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Content warning: Strong language
May sat back and let out a long exhale.
“Engaged.” She let the word tumble into the silence hanging between her and Em.
Everything about Jeremy’s behavior suddenly made a lot more sense. If he had any reason to hope Em was actually his lost fiance, even she couldn’t blame him for disliking her.
Her eyes flicked up and caught the tense concern that filled Em’s.
“I’m sorry I never told you.” Em’s voice was strained, her words fast. “I honestly never imagined a situation where it would have mattered.”
Shame wrapped itself around May’s lungs and squeezed. She knew where Em’s distress was coming from: the last time May found out she was in the company of one of her girlfriend’s former lovers she hadn’t handled it well. The memory made her cringe. She forced it away with a shake of her head.
“It doesn’t matter, right?” It was meant to be a reassuring rhetorical question but even May could tell it sounded a bit too desperate. “That was Audrey’s past.”
“Right,” Em confirmed with a nod. “I’m not her anymore. I promise – I swear to you – anything she felt for him… it died with her.”
A moment passed between them, each willing the other to speak when they knew they were holding back. A lonely wind swept around the trailer and for a breath their world trembled.
“Are you oka -”
“Are you goi -”
Their words fumbled over each other and stopped together. Em’s hands tightened around May’s.
“Are you going to be okay with this?” she asked. “Being around them – around him?”
May chewed her bottom lip and let the idea race through her head.
“We’re not going to tell them the truth, right? About Welkin using her life force to make you?”
Em shook her head earnestly. “Fuck no.”
“Then it doesn’t matter,” May concluded, her tone resolute. “I’ve got more than enough experience dealing with people who hate me for no good reason. Besides,” she leaned in, relieving a hand from Em’s grip and placing it on her cheek instead, “I’m more worried about you.”
May chose her words carefully.
“I still think we need to help them, but I also can’t even begin to imagine what you’re going through.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Are you going to be okay?”
Em most certainly did not look okay.
Half-drowned and exhaustion aside, Em looked as though she might vomit at any given moment. The usual pearly shimmer of her skin had grown dull and her eyes – red and swollen – swam with tears.
Her breaths quivered.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It is so disorienting to look at these people and know they used to mean everything to her – to me, in a way – and feel nothing. The memories are there but when I look at Jeremy… Fuck, it would destroy him if he knew. He’s holding out for a miracle I can’t give him.”
May leaned even closer and rested her forehead against Em’s. As much as she couldn’t imagine walking away from Gaten, the little boy caught in the middle of a senseless struggle, she didn’t want Em to suffer more than she already had.
“Whatever you choose, I’ll follow your lead.”
“Are you sure?” Em asked in a whisper.
Rue had been pacing the sidewalk in front of the Willows Court parking lot since half past eleven. After getting her hopes up every time a car turned onto the road or people walked by, she stopped scanning the distance and instead kept her eyes trained on her locket. She focused on her son’s face with an intensity she secretly hoped would will what she wanted into happening.
She wouldn’t let anything other than the image of Em saying yes breach her thoughts. She couldn’t.
A door opened across the parking lot. Rue knew in her heart it was Connor – that noon had arrived and he was coming to gently pull her back from her anxious march. She ignored him, pretending she didn’t hear him approaching until she felt his hand on her shoulder.
“Love,” he whispered. He was delicate with her as though she were in a trance he was trying to coax her out of. “Come inside.”
Biting into her bottom lip, Rue forbade herself from opening her mouth for fear she’d start to cry. She shook her head and tried to step away. Connor moved his hand to the crook of her elbow and softly pulled her back to him.
“Please, Rue. We have to talk to the others about what to do next.”
“No,” she sobbed, lurching from his grasp. “I’m sure she’s just running late. We should wait a little longer and meet her when she gets here.”
She could hear the frantic notes rising in her voice just like she could hear another door opening and closing; a pair of footsteps making their way toward her.
“It’s going to be okay, Rue.” Priva’s arms were outstretched, ready to embrace her. Only Jeremy hung back, his eyes meeting Rue’s over Priva’s shoulder. Rue was certain she saw the faintest hint of hope flicker across his expression.
There was an overwhelming amount of tension in the things they were not saying. Rue didn’t want to believe their plan hadn’t worked just as the others didn’t want to admit they had failed. Connor reached out again and laid his hand over Rue’s, still tightly clutching her locket.
“We’ll think of some–”
The rumbling of an engine cut him off. The four turned in unison as a dirty white pick-up rounded the corner and pulled into the parking lot. Dom swayed in the driver’s seat as his truck bounced over the cracked pavement; a stern-faced Lenore sat at his side. They left the engine running and climbed down from the cab, striding up to WIND without saying a word.
“Is she coming?” Rue asked. She searched their faces for a hint as to why they were standing in front of them instead of Em. Dom looked to Lenore, motioning in such a way to imply she had the floor.
“A cirque family is for life.” Lenore’s reptilian eyes bore into each of them with uncomfortable intensity. “If we ever find out you’ve brought harm to our sisters, there will be nowhere you can go where we won’t find you.”
“Ditto,” Dom added, a characteristically casual addition to such a weighty statement.
Rue looked to her friends. Their expressions mirrored her wide-eyed incredulity.
“Does that mean –“
There was a banging from the bed of Dom’s truck. Em sprang down, a heavy pack strapped to her back.
Rue made a sound somewhere between a squeak and a sob.
If Em heard her – if she noticed the audience at all – she ignored them in favor of turning back to the truck and extending her hand. “Do you need help down?”
May rose from the bed, hitching her own pack up and taking Em’s hand. “Thanks, babe.”
Her feet had hardly touched the ground when Rue rushed forward, wrapping her arms around the pair as best she could and squeezing tight.
“Thank you,” she wept, feeling lighter than she had since Gaten was taken. “Thank you for helping us.”
“Wait,” Jeremy balked. “What is she doing here?”
May knew without looking that he was pointing at her.
“I am coming too,” she replied, her voice firm and unwavering.
“We’re a package deal.” Em took May’s hand. “If you want me, you get us both.”
Glaring, Jeremy looked between the two of them before Rue caught his eye. Her expression was pleading.
“Fine,” he muttered, folding his arms and looking away. “Whatever.”
A flurry of goodbyes was exchanged, with both Dom and Lenore making Em and May promise to call on them if they needed any help. Rue gave a tearful embrace to everyone – even the steely Lenore – while Connor shook hands and repeated his thanks again and again. It took a few commanding barks from Lenore for Dom to finally return to his truck. Em and May waved until the dusty tailgate turned out of view.
“We can’t tell you how much this means to us,” Connor said for the umpteenth time as the remaining six of them walked back to his motel room.
“We’re doing this for Gaten,” Em replied, not unkindly but nonetheless firm. “And when this is all over, the two of us get our lives back. Deal?”
“Of course,” Rue agreed, nodding as though this final detail wasn’t significantly easier said than done.
Priva opened the door and stepped aside to usher everyone inside. “We’d better get started. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”
One by one the group filed past her. As May stepped to follow Em, a forceful tug on her pack pulled her back.
“We have no room for error here,” Jeremy hissed, close enough for him to whisper but without looking directly at her. “If you slow us down, you’re gone.”
“I’m not going to slow anything down,” May snapped back, keeping her voice low. “Why do you think I would?”
“I mean it.” He ignored her question. His dark eyes met hers for a second, long enough for her to see the way they burned. “I’m not going to let you get in the way.”
Before May could say another word, he pushed into the room, leaving her alone outside.
Steadfast as she had planned to be, May couldn’t help but be rattled.
If Jeremy disliked her this much just from hoping Em would be the link to his lost fiancée, May hated to think how he would react if he discovered the truth.
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