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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.
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