Chapter Forty-Two

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A breathless moment hung after May's proclamation. Every pair of eyes peered up at where she was still perched on Em's knee like a monarch on her throne; some in curiosity, others in disbelief. She swallowed a hard lump that had formed in her throat and willed herself to keep her composure in the face of what was becoming increasingly unnerving silence.

"I'm sorry, I'm not sure I follow," Connor said, though it was clear following May's logic wasn't the issue.

Rue, for all her tenderness, seemed ruffled. "You can't just make the Stars do something. If it were that easy, someone would have done it already — we would have done it."

"But you didn't have the wishing star," May replied.

"Neither do you," Priva said. "Unless you know something we don't. People have been looking for that damn thing for twenty-five years. And now just because your folks are the ones who took it, you think you can do what no one else has been able to?"

Em raised an eyebrow. "That sounds like a pretty good advantage to me."

"If she can even get close to them again," Rue replied.

"I think it's a good idea," Jeremy said, booming over everyone else. The room turned to him in surprise, and he folded his arms defiantly across his chest. "In fact, I think it's the only thing that's going to get us out of this shit storm."

May gaped at him, uncertain as to whether she heard him correctly. Had Jeremy Parker just taken her side? Her eyes glanced down to Em, looking for some kind of sign that she was as baffled as May was, but instead she found her beaming up at her with a bright, reassuring smile.

"I think it's a good idea too, baby," Em whispered before planting a reassuring kiss on May's shoulder.

From her seat on the floor, Priva scoffed. "Sure, J – now you're on her side."

Even Connor, ever patient, seemed irritated now. He cut a fiery look at Jeremy. "Just in case you've forgotten, looking for a way out of this 'shit storm' didn't end so well the last time, did it?"

Though his expression remained stony, Jeremy flinched at Connor's biting remark. After all, it had been his previous attempt at escaping the Loyals that had gotten Audrey killed. May doubted very much he needed the reminder.

"Listen," Dom broke in, his tone diplomatic. "For what it's worth, Welkin believes in the plan too. That's gotta be worth something, right?"

It was as though the air had been sucked from the farmhouse. May and Lety looked to one another in unison, wide-eyed and horrified.

"What?" Em's confused and strangled whisper seemed to echo in the quiet of the room. Her face snapped up to look at May, her hands tightening their grip instinctively. "What is he talking about?"

Lety glared at Dom. "How can someone so hot be so fucking stupid?"

"Hey!" Dom scowled. "They didn't tell us not to say anything."

May pursed her lips. He was right – Welkin hadn't said anything about keeping their reemergence a secret. In fact, Welkin had asked her to pass a message along to their wayward daughter, but when May looked down and into Em's desperate eyes, she found the words dry to dust on her tongue.

Again, Em was the only one to speak. "Did you find Welkin? Are they back? Are they okay?"

Out of the corner of her vision, May could see Jeremy watching her. Their eyes met for a flickering split-second, and in that glance she could tell he was urging her on. She licked her lips and took a breath, knowing it had to be her who delivered the news.

"Yes, they're back," she answered at last in a quiet, measured tone. "But not quite the way you knew them."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"The Star council punished them, Em. Welkin isn't really a Star anymore — they're human, and they're stuck here on Earth in exile."

Rue let out a soft gasp. When she realized she had stolen everyone's attention, she lowered the hand she had pressed to her mouth. Her face was laced with sorrow.

"They've fallen," she said.

Em shook her head. "Okay, so they're human now. They're alive, and that's all that matters. Where are they? Why aren't they with you?"

May glanced at Dom, who was already sharing an uncomfortable look with Lety. From her seat between them, Priva glanced at them each in turn, then leaned close to Lety and whispered, "What?"

"Yeah," Em said, loud enough to make them jump. "What? Where are they? What aren't you saying, Maybe? Is Welkin—"

"Welkin's fine," May broke. "Or, at least as fine as they can be in a body they hate. And they're here. Kind of. They're close by. It's just..." She hesitated, feeling the intensity and anticipation radiating from Em like the heat off a sunburn. "They said they can't be here. Not yet."

"What?" Em's face fell, heavy with hurt and confusion. "Why?"

"I don't know," May said. "They wouldn't say. But they wanted you to know they love you, and—"

But Em wasn't listening anymore. The arm she had wrapped around May's back slackened as she dropped her head into the palm of the other. Her hair, matted and unwashed, fell forward like a curtain. No one spoke — May barely dared to breathe.

"You've got to be fucking with me," Em muttered after a moment. "After all this time—after everything we've been through—they can't even be bothered to see me?"

May hurried to course correct. "It's not like that, Em. They—"

"Don't they understand how terrified I've been, not knowing where they were or if they were okay?"

"May's right," Dom said. "It gutted them not to be here. I'm sure whatever reason they have, it's a good one."

A huff of a laugh escaped between Em's fingers. She sat up and leaned back in the chair, and although she didn't appear to be crying, she looked nonetheless broken. May ached for her — she knew all too well the sleep Em had lost to worry, the countless times she'd tried to reach Welkin through the cosmic noise. To suddenly be close and yet somehow still so far must have been torturous for her.

"Sure," she said at last to no one in particular. Her gaze was unfocused somewhere across the room. "Can you excuse me for a minute?"

May shifted off her lap, sliding onto the warmth Em left behind as she stood. "Where are you going?"

"I just need a minute." Em rubbed her palms on the front of her pants, fidgeting. She barreled out of the room without looking at anyone and, from the sound of her footsteps, fled up a flight of creaky stairs. Somewhere in the old house, a door slammed.

Awkward silence suffocated the living room. Anxious glances darted here and there, and then Jeremy sighed loudly.

"Well, what are you waiting for?"

May turned to find he was addressing the question at her. "What do you mean?"

Jeremy rolled his eyes, but unlike all the times before, there was something soft in the gesture — like a look reserved more for a sibling than a rival. "She needs you.

So, go after her, already."

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