at the motel.
Em broke her train of thought with a squeeze. “Babe? What’s on your mind?”
May sighed and decided to go for it.
“When we were back at the motel, Jeremy pulled me aside and told me he wouldn’t put up with me slowing things down.”
Em snorted. “Classic Jeremy.”
“He said he wouldn’t let me ‘get in the way’.”
“He doesn’t know you’re a Wish,” Em said, shrugging lightly. “He, Connor, and Priva have their abilities; him and his perfect memory, Connor and his super-Wish strength… have I ever told you that Priva only needs like, a handful of hours of sleep per week? And I mean, Rue may not be a Wish but even she has experience resisting the Loyals. Jeremy probably thinks you’re just an ordinary human, and if that were true, he wouldn’t be wrong in thinking you were in over your head.”
“Interesting,” May bristled. “That wasn’t what I thought he was implying at all.”
Em stared down at her quizzically before she clued in.
“Ah, you think this is about Audrey.”
“Can you blame me?” May tried to keep her voice down. “Ever since you told me the two of you were engaged I haven’t been able to-”
She was cut off by Em shifting out from beneath her. Righting herself, May twisted in her seat to see Em sitting pin straight and frowning at her in the flickering shadows.
“I was never engaged to him, May,” she spoke tersely, her words simultaneously hurt and offended.
May’s heart dropped. “I’m sorry. I meant-”
Em grabbed May’s hands and held them tightly.
“Babe, I need you to believe me when I tell you that Audrey and I are different people.” Her intensity was impossible to miss, even as she whispered. “Please, tell me you understand.”
“You can’t blame me for being confused,” May hissed, the fear and frustration she had been suppressing bursting the holds of her patience. “I still don’t even understand why Jeremy expected you to be her. These are her friends – people who loved her. And here you are asking me to keep this all straight as if it made any rational sense to begin with.”
Sighing, Em sat back and took a moment for both their sakes. It was difficult to see her in the darkness but May didn’t need her eyes to know Em was studying her carefully.
“You’re right,” Em agreed at last. “I’ve been asking you to suspend your disbelief without giving you much reason too.”
May shook her head. “I’m not asking for you to placate me, Em – I’m asking you to help me understand. Please?”
Leaning back against the window, Em hummed thoughtfully. She gestured for May to join her, and she did, nestling into her as best she could across the uncomfortable bus seats.
“Where do you want to start?” Em mused, lacing her fingers with May’s.
“Tell me why Jeremy thought you would be Audrey,” May replied. She remembered the tattered security photo he had shown her when he first stormed into her life. “Do you look like her?”
Em chuckled softly. “Not really. Audrey wasn’t a ghost like me. She had her mother’s super thick, brown hair and this warm, honey brown skin that I’m guessing came from Welkin, like her eyes.”
“Her eyes?” May asked, peering up at Em and trying to imagine her painted in Audrey’s pallet.
“Gold,” Em answered. “Just like the Stars.”
May mulled this over, curiosity tugging at the corner of her mind.
Em continued. “She was a bit shorter than I am. Smaller in generally, actually. It’s like when Welkin built this new body for me they made everything about it… more. Bigger. Stronger. It’s as if they thought…”
She trailed off. Her expression was distant.
“As if they thought making you stronger might keep you safe,” May finished. Em’s physical strength had never escaped May’s notice – even now she could feel the firmness of her body beneath her own. She could imagine Welkin – like any parent – wanting to do whatever possible to protect their child, especially after what happened to her.
“Yeah,” Em breathed.
May swore she could feel the fissure Welkin’s disappearance left in Em’s heart widen from where she lay against her.
“So what was it then?” she asked, trying to pull Em back from the edge of despair. “What tipped Jeremy off?”
Beneath her, Em squirmed with unease.
“My abilities,” Em explained. “All Wishes have a distinctive natural advantage; like you and the way you can master virtually anything with only a little bit of study. But the things I can do – the levitation and manipulation of energy – only a Starborn can do that.”
“A Starborn? Are there more like you; people who were parented by a Star?”
Em shook her head. “Not anymore. We were a bit more common thousands of years ago but that’s it.”
Fear settled over May. She sat up and looked at Em in a panic. “If that’s the case then they all know. How could they not?”
“Babe, people don’t come back from the dead.” Em’s voice was calm and steady. “What Welkin did for me is unheard of. Jeremy might be holding out hope, but the others are probably looking for the logical answer. They likely think I’m another Starborn, just like the Loyals do. Our job is to come up with a convincing story and stick to it, okay?”
May toyed with her ring, her anxiety relentless despite Em’s self-assured tone. “Okay. So you’re a Starborn. We’ve never heard of Audrey or Welkin.”
“Right.” Em cupped May’s cheek. “Just another secret love-child between a Star and some earthly creature. Maybe we can tell them I’m half-elvish. That could be fun.”
“Sure,” May laughed weakly, trying to shrug off her apprehension.
In the darkness, Em kissed her; soft, slow, intoxicating.
“It’s going to be okay, my love,” she whispered against her lips. “Trust me.”
May swallowed and nodded, breathless.
With a gentle tug, Em pulled May back against her, wrapping her in her arms and offering her body as a makeshift bed. “Let’s try to get some sleep, okay?”
It took only a moment for Em to drift off, the rhythm of her breath joining the concert of bus noise.
For May it would still be some time before sleep took her.
She could say she was okay as much as she liked.
She felt anything but.