By the time May, Em, and Priva returned to the campsite, Connor already had the fire blazing with a satisfying crackle. Rue busied herself with food prep while Jeremy had been tasked with creating small tin foil bowls for everyone. They took turns layering their bowls with meat, potatoes, and eggs, positioning them delicately on a camp grill once the coals were hot enough.
The snapping fire was the only sound as the group sat wordlessly, waiting for their meals to cook. May watched spits of ash pop from the flames and drift skyward into the darkening sky. The sherbet colours of twilight gave way to night by the time Connor inspected his bowl and deemed dinner to be ready.
May wondered if the tension around the fire had been in some part the result of empty stomachs. As she collected her meal, she felt the mood lighten as everyone tucked into their food, and decided now might be a good time for casual conversation.
“Back to camping,” she said with a sigh, dropping back down beside Em, the edges of her foil plate pinched between her fingers.
“Hey,” Em remarked, looking mildly scandalized. “I thought you liked camping.”
“I like some parts of camping more than others,” May replied with a wink.
Em rolled her eyes dramatically.
“Kids these days,” she grumbled, earning her playful kick in the ankle from May.
The comment raised curiosity in Rue.
“How old are you two, anyway?” she asked.
“Twenty-five,” May answered, distracted. She leaned over to survey what was in Em’s plate. “Yours is cooked better than mine.”
“That’s because I’m a pro,” Em teased. Then, turning her attention back to Rue, “I’m, uh, a bit older.”
At this, Priva laughed loudly.
“You saying you’re a cradle robber?” She grinned at Em who mirrored her expression.
“Ha! Not quite that bad.” Em scooped a hearty forkful from May’s plate and shoved it in her mouth. After swallowing, she continued, “Still, I almost passed out when I realized my girlfriend was just a wee babe.” She turned to look at May. “Yours is fine, by the way.”
“You’re not that much older than me,” May defended, digging her own fork into Em’s plate. The utensil pierced the foil bottom, catching in a way that May hadn’t expected. Her hand slipped, sending the plastic handle snapping backwards and striking Em’s breast with a sharp thwap.
“My boob!” Em cried, choking on laughter and clutching at her chest. “You got me right in the tit!”
May doubled over, breathless in a fit of gasping laughter and tears, unable to reply.
Everyone but Jeremy succumbed to the first true bout of laughter since the two groups met, a moment of pure weightlessness that made the night feel a little less dark and the stakes a little less dire.
“So, how’d you two meet, anyway?” Jeremy asked, his question stopping the laughter dead.
May’s heartbeat stumbled. When she and Em decided to lie, they hadn’t taken the time to fill in the blanks of their cover story. Hoping her own panic wasn’t showing, May glanced at Em and found her to be a picture of calm.
“Maybe’s a dancer,” Em said, a goofy lovesick smile on her face that left May flushing. “I was in the audience one night when she was performing and I was instantly smitten.” She gave May a wink. “I’ve been her biggest fan ever since.”
That night in Omea’s community theatre – the night everything changed between them – flashed through May’s mind. She could still see Em standing in the wings, wide-eyed and marveling, watching her take the stage for her final performance of the night. Was this what Em was thinking of as she spun her tale? May had never asked Em what it was that pushed her over the delicate line between friends and lovers; that there might have been some truth to Em’s story made May giddy.
“Of course!” Rue’s face lit up. “We saw you dance at the circus. How long have you been performing?”
“Since I was in school,” May replied, delighted by Rue’s interest. “I’m self-taught though, so sometimes it feels like I’m making it up as I go.”
“She’s selling herself short,” Em insisted.
“Self-taught?” Connor look gob-smacked. “I’m impressed.”
“Me too,” Rue agreed brightly.
“Thank you,” May gushed. But elated as she was to have a chance to talk about one of her truest passions, she wanted to steer the conversation away from her and Em. “What about all of you? I’ve been so curious to know more about Wishes. I mean, I know what Wishes are but…” she shrugged, struggling to find the right words. “What does that mean for you? Is it different than being human?”
Sure, she was playing dumb to a certain extent. But this was the first time she had ever met other Wishes; she was curious about what she might have been missing. Em’s attempts at distancing herself from her past had often made her answers to May’s questions vague or indifferent. May figured this was a chance to learn more about herself as much as the others.
Connor rubbed his chin, mulling over her question. He looked to his friends. Priva shrugged.
“I guess for the most part it’s not that different,” he admitted. “We’re born to our mothers and, if we’re lucky, we live our lives and die when we’re old. The only difference we’ve noticed – aside from how we come to be, of course – is that every Wish has their own unique ability.”
May blinked in a way she hoped conveyed naive confusion. “What kind of abilities?”
“Something we’re naturally very good at,” Connor replied. “Think of it like a talent on steroids. Everyone’s is different. Mine is my strength.” He gestured back to the massive dead tree they were using as firewood and May picked up on the implication that he had felled it singlehandedly. “Nothing too fancy here.”
“Mine, on the other hand, is very fancy,” Priva said, sounding rather proud of herself. She leaned forward and grinned. “I don’t have to sleep.”
“That’s only partially true,” Rue quipped, giving Priva a cutting look. “She can live on very little sleep. One night’s worth for every three or four days awake.”
“Killjoy,” Priva pouted.
If this was a reason to be any less impressed, May didn’t see why.
She looked to Jeremy expectantly. “What’s your ability?”
Arms crossed, Jeremy studied her for a moment before answering.
“Perfect memory.” He tapped his temple, his expression impossible to read. “I don’t forget anything.”
“Oh.” May smiled. “I’ll bet that comes in handy.”
Jeremy didn’t reply.
“What about you, Rue?” Em cut in on the awkward silence filling the space between May and Jeremy.
Rue laughed. “Oh, I’m not a Wish.”
May looked at her in surprise. “Really?”
“Yep.” Rue set her bowl down and settled back beside Connor, leaning gently into his side. “My place in this little family is kind of different than the others. I come from an ancient line of astromantic druids.”
Now genuinely confused, May frowned. “What does that mean? Are you human?”
“For the most part. But way back, in the beginning of human history, my people came to be specifically because of the Stars.”
The firelight danced, reflected in Rue’s magnificent golden eyes. May’s breath caught as she remembered why they had seemed so familiar.
“Were they Wishes?” May asked.
“No.” Rue’s eyes – the same otherworldly gold as the Star called Welkin – creased in the corners as she smiled. “They were Starborn.”