[ CW: Strong language ]
The first leg of May’s journey passed in a daze. She barely registered the world as it raced past her window or the voices of her fellow passengers. The empty space at her side haunted her like a ghost.
Then, from the train tracks to the shipyards, May left Mondova the same way she first arrived what felt like a lifetime ago. This time, rather than booking a cabin on a passenger vessel, she negotiated her way into a spare bunk on a freight ship. Something about her misery craved discomfort, and even though it wasn’t the safest option – a woman traveling solo on a ship primarily inhabited by rough and tumbled men – she took the risk out of spite.
Besides, the manual labor she traded for passage was a welcome distraction.
Yet when each day of working at sea was done, there was nothing to keep May from her thoughts. Every night she’d lie awake, listening to the creak of the ship’s hull and running over every moment of what had led her to this loneliness.
The very public blow-up, Em sending May away – it had all been part of the plan.
But just because she had agreed to it – eventually, begrudgingly – didn’t mean May was happy about it.
Her heartbreak and tears weren’t just for show.
May had been right: Em was leaving her, just not in the way she had originally feared. Em had decided to finish the rescue mission with WIND, only without May.
“I need to know you’re safe,” Em pleaded after May vehemently refused the idea. “And nothing about this is safe.”
“I know that,” May snapped, angry that Em was serious about sending her away. “I’ve known that since the beginning – since I first decided to leave Hoku with you. Em, I’m doing this with you.”
Em shook her head sadly.
“May, when we first got here, you asked me to promise I wouldn’t lose control again.” Em looked her in the eyes, her expression pained. “And believe me when I say I’ve been trying to be better, stronger. But I can’t say with any real confidence that I could fight it if you were in danger again.”
“Is that it then?” May could feel tears rising as she stomped about the office, pulling on her discarded clothes and pacing through her anxiety. “I’m just the damsel in distress of the group now?”
“Of course not,” Em sighed. “But because of what I did, the Loyals know how important you are to me now. If you think they won’t use that to their advantage then you haven’t been paying attention.”
May knew Em was right; her armor of anonymity was gone. But as far as she could see, it only meant she was as vulnerable as the rest of the team. She told Em as much, but it didn’t seem to matter to the Starborn.
“Then let’s just forget about it,” May whispered, taking Em’s hands in her own and clutching them to her chest as she sat beside her. Her bravado was slipping and desperation in the face of Em’s firmness was taking hold. “Let WIND fix their own problems. We can run.”
She felt hideous for saying something so selfish. In her mind, she saw Gaten as he was in Rue’s locket and knew he didn’t have a chance if they disappeared. Still…
Em touched her forehead to May’s. “You know that’s not true. This isn’t going to go away just because we do. It needs to stop.”
“Why does it have to be you?” May lamented. She felt like a child, unwilling and unable to process anything rationally.
“Because in a way, I’m responsible.” Em’s lip was trembling now, betraying her. “Audrey is the reason WIND exists in the first place. How am I supposed to run away knowing that something she did – something a piece of me started – is still hurting people? I need to end this once and for all.”
“The Loyals are the ones hurting people, Em.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Fine.” May drew up every ounce of stubbornness inside her. “But I’m still coming with you. I can hold my own.”
Em pursed her lips, a guilty look casting over her features.
“I’m sorry, love. But this time it’s not completely up to me.”
May started. “What do you mean?”
“WIND…” Em hesitated, shifting uneasily. “They think you’re a liability.”
The truth hit May like a wave of icy water. She jumped to her feet.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she shouted. Cursing had never been how May chose to express herself, but now it felt like the only way she could.
“Babe, they came up with a plan. Just hear it out before you get mad.”
“It’s a little late for that, Emanthy.” May stormed around the room, unable to hold still for all her bristling, furious energy. “I can’t believe this. You’re choosing them over me?”
Em rose and closed the distance between them in a few quick strides. She took May by the shoulders and tried to pull her close, but May struggled away.
“I’m choosing us,” Em said, her voice quavering with hurt. “I’m doing this so we can have a future that doesn’t involve constantly running and hiding from the mistakes of my past life. Don’t you want that?”
A strangled sob escaped May’s throat as she stood back at an arm’s length from Em. She broke down and cried shamelessly. A peaceful future with the woman she loved; that was exactly what she wanted. As she entertained the fantasy, her demeanor softened and Em reached for her again.
“I want to be with you,” May wept.
“You will be,” Em whispered, wrapping her arms around May. “When this is all over, we’ll be together.”
May continued to cry, her arms hanging limply at her sides. She couldn’t bring herself to return Em’s embrace – she was still too upset.
“And what am I supposed to do until then?” she demanded. The edge in her voice was mangled by her tears. “What if something happens to you? How will I ever know?”
“May,” Em said firmly, holding her out so she could look her in the eyes. “Nothing is going to happen to me. I will come back for you.”
“I am coming back for you, May.”
Taking a deep breath, May stared back at Em. She set her jaw and, without looking away, she pulled her birth mother’s wedding ring off her hand and held it out.
Em’s eyes grew globe-like. “What are you doing?”
“I want you to take it.”
“Yes,” May insisted, thrusting the heirloom forward. “If you’re going to make me leave, then you’re going to take this ring.”
“But it’s the only thing you have left from your birth parents,” Em replied, gaping.
May’s eyes narrowed. “Then you better make sure you find me again when this is over so you can give it back to me.”
Laying in her bunk, May rubbed the empty groove on her middle finger absently. Em had agreed to take the ring, and in turn, May had agreed to WIND’s plan.
Em gave her the combination for a train station public locker in the next city over. With the help of Grant and Lety, they orchestrated the argument and pick-up. When it was all over, Em went one way and May went another, alone.
Silent tears traced down May’s cheeks as she remembered the last words she and Em said to each other. Their argument had been fake, but the cruel things they’d said had been too real, fueled by the heated moment. She wanted to believe Em would return for her – that their relationship and everything they shared wasn’t truly over. But sometimes, when the night was dark and her loneliness was heaviest, May simply wasn’t sure.
Every night she did this to herself, and every night she fell into a fitful sleep on a damp pillow.
When she at last disembarked on Topaia, the island directly north of Hoku in the Lewa archipelago, May played with the idea of staying. Where Hoku was like a small time capsule, remote and trapped in its ways, Topaia embraced progress and people from all walks of life. She could make a home here; she didn’t have to go back to the desolation and judgment – not to mention the repercussions of what she and Em had left in their wake – waiting for her back in her hometown of Omea.
But just as quickly as the idea came to her, a small voice in the back of her mind whispered, but how will Em know where to look for me?
That fear was enough to make her buy one last boat ticket.
From the deck, May gazed across the horizon.
She took a deep breath and readied herself.
Em wasn’t the only one with a hostile past to face.
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