HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! Wishing you all an incredible 2018! 🥂
I hope you like my EmMay Champagne dolls! Patreon patrons can get a high-res text-free version of this image, plus the line art for colouring!
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! Wishing you all an incredible 2018! 🥂
I hope you like my EmMay Champagne dolls! Patreon patrons can get a high-res text-free version of this image, plus the line art for colouring!
Content warning: Strong language
The party reached the town of Luxton by mid-afternoon the following day. As the one least likely to find her face on a wanted poster, May volunteered to source out accommodations, and came back with keys to a rented flat shortly before dinner.
After days in the woods, everyone was more than eager for access to clean running water and soft places to sleep. They took turns showering and crammed the washing machine to bursting with dirty clothes. After making a stealth grocery run, May dropped onto the plush living room couch and immediately declared it her favourite place in the world.
While Connor took to preparing dinner, the others explored the flat, calling dibs on different bedrooms and making themselves more comfortable than they had been in days.
“Hey, Maybe!” Em called from another room. “Guess what I found?”
Before May could venture a guess, Em sauntered into the living room holding a well-loved acoustic guitar. “Do you think you remember everything from the crash course that hippie gave you?”
Of course she remembered; it was a cheeky remark that May had to stop herself from chirping back at lest she accidentally mention her own special Wish ability. In only a couple of hours she had all but mastered the basics of strumming and fingerpicking. Em handed her the instrument and with a little bit of messing around she was able to recall the chords she had learned in that first and only lesson.
She strummed and plucked until the notes for a song Em often sang came back to her. With fingers as nimble as her feet when she danced, May strummed the familiar tune just to make Em smile. In return, Em curled at the floor at May’s feet and sang along in a voice she normally reserved for moments when she thought she was alone and – somewhat surprisingly – for drunken karaoke.
Rue and Priva applauded when they finished.
“You two have great harmony,” Rue said with a wink.
May blushed but Em was quick to accept the compliment. “Yeah, we’re pretty cute.”
From his seat across the room, Jeremy grumbled something beneath his breath. Just as Connor stepped into the room to announce that dinner was ready, Jeremy maneuvered passed him and disappeared into the flat.
Connor looked at Priva, who rolled her eyes.
“Anyway,” he drawled, gesturing toward the kitchen. “Who’s hungry?”
May, Em, and Rue followed him but Priva hung back. The four hadn’t even finished dishing out when the sound of raised, angry voices erupted in another room.
“Oh shit,” Em said, casting a wide-eyed glance at the rest of the group. “Should we do something about that?”
Rue and Connor frowned at each other, but before either could respond, Jeremy stormed through the flat and out the door.
“Should we stop him?” May asked, unnerved.
“Let him go,” Priva growled as she stalked into the kitchen. “Can’t talk any sense into him right now anyway.”
Nobody asked what happened, nor did the press the issue. Together they settled in and ate their dinner in a silence reminiscent of their first day together.
When everyone had finished, Connor and Rue chased the others from the kitchen, swearing they hand clean-up under control. Priva retired to a bedroom, leaving May and Em alone to whisper.
“That was about us, wasn’t it?” May asked, eyeing the door to the hallway down which Priva had cloistered herself.
“Do you think we should go talk to her?”
“And say what?”
May sighed. “I don’t know but personally, I’m kind of sick of everyone being cagey about Jeremy’s attitude problem. Let’s just see what she says. Even if she isn’t honest about anything at least we can say we tried.”
Em thought about it for a moment and nodded. “You know what? Yes, let’s. I want to hear what she has to say about all this.”
They crept down the hallway, pausing to listen at the door before knocking.
“I’m good,” Priva called.
May looked at Em.
Em’s expression was determined.
“Glad to hear it, P,” she replied. “But we’re not. Can we talk about what happened?
There was a groan, the sound of creaking bedsprings. Priva opened the door with a scowl.
“That’s what we were wondering.” Em raised an eyebrow, a sure sign that she wasn’t about to back down.
“That fight,” May said in a tone far less confrontational than Em’s. “Was it about us?”
Priva licked her lips and glanced between the pair. “Honestly, you don’t need to worry about it. It’s just J being J.”
Em wasn’t having it.
“Cut the bullshit, Priva.”
“Emanthy,” May hissed.
“This isn’t the first time he’s gotten pissy at or because of us,” Em barrelled on. “And quite frankly, it’s making an already tense situations worse than it needs to be. What are we doing wrong?”
“You’re not…” Priva looked past them, brow furrowed and gaze unfocused. “It’s complicated.”
“It always is.” Em folded her arms. “But resentful members of this little family we may be, I think we deserve to know if we’re doing something to rock the boat.”
Priva gave a resigned sigh and retreated back into the bedroom, motioning for the girls to follow. She collapsed on the bed, miserable, and May and Em tentatively took posts on either side of her”
“Jeremy and I are dating,” Priva told the ceiling. She didn’t seem ready to look at either of the girls. “Sort of.”
“Sort of?” May questioned, careful to make sure her tone didn’t come across as judgemental.
“If I’m being honest, I think it’s pretty one-sided.” Priva twisted at one of the coils from the half of her hair that hadn’t been carefully braided into tight rows across her scalp. “Honestly, I don’t know why I’m still trying with that boy. He’s never going to love me back.”
“Why do you say that?” Em asked, trying to keep her expression neutral.
“For starters, I’m not fucking stupid.” Priva grumbled. “But also because he’s still in love with someone else.”
There it was; a massive truth dropped so casually that May almost wondered if Priva might have been talking about someone else.
“Who?” Em pushed, waiting for more.
Priva sat up. “This is the worst part – and honestly, just thinking about admitting this makes me feel like a bitch: he’s in love with a dead woman.”
Em nodded at the duvet she had been picking at to avoid looking Priva in the face. “That’s rough, buddy.”
“Ha, that’s putting it lightly.” Priva agreed.
“So, why are you with him then?” May asked. “Has he always been this angry?” And, when Priva raised an eyebrow at her, added, “Or, uh, maybe it’s just me.”
Priva massaged the back of her neck with both hands and sighed.
“No,” she admitted sadly. “He used to laugh. He’s smart and fun and even dangerous in a way that’s so hot. But… thing have changed.”
“Since we showed up.” Em wasn’t asking.
There was a moment when nobody spoke, though the air was heavy with words waiting to be said.
“What does all of this have to do with us, Priva?” May asked gently.
Priva looked at them each in turn, awkward discomfort colouring her expression.
“The woman he loved – the one he still loves – was one of us. She was one of the original members of WIND. Honestly, she was such a badass and I really don’t blame him for being hung up on her. But she was a Starborn, like you.” She gestured to Em, who pursed her lips to keep herself quiet.
“I don’t know why he thought this,” Priva continued, looking flustered. “And believe me, I know how nuts this is going to sound, but… he had it in his mind that you were her. Maybe he thought her death was a cover up or something but he was really convinced that that you were her.”
“But he knows that I’m not, right?” Em insisted. “I mean, I can appreciate his disappointment but why’s he mad at us?”
“Girl, I wish I knew,” Priva said, tossing her hands up in defeat. “I think maybe he built it up so much in his mind that he can’t seem to separate you from her now. And you -” she pointed to May. “- you’re just caught in the middle of all this bullshit and I’m sorry. That’s what we were arguing about; he needs to stop getting pissed off over you two. He needs to stop taking out the fact that he was wrong on you.”
“Maybe he just needs a bit more time?” May ventured.
Priva shook her head. “I don’t know. I think I’ve given him enough time. I feel like such a fool.”
May and Em exchanged sad looks.
“You’re not a fool.” Em put a hand on Priva’s shoulder. “You’re fucking brilliant. We couldn’t have asked for a better navigator. You just need to keep looking forward. Come on, let’s get the maps out and you can show us where we’re headed next.”
“Actually…” Priva glanced out the window with a frown. “I think I should go look for Jeremy. He’s been out there sulking for a while and it’s starting to get dark.”
“Let me go,” May said, earning equally befuddled looks from both Em and Priva. “What? Maybe he just needs to get to know me. I am determined to get this guy to like me. Besides, out of all of us, no one will really be looking for me, remember?”
Priva still seemed reluctant but couldn’t argue with May’s logic. “I guess so…”
“Please be careful out there, love,” Em said with a pointed look. “If you’re not back in five minutes, I’m coming to get you.”
“Sure thing, mom,”
Dusk had settled by the time May got down to the streets. Jeremy wasn’t anywhere in view. Pulling her hat low, she set off, figuring she’d start by circling the block before getting more creative in her search.
Aside from an occasional vehicle passing, the streets were deserted. May shivered involuntarily and tried not to fixate on how alone she was.
“Maybe I should have let Priva go after all,” she mumbled, folding her arms and pinning them tightly against her body. “I have clue where Jeremy might -”
A voice, gruff and indistinct echoed down an alleyway. Another voice followed; it sounded threatening. May was immediately filled with a sense of dread. Self-preservation told her to keep walking but a third, familiar voice stopped her dead.
“I told you, we haven’t found anything yet. Why would I lie about this?”
It was Jeremy.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Holding her breath, May crept into the alley. Taking shelter behind a row of garbage bins, she carefully peered out to find Jeremy being interrogated by a pair of men. The bigger of the two had a tight grip around the collar of Jeremy’s shirt and used it to keep him pinned against the wall. The man’s other hand was raised in a first, and based on the bruises blooming across Jeremy’s cheek, it was clear he had already put it to use.
“We did some digging when you didn’t check in. Sounds like you went sniffing around some circus.”
“We were following up on a lead,” Jeremy spat, feisty even in the face of danger. “It was a dead end.”
The men gave one another knowing looks. One nodded, the other struck. His fist hit Jeremy’s face with a loud crack.
“Don’t fucking lie to us, Parker.”
“Why would I lie?” Jeremy shouted.
The man who held him in place rattled him, slamming his small frame back against the wall. “Keep your voice down, man.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” The other man growled.
Jeremy glared at him through swelling lids. “We’re not stupid, you fucking neanderthals; we know what’s at stake here.”
His captor leaned in. “Don’t you forget that.”
“Oh, I think we’re going to need a bit more assurance than that,” the other man said, giving another nod to his partner who took the cue and threw Jeremy down at their feet.
Jeremy winced. When his eyes opened again, his new vantage point revealed May, crouched and terrified in her hiding spot. Fear flashed quickly across his face.
The world slowed to a crawl.
May watched one of the men swing his foot, aiming for Jeremy’s stomach.
In the split-second before impact Jeremy held May’s eyes with his and mouthed one word.
TWATH is currently on hiatus and will be returning to regular updates in early 2018.
Content warning: sexual/physical assault mentions, PTSD trauma, sex
With each day that passed, the awkwardness and tension lifted. Though Jeremy remained cold toward May, she found herself warming up to the other members of WIND.
According to Priva, it would take three more days for the group to arrive at a small town called Luxton where they would be able to take a brief rest and resupply. The town was a stop along a train route that would take them to their next destination; the city of York.
“You’re amazing with these maps,” May remarked as she hunched beside Priva, watching her trace the path they would follow with the tip of her finger.
“I’d better be,” Priva laughed. “Cartography is in my blood.”
Priva pointed to a signature in the bottom corner of the map. It didn’t register as anything familiar to May, but Priva was clearly proud of it.
“My great granddaddy drew this map himself when he explored this range as a young man,” she explained. “People think we’ve found all that’s worth seeing in this world. But there are still so many remote places waiting to be understood. I even like to map out the places I’ve been, just in case I’ve seen something other explorers have missed.”
“That’s incredible!” May was so enthralled that she listened to Priva explain the finer points of cartography and tell stories about her great-grandfather for half a day out on the trail, hanging on every word.
After dinner the following evening, May was helping Rue clean up when she noticed the far off look in her eyes as she gazed into the dying fire.
“How are you holding up?” May asked kindly.
Rue started slightly. “I’m sorry. I was just…”
“Thinking of Gaten?”
There was a heartbeat of silence. “Yes.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine how you’re feeling,” May said. “I have a nephew back home and I love him like crazy. Don’t tell Em this, but when we first went into hiding I would wait for her to fall asleep and then I would cry because I missed him so much.”
“Oh, May.” Rue pressed a hand to her heart. “That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be!” May balked. “I only bring it up because I thought that was bad. I was a mess over it. And yet here you are, going what you’re going through, and you’re being so brave about it. Gaten is going to be so proud of you.”
Eyes glistening, Rue still managed to smile. “That’s a very sweet thing to say, May. Thank you.”
They worked for a couple more moments in a silence that was lighter than a moment earlier.
“So, you like kids then?” Rue asked, unexpectedly continuing the conversation.
May grinned. “Yeah. I mean, I spent a lot of time looking after my nephew and he just… I don’t know. I guess kids just have a way of giving you a whole new perspective on things.”
“They sure do,” Rue agreed, laughing.
The more May got to know these people, the better she felt about the dangerous journey they were on together.
She also felt like she was getting a better sense of who Audrey might have been. The person Em had once been often felt like a ghost to May, haunting just out of her line of sight. But the more she learned about the people Audrey had known and loved, the more that spectre seemed to take shape. While Jeremy’s thorny disposition had left May wondering what kind of person could love someone so perpetually hostile, the others gave Audrey more dimension. May could imagine being friends with these people. She could imagine Em being friends with them too, and although May recognized that she still had virtually nothing other than a notion to go on, she couldn’t help but wonder if Em and Audrey were quite as different as her lover insisted they were.
As for that lover, the pair did what they could to make sure the circumstances didn’t come between them. Long after the others fell asleep, May and Em would keep one another awake, rolling and rocking in the throes of love and lust as best they could while trying to stay as quiet as possible.
May loved crawling between Em’s legs, using her tongue to guide her in the darkness as she teased and tasted, feeling Em tremble and buck against her. Em preferred to use her hands. With one she would pin May down while the other worked its magic. The night was like a blindfold that kept May tense with anticipation; each touch was a surprise so overwhelming that it took every ounce of willpower May had not to shatter the silence of midnight with her passion.
On their last night in the woods, long after the lovers had exhausted themselves into sleep, May awoke with a violent, heat-pounding jolt. She sat up, breathless and terrified. Frantically she tried to remember where she was by reminding herself of where she wasn’t.
“It was a dream,” she whispered into the darkness, feeling hot tears slide down her face. “He’s not here. It’s not real.”
Beside her she could feel the softness of Em’s naked body and the gentle rhythm of her breath. She was, somehow, still asleep and May couldn’t bring herself to wake her.
But her nightmare – the feeling of Kane’s greedy mouth on hers, his hands in places they had no business being – refused to release her from its grip. Her lungs panicked for air and her heart wouldn’t stop racing. To May, the world seemed to be tipping, threatening to cast her off into a full fit of panic. Knowing she needed to move – to do something – she crawled, trembling from beneath the covers and pulled on her clothes before staggering out into the cold of the night.
Free of the tent, May doubled over, gasping for breath and pleading with herself to calm down.
“It’s not real,” she wept as quietly as she could. “He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“May, it’s Connor,” she heard in the darkness. “Don’t be frightened.”
Through tear-soaked eyes, May peered around but it was too black for her eyes to focus.
“Connor? Where are you?”
A match flared, illuminating him from where he sat beside the fire pit, a heavy blanket over his shoulders. “Would you like to sit?”
May’s flight instincts were still firing wildly in her mind. It was a struggle for her to overcome the impulse to shrink away, but slowly she shuffled to where Connor sat and lowered herself down beside him just as the match burnt out.
“I’m going to put the blanket on you. Is that okay?” Connor asked, his voice soft and steady.
“Yes,” May whispered back.
In the darkness she felt the full weight of the blanket gently drape across her shoulders. She clutched at its edges, drawing it closer around her body; she hadn’t realized just how cold she had been before now.
They sat in silence for a long time, until the blindness of night came to feel like a hiding place and May felt her heartbeat slow.
When her lungs were at last able to have their fill and her mind had ceased its noise, May looked into the void beside her where she knew Connor was sitting.
“Why are you out here?” she asked.
She heard him release a long, slow exhale. “The same reason you are, I’d imagine.”
“Did you have a nightmare too?”
“Is that what it was?” There was a hint of skepticism in his voice, so faint May wondered if she imagined it.
May considered his question in the privacy the night’s black shroud afforded her; she’d had plenty of nightmares before, but when she really thought about it, she knew this one was different.
“Maybe not,” she admitted finally. “It’s more like a… I don’t know…”
She ruminated on the word.
“Yes, I think so.”
Connor hummed. “Me too.”
Questions leapt to May’s mind at his subtle confession, but she wasn’t sure it was her place to ask them.
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Connor said as if reading her mind. “But if you’d like to, I’ve been told I’m a good listener.”
This made May smile despite herself. “I’m not sure why it happens. Something happened to me – was done to me – years ago. Sometimes I relive it in my sleep.”
“Trauma is like a ghost that way; sometimes it doesn’t like to be ignored.”
“What about you?” May asked. ”I mean, we don’t have to talk about it either but-”
“It’s okay,” Connor assured her. “I’ve had a lot of time to get familiar with my ghost. I’m not sure how much you know about the different Star worshipping groups; there are a lot of them out there. My uncle is part of a fairly conservative group that only acts on direct command from the Stars. They opted not to pursue Wishes because, technically, the Stars didn’t sanction the hunt in the first place. But they also frowned on the illegal Wishes.”
Connor paused to sigh. May waited in polite silence.
“I was still pretty young when the Loyals were formed and began hunting down Wishes. My parents thought the safest place for me was in hiding.”
“So they left you with your uncle?” May ventured.
“It was a good idea in theory; the Loyals didn’t suspect such a stringent group of harbouring a Wish. But, like I said, this group didn’t approve of the Wishes either, they just weren’t willing to destroy them. Needless to say, I wasn’t treated very well.”
“They didn’t… hurt you, did they?”
“Very much so.”
The wind passed, rattling the tree branches above them.
“Connor, I’m so sorry.” Already May was feeling terribly guilty for having asked.
“Don’t be,” Connor replied. ”Like I said, I’ve had plenty of time to learn to live with what’s happened to me.”
“But that doesn’t make it alright.”
“No, and it’s not always easy, but I’m doing better now than before. I’m proud of how far I’ve come.” Even in the darkness, May could tell he was looking at her now. “Besides, I’m not the only one out here with ghosts.”
[ Next Chapter ]
May wasn’t sure what she wanted to say in response to Rue’s casual confession. Her mind whirled; hadn’t Em just told her that she was the last known Starborn?
“Do you know what a Starborn is?” Rue asked as if she were broaching a sensitive subject. Her eyes flicked almost imperceptibly to Em, but May caught it and understood. They knew – or at least they suspected – what Em was. This was their chance to confirm it.
Up until that point, May had avoided looking to Em for fear it give them away when they lied. But now she didn’t know what else to do, and so she cast an uneasy glance at her girlfriend, whose crystal eyes were already waiting for her.
Em exhaled slowly. “People like me, you mean?”
Even the flickering shadows of the fire couldn’t mask the fact that everyone was frozen in place. Jeremy held his breath. Everyone waited.
“Come on, don’t act like you’re surprised.” Em laughed off everyone’s tension with an ease May wished she could master. While the others gaped, fish-like and equally wordless, Em eased back onto her palms and gazed around the circle, her expression aloof.
“Who?” Connor blurted at last. “Your parents – who are they?”
“A Star and one of the Emandi,” Em replied with ease.
“What?” Rue gasped.
“Why?” Jeremy demanded.
May balled her hands into tight fists, her nails digging into the soft flesh of her palms. She was lost – she had no idea what an Emandi was – but the others clearly did. May knew if she asked about it now she would blow Em’s story, so she bit her tongue and tried not to let her uncertainty swallow her whole.
“Why would a Star and an Emandi choose to create a life together?” Jeremy scoffed.
Em raised an eyebrow; her stare firm and challenging. “That’s a pretty personal question, don’t you think?”
Her tone was dangerous. May was so overwhelmingly curious she worried her questions would bubble over in a scream.
“Is that why…” Rue looked at Em but pointed to her own eyes. Whatever was implied in Em’s nod seemed to satisfy Rue. “How interesting.”
“Anyway,” Em drawled, draping an arm around May’s shoulders and squeezing in a way May knew was meant to be reassuring. “You were about to tell us about your people?”
“Right.” Rue shook off her daze and forced a smile. “Seeing as you performed the story of the Moon and the Ocean, I’m guessing you’re both already familiar with the legends?”
“The Moon fell in love with the Ocean and the Sun fell in love with the Earth,” May answered, reciting the summary of the creation myths she had grown up listening to on the island of Hoku. “One pair gave birth to all flora and the other to all fauna.”
Rue nodded. “Because the lovers so adored for their new children, they asked the ancients to write them into the story of the universe; to give them destinies and help guide them.”
At this point May could no longer hide her confusion. That she was floundering in new information was clear to Em, who smiled and gave her shoulder another gentle squeeze.
“The Stars,” she explained quietly. “They’re the ancients.”
“Okay, but what does any of this have to do with your people?” May asked, trying to get to the crux of the story – to figure out what the Starborn had to do with any of this. Her brain felt as foggy as it had the night Em had shared her secret and admitted to being part Star.
“For as long as the universe has existed, the Stars have played a part in creating the life within it,” Rue said. “But because they had nothing to do with the new life on this planet, they had to find a new way to write them into their great Story; their plan for all life in the universe.”
Sudden comprehension blew out the fog in May’s mind; something Em had said on the bus came back to her.
‘We were a bit more common thousands of years ago…’
“The Stars parented children so they could have a part in the new life.” May hadn’t grown up with this part of the legends; she was dazzled by how much she still had to learn. “Those children were the first of the Starborn.”
Rue smiled. “And they were supposed to be the only ones, but…” she motioned to Em, who shrugged.
“Wow,” was all May could manage in response.
“As you can imagine, most of that Starborn blood has been significantly diluted over the many millennia between then and now,” Rue continued. “My people are the only group who have managed to keep the lineage strong.”
“Does that mean you have abilities like mine?” Em asked, playing up her supposed ignorance.
Rue’s smile hinted at something she wasn’t sharing. “The only thing my people can do is commune with the Stars.”
“Seriously?” May was awe-struck. “How?”
Rather than answer, Rue stood and stretched. “That is a long story better saved for another night. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m exhausted.”
“Not to mention we’ve got another long day ahead of us.” Priva rose, dusting off her pants. She looked down at Jeremy and held out her hand. “Bed?”
“Yeah, I’ll come,” he answered, accepting her help and getting to his feet.
“You guys go ahead,” Em said. “May and I will clean up here.”
“There’s a river to the north,” Priva instructed, pointing in the right direction. “It’s not far. You can use it to douse the fire.”
As the others disappeared into their tents, May and Em collected the discarded bowls and cleared up the site in silence. When she was satisfied with their work, Em grabbed a waterproof sack and beckoned for May to follow.
The woods were cold and cloaked in a haunting darkness that kept May huddled close as they walked.
“Can Rue really talk to the Stars?” she asked as the sound of the river swept through the trees to greet them.
“She can’t talk to them the way we’re talking now,” Em replied, her voice betraying something like exhaustion. “But she’s able to create a connection with them. Her people are the only humans who can communicate directly with the Stars, so they act kind of like the liaisons between us mere mortals and the powers that be.”
May laughed. “‘Mere mortals’; that’s funny coming from you.”
The sound of rushing water grew louder. May swept her flashlight along the ground until the trees gave way and the riverbank came into view through the gloom.
“I feel like every time I learn something new about your world – Audrey’s life – I end up with more questions than I started with,” she admitted, stepping lightly through the tall lush grass at the water’s edge. “It’s a little overwhelming. But at the same time, it’s kind of exciting. I guess, in a way, it’s kind of part of my history too, you know?”
Carefully she tip-toed across smoothed river stones until she was as far as she could get and waited for Em. It took a moment, watching the dark water rush past her feet in the white glow of her flashlight, before May realized Em wasn’t coming. She turned.
Back on dry land, Em stood transfixed, gazing up at the glittering dome of stars above. Her skin glimmered, emitting a gentle, dreamlike light. But the expression on her face was one of sorrow and remorse; her eyes shimmered with tears.
Slowly, Em’s feet rose from the earth and she hovered, suspended in her trance.
“I’m sorry,” she wept through a cracking voice. “I’m sorry for everything.”
Frozen in place, May watched in a mix of fearful curiosity. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but it didn’t seem as though Em was talking to her.
“I know you were trying to do what you thought was best for me.” Em’s arms were outstretched in an welcoming, hopeful gesture. “You were always doing the best you could. I didn’t mean to be so hard on you all the time.”
May looked up – up at the millions of winking stars – and blinked away new tears of her own.
She knew who Em was talking to now.
This was the first time she had witnessed Em’s attempts to reach Welkin first-hand. Until now, Em had waited until May was asleep or sought privacy; the ritual was all at once mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
Em let out a tragic wail.
“Please,” she cried. “Please talk to me. Where are you? Why won’t you answer me?”
Her light faded. The great, swirling magic that kept Em aloft dissipated into the night. She landed heavily on her feet before collapsing onto her knees.
May rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Em as tightly as she could.
“Why won’t they answer me?” Em asked, her tears soaking through the shoulder of May’s shirt. Her sadness gripped May’s heart and twisted mercilessly.
“I don’t know, love,” May whispered, stroking Em’s back with a tender hand. “But we’re going to find them, I promise.”
She didn’t know how she was going to keep that promise. All May knew was she’d do whatever she could to bring Em peace.
For now, she hoped being there for Em would be enough.
[ Next Chapter ]
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.”
Content warning: Strong language
It was morning by the time the bus rolled into the dusty little town of Willingdon. From what May could see, the place itself wasn’t especially remarkable, but from here the bus route veered off in the opposite direction of where they needed to go. She and Em gathered their packs and hobbled down to the street, stiff and groggy from their cramped night on the seats.
On the sidewalk Em nodded toward a large map of the town and surrounding area that was posted outside the station; it was where they had been told to wait for further instruction. They shuffled over to it, yawning and stretching as they went, and surveyed the lattice work of neat little roads to kill time.
“Look,” May pointed to one on the far side of town and grinned. “This one is called ‘Dingus Street’.”
Em snorted. “Who comes up with this shit?”
A pack dropped to the ground a couple feet to their left. May recognized it as Connor’s and intensified her focus on the streets, knowing neither she nor Em was supposed to acknowledge the others so long as they were out in public.
Priva stepped forward and wordlessly tapped her lips as her eyes scanned the map.
“Yikes,” Em muttered. “‘Loveless Lane’.”
May studied the street Em pointed at. “Bleak.”
“Here,” Priva announced, jabbing at a place on the outskirts of town somewhere well past Dingus Street. “This is the pull-off for the trailhead.”
Out of the corner of her eye, May made out a dotted path snaking out to the north from the pull-off. She sneaked surreptitious glances at it while pretending to look for more odd street names.
“From the looks of things it would take most of the day to get to the first lake.” Priva gestured to the tip of a body of water just visible along the edge of the map.
“That should still give us plenty of time to set up camp,” Jeremy noted with a false cheeriness that seemed eerie after his sneering, sullen attitude.
“Should we refresh our supplies?” Connor asked.
Em burst into laughter. “There’s seriously a place called ‘Lickkity Way’ here.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively at May.
“Behave yourself for once in your life.” May gave her a playful shove.
“We’ll leave in twenty minutes,” Jeremy said, his remarkable cheerfulness disappearing completely.
The plan was fairly straightforward: the two groups would appear to go their separate ways from the station and find each other again later at a meeting point. In this case, the beginning of the West Green Crest Trail, which would lead them to the next town on their route.
While Jeremy, Priva, Connor, and Rue divvied up their shopping list and beelined for a grocery store, May and Em grabbed breakfast at a charming little family-run cafe. May took her time savouring her hot tea and fresh pastry knowing it would be days before she’d get to enjoy creature comforts again.
As they left, the pair spotted the others up ahead, making their way to a store specializing in camping and outdoor supplies. The girls strolled at a leisurely pace, mindful to keep their distance. Music wafted from a cobbled plaza that opened off the street; a busker played folksy renditions of popular songs to a small gathering of onlookers. Priva slowed, listening. Her features lit up as she recognized the melody.
“Ah, this is my song!” she cried, depositing her bags at Rue’s feet. She snatched the packages in Jeremy’s hands and placed them beside her own. “C’mon, boy. You’re dancing to this.”
May watched with surprise as Priva took him by the hand and dragged him into the center of the plaza. Jeremy didn’t seem put off by her touch, nor by the closeness of her body as they danced; they were clearly used to being in each other’s arms.
“Now that’s an interesting development,” Em muttered, watching the pair with a bemused expression. She gave May a knowing glance before pushing onward.
Curious, May glanced back one last time. If dance was a conversation without words, this one said a lot. That Jeremy and Priva were an item was clear, but May wasn’t fooled. This relationship was one sided; Jeremy’s heart wasn’t in it at all.
The rest of the plan went off without a hitch. May and Em beat WIND to the trailhead and, once the group reunited, they began a long day of hiking. The further they walked the more rugged the trail became, twisting into darker and denser woods. Occasionally the trees would break and open up into lush, sunny meadows, or the trail would meet a babbling creek, which they would cross in single file along aging wooden footbridges. For the most part no one spoke.
May and Em brought up the rear of the pack, letting the others lead the way. They dawdled like children, keeping one another amused and their spirits up. When they passed a grove of fruit trees at the end of their blooming season, May collected handfuls of fallen blossoms and followed behind Em, sticking them here and there throughout her black wig. When May’s feet ached, Em playfully swept her up in her arms and marched until the combined weight of another person and an overstuffed pack became too much.
It took the better part of the day, but by the time they reached what Priva decided was an ideal place to set up camp, the girls’ had managed to lighten the moods of nearly everyone in the group; Jeremy kept gruffly to himself. The rest of the party joked about the sweet relief of abandoning their packs and called dibs on spots to pitch their tents. There were three in total: May and Em, Connor and Rue, and – confirming the girls’ suspicion – Priva and Jeremy.
As May hammered in their final tent peg, Em stood and stretched.
“Who’s in the mood for a camp fire?” She scanned the other two pitches. Everyone else was still a step or two behind in their tent set-up. “Maybe and I will go collect wood.”
“That would be awesome.” Connor smiled at her, appreciative.
Em offered her hand and pulled May to her feet. She didn’t let go as they wandered into the woods.
May waited until she was sure they were out of earshot before she spoke.
“Do you think the whole trip is going to be this awkward?” she asked. “They hardly said anything all day.”
Em shrugged, her attention elsewhere. “It’s a weird situation and it’s not like we got off on the best foot. Can’t blame them for being cautious.”
“And what about you?” May ventured. “How are you-”
She didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence. The trees in this part of the forest were ancient; towering and broad. In one swift motion, Em pulled May behind one and backed her up against its weather worn bark. May didn’t have time to react as Em pressed up against her, kissing her so intensely May forgot what she had been saying.
With a passionate force they usually reserved for the bedroom, Em wedged her thigh between May’s legs and gripped her hips. She pulled her closer, creating a friction so delicious May couldn’t help but moan.
“I didn’t realize how badly I needed a kiss like that until you did it,” May whispered in Em’s ear.
“Whatever happens, I don’t want you to forget what you mean to me,” Em’s voice was low and gruff against May’s cheek. She kissed her again until May was dizzy. “I don’t want us to lose sight of what makes us who we are together.”
“Never,” May breathed, overwhelmed with the heat exploding between them.
Em pawed at May’s body, unzipping her hoodie as she kissed her way roughly down May’s neck. Weak with lust, May gasped and cooed shamelessly, wrapping her legs around Em’s waist as she hoisted her up higher. Em could have devoured her right there – kissing and biting at the soft exposed flesh above the deep neckline of May’s shirt – and May wouldn’t have cared. She wanted it.
A voice rang out. May and Em froze.
“Are you out here?”
It was Priva. Her footsteps were getting closer.
The girls leapt apart. May fussed over fixing herself up while Em snatched a few branches that laid close by
“We’re over here,” Em called back, fighting to keep her tone casual.
May finished tucking her hair back under her hat just as Priva stepped around the tree.
“There you are!” Priva smiled brightly. “I was starting to think you’d gotten lost. Connor found a fallen tree on the other side of the site, so I think we’re good for firewood for tonight.”
“Oh,” Em glanced down at her piddly collection of sticks and laughed. “That’s probably for the best.”
“C’mon.” Priva waved them to follow. “Let’s eat. We’re dying to get to know you both better.”
May shot Em a tense look. Em reached out and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
We’ll get through this together, the gesture seemed to say.
They had no other choice.
“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.
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.
Content warning: Strong language
May was still awake when she heard the trailer door creak.
She didn’t move as Em’s silhouette crept in the darkness.
A thud was followed by Em hissing a curse beneath her breath. May switched on the lamp above the bed. Em winced at both the sudden brightness and the pain of her freshly-stubbed toe.
It had been May’s intention to ask Em where she’d been for the past couple of hours, but when she saw the way her girlfriend’s soaking wet hair and clothes clung to her body, she had her answer.
“You went to the water after all, huh?” May asked.
“I’m sorry,” Em replied, a slight warble to her words as she stood there shivering. “I just needed to make it stop.”
May sighed and climbed out of bed. “Come on, let’s get you into some dry clothes.
They moved without speaking, Em peeling her sopping layers and draping them over chair backs while May brought her a fresh towel.
She repeated Dom’s words in her mind like a mantra: don’t make this about you. But it was hard; it stung to know her touch and her love hadn’t been enough to bring Em peace in all of this.
More than that however, was the helplessness. She had come to think of her relationship with Em – the team they made together – as being unstoppable. What was she supposed to do if this problem was what proved her wrong?
“Thank you,” Em mumbled, taking a seat on the edge of the mattress as she tugged the towel tighter around her shoulders. “Never in a million years did I think you’d be put in this position and you handled it like a rock star.” She looked up, eyes glittering with unshed tears. “I love you.”
May sat beside Em and gave her cheek a soft kiss.
“I love you, too.” May gently ran her fingers through the damp clumps of Em’s hair. “And I know you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do when your mind starts to slip, but when it comes to problems like this, I want you to know you don’t have to deal with things alone. I’m here to help, even if that just means listening to you talk through how you’re feeling.”
Em shook her head and let it hang forward like a tree branch heavy with snow.
“Right now I feel sick,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to think. It feels like a fucking nightmare they’re even here, let alone what they’re asking me to do.”
“Us.” May interjected before she had a chance to think about what she was saying.
“Huh?” Em blinked at her.
May swallowed. “What they’re asking us to do. There’s no way I’m leaving you to deal with this on your own.”
Chuckling softly, Em rolled her head to rest on May’s shoulder. ”My feisty little queen.”
“I mean it.” May smiled. “We’re in this together.”
“I’d prefer if there was no ‘this’ to deal with in the first place.”
“Em…” May wasn’t sure how to tell her what she overheard at the motel, let alone her own feeling about what WIND was hoping they’d agree to do.
“Ugh,” Em groaned, flopped backwards onto the mattress with a defeated fwump. “Do you think if we just went to sleep now we’d wake up in the morning to find this was all just a dream? I don’t remember taking anything before the show but maybe we did and this is all just a bad trip-”
“Babe.” May eased herself down beside Em. “I’ll lie to you if that’s what you want to hear right now but we’ll still have to face it in the morning.”
Sighing, Em look at May. For a moment she didn’t speak, searching the dark pools of May’s eyes for the right things to say instead.
“I thought I was done with this.” Her voice was tight with sadness. “Fuck, if Welkin knew…”
She had to take a moment to steady her breath. May wrapped an arm around her and wriggled in closer.
“The entire time we were talking to them, I could feel Audrey’s memories bubbling back up,” Em explained quietly. “It was so confusing.”
“Confusing how?” May wanted so desperately to understand what Em was going through.
“I’m not sure how to explain it.” Em closed her eyes, a look of concentration settling across her face as if searching for answers on the back of her eyelids. “There had always been a tiny, tiny part of me that wondered what would happen if I ever saw them again. Would I forget who I am now? Would the Audrey in me be, like, awakened or something?”
May held her breath as she listened. She had wondered – and worried – about the same things, only that part of her was anything but tiny.
Em sighed and opened her eyes. “But instead I just kept remembering bits and pieces of life with them and I… don’t feel anything. Audrey would be devastated about the Loyals taking Gaten but instead here I am, grateful it’s not my problem.”
“Em.” May couldn’t help but feel scandalized. “You don’t really believe it’s not our problem, do you? That little boy…”
Omi’s face flickered across May’s mind. She sat up as a wave of emotion came over her and threatened to tumble out in the form of a sob. Em righted herself as well and watched May carefully.
“You think we should help them?” Em asked.
“You honestly think we shouldn’t?”
“You realize we’re just going to end up getting pulled back into the system that cost Audrey her life in the first place, right?”
“Emmy, look around,” May didn’t mean to shout. “We’re already there. We’ve been on the run for a year now. Isn’t this exactly what Audrey and the others were trying to get free from? What if helping them could put an end to all of that once and for all?”
A darkness fell over Em’s face. “I think you’re forgetting I’ve heard this argument before, May.”
Clutching the towel around herself tightly, Em rose from the bed. Before she could march away, May reached out for her with a tender hand.
“My love, listen to me,” she begged. “I’m not saying I want this. But I don’t know if I can walk away knowing there’s a little boy whose life might depend on us. And if you forget the others – what they meant to Audrey and what they mean to you now – and just think of him as one kid who needs help, I know you’d feel the same way. I know you, Em.”
With a defeated sigh, Em slumped back down. “Fuck. Who am I kidding? We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”
“What do you mean?” May asked, unease creeping into her voice.
Em pointed at her chest. “Remember that scar Jeremy showed us? They all have one – it’s from a device the Loyals planted in them after the treaty to measure their vitals and shit like that. I wasn’t being paranoid; they are being tracked.”
“Oh,” was all May could think to say.
The air in the trailer felt heavy. It pressed down on the pair who struggled with the weight of their predicament in silence. After a moment, May took Em’s hand in hers and held tight.
“I know this is hard for you – scary, even – but I’ll be right beside you the whole time.” She gave Em her bravest smile. “Whether the others like me or not.”
Em’s body rocked with a silent laugh. “What makes you think they don’t like you?”
“Oh, please,” May groaned. “You were there. I’m pretty sure Jeremy wishes I was a bug just so he could step on me.”
Em’s face dropped, her expression growing distant.
“He thought I was Audrey,” she muttered, indistinguishable enough that had to May lean in to hear better.
“Isn’t that what Dom said?” Em asked, snapping back to the present. “Jeremy was expecting me to be Audrey.”
Failing to follow Em’s train of thought, May frowned. “What are you saying? Jeremy’s mad at me because you’re not who he thought you were going to be?”
With her free hand, Em pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled slowly. “Knowing Jeremy, he probably hasn’t given up on that theory quite yet.”
May laughed. “I don’t understand. What reason would he have to think you and Audrey are the same person? Why would it matter if-”
Em repositioned herself so she was facing May, both of her hands now clutching May’s in a way that almost seemed pleading.
“If you’re serious about wanting to help WIND find Gaten, then there’s something you need to know about Jeremy and Audrey.”
May’s mouth went dry.
“They were in love, weren’t they?” she whispered, realization hitting her head on.
“That’s putting it lightly.” Em seemed to shrink into herself with embarrassment.
“They were engaged.”